Ipiales, Santuario de Las Lajas, Colombia/Ecuador Border Crossing

Ipiales

We caught a bus from Popayán to Ipiales (10 more bus hours clocked up) and got there about 6pm. We chose the Hotel Metropol directly across from the bus station since it was only for one night (who promised us they had hot water. LIES!) and had some dinner in a local spot nearby (which was terrible) but we had some lovely biscuits from a local bakery for absolute pittance!

Santuario de Las Lajas/Las Lajas Sanctuary

At the Ipiales bus station there’s a little sign that says ‘Las Lajas’ which directs you to the collectivos that bring you to the Las Lajas Sanctuary. Once full, (4 people) you’re on your merry way for $2,000COP per person. The sanctuary is about 15 minutes from Ipiales and is actually in a little village called Potosi which is actually just darling compared to Ipiales; we definitely would have stayed here if we’d realised how close it was to the border.

Once you’re dropped off in Potosi you walk about 10 minutes downhill, passed hundreds of plaques from pilgram visits over the years; and man it’s a sight to behold. I’m so glad we didn’t skip this place! The church is built high above the Guaitara river over a canyon with a lovely waterfall off to the side. We went into the museum (which was locked but the chap was lurking around outside the gates so let us in…although a priest had to let us back out since that pup locked us in). $3,000COP per person entrance.

We payed $8,000COP for a collectivo back on our own as we wanted to get cracking on our way to Ecuador (every single time I say Ecaudor I sing that bloody song in my head from Sash! God damn it. Here’s the link so I’m not alone.)

I had an awesome fresh blackberry juice from a lovely lady in the bus station; man they make some good juice in Colombia!

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Sanctuario de Las Lajas

From the front

From the front

Imposing

Imposing

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In case you were wondering where herself was on June 16th 1952

Crossing the border from Colombia to Ecuador

Right next to the Las Lajas sign for collectivos is where you also get your collectivo to la frontera/the border/Rumichaca. You can wait until the collectivo is full and pay $1,750COP  per person but we payed $7,000COP to just get the collectivo driver to take us there pronto. It’s only about 5 minutes to Rumichaca – once you get there you need to make sure you stop at the Colombian building and get an exit stamp in your passport. You then walk under the huge Ecuador sign (passed the touts milling around you flashing their US dollars – Ecuadorian currency) and into the Ecuador building, fill out a form (essentially your passport details), answer 2 questions (is this your first time in Ecuador? and where do you live?), get your stamp and off you go. You then cross the road and pop into a white van/collectivo to Tulcán (for 75 cents) where you’ll be dropped off at the terminal and you can hop on the next bus to your chosen destination. Ours was Otavalo ($3USD each for 3 hours of travel. That’s how they roll in Ecuador. Waaay cheaper than Colombia).

Note: we didn’t find this border crossing in the slightest bit dangerous. The only danger you’re in is being ripped off in currency exchange rates. We met some of the guys from the Ciudad Perdida trek in Otavalo who crossed at night-time and they didn’t have any trouble either.

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Popayán, Colombia

Ok so from Salento we took a bus to Armenia (20 minutes) and then to Cali (2.5 hours with Expreso Palmira) and then on to Popayán (5 more hours, again with Expreso Palmira), phew! The bus station is about a 15 minute walk from the centre of Popayán so we wandered away in and found a room in the Parklife Hostel, which literally shares a wall with the cathedral in the lovely main park, Parque Caldas. The hostel didn’t have a great atmosphere to be honest – maybe it’s just because it’s currently shoulder season. Run by another Irish chap…

Popayán is a white-washed city and there is some beautiful architecture to check out. It’s probably the only place We’ve seen so far in Colombia that I would say is in any way similar to Spain. They have some fabulous churches, I think Iglesia de San Franciso was my favourite (didn’t get a picture but you can check it out here). There’s a pretty cool bridge linking the north of the city to the centre called the Humilladero Bridge which is definitely worth seeing; there was even a llama wandering around; poor pet must have been freezing – we’re a bit far north for the little chap. Side note: chuffed I’ve finally seen a llama! The city is supposed to be a UNESCO City of Gastronomy or something along those lines but the food was the worst we’ve had in Colombia by a long shot. Odd. Saying that, we found a little café called La Fontana which had delicious caramel ice-cream.

We took a little walk to the Museo de Historia Natural (closed between 12pm and 2pm, $3,000COP entrance each) and had a tourism student/guide who was happy to practice his English on us. I asked him what he planned to do in tourism; he said the most important thing is to promote Colombia – WHO is this dude’s teacher?! Or is the government always watching? The museum is basically a few rooms of stuffed animals (with fake eyes), mostly birds, although there’s currently a moose on loan from Canada. A roadway just by the museum leads to a little purpose-made village (I think) with some little shops selling a few handicrafts.

Parque Caldas

Parque Caldas

La Ermita, Popayan's oldest church

La Ermita, Popayan’s oldest church

Just caught my eye

Just caught my eye

Humilladero Bridge

Humilladero Bridge

Cute church in the tourist/artisan village

Cute church in the tourist/artisan village

As we landed in Popayán on a Monday and the Silvia market was on the next morning we decided it would definitely be worth checking out. We wandered out to the bus station and went with the one company that was holding up a sign for Silvia. I have to say, bus travel in Colombia is pretty seamless. I was feeling dizzy but I put it down to being hungry (since that’s nearly always the case) but by the time we got to Silvia I had a splitting headache. Let’s just say there were tears and a little plastic bag was acquired for the bumpy trip back down to Popayán (longest 45 minute trip of my entire life). Think I must have caught some virus on all this public transport. The rest of Tuesday was therefore spent in slumber. Ah well, I didn’t do too badly for a month in Colombia. From what I remember, Silvia was pretty cool, although tiny; Tuesday is market day for the nearby Guambiano Indians who dress in beautiful deep purple attire with hot pink trim. John was just looking after me so unfortunately we didn’t get any pictures (although I believe they get a little offended if you take pictures anyway so all’s well…)

Overall, it’s a pretty-ish city but it didn’t really hold too much interest for us. The people were much nicer in Salento and further north in Colombia. We’ve decided to move on to Ecuador so we’ll be overnighting in Ipiales on the Colombia/Ecuador border to see the Las Lajas church and cross into Ecuador during the daytime.

Next stop: Ipiales, Santuario de las Lajas, Colombia/Ecuador border crossing.

Salento, Colombia

Calle Real, Salento

Calle Real

The bus journey from Pereira to Salento took about 45 minutes with Alcala on some of the best roads in Colombia; the entire road was lined in the middle with beautiful flowers – this is definitely where the Colombian government is sending their infrastructure funds. We were dropped off right in the middle of Salento’s main square, Plaza Bolivar, and found a lovely Dutch-owned hostel just around the corner called ‘Hostel Tralala‘ ($55,000COP). Amazingly hot showers and a hairdryer – haven’t seen one of those in a while! (side note: need to purchase hairdryer…it’s bloody cold here). We ended up staying in Salento for 5 nights – there’s just so much to do. The children run about the place chasing each other in their PJs whilst the men wander about with their wellington boots and machetés in fringed hoists clinging to the sides of their trousers.

Salento’s Main Street is called Calle Real (just to the left of the church) and is flanked by a huge clock. There are a whole pile of tourist shops and restaurants running the length of the street and up at the top there are some steps which lead up to the towns’ sunset lookout point, Alto de la Cruz. We frequented a couple of spots up this street; La Postre was a cute little stop for dessert and if you say please you get your cake a little cheaper! We had pizza at the Italian owned ‘Piccola Italia’ but it wasn’t great to be honest. We had some beers one evening at ‘El Tejadito de Salento Cafe Arte’ and there were a few chaps playing some Colombian tunes – pretty cool. Best people watching spot has to go to a bar on the main square called ‘Donde Mi Apa’ – full of paraletic locals getting their drink on (just next to the Supercocora supermarket). Café Jesus Martin is a lovely spot just off the main square for a coffee/tea and some cake. John bought some more coffee to cart around 🙂 La Eliana is another food spot and although it’s a little trek out of town it has fantastic pizza (yep, another pizza). They had ‘Coffee Appreciation’ classes too although you’d have a job getting me to appreciate coffee I’m afraid…We went to the American-owned ‘Brunch‘ on numerous occasions and I cannot even describe how fabulous their peanut-butter brownies are; and I don’t even like peanut butter! The owner, Geoff Bailey, is a lovely chatty chap with plenty of advice on the area. They have a projector in the back room with something like 2,000 movies so obviously we took advantage one rainy afternoon. The weather is pretty predictable here – perfectly clear in the mornings and then the clouds and rain roll on in for the afternoon. We played the local game of Tejo one evening with some locals in the Los Amigos bar a couple of blocks back from the main plaza. It was a pretty slow game but basically for the price of a beer you get to throw weights at little triangular shaped pieces of paper filled with gunpowder which explode if you hit them. I did not hit one piece of pesky paper. Obviously John bloody got some to explode. He’s not crap at anything.

Salento's church

Salento’s church

Some of Salento's colourful balconies

Some of Salento’s colourful balconies

Always another option in case you get locked out...

Always another option in case you get locked out…

Salento's modes of transportation

Salento’s modes of transportation

Cute shoes I didn't purchase :-(

Cute shoes I didn’t purchase 😦

One morning we decided to do the Valle de Cocora trek to see the famous wax palm trees. We caught one of the WWII Willy Jeeps in the main plaza at 7.30am for the 20 minute or so trip to the valley ($3,200COP per person) – it was wedged so we had to stand/death-grip on the back with the local kids taking their trip to school. We obviously decided to take the route less travelled so instead of going through the recommended little blue gate to see the palms we hiked up the mountain and down around the Valle de Cocora, which took about 5 hours including a trip to the hummingbird sanctuary (essentially somebody’s house with a few trees which draw an insane amount of beautiful hummingbirds). Entrance fee to see the hummingbirds was $5,000COP each and included a drink. Not sure how much of a good idea the mountain was – why are we doing SO much climbing on this trip? It was tough enough but didn’t take too long to ascend – at one point however I did think I saw a unicorn! I think word got around Salento that coming this direction was the thing to do at the moment; I don’t really know why – the best view of the palms is definitely just after the aforementioned little blue gate. We didn’t get to see too much from the top of the mountain as you’re literally up in the clouds but I suppose we’re getting our exercise!

Convinced myself this was a unicorn hallucination from all the darn climbing!

Convinced myself this was a unicorn hallucination from all the darn climbing!

The Valle de Cocora's famous (gigantic) wax palms

The Valle de Cocora’s famous (gigantic) wax palms

So beautiful

So beautiful

At Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary

At Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary

Pretty little feckers

Pretty little feckers

Not at all dangerous crossing...

Not at all dangerous crossing…

Nifty looking bridge crossing

Nifty looking bridge crossing

Look how tiny I am!

Look how tiny I am!

One afternoon saw us take the 45 minute stroll out of town to the organic coffee farm, Don Elias (tour costs $6,000COP per person). Here they use pineapple plants, banana trees and a huge old avocado tree to keep the insects at bay (and as natural fertiliser). Pretty small set-up, they dry their beans in a little polytunnel and roast them over a tiny old range in a saucepan at the side of the house/building site. On the walk back (uphill so takes much longer) we popped into a little community called ‘Aldea de Artesanas’. This is supposedly where the local artisans practice their crafts and sell their wares at the Saturday market in the main plaza – there was just one house open when we were there – this chap making tiny little cribs. We stayed around Salento for the weekend too – it’s quite sleepy during the week and a lot of Colombian holidaymakers do pop in for the Saturday market but as it’s off-season at the moment the place wasn’t overwhelmed in the slightest. The market isn’t really anything major though – basically the main square becomes food central – little marquees pop up around the perimeter with a few handicraft stalls thrown in for good measure.

Rustic set up at Don Elias

Rustic set up at Don Elias

You could easily while away a few months in Salento but since we only have a few months full stop we’d to potter on…

Next stop: Popayan.

Manizales, Hacienda Venecia and Termales San Vicente

We hopped on an Avianca flight from Santa Marta back down to Bogota ($50 for the two of us!) and stayed in Bogota at the 12:12 Hostel once again (such lovely warm rainshowers) so we could check out the Museo del Oro – HOW could we miss out on seeing 33,000 pieces of gold? (anyway, I edited the Bogota post to include this so I won’t go on).

We caught a morning taxi to the huge bus terminal (about 40 minutes from Zona G and $15,000COP) and hopped on a Bolivariano bus ($50,000COP each) to Manizales. This is a 289km trip but takes 9 HOURS. Mother of Jesus. You know how in plumbing you have ‘S’ bends? These roads were ‘Z’ bends. Insane. Hair-raising route to say the least. Fine examples of South American driving skills on cliff-tops…The scenery was spectacular, so unbelievably green – and they have emeralds in Colombia so all I’m saying is we’re lucky we’ve the whole ‘isle’ thing going for us in Ireland…

We arrived in Manizales about 6.30pm and hopped on the cable car (the station is in the bus station and the trip costs $1500COP to the centre or Fundadores stop) which is such a lovely way to arrive in a city (no worrying about taxi drivers ripping you off) and once we got off we turned right and there was our accommodation! We decided on the Mirador Andino which is owned by the nicest lady you can imagine ($80,000COP for a double room). There’s a huge shopping centre across the way and they show films in English so that was our first evening sorted! Got back about midnight and to be honest the area did feel a little dodgy so we decided to have early nights from then on. We ended up spending 3 nights in Manizales, there’s not much to do so I’m not sure what we really filled our time with, maybe supermarkets? We checked out the Zona Rosa (the bar/restaurant area) but it was a bit of a let down; they did however have a kiddies X-Factor scenario going on up there so that filled some time. The only sights in the city really are the churches – the Cathedral was alright and there was some Botero sculptures in the main square. The only foodspot worth mentioning would be ‘La Suiza’ – a very tasty bakery.

Cool hummingbird graffiti out our hostel window

Cool hummingbird graffiti out our hostel window

Manizales' Cathedral

Manizales’ Cathedral

Hacienda Venecia

We took a day-trip to the famous Hacienda Venecia coffee plantation (loads of the hostels we stayed at had their huge coffee bags framed on their walls). You can stay there but our lovely host called them up and they collected us at 8.45am on a Sunday morning. The plantation is about 20 minutes from Manizales and the tour costs $45,000COP including transport – well worth it – it was the most detailed tour we’ve done. They firstly sit you down and go through the history of coffee and show you the selection and roasting processes – they also freshly roast some coffee for the group. We got a little history on Juan Valdez too – apparently the original Juan was in fact a Cuban actor. Gas! They’ve since had a competition for a new face for the coffee chain and turns out it’s an actual Colombian coffee farmer so that’s nice. We were then taken through some of the grounds; through some very tall and very, very wet coffee plants, across a little river to the processing site, complete with peacocks and the coolest dog ever – a bassett hound they call ‘Orejas’ (ears haha). We weren’t allowed into the main house as there were guests  – it’s a lovely looking boutique hotel with a pool and a hammock/chillaxing space overlooking the grounds. It’d be easy to spend some time chilling out here.

P.S. Bring your passport here as they’ll need a copy of the photo page and your Colombian entry stamp.

Clockwise from top left: Ripe coffee cherries, overripe coffee cherries (these just fall off the tree - mostly used in Brazil), roasted beans, green beans and parchment (green beans can be found inside the parchment)

Clockwise from top left: Ripe coffee cherries, overripe coffee cherries (these just fall off the tree – mostly used in Brazil), roasted beans, green beans and parchment (green beans can be found inside the parchment)

Freshly brewed coffee and the Juan Valdez story (including hilarious advertisements from the 60s)

Freshly brewed coffee and the Juan Valdez story (including hilarious advertisements from the 60s)

Just some parchment and freshly roasted beans

Just some parchment and freshly roasted beans

Fresh from the fields!

Fresh from the fields!

Coffee beans drying in the sunshine

Coffee beans drying in the sunshine

Hacienda Venecia's Boutique Hotel

Hacienda Venecia’s Boutique Hotel

Would you just look at him?!

Would you just look at him?!

Santa Rosa de Cabal

We decided to leave Manizales and move on to Santa Rosa de Cabal. God knows why. Probably the worst decision we’ve made yet! We only went to check out the thermal springs just outside the town. We stayed in Coffeetown Hostel (weirdest place ever – we couldn’t wait to get out) and they organised a willy jeep to get us to the thermal springs (that cost $70,000COP) and the springs were $30,000COP each entrance – so not worth it. Ripped off to the highest degree.

Yep, so there are no photos…

Next stop: Salento.

Getting to Salento from Santa Rosa de Cabal: We just hopped on a bus from the Terpel petrol station to Pereira. Once at Pereira we hopped on an ‘Alcala’ bus to Salento at 11.30am (there are more buses than Wikitravel mentions) which cost $6,000COP each.

La Ciudad Perdida/The Lost City, Colombia

La Ciudad Perdida

La Ciudad Perdida

La Ciudad Perdida or the Lost City definitely deserves a write-up all on its own. It’s essentially an ancient settlement which was home to the Tayrona (or Teyuna) people back in 800AD and is nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountain range about 44km from Santa Marta. The Tayronas abandoned the settlement when the Spanish conquistadors arrived. Our guides told us that the Tayronas left because the Spanish brought influenza with them, which was transported up to the mountains by the Tayronas themselves. The Chief of the Tayronas then made the decision to abandon the settlement (the Spanish never actually made it up there). Nowadays, the Kogi people (descendants of the Tayronas) live in and protect the area. The Kogis definitely like to keep themselves to themselves – they all have long, dark hair (they believe it’s a sign of strength and health) and wear white clothes – a bit like Greek togas. The women wear colourful beaded necklaces, which apparently are in celebration of Pachamama or Mother Nature. The men carry this pipe-like instrument called a ‘poporo’, which is filled with crushed shells and lime – they chew coca leaves and wipe the saliva coated result on the outside of the popora, obviously then the older the man the bigger the popora.

La Ciudad Perdida was rediscovered in 1972 (by tomb-raiders), opened to tourists in 1984, closed in 2003 because a group of tourists were kidnapped (and later released), and reopened in 2005. It’s perfectly safe to visit now as the Colombian military patrol the area – they even have their own camp at the very top.

So, you’d think that 44km wouldn’t be much of a trip, but the only way you can reach the Lost City is on a pretty strenuous 4-6 day return hike through the jungle. There are a number of companies you can do this hike with; we chose Magic Tour as our accommodation in Santa Marta told us that they treated their guides best. It costs $600,000COP (approx. $300) per person to do the hike (no matter how many days you choose to do it in) and this covers all your food, filtered water and your guide (although there are no English speaking guides out there – no matter what the tour companies tell you!). Tours leave every day; we booked 2 days beforehand.

Day 1

Met up at the Magic Tour office in Santa Marta at 9am. Just us and a lovely Australian girl. We left the office about 10.15am…that’s Colombian time for you. Hopped in a jeep for the hour and a half long trip to our first pit-stop; a little shop if you need some sweeties or a toilet break (behind a curtain). Back into the jeep for a very, very bumpy trip for another hour an a half or so to the little village of Machete (yep!) which is the starting point of all treks. We had lunch here and since there was only three of us (all without Spanish), we joined up with a group of four people (one Argentinian and three English) from ExpoTour so we had one native Spanish speaker and an English girl with fantastic Spanish to translate – result! We met our guides here,  Ali from Magic Tour and Jhon from ExpoTour. Off we went for about five hours of trekking through the jungle. Day 1 wasn’t too bad to be honest, lots of ascending and descending, river-crossings (but only stone-hopping so no wet shoes), some amazing views and enough watermelon breaks to keep us happy. The first camp we reached was absolutely beautiful – a couple of hammocks, actual beds, a TV (!), beautiful flowers and a little river running through it…and then we kept walking. Aw. About 15 minutes further on we arrived at our camp, rows of hammocks and an outdoor kitchen with some showers and toilet cubicles. Fancy. Our guides made us a rice and beans dinner here with Oreos for dessert. We chatted for a while and went to hammock (I can’t say bed!) really early. I probably slept about 3 hours; constantly waking up freaking out that I was going to be eaten by a panther. Doesn’t matter that they wouldn’t come near humans – I had THE FEAR!!

Fancy schmancy Campsite 1

Fancy schmancy Campsite 1

Our humble abode for Night 1

Our humble abode for Night 1

Day 2

We were awoken by our guides about 5.30am and it was FREEZING! Breakfast in our PJs in the jungle. Our clothes from day 1 were still wet (what gets wet in the jungle, stays wet. Oh the humidity!) so we all waited until after breakfast to put those on. Breakfast was eggs, arepa (bloody rancid corn pancake looking things which taste like rubber topped off with cheesestrings) and hot chocolate (which was very tasty – but only available at breakfast each day). It is pretty amazing what the guides can knock up considering the facilities they have to work with. John had to share his eggs with a cheeky parrot. Haha. Our hiking started about 6.30am and I have to be honest – day 2 was a *****. The scenery was spectacular so absolutely worth the effort. You definitely need to concentrate on every footstep here – it rained a lot on day 2 so it got pretty muddy. Lunchtime brought us to the camp we’d be staying in on night 3 and a bit of a cool-down in the river – even in the rain you need to cool down…and clean up. We passed by a Kogi village with about ten or so huts. There’s one larger hut, which we later learned was the temple – and only the men are allowed to enter here. The men actually live in separate huts to the women and children too. A little girl, who was only about 3 came out to fetch a huge bucket of water from the nearby river; she seemed a little scared of us all just standing there, poor pet.

Jeepers I have to be honest – I have never been happier to see a campsite (and I’ve seen like 2 others in my lifetime!) – think it was about 4.30pm when we arrived. No electricity here but the guides still managed to cook a fish dinner for everyone with their headlamps. They made popcorn too! This camp had actual beds too – treat!

Kogi village

Kogi village

Well deserved first glance at Camp 2

Well deserved first glance at Camp 2

Day 3

Another early rise, hot chocolate breakfast and wet-clothes session and we were off. Camp 2 is only 1km from the Lost City so it’s a short little ‘walk’. You have to traverse a waist-level river and clamber up 1200 steep, slippery steps to get to the bottom level of the Lost City. We spent about 2 hours wandering around the City before the trip back down. We also had a 30 minute history lesson from our guides. We were pretty slow walking back down the steps and chatting; I think the guides needed to hurry us girls on so they held our hands all the way down! Back through the river and a trek back to day 2’s lunchtime spot. We passed a little Kogi girl on the way back and she grabbed at my raincoat around my waist – I ‘m thinking I bloody need that but I feel really bad – should I just give it to her? Then John’s like, ya – she’s seen the Oreos in your pocket! 4 Oreos later and we’re a little lighter and she’s a lot happier! Amazingly, that evening our guides got us a bit of a Q&A session with a Spanish speaking Kogi man who gave us a real insight into life as a Kogi. He was one of the few chosen (essentially by their chief priest) to travel to Santa Marta to learn Spanish at a young age. This chap didn’t know his current age – he did think that the Kogis lived for about 80 lunar years though (about 78) – but I’d put him about 45.

‘Anchiga’ in Kogi means ‘hello’ – if you say this to the kids skipping past you them they always say it back – happy little feckers.

We also asked about the incident a few weeks ago where 11 WIWA people (another indigenous group descending from the Tayronas) were struck by lightening and killed during a ceremony – he told us they believe it was divine intervention.

Ascending 1200 steps to La Ciudad Perdida

Ascending 1200 steps to La Ciudad Perdida

The first level up

The first level up

Up we go!

Up we go!

The Chief's Throne

The Chief’s Throne

Gorgeous little Kogi girl

Gorgeous little Kogi girl

and her little baby brother, aw

and her little baby brother, aw

Definitely worth the trek

Definitely worth the trek

Day 4

Whilst we had originally decided to do the 5 day trek, we felt we may as well continue with a full days hiking and we trekked all the way back to Machete on day 4. It rained a good bit but everyone (5 out of 7 of us returned on day 4) was in great spirits – I think we were all excited about a shower and a meal which didn’t consist of rice…

Next stop: Manizales, Hacienda Venecia (coffee!) and Termales San Vicente.

Santa Marta and Minca, Colombia

Right, so we decided to take the cheap option and find the bus station in Cartagena to take us up north. It took us aaaaages to locate the bus from the Getsemani area to get our bus to the Terminal de Cartagena (which is a good hour from the city). We just asked a chap with ‘Transito’ printed on the back of his shirt and he showed us the way. Very friendly chap he was too. We chose Expreso Brasilia to take us to Santa Marta for $25,000COP each. There’s another company called MarSol who pick you up from your hostel but I hadn’t read many favourable reviews and sure we’d never choose the easy option! The bus wasn’t full, the air-conditioning was lovely and there was no crazy loud Schwarzenegger action movie dubbed in Spanish – definitely what I’d call a result! We did stop in Barranquilla for about an hour on the way up (two half hour stops) but the entire trip only took about five hours. Not much to see in terms of scenery on the way up to be honest. You do get to see a lot of local life, however it’s tough to see the poverty some of these people live in – hundreds of shacks on the sides of the road with so much rubbish everywhere.

Once we arrived in Santa Marta we hopped into a taxi ($7,000COP) to take us to our new abode, Aluna Casa y Cafe. Obviously we weren’t going to set up shop anywhere else if we had the option of Irish hospitality. Patrick Fleming from Dublin runs it (and is the architect behind it) and his brother Jim and lovely wife were there for the duration of our stay. We couldn’t have chosen a nicer place…although we did chose a room without air-conditioning which was perhaps a mistake on our part as there are mosquitos everywhere in Santa Marta. Everywhere. Our latest defence against the buggers since our DEET spray ran out is pharmacy bought Nopikex spray (it’s about $11,000COP and if you put it on after a shower it keeps the feckers away). Ok, so we actually ended up staying in Santa Marta proper for 8 nights. I have literally no idea how. There’s absolutely nothing to do! It’s typically the starting off point for La Ciudad Perdida/Lost City trek but more on that in the next post. We ate many, many times in a little spot called Cafe Lulo (closed on Wednesdays) in Santa Marta. They have amazing wraps and their fresh juices are divine – I must have had about fifteen of their Aloha Hawaiis. We also ate in Agave Azul, which is under the city’s most popular hostel, La Brisa Loca (which I hear has a pool) and was pretty darn tasty. La Pizzeria was another stop for us (they have BBC beers which aren’t that easy to come by in Santa Marta). We had some drinks on the rooftop bar of Hemingways just off Parque Santander – delicious rum punch was had here. Although John now thinks I’ve caught diabetes from it. Ahhem. Anyway, Parque Santander is actually a really lovely place to sit and relax for a while in the evenings with the locals – there’s a lovely gelato spot on the fringe of the park which has lovely almond (almendra) gelato. Tasty.

They could do a lot more with Santa Marta – it might be nice in about 15 years but it’s quite dirty at the moment. The beach here is nothing short of disgusting. There’s a little sliver of better beach on the far end of the newly built marina nothing to write home about. There’s a huge port here so there are ships in and out all the time – I imagine a lot of work is done with the ol Panama Canal across the pond.

The Cathedral is worth a look; I read somewhere that it’s the oldest building in South America which is pretty cool. Juan Valdez (the coffee chain) has taken up residency next to the Plaza Bolivar –  there’s such a lovely breeze in there!

We took a day trip to La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the hacienda where Simon Bolivar passed away. The taxi drivers say it’s $7,000COP but they said yes to $5,000COP for the trip. Getting there was funny actually – we hopped in a taxi and of course he had to stop for petrol on the way and proceeded to put the wrong fuel into his cab…queue us being stuck in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, another taxi driver needed a gas stop too (and also tried to charge $7,000COP – I’m like, dude, come on, we’re already half way there. Pup). The Quinta is a lovely place to spend an hour or two in the shade watching iguanas and wandering around (they have English speaking guides if you want too). It’s not huge by any means but they have some art in a few of the buildings which is worth checking out. There’s a shopping centre across the road from the front entrance if you needed anything too (you could buy hiking boots here for the Ciudad Perdida or Lost City trek if you decide to do it last minute). Good air-conditioning here, a huge Exito supermarket (although there are two huge supermarkets in the city too) and you can easily get a taxi back to your accommodation from here.

La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino

La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino

Santa Marta's Cathedral

Santa Marta’s Cathedral

Minca

We took a little day trip to the lovely Minca which is only a few kilometres uphill from Santa Marta but takes about an hour to reach. I know the potholes in Ireland are bad…but seriously, you ain’t seen nothing! To get to Minca one could of course hop in to a lovely air-conditioned taxi, but not us. We did it the local way. You have to go to Calle 11 and Carerra 12 which is within the maze that is the local market (by the by, the smelliest market I’ve ever come across. Not sure I’d buy meat here…) and find ‘La Estacion de Minca’. You then get a collectivo (some chap’s car basically) for $7,000COP – this won’t leave until there are enough passengers. We ended up sharing on the way up to Minca with a women (fine) and a 70-something year old man next to me with his Page 3 newspaper. Laughing away. Crazy.

We called into the ‘Emerald Green Guest House’ and met Limerick born owner, Niall (who, hilariously, worked in the exact same job in the University of Limerick as John did when we were studying there – I believe about a year apart. You can’t go anywhere). Anyway, Niall is still mid-build with his guest house but he’s built it from the ground up himself – and he doesn’t speak Spanish which is amazing. He’s putting his heart and soul into it. We didn’t stay but we definitely would have if we wanted to get away from it all for a few days. Niall lives there with his Colombian wife and a few cats and a dog. It’s overlooking the river with huge iguana-filled trees at the back. I think you’d be treated like family if you stayed here. It bloody had hot water too, sigh.

Anyway, our main reason for visiting Minca was to check out the La Victoria Coffee Farm, which I had read is an hours walk from the main village area. No problem. Niall told us to get a moto-taxi up ($7,000COP – sensing a theme?) but we thought we’d be fine, an hour wandering through the countryside would be just lovely. Not so however, as we neglected to bring our rain jackets and it absolutely POURED out of the heavens. It took us at least an hour and a half to walk up there and once you see the sign for the farm it’s another 10-15 minute amble down a bamboo lined avenue. The road on the way up is hilarious; there may once have been road but now there is just rock, some mudslides and trees which do not shelter one from the thunderous downpours of the Sierra Nevada! So we eventually arrived to La Victoria like two drowned rats. Fetching. I also wore flip-flops on the walk up which was less than ideal (didn’t want to get the lovely new Nikes wet but I put them on for the trip back down in the rain. Lesson learned). There are some houses built up on the hill next to the farm (I guess farm workers and their families and some absolutely beautiful flowers in the vicinity). So we had a tour with three others and it was great. They’re still using a 120 year old machine which is pretty awesome. The tour was kind of in Spanglish and German but I think we caught most of the process. Our lovely guide had some English too thank God. They export 70% of their beans – she said mostly to Germany but I think she may have had a little crush on the German chap in our group so I’m not 100% on this stat. We had some coffee tasting at the end of the tour and it was actually lovely. This is coming from a non-coffee drinker so I’m not sure what that says. My coffee fiend of a fiance bought a kg of coffee though so I guess it’s not too shabby. We wandered back down to Minca (took about 40 minutes downhill and hopped in another collectivo back down to Santa Marta). There is a lot more to see in Minca but I think perhaps more so in the dry season – there are waterfalls which are supposed to be pretty spectacular and lovely nature walks with hummingbirds, monkeys and toucans. We saw a red squirrel. Ha!

Bamboo lined avenue en-route to La Victoria

Bamboo lined avenue en-route to La Victoria

Arriving at the village

Arriving at the village

Unripened coffee cherries

Unripened coffee cherries

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Nearly ripe!

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120 year old pressure machine for removing the coffee bean from the outer cherry

The end result!

The end result!

Next stop: La Ciudad Perdida/The Lost City, Colombia.

Cartagena, Colombia

Lovely lovely Cartagena

Lovely lovely

We caught a flight with Avianca from the very well organised Bogota domestic terminal; watched Blended with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore on the flight (although the flight was too short to catch the end of it. Damn it!) but I literally laughed out loud so many times people would definitely have been wondering about the gringo (foreigner in Spanish, although apparently not with negative connotations). We purchased the flight about 2 days before and it was $150 for both of us – better than 20 hours on a bus!

Anyway, we caught a taxi from Cartagena airport to the Getsemani area of Cartagena where we stayed at the Hotel Marlin (pretty darn crappy to be fair). The taxi system at the airport is great; you walk outside the Baggage Hall (outside the airport) and there’s a window and you just give them the address you’re going to and they give you a piece of paper with the price on it which you give to the taxi driver so there’s no way you’re being overcharged. Touts still approach you though once you step outside so you definitely need to have your wits about you. I couldn’t tell you how many times we’ve had to say ‘No, gracias’ already.

So it’s definitely low season in Cartagena at the moment; we had booked our hotel online and once we got there they told us they’d charge us 20,000COP (about $10) less per night…so I guess moral of the story is not to plan ahead. Pretty crappy hotel but we still stayed four nights. The Getsemani area lies within Cartagena’s walled city; it’s definitely grittier than the walled city proper but I think it probably gives a better sense of local life here. The oldest part of the city is here, Plaza de la Trinidad, and it’s actually the oldest area in the city and is definitely worth a look to see local kids playing the all important futbol. We ate in a couple of places in this district. Breakfast was at Cafe Lunatico (although quite a standoffish owner even though we were in there loads) and it was about $6 for juice, tea, toast, some form of tomato scrambled eggs and fruit. We had pizzas at I Balconi up above Cafe Havana more times than I’d care to divulge but it was absolutely delicious. There’s a cool bar called Laboratorio which has a great vibe, BBC beers and they infuse their own rum – the huge wall behind the bar is full of local fruit infusions.

One of Cartagena's many beautiful balconies

One of Cartagena’s many beautiful balconies

Cartagena

Cartagena

Botero sculpture...him and his voluptuous women

Botero sculpture…him and his voluptuous women

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Caribbean entertainment in Plaza de Bolivar

Caribbean entertainment in Plaza de Bolivar

The walled city is absolutely beautiful – easy to see why it’s UNESCO World Heritage listed. The crumbling colours of the older buildings and the bougainvillea tumbling from balconies is stunning. The main entrance is behind a huge yellow clock tower, Puerta del Reloj, which leads to a lively square called Plaza de los Coches. One side of the plaza is dedicated to sweet sellers – huge glass jars filled with the most random sweet things you’ve ever seen! There are lots of plazas to wander around – Plaza de Bolivar was a lovely leafy square with plenty of shade and entertainment. The Museo del Oro/Gold Museum is really interesting – it contains artefacts/pieces from the Zenu people and write-ups in English – and air-con! Free entrance too. We popped into one of Cartagena’s many churches one evening which one would think would be a pleasant experience…until you’re greeted with the skeleton of a priest from 1654 before dinner…

There’s plenty to see just meandering the streets and popping in to cafés, heladarias (ice-cream shops) and little shops. The souvenir shopping actually didn’t seem like tat to be honest – they had pretty nifty looking bags and artwork. Not that I’m allowed to buy anything. Except fricking hiking boots.  Who’s going to see my pedicure then?

Noteworthy ice-cream was had with my lovely Harney & Sons Paris tea (YES!) in Gelato Paradiso. Also AMAZING ice-pops in La Palettaria. There’s a Hard Rock Cafe here too but we couldn’t really be dealing with going in there. The San Diego area of the city is really pretty to walk around during the day – lots of beautiful buildings. We had awesome cocktails one evening in Cafe del Mar on top of the wall – lovely breeze and great people-watching.

Sweet jars at the Portal de los Dulces

Sweet jars at the Portal de los Dulces

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Local art

Local art

One afternoon we walked from the Getsemani area across to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – a fortress protecting the city from the top of a hill – the walk takes about 15 minutes. Entrance fee $18,000COP. It’s a maze of tunnels (although not all open to the public) and there’s a lovely view of Cartagena. We wandered across to the shopping mall about 5 minutes walk away to get some air-con and…more ice-cream. This is where I bought my hiking boots for our upcoming trip to the Ciudad Perdida/Lost City.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Cooling down

Cooling down

On our second last day we took a stroll out to the sliver of land called Bocagrande where all the Colombian holidaymakers take their breaks. It’s about a 25 minute stroll from the Puerto del Reloj (mostly uncovered though so SPF 50 required). We just ended up going to a Juan Valdez for coffee out there; it was a really good Juan Valdez actually – John got some siphon coffee yoke that the dude was super excited to make. Then the rains came to Cartagena…so we left for pastures rainier in the north…

Waiting ever so patiently

Waiting ever so patiently

I do enjoy a bike picture!

I do enjoy a bike picture!

Just chilling - Cartagena

Just chilling

Next stop: Santa Marta and Minca.

Bogota, Colombia and Zipaquira, Colombia

Greetings from South America 🙂

I guess I should start with letting you guys know that our level of Spanish is akin to that of a non-Spanish-speaking ten month old (and that’s the two of us together) so if we can do this then anyone can! We’re trying though and that’s all that matters – people are happy to help…and happy to laugh at us too. The weather is actually pretty similar to Ireland at the moment, quite chilly at night though.

We arrived at Bogota’s airport late on Sunday night after a few Delta movies and caught a taxi (from the official line outside and not the myriad of touts inside) which took about twenty minutes to our hostel in the Zona G (in the northern region of Bogota city). We stayed at 12:12 Hostel, which was a great spot for meeting people and the neighbourhood seemed very safe – even at night (Maria, the owner told us that Zona G is the gastronomic zone of Bogota and there were some fantastic restaurants in the neighbourhood). I’m so glad we stayed here as opposed to the popular backpacker area of La Candelaria in downtown Bogota which has a pretty notorious reputation. That said, we had no issues around the La Candelaria area during the day – it was mostly people just going about their business. However, there’s probably a policeman for every three people in the area so that might have contributed to our feelings of security. The two most notable things from Bogota would definitely be police presence and reckless footpaths – you cannot look anywhere but at your feet for fear of having to call that dreaded emergency insurance company number!

So the award for the tastiest granola and most delicious almond (almendra) croissant goes to Masa in the Zona G area. Worth a stop in for sure. We also tried pizza and quinoa salad in nearby Oliveto which was scrumptious. God I love my food. We obviously stopped into the famous Bogota Beer Company (BBC) in the Zona G area for a few drinks with some new pals and had a great night. Hilariously for a craft brewing spot with an extensive menu, they only had 3 beer options! The biggest cafe chain here is called Juan Valdez and they’re everywhere – wifi and air-con so yes please!.

La Candelaria

The main area here is probably Plaza de Bolivar (named after Simon de Bolivar who overthrew the Espanols back in the 1800s). Essentially a big plaza with a cathedral and the Palace of Justice surrounding it. The president lives just behind the square in a beautiful palace (you couldn’t walk on the footpaths outside the place for some bizarre reason though – the police kept telling people to walk on the road. Random). Just across the road from here is the Iglesia de San Agustin (church) which was nice to step in to for some respite from the heat. There are actually loads of churches in the area worth stepping into for a look.

Museo Botero – this Botero chap is literally the only artist who has ever made me laugh by just looking at his work – Exhibit A. This dude seems to enjoy voloptuous women and genetically modified fruit…gotta love it! This museum adjoins the Casa de Moneda or mint museum which had some amazingly large old school money presses (mint machines? I don’t know!) from Brooklyn. They were all free to get into which was pretty nice too.

The Museo del Oro or Gold Museum would have been pretty cool to see but unfortunately we were in the area on a Monday and of course it was closed. C’est la vie. There were some indoor market type spots across from the Museo del Oro with Colombian handicrafts, emeralds and the like but I’m sure it’s the most overpriced place you could purchase this stuff.

We had a lovely 3 course set lunch in a vegetarian spot called Quinua ye Amaranto for about $15 for both of us. Not too shabby.

EDIT: We have since returned to Bogota and ventured to the Museo del Oro and I’m so glad – it really is worth the trip – it’s 3,000COP or about $1.50 to get in – ridiculously cheap. There was an exhibition on about the Wayuu people from the La Guajira peninsula in the north – my readings within the museum lead me to believe that there’s essentially a whole load of marriage counsellors up there. Random. On to the gold…I think they have something like 33,000 pieces here. You could easily while away a few hours in here. John had what he thinks is the best coffee in Colombia so far in from a little cafe called Cafe San Alberto on the first floor. Apparently we have to visit their coffee farm down the country now! The absolute best thing about the museum from my point of view is this room called ‘The Offering’ – a darkened room which lights up hundreds of gold pieces to music – a re-enactment of a chiefain’s offerings of gold and emeralds from a raft in the middle of a lake. Awesome picture here.

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La Candelaria’s Cathedral

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Calle de San Miguel del Principe

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Street scene in La Candelaria

Zona Rosa

So this is supposed to be the upmarket shopping district but I definitely felt more unsafe here in the middle of the day than anywhere else in Bogota. There are a couple of shopping centres but nothing to write home about…so I won’t. They have a huge Pull & Bear store here with a great selection of rain jackets if you forgot to pack one. Oh and Zara and Massimo Dutti were here too.

Day trip to Zipaquira Salt Cathedral

We took a day trip about an hour north of Bogota to the underground salt cathedral at Zipaquira. To get here we took a taxi to the Portal del Norte bus station (about $7.50) and then hopped on a bus for about $4 each. It takes much longer than it should to get here as the bus driver has an attendant that you get your ticket from who stands at the door shouting Zipa, Zipa, Zipaquira all the way up touting for business. We were singing those words for a while afterwards…Once we arrived in Zipaquira we strolled up through the town to the salt cathedral which is about a 15 minute walk (no signs though so you pretty much need to follow people or ask). Costs about $10 to get in – contrary to all the guidebooks you don’t need to go in with a Spanish speaking tour-guide – they ask you if you’re happy to go on alone. We ended up getting in between tour groups so we had loads of time to potter around on our own. So basically it’s the second cathedral they’ve built in the salt mine (the first collapsed), this one is 180 metres underground and is very impressive. As you walk down to the main cathedral you pass the stations of the cross and many crosses carved into the mine with bloody disco LED lighting which is completely random to be honest. To get back to Bogota we just meandered down to where we got off the bus and just got on a other bus towards Bogota’s Portal del Norte bus station. THEN we got on a bus there to what we thought was the Zona G area (since that’s what it said on the timetables) however we ended up far, far away from our intended destination. Other side of Bogota city far. So that wasn’t anxiety inducing at all.

The following morning took us back to Bogota’s airport for our next destination in Colombia – Cartagena on the Caribbean Coast!

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Zipaquira’s main plaza

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Not the moon; the roof in the salt cathedral

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One of the many carved crosses

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The main Cathedral area