Colombia - Cartagena & The South

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May 26th 2011
Published: August 26th 2011
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Getting lost in the one way system of Cartagena Old townGetting lost in the one way system of Cartagena Old townGetting lost in the one way system of Cartagena Old town

Pretty street names, confusing one way system


After spending 5 days in the cramped conditions of the sailing boat, we were glad to finally stretch our legs and have some space to ourselves in the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena, where the temperature was hot, hot, hot. We stayed just by the old town walls, in the backpacker enclave of Getsemani, and spent many of our waking hours in the historic old cobbled streets, soaking up the atmosphere.

Cartagena is situated right on the Caribbean coast, the old town being surrounded by 13km of old colonial walls. These were built by the Spanish to try to prevent the successive pirate raids on the town which, despite being the storehouse for the vast South American treasures which had been forcibly removed from the indigenous populations (the Incas in particular), was initially undefended. Those sneaky pirates kept slipping in and relieving the Spanish of their newly acquired riches before they could be shipped back to Spain, until they finally completed the walls which still stand today, two centuries later (although you have to think the job could have been accomplished in half the time had it not been for Spanish siestas!).

Within the old walled town, a maze of colourful houses, with pretty wooden balconies and creeping trees reaching up across their frontings, look down over the narrow alleys. Streets open out onto tree covered squares, dominated by huge churches and other colonial administrative buildings. It really is beautiful to walk around the old town, getting lost in the streets and always stumbling on some new area. In each of the squares, elderly residents and tourists mingle in the shade of the trees to escape the strong sun in the early afternoons, while in the evenings restaurants spill out onto the streets, tables overwhelming the footpaths. Elegantly decorated horses and carts weave through taxis and pedestrians, leaving only inches to spare, as they transport holidaying families around the main highlights of the old town.

We met up with our fellow sailing boat passengers on a couple of occasions while in the city, on our first night all going out for the pizza that we had craved so much while on the boat crossing. Generally we ate very well while in the city. Although prices were significantly higher than we had been used to in Central America (Cartagena being a big tourist town and therefore
Statue in CartagenaStatue in CartagenaStatue in Cartagena

She's a looker!
having prices to match), the choice and quality of food on offer was really good . A particular highlight was a ceviche lunch in one of the most beautiful squares in the city. We shared a huge bowl of raw mixed fish in a lime juice and coconut marinade, which was absolutely delicious. While in the city we also caught up with Jules and Megan, a couple of Aussie girls we had met in Panama, who are cycling from Alaska the whole way to Ushuaia ( Here is a link to their blog ). Speaking to them was hugely inspiring, but also put us to shame that we have done so little exercise recently, while they struggled to take on enough calories to sustain cycling 80km a day!

We were also lucky enough to be in town at the same time as a summer music festival, with a large stage set up by the main gated entrance to the old town. Each evening of the weekend, bands would take to the stage while people ambled around in the balmy evening air, chugging on cans of beer from the friendly beer sellers wandering about, toting coolboxes on one shoulder. We enjoyed the atmosphere around the concert, but it
Let sleeping dogs lie (On pictures of Miss Colombia)Let sleeping dogs lie (On pictures of Miss Colombia)Let sleeping dogs lie (On pictures of Miss Colombia)

Each year, Miss Colombia gets a tile on this walkway. The dog really wasn't very impressed
really was the most eclectic music selection we had ever heard. First up on the Saturday night was a heavy rock band, followed by a hip hop act, who then gave way to the headliner, a folk singer who looked a little like Alanis Morissette, and sang while someone did arts and crafts towards the rear of the stage. It was a strange mix, but people seemed to be getting into it fairly well.

Serious Salsa

After a while exploring in the heat of the Caribbean coast, we flew south in Colombia to the city of Cali. Given we only had one week left before our flight out of Quito, we wanted to explore an area of Colombia well, rather than rushing between lots of places. We selected the south of the country as #1: it is near to Quito and #2: it is in the mountains and therefore a little cooler.

Cali is a big transport hub and therefore pretty convenient to get to. Purely co-incidentally (honest!), it is also the plastic surgery capital of Colombia (quite something, given Colombia is viewed as one of the leading countries in the world for plastic surgery). There
The old theatre in CartagenaThe old theatre in CartagenaThe old theatre in Cartagena

Left to ruin gracefully
is certainly no shame for the women of Cali to pop in for a quick enlargement, or liposuction, or whatever else they desire. Although we didn't experience the delights of Cali's plastic surgery industry personally (I think to replace Mike's hair would take more of a miracle than the skill of a surgeon!) we did manage to experience Cali's other big love, salsa (the dance, not the stuff you put on burgers).

Cali is famed as the salsa capital of Colombia, and we were told on any given night, fantastic dancing was to be seen in one of hundreds of Salsatecas, so we put it to the test on a Tuesday night, as we headed down to the hostel recommended venue. Unlike the small, steamy, sexy salsa nights we've been to before, we found ourselves in a big, sleek, coldly air-conditioned club, all shiny booths and waiters in three piece suits. When a group of eight of us from the hostal arrived, we were greeted by huge bouncers who gave way to let us into a very formally arranged room, booths with small tables overlooking a big central dancefloor. It was all very Scarface - the stiff waiter hovering disapprovingly until we ordered an extravagantly overpriced bottle of house rum. The place soon filled up, and as each song came on, formally dressed couples would show off their moves on the dancefloor. I don't think we saw one person smile while dancing all night. The feeling was very much of choreographed dancing, done to impress - as if for a contest, rather than pleasure. There was no loosening of the hips, flowing with music, or even breaking of a sweat - it all seemed very sterile to us. All of us were pretty scared to go anywhere near the dancefloor, it wasn't really the place to throw a few drunken jazz hands moves really. Although the dancing was impressive and no doubt technically faultless, we missed the quintessentially latino passion we so associate with salsa, and the evening, while interesting, left us cold.

As we watched the people in the club and the dancers though, we gradually realised there were a lot of couples where the men were proudly showing off the goods they had paid for, with many of their accompanying ladies sporting unnaturally static, large chests. We also noticed another very popular type of enhancement surgery, which seems to be bottom implants. In this part of the world, a large posterior is a blessing, so women actually have implants to accentuate this feature (does this mean that Kerry Katona would be a sex symbol in Colombia then, rather than a chavvy annoying car crash?). Watching the whole show from the side, it was apparent that the plastic, unnatural doll look is pretty desirable in Cali. It was an odd experience to witness the whole event.

Popping in to Popayan

After our short stop in Cali, we headed south to the colonial town of Popayan for a couple of nights. After passing through many colonial centres on our trip through Central America, this was to be our last colonial city in this part of the world. What sets Popayan apart from the other ones is that all of the colonial old town is bathed in a coating of whitewash, giving it the name "The White City". It is quite a picturesque city to walk through, the buildings appearing particularly resplendent when viewed against the dark grey sky that would roll in with rain clouds every afternoon.

We especially liked the main square in the centre of town. When our eyes had adjusted to looking at all the bright white buildings, we were taken aback by the splash of green of the big central square shaded by tall trees and verdant bushes low to the ground. Popayan has the feel of a slower pace of life than the busy streets we had seen on our brief visit to Cali. Being a university town, in addition to the usual large colonial churches, there are also some lovely university buildings that house the various faculties around the city. The large student population also gives the impression of a fairly young town with lots of energy.

However we have to say that our absolute favourite thing about Popayan was spending time in the multiple coffee shops around town. One in particular we found had the best cake selection we have found in a long time, so we simply had to indulge in the offerings, large slices of chocolate cake seeing us through the rainy afternoons.

Passing through Pasto

We moved on further south to the town of Pasto, moving down towards the border with Ecuador. The journey on the bus from Popayan, although
Calm before the stormCalm before the stormCalm before the storm

Grey clouds gather behind the main cathedral in Popayan
6 hours long, went in pretty quickly as some of the scenery along the way was absolutely spectacular. We passed along the sides of huge deep valleys, at times dropping down into them before the bus would then climb up the switchback road to the other side. The lush, green rolling hills would disappear off into the distance, as the mouth of valley after valley would come into view, before disappearing behind yet another hill. It was some of the most impressive scenery we have seen from a bus since some of our journeys in China, many months ago!

Pasto is another fairly big Colombian town, but we found it had a lot of charm as well. It had a huge main square which people would mingle around day and night. It also managed to match Popayan in the sweet stakes, cafes having displays of the most ornately designed cakes in the windows. Although we later discovered the models in the windows were actually plastic, they did promise they could recreate any of them if required. We were really starting to get into this cafe culture in southern Colombia!

We did make one excursion while in Pasto, to the Laguna de la Cocha, described in the book as the "must do day trip while in Pasto". It is a steep, 300m climb in a taxi from the town up to the lake and as we drove into thicker and thicker cloud and rain we did begin to question to "must do" nature of the excursion on this particular day. We are sure the lake really is spectacular, but trudging around in Goretex, seeing about 50m out into the lake on a freezing cold day won't be the biggest highlight of this year travelling! However, we did seem to be a highlight for a visiting school group, many of them asking to have their pictures taken with the funny looking white people in rain macs.

It seems people in this part of Colombia really like to eat and carb loading is highly important to their diet. One meal we had, in addition to having a large steak on it, had no fewer than 4 different carbohydrates on it (rice, chips, mashed potatoes and fried plantains). We rarely went to bed feeling hungry!

A pilgrimage of sorts

We continued a short distance south from Pasto to get to the Santuario de Las Lajas. Now normally we wouldn't travel somewhere especially to see a church. But this is no ordinary church, and it was actually exactly on our route south. Located near the border with Ecuador in a deep, steep sided valley the place is simply stunning.

Local legend has it that around 1750, a local woman and her daughter, caught in a storm, sought refuge in a cave. During this storm, the daughter saw, illuminated by a lightening flash, an image of the Virgin Mary, 45m above the river and across the canyon. The daughter was convinced she had witnessed a miracle, and despite the extreme logistical challenges involved, a church was built on the spot of the vision, directly against the cliff walls of the valley sides.

The church has been modified a number of times over the years, becoming bigger and grander with each reincarnation. A bridge was also built spanning the deep valley. But still the centrepiece of the church is the bare cliff wall behind the altar, onto which an exact copy of the miraculous vision has been painted to help pilgrims imagine the scene the young girl witnessed 250
Thanks for favours received....Thanks for favours received....Thanks for favours received....

....whatever those may be
years ago.

The current version of the church really is pretty spectacular, with a river roaring down the valley tens of metres below the bridge that spans the gorge. The church itself has huge gothic spires that tower into the sky and a massive central room for worship. When we arrived at the church, a service was in full swing, the church packed to standing room only. Afterwards, people would pose for cheesy pictures beside the picture of the Virgin Mary on the rockface.

This location is a site of pilgrimage for many Colombians who stongly believe in the miraculous nature of the place. Lining the approach walkway to the church are hundreds and hundreds of plaques from regular Colombians, as well as politicians, sports teams and government departments, thanking the Virgin of Las Lajas for "miracles received". How all these people received miracles, and what some of these miracles were, we don't quite know, but it made for a fun afternoon to be among all this religious fervour.

The monastery a short way up the hill provided spartan accommodation, which made for a very atmospheric night with a ghostly view over the church. I think we were the only people there however, and it was a big, cavernous place - padding through darkened, empty halls laden with crucifixes in our nightclothes was a spooky feeling, slightly too reminiscent of a few horror films I can name for comfort!

And so that brought us to the end of our all too short time in Colombia, ready to slip across the border into Ecuador and the start of our journey home over the next week. We really enjoyed our time in this fascinating country and would love to return to explore more. After Central America, which is quite compact, the geography of this country caught us out, its huge area proving too great for us to cross by land in the short time we had remaining. We did see two very diverse sides of Colombia which has definitely whet our apetite for a return visit. It feels very proudly nationalistic with a strong sense of identity and it really is a lot of fun. We look forward to returning soon.

Additional photos below
Photos: 30, Displayed: 30


Santuario de las LajasSantuario de las Lajas
Santuario de las Lajas

Built into the wall of the cliff where the Virgin Mary appeared
A statue pours water at Santuario de Las LajasA statue pours water at Santuario de Las Lajas
A statue pours water at Santuario de Las Lajas

Colombians believe this water is holy and collect some to take home, just in case!
Plaques of thanks on the way to Santuario de Las LajasPlaques of thanks on the way to Santuario de Las Lajas
Plaques of thanks on the way to Santuario de Las Lajas

The many grateful people of Colombia give thanks for favours received
The altar of Santuario de Las Lajas....The altar of Santuario de Las Lajas....
The altar of Santuario de Las Lajas....

....complete with usefully painted picture where the vision of the Virgin Mary occurred, just in case you were in any doubt!

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