Category Archives: Colombia

The Amazon Diaries

“So what have you been doing for the last week?” I ask Charissa.

“Cooking food, eating food, making tea and looking at the rain forest” she replies.

This is a fairly accurate summary of our trip, with some crazy tour guides, nocturnal monkey attacks and Amazon skinny dipping thrown in for good measure. It was quite the adventure.

We began our 10 day trip in Leticia, capital of the Amazonas department, and the only city that you can fly to. There isn’t really any other way to get there, unless you’re coming by boat from Brazil or Peru. In Leticia we discovered 5,000 COP (£1.20!) capirinhas and witnessed the daily spectacle that is the arrival of hundreds of thousands of birds noisily flying to Leticia to roost in Parque Santander (it happens every day at sunset). Whilst we were at the park we befriended a jewellery seller called Greggy who, for the next five days, took it upon himself to be our tour guide, of sorts.

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The following day he took us to a small town called Macedonia, about an hour or so by boat up the Amazon river, where he had a friend who would let us stay for a few days. It turns out Macedonia is a fervently religious Jehovah’s Witness community. There are no cars in the town, as the houses are all built on sticks and stand around two metres above ground. When it rains and the water level rises, everything is flooded and people get around by boat. No alcohol or cigarettes are sold in the town and, whilst tourists usually stay for an hour or so, they rarely stay the night. We ended up staying for five with our lovely hosts Germán and Sara who, for next to nothing (a night’s stay costs 15,000 COP and meals 5,000 COP), welcomed us into their home.

Highlights of our stay included going on a boat trip with Germán, where we were able to spot the Amazon’s famous pink dolphins, and going on a walk through the jungle to a Peruvian village where we ate a delicious (and enormous) lunch of fish (cooked over a fire wrapped in plantain leaves), rice, beans, pasta, salad and fruit. After, we went for a swim, the sky glowing with the rays of the setting sun in the west and a beautiful double rainbow in the east. We expertly avoided the sting rays and tiny penis-invading fish that apparently inhabit the waters.

I am yet to decide whether it was an overly positive or negative experience, but we were also able to go on a trek into the jungle with a friend of Greggy’s called James, who can only be described as a half-crazy, machete-wielding, marijuana fanatic (apparently the middle of the jungle, at what felt like 100% humidity, is not everyone’s idea of the worst place in the world to want to smoke a joint). Our trek lasted a good eight hours and was exhausting, but we managed to see and experience many weird and wonderful jungle things. James also told us about the time he got lost in the jungle for a week and had a vision in which he got so hungry and desperate that he ate his dogs ears and tail. Apparently this turned out not to be a dream after all, and indeed, his dog is mysteriously missing both its ears and tail. I came to the conclusion that I am completely unsuited to jungle life.

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Drinking water from the bejuco tree

After our trek we were treated to an absolutely incredible meal – juanes de yuca – prepared for us by Sara and terribly photographed below. It’s something like a tamal, but made of yuca not maize flour, and with a piece of fish inside, wrapped in a leaf whose name I can no longer remember and cooked in boiling water. My written description doesn’t do it justice either, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

A few days later, we left Macedonia and got a boat further up the river to Puerto Nariño, a slightly bigger and, on the whole, much more touristy village that I’d visited a year ago.  As soon as we stepped off the boat, we were approached by various men offering us cabins, hostels, boat tours – everything. We hung around for a while and eventually met “Monstruo”, a guy who runs a nature reserve outside the town and who let us stay in his home in Puerto Nariño in the meantime. On first impressions, Puerto Nariño is a place that seems incredibly committed to the environment. Like Macedonia, there are no cars or motorbikes (they would be pretty useless anyway) and there are countless signs dotted around warning of hefty fines for littering etc. And they seem to be working.

As ever, we had a pretty chilled time in Puerto Nariño and our days there usually consisted of going for a wash in a nearby river (our host’s house had no running water), making huge breakfasts, wandering around the town, relaxing in the hammocks, going for dinner three days in a row “donde El Calvo” – we even went for a beer in one of the town’s two “nightclubs” (one of which is tragically called “Punto G”). One of the most noteworthy things to happen during our short stay was, without doubt, being woken up at 3 am by the appearance of a very tiny, very cute and incredibly playful monkey on the balcony where we were sleeping – he was happily jumping from hammock to hammock, apparently after having been discovered in our host’s baby’s crib. Only in the Amazon…

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After staying a few nights we decided to move to the reserve, a 20 minute walk outside the town. It essentially consisted of a house in the middle of the jungle, complete with banana trees, a little lake and our own personal mochilero-nest-laden tree. Calling it paradise would be no exaggeration. “Mochilero” is the name of a bird frequently found in the region whose nest resembles a bag (a mochila). It can easily be recognised by its distinctive cry: a delicious plopping and rippling kind of noise, like fat raindrops falling into a pool of water. Unlike any other bird I’ve ever heard.

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We were warmly welcomed by Marcos, the man in charge of building the house, who was eager for us to try all the different fruits that were growing in the reserve: the sweet yet acidic, almost fermented-tasting cupuaçu, the strange guama pods and tiny bananas. He told us about the animals living nearby, which terrifyingly included carnivorous (i.e. man-eating) monkeys. He was a great host. Half of us stayed in hammocks in the house and others put up tents and built a shelter outside. Marcos seemed pretty impressed with their efforts, and so was I, especially when I found out that the tents were completely waterproof anyway.

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In the evening, and inevitably always after it had already got dark, we made campfires and cooked dinner. The nocturnal chatter of the birds, the thunder and my unfamiliarity with sleeping in a hammock made for an interesting, if not very interrupted, night’s sleep.

Whilst in Puerto Nariño we also decided to go on a spontaneous trip to Lago Tarapoto, with friendly, local man Larry. The whole idea started because Sara had a sudden longing to get on a boat and we wanted to swim. We ended up being driven around for a while by Larry – observing more pink dolphins and the renaco tree, also known as “el árbol que camina“. We swam in Lago Tarapoto, which is apparently full of piranhas, though Larry subdued our fears somewhat by reassuring us that they don’t attack unless you’re bleeding and not moving. Sara did get repeatedly nibbled by some unidentified fish, but our swim was otherwise uneventful. Once back on land, Dario (the boy who had introduced us to Larry), suddenly asked me if I’d been to Puerto Nariño before and wasn’t I the girl who got bitten by a parrot? (This could only happen to me). And indeed, it was me. It’s strange to think that someone with whom you shared no more than three hours of life might remember you a whole year later. It’s nice to be memorable.

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Back in Leticia, we went to Parque Santander again and made friends with two more jewellery sellers, Veronica and Maximiliano, from Argentina. They’d been travelling through South America for three years and were gradually making their way to Mexico. They were the most friendly, beautiful couple, with an impressive array of hand-made jewellery. True to the stereotype, they were drinking mate, and we got to know them as the cup, full of that bitter, green-tasting liquid, was passed around. The following evening Veronica taught us the basics of bracelet making and, after several false starts, we each managed to make something that resembled a bracelet. The others brought cachaça to the park. After a lengthy discussion we established that it is essentially the aguardiente of Brazil (i.e. horrible), and they were happily singing and drinking until late.

On our last day we went to Brazil. The Brazilian border town of Tabatinga is essentially just the other half of Leticia, but in Portuguese. There’s no gap at all between them. We set off with the idea of eating ceviche and inexplicably ended up in a Chinese restaurant. It was an enjoyable trip nonetheless, and thankfully I didn’t have to put my 1A beginner’s Portuguese to the test.

My Amazon adventure came to and end on 5th October. Unfortunately, LATAM decided to move everyone else’s flight to 7th. We later learnt that flights had been cancelled so that the planes could fly to Barranquilla instead, where there was a qualifying mach for the World Cup. Obviously.

Like many other parts of this incredible country, the Amazon is a unique and unforgettable place, home to many happy memories

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Back in Bogota

As the title suggests, I returned to Colombia at the beginning of August. I didn’t stray too far from the capital in my first month or so here – the dissertation took a lot longer than expected. Thankfully I had “El Gordo” (i.e. the fattest cat you’ve ever seen) keeping me company.

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However, I did manage to escape the city for my birthday, at the end of August. Charissa arrived in Colombia a few weeks after me, shortly followed by two good friends of her’s, Basti and Max. It turns out Basti has an aunt living in the nearby Tolima department, who kindly let us stay for a few days. Probably the most striking thing (or, at least, the most memorable) for me about Tolima is that it’s HOT. Really bloody hot. You could feel the temperature rising and rising as we descended into Tolima, which, together with the miles of curvy, steep mountain roads and sharp corners (invariably taken at 70 kmph, despite clear signs saying the limit was 30), made for a very “interesting” journey, to say the least.

Before we reached Ambalema, we stopped off for lunch (consisting of enough food for the entire day) and went to a nearby river. It’s a popular bathing spot at the weekend, however as we were there on a Monday it was empty. We climbed over the fences (apparently not trespassing, because, who owns a river, right?) and spent an hour or so cooling off in the water with some beers. Unfortunately no one had the foresight to put on mosquito repellent.

We arrived in Ambalema in the late afternoon and, after showering and saying hello, set off to explore. Ambalema is a very typical Colombian town. It’s tiny. I think every single person we passed greeted us and often stopped to have a chat; this would never in a million years happen in Bogotá. There is a disproportionately high number of cats and motorbikes in Ambalema. I’m fairly sure every family must own at least one or the other, if not both. We ambled down to the main square and selected a suitable food/beer place from the many ones surrounding it. We spent several hours there, watching everyone going about their business and marvelling at the sheer number of motorbikes zooming past us (in a town where literally everything is within walking distance). Max discovered the wonders of the salpicón – essentially an enormous fruit salad in a plastic cup with icecream on top.

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It’s hard to get across just how different pueblo life and city life are (even just as a foreigner): we walked back from the centre in the darkness, sticking out like four sore thumbs, without a care in the world. It makes you realise how much you absorb the culture of suspicion that reigns in Bogotá, without even realising it.

However, Ambalema’s tranquil, danger-free image was shattered during the night, when we were kept awake (and scared out of our wits, or at least, I was) by the loudest and longest thunderstorm I’ve ever experienced.

Having enjoyed the sights and sounds of Ambalema, on Wednesday we decided it was time to head somewhere else.

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Basti (the only one of us who had formed any kind of plan) was keen to go to a place called La Vega, which unfortunately sounds a lot like the Spanish word “verga” (enthusiastically telling people you had a great time in “the dick” is really not ideal). It’s a small town about an hour north of Bogotá and, with no other ideas, we decided to trust the scant but positive reviews online and go and see for ourselves.

Much to our relief, this turned out to be a brilliant idea.

Basti’s uncle kindly drove us all the way there. The camping site we’d decided to stay at was at least a half hour’s drive from the town and, luckily for us, we ended up having the whole place to ourselves. If I remember rightly, it was called “Cascadas del Chupal” and, as the name suggests, there were waterfalls. There were many small paths from the main camping ground, each leading to a different waterfall or pool, of which there were around 5 in total. We quickly dropped our bags and headed off to explore.

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In the evening we made a campfire and some surprisingly delicious food (even arepas!). I couldn’t have picked a better place to turn 24 or people to spend it with.

 

 

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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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