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Salento – Welcome to the land of coffee, giant palm trees and Tejo

Coffee cherries in Salento

Coffee cherries in Salento

If you don’t know already, Colombia has two main exports. Two plants. One has a notorious history, resulting in incredible wealth, murders, combat, foreign intervention, worldwide drug dependency of epic proportions and general cartel activities famous the world over. The other is just famous for giving everyone that much needed kick start in the morning. I’m gonna talk about the latter one as of course Salento is in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera. I would like to start by saying that this is not the first blog to be written about Salento and certainly will not be the last. In fact, I have seen more blog posts about this area than any other on our travels, so it will be a brief one, mainly with some picture galleries.

Colombia is currently (at the time of writing) the world’s fourth largest coffee producer and exporter. Salento is in the heart of this area and has become popular with foreign and Colombian tourists alike. Before arriving in Salento, I was worried about two things. Firstly that it wouldn’t be as beautiful as everyone says, and secondly that it would be packed full of tourists and ‘gap year students’. Turns out I was right to worry about one and not the other.

Still travelling with Paul and Catrin we arrived in Salento in the evening and wandered up to the doors of Plantation House, where we found lodgings for $25 a night for private room. A really nice little spot, recommended.  We then went out for a bite to eat and discovered just how touristy this town is. Put it this way, I had a chicken madras curry, which I haven’t seen anywhere since leaving the UK. It was good as well, even had naan bread. They were not the only restaurant serving it either. This may help me explain just how touristy this town is.

So it turns out my second worry was founded, but my first was not. It really is as beautiful as people say, but you just have to put up with young Jemima and Tarquin banging on about Machu Picchu whilst listening to Manu Chao or Bob Marley on repeat. (Breathe Rich, breathe!) The town itself is a pretty little brightly-coloured drop in the sea of green that surrounds it. Each house and shop is painted a different colour to its neighbor, sprawling out from a main square and church in the centre of town. There are three main things we enjoyed whilst there (four if you count drinking rum) which were: hiking around the giant wax palms of the Valle de Cocora, touring a local coffee finca and throwing metal at gunpowder whilst drinking beer in the name of entertainment – the Colombian game of tejo.

Firstly, the Valle de Cocora, was one of those things that I really wanted to do when planning this trip. On bad days at work saving for this trip I used to send Ollie pictures of sights we would be hoping to see and when I stumbled upon the Valle de Cocora, I knew we had to get there at some point. So, I was pretty excited when we hopped on board the back of one of the brightly painted 1950’s USA Willys jeeps that drove us the 14km to the entrance to the park.

Valle de Cocora - On a cloudy day,,,

Valle de Cocora – On a cloudy day,,,

The hike takes you through the bottom of the valley where you see the tops of the hills dotted with the giant Quindio wax palms (Colombia’s national tree and one of the tallest trees in the world), then the track leads through a lush sub-tropical forest with a selection of fun and rickety bridges before entering the upper part of the trail, through a clouded pine forest to a small farm at about 2800m. The route then leads downhill, back towards the valley where you climb down through the thick clouds (very thick, far too thick for my liking on that particular day) and to the valley floor, where we marveled at these amazing trees. I could use some kind of tortured metaphor to describe them, but I will just hope you can be happy with my description of ‘really really really tall palm trees that look like they shouldn’t be there in a hauntingly beautiful way.’ I found it a wonderful place to sit and let my mind wander.

Then there is the coffee. We stayed at Plantation House as previously mentioned and they have their very own coffee farm next door, with a free tour offered to guests who stay for four nights like we did. I have previously written about coffee in great detail when we visited Juayua in El Salvador, but this was a great opportunity to find out about production on a smaller and more rustic scale. Don Eduardo (AKA Tim) took us on a guided tour of his finca, from its acquisition, composition of different types of coffee plant on the site, history of Colombian coffee in general , his ongoing dispute with the neighbor and his plans for future domination of the Colombian coffee market.

Very interesting facts learned. Did you know that only 14kg of sellable coffee comes out of 100kg of freshly picked beans after washing and drying? Think about the fact that each bean is handpicked and about the size of a garden pea, that is how hard these guys work. This man is a wealth of knowledge and passionate about his coffee. He’s also got a pretty nice slice of land there with a small bamboo forest you can walk through in amongst the coffee plants.  The tour also includes the chance to watch some coffee being roasted and then drink as much as you can.

Then there is ‘tejo’ (pronounced teh-ho), which is the second most popular game in the country (I was surprised to find out). Explained in a nutshell, you throw a metal disk onto a packet of gunpower that rests on a ring of metal, in a bed of clay in the hope of a direct hit and explosion. You get more points for accuracy and explosions. The first team to 27 wins. It is traditionally drunk with copious amounts of beer and there are a couple of places in Salento that cater for the Gringos to have a punt. Not wanting to break from tradition we managed to see of a fair few cervezas and managed a few explosions to boot. When you’re not playing tejo in Salento, the sounds of exploding gunpowder and drunken cheering can be heard across the evening sky. Los Amigos bar gives you the opportunity to play in real rustic surroundings, and well as the opportunity to play another local game called ‘sapo’, which is similar, except you throw small metal disks into holes and aim to hit small packets of gunpowder on the mouths of metal frogs. I’m not making this up. It’s true. I wasn’t that drunk.

So Salento is indeed a wonderful place and as such is a big stop on the gringo trail of Colombia. It will only grow in popularity over the coming years and become less special. Also, apparently, the current way the giant wax palms grow is unsustainable as the cattle that graze there eat all of the saplings, so you had better get there quick if you want see those really really really tall trees! You won’t regret it.


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From city to jungle – Salsa in Cali and tubing in San Cipriano

After the beautiful scenery and greenery of San Agustin it was time to get back on the road and to the next city, this time Cali, the largest city in the south and famous for one main thing – salsa. Cali is a hot, busy place that features little in the way of pretty tourist attractions, but its main draw is the music that pours out of every window and shop door and the dancing that gets going after dark.

Houses of San Antonio

Houses of San Antonio, Cali

Our journey there involved backtracking to Popayán on the bus before carrying on to Cali, a journey that took around 8 hours in total. After arriving at the bus terminal we piled into 2 tiny cabs (for some inexplicable reason most cabs in Colombia are ridiculously small Kias that barely have space for one bag in the boot) and set off through the rush hour traffic to the barrio of San Antonio. Our cab driver could generously be called a ‘character’ and at worst a lunatic, but a friendly one at least; he barely watched the road as he was so busy laughing at his own jokes and managed to get lost even though we gave him a card with the hostel address printed on. But after driving round in circles a few times we arrived at El Viajero hostel. The private rooms were twice the price we were used to paying so we settled for a dorm bed for the night and speedy access to some cold beers to take the edge off the journey.

Cali street

Cali street

The next day dawned seriously hot and somewhat sleep deprived after a lousy night in the noisy dorm. Deciding that we couldn’t hack it for another day we set out to find a more peaceful spot to rest our heads and found it at the French-Colombian run Café Tostaky which also seemed to have the best coffee in town. Paul and Catrin stayed put, lured by the pool at El Viajero to cool off from Cali’s fierce sun. The next order of business was of course salsa. It had been 8 years since I last tried my hand at it in Cuba but was itching to give it another go. To say Rich was reluctant was an understatement but in the spirit of marital compromise he agreed to try it. Once. Without giving him a chance to object further I arranged a private lesson for us both the following morning with a local lady, promising him that at no point would he have to dance with a man, which seemed to appease him slightly.

 

Once the evening settled and the air cooled down a little we met back up with Paul and Catrin and went in search of a watering hole in the Granada area of the city. It being a Wednesday night the famed nightlife seemed very low key, but we eventually found our way to a bar called Bourbon Street that was recommended to us by a local. Walking in was a strange experience as it was like stepping into an American bar complete with live band singing in English, sports on the TVs, American food and drinks and prices to match. We did get some proper beer though, made by the BBC (Bogota Brewing Company) which was a change from the usual weak, cold lager. We whiled away a few hours chatting away and doing some people watching including spotting some of the renowned surgically-enhanced Colombian ladies: they certainly are, er, eye-catching.

The next morning at 11am our salsa teacher, Constanza, arrived and we went to her apartment for the class (we opted to do it there rather than in the hostel in view of the other guests!) Connie was lovely and chatted away to us, and definitely made us feel more at ease about our lack of dancing skills. Rich was initially horrified when she put some music on at the start and just asked us to dance (“just move, however you feel, to the music”) but we quickly began with the basic step and she managed to teach us one fairly complicated turn which we pulled off even if our feet were doing more of a shuffle than salsa! The hour sped by and we had worked up quite a sweat by the end – Connie enlisted her teenage daughter to help out, who also surreptitiously took some photos (which make us look better that we were) and a video (which told a more accurate story – and no, sorry, we don’t have a copy to put up on here!) It was a lot of fun (for me – Rich declared that it “wasn’t quite as horrendous as I expected” which I took as a positive vote) and we at least felt ready to head to a salsa club with one move up our sleeves. That evening, with a sizeable quantity of rum ingested for Dutch courage the four of us caught a cab to TinTinDeo, one of Cali’s best known and loved salsa clubs. The $5 entry fee can be claimed back at the bar and at 11pm we were pleased to find it busy with a decent mix of locals doing their thing and gringos giving it a good go. The atmosphere was really friendly and we tried a couple of dances but mainly watched, impressed. The highlight was quite possibly a spontaneous salsa line dance that we ended up getting caught up in (again, sorry, no video evidence!). We left feeling like we’d definitely given it a good go!

I would have happily stuck around in Cali longer to dance more and spend time in San Antonio which is a pretty, if slightly sleepy area, but the city as a whole is fairly hectic and we were ready to head out into the countryside once more. We had read a short section in the guidebook about a tiny town in the jungle famous for tubing and the fact that it can only be reached by a homemade motorbike railway system. This sounded too interesting to miss so the next morning we set off.

A Brujita and its driver - San Cipriano

A Brujita and its driver – San Cipriano

San Cipriano is just off the coast road that heads towards Buenaventura, Colombia’s main port city. The bus journey there, like most these days, was stunning. The roads winds up out of Cali into the hills, then the scenery slowly turns greener and the air more humid. The bus drops you by the side of the road near a town called Córdoba, where it’s a short walk down to what seem to be disused railway tracks. We were met off the bus by a rather keen tout by the name of Jefferson – if you go that way try to avoid him as he is in the habit not only of overcharging you but also stealing business off his fellow drivers in quite underhand ways and being quite unpleasant in the process. If you come across him I recommend just saying you want to go with someone else. That aside – although we expected it to be a somewhat tinpot setup we weren’t quite prepared for how it actually works. The system is a small homemade wooden trolley with metal wheels that just rest on the tracks and a bench balanced on top to sit on. On the right-hand side of the trolley the front wheel of a motorbike is screwed on, while the back wheel lines up with the tracks. The whole thing is then lifted on to the railway lines, you all climb on and the bike starts up; slowly at first but speeding up rapidly, and on the straight sections hitting speeds that are frankly terrifying given that you are basically sat on a glorified tea tray. What’s more a few minutes in it started to rain; big heavy jungle rain that soaks you in seconds. Our driver slowed slightly and a couple of times manually hauled the motorbike wheel back on to the rail (“It sometimes just slips off in the wet” he helpfully, and rather alarmingly, explained). The single track is all you can see as you go for 20 minutes into the jungle. If another trolley comes the other way there is a brief standoff while they decide which has less baggage (that group have to get off, haul the whole setup off the track and put it on again further down). The whole journey was probably the most bizarre and most fun of our travels so far.

Eventually San Cipriano came in to view; a colourful collection of mostly wooden houses on one main street along the river. It is completely different to everywhere so far in Colombia, reminding me more of Roatan and the Caribbean than South America. Like much of the Pacific Coast the people are black rather than Hispanic and although the town is isolated it has a decent sized community; the streets were full of children playing, people chatting and wandering between each others’ houses – it seems a very sociable and friendly place. After paying our COP2000 entry fee we sought out a hotel that was recommended for having decent food (Hotel David) and got ourselves a couple of very basic but cheap rooms (COP12500 per person) from the rather no-nonsense lady who runs it. The rain continued to pour down so we settled for an evening of cards, beers and dinner (she may be stern but the lady can cook).

The main road - San Cipriano

The main road – San Cipriano

Most houses are restaurants or shops - San Cipriano

Most houses are restaurants or shops – San Cipriano

Football field - San Cipriano

Football field – San Cipriano

The next morning the sun was out so we armed ourselves with tubes and walked up through the well-marked path upriver into the jungle. An ill-advised detour down a ‘nature trail’ was short-lived after accidentally standing in a trail of ants in flip-flops and coming off worse than they did. After that we stuck to the main path. After 15-20 minutes walking the route has well-signposted smaller paths down to the river where there are stony ‘beaches’ where groups of Colombians visiting for the weekend come to swim, picnic and of course drink. The river itself is crystal clear and shallow – you can stand up in most parts – and perfectly paced for tubing. It takes around 45 minutes to wind back to the town itself passing overhanging trees and lush vegetation with nothing but the sounds of the jungle; it really is a lovely spot. After a couple of trips the rain set in again so we headed back for another homemade feast (including a delicious fish soup called sancocho de pescado) and a nap (yep, it’s a tough life). Despite it being the weekend nightlife is pretty low-key in San Cipriano but the establishment opposite our hotel had pool tables and the sort of sound system which meant that if you can’t beat them, join them, so it seemed a reasonable choice to while away a very rainy evening.

 

 

The route home - San Cipriano

The route home – San Cipriano

San Cipriano seems the sort of place that will increasingly be on the tourist map as it’s so much fun and so beautiful; we spotted no other gringos in town while we were there so felt lucky to visit while it’s still really only on the radar for Colombian visitors (at present it warrants only a tiny mention in the guidebook). It’s tricky to get there and not really on the way to anywhere (on our return we had to go into Buenaventura, just to backtrack past Córdoba to return to Cali in order to carry on elsewhere in Colombia) but the reward is very much worth the effort. It’s not a place I’ll forget in a hurry.

 

 


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Road to Colombia – The Tulcan border crossing, turning 30 in Popayán and the ancient statues of San Agustín

One last stop in Ecuador before we decided to move onto country number nine, and that stop was the much hyped market town of Otavalo. It is situated 2 hours north of Quito and is a major tourist draw, known for its colourful Saturday market. Mooching round toot markets is not really our cup o’ tea but Ollie had become obsessed with the idea of rubbing her face on Alpaca blankets since Insinliví. The offering at Saquisilí market near Latacunga (every Thursday) was poor so we had no choice; off we went…to the mother-load. A bus from Latacunga to Otavalo direct took 3.5 hours (direct buses avoiding Quito do not go from the main terminal, but from the Cita Express offices, $3.50 each) and dropped us on the outskirts of town on the Pan American highway. After a 15 minute walk into town we found our hostel (Rincón del Viajero, $25 for private room) then nipped out to grab some last minute bargains on blankets and hammocks at ‘Plaza de Ponchos’. Bargaining was easy as it wasn’t a Saturday and we were pretty much the only browsers there.

Alpaca blankets - The colours of Otavalo

Alpaca blankets – The colours of Otavalo

Saturday however, was completely different. This town erupts into a sea of colour and faces. Every street was covered in stalls selling any kind of South American treasure you could ever want, and to accompany it, hundreds of gringos willing to buy all of it. We have no photos since we heard that pickpockets operate heavily and sure enough, after being in the market for less than a minute we saw an Aussie girl who realised she had had her purse stolen. This town is all we expected it to be, so we decided to leave the next day. Not before meeting Paul and Catrin, and after some rum and cards we decided to travel into Colombia together the next day.

The Ecuador/Colombian border to Ipales

The Ecuador/Colombian border to Ipales

A bus from Otavalo to Tulcan took 4 bumpy hours (ask a taxi to drop you off to where they stop) after which we piled into a taxi to the border at Rumichaca who drops us at Ecuadorean immigration. A quick stamp, some dollars changed for pesos, a quick walk across a bridge and a slightly longer wait for a stamp into Colombia took 30 minutes in total. Next, we jumped into another taxi to take us to Ipiales bus terminal where we would find a bus to Popayán.

A big regret we have is not making it to see Santuario de las Lajas, just outside of Ipiales. It’s a huge gothic church on a stone bridge across a gorge in the Colombian Andes. We didn’t have the time, but if I redid it, I would have left two hours early to see it. I will just have to suffice with a picture…as will you, for now.

Santuario de las Lajas

Santuario de las Lajas

A bus from Ipiales to to Popayán is not a short affair, in fact it took 10 hours. The price of transport increased as soon as we stepped over the border. No longer a dollar an hour, this ride cost $15 each with Expreso Bolivariano, going via Pasto. On our first stop some shiny looking army men asked for my papers, and further into our ride, we were stopped for another hour by army, who again wanted papers and to poke noses in bags. Security when travelling at night on this route was a mild concern but there seems to be a big police and army presence along the way. Arriving in Popayán at around midnight we found our way to Parklife hostel where we toasted with a beer and quickly found our way to bed.

Popayán is a white washed colonial city with not much to do. Merely a stop off along the way for us, but we ended up spending four whole days. Being my 30th birthday, we tried to make the most of it, but there really wasn’t much going on. After a meal at Rapi Arepas (Arepas can be compared to El Salvadoran pupusas, but are fatter and chunkier, sometimes cut in half and stuffed with meat or cheese) where I lost a tooth, we celebrated this special occasion with some rum and drinking games in the hostel. Almost enough rum was consumed to forget about my missing tooth. Not many lucky boys get spend their 30th birthday having emergency dental work, but I just happen to be one of those lucky boys. Saying that, 45 minutes and $30 afforded me a brand new tooth. There is a lot to be said for Colombian dentistry! The next day, we tried to go for a hike to a view point, but on the way, some locals stopped their car and advised us about going in that direction as it was dangerous. That combined with the rain, we retreated to the hostel and wasted another day.

Birthday celebrations

Birthday celebrations

 

Taken by Ollie - Translating Spanish and 'mouth full of drill language' at the same time!

Taken by Ollie – Translating Spanish and ‘mouth full of drill language’ at the same time!

The next day, we moved on with a bus from the main terminal in Popayán to San Agustín. A 4 hour bumpy and windy dirt road journey with ‘Cootranslaboyana‘ cost $12.50 each and dropped us on the outskirts of town, where a jeep transport arrived to take us the rest of the way. They put the hard sell on you from the get-go in this town, so have a plan of where to stay and an idea of what tour you want to do. As always in Colombia, bargaining will get you far. It’s a pleasant, but busy little colonial town with a huge selection of hostels to stay at, and nearly everyone on the street wants to sell you either a jeep or horse tour to see the ancient 3500 year old statues.

The road to San Agustín

The road to San Agustín

We decided on two nights at El Jardin Casa Colonial for $15 for a room, and we decided to book a tour with Humberto and Carlos who operate tours out of Hostal Diosa Lunar. Since our journey up a volcano in Uruapan on horse-back was one of the most physically traumatizing experiences of my life I was adamant that I wasn’t getting back on one of those unpredictable bastards. Combined with Paul and Catrin’s burning enthusiasm, my reluctance turned into a good bargaining technique for everyone else and as there was a good deal to be had with the promise of a comfortable saddle, I opted in.

Streets of San Agustín

Streets of San Agustín

The next day at 9am, we saddled up and trotted off into the hills to see some of the mystical carvings that are scattered around the area. The horse tour takes you to four random spots in the hills where carvings have been found and left in situ. Carlos was a great guide, showing enthusiasm for the history of the area along with offering many random tit-bits of info on the local ways of life. The place is covered in coffee plants along with a fair few marijuana and the infamous coca plants. It is legal (according to Carlos) for people to own their own marijuana and coca plants, within moderation of course, but the production of cocaine is illegal. Making tea and chewing it are fine by the army. Anyway, back to the statues…

The infamous Coca plant

The infamous Coca plant

Not much is known about them, the people who put them there or why, but as you can imagine, there are many theories about the various meanings. The statues pre-date Incas and the culture is believed to have died out before their arrival on the scene. I could go on and speak about each site individually, but if you are going, you will get a guide and if you’re not, a picture will do more justice than my words. The area is stunning though, trotting and galloping through the dirt tracks around these hills is something I’m glad I signed up for. Genuine natural beauty combined with these mystical little carvings made for a pretty special day out. Feeling rather saddle sore after 5 hours, we had a quick lunch then joined the guides again for a special tour about local crop production. The day was topped off with an attempted night out in the town (not much was going on apart from some live music in the square and an empty bar) where we sampled more of Colombia’s finest Ron Viejo de Caldas.

Feeling the need to escape the streets we headed to Finca El Maco on the outskirts of town for some green scenery and hammock time. From here, we walked to the actual Archeological Park of San Agustín where we spent a day looking at some more of the mystical carvings that are dotted around a fantastic lush green park.

 


What surprised me most about San Agustín was the fact that only the Archeological Park seems to be run by some kind of official national body, charging entrance and maintaining. The other sites are just left on peoples land under tin roofs. There is no entrance fee and no obvious government involvement. Our guide on the first day said that these belonged to the people of San Agustín and as such, they are left to look after them. What our guide also told us that he along with other locals has excavated (and raided) 1000’s of tombs in the local area, detecting them solely by poking a metal stick into the ground until he hears a ‘clink’. No one else is interested apparently, so after they find (and raid) the tombs, they simply cover them back up. The hills are full of them waiting to be found.