Caressed by Colombia

We have spent a couple of months touring Colombia, Ecuador and for me, Peru as Gill had toured Peru a few years before and I wanted to travel down the Amazon so the next blogs are on these countries but we have very limited bandwidth Internet when travelling in these countries so there are no photographs. If I can add these later I will.Thoughts on Colombia as a country – The Colombians have recently opened up to tourism and are trying very hard to overcome the image people have of the country,- guerrillas, drug barons, open warfare, dangerous streets, muggings and rape! Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth, this is a delightful country with the most hospitable, helpful, open people we met anywhere in Central and South America. Visit Colombia before it becomes like everywhere else and they start ripping off tourists as will happen. I am sure there are bad guys around but in a month of touring around Colombia we didn’t meet one. Because there aren’t many tourists they are very interested in where you come from and desperate for you to like their country and it is a country of varied beautiful scenery, soaring mountains, arid deserts, deep river valleys, great beaches, clean towns (unlike most of their neighbours) striking Spanish architecture. It’s a big country to see and very diverse, our bus journeys were cheap but long. You could reckon on $1 per hour of journey. Our longest journey being 21 hours from Carthagena to Medellin but mainly because of an accident. The standard of driving is grim and even our bus drivers were eating in one hand, on the phone with the other and steering with their elbows round hairpin bends with drops of hundreds of feet. The roadsides are littered with crosses and shrines to those who didn’t make it!

Much of Colombia is over 10,000 feet and we thought we might be affected by altitude but this was limited to puffing up hills a bit. We didn’t have to resort to any coca remedies to get us up to the top.

You certainly wouldn’t come her for the food, lots of beans and rice and fried chicken, however the Colombians are an attractive people and not as fat as their neighbours. It’s nice to find a country that doesn’t have McDonalds and KFC on every corner.

THE HIGHLIGHTS OF Colombia

We arrived on a flight from Panama City to Bogota and had used Airbnb to find Udet and her families B&B. Her son David collected us from the airport in Dads new car which we thought was rather nice but then he charged us for the privilege and a lot more we found out later than a taxi driver would have been, still it’s the thought that counts!, They were a nice family and good for telling us where to go and how to get there but we had a very hard small bed and not much room for swinging the cat. They also had a scrounging little yappy dog, neither of us liked but it was to be our base for the next five days while we explored Bogotá.

It’s a very noisy traffic ridden city with one of the most confusing bus services we’ve yet encountered but on our second day we ventured into town and as we approached the city centre there was only us and a little “Miss Marples” lady left on the bus. We asked her where to get off for the gold museum and she promised to tell us. When we got to the stop she got off as well and insisted we follow her to her home for tea and biscuits, which wasn’t far. She showed us around her flat and made us welcome, bear in mind she spoke no English so our subsequent hour long discussions were based on our very limited Spanish. I just can’t imagine any one, let alone an elderly lady, in Europe, inviting complete strangers who didn’t speak their language into their home and entertaining them but this wonderful experience proved to be characteristic of the Colombian people.

While we were in Bogota we visited the monastery at Monserrate high on a hill overlooking the city which we reached by cable car and then walked the 13 stages of the cross as we climbed the hill, with depictions at each. We went to the Gold museum which gave the history of Colombia in terms of gold from the times of the ancient tribes through the Spanish period and up to current times. Some of the Inca jewellery was simply stunning and very intricately worked.

We went to see the cathedral and president’s palace the following day. On the way home we got on the bus in pouring rain but when I swiped my card to board it rejected it several times so we had to get off. I then realised I had used my Panama bus pass by mistake. Gill, to put it mildly was furious and drenched to the skin. Eventually another bus arrived and this time I got off too early and we had a half hour walk, fortunately by now the rain has stopped, but the dark cloud of Gill muttering oaths behind me followed on unremittingly.

The following day we didn’t fair much better. We decided to venture out of town and without problem found the bus to take us north to Zapaquiri where the “salt cathedra”l is. This was quite an amazing place, originally a salt mine where, once the mining finished they had cut sculptures of the 13 stages of the cross in salt, at intervals through the mine, culminating in a cathedral deep underground. The cathedral had a huge cross carved in salt at the altar end and lit with blue light, it was quite a sight. The cathedral held 2500 people for the regular services held there for the town and I can imagine the sound of music and singing would be quite moving. After our visit we caught the bus back to the terminus in Bogota, not far from Udet’s place and ordered a taxi through a lady scheduler. We showed her the paper we had with Udet’s address on. The taxi set off and it soon became apparent it was headed into town rather than going the right way. We told the taxi driver who insisted he was right. We told him it was no more than a five minute journey and by now we had been going for 15 minutes and the meter was mounting fast. As we approached the town centre we told him to stop and showed him the address we had written down. He said yes! yes! and carried on. We stopped him again and rang David, Udet’s son and asked him to explain to this numb scull of a taxi driver that we were on the wrong side of town. The taxi driver then wanted paying for the total journey and we refused. To settle the situation David offered to drive into town to collect us and in the meantime we agreed a compromise fee with the taxi driver of $15 instead of the $5 it should have cost us, legalised robbery but to be fair he had been given the wrong address but then didn’t listen to us, we didn’t part the best of friends

After Bogotá we travelled for four hours by bus to visit the lovely village of Vale de Leyva. We toured the nice old cobbled streets and admired the Spanish architecture. The next day we hired bikes from a nice woman in a bike hire shop called Cyclops and pedalled off in the heat to see the blue lagoons which as it turned out were green. Next stop the fossil museum with lots of marine fossils from when this area was the seabed and a fantastical terracotta house/folly that was like something out of a fairy story, a cross between a Gingerbread House and a mini Castle, but no Rumplestiltskin!

Then it was back on the bus the next day for a 24 hour journey north to Tayrona National Park on the Atlantic coast where we stayed in a hostel run by Juan Carlos and his wife, aided by brother Juan. Our accommodation was a little round thatched house which had a very dirty brown water supply straight from the jungle. The following morning Juan drove us to the national park which is an Indian reserve on the North coast of Colombia. We walked for an hour and a half to Piscina, a nice beach where we could buy freshly squeezed orange juice and had a swim. We decided on a horse ride back for an hour which I really enjoyed, unfortunately Gill found it hurt her hips and was very sore afterwards, so that was the end of our horse riding.

Four hours further west, again by bus, is the famous old town of Carthagena where we stayed with a local family at a their B&B at a cost of only $8 per night. In the morning I went off on Carthagena to take a city bus tour meeting up with Gill later in the old walled city. We visited Fort San Felipe De Barajas in the centre of town which held out against 12,000 English and American troops led by Admiral Vernon and his fleet of 180 ships.

The following day we went up the hill overlooking the city by taxi to Convento Santa Cruz de La Popa and got an adultos majores (oap) discount, yeah! Sad isn’t it!. Great views from the top over the city. The road up there however we were warned is very dangerous with motor bike muggers robbing tourists and locals alike, so the taxi waited and took us back again to the old city. We decided what we needed after days off Romano was a boat trip and opted for the launch to Fort Fernandez which was captured by Admiral Vernon in his 1741 attack on the harbour. The fort was well preserved and interesting but we were the only visitors there in contrast to San Felipe Fort in town which was mobbed, mainly by cruise ship tourists who could be seen in their sad crocodiles wending there way around town to get the “been to Colombia” tee shirt. Whoops my prejudices are showing!

Sadly the island on which the San Fernandez fort was based was a disgrace, the village and beaches were disgustingly filthy, the worst we had seen in Colombia. 

Gill quite liked Carthagena but I found it touristy, dirty and unfriendly.

Our next town headed south was Medellin, a modern thriving city, normally about 8 hours away from Carthagena but for us a 20 hour journey because of an accident en-route. When we eventually arrived in Medellin we found a taxi to take us to Liana and Mauricio’s apartment, another Airbnb gem. The apartment was well furnished, spacious and located very near the city centre. Liana and Mauricio, both in their 50’s didn’t live there, this was their “in town apartment” their proper home was about an hours drive away and they had come in to vet us and show us around. They were the perfect hosts, a wonderfully friendly couple who couldn’t do enough for us. After the first night to check us out they headed back home and left us on our own in their wonderful three bedded apartment. We toured the town, took in a free song and dance evening at the local theatre and headed home for bed. The following day we took the bus to a place out of town called La Piedra (the stone) which was a 1000 ft vertical volcanic plug rising out of flat ground with 740 steps up the side to get to the top. We climbed up for the most spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. I managed OK with the heights by not looking down and had my vertigo reasonably under control and Gill managed fine with her dodgy hips.

The next morning we were up at 7.00 to catch the bus further south to Pereira and after 4 hours we got off at Estrada de Santa Rosa de Cabal where we had booked to stay at the Coffee Town Hostel There were fantastic views along the way, high mountains, rolling hills, tumbling rivers and sleepy villages. At the Hostal we met a couple of girls, a French Canadian and a French girl Perrine who worked for the Hostal and offered to cancel our booking as a no show to avoid paying the booking fee. After we left it went badly wrong which ended with Perrine paying for our nights accommodation and despite my assurances to send her the money, she wouldn’t here of it

Our next stop, again south was Popayan, a nondescript town where the only thing we could find to do was visit a coffee farm which was called Coffee Finca which turned out to be much more than just a coffee farm. The proceeds from the coffee farm were used to run a school and social facility for 100 mentally handicapped kids and those who had grown to adults. These were superb facilities and run by very loving helpers. The children were so obviously happy there. We travelled there with children in a brightly coloured chicken bus or Chiva (and we got to sit up front with the driver and I got to blow the air horn) picking them up from their parents along the way. We toured the coffee farm but for us the highlight was seeing what they were doing for the children and we had lots of hugs from these smashing kids.

The next day we got up up early to catch 8.30 bus to Pasto, still heading south towards Ecuador and the 6 hour journey was through spectacular mountain scenery. Bus drivers are a different breed here and we had the Schumacher equivalent who pushed the speed to the maximum on very windy roads and steep drops, but you can only die once! Pasto also turned out to be a disappointment although when the taxi driver had difficulty locating our B&B we had plenty of Police help in finding it. As there wasn’t much to see in Pasto we got up at 6.30 to catch a mini bus to Ipiales on the Ecuadorian border where we walked over a bridge over a river, pulling our suitcases, to leave Colombia behind and enter Ecuador. 

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