Colombia to Brazil | Three Days on the Amazon

As we flew over an impossible expanse of rainforest and the largest river in the world stretching further than we could seem we got a small taste of how vast this area really is. “Think of how good it is for the planet,” Tim said. Exactly. And after seeing a tiny section of it, from the air, and being blown away about how huge it is, it makes it only scarier to realize that estimates put deforestation of the Amazon over the last fifty years at around 20%. True, this doesn’t touch the loss of forest in Sumatra or Borneo, where there is as little as 15% left, but the Amazon holds approximately half of the remaining tropical forests on earth (as well as 1 in 10 of the known species), and it’s destruction is a truly frightening thing to comprehend.

As we stepped off of the plane, we were hit with a virtual wall of heat and humidity. By the time we were out of the airport, the rain had started, but it did nothing to cool off the sweltering town. In the airport, we had met Viktor, one of many Colombians heading to Brazil to support their team in their first appearance in the international event after a 16-year absence. We teamed up and, after finding a hostel, began to tick things off of our to-do list.

Leticia is a border town; Tabatinga is the Brazilian equivalent on the other side of a most casual international border. We got our exit stamps from Colombia in the airport and were told we needed to enter Brazil the same day – people can move freely amongst the two towns. We took a taxi to immigration in Tabatinga and we wouldn’t have realized we were anywhere new had the taxi driver not told us we were now in Brazil – and for the fact that every imaginable surface was now draped in green and yellow. After waiting in a moderate immigration queue amongst a crowd of other tourists doing exactly what we were, we had some additional information to go off about our next steps.

We had arrived on a Thursday, under the general impression that the slow boat would leave from Tabatinga on Saturday, take us 1200 kilometres down the Amazon, and deposit us in Manaus on Tuesday. It turned out that, due to the influx of travellers pouring down the river towards the World Cup, they had added two additional boats: one on Friday and a second boat on Saturday. After chatting with people who had seen the boats, we knew that we wanted the 12 p.m. departure on Saturday. As a bonus, our accommodation in Manaus was set to begin on Tuesday, so if the boat were on time, it would work our perfectly.

We made our way to the port, where we bought tickets for the Saturday departure for 200,000 pesos, 250 reals, or roughly 110 dollars. The boat would depart mid-day Saturday, was for four days and three nights, included meals, and all we had to bring was our own hammock. Can you say budget cruise?

We spent our time in Leticia gathering supplies (mainly snacks), watching football (because we wouldn’t get enough over the next month), and meeting people who were doing the same journey. Leticia is certainly the nicer of the two neighbouring towns; Tabatinga is rather sprawling, grungy, and decidedly unsafe after dark.

It was with a palpable sense of excitement that we set off early on Saturday to the dock. For three nights on a crowded boat, hammock placement is a top priority, and we had been told to arrive around 8 a.m. to hang our hammocks to ensure a good spot. As we had already come to realize, everyone had been gathering vastly different information on what was actually happening and when it was to happen, and each person of apparent authority we asked had a different answer. So it was a large crowd that had gathered at 8 or 9 a.m. (no one was really sure about the time, as there may or may not be a time difference across the border) and waited around for a couple of hours until we were allowed on to the boat. We had been told the police needed to check both the boat and our stuff before anyone was getting their hammock up.

Miraculously, once this started to happen, Tim, Viktor and I were near the front of the queue and had reasonably good choice of placement for our hammocks. We opted for the wider side of the boat (people wouldn’t be walking into our hammocks as much), near the window (for the breeze), on the second level (the bottom is reportedly more noisy and less safe, as passengers arrive and depart during the night). It soon became apparent the relative large amount of space we had acquired for ourselves was an illusion. As more and more people piled onto the boat, the hammocks were hung twice as thickly as we initially attempted, and the only way to make it work was to stagger the heights – essentially hammock bunk beds. Even still, neighbours were constantly bumping into one another, any rocking of the boat made us all sway in bump in unison. You got to know your neighbours very quickly.

Hammocks

The boat departed around 1 p.m., which was sooner than most bets had estimated. After piling together and locking our gear, we set off to explore the boat.

The first two decks were sleeping quarters – somewhere between 80 and 100 hammocks crammed onto each at any given time. The second floor had the small dining room, where about 15 people could sit and eat the basic meals at any given time. The top deck was where we spent most of our time, as the open air and incredible views made it the most pleasant area on the boat. There was a bar selling beer, ice cream, and snacks, a small covered area, and plenty of chairs and tables. In the evening, salsa generally erupted on the top deck. At one point the boat’s launch went out to do a beer run. Perhaps they hadn’t banked on this many tourists.

It takes a bit of technique and a bit of simply getting used to it to spend a comfortable night in a hammock. It turns out the best solution is actually just a generous quantity of beer. It’s strange as well, because after the first night, where most of us tossed and turned as much as you can when lying like a banana, I vowed to not spend a minute in my hammock the following day. However, once I was up, it seemed like the most comfortable place to be. The second night was better (on account of the beer), and by the third night I was pretty used to the whole idea.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

I can’t comment on how this journey would be normally. I’d imagine it would be fairly low-key. I’m sure there could be a couple of travellers aboard, but most would be local. If you couldn’t speak the language, it would, above all, be quite boring I imagine. Because of the World Cup, however, we had a huge number of very excitable passengers aboard. There was a huge group of Colombians, a handful of Canadians, Kiwis, Australians, and Brits, and everyone was in great spirits. There was a lot of energy on board and everyone was friendly, chatty, and excited about what was to come.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

The river itself was pretty astonishing. Rio Amazonas is made up of the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro, and begins where the two meet close to Manaus. We were travelling down the Rio Solimões, which originates in the Andes of Peru. The sediment-filled waters are the colour of milky coffee and, as the water levels are high this time of year, the shores were a mix of nearly flooded villages and marshy forests. Where we began the journey, we could see each side of the shore easily. The river slowly widens, and at the mouth of the Amazon, where it empties in the Atlantic Ocean, the distance between the banks is the same as the distance from London to Paris.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

The days passed as days do, and if we had gotten some idea of the scale of the Amazon flying into it, our perception only expanded as we motored, at no turtle pace, for days down the ever-expanding river. It felt as though we’d travelled across the continent, but when looking at a map you could estimate we’d only gone less than half of the way to the coast. How vast this area was that we were in, an area that holds unimaginable quantities of undiscovered species, that holds some of the few uncontacted tribes of people remaining on earth.

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Photo Credit: Tim Binks

We were woken in the dark, with heavily armed police aboard the boat. We were a couple of hours away from docking in Manaus, and they were conducting the standard passport and gear checks. Each bag was searched, some more thoroughly than others. It was a long-travelled crew, bleary with sleep, who barely blinked as three men on the boat were arrested. One, at least, was carrying large amounts of cocaine. As the rest of the boat packed away hammocks and other belongings, the detained men sat, almost expressionless, with their hands behind their back on one of the benches in the middle of the boat.

At some point before sunrise, we had crossed the famed meeting of the waters – the spot where the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro meet, but do not merge. Their waters run alongside one another for six kilometres, the different sediment levels, temperature, and speeds making them act almost as water and oil. We had seen none of this in the night, of course, and knew now only because the water lapping at the edges of the boat was now almost black in colour.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

We watched the city appear before us. Manaus, during the height of the rubber boom in the late 19800s was once one of the most opulent cities in the world. Now, the sprawling city is home to around two million people, but the last vestiges of the wealth of the rubber age are few and far between. There are a few architectural marvels, namely the Teatro Amazonas. The appeal of the city is found in corner smoothie shops serving out tropical açai by the bowlful, the beautiful central plazas, and, primarily, the incredible people. The residents of Manaus, not as bombarded with foreign travellers as their counterparts in Rio or Sao Paulo, welcomed the World Cup visitors with open arms. This is what truly made Manaus an amazing base for our two-week, four-game long entrance into the event.

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A Minute in Bogotá

After a merry journey in a rather crowded collectivo from the desert, we were deposited in Neiva where several bus companies very nearly jumped on us offering rides to Bogotá. After a moment of shopping, we jumped onto a minibus and settled in for the long ride.

We arrived in Bogota’s main bus terminal and, after squinting around and then asking around for buses, opted to take a taxi. The taxis in the city are metered, and are exceptionally reasonable. The twenty-minute or so ride from the terminal to the centre cost us less than $10. We turned up at a Lonely Planet-recommended hostel, the old Platypus , which is now called Chocolate House, located in Candelaria. The hostel was sweet and came with amazing beds with fluffy duvets and, on the downside, showers that were lukewarm at best. The staff was friendly, the wi-fi shoddy, and the free breakfast included amazing hot chocolate.

We unfortunately only really had a day in Bogotá before we were to be on a plane destined for the Amazon. What we saw demonstrated that we certainly need to give the city some more time next time we are back in Colombia. It’s an interesting place; full of amazing street art and poor vandal tags, gated and guarded communities and ramshackle housing, money and poverty. We were lucky enough to have met a lovely couple early on in our travels that live in Bogotá. She is American, he Colombian, and they made their home in the capital of this beautiful country.

We met up for dinner (beer and pizza) and chatted about our trip so far, their lives, Colombia, and what was to come. The conversations were incredibly interesting and it was amazing to have some insight to Colombian life from people who experienced it every day and, in one case, had grown up in it. They talked about how the country had changed, and yet there was still so much that needed to get better. Wealthy people in Bogotá, they said, were still very worried about home break-ins, and as a result most upper middle class families lived in gated communities with full-time security. Even still, it could be difficult to know who to trust, as we heard stories of security guards, housekeepers, and other staff stealing from their employers and then disappearing. We talked about the traffic that, while appearing completely hectic, could also be described as fluid. The constant whirling and merging of cars without structure appears slightly insane to an outside point of view, but they said it was simply necessary in Bogotá: there are literally places where four lanes turn into three without signage or diminishing lanes, and the drivers need to be able to react quickly. We talked about places we still needed to go, for our initial estimates of wanting a month in Colombia were pretty accurate. The top of our list would certainly be the area a few hours north of Bogotá: San Gil, and outdoor adventure capital, and Cocuy, an area of amazing scenic hiking.

We left Bogotá in the morning for Leticia, the gateway city to the Amazon and, for us, the World Cup in Brazil. Let the next adventure begin!

The Rainy Desert

We left San Agustin, backpacking onto the plans of Fi – she was heading out to the desert. Novelty factor, massive skies, and no real plan of our own meant that we were keen to tag along.

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It’s easy enough to get to Deiserto de Tatacoa. From San Agustin, we took a bus from town to Neiva, with Taxi Verde, leaving at 8 a.m. There are limited departures from San Agustin itself to anywhere, really, but many more options if you go a few kilometres out of town to Pitalito, there are frequent buses in pretty much every direction. From Neiva, it’s a minivan or pickup truck to the desert. The town on the edge of the desert is called Villavieja, and any number of buses will take you there, where it is easy enough to get a moto-taxi or a tuk tuk to your accommodation. If you tell your bus driver from Neiva where you want to go, chances are he’ll take you all of the way for a little extra, with some unsolicited recommendations for accommodation along the way.

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We stayed at Noches de Saturno, a hotel/campground not to far from the observatory. The staff were friendly enough, despite attempting to charge us inflated prices, and we enjoyed the shelter of our massive, semi-permanent tent (despite the mosquitos), particularly when several other tents got flooded during a freak rainstorm.

Oh yes, it rained. Some desert this is. There was a remarkable amount of green around, for a so-called desert, and it rained each night we were there. Unfortunately this resulted in poor star-gazing, as the sky was generally obscured by a thick layer of clouds.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Nevertheless, we enjoyed the couple of days away from it all – meals were basic, sleeping quarters even more so, and there was precious little to do other than explore the miles of cracking red earth.

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What was remarkable about Tatacoa was the relative diversity of landscapes that were packed into a reasonably small space. Especially for a desert – you picture an endless expanse of dusty, deserted land, but in a few hours’ walk we saw cracking red earth formations, boundless cacti, dried up grey riverbeds, and layered formations akin to the badlands of Alberta. We walked, for so long in the pounding heat, to quite a unique destination we had heard about from fellow travellers.

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There is a swimming pool, located about ten kilometres past the observatory, down a set of makeshift stairs made of car tires, that is truly an oasis. Fed from an underground spring, and requiring a whopping 4000 COP entry fee, the pool is really quite amazing. The water is fresh and cool and it makes for an amazing break in the middle of a sweaty, adventure-filled day.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

After the pool, we wandered down to what is generally a dry river bed but, after the recent rain, had turned into more of a mud path, to explore. The formations were mildly interesting but the best part was when we decided to take a shortcut back to the pool. We followed a section of pipe to the top of a ridge, and the views from height were much more rewarding than those down amongst the mud. We scampered along ridge lines and up hills back the pool, where we had one last quick dip before catching a tuk tuk home.

Photo Credit: Tim BInks

Photo Credit: Tim BInks

After one more night listening to the pitter-patter of rain on the tent roof, we were picked up by the same tuk tuk driver who deposited us in Villavieja. Here, we jumped into a collective pick-up: a medium-sized truck with wooden benches fitted into the box. We also answered the question of how many people you could fit into such a vehicle. It’s 19. And four chickens.

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Fresh Air in San Agustin

We’d heard San Agustin was worth visiting just as much for the scenery as for the unique archaeological sculptures that had been found in the area. This is well warranted. The town itself is quite charming, but the most exceptional places to stay are the sprawling cabin communities, a handful of which are located a few kilometres from town. We stayed at Casa del Nelly, which was an excellent choice.

To get to San Agustin from Cali, there are two options. The one with the most routes is to take a bus from Cali to Popayan and then connect to San Agustin. It is also possible to catch a couple of the daily buses that go direct to San Agustin. And by direct, I mean directly to almost San Agustin, where you are deposited and taken the remainder of the way by a taxi, which the bus company pays for. Casa del Nelly is a further 5000 peso cab ride from town.

We arrived at night, and so it wasn’t until the morning that we got to appreciate the beauty of the area. The lush valley was a welcome reprieve to the senses after the bustle and exciting grunge of Cali. The tranquillity of the casa was incredibly – it was a place that immediately put a yoga mat, a glass of red wine, and a good book to the top of my wish list. The sort of place that inspires creativity, relaxation, and inspiration all at once. Despite our dwindling stock of time in Colombia, we jumped at the opportunity to do very little with our first full day in the area. We enjoyed the village and were pleasantly surprised with the number and quality of restaurants, shops, and bakeries. We lounged, wrote, dusted off the yoga mat, and enjoyed the company of our newly adopted friend, Fi, a Scot. The next day, we took full advantage of where we were, and walked to the archaeological park, the main attraction in the area. There are, in fact, a number of parks in the area that are home to archaeological findings, but the largest and most impressive artefacts are in the main one. You will find no shortage of jeep and horseback tours offering to take you around for the day, if you so desire to explore further.

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The UNESCO World Heritage Site features large stone sculptures much different from anything we’d seen on the trip thus far. Almost comical in nature, the sculptures had been excavated from several burial sites. The area had been inhabited by pre-Hispanic civilizations that had disappeared from the area sometime between 1300 and 1400 AD. The beauty of the area, including beautiful valleys and small waterfalls, adds to the appeal of San Agustin.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

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It wasn’t somewhere I would rate as highly on my Colombia list as places like Salento or the majority of the cities — with only a couple of weeks in the country you could easily give it a pass and not feel as though you’ve missed out on too much. But the air of the high hills, the ease at which it is possible to unwind, and the ability to eat, sleep, and live well on a tight budget are all appealing factors.

Cali Kicks

Cali is often described as a bit grungy, a bit down-and-dirty, and above all, a city of salsa. We arrived, and my sole intention was to dance. Most of the popular hostels come with free salsa lessons, so I envisioned a free salsa lesson, a tip on an excellent low-key yet dynamic, poorly lit salsa club, and a long night of spirit-fuelled, hip-swinging adventures. It turns out, we didn’t end up dancing a single step, but arguably had much more fun.

We arrived at the sweet yet heavily regulated, family-run hostel, Colombian Hostel. (Watch out if booking the very cheap 4-bed dorm: it’s a curtained room off of the main entrance, and not so conducive to sleeping.) One of the sons/cousins/nephews/friends floating around the place informed us that it was the semi final of a Colombian football league that evening. One of the local teams, America, was playing and the game was being hosted in Cali. He sold it quite well and, deciding that we could salsa any time, we decided to head to the game. We’d been given very clear instructions to avoid the south side of the stadium, as the level of crazy reached departs from normal sporting merriment and passes well into being scary and dangerous. Avoiding the touts selling the cheap tickets for south, we made our way to the ticket counter and spent about 15,000 COP more on Occidental tickets. As we skirted the stadium searching for our entrance, the crowds changed. It was with a much more civilized bunch that we stood in line and found our seats.

From our vantage point, we could watch the carnage (often more than we watched the game, to be honest) that erupted at the south end of the stadium. From at least 20 minutes before kick-off right down until the final whistle, the stadium shook under the stomping of thousands of feet. Several large marching-band style drums banged a constant rhythm to which the fans sang endless team songs. As the match progressed, and America pulled further into the lead, the fans just got looser. At times several rows at a time became miniature mosh pits and people were pushed and pulled to and fro. Fans had their shirts off, swinging them around in circles, for the best part of the game. A couple of people leaned over the railings on the upper level, one leg on each side, to better shout down at the field. The security guards posted in the area numbered at least 2:1 for guards posted everywhere else in the stadium.

Our section was great. Everyone was excited, singing, jumping, and clapping when the local team scored, but I thankfully wasn’t scared for my life. After the game (America won) we ran into a couple of German guys from our hostel who had braved the south section. They’d left at halftime, after frequent attempts from other fans to steal everything from their camera to their cash to the plastic cup of pop they’d purchased.

And so, unfortunately with no salsa dancing, we left Cali after one short night. You know you’re having fun when you don’t have any pictures to show for it.

Café Colombia | Salento

Okay, everyone knows that Colombia is famous for its coffee. And for good reason. The country produces some of the world’s most sought-after coffee. The Eje Cafetero, Colombia’s coffee region, turned out to be not to far from Medellin, so we made it our next destination.

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There are three main cities in the regions: Manizales, Armenia, and Pereira. I’ve heard Manizales is the nicest of the three main cities, but my recommendation would be to skip all of the cities and head to the small town of Salento.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

If taking a bus from Medellin, it takes about 6 hours, give or take, to get to Armenia. Depending on your bus, you can actually get dropped off before Armenia town at the junction to Salento (cross the road, and there is a bus stop there). It saves you time backtracking in and out of the city, and you will jump onto the same buses that would be picking you up in the Armenia terminal anyways.

Photo Credit: TIm Binks

Photo Credit: TIm Binks

Salento is a beautiful little town, nestled in the hills of Colombia’s coffee heartland. The main square is charming, the artisan shops plentiful, and the surrounding countryside beautiful. There are two main draws to the area: coffee, of course, and probably more spectacularly, Valle del Cocora.

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You need not pay much to take advantage of either. Our hostel-recommended coffee tour that we took part on, which I can now recommend personally, is at the small finca of Don Elias. From Salento, it’s about a four-kilometre walk to the small, family-run farm (all downhill, if you were inclined to bike). The farm is part of the Rainforest Alliance, an NGO that works with farmers and forestry operations all around the world to increase sustainability. Products and tourist services with the Rainforest Alliance seal have been certified by the organization and follow the Alliance’s standards. The tour, conducted in Spanish, was easy to follow with even a rudimentary understanding of the language, as our young guide gestured exuberantly and spoke slowly. Built on the slopes of the fertile valley, the rows of coffee plants grow amongst other plants including avocado, yucca, and pineapples. The farm operates organically, and uses their knowledge of the ecosystem to help with pest control. Pineapples are grown amongst the coffee, as insects are more attracted to the sweet fruit than the important coffee plants. Compost is a mix of the coffee fruit shells, plant scraps, and poultry excrement. Horse faeces, as we witnessed first-hand later on, attracts hordes of mosquitos. While they do not harm the plants, they are certainly unpleasant for the workers and spread too many diseases.

The small farm produces only a few hundred kilograms of coffee beans each year. Harvest is twice annually, and the entire family plus a few hired hands harvest from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week, for about three weeks. We were told about the lifespan of coffee plants, the planting cycles, and the history of the farm. Growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, where farming means hundreds of flat acres of well-sprayed grain, seeing this humble yet successful hilly and meandering family farm was quite a welcome experience. It brought to the forefront of my mind how so much of our land on this earth is being treated, which is generally at sharp contrast to how it should be treated.

20140526-IMG_1826After our tour, we sat and had a cup of the coffee we had just learnt about. Colombian coffee is most commonly drunk as tinto, which is a small amount of coffee with a lot of water. You have to search to find a good espresso or cappuccino in this country. Nevertheless, we could taste the quality of our freshly brewed cup as we enjoyed it Colombian style.

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After the coffee tour, we went up to a small, family-run restaurant for lunch. After lunch, the boys took part in a game of tejo, common around Colombia. It is luckily played outdoors, and involves throwing heavy weights long distances (around twenty metres) to a box covered with small targets called mechas. The distinctive characteristic of the game is that the targets are full of gunpowder, and when struck by the heavy weights, explode with the sound of a small gun firing.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

After a challenging round, we continued our walk. Our destination was the small town down the hill from Salento, where we intended to catch a bus back up. Our hand drawn map of the area was lacking a little bit of detail, but we managed to follow the river back to the town, with only one death-defying bridge crossing.

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Salento, along with being a miniature coffee paradise, acts as a gateway to the stunning Valle del Cocora From the centre of town it is easy to catch a ride in an old-school Jeep to the base of the park. Jeeps leave at 6:10, 7:30, 9:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and cost 3000 pesos.

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Once we arrived, we began the walk through the more unremarkable scenery and, much to our surprise and pleasure, managed to finish in the stunning valley. From where the Jeeps dropped us off, we took a path to the right and were soon trotting through rainforest, which was full of almost comically sketchy bridges over river crossings.

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At one point, there is a fork in the trail, where you can choose to travel up to Acaime or across to La Montana. Acaime is a reserve that charges an entry of 5000 pesos but this includes a drink upon arrival at the small house. Try the hot chocolate; it’s delicious and comes accompanied by a huge chunk of cheese. The main draw for Acaime are the hummingbirds. At least 20 of the tiny, lightning-fast birds congregate around the building, taking turns darting to and from the handful of feeders scattered around. They’re incredible to watch, particularly in such high numbers, and it’s an excellent pit stop on the hike.

Photo Credit: TIm Binks

Photo Credit: TIm Binks

From there, we returned to the crossroads, where we followed the other path to La Montaña. It’s a bit of a climb, but not overly strenuous, and the views from the height of the path are incredible. The scenery was what I imagine I would come across in Peru: dramatic rock faces soaring upwards from lush valleys, all bathed in a thick mist and the promise of rain. From here, it was an easy walk down a dirt road, all of the way back to the beginning. But this was probably the best part.

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Here is where we wandered through the awe-inspiring valley, filled with towering wax palms.

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It felt a bit bizarre. The lush valleys with neat pastures and grazing cattle were sprinkled with these massive trees, the tallest palms in the world, which can grow up to 50-60 metres in height. The trees seem almost otherworldly, and wandering through the valley it was impossible not to appreciate that we were surrounded by some of the most unique scenery in this part of the world. We will never see another place like it.

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We would come to find, travelling around Colombia, that there are many places it would be easy enough to spend a couple of weeks. Salento was one of them, and it was not without some dragging of the feet that we headed out of town. As our route through Colombia was mainly constructed by looking at a map and seeing what of interest we were close to, we continued our journey south. Colombia seemed shockingly big after months meandering our way through Central America, so we knew that it would be impossible to visit every corner of the country we desired to. We were aiming in the general direction of San Agustin, an interesting archaeological site, and chose to stop in Cali for a night en route. Next up, a night of absolutely no dancing in the salsa capital of Colombia.

The Magic of Colombia

You hear about Colombia. Up and down Central America. Across oceans. It’s an amazing destination. The landscapes varied, the cities vibrant, the people incredibly open and friendly. When we first sketched out the timeline for our trip, we knew that we would want a lot of time in Colombia, so we aimed for a month. Unfortunately, it is the final country we planned to visit before making our way to Brazil for the World Cup. As the World Cup obviously has a start date, and tickets and accommodation were paid for back in November or so, we certainly need to be there on time. And then every time we got a little stuck somewhere – two weeks in El Tunco, El Salvador; a month in Nicaragua; five days in transit from Panama – little by little, bit by bit, it ate into our time in Colombia. We arrived in Cartagena on May 20th. We are scheduled to be in Manaus, Brazil on June 10th. We booked a flight out to Amazonas on June 5th from Bogota to give us enough time to get down to Manaus by boat on the Amazon. This left us with just over two weeks in Colombia. This is not enough time, not even close.

But we did our best. Our journey began in Cartagena, where we spent two nights. Cartagena is a beautiful city. Its walled old town houses countless treasures, from an entire street selling local sweets, to innovative artists selling their wares in the cobbled alleys, to excellent coffee shops and restaurants. We stayed in Getsemani, an area of backpacker hostels, cheap hotels, bars, and budget restaurants. Though it lacks the beauty and atmosphere of the old town, the cost savings make it an attractive option and the walled city is only about a five-minute walk away.

Cartagena

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Cartagena

Cartagena is immensely enjoyable, and you could spend several happy days wandering the city. It is also quite possible to waste away several mornings, as the nightlife is better than much we’d stumbled upon recently. We were pleased and surprised to find Colombia was not as costly as we had been led to expect. We had found dorm beds for 20,000 Colombian pesos, dinner for 7,000, and beer for 1,500. (1 USD = 1800 Colombian pesos.) After a big day of exploring the city, we met up with many of the people from our boat for what turned into a bit of an excessive night out. Unfortunately, with that, we took our leave from Cartagena.

Cartagena

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

From Cartagena there are many popular next stops. Along the coast are Santa Marta and Taganga, backpacker havens and diving hotspots. Tayrona National Park graces the north of Colombia as well, which is home to the popular Lost City Trek. We decided to head south instead, mainly because every beach we wandered our bare feet over would very likely pale in comparison to the San Blas, and we just wanted something different.

We took an overnight bus to Medellin during which I very nearly froze to death, despite wearing most things that I own. The rationale behind sub-zero temperatures on all long bus journeys in much of the world has always confused me. We arrived in Medellin and embraced the Colombian novelty of the metro: Medellin is home to the only subway system in Colombia. It actually has quite an outstandingly progressive transit system, which I’ll get into later. We metro’d close to Poblado, where we intended to house ourselves for the next couple of days. Unfortunately, we hadn’t booked ahead (as per usual) and had a bit of trouble finding an empty hostel to take us in. Eventually I wandered past a small place and was met with one of the warmest people I’d stumbled upon in ages when I inquired about a room. We secured a double for 60,000 per night, which was at least as cheap as many of the backpacker shambles on offer, and were put up in a lovely room. The entire place was spotless, the shower was hot, and the modern kitchen was well equipped for guest use. It very much felt like staying in somebody’s home and we relished in small luxuries such as eating at a proper kitchen table. (I unfortunately cannot remember the name of this place, but it is located on Carrera 36, just down from Calle 10, across the street from a sandwich place.)

Medellin has a lot on offer. It is home to one of the most popular free walking tours across the world, which was, unfortunately, full and then not operating for both of our days in the city. It is easy enough, though, to take yourself on one of the cheapest sightseeing tours around, simply by buying a metro ticket.

The Medellin metro system is really quite outstanding. A ride costs 1,800 pesos ($1) and will take you to most major points around the city. The metro is above ground, so you get a scenic view of the city as you travel. Particularly when heading north, it’s actually very worth getting off at a few of the central stations to take photos, and then hopping on the next train that comes along. The truly unique and impressive aspect of Medellin transit is not the metro but the cable cars.

Medellin spreads from the centre of the city up onto the steep, surrounding hillsides. As with many South American cities, these hillsides are not filled with houses of grandeur with impressive views; they are home to the cities poorest residents. The thousands of tiny, crowed homes with corrugated metal roofing spread for miles. For a long time, the residents of these more disadvantaged areas were at even more of a disadvantage due to their difficult logistical placement: it would be impossible to build a metro into the hills and even buses have trouble navigating the steep, winding roads. The only transport into the city – which often meant the only chance to reach work opportunities, education, and services – was to walk. Often for 2-3 hours. The solution? In 2004 and 2008, Medellin opened two separate cable car lines as a form of public transport into the hillside communities. There is no additional cost from a metro ticket: you can ride the metro from one end of the city to the other and, provided you don’t exit the station, use the same ticket to take you up the cable car line. It is a unique concept, using a cable car as a form of mass transport, but it has worked incredibly well and has helped to bring the city closer together and opportunities closer for everyone. Indeed, Medellin credits its transport system as a large factor in the transformation of the city. Infamously known as Pablo Escobar’s hangout and drug cartel base, Medellin was lorded as the most dangerous city in the world, coke capital of the world, and other frightening titles. In not too many years, the city has reinvented itself; it has become a world-leader in public transport, and an international destination for tourism. In 2013, it was named as the most innovative city in the world. There are still social and economic issues, still crime – as with any major city. But the achievements of Medellin should be celebrated.

We took the metro cable up towards Santo Domingo station and had a birds-eye view of hundreds of residents going about their daily lives below us. Kids played football in small public squares, teens filled up makeshift swimming pools, and adults trotted up and down the steep staircases that link the communities. The houses were tiny – pulled together under scrap metal roofs. People seemed to be getting on, relatively fine, but the shocking contrast in wealth between this and the shiny districts we had been was most certainly unsettling.

Medellin Cable Car

When you reach Santo Domingo station on the cable car, you can simply stay put and ride the line back down, or you can disembark. From here, you can explore the area on foot. (I’ve heard varying opinions on how safe Santo Domingo is. My impression is you would be fine in the day time, particularly if you stayed on busy streets and did not flash cameras or iPhones.) The other option is to take a second cable car line, the tourist metro cable, to Park Arví for 4000 additional pesos. We did this, as we’d come this far, and were shocked with how far it actually took us. Mostly over wooded parkland, the views of the city soon were swallowed by nature. The ride probably took 15 minutes. I’d read a few brief reports on the park at the end of the line, which requires a bit of exploration before coming upon anything particularly interesting, so we opted to stay in our cable car and return to the city. Unless you are particularly interested in exploring the area, or really love cable cars, I’d recommend only taking the ride as far as Santo Domingo.

Once back at ground level, we travelled back into the centre of town, where we explored lunch options and some of the city. Set lunch meals in Colombia tend to be excellent value: you get soup, a hearty portion of rice and meat, and a drink for around 6000-8000 Colombian pesos at most budget eateries (3 – 4 USD). After filling up on one of these in the centre of town, we wandered around Plaza Botero, famous for its collection of 23 bronze Fernando Botero sculptures, meandered through some markets, and made our way back home.

Botero                  Botero II