30th April 2014 to 3rd May 2014
30.04.2014 - 03.05.2014
We set off early from Salento and began the journey south to a city called Cali, famed for its salsa dancing. After a bus change in a small and rather non-descript town called Armenia, we had a stuffy minibus journey to Cali. We arrived in the afternoon and shared a cab with a couple of British girls (who were only 18 and on their gap year – bless!) and headed for a hostel recommended to us called el Viajero. The hostel was on the edge of San Antonio which is a very picturesque old town full of colonial buildings that reminded us of la Candelaria in Bogotá. It was a very cool and funky hostel with a lovely swimming pool in the centre, an outside bar and a DVD/TV room. Because the private rooms were so expensive we decided to go for a dorm room and cooked our own food in the kitchen – like true backpackers! We also felt rather old as most people were not much older than the two girls we shared the taxi with. The hostel also offered a free salsa lesson which we couldn’t turn down. The first half was a bit rubbish, as the teacher was going so fast with really complicated step sequences that we couldn’t keep up with. The second half, however, was much better as he slowly taught us a couple dance. We then got ready for our night out in Cali at a typical salsa club! We tried to arrange to meet up with Laura (another person we met on the lost city trek), but couldn’t seem to arrange a time and place. Instead, Juan said that he has some couch surfing friends who were going to a club called Tin Tin Deo. When we arrived the doorman said ‘are you Matt and Susanne?’. We were a bit confused as to why this doorman knew our name, but then a woman called Carol came over to us. She was one of the women who Juan knew and he had sent her a picture of us so she could find us! We went up into the club which was rammed with Colombians showing off their salsa moves on the dance floor. It was also a bank holiday the following day, so they were really letting their hair down. The music was immensely loud, so it was hard to chat to anyone but it was great to see the Colombians’ natural inclination towards dancing – they really were quite impressive. Eventually we plucked up the courage to give it a go, but it didn’t go too well mainly because of Matt’s robotic dance technique. However, a group dance saved the day where the entire club was led by one bloke doing a communal salsa – it was great fun. At 2:50am the club was hit by an abrupt kick out as the club needed to be emptied of guests by 3am, there were no discussions, everybody left promptly.
We woke up early despite not getting to bed till 3:30ish and being woken up by other people in the dorm coming back even later. Our tiredness was lessened a bit by a lovely buffet breakfast that came included in the price of the dorm. We then went for a little wander around the city while it was still early. We firstly headed to the main town centre which was generally quite ugly apart from a beautiful, modern and rather stylish church and a lovely park area along the river. We also wandered around the old town near the hostel and to the top of a hill with a nice view over the city. Generally, though, we weren’t in the greatest sightseeing mood so we headed back to the hostel to chill by the pool. After a bit of swimming, it unfortunately started to rain but we were still able to read and catch up on the blog. In the afternoon, we chilled out in the cinema room and watched Captain Phillips (the one about an American ship being taken over by Somalian pirate). We had tried to arrange to meet Laura again at some music event at a nearby park called Loma de la Cruz, but once again somehow missed each other. We went to the park anyway and we were really glad we did. It had a lovely waterfall at the entrance and had numerous little pop-up shops where local artisans could sell their products. There was also group dancing in which anyone could take part and so we did. It was great fun, joining in with a mass (at least 100) of other Colombians dancing away in the middle of the park lead by an indigenous young (hot) man – it really shows how much Cali likes to dance! As we had the dancing bug in us, we headed to another club that was near to the hostel. It was a bit quieter as it was a Thursday and every one had to work the next day, but there were still plenty of people twisting their hips. We also bumped into one of the girls from last night, so she helped us with some salsa moves. As is tradition in salsa, men go around asking different women to dance and Susanne was asked by an older indigenous chap who knew his stuff – and of course Susanne cottoned on very quickly and looked like a pro! It was another fairly late night and we needed to get up early for our onward journey, but we had a great time in Cali.
The next morning we headed to the bus station with the intention of getting a bus to a town called Pasto near to the Ecuadorian border. However, the only bus we could get would have left in the early afternoon and we wouldn’t have arrived until late in the evening. We thought about going back to the hostel and taking the night bus, but we have heard that there have been night-time bus robberies on this route. So we were a little stuck with what to do. In the end, we decided to shorten the journey and head to the colonial town of Popayán which turned out really well in the end. We arrived into Popayán in the late afternoon and checked into a really cheap hostel that had three rather grumpy dogs one of which nipped us a couple of times and made the whole place smell rather doggy! In the early evening we wandered into the old town which was full of beautiful, white-washed colonial buildings and churches. It had a really nice atmosphere, slightly spoiled by the mass of traffic going through the centre, but spoilt ourselves with a lovely coffee in an old and atmospheric cafe. We had an early night as we needed to wake up at 5.30 to get to the bus terminal for our 6.30 bus onto Ipiales at the Ecuadorian border. When we arrived we bumped into four Americans who said the 6.30 wasn’t running and we had to wait until 8, but when Matt asked the women said it was running – so we all got on! The journey was long, but we followed the Panamericana highway through the Andes which meant there was some stunning mountain scenery, even though we both overslept going past a volcano, oops. We also noted the increased military and police presence on the road and in towns, checking cars and people very regularly. There were points in which road checks were carried out every 20 minutes, but we were not stopped once.
When we arrived into Ipiales, we realised that the town was a bit of a dump so we checked whether there were any hotels at the nearby Santuario de las Lajas, a famous church built into a gorge in the mountains. It turns out that there were hotels, so we hopped into a taxi and headed to the town nearby the church. We found an incredibly cheap hotel by Colombian standards (20,000 pesos = £6) and then headed down the hill to see the church which was absolutely stunning and well worth the side trip before going to Ecuador. The church is built into a massive gorge with a powerful river flowing underneath, a large waterfall and is built in a very beautiful and ornate style. Tomorrow we make the trip to Ecuador and have to leave Colombia – we really will miss it. On the Lost City trek, Juan asked us why we decided to come to Colombia. We weren’t entirely sure, but sheepishly said that we wanted to test the typical stereotypes. Looking back now, we think that this is exactly what we wanted to do and as far as we are concerned, we have broken all the stereotypes we previously had about the country. We were nervous when we came, led on by stories of dangerous cities, drug smuggling, guerrilla warfare etc. And really we weren’t even sure why people continue to have these views, particularly as Colombia is never featured on international news. Of course Colombia has its problems – technically it is still at war with oppositional groups (although peace talks are moving on well) and certain areas are definitely a no-go for tourists or Colombians alike. However, as long as you avoid these areas, what we discovered was a beautiful country that is modern, safe and full of friendly people who what to shrug off the stereotypes that plague them to this day. We also want to point out that many Colombians say tourist only come to Colombia to take drugs, which clearly has proven to be quite true in some cases. However once you find out the devastation, blood share and violence cocaine and cannabis in particular have caused a nation of nearly half a century, it should put everybody off. More tourists have to visit Colombia, who can break those stereotypes on Colombian side. A very clever tourism advertising campaign by the government states – ‘the only risk is not wanting to leave’. How right they are. Colombia, we will return and we hope that many more of you reading this blog will make their own way to Colombia exploring a fantastic country with plenty to give!