I hadn’t looked up much about Calí, I’d just heard that it was a nice place to be in Colombia over the holidays.
I even found a cheap hotel online, looking forward to a private room. I got off the bus into the first taxi I saw and gave the driver the address. His reaction was a question: “Is this address south or north?”. Obviously I hadn’t the slightest clue, and asked which was closer. We checked out both, south and north without success. Eventually we stopped at a hotel close to the northern address to ask for directions, but nobody knew the Hotel 21. The lady at the reception was exceptionally friendly though, and after a few phone calls, came up with correct address. She also mentioned, it’s in a bad neighbourhood and I was probably going to get mugged, shot or stabbed. I thanked her and asked how much I owed for the calls, to which she said: “Nothing, glad to help”. Colombians are very friendly and welcoming indeed; I couldn’t believe they were going to harm me in any way. So we went to the Hotel in the bad neighbourhood. Eventually, the driver stopped again to ask for directions, and immediately I had a “lady of the night” glued to my half open window declaring her love and offering me her services. It was only just after lunchtime. I figured we were close.
The hotel was very nice, and the staff gave me a map with very detailed instructions on where to go, and, more importantly, where not to go! The hotel was located on the last street of the aforementioned neighbourhood, making it a little safer. Apparently one block can make all the difference. I was able to walk to the city centre, without being mugged, shot or stabbed, or harassed in any other way. The city did not appeal to me, though. There isn’t much to see or do. I did enjoy my room thoroughly, though, and was happy to move on after a couple of days.
Next, I went a little further north still to Armenia. I wanted to see the coffee region of Colombia.
Armenia is a quiet city, pleasant, but without any major highlights. It’s setting is nice, surrounded by mountains covered in thick vegetation and and bamboo forest. I went for a walk through town and ended up in the “Parque de la Vida”, which was quite nice but somewhat artificial (the waterfalls are all man made). Salento sounded more interesting and was only a 45 min bus ride away, so I got on the first bus the following morning.
Apparently Salento is a favourite weekend location for the inhabitants of the surrounding cities, and this being a weekend, it was absolutely packed with people! Luckily I’d gotten a small family run hostel on the outskirts, away from the crowded and noisy hub. The town itself is nice, but very touristy; the streets are lined with restaurants and souvenir shops, catering to the weekenders. The plan was to get out of town, into the surrounding cloud forest. I’d heard about the Cocora Valley hike, which does exactly that. I made my way to the town square early the next morning, in order to catch a jeep to take me to the starting point of the hike, which is about 12 km from Salento. The first leg is climbing up the valley to Acaime Hummingbird Santuary, a place in the cloud forest, run by a local family, where one can see many different species of hummingbirds. The “place” consists of two small wooden buildings, one serving drinks (a free one with the entrance fee), and the other accommodation, with several hummingbird feeders dangling from surrounding trees. Not sure it’s worth the COP 5000, but I did get some good shots of hummingbirds. From there, one has to backtrack a bit and take the mountain trail to the top, at about 3000 meters above sea level. All of this means hiking through some gorgeous cloud forest. From the mountain top, the track descends back towards the starting point, offering great views over the Cocora Valley and leading past some native Wax Palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense) patches. These are the tallest palms in the world and truly amazing, for they grow up to 50 m and do not break in the wind, although their girth wouldn’t be much wider than that of a regular coconut palm. Salento was going to be my northern limit. From here I was going to go back south to Popayán via Armenia. From Popayán I wanted go to San Andrés de Pisimbalá to check out the archeological sites of Tierradentro.
The bus ride back was a tough one! It was one of those small buses, air-conditioned, and therefore without opening windows. So far so good. There was only one small problem – the air con wasn’t working! This wasn’t too bad until we got to the heat of Calí. From there on it turned into a pizza oven on wheels. Definitely one of the worst bus rides ever, as this went on for six hours. We all arrived soaked in sweat and well-done in Popayan, where I stayed another night.
I aimed for the 10:30 bus to San Andrés. When I arrived at he terminal, I found out there were no more seats on this one, and the next would leave at 13:00. So I sat around people-watching for three hours at the terminal. Eventually the clock hit 13:00, and we set off into the country. This time it took a little longer until we ran out of paved roads, but we did. It became somewhat bumpy, but I hardly noticed for the scenery was breathtaking! The road winds over the mountains, gently descending and climbing. At some stages the road is very narrow due to landslides, and about a foot off the buses’ wheels, a drop of what seemed close to a kilometre, reveals itself. Once this road is paved, it should become on the major tourist routes in South America, I’m sure. Once again I was dropped off at an intersection with 4 km to walk to San Andrés. I hadn’t walked for more than 30 m, when a guy on a motorbike stopped and gave me a lift. He dropped me off at the “Mi Casita” guest house, where I got a pretty cheap private room. I was to explore the archeological sites over the next couple of days.
The tombs are very interesting, with underground burial chambers, decorated with geometric designs and stylised human head sculptures. The word that came to my mind, was outlandish. I cannot begin to understand what drove the people to come up with these decorations, as they seemed very alien to me. In fact, even experts know very little about these cultures, making them all the more interesting and intriguing. Definitely the highlight of the trip! I couldn’t leave on the 1st of January, because no buses were running that day, so I had to wait for the 2nd, which was a Sunday. I knew the border was open on Sundays, so this wasn’t an issue. Because the bus had broken down and we had to wait for a replacement, I got into Ipiales a little later than expected, and the queues at the ticket counters were of epic proportions! I half-settled for a night in Ipiales, because I didn’t think I would be able to get a seat that day, with that many people travelling. Turns out, I did. As I was travelling alone, and they needed to sell single seats to fill up each bus, it didn’t take long before somebody from a ticket counter shouted: “Single ticket to quito, anyone?”. About an hour after my arrival, I was already on my way to Quito and then Cuenca later in the evening.
Colombia was a great travelling experience, and I would like to go back and explore some more. The people are some of the friendliest I’ve met, always willing to go out of their way to help and make one feel welcome. The nature is beautiful and it’s pre-columbian cultures more than just interesting. The cities I saw didn’t impress me much, though.