The first thing we needed to do before any exploring, was find a place to do our laundry! We had read about a place online that was called Beer & Laundry, where you could take your washing and have a beer and some food there while waiting for it - definitely sounded like it was worth a visit!
After walking to it in the 10am blistering heat, we decided to drop our stuff off and come back abit later for a beer. This was due to seeing we were really close to a historic fort called Castillo De San Felipe De Barajas, that we thought we would have a look around first.
The map and leaflet provided gave limited information about the history, but it was created in order to protect Cartagena from different invasions from the French and English - both of whom wanted Cartagena as a Caribbean dock. The original construction dates back to 1536, with expansions happening for the next 200 years by the Spanish. The two biggest invasions of Cartagena actually failed because the English and the French couldnt handle the heat or mosquito's and the diseases that come with these. The Spanish had learnt from the Indigenous when they had first captured Cartagena how to deal with these things, with techniques such as putting mud over them to protect them from mosquito's. One of the forts main defenses was a massive underground tunnel system, which if they were being overrun had sections to put explosives where the enemies would be above. These ended up never needing to be used, so we got to have a walk around them.
Walking around the fort was boiling, but interesting to see a structure so old still standing around modern buildings. It also gave a nice view back over Cartagena.
We only lasted two hours before needing to get back indoors and out of the heat. Luckily beer & Laundry was only a short walk away, so headed back there for a well deserved beer... and of course Dan needed a brownie.
That afternoon we booked onto a city walking tour. This wasn't till 4pm but the temperature still hadn't cooled down much at all!
We got talked through a lot of the history of Cartagena, some of which we had learnt at the fort already that morning. Cartagena was officially founded and settled under the Spanish Empire in 1533. Word soon spread that gold had been found in the tombs of local indigenous leaders, which made many people travel to Cartagena. In 1561, the Spanish crown named Cartagena as a major port, meaning they received funds from the Spanish to improve the city. Due to this influx of wealth to the city, it became a hot spot for pirates, especially French and English pirates.
We were taken around the main areas of the city, each having different stories that had happened. Sadly a lot of them were to do with slaves, due to a large number of slaves being brought to Cartagena to then be moved onto the rest of the Caribbean or South America. Each big square in the city used to be used for selling of different types of slave, depending on there fitness and condition. We didn't get many pictures walking around as we had planned to do this another day.
One story we found really interesting was door knockers on certain houses around the town. The knockers signified what family lived in the house. For example, if it was a Lion, it would mean that it was a military family - the bigger the lion the higher up they were ranked. A nautical theme meaning they are in the navy. This produced some great door knockers and became more and more noticeable around the city on the grander houses.
Due to it being a historical tour, we got a lot more stories about different people that founded the city and stories of different buildings - all too long to note down!
ROSARIO ISLANDS & TRANQUILA BEACH
One of the biggest tourist pulls to Cartagena is the Rosario Islands, n archipelago located within a national park, Colombia's only underwater national park in fact. To reach the islands, you need to take a tour, so we booked ourselves onto one via our hostel and set off early in the morning on the hour long drive to reach the section of the beach closest to the islands. Usually you'd get a boat the whole way there from the City, however due to strong winds and therefore even stronger waves, it was deemed safer to drive, and given we both get sea sick we weren't complaining. Unfortunately for us, none of the guides on our tour spoke any English whatsoever, so with our very limited Spanish we just about muddled our way through the day, mainly just following the group and hoping for the best! Once we reached the beach Playa Blanca, which it would seem every one flocks to, we boarded our boat to the Islands. After some similar tours in Brazil, we were actually expecting a bit of a bigger boat, but the entire coach load of us were instead loaded onto a medium sized speed boat, having to jump over the waves just to get into the boat. We actually saw the boat knock over a kid who was trying to get in the waves were so strong, health and safety is pretty much non-existent here!
After safely boarding and praying it leave sooner than later so as to stop being rocked about, we started our very bumpy 15 minute ride out to reach the islands. We even saw a dolphin jumping alongside us on the way. Upon reaching one of the islands, half the boat unloaded to go visit an aquarium, whilst the rest of us were carried back out to another islands coral reef to go snorkeling. Long story short we'd prepaid for the snorkeling part of our tour as it was something we knew we definitely wanted to do, but annoyingly no one had told any of the staff on our boat. So we missed out on the first 10 minutes of snorkeling just arguing this out via google translate. Eventually, feeling pretty green from having to spend so much time on the now parked up boat, we got an apology and jumped into the water. The water was extremely shallow to begin with, and poor Dan got a bit stuck and ended up cutting himself a lot on the coral. We eventually made it over to our group, we'd seen a lot of people wearing life jackets and just assumed they were weak swimmers, but now we were in the water, we wished we were wearing them too, it was very rocky and rough currents. They had flotation rings for us to grab onto, but it was so crowded it was pretty hard to stay holding on. The whole experience reminded us of the scene in titanic when everyone is in the water and starting to drown other people just trying to stay afloat themselves.
This aside we saw so many fish it was incredible, as you can see from our pictures below.
We managed to survive - just about - and eventually got hauled back onto the boat, feeling just as seasick from being in the water! The guides then told us they'd seen a shark, but again with the language barrier this was all we could figure out, whether this is true or not we have no idea.
After an even bumpier boat ride back to Playa Brava, everyone else on our tour were staying at this beach to enjoy the afternoon. We'd read how busy this beach gets, and decided this wasn't really for us, so we'd booked to go to a neighboring beach, Playa Tranquila, for the afternoon instead. And we were so glad we had. Where you could barely move for people on Playa Brava, here there were barely any people! We couldn't believe we were the only two on the tour who had opted for this.
Here we were provided an incredible fish lunch, freshly caught, and made the most of the tranquility, relaxing on our loungers. Dan of course also found plenty more rocks in the sea to add to his ever growing collection.
Hilariously we were practically forced into having massages whilst we were relaxing. Two women started speaking to us and not wanting to be rude we chatted back a little, next thing we know they had poured water over our feet to clean them and before we even realised what was happening was massaging us. Insisting it was a 'promotion' and 'free', we knew better and were politely trying to find ways to decline. Dan told them he was ticklish but not put off they just massaged his back instead. Eventually we just gave in telling them we barely had any cash on us (which luckily was true) and just accepted the massage, we only had to pay a couple of quid in the end.
We got to relax here for a couple of hours before catching the boat back to the other beach, and eventually getting the bus back to the town.
That night Colombia were playing Chile in the quarter finals of the Copa America, so we headed to a bar to join in watching. Sadly Colombia lost on penalties with the very last guy to take one missing.
EXPLORING CARTAGENA AGAIN
Cartagena has such a beautiful old town, with so many of the colonial buildings so well preserved, every street is as beautiful as the next. It's also a maze with so many of the streets looking similar it's been one of the first Cities we've just completely failed to get our bearings!
From our first day walking around, we wanted to spend a day getting lost and taking pictures. With a short hiatus around midday when it reached peak heat and we headed back to the air-con of our hostel for a few hours, we managed to waste the whole day just wandering around. And of course buying some freshly cut mango from one of the many stalls. It was interesting to see, especially in the morning, that the streets were almost deserted in comparison to the evenings when they are so crowded its hard to walk around.
That evening as we sat out on one of the many squares for a beer, we were also treated to some fireworks, which was a nice end to our time in Cartagena.
BUS TO SANTA MARTA
Months ago when we were researching accommodations we found a really good deal on a very fancy looking hotel in Santa Marta so jumped at booking it. Therefore we were keen to get to Santa Marta as early as possible in order to make the most of our one and only fancy hotel!
The journey to Santa Marta from Cartagena is roughly 4hrs, and we were advised by the hostel that the easiest way to get there would be via shared minivan. We arrived around 8.45am to the terminal, and sure enough 15minutes later we were off. We ended up with the seats in the front with the driver and felt awful every time he was trying to make conversation with us that we weren't the best company for him being unable to respond. He did however play a great 80's playlist to keep us entertained.
Just after 2pm we made it to our hotel and were greeted with a freshly squeezed juice, and the best room we've had so far, complete with kitchen. The bargain we'd made with ourselves for booking here was that we'd cook in every night to make the most of it and save some money.
The hotel had a swimming pool directly outside our room, as well as another one on the rooftop, so we headed on up for a swim (sort of the one on the roof was tiny we more just sat), and to relax and enjoy the sun.
TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK,
We were up early to head to Tayrona National Park, the second most visited park in Colombia, situated along 30km of the Caribbean coast. The only way to reach the beaches is to hike through the jungle so we were happy to fill up on an incredible breakfast, with loads of fresh fruits on the balcony of our hotel first.
It was a 10 minute walk through town to reach the bus stop, which incidentally was the most of Santa Marta we saw during our time there! A bus conductor started to shout to us stating they were going to Tayrona just as we were a road away from the official stop, so Lisa went ahead and hopped on whilst it was at a traffic lights, unaware Dan didn't trust the conductor so hadn't got on and carried on walking. Luckily the conductor shouted him down again once Lisa had got on and Dan had to quickly run after the bus before it started moving off again. Despite his reservations it was at least the correct bus, and saved us waiting a further 30 minutes for the next one as we wouldn't have made it to the official stop on time.
Most people who visit the park, either visit for just a day, or stay overnight on the main beach, Cabo San Juan. We knew we wanted to stay the night as it's a long walk so wanted to make the most of it. However after lots of extensive research, we both agreed sleeping in Hammocks or a tent on the main beach didn't sound particularly appealing, let alone the crowds of people that go to this main beach every day. As an alternative there is another beach, Playa Brava, which is a much further walk from the main beach so barely anyone goes there, plus we could stay on little huts on the beach. This sounded much more up our streets, so we'd booked a hut in advance. Thankfully, if you are solely walking straight to this beach, there is a slightly more direct route from another entrance that doesn't take you through the main beach. This caused lots of confusion with the locals when we confidently got off at this stop and they were all kindly trying to inform us the main entrance wasn't here.
The accommodation owner had sent us pictures of where to head when we got off the bus, and thank god he had, as the route wasn't very well sign posted and looked like the kind of back alley you shouldn't walk up. After fending off offers from locals on motorbikes trying to make a bit of extra cash driving us the 10 minute walking distance to the entrance, we found our way and finally set off on towards Playa Brava.
The walk reminded us of being in Brazil, back on Ilha Grande getting to our jungle lodge. However this walk was much longer. Weirdly we felt a lot more confident walking through the jungle than we had previously, probably due to how many jungle visits we've done now. Saying that Dan did receive quite the fright when a local carrying a huge machete appeared from no where behind us! He wished us good morning and was quickly on his way. We thought we were doing really well with our walking speed until he sprinted past us! He ended up working at the accommodation where we were staying and we were flattered when he told us we were 'rapid'... all the walking seems to be paying off. We completed the walk in just over 2 hours and the average time is 3 hours... yay us! In fairness we were lucky with the weather as it was pretty overcast, so although still in the 30's, we didn't have to contend with unrelenting sun. Saying this it was still the sweatiest we'd both been in a while (or so we thought, until the next day).
Arriving at the beach, we quickly admired our hut, before jumping straight into our swim wear and going for a paddle. The sea was extremely rough and wavy so we couldn't fully swim, but we could at least cool off and replace some of the sweat with sea water.
No surprise Dan found plenty of rocks to add to his collection, even admitting he doesn't know himself what to do with them all when we get home!
We spent the whole afternoon wandering the beach and chilling in our hammocks on our huts little balcony. It was incredible we only saw 3 other people on the beach the whole afternoon. It felt like we were on the castaway island.
Just in time for dinner, we were treated to a beautiful sunset.
TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK,
CABO SAN JUAN
We had both decided when booking to stay on Playa Brava, that we would spend the next day taking the longer walk back so we could still see Cabo San Juan. Due to this we started early, having breakfast and setting off around 8.00am. The route this way was a little more remote, still having a rough path to follow but feeling like you were a lot deeper in the jungle. We did have one moment when we starting hearing what sounded like growling. There are Jaguars in the park, so we both felt a little panicked! We slowly kept walking trying to see where the noise was coming from, it took a while but we finally realised it was howler monkeys making the noise! Definitely got our hearts racing for a while! We sadly didn't see too much wildlife due to how thick the terrain was but we did count 46 massive millipedes!
The trek again was said to be roughly 3 hours, we got to the first beach just after 10am so still kept our average up! This trek was a lot tougher however, with a lot more steeper hills. Upon seeing the sea we started celebrating thinking we had made it, only to find an empty beach! After a slight panic we had taken a wrong path and we would have to climb all the way back up, we saw someone climbing down another path at the end of the beach and realised we hadn't quite finished the walk yet.
Fortunately it was only a further 10 minutes walk until we reached the main beach. The early start had paid off, as we arrived to a mostly empty beach. You were able to swim at Cabo San Juan, so we didn't need much encouragement to take off our soaking wet with sweat clothes and jump in the sea!
We spent around 3 hours making the most of the beach before it starting getting busy, until we decided to start heading back to Santa Marta. One thing we did want to see before we left was what the campsite was like and whether we had made the right decision with the hut. Upon seeing it we both said it reminded us of a refugee camp - definitely right decision made!
We had been told the walk back to the main entrance was a further 1 hour 45 minutes. Only issue was we had the sun to fight with, it had come out full force, Lisa was really not happy! By the end we were both starting to struggle with the heat and the distance we had walked over the 2 days (17 miles). Luckily we had enough water to get us by and made it to the minibuses that took you back to Santa Marta. We both felt bad getting in dripping wet!
We got back to the apartment around 3pm and jumped straight into the pool! We didn’t move for the rest of the day!
ROOF TOP POOL RELAXATION
Extremely happy to be back in our fancy hotel we wanted to make the most of our time here and spent the day relaxing on the rooftop reading and enjoying the swimming pool. We had half planned to go for a quick walk to the beach in Santa Marta to at least be able to say we'd seen some of the town, but never ended up making it out... whoops! At least we got to see the City from the roof top!
FLIGHT TO MEDELLIN
The flight to Medellin was only just over 1 hour, however it wasn't until early afternoon so we didn't arrive in Medellin until around 4pm, with almost an hours drive to reach the City from the airport. One of the highest rated restaurants on TripAdvisor for Medellin, was just across the road from our hostel, and considering we hadn't eaten since breakfast, it would have been rude not to pay it a visit. It served Turkish food and it was so nice to eat some salad and different flavours to every where else in South America! Somehow shattered from our day of traveling we headed back to our room to watch a film and have an early night, ready to explore Medellin the next day.
MEDELLIN WALKING TOUR &
Similarly to Lima the tourist area where the hostels and restaurants are, is away from the town centre, so we had quite a walk and metro ride to get to our walking tour start point.
We started the tour getting a very brief history of Medellin. Unlike all the other big Cities in Colombia, Medellin doesn't have a historical centre. Only a few colonies settled here when the Spanish first started looking for gold, having found none in Medellin, some returned as it has a much more tolerable climate and temperature than the Coast. It started out as a small village, then due to the coffee boom, settlers started to flood in, with the region around Medellin being the perfect climate for growing coffee, getting 4 harvests a year. The town then started having a formal City, built in the Valley by the government, and an informal City, built in the surrounding hills by settlers. This split is still evident, however the current Mayor has done so much to help the 'informal' or poorer parts of the City, building Cable Cars so they have easier access to jobs in the centre, as well as building good quality Schools and Libraries in the hills.
The second boom the City had was due to Cocaine and the infamous Pablo Escobar, which the Colombians call the dark times. The tour whilst trying to give us a basic understanding of this time, also didn't dwell in too much detail. The City are trying to move on from this period and don't like this being people's interpretation of their home. as it is far from this now. 20 years ago Medellin was the most dangerous City or the Murder Capital of the world, due to Pablo Escobar. The guide said when she was young it was common to hear shootings all through the night, and too often relatives or friends just didn't make it home, having been caught in crossfire. Nowadays the Cities residents are thrilled to have tourists visit, with 6 different locals stopping the guide and asking her to relay to us how grateful they were that we were visiting their amazing City which they're very proud of.
The downtown area of the City is full of new developments, sculptures and open spaces, each area we walked through the guide explained how dangerous these parts used to be and how they have now been regenerated into safe spaces for everyone to enjoy. For example, the building which used to be the headquarters for Crime, has now been transformed into the headquarters for the department of Education.
One of our favourite stops on the tour was to the The Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture, which from the outside, looks like it should be a Church. It was designed by a Belgian architect, however after the first half was constructed, the Colombians moaned that it looked too much like a church (it is in fact a public building for conferences or concerts etc). They also complained that it was taking too long to build, winding up the architect so much that he quit, just leaving them the blue prints to complete the building themselves. Upon realising how complicated the design and building was, rather than sticking to the blue prints, they completed it 'Colombian Style'. You can see the differences in the pictures below!
This same square is also famous for its many statues. 23 abstract bronze sculptures were donated by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. He is world renowned for founding his own style of Sculptures using disproportion, the style is now known as Botero. Each piece is worth around 1.5million USD! Dan's favourite statue was of a large soldier with a teeny tiny dick (obviously). It is legend that if you grab the tiny penis you will find your true love, it shows this story has been passed around as the willy is very discoloured compared to the rest of the statue, In true romance Dan declared he didn't need to touch the willy - probably the most romantic thing he's ever said!
As well as Medellin's tragic history with Pablo Escobar, the City has also seen the traumatic results of the Countries political conflicts. In all honesty the explanations were so complicated that we struggled to understand the ins and outs of it all, but various extreme left wing guerrilla armies, the most prominent being FARC, and extreme right wing Para Military Armies have been at 'civil war' essentially with each other for years, with many innocent civilians being the collateral. The past 3 Presidents have all tried and failed to resolve these conflicts, with the main catalyst being drugs, and therefore an end still far from sight. The previous president got the furthest with peace talks with FARC, however after a national referendum, the people voted against the peace treaty, much to the surprise of the countryside, who have been worst affected and who the majority voted in favour. Similarly to Brexit this has split the country.
One of the symbols of the result of these conflicts can still be seen in San Antonio Plaza, a huge open space used for concerts. In 1995, a bomb was placed in the Botero statue in the Plaza during a huge concert, killing 30 and injuring 200 more people. Every single guerrilla and para-military group claimed the bombing was of their doing, to this day they still don't know who was actually responsible. In defiance to this act though, Botero made a new and identical statue to be placed next to the destroyed one, which can still be seen in the square as a symbol of this defiance and in remembrance of those who died.
Despite this, and many more horrific crimes, murders, bombings, open fire shootings etc, Medellin today has some of the happiest people. Our guide explained that to sift out all of the shit, any tiny thing to celebrate will be celebrated. For example, in 1990 Colombia drew 1-1 with Germany in the World Cup group stage, and they threw street celebrations so large you'd have thought they won the cup! Another great example is the Metro. Built in the midst of the Cities turmoil, they went ahead with the construction of the Metro despite not really having the funds, nor having any previous experience or knowledge of how to build a metro, being the first in Colombia. The City people are so proud of the Metro now, for the fact it managed to be built and act as a symbol of the Cities future, that it rates #4 on trip advisor as an attraction and there is no graffiti or rubbish to be found anywhere along the trains or stations!
The perfect show of the Cities happy vibes could be seen when watching a group of men performing and singing in the street, all the watchers dancing and them so happy to have a group of Gringos watching!
After the tour ended, we'd been recommended to visit the Botanical gardens as a nice outdoor and green spot to have a drink and a wander. Some of the walks actually reminded us of our jungle walks in Tayrona, but this time with a few more animals to spot including loads of Iguanas and some turtles.
Through our hostel we had booked a day tour to the town of Guatape and the rock which towers over it. As with all day tours, it was an early 6.50am pick up, only to sit on the bus for over an hour while we picked other people up throughout the city.
Guatapé is located in the outskirts of Medellín, bordering a reservoir created by the Colombian government for a hydro-electric dam, built in the late 1960s. This was our first stop, parking up on the edge of this reservoir to enjoy a boat ride. It is a very scenic reservoir with a lot of holiday homes around the edges. Interestingly we passed 3 of Pablo Escobars old holiday homes that he used to use as meeting places (Can just about see them in the 3rd picture). They have now been destroyed by the locals and are deserted, with plans for the area to be converted into a park in memory of his victims.
After all spending 5 minutes piling back on the bus, we drove less than 2 minutes up a hill to get to the next stop - would have been quicker all to walk! This was a small town that we think was to stop off for a quick shop, as this was all that seemed to be there other than a big church. Our problem with this tour was as much as our guide tried to speak English, we didn't always understand him, so some of the information or instructions were lost on us!
After another 10 minute drive we were finally at the place we had wanted to see - La piedra del Peñol, a massive rock in the middle of the Reservoir. According to Geologists, the stone is approximately 65 Million years old. The most common theory about its origin is that it was formed by clashes between tectonic plates, causing an outcrop of rocks. The stone is 200 meters high and at 2137mt above sea level.
Interestingly the rock was seen as a annoyance by locals up until a man called Luis Eduardo Villegas Lopez brought it for a small fee in 1954, as his son liked it. He decided to climb it and when he did saw the incredible panoramic view you get. Wanting to share this he created a staircase out of wood that scaled the rock - supposedly the first set of stairs was not too safe at all! Nowadays there are 649 steps that take you to the top of the rock. The world record time to get up is 5 minutes 49 seconds. Sadly we did it in just over 10 minutes, so a bit more training needed! The views at the top were more than worth it though. .
Decent took a similar amount of time ( due to some people who seemed to forget how to walk downstairs all of a sudden). We stopped off at a restaurant and had trout caught from the lake for lunch, while having a view overlooking the reservoir. We were then taken onto the town of Guatape. Here again we didn't get too much information due to the guides English, especially as he was taking us around on the walking tour.
One thing the town is known for is the Zocalos underneath each house. These are the lower parts of the house, which are decorated with pictures of what the family is known for doing as a job. One in particular caught our eye, which was a man carrying another man sitting on a chair on his back. Our guide explained that this was a well known job back in the 1600's, where poor people would carry rich people from the area to the Medellin. The idea was they would earn enough money in the 3 weeks of traveling like this. After they got there the people doing the carrying would normally die from exhaustion (they would know this would be the case) and leave all the money to their family. This practice soon died out, only being continued with people carrying flowers like this to the city instead.
We were then taken to a very colourful square, which again wasn't explained too much but looked really nice and was good for some pictures!
We spent some time wandering the towns shops and brought some Gelato before the ride back to Medellin.
ARVI PARK FAILURE
All the blogs about what to do in Medellin have Arvi Park as one of the top spots to visit. Situated out of the valley, you need to get two cable cars, taking you up and out. Being a Sunday, it would seem the rest of Medellin had the same idea to visit the park and we were heading there in rush hour. We had to queue (and thats using the word loosely... queues here aren't quite the same as at home and involve a lot of people just walking to the front), for around 20 minutes just to buy the tickets for the cable car and then another 10 minutes or so to get on one. It was a beautiful cable car ride though, if a little squished, with views out over the city and over the park, which took almost 20 minutes to cross.
We'd read that when you arrive at the park you can pick up maps for different trails you can walk. So we queued again at tourist information, whilst other people jumped in front of us, eventually being told they didn't have any printed maps. Taking a photo of one of the maps on the wall, which didn't make anything very clear, we asked directions for which way to head to get to the river and waterfall which we thought would be a nice destination to walk to. We were pointed down a trail, which came out onto a road. Asking again we were told to continue walking on the road for 20 minutes and then we'd reach the waterfall. Not quite the nice woodland park walk we'd imagined, we continued on the road, which had constant cars and buses passing, so it wasn't entirely relaxing.
Eventually (more than 20 minutes of walking) we reached a little track and a sign signaling the waterfall... hurray we've made it! We confidently trotted down the path, only to reach a closed gate blocking our way. We stood around for a bit seeing other walkers also flummoxed, chatting to another couple who had the same confusions as us over why we'd come to a park to walk on the road for half an hour. In the end we had no choice but to just give up and turn around back the way we'd come. The whole walk felt like we were just on the edge of the park, with fences blocking us actually getting in. Cutting our losses we decided to just head on down whilst the cable cars were empty so we could at least enjoy the views more this time. The only consolation being seeing at least 4 other groups of people having failed to find any sort of path or final destination as expected, with some having been pointed in different directions to us... so at least we weren't the only ones.
The final thing we'd wanted to do in Medellin was eat Bandeja Paisa. This is a traditional dish local to the region, and we'd been recommended a restaurant to try it in by a local. We didn't make it down and out of the park until around 3pm so we went for a late lunch / early dinner. The dish, whilst feeling like it would give you a heart attack, was also delicious. We were glad we'd decided to share a portion having been warned how big it is (as well as sharing a starter and a dessert of course!).
8 HOUR BUS TO SALENTO
As the title suggests, the 8th consisted of spending 8 hours on a minibus to reach the small town of Salento, right in the heart of the coffee region. The only way to reach here directly from Medellin is by taking a minibus, which was surprisingly better than half the big buses we've taken, complete with actual working wifi and individual screens with lots of films to choose from. Lisa managed to watch one film before the windy roads started to take their toll, and much to her relief the bus even had a toilet.
We got to Salento early evening, and pretty much managed to explore much of the small town that night just wandering around.
SALENTO COFFEE TOUR & TEJO
One of the main reasons we had wanted to come to Salento was due to the coffee tours that you can do here. Salento is in the main coffee region in Colombia, so as you can imagine, it is a small town situated between steep fields of farms. It is a stunning area, with fields on mountainsides as far as the eye can see, with low rolling clouds topping them.
We did a little bit of research into which coffee tour we wanted to do, mainly as neither of us are massive coffee fans, so we wanted a tour that gave you more than just drinking coffee. The one we decided to go for was said to be more hands on in the fields, so decided to do that.
Due to the positioning of Salento in the mountains, the main form of transport is Jeeps. You go to the main square and pay around £2 for a return journey. The jeeps can fit around 8 people inside and 4 people standing on the back holding onto the top! Luckily when we got there we managed to get a seat inside - we were rather glad we had as the journey there was almost like an off road track, very bumpy!
When we arrived at the farm it looked exactly like how you'd picture or see in the adverts, it looked amazing! Colombia grow arabica coffee, which grows on smaller trees, unlike Brazil and Vietnam, the other two largest coffee producing countries who grow Robusta coffee. Apparently, arabica beans are said to make better coffee but as two people who don't drink it, we're only passing on information we've been told.
We were first taking down to the field where they grow the coffee trees from seeds. Here we learnt how long they grow them for, before planting the trees in the fields. The trees grow flowers that turn into cherries and its within these cherries that you get the coffee beans. These coffee beans can then be replanted to grow a new tree or used to make coffee. We were each given a plant that had just grown from a seed, that we got to plant ready to grow. Hopefully one day someone will be drinking coffee from a tree we have planted!
After we had all planted our trees we were taken down to the main fields were the coffee beans are picked. Here we were told which beans to look for when picking - we wanted to find a dark red colour bean, green would mean they are not ripe yet. Obviously Dan enjoyed this part too much and found it hard to stop once we were told to come and show the guide what we had collected!
When the guide called us back we had all only managed to pick a handful of beans each - mainly due to the harvest season just being over, so they had recently been picked. Due to the climate in Salento, they get around 4 harvests a year! We were told that coffee pickers are paid per kilo each day and on average pick around 6 kilos a day! The guide went on to show us how to see which beans were good and which had been ruined due to animals or insects. We then tried the bean straight from the cherry - it was weirdly fruity and didn't have any real taste of coffee.
We then had a walk around the coffee plantation to see the size of it. Just seeing the sheer volume of trees that are growing the beans was amazing! We also got talked through the other produce they grew there such as plantanes, bananas, and Avocados. The guide explained that alot of coffee farms are changing their farms to produce Avocado's due to the boom at the moment - as well as them demanding a higher price per kilo.
We then got to try our hand at the machine used to de-shell the cherries to leave just the beans. We used an old version of the machine which is manually operated, however nowadays they have a electronic operated version, which is much quicker. Once de-shelled, the coffee beans then need to be washed, and this stage shows up any defected beans that still made it through, as they will float rather than sink. The company don't throw any of the defected coffee beans, instead using them to make second rate coffee. Once washed the coffee beans then get laid out on the roof, in order to dry them out completely. Once the beans have dried, someone, usually the owner of the farm, goes through every single bean for the final selection process to separate any second rate beans which made it through to this point. From here they get shipped to Brazil where they are roasted under controlled conditions. Over 90% of the first rate coffee, and most of the second rate coffee produced in Colombia is shipped abroad to sell in Australia, New Zealand, the US and of course Europe. In Colombia they are left with the third rate coffee which is made up just from the shells, not even the beans, and this is what is served in most cafes here.
The final part of the tour was of course, getting to taste the coffee they make at this farm. Much to Lisa's regret, she did try a sip. It was disgusting. Dan didn't enjoy it much more, and from what we could discern from other members of our tour group, it's a very acidic coffee. Maybe this is a characteristic of Arabica coffee? Who knows, certainly not us.
This marked the end of the tour and we jumped back in our jeep, this time somehow with even more passengers squeezed in than on the way and made it safely back to Salento town.
Just off the main street is a set of 245 steps leading up to a viewpoint overlooking the town. This really showed up just how small Salento is, and how many coffee farms there are around the region.
Colombia, particularly the Salento region, has a "national sport" / drinking game called Tejo, which has to be played when you visit. Therefore we set out in search of a Tejo bar, ordered two beers and had the rules quickly explained to us. In simple terms, Tejo involves throwing heavy metal pucks (basically a shot put cut in half), at a clay pit with a central ring you aim at. Sort of like Boules. Except around the ring is dynamite, and the aim is to make the dynamite explode! After the initial shock of how loud the first explosion was, we got really into the game, even disappointed when we hit the ring but the dynamite didn't go off. Supposedly the more you drink the better you get... not sure if the beers were helping our aim, but in the end Dan won 2 games to 1.
COCORA VALLEY HIKE
Cocora Valley is a trek we had wanted to do while in Salento. This is a 12km trail that takes you through cloud forests, jungle, farmland and a field with the tallest palm trees in the world, wax palm trees. After a lot of research into which trek to follow (there is a lot of contradicting articles online which say it’s easy to get lost, which worried Dan), we decided to follow the longest circular trek that would take us through everything there is to see and as a bonus, a hummingbird sanctuary deep in the jungle!
Again we headed up to the main square to get a jeep to the start of the trek. Unlike the day before, we didn’t manage to get seats inside the jeep and had to hold on for dear life standing up out the back! It was actually kind of nice as you got a good view of everything, however our arms were aching by the time the 30 minute journey was over! We made sure everything was tightly secure in our pockets - funnily enough on the way back we saw someone lose their phone out there pocket!
With instructions on our phones, we set off in search of the beginning of the trek! We had a feelings that no one else knew where they were going as they all seemed to follow us, we just hoped they were also looking for a 6 hour trek that we were doing! The first 30 minutes was easy walking through farmland, with views of the palm trees from afar, that we would actually get to at the end of the trek!
The next section of the trek was through thick jungle, something we had become very accustomed to on this trip! However this jungle felt a little nicer as it wasn’t half as humid as others we had trekked through (this didn’t stop us getting very sweaty as always though). The path went from steep to rocky to muddy throughout and even going over 6 very rickety bridges! We found out on the first one that it was definitely one person at a time!!
After another hour walking through the jungle we reached a cross section. You could either carry on with the main trail or lead off to the hummingbird sanctuary. Dan has fallen in love with hummingbirds on this trip, so we had to go for a visit! All articles had said it was a 2km trek off the main path, this really didn’t feel the case as it was basically all uphill for 20mins! The sanctuary was worth it though as we saw some stunning birds! Our favourite was one with a long turquoise tail and fluorescent green head. It’s mesmerising just watching them fly about and because they are used to people they would fly really close to you and you could feel and hear the wings as they passed.
The only way back to the main path was to go back the way we came. So we got a bit of downhill respite before we rejoined the very steep 40 minute climb back on the main path. This part did make us realise our fitness has got better on the trip due to the amount of people we passed on the walk up. This lead us to a little restaurant which had loads of flowers planted in the garden to help enjoy the view. We didn’t stop off here instead just powering through so we could try get ahead of some of the crowds.
From here it was another downhill until reaching the first viewpoint over the valley, which really showed just how many wax palm trees there are here. The cloud had been dropping down into the valley throughout the morning so it all looked very atmospheric now.
The rest of the walk down took you through the valley and to lots of different viewpoints. You got a good view of the valley all the way back to the start where we got dropped off ready to jump in a jeep back.
12 HOUR BUS TO BOGOTA
Again, as the title suggests we spent the entire day on a bus to get to Colombia’s Capital, Bogota. Similar to all the other drives here the roads were very windy, and this time we were sat right at the very back of the bus, so we did feel it a little more. Otherwise it was pretty uneventful and long. Unfortunately the bus arrived to Bogota at 6.30pm just in time for rush hour, so the final 2 hours of the drive were spent traveling a very short distance just to get to the bus terminal!
This night also marks our very last in South America of the trip! To celebrate we went for a traditional meal... sushi. So not quite traditional but it was basically next door to our hostel and was just what we needed after eating crisps on the bus all day. A very un-momentous final night but seemed fitting we had such a long bus ride just to round it all up.
BOGOTA WALKING TOUR & OVERNIGHT FLIGHT TO VEGAS
With only 1 day to spend in Bogota, we thought the easiest way to ensure we see all the best bits is to take a walking tour. The tour luckily started about a 30 second walk from our hotel, in Plaza Chorro de Quevedo. This square is where the City of Bogota started, originally just being comprised of 12 buildings and a church. Only the church and one of these buildings is still standing today.
We got told by the guide that the area in Bogota we were in was the only area of Colombia that sold Chicha (the drink we had tried in places in Bolivia and Peru). This was due to it being banned in Colombia in 1948 and still not officially legal to sell as a result of a riot that destroyed the city; the government blamed Chicha for the destruction. Chicha had a bad reputation in Colombia anyway due to a propaganda campaign by a German beer company in the late 1800s when they were expanding into the country. The brewery took out newspaper adverts that promoted beer and claiming chicha was drunk by criminals and vagrants, and claimed it would make you stupid.
We were taken to a bar that sold it now. We were expecting similar to what we had tried in other countries, however this was a lot more sour and thicker, not particularly that tasty! The Chicha is made exactly the same apart from it being made by different type of corn. We both had two sips but this was more than enough!
From here we went to the Central Market, which currently consists of just a few temporary stalls whilst the main market is under construction to help restore it. The restoration started 4 years ago, and whilst construction is supposed to be complete this year, the locals don't believe it as it was only supposed to take a year in the first place!
Here we got to see loads of exotic local fruits and then try some too, including Zapote, Anon, Mangostino, Guanábana, Pitahaya, Lulo.
After this we walked to some of the other squares around Bogota which house the biggest Gold Museum in South America, the Emerald Trade District, both the legal and the illegal version. The most aesthetically pleasing of all these squares however was Plaza Bolívar, the main square. Here sits the Palace of Justice, the Cathedral and the mayors office.
The last stop of the tour was to a coffee shop to try some more Colombian coffee... yay. It was actually still pretty interesting as we learnt lots about the way coffee should be properly prepared. For example the water should be between 86-92 degrees to make the coffee. Too hot will burn the beans, any cooler will not get the best flavour. When you pour the water over the ground coffee it must create bubbles, if it doesn't it means the coffee isn't fresh!
Again we both took a sip. This one was much less acidic than the last, and Dan enjoyed it more. Lisa still hated it.
Straight from the tour we went for our final dinner (another japanese - don't judge), picked up our washing, packed up and then jumped in a taxi to the airport. We arrived at the airport 3 hours early and thank god we did, as we had to queue for over an hour to get to the check in desks, and another 40 minutes or so to get through security. In the end it turned out none of this mattered, as once through to the gate, the staff were announcing that they had over sold the tickets for the seats, and offering £1000 per person who could delay their flight for 24 hours. And crazily they needed 17 people!! If we had an extra day in Vegas we'd have been tempted, but we're tight on time as it is so just hoped 17 other people would volunteer so the flight could leave. When we finally boarded, the Captain said it was actually a fuel issue with the plane and so they needed to lighten the load to make sure we had enough fuel for the whole trip. Whichever the reason, we set off only 40 minutes late in the end.
BYE SOUTH AMERICA!