Colombia by its sheer location was our last Latin American stop and also our longest stay. It is a pretty vast country with massive variations so we were sure we could easily fill our remaining few weeks.
We had crossed by land throughout our trip and border crossings were becoming pretty straightforward. No visa required, another stamp to the collection, we had almost got a bit blasé! Peru and Ecuador border staff even shared the same office. As we arrived at the Ecuador / Colombia border it soon became apparent that this was not going to be so simple. Hordes of people loaded with enormous luggage, the queues were snaking round the buildings in all directions it seemed with no obvious indication of where we should join. Finally finding ourselves in the right queue, we shuffled along at snails pace. It was hot and uncomfortable and when we finally turned a corner into the shade the chaos still continued. We all had to abandon our bags and we reluctantly placed them in a hopefully safe place while we edged slowly forward eventually obtaining our exit stamp after 2 hours. Retrieving our bags and walking the few hundred metres to the Colombian side it was pretty much identical. No shade, hundreds of people shuffling round a building it was totally insane. Another 2 hours passed before our entry stamp and with a 9 hour bus journey ahead it was going to be one very long day. We arrived at our hostel at 2am. Welcome to Colombia!
Popayan our first stop was a beautiful colonial town and although very busy a few days before Christmas it was easy to navigate and enjoy the architectural delights. A young local historian gave us a fascinating walking tour accompanied by a selection of old photographs so you could almost imagine the scene in days gone by. Pretty much the whole town had been flattened by an earthquake, the main casualties were those attending mass in church when the domed roof collapsed. They certainly had a quick entry to heaven.
We arrived at our Christmas destination in Cali. Christmas was always going to be difficult being away from family and it was all very strange for us all. The hostel prepared a meal Christmas Eve and we all exchanged travel stories and different nationalities customs at Christmas. The big day arrived and with no presents or cards, Colombian post had not delivered, it just felt like another travel day.
Cali is known for its salsa and there was a week long festival starting on the 25th and we got tickets for the salsadromo, the opening parade. It was an amazing spectacle with incredible dancing on the packed streets. It was all going so well until the rain arrived. The grandstand mesh roof soon started leaking and we were all pretty drenched as it got heavier and heavier. Amazingly the dancers kept going but with some pretty impressive acrobatics thrown in, eventually it was cut short due to safety concerns. We emerged from the grandstand to rivers instead of roads and waded ourselves through the enormous crowds still dancing and partying totally oblivious to the horrendous conditions. Walking back drenched it was certainly a Christmas we will not forget.
Between Christmas and New Year we squeezed in a trip to the coffee region and visited Salento. A fantastic coffee tour was run by our hostel and donning wellies for the muddy walk we slipped down the trails while the great Australian guide went through the whole process. The roasting of beans at his coffee plantation was amazing to watch and the tastings even better. Unfortunately the best Colombian coffee is exported so we were warned we may not get a decent coffee in many places.
A trip to the Corcoran Valley to see the biggest palm trees in the world was a great trek the following day. Jeeps ferry visitors to and from the town crammed full with some brave people hanging onto the outside. The trails were very very muddy and we got yet another drenching. I just about managed to stay upright on the extremely slippery paths shared by horses in many cases. Slipping on horse muck was not something I wanted to experience! We had a couple of stops for a hot drink to warm us up and for the first time had hot chocolate in a bowl with a piece of cheese and a slab of bread, a local meal/drink. It was pretty strange but also very tasty and kept us going. The rain subsided for the grand finale of the palm trees which are truly enormous and all in all it had been a great day despite the tough terrain in the conditions.
New Year was spent in Bogota, another capital city I was not really that keen on visiting. We stayed in the Candelaria district and as in Cali it was the pretty historical centre with cobbled streets and coloured buildings. We climbed all 1500 steep steps up and down to Montserrate which towers over the city. Other easier options are the cable car or funicular railway but on the last day of this amazing year it had to be a challenge!
With 5 hours time difference we were just chilling in our hostel when everyone back home was partying at midnight. We decided at 10 to grab a snack and a drink and opened the door to be greeted by yet more rain. A local place was one of the few places open and we huddled inside watching the clock. We emerged onto the eerily empty streets just before midnight. A handful of other travellers were dotted around all looking slightly bewildered. A few fireworks in the distance entertained us for a few minutes but we were back in the hostel by half past. It turns out Colombians party at home. On a positive we awoke on the 1st with no hangover, ready to embrace whatever this year is to bring.
The main draw to Bogota for me was the underground salt cathedral at Zipaquira some 50k out of the city. We mastered the local bus system and three buses later we arrived. An hour tour around this beautiful place gave you all the basics and then you could explore at your leisure. The mine is still an active one and the miners had created this amazing cathedral over several years. The crosses and chapels were stunning and we spent several hours admiring this very unusual place.
Another very informative walking tour combining politics, street art and history and a visit to the very well designed gold museum concluded our mostly enjoyable few days in the capital. It was time to start heading up north to hopefully some sunshine.
We stopped at San Gil on our journey northwards. Another place which will not win any awards for attractiveness but again a base for sights nearby. Local buses regularly went to neighbouring Barichara which definitely is one of the most beautiful towns in Colombia. Cobbled streets, white washed buildings and red tiled roofs it was like stepping back in time. The central square and church were equally as attractive and after a delicious iced coffee we explored before heading to the start of the Camino Real trail. This cobbled walkway wound through the stunning countryside ending in the smaller but equally beautiful town of Guane. It was like Barichara in miniature. After refuelling we walked the 10k trail back, this way mainly uphill and very hot but definitely worth it.
On our second day we again headed to a neighbouring town, again a pretty one and despite locals persuading us to take taxis, we chose to walk to the river where 5 natural swimming pools are the free, unbelievably, local attraction. Heeding the advice of Lonely Planet, we ignored the first packed ones and continued walking to the furthest one where only a handful of locals were swimming. Clambering over the rocks was a challenge but we were soon enjoying the refreshing water and drying out on the rocks in the sun was gorgeous. On returning to the town the square was buzzing with activity and we chilled with an ice cream people watching and soaking up the atmosphere whilst waiting for our return bus.
It was then time for another, hopefully final, night bus to Santa Marta on the north Caribbean coast. Arriving at 8.30am and with no check in until 3pm, we dumped our bags in storage at the terminal and headed into town for breakfast. Feeling slightly more human we strolled along the seafront promenade admiring the fancy yachts in the marina and then explored the small historical centre. A couple of nice squares and the cathedral kept us amused for a bit and then the gold museum which being Sunday was free. Expecting a miniature version of Bogota’s we were pleasantly surprised that this one was mainly about the indigenous tribes and their customs and artefacts collected from the region. A few coffee stops and a bit of lunch later we finally retrieved our bags and checked in to our Airbnb apartment.
It was a slightly strange set up with the owners living in one and renting out the other two bedrooms in a very small apartment with a minuscule kitchen. Despite previous reviews they spoke no English and our brief stay there was somewhat challenging and made increasingly so by no wifi. No internet is lovely to escape properly but we had nowhere booked for after check out. Using local cafes and restaurants we managed to book somewhere further down the coast praying that we would have better luck there.
Palomino was meant to be a tranquil escape. Unfortunately in January there is no such place in Colombia. It’s pretty much like our school summer holidays. The beach was totally packed and with music blaring from the bars, Colombians only have 1 volume, mega loud, it was not quite what we had imagined. We made the best of it and had a great trek in the Sierra Nevada national park. The steep ascents were rewarded with great views and the equally steep descents were rewarded by a dip in the river. We braved the beach and found by wandering away from all the bars the people disappeared, strange how that happens and we chilled for a few hours under the palm trees.
We moved along the coast again to the somewhat quieter Riohacha for a couple of days. The malecon (promenade) was our favourite place for a walk with its attractive mosaic statues and pillars and local tribal ladies crocheting their colourful bags for sale.
With only two weeks left in Colombia we wanted to see as much as possible so we were moving around quite frequently and our next stop was Valledupar. A bit off the tourist trail we stayed in a gorgeous colonial house, very posh for us, although still only cold showers. It may be hot in the north but please let us have warm water at least, it just reminds me too much of school showers after PE! We only had one day here and pretty much tramped from one end to the next and a lot inbetween taking in all the monuments and wearing out the shoes a little more. It is famous for being the birthplace of vallenato music which comprises an accordion, a drum and some other weird looking instrument called a guacharaca, a wooden stick played with a fork to create the sound.
We got to sample this music the next day on our minibus to our next destination. The screen played vallenato music over and over again and believe me after one round I had heard enough. The accordion was great for a while but every track sounded identical to the previous one. It was stopped eventually for the usual dubbed film in Spanish. It was a long 5 hours!
We had read about Mompox and even though challenging to reach we went for it and of course it was worth it. A beautiful old colonial town on the banks of the Magdalena river it was seeped in history where time stopped still. We stayed in one of the beautiful colonial riverside homes and the owner told us it was his grandfathers house where he had lived and died, his father had been born there and with the family all scattered round the world, it was left abandoned and starting to decay. He is lovingly restoring it as a very successful Airbnb venture and with hammocks aplenty it was a real chill out place. The intense heat means you can really only slow down and stroll the streets admiring the pretty plazas and stunning churches and watch talented locals create the beautiful silver filigree jewellery, a Mompox speciality. I did not take much persuading to buy a piece.
Sipping a cold drink in a gorgeous rocking chair on a peaceful square overlooking the river is like something you read in a novel but it really was very idyllic here. We finished off our lovely couple of days here with a lazy trip down the river admiring the wildlife and scenery until we reached the marshes when a combination of the boatmen pushing the reeds with punts and us “crew” rocking the boat from side to side to get us through. It was all good fun and added to the enjoyment of a peaceful few hours culminating in a stunning view as we came into dock with the pretty coloured churches illuminated against the red night skies.
It was just as challenging getting away from Mompox and meant an early start of 6am. Our journey consisted of 6 different sections, including a boat, a bicycle taxi, a bus and three different cars. Surprisingly it was one of our easiest journeys and we arrived in Tolu nice and early.
A Colombian favourite beach town it was not exactly pretty but we managed to find a quieter end away from the usual thumping music and chilled for a few hours. The nearby San Bernardo islands was the real reason for our visit. We had a great boat trip which enticed you with some of the many idyllic Caribbean islands by circling them before finally stopping at one where we could swim in the crystalline clear blue sea and doze on the perfect white sand before a fresh fish lunch. Even better was the absence of the usual pumping sounds and stray dogs. Apart from the annoying flies circling our fish as we ate it could have been perfect. Cannot have everything I guess!
Last stop was Cartagena, the Jewel of the northern coast. It was indeed and a perfect place to enjoy our last few days of South America. This walled city is seeped in history and a very beautiful place to wander around the streets and admire the coloured buildings. We walked the city walls and visited the impressive fortress overlooking the city. A fort that was impenetrable even from the attacks of “pirate” Francis Drake amongst others , it gave great views of both the old city within the walls and the skyscrapers of the new alongside the coast.
We certainly made the most of the sun (yes we know that the UK does get it sometimes but we are coming home in February)! and our last days in Colombia were either beachside or strolling the historical walls topping up our Vitamin D for the long stretch ahead.
So Colombia, we have loved your many impressive colonial towns, enjoyed your beaches (the ones less crowded), been deafened by your music but you are indeed great dancers, admired your beautiful women and your cute children and seen the many different sides to this colourful country full of noise and attitude, the doors are now firmly closed on its dark dangerous past.
South America has been our home for 5 months and so now it is time for a couple of new places to wind up the trip.