Con mucho gusto! My time in Colombia

Today is my last day in Colombia and I have had a wonderful 4 weeks here. I summed up a few things that I particularly liked about this country:

  1. The people here are exceptionally friendly! Don’t get me wrong, I have met wonderful people in all the other countries but here everyone is extremely friendly. (Oh, with one exception though – but that is the only consistent factor probably everywhere: the bus ticket sales people. They could really use a smile every now and then). The women selling fresh fruit juices on the many street corners, the hostel people, the waitresses in restaurants and cafés, people passing you in the streets: you always get a friendly smile and happy greeting. When you are in restaurants or you walk into shops they welcome you with a long line of sentences, and when you leave just as well (even if you don’t buy anything!). This makes the whole travel experience even more enjoyable.
  2. Colombia rings the alarm bells in many people because the first thing that comes to our mind is drugs, jungle, drugs and guerilla troops. Yes, unfortunately Colombia is still a major producer of cocaine and it is sad to learn about the horrifying  effects it has on the Amazon, the nature as a whole and of course on the people as well. But in the past few years Colombia has changed so that is has become a much safer country than some of its neighbors. But it is still quite low-key in terms of tourism and that makes it even more appealing. You have tons of police checks and military posts along the roads and in most cities, especially the big ones like Bogota you have almost more police and private security guards on the streets than pedestrians which of course makes you wonder on the one hand why they need so many of them but on the other hand it makes you feel safe too. I haven’t come across a single dodgy situation and felt very safe here.
  3. I got addicted here badly! (Mom, dad, don’t worry, none of that white stuff!) – the fruit here in Colombia are amazing! Every other day up to a liter of fresh fruit juices made out of tropical fruits I have never seen or heard of before gave me an overdose of vitamins and happiness. In every town or city you have street vendors or little fruit stalls making those delicious juices in front of your eyes!
  4. There are so many lovely and friendly expressions the South Americans use to address women, I find all of them great, I do not know why but they just sound charming or fun to me – you get called amiga, mamita, mamasita,que linda”, bonita” and may other things, regardless of your age or what you look like. Also the terms used for addressing men sound nice – papito, papí, amigo…a very soft and informal, friendly language.
  5. If you like Caribbean flair and beautiful beaches at a far lower cost than the Caribbean islands then you should definitely consider Colombia. The islands off of Cartagena (e.g. Playa Blanca on Barú Island) and the National Park Tayrona in the very North of Colombia are wonderful places to relax. Lush rain forests combined with white sand beaches (& unfortunately quite a few moskitoes) and clean water…deeeeeeeelicious!

I made my way across the Ecuadorian border on March 7 with a first stop in Pasto, a quirky and somehow fun-to-stay-for-a-day place. The people here are considered neither very Colombian nor Ecuadorian either but they were the most friendly people and this made the first impression of Colombia a very positive one – we found a fun local eatery where we hung out for almost all breakfasts and dinners  and wondered through the busy streets in the city center. One afternoon we visited the Laguna la Cocha, a nice lake with a rainforest-covered island and cute colorful wooden stilt houses which reminded me very much of some of the mountain huts at home. Our next stop was Popayán, a pretty colonial city (a white city again, with YES!-pretty churches!:) where I unfortunately caught a bad flu and spent the next day in bed. Half recovered I took a bus to the Zona Cafetera, the famous Coffee zone of Colombia, and met up with Michel in Salento, a tiny tiny tiny town in the middle of lush green hills with the tall wax palm trees typical for the area. This town is 40 minutes away from the next biggest town Armenia and it is only mentioned with a few paragraphs in guidebooks but we had met a few people who had stayed there and they all recommended it. And BOY ARE WE GLAD WE WENT THERE! This was by far the sweetest town I have been to in a looong time! The first thing you see when you enter the town is a big fire department with underemployed firemen cleaning their trucks and ladders and god knows what to keep themselves busy (oh, they also checked out every single chica who walked by J). Then there is a hilly street that leads to the main plaza, a wonderful airy space with lots of palm trees and a 360 degree view of misty hills in all shades of green. We instantly fell in love with this place. Around the main plaza there lovely streets with tons of nice shops selling handicraft and local art, bars, cafés (and a lot of places with pool tables where the local men hung out and played some rounds to the sound of Salsa blasting loud from the speakers) and eateries and the houses  were painted in all imaginable colors. A bit like one of those cute Caribbean islands, only with far more character. There we also met super friendly people who welcome you into their shops and places with a warm smile and when you leave you get one of those “con much gusto’s” which I find a very nice way of saying “you are welcome”! We decided in the spot to stay there another day and just unwind and get better again after a lot of coughing and sneezing. We stayed at a place called “the Plantation House” – a sweet former coffee plantation turned into a hostel. The owner, a British guy, runs a coffee plantation as well where we got a private 3 hour tour teaching us all about coffee and showing us the complete process, from planting a coffee bean to harvesting to grinding to roasting to brewing. Only the drinking part I skipped (I don’t like coffee) and left that part to Michel who enjoyed it very much.

We then continued our journey to Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. After a looong  and curvy bus ride I arrived around 8 p.m. at the bus terminal of Bogotá. The city is huge. With 8 million people (the Austrian population in one city) it took over an hour to get from the South to the North end of the city. I took a taxi at the terminal and told the taxi driver the address of the hostel where we had a reservation. I invited a nice young Colombian guy who I met on the bus and chatted along the way to join me as he was short on money and was heading the same way. The taxi ride turned out to be quite an adventurous one. As we came closer to the address of the hostel we couldn’t find the address and drove around the many narrow one way streets for a while. Maybe I should mention that Bogotá had just recently changed their street numbering system which explained that this street seemed to have disappeared from the surface of the earth. So the taxi driver starts asking around people on the streets and they send us here and there and everywhere. Except for Call 12C number soandso. Then the young Colombian guy starts hopping out of the taxi and asks around in little shops and people hanging around on a plaza but we still drive around in circles and slowly I get a bit edgy and wonder if this place even exists. “Don’t worry, we will find it for you”, the Colombian guy says with a big smile on his face,  determined not to leave me alone until I am safe in the hostel. We then figure out that it can’t be far way anymore and it is quicker to walk around then to go through the one-way streets by car and I pay the taxi driver and head off with the Colombian guy to find the place. There are tons of police men and “seguridad privada” guys (some form of private security gards who must be hired by shops, the county, restaurants or god knows who) everywhere in the streets so we start asking the first one. Policemen and Security guards are extremely helpful in South America and they don’t give up until they were able to help you (no such thing as “I don’t know” here!) so this guy doesn’t know where the address is and ask someone else. He takes my piece of paper and asks me to follow him quickly. So the Colombian guy, the Policeman and I walk through the streets, stopping and asking other people. We eventually find another guy who knows where the place is so he joins us and now it is the 4 (!) of us heading towards the hostel. Finally I see the sign of the Hostel and exhale in great relief as the huge pack on my back is getting heavier by the minute. The guard insists on going all the way to the door with me, he rings the bell (all entry doors to hostels are locked for security and you have to ring a bell to be let in) and tells the hostel guys that there is a guest arriving. Although this whole odyssey was tiring I am smiling about it in hindsight because it showed me how helpful and lovely Colombians are. Finally the young guy says goodbye and wished me a wonderful stay in Bogotá. The next morning we take a cable car up to Monserrate, the viewpoint high above the city to get a grasp of the size of the city. And it sure is huge! We spend the afternoon in the old city center which has an interesting  mix of old and new buildings. The next day Michel takes off to drive north and I stayed in Bogotá and decided to skip Barichara (which I really was looking forward to see since it is supposedly one of the nicest colonial towns of Colombia) but my cold came back and turned into a bronchitis so I spent another day in bed and then hopped on a plane and flew directly to Cartagena the next afternoon.

I was really looking forward to warm weather after 2 months of high altitude and so much rain and cool weather. As I arrived in Cartagena and left the airport I was in heaven: a warm breeze touched my face and I saw palm trees. Finally! Summer feeling is there! I got in a taxi and after a nice short ride along the beach of Cartagena I arrived at the beautifully lit old city which is surrounded by a stone wall built by the Spaniards for protection against invaders and pirates. I dropped my stuff off in the hostel and although I was dead tired and still feeling sick I put on my shorts and a t-shirt to quickly get a bottle of water from a store. That little walk extended into a 2 hour stroll through the lively and pulsing streets of charming Cartagena. I felt a bit like in a fairy tale, seeing the old stone walls and the churches and pretty colonial buildings lit from the distance. I found a nice restaurant and treated myself with a yummie fish ceviche and a glass of white wine which got warm within 5 minutes because or the outside temperature. THAT’s MY climate, I thought and happily I fell into bed around midnight. The next day Michel arrived on his bike and we spent the afternoon walking through the oldest part of the city, enjoying the incredibly beautiful and colorful colonial buildings with flowers and plants growing lushly out of their wooden balconies. The architecture and state the buildings are in was amazing. Nice little bars, restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops made this a perfect place to lose yourself in. You can even walk on the wall itself for the most part so you get the view into the city and onto the ocean at the same time. The next day we headed to Isla Barú and Playa Blanca, a beautiful white sanded beach with turquoise warm water and many little bars and palm-leaf covered huts where we spent one night and enjoyed the beach particularly after most of the people who only come for the day left around 3 p.m. Only 50-60 people stayed in the few accommodations there are – huts, tents or hammocks and we enjoyed the sunset with a freshly grilled red snapper.  Our next destination was Santa Marta, a 4 hour bus ride east of Cartagena where the famous Tayrona National Park is located. This park is a popular destination for all the beach and nature lovers as is offers a dense rainforest with beautiful white sand beaches. It is often compared to the Caribbean but still much more affordable and I have to say that in many ways this is true. After one night at a really cool and chilled hostel in Santa Marta we headed out for the National Park for our camping adventure. As there are only limited options regarding accommodation (either very expensive cabanas or the far cheaper options of renting a hammock, a tent or bringing your own tent) we opted for bringing our own stuff and tent. We stayed 2 nights at a basic campground with views of the beach and enjoyed the long almost deserted beaches, the wild jungle growing all the way up to the beach, feeding a dusky titi monkey that was hanging out with us at the beach for a couple of hours and going for walks along the beaches with their beautiful massive egg-shaped rocks lying around like monster-dinosaur eggs. Apart from needing to cover your body in insect repellent 24 hours/day Tayrona National Park is a top spot. The next morning I had to say goodbye to Michel who headed off to Venezuela to finish his loop around South America after nearly 8 months – and after having travelled and having shared so many great experiences together this was not easy. I went back to Santa Marta to prepare for my 5 day jungle trek to the Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City (which I will write about separately), which was about to start the next morning. After this roughandtough (but GREAT!) trip to the Lost City I spent my last evening in Cartagena and then started my trip back to Quito the next morning (as I had to fly all the way back to Santiago de Chile from where I would go to New Zealand).

I had a funny experience just when I passed immigrations at Medellin airport, my last stop in Colombia. Strangely enough it was the very first time that something like this happened to me during my whole stay in South America. After I got my hand  luggage x-rayed and 2 officers checked me with the metal detector another police officer grabs my hand luggage and asks me to open it. Fair enough, the typical quick visual check as usual I thought, but ooh no, this was the beginning of a somewhat long and chewy dialogue.

Question: “Which places have you been to in Colombia?” Answer: “Pasto, Popayan, Bogota and Cartagena”.

Question: “how long have you stayed in Colombia?” Answer: “about 3 weeks”.

Question:  “can you open your bag” Answer: “yes”. (during the next 20 questions he kept fumbling in my stuff and takes everything out one by one, not one smile, serious as Arnie in The Terminator, keeping his eyes on my stuff and looking at me).

Question: “how many times have you been to Colombia?” Answer: “one time”.

Question: “this is the first time?” Answer: “yes” (Duh! by that time I am starting to wonder where this is going and if I am resembling a dangerous and desperately sought-after terrorist. If that was not already enough, he asks his questions in such a high speed that I have to ask after every question “un poco mas despacio, por favor” which doesn’t seem to work in his world and since I need to answer in Spanish since he doensn’t seem to understand a word of English this conversation is starting to get chewy as a Wrigley’s chewing gum).
Question: “where will you be going now?” Answer: “Quito”

Question: “what are you doing there?” Answer: I am only staying one night to continue to Santiago”

Question: “what are you doing in Santiago?” Answer (grrrrrrr): “I am staying there one night to continue to New Zealand” (and in my mind I am forming the sentence “do you want to know if I eat my hot dog with mustard or ketchup, if I believe in God and what size of clothes I am wearing?!?!?&%$!?§=!”)

Question or rather command: “passport”. Answer:”here you go”

Question: “Where do you come from?” Answer: “Austria” (and my mind forms the statement “look at the passport, you idiot”)

Question: “what is in your luggage….you must have checked in luggage”. Now I finally have my first question to the lovely officer: “you want to know what I have in my CHECKED IN LUGGAGE?!?!?!” His answer: “yes” (should have known this was coming!). My answer: “clothes”, (thinking does he expect someone to say DRUGS, EXPLOSIVES, FORGED MONEY?!?!?) pointing at my clothes, slowly but steadily getting annoyed and at the same time desperate if this will ever end and wondering if there is a hidden camera somewhere or if he is just trying out how long he can question me before I jump at his throat.

He then puts back all my thing in my backpack and probably asks me another 10 questions which I have already deleted from my tired brain and then he ends his endless questioning with a dry “buen viaje”. Are you still reading my blog? If so then I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart that I haven’t lost you (so far) but I just HAD to share this quirky encounter with you 🙂

P.S. Michel, this blog post is dedicated to you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for travelling with me those 4 months  and sharing so many amazing experiences in 6 countries, going from the “End of the World” (the southernmost point in Southamerica, Ushuaia in Argentina) all the way to the north end of Colombia. Thanks for going up to 4.300 meters (long live the Altiplano!) and coping with high altitude for almost 2 months and going down all the way to sea level (fighting the vicious mosquitoes!). And thank you for all the path that lay in between.


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