11.01.2013 - 25.01.2013
Locals say Cartagena is the most beautiful city in Colombia. Personally i think they are wrong - Forget Rome, Prague or Paris... Cartagena, in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful cities, in the world!
Almost every street in the old town is a postcard-worthy scene of 16th or 17th century architecture. Enormous balconies look down on cobbled alleys and lead onto sleepy plaza’s, packed with trees and fountains. You can easily lose a whole afternoon in those plaza’s, avoiding the intense Cartagena heat by lapping up the sea breeze and sipping a ‘cafe tinto’ - A small cup of Colombian coffee, yours for the extortionate cost of 500 peso’s (15p) a hit. The street vendors even wheel it round on a small cart, meaning you can purchase your coffee without even moving from your seat in the plaza, whilst having your shoes shined if you so wish. It would be perfect if it wasnt for the constant ringing of the helado (ice cream) vendors. I am thinking of starting a petition which limits them to one ring of that bloody bell every five minutes. You would think that wearing a bright purple and yellow top would make them visible enough if you wanted an ice cream, but they still find it necessary to shout out ‘helado’ whilst being a trigger happy mofo on their bell.
We filled our days visiting the usual touristy sites - The torture museum was pretty cool, although I declined Sarah’s kind invitation to put my head inside a metal spiked neck collar, which she went on to demonstrate could be done by practically breaking it in the process. Revenge was taken on our walk back through the town when she was attacked by a plastic bag that found its way onto her foot and decided to cling on for a ride, much to the delight of me and a local woman selling some fruit. We also went to Castillo de San Felipe - A 17th century castle that overlooks the city. It holds a complex systems of tunnels which was decent to walk through in the dark, until you take a wrong turn and are greeted by a bunch of rats.
At dusk all the street performers come out to play. The shops stay open late so everybody meanders through the bustling streets, buying gifts, eating steak and generally having a good time. Horse and carriages are in abundance in Cartagena, so if you’re bored of taxi’s you can jump on top of a carriage and trundle through the city in a truly traditional style. We found an amazing roof top bar, that was built on top of the walled fort. It meant having to pay $5 dollars for my beer, rather than $1, but watching the sunset over the pacific ocean with the outline of the old town behind us was pretty incredible.
The next night whilst trying to find a cheap place to eat we stumbled across the hard rock cafe. I had never actually eaten there before, but it was home to the most amazing pulled pork burger ever. There was literally tons of pig in this burger, it was an instant hit! There was just about time so stop on the way back to watch some break dancers busting their moves out on the street, whilst having to stop their routine every now and then to let another horse charge through.
This place is really unlike any other, it has style and charisma, but its still a chilled place to hang out and if i never get to visit Cartagena again, i will be a very disappointed guy.
Medellin was once the most murderous city in the world, in the 1990’s it was the centre of the worldwide coke trade, but you wouldnt know it today. Its home to the only metro station in Colombia that also links up with two cable cars, which has connected the whole city and makes it accessible to all. Furthermore Its also made the city safer, meaning you can bypass the dodgy areas on the train or on a cable car and get to your destination quickly and without the worry of being mugged whilst walking through a slum.
The taxi ride on the way to the hostel was interesting - We have generally found in South America that taxi drivers dont care if they dont know where you want to go, they will just take the fare as its a fare, naturally. So when i muster up my best espanyol to confirm they know the destination before we enter the vehicle, ‘sables pit stop hostel, el poblado?’ I felt assured when he responded with ‘si, si’ that he knew where he was going. It soon became apparent that he didnt have a clue. Not only did he not know where he was going, but whilst going over a speed bump the boot of the car bust open, providing a nice little opportunity for anybody wanting to steal our luggage from the back. So there was me, fresh off a 12 hour bus, in a city i didnt know, trying to direct a taxi driver in Spanish, whilst holding down the boot of the car with one hand. Welcome to Medellin!
Nevertheless, in a perfect demonstration of the helpfulness of Colombians, we soon had two taxi drivers, one security guard and one police officer all rapidly discussing where the hell our hostel was located, whilst i was holding the boot and wondering why nobody knew where this place was, when we had apparently booked the ‘best party hostel in Medellin’. After much confusion, we found it and the taxi driver after much worrying, looked so happy with himself he had found the hostel, that i didnt even argue the extra $2 in fare it cost us, driving round in circles.
Unfortunately there is no getting away from the fact that Medellin is one massive slum. Tin shack houses sit packed on top of each other, preciding up both of the steep hills either side of the main strip in the valley. When you have just come from Cartagena it certainly is not the most pretty city to look at, but its not without its charm. The people are friendly and walking round with white skin and blue eyes means we got our fair share of attention from the locals, but not of the threatening kind.
On our first full day we took the cable car up to Arvi park. A beautiful park on top of the hill overlooking the whole city. Well at least i heard it was beautiful but Sarah was not a fan of the cable car to say the least, so we got off two thirds of the way up and didnt see the park. The whole situation wasnt helped by a Colombian man taking the piss out of her for being scared on the way up. He was looking at me and throwing his fists out on front of him, like he was imitating a fight. I started getting worried thinking he was suggesting we were heading up to one of the dodgy slums and i better be prepared to fight as soon as i exited the cable car. Luckily it was just his way of taking the piss out of Sarah not liking the height and we all got off, laughing and smiling even though we barely had any clue what the guy was saying, which thoroughly amused his family sitting alongside us.
Still, Medellin was really good fun. Water parks during the day (where everybody, including men had to wear shower caps, wtf is that all about?) drinking games with the gringo’s in the evening... The card game i knew as buttmonkey or shithead, i discovered was also called presidents & arseholes, or if you live in Sweden, something so racist that i actually dont want to write. Lets just say it was lucky there were no black people sat at the table when the Swedish girl announced what their version was called.
Before we jumped back on the bus to Salento, there was just enough time to visit the gorgeous town of Guatape where all the locals had painted their houses. It was also home to El Penol, a massive rock which if you wanted to climb the 650 steps, rewarded you with an amazing few of lakes and little islands as far as the eye could see. It was well worth the effort to climb it, even if we were beaten to the top by a bunch of nuns. They looked so damn smug sat at the top sipping their coca cola liked a boss.
Salento wasnt somewhere we intended to visit but as it was on the way to Cali and all the people we met whilst going round Colombia thoroughly recommended it. Unfortunately you couldnt get a bus there directly you had to go to Armenia first and then get another bus. It was whilst we were en route to Armenia that the friendly bus attendant pointed out that we stopped at Salento on the way to Armenia. Perfect i thought. Muchos Gracious. Didnt realise the bus stopped there on the way
Well, actually, it didnt. The bus pulled over especially for us, we jumped out, grabbed our luggage and then the guy pointed to Salento, which could just about be made out in the distance, far far away, it had to be at least 8-10 miles. I turned around to see our bus drive off into the distance....brilliant!
As it turned out we hadnt been royally stitched up, we started to hike towards Salento and just across the carriageway was a bus stop, next to a signpost pointing out Salento. Ten minutes passed and a little bus pulled up, we jumped on and although this bus was packed and we had to stand all the way, i reckon it saved a good 2-3 hours than if we had of gone to Armenia first.
We rocked up at the hostel, which itself was sat another 10 minutes outside the town and only accessible by jeep, just in time for a beer and home cooked dinner of burgers and chips. Not the most authentic of meals we consumed, but pretty delicious all the same.
After the hustle and bustle of the cities, Salento was the complete opposite. Surrounded by hills and trees, it was animals you heard rather than cars and sirens. It wasnt without its dangers however - At one point we were confronted by a goat, blocking our path, he looked like a mean mofo and as i went to edge past him, he mirrored my movement. Clearly Billy wasnt prepared to take any shit, but we had to get by...
I decided i could out run this guy, so i dodged to my left and then ran past him on the right. I had made it! Sarah still had to get past though and Billy was not gonna let her through easily. They eyed each other up and he scraped a hoof against the floor, ready to pounce. We decided the best way would be for me to distract him, so as i threw a stick to his right, she went to go by on the other side, but just at the last minute he turned back round and ran towards her - She got past by the narrowest of margins. As we walked off triumphant we heard the clearest and loudest goat laugh ever. We turned back round and Billy was just stood there laughing at us. What a little fucker!
I dont like Cali. We had heard that the people are not quite as welcoming as other countries before we arrived. Well that wasnt true, the people were great as like everywhere else in Colombia. We had half of the taxi rank trying to help us in finding a taxi driver who knew our hostel (again). They even pointed out that my bag was open with my laptop on full show. In the end the police sorted it all out for us and found a guy who knew exactly where the hostel was.
The reason i dont like Cali is because i cant get my head around the stupid road system. We got lost walking around more times than i care to remember. Things werent were they were supposed to be and i just ended up getting annoyed.
Great nightlife and it is the salsa capital of Colombia, but that in itself was not enough to make it for me. In fact the only good thing about Cali was a pretty amazing zoo. Safety was a little lax though, i got so close to a huge bear that i could have spit on him and there wasnt even any safety netting.
As far as Cali goes though, thats about it!
I see Popayan as the Cartagena of the south. It is an immaculate example of Spanish-colonial architecture, with magnificent churches, cathedrals, museums, chalk white houses and of course a plaza, where the locals escape the sun, shaded by a mini forest of palm trees.
The bus ride from Cali was interesting though, it was another of these buses where they pick up anybody and everybody on the way through. So when we left the depot we had a half full bus, 30 minutes later we had a bus full of people, sat on top of each other and down the aisles too. I had flashbacks of Vietnamese buses and it wasnt much better to be honest. I partly blame the young bus tout apprentice whose task it was to get the bus as rammed as possible. All the way there, he shouted ‘Popayan, Popayan, Popayan, Popayan’ and then stopped the bus every five seconds to ask if somebody wanted to go anywhere remotely near Popayan, before grabbing their luggage and hauling them onto the bus, before they even had a chance to say no.
Popayan itself was cool and although you could do a few things here, it was such a nice place that we just chilled out and relaxed, looked round the shops and caught up on sleep. We stayed in a pretty amazing old house that overlooked the main plaza. During the evening there was music and dancers that went round the main square, right outside out window. I was happy because i could get wifi in the room, so i could look out at the plaza, sipping my $1 beers, whilst streaming the Saints game.
Popayan is also home to the best Argentinian steak ive had so far in SA. It was incredible. This piece of cow had so much flavour it instantly went straight into my top 3 steaks ever. I would go back there just for another one of those steaks. The only shame was there are a fair few tramps in Popayan. One guy was so unbelievably drunk that he went up to everybody on the benches and just went ‘raaaaaaahhh’ before stumbling off to the next bench to do the same. We saw him five minutes later feeding his vodka to a bush. There was also another guy camped outside the cash machine, continuously shouting ‘money moneeeey’ in a weird voice. The hostel had monopoly and i was so tempted to open our windows out onto the plaza below and shout out ‘money moneeeey’ whilst launching a load of monopoly money notes onto the street below. I cant tell you how hard it was to avoid doing that, but to make sure we didnt get our windows smashed in, or worse, i resisted the temptation.
One morning i did have an unwelcome visitor to our room in the hostel - Colombian immigration. Thankfully they decided to turn up pre 10am, which was waaay before getting up time, so we just stayed in bed and let the hostel owner deal with them. I was a little worried they had decided to hunt me down at the hostel - what had i done wrong? However the owner said this is pretty standard procedure every now and then, a quick copy of my passport faxed through to them seemed to suffice. Anyway, tramps aside, Popayan was a great town and another place i would not hesitate to visit again if i had the chance.
Overall i love Colombia. It was the country i was most warned about visiting by people in the UK, but the cities, plaza's, beaches and the beautiful landscapes have been simply breathtaking. The places we have been will live long in the memory and i genuinely cannot recommend Colombia highly enough. We only intended to spend two weeks here, but that quickly ended up being three. A big factor in this i feel, is down to the locals. We arrived in Bogota barely speaking any Spanish and although we picked up the essentials quickly, this was in part down to the locals who helped us along the way with kindness and warmth. Its rare these days to visit a place where the people are so proud of their country and want to show it off. They want you to have a good time and for a tourist, thats a really refreshing outlook to have and will only contribute to our enjoyment of the country.
Put simply, Colombia is cool.