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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

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