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#21 Salento – Eje Cafetero, Esoterics and the Odyssey to Ecuador

Now that Barbara flew to Brazil, I was on my own. I left Bogotá the same night. At around 4am the bus pulled into the terminal in Armenia. At 5am I sat in a smaller local bus which would take me to Salento within the next hour or so. After leaving the city the drive was quite enjoyable and after about half an hour I felt that I arrived in the Eje Cafetero, Colombia’s coffee region: the sun was rising above the green hills and valleys. The bus dropped the last bunch of people, including me, at the small town’s central square and I walked to what would turn out to be the nicest hostel so far. The Coffee Tree Hostel opened its doors just a couple of months ago at the far end of Salento. It was in great shape and offered beautiful views to the surrounding landscape.

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Although it wasn’t even 7am and I haven’t slept too much on the bus, I was determined to make the day count. For 3’600 COP (approx. $1.20 – 2016) a few old Jeeps would drive people up to Cocora Valley, part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park and home to the Quindío wax palm, the insanely high palm trees towering over what could otherwise be a Swiss or Austrian postcard.

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I was told that, due to the rain, the hike is supposed to be a muddy one. As I just washed my trekking shoes I wasn’t keen on doing it again and therefore rented a pair of rubber boots for 5’000 COP. As the pictures will show, that was not such a bad idea. Together with a few Germans I met in the Jeep and an American with his Chinese girlfriend I started the trail which lead us mostly uphill for about two and a half hours, along a small river which we crossed several times either on plank bridges or just some tied up logs. We rested at the colibri house and then took on the steepest ascent to the top of the four hour loop which is marked by a countrystyle house called Finca la Montaña. That was quite an effort.

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Salento town centre
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Why those rubber boots paid off

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Colibri
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Up at Finca la Montaña

Downhill was more enjoyable, also because the road offered staggering views of the beautiful valley scattered with wax palms.

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In the evening I went to play Tejo at a local bar together with my new German friend Manuel. Never heard of Tejo before? Neither did I, but it’s difficult to resist Colombia’s national sport’s appeal: In one hand you have a beer (although not mandatory it is highly encouraged) and with the other one you throw a cylinder shaped metal weight of about half a kilo into a clay pit which contains a metal ring. On top of the metal ring they place a few paper triangles filled with…wait for it…gunpowder! And the goal is to hit those in order for them to explode. I mean, how is that not a worldwide thing?!

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Tejo clay pit

The day after I wanted to visit one of several coffee farms in the area. I was told that Don Elias’ farm is particularly good to learn more about the farming and production of traditionally and organically grown coffee. Right at the beginning of the one hour walk there I bumped into the American from the day before and he decided to come along. The discussion quickly evolved from everyday smalltalk into an esoteric, racial-politic and search for the meaning of life monologue by the Trump voting American. Long story short: we didn’t have much in common. Still, I had fun discussing and the coffee farm tour was a success. The young guide walked us around a small part of the plantation, explained how they are organized to make the most of their land while using natural pesticides and fruit plants (banana trees for shadow and water reservoirs and sweet pineapple to attract bugs and keep them away from the coffee) to protect their crop. He also explained their harvesting policy aimed at quality instead of quantity (they produce a mere four tons a year) and showed us the process of cleaning and roasting the coffee. Last but not least he brewed up some fresh coffee for us to try; good stuff.

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Separating the beans from the pulp

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In the evening, I went to play some more Tejo because it was a lot of fun and also because there is not that much else to do in Salento when the sun is down.

Another night and it was time to pack bags again. My time in Colombia was coming to an end and once again I had a long trip in front of me: Salento to Quito, Ecuador…by bus and colectivos. The whole trip, consisting of three different buses (one of them overnight from Armenia to Ipiales close to the Ecuadorian border), four colectivos (shared taxis), a one hour queue at the pedestrian border and one taxi ride was interrupted by a little sightseeing I planned along the way. In Ipiales I caught a colectivo for COP 1’700 to Santuario de Las Lajas twenty minutes down the road. Not only is it a spectacular place, the story behind it is quite amusing, too.

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Santuario de las Lajas

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Crossing the border to Ecuador
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Just another five hours to go until Quito…

The border crossing was easy; get a stamp in Colombia to leave, march over the bridge and line up to get my stamp to enter Ecuador.

That took me around 45 minutes and I could also exchange my remaining Colombian Pesos for US Dollars at a good rate with one of the unofficial but apparently legal exchange guys in between borders. One more colectivo and a five hour bus ride left until Quito…

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#20 Bogotá – Of reunions and goodbyes

Bogotá was a rather short stop for us. We arrived at the bus terminal in the early morning and made our way to the hotel in the Zona Rosa district. Of course the room wasn’t ready yet and we had to wander around the streets and the nearby shopping centre until 3pm. In addition, it was raining several times and the clouds wouldn’t let us have a peek at the sun. So we decided to go to the cinema as we were in no mood for exploring and sightseeing after a night on a bus. Finally back at the hotel we planned to take a nap and later get out and have some dinner somewhere. About 16 hours later we woke up the next morning, hungry but well rested.

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Traditional lunch in La Candelaria

We are starting to become fans of the different cities’ free walking tours. It’s a great way to discover the more interesting neighborhoods together with a local. The fact that the guide’s remuneration is based solely on tips makes for a good incentive to keep up the quality of the tour.

As it was a rainy day, the tour consisted of on American, Barbara, the guide and myself. The walk concentrated on a district called La Candelaria, the historic centre of Bogotá. We visited a small market and tried some of the exotic Colombian fruits, we learned that Justin Bieber is responsible for a booming streetart culture in the city and we saw a few important and interesting buildings.

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Palace of Justice
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Local Art exhibition

A reunion was planned for the evening; Barbara’s former co-worker Cristina, which worked with her in London at National Geographic, met us for dinner and drinks. She took us to Andrés, a huge four story restaurant split into hell, earth, purgatory and heaven. The place was fun and we got to eat some really good food. As foreign visitors, we got greeted with a crown for Barbara and a red and yellow sash (totally had to look that word up…) for me. And of course they played music and sang for us.

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Then it was already time to pack our bags again. As Barbara had something special coming up in Brazil, she had a flight scheduled to Rio de Janeiro for the evening. Instead of paying the almost 500$ for her ticket, we managed to use some of our Star Alliance miles. But the only available fare was a business class ticket. Poor Barbara!
So after almost four months traveling together every day, it was time for us to say goodbye for some time, and it wasn’t easy. I will travel on through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia until we will see us again in Rio de Janeiro just before Christmas.

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Barbara leaving…

I wasn’t going to hang around in this rainy city and caught a bus to Salento, an idyllic town in Colombia’s coffee region. More on that in the next post.

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# 19 Guatapé – Between a rock and a colorful place

While our time in Medellin was coming to an end, we still had a highlight in front of us: the tour to Guatapé. We could have made it on our own and with public transport but considering that the whole day with Viajes MaxiTours including transportation, proper breakfast, traditional Colombian lunch and the guide only cost us USD 26 per person, we opted for the comfortable solution.
The day started early and we got picked up at our hotel in El Poblado at 7.30am. After about 30 minutes of driving, we stopped at a nice open restaurant and were served breakfast: Platanos (fried banana), Arepa (traditional flatbread made from manioc), cheese, scrambled egg and coffee. That was also a great opportunity to get to know some of our fellow tourists. One of them was Krystal, an American from Colorado now living on the island of Roatan in the Caribbean. After boarding the bus again it was time for some introduction by our guide. While we had no problems understanding his Spanish, his rather free spirited English translations were lost at us. So we were glad when he finally yelled “Musiquita!” and laid down the microphone. When the music next stopped we arrived in a town called Peñol, or better, a reconstruction of it.

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Peñol

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The original was flooded and lies somewhere on the ground of the lake our boat was cruising on. Music (CD and unfortunately also live), cold beer and the remains of Pablo Escobar’s Finca La Manuela made the otherwise rather unnecessary boat-intermezzo a fun hour or so.

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Pablo Escobar’s Finca La Manuela

Lunchtime was coming up and so was Pedra del Puñol. The menu was either Trout or Bandeja Paisa, the traditional hearty dish of the region (including some fried pork skin called Chicharron). But even better than the food was the view over a stunning landscape of connected lakes and green hills as far as you could see.

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After lunch, we had the option to climb the 649 steps up along the concrete staircase which was fascinating, confusing and scary all at the same time. Oh and ugly, hell are these stairs ugly. Slightly out of breath we made it to the top, where we got surprised once again; the 220m high rock features two terraces with food and drink options as well as a bathroom and a bricktower that insults the eye. While this whole installation kind of ruins the magic of the place, the 360° views of the scenery are just incredible.

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one of these optical illusions?

Soon after the descent the tour went on to Guatapé, our last stop. This colonial town with its squares, churches and decorated walls on every building is as charming as it can get. Bright colours and handycraft stores everywhere. We ended up in a small square surrounded by colourful buildings and our guide pointed us to what he says is one of the best coffees you can get. I don’t know about that, but my espresso with icecream was delicious. And while we were sipping our coffees, Krystal got some unwanted attention.

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The sun was slowly disappearing on the horizon when our bus left Guatapé. It was almost a perfect day, if there just wouldn’t have been a nine hour nightbus from Medellin to Bogotá in front of us…

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#18 Medellin – Well worth a visit

Medellin is the most important city of Antioquia, a region known for its coffee production and strong development at the start of the 20th century. In the 1980’s and 90’s it became worldfamous due to the notorious Pablo Escobar which, together with the rest of the Medellin drug cartel, transformed the place into the world’s most murderous city for several years. Ever since his death in 1993 and the subsequent dismantling of the cartel a few years later, the city has worked hard to clean up and the efforts are clearly paying off. Medellin is not featured on the world’s most dangerous cities list anymore and has even been awarded the title of the most innovative city on the planet in 2013 for its progress in politics, education and social matters.
Antioquia, and therefore Medellin, is part of Paisa country. The regions inhabitants, called Paisas (countrymen), are respected for their business drive and less appreciated for their sense of cultural superiority. They describe themselves as warm, welcoming people and we would definitely have to agree, especially after feeling less welcome in the north. In the four days we spent in Medellin we have had countless encounters with kind people and the city itself has impressed us in many ways.
In order to get a sense of what comprises the city and also in order to hear more than just about its drug history, we took the free walking tour (Real Walking Tours – Medellin). This four hour stroll through different parts of the city was incredibly informative and fun. Our two guides were historically accurate and passionate about their work. Not all of the places we went to should be visited alone and/or after sunset. Whenever necessary they made us aware of the current Papaya Level, a measure of needed awareness towards pick-pocketing and other possible inconveniences. Why Papaya Level? Because if someone is not careful with his belongings, therefore making a thief’s job easy, one is said to be offering Papayas.

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Our guide Hernán in his element
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Monumento a la Raza depicting the story of Antioquia
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Parque de las Luces
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Plaza Botero
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Parque Bolivar
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Left: the original Bird of Peace (by Fernando Botero) which was blown up by a guerilla in 1995 and killed more than 20 people – Right: instead of removing the exploded sculpture, Botero made a new bird and placed it right next to the old one as a symbol of peace

As most “Gringos” in Medellin, we chose a hotel located in a district called El Poblado. This upcoming neighbourhood is full of modern and comparatively expensive bars and restaurants. It’s a nice place to come back to after an exhausting city day but for sure downtown and the surrounding barrios give a much better idea of the real Medellin. One symbol of Medellin’s progress are the social infrastructure projects which connect some of the poor areas with the center and foster a sense of community not seen before. One of these projects is the cable car to the Santo Domingo neighbourhood. While it was probably a rather bad idea to come here as a tourist a few years ago it is pretty much safe nowadays. After getting of the cable car we walked around for a bit, observed the schoolchildren in their uniforms and got smiled at by locals.

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Santo Domingo neighbourhood

And if you thought we were not going to talk more about Pablo Escobar, of course you were wrong. Anybody who knows us also knows that we do like a good TV series and despite its apparent flaws (the biggest of which is probably the fact that Escobar was played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura instead of a Colombian), we did enjoy the first two seasons of Narcos very much. And we liked it not least because in our opinion he wasn’t idolized and they showed him as the ruthless criminal he was. As the locations are hard to come by online and they are spread all around the city, we took a tour. Not any tour though, as there are a bunch of them and apparently the quality varies significantly. We did our research, booked with Paisa Road and were not disappointed. Our guide, Paula, and her driver both grew up experiencing the violence and fear in Medellin. While showing us different properties and locations of importance to the life and story of Pablo Escobar, she painted a pretty dark but realistic picture of the events of that period that Medellin is so desperately trying to leave behind.

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Edificio Monaco – Escobar’s Medellin residence which was bombed by the Cali cartel in an attempt to kill him
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In the background: back then the Medellin cartel’s headquarters
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Front (refurbished) of building in which he was hiding before he was shot on the rooftop in the back of the same building

Our last day we went to Guatapé and Piedra del Peñol, beautiful places about two hours from Medellin. More on that in the next post.

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#17 Caribbean Colombia – A rough start

After four flights and a total of almost 24 hours travelling we arrived in Barranquilla in the north of Colombia. It was close to midnight when the taxidriver dropped us off in front of our hotel. In the morning we organized a bus transfer from Barranquilla to Santa Marta from where we would take a taxi to finally reach the beachtown Taganga. The two hour ride from Barranquilla to Santa Marta along extremely poor neighborhoods and tons of presumably Zika infested ponds of dirty water was tense. The drivers seem to think they are some kind of immortal daredevils and not seeing what comes after the curve is no impediment to an attempted takeover, nor is the fact that the old buses and trucks lack the acceleration for steep manoeuvers like that.

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In the taxi from Santa Marta to Taganga, which only took about 15 minutes, we started to awake to an uncomfortable truth: Taganga is not the laidback beachtown of your dreams we were hoping for.

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While it supposedly was kind of a backpacker-paradise a decade ago it nowadays seems to have given up on its own future. The dirty beach, the littered dirt roads and the unfriendly or plain rude locals did not make us feel welcome and our Colombia experience was not off to a good start. Initially, the idea was to spend two days in in this town from where we would then start our four day trekking tour to the Ciudad Perdida in the close by Tayrona National Park. After Barbara digged a bit deeper and discovered an overwhelming number of reviews saying that people got sick because of unclean drinking water and foodpoisining and considering the fact that it was the rainy season which naturally increases the mosquito problem, we decided to cancel the tour. At the same time I discovered that Taganga still was kind of attractive because of low price diving courses. Coincidentally, the husband of our B&B’s owner was a certified PADI dive instructor. I took the opportunity and decided to make my PADI Open Water Diver certification. That turned out to be a great experience. I have never dived before and Victor, my instructor, did a very good job introducing me to this new world. If you, against my advice, ever end up in Taganga, be sure to stay with Paula and Victor from Casa Mandala, they made an otherwise very unpleasant town bearable for the duration of the course.

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Barbara spent some time relaxing while I was out diving and in the evenings we enjoyed the only other thing Taganga still has to offer: dinner in a handful of excellent and cheap restaurants. These few good restaurants are almost exclusively owned by foreigners. Although we talked to some of them, we did not find out why exactly they would hold out in this sad place. I would tell you the names of the restaurants, but then again, don’t even bother going there.
Three days later I finished my certification and we eagerly made our way to Cartagena de Indias. It was a relief to see Taganga getting smaller in the mirror of the taxi to the bus terminal. Cartagena will be better for sure, right? The busride took around six instead of the estimated four hours and because the terminal is way outside the city, an additional one hour taxi ride through Cartagena’s banlieu was unavoidable. Getting through the gate of the historical city’s walls the mood started to lighten up for a moment, just for it to be shattered once again. I guess after several good experiences with Airbnb it was time for a bad one. The accommodation was not as expected, dirty and the exact opposite of what we needed after Taganga. At least the owners did not make a big fuzz about it and we left the place the same evening. The hostel el viajero on the other side of the street had three beds in a mixed dorm and we took them without thinking twice.

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From that point on, things started to look up again and we started to get to know all the nice things Colombia is known for. We would stroll around the historical centre, enjoy some good food and watch the narrow streets busy with taxis, horse carriages, street vendors and tourists. We did an amusing walking tour for some background info on the city’s history and architecture and also explored the nearby Getsemani neighbourhood.

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For our Portuguese speaking friends…
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Café del Mar on Cartagena’s city walls

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Getsemani Streetart

After a few days in Cartagena our next destination was Medellin. Always comparing land and air travel costs we quickly agreed that nothing could beat the $26 we paid for the airplane ticket with VivaColombia. That’s how we left the Carribean part of Colombia and got into the Paisa country. More on what that means in the next post.