Leaving Colombia…

Leaving Colombia…

I arrived into Bogota at around 6am and caught a taxi to a hostel I had found on the internet the day before. I rang the doorbell to Alegria’s Hostel and a friendly man answered and welcomed me in. I think he was a little surprised to see somebody checking in at 6:30. Although I had loved my time in El Cocuy I was very sun burnt and a little run down, all I wanted to do was sleep so I spent the next few hours doing exactly that. That afternoon I met a friend, Milena, who I had made in Santa Marta and we went for some lunch. We wandered around La Candelaria which is the old part of the city, steep and narrow streets with many picturesque buildings.

The next day was more of the same and I spent the majority arranging my Spanish classes for the week and sorting out my apartment. I was annoyed at the price I was paying for a room in La Candelaria which is where most tourists stay. I knew a few people in Bogota so didn’t feel the need to meet lots of other travellers so I used www.airbnb.com to find an apartment in the north of the city. Conversations with taxi drivers told me the area I was moving to was cheaper, more residential and safer than La Candelaria. I paid about the same per night as I did for my room in the hostel but I got a lounge, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Airbnb worked well for me and if the opportunity arises I’d like to use it again. That night I met Milena again in Parque 93, it was a lovely spot which had just been decorated for Christmas. It turns out they start getting ready for Christmas just as early as in the UK.

I moved to my apartment early the next morning and at 10:00 my Spanish teacher, Lucia, arrived. I had 12 hours of Spanish lessons that week and also got lots of practice with the friends I had made in Colombia. Although I spent almost a week in Bogota I didn’t do a huge amount of sightseeing. The more I travel, the more I realise that the big cities aren’t what I’m here to see. I want to see mountains, beaches, volcanoes and jungles but I know that I should make the most of every place I visit too. Friday night soon came around, I had finished my Spanish lessons and really felt I had learnt a lot. I had been invited to a birthday party by Leidy who I had also met in Santa Marta along with Paula. Last time I met them I hadn’t had any Spanish lessons and although we all got along well the conversation was definitely limited. I was excited to put what I had learnt into practice.

View from the apartment

MY Bogota Apartment

 In true Colombian style I arrived nearly two hours late and it was honestly a privilege to attend. I met lots of family members and friends who, without exception, were welcoming, friendly and great fun. Despite the language barrier we enjoyed ourselves immensely. We played a drinking game and with a few unlucky roll’s of the dice I became best friends with tequila and agaurdiente, the drink of Colombia. The next few hours are a little blurry but I awoke the next morning still in Leidy’s family’s apartment. After a lovely breakfast and a great chat with her family I made my way back home for a short period of time before I was off sightseeing with Leidy and Paula again. We made our way to the bottom of Monserrate, a mountain towering over Bogota. We caught the teleferico up which was the third city I had done this in so far. For me, it’s an easy and sensible thing to do, plus I guess I like views. From the top you get an impression of the size of the city, it’s just huge stretching as far as you can see.

Leidy, Family & Friends

We enjoyed the views, strolled around and caught up with each other before heading back down. We stopped off at their university before making our way to La Candelaria where we had an absolute feast of a meal. We shared four or five dishes, all local to Bogota or Colombia and finished with chocolate and cheese. I’m not totally convinced by the combination but it was a great meal and once again I was overwhelmed by the friendliness of Colombian’s. After a stroll around La Candelaria and past the President’s house Leidy took me back to my apartment. It was great to see them again especially as we were now able to talk, albeit slowly, especially when it was me doing the talking.

Leidy, Me & Paula
Brian, Paula & Leidy with the Monserrate Monsatery behind

Descending from Monserrate in the cable car
La Candelaria
One of the main squares in La Candelaria

The following day was my last day in Bogota and I met up with Milena again. She’s the best Spanish teacher I’ve had so far and even better because she’s a friend and I don’t have to pay! I was sad to leave Bogota, although I hadn’t ticked all the tourist boxes I had met many lovely people. It finally felt like I was leaving Colombia. I used my newly learnt Spanish to catch a night bus down to San Agustin, arriving early morning. I didn’t have much time there as the race was on to meet Rob and Ed in Ecuador before I missed Pizza Night at the farm. I wanted to go and see the ancient statues in San Agustin and was persuaded to do it in traditional style on horseback. The last time I rode a horse was a good 15 years ago and I don’t think the locals were too impressed with my riding style.

We made our way to El Tablon to see the first of the statues and then to La Chaquira where the views down the gorge were incredible and the waterfalls were aplenty. I managed to overtake a group of Aussie’s on horseback, it was a couple of days after the first Ashes defeat so it was a small bit of revenge. As we arrived at the park I said goodbye to the horses and my guide and was a little relieved to be taking the bus back. It wasn’t the comfiest method of transport I’d had over the last few days and I also discovered I must be allergic to them as I sneezed and spluttered my way across the countryside.

El Tablon
El Tablon

La Chaquira

The park itself was very impressive, very few vendors to bother you, well kept in pristine condition and full of statues that date back several thousand years. It was almost a little hard to believe that these had been built so long ago. I chose not to get a guide but spent a few hours strolling around the park before catching the bus back into town. The earliest of the statues date back to around 1000 BC. I took hundreds of photos but here are a few to give you an idea. 

This friendly chap appeared and escorted me around the park for the next few hours
He knew his way around the park just like a guide but was free!
This security guide hadn’t had too much action and was taking a nap with his ‘guard dog’

Later, my guide introduced me to one of his colleagues
But it turned out they were more interested in messing about than discussing the history of the statues with me
After a stern talk they agreed to continue showing me around

This one reminded me of my parents…no prizes for guessing who’s who…
This was the last time I saw this guy before he disappeared into the woods but he had enhanced my Parque Arquelogico experience

On the way back I got talking to an American and we went for a few beers and some food. He was an interesting chap having spent a few years in the US Army as a medic before leaving to become a biologist. He had spent the last six months trying to stop Puerto Rican’s from eating all the turtle eggs that are laid on their beach. Quite a turn around in career paths!

The next morning I was up at 5 and caught a minibus from San Agustin to Popayan. It was easily the worst journey I’ve had so far, it was an 80-mile trip but took nearly six hours as we bounced and swerved our way along the road/track. There was a lot of work being done in places where landslides had destroyed the road. It was impossible to sleep as we bounced around the back of the bus so I was pleased to get to Popayan. I spent a grand total of 10 minutes there before catching a bus to Ipiales, a border town between Colombia and Ecuador. It was another 8-9 hours before I arrived into Ipiales and any chance of crossing the border that day had been dashed. Fifteen hours on buses that day was enough for me and I found the closest hostel to the station for the night.

Before I crossed the border I took a collectivo taxi to Santuario de las Lajas, a grand church built into a canyon. I must have now been to more churches in South America than in the last 25 years in England. This one was pretty special and from what I’ve seen of The Lord of the Rings (not much) it looks a bit like it’s from that.

 

Santuario de las Lajas

After catching another collectivo back to my hotel I made my way to the border point. I was finally leaving Colombia and although exciting times lay ahead including meeting up with Ed and Rob, I was a little sad to be leaving this amazing country behind. Still, I know there’s a lot more to see so after a quick stamp of the passport I arrived into Ecuador. Another collectivo later and I was on a bus heading towards Quito. From the instructions Rob had given me I knew I had to go past Otavalo but stop before a placed called Guallabamba. It was a bit tricky because it was just a kilometre marking but I kept my eyes peeled and four hours later I stepped off the bus with a little trepidation. As the bus drove away into the distance I took in my surroundings. There were arid mountains but not another person or building in sight. I stood at the side of the road with my thumb out waiting for a vehicle to pass but within five minutes two people appeared down the road. I managed to have a conversation with them and was relieved to discover there was a bus coming in twenty minutes.

The friendliness I had experienced in Colombia continued into Ecuador as they helped me with the bus and asked the conductor to drop me off at the taxi point. Ten minutes in a taxi and I had finally made it. After three days of buses, taxi’s, truck’s and a horse I walked into the farm and was shown down to Rob’s house, built by Rob. I had last seen them in Birmingham a few months ago just before we all set off in different directions and it was amazing to be reunited with them, even better that it was in the mountains of Ecuador, minutes from Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world). We sat and caught up, enjoying homemade pizza and  swapping stories from the last few months. All was good in the middle of the world.

Mountains in Parque Nacional El Cocuy

Mountains in Parque Nacional El Cocuy

And so began the great adventure, the trip into the wild. Fortunately we had learnt from the mistakes of Christopher McCandless and knew that as well as happiness only truly existing when shared, it was also a lot safer to wander off into the mountains with an accomplice. My partner in crime for this trip was Peter Lykkegaard, a great Dane, a Viking of a man if they were to still exist today. I had met Peter on the Ciudad Perdida trek and in a brief conversation we had discussed exploring a mountainous region in Colombia. Over the last few weeks we had conversed online from various places in Colombia until we reconvened in Medellin. The past 2-3 days had been spent exploring Medellin and Guatape and in a few spare moments we had formulated a plan. It looked a little like this:

 

1 – Go to Parque Nacional El Cocuy

2 – Walk up a mountain or two

3 – Camp

 

As you can see, a lot of time and effort had gone into it. When we arrived back from Guatape we said our goodbyes to Mauro and Tanya and went to find out exactly how to get to El Cocuy. Being a town high up in the mountains, it wasn’t possible to take a direct bus there, little did we know just how long it was going to take. Neither of the tourist information places could help us much but we knew that Bucaramanga was generally in the right direction. For that reason, we booked ourselves on to a night bus and went off to find some food. We toasted the start of our adventure and ate a hearty meal before boarding the bus to Bucaramanga.

 

Around 8 hours later and at about 4am we arrived in the bus terminal in Bucaramanga. I don’t know much about the place but I do know that at 4am on a Sunday there isn’t a great deal to do so we found ourselves a couple of benches in the terminal and got some more sleep. Once it got light and places started to open up we headed to a local supermarket to buy supplies. Again, our organisation was second to none, we had prepared a shopping list that looked a little like this:

 

–          Food

–          Waterproofs

–          Roll mat

 

Once we had selected all of the necessary items (Peter didn’t manage to find any waterproofs but 2 out of 3 was still pretty good) we made our way back to the bus station to get our next bus to a place called Capitanejo. Unfortunately that bus wasn’t available but we were able to find another one which took us to Malaga, not an exotic Spanish destination but not too far away from where we were trying to get to. Another 7-8 hour bus was on the cards and once again we settled in for the long journey. We left Bucaramanga and made our way into the countryside, we began to climb higher into the hills and enjoyed some great views in between naps. The further we travelled the harder it became to sleep as the tarmac road narrowed then became a mix of sand and pebbles. The turns became sharper and the edge steeper. We stopped once for a police checkpoint where all the men were searched but unlike in Venezuela the police were friendly and welcoming.

The ‘road’ to Malaga
View from the bus

The next time we stopped we were in a beautiful small mountain town. We had been on the bus for six hours so thought we were close to arriving in Malaga. To our surprise the bus driver informed us we were still three hours away. Unfortunately, the next three hours became five or six when the bus began to break down on a regular basis. Neither Peter or I really cared and we took the opportunity of a stationary bus to get some well needed sleep. Finally we arrived in Malaga, we were almost at the National Park and all was good, or so we thought. It was late though and arriving in El Cocuy would have to wait until tomorrow. In the meantime we found a hotel, got a twin room for half the price of a dormitory in any of the larger cities and cooked up the majority of our supplies. One of the items which we hadn’t managed to find was a stove so we were expecting cold meals for the next week or so.

The church in Malaga

The next morning we were itching to get to El Cocuy but again our hopes were dashed slightly when we discovered first we had to go to Capitanejo, where we had wanted to go the day before. This was just a 1-hour trip in a collective taxi. The roads around here were awful, there must have been heavy rain as there were remnants of landslides all over the place. Luckily, the sun was shining without a cloud in the sky when we made the trip. Finally, we arrived in Capitanejo, we had made it. Our first stop was the tourist office here but typically it was closed. A helpful resident pipped the horn on his motorbike and the doors opened. Carlos, the owner welcomed us gleefully and before long, not only were we getting all the information we could need, but we were sat in his kitchen as he cooked us lunch. We ate a delicious meal with Carlos and his wife and daughter. I still never cease to be amazed at the friendliness and generosity of almost all of the Colombian people I have met so far.

 

After several hours of eating, chatting and dancing to everything from reggaeton to salsa we left, but not before they had given us both a small Colombian flag as a gift for our rucksacks. While we talked with Carlos we were a little distraught to find out that we were actually still several hours from the town of El Cocuy. Our next stop on this ridiculous yet strangely enjoyable journey was Soata, one hour further into the mountains. A simple bus and we arrived to find the bus we needed had just left. We jumped into a taxi with six other people, I was sat on Peter’s knee and the driver chased down the bus. He drove at hair raising speeds and would have given Sebastian Vettel a run for his money on these roads. We caught the bus in no time and fortunately it stopped for us to get aboard. We were now, finally, on the bus to El Cocuy. Granted, we were still four hours away but that didn’t matter. As evening set in we arrived into this small, quaint town complete with grand church and beautifully maintained square.

El Cocuy
Church in El Cocuy
Model of Parque Nacional El Cocuy

In total the journey took two or three days with over 24hours on buses. Having said that, I wouldn’t have changed a thing, it was full of great experiences, interesting people and signified a perfect start to our adventure. We found a hostel for the night and of course, we then discovered that the entrance to the national park was still 25km away. There was a lechero (milk truck) that left every morning at 06:30 and was the only ‘public’ method of transport to get there. However, because we had arrived in the evening we had to get a permit to enter the park and the office in El Cocuy didn’t open until 07:00. We decided the 25km walk, all uphill and between 3000m and 4000m above sea level would be a good acclimatisation hike. So it was, the following morning we packed up and set off on the final leg to arrive at the park. After two hours we were both in good spirits and the altitude hadn’t seemed too much of a strain.

The view of El Cocuy as we left the town behind.

As we sat and ate lunch and admired the already impressive views a truck came past. It was the perfect hitchhiking vehicle and luckily it stopped for us and we hopped in the back. No point in using any more energy than we needed to. They were a group of electricians checking the lighting in the area around the park and after a couple of stops we were at the entrance. They had coordinated their work with a fishing trip and were actually driving a short way in so we stayed in the truck and for the first time since we set off from Medellin our transport came through for us and we got further than we had planned! After a brisk 1hour walk in the park we arrived at a grand cabana where we pitched the tent, reheated our rich rice and lentils dish and settled down for the night.

Hitch hiking to the entrance
At the entrance with Pulpito del Diable and Pan de Azucar behind us

 

The view that greeted our first footsteps in the park

Frailejones, only found in certain areas of the Andes 

The friendly electricians who gave us a lift into the park
Who can tell me what these are called?

 

 

 

Arriving at the Cabana

The following morning we awoke in the early hours and set off at 5am. The first hour was done with torches before the sun came up. We were attempting to summit a 5000m+ double peaked mountain. The higher of the two was Pan de Azucar with Pulpito del Diablo slightly lower but just as spectacular, a rock outcrop shooting straight into the clouds. For the first 2-3 hours it was hard going, a steady incline throughout. We had opted to take one rucksack between us which was great if it wasn’t your turn to carry the bag but a bit of a nightmare if it was. Now the air was noticeably thinner and we dragged our already tiring bodies up the hills.

 After the steady incline we took a sharp turn onto a boulder field. It was steep, with a path that kept disappearing and various remnants of previous landslides which were tricky to say the least. It took another couple of hours to get through the boulder field and when we made it to the top we were relieved to see that although it was still uphill we had reached a plateau. Now the views were incredible, I’ve never seen so many mountains from one place, plus turquoise and red lagoons and hills ranging in colour from  lush green to black. When you throw in the glaciers and the snow capped peaks it has to be one of the best views I’ve ever seen.

Just after the steep boulder field, we considered drinking the water I’m stood in on the way back down….

Unbelievably the plateau seemed even harder than the boulder field. The strong head wind plus thin air was exhausting and our progress over the next hour was very slow. Eventually however, we made it to the snow line. Luckily, we had managed to hire crampons from the cabana we had stopped at. Unluckily (or due to poor planning) they didn’t fit our boots very well. Nonetheless we strapped them on and complete with ice axes started making our way across the glacier. We soon passed Pulpito del Diablo and as the path got steeper, the wind picked up and we had the summit of Pan de Azucar in our sights.

Crossing the final part of the plateau
Reaching the snow line with Pan de Azucar up on the right

It was at this point, after several stops to refit my crampons I began to question the safety of what we were undertaking. We had only met one other group and it was slightly concerning to see that they were roped together with a local guide, wearing crampons, carrying ice axes and in professional climbing boots. It didn’t help matters that they said ‘it’s a bit hairy on the ridge at the top, the wind is really strong’. The statement stuck with me, particularly as it felt like we were already in hurricane like conditions. As we approached the ridge and completed the final steep part of the ascent I made the decision not to go any further. I was a few metres from the official summit and for me that was good enough, maybe it was a mature decision or maybe I’m a big wimp. Either way the views were spectacular, the experience unforgettable and I don’t regret my choice. Peter on the other hand trekked on and conquered the ridge in true Viking style. As I waited for Peter to return, hoping not to see him drop off the side of the mountain, it did mean I could get some more awe-inspiring photos.

Pulpito del Diablo

The final ascent

 

As I climbed back down I managed to get this photo of Peter on the ridge

We made our way back down the mountain and reached solid ground again. It was now that exhaustion began to set in. We had been walking more or less nonstop for 8-9 hours, all uphill and at high altitude. The sun had come out and we were out of water, it was surprisingly difficult to find a stream at this point. There was not a lot to do except keep plodding on, at least it was downhill but the conversation and enthusiasm had definitely dwindled. We crossed the plateau and drifted back down the boulder field, eventually we came across a stream and drank freezing cold, pure water, some of the best I’ve ever had! Two more hours of exhausted walking and we made it to the tent. It was a 12-14 hour day of solid walking and up there as one of the toughest physical challenges I’ve done.

Making our way back down

The view as we made our way back down the boulder field
Fresh water after several hours with nothing to drink
Back at the lagoon near our campsite
One of the best camping spots I’ve stayed at, we had a well earned rest

We rewarded ourselves with more rice and lentils that night and spent the following day recovering. Although it would have been nice to stay in El Cocuy for a few more days I was on a pretty strict timescale. One of the things I had realised while spending time with Peter is how much more you can get out of travelling in South America if you’re fluent in the language. For that reason I made the decision to head to Bogota and take another week of classes before the final stretch south in Colombia. It was hard to leave such a beautiful place but we packed up the tent, said goodbye to the friendly kid and her slightly grumpy mother and started the trek out of the park. We had the same plan, start walking and hitchhike if possible but it was the weekend and we barely saw another vehicle. By the time we arrived back in El Cocuy we had walked over 30km. We celebrated the end of our adventure with a few beers and a hamburger before we boarded the bus early evening.

Leaving the park. You can still see Pulpito del Diablo and Pan de Azucar in the distance

We slept like babies on the bus and I only woke to say bye to Peter as he got off somewhere at 4am to change buses. He was heading to San Gil whilst I continued to Bogota. My buddy, Ed arrived into Quito on the 25th and I wanted to get to Otavalo to meet up with him and another very good friend, Rob. Parque Nacional El Cocuy is definitely one of the highlights of my trip so far and I’d like to see how much higher above sea level I can go, there’s plenty of opportunity to test myself with the Andes stretching down through the majority of countries I’m due to visit. This was a great introduction to mountaineering and an experience I won’t forget.

On the 30km walk after leaving the park
The sheep here have wool on their face, apparently it’s because its a lot colder up here
Church in the middle of nowhere with basketball court
Arriving back into the town of El Cocuy, the end of our adventure

Heading South

Heading South

After 2-3 weeks on the Caribbean Colombian coast around Santa Marta I finally left for Cartagena. It was nice to have a base in one place but I was ready to get back on the road. Cartagena was just a few hours along the coast and after an uneventful 4-hour trip I settled into my new hostel. That evening I went out for food with an Australian girl who was soon taking a sail boat from Cartagena to Panama. I’ve met several people who have done this trip and all have said amazing things about it. I’m already getting ideas for my next trip through Central America and either starting or ending in Colombia. Any excuse to come back here! After my experiences in Santa Marta I was pleased to have a quiet night and spend the next day exploring the city.

Cartagena is an old colonial city with narrow streets and cobbled roads. The old city is surrounded by a huge wall which was built to protect the city from pirates. We walked along the wall for as long as we could until the heat became unbearable and we retreated to the air conditioned hostel. That night I bought a ticket for a party bus. It’s recommended as being one of the best and most fun ways to see the city. I went along with a German girl, Christina, who was also in our hostel and after the usual job of refusing to buy everything from coconuts to maracas we boarded the bus. It was a national holiday in Colombia and the bus was packed of what we thought were drunken Colombians. We realised we were many drinks behind so naturally got to work playing  catch up.

Cartagena’s City Walls

Cartagena definitely had a Caribbean feel to it!

As we relaxed (got drunk) and our inhibitions about speaking Spanish faded we discovered that we were actually on a bus with 50 members of the Chilean Navy. They had arrived onshore that day after 3-weeks without touching land. Needless to say they were making up for lost time. They were a great bunch, very welcoming and some spoke good English which helped. They invited us to take a tour of their ship the following day but we had both planned to visit a mud volcano and unfortunately an early start was going to be impossible. We met some other travellers near the city walls and spent until the early hours with them.

 

The following day was not an ideal day to be severely hungover in 35°C heat. Plus the fact that I had signed up to go and jump in a smelly volcano filled with mud and I had to catch an evening flight to Medellin. Fortunately, it turns out that mud volcanoes are a very good hangover cure. Christina and I took the tour bus along with a group of tourists from England, the US, Australia and Colombia. Upon arrival we stripped down to our shorts and climbed the rickety steps to the top of Volcan del Totumo. The volcano was around 15m high and the mud was about 10 feet below the top of the volcano. We climbed down and fell ungracefully into the mud.

Volcan del Totumo (Courtesy of colombiarents.com)

We received massages before being allowed to splash, float and frolic in the mud. We were informed that the depth of the mud is around 2,500m but it is so dense it’s almost impossible to go below shoulder height. We did manage to push one of the guys right under but he soon popped back up. Although I haven’t experienced anti-gravity (yet) the feeling of floating in the mud is supposed to be comparable and I would have to agree. After 20 minutes or so of getting used to moving in the mud it was time to climb out and go to the nearby lagoon to get cleaned. Here, the old ladies bathed us in the clean water and they made sure not to leave any areas dirty…

It was a fun experience and incomparable to anything I’d done before. After a quick supper it was time to get back on the bus to return to Cartagena and for me, to the airport. I didn’t have a long time in Cartagena but enjoyed the time I had there. The Volcan del Tutumo was definitely an experience I won’t forget although at times it did feel like one big tourist trap. In fact, Cartagena in general, was the place where I had met most tourists. Not always a bad thing but it’s nice to be surrounded by Colombian’s in Colombia and not always other tourists.

 

I had to dash straight to the airport but made it with a little time to spare and bumped into another Aussie I had met back in Santa Marta. He was on the same flight so we shared tales of the last few weeks and agreed to share a taxi although we were heading to different hostels. When we arrived we bumped into an Italian friend of his where we proceeded to argue with every taxi driver over less than $5. I say we, but it was the flairy Italian who was doing the arguing. It was ‘the principle and not the money’ that he was concerned about but at 11pm in Medellin I wasn’t too concerned. Eventually we jumped on a bus and I made my way to the Urban Buddha Hostel. The following day was a relatively lazy one but I was lucky enough to take the place of a chap who had food poisoning and went to see my first South American football match.

 

It was Atletico Nacional from Medellin, against Sao Paulo (Brazil). The competition was the Copa Sudamericana and it was the second leg of the quarter final. The first leg had finished 3-2 to Sao Paulo so it was set up to be a thriller. Typically, the match finished 0-0 and Sao Paulo went through on aggregate. Frustratingly Atletico Nacional were by far the better team, they created more chances but couldn’t get the ball in the back of the net. Although it would have been nice to have seen a goal, the atmosphere was still amazing. The fans there were far more passionate than anything I’ve witnessed in England and in the South Stand, renowned for its die hard supporters, they never stopped singing, standing or, I think, shouting abuse. There were a grand total of less than 10 away fans in the stadium and at one point it looked like they were going to get attacked but then they produced a Brazilian and a Colombian flag and held them up together. It was the perfect way to diffuse the situation and it got a well deserved round of applause by the majority of the Nacional fans.

 

Among other reasons for visiting Medellin, I had heard Medellin was the place to party in Colombia. We went out Thursday and Friday night and in all honesty, neither night proved to be anything particularly special. We had high hopes for Friday and as we ventured into a club we were nothing less than distraught to find it full of other tourists. Perhaps this is what some people look for while they travel but for me and the guys I was with, it was the exact opposite. We eventually gave up and called it a night.

 

I did manage to do some sightseeing whilst in Medellin. We took both metrocables over different areas of the city which gave us an appreciation of the size and diversity of the place. Medellin is another city that has changed hugely due to the massive urban sprawl where people from the surrounding areas have flooded to the city looking for better opportunities. Anyway I’ll put my Geography hat away before you close the page. The city was beautiful in places and over the last few years there has been a real effort to improve the place. For decades, Medellin was on the map because of Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug baron. He more or less had control of the city at times and lived by the motto ‘plato o plomo’. This translates to silver or lead, i.e. take money (bribes) or face bullets. Escobar also offered a reward for anybody who killed a police officer. There was a tour to visit Escobar’s house, grave and where he died but after talking with some others I decided against it due to its hefty price tag. Apparently it also involved visiting and talking with Pablo Escobar’s brother but supporting the prosperity of a mass murderer’s family isn’t really on my to do list.

Metrocable to Parque Arvi above Medellin

As well as being a great way to see the city, the metrocables are also fundamental to getting residents in and out of the main city
Medellin City Centre

One of many characteristic churches in Medellin

After a second night out and a second handover we left Medellin for Guatapé which was a bit more up my street with slightly less tourists, less city and more great views. We arrived early evening and three of us spent the night in a tent. The town of Guatapé is very attractive with brightly painted houses and cobbled streets. They say the resident’s repaint their houses every year and it certainly looked that way from what we saw.

The main attraction in Guatapé is a huge rock over 200m high with steps built into the side. We chose to walk to the rock but abandoned that decision when the rain set in. There are over 700 steps and the views from the top are impressive to say the least. Lagoons in the area dominate the view around Guatapé and in a way it reminded me of the lochs in the Scottish Highlands. After a short while the rain subsided, the clouds slowly lifted and the view cleared. We were treated to a spectacular sight and once again, the photos can give a far better impression than my words.

Representing Atletico Nacional at Guatape

We tried walking again on the way back but with thumbs out we soon managed to attract a group with a truck. We jumped in the back and I had my first hitchhiking experience. That evening we caught the 2-hour bus back to Medellin. I had been travelling with Tanya, Mauro and Peter for a few days but it was time for Peter and I to start our great adventure, our trip into the wild. We were heading to Parque Nacional El Cocuy with no guide, no plan and no worries. But that’s another story…

 

Hitchhiking to Guatape from the rock

 

The Lost City & the Best Tour Group the World has Never Seen…

The Lost City & the Best Tour Group the World has Never Seen…

Ciudad Perdida translates to The Lost City. For me to describe this 5-day trek may sound a bit like we got up, walked, ate, drank and slept. Repeat x 5. That would be a complete injustice to the trip which was simply amazing. Ciudad Perdida was only discovered in 1975, perhaps rediscovered is the better word. There are several stories of how the place was found but the one I like is the one our tour guide, Edwin, told us. There were and still are many indigenous populations buried in the jungle surrounding Ciudad Perdida. Many of them are buried with handcrafted gold decorations. In the 60s and 70s it became a popular career choice to dig up these people and sell their burial items. Although the government’s story is that archaeologist’s found the city these grave diggers, including Edwin’s father, are reported to be the real discoverer’s.

We set off early afternoon after a sumptuous chicken lunch. Once again I was pleased to see we had a good mix of nationalities with Germans, Danes, Colombians, Irish and Dutch. Within the first 2 hours we had crossed a couple of rivers, entered the jungle and we spent the majority of the first day ascending. It was hot and sticky, more so than anywhere I’ve been so far. We would soon discover everybody sweats, a lot, and nothing dries, at all. The first day was a relatively short one which was lucky as we arrived at the campsite just before dark. Despite being several hours into the jungle they still managed to offer cold beers so after a quick dip in the nearby river we tucked into another great meal and washed it down with a few cold ones. As most of the group were from Europe and from renowned drinking nations we were soon to realise the post-trekking drinking would become a common occurrence.

One of the relatively intact graves
One of the relatively intact graves

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Day 2 and 3 were much of the same with more sensational views, swimming in fast flowing rivers and spending the evening playing ridiculous games. Some of you who know me will know that I enjoy turning anything into a game/competition. I fitted in well in this group and among others, the popular favourites were ‘Guess the time game’, ‘poker with rocks’, ‘throw rocks at other rocks’ and perhaps the most memorable was 21, the drinking game which brought about much hilarity. We walked past an indigenous village and met some of the people who have continued to live a traditional way of life. It was amazing to see young children running around the jungle on their own, what a playground!

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The first three days we were only averaging about 8km each day. With the humidity, the endless ups and downs and the heat it was slow going but generally we were arriving at each campsite in time for lunch. This gave us plenty of downtime to get to know each other, play more ridiculous games and drink. It was amazing that after 4 days of walking in the jungle it was still possible to buy a (reasonably) cold beer, rum and whisky. It just goes to show that if there’s a demand, then people will find a way to supply it!

At the end of the third day we arrived at the campsite around 1km from Ciudad Perdida. The following morning we were up early and after the fastest of all of the river crossings we started to climb the thousands of steps up to the edge of the city. By mid-morning we had reached the top and we spent the next few hours exploring the place. Currently, the site is approximately 10 hectares however archaeologists have now discovered that the city stretches for up to 30 hectares. Over the next few decades the Colombian government plan to uncover this area. Unfortunately, as this happens and as Colombia continues to improve its safety and build on its growing tourism industry, the number of tourists visiting Ciudad Perdida will only grow. I feel lucky to have seen it when I did. We were one of two groups at Ciudad Perdida when we visited which meant there were no more than about 30 people there. We were able to get photos of the city without any people in so if you plan to visit Ciudad Perdida, my advice would be to do it as soon as possible.

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By early afternoon we had to make our way back down from Ciudad Perdida and start our trek out of the jungle. Despite the fact we had now seen what we came to see we were still treated to amazing views, some good wildlife and seeing it in the other direction was almost like we were taking a new route. Once again, we spent some time swimming in the rivers before having our final night of fun. Of course, we had to celebrate in style and after many beers and two bottles of rum later we tucked ourselves in for the last sleep in the jungle. Sadly, my photos from that night are a little blurry and the video I have is less than suitable!

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One of the indigenous children on an iPhone!
One of the indigenous children on an iPhone!

The following day was nearly twice as long as any other day and also the hottest. We started early and made it back to the local village by early afternoon. Once again we were treated to a delicious meal, throughout the whole trip we ate like kings and it definitely made the trek easier. We made the subdued 2-3 hour journey back to Santa Marta and as we were all tired the plan was just to have a few drinks and get an early night…However, after a persuasive German got her way we were off into Santa Marta to experience the local night life. It was a night I will never forget and I’m very glad I went. That’s all I’ll say!

As we said our goodbye’s and people set off in various directions I wasn’t compelled to really go anywhere. The weather was amazing, the hostel relaxing and the local Colombian’s I had met were so friendly. I settled for taking a bus an hour up the coast to Palomino. It’s a quiet beach town/village with fewer travellers and a peaceful untouched beach. I stayed at the Dreamer Hostel there which was 30metres from the beach and also had a swimming pool, bar and restaurant. As I sat on the beach my peace was temporarily disturbed when a lightning bolt hit a palm tree about 10metres from where I sat. The tree caught fire and I took that as the time to get off the beach. It was easily the closest I’ve been to a big storm and I hope it’s the closest I’ll ever come!

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After a couple of nights in Palomino I headed back to Santa Marta and my favourite hostel so far. At the moment I have the luxury of taking my time so I decided to spend a bit longer in Santa Marta. I took the opportunity to take some Spanish classes there so I wasn’t spending all of my time in hammocks and the pool. I had a few trips to the beach and got to know Santa Marta a little better. Eventually though, it was time to leave. I repacked my bags and left for Cartagena.

Rodadero Beach
Rodadero Beach
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Pina colada’s on Rodadero Beach