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Coconut cravings – Medellin, Cartagena and Playa Blanca

The walls of Cartagena

The walls of Cartagena

It’s been a long time. Too long. Not being a beach person I didn’t think I would mind being away from it for so long. But we’re backpackers. It’s our natural habitat no? The fact of the matter is that we have actually been in the Andes at this point for close to two months. We haven’t seen the sea since we left Playa El Zonte in El Salvador in mid-February. So by the time we leave Salento we are frothing at the bit for the seaside. But first, two cities. Very famous cities for very different reasons.

The 7 hour bus ride to Medellin from Salento was bearable, and the four of us were soon in a taxi going round and round (and round again)the lively nightlife of the El Poblado district while the driver tried to find Hostel Arcadia. Eventually with the help of a police escort in a kind of motorcade fit for a visiting diplomat we were at our lodgings.

The previously infamous Medellin is now a safe, fashionable, affluent, bustling metropolis, with a young population and an air of ‘Europeanness’ about it. Let’s get the big white elephant in the room out of the way first. Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. It would be downright foolish and I would be being deceptive if I were to say that this man doesn’t still cast a pretty big shadow and that cocaine is not an problem here (or in Colombia in general!) any more.

We don't have any photo's from Medellin, so here is a picture of Paul eating an ice cream there

We don’t have any photo’s from Medellin, so here is a picture of Paul eating an ice cream there

The Pablo Escobar tour is a ‘thing’ here and on offer to anyone who feels the need to see some of his properties, meet his brother and see his grave. Morally I had a problem with it once I got there after being initially keen. This was due to seeing how the city has moved on and I felt that this is history, a history that the city wants to put to rest, so I felt that contributing to keeping the negative aspects and stereotypes alive would be counter-productive tourism wise. But hey, if you want to see it, I can also see that it is an important part of Colombia’s past, and like all distasteful parts of history, should not be forgotten.

Saturday; Ollie bagged a bikini at a boutique shop and then we visited the mall (shudder). Once that awfulness was over, we returned to the hostel in got down to the business of playing Grass and warming up the night with some Ron Medellin.

The card game grass - Leads to some aggression

The card game grass – Leads to some aggression

 

Ron Medellin

Ron Medellin

“You want some Charlie? Good Charlie? Good price! You try?!” Offered to us by a confectionary salesman on the street not five minutes out of front door. We headed to the main drag and to a square down the road that seemed to be lively. It was all lively! This city seems to live for the night. We were out at about 11pm and the feeling we got was “You’re out early guys, it’s a long time till morning!” The square was packed full of ‘the yoof’ of Medellin, all drinking, chilling, singing and watching the girls go by. Sure, a couple had had a touch too much Aguadiente, but on the whole there was an amazing atmosphere with vendors sorting you out your next bottle of Aguila beer as soon as required. We moved onto another square at around midnight, Parque Lleras Poblado I think which is surrounded by cringy euro bars, playing equally cringy euro dance, so after I politely declined a 10 year old’s offer of some cocaine, we moved onto a club. The rest is hazy…

In a way I feel quite satisfied that I saw nothing of Medellin apart from the night and the underside of the bunk bed above me as it was a great weekend. That city can party and we certainly gave it a good go. Being over long bus rides and finding a cheeky flight for about $25 we decided to hop a plane to Cartagena…on the Caribbean coast.

Cartagena

Cartagena

Cartagena de Indias was eventually founded (after numerous failed attempts) by the Spanish in 1533, mainly so they could raid the nearby tombs and fill their boots with native gold, but soon became an important hub for the empire.  A tasty looking place, it was subject to pirate attacks for years, including a successful one by Sir Frances Drake who levelled a quarter of the city. The Spanish eventually had enough of this nonsense and in the 17th century constructed some 11km of mighty concrete walls around the gaff and as a result, managed to stop further French and British pirate attacks. Today this city is still under attack, but now from a constant stream of tourists and backpackers who besiege it by land, air and also by sea on the boats that pour in from Panama every day.

Bewilderment - In the Getsemani

Bewilderment – In the Getsemani

A taxi to the Getsemani district, where the grubby and fragrant streets house the budget backpackers, at night is an illuminating experience. The city is hot, and the streets are full of people who are scantily dressed and clutching fast warming beers. “Charlie Charlie!” A man shouts through the taxi window at Paul before we even get out the car. Possibly you could believe that he mistook Paul for his Gringo buddy Charlie, but I think it not the case. It’s a rough and ready area, but again, not threatening, just alive!

Ollie is reminded of Cuba by some of the colourful and crumbling buildings through the city. It is a city that appears in decay, but in a delightful way. Making our way into the main square the battle with the heat is a hard one, what with the siege of never- ending offers from street hawkers. Still in need of seeing the sea we head to the city walls and walked along them for as long as we could with eyes on the cloudless sky and equally blue Caribbean. After a day exploring these eye-catching streets we decided it was time we get onto the beach proper and have us a coconut.

Coco-Loco at Sunset - Playa Blanca

Coco-Loco at Sunset – Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca on the peninsular of Barú, is a short boat ride from Cartagena, and as the name suggests it promises a white sandy beach experience with a certain amount of isolation that is required to enjoy such a setting. Silly. It was only bloody Semana Santa, a time of year where Colombians get time off for ‘Easter’ and head for quick getaways such as this with their entire families in tow. After a stressful encounter with a boat man who could only best be described on this PG blog as a complete bell-end, we were fast approaching the shores and our hearts immediately sank. The beach was packed. Overflowing, with local tourists. Like those pictures you get in the UK of Brighton beach when we have ‘a heat-wave’. We headed right (when facing the water) up the beach, where it thankfully quietened off and found some hammocks to sleep in for a couple of nights at $5 a throw.

At the 'port' - Toilet with some boats...

At the ‘port’ – Toilet with some boats…

Packed - We should have turned back there and then really!

Packed – We should have turned back there and then really!

“Excuse me, can you take a picture please?” A Colombian lad and his girlfriend ask me and I’m happy to oblige. Only getting ready to take the shot of them, it turns out he wants ME to pose with his lady-friend. Suitably baffled I oblige whilst trying to ignore the sniggers from Paul. Later, some other Colombians shouted at me, “Hey, it’s David Guetta!   David, how’s it going?” We googled David Guetta when we got back to the city, and in my opinion, I look nothing like the mug.

The Colombians we out in full force, and they ain’t shy either. Many of them cracking beers from well stocked coolers from 8am; they are there for the long haul. Nighttime took me wandering around the back of the beachfront restaurants where I stumbled on a scene which can only be described as a happy refugee camp (if there is such a thing, which I’m pretty sure there is not) with tents as far as the eye can see, with children and half-cut adults milling around past fires in the night.

We spent three days there, in our relatively quiet patch of beach doing not much but drinking beers, eating tinned food that we brought (you’re not a real backpacker until you have eaten a tinned frankfurter out of the can in a hammock you’re sleeping in, in the interest of budgeting, in my opinion: Tick) and of course adding rum to coconuts. If I tried really hard, I could imagine what the place is usually like without the hordes, but it was just too much, so the only way to get through it was to drink. A great night out was had along the beach, starting at a reggae bar (on the beach), then busting our one Salsa move to some classic Colombian tunes (on the beach), then onto another bar, where we danced to some cheesy electronic tunes (into the sea this time) and finally ended with the sun just coming up.

“Lancha. Cartagena. Muy rapido?” An offer we couldn’t refuse, but was indeed a lie. After more scenes comparable to evacuating refugees on a barge to a larger boat (complete with helicopter flying overhead) we were on the slow boat back to the city. The worst possible thing happened. A man picked up a microphone and started singing, we realise we are on the tail end of a Colombian day cruise. It only worsens when the chap puts on a Trilby hat and gets involved in a Michael Jackson mega-mix. Say what you want about it, it’s not my cup o’ tea, but the Colombians were all up, dancing, singing along to all the songs and having a great time. I suppose, they were all a bit intoxicated from day drinking, but they certainly can sing and dance.

Our first beach expedition was not exactly what we expected, but nevertheless, we had had a taste of what’s on offer. We then headed east along the coast to see more of it, in search of that deserted white sandy beach with palm tree.

Thanks for reading!


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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.