If good food, good wine and a party are your thing then a visit to Andreas Carne de Res in Chia should most definitely be on your to-do list. As soon as you arrive, a guy in a sombrero and poncho hands you a hollowed out lemon filed with a tequila shot…… before you get in the door. When you get in the massive restaurant you can’t help but smile. It feels like a party. Whilst it is huge, it is broken down into different areas so it doesn’t feel overwhelming, and all the staff are wired up so the place runs efficiently.
The food, funnily enough is meat based (the clue is in the name), and the steak is about as good as you can get outside Argentina. J even ate reasonably well.
People don’t go there just for a meal; they are there to celebrate something, even if it’s just being in Bogotá, so the party just starts. There is dancing, music, acrobatics and lots and lots of happy, friendly people. We loved it, and even managed to stay out until after 1am!
Andres Carne de Res
The next part of our adventure was taking us to Boyaca and Santander states, north of Bogotá and the three of us decided the best way to do it was to fly in to Bogotá, pick up a hire car, have a night in Chia, then head to Villa De Leyva, about three hours north, where Liz would leave us and head home.
The picking up the car bit was a little shit, with Budget insisting that a Kia Picanto was the same size as the Rio we had ordered and no amount of arguing in bad Spanish was going to change that. The trip north was a little difficult too as all of us were feeling a little dusty after the night out.
We stopped off briefly in the town of Tunja and recommend that if you wish to visit Tunja, brief is good. We had a reasonable coffee, were stared at a lot and one of us blocked a loo.
Villa De Leyva is lovely. It is a white walled, red roofed colonial masterpiece, sitting in a bowl of hills that was once a prehistoric lake and now home to some amazing fossils (the fossil museum is worth a visit). There are more good restaurants than we could get through, a great French and Australian bakery, and it’s reasonably flat.
On the way back from the fossil museum we stopped off at the Gaudi-esq terracotta house, an odd looking thing that is the work of a local artist and has only been completed reasonably recently. I hadn’t expected much but we all loved the place. It is not just a work of art but a very liveable place too, full of great spaces and general coolness. If it were for sale……….
Liz left us on day three and it was sad to see her go. We had enjoyed her company and I had really enjoyed having English speaking company on the walk. She is now back at work. Work…….. hmmmm…..
After waving her off at the bus station, the FT’s headed to a vineyard. There are not many in Colombia and the wine here is rather….well it is rather shit. We went for the experience but found perfectly good wine, great ice cream and met a lovely couple from Bogotá who shared the tour with us. If you like wine, it is worth a trip.
Villa De Leyva
Minca, a small village in the hills above Santa Marta, is a favourite of the Lonely Planet and other guide books. It is also a place with a much too intimate relationship with ‘the violence’. It was first a thriving coffee town (in the mid 1800s) then when coffee was replaced with marujarana, it became a town with a strong community spirit. Then the guerrillas came, twice taking over the town (1988 and 1998), removing the police (in 1998, after a significant gun battle) and killing local businessmen. The last attack caused the majority of the inhabitants to flee to Santa Marta. Then the Paramilitaries came to ‘protect’ the population, and by protect, they meant rape, kill, extort etc. When the violence ended, the remoteness of Minca meant that peace came late and it has only really been safe for about 7 years.
The Paramilitaries were replaced by tourists and sharp business people who saw the tourist opportunity. It is close to a big tourist centre (Santa Marta), to a national park and is high enough to give people the chance to experience a cooler hill town, with coffee plantations, waterfalls, challenging hikes and natural swimming pools without venturing too far.
The town still seems to be coming to terms with this invasion and all those we spoke to talk of a divided town. There are the ‘real locals”, who through desperation, sold off great land to ‘outsiders’ who they now see making lots of money from tourists on “ their” land. The ‘outsiders’ feel that they have made the town viable again (cleaned up the streets and river, invested in new buildings, brought in the tourist dollar) with no support from the locals (some newcomers told us they have been taken advantage of and in some cases had their businesses sabotaged (water supplies cut etc). The truth is probably in the middle.
For whatever reason, the town is both popular and underwhelming. The countryside is beautiful, the town is scruffy and ugly and it is full of foreign backpackers and tourists. We saw more foreign tourists here than anywhere else in country and it felt very far removed from the Colombia that we have fallen in love with.
If you are only visiting the north coast of Colombia and want to experience life in the hills, a visit is worthwhile, but if you have been anywhere in the Coffee Zone, or in the beautiful small towns around Medellin, you will have had much, much better experiences already.
If you are there, do two things; go to the Mona bakery and have really good bread, and visit and Manuale at the very basic town museum. At the latter, you will learn a little about the recent history and it is a great way to understand the dynamic of the place. I would also recommend staying in Finca Bolivar. It is a great little Guesthouse in a wonderfully quiet oasis, has access to a great spot to watch the sun go down and is beautifully done.
When we drove down the hill back to Santa Marta Airport for our flight to Bogota (three of us and 6 bags in a very overloaded tiny taxi), I had to admit I was looking forward to leaving the Caribbean coast. It is not awful, but the tourists, the heat and the scruffiness of the area make it ok, rather than special.
Day three started before dawn so that we could get to the lost city itself before anyone else. This was put into jeopardy by the Colombian six who had a very Colombian attitude to time. Luckily Wilson was like a focused sheep dog, walking around the group with a serious face repeating ‘vamos!’ Until he got bored, when he headed off into the darkness leaving latecomers to catch up. The city is at 1200m above sea level and only one km from the last camp but the last 20 mins is spent tackling 1178 steps. It appears that in approx?????when the city was first inhabited, there were few building standards as referring to the ever ascending lumps of rock ahead of us as ‘steps’ seemed a little generous.
I am not competitive in the least………………but was delighted to be the first tourist to reach the city that morning……….delighted enough that a close observer may have seen me do a minor fist pump in the air and mouth ‘Winner!’.
The city is much more that the few stone circles that feature in the photos; it’s lots of stone circles over a large area of the hillside, some excavated, others still completely owned the by the jungle. If you are interested in the history, click here, but the potted version is a large tribe lived in it from 800AD to about 1650 And used it as their meeting point for important events in their semi nomadic existence. Up to 2500 people lived there, building wooden huts on stone terraces (hence only the terraces remain). The terrain protected them from physical invasion from the Conquistadors but not from the diseases the Europeans brought with them. About 50 people remained alive when they eventually left the city and the jungle reclaimed it.
At the city
Enter 2 farmers in about 1972, who found the city, found the gold in the burial chambers and spent the next few years digging stuff up, selling it in Santa Maratha for a fraction of its value, getting pissed on the profits, telling one or two trusted friends then repeating. By 1976 there were about 60 families doing the same and it ended in tears with someone being shot for a piece of gold. A man called Frankie Ray got scared by this and told some archeologists working on a different site all about it. With the aid of the military and police, the site was reclaimed. About a decade of painstaking excavations took place before a delegation of the descendants of the original inhabitants appeared and said “Oi! Stop! You’re digging up our dead relatives you are!’ It stopped and with the support of the indigenous people, tourism began (and the first guide was Frankie Ray, who was also a mate of Wilson’s, so this is where he got his break). The first trips took 9 days, then the narcos introduced their own tours that did not get to the city, rather it took narco tourists to cocaine labs nearby to see how it was done and get high. They even let a film crew in, but the resulting documentary meant that the government had to appear to act and a very brutal and destructive eradication program began. The governments enthusiasm was fuelled when a group of foreign tourists were kidnapped in the lost city on 2003 and the helicopters that formed part of the rescue mission were greeted with the site of hundreds of acres of coco plantations in the jungle below.
It is now a safely established tourist route and, though the scars left on the countryside by the chemical eradication remain obvious, it passes through a safe and beautiful environment.
In the city we met a ‘Mamos’, a spiritual leader of the local tribe who, with his family (and a small contingent of soldiers) is the only permanent inhabitant of the city. He is charged with keeping the place clean of negative energy and conducting the annual deep cleansing ceremony so that us visitors only get positive energy from being there. The Wiwa people are very connected to nature and are very concerned the overall health of our planet. Their opinion is that in 90 years, it will be completely fucked. Let’s hope they are wrong.
It was interesting to be amongst the Wiwa people. They pretty much live as they always have; they are semi nomadic, they wear traditional hats and clothes (all white), their homes are made from mud, local wood and palm leaves and they mostly survive off what they farm. You do occasionally see a set of headphones under their hats and notice western clothing under the children’s white clothing but I very much felt that it was a very unique culture living in close proximity to a very westernised one. None indigenous people can only go to areas below 2000m above sea level. After that, and there is a fuck of a lot after that, they get to live in total peace. Fantastic.
We left one of our party at this point. Charlotte was a fascinating lady from Cali, who as she hit 60, decided that she wanted to do the walk before she got too old (she was as fit as a butchers dog so didn’t need to worry). She was hugely enthusiastic about the flora and fauna, knew heaps about the local people and spoke good English. She was the owner and manager of the only tea plantation in Colombia, and the producer of Hindi Tea, which is everywhere over here. She also had a fascinating background, having worked in the arts, attended theatre school in London and lectured at Bogotá University until the murder of her brother by guerrillas forced her home to takeover the business (as I say, you don’t have to look far to find someone effected by the ‘violence’ and another of the group had had her father kidnapped). She had opted for the 5 day option which just means you go back slower, but her knowledge of local culture gave her the opportunity to stay in the lost city for the remainder of the day, when she would have had the place completely to herself.
Meeting the Mamos
The return journey became a bit of a man-off, and whilst as I said, I am not competitive, the pace was pushed more and more. One of the youngsters approached Liz and I at the end of a particularly steep ascent and complained that it wasn’t fair that we drank so much beer, got to the top ahead of the others and didn’t seem to sweat (he didn’t realise that my clothing hid the fact I was soaking and that mostly I dried off in the 10 mins waiting for the other to catch up). I advised him that that perhaps he needed to drink more beer.
On the last morning we set off about 45 mins before dawn, first to tackle the hardest hill, and then get home. Just how isolated we had been struck home when we began to see the odd farm house or fenced field. Both Liz and I felt sad to leave the comparative peace of the jungle. I celebrated Aussie new year with a beer at a very inappropriate hour, then continued with the ‘man off’ until Carlos and I found ourselves running with our backpacks for the last hour. We won! So we drank more beer.
Liz was the only women to complete the whole thing, the other three opting to jump on the back of moto taxis that by some miracle manage to navigate the few km closest to the village that marks the start of the walk.
It was lovely to have her along on the walk; not only is she good company but also has that wonderful military self reliance that means I could be comfortable completely ignoring her well-being for the entire trip after being reminded that the only response I would ever get to ‘are you ok?’, would be ‘Yes, of course”.
We headed back to Santa Marta a few hours earlier than anticipated - back to see Jodie and celebrate New Years Eve.
266 floors, 304 floors, 217 floors, 274 floors. That’s the readout from my iPhone health app for the 4 days walking to the lost city. We had chosen the right walk to accept that J ‘fucking hates hills’ and should stay in Santa Marta whilst Liz and I walked to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City). I think about 60% of it was very steep up and down, 10% flat and the rest a form of gradient. The paths are rather challenging too, some being slippy clay, some being sand/dust and all suffering from erosion (in some places the path had sunk about 3 metres). Liz (someone who knocks out a 4.20 marathon with no training, does 100km ultra marathons and is essentially as fit as a butchers dog) and I agreed that, where some walks claim to be challenging, and would only be so if you were 90 years old or had a 20 burger a day habit, this one met its claim.
In our group were Wilson, a local guide who had been involved with the site since about 1986, our translator Jeremy, a charming young German who had fallen in love with a Colombian, moved to be be with her and then learnt Spanish (I am trying to work out if not being able to understand a word your wife is saying is a plus or a minus) and 6 energetic, fit and friendly Colombians, of which the three males had known each other since primary school. They were an Instagram friendly bunch; the boys only body hair was the manly growth that appeared after 24 hrs, they did pull ups at every opportunity, threw themselves off the highest points they could find into the natural pools we found along the way and lacked any body fat. The girls were always glamorous, at least one had a change of swimming costume with her and make-up seemed to be non-negotiable, even for the 5am starts. I felt every bit the sagging old man that I am and I let Liz know she was letting the side down by not wearing at least a cocktail dress for our evening meals.
The walk itself is absolutely wonderful. At the end of day one we arrived at the first camp which marked the end of civilisation. From this point on only mule or foot transport was possible and the land was the preserve of the local tribe of indigenous people. On the route there were camps, a few shacks selling water, chocolate, crisps etc and the odd isolated indigenous farm, mostly made from local wood and palm leaves. The camps we stopped at each night offered a reasonable amount of comfort; electric light for a few hours, cold showers, loos that on occasion flush, good, healthy and filling meals and beer for sale (which got more expensive the further we went, but at its most expensive was still less than AU$4 or £2, despite it having to be transported by donkey for 2 days). Hurrah for beer. The beds were in large open dorms and had reasonable mattresses, clean under-sheets and very efficient mosquito nets around them. As the camps were always near the river, we fell asleep and woke to the sound of water…….. and snoring………and farting.
Between the camps, we walked for up to 8 hours each day, up and down hills through deep jungle, seeing parrots, the odd toucan, a baby snake and some hummingbirds. We stopped at crystal clear natural pools in rivers or at the base of waterfalls at least once a day to cool off (hence my rather creepy knowledge of body hair and swim suits) and whilst there were probably about another 120 people on the track going one way or the other, were largely on our own.
We’ve all seen the pictures of dodgy estates in the UK where people have Christmas light wars each year and light up the place so that you can see it from space. Over the top, a bit naff, brightly coloured and confuse the innocence of Christmas with the gaudiness of a Vegas lap dancing club.
Take this principle and apply it to a whole country, and you get to understand a little what Colombia is like at Christmas time. Now, I like OTT Christmas, so I loved this. Every town square is awash with lit-up stuff, some relevant – like the Three Wise Men, others less relevant – like Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage pulled by creatures born via a love match between rabbits and tigers. Every apartment block is covered with lights and every street has a least half a dozen houses with enough of them to keep a nuclear power station working hard. It’s wonderful.
Then there are the fiestas that I have already mentioned. Every night, everywhere, you sleep to the sound of at least two parties, all listening to pretty much the same stuff. This party loving nation comes into its own at Christmas.
We got to spend Christmas proper in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. It is a mix of well preserved colonial architecture in the walled city, Miami like towers along the beaches of Boca Grande and the Favelas at the edge of town. It is known as a place to celebrate Christmas and every fucker goes there. It’s packed.
We were meeting our friend Liz there, who was spending three weeks in Colombia, and between the three of us we decided to spend a little more than our normal budget on an apartment and ended up on the 40th floor of the tallest building in Boca Grande with views of the sea, the bay, the old city and the new bits. It was worth every penny.
We got about a bit whilst there, visiting the quiet and well put together bird park and the busy but beautiful Playa Blanca for a day, joined a tour of the old city and caught up on some running. The best bit was the people watching.
There are plenty of foreign tourists there as it is very much on the ‘top things to do in Colombia list’ but loads and loads and loads of Colombian tourists too. The main activities seemed to be walking around looking at lights, drinking beer (but never misbehaving), eating (often at street stalls) and taking selfies in front of the lights, the buildings etc. On the evening of Christmas Day we went to the old and less well developed area of Getsemini which had a mix of people very much in favour of locals. In one square there was a number of good food stalls, people selling beer and hundreds of people milling around. We decided that we were peckish and settled on ‘stuff’ coming from the most popular stall. To get ‘stuff’ involved an undignified scrum that required a level of intimacy with strangers that makes Englishmen a tad uncomfortable. I was in that scrum for about thirty minutes. I was delighted to make it close enough to the front to order and chuffed that I think I even asked for what I wanted. All this within about 10 minutes. The next 20 minutes were a little less satisfying as I stood in a crowd that alternated between periods of mad activity followed by lulls. It turned out that they did things in waves; a wave of just making burgers, a wave of hotdogs and a wave of ‘stuff’. I had hit the stall at the end of the ‘stuff’ wave and the fact that I was close and had ordered counted for naught…….. I withdrew, sweating, overly familiar with strangers……and defeated. Liz then went to a different place and we ate something a little less popular.
As we wandered around the small streets it was difficult to differentiate between bars and peoples houses. Both had blaring music, both looked welcoming and both had lots of people sitting outside on plastic chairs drinking beer and rum. The key difference is the reaction you get if you walk in and ask for a beer!
We ate reasonably well in Cartagena and even got to eat in a womens prison. There is a great initiative that involves talented chefs teaming with a charity to teach inmates cooking and service skills that can be of use on ‘the outside’. The restaurant is attached to the prison and is called Interno. The idea is great, the food is reasonably good and the service … well, it is functional. All for a very high price, and three courses that you must get through in an hour or less. I wouldn’t say don’t do it, but I would advise you write it off as doing your bit for a good cause.
Being in Cartagena felt like a very different experience to the rest of Columbia; more touristy, more glitzy and much hotter. It is worth going to but I would recommend avoiding Christmas and New Year.
We hired a car and driver to take us from Cartagena to our next stop, Santa Marta. The car that arrived seemed a little poorly and proved just how poorly it was when we stopped off at ????, herd a bang then saw the radiator coolant pour all over the road. We then had 2 hours to wait for a replacement car, fortunately we were near a bar so all was well.
San Andres and Providencia Islands are confusing. They are in the middle of the Caribbean, closer to Nicaragua than Colombia and once home to pirates. They were, for a short time, British (1629-1641) and despite the fleeting-ness and distance in time of this, the Brits left a lasting impression on the place. This means that those who consider themselves proper locals speak Creole, English and Spanish and have that order of preference. They aren’t so keen on speaking Spanish. However, lots and lots of people only speak Spanish. Most of those who speak Creole and English are very dark skinned, but not all dark skinned people here speak Creole and English. So, to start to speak to a black person in English may look a little ignorant if they are native Spanish speakers but would seem polite and thoughtful to a Creole/English speaker. Worst of all, we can find ourselves stumbling through a conversation using our bad Spanish only to discover the other party is a fluent English speaker. As I say, all very confusing.
The Islands feel very, very different from mainland Colombia. Every gorgeous beach has a shack selling cocktails, Reggae music is everywhere and everybody eats fish. San Andres is reasonably well established with shops you would recognise, great quality restaurants, an Airport etc. Providencia is much less developed and is beautiful for it. The beaches are pretty much deserted, the restaurants and bars are literally just shacks, everybody is very laid back and they go horse racing on the beach. It is a little scruffier too; there is a reasonable amount of rubbish in the villages, abandoned cars and motorbikes and lots of homes that need TLC. The beaches are clean though, the water is incredibly beautiful and it is safe. I think the locals not directly involved in the tourist trade are a bit less happy to see tourists than they are on the mainland but I get that; tourists can be annoying.
We had a day with a man called Harley in his small boat on a tour of the island, visiting small beaches, the incredible Crab Cay and the reef. Snorkelling is great as the water is so clear and apart from lots of small tropical fish, we saw a turtle, a sting ray and a big bloody thing that I don’t know the name of. J, who is not keen on fish, stayed remarkably calm throughout all of this and only tried to drag me under a couple of times.
We were staying in a small Posada above a shop in South West Bay. I chose this place because South Wets Bay has the best beach, a couple of good places to eat and, if you are lucky, horse racing on the beach. Normally this is on a Saturday and we thought we would miss it, but due to a bad weather forecast, it was brought forward to Friday. There are only two races and the same two horses in both, and it is a fantastic spectacle; tens of locals getting excited, tourists looking bemused and two incredible beasts thundering down the water line. Wonderful.
At night, the front of the shop below becomes a local hang out and a huge set of speakers, the kind that could keep a warehouse full of drugged up teens making shapes until dawn get wheeled out to blast out music to the half a dozen customers, and I really do mean blast. I popped down to get some lemon Fanta (a great mixing with gin in the absence of tonic) and could barely hear the lady behind the counter. I was amazed that the two old men sitting no more than 4ft in front of the big speaker, just starring at them, did not have blood pouring from their ears. Luckily, this frivolity ends at about 10.30 and our room was very peaceful.
I also got to see a local butcher experience in the village. Just down the hill, on a bit of wasteland, a whole skinned cow appeared and I think that locals turned up, pointed at the bit they wanted, it got hacked off then shoved in a bag. V glad J missed out on that.
On the subject of good restaurants, I was temporary custodian of some rather wonderful lobster from a popular place up the road. I say temporary as I think it was inside me for about 45 mins, which is a shame but is rather good for weight management. I don’t think it was bad lobster, but clearly something didn’t agree with me.
My stomach was tested on two other occasions; getting between the two islands. Normal mid sized planes fly from a number of Colombian cities to San Andres, but the hope to Providencia is a little less well served. There are two flights a day on very small planes (less than 20 seats I think) and they were full when we tried to book a month in advance. The other option is the Catamaran Ferries that depart twice a day as well, one boat having about 50 seats and the other 70. They are not posh. Think about sitting in a down at heal cinema, based in an old porta-cabin that you could drown in, and you pretty much have the picture, The journey takes between 3 and 5 hours, depending on the weather and the worse the weather is, the longer you have to endure it.
My image of the Caribbean Sea is a crystal clear flat thing but this is rather wrong, as I discovered as we battled away from San Andres in the early morning, with our cinema (playing Wonder Women on the TVs on a loop) getting tossed around from wave to wave. The picking started about 2- mins out and continued until we were in the lee of Providencia (J and I are blessed with reasonably cast iron stomachs so were able to read, sleep and occasionally feel uncomfortable). I felt sorry for the crew member whose whole journey was spent collecting sick bags). The way back was a little better as we were going with the wind and swell, but if we were to go again, we would book the plane 6 months in advance.
When will everything stop being so beautiful? If you like green hills, mountains, small villages with charming squares surrounded by cafes, lush countryside everywhere, windy roads, flowers and interesting wildlife, it is hard not to love pretty much everything we have seen.
Our trip from Medellín to Cali took us mostly south via two nights in Jerico, one near Santa Road de Cable, another two in Filandia, in the heart of the coffee region and a final one in Cali airport so we could catch an early plane to San Andres. We almost had a night in Salento to meet our friend Liz until Booking.com informed us we already had a booking in Cali Airport for that day and we realised the FTs had lost track of time……
Jerico is a little like Jardin; a reasonably sized hill town, surrounded by gorgeous hills, coffee plantations and stunning views. It has a square that is the centre of activity and at this time of year is the home of more Christmas lights than a council estate in Swindon. It has a big ugly church, a smaller lovely church, a steep hill overlooking it with a big Jesus on top and, perhaps best of all, a convent where the nuns make wine and biscuits.
We met the nuns early, buying a bottle of ‘nun juice’ and some biscuits through a barred window in the entrance hall to the convent. It felt like buying drugs in a crack house, except that the drug dealer was a kind old lady dressed as a penguin and the house was a very quaint and clean convent. So probably not like buying drugs in a crack house at all.
Nun juice is lovely. It is organic, a little cloudy and tastes like a good port. On day one, we bought a bottle. On day two, as we left, we bought two more. They have now gone. We are now in search of more nuns coz we want their juice!
When not getting obsessed with the above we went on a tour of the town in a tuk-tuk with a guide/driver (James) and an interpreter (Elvis). The village has an interesting couple of museums (one containing the biggest nativity we have ever seen), craft shops that make the most extravagant ‘man bags’ you will ever see, homemade sweet shops, the aforementioned churches, the most spectacular views and a coffee shop that also sells hats (J and I now have new hats). Not on the tour, but seen on independent wanderings are some great restaurants, a lovely botanical garden, a bar that has tango and lots of beer and people who come into town on their horses for a beer.
The hills thing makes running a little difficult but the owner of the hotel we stayed in gave me directions to a ‘reasonably flat route’ which was only reasonably flat if you normally live halfway up Everest. After running down hill for 3 out of the 4.5km out, I knew that he had been mistaken and that the trip home would be a bit crap. It was. On the upside, I met a man with three horses who stopped me for a chat and a man who shouted from his house for me stop, asked where I was from and what I was doing, then gave me a round of applause when I told him. Nice people.
Next stop was the thermal springs at Santa Rosa de Cable which sit at the northern edge of the coffee zone. We have had varied experiences with thermal springs around the world and too often they involve people soup made from people who don’t share our view of considerate behaviour and water that stinks. Standing in a muddy car park waiting for the ticket hut to open, we didn’t expect too much of these ones but were pleasantly surprised. There is a lovely stream side walk to the baths, a beautiful 120m high waterfall as a backdrop and 4 polls to lounge around in. At opening time it was lovely and peaceful but by 10.30 on a Saturday, when we left, if was getting rather busy.
The Thermal Springs and Around
Further south our next target was Finlandia, a less touristy version of the very well known Salento, but on a weekend it is still full of local tourists, a small market and lots of noise. It sits in incredibly beautiful countryside that can be best seen from the farther ugly viewing platform on the edge of town that looks a little like a DIY spaceship. It is a great place to watch the sunset and drink the last of your supply of nun juice.
We also went on a really good coffee tour to a local farm. It is rather simple set up; we hopped in the back of one of the iconic Willys Jeep taxis with a guide and went to a very small farm (about 70 trees) and learnt about the whole process, from planting the seeds to drinking the coffee. Part of the experience is peeling your beans, roasting them, grounding them, then turning them in to a cuppa. Some of this was done in a small shed that needed a bit of TLC and in which we had to stoop to prevent the old y-fronts on a washing line from masking our view. It was an interesting experience but we concluded it is all rather a lot of hassle for a cuppa and provision of our morning brew is best left to bearded people in coffee shops!
On a Saturday evening the town comes alive and whilst sitting outside a bar we got chatting to a lovely couple, Diego and Anna, who could tolerate chatting to us in our bad Spanish and took us to a little bar off the square that featured beer and dancing: it was the kind of place we wouldn’t have gone into by ourselves. We both had a dance and I confirmed the fact that my hips must be fused as they have so little movement, especially compared to rubbery Colombians.
On our final day we went to Cali via Salento and the Valle de Cocora with it’s majestic wax palms which grow up to 45m high. J and I decided to do the 12km circuit walk the anticlockwise ‘challenging’ route as we were told that once you got through the really challenging bit, it was just down hill, rather than the up-down clockwise route. They were right and I was reminded just how much J hates walking up hills. I took a bit of time out to consider if, over the past 25 years of holidaying together, J has actually liked a hill walk. Snowdonia, the long route to Machu Picchu, Mount Kinabalu, a jungle trek in Malaysia…… and many others………she hated them all. It is important to finally accept this. In a week or so I am trekking to a lost city in a national park on the Caribbean coast. The trip takes 4 days and has hills and rivers. I am doing it with a friend, Liz. J is staying in a nice hotel nearby!
We got to Cali airport just after dark and settled into our functional room in the hotel in the terminal, with a sense of relief I returned our hire car in one piece, we brought an overpriced bottle of wine and some fast food in the airport food court and got ourselves ready for the Caribbean leg of our Adventure.
The Wax Palms and Solento
If you look at beautiful or interesting things all the time, you stop seeing them. When I used to jog through Hyde Park in London on my way to work, I found it odd that tourists were fascinated by squirrels. In the UK, grown-ups seldom notice wonderful robins are (though I had a great relationship with the one who used to help me garden in Etchilhapmton). In Australia, parrots, cockatoos and kangaroos are not that special. If you see them everyday for most of your life, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge may no longer things to marvel at. They are just there. I am sure that if you spend enough time in the Antartica you may get bored of penguins, though this is less likely.
The wonderful thing about travelling is that we get to see so many things for the first time and see the full wonder of them. We can get excited about the little things. Driving through the Colombian countryside, is incredibly special, as was driving around Corsica, floating down the Nile and seeing the Douro Valley outside Porto. Seeing hummingbirds, watching skilled horseman taking their beasts to the boozer of an evening, witnessing just how much Colombians love Christmas, sitting outside an ordinary café talking about very basic things in very basic Spanish to a stranger, these are all things that after a while are simply normal but for us are incredibly special.
We get many wonderful benefits from travelling, and the icing on the cake is getting daily joy from the simple things. Travel more.
J buying flowers for our lovely Spanish teachers
With a last wash of our pants in our very own washing machine, we crammed our lives back into our backpacks, bought flowers for our lovely teachers (in Spanish), loaded our hire car (the collecting of which took 5 hours of our lives away…. Top Tip: do not use Expedia. They are really really shit. Cheap, but really, really shit) and waved goodbye to the wonderful city of Medellin.
Medellín is what Egypt isn’t. If you want historical marvels and desert sunsets, don’t come here. If you want your days filled with bouncing from one museum or ancient site to the next, don’t come here. If you want to be hassled by thriving tossers every time you step on the street and witness gender inequality everywhere you look, don’t come here. If you like expensive beer and shit wine, don’t come here. Well, the wine is a little expensive here, but the practically free beer compensates for that.
Medellín has been about the people and the experience of being in a different culture. In a month we felt like we were really getting to know the place....... or at least the bits we hung about in......
I’ve covered Spanish classes already, but they were a very important part of the experience as the teachers weren’t just teaching us the language, they were helping us understand the country, and the more we learnt, the more we liked it.
Outside the classes, 99% of our experiences with other people have been fantastic, 0.9% just ok and the final 0.01% was a Trump voter from the US who told everyone he had a Maserati and thought all immigrants were bad people. He was a c**t.
Colombia seems to be a kind society that looks after family, where often men stand for women on public transport, no matter if they are young or old, where people queue nicely (at least in Medellín.... we have been in a few undignified scrums since we left the city), where people go out of their way to help others. They are happy to see tourists and they are proud of their city. Pretty much everyone that we have spoken to for more than 30 minutes has given us their number and made us promise that if we had any problems or needed any help, we would contact them.
It is a clean city, not because the council employs an army of people, but because very few people drop litter and most go out each day and sweep the street outside their homes. They pick up their dog poo, they use bins, they think about their environment.
We have sat outside bars watching happy people enjoy life in any way they can and have seen lots and lots of great behaviour. In some of those bars, we have been a novelty and very much welcomed by the locals. One guide told us that Colombians have an off switch for their memories; bad memories don’t exist, so if the present is good, they are happy. The same guide asked us to consider if in our own countries we really had so much to complain about.
There is noise, colour, music and laughter everywhere. In December it is more than everywhere somehow. Everywhere plus…….not always great at 1 am…..
We loved the Museum of Antioquia, with it’s lashings of Botero. We loved the ability to get to Parque Avi so easily. We loved the other small bits of sightseeing we did. But what we really really loved was just being in the city, meeting people and living a different life. People wanted to talk to us and they are interested and interesting.
All this, plus having had a ‘routine’ for a month (i.e, not living out of a backpack and having the discipline of school) means that we leave recharged. It is sad to leave but we know we have great adventures ahead.
Some more of the wonderful Botero.
I got to know Medellín a little through the Netflix show ‘Narcos’. For me the series has a perfect balance between history, action, social commentary and boobs.
Through it I knew a bit of the history of Pablo Escobar and was happy to visit the ruins of his holiday house in Guatape. On that tour the guide said that people in Medellín were a little funny about Escobar and many tours won’t even mention his name.
A few days later, we went on the ‘Free City Tour’ in Medellín, which is exactly what it says on the tin, and only a tip is asked for (they recommend 20-40,000 COP per person, which is about AU$8-16, for a really great 4 hours tour. I strongly recommend it.) It takes you through the downtown area of the city, which is a mass of humanity and history and the guide helps you really understand the city’s past.
The pre 1970’s history is pretty simple; the conquistadors came, didn’t find gold, set up a capital 80km away in, the very hot, Santa Fe de Antioquia, and stayed there until they realised it was too bloody hot (it took us half a day to work that out). The railroad then came to Medellín, government went there and it rapidly expanded. Some of the expansion was planned (in the valley) the rest was not (the favelas in the hills).
The hills and the valleys
By the 70s there were millions of people, most of whom were living in poverty with no government support………… and the world (and in particular the good old US of A) discovered cocaine. In the background, left wing organisations were fighting for the rights of the poor, right wing organisations were fighting to stop communism and the government were fighting the left, right and narcos.
The 70s to the late 90s were really horrible for Medellín and mostly civilians suffered. At its peak, Medellin had a murder rate more than 3 times higher than the most dangerous city on earth right now. Can you imagine that? I am sure no one would dream of going to any of the top 10 in the world right now and this place was 4 times worse.
Medellín was particularly bad because of one person; Pablo Escobar, so you can see why they are not so keen on him. One of our teachers’ brothers was killed when serving his national service in the army, another person we met lost her uncle. You do not have to look far to find someone affected by the conflict. Some are angry about shows like Narcos. They feel that the young don’t understand the reality and now aspire to the narco lifestyle. Others feel that whilst he was a bad man, he built some houses for the poor, so that’s ok…… “How many houses make up for killing your family?” was the question posed by our guide. Most hate him.
Botera’s take on Escobar’s death
After his death in 1992, things began to improve, but it took a while. Successive hard arsed governments and some genuinely inspiring government investments have turned Medellín into a lovely city, though one still with challenges.
The metro, mentioned earlier, is a huge deal. It really does break down the invisible barriers between rich and poor areas and provides an affordable lifeline to a better future. The locals love it and respect it. You will not see a cleaner metro system outside Japan.
In the centre, they are cleaning the place up. The old market area, once only used by prostitutes, criminals and the homeless is now a lovely public space. There are public libraries with computers for all to use and free classes. There are shared bikes that are free for an hour and that people use to get from A to B on cycle routes. These bikes do not end up in rivers or get trashed at the bike racks.
It is not finished yet though and outside one of the old churches is the area the prostitutes now hang out. Why outside a church? Well, as the guide said, a man can come along, take a women to a local ‘love hotel’, then confess his sins all in one very convenient location, then start again. The joys of being a Catholic……
We got up close to the favelas on a tour of the area known as Comuna 13. This was, until quite recently, the most dangerous part of the worlds most dangerous city and was ruled by the drug gangs. In the late 90s, two large scale military operations tried to take control of the area. Both failed and many civilians died or disappeared. Then the government tried something new. They invested in the community. We are not talking huge bucks; building a library and a school, putting in escalators so that people can get up the hills more easily (there are no roads after a point), building a reasonable footpath etc. The residents did the rest and now it is safe enough for it to be a significant tourist attraction and people come there to learn about the history, see how 60% of the cities population live and look at the rather great street graffiti.
Seeing how a city can turn itself around really is inspiring. It is not perfect. I think there is still corruption, narcos still exist, crime is high compared to the places most of us were lucky enough to be born in and many still don’t have the basics, but it is changing rapidly and with the support of the majority. If you live in a nice area with all the amenities you need, you pay extra to subsidise investment in the areas that have nothing and as far as we can see, people understand the need for this.
I can’t help but contrast this approach to the austerity of the UK, that is causing the gap between rich and poor to widen, that sees library’s, public toilets and parks shut in the most needy areas and sees crime rates rising. Do we need to hit rock bottom before we understand a different approach may be better? I am not being a foaming at the mouth commie here. I am not suggesting that Buckingham Palace should become a hostel for the homeless and it’s gardens allotments, only that in a society that has some of the richest people in the world, that could ensure that the richest were bailed out in the banking crisis and has so much spare money that we can decide to have a poorer UK for the next fifteen (to fifty years) as long as it means we ‘take back control’ (whatever the fuck that means), can probably afford to not have increasingly large amounts of people going to food banks, can probably afford to have fewer homeless and should be ashamed that there is an increase of children below the poverty line. (I know I live in Oz now (which is not far off the UK in its approach to those less well off) so shouldn’t go on, but I love the best of the UK and am sad to se it destroy itself).
Some of the reward of travelling is not just seeing the lovely stuff but learning about how others live, how a good society can develop for all and just how lucky we are to have been born in developed countries.
The bird on the left had a bomb put in it, which killed 30. The artist Botero insisted it stayed in place and he donated a new one. He wanted to acknowledge the past and show the future was better.