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24 hours in Bogotá

A sad day, leaving the coast of Colombia. Reluctantly we headed to Santa Marta airport only to find that the chilled vibe continues there; it is certainly the only airport I have ever been to that has a beachside waiting room. Ok, you can’t go for a swim, but certainly a change from your usual duty free fuelled hours of misery.

Santa Marta beach side airport

Santa Marta beach side airport

24 hours in Bogotá. Meaning 24 hours left in Colombia! Determined to make the most of it, we visited some tourist hot spots and dipped our toes in Bogatanian/Colombian culture before a spot of last minute shopping. Just to make it more interesting I set a little photo challenge. Try and capture the colours of Colombia in everyday life when walking around the city.

We stayed in La Candelaria which is the older area with a nice, studenty vibe and left us wanting to get to know it a little better. As with all cities, you need time to really explore and immerse yourself.  Time we simply didn’t have. Oh well, off to Brazil we go…

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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.