Solo backpacking with friends and a wheely bag
The tail end of Hurricane Matthew is whipping its way along the Caribbean Coast and with drainage and electricity grids up in arms, I have found some peace and quiet to catch up on travel updates (like 3 months of them…).
In two days I come to the end of an incredible few months in Colombia. A unique mix of work, play and travel, has enabled me to connect with a huge range of people and I have felt extremely welcome here.
My quick(ish) summary below takes you through the highlights. Am putting together detailed information on the key places I went to in a bid to help you plan any trip you might like to do to Colombia. All will be linked up into this blog on my site the course of the next week.
MONTH 1 – A SANTA MARTA SPONGE
As described in a previous post the month of July was focused on Impact Marathon Series work, with the highlights being the days spent getting to know each of the nine foundations we are supporting in Colombia, running the marathon course through Minca, exploring the linguistic differences between my Spanish from Spain and that of Colombia, and the Tras La Perla conference on Santa Marta.
The charities and the conference gave me amazing insights into the issues and opportunities for development that the city has in regards to equality, education and the environment – a validation of the impact February’s marathon is looking to achieve. I found myself, completely unknowingly, speaking to presidential candidates, media legends and football superstars. I barely know who famous people are in the UK, let alone in Colombia so it was hopeless from the start.
The only clue I had that something was up was that people kept interrupting our conversations to shake hands and take selfies with said personalities, at which point I would lean to my ever faithful friend, Arleth, and, Devil Wears Prada style, she would brief me on who I was speaking to.
I have been one big sponge soaking up all the different opinions on Colombian topics, and trust me, there are lots of ways of viewing matters. Today, the 2nd October 2016, is the plebiscite (Brexit style) to ratify the peace negotiations between the Government and FARC (the largest but by no means the only left wing illegal armed force).
It will be an interesting and extremely important day. Taxi drivers tell me they will vote NO (FARC should be in jail, dead or extradited – the people should not be supporting guerrilla reintegration into society - financially or politically as included in the agreement - bearing in mind the extreme violence they have inflicted on the country for the last 50 years).
Most people I engage with in the course of marathon work tell me they will vote YES (Colombia can start building its future in peace; acceptance and compromise is the first step towards breaking down the infrastructure bolstering the cycle of illegal armed force recruitment, poverty and victimization. Only by supporting the reintegration can we start creating opportunities for young people and build an exciting future).
[Since writing this this morning, the result has come out with a 50.24% NO majority, vs 49.76% YES, with 63% abstention. Although I really wanted a YES, it must be noted this is not a NO vote against peace. It is a NO against the peace treaties as they have been drawn out. Let's see what happens in the coming days. Lots of hard work has gone into the negotiations so progress has been made, but further adjustments made to enable not just peace on paper but peace as a way of Colombian life]
MONTH 2 – BACKPACKING WITH A WHEELY BAG
After a month of work, it was time to do some solo backpacking (though I was hardly ever alone and used a wheely bag not a backpack).
BOGOTA – same same but different
Arriving into the cooler climes of Bogotá was like coming home. It’s a big busy anonymous city, same same but different to London. To get my bearings, I went on the Bogotá Bike Tour, and while having lunch after that bumped into a walking tour led by Freddie, a cool rasta, so ended up tagging onto his True Colombia Experience tour too. The tours (luckily) covered different ground so were great compliments to each other and by the end of the day I had a more complete high level understanding of the recent history of Colombia and the ongoing contentions. [Still to come: Bogota city low down]
CALI – salsa and Pacific music festival
My first non-work stop was Cali, where I stayed at the lovely Kingbird Hostel in San Antonio, a nice quiet-ish barrio. Cali is famous for its salsa so I launched myself into lessons. I got completely shafted in my second ever class (at El Manicero) by being chucked in a room of 80 people, 79 of which actually knew how to dance salsa. It was so bad it was funny.
Not knowing what to do, and not being able to see the teachers, I got so left behind that I just ended up jogging on the spot so I was at least moving my feet. Since that demoralizing day, I’ve stuck to private lessons (at Salsa Pura in Cali and Dance Free in Medellín) and now love it.
I timed my visit to Cali for the awesome Pacific Coast music and food festival of Petronio Alvarez in mid-August. The Pacific Coast of Colombia has a predominantly African influence - free flowing, heavy on the marimba (xylophone), the afrobeat was amazing, particularly as no set steps – just pure groove with a great group of people. [Still to come: Cali city low down]
MEDELLíN – the city of eternal spring
I cut my festival going short to get up to Medellín to coincide with one of my closest buddies from England, Master Tom, and his pal, Nick. Staying at Galería Estación Hostel in the cool Poblado barrio, we spent four days seeing the sights, taking the cable car up to Parque Arví, going on the unmissable free walking tour with Pablo from Real City Tours, heading up to Comuna 13 with Medellín Graffiti Tour, salsa dancing at Son Havana and Octavo Bar and sampling the cafés on carreras 34 to 37 in Poblado. Loved the city and would love to spend more time there.
SALENTO – into nature and gaining altitude
The hike started in Valle de Cocora, notorious for its strikingly tall wax palm trees before quickly picking our way up through forestland and into the native Páramo ecosystem.
Though the Páramo only makes up 2% of Colombia’s surface, it contributes to 70% of Colombia’s water, principally thanks to these plants, also know as Espletas, that condense water vapour from passing clouds, distributing it to the soil for the benefit of the ecosystem. Cool huh?
I got a little bit excited about the frailejon plants with their furry rabbit ear leaves. Add this to my edible desert cactus fruit and the pineapple and you get this video:
17 seconds of my 3 favourite Colombian plants
BUENAVISTA, ARMENIA AND FILANDIA – coffee tours and ridiculously friendly people
Being in the middle of the Eje Cafetero, the coffee region, my next day was dedicated to the magic bean. By now I had the hang of local buses so took myself off on a little outing from Salento to Armenia to the aptly named Buenavista ‘good view’ to go on a tour at super premium coffee farm Café San Alberto.
I learnt so much yet completely flunked the coffee tasting (it turns out, because bad coffee is more familiar to us, we think that’s the good stuff, when it’s not…or something), and drank so much good coffee that I had to have 2 weeks off the stuff.
I'm not sure how to describe it, but everyone I met in the Armenia area was so super nice – and it turns out they are reknown for being friendly. Probably doesn’t sound that special but when every single little interaction is easy and friendly (not tourist-vendor style) it really is noticeable.
DESIERTO DE TATACOA – star gazing and desert biking
After the mountains and coffee region, I travelled south to the second largest desert in Colombia, Desierto de Tatacoa (I headed to the largest in September). Reached by colectivo (shared jeep transport) via Neiva, there are two main attractions; the observatory and the labyrinth. Only a short trip was necessary to see all there was to see. I arrived there at 5pm (after a journey involving lots of travel sick fellow travelers, a break down and a very persistent desert farmer I shared the back of a jeep with) and was good to make tracks by midday the next day.
I spent the evening at a great star gazing talk – a nightly event next to the observatory. Lying down in the sand (trying not to fall asleep), a guide with a powerful laser points out constellations in the star littered carpet of a sky, before you all get a chance to look at Mars and Saturn through the telescope. A night in a hammock at Doña Lilia’s Sol de Verano hostel and I was up at 6am to spend a couple of hours in the red sand canyon labyrinth. Keen to see a bit more of the desert, I rented a bicycle and went pedalling for a few hours. Brave but worth it as got to have a nose around some snazzy accommodation places.
SAN AGUSTIN – statues, horses and chill time
By this time I had been moving daily for 10 days and my damp hiking clothes were getting quite unbearable. It was time to find a nice hostel and relax for a few days, catch up with admin, and ideally not eat rice, egg and plantain for at least one meal.
I made the mistake of being dropped off outside the rudimentary tourist office in San Agustin where the rep there proceeded to take me around grotty hotels that had nothing in common with what I had told him I was looking for. Eventually I pretended I was happy with one of the hostels just so that he would leave, I left my bag and went for a wander up the hill out of town and found exactly what I was looking for in the form of Casa de Francois.
A day later and I had had my day of chill, caught up with Impact Marathon work, made my clothes smell like roses and ate spaghetti Bolognese and life was all good again.
I spent the next couple of days exploring the megalith statues dating back from the 1st - 6th centuries, horse riding and walking the Archaeological Park with a couple of friends. Crazy little is known about the now extinct cultures so it is very much a case of looking at the statues, rather than learning that much. Didn’t satisfy the geek in me. The mesmerizing (if you’re into fast flowing water) Estrecho de Magdalena, where Colombia’s main 1,500km long river gets squeezed through a 2m wide gap in silky smooth rocks.
CIUDAD PERDIDA – rivers and helicopters
After San Agustin, I decided it was time to go back home to Santa Marta to do a bit of work and hike to Ciudad Perdida before the national park shut for an indigenous tribe ceremony.
Santa Marta is a hub for lots of amazing activities and in my first month I hadn’t managed to see them so before I caught up with work, I went jungle trekking to the remote Ciudad Perdida.
The out and back trek to the remote jungle ruins of Ciudad Perdida is a four or five day trip. The ruins date back to 800AD, 600 years before Macchu Picchu was built. Rediscovered in 1972 by tomb raiders, the ruins still feel a bit lost. The hike was tough but fine for those ok with hot humidity and non-stop up and down. We had amazing daily swims in the rivers, jumping off rocks and ducking under waterfalls, mules carried our food and we slept in beds with mosquito nets so it was all quick cushy really (apart from the fact our whole group got a bit ill).
SANTA MARTA – home base
The Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta has been my base and have loved it; it’s a bizarre little city, super chilled but with a certain buzz. There are a nice selection of cafés, bars and restaurants. With ‘a la orden’ (‘at your service’) ever ready on their lips, the samarios (people from Santa Marta) are friendly people but sadly, like anywhere in the world, there is a dark side you find later into the night. Luckily I haven’t suffered but with Venezuelans coming over the border and displaced Colombians arriving into the city with few job opportunities, desperation all too often leads to trouble.
Am sad to be leaving Santa Marta and Colombia in general, especially as people are just getting used to having me around (which means invitations to cool parties)! Luckily I have lots and lots to look forward to – seeing family and friends back in the UK for a week, before heading off with Impact Marathon Series to Nepal until Christmas. Very cool work travel right! After New Year’s Eve I will be back in Santa Marta for the last 6 weeks leading up to the inaugural Colombia International Marathon.
[Still to come: Santa Marta city low down]
MONTH 3 – VAMOS A LA PLAYA
[Still to come: Tayrona, Islas San Andres and Providencia, La Guajira]