Just when I sat down at one of the tables in a tiny roadside restaurant, I smelled it. Fresh washed laundry, hanging to dry in a very humid climate. The scent of moist mixing with fabric softener rose from the red-checked tablecloths in front of me, catapulting me back in time. Back to an image of drying laundry in front of the ochre-yellowish walls of an apartment building, its walls crumbling of age. I was sitting on the terrace of my hostel in the Casco Antiguo, Panamá.
Lately, I’ve been having a lot of flashbacks. The smallest hint of a scent smelled a long time ago, can bring me back to this specific time and place. Not only smells, songs as well: ‘Cheerleader’ by Omi shows me images of palm trees against a deep blue sky, flashing by while driving from Trinidad to Varadero in a blue Viazul bus. Location: Cuba. I noticed colours transport me into the past too. A specific kind of ochre reminds me of the Cathedral in Cádiz.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Cádiz lately. Being in Thailand, mainly on my own – that’s another story, not for now – I’ve had a lot of time to think. I’m temporarily living in a tropical paradise, but I’m missing my beloved Latin America. – always, but I know I’m going to go back – I’m missing living in Spain too. During the eight months I was working in Spain last year, I had the chance to visit tons of places in Andalucía, the city of Cádiz being my absolute favorite. About time I started to write about it.
Why, you would ask. Why Cádiz? Honestly, I don’t know. There are places that have a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, a feeling or a vibe that make you feel like you belong there. There are magnificent cities with a ton of things to do, a vibrant nightlife, a mass of people raving about it and yet, they leave me completely indifferent. Others, however, catch me from the first moment I set foot in their streets, leaving me with a warm buzzing feeling inside and the dreams of buying an apartment and moving in for the rest of my life. Doesn’t matter if they’re big or small. I absolutely adored Mexico City, a huge mastodont smacked in the middle of Mexico with terrific traffic problems, while Cartagena, a beautiful colonial city In Colombia – and I do love myself a colonial city – left me irritated and eager to leave. Cádiz, however, enchanted me from the very beginning and even though it’s not one of the biggest cities in Spain – number 17 the be exact -, it still has enough sights to see and keep you busy for a couple of days. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss when visiting Cádiz!
WALK THROUGH THE OLD TOWN
Cádiz is ancient. It’s founded around 1000 BC by the Phoenicians and considered one of the oldest still standing cities in Western Europe. You’ll breathe history when walking through the small cobblestone streets, referring to the times the Spanish Empire plundered the Americas. You’ll spot a Roman theater, right in the middle of the El Pópulo district. Memories of the Phoenicians, Greeks & Romans, Visigoths and Moors still linger in the streets. The area is so rich in stories, it’s hard to soak it all in. The best way – according to me – to discover the narrow streets of Old Town Cádiz is with a Free Walking Tour. I’ve spent quite some time researching which tour to take and opted for the Spanish speaking – a girl gotta practice her Spanish – tour with Lalunares, which was easily one of the best tours I’ve taken. Ever. The guide’s storytelling was so vivid, you could literally see the Romans march through the streets in front of your eyes. In case you’re not so fond of mingling with strangers and you’d prefer to discover Cádiz by yourself, you just have to walk around. Narrow streets with buildings in pastel colours, leading from Plaza to Plaza, opening up only to reveal some hidden wonders or lead you back to the seaside. It is the perfect city to get lost in and you’ll get to know its secrets while doing so.
Cádiz is a city of watchtowers, 126 to be exact. The city was blooming in the 18th century thanks to its trade – or robberies, depending how you see it – with the Americas, being the first port the ships arrived to after their trips to the Colonies. Merchants didn’t want to miss the arrival of their precious goods and build plenty of watchtowers hovering over the city, each with its own flag, in order to be spotted from far away at sea. Torre Tavira is the highest watchtower of Cádiz, serving as a museum, a camera obscura and the best viewpoint of the city, all at the same time.
PASEO MARITIMO DE CADIZ
The ocean is only a small walk away from the centre. Actually, almost the whole Old Town of Cádiz is surrounded by the sea. History and old buildings mingling with the seaside are my favorite. Once the narrow streets start to get claustrophobic, you just have to follow your nose and walk a couple of minutes before breathing the fresh sea breeze. The Paseo Maritimo leads you along the coastline to the Cathedral, while serving as a meeting point for young and old or the setting of buskers playing South American tunes in the evening light.
PLAYA DE LA CALETA
The city ends at La Caleta, nestled between the castles of San Sebastián and Santa Catalina. A beach. And castles. Do I really have to say more? The perfect place to take a dip in the sea, after strolling through ancient streets on a hot summer day. The adventurous of heart could always head towards the entrance of the Castillo de San Sebastián, connected to the mainland through a crumbling road that clearly has seen better times. An ideal place to watch the sunset, with a cold drink, seeing the sky turn all colours of pink you can possibly imagine.
MERCADO CENTRAL DE ABASTOS
The place to be in Cádiz to sample some of the best foods Spain has to offer. The market is the best in the mornings, when fresh fish and seafood is ready to be sold, cooked and land in empty stomachs. The smells of fresh produce and salty ham linger in the air while you walk around, deciding on what to cook that evening. Maybe you’ll be just buying some ingredients for a pick-nick at the beach. Or you’re in it for a quick lunch, browsing through the food stalls at the outer square of the market, ready for a true food fest.
Once you’ve visited all these highlights of Cádiz, you just scratched the surface. But I hope you’ll fall in love with the city just like me, not only impressed by the history, but also the simple things in life: enjoying pink sunsets on a rooftop terrace while freshly washed shirts are swaying in the hot summer breeze. Walking along the Paseo Marítimo while deciding which of the side streets you’ll discover next. Tasting some mouthwatering tapas while sitting on a terrace in one of the Plazas dotting the city, or licking the melting ice cream of your fingers while walking over ancient cobblestones.
Oruro. A name not as well known as La Paz, a city high up in the mountains and Governmental Capital of Bolivia, only to be followed closely by Sucre, the actual Capital of the country. Besides that, places like the Salar de Uyuni, Copacabana and Lago Titicaca score high on the ‘which-places-do-I-actually-know-in-Bolivia’ list. Only when it comes to celebrating carnaval in Bolivia, it appears that people start to recognize the sounds of its name. Oruro. Capital of Carnaval and Folklore in Bolivia.
I have to admit that I didn’t know why I went to Oruro. At that moment, I was still preparing to go to Sajama – Mountain in the East of Bolivia, close to Chile, seems to be extraordinarily beautiful, but hard to get to and I sadly didn’t make it there. It’s settled on number 1 to do when and if I get back to Bolivia. -, wether it would be alone or with a travel partner I’d found along the way, I wasn’t sure yet. I had no clue as to what to do once there, the only thing I knew about Oruro was its association with Carnaval. With 3 months to go until february, Carnaval would be a no-no. Having looked online and found none of the ‘usual’ hostels – Even when I don’t like staying in party hostels for example, having them in a city means you have a backpacker crowd + things to do and people to meet – it meant the city obviously wasn’t on the usual backpacker’s route, making it all the more interesting to visit for me.
After a long busride from Potosi to Oruro, arriving in the dark at Hostal Graciela was a blessing. Mainly because of the small Mexican restaurant right next to it, serving the best Mexican food – besides the flautas Ale made for me in Quito, a story I haven’t told you yet – I had since leaving Mexico. – Okay, I admit, a Mexican restaurant in a Bolivian city is not a reason to visit said city, but it definitely helps knowing you can find some decent foreign food. – I was hungry and it made me all the happier to know that Alejandro, the manager of both restaurant and hostel, offered a ‘Free Walking Tour’ of the city the next day.
GIANT ANTS, DANCING DEVILS AND THE VIRGIN
Most of the history and legends of Oruro I’ve got to know is thanks to Alejandro and his tour that day. I loved it, I loved the city for it and in hindsight I wish I spent a bit more time there before rushing over to La Paz. Oruro is a city filled to the brim with local legends and folklore, situated on the Altiplano, about 3700m above sea level. The Uru Uru tribe lived in there long before the Incas ruled the area. After the Spanish colonialists arrived, they took the land and founded a city that got quite wealthy through tin mining – Until the biggest tin mine ran out of tin, that is. -. Up until now the local economy is still based upon the different mining activities in the mountains surrounding the city, which is named Oruro after the Spanish mispronounced the old Uru Uru’s name. – So far the history lesson, I’m not an historian, so hopefully I could somehow summarize centuries of history in a couple of sentences. – Just to give you a quick idea what to expect when visiting: a ton of indigenous influences, a city filled with hills, which can leave you out of breath if you’re not yet accustomed to the high altitude and Oruro is very proud of it’s cultural heritage, a mixture of old legends and Christian religion.
One of the first things I saw and visited with Alejandro, was a mural about the 4 plagues that threatened the city after the Urus stopped to pray and obey their gods: giant Hormigas (ants), a giant Sapo (toad), a giant Vibra (viper) and a giant Lagarto (lizard). Luckily, the city was saved by the Virgin del Socavón, Mary of the Mineshaft, who was warned by Chiru Chiru – a Bolivian Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave it to the poor, with his hiding place in the mineshafts around the city -, she turned the huge beasts into creatures of sand and stone. Even now you can visit their corpses, the Ants being Los Arenales, a type of Sand dunes at the northeast, the Serranía de Asiruni being the body of the Viper in the south, you’ll be able to find the Toad in the north and the Lizard is the rock formation at Cala Cala to the east. The mixture of legends becomes even more interesting when you know that Chiru Chiru has been guarded by the Virgin del Socavón until he died. Being stabbed in the heart while robbing one of his victims, he escaped and dragged himself to safety into one of the mineshafts. The Virgin came to his side and stayed with him on his deathbed. Later, when miners discovered his corpse, they saw the image of the Virgin above him, becoming the Virgin del Socavón – Socavón literally means mineshaft – which you can still visit in Oruro. To honor him, the miners dressed like Devils and went around the shafts – the Devil is the watchman of the inner earth according to Aymara beliefs -, giving birth to a tradition that is repeated in the Diablada, the traditional devil dance during Oruro Carnaval. With giant Ants and Vipers, the Virgin of the Mineshaft and Devils, you know now what to expect: Oruro is filled to the brim with street art, depicting their local legends. – The worst thing is that I enjoyed my walk around the city so much I forgot to take pictures… – Around every corner you’ll find murals and paintings of monsters and devils. The city has built a new cable car up the mountain where one of the biggest Virgins of Latin America stands – of course, what did you expect? –, with the interiors of both stations decorated completely with dancing devils when you start your ride at the bottom, to arrive and see angels at the top. I absolutely loved it.
Besides street art depicting monstruous beasts, Oruro has a ton of squares dedicated to Bolivian history. Sitting on a bench, you can watch and read about several historical battles, the loss of their coastline being the most important one. The Bolivians still didn’t get over the fact they’ve lost their coastline to Chile, nota bene on the day they celebrated Carnaval and nobody had a clue what was going on – read: too drunk celebrating – until it was too late. One of the squares is known for different street food stalls selling delicious llama chorizo – only llama chorizo, no options for vegetarians/vegans I’m afraid – which is worth the stop. Bolivia being quite cheap for somebody that had the luck beeing born in Europe, it’s a pleasure eating and drinking in a city like Oruro, where tourism is non-existent and you’re able taste local delicacies for very little money.
Another highlight is the local market next to the church of the Virgin del Socavón. It is huge, stretching over several hills and a place where you can literally buy everything, from televisions to fruits to toys to llama fetuses. Yep, also here you’ll have the local witch market and on the contrary to the one I’ve visited in La Paz – not even sure if I visited the right one – there were no other foreigners in sight. Alejandro asked to stay respectful and keep facial expressions under control, as this is the genuine belief of people, how strange and revolting it can be to others. Also here I didn’t take any pictures, out of respect for the local believes and because I tend to forget thinking about my camera when I’m fascinated – or having fun or making memories – by the things I see. Living in the moment, I guess.
Instead of guiding us around the city in a normal hour-and-a-half tour as most free walking tours do, Alejandro guided us around the city for FIVE hours. I learned a shitload of facts and figures about Bolivia, got fascinated by local beliefs and the mixture of ancient and new religions mingled together, ate delicious food, saw all the main sights and had. so. much. fun. If you want to get a feeling of the real Bolivia and stay for away of tourist crowds, this is it. Oruro is waiting for you.
ANCIENT PAINTINGS ON THE ALTIPLANO
I’m one of those travelers that doesn’t leave the home without a travel guide. I know, internet is there to guide us all, travel bloggers have been roaming around the globe providing us with free information just one click away. Still, I can’t withstand the urge to leaf through a guide and start dreaming about all the possible adventures I could have in my destination. But mostly, the guides cover places you haven’t read about before. So, the first thing I checked in Oruro was my Lonely Planet: what have we got here? Apparently, there isn’t written much about this city outside of Carnaval, but the name Cala-Cala came up and got me triggered. Visiting the altiplano, seeing some ancient Llama murals…yep, that sounded like I had plan.
The only problem was getting there. Again, a destination not covered by hordes of travel influencers means there’s very little information available about how to visit these murals. Apparently, you had to take a taxi to the village of Cala Cala, ask around at the village for the lady with the keys of the fence – to get to the murals, duh -, pay the entrance fee and you’d be ready to enjoy some ancient paintings. Which leaves you with a bit of a problem if you can’t find the lady with the keys, because who’s going to let you in? We – Magali and me, an Argentinian girl I’ve shared the room and the walking tour with – were doubting what to do, when our hostal offered a solution: Louis, born and bred in Oruro, wanted to show us around for a bit extra, providing us with a small guided tour and a back up plan in case we couldn’t locate the lady-with-the-keys. Well, better than not to go, I suppose?
Instead of Luis, Alejandro’s dad – you know, Alejandro who guided us through Oruro – accompanied us over the altiplano, to the village, asking around for the lady, not finding her. We left anyway, driving up to the fence and entering through a hole cut in the side, close to the wooden walkway leading up to the walls and rock where we’d be able to see the paintings. – Remembering the free hot-springs in Costa Rica I once visited…free because there was a hole cut into the fence protecting it. The ideal way for locals to enjoy those springs without paying exorbitant fees. – Once on the wooden walkway, we could enjoy the wall and cave paintings up close: mainly llamas and stick figures, probably made during rituals preformed during the Inca reign. Or maybe older, nobody knows for sure who painted them… Anyway, ten minutes after we climbed through the fence, a dusty cloud indicated a visitor coming to the entrance. A quite agitated Doña Marta, we learned later on. First she was upset when she saw us there, but after she realized we did went around the village asking for her first – how could she otherwise know we were there? – she softened up and started explaining more about the paintings and surrounding nature. She seemed quite happy to have some foreign visitors and posed for a picture with us, which I needed to send her later on through Whatsapp. End good, all good. We had a small walk on the altiplano afterwards, before driving to the remnants of the Giant Lagarto. – It is a rock. Not even a pretty one…but hey, it’s a nice story – Hungry, we went for lunch in a local village on the way back, where I’ve felt like the only white-non-latina person who set foot in the village ever before. Tasting a local BBQ under suspicious stares of the locals before heading back to the city after our little adventure outside.
ORURO: YAY OR NAY?
Oruro surprised me in so many positive ways, even though I didn’t spend that much time inside the city. I was seriously doubting to spend some time there at all, mainly because the lack of information of what to do and see outside the Carnaval period. As you’ve already read, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and hope that, after reading this, you might consider giving Oruro a chance. And maybe taste some delicious llama chorizos while doing that. – Or one of Alejandro’s tasty quesadillas… I still feel ashamed promoting a Mexican place in Bolivia, but can I help it that nothing beats Mexican food? –
I guess you’ve seen them already. The pictures. Blinding white landscapes as far as the eye can reach. Octangular shapes, endlessly repeated until they disappear in the horizon. A dinosaur chasing 4 terrified people. Some warmly clad humans entering a packet of chips. The Salt flats in Uyuni have been the adult playground of travelers and backpackers since year and day. It won’t surprise you then to say some places can be quite ‘busy’. Hurdes of tours groups doing the same route, day in day out, and hey, why not? It’s worth the view after all. Not only to take those funny riding-a-giant-llama photos or carry yourself to the top of Insla Incahuasi to be the first to see the sunrise over that huge sea of salt. Actually, it’s the road towards the world’s most famous Salt Flats that let me fall completely and hopelessly in love with Bolivia.
Most tours – Yep, you need to take a tour. High altitude and no real ‘villages’ with a constant food and water supply means it is not recommended to DIY in the area. You’ll probably get lost too. – start in Uyuni, let you discover the Salt Flats on the first day and continue the next day and a half through the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa – quite the mouthfull – with hot springs, geysers, lakes at high altitude and tons of flamingos. All tours will stop at the same points, which means that the chances on having a bit of alone time with Mother Nature will be close to zero. Yes, I know, Bolivia is a country not yet on the masstourism radar, but places like this are well known and, well, basically everybody visiting Bolivia wants to go and see the Salt Flats in Uyuni. Bummer. Or not?
WILD WILD WEST VIBES IN TUPIZA
Doing my research, I stumbled upon an alternative. The city of Tupiza, a.k.a. The Wild Wild West of Bolivia, is another startpoint for tours to the Salt Flats. Even more, they have an extra day included in the tour, making it a 3 nights 4 days instead of the standard 2 nights 3 days trips leaving from Uyuni. The tour itself is a bit more expensive, since you pay for one day extra driving, the guide, food and a night extra. You’ll visit a part of Los Lipez and the Pueblo Fantasma – a deserted mine village at 4690m altitude – which is not included in the tours running from Uyuni. The biggest advantage for me, however, is the route: you visit the most famous sites on different times than the fleet of 4X4’s coming from the opposite direction. Less people is always the better option in my opinion, one of the main reasons why I decided to start the tour in Tupiza.
When in Tupiza, Lorena – the awesomest Colombian travelpartner, I met her in Sucre and we travelled together for about 2,5 weeks – and I went ‘tour-shopping’: we literally checked every tour agency in the area, asking the prices for the 4-day tour to Uyuni and what would be included. Be ready to negotiate, especially if you’re a bigger group and willing to book another tour: you might be able to get more bang for your bucks. In the end we got a nice deal at a small, independent tour operator: for 1275 BOB we had the 4day/3night tour from Tupiza to Uyuni and a 4×4 and Mountainbike tour through the beautiful red rock landscape surrounding Tupiza. If you know that every tour operator offered us the 4day/3night tour for at least 1200 BOB, we did get a nice offer. 1200 BOB is about 150€, knowing that one of the girls on our tour paid 200$/175€ only for the 4-day tour – which she booked online and took together with us – we knew we did the right thing.
First: our cycling adventure through the dusty red landscapes of Tupiza – only the second day we would be making our way to the world’s most famous Salt Flats -. Names as El Puente del Diablo. Valle de los Machos. Cañón del Inca. El Sillar. Places that don’t say much to you now, but watch the pictures and you’ll see the typical landscapes of Tupiza: dusty roads, dry red rocks, cacti all over and just. So. Many. Incredible. Views. We had a lot of fun taking pictures, mountainbiking down from El Sillar back to Tupiza – Of course, I was the slowest…didn’t like going too fast with the option making a free fall if I would miss one of the curves. Lorena however is a monster on the bike, she loved speeding down. –
Anyway, there are no reasons not to stay in Tupiza for a while, before you hop in the jeep to do your tour. There are plenty of things to do, sights to see and Tupiza town is way prettier than Uyuni itself!
TUPIZA TO UYUNI – DAY 1
Eight o’clock in the morning: our backpacks ready on the roof of our jeep, the bananas for breakfast still being chewed in our mouths and we had a small bag filled to the brim with food and snacks to for the four days inside our 4X4. We were more than ready to leave, only needed to wait for the cook and our two fellow travelers to arrive. Which they – obviously – did, one by one, on foot, with a backpack, as ready as Lorena and me where. Day 1 is the day with most of the driving: past the famous view of El Sillar, which we visited the day before with the bike, higher and higher up, until you might be happy to chew on a couple of coca leaves offered by your guide. The altiplano, vast and wide planes at high altitudes, llama’s and vicuñas chewing intensely at the side of the road. Lunch at a tiny village, almost solely catering to people on their way to Uyuni.
After noon, the landscapes became even more wild, more mountaineous, while we drove higher and higher, until we reached the ‘Pueblo Fantasma’ – the Ghost Village – in the Los Lipez area. The village is an old miner town, once used by the first Spanish settlers in colonial times to suppres the local community and exploit them working in the mines. At the height of 4690m altitude, only the walk to the village can leave you gasping for air. Imagine doing extremely heavy work, as a slave, in those circumstances… . Now long deserted, it became a rather eerie place. A real Ghost village. To shake away the negative spirits, we drove further, until we reached the highest point on our trip: Laguna Morijon, a stunning 4855m high. If I’ll need to write one thing: the landscapes are just incredible. I have no words to describe them, but I can still see them vividly when I close my eyes.
The day finished in Quetena Chico, a tiny village within the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, West Bolivia, close to the border with Chile. The guest house were we’d spend the night had three other groups located in there, all as tired and famished as us. After dinner, the whole lot went to bed as soon as possible, too tired of the past day.
TUPIZA TO UYUNI – DAY 2
Our guide warned us the next day that we would be the first ones to leave Quetena Chico, so at 6h30 in the morning our Jeep was already on its way to our first stop: Laguna Hedionda. This day is by far my favorite, I still can’t get over the fact you can see that many breathtaking views in one single day.
Laguna Hedionda is a huge lake, consisting of Borax and different other minerals that give it a typical white with pink colour…imagine this in the soft morning light with a bunch of flamingos sleeping standing in the water. Magical views. As the other jeeps left later than us, we were completely alone and could enjoy our small walk around the lake to the fullest.
Stop number two and three were another lake filled with Borax and the Salar de Chalviri, a small salt flat, much less famous than the one we would see two days later. We passed Laguna Chalviri, were we would return to after the next stop.
Laguna Verde. According to our guide, the lake changes into the most intense green around 11 o’clock in the morning and no way we wanted to miss that. Incredibly beautiful, with the volcano Licancabur in the background and right at the frontier with Chile. Honestly, I can’t say anything else besides the landscapes seemingly being from another planet.
After a small stop in the desierto de Dali – Dali’s desert, only named because the landscape looks a lot like it could be painted by the famous artist…not that he ever visited the place. – we drove back to Laguna Chalviri, to warm up inside the hotsprings bordering the lake. With views on a bunch of wild vicuñas roaming the waterside. Could it get any better?
Apparently, yes. After lunch at the hotsprings, one stunning view after the other got followed by a visit to the badly reeking but fascinating Geotermas Sol de Mañana, geysers that left your clothes smelling like sulfur. Last highlight of the day, however, was the Laguna Colorada. You would say, after seeing that many lakes in one day, the last one wouldn’t really impress me anymore? Wrong at that. The lake is gigantic, with almost all colours of the rainbow, tons of flamingos living on the water and llama’s roaming the sides to get their daily amount of grass chewed away. Stunning. Breathtaking. Magical. I guess my English vocabulary isn’t enough to describe the natural beauty I’ve seen that day. For this Natural Reserve alone I would already take the tour again.
TUPIZA TO UYUNI – DAY 3
After hot showers and a breakfast, the whole Jeep was ready to start part 3 of our trip. We left the Reserva and had again, another type of landscapes ahead of us. Volcanic rocks of all shapes and sizes, llama’s and ostriches all over the place and a guide that liked to take all the pictures. I’m not really the one for posing too much, so I left my group and went to walk around a bit by myself, to join them later on when Lorena convinced me to take pictures at some natural windows in the rocks. With plenty of chinchilla’s, jumping fast when they saw us approaching. The whole day was lighthearted, with less dramatic landscapes and more laughs of having fun outside. Laguna Negro – another lake, yes, still different – surrounded by another canyon, proved nice to have a walk to the lake and try to count how many chinchilla’s were hidden on the rocks. We lost count. The Anaconda Canyon, with the river coiling like a snake through the landscape. A lovely pick nick outside.
The afternoon was one long ride towards our Salt Hotel at the side of our final destination, the Salar the Uyuni. One small stop at a village where the people solely lived from money made by salt extraction. With one tiny bar offering local quinoa / corn / potato beers. At 3 pm we finally reached the hotel, installed ourselves and had some time to relax after three hectic days on the road. Some of us slept a bit, some went to have a walk between the cacti and I just took some pictures and drank tea in the living room. Pure bliss for the introvert inside of me. Later on we celebrated our last evening with a huge lasagna and a bottle of wine between the four of us and our guide. Not too late however, we had to leave at 4 am in order to see the sun rise over the Salt Flats.
TUPIZA TO UYUNI – THE DAY OF THE SALT FLATS – DAY 4
An early start, but what a start. We took off at 4.30 am and were affraid we would miss the sunrise: a slice of light was already visible at the horizon. A small stop in the middle of the vast Salt Flats was necessary so we could enjoy the starts before racing to Isla Incahuasi, an oasis of cacti in the middle of the Salt Flats and by far the best spot to enjoy the sunrise. We arrived just on time and ran – well, the others ran a bit faster than me, I still wasn’t too good at exercising at that altitude – to the top. Besides us, another jeep with four Dutch girls arrived, so both our groups made it in time to see the sunrise. Silent. Peaceful. Until our peace got broken by another two, three groups, entering loudly and spreading out, trespassing the signs that indicated you to stay on the trail. NOT OK. – Please, if you are visiting Isla Incahuasi, stay on trail. No need to pass between the cacti, signs are there for a reason. To protect the area. Show some respect. – Gone was our peace, but still, it didn’t stop us to admire the views and enjoy the Salar de Uyuni, our final destination after spending 3 days together in a small jeep.
With the sun up and shining, the time had come to eat our breakfast and explore the Salar. We walked a good part on the salt flats until the otherside of the island, snapping pictures and enjoying to be there. In the spot. Our guide picked us up and sought a good spot for us to start taking the obligatory but not to be missed perspective pictures. Remember, the dinosaur eating humans and the four people walking into a bag of crisps? Yep, those pictures. We had so much fun, saw the sun rising higher and started shedding clothes the hotter it became. We had a blast. – Don’t forget to rub sunscreen on your face…mine got the tint of cooked lobster after two hours on the Salar. Not such a good idea… – Our time together in the jeep was slowly coming to an end. After a visit to the biggest Salt Hotel and the space where everybody planted his flag, we reached the other side of the Salt Flats, almost reaching the city of Uyuni. One more lunch break and a small visit to an arts&crafts market later, we visited the Cemeterio de Trenes. Our last stop. Which was according to Lorena and me a waste of time, with some rusty trains between a bunch of pastics of the nearby dump. We took some pictures, but were definitely underwhelmed after all the natural beauty we witnessed the past days. Bummer.
TUPIZA TO UYUNI – WORTH THE EXTRA DAY / MONEY?
Hell yeah. I would do it again, in a heartbeat. Tupiza is a much nicer town to spend a couple of days in if you need to wait for people to fill up the jeep, with plenty of things to do and see. The Pueblo Fantasma is eerie, but interesting to see. The lack of other tour jeeps doing the same route – we only had three or four that we saw each day, mainly at different times and at the end of the day – garantuees you a less stressfull visit, with more time at each side and no people ruining your pictures. Overall, if you want to see the Salar de Uyuni, you have the time and you don’t want to miss out on some otherworldly landscapes on the way, take the route from Tupiza to Uyuni. You won’t regret it.
Hello there! Yes, it’s me, still alive after a couple of months of silence on this blog. Not that I was sitting still or got caught up in this thing called ‘life’. Well, maybe a little bit. The life thing at least. Since this blog mainly talks about my travels, I guess it’s more than fair if I take some time off once in a while. Just to have some adventures to write about. What happened during my months in Bolivia for example. How about a tiny little stop in Paraguay? Maybe also a couple of weeks in Argentina. – Okayyyy…I know I’m months behind on the next posts of my time in Colombia and Ecuador. I will write them. Eventually. I promise. –
Whenever I decide to plan a trip, I start reading. Blogs, guides, (old) travel magazines, you name it and I will have read it. Most of the information you find is up to date, relevant, useful. Well-known places and things you just can. not. miss., like the Salar de Uyuni, definitely the most visited ‘tourist’ attraction in Bolivia but living up to it every second. Sometimes I stumble upon some rather questionable advice and some people just plainly warn you not to go: you’ll be robbed, local people ignore you and you’ll probably end up dead in a ditch somewhere. – maybe a bit exaggerated, but still – A lot of the things I’ve read didn’t make sense at all. So, writing as a solo female budget traveler who’s just spent almost the full 3 months in Bolivia, here’s what to expect when you visit Bolivia for the first time.
BOLIVIA LEAVES YOU BREATHLESS
Literally. Especially during a climb of some steep hills in La Paz or when admiring the mirrored surface of the Salar de Uyuni during rain season. A lot of what’s hot in this landlocked South American country will take place at high altitude, wether it is walking towards the Maragua crater on a two-day hike, taking pictures of some ancient murals on the altiplano or just having a fresh orange juice at the market in El Alto. The Andes hits ‘Bolivia’s top 10’ at least a couple of times.
On the other hand, while flying to the town of Rurrenabaque, the mountains quickly make place for a green jungle, a big brown river coiling through the trees like a giant snake. Humidity, mosquitos and heat are just an annoyance when standing face to face with a wild capucin monkey / capybara / jaguar – only if you’re lucky -. Watching the stars when fishing on a river at night, only surrounded by tchirping birds and jungle sounds. The thrill of seeing a tapir, closeby, wild and free. The humiditiy, the feeling of drowning inside a sea of green, green and green. Breathless. The magic of the jungle.
What else? Some big cities, like La Paz and Oruro, a tablecloth of brick buildings that doesn’t seem to stop. Buzzing, thrilling, always something to do. Markets in different parts of the city and on different days, aimed at tourists or just to sell the produce of the day. Superstition has a place on the witches’ market and old customs got a new dress on the Alasitas festival. Traditional clothing is still worn by the locals, representing the area and community they come from. Color is a key word.
A combination of the majestic Andes, the high plains where wild vicunas roam free, the magic of the Amazon with its lush forests and wildlife, together with the chaotic cities and small indigenous comunities living their traditional way of life is why Bolivia deserves your attention. It’ll leave you breathless, maybe even more than you’ll have imagined before.
LONG BUSRIDES. YES, MOSTLY ON UNPAVED ROADS. BUT THEY’RE COMFY.
Now, if you want to take a bus in Bolivia, my best advice is: go to a bus station and ask them when / what / how much on the spot. No need to book tickets in advance – they will be more expensive anyway – or check the timetables, it’s highly likely that the info you’ll find online isn’t accurate or that there are a lot more options than you’ve expected. The rest depends upon you: the comfort you want, how much time you have and, of course, how much bolivianos you can spend on your transport. For the budget travelers among us: yes, Bolivian buses can be very cheap.
Talking about comfort, I’m a person who can sleep everywhere as long as I have a space to rest my head on. Needless to say I’ve never picked a cama-bus or a – definitely more expensive – ‘Bolivia Hop’ option. Semi-cama is good enough for me, declining chairs, a foot rest and a shaking bus made me sleep like a rose most of the time. But, be aware, semi-cama being the cheapest option means there’s no toilet. If you desperately need to pee, just sign the driver and he’ll stop at the side of the road. Yep, you’ve read that well, those Cholita skirts are a practical thing on a long busride. – Fun fact: my first nightbus in Bolivia I didn’t know that ‘you need to ask the busdriver for a toilet break’, I was hoping for a quick stop in a restaurant in order to go to the toilet. Five hours later, I knew I couldn’t hold it any longer and started to talk to the gentleman beside me, in the hope he knew what to do. Friendly as the Bolivians are – they are, ignore what you’ve read on other blogs – he shouted to the busdriver to stop the bus, accompanied by a choir of fellow travelers desperate in need for a wee. I sprinted out of the bus, squatted behind some bushes and…relief. Only for a couple of seconds, until I realized that I was peeing right next to a free running pig. Luckily for me, it didn’t chase me, I could finish and continue my trip with dry panties. – For the more frugal travelers amongst us: if the bus didn’t fill up before leaving, it will stop one block from the bus station, trying to get more passengers at cheaper prices. The driver will wait about half an hour before he’ll start to drive or until the moment too many people start screaming ‘Vamos! Vamos!’ at him.
When you’re not such an easy sleeper like me, you can still go for a full cama trip on a local bus. ‘Cama’ means ‘bed’ in Spanish, so highly likely those seats will recline until you’re lying as flat as in a normal bed. – I never took them, but it seems logic though – Plenty of options, some come with food and at the bus station they can tell you what’s included in your bus ticket. I know I’ve mentioned something about ‘Bolivia Hop’, which is a bus service specifically catering to foreigners, which I also never took because 1. It’s more expensive 2. I can always meet fellow travelers in hostels if I want to 3. the local bus system is pretty good and you’ll find buses to nearly everywhere in the country, so no need for a shuttle service. I just prefer taking local buses at any time, that way you’ll get to know the people better – hurray for conversations with your neighbour, if you speak a bit of Spanish – and you’ll be better off when traveling on the cheap. Also, I love people coming on the bus to sell their food. Empanadas for the win.
But how about the safety on local buses then? – I can hear you think it. – Personally, I never had any issues on any local buses, but I’ve traveled often in South America and I’m quite careful with my belongings. Your big backpack will go in the storage space beneath the bus, always with a tag on it and you’ll have the other half. My small daypack / handluggage will be or at my feet or on my lap. Never. Ever. Ever. store anything in the compartment above you, you’ll be losing your stuff faster than you can blink. – In some scams a person that seems to belong to the bus company will forbid you to put your bag at your feet, telling you to store it above you. They’ll distract you and you’ll notice your bag missing. Just stand your ground and keep your bag with you. – Most of the time I’ll have a small bag on me with my passport, money and phone; this bag doesn’t leave my body for a second. Be careful with your stuff and you’ll be fine.
Last but not the least thing to say about bus-hopping in Bolivia: the roads. A lot of them have are paved and you barely notice driving from A to B. A lot more of those roads are a bit less paved…or they’re just a big mud pool the bus has to plough through. Hmpf. Keep in mind that traveling in Bolivia will take a lot of time, mostly because the roads are in such a bad shape. The route between La Paz and Rurrenabaque particularly can give you small heart attacks if you pay too much attention to what’s going on outside. ‘Keep calm, close your eyes and try to sleep’ is my advice. Just in case you really really don’t feel comfortable – as I can imagine on the La Paz – Rurre road – consider other options: boat / train / flight, just don’t expect them to be more affordable.
FRESH, LOCAL FOOD. BECAUSE A GIRL GOTTA EAT – AND THE BOYS TOO, YES –
I try to travel low budget. Try to, because on the way you’ll always meet somebody traveling with almost no money – something I highly admire but I haven’t been able to pull off myself -. Low budget in my eyes means: cooking a lot and eating mainly locally, thus getting to know the people and save money. Win-win. When I say locally, I mean: plastic tables at the roadside, street food and market food. The best food, actually.
If you want to cook, there’s no need to worry about a place to cook your own food. A lot of hostels provide equipped kitchens, so the only thing you’ll need is, of course, the food, some cooking oil – you’ll be standing there with all your stuff, ready to prepare a five-course meal and notice there’s no cooking oil – and the spices you’ll need. Many times there’s a free food section too, it’s handy to have a quick look there before you buy another kilo of rice while you only needed to grab it from the shelve. Then it’s up to you to prepare a delicious meal!
When cooking, what’s a better way than to buy your fresh herbs and veggies at the market? No plastic packaging, you only buy as much as you need and the lovely ladies at the market will gift you some extra’s. Just to see your pretty face again next time you’ll do your grocery shopping. In Bolivia, you can find basically everything you need at your local market: fruits and veggies, herbs, eggs, rice, homemade cheese, bread,… Besides buying your food, most markets have a food court where they serve a cheap lunch, called ‘the menu del dia’. – I already wrote about it in my Colombia-posts – For about 8 to 15 bolivianos you’ll indulge in a soup, main course and a drink of the day. Most of them have different options to the menu, giving you the choice between different meats or, if you’re very very lucky, they’ll have a vegetarian option.
Western food and other options are also widely available – especially pizza you’ll find everywhere – but expect also to pay the price – still not comparable to eating out in Belgium, but already four or five times more expensive –. Depending on your budget, you’ll notice if it’s better to stick to the lunch menus or if you can indulge every once in a while.
KEEP YOUR FRIENDS UP TO DATE
Opposite to what I’ve read on a lot of blogs about Bolivia: internet is everywhere. It might not be the fastest netwerk you’ve encountered, but most hostels, restaurants and bars have their wifi ready to be overused by broken backpackers and other travelers. Most travel blogs on the subject have been written a year or two/three ago, so a lot has changed in the meantime. Almost all hostels have free wifi, even the cheaper ones and not too bad either. Seriously, I paid 30 bolivianos a night in Sucre and could still download my favorite series without issues. Or videocall one of my friends abroad when I felt lonely. Campings on the other hand are less likely to have free internet, but then there are bars and restaurants galore to still your need for an online presence. Only when deep into the forest or high in the mountains you’ll have to refrain your urge to post your pictures. No need for it anyway, when enjoying the outdoors.
All in all, what you need to know: Yes, also in Bolivia you can watch your netflix and spend hours on instagram without any issue. You’re welcome.
EXPECT A LOT.
I guess that’s what you can expect from Bolivia: a shitload of activities ranging from museum hopping in La Paz to catching your breath during a hike in the Andes, long hours on not so good roads, eating fresh and locally while you can still videochat your mom if necessary. Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bolivia. It is an amazing country and the reason I’m writing this ‘what can you expect?’ blogpost is to encourage you to look past the warnings of people who probably haven’t entered a foot in this beautiful country. Set aside your fears and be ready to read a bit more about Bolivia in my next post: ‘Tupiza to Uyuni – more than the world’s biggest Salt flats‘.
My solo trip to Tierradentro ended a bit on a bad note: limping and exhausted from a painfull night, I started my journey towards Mocoa. The Mexican already had let me know he would arrive early, already being on the outskirts of the city. – For once he calculated his cycling time correctly! – Quite early in the morning – at 6.30 exactly – I started my long trip towards this tiny city I hadn’t even heared of before I started this trip to Colombia, the only thing I knew was that 1. It was on Ale’s route to the south and 2. It’s close to the Amazon and there were supposed to be a lot of waterfalls. But first, I hopped on a ‘bus’ – minivan – to Pitalito, once there I caught a bus straight – another minivan – to Mocoa. Seeing that the driver had a roll with plastic bags laying on the dashboard, I knew it didn’t promise any good. I was sitting in the back, together with one woman and her two little boys, who were covered up with blankets and ready to sleep a bit during the ride. The road itself was beautiful. As I said, Mocoa lays very close to the Amazon, so not long after we took off, the landscape started to change. The houses along the side of the road started to make place for a long and winding route through the mountains. Lush vegetation everywhere, a river at the bottom of the valley, the sun slowly coming up. I was really enjoying myself watching the landscape pass by, until… one of the little boys’ stomachs started to protest and yes, he started throwing up. In his mums’ hands. Ieuw. Anyway, after that the plastic bags came in handy, because his brother joined in on the fun. The ride could’ve been slightly better, without two puking boys next to me – and without their mother throwing the full plastic bags out of the car right into the bushes. Horrible. – but I really, really enjoyed the landscapes.
About 6 hours after I left, I arrived in the tiny city of Mocoa. Leaving the bus – already being the only foreigner on it -, I already had the impression there wouldn’t be many foreign visitors in this city. Seeing that I got many onlookers, being this small, white girl with a huge backpack, I decided I would just take a taxi to my hostel instead of figuring out if there was a bus going that direction. The fact that my foot was still badly hurt and that I couldn’t walk anywhere without limping severely – imagine a limping girl with a big backpack on her back and a small one in the front, you’ll imagine me in Mocoa – made it all the easier to just jump into a taxi. Our hostel wasn’t in the city centre, rather closer to the area where all the waterfalls were, not in the middle of nature, but a lot more peaceful than the grimy busy city I’d just seen. My driver didn’t really know where to go when I told him the address, but maps.me came in handy again and showed him at least the right street. Stopping in front of a colourful gate, I was wondering if this was the right place. When I slowely peeked behind the gate, I asked a guy in the front yard if this was the right place and if, by coincidence, a Mexican guy on a bike already made the check in. Apparently, I was talking to Juan, who was keeping the hostel and he could confirm me that, yes, the hostel was correct and yes, the Mexican cyclist arrived an hour before. I hopped and limped back to my taxi to retrieve my big backpack – no way I was carrying that weight with me in case I wasn’t in the correct place – and while I was paying, a happy Ale was waiting for me, ready to swing my big backpack on his back and show me our room. Especially when he saw what my ‘little problem’ was. Obviously, somebody was very curious to know what happened…but first I needed food.
I think this was the longest time we’d been separated since the moment we’d met, so we both were very excited to share our stories and walked – limped in my case – accross the street to one of the restaurants selling home-made chorizo – Casa del chorizo is quite the obvious name – and later on past some food stalls to buy more meat and pineapple. – I had no clue Ale was actually buying stuff for me too…I just thought he was really hungry. I’d had enough with my chorizo, until I saw the pineapple, so I wanted pineapple for desert – With more than enough food and juicy fruit, we crossed the street again – honestly, we were outside the city, everything just happened in the same big street. Anywhere else was rainforest anyway – and sat on the benches, not realizing we were about to witness the local football – and yes, I mean soccer, the real foot-ball – team playing. Well…they were training and getting ready, but the other team didn’t show up. On top, it started to rain. Bummer. I was really excited to see the local team play…even more because I wanted to know how they would avoid the chickens running around on the field. Anyhow, Ale and me continued to update each other on what happened the past three days and couldn’t stop talking, happy to be together again. The Mexican always seemed excited to see me, everytime he arrived and he saw me. Needless to say, catching up on each other – three days seemed very long, time is always different on the road – was the only thing we did that day. Besides making another slow trip to one of the small shops along the side of the road – the other direction this time – to buy some groceries. On our way we passed a young woman on a bike who asked us if we needed a restaurant. Just after our lunch we didn’t really need any more food, but she offered to make us dinner instead, in her little restaurant across the street, in front of the hostel. After an obligatory rest for me – foot hurt A LOT – and a little tour of the hostel, our stomachs started growling again and we hurried to the restaurant across the street. Which wasn’t really a restaurant, more the house of this woman who had a patio. When we arrived, she put up a table and that was that. A menu was nonexistent, we had to eat what she had in the fridge. The food, however, was de-li-cious. A simple soup, with as a main dish rice and chicken with platanos and some fresh juice. Nothing more than that, just a very good home-cooked meal. And we both loved it, the small little place, the woman – who was actually 5 years younger than me and had two kids running around, yikes! – was very friendly and interested in where we came from and why we were visiting Mocoa. She thought we were married – I think it’s quite clear that we aren’t, but we didn’t deny it. Sometimes it’s better to leave people be in order to avoid misunderstandings, and because she was living in a small village in the middle of nowhere, her customs and culture might be different than our own – and asked about my foot, what happened and that I had to take care of myself. The nicest people are found in unexpected places.
Especially when you know that, about an hour later, Ale and me were watching a Mexican comedy show on Netflix. I wasn’t wearing any clothes anymore – only underwear – because of the heat and well, we weren’t planning to get out of our room anymore. Suddenly there’s a small knock on the door and – after hastingly putting on a dress – Juan from the hostel came inside to inform us that there’s a lady at the hostel to see me. It had something to do with my foot and he wanted to know if she could come inside. We both were stunned, but let the lady in, and, apparently, she was the mother of the woman cooking for us. They both came to help me with my foot. This lady asked me if she could give me a massage and explained that my muscles were probably too contracted after my fall and needed to relax, so I could use my full foot again and would stop limping. I was a bit hesitant at first, but after considering that the medical help in Mocoa itself would be minimal anyway, – and I wanted to go to this El Fin del Mundo waterfall – I decided I would give it a try. I knew it was going to hurt. My foot already hurt by looking at it, touching was barely manageable. It was EXTREMELY painful. She definitely didn’t spare my poor foot and I really needed to clench my teeth together in order not to scream out loud. Ale couldn’t even look at me, fidgeting with his phone while avoiding my stares. The bastard. – Afterwards he told me he couldn’t bare watching me in pain – After a gazillion years of torturing my foot, I was able to place my heel on the ground again. I could walk and even though I was still in pain, my knees didn’t threaten to fall on the floor when I pushed my heel onto the ground. This lady explained that I now would still feel pain, but that I had to start walking normally and everything would be fine within a couple of days. I thanked her and we promised to see each other the next day, for lunch.
The next day. Without my painful foot, we would’ve visited the ‘El fin del Mundo’ waterfall, but since it was still sore, we decided to do nothing instead and let my foot rest. Starting with staying in bed together for a long, long time. Around midday we finally made it to the house/restaurant and discovered it had a name: El Puente. The only indication that it was indeed a restaurant. I proudly showed off how I was walking with both heels touching the ground again and even though my foot still hurt, I already felt the difference with the day before. Both women, mother and daughter, were as friendly as ever and we enjoyed another delicious meal. In for a desert, we bought some ice cream and other groceries to survive the rest of the day and stayed the rest of the afternoon in the hostel, relaxing in the hammocks or playing with Linda, the little dog. A bit later that day we also decided to check out the hostel’s swimming pool, which needed a small walk in the jungle – not even full jungle – to the pool. According to Juan, you could even see monkeys from time to time. Ale was smart enough to lend me his baton – the stick he uses to support his bicycle and keep it standing up – which I used as a crutch to lean on going down to the pool. If you’re ever in Samay Hostel, don’t forget to use the swimming pool. It’s this peaceful oasis in the middle of nowhere, a very refreshing one in the almost-Amazonian-heat. The Mexican and me definitely enjoyed to explore the pool, the area around it and to check out the giant ants walking on the same paths as our feet.
The evening meal was eaten in El Puente again – I owed them one for my foot. And the food was simple, but delicious. As I already said a couple of times – But the rest of the night was spent socializing around the kitchen table with the rest of the hostel: Juan, Elias and his mom – a German 30-something mother travelling with her 5 year old son – and the Spanish-Argentinian couple living there already for a good two months. Over the rest of the days, I like to remember how this hostel made me feel a part of a big travelling family, gathering together in the evenings over some home made food with conversations ranging from travels to music to traveling with a 5-year old. Two days of being there and just being in the moment made me feel very very comfortable in Mocoa.
Even though I had to do something for work the next day. Remember that I had to take a German test in La Plata, but I didn’t seem to find a spot with international phone calls? Well, I’d told them I would try again that specific day, so Ale and me were up early – which the Mexican didn’t like that much, as usual – and we took the collectivo-truck to Mocoa in order to find some shop selling international phone calls. Which we found within the same street where the collectivo dropped us off, quite handy. The shop was tiny, completely open to the sounds of passing traffic and the lady selling empanadas in front, yelling loudly to make her presence known. Inside were shelves full with jeans and childrens books, plus a tiny desk with a computer and some phones. I thought it was hilarious, to make a call from this place and when I finally could do my German test, I didn’t hesitate to mention where I was at that exact moment. After about 10 minutes calling, I finished the call and when Ale asked me if I passed the test, I had to tell him I didn’t know. Because of all the noise, I barely understood what they were asking me, but I did answer all the questions in German. Wether or not it was the right answer, I didn’t know, only that he wished me a nice holiday, so I assumed I passed. Honestly, I couldn’t care less, I was very happy that all the obligations towards work were finished and I could enjoy the rest of my trip without thinking about work. We went for breakfast and bought food for our meal, but still managed to squeeze a quick trip to El Puente for lunch inbetween our busy schedule of doing nothing and relaxing in the hammock. We talked, made some plans for the next day – Yes, we were going to visit something! -, played with Linda, the cat and Elias. Ale – of course – cooked diner and we enjoyed chatting a bit with the others before going to bed.
A VISIT TO THE MARIPOSARIO
My foot felt better, I wasn’t limping so badly anymore and we decided that this day was a good day to visit the end of the world, the ‘El fin del mundo’ waterfall. The entrance was right in front of the little shop were we’d been buying some food, about 5 minutes walking from the hostel, in the exact same street. We woke up early, were excited and ready to see some waterfalls after a couple of days relaxing in a hammock or by the pool. Once we arrived, we already grabbed our money to throw it at the ticket desk and run all the way up to El Fin del Mundo…except for the fact it was Tuesday. The waterfalls were closed on Tuesday. I mean, the water is still running and all that, they just take one day in the week as a precaution and let the environment rest a little bit. Exactly on the day we decided to finally do something. Hmpf.
Well…I had wanted to visit the Mariposario – ‘mariposa’ is butterfly in english, so yes, it’s a butterfly garden -, about 15 minutes further down the street when you pass the shop. While Ale wasn’t jumping to visit it when we were making our plans for Mocoa, it was a good alternative that day. At least we didn’t leave our beloved hammocks for nothing. Once at the entrance before the river, you can walk up through a small path in the jungle, not more than half an hour, before arriving to the entrance. You ring a bell – not an electric one, the old fashioned metal bells with a cord, which is pretty fun – and somebody comes to let you in. Only…nobody came. Hmpf. Luckily, on our way up we met a man carrying some heavy bags on his back on the way up and he went for the lady owning the place, telling her she had some visitors. We paid a small fee and in return, this friendly lady guided us around the mariposario, starting with a walk to the Treehouse, which was magnificent. You could rent it and sleep there a couple of nights, if you had the equivalent of about a 100 euros a night. Which is not so much in the end, but on a backpacker’s budget you can spend at least 10 nights for the same price. – I already started calculating if I had any posibility to rent it for one night for Ale’s birthday, until the lady told me she had visitors coming the next day who would stay the rest of the week…not really a bummer, I probably wouldn’t have had the money to splurge anyway – She spoke more about the trees, the significance of those trees for the indigenous in the area and leaded us to the mariposario part of her domain. She explained everything about the circle from larvae to butterfly and we even got to hold one huge caterpillar, before we went to check out the turtles and aras. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any monkeys, but if you expected to see only butterflies and you get to know a whole zoo in the end, then the visit was worth it. After drinking some water and relaxing a bit, we made our way down through the jungle again. This time over a different path, one covered with ferns, leaves and doubling as a highway for giant ants crossing down, carrying double their weight in leaves when passing us. It was a tricky path, slippery from the rain of the night before and I was very carefull not to fall down in the middle of the troop of giant ants. – Secretely hoping they don’t like human flesh – The Mexican and I descended very carefully, but I saw the river again, I got a bit too excited reaching the end and forgot I’m prone to slipping and falling down on wet surfaces. Especially if those wet surfaces are also muddy, uneven and mainly rocks. Yep, suddenly my ass touched the floor in a huge swing backwards. Which was quite hilarious, according to Ale’s laughter when he was trying to help me up. – At least I know now those giant ants don’t eat human flesh… –
We still had a big chunk of the day ahead of us and Ale had the genious idea to visit another waterfall, Salto de Indio, close by the village next to Mocoa. It would’ve been a bit too far to walk, so we decided to hitch a ride on one of the jeep-collectivo’s passing the main street. Jeep-collectivo’s who had no intention to take us with them to Villagarzon. After walking a while with growling stomachs, we knew we were headed to Mocoa, buy some food and would relax another afternoon in the hammocks. Ale surprised me with another delicious diner and we chatted the evening away with our Mocoa-family, before finishing the day.
EL FIN DEL MUNDO
Wednesday. The El Fin del Mundo ticket office would be opened. Finally we would visit the reason we were in Mocoa in the first place. My idea would be waking up early in the morning, very excited, ready to seize the day and go see that damn waterfall. Ale’s idea was grabbing me firmly in the bed, making sure he could sleep the maximum out of the day until I could wriggle loose and bully him awake in the meantime. We compromised and left around 11 in the morning, still before noon, but late enough for Ale not to become a grumpy monster.
The sun was there, we were ready and on our way to the waterfall. To reach it, you had to climb a little bit. I have no clue how many stairs I did that day, but definitely a lot. The first part in the sun and along some grasslands, later on you’ll head into the jungle and follow the wooden stairs up. And up. And up. They seemed endless. Until you hear the laughter of people and the rushing sound of water that tells you that you’re very close. Right before reaching the famous ‘El fin del Mundo’ waterfall, you’ll pass another three waterfalls which are perfect spots to take a little break and refresh yourself by diving into the ice cold water. The first one is a bit more difficult to reach, but the second one is perfect: the water is undeep, though deep enough where the water falls into the lake, ideal to do some cliff diving. – Which I’m too scared to do…but hey, I had a Mexican who’s crazy enough to cycle from Colombia to Argentina, so I guessed he would like to jump into the water. Turned out I was right – Before diving in, we headed further, first passing through the water onto the other side of the lake and over a very very slippery stone table, serving as a bridge next to waterfall number 3. Yes, Ale had to help me multiple times, as I have a great talent for slipping over wet, rocky surfaces and falling on my ass. – Does it sound familiar? – We took some pictures and finally reached the end of our journey in the jungle, with El Fin del Mundo in front of us. It hadn’t been raining that much the last couple of days and the stream was still small, but you could see the potential of a huge river falling 69 meters down into the jungle. Sadly, you could only admire the waterfall from the bottom when you’d rappeled down with a guide, which we didn’t do – And nobody was rappeling at that moment, you have to arrange it in advance -, but we had some great views from the top of the waterfall, lying on our stomachs looking down in the depths below. Pretty great.
Taking our time to make some little videos and pictures, we admired the waterfall and headed back to waterfall number 2 to swim and relax a bit. It started raining a bit, but well, we were about to get wet anyway. I watched Ale performing his big jump in the water and suprised him by taking a swim myself in the ice cold water, which he couldn’t wait to leave afterwards. We got ourselves dressed and started descending the stairs. At that point, the rain started to get heavier and heavier and we praised ourselves with the decision to walk down the stairs already, because the path was about to become a mud stream. Needless to say, we were soaking wet. I remember the moment the water broke through my eyebrows and my eyes barely saw anything anymore while trying not to slide down the moment. Luckily, we reached the end in one piece and right about that time, the sun surprised us with its presence. Hmpf.
We definitely needed a shower and were quite hungry, it being past 4 o’clock and we didn’t even had lunch yet. Peeling of our wet clothes and shoes we headed in the shower, refreshed ourselves and feasted further on pasta of the day before. We were proud, happy and ready to stay a bit longer. Normally, if I hadn’t had the little accident with my foot, we would’ve already been on our way to Pasto. The relaxing, the hostel, the people and being close to the jungle made us want to stay a tiny bit longer. Plus, celebrating your birthday alone on a bicycle isn’t fun, so we were ready for two more days in Mocoa. And one Mexican birthday boy turning 29 the very next day. – Yes, I kind of stayed awake until 12 o’clock to say happy birthday –
Our time in Mocoa was mainly spent relaxing, talking, enjoying each other’s company and a tiny bit of action when visiting the Mariposario and El Fin del Mundo. I asked Ale what he wanted to do for his birthday and he replied: nothing. Relaxing. Eating. Enjoying the time being. So that’s exactly what we did. I tried to let him sleep in a bit – even though this time he was wide awake – and treated him on breakfast in the Chorizo restaurant. We weren’t drinking much during our trip – Especially me, I don’t like beer and wine is really expensive – but Ale wanted to start his day with a beer, so we did. I kind of documented his beers during the day, until we switched to rum and I forgot about it because I joined in on the birthday-drinking. We actually had a lovely day, besides the fact we wanted to eat pizza and couldn’t find a pizza place open in Mocoa around 2 in the afternoon. We ended up eating hamburgers instead, not too bad either. We did a bit more grocery shopping, hung around in the hostel a bit until we were surprised by our Mocoa hostel family: Juan had bought Ale a birthday cake. Jup, that evening we all feasted on the cake and rum. When traveling, I live for these moments, they’re just the best: everybody happy, aroun the kitchen table, talking, drinking and enjoying being in the moment. I already felt it would be difficult to leave.
HOW NOT TO FIND EL SALTO DE INDIO
Apparently I wasn’t the only one that didn’t want to leave just yet. On his birthday Ale told me he didn’t want cycle the whole day after his birthday, we could stay one more day before heading to Pasto. The whole area around Mocoa is basically a playground for everyone who loves hiking, nature and waterfalls. Time to get out of our hammocks again to explore at least one more waterfall before leaving for the city again. Ale’s mind was set on visiting Salto de Indio and while having breakfast, Stephen – backpacker from the US keen on speaking Spanish the whole time, which was highly appreciated in the hostel – asked us for our plans and was wondering if he could join us. Ale had been talking to him the night before as well and since we’ve always been traveling and visiting with just the two of us, why not having company this time?
Off we went, catching a collectivo – they did stop for us this time – to Villagarzon. In the city centre, we asked around a bit to were the starting point of the walk should be and a mom send her two little girls out with us to help us find the start of the trail. We got some mixed explanations, but thought we would manage to find it. We walked out of the village, passed the public swimming pool and crossed the bridge to some grasslands in front of the mountain. In the distance, we could see some waterfalls, high up and surrounded by lush vegetation. We were definitely not there yet and needed to find the path. That’s were we started our search, on a grassland with the faintest trail of a path running through to another one, bordered by the river and fenced by barbed wire. Unsure what to do, we started walking around, going up and down, not finding any path until a farmer leading his horses away waved us in the right direction. I was getting a bit frustrated – I’m not good in not finding my way…normally I always know which direction to head, but being clueless brought me into a bad mood – and what didn’t help, were Ale and Stephen looking for mushrooms to eat. I had been walking ahead, trying to look for the right way, while the two of them were talking and trying wild mushrooms. Now, I haven’t got any experience with foraging and have no clue about which ones are edible and which ones end yourself being ill, or worse, poisoned. Stephen told Ale he recognized which ones were good to eat and some of them even had hallucinogetic side effects, which made both of them eager to try. I didn’t say a word, since I was pissed off. I know, I should’ve just trusted Stephen, since he was eating them himself anyway, but I got so scared they would pick the wrong ones and I would end up with two badly poisoned or even dead men in the middle of nowhere, without being able to call for help. – I know, I’m an overthinker – Anyway, I was pissed on Ale for not taking that into consideration, how well did we know Stephen anyway? So I started ignoring Ale, didn’t contributed anything to the conversation anymore and furiously continued to look for the right path. It seemed to me we needed to cross the barbed wire, as the farmer indicated, and follow the trail further on. I guess the Mexican figured out something was wrong with me, because he caught up with me and asked if everything was alright – normally I’m smiling and very talkative, laughing with all his jokes when I’m with him – and I told him exactly what I was thinking about, clearly pointing out the image of me being alone in the middle of nowhere with two dead bodies. – Okay, maybe a bit dramatic, but I really didn’t trust eating unknown, wild mushrooms in a random field in Colombia – He had no clue and clearly hadn’t thought about it, started to comfort me and told me I shouldn’t worry, he would get me back safely to the hostel. I was relieved he understood my point of view and even though he can do whatever he wants, he politely refused other mushrooms after that.
Without Stephen and Ale stopping all the time to stuff themselves, we could continue our search for the right path and ended up at the river, where we could find a small trail following a part of a smaller river going up towards the mountains. According to the directions we got in Villagarzon, we were going the right way. A bit further, we encountered a pool with two concrete beams running over it as a bridge and the river rushing down from bigger rocks dotted around it. We had to cross the river over those big boulders, which had me a bit scared – remember, the talent to fall down and slide away very easily – while both guys were just jumping over like they were invincible. – I think to much about everything that could happen, I know – We heared the rushing of water falling down, we knew we couldn’t be there just yet but the path seemed to have disappeared. Stephen tried to get ahead a bit to see if we could find the path further up, which made me warm up a bit to him. It seems silly, but having Ale’s infinite attention all the time, it did feel strange having a third person with us. Especially when that person clearly is impressed by Ale’s trip – the cycling thing, remember? – and manages to ignore me the rest of the time. At least, that’s how I felt it. The Mexican gave me as much attention as ever, because well, we were travelling as a couple after all and enjoyed spending time together, but I had the impression Stephen didn’t really like me. Ale probably didn’t realize it – never told him -, but I was glad none of us could find the path, which gave us the time to relax a bit. We found a nice part in the river where we could swim and feed the fish with some leftover Doritos from my backpack. Even though we were a little bit disappointed not finding Salto del Indio, none of us regretted trying. Until the sun disappeared, wind started blowing and some very dark clouds – obviously filled with rain – headed towards our pool. Not hesitating, we dressed ourselves and made our way back to the village. Somewhere past the river – yep, on the mushroom infested meadow – we crossed a group of young Colombians, clearly headed to the Salto del Indio. We told them the path just disappeared and asked if any of them knew the way, because it would be difficult to find. – We realized a local guide would’ve been a good idea, only to be confirmed by Juan from the hostel – One of the girls kind of had been there before, but we didn’t trust it enough to follow them. Besides, those rain clouds didn’t promise any good. About 15 minutes later, just after crossing the bridge, the locks burst open and water started pouring upon us. Luckily, we were a sprint away of the local pool, which had a covered terrace were we could shelter until the downpour stopped. The three of us huddled together on some plastic chairs, we waited about an hour for the rain to stop, whilst making plans. Since we were all starving and I told them I saw a pizza place right were the collectivo dropped us off, maybe Ale could have his birthday pizza one day later?
Once the sun started shining again, we rushed to the pizza place. One word: delicious. After a range of emotions, looking for a waterfall and not finding it and a sudden downpour, we deserved a pizza. And we toroughly enjoyed it. Our stomachs were filled again, but Ale and me were already thinking our next meal and did some shopping before heading to the first collectivo. At the last moment, Stephen realized he needed some bread and while we were waiting inside the collectivo, the driver decided it was time to leave. We yelled at him, but he couldn’t make it in time before our jeep took off, direction Mocoa. At the hostel, the Mexican and me showered, prepared our backpacks / bike and enjoyed some time for ourselves. That evening the whole hostel came together in the kitchen – also Stephen, who hitchhiked and was back way earlier than we even expected –, drinking rum and listening to both Juan and Ale playing their guitars. I already dreaded leaving Mocoa.
Read more on what happened next during my trip with the Mexican in my next blogpost: Pasto and Ipiales: what to visit before crossing the border?
HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?
Since it’s nice to know how much money you would need for a couple of days in Mocoa, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.
Bus Tierradentro – Mocoa: one way – 50.000 COP / 15,00€
Collectivo Hostel Samaya – Mocoa: one way – 2.500 COP / 0,75€
The Desierto de la Tatacoa was just a short detour to the North for us, because once back in San Augustin the Mexican and me would continue our way South. We‘d already decided to keep on travelling together for a little while, first to Mocoa – close to the Amazon – and then further to Pasto, the last big city before Ale would cross his first South American border on his bike and I would continue my travels to Medellin. – what I thought at the time I would do… surpriseeee, I crossed the same South American border as well – First, after a tuk-tuk ride, a collectivo and two buses, we were back in San Augustin, ready to pack our bags again for a goodbye that would last 3 nights and 4 days. Also, this would be the only time Ale correctly calculated the time necessary to reach his destination! But, I’m running ahead of the story. Those calculations gave me a bit of time to do some travelling on my own. Why wouldn’t I head to a not-so-well-known place, called Tierradentro?
The day started with packing, breakfast and a quick stop at the bank for Ale before we went both our ways, Ale jumping on his bike and me showing him which way to go. Which was the wrong direction, I realized when sitting comfortable in my first collectivo direction Pitalito. Woops. – No worries, he realized quickly after he left and already forgave me – Once in Pitalito, I had to take a bus to La Plata and finally, to reach Tierradentro, a last pick-up-truck-collectivo to the tiny town hidden in the mountains. I would only go to La Plata that day, I needed a place with internet to make an international phone call. Since I still have a job in summer – the same one since I went to Montenegro, which gives me the opportunity to take time off in winter to travel – I have to be available from time to time to sign my contract or, in this case, to take a German test. I decided to find a place to sleep in La Plata – where I was literally the only white girl in town – and move towards Tierradentro the next morning after I made my phone call. Even though staying in Tierradentro is way nicer then La Plata. Anyhow, I said goodbye to the only – quiet – backpacker in the collectivo and headed to the cheapest private room I could find in Colombia, which was just around the corner of the bus station. Like everything was just around the corner actually, La Plata really isn’t that big and not really worth spending a night, but I managed to find the best FRIES I’ve ever tasted in Colombia. Anyhow, I’m not going to bore you more with the time I’ve spent in La Plata, only that I didn’t manage to call through Whatsapp, had to find a shop which sold international phone calls, walked around the city between 7 and 9 in the morning until the shops opened, was being stared at for several minutes by a young guy in the park while connecting to the free wifi – that’s where I realized I was the only tourist / traveller / white person in the whole town -, decided to run away from Mr. Creep to have breakfast and in the end I couldn’t find any place where they still did international phone calls. Hmpf. My German test had to wait until Mocoa.
So at 10.30 I was already sitting on a collectivo – the back of a pick-up truck this time – direction Tierradentro. But why did I want to go there in the first place? Coming from San Augustin, Ale and me visited already a good chunk of pre-Columbian burial sites, but Tierradentro tops them all. Yes, I loved spending a day in the National Park and see all those beautifully carved antropomorphic statues, but Tierradentro is next level. The National Park there lies in the middle of the mountains, with the entrance of the park in the village of San Andres de Pisimbala. Several mountains and hills have been used to make beautifully painted pre-Columbian hypogea, basically tombs inside the top of the mountains and hills in the area. Each tomb lays between 5 and 8 meters underground, with giant spiralling stairs to reach the bottom and its main burial chamber, with several smaller chambers surrounding it, each holding a corpse. All painted lively with antropomorphic and geometric patterns, one tomb prettier and better preserved than the other. Since they are all underground but also on the top of the mountains, there’s a lot of walking involved. Which was exactly where I came for.
Now, the collectivo La Plata – Tierradentro. You can’t escape that one and the road is horrible. They’re still building it actually, which means huge traffic jams when they close off parts of the sand road the collectivo is using and clouds of dust are coming your way, especially when you’re sitting in the back of a truck. The ride took at least 2 hours, with several stops in order to let the workmen to their job. Besides that, the views where utterly stunning. Valleys, rivers, mountains, Mother Nature did a good job in this part of the world. Luckily, I survived the ride and arrived in San Andres de Pisimbala where I stepped into a hostel right next to the entrance of the National Park’s museum. I booked a room and discovered I picked the only hostel with occasional free wifi, which came in handy later on. Hungry, I took some lunch in one of the only restaurants along the road, before heading to the National Park where I visited the museum – only visitor – to then climb up to the Alto de Segovia, the most famous part of the park.
ALTO DE SEGOVIA
The Park is spread out over the whole village and into the mountains, with several hikes in order to see all of it. I had only limited time because of the remoteness of the village and it’s surroundings, so I decided to go to the part where the best preserved hypogeas were supposed to be. It happened to be also the part that’s the easiest accesible and closest to my hostel, lucky me. During my walk uphill – a steep way with little shadow, prepare yourself better than I did – I got the company of a dog, following me from the village all the way up to the entrance of the tombs. No chasing or barking this time, – remember our adventure in San Augustin, when looking for a waterfall? – instead a nice calm dog accompanying me and waiting for me when I took some pictures along the way. – I could even pet him, wohow! – Once reaching the top, the view is absolutely breathtaking – or is it the hike? – and worth to stare at for a while. When you reach the entrance, you’ll have a guard asking you for your ticket – which is a passport you bought at the entrance all the way down and you can use it for the whole visit, taking several days if necessary – and he will lead you to the different tombs, acting as a guide at the same time. This is obligatory, the guides are the ones responsible for opening the protection above the entrance of the tombs, turning on the light and making sure you don’t break your neck while trying to crawl down on the first steps. The staircases are made for giants, huge blocks spiralling down in the darkness and you need to be very carefull when walking down. Once you’ve conquered the steps, you’ll see the main burial chamber in all its splendor. The guard / guide will tell you more about it.
Now. This is a part I actually didn’t want to write, because I prefered it not to have happened, and I’m sad I have to warn people about it when visiting the park. I’m most of my time travelling alone and besides a couple of small incidents, I never have had any problems. People are friendly and polite, let me keep my space. Maybe travelling with Ale let me put my guard down a little bit, since I didn’t have any issues at all walking on the street / travelling with him. Alone is still another story and while most of the time I’m not bothered with some catcalling, I’m not happy with what happened while visiting the tombs. My guard / guide was a 50 year old local man, being very friendly and talkative when I showed him my ‘passport’ and told me he was going to accompany me to the tombs, while explaining a bit more about the visit. He explained me how everything worked and showed me around the first tombes without any issues. – The dog was still following me to every entrance of every tomb, waiting for me to show up above ground again. – In the whole park I didn’t see any other visitors besides one young guy, which I later recognized as my companion on the collectivo the day before, being guided around by his own personal guard. When reaching one of the tombs further up, which were promising to be the prettiest ones, with more paintings, the guard asked me if I wanted to enter one of the burial chambers. Now, when you enter the tomb, the chamber is perfectly visible, but blocked by a small fence of +/- 1 meter high. Nothing you can’t climb, just protection enough to let you know NOT to enter the burial chamber. The moment he asked me if I wanted to enter the chamber, I knew something was off. The fences are there for a reason, so I asked if it was allowed, since it’s blocked off. He told me I could climb over it and would help me a hand. Only when he reached for my hips and almost swung me over the fence I realized this was something I was not supposed to do at all. It was just a cheap excuse to touch me. While walking in this beautifully preserved burial chamber, covered in geometrical paintings, I was so embarrased and furious with myself that I’d let this happen, too slow to realize what was going on. He had made some comments about my legs and figure before, but I didn’t think anything about it. I felt so so stupid. When trying to get back over the fence, his hands were there again to ‘help me’ get over it.
Sadly, this really ruined my visit a bit. Those tombs are amazing, dating from the 6th to the 9th century, perfectly preserved burial chambers, but I couldn’t enjoy anymore. The only thought I had, was ‘when can I get rid of this guy’. After visiting all the tombs – me refusing to get over the fence again, telling him I could take enough pictures from behind it as well – he asked me if he needed to bring me to another part of the park, he could drive me there on his motorbike and I would be able to see the sunset. Politely refusing, I got the hell out of there. Somehow, the dog was stille waiting for me, having followed me to every single tomb I descended into. When I left, he followed me again and I had the impression that somehow, he was there to keep me safe, to make sure that I was alright. He accompanied me all the way down to the village and once I reached my hostel, he was gone. Later on, I heared the dog has been doing that a lot, mainly accompanying solo travellers up the hill. Strange story, isn’t it?
It was already late in the afternoon at that point and thirsty as I was, I decided to have a guanabana drink at the hostel. On the front porch, sitting on the bench, was the backpacker I’ve seen twice before but whom I’ve never spoken to. Time for a conversation with…another Mexican. – since I met Ale, I’ve met plenty of Mexicans, always in the moments he was riding his bike, never meeting any of them – Talking about the usual who / what / where’s, the topic came to ‘the difference in solo travelling between women and men’ and that was the ideal moment to explain what just happened. Fernando – the other Mexican – was stunned. Working in antropology, he knew what the value of those tombs is and knows that, in no possible way, regular visitors are allowed to step inside. Stand alone being encouraged by the guys guarding and guiding the place. Ha. Discussing got us both hungry and we were still not done talking, so obviously we went to eat something together. We said our goodbyes at the entrance of the hostel and after a quick shower, I went to bed, ready to conquer El Aguacate the next day.
ALTO DEL AGUACATE
Fernando told me the day before it was perfectly possible to hike El Aguacate alone – a part of the National Park high up in the mountains -, so I was ready for it. Just follow the white columns up and the path would be clear. But first: breakfast, made by the lady of the house and of course, as everywhere in Colombia, accompanied by some fresh fruit juice. I also asked if they could arrange me a seat on the last collectivo passing to La Plata and she promised me I would have a first class seat in the front of the car. – First class seat here means inside of the car I reckon…when there’s no space anymore, you’re biting dust in the back of the pick-up – Happy to have everything arranged and weaponed with a cap, my bottle of water and tons of sunscreen on my face, I started the climb up. First, you walk to the entrance of the Museum at the right side of the road, where some arrows point you in the right direction. Then you have this huge green hill rising in front of you and if nobody told you to follow the white columns, this should be the moment to find out. Luckily, Fernando had told me, I wouldn’t have had a clue. From then on, it’s easy. Besides the steep climb up, I mean. You’ll meet some friendly cows chewing grass at the other side of a fence and maybe some guys mowing the weeds, not losing a single drop of sweat while you’re sweating buckets. Anyhow, I was glad I started early in the morning, since the sun was coming up and it proved to be a sunny, but hot day.
Somewhere, in the middle of the hike up, I decided it was time to twist my foot. I mean, things were going great, I was really enjoying my trip, found a nice travel partner, so why should everything be so good and easy? I took a wrong step on one of the rocks, tried to keep my balance and twisted some muscles in my foot while doing all this. It hurt. It hurt, but after a minute or two I didn’t feel anything bad anymore, so I continued going up. Already walking for an hour, I wasn’t going to give up until at least, I’ve reached the top. I continued. I made it all the way up and the feeling was great. This girl who didn’t even know she liked hiking and walking before she took of on her first Central America trip two years before, was now hiking by herself and even with some obstacles along the way, managed to reach the top. I thought. There was this little bamboo fence, leading to a road a bit further; I had no idea if I was meant to open it or not. – Afterwards, I realized I should have, since the other tombs where only half an hour further from there. But they weren’t as pretty as the once I’d already seen in Segovia, so I didn’t miss that much – Being a bit insecure, I decided to go back. I didn’t want to waste too much time eather, given that I had a ‘bus’ to catch at 3 o’clock and figured I wanted to eat something before I was going to be shaken for an hour and a half.
Going down again. And while going up wasn’t a problem for my hurt muscles, going down proved to be a hell of a lot thougher. In the beginning I didn’t feel anything, but the longer I went and especially when I took a little break on a bench, I noticed I could feel my foot. Pretty. Badly. Awtch. I continued, because once walking, it wasn’t too bad. Around noon, I reached the hostel, where I sat down on the bench in the front porch to try and catch the wifi and connect with Ale. To my big surprise, my work had send me the next destination I would be working at the next summer, my number one choice: Malaga. – Yes, I’m writing this now from Sunny Spain, even though my contract is almost finished – Then I started to feel it. I couldn’t set my heel down anymore and I definitely couldn’t put a lot of weight on my foot. Hell, I could only place the tip down and jump half limping around without crying out in pain. Ohoow. Half limping and half crying I managed to go out and eat, only to end up at my bench again. So that’s how I spend my last 2 hours in Tierradentro, on a bench, trying not to move to much, because everything my foot touched, hurt. In the end, I managed to have a small messenger conversation with Ale, who told me that he would be reaching Mocoa probably ahead of me the next day and who would wait for me at the hostel. I, on the other hand, told him that I had a little accident, but ‘nothing was wrong, he wouldn’t need to worry’. – I’m good at that shit, downsizing my problems so they wouldn’t worry about me –
My collectivo came, half an hour too late, with…almost no space left. Luckily, the lady of the hostel told them that I already paid – her husband made the reservation for me in the village – and that I was supposed to have the front seat. Well, I guess one or two people in the front, it doesn’t really matter…so there I was, talking to the driver and my fellow traveller with whom I was sharing a seat with, trying not to let my foot touch anything else besides the floor, because it still hurt like hell. I survived the ride without bursting out in tears and the nice driver drove me all the way to La Plata, almost right in front of my hostel. Where I spent the last night watching ‘Club de Cuervos’ on Netflix – Ale got me hooked and I absolutely love the Mexican Spanish – and hoping to catch some sleep before taking off to Mocoa the next day. – Didn’t work out. Couldn’t sleep because of the pain. Wasn’t smart enough to think about the painkillers in my backpack. –
Still following my story in Colombia? Wondering if I could use my foot ever again? Ready for more? Stay tuned for my next blogpost: Until the end of the world in Mocoa: visiting the Fin del Mundo waterfalls!
HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?
Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in Tierradentro, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.
Bus San Augustin – Pitalito: one way – 6000 COP / 1,80€
Bus Pitalito – La Plata: one way – 25.000 COP / 7,50€
Collectivo La Plata – Tierradentro: one way – 13.000 COP / 3,90€
1 night in Hospedaje Exclusivo, La Plata: private room with bathroom – 18.000 COP per night / 5,40€
1 night in Hospedaje Tierradentro, Tierradentro: private room with bathroom – 25.000 COP per night / 7,50€
1 night in Hospedaje Exclusivo, La Plata: private room with shared bathroom – 10.000 COP per night / 3,00€
Entrance museum Tierradentro: 17.000 COP / 5,10€
Diner in restaurant Tierradentro: rice with chicken, platanos, etc. and a drink – 14.000 COP / 4,20€
Breakfast in Hospedaje Tierradentro: 9.000 COP / 2,70€
Batido de Guanabana: 3.000 COP / 0,90€
Hamburger + Fries + Batido de Guanabana in La Plata: 15.000 COP / 4,50€
After a couple of days chasing an invisible waterfall and laughing our asses off with Ale’s funny faces in the National Park, it was time to move on to the next spot. No waiting until a Mexican arrives, exhausted after a couple of days sweating on his bike, but instead taking the bus together to Neiva and further into the Desierto de la Tatacoa.
First of all, buses depend on a certain timetable, so I had to drag the Mexican out of his bed and into the shower, in order to be on time for the bus direction Pitalito and further to Neiva, Villavieja and Tatacoa. This time, luckily, we’d already packed our bags in advance and left most of our stuff in the hostel, together with Ale’s bike. We would pick it up three days later and enjoy two nights in the Colombian desert. Since I’m quite Belgian and my sense of timing is also quite Belgian, we arrived well on time at the street corner, where the buses direction Neiva departed, at 8 o’clock in the morning. Some 10 minutes too early of course – rather too early than too late – which meant we had extra time to score some breakfast. Hurray for plastic bags of yoghurt and chocolate chip cookies in Christmas packaging! Once in the minivan – taking a ‘bus’ could mean anything in South America, from a normal bus with 56 seats to a minivan or a truck with some extra seats in the back, I’ve seen them all – we took off direction Pitalito, only to have a half hour break and switch to another minivan headed to Neiva. On the way chatting a bit with Ale, when he wasn’t annoyed with being stuck on a bus – or sleeping -, watching other villages pass by. By the time we reached Neiva’s bus terminal, we were lucky enough to have a collectivo to Villavieja waiting for us. Ignoring my growling stomach, we were in for a not-so-comfortable ride to our last stop. Last stop with a normal ‘bus’ at least.
Once in Villavieja, a bunch of moto-taxi’s and other vehicles where eagerly waiting for us to transport us into the jungle. None of it quite ‘cheap’, in comparison with the price we paid for the bus, knowing it would only be 15 – 20 minutes while we were already traveling for 6 hours. Anyhow, we didn’t have any other options, which the drivers knew as well. We jumped onto the last tuk-tuk – by lack of other words, I need to call it a motorized tricycle with space for three in the back and two in the front, each with one butt-cheek on the front seat, but tuk-tuk is easier – and while Ale as the only native Spanish speaker chatted away with the driver in the front, I was chatting in French with the couple in the back of the tuk-tuk. I let Ale do the negotiating in the first place, since he’s the Macho Alfa of the two of us, but this time it really came in handy. While the guy mentioned his price before we stepped inside, Ale managed to get us a discount and to let the driver drop us off at a hostel right in front of the Observatory. Yup, the desert has also something to offer at night… If you’re lucky enough to have a clear sky, of course.
1. GO ON AN EVENING WALK
The first thing we did when arriving was, of course, book a room. We didn’t want to sleep outside in the open in the middle of nowhere and we read that accommodation could run out fast…only not when we were there. Almost the only ones in the hostel – called ‘La Tranquilidad‘, only the French couple decided to stay there as well – we had plenty of rooms to choose from. For solo travelers reading this, I would go for the hamaca-option if I were you, plenty of hammocks to sleep in, which we also tested later that evening. But we were hungry, especially since it was past 3 pm. After installing our stuff in the room, we went to the owners who cooked us a meal with the usual ingredients: chicken, rice, platanos. Soup as a starter, juice with the meal. The typically ‘menu del dia’ dishes, but delicious because I was already starving the moment we left Neiva. During the meal we got to know Sr. Sebas the Second – named after his apparent twin Sebas I, Ale’s cat in Mexico – and the Cannibalistic Chicken. The chicken seemed a bit crazy – think about the chicken in Disney’s Moana and you’ll get what I mean – and was quite eager, as in running for it, to eat all the scraps of chicken we threw on the ground for the cat. Maybe even eating her own sisters. Hmpf. Anyway, after our late lunch, it was time to explore a bit. Too early to see the stars but too late to go for a hike, we opted for a little exploring walk in the Desierto.
And I call it desert all the time, after the Spanish ‘Desierto’, but technically the Desierto de la Tatacoa is a ‘semi-arid dry tropical forest’, slowly becoming a desert. When the Spanish arrived a couple of centuries before, you could find fields of flowers and a reptilian creature called ‘Tatacoa’, which went extinct already ages ago. Now you can find reddish and greyish canyons – the desert, I’m still calling it that, is divided in two partswith different colours – and plenty of cacti, goats, snakes, scorpions and other animals in the area. Luckily I only got to witness the cacti and the goats. Phew. Anyhow, we decided to have a little walk in the desert. Now, I’m somebody what they call an ‘over-thinker’. I think too much about everything that could happen – when I’m not busy making impulsive decisions and decide to follow a Mexican stranger on a bike, through Colombia – and I was thinking too much when walking in the Tatacoa as well. Okay, it was fine. The landscapes where amazing, the cacti huge and the baby goats we encountered were the cutest ever. But then I’m thinking about not getting out of the desert when the sun goes down and we will lose the path back – sun was still shining high and brightly, Ale taught me then how to roughly calculate with your fingers the time you have until the sun sets -, what about snakes and how about not bringing any drinks? After Ale promised me to take me out of the desert alive, I did take some time to enjoy my surroundings. The beautiful colours reflected on the stone pilars around us. The reddish glow of a sun setting. Baby goats. Following a strange bird, which wasn’t the Cannibalistic Chicken. The overall feeling of happiness of being outside. In nature. Somewhere new. With someone I liked. In the meantime I taught that same person I liked some things in Dutch, which sounds really funny with a Spanish accent. Who then repeatedly said the same words over and over again, screaming as loud as he could. – I’m so glad Dutch is not such a common language – After all that worrying for nothing, during our walk, we had a great time after all. Until we decided to go back and got chased by a dog again – remember our waterfall adventure in San Augustin? – A small one this time. For only the last 20 meters. Which wasn’t scary at all, actually.
2. STARGAZE AT THE OBSERVATORIO ASTRONOMICO ASTROSUR
After arriving back at the hostel, we relaxed in the hamacas the last half hour before the sun was really gone and we could cross the road to the Observatory. One of the reasons why I really liked this hostel is because it’s so close to both the red desert and the grey desert PLUS the Observatory is only a 2-second walk crossing the road. We saw some tiny lights blinking in the observatory and paid the fee, ready to be amazed by the wondrous mysteries of the sky. Which was without a cloud, lucky us. We had to be quick though, since we had the chance to see Saturn through a telescope, which would be gone within the hour after sunset. Quite amazing actually, how a simple instrument made by man can let you see a planet lightyears away from you. Yes, we could see the ring around Saturn. No, I couldn’t take a picture of it. – sad emoticon – I did take a nice picture of the moon, with its white shiny surface and all its craters so detailed as if it was hanging next to my head. We saw some pulsing stars in different colours – I saw the pulsing, the others saw the colours…I think I’m nightblind – and we spent quite some time at the telescopes, seeing planets and constellations, before the big presentation started. In Spanish. Which is okay for me, since I speak Spanish and have been speaking it all the time when travelling with Ale, but after a while my brain just shut down and I relaxed, laying down on the soft floor – they put some rubbery cover on the floor, so you can lay down comfortably – next to Ale, content with watching the clear skies and tons of stars. Doing my best not to fall asleep – I was pretty comfy after all – while the Mexican was listening attentively to everything said by our guides.
Another great experience to add to the list. Happy, we went back to our hostel and straight to our room, only to discover we had two pets waiting for us, which we named Mike and Eduardo. Mike, named after the lizard Ale once had in his room in Mexico and Eduardo, named after the lizard I once had in my room in Croatia. Basically, Mike II and Eduardo II were waiting for us on the wall and decided to take off once we got too close, ready to let us sleep – well… – in peace, so we would be well rested for the next day in the desert.
3. EXPLORE THE GREY DESERT ON THE BACK OF A HORSE
Our first and only full day in the Tatacoa desert started with breakfast followed by a tour through the grey desert. On a horse. I know, there are plenty of other ways to discover the grey part of the desert, going from renting bicycles or motorcycles to driving around in a hired tuk-tuk. Nevertheless, the only way to really make the most out of your desert trip is on a horse. You simply can get to places where there are no roads and not reachable on foot. – At least when you don’t want to die a painfull death lost in the desert. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. – That said, I’m not very fond of sitting on top of a horse. Ale and me talked about it the day before and decided that discovering the desert by horse would be our best option, but I still think we both had our doubts, even though we never mentioned them to each other. Anyway, Ale arranged a tour with the owner of the hostel and we took off as soon as the Cannibalistic chicken and Sebas the II ate the scraps of our breakfast.
Now. The horse. I was able to get on top of it, sit still and let the horse walk, while grabbing the saddle very firmly with one hand. Great! Luckily the horse knew where to go, we just needed to follow the guide. Off we went with two extra horses to pick up another couple in another hostel before heading into the grey part – the biggest part – of the desert. Ladies. Here it comes. One tip. Wear a good bra when sitting on a horse. I knew we were going to stop at a swimming pool – Los Hoyos – later on, so I prepared by wearing my bikini already, which is in no way as comfortable as a normal bra. Also, NO support. Which is kind of painfull when you have a horse that thinks a normal pace is too slow, no, galloping is the way we go. Having three hours of you boobs wobbling up and down is not something I wish upon my worst enemy. Anyhow, I learned my lesson the hard way.
Besides all my nagging about being scared on a horse and painfull boobs, visiting the desert on top of a horse is amazing and definitely worth it. You have the feeling of being completely alone in the middle of nowhere – besides the guide, Ale, the couple and the horses -, surrounded by grey canyons and cacti, only to be disturbed by a wild goat or two. The views are endless, but in no way boring. As I already mentioned, somebody had the genius idea to build a swimming pool in the middle of the desert, which is very refreshing after a while on a horse. In total our tour took about 3 hours, of which I took very little pictures, because I was too busy making sure my horse didn’t throw me of a cliff. Luckily, Ale filmed a lot with my GoPro – because I needed my two hands on the horse – so at least I have some funny, shaky videos to look back to.
4. DISCOVER THE RED DESERT ON FOOT
After our experience on a horse, our host asked us if we wanted to continue the trip around the red desert as well. Hardly feeling my butt anymore, both Ale and me said ‘no thanks’ and opted to have a little siesta in the hammocks before walking to the red desert and discover it on our own. I remember telling the Mexican I was very glad to have both feet on the ground again, showing him the blister on the palm of my hand where I was holding on to the saddle. Apparently, he was very surprised that I’d been scared at all, he thought I was looking very calm and composed on my horse. – while I was screaming mentally ‘they feel it when you’re scared, keep calm, breathe in, breathe out, just follow the group, don’t run, please, DON’T RUN THAT FAST,…’ – All the time I was thinking he was the calm one, looking like he had been born on a horse, while he wasn’t too comfortable over there either. A big relief for both of us.
Ready for a little siesta in the hamacas – playing with Sebas II – and with a bra on this time, we left for the red desert, only 10 minutes walking from our hostel and much much smaller than the grey desert. More photogenic as well and the best way to explore is just by foot. You have several paths going through it, well indicated and easy to follow. Or, if you’re like us, with a painfull butt and not really into a long walk after spending 3 full hours on a horse, you can look over the canyons while walking along the road, following the path and be surprised by the superb views upon the red desert.
One full day exploring Tatacoa and we were exhausted. We managed to have just enough energy to walk to the next hostel / restaurant to have diner and play with the cat of the house. And drink batida de Guanabana, my new favorite drink. The next day was going to be a hard one, leaving early in the morning just to go all the way back to San Augustin, where Ale’s bike was waiting for him and my backpack ready to be strapped on, because I would be exploring Tierradentro on my own! – No, I wasn’t yet ready to leave the Mexican behind, he just needed 4 full days to reach our next destination…which gave me the chance to go a bit off the beaten track and head to Tierradentro –
Still want to read more about my – and the Mexican’s – adventures in Colombia? Prepare yourself for the next blogpost: Off the beaten path: what to do in Tierradentro?
HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?
Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in the Desierto de la Tatacoa, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.
Bus San Augustin – Neiva: one way – 30.000 COP / 9,00€
Collectivo Neiva – Villavieja: one way – 7000 COP / 2,10€
Tuk-tuk Villavieja – Desierto de la Tatacoa: one way – 15.000 COP / 4,5€
2 nights in Hostel Tranquilidad, Desierto de la Tatacoa: private room – 50.000 COP per night / 15,00€ per night for two people
3 hours horse riding through the Grey Desert: 45.000 COP / 13,5€
Evening in Observatorio Astronomico Astrosur: 10.000 COP / 3€
Diner in hostel: rice with chicken, platanos, etc. and a drink – 14.000 COP / 4,20€
After dancing the night away on the black-and-white dancefloor of Topa Tolondria in Cali, the next morning was supposed to be an early one for Ale and me. The plan was A. Waking up at 6 o’clock to prepare the bike and B. Ale leaving on the bike direction Popayan, with me following a bit later in a bus headed for the same city. But, as you’ve already read before on this blog, travel plans tend to change quite often. It also didn’t help that the mexican I was travelling with is a master in changing plans last minute, – Not that I have to talk, steadily continuing my journey in the opposite direction of where I originally planned to be – especially when it’s raining when he wakes up and doesn’t feel like getting out of the bed. – My jetlag resulted in me being widely awake by 5 am during the whole length of my trip…often followed by a grumpy Mexican waking up with me. Woops. I read it has something to do with not adapting well to the altitude. – Anyway, the whole decision of continuing to travel together was a very smooth one in the first place. Somehow, we both knew that Popayan and San Augustin where on our to-visit-list, so why not continue together while we’re heading in that direction anyway?
We ended up spending one more day and one more night in rainy Cali, switching our time between the bed, the kitchen, the supermarket and the terrace on the roof that we discovered at one point. I was still winning in ‘Shithead’, our cardgame competition, this to Ale’s big frustration since he taught me the game. Hehe. Slowly we made more plans for the next day, as in trying to wake up at 6 o’clock again – Surely wouldn’t happen, I already knew – and booking a hostel for the first night since Ale figured he would make it to Popayan in one day. I had my doubts, but was hopefull he would be right.
Next day came and Ale left the hostel at 10 o’clock, – right on time -, and I followed 2 hours later, saying goodbye to Erika and heading for the bus station. Bus stations are crowded, dark places where I started to feel at home and as everywhere in Colombia, I found a bus waiting for me and leaving within 5 minutes. Only downside was the driving time, what supposed to be 3 hours became a 5 hour drive along brick villages and without nice views along the road. On top of that, it started to poor outside, so I knew Ale wouldn’t be able to continue to ride, risking the fact that he, his bike and everything inside of his bags would be soaking wet within half an hour. Which made it highly unlikely that he would make it into Popayan by the end of the day…I kept my fingers crossed. Upon arriving in Popayan, the Rain Gods where still angry with me – and the rest of Popayan / Southern Colombia -, so I decided to take a taxi to the hostel we’d picked, which was a bit more secluded than I originally tought. A hostel in the middle of the woods doesn’t sound so appealing anymore when water is gushing out of the sky, your taxi drops you off at a side road in the middle of nowhere and you have to walk 15 minutes uphill to reach the place, which seemed to be deserted when you arrive. Awtch. My doubts grew bigger when I got escorted to my room, which wasn’t the one I’d reserved – When you give me the option of booking a double bed, please give me the double bed. ‘Friends of the owner staying in the only room with the double bed’ is not such a good reason not to give me my reserved room. But hey, I’m in Colombia and I didn’t even know if my cyclist was going to make it to Popayan that evening, so I took the room anyway. -, when I noticed there was only ice-cold water in the shower and when they told me there were no shops or restaurants at walking distance. A bit hangry and half freezing I got the message from Ale that he wouldn’t be able to make it that evening, so my mood obviously wasn’t the best. I decided to look for another hostel in the city to move to first thing in the morning, covered myself with a bunch of blankets and fell asleep.
My first evening in Popayan wasn’t the happiest, but the next morning the Weather Gods brought me already in a better mood. The sun was shining brightly when I finally decided to leave my bed. To then notice I was locked up inside and couldn’t get out of my room anymore. Bummer. Luckily, they came to look for me anyway since the owner of the hostel wanted to speak to me about the room issues I’d had and, five minutes after throwing my key out of the window, they’d freed me from my little prison. The owner of the hostel was very friendly and understanding, he offered me that I would pay only for one person in a dorm, since I’d got the wrong room and my travel partner clearly didn’t arrive on time. Well said, well done and I finally started to relax again, with a big healthy breakfast in the sun, waiting for a message from a Mexican cyclist. Which came, way later than anticipated, when I was already packed to leave for the other hostel I’d booked the night before. In the old town. Also cheap. With supermarkets and civilisation close by. When Ale’s message came, he was at 3km from the city and we were bound to arrive at the hostel around the same time, since I had about 20 minutes walking ahead of me.
Now. It would have been a good idea to ask if the road was safe to walk on. Which I didn’t. I started walking with this 13-kilo-backpack on my back and all my other earthly belongings in a small backpack on my front, on a route with a lot of heavy traffic – big trucks speeding past – on a road where the only form of civilisation are the Love hotels on the sides – Love hotels in Latin America are a necessity. Lots of young people live with their parents as long as they’re not married, the only way to have a bit of ‘alone time’ with boy- / girlfriends is in a Love hotel. It’s quite common to see them, mostly a little bit outside of the city. – and slowly heading upon a hill, once past the Love hotels there was no house or building in sight. While I was walking further and further along this road, I started to think. It was actually quite perfect to rob an innocent looking, white girl in a red dress – definitely didn’t think about appropriate clothing – walking with all her belongings along the road, with no houses or witnesses in sight. Hmm. Thinking this made me walk faster. Seeing this gap in the bushes, with a pile of trash and a crazy looking guy throwing trash in the air sitting on top of it, made me walk even faster. Anyone who could manage a sprint, would reach me within seconds, since running with 13 kilo on my back is not something that I do quite often. What did comfort me a little bit, was the traffic passing by, the road was definitely not empty. After 20 not-so-comfortable minutes I reached the roads of the old town and was at two streets from my hostel. When arriving, I noticed I was still the first to arrive – no sight of Ale – and the receptionist started to explain the map of Popayan to me, where we were and what to do, but also: where not to go. As in: you could go everywhere, except for this one road up the hill, known to be a place where a lot of robberies take place. Yes, you can already guess, the road where I’d just walked a couple of minutes ago. – Which I didn’t mention ofcourse. You have stupidness and extreme stupidness, and somewhere in the middle am I, when I forget to ask about the route – After that realization and relief that nothing bad had happened – I even had some good views upon the city when walking -, I started to unpack my stuff in the room, waiting for the Mexican to arrive.
Which he did, 5 minutes later, exhausted, sweaty and very happy to have arrived. After installing the bike inside – Yup, you don’t want your major way of transportation and reason why you’re travelling be stolen by leaving it on the street – we went for a quick round through the city, looking for something to eat, before Ale wanted to go back to the hostel and take a nap. Hmmm. Now, it was around 4 pm already, so we weren’t up for much exploring anymore, but I was quite awake…after reading a bit, going around the hostel twice and reading all the info about what to do, I joined Ale in the bed and promptly fell asleep. Day number two in Popayan was spend walking, eating and sleeping…only to wake up together with Ale – Correction: to wake up and shake Ale awake that it’s already 11 pm and his nap took quite a while…I needed a bit of attention after two days alone, I guess – and fall asleep again for the rest of the night.
RELAX IN THE TERMALES DE COCONUCO
In the morning, we decided what to do for the rest of the day and since Ale was still a bit tired of his two days on a bike, we opted to go to the Termales in Coconuco, which was a nice day trip from Popayan. To go to the Termales, you head to the main bus station, ask for Coconuco and the bus takes you straight to Coconuco and takes about an hour. Easy as can be. Once there, you’re dropped at the main road in the middle of the village, where you can grab a 4×4 up to the Termales, they’re all waiting at the same corner where the bus dropped you off. Which we only did after taking our lunch at one of the panaderia’s at the side of the road that happened to be selling chicken as well. So I ate some plain chicken and Ale had the luck to be travelling with this Belgian girl that doesn’t like normal potatoes, so he had chicken AND all the potatoes. The dog begging at our table got the bones. Everybody happy, no? – I think I like these places the most, random little shops or restaurants that aren’t too fancy, aren’t thinking too much about the design, a part of the normal village life in Colombia. – Bellies full and ready to relax in some stinky sulphur baths, we took the jeep up the hill to the Termales, where we arrived right on time for the rain, a little drizzle, to start. – After Cali, we still didn’t have much luck with the rain apparently – We couldn’t care less, since we were about to get wet anyway.
How relaxing Termales can be. I love taking long, hot baths – preferably when reading a book – and enjoy just staying in the water, feeling the smoothness of the water on my skin, which is perfect when visiting hot springs. These ones in Coconuco come with the smell of sulphur and there are several baths with different temperatures. And some cold showers to cool down again afterwards… maybe to wash a bit of the smell away. Of course, once inside the water you don’t realize it, only afterwards when sitting on a bus you’ll start to smell yourself. Pretty badly. Anyhow, we really enjoyed ourselves. Even though the Termales de Santa Rosa de Cabal where much prettier, spending time with Ale and his neverending chatter makes up for that.
Once back in Popayan, we visited the Exito – Colombian supermarket in Colombian colours – next to the station in order to buy some supplies for the evening’s diner. Packed with two bags each we headed for station again in the hope to hop quickly into a taxi and head to our hostel. – We could still smell ourselves and it was about time to take a shower – What we didn’t count on, was the drizzle of the afternoon growing into a heavy rain shower, leaving us no choice but to stand and wait next to the two thousand others that happend to arrive in the station and needed transportation home. Ale luckily is a bit flexible in finding transport – living in D.F. you have to, I guess – and negotiated an ‘illegal’ taxi to our hostel. ‘Illegal’ as in a normal guy trying to earn some money by transporting backpackers, or other visitors like us that don’t want to walk in the rain, in his own car. The guy delivered us nicely in front of the hostel’s door, we happy that we could leave the station that quick, ready to finally get rid of our smelly clothes. After a much needed shower together and a delicious home cooked meal – by Ale, with assistance and cleaning of this Belgian girl – we were ready to end the day and go to sleep.
TAKE A FREE WALKING TOUR
I’d spent two days in Popayan and I hadn’t even seen the city yet, about time to change that. The day started as usual since we visited Cali, with rain. Having to move to another hostel – They didn’t have a private room available and we were still travelling as a couple, so we booked another hostel two streets down – we started packing and ate the rest of our diner of the day before, as breakfast. People were looking a bit strange, when they saw us devour our plates of pasta, but it was too good not to eat it. We were on a budget anyway.
Then, all of a sudden, a miracle happened: the rain clouds started to go away and a sun appeared, shining down on the white streets of Popayan. Right in time for us to walk to the city square and join the Free Walking tour. Well. It took me some time to persuade Ale, since he’s not the guy that usually takes a tour everywhere he goes. On the opposite, most of his time is spent in nature or villages no tourist ever visited. Going with me on a tour in a city was a big step. Luckily, I could convince him and we had the Weather Gods in our favour, he had no choice but to join me. I’d read a ton of good things about this particular Walking Tour and I was glad we took it as well, since I got to know a bunch of historical information and end up drinking one of the best juices I’d ever tasted.
During the tour you visit mainly downtown, with its beautiful Colonial buildings, all painted white. We started at the main square at 10 o’clock, making our way around the square while listening to our guide, telling us about the history of the city, why it’s painted white and not in a thousand different colours like other Colombian cities and how the city got partially destroyed during the eartquake of 1983. Following the group into a gorgeous Colonial mansion, we discovered the importance of Semana Santa in Popayan and how a lot of time is dedicated to the processions in the city during the Holy Week. Ale felt a bit uncomfortable as the only latino in the group – Soy lo unico güero aqui! – and compensated that by hanging around my neck and not losing my hand for one second. Which I didn’t mind of course. And he didn’t regret taking the tour either in the end. The best part of the tour was when we got to the part that connects the old town with the north of the city, a bridge called ‘Puente del Humilladero’ in a nice and quiet square, filled with stalls selling books. – A place that sells books is always heaven for me. – Not the square or the books where the highlight, but a little bistro called ‘Mora Castillo’, known for its typically Caucan dishes. We sat down with the group and I enjoyed a drink called ‘Salpicon’, made with chopped ice, raspberries, pieces of Guanabana and some other fruits. Ale discovered his favorite drink of his whole trip over there – You see Mexa, sometimes doing things with other güeros is not such a bad thing – and ate some Tamales de Pipian, a local delicacy.
After the tour we still had some things left to do: change hostel, wash our stinky clothes – yep, sulphur smell and sweat-from-biking-two-days – and Ale was in desperate need for some cash, so we had to find an ATM. The hostel change and the money issue was solved quite quickly, the laundry issue was a bit more difficult to solve…we couldn’t find any lavanderia in the city centre and our hostel didn’t have a dryer. Washing the clothes would be possible, but there was a big chance they wouldn’t be drying easily and we were planning to leave for San Augustin the next day.. So we spended the next hour walking around the beautiful city centre looking for a laundry shop and, when the clouds came back, at the Juan Valdez – Colombian Starbucks -, hiding for the rain. Again. Seeing our chance the get back to the hostel between the rain showers, we continued the afternoon eating chips and playing ‘Shithead’ – yep, still winning – on the bed. It was also the first time Ale played his guitar for me – he’s crazy enough to cycle with a guitar on his back, planning to reach Ushuaia this way – and even though he still needs to work on his singing, I really enjoyed the private concert. While our original plan was getting back on the road again and head to San Augustin the next day, Ale told me he wanted to stay one more day and we celebrated our one night extra in one of the restaurants near the hostel, once the rain had stopped. We passed something that looked like a Mexican restaurant combined with a pizzeria that didn’t look too expensive, so we enjoyed a not-so-Mexican pizza before heading to bed. Bed normally means watching some Netflix before falling asleep, with me sleeping and Ale watching Netflix. Only this time my eyes opened right in time to see the Mexican drop his tablet on his head, falling asleep himself while watching Netflix. The good girl that I am, I just started laughing immediately, before kissing the pain away. – Don’t worry, he dropped his tablet also on my head when watching. I know how it feels. – No Netflix for the rest of the night anymore.
CLIMB EL MORRO DE TULCAN
As usual, I woke Ale up way too early, but after the past rainy days, I was very happy to see some sun and couldn’t wait to go outside. And we really needed to get our laundry done that same day. So we left after breakfast and spend the next two hours walking around the city, looking for a lavanderia with a dryer. Luckily, after asking a dozen of people, trying to find something on maps.me that looked like a place doing laundry, we eventually found one, about 200m from the bus station. Even more lucky, they would be able to wash and dry it by the next morning, so no more sulphur or sweat stench coming out of our bags when we would leave for the next stop.
After having told me plenty of times before that he would like to climb up the Morro, Ale and me decided that our last day would be the day that we would climb the hill overlooking whole Popayan. It seemed like a fun thing to do since we A. both like hikes B. both like nice views and C. didn’t know what else to do anymore, Popayan isn’t THAT big anyway. El Morro de Tulcan is actually a pyramid dating from the pre-Columbian period and at the same time an ancient burial place of the tribes living in the city all those centuries ago. The Spanish discovered it empty and now it’s known as a nice place to chill and have a look over the whole city. A lot of people come here to hang out, maybe have a first date or smoke a porro. It’s a good place to relax and enjoy and have a picknick. We, of course, didn’t think about a picknick, but I do remember we relaxed a bit by the statue – of a Spanish conquistador on a horse, of course. What else do you put on top of an ancient archeological burial place of the native inhabitants? – and enjoyed sitting in the sun for a change.
After our two hour long walk and a little climb up and down the Morro de Tulcan, we were starving. Of course, what better than a menu del dia in a local restaurant? Since we ran out of other things to do after lunch, we ended up walking along the book stands at the Puente del Humilladero and visiting ‘Mora Castillo’ again, this time with a Lulada – refreshing drink made from Lulo fruit, it’s also delicious and Ale’s favorite – for Ale and another salpicon for me. After sipping Colombia’s best drinks, our food tour wasn’t over yet. Apparently, on Tuesdays the heladeria selling yoghurt ice had a two-for-one deal that day, so we both enjoyed a huge bucket of yoghurt ice burried beneath plenty of unhealthy toppings. Not being hungry at all anymore but still thinking about food, we went to the supermarket to buy provisions for the next day. Forward thinking, they call it.
Only end the day in the hostel, ready to pack our bags a little bit in advance – as in not at all actually, like usual – and to go to bed together, ready for a new day of travelling by bus – me – or cycling through the mountains to the next point. – Ale –
More about my adventures at the side of a Mexican cyclist and ready for ‘A visit with funny faces to the National Park in San Augustin and how (not) to find the Cascada el Cinco‘ in my next blogpost!
HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?
Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in Popayan, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.
Bus Cali – Popayan: one way – 15.000 COP / 4,25€
Taxi Popayan bus station – hostel Colina Arcoiris: 9.900 COP / 2,81€
Bus to and from Coconuco: 10.000 COP / 2,83€
Jeep to entrance Termales and back: 6000 COP / 1,70€
1 night in Colina Arcoiris, Popayan: private room – 30.000 COP per night / 8,49€ per night, got a discount because they gave me the wrong room and Ale didn’t show up (breakfast included)
2 nights in Hostel Caracol, Popayan: private room – 55.000 COP per night / 15,57€ per night for two people
2 nights in Artehostel, Popayan: private room – 50.000 COP per night / 14,18€ per night for two people (coffee included)
After some days in the White Colonial city of Popayan, it was time for us to move on, direction San Augustin, where we wanted to visit the famous National Park. – The one with all the statues. I’ll explain later in this blogpost, don’t worry – But first, I had to wake up a grumpy Mexican – The only thing he disliked about me (as he says) was how I woke up too early. And since he was sleeping with me in his arms, how I woke him up too early. – and we had to get ready to head to the bus station, after picking up our laundry. Luckily, as you might remember, Ale is also an excellent cook and I had to chance to enjoy some quesadillas for breakfast AND he made me some for lunch too. Having a packed lunch for a change made me look forward a little bit to the bus ride I had ahead of me. Only a little bit.
After saying goodbye to our hostel we headed towards the bus station, where I would figure out which bus to take while Ale cycled to the laundry store to pick up our clothes. Knowing South America a little bit, I knew I didn’t need to buy the ticket for the bus going in 30 minutes, instead I went for the one 1,5 hours later, calculating that Ale wouldn’t be arriving back so soon. Proved to be right, since half an hour passed and I hadn’t seen a sign of him. I did meet a nice police officer who asked me about my trip, decided to have a little chat with me while I was waiting and who bought me some sweet pastries before he went back to work. Right on time to have Ale arriving – the laundry wasn’t ready yet when he went to pick it up -, bike already in order and with my clothes clean, dry and ready to pack. Only a short stop to kiss me goodbye again, off to San Augustin, where he hoped to arrive the next day. – Hehe. This is the funny part. I always knew he was overestimating himself, I just needed to wait for the message he wouldn’t be in that evening and change my plans – So I waited for the bus, which left an hour later than expected and settled down for what would be the rest of my afternoon, watching the landscape pass by. Only to try and shout ‘Alleeeeee’ out of the bus window when I saw my Mexican two hours later, cycling very slowly up hill. – First time I was awake to see him cycling during the trip – Little did he know – or me – that the heaviest part was yet to come: more than 30 kilometers through the Puracé National Park, with literally nothing. No restaurants, no stops, not even space to park a car on the side of the road. The only thing you’d see was a road filled with potholes, heavy trucks speeding by and thick forest on both sides of the road. Ale wouldn’t ever be able to sleep or put up his tent during this part, there was literally nothing. NOTHING. Quite close to the middle of nowhere. Even closer when our bus driver suddenly stopped the bus, went to check the tires and took off without saying anything. Since he started driving again, I didn’t worry, only when we arrived back into the land of the living after crossing the Puracé Park borders, we stopped for real to get our tire replaced. I watched while eating my last quesadilla. At least I got some time to stretch my legs. The sun started to set and with a couple of hours delay I got dropped off at the side of the road, together with two German girls who also were headed to San Augustin. There we had a jeep waiting for us to drive us the last part up the hill into the city, chatting with the driver who wanted to know who we were and what our plans where. When hearing the story about my Mexican cyclist, he needed to tell me that there are two wild lions living in the National Park, after they managed to escape a travelling circus. Never to be found again, probably roaming in the woods of the Park. Being more scared of Ale being hit by the huge trucks passing by than being eaten by wild lions, I still wisely decided not to send him a message with the news. He probably didn’t have wifi anyway.
After a long day in a shaky bus and the last kilometers in jeep, I finally arrived in my hostel, where I had this double room all for myself. I discovered the hostel a bit, met some people, chatted and played ‘Shithead’ – needed to show off my skills, duh – and went to bed alone.
WALKING AROUND SAN AUGUSTIN
Waking up with free coffee in the hostel and a long chat over breakfast with Julia and Mitchell, a couple from the US travelling all around Central and South America. I particularly remember them because they were extremely excited to hear my story – apparently two people travelling together with two different ways of transportation is not quite common – and I continued to follow them on social media for the rest of their trip, returning to their favorite country Mexico and all the way home. Anyway, I spend a big part of the morning chatting with them and with Anna, a girl from Russia who decided to explore San Augustin with me. San Augustin is not such a big city, smack in the middle of the mountains and surrounded by plenty of walks, hikes, waterfalls and of course the famous Archeological National Park. Cobblestones dot the streets, a square next to the church and a range of shops is all there is to see in the city centre. An average South American city I would say, but because of all the things to do in the area, you do have quite some hostels here and the city has an overall nice vibe. It doesn’t feel dangerous, not even at night, there isn’t too much traffic, it’s actually quite perfect to relax a couple of days. Which I did the first day. Since Ale and me were planning to visit the Park together, I used the first day to figure out everything we could do: how to get to the park, what are the other things to do in the area, where’s the supermarket – I bought some milk and cookies for Ale, since he would be starving when he arrives and he adores milk and cookies apparently – , where do they sell the best batidas de guanabana… I managed all that and still had some time left to write in my journal, relax and discover that Danna and Brecht stayed also in San Augustin… so I paid them a visit in their hostel, catching up on travel stories while waiting for my Mexican to arrive…
Who did arrive the second day. As he told me. To my big surprise, I was already getting worried not having heared from him around 6 pm – the time he sends me a message to see if he would be making it or not – and it was already dark, so he wouldn’t be able to cycle anymore… Being a bit stressy about it, I left Danna and Brecht and returned to my hostel’s wifi, just in time to read he arrived in the city and was finding his way to the hostel. I ran outside, eagerly waiting for Ale to arrive, and when he rounded the corner he just looked exhausted. Sweaty. And very happy. We installed the bike in the hostel and headed outside to the pizza place three doors down, were we ordered take away pizza to eat on the hostel’s rooftop terrace. Very fancy indeed. That’s also where he told me he wouldn’t have made it at all that day, having just arrived at the Puracé National Park at 4 pm, he realized he had this whole way ahead of him without any place to stop, eat or sleep. He stopped a local bus passing by, where the busdriver confirmed his suspicions and, because it was that late in the day already, he never would’ve made it out of the park that same day. Spending a night on the side of the road would’ve been suicide, so he took the only option he had, buying a busticket and getting his bike on – lucky as he was – one of the last buses of the day passing through the park. Dropping him off just outside of town, so he still needed to cycle uphill, in the dark. I was relieved to see him, since I had been travelling on that road and I was worried about him passing the 30 km in Puracé, with all those monsterous trucks speeding by. But, he was there, I was there, we had milk, cookies, pizza and a plan for the next day. Even though he had to pay for the bus, we both were very happy to see each other safe and sound again.
VISITING ‘EL PARQUE ARQUELOGICO NACIONAL DE SAN AUGUSTIN E ISNOS’
Our plan for the next day was quite obvious and the reason why everybody visits San Augustin in the first place: the Archeological National Park. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park is a part of one of the biggest concentrations of megalithic pre-Columbian burial sites, funerary monuments, burial mounds and religious monuments in South America. It was deserted in the 14th century and discovered again in the 18th – 19th century. The most interesting part for Ale and me was of course the National Park, were a third of the known San Augustin statues is placed. There are plenty of other places around San Augustin and especially in neighbouring Isnos where you can find other ‘megalithic funerary monuments’, but the park is the easiest to reach from San Augustin.
So, after a nice night of sleep and cuddles, we woke up, took a shower and decided to dress up with hiking boots and shorts – well, shorts for me – to walk all the way to the National Park. On our way we had a little pit stop in a local restaurant were we ate a cheap breakfast containing rice, chicken and platanos. With coffee. Yes, it wasn’t the first time this would be my morning food because we were cheap asses that couldn’t afford a European breakfast – Ale wouldn’t even have wanted to eat a sweet breakfast I suppose…I was still travelling with a Mexican, remember? – and actually I do kind of like chicken and rice. Easy as it was, we took the one street leading out of San Augustin in the direction of the National Park, which should’ve been a nice, 30 minute walk if Ale didn’t decide to do something a little bit illegal and got caught by the police. Ha. Let’s say it wasn’t something very serious, but he ended up giving them all the money in his wallet in order not to go to the police station with them. After this short intermezzo, we continued our way to the National Park where I of course ended up paying for the two of us.
When you visit the Park, it’s advisable to visit the museum first before you go further to check out the different mounds and burial sites. Not because they know that much about the civilisation that made the statues and the sites, but rather because you’ll get an idea of what you will see, how to recognize the animals they used as inspiration for their statues and just to get an overall feel of what you’re about to see. You’ll get a little passport at the entrance of the park, with an overview of all the different sites you can visit and a small map of the park. Every time you pass one of the checkpoints you get a nice stamp in your Park-passport, which was kind of a bonus to head out and explore as much as you can. After the museum, it was about time to head to the park. With the sun coming out after the past rainy days in Popayan, it was the ideal day to have a walk outdoors. We kept the best for last and decided to head to the higher trails first, walking past different mounds and through the forrest, up some stairs and eventually all the way up a long staircase, until we reached the most magnificent view of the park. We were at the feet of the Andes and the landscape absolutely stunning, surrounding us with green hills and mountains. Those pre-Columbian civilisations really knew which spot to pick to get buried. We decided to rest a bit there, sheltering in the shadow against the heath of the sun. I don’t know if our game already started there, but I noticed that some of the faces where kind of naughty. Angry. Scary. Or just plain funny. So I challenged Ale to do his best to be as pretty on the pictures as those ancient statues. Always in for a challenge, Ale definitely did his everything he could to excel in the funny-faces competition, as you can see for yourself. After the highest point, we left to the spot that’s for me the most iconic of the park: El Bosque de las Estatuas. Far away from the sun, as in a magical little world of their own, many of the statues they’ve found got their ‘final resting place’. Plenty of funny faces and pretty pictures opportunities, where I took the best Polariod picture ever – accidently, of my own double chin – while saying ‘Ow, fuck’. Well, I made a better one later on. Without double chin this time.
Since the sky was getting cloudy and it seemed that it might be raining anytime soon, we decided to leave the park after 3 or 4 hours discovering it, ready to have lunch and a nice rest. We ate in the same spot as where we had breakfast – menu del dia, of course – and headed to the supermarket already thinking about our homemade diner. Made by Ale, I’m only the dishwasher on this trip. After lunch, supermarket and diner we met up with Danna and Brecht again, with a first time for the Mexican to meet another Belgian on this trip. – I met them in Cali and Salento, he’d never seen them before, besides a short ‘hello’ to Danna during the salsa night in Cali – We spent the evening chatting and drinking beers / juice – wine became too expensive and I don’t like beer, so no more alcohol for me – in Danna & Brecht’s hostel. Quite funny of all places you can choose, I met the same couple three times during the same trip in Colombia, a huge country, without even planning to head in that direction. But as always, it is nice to meet new friends and I definitely hope seeing them again, in Belgium or elsewhere. Anyway, after a day full of explorations, climbing and walking around, we were both exhausted and headed to our own bed.
HOW (NOT) TO FIND CASCADA EL CINCO
The next morning we woke up, ready for our final day in San Augustin. We already discussed the future of our trip together at that point, while initially I would continue to the Desierto de la Tatacoa alone, parting with Ale, and start travelling to the north again. Ale himself also felt like visiting the desert, since he had had to make a decision at the beginning of his trip: see the Cocora Valley and Salento and to continue to Cali or travel down to the Desierto, heading to Mocoa. Now he could do both. At the other side, I didn’t feel like having a hasty goodbye in the middle of the road of one of the bus stations, while we each split up our ways to next destinations. It didn’t felt good. I didn’t want it. So I adapted myself again and since I started without any fixed plans anyway, I let the road and my company decide for me. The plan ended up being: going to the desert together, returning to San Augustin to pick up our stuff – we would go on a bus together, the Mexican abandoning his bike for just three days – and continuing together: Ale ready for the 4-day journey to Mocoa, me on a bus direction Tierradentro and heading to Mocoa afterwards, with the intention to arrive the same day as him. After all that, going to Pasto together as a last Colombian stop, hopefully to celebrate Ale’s birthday there. Big decisions and big plans, but we were looking forward to it.
First, the same day, we wanted to visit one of the plenty of waterfalls in the region, preferably one were we could have a swim. Eliminating the ones were we needed hours on public transport – or a taxi drive – for, we opted for the Cinco waterfall, in our hostel described as a ‘waterfall were you can also swim, 45 minutes walk from the main Archeological Park’. Ideal. As we thought. This day is known as the day we discovered you ‘don’t just go and swim in a waterfall in Colombia’. This day we realized a bit of research and a guide come in handy. Well. We went our way and stopped at the breakfast place of the day before and, as usual, ate our chicken and rice before stopping one of the buses on the road to bring us to the National Park. Once there, we asked the bus driver if the direction was correct – ‘A little bit before the main entrance you will see a road that goes left. Take this road and continue straight’ – and started our walk to the waterfalls. The sun was out, it was getting hot, I had my bikini on and we were both excited of a day relaxing in nature. The surroundings were amazing and during our walk we had some nice views over the valley. Until we came to the split in the road. According to the instructions ‘When the road splits, always keep to your right until you see a sign that says Cascada‘, so we had to go right. Which we did, after asking some of the people living there, but the road ended somehow in the garden of somebody. A bit confused, we found a path going down, leading up to a river. We went to the river, but didn’t have any clue if we needed to follow, so back up to ask. One of the men living there decided to take as down, and gave us some vague instructions about crossing the river. Hmpf. That’s where it became a bit difficult. Vague instructions, no ‘cascada’ sign, and somewhere down at the river in the middle of nowhere. The old man muttered something about crossing the river, and we could hear faraway sounds of water falling down, but no sight of where this Cinco waterfall could be. Crossing a concrete beam, as a little bridge over the river, we went to the other side and decided to go up the mountain, to check if we could see something. We ended up at a farm with a lady telling us it was completely the opposite way, we had to return our steps. A bit sweaty and demotivated, we headed back down. Only to be chased by two of the lady’s dogs, barking and running after us after we left the property. In the beginning everything was okay, but they came close very fast and Ale prepared some stones and branches in case they would attack. He also let me go first – or rather, I was so scared a almost sprinted down the mountain -, keeping the dogs at a distance with his stick. I crossed the concrete beam again and was relieved to see Ale alive and well, without a dog having eaten a chunk out of his sexy pompis. He crossed and the dogs stayed at the other side. Which left us with nothing more than trying to ‘take the small trail that goes along the river until you reach the waterfall‘. We tried again, another side, until bushes closed in around us and we were somewhere on a field filled with banana trees. Bummer. Needless to say that after 3 hours of walking, searching and getting chased by dogs we decided to give up and head back to San Augustin.
We were also quite hungry at that point. The little handwritten signs at the houses selling homemade helado were too tempting for us and we decided to dig in, as a little treat after not finding the waterfall. Oh boy. They only had maracuya flavor – passionfruit – and with the 300 COP it cost, it was the cheapest and most delicious ice cream I have ever eaten in my life. Seriously. We regretted immediately that we didn’t take two. So we indulged on some yoghurt instead, buying it off one of the sellers speeding by on his motorbike. After all, the long sweaty walk was worth it, for the views, the adventure and the best ice cream in the whole world.
Once back at the Park, we took the bus to the centre, headed to the supermarket and bought some provisions for our days in the desert. And we had another ice cream. Because we could. We ended our day playing ‘Shithead’ – somehow, Ale started winning again -, cooking – the Mexican – and eating – me – a delicious pasta with a salad and we already packed our bags BEFORE leaving the next day. Improvements from the Mexican’s side. Well, he had to wake up early to catch the bus anyway…more about our trip to the desert in a next blogpost: ‘How to spend two days in the Desierto de la Tatacoa’!
HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?
Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in San Augustin, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.
Bus Popayan – San Augustin: one way – 34.000 COP / 9,64€
Bus to and from National Park: 2.400 COP / 0,69€
4 nights in Hostel Bambu, San Augustin: private room – 45.000 COP per night / 12,76€ per night – nice social hostel close to the city centre
Entrance fee Archeological National Park of San Augustin: 17.500 COP / 4,97€
Breakfast chicken and rice: 7.000 COP / 1,99€
Take Away Pizza in El Faro, next to Hostel Bambu: 14.000 COP / 3,97€
Best Ice Cream in the world, bought in a house along the road to the too hidden waterfall El Cinco: 300 COP / 0,09€ – still sad I didn’t buy two