We flew into the warmth of Colombia's capital, Bogota, at 11pm. We took a taxi into the city, as public transportation wasn't highly recommended that late at night. As we made our way through the winding streets of Bogota, I could see why. Bogota had a definite presence of a street-active population. Graffiti coloured closed shop doors and gates, men were rummaging through garbage, and it was the first time we've seen a homeless population like we were "used" to back home.
We stayed in the old cobblestoned centre of the city, La Candelaria, and arrived at LimaLimon Hostel around midnight. It was a cute, small and cozy but eclectic space (with breakfast included!)
In the morning, we got up to our free breakfast, and explored the city of Bogota! The historical centre was beautiful and much of the core was made up of pedestrian walking streets. The weather was much warmer than our extended time in Bolivia and Peru so we were ecstatic, however, Bogota is still very high elevation so not quite the heatwave we were hoping for!
Of course, after so much walking we worked up an appetite again. We decided to dive into some cultural dishes of the country!
We sought out the popular and highly recommended restaurant, La Puerta Falsa, established in 1816, for Colombia's most traditional dishes. I ordered a hearty ajiaco which is a traditional thick soup with potatoes, chicken, avocado, and corn. For Carter, he tried the huge portion of tamale which is a mixture of meat/chicken, potato, vegetables and corn wrapped in a plantain leave and then boiled. To finish off the meal we shared a super rich, super-Colombian, hot chocolate con queso!! Yes, you dip a hunk of cheese into the creamy hot chocolate and enjoy... surprisingly delicious, however, do NOT attempt this immediately after a huge meal, we were stuffed but super satisfied!!
We went to the base of Monserrate, a beautiful old church that sits high above Bogota on a mountain peak. You can also hike up the stone-set path to Monserrate like the locals do (for both fun and exercise) without any additional costs, so in the true spirit of budget-backpacking, that is exactly what we did!
It takes approximately 1-1.5 hours up and approximately 45 minutes down. Remember to allot more time if you are not accustomed to being 3,200m above sea level.
When we finally got to the top, it was incredibly breath taking - the entire property was so beautiful with pristine grounds and gardens surrounding the stark white church. I recommend doing this hike for anyone visiting Bogota!
As I said, its on top of Bogota! Here is little Cartesy sitting on top of the world!
Instead of walking back down in the dead heat of the day, we opted for a oneway ticket on the tram.
We did a bit more exploring when we got back down... and Carter did a lot of playing with the birds in the central square (yes, I found this weird as well... but everyone was doing it so "when in Bogota!")
"Good times were had" -Carter
To cool off, we stumbled upon a seriously delicious Colombian chain, Crepe and Waffles, which has locations all over the city (and country). The best part is that it hires only women heads-of-households (single mothers) for its staff and it has the BEST ICE CREAM EVER.
San Gil (pronounced San-Hil) was our first destination outside of Bogota in Colombia. It was 7 hours from Bogota by a speedy, crazy, drawn out and mountainous bus ride (as per usual). San Gil is known as the adventure sports capital of Colombia, so obviously we had to check it out. This was it!!! OMG, finally it was here again...we arrived in San Gil to be greeted by SUNSHINE and 25 degrees celsius...happiest day of my life after being in high altitudes and hiking mountains!!!
San Gil was a little town, with a beautiful big square, that really had everything you could want or need. It was the perfect size to really enjoy yourself for a few days; not many tourists, local fruit markets, great food and...A MALL!! We immediately booked our chosen sports to do while in the area: white water rafting and paragliding...
We chose to go white water rafting in Rio Suarez which is considered the best and longest rafting adventure in Colombia. It is a 20km river track that has 4-5 level rapids. If you're reading this and you're not familiar with rapid levels and they're difficulty... NEITHER WAS I! Carter had rafted before in Thailand, but I was unaware of the WILD surprise that awaited in the river. Sh*t was about to get real!
We were debriefed on the safety and rules of rafting on land before we were even allowed out on the boats; I was thankful for this as sometimes (read: most of the time) the safety regulations around activities and adventure sports are pretty lackadaisical in developing countries. After a 30-40 minute debrief, we were told we had to lift the boats into the water - definitely harder than it seems, being a blow up dingy. Our coach strapped on his contraption to the end of the boat, in order to essentially be our human propeller and steering force. We were then told how to maneuver our feet to help us stay situated in the boat during heavy rapids (if we were lucky). As you can see, we have our front foot tucked in, and our back foot jammed underneath the seats and away we went!
This is us in Level 1 rapids, with only the instructions of "paddle, paddle, paddle, left only, right only, HARDER!" ..."VAMOS" to direct us through the river.
Before we really got going to the level 3 and 4 rapids, we were able to jump out to swim (admittedly, I had to "relieve" myself as I am sure everyone else did as well!)
And after the fun, we had to practice our safety rescues in case one of the crew did fall in during an intense rapid mishap. Thankfully, Carter was (and still is ;D ) my partner so he just hoisted me up no problem - and if he fell out, well.... good luck to ya Carter.
Below is our team, all celebrating a successful "training" and being ready to take on the rapids!
Our guide was amazing, with his knowledge and experience rafting, I had no doubt that we would make it through... until I actually saw what a level 5 rapid looked like. I jammed my feet to the front and back of me so hard, I think my knee caps should have popped out. The trick with rafting is the harder you paddle through a rapid, the best outcome you have to stay within the boat and successfully make it through the rapid. Thankfully, we had a great crew of 3 big guys, a super skilled Colombian semi-english speaking guide... and me.
We nailed all the level 4s, not without water up my nose, in my eyes and down my throat though, as Carter and I preferred the front of the boat (more adventurous, more laughs!) And then we came to our first level 5 rapids...ummmmm woah. Ahead of us were 3 other boats and a kayaker (staff member for quick retrieval if anyone did fall out.) We were the last boat in the que to take on these rapids. Looking ahead, I began to feel a little more unsure about what we had gotten ourselves into because these rapids were HUGE!! Hard hitting, fast water barreling toward rocks and drop offs. You could feel the sense of uncertainty in our once confident group (aside from our cheerful guide). The first boat goes and makes it through after paddling hard and navigating the best route... the second boat goes flying down and boom... launches one person out... now I am getting nervous, the possibility of falling out IS pretty real. The third boat goes and while gaining speed towards the middle of the rapids...KA-BLAMO! Shoots up and FLIPS OVER ENTIRELY, loosing it's entire crew, paddles yard sales across the river. Our guide quickly yells to us "OK, YOU FALL, TUCK IN AND RIDE DOWN LIKE THIS" as he crosses his arms and legs as if about to go down a water slide...SOUNDS GREAT, I'm thinking. I hear our guide yell "OK....NOW! HARD HARD HARD!" and I just think (or maybe I even said it out loud) "oh sh*t, here we go!"
Our objective was not only to get through the rapids, but help recover on the way through. Everyone had safely swam and floated to the banks of the river by the time we were paddling into the rapids. We were all instructed to lean out to grab paddles that were jostling in the waves - as we were still trying to paddle aggressively through the rapids! I actually managed to grab one, but it was our guide that caught majority of them. I was thrilled when all of a sudden they were done and we had made it through safely!!
By the end of the day, we were 2 hours out on the river, survived several high level rapids and had hurting faces from laughing and yelling so much! We docked at a sand bank, and the worst part of the entire trip, was now we had to carry the damn dingy UP a rocky/pebbly HILL to get them on the trucks. Not only are you SO thirsty, sun burnt, and extremely fatigued from so much paddling (not a movement or activity I have ever really participated in my life, let alone 2 straight hours of it!!!) now you have to carry a however-many-pound boat as you step on rocks in bare feet. GAH.
But at the end of every tunnel, there is light! In this case, the light was a massive buffet meal waiting for us at the top with beer included! Everyone just gorged themselves. We were taken back by truck, Carter and I rode in the front seat and we became best friends with our driver. He was very good at English but he didn't seem to think so, so he kept asking us words and how to pronounce things. Between English lessons, he showed us pictures of his daughter and wife, belted out some Colombian pop songs, and told jokes. We were exhausted and looking forward to getting back our hostel but this new amigo made the entire trip back so enjoyable.
When we got back, we R&R'd for a bit at the hostel and then went on our next adventure... finding dinner! We kept hearing amazing things about a restaurant in town called Gringo Mike's that had American style food, so we decided to go for a splurge and headed out to find this highly reviewed resto!
Well, it wasn't hard to miss... apparently I am engaged to the mascot!
We had UNREAL food; I had a huge curry burger and Carter had the famous burrito. Then we noticed the brownie being delivered to someone else's table... and ordered one with ice cream. Cie La Vie! A day to remember, my first time rafting, surviving it and celebrating a brownie with ice cream to top it off.
The next day we were bused to Chicamocha National Park for our both of our first experience of paragliding! The landscape was unbelievable, very small winding roads causing through vast valleys and canyons. Paragliding is a super finicky sport from our discussions with companies, as the wind conditions need to be just right and the weather has to be cooperative. Luckily for us, we had the most perfect day for it. San Gil and surrounding area had THE BEST weather we've seen in months.
Below is the take-off and landing pad that was on top of the massive canyon (one of many paragliding companies in the park, may I add.)
The pilots, as I learned they were called, like to take their passengers by weight - lightest to heaviest - so even though Carter was still a "skinny b*tch" from his weight lose in our first portion of the trip, I was up first!
Getting ready was pretty easy, they slap on your helmet for you (even though mine was way too small for my head as you may be able to see in the picture below), and hook you up to the pilot and VOILA! You're ready to run yourself off a damn cliff into the second largest canyon on earth! The only thing they really tell you is this that "bolso means bag, "if you want puke, you say bolso". I laughed and just said "no, no - I will be fine, no bolso gracias".
Looking like a true paraglidin' nerd:
To get going, you wait and wait and wait, until the crew feels the right breeze and screams "VAMOS VAMOS". My only responsibility is to run like my life depended on it and to not stop running until the pilot told me so. Well, I ran and ran and ran, and RIGHT when I was about to take my first step off the cliff, we got tugged back. The crew didn't like the way the wind was blowing and we had a false start. The huge parachute came crumpling in all around us and it felt like a total walk of shame turning around and walking back towards the strip. I looked to the side for Carter who was so eager to see me take off, to only see him laughing and throwing his arms up in the arm like "WTF MATE".
Not only was it stressful to have a false start, because I wasn't already nervous enough to hurl myself off a cliff, but the wind picked up in the way the crew and pilot wanted it to, and we were rushed to get running again! It all happened so fast, but the next thing I know I am running in thin air and we've already left the ground and are floating up and and up!
The experience was amazing, flying like an eagle would, using the heat thermo to push you higher and higher. It is crazy how quickly you were within the clouds (or so it felt). The only downside was to get that high and ride within the clouds, you are consistently twirling... after about 10 minutes gliding and with a helmet pinching my skull, I was experiencing motion sickness. The pilot kept trying to talk to me to tell me details about how Chichamocha was the second biggest canyon in the world, next to the Grand Canyon, and I could only kept focusing on how dizzy I was. Now I am regretting saying no to the bolso!
After 35-45 minutes, I actually don't know how long I was up there for, I lost track in my concentration to not puke, we were coming in for the landing. The pilot told me "feet up! feet up!" so I did as I was told and we came in for the smoothest landing of all time. The big bag on my butt really softened the blow.
Next up was Carter!
Carters take off was hilarious because he was running so hard with his little legs, when the ground came out from under him and they began to glide...his feet were still kicking, unsure if he was gonna make it! I died laughing and watched him disappear into the canyon and up. A very cool experience overall.
Carter's landing wasn't as smooth as mine, that's for sure. The pilot came in for a landing attempt and didn't commit, so then they couldn't get high enough to get back onto the landing strip due to winds changing, so he brought Carter back a little below the top of the cliff, and BOOM! Carter had a crash landing LOL It wasn't as bad as it may sound because I immediately laughed rather than having an "OMG" moment. However, they were coming in pretty fast when they hit the dirt on the side of the hill. When I found out Carter was completely fine and the bag still took the majority of the impact, I died laughing again. Just another one of those things that would happen to Carter.
We found a local spot that night that had THE BEST papas rellenas (Fried Potato balls with meat inside) we have ever had, with the best avocado hot sauce. We ate there a few more times while bumming around in San Gil. Overall, one of most extreme and relaxing places at the same time and worth a visit for anyone visiting Colombia!
The little colonial village of Barichara makes for a good day trip from San Gil. We kept hearing how beautiful this little village was so we decided to hop on a local bus that leaves every hour for Barichara! We immediately saw what all the hype was about. It was GORGEOUS! Extremely quaint and picturesque, sitting among the mountains.
^ a nice Colombian man was walking his cute little husky puppy and saw me taking a photo in the middle of the street. He asked me if I wanted to take a picture with the puppy, so OF COURSE I did!
In the village, other than walking around to admire the absolute beauty of the streets, buildings, flowers, and people, there were also some very cute boutique artisan shops to mosey in and out of. Another great option to keep yourself occupied is to do an easy, but super lovely, hike along a historic Spanish road to an even smaller village, Guane. So that's what we did!
After an hour or so hike, here we are entering the even smaller village of Guane, a beautiful "untouched" village:
Carter having a cold one with his relaxing amigos outside of a shop in Guane:
After moseying (yes, I keep saying moseying because the pace of these villages are so relaxingly slow, there was no need to do anything faster than a mosey!) we started our way back to San Gil to get to our next destination...
Villa De Leyva
Our next stop was Villa De Levya, a much more touristy version of Barichara but still, there has been very little development in the last 400 years (so I've been told) because there is no minerals nearby to exploit and the positives of that is that it is one of the few towns we visited in Colombia that has preserved its original architecture and style. The streets and large central plaza are still all cobblestone and the white buildings with brown trim are so completely charming. The town itself was declared a National Monument in 1954 to preserve all of it's original architecture. Thus making it a tourist attraction, and the fact that its much closer to Bogota! With any tourist town, there was plenty of interesting shops, delicious restaurants, and things to do.
As you can see, the main plaza and buildings are just so beautiful and trapped in a moment of time:
It also just so happened to be the tail end of the International Kite-flying festival in August when we were there, who knew??!! One of the mornings we went out exploring the town, an entire elementary school came out to celebrate and fly their own kites!
It was the cutest thing ever but it was absolute chaos! I got hit in the head by a couple kites, strings were crossing and getting tangled, kids were running everywhere, yelling and screaming, laughing and having an absolute blast outside. But in the chaos, it was so magical to see such a beautiful landscape and have all the vibrant colours floating in the sky, the children smiling and working together to get their kite in the sky.
We stayed in the plaza and watched the kids fly their kites, and laughed along with them, for about an hour... yes, the joys and pleasures of having no where to go and nothing to do while travelling... ( I MISS IT ALREADY).
Next, we inny-miney-miney-moe'd a street to start walking down and came across a Colombian show being filmed! I got a picture with all the soldiers. It was amazing to see them dressed in their colonial wear because their costumes completely fit the unchanged backdrop of Villa De Leyva.
We continued to walk, and walk, and walk. Eat, and then walk some more. And then retired to our hotel for the night, as we were quickly leaving Villa De Levya the next day.
Since our time in Colombia, Salento was THEE quintessential Colombian town I was envisioning; the buildings were stark white but SO colourful, friendly dogs running around the square, such great restaurants and people socializing and drinking at any time of the day.
We got to our "hostel", which definitely reflected the price. It was way down a hill, what seemed like a forgotten part of such a beautiful town. We seriously thought it was abandoned as there was NO one there - no guests, no staff, only a dog. We searched and yelled around for about 15 minutes before our hangriness took over and we just gave up to go back into town for some food. On our way through town, there was a lady on a corner handing out coupons for a new restaurant in town. Knowing us and our frugileness by now, you know we cannot turn away a deal! So the lady walked with us to show us where the restaurant is. On the way we asked if she knew anywhere to stay, because where we booked seemed to be empty and deserted. She got us to the restaurant and then said "uno momento!" and ran off. Next thing we know, she knew the owner of the hostel and had brought her out of the wood work, wherever else she was working, and told us that she would walk us back to the hostel when we were done dinner to check us in! Such a small little town vibe it was great.
Dinner was great, it was a cool eclectic-decorated place (my fave) and we got an additional discount for being patrons of our hostel! We still don't know how the two are connected but we didn't question it.
The next morning we did what everyone comes to Salento to do: visit Valle de Cocora! This portion of valley is a part of Los Nevados National Natural Park and is famous for it's Quindio wax palms, which are the national tree of Colombia.
To reach the valley, you have to hitch a ride in a willy (essentially an extended Jeep, see below) in the main square. It takes about 30 minutes to reach to Valley and then you're left to your own to explore the park.
Left alone to our own... without a map or really researching the park before hand... we ended up secretly following this very nice Belgium couple who rode in our willy with us. After following a good distance behind them for a bit, we eventually caught up to them and started a conversation. They didn't really know where they were going either but we both knew we wanted to go on the longer route, around the valley before getting to the wax palms (the main event of the trip). They were a great couple and on their honeymoon, Thais and Jan.
So, the four of us ended up walking together towards the path we thought we should be following. It was so lush, green and beautiful; we crossed little streams, rickety bridges, and saw our first toucan!
After climbing up and up the mountainous side of the valley, around the 3 hours mark, we finally get to this little farm which we think is this magically little cafe that serves really good cheese, as we've been hearing about from everyone on their way down the mountain. We get to this little man who was working the farm, who knows nothing about said queso, and he continues to tell us we cannot walk pass the farm to the Valle de Coroca or else it may take another 7-8 hours. We've walked for 3 hours UP hill, the WRONG way.
After admitting defeat, we turned around. The farmer asked us to close the gate on our way out so his horses wouldn't get out. We thankfully had bananas with us as snacks and since we didn't get our anticipated cheese, we were all SO hungry, so we took out the bananas and I devoured mine, Carter savoured his a little bit. By the time we got to the gate which is where all the horses were hanging around, Carter still had his banana. We all walked through the gate and Carter was last to go through but when he went to step through, a horse stepped right in front of him blocking his way. The horse then proceeded to EAT the whole banana right out of Carter's hands and wouldn't let him pass thinking he had more food to give! So Carter threw the banana peel away from the gate, the horse followed the peel, and Carter ran through slamming the gate right behind him. It was a great laugh. Another one of those things that just seem to happen to Carter.
After 4.5 hours, we finally reached the first view point of Valle de Coroca:
Another 30 minutes later, we were in the Dr. Suess looking wax palmas that stood towering over us. The landscape was incredible and must have been the inspiration for Dr. Suess' Horton Hears a Who trees!
We were all taking a rest and admiring the view, when Carter noticed someone on the same hill wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat, so of course Carter embarrassingly yells "LET'S GO BLUE JAYS!!". Dan, the guy wearing the Jays hat, yelled it right back at Carter. And with that, Carter went right into full blown conversation with these friendly Canadian strangers. We met Dan and Jackie, who were from Toronto, and Kayla and James from Edmonton. They all happened to have met by coincidence that morning and were also hiking together. We spent the rest of the day together and travelled back to town together, making sure we would go for dinner and drinks that night.
We all met up in the main square, kicked off the evening with a couple beers at a local bar and then made our way to a great restaurant. We had an awesome time getting to know everyone and had a fantastic evening. James, being the great guy he is, decided to surprised everyone by picking up the bill. After dinner we went back to the local bar and hopped around, to end the night where it started back at the main square...having some laughs and gathering a crew of local dogs.
They were such an amazing group of people who we are now all connected with on social media.
The next morning, Carter and I decided to wake up at the crack of dawn and catch the first willy back to Valle de Coroca. We thought we'd go directly to the palmas, rather than getting lost again, to take some drone shots because we couldn't get over how whimsical this landscape was.
We got some great shots in and managed a little photo shoot before the hikers and tourists came in.
Also, before this crazy cloud storm came rolling through. It made the entire valley look so ominous.
That night we sought out TEJO - the famous Colombian game! As normal as our bowling is, Tejo is the leisurely game for Colombians... made with packed gun powder and a couple rocks!
The packs of gun powder are the little white triangles on top of the steel ring that you can see in the picture below. The objective of the game is the throw a rock, hit the gun powder, and have it exploded on impact. Yes, EXPLODE. I think I peed in fright the first time one went off! It was a ton of fun and we played for a couple of hours.
The next morning we did the next most Colombian thing we could do, visit a family run coffee farm! We went with James and Kayla, and as you can see, James & Carter got along like two peas in a pod.. or two mustaches on one face, however you want to put it!
We chose to visit Finca De Don Elias; he and his family have been producing coffee for over 20 years after moving from Cali, Colombia. It was the only coffee farm that was still family run and owned, unlike all the other "plantations" nearby.
When we were dropped off, we had to walk down a narrow dirt driveway, and right away it was clear that this was not only a coffee farm but a family home as well. We were met by a few women sitting out front, a child in a diaper and a teenage boy. They were all family members of Don Elias, the grandfather and patriarch of both this family and the farm. Don came around the corner, much older than I anticipated, walking with a stick and a slight hunch, but man, was he fit and still going strong!
We were lucky enough to be given the tour by Don himself, who knew every inch of his land and the process of coffee from inception to filling your cup. We followed behind Don, along narrow grassy paths that were covered by tall... well, everything. They grew bananas to shade the coffee plants, avocados to help enrich the soil, yucas to help the coffee roots grow, and pineapples and oranges to attract the bugs away from the coffee and onto the sweet leaves of the citrus trees.
Don told us in Spanish (thankfully we had someone in our group who was studying abroad in Colombia and picked up more Spanish from watching Narcos LOL) that they had two coffee plants growing, Arabica and Colombiana beans. To my surprise, Don said that there was no real difference in the final product of the coffee, only that the colour of the beans were different.
He then showed us where the picked beans go to dry; it can take any where from a couple days in the summer's heat to a couple of months in the winter. This portion of the tour didn't last long because this plastic-tent was meant to roast coffee beans dry... and it was definitely working on Carter. I looked over after 30 seconds and he was red in the face with sweat pouring down. It was likely 40 degrees in there.
Don then picked Carter to grind the beans:
Don then prepared the ground coffee for us all to try. He was so meticulous in the way he filtered and stirred the coffee, and making sure the temperature of the water wasn't too hot as to not burn the beans.
Side note: this bag filter is THEE way to prepare the best cup of coffee. We used the same method during our long stay at a hostel in Costa Rica and fell in love with it!
And just like that, we had a 100% organic, farm to table, authentico cup of Colombian cafe sin leche! This was the first time I have ever had coffee black and it was deeeee-licious!
Don's farm produces anywhere from 3 to 3,000 kilos of coffee each year, depending on the weather but after the tour, we of course had to purchase a couple bags! We knew we were headed to Vancouver to stay with our friend Aidan at the end of this leg, and he's a coffee lover, so we got him a host-gift and ourselves a bag as well!
When we got back to town, we went for brunch at a place called Brunch! And O-M-G. If you're ever in Colombia, I would suggest you go to Salento for Brunch's blueberry pancakes, if for NOTHING else!!! They were the best I (or Carter, he of course had some) have ever had, on and out of this trip. DROOLING just thinking about them again! The owner of Brunch is from Bend, Oregon. He had a unique, stylized sombrero like the one Carter had just got in Bolivia so the two started talking about hats. He was a very cool and interesting guy; it ended up that one, Colombia has Costco?!?! WHO WOULD HAVE KNOWN! And two, his son was the inventor of Cretor's Chicago Mix popcorn sold at Costco in the big blue bags, but he just sold the company.... I was blown away that I knew a guy who knew a guy who CREATED THE BEST POPCORN OF ALL TIME!!!
After an amazing brunch, we walked around Salento, in and out of all the amazing stores of artisan trinkets. Then we came upon a set of super colourful stairs to a lookout over the town, so up we went!
Late that afternoon, we had a beer at local billiards club and sat watching the old men in a league play a different type of pool game, that we didn't really understand but were still intrigued to watch.
We got a chariactaure drawn for the fun of it... please scroll down to see the finished product LOL
Probably the best souvenir we got while in Colombia!
Remember those friendly dogs I told you about in the town square? One followed us home that night, so we put out some water and it slept out front porch all night. Colombia was one of the first places we realized that the stray dogs were actually looked after, disease free and friendly. This little guy was our favourite.
Our next stop was Medellin! I fell in love with Medellin during our first cab ride into the city, well, mostly into the city. Our cab popped a tire as he was driving us, so we had to get out and walk the rest of the way. But the city was incredible; it was as hip and trendy as Toronto but situated in a rainforest with a tropical feel, massive bamboo trees, rivers and rocks. There were streets and streets of restaurants, shops, clothing stores, bathing suit stores, vintage clothing stores, home decor stores, any type of store, Medellin had it! It is also known as the eternal spring city because the temperatures are like Goldilock's porridge, not too hot and not too cold.
We stayed in El Pablado, also lovingly referred to as Gringo Town; I will let yourselves make your own assumptions of why it's called that. On our first day we took FULL advantage of the nice cafes available to us. Availability is most definitely a luxury we've learned to be grateful for during this trip. The best part of Colombia? There was no shortage of amazingly delicious coffee! We bounced around having a bite to eat here and a drink there, all the way planning the rest of our trip which was now only a short month!!! To end our day of indulgence, we went to our last foreign mall, Santa Fe! Next to Lima's outdoor mall this was second best, so in my search for the best mall around the world, we were ending on a high!
The next day we went on a Comuna 13 free walking tour with Zippy Tours. A local guide, who lived in Comuna 13, took us on a half-day tour of what was once the most deadly neighbourhood in the entire world, in the most dangerous country in the world. As you can see, the neighbourhood has gone through, and is still going through, a massively positive rejuvenation. Ps. Moms, we're fine!
Our local guide was Lizeth; she had grew up in Comuna 13 and is a part of the new wave of the rejuvenation project. Comuna 13 is vibrantly painted with street art and graffiti that tells the history and story of the neighbourhood. Transformation, rebirth and hope are all reoccurring themes of the art you will see in Comuna 13 and for good reason. The area is no longer known for gang violence, police raids or cartels but now is known for it's street art, community groups and street performances (all to help kids stay out of the city's gangs and off the street.) They also built a metro cable and six outdoor escalators to make life in the comuna much more easy for residents and accessible to tourists.
As you can see, it sits on the side of the mountain looking out over all Medellin. It's a stunning view:
There are definitely people that go to do "dark tourism" activities in Colombia, but especially Medellin, but we were told over and over again do not let locals here you say "the criminals name" and if you are referring to him, refer to him as just that "the bad criminal". You all know what name I am talking about right?!
During our entire tour, we felt safe and very welcomed by the residents. The same feeling can be extended to the whole of Colombia. In every shop we went to, or restaurant we ate at, a local would always make it a point to stop and say "thank you for trusting Colombia and choosing to visit us, please tell your friends and family that is okay to come here again." It was a bit heartbreaking to hear over and over; the people of Colombia were so purely appreciative and grateful to have the trust of other countries starting to climb again.
The next day we did a day trip from Medellin to Guapte! The most colourful town in all of Colombia!
I know I've used the word beautiful a lot in this blog, so I am going to switch it up and bit say this town is EXQUISITE! So vibrant, so playful, so cheery and joyful! You cannot be unhappy in this town, especially with a giant ice cream cone in your hand which is exactly what Carter and I during our trip here.
Other than wandering through the most colourful town in Colombia, Guatape is also known for Piedra del Penol, the giant hundred step rock that sits just outside of town.
After conquering the 650 steps to the top, we were looking over what I called "Colombia's Muskoka". This was a sight for sore eyes for me as it reminded me so much of Ontario's cottage country and where my family's cottage is in Bracebridge. However, unlike Lake Muskoka, many of these lake systems were man made!
The sun was setting as we were leaving the rock and we made our way back to Medellin to meet Jackie and Dan (the Torontians we met in Salento) for dinner!
We spent the next day living up the city life before making our way to our next destination of Santa Marta.
We flew into Santa Marta (yes, we’re getting lazier when it comes to frugal land travel but the flights were only $30 more than the bus and would save us 15-17 hours of our life!) When we got to Santa Marta we were pleasantly surprised (yet overdressed) for the heat! I'm talking HOT heat. On arrival to the Caribbean coast it was 30 degrees but felt like 38. We checked into our hostel, which was beautiful decorated, white, airy and clean, so again we were pleasantly surprised, and headed out to get lunch.
We went to a local eatery right next door and ordered the la carte del dias (menu of the day) for only 12,000COP ($5.50) we got soup, grilled fish with fries, rice and salad, and a freshly squeezed juice! From there we had to re-seek refuge of our fans in our room because of the extreme heat, changed into lighter clothes and went out to explore the small town. The entire city is on the edge of the sea, if it weren’t for a great big ugly cargo port off in the distance, the city’s beach would have been beautiful. We then stumbled across some awesome looking vintage and bathing suit shops - where we found a Canadian, born & raised who played lacrosse in Oakville! It was also the last day for their buy one get one free bather sale, so you better believe I bough two beautiful one pieces as Carter talked to the Oakvillian! All made and designed in Colombia by Colombians, so I haaaaad to do it!
We then came across an artisan market/alleyway where old Colombian mamas were hand knitting bags and crafts. Customized Cartsies (another nickname I have dubbed for him as every chance he get to customize something, he takes it!) sprung into action and started formalizing a plan to get a customized colourful strap for his Bolivian customized sombrero. We picked the colours, Carter explained his vision for what it should look like in very broken Spanish but mostly theatrical hand actions, we left the hat with mama and hoped for the best! The next day we came back and it was perfectly finished! The work was so well done and they were knitting it right before our eyes, I wanted to support yet another Colombian trade so I bought a bag for my sister.
We decided to venture out to Tayrona National Park the next day; only a short hour from Santa Marta and it was supposed to house some of Colombia’s most beautiful untouched beaches. We heard “it was hot” in Tayrona, every single person who we had talked to previously about the national park said just that, “it’s hot”. So we were prepared for it “being hot” ... or so we thought. It was next level hot, scorching heat, I am comfortable saying that it was probably the hottest place we've been on earth this year! And not only the heat but you had to trek almost 3 hours before getting to the campsite! If we had travelled with our backpacks instead of only our day packs, I think we would have actually died.
Aside from the heat, the waterfall was beautiful! .... Just kidding, the only waterfall I saw was from Carter's forehead! The trek was beautiful; we went through the jungle, onto the rugged beaches, back into jungle and also saw indigenous tribe people along the way. They looked a lot like our indigenous native people who still lived their traditional way of life, wearing all white clothe.. now they sell coconuts to tourists... which is a super odd juxtaposition.
But after a non-stop 2.5 hours we emerged from the jungle to this:
TOTALLY WORTH IT. This is San Juan, the most popular camp site in Tayrona National Park. We rented a tent and were horrified to see that all the tents were just sitting out in the open under the blazing sun's heat. We dropped our bags and ran into the Caribbean Sea which was thankfully just cool enough that it was actually refreshing - but if you swam or exerted any energy in the water you would have started to sweat again. We finally had our restful and relaxing day on the beach! It was perfect and one of the more beautiful beaches we had been to all year.
The unfortunate part was we underestimated (aka we must have been reading old blogs before going) the cost of everything in San Juan, so we came in thinking we’d spend two glorious nights camped out on a national park beach when in fact we could only stay for one night. We would also have to ration our food/drink spending to make it out without starving the next day. I think we split a veggie fried rice for dinner and one bottle of water.
The other unfortunate part was that it was SO hot and sunny that come sunset and nightfall, the heat never cracked or lessened whatsoever. Again, I thought Carter may succumb to death by sweat. It felt like we were both breaking fevers all night. But this is how we woke up the next morning and I couldn't have dreamed up a better view... or feeling when we ran right back into the ocean for some relief.
We hung up the clothes Carter slept in to dry because they were drenched in sweat, and then enjoyed splitting one juice between us (hardships starve-ships of rationing). But we’re not complaining, it was a great experience overall and I would do it all over again (but with more money and supplies)!!
We packed up our stuff and started the trek out of San Juan and the National Park. We took a break after the first 30 minutes for a swim, a snorkel and a read on the zero-populated beach, our very own private beach if you will:
We lounged here for a couple of hours and headed out to the next beach, stayed there for another hour and then right in the strongest days heat and maximum sun exposure, started the 1.5 hour trek back to the exit of the park. Sweating.
Vacation Carter in full effect, taking in the last of the rays and relaxation before sweating himself to death on the way out:
We stayed over night once again in Santa Marta and were off to Minca in the mountains the next morning!
Minca is in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, just half an hour from Santa Marta. It's a hippy-vibe, sleepy, backpackers town and a refreshing change from Santa Marta's stale (but very welcomed) heat. In my opinion, there is only two things to do in Minca. The first is visit the "WORLD'S BIGGEST HAMMOCK".
We walked up the mountainous road for 1.5 hours in the pouring rain to get to the most underwhelming "BIGGEST HAMMOCK IN THE WORLD"; we actually thought we weren't in the right place at first and then staff kept assuring us, this was it!
The WORLD'S BIGGEST HAMMOCK is that little thing to the left of the frame below. Although the disappointment in the hammock size, we were not disappointed about the adventure getting there or the experience while there as it was an amazing view over the Sierra Nevada valley. Also, you got a free beer with your "ticket" to see the BIGGEST HAMMOCK IN THE WORLD! So, bonus?
The second thing you MUST do, and this is not being sarcastic after the let-down of the hammock, is eat every single meal at Lazy Cat. Oh my gosh, this restaurant can do NO wrong! We went for dinner, breakfast and lunch here. I feel kind of bad for not being adventurous like we normally are with food and the places we eat, but hell, it was too good to not eat there!
Also, while we were there we ran into and ended up having dinner with the very nice Singaporean couple who called us out in Machu Pichu for not having a Singapore flag on our bag!! I LOVE small world incidents!!
Also what made our trip to Minca that much sweeter was the father and son duo who were staying beside us at our hostel. Ricardo and Eduardo were from Chile; Ricardo, the son, was living in Minca learning how to play a very specific type of drum that Carter is holding in the below picture. Eduardo, the father, was in Minca visiting him for awhile. We sat, talked, sang and played music with them all night and really, really enjoyed their company. Okay fine, you got me, I did not join in on playing the instruments or singing, I would have created a really bad name for Canadian talent if I let my voice fly.
Ah, our last stop in Colombia and our last stop in a foreign city before heading back to North America! Crazy!!!
We were forced to splurge in Cartagena, the Miami of Colombia as people loving call it! We spent $50/night and stayed in one of thee coolest hostels that we’ve stayed in all year, The Clock Hostel. The "rooms" were inlets in the wall (less ideal) BUT they had a hot tub, best A/C, and even had a masseuse come in to give free 15 minutes massages! BONUS!
Cartagena is a beautiful city; so colourful, so colonial, so many shops and amazing looking restaurants (none of which we could afford nor had nice enough clothes to enter). Best of all... it was HOT. Unfortunately, we have very limited photos of it because our camera is acting up and won’t take pictures so hopefully we’ll get that fixed in the US! But if you want to see Cartegena, I suggest you go see it for yourself!! I think everyone can, and should, visit there in their lifetime! If the Real Housewives of New York can do it, so can you!
We met a nice Canadian couple who talked us into going to Playa Blanca in Baru Isle. A beach where we’ve heard it’s not worth going because the sheer hecticness of people... but they were pretty convincing and so we booked Ecohotel Hectar, one of the last hostels at the opposite end of the beach of where all the tourists and vendors are. We were excited at the prospect of getting a little slice of this heavenly beach to ourself... but then reality kicked in when we got off the bus and realized we had to walk 30 mins, in blazing sun, in middays heat, through soft sand with our big bags on our back and day backs in the front. It was PSTD from Tayrona. We were so sweaty it was ridiculous, and again just like Tayrona beach, we dropped our bags and jumped into the sea. Only this time, the sea was warm and wasn’t quite as refreshing as it was in Tayrona. We baked all afternoon, sun worshiping for the last few days of our trip! (I say this because it’s our last week in a developing country - once we hit LA we are half considering us to be home.)
Once we finally reached our 'hostel', I didn't move from this position...
Except to here...
And then we stayed like this...
Until sunset when I finally got up to take my last dip in the ocean:
And then we showered using a bucket at 8pm when the electricity came on again for the night...
And did it all again the next day!
After sweating for another 48 hours and not having electricity for 32 of those hours, we were able to book our last 2 nights at a fancy Cartegena hotel with points (thanks again Deb). So, we made our way off the beach of Baru and back into Cartegena to get to Bocagrande, the REAL Miami neighbour of Cartegena!
Our hotel was right on the seaside with luxury resorts surrounding us. Of course, we went grocery shopping before getting to the hotel so we could afford to eat for the next two days. Our grocery list consisted of the poor man's ingredients: crackers, tuna, avocado and an orange. That's all we would need as breakfast was included and we'd fast until our tuna cracker dinner!
Once we were set up in our rooms, we headed to the pool for the free welcome cocktail and a swim!
The most amazing part of this hotel is that it seemed to be a wildlife center too?! We saw a SLOTH walking, okay... crawling or almost dragging... itself across the patio, which we unfortunately just had our bathers on and no camera! But the whole property was littered with wildlife:
Our last night in Colombia, the sky lit up like fire during the sunset. I think it's Colombia's way to telling us to come back soon. ADIOS COLOMBIA, until next time!
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!