13.12.2015 - 23.12.2015
We arrived in Medellin and immediately got a bus to the local tourist weekend getaway Guatapé (the airport is actually about halfway between the cities, being 1 hour from each). We only had one night in Guatapé and loved the pretty town from the start! Virtually all the buildings in town are decorated beautifully, and the town caters to a lot of tourists, although most of them are from the nearby city Medellin.
The main attraction is a very large rock which is a few kms from town and seems totally out of place with its surroundings, which are predominantly fields and a lake. The views from the top of the 700+ staircase were impressive to say the least.
The next day we headed to Medellin, a city which was ruled by drug cartels about 10 years ago but has had a massive transformation in recent years, being called the most innovative city in the world in 2013. We did a city tour which had been highly recommended by a number of travelers we had met. Our group has about 20 people and our guide was really enthusiastic and passionate, explaining the history and how the massive changes had come about. The local government got a lot of money from coffee when global prices rise significantly, and invested this in a number of initiatives, such as public transport, education and a number of other things to help out the population, many of whom had been left with nothing when drug cartels kicked them off their land. That afternoon we checked out one of the public transport initiatives, a cable car and some escalators designed to give residents of the poorest parts of the city. These have actually been a real hit and the area has now become a bit of a tourist attraction - the views are impressive.
The next day we headed up on yet another cable car up the hills on the other side of the city to a pretty park. There was a nice market up the top where we enjoyed fresh berries and coffee.
That evening we went to the tourist district of the city and met two dutch girls we had met in Palomino a fortnight earlier, as well as a couple of kiwis we had met in Mexico! We had a few drinks and loved these chairs!
The next day we got a 6 hour van to Salento, a small quiet town in the centre of Colombia's coffee region. We got sent on detour down a road so bad the driver asked us to walk bits so the van would make it up as they had closed the road for sealing!!
We made it eventually and found it to be an oasis, beautifully underdeveloped and quaint. On our first day we went hiking through the Cocora valley which has the tallest palm trees in the world. They were really tall!!!
We also met a couple of kiwis on our walk, one who seemed very familiar - turns out we worked for the same company when I did my summer experience while I was studying!!! Another cool part of the trip was the transport - old army jeeps.
That night we went to try out tejo, a Colombian game which involves throwing a metal disc at little packs of dynamite - you get points for making it explode. We got set up on a set which was half the distance the locals were doing, they put us to shame even when they were throwing double the distance and had drunk about 5 beers each!!!
The next morning we tried some amazing coffee and then went on a nice walk through the valley to a coffee farm where we did a tour. It was very interesting but the process was exactly the same as at the coffee farm we had visited in Minca, although we feigned enthusiasm for the tour. The main point of interest was the planting - they have very high rainfall here so need to plant the coffee on slopes and also use banana palms to soak up the excess water.
We then headed to Armenia (not the country!) and went to what is sold as a butterfly sanctuary. It turned out to be a huge reserve which includes a lot of different types of trees and birds. The tour was fully in Spanish but we did our best and walked away feeling informed but in reality rather confused about a few parts of it.
I think this is a walking tree
We also watched the new star wars movie in full 3d for $6 each. This was also in Spanish although in this case we reached the conclusion that the dialogue was entirely redundant. Lines like "La fuerza te accompañe" were also pretty clear
We left the next day at 6am and spent an entire day on buses, finally arriving in Pasto at about 10:30 that night. The next morning I went for a run around the town which I found quite nice, with the standard colonial style old town, Christmas decorations and churches which most cities in Colombia seem to have. Running is a nice way to see a new city, you see streets you wouldn't otherwise and locals will say hi but won't try to sell you anything.
We were on a bus again by 9:30 and stopped in Ipiales for a side trip to a famous church which straddles a gorge, Sanctuario de las Lajas. The church was beautiful but the amazing location was what made it really special. After that we reluctantly headed back for our final few hours on the bus in Colombia and we went on to Ecuador.
Overall I really enjoyed Colombia, the people we meet were all very nice, and although we felt like we needed to take a few extra precautions we never had any trouble. It was a really cheap place to travel (the economy largely depends on oil and coffee, both of which have had price drops recently so our dollar went a long way) and there was a lot to see. The food was good quality but plain (there were rarely ANY sauces or favours beyond salt), but when a meal with soup, chicken, salad, rice, plantain and juice is only $2-3 it's hard to complain!!
The nature was amazing, wildlife was abundant, and it felt like a country that was finally getting over a tough past and making giant strides in the right direction, although it definitely still has a way to go.