Category Archives: Colombia

Jardin, the most beautiful town in Colombia?

I’m sure those of you who are familiar with my excellent time-management and organisational skills won’t be surprised to see me still writing about places I visited seven months ago. If not, bear with me and just imagine we’re still in June.

Before visiting Jardín I had read somewhere that it is widely believed to be the most beautiful town in Colombia – quite the claim – and I can confirm that this is completely true. Jardín is a small town in the south of the Antioquia department, a three hour bus journey from Medellín. As I was coming from Manizales (the capital of neighbouring Caldas) it made sense to me to visit Jardín on my way up, as opposed to going to Medellín and then back out again. Unfortunately in Colombia things aren’t always that simple and what often appears to be an uncomplicated journey and overall sensible time-saving decision on the map, isn’t always so in real life.

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To get to Jardín from Manizales you must first get a bus two hours to Riosucio (much nicer than its name suggests) and from there a three hour bus to Jardín. What I didn’t anticipate (and of course, the only way to find this out is at the bus station) is that there are only two buses a day from Riosucio to Jardín. One at 8 am and one at 3 pm. I arrived in Riosucio at 4 pm. Fortunately it’s a nice enough place to be stuck in for a night, especially when you can do so for as little as 15 00 (£3.80) in Hotel del Palacio.

As always in Colombia, the fact that a road exists on the map does not necessarily mean it is a road. About 15 minutes out of Riosucio and the”road” turned into little more than a track. The views were incredible, as you can see below, but the route is not recommended.

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Fortunately, Jardín was most definitely worth the journey. It is picturesque in the extreme: a town with a population of 15 000 people, quietly nestled in the lush green coffee growing hills of Antioquia. The whole place is alive with colour: the buildings, flowers, tables and chairs outside the cafes and bars (of which there are hundreds). Unfortunately, my photography skills didn’t quite manage to capture those vivid and dazzling colours for which it is so well known, yet Jardín truly is a very beautiful place and one that embodies the sunny spirit of this wonderful country.

On the Sunday I spent there the town was filled with families leisurely walking around or people sitting outside the numerous bars that surround the plaza, whiling away the hours. I even saw a surprising amount enjoying a spot of aguardiente, that most Colombian of poisons, at 11 am. There was a relaxed and cheerful feeling about the place (and one that you’d be hard pushed to find in a similarly sized English town) that was more than a little catching, though not enough to tempt me to partake in their early morning enthusiasm for guaro.

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Aside from all the lovely cafes and restaurants, there are lots of things to do in the countryside surrounding the town. Little after arriving I befriended a nice local called David, who very kindly offered to show me around. We walked along the Caminata de Herrera way, which was beautiful, crossing a river, through banana fields and leading to a popular bathing spot on the river where there’s a famous rock called the charco del corazón – a tiny heart-shaped pool where Jardín’s answer to Romeo and Juliet apparently used to meet, until one day they mysteriously disappeared.

There are lots of other interesting places nearby, such as caves and walks, but they didn’t fit into my six hour schedule. I did, however, have time for a ride in Jardín’s cable car, which I found to be a lot older and more rickety than I would’ve liked. At the top, other than a lovely view of the town, there is a small cafe and apparently a footpath. The cafe is great, though I can’t comment on the state of the footpath as it began raining almost as soon as I stepped out of the cable car. And, with the rain, my exploration of Jardín came to an end.

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It is undoubtedly a very quaint, beautiful and welcoming place. The people are among the friendliest I have met in the country, and in what is statistically one of the happiest counties in the world, that really is saying something!

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Adventures on Colombia’s Pacific Coast

My trip to the Pacific started out on a bit of a whim; another British Council-er had been and from the photos it simply looked stunning. That and the fact that it’s incredibly off-the-beaten-track and few people tend to go there. It is definitely not up there with the likes of Salento, Medellín and San Andres island in terms of popularity as a tourist destination.

I spent most of my stay in Nuquí, a town located in the Chocó department. To provide some geographical context, east of Chocó is the department of Antioquia and to its south Valle del Cauca, if you go north you’ll be in Panama and to the west lies nothing but the endless expanse of the Pacific ocean. It’s BIG. From what I understand – especially after telling numerous Colombian friends I was going – it’s not a particularly visited part of the country. Its capital is the city of Quibdó and most of the department is forest. It’s one of the wettest places on earth. People from Chocó are, in their majority, of West African heritage, though there are also significant numbers of indigenous peoples living there. The department is incredibly isolated from the rest of the country (it is at least a 7 hour journey by road from Quibdó to the nearest city) and is often neglected by a government hundreds of miles away in the Andes. Chocó has the highest levels of poverty in Colombia and its sheer inaccessibility, abundance of natural resources and access to important drugs trafficking routes mean that it continues to be one of the greatest victims of armed conflict in the country.

On a brighter note, arguably one of the most famous things to come out of Chocó is a band called ChocQuibTown, whose aptly titled song I have included below…

Getting there proved to be quite complicated. After saying goodbye to our lovely hosts in Armenia, I took a bus to the nearby city of Pereira and from there, the night bus to Quibdó. Normally this journey takes about 10 hours and goes via what I have been told is a “very good road” (the one we took left much to be desired). However, a landslide in a town called Carmen de Atrato, which tragically left 10 people dead and many more unaccounted for, meant that the bus took a different route (as well as an unexplained 3 hour stop in a random town at 3 am) making my journey more like 15 hours. Lovely.

Arriving in the capital of Quibdó was, above all else, a massive shock to the senses, all the more so after the calm and tranquility of Armenia. It’s possibly the least touristy place I have visited and I think I may have been the only foreigner in the city at the time. On first impressions it looks quite run down and maybe just a tiny bit scary. This wasn’t helped by how crazily busy it is with so so many people bustling to and fro. It is a very vibrant and loud place and the city centre was somewhat stressful in this respect. There also seems to be a disproportionately high number of clothes and shoe shops for a not-that-big city (they were everywhere).

After spending the morning wandering and mooching in the hotel, I had a sudden moment of genius and remembered I have a friend from Quibdó, which ended in me going for beers with some of his cousins (LOVE Colombia). They then decided to take me on a slightly drunken motorbike tour of the city at 10pm in the pouring rain – 2 beers Vicky always makes excellent decisions… I got to see a lot more of Quibdó than I had bargained on and, thankfully, didn’t die in the process. We finished the evening eating yummy fish sitting on plastic chairs in the drizzle outside a particularly busy (and tiny) restaurant.

In Quibdó people overwhelmingly travel by motorbike and there are even mototaxis. Unfortunately for me, on my way to the airport the following day I learnt the perils of this seemingly fun mode of transport and came away with an impressive and very painful, egg-sized burn below my right knee. The same burn that everyone who has ever lived in a motorbike using country seems to have and one that invariably elicits the response “you did that on a motorbike didn’t you?” Might get a tattoo.

The flight to Nuquí most definitely made up for the pain and was, without doubt, the tiniest, most extreme and most incredible flight of my life. Pretty much as soon as we flew over Quibdó and crossed the river civilisation stopped. I had been told that there were no roads to Nuquí, that it was only accessible by plane or boat (from the port of Buenaventura), but that still didn’t prepare me for the sheer isolation of it, the unending swathes of forest interrupted only by the gentle bends of the river winding through it. It was truly a world away from anywhere I’d seen so far. This impression was confirmed upon arrival in Nuquí: the Pacific coast is a whole other Colombia.

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(I flew with Satena from Quibdó. I know that it is also possible to fly from Medellín, though I imagine it is considerably more expensive to do so.)

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I arrived to this…

As far as I could tell, people in Nuquí live mostly off of fishing and tourism, though, on the whole, it was considerably less touristy that I was expecting. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and there are chickens EVERYWHERE. There are several hotels in the town – I stayed at Palmas del Pacífico. Bahia Solano, a bit further up the coast from Nuquí, is more touristy though it is difficult to reach from Nuquí as boats only go three times a week (it is possible to fly from Quibdó to Bahia Solano too). Most people tend to come on weekends as it is easier and cheaper to organise trips by boat. Fortunately for me my friend also has a cousin in Nuquí, who very kindly offered to arrange a trip for me with a boat-owning friend of his. So it was that we set out, in said boat, on what was definitely not the most comfortable or stomach steadying of journeys. It was about a 40 minute ride up the coast to reach Utria, a National Park covering an expanse of 54 300 hectares. In general the whole area seems to be much the same as the park, though it is specifically protected and visitable. I somehow managed to get in as Colombian, avoiding the 42000 COP “foreigner’s price” and paying only 16000 (yessss).

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I got a tour of a small part of the park with a guide who explained all about the different trees, plants, animals and insects that can be found there. Following the walkway through the mangrove forest (above) and spotting all the different kinds of fish hiding in the submerged roots below was pretty exciting. Apparently we were on quite a tight schedule so we had lunch and were soon back on the boat. We stopped off in several other places, including a beautiful bay with both white and black sand beaches and another beach with a hidden waterfall where I took a quick dip!

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It’s possible to do a similar trip to the south of Nuqui, stopping off at various villages and ending in some hot springs, however given the rapidly worsening state of my burn I didn’t think it the best idea…

Nuquí has got to be one of the most remote destinations I have ever visited. On few beaches can you sit for 3 hours (writing this!) watching the sun set and only have a handful of people walking past and a pesky dog for company. More than anything else it’s a place to reflect and disconnect, though doing otherwise would’ve been impossible given that there’s no internet here. It truly shows a different side of Colombia and demonstrates the country’s incredible diversity.

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In and around Colombia’s coffee growing region, part 2

Continuing on from my last post, Sovio, Juan Pablo and Catherine made their way back to Cali that evening and I found myself a nice place to stay in Salento. With a private room, shared kitchen and about 100 cats outside it was a bargain at 25 000 pesos (£6.50!)

The following day I met up with a friendly Mexican guy who we had befriended in Cocora whilst hanging on for dear life to the “willy” jeep. We walked an hour or so to a nearby coffee farm through the green and vibrant countryside of Quindío. There are loads that you can visit in the area and, after all, it would be fairly ridiculous to have travelled to the heart of Colombian coffee production and not learnt how it is they make the stuff. The process from plant to cup is a very complex and lengthy one indeed and made me realise how much I take for granted that I can just have coffee whenever I feel like it. After an unsuccessful attempt at dinner (ketchup can never be a pasta sauce substitute) which I solved by eating everyone else’s food, we went to watch the game in the main square.

The next morning I left Salento and made my way to Armenia, the capital of the department, where I was met by my lovely Couchsurfing host Camilo. I was slightly apprehensive as it was both my first time couchsurfing in Colombia and my first time doing it alone… My fear were proved unnecessary as I had THE BEST time. The thing I most love about couchsurfing (and there are many things I love) is discovering random, off-the-beaten-track places you simply would not have come across of your own accord and being able to slot yourself momentarily into someone else’s reality. Barcelona was one of those places. As you can probably tell, Colombia has its own version of many European countries and cities. Unlike Barcelona (Spain), Barcelona (Colombia) is a tiny village outside Armenia where Camilo’s dad lives. I got a tour of his vivero as well as my first try of mate – a typical Argentinian tea – which was surprisingly bitter. We went back to Armenia in the evening where I stayed with Camilo and his girlfriend in their lovely little flat.

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Beautiful Barcelona

The next morning Ivan arrived in Armenia. His aunt and uncle live nearby and had very kindly offered to host us for a few days in their beautiful home, so we said goodbye to Camilo and hopped on the next bus there! After a week of hostels and sofas, a real house hidden away in the gentle hills of Quindío, with a swimming pool and incredible views of the green fields and distant mountains, was nothing short of paradise. Ivan’s aunt all but forced me to have my photo taken (under the pretext of reassuring my mum that I was alive and well) so here’s me looking awkward as per.

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We stayed with them for the weekend and had a very chilled time hopping from pueblo to pueblo. One of my absolute favourites was the town of Pijao (pronouned pi-how). We got a rickety bus through the hills from Armenia one morning, arriving in Pijao just as the heavens opened. After taking advantage of the rain for a quick bakery pit-stop, we set off on a walk up into the mountains surrounding the town. It felt quite adventurous as we weren’t quite sure where the path would lead us, but having strolled round the town a few times (it’s really not that big) we needed something else to do! The walk itself took us a few hours, up into the forest-covered hills, where we happily discovered about a million guayaba trees. With our pockets, bags and hats overflowing we made our way along the most beautiful path until we arrived at the top and could look out over picturesque Pijao below.

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IMG_4536We also visited the nearby towns of Montenegro, where we enjoyed a nice cup of coffee in main square, and La Tebaida and generally had a jolly good time. The Eje Cafetero is, without doubt, one of my favourite places in Colombia.

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In and around Colombia’s coffee growing region, part 1

This morning I decided to prioritise my blog over continuing the struggle that is “sorting” through a lifetime’s worth of hoarding, i.e. my room, so sit back and relax while I reminisce about Colombia’s stunning Eje Cafetero.

The Eje Cafetero is Colombia’s coffee growing triangle and comprises the departments of Caldas, Risaralda and Quindio, about 7 hours west of Bogota. When originally planning this trip I had intended to spend a weekend in the Eje Cafetero, and not a whole week, however my plans to go to Popayán with a group of friends went awry thanks to agricultural protests blocking the road there. Much to my annoyance (at the time) Salento became our new destination of choice, despite my having planned to go there 4 days later. That admirable British non-confrontational spirit was displayed in bucket loads by your truly and, unperceived by everyone else, saw us actually going to Salento. In hindsight I realise that this was not the end of the world and am merely trying to provide an accurate account, for posterity and all that…

Salento is a charming little town in the department of Quindío and one that makes a convincing case for the most touristy place I have visited in Colombia. All the more so considering that, despite its size (tiny), practically every other building is a hotel/hostel of some description. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful place and is clearly that popular for a reason, as you can see below.

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On our first night we stayed a little outside the town in lovely cabins in a field. We met a couple from Medellín and effectively crashed their plans to visit the nearby town of Finlandia, which turned out to be an excellent idea! We ate obleas in the main square and then went for hot chocolate and almohabanas – it couldn’t have been more Colombian.

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Juan Pablo seizing any opportunity to break out the selfie stick

The following day we got jeeps (hilariously named “willys”) from Salento to Valle del Cocora, which is probably the most iconic part of the region. As its name would suggest Valle del Cocora is a valley. Yet it is particularly unique in that it is full of palm trees which tower above everything else in the generally non-palm like environment of Quindío and extend rather eerily into the clouds. It is, without doubt, a very unusual and incredibly beautiful place. There is a path that weaves its way many kilometres through the forest and open valley. We chose to rent horses for the first part of said path, which added a lot more excitement to the journey. After several enjoyable hours we left our four-legged friends and made our way on foot to the “Casa del Colibrí” a hummingbird sanctuary high up in the hills. Due to a terrible lack of foresight none of us had brought any food, so we were all very relieved to see that lunch was available up there. Lentils have never tasted so good. We spent a while there watching the hummingbirds fluttering to and fro (we soon abandoned any attempt at taking a half-decent photo of them).

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Afterwards we continued on foot, climbing ever higher and with considerable difficulty given the altitude (we’ll blame the altitude) until we reached the highest point on the path. From there on the way was, thankfully, downhill. We emerged from the forest into the valley, where we could look out over the fields dotted with the soaring palm trees. At one point we stopped on a hill overlooking it all and, lying on the ground with my eyes squeezed shut (simultaneously blocking out the excessive selfie taking of Juan Pablo) all I could hear was the wind rippling in the palm leaves – you could be anywhere in the world, least of all the middle of Quindío. It’s quite disorientating to open your eyes to see those hundreds of palm trees lost in the clouds. Then you sit up, look around and attempt to take in the endless, rolling, green valley in which they stand, and you can’t because it’s just that amazing.

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Colombians and football

(This is what happens when you try and write about something (coffee) and get distracted by a random other topic and go off on a tangent too long to plausibly fit into what you were writing about…)

Those of you who know me will know that I am not the biggest football fan (understatement) and that I have never quite managed to sit through an entire match. You will no doubt be as surprised as I am by the topic of the current post, coming as it does from one so poorly versed in this most global of sports.

During my time in Colombia it was the Copa América, which, from what I recall, took place in June. I made no fewer than three attempts to watch a match from start to finish, all of which failed. During the first I was very far from the screen in an overcrowded and noisy bar (WHY oh WHY are vuvuzelas allowed INDOORS??) in Bogota’s Zona T, so escaped halfway through, fairly exasperated and bored out of my mind, and took refuge in a nearby Burger King. The second time I was too tired to try and lasted a meagre 20 minutes. The third time the match got postponed for an hour after half time because of rain and thankfully I was with like-minded people who couldn’t be bothered to wait that long either. We lost anyway.

Despite clearly not being the biggest fan, caring at all about the score or knowing the rules to the game, I am always very intrigued by the significance of football (and by football I mean the national team) in Colombia. One of the things that struck me is that, despite not knowing the first thing about the sport (and certainly not the fixtures), in Colombia I was always able to tell when it was a match day, simply because of the sheer number of people sporting that dazzling yellow shirt. On match days the number of street sellers peddling all kinds of football related merchandise increased tenfold – shirts, caps, those bloody vuvuzelas, flags, jewellery – a veritable sea of yellow, blue and red. Obviously people in the UK are very supportive of our national football teams, I mean, we have enthusiastic pub goers and, er, bunting. But it’s just not the same. I have mentioned this difference on many occasions to Colombian friends only to receive a bemused expression, a shrug of the shoulders and a “pues sí, somos muy patriotas/folclóricos/futboleros…” (well yes, we’re very patriotic, happy and big football fans). This didn’t really help to explain it, as people in the UK are obviously all of the above too. I think maybe Colombians on the whole are just more willing to celebrate. Even if they lose.

For me, the proof of just how important football is in Colombian society is how it seems to pervade all non-football related areas of life.

On the hellishly long bus ride from Quibdó to Pereira that I foolishly subjected myself to, a woman stood up in the middle of the bus to talk. As you do in Colombia. She proceeded to lecture us in all seriousness, and none too lightly, about God. Despite its length, I never really got the gist of her speech and I don’t think I was the only one. What surprised me was that a fair few people were genuinely listening and questioned her about what she had said (as opposed to the stony silence she would no doubt have received here, if she even stood up). Hilariously, one joker suggested that she pray for the national team in the upcoming game… A proposal to which she very earnestly agreed.

One afternoon in Cartagena Ivan and I were sitting on the beaching waiting for the sunset (after having evaded the hoards of women offering us massages) when, on an impulse, I decided to get a braid (23 going on 13). I kid you not, the friendly hair-braiding lady was all set to do it in yellow, red and blue “for the game.” As if I didn’t already look like enough of a tourist.

I guess what I most liked about Colombia’s love of football is just how contagious it is. Men and women of all ages – even those who aren’t the biggest sporting fans – go all out to show their support for their team. They genuinely care. Indisputable proof of the spread of this infectious, football-loving spirit is the fact that I, the self-confessed football phobe, own a Colombian football shirt.

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http://deportesco.terra.com.co/futbol/mundial/2014/eliminatorias/fotos/0,,OI220654-EI18625,00-Barranquilla+respira+futbol+antes+del+duelo+ColombiaUruguay.html

 

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Bogota, the best place I’ve called home…

Little after arriving in Colombia I remember seeing a friend’s photo on Facebook, a panorama of Bogota at night with the caption “the best place I’ve ever called home.” This particular friend had already spent a year teaching in Bogota and at that moment I remember wondering if I’d leave with the same opinion (something I very much doubted at the time). It has therefore come as a great surprise to find myself so nostalgic now that I’m back in little old England, sitting in the kitchen with a cuppa while I write.

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We’ve had a very love-hate relationship over the months, Bogota and I, and there’s no denying that the city has its faults. I’m sure I could list at least 50. It’s chaotic, polluted, dangerous, messy, cloudy, grey and, quite frankly, a bit ugly. The inequality is shocking – travelling from north to south makes you realise that the Bogota of the rich and the Bogota of the not-so-well-off are worlds apart – and homelessness in the city is just tragic. Yet in spite of this there is something about Bogota.

It wasn’t until the night before I left that I realised just how right my Facebook photo friend was. After a terrifying climb, Ivan and I reached the Mirador de la Roca, in Usaquén, just in time to catch the last rays of the setting sun and looking out over all those thousands of twinkling lights, beside one of the best people I know, the brilliance of Bogota and its indescribable, can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it charm really hit me. From up there, away from all the noise and commotion, the jigsaw stretching out below us seemed such a welcoming place, one that had adopted me, the would-be Colombiana, and swallowed me up among its other 9 million residents. Despite my reservations in the first few weeks, at that moment I felt incredibly grateful to have been one of the never ending expanse of glittering lights below, swept up in the ever changing ebb and flow of the city. In short, Bogota is a place unlike any other and one that I am honoured to have called my home.

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(I will continue now with all the other places I visited in this wonderful country that, through pure procrastination, I have yet to write about).

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Wandering around the Tatacoa

For me, more than anything else, the Tatacoa is proof that Colombia really does have everything: rain forests, huge sprawling cities, idyllic little towns, mountains, picture-perfect white sand beaches, tropical islands, plains, enormous national parks, even deserts, as I happily discovered a few months ago.

Back in April I went on a trip to the Huila department, in the south west of the country, with my good friend David. We got a bus to the capital of the department, Neiva, which took us about 6 hours from Bogota. It was fairly late by the time we got there, so our first night consisted of finding somewhere to sleep.

As already mentioned, the Tatacoa is a desert and the second largest one in the country, after the northern Guajira peninsula. It is an earthy, orange colour in some parts and much greyer in others. We travelled first to Villavieja and from there to the desert itself. In the desert there are several places to stay fairly close to the entrance, where you can pay for a cabin or a space to pitch a tent. We decided to do the latter. After everything was set up and a fairly odd lunch of chicken, plantain and strawberries (food is pretty expensive) we set off to explore!

It is possible to go horse riding, rent bikes or get someone to give you a lift on their motorbike. We went with the motorbike option and then carried on by foot. In reality, and as you would expect of a desert, the Tatacoa is essentially a vast expanse of nothingness, cacti and small canyon-like formations, coupled with a stifling, dry heat. But this in itself is the beauty of it. It is a land quite unlike any other I’ve seen in this country and one that lends itself to reflection and pondering. Here’s a more visual description of the above, together with me posing with the most impressive cactus in the vicinity.

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Despite the breathtaking day-time panorama, for me the Tatacoa was at its most impressive at night time. Luckily for us, the night we stayed was relatively cloud-free and there is obviously no light pollution in the middle of a desert, so we could fully appreciate the brilliance of the night sky. We spent a few hours just looking at the stars and, whilst we didn’t see the promised meteor shower, it was nonetheless a unique experience and one that always serves to make any problems or issues pale into insignificance.

We left the desert the following morning and made our way back to Neiva. To make the most of the time before our bus back to Bogotá we decided to visit the nearby town of Rivera, home to many many hot springs.

Rivera is an idyllic and green place, very close to the capital. The way there was simply beautiful and the town itself didn’t disappoint! We got a mototaxi (essentially a golf buggy) to some hot springs high above the town, which we had been told were the best value for money out of the three options. As proof of the above, they were packed with people. Unfortunately, and rather ridiculously, they were too hot to actually get in (I made several attempts). I believe this only served to add to my foreignness, as exemplified by one local’s goading his daughter into jumping in with the encouragement that she not be so cowardly as “la gringa esta”… The situation became all the more comical when he thought it prudent to then confirm with my friend that I don’t speak Spanish (“ella no habla español, verdad?”). I like to think my knowing smile rather contradicted his assumption…

After a quick lunch we hopped back on the bus to Neiva, and then made our way back to wonderful Bogota.

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Lovely, green Rivera!

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