A Travellerspoint blog

The Final Days of South America

From the Coast to Bogota

all seasons in one day

After one last night in Taganga and a final dip in the Carribean Sea we took off in a direct van to the town of Mompox . Getting to this town from anywhere is said to be quite an adventure but our direct van proved to be quite easy although it did mean a very early 3am departure. We were told the journey could take anywhere between 7 and 12 hours so we were pleased when we rocked up at La Casa Amerilla right on 10am. Mompox is a town infrequently visited by backpackers and we saw it as a good chance to get off 'the gringo trail' one last time. Centuries ago Mompox was very prosperous being the main port for the transportation of goods upriver from the coast but the town is now long forgotten and very little has changed since its wealthy colonial days with donkey and carts ruling the streets over cars. There are really no attractions or things to do in town other than walking around and observing the colonial buildings set along the river and the Momposian way of life which as you might expect is rather slow. It is incredibly hot and humid in Mompox so we limited our walks to before breakfast and late afternoon and for the rest of the day retreated to the hostel's hammocks. The people from Mompox were quite curious of us gringos and we were equally curious of them lazing around on their rocking-chairs (every house in Mompox is filled with rocking-chairs). The town has a population of 30,000 which is made up of only two foreigners - one of which is Richard who owns La Casa Amerilla with his Colombian wife. Lacking restaurants and supermarkets, we only had limited choices for food in Mompox so we tried our hand at some Colombian cooking and made Patacons which is flattened plantains (type of banana) fried in a pan with a pile of guacamole and salsa heaped on top. A meal we will definitely be taking home with us to cook!

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After two nights in Mompox our next stop was San Gil and we arrived exhausted after a 5am pickup in Mompox, two bumpy hours in a ute to Bucharamanga and 11 hours further in a bus to San Gil. Despite wanting an early night we went out to dinner at Gringo Mikes with a big group from the hostel including the Irish couple who we met up with again. After 3 or so weeks of chilling out on the coast we were very excited to arrived in San Gil, a mecca for extreme sports in South America. We booked in for paragliding, canyoning and white water rafting - three things both of us have never done.

Paragliding was first up and although it wasn't orginally on our must do list, for $30 we could hardly pass it up. There was a fair bit of waiting around and just when it was our turn to go up we were told the winds were too strong. We had to wait another hour for the chilly winds to die down a bit but the wait was worthwhile as it meant we went up at sunset. We got about 15 minutes up in the air taking us around the valley doing swings and twists along the way.

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Next up was canyoning. We had a quick 10 minute ride out of town to reach the cave entrance and from there we would make our way by foot back to San Gil. The first 45 minutes was spent inside the cave; crawling, rolling and squeezing through tiny spaces and wading through waist high water. The guide led us through a section with our head lights off and we could hear and feel bats whizzing by our heads. We eventually saw the light and climbed out of the cave and the next few hours was spent following the dried river down the canyon towards San Gil. Along the way there were two points where we abseiled down cliff faces. During the wet season the abseiling is down waterfalls but unfortunately they had dried up. There were also two points where we had to do 6 metre rock jumps into a pool of water below. Our guide's English was of a similar level to our Spanish so we spent the day speaking Spanglish. The laugh of the day came when Georgie was unsure whether we could use the rope on the rock to lift ourselves up a section. Thinking that Spanish for rope could possibly be ropa she asked the guide 'no ropa?'. Unfortunately she had forgotten that ropa means clothing in Spanish. So she had effectively asked the guide if she could climb the rock without clothes and sent Scott and the guide into raptures. After almost four hours of climbing, jumping, abseiling, slipping and sliding we arrived back in San Gil after another excellent day.

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White water rafting is something we have both had the opportunity to do in many other places (not just in South America) but have always put it off as we have been waiting for somewhere that has class IV and V rapids. Finally San Gil and the river Suaraz provided this opportunity. We went with the best operator in town who are the only ones allowed to go down the part of the river with the best rapids and they provide a guy on a safety kayak in case anyone falls out. We knew these rapids would be serious as the people we had dinner with the first night said their raft completely flipped over on one of the sections. This didn't happen to us but we had a great time descending the heavy rapids and we even swam down a section where the rapids were more tame.

We had one final day in San Gil before catching our first overnight bus since Peru and our last long distance bus for the trip!!! Hooray! This day was pretty uneventful and quiet after our three consecutive days of adventure sports but that night we did go out to dinner where we could sample ants, a delicacy in San Gil. The place we went is famous for the best steaks in Colombia so we were sure to order the ant sauce on the side in case it was horrible and ruined our meat. The ant sauce had several massive crunchy black ants within a white creamy sauce. It was good to try but we were still glad we got the sauce on the side as the ants were a tad charcoaly.

We arrived the next morning in Colombia's capital Bogota which is the coldest place we had been since Quito, 6 weeks earlier. At least it served as a good transition for arriving back in Australia in the middle of winter. We checked in the Aussie run Cranky Croc hostel and got a few more hours sleep before checking out town. One of the top rated things to see is El Museo de Oro (the gold museum) and we spent a few hours here learning about the history of gold and other metals in South America and marvelling at the impressive collection. We have never been surrounded by so much gold! We also went to the Botero Gallery after being quite impressed with his works in Medellin. The collection set in a beautiful old colonial mansion included over 100 paintings and sculpures of Botero's as well as some Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Miro, Monet, Degas and Renoir. That night we had a farewell dinner for Luisna and Michael who were on the last night their trip with another Irish couple Siobhan and Harry who have also shared a similar route to us for the past few weeks.

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The following day we went on a street art walking tour run by an Aussie street artist Christian (street name Crisp) who has been living in Bogota for the last three year. Bogota has a thriving street art scene and many of the world's top street artists are relocating there as many neighboorhoods in Bogota not only tolerate, but support street art. Also, the legal implications for illegal street art are far less severe than other prominent cities like Berlin and New York. Crisp knows most of the street artists in Bogota so was able to explain the often cryptic messages of the pieces which are often political and left-wing. We really enjoyed this tour and got a good insight into the street art scene and was a great way of seeing the city. We weren't expecting much of Bogota but found it to be quite a trendy, upcoming capital city.

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On our last full day we had planned to do a city bike tour but we felt we had probably covered most of it already so we caught the teleferico up a near by mountain for a view of Botota which is one of the biggest in Latin America. It was Colombia's Independance day so we had planned on watching the parades with Siobhan and Harry but when we went online that arvo to check in for our flights we discovered that it was now 10 hours later the next day so that completely threw a spanner in the works. This meant we would miss connecting flights so we had to call LAN and eventually got our flights changed but it meant a 17 hour transit in Santiago (rather than 1.5 hours which we originally had) and a 24 hour later arrival in Sydney. For our last night we luckily had a great group at the hostel who gave us a good send off. A crew of about 12 of us went to a club and although we had to queue an hour to get in (apparently the Colombian Presidents son was there which upped security) it was a fun night.

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Our flight the next day now wasn't until just before midnight so we (along with half the hostel) spent the day nursing our hangovers in the tele room watching endless episode of The Inbetweeners. We finally started our looong journey back to Australia. On arrival in Santiago our fortunes changed somewhat with the flight situation as LAN gave us a generous compensation for our troubles in the form of $200US each, a room in the very nice Holiday Inn opposite the airport with a complementary incredible buffett breakfast and lunch of seafood and cheese platters. By the time it came to dinner we could barely move so we ordered room service of fillet of eel and tiramisu. Everything complimentary. From Santiago we had anothere 13 hour flight followed by a stop to refuel in Auckland and three more hours to Sydney we were parted ways to have a few weeks at our respective homes.

So after 392 hours of bus travel and staying in 69 different hostels we have come to an end. Thank you to everyone who has been following our blog over the last 8 months. The entries have been much longer than we expected so sorry for that! Our journey has been a real adventure and while it hasn't been smooth sailing the whole way, we have had an incredible time seeing amazing sights, experiencing different cultures and making new friends along the way. Hopefully we have inspired some people to explore the continent of South America and if you are thinking of going, you know who to ask for tips!

Posted by Scott-Georgie 19:34 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

The Carribean Coast

Beach, Beach and Beach

sunny 30 °C

From Medellin we were very excited to head right up to Colombia's Carribean coast. Most backpackers head straight up to the touristy city of Cartegena but we had heard some good things about a remote town called Capurgana, in the far north west of Colombia very close to the border of Panama. Despite being a wonderful beach paradise in the Carribean, it is seldom visited by travellers due to its difficulty to reach. It is at least 10 hours in bus and/or boat travel in any direction from any other place worth seeing and flights aren't cheap. It took us a full day to reach it from Medellin. We took off after breakfast with our Irish friends Luisna and Michael for the ride to Turbo on what is regarded as Colombia's worst road. It was bumpy and windy and although our deathwish driver seemed intent on getting us there in world record time, the journey took 11 hours rather than the expected 8 hours. We had to spend the night in the rough town of Turbo as this was the departure point for the daily 8am boat to Capurgana. It is impossible to drive there as no roads to the town exist. In fact there are no roads that connect Colombia and Panama, an area of dense jungle known as the Darien Gap, controlled by paramilitary and guerrilla groups.

We woke early the following morning after a sleep on a bed less comfortable than the floor and wandered down to the port to buy our boat ticket. What ensued was 2 hours of waiting around and trying the figure out what was going on. From what we could understand, there were no tickets left but another boat could be going. The entire system at the port was completely disorganised, nothing ran on time and it was basically chaos. The horror prospect of 24 hours more in Turbo was looking increasing likely but eventually we got four tickets as there so happened to be 4 no shows. We bought big garbage bags for our packs to keep them dry and prepared for 3 hours of what Lonely Planet describes as the boat ride from hell. We had also been advised to avoid at all costs a seat at the front but as we were last on board that was all that was left. We were fully expecting a bone rattling voyage but while it was far from pleasant, it wasn't too bad and the coastline views made it more bearable.

We arrived in the ultra laidback town of Capurgana around midday and checked into a cheap but nice hostel for 4 nights. That first arvo the four of us walked 45 minutes up the untouched coast to reach a completely isolated family home which, for a small fee, they open to guests to enjoy a home made limonada and the natural pools. The best and biggest pool is connected to the sea but is semi-protected by huge rocks. The waves crash over the rocks to create a jacuzzi effect in the pool and there is a tight rope to grab onto to avoid being hurled into the rocks. We spent the rest of the arvo relaxing on Capurgana's nicest stretch of beach, napping under one of the many palm trees lined across the sand and cooling off in the luke warm Carribean water. At sunset we enjoyed what became a daily tradition of a coco loco cocktail which is made up of Amurelo, vanilla vodka, 2 types of rum and Irish cream used as a mixer, all served in a coconut.

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The following day we went on a short inland walk through streams and jungle to El Cielo natural pools and waterfall. We spent some time here relaxing and watching the local kids hurling themselves into the water from a flying fox. The rest of the day was taken up with more beach time.

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Capurgana is so close to the border that it's possible to walk into Panama and back in a day. It is impossible to continue walking all the way up the coast so we set of on a sticky and humid inland trail and after about 1.5 hours we reached the even more tiny town of Sapzurro. The beach on Sapzurro was absolutely pristine and even nicer than the beach in Capurgana so we stopped here for a bit before heading up the steps to Panama. At the top of the hill there were beautiful views with the waters of the two countries on either side. This would have to be one of the world's most bizarre border crossings and it was funny seeing two border officials sitting at the top of the hill checking the passports of people in nothing but swimmers, flip flops and sarongs. They don't even bother stamping them as we were coming straight back after a few hours on the beach of La Miel. Now in Panama, we walked down the other side of the hill and spent a few hours at the beach and had our typical Carribean lunch of whole fish, rice, patacon and salad. The beach here was a bit busier and less clean so after lunch we caught a small boat back out of Central America and back into South America and Capurgana.

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The next day Luisna and Michael left for Cartegena and as we had done everything there is to do in Capurgana we spent a full day lazing under a palm tree on the beach. The beach in Capurgana consists of two shack bars, a shack resturant and a massage lady and we made use of all of these. The water, as you might expect in the Carribean, is a perfect temperature and very clear.

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The journey from Capurgana to Cartegena was one we really were not looking forward to which is one of the reasons why we spent the extra day in Capurgana. We were determined to get there in one day to avoid wasting two days and we even booked a hostel in Cartegena online and paid a deposit to make sure we didn't change our minds and break the journey into 2 days. Our return boat to Turbo was at 7am and we worked out if everything ran on time and connects well (which rarely happens here) we could be in Cartegena at 8pm. Things didn't start well when our boat didn't depart until 8:15am. We did however score the backrow seats this time for which we were very thankful as the 3 hour ride was extremely choppy and rough. We got drenched at the back but it beat the constant thumping and smashing the front rowers had to endure. Once in Turbo we had to find a bus to Monteria and from there onto Cartegena. We eventually arrived at our hostel El Viajero just after 11pm.

Cartagena is a nice colonial walled port city with 16th and 17th century architecture. We spent a couple of days here wandering around and seeing the streets. We were planning on having about five days here but decided to cut it short as we were struggling to find things to do. Despite being Colombia's most touristy city we were quite dissapointed with Cartagena and thought it was overhyped. Other backpackers were raving about a beach called Playa Blanca, not far from Cartagena were it's possible to spend the night so we decided to do that.

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We packed our daypacks and wandered down to the port in the morning and got bombarded with companies wanting to take us to Playa Blanca. We must have settled on the wrong company as our boat broke down after slowly chugging along for half an hour and when a new boat came to rescue us that one proceeded to break down too. The 35 minute speedboat ride turned into 1.5 hours but our worries didn't last long once we arrived. Playa Blanca is on a small island not far off the mainland. It is located on the west side of the island, facing away from the mainland and towards nothing but Carribean sea. When our boat dropped us off we were met with hundreds of families jammed on to the beach which really wasn't what we pictured but after only 500m of walking down the stretch of white sand it became much quieter. Our options for sleeping were either hammock or cabaña. We would have liked to have slept in hammocks but with our bad backs it would have been a bad idea. We found a guy on a nice semi-secluded section of beach with a few cabañas which are basically raised huts with nothing more than an old mattrass inside. We checked in there and for the next 24 hours we did little more than rotate between our deckchairs with a book or drink in hand and the clear teal sea. We enjoyed a cracking sunset before spending the evening with Luisna and Michael who were having a second night there and some other Irish guys over a few bottles of Carribean rum. Around midnight we were entertained by an amazing lightning show over the sea which lasted for hours. The heat woke us up early the next morning but after a shaky 8 steps down from our cabaña and a further 8 metre walk to the sea, a quick dip proved the perfect hangover cure. For lunch we treated ourselves to our first ever proper lobster meal before catching a boat back to Cartagena. We spent the night back at El Viajero before setting off further east along the coast to Taganga.

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Taganga is a small fishing village just outside of Santa Marta which has become popular with backpackers in recent years particularly as it is one of the cheapest places in the world to obain a scuba diving certificate. Everyone says Taganga isn't what it was 5 years ago before it became popular and they must have been right as we really didn't see the appeal of the place. The hostel we stayed at was great with heaps of hammocks and a french cook who whipped us up some awesome chocolate crepes but the town itself was quite ugly and lacks infrastructure to keep up with the mounting tourism. The beach was not as inviting as the others on the coast although it was nice looking out over all the old fishing boats and eating fish at one of the cheap seaside restaurants. The region around Santa Marta has a few good places to visit in a close proximity so we used Taganga as a base and left our big bags at the hostel and set off with our days packs to check out the Tayrona National Park, the home of some of South America's nicest coastline.

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A collectivo took us to the entrance of the park from which point we had a pleasant 1.5 hour hike through the rainforest to the first campside at Arrecifes. While this campsite is meant to have the best ammenities, the water there is not safe for swimming due to the currents so we kept walking another 45 minutes to El Cabo which has a basic campsite but the prettiest beach. The walk between the two campsites was great, passing secluded and pristine swimming spots. We arrived at El Cabo and were met with a picture perfect beach with large boulders on both ends. The beach was busy with gringos and Colombian tourists alike but by no means overcrowded and secluded stretches of beach were available to anyone willing to walk a short distance in either direction. We rented a tent here for two nights. During the days we got stuck into our books, drank fresh juices, ate chocolate banana bread, swam and slept on the beach. By night there wasn't much to do so we had early nights and slept listening to the sounds of the waves crashing, birds chirping and donkeys hee-hawing. To exit the park almost everyone hikes back out the same way but an Aussie guy at our hostel in Cartegena told us about an alternative largely unknown route directly inland which takes 4 hours and passes through the ruins of El Pueblito. The 1.5 hours to the ruins was mainly uphill climbing and jumping up rocks and we were sweating profusely after the first couple of minutes. It was incredibly humid in the thick rainforest and we quickly realised why most people don't take this route. After a quick look around the ruins and a quick breather, we set off on the second leg of the hike on what we hoped was the right path back out of the park. We made it out onto the road dripping in sweat after exactly 4 hours and hailed down a passing coach which took us to Santa Marta.

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Next stop on our little adventure with the day packs was Minca and we arrived here after 40 minutes in a collectivo from Santa Marta. If Tayrona is where jungle meets ocean, Minca is where mountains meet ocean. Well, they don't quite meet but it is possible to see the ocean from the top of the Sierra Nevada mountains which is where we stayed in the form of Los Pinos Hostel. We decided to come to Minca really just because of this hostel. We had heard others raving about it and we actually met and had drinks with the owner Ed when we were in Capurgana and he was on his way up to Panama. After getting dropped in Minca our only option to get to Los Pinos was to find someone to take us up the mountains 30 minutes on a motorbike or hike 3 hours. Given we had already hiked 4 hours early in the day it was an easy decision. We found two guys to take us up and we quickly made our ascent up the lush tropical mountains. We started questioning where they were taking us as we passed nothing for miles but eventually we rocked up at the hostel, completely isolated and miles from anything, perched high at the top of the Sierra Nevada. The big drawcard of this place is it's magical view sprawling for miles encompassing tiny Minca below, Santa Marta off in the distance and the Carribean Sea out almost as far as the eyes can see. We had 2 nights here and spent our time playing lots of backgammon, sleeping in our suspended swinging double bed, making ravioli from scratch, going for walks and collecting mangoes and avocados from the trees, chilling out on the giant 10 man hammock placed over the edge of the mountain and getting the binoculars out for a spot of bird watching. The best find was some green beaked toucans. We caught a mototaxi back down the mountain when it came time to leave, stopped off at a waterfall and had a quick look around Minca before making our way back to Taganga to collect our big bags.

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Posted by Scott-Georgie 05:56 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Contrasts in Colombia

The Tranquility of Zona Cafeteria and the Dark History of Medellin

sunny 30 °C

Salento is a sleepy little town in the Zona Cafetera region (coffee region) of Colombia. The region is very important economically to Colombia with coffee being the world's second highest traded commodity after oil and Colombia is the third biggest exporter.

We could easily see why this little town is becoming a popular place for backpackers and Colombian tourists to visit rather than the 3 big industrial cities in the region. Solento's streets are lined with buildings each with brightly painted doors and window frames. The surrounding hills visible from town are beautiful, green, rolling covered with farmland to forest. Many of the painted houses are shops filled with gift, arts, gourmet goodies, crafts, coffee or restaurants, all very popular with tourists. The main attractions however are the coffee farms along with Valle de Cocora just out of town.

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We arrived from Cali late afternoon after 2 buses to the Eco-Farm Hostel "La Serrana", 1.5 kms out of town. It was the perfect peaceful farm retreat for us. After a nice 20 minute walk back into Salento from the hostel we spent the rest of the day at an amazing cafe called "Brunch". Famous for its peanut-butter brownie which we had to have for desert topped with fudge ice cream and topping. As we were in a food coma after our large 2 course meal the staff invited us into the movie room. A projector with a selection of over 200 movies to chose from while resting on the comfy couches. After the movie we found our Irish friends, Michael & Luisna, ordering dinner here so went for a few drinks with them that night and made plans to visit a coffee farm the following day.

Sashamama is a coffee farm 2 hours hike from Salento. Set in the lush green valley this is a coffee farm that, unlike most in the area, runs the full coffee production cycle here, from harvesting to packaging ready for consumption. Most coffee farms in Colombia sell the beans still green but visiting this farm enabled us to experience the full cycle, finishing by drinking the freshest expresso we have ever had (for Scott the first and last). Such a smooth taste and bold aroma. We were lucky to have an American who works in the coffee industry in our small group visiting that day and he was fluent in Spanish so he could translate even the technical jagen for us. The tour started by looking through the owners rainforest farm at coffee plants and many other harvested plants he has grown under the forest canopy. We had a go at picking the red beans, de-shelling them in a hand driven machine, along with putting dried beans through other machines, then watching them roast from green to brown over a fire before they were ground and consumed by us. We enjoyed an organic homegrown lunch at the farm as well with brilliant views over the hills and valleys. That evening we met Luisna & Michael at Brunch again for another large yummy meal and a movie.

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The following morning we met with our horse trail guide, Diego, who had 2 horses ready for us. The ride went for 3 hours down into the valley to a waterfall before returning us back at the town. The ride was the most picturesque we had embarked on thus far passing through green farms with many dairy cows and rolling hills. We had the option to swim in the waterfall at our further point of the trip, Scott braved the icey waters while Georgie opted to be photographer as she thought the air was fresh enough for her. The river was pretty with clear water flowering across creek stones.

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After the ride and lunch we walked up the mirador on the edge of town. Here we were met with a 360 degree view on the top of this ridge. Little Salento on one side and a patchwork valley of farms on the other side.

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Valle de Cocora is the home of Colombia's national symbol, wax palms standing 60metres tall. We took a 35 minute ride on the back of a Willy Jeep to reach the start of the hike into the valley. The first part of the walk was through farm land until we reached the spectacular cloud forests where we were completely surrounded and towered over by giant trees with everything covered in moss. The track through the rainforest had us crossing over rickety suspension bridges, walking along the edge of the river and along muddy tracks. After nearly 2 hours of walking we arrived at Reserva Natural Acaime, a little house setup deep in the forest. For a small fee we received a hot drink and cheese while we enjoyed watching many hummingbirds who lived in this reserve. We walked back along the same path for a km before hiking uphill towards La Montaña to view this mind-blowing landscape inbetween waves of mist. The walk back to Cocora to catch the Willy back was equally spectacular with open views of the stunningly green valley covered in only tall wax trees on the slopes - very pretty.

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Despite staying on in Solento an extra day, we could easily have spent a couple more just chilling out at the hostel. There was a very friendly, relexed and social vibe which seemed to attract a lot of hippy and ecclectic characters. The volunteers at the hostel organised great weeknight family style dinners and there was even a stereotypical hippy backpacker playing his banjo every evening. Scott's beard fit in very well here and got even more compliments than usual including 'that's a bitchin beard' and 'that beard is wicked sexy'.

When it came time to leave after 4 enjoyable days we had a day on the road traveling to Medellin. This City, the second biggest in Colombia is interesting to say the least. In the 80's and 90's travelling here was completely out of the question and it was unsafe for locals to leave their homes. This was the period of time that the Medellin Cartel was in the height of it's power and the city was run by the famous druglord Pablo Escobar. The annual homicide rate in Medellin 20 years ago was 381 per 100,000 making it the most murderous city in the world. We knew that Medellin today would not be the city it once was but still we were surprised at what we found. Granted, we did stay in the most affluent suburb but we found Medellin not only to be safe but to be the most modern and chic of anywhere we have seen in South America with boutique shopping and trendy bars and coffee shops.

We checked into the Casa Kiwi hostel that turned out to be one of our best stays of the trip. The big selling points were and fantastic front deck looking over the street, a great group of people staying there and a gas bbq which we used to cook up a big group asado on one of the days. A group of us from the hostel decided to visit the number one attraction on TripAdvisor, the MetroCable. This is a cable cart included in the cost of the metro ticket taking passengers up and over poor areas of the city to Parque Arvi the cart made several stops along the way which tourists are better to avoid getting off at. This cable cart is the only one in South America used for public transport instead of just tourism. We expected to arrive at a picnic park with a view of the city but the cable cart headed further across the mountain to a national park. We were told to visit the park we needed to join in with a free tour which we did but we all opted to finish early as the tour was not great.

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The next day we went on a walking tour run by a young local guy, Pablo. He took us to the downtown, the start of the walking tour. This tour was excellent mainly due to the quality of information and the way it was delivered. Pablo came across so passionate about being a Paisa (a person from the Medellin district). He explained so much about the long, violent and corrupt history of Medellin and Colombia along with the craziness he has seen in his lifetime especially growing up in such a dangerous time. It is so hard the believe how far Medellin has come in the last 20 years. The sights we visited in the downtown were not that outstanding but it was the history of particular places that made this tour and this city. After the tour both of us visited Museo de Antioquia. This museum is home to many contempary artworks including a large collection of paintings and sculptures by Fernando Botero. Botero's works are easy to recognise as he depicts everything as fat. One of his sculptures of a fat bird in one of the plazas was blown up and some children was killed in the early 90's. Botero demanded that the remains not be removed and he put another fat bird next to it. There is a picture of this below as well as one of his famous painting of the death of Pablo Escobar.

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On our last full day we went on the Pablo Escobar driving tour. This tour was conducted in a van taking the small group to houses and places of importance in Escobar's life over 3 hours. Pablo Escobar is the famous Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist, who dominated the cocaine trafficking business for many years. Heading the Medellin Cartel he supplied 80% of the cocaine entering the USA. Escobar had so much influence and power he had a short lived career in politics as well. Escobar was originally very popular the the public, supporting charity organisations and helping the poorer communities. His popularity was lost towards the end of his career with the ruthless crimes and acts of terrorism he was creating. He was shot and killed by police forces in 1993 on the roof of his Aunties house. The guide provided information on his interesting life, the politics around it and the affect on Colombia. We visited the Monoco building bombed by the Cali cartel, the house he lived in during the latter years of his life, his aunts house he was hiding out in until he was shot dead on its roof (photo below), the cemetery where he and his family are buried and many other buildings of interest. Escobar owned many houses and apartments, some to live in and many others to hide money in. All of these were registered under fake names so he wasn`t traceable. Many of the places were owned by a monkey whose fingerprints had been taken.

Here are a few more interesting Escobar related facts we learnt:
-While Escobar was was in power, helmets were banned from motorbike riders. This was due to the number of assassonations from motorbike drive-bys and it was impossible to indintify the killer with a helmet on
-Even today men are forbidden to be a passenger on a motorbike.
-Escobar was named by Forbes magazine as the 7th richest people in the world.
-He owned 3 hangers in the medellin airport.
-He had over 500 properties in Medellin alone. Many were to hid the cash.
-One of his properties had a private zoo housing hippos, giraffes and elephants.
-His accountant claims the cartel was spending $2500 a month on rubber bands to hold the money together.

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Our next entry will come from the very top of South America - Colombia's Carribean coast

Posted by Scott-Georgie 14:21 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

The Start of the Last Country - Colombia

We left Otavalo  bound for our final country of the trip, Colombia! We have 5 and a half weeks to explore this country and we intend to get off the beaten track a bit as well as seeing the touristy places. Colombia still gets a bit of a bad rap as people still associate it with kidnappings and drug cartels. Most people don't realise that Colombia has cleaned itself up significantly in the last ten years and is now quite a safe country to visit. Some areas are still considered no go zones such as most of the Pacific coast which is controlled by guerillas so we will avoid those areas. Almost every backpacker who has been through Colombia has said it is their favourite country so we are really looking forward to winding up the trip here. As Colombia's tourism campaign says: 'The only risk in Colombia is wanting to stay'.

Our journey to the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan was fairly straightforward and took about 4 hours. We then hopped into a taxi and tried to explain to the driver that we needed to get stamped out of Ecuador before entering Colombia. We must have done a poor job with this as he drove straight into Colombia. We got him to turn around and drop us at passport control in Ecuador. We then walk into Colombia, get stamped in and catch a short cab to the border town of Ipiales. Most border towns don't have anything for travellers but Ipiales has a famous cathedral to see called Las Lajas so we took this as a chance to break up the journey. We found a luggage storage at the bus terminal and caught a collectivo out to it.

Las Lajas is a gothic style cathedral built on a bridge inside the canyon over the Guaitara River. Our visit there was a little strange. While in South America we have become accustomed to receiving the odd curious look from a local, particularly children, but while walking around this site we were stared at by everyone! We were the only gringos but there were plenty of other South American tourists taking photos so we couldn't figure it out and was quite unsettling. A mother and her child came up to us and asked for a photo. We assumed she wanted us to take a photo of them but she wanted her daughter to take a pictures of her with us infront of the cathedral. 5 minutes later a guy asked to take a picture of us both. We can only think that Scott's ever increasing likeness to Jesus had something to do with it. Centuries ago a lightning-illuminated silhouette of the Virgin Mary appeared at the site which led to the cathedral being built there and subsequently many pilgrims. For whatever reason we were attracting the states and attention, we decided not to hang around.

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We picked up our bags from the terminal and hopped on a bus to Pasto, 2 hours further north. We would have gone straight through to Popayan (a further 4 hours) but that stretch of road is strongly advised to avoid at night due to armed bandits frequently holding up busses. This area of Colombia was completely off limits ten years ago being full of guerilla and paramilllitary activity. We stayed the night in Pasto and set off the following morning to Popayan. We'd heard you can barter prices for longer busses in Colombia which we thought sounded quite strange but were surprised to get about 20% knocked off simply by asking for it.

Our hostel in charming Popayan was a real winner, run by some really nice European guys. Probably the best located hostel we have stayed in, right in the central plaza and we were lucky enough to score a room with a view over it. Like many hostels we stayed in recently, it was a beautifully converted large colonial townhouse.

Popayan is a nice laid back city with beautiful colonial architecture. It gets called 'The White City' as everything in the downtown is painted white. While it looks nice, it is easy to get lost as everything looks the same.

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Popayan is classed by UNESCO as a city of gastronomy. Many foods and drinks are available only in Popayan and are recipes passed down for generations. We made it our mission while in Popayan to sample as many of these as possible, apart from the traditional soup made from cow fetus.

Here's a list and ratings of what we tried, most of which are unique to Popayan and some throughout Colombia:

Patacón - Probably best described as Colombia's version of fajitas. The difference being the tortilla is made of bananas fried and flattened into a crispy pancake-like tortilla.
Scott's rating 9/10
Georgie's rating 9/10
Muy Rico! (delicious)

Lulo - This is a subtropical citrus fruit which is very popular with Colombians. We've only tried it in juice form so far.
Scott - 6/10
Georgie - 6/10

Manjar Blanco - a sugary, caramelly, white fudge which Georgie is obsessed with.
Scott - 4/10
Georgie - 10/10

Helado de Paila - Natural made icecream that is cooked in a copper pot. We couldn't really taste the difference to normal iccream but it was good. Especially the leche (milk) flavour
Scott - 8/10
Georgie - 8/10

Mango Viche - Green mango with Salt & Lime - There are street vendors everywhere selling this combination. We couldn't figure out why the green, unripe mangoes. Why not use ripe ones?
Georgie - 4/10

Empanadas de Pipian - Much smaller than the typical empanada and is deep fried with potato, meat and veggie filling.
Scott 6/10
Georgie 4/10

Guanaba - Another fruit which we've only tried as a juice. Really tasty, it's a large spiny fruit similar to a custard apple.
Scott 9/10
Georgie 9/10

Guarpo - a drink made from fermented sugarcane.
Scott 9/10
Georgie 9/10

After stuffing ourselves silly for two days we made our way 3 hours further north to the city of Cali. Again, the countywide was very nice and green with rolling hills. We passed a number of small cheese farms and Georgie was quite upset to be passing straight through. We had some trouble finding the hostel but when we did we were welcomed like an old friend by our host Mauricio who gave us a welcome beer as he showed us around his place. Our experience here was like living with a Cali local an a few other guests. Apart from some of the rooms being converted into dorms, there were no signs the place was a hostel.

On our first day we took to the streets without much of a plan. Mauricio mapped out the areas of town to avoid. We went into the old town but there wasn't much to see. Cali is largely an industrial city and even the safe streets seemed pretty sketchy to us. On the way back we checked out the markets and bought a heap of unknown fruits at high gringo prices. Usually we are pretty good with our purchases but we definitely got ripped off here.

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Cali's main draw card is its nightlife, being the salsa capital of the world. We met a nice Irish couple, Luisne and Michael at the hostel and Mauricio gave us an hour salsa lesson before he took us out to the salsotecas. We had a great night out at two salsotecas and with Mauricio's encouragement and plenty of liquid courage we managed to embarrass ourselves on the dancefloor while attempting to salsa amongst the locals.

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After a day of much needed r&r, we took a bus into Zona Cafeteria - Colombia´s coffee region.

Posted by Scott-Georgie 16:03 Comments (0)

Crossing Hemispheres in Ecuador

Upon arriving back on the mainland of Ecuador, in the capital Quito, we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted with warm weather and sunny skies as we found ourselves yet again at a high altitude city. We quickly regretted booking in 5 nights at our hostel which had the worst bed we have ever slept in, poor wifi, cold showers and a depressing atmosphere with no common room. It was however conveniently located between Quito´s lively new town and it's beautiful old town. As we arrived on a Saturday and we proudly realised we hadn´t had a drop of alcohol in 2 weeks we decided to have a night out in the new town. There was plently going on and while the nightlife wasn´t really our scene, we eventually found a few bars to our liking and had a good night out.

The next day we were scraping the barrel for things to do as Quito (even more so than other South American cities) completely shuts down on Sundays. We found online that the house of Ecuador´s most famous artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín, was not only open but free to visit on Sundays. We were sold! The house and its exterior were quite fascinating with unique architecture and furniture. We quickly lost count of the number of rooms and the guy had enough armchairs and sofas to sit somewhere different every day of the year. The master bedroom was the biggest we have ever seen. The walls of every room dispayed his works some of which we weren´t particularly taken with (depicting human pain and suffering) but he was obviously very talented. Unfortunately, like most of these places we could not take photos inside.

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On Monday the rest of the town awoke from their day long Sunday siesta and we ventured into the old town of Quito which we read is the largest in all of the Americas. We spent much of the day just wandering the streets admiring the dozens of plazas, churches and cathedrals. After so much travel around Europe and South America, it takes quite a lot for us to be really impressed by a cathedral (we often are saying 'oh look, another cathedral') but the gothic style Basilica on the northern end of the old town was something special and the steep climb to the top was worth it with 360 degree views of the city. Despite the beauty and grandeur of Quito´s old town, there was a distinct lack of restaurants, cafes, bars and shops and the area is renowned for muggings even in seemingly safe areas. At one stage we were told by a local to turn around and go back and we realised we were heading up safe looking steps our guide book had specifically told us to avoid. One day in the old town was enough and we didn´t really venture back in. That night Scott went into the new town for a poker night at a bar called Dirty Sanchez that we had been to on Saturday night. It was good fun and had a nice mix of local, expats and gringos.

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Most tourists who go to Quito make the hour trip out of town to be at the exact line of the equator, locally known as ´Mitad del Mundo´ (middle of the world). It seemed like a fair bit of effort just to go and stand on a line but we set out to do it really just to be able to say we´ve had one foot on each hemisphere. The journey out there and back was entertaining (as most local South American busses are) as people hop on try to sell anything and everything. One lady on the way there was trying to flog a product that we believe she was trying to claim was a cure for cancer and on the way back we were ammused by a duo of busking black Ecuadorian rappers with a beatbox on ones shoulder. Anyway, the site itself was made up of the obligatory touristy shops and restaurants, a large monument built around a museum with the world perched on top and the long yellow line of the equator. After spending forever taking photos for other tourists who wanted pictures of themselves on the line we eventually got some of ourselves. We then got a nice guided tour in English around the museum which had absolutely nothing to with the equator but had a lot of interesting things on the cultures and traditions of the different provinces of Ecuador. We had heard that a mistake was made and after the line and monument had been constructed, it was decided that the equator was infact a few hundred metres further north. Before we left we set out to settle it ourselves. Scott found some toilets 10m north of the line and the water flushed anti-clockwise and then found a toilet about 20m south of the line and it flushed clockwise! That was proof enough. He did a quick google search when we got back and discovered this toilet flushing theory that we had learnt from an episode of The Simpsons was actually a myth and the way the water flushes is simply determined by the design of the toilet but we still choose to believe that we stood on the equator.

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On our final day in Quito we took the teleferico (cable car) up to a view point of the city. It took us so high up that the city became so far away that it took a bit away from the view but we could appreciate just how large it was. There was a hike we could do at the top through the mountains but it was a 5 hour trail, it was cold and we hadn't yet fully readjusted to the altitude so we happily agreed to give that one a miss. That evening we went out for dinner and drinks with Jade and Paul who had just arrived back in Quito from the Galapagos so we had plenty of stories to share. It was also their final night in South America before heading back to Aus (via a cheeky few days in NYC!). It has been great catching up with them on numerous occasions since we met in the jungle.

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The next morning we hopped on a bus 2 hours north to the town of Otavalo. This town makes it on the map due to its famous Saturday market which Lonely Planet rates as the best in the continent. We got in around midday and after lunch we caught a short taxi ride out to the Condor Park just out of town that looks after rescued birds. We saw all sorts of eagles, condors and owls. Just before we left we watched a bird show where one of the staff brought out 4 or 5 different well trained birds. At one stage one of the eagles flew off into the distance out of sight and we thought he wasn't coming back but after 10 minutes or so she did. It was quite an enjoyable afternoon and the views over Otavalo and it's surrounding towns and mountain were an added bonus.

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We still had another day before the Saturday markets so we made our way 45 minutes out of town to Laguna Cuicocha. We first took a local bus out to the tiny rural town of Quiropa and then had to take a taxi from there. The drive out there was really nice with some of the best and most remote countryside we have seen in South America. Everything lush and green including the impressive mountains.

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The taxi driver dropped us off at a spot near the lake and told us to climb through a wired fence straight towards it where we assumed the trail was. Despite there being a sign saying that access this way was prohibited, he insisted this was the right way so off we went. When we caught site of the lake it was hard not to be impressed. It is actually an active crater lake with two small islands that occupy the heart of the lake. A really spectacular sight which we suspect very few tourist actually go to.

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After admiring the lake we set out to find the trail to hike around it which is meant to take 4 to 5 hours. Problem was we couldn't find it and we now suspect that the taxi driver dropped us at the point of the best view, not realizing we wanted to find the trail for the hike. We walked around for about an hour getting much closer to the lake than we were probably supposed to as we climbed two barbed wire fences. Eventually we realised we were not in the right place as there was no track in sight but by this stage it was a long way to go back so we went bushbashing uphill to try and get back up on the road. This was another poor choice as we spent the majority of our time climbing on our hands and knees and when we were very close we had to give up as the 2 metre high vertical rock that we had to climb to reach the top was so eroded we had no chance of going any further. Finally we made the tough decision to head back to our start point.

When we made it back to where the taxi dropped us off, we made our way around about 25% of the lake (without any views of it) on the dirt road until we reached the only development on its perimeter; two restaurants. From there we could hop on a small boat ride through the lake which we did with a small group of the first tourists we had seen all day. The ride was a bit fresh and windy but we were kept entertained by a loud American behind us who looked and sounded just like Mr. Garrison off South Park. We left the lake happy with our find off the beaten track despite our day not going exactly to plan.

On the way back to Otalvalo we had to go via Quiropa again and as we looked for some lunch it was quite interesting watching the locals who probably aren't used to seeing gringos. In the restaurant (where we got our standard Ecuadorian $2 set lunch with a two course meal and drink) two children ran out of the kitchen and into the dining area, took one look at Scott's beard, and ran straight back into the kitchen. Many of the local kids are more curious of the beard and just the other day a youngster reached out to touch it in an Internet cafe. It's a big hit with the other gringos too. On more than one occasion someone has stopped us on the street to say 'nice beard!' That night we watched Ecuador play Peru in a bar for the World Cup qualifiers. The packed bar of Ecuadorians left disappointed after Peru caused a big upset but the one Peruvian in the bar was extatic despite telling me he´ll probably get beaten up when he leaves the bar.

On Saturday we stepped out of our hostel to watch this sleepy old town become overrun with locals and tourists alike for market day. We wandered down to the outskirts of town to check out the animal market. We had a bit of trouble finding it but when we saw people walking down the street carrying two chickens in each hand, upside-down by the legs, we guessed we were going in the right direction. Things seemed to be wrapping up a bit once we got there as people were leaving the market with their purchases; goats, cows, ducks, chickens, pigs, guinea pigs, dogs, cats - you name it! The strangest sight was seeing an old lady walking off with a lamb strapped in a bag to her back (pictured below). The treatment of the animals was pretty poor, especially of the chickens. We went there expecting this but was still pretty sad to see.

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We then made our way back into the centre where the majority of the streets were taken up with stalls and vendors selling all kinds of things. We spent the best part of the day wandering around the markets and still didn´t see it all. Plenty of locals didn´t have their own stall but didn´t let that stop them as they just roamed the streets selling everything from electronics to wheelbarrows of grapes. Ecuador´s currency is the US dollar which made things quite easy for us. We had a pretty successful day of shopping although we had to be careful with what we bought as our bags are already bursting at the seems. Haggling at the market is very accepted and we managed to get most items around half of the orginally quoted price except for one 10 year old girl manning a stall who completely refused to budge and we were forced to pay full price.

Scott: 'Cuanto cuesta para los beanies?'
10y/o girl: '$4'
Scott: '$2?'
10y/o girl: '$4'
Scott: '$3?'
10y/o girl: '$4'
Scott: 'ok, $4'

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Tomorrow morning we make our way to our final country which happens to be the country we have most been looking forward to - Colombia!

Posted by Scott-Georgie 19:34 Comments (1)

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