Chasing waterfalls in Mocoa, all the way to ‘El fin del mundo’

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.

View from the hostel. Quite amazing.

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.

Where we spent most of our time in Mocoa: inside a hammock.

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.

Same hostel, different hammock.

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.

Walking to the pool.
Swimming pool in the jungle. Not that bad, I would say.

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.

One of my favorites.

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.

Caterpillar. Felt a bit strange, but at least it doesn’t like human flesh.
I found a leaf almost as big as me. Also realized this is the only picture of me in Mocoa. I need to stop saying no when people want to take pictures of me.

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…

First waterfall on our way to El Fin del Mundo
Second waterfall on our way to El Fin del Mundo.

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.

Start of the Fin del Mundo walk.

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.

Again the second waterfall. Guess who jumped off? Yep, the Mexican.
Warerfall number 3.
Almost at number 4!

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

View from the top of El Fin del Mundo
Daredevils.

ALE’S 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.

Birthday boy after breakfast.
In his favorite spot.
Very happy with his Club Colombia.
Cutting the birthday cake. Juan made sure he cut even pieces…

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?

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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.

Transport

Bus Tierradentro – Mocoa: one way – 50.000 COP / 15,00€

Collectivo Hostel Samaya – Mocoa: one way – 2.500 COP / 0,75€

Collectivo Hostel Samaya – Villagarzon: return – 6.000 COP / 1,80€

Accommodation

7 nights in Hostel Samaya, Mocoa: private room with bathroom – +/- 46.800 COP per night / 14,00€

Activities

Entrance Mariposario: 8.000 COP / 2,40€

Entrance El Fin Del Mundo: 15.000 COP / 4,50€

International phone call: 10 minutes calling to Europe – 2000 COP / 0,60€

Food

Lunch in restaurant ‘El Puente’: rice with chicken, platanos, etc. and a drink – 6.000 COP / 1,80€

Breakfast in Mocoa: croque monsieur – 5.000 COP / 1,50€

Breakfast in Casa del Chorizo: 7.000 COP / 2,10€

Hamburger lunch in Mocoa: 17.000 COP / 5,10€

Pizza Villagarzon: 12.000 COP / 3,60€

Off the beaten track in Colombia: Tierradentro

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 only picture I took in La Plata. Sitting and using wifi in the central square.

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.

View upon the mountains in Tierradentro.
Entrance to the National Park at the right side. Mountains are the hike and the way to El Aguacate.

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.

Way to Segovia, where the old bridge had been washed away a couple of months before. There’s a bamboo replacement now.
My little guard dog and me on the way up to Segovia.
Views along the road are not that bad. Not that bad at all.
Really not that bad. I loved the views up there.

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.

Those are the stairs. Made for giants. Glad I didn’t fall down and broke my neck.
My iPhone is not used to shooting in the dark. But you do recognize a head…
Figures and geometrical paintings. Only a thousand years old.
Some of the prettiest tombs.
More tomb.
Geometrical patterns.
Faces and patterns.

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.

Start of the hike up to El Aguacate.
All the way up.
Path that you follow up the mountain. Quite easy to see.
Views from the top.
Proud to have reached the top.

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.

Views on the way down. Kind of the same as when going up.
Last hill down before I reached Tierradentro again. Most painfull part for my foot.

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!

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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.

Transport

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€

Accommodation

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€

Activities

Entrance museum Tierradentro: 17.000 COP / 5,10€

Food

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€

How to spend two nights in the Desierto de la Tatacoa, Colombia

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 views of the desert and its only road.
Goat friends and the showers of a hostel.

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.

Evening walk between the cacti
The Mexican kept on following me. All the way to Tatacoa. He even left his bike!
Goats everywhere.

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.

More cacti..we were in a desert after all.
We stumbled upon some baby goats.
Too cute not to take a picture.
Ahem…I guess I still need to work on my posing skills.

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 parts with 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.

Moon. Taken through a telescope.
Beware of the donkeys after dark.

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.

Pink cap on a horse. That’s me.
Grey desert.
More grey desert. In the morning light. Sounds more poetic.

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.

The red part of the desert is the prettiest part. Clearly.
And you can walk all the way to the bottom…
…but we stayed on the top. Just looking over it is already quite amazing!
Poser.
More red desert.

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.

Red desert. I’m getting out of inspiration for these captions…
A Mexican in the desert.
A Mexican and a Belgian in the desert.
More canyon and desert. Sometimes I can hardly believe this is Colombia.
Pretty view. Red desert. Again.
Giant cacti for a change!
Little cacti. With pink flowers, adding a bit more color to the 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?

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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.

Transport

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€

Accommodation

2 nights in Hostel Tranquilidad, Desierto de la Tatacoa: private room – 50.000 COP per night / 15,00€ per night for two people

Activities

3 hours horse riding through the Grey Desert: 45.000 COP / 13,5€

Evening in Observatorio Astronomico Astrosur: 10.000 COP / 3€

Food

Diner in hostel: rice with chicken, platanos, etc. and a drink – 14.000 COP / 4,20€

Breakfast in hostel: 6.000 COP / 1,80€

Batido de Guanabana: 4.000 COP / 1,20€

What to do in Popayan, Colombia’s White City?

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.

Termales de Coconuco – I think it’s clear what you’re not ought to do…such a pity
Green water, green hills and the delicious smell of sulphur…but very very relaxing

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.

Mexican exploring the Termales of Coconuco
The relief of stepping into 40°C

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.

I loved these three little ladies chatting the afternoon away…in the rain
Yup, we enjoyed the Termales too…

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.

Sunshine after the rain in the centre of Popayan
Meeting point of the Free Walking Tour
Lots of churches in the white city

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.

Is this a Hitchock movie, but with pidgeons?
The rain stopped right on time for our tour to begin…
Pretty colonial buildings

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.

More pretty buildings
And a church. But you get the feel of Popayan, no?

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.

Sleepy Mexican needed a cup of coffee to get out of the comfy hammock.
Guess who brought him that coffee then…

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.

On top of the hill.
Nicest views of Popayan

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.

I really need to start bringing a blowdryer in my backpack…just for the five seconds it takes to dry my fringe.
But he, I can still smile!

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!

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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.

Transport

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€

Accommodation

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)

Activities

Entrance fee Termales Coconuco: 10.000 COP / 2,83€

Free Walking Tour tip: 5.000 COP / 1,42€

Food

Menu del Dia in several restaurants: lunch menu at several restaurants, with a drink, soup and main dish – 4.500 – 7.200 COP / 1,28€ – 2,04€

Pizza in the not-so-Mexican restaurant: 9.000 COP / 2,56€

Salpicon in Mora Castillo: 5.000 COP / 1,42€

Two for one Yoghurt Ice Bucket with too many unhealthy toppings: 5.000 COP / 1,42€ – so basically each 2.500 COP

A visit with funny faces to the Archeological National Park in San Augustin and how (not) to find the Cascada el Cinco

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.

And the bus broke down…watching how other people work while eating quesadilla’s.
Enjoying the sunset when waiting for the driver to fix the bus.

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.

Streets of San Augustin.
First walk around the city.
Space to park your horse.

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…

Magnificent view from the rooftop of our hostel.

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.

Not a bad place to get buried, I guess.
I would also like a tomb like this. Any volunteers to carve something for me?
More tombs, protected against the sun.
The one of the left is the creepiest ever. Doing a good job protecting is tomb I suppose?
More open spaces, more burial sites.
This little fellow was my favorite.

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.

Like a real tourist.
Like two real tourists.
Show me what you’ve got.
Almost, almost…

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.

One happy statue and one happy Mexican.
Monkey business.
The views were not that bad either.
Little Mr. Frog.
The Colombian countryside is just stunning.

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.

Stairs to the upper part of the Park. Still wondering how they got all the stones up…
Statues with a view.
Still life. Mexican in San Augustin.
Hello there.
Checking his new passport…
The views stay amazing.

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.

I really like this one in the Bosque the Las Statuas. Seems like the big Chief.
Pretty one.
Another monkey.
Two monkeys over here.
That’s more like it.
A kiss to end the visit.

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.

Ready for the Desierto de la Tatacoa. Rawr!

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’!

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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.

Transport

Bus Popayan – San Augustin: one way – 34.000 COP / 9,64€

Bus to and from National Park: 2.400 COP / 0,69€

Accommodation

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

Activities

Entrance fee Archeological National Park of San Augustin: 17.500 COP / 4,97€

Food

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

Pereira & Cali – How travel plans change and I ended up dancing Salsa in Cali with a Mexican.

Yup, still in Pereira here. Remember, I met this crazy Mexican cyclist – I say crazy because everybody tells me that he’s crazy for wanting to cross South America on a bike – and we hit it off instantly, spending a day at the Termales de Santa Rosa de Cabal together.

After a day floating around in +20° water, surrounded by waterfalls and being shaken in the back of a pick up truck, we took the bus back to Pereira. Once there, the light started to fade away after the sun set and we left the hostel in search for our new home, the next two nights in the centre of the city. Me on foot with my bag firmly strapped on the back and Ale walking next to his bike with all his belongings on top of it. While our former hostel was quite close to the bus station and in a residential area, the new one was smacked right in the middle of the city centre, buzzing with traffic, lights and people looking for a nice night out. And two backpackers, a bit tired of walking twenty minutes up the hill in a darkish part of the city. – I don’t think I would’ve liked to cross that part alone. A big street filled with graffiti, dark, not many people and even less you’d want to talk to after dark. – Finally reaching our destination and…no hostel in sight. Whut? We were walking to the left and the right, passing where the address should be and still no sign of a hostel. Until the neighbour on the first floor of the opposite building kindly points at the tiny sign dangling above our heads. Fieuw. Apparently, the hostel is on the upper floors. Which means dragging a 60 kilos bike – with bags, of course less heavy without – two stairs up to the reception area, a job I left for the guys.

Nightlife in Cali – one artist working with everything he could find, open garage door and very friendly to answer all our questions

PEREIRA CITY LIFE

Once the bike safely reached the reception area, it was time for us to relax, grab something to eat and enjoy the city life. Haha. I think I had a jetlag during my whole 3 months in Colombia and Ecuador, since I was dead tired every day by 8. Well, I did manage to survive long enough to shower, get to know every corner of our – yeey, private! – room with Ale and go grab a pizza for dinner. Yes, we both like pizza with pineapple on top of it. Yes, every pizza we ate together had pineapple on top of it. You can hate me for it later if you want to. Next day was spent in the city centre, – which I already wrote about, I won’t do it again – avoiding people who wanted to a. Sell us love potions and b. where asking for our blood – to donate, of course – while we we’re sitting and chatting at the Plaza de Bolivar, looking at the same Bolivar naked on a horse. Later on we spent some time getting know each other better while sharing an ice-cream in a cheesy 80’s style heladeria, even though it felt like I’d known him already for years in stead of days. Just enjoying time with each other. So much that we both agreed visiting Cali together would be a good idea. – bye bye plans for Medellin, hello salsa in Cali!

Cali, as seen from San Antonio. Obviously by daylight.

The biggest discovery of the day for me still needed to come at that point. Both backpackers on a budget – even though his was a tiny huge little bit smaller than mine – we decided to cook a pasta in the evening and hopped into the supermarket to buy everything we needed. What I didn’t know then, is that I would start to love these moments a lot: him telling me what we need and me looking for the cheapest – jup, we were on a budget… – and tastiest options in the supermarket. Always buying papitas, since we discovered we both have a small addiction to potato chips. Woops. When I wanted to start cooking later on, Ale managed to wriggle the knife out of my hands before I started killing the onions in a very rough, painfull way. Surprise: apparently, I had managed to find myself a professional cook. One that can make everything he touches taste like it came straight out of heaven. Lucky me. Sadly, from then on, I was degraded to dishwasher and vegetable cleaner. Worse things can happen in life, I guess. After stuffing ourselves with a delicious bolognese pasta, we started making plans for the next day and the next destination: Cali.

Here comes the odd part: travelling together, but with a different type of transport. Mine obviously faster than his, but also more expensive. The plan was me going to Cali by bus and sleep one night in a hostel reserved in advance, while he would arrive a day later, by bike, at the same hostel. Well said, well done and the next morning we took off together from the hostel to the crossroads where our ways would separate: he back on the road on his bike and me the opposite way, ready to walk 40 minutes uphill with my backpack strapped on my back. – Not that I knew about the uphill part at this point – When we kissed goodbye, I surely hoped we would see each other again. Yes, we had this connection and just spend three days of pure bliss together in Pereira, but you never know. Things might happen. I hoped not to be disappointed the next day.

First day in the hostel – unexpected birthday drink and chocolate cake

ARRIVING IN CALI

Since we were heading in the same direction, I thought I would see him pedaling forward along the side of the road once I left Pereira by bus. Not counting on the fact I fall asleep within 3 seconds once I’m on a bus. – They call it driving, but most of the times it’s just being shaken around. I don’t mind, it has something soothing and makes me fall asleep in no time. – Sleeping Anke and no sign of Ale, but when I woke up, I did see a lot of palm trees and plain, straight roads with the odd cyclist or a cow along the side of said road. All the way to Cali. There I took a taxi to the hostel, since it was definitely not located in one of the tourist areas in the city and I had no clue which bus to take, not even how the area was called. Which was why the hostel was so cheap, probably – Remember the being on a budget thing and still wanting some privacy? – After a little chat with the driver and a small search for the right house – no signs, nothing…I seem to choose the very, very hidden gems – I did arrive at the right hostel and I could relax a bit. Apparently, the hostel was brand new, as there were no other guests and Erika, our super friendly host, shoved a plate with chocolate cake in my hand, immediately making me a part of the ongoing birthday party inside. On top, she also invited me for a night out with her friends, ready to show me how they dance salsa in Cali. This visit to Cali promised to be very good…

Streets of San Antonio

But first: the quest for internet! The new hostel didn’t had the internet installed yet, so I visited the old school internet café in order to send Ale a message about the hostel. – And to check him out on facebook, didn’t had the time for that yet before. Hey, don’t tell me you never do that? He might’ve been a serial killer and I wouldn’t even know! Or worse, he could have a girlfriend. – After my internet-session I returned to the hostel, only to discover they’d managed to install the internet. Hmpf. Well, I was ready for some sightseeing anyway, and after Erika’s friend arrived we were good to go. First to San Antonio – jup, this is the area where all the other hostels are, I discovered – where the sun had set, tiny little lights covered the trees of the park and streets buzzing with people, in for a quick snack before a night out or just hanging out and watching some street artists doing their thing. Fruit vendors selling the green mango, which ought to be eaten with salt and lime. People arriving on motorbikes, people laughing and eating, people nosing into the little shops still open late at night. And who did I see right in the middle of all? Brecht and Danna – the Belgian – Colombian couple I met earlier in Salento – walking hand in hand in my direction. Obviously, I went over to say ‘hi’ and obviously, they were very surprised to see me, since I was supposed to be in Medellin and going to Choco afterwards. Woops. Since I had some explaining to do – not really, but I had a story to tell -, we all grabbed some food together in one of the little restaurants, where Erika told us about the local delicacies on the menu and Danna declared her love for champú. – not the one you wash your hair with, but the Colombian drink – After stuffing ourselves, we all left for our first salsa-experience in a bar / club called ‘La Topa Tolondria’. Luckily, La Topa is a mixed experience: a lot of locals loving their daily dance in the evening, but also a lot of tourists and travelers who don’t know how to dance. – like me! – Ideal for a beginner to set its first steps on the dance floor and get the hang of it, before the same floor gets taken over by professionals – just the inhabitants of Cali, they can dance salsa before they even start walking – and you’re just staring in awe at the speedy feet and numerous twirls of the dancers. Erika’s friend Jonathan managed to teach me a couple of steps, before I decided to just sit down, have chat with Brecht – whose feeling of rythm is worse than mine, sorry Brecht! – and watch the other dancers. All in all, a perfect first night out in Cali.

Streets of San Antonio

CALI BY NIGHT

After a first night comes a first day which consisted of eagerly waiting for a message from Ale to know if 1. he would still be coming and 2. he would make it that day. Starting with breakfast made by Erika and a chat about Colombia and Cali in particular, which lasted basically the whole morning. Around noon I finally got a first message of my cicloviajero telling me he would arrive in the afternoon, around 4 pm. Same message had a couple of pictures added, so I wouldn’t forget how he looked like. Which was very cute but completely unnecessary, given the fact I was shitting my pants hoping he wouldn’t forget me in Cali. No need to be worried apparently. It gave me the time to check out a local restaurant and discover its menu del dia, something I would survive on the next couple of weeks. – well, survive on during lunch, at least – A Menu del dia is a set lunch menu you’ll find all over Colombia – I assume all over South America – where you’ll get a bowl of soup, a plate with rice / vegetables / arepas / fish, chicken or meat and a fresh juice for a fixed and very reasonable price. I went back to the hostel afterwards, where I had no specific plans besides filling in my journal, which I hadn’t written in since Salento – we all know why – and ask Erika what Ale and me could do during our time in Cali. We ended up checking out my blog, pictures of places in Colombia and watching a movie instead. Until Ale arrived, right on time, at 5 pm. – yes, my stomach was in a knot the whole time, thinking he’d changed his mind – Sweaty, exhausted and very hungry, happy to be there and – hopefully – to see me is how I remember him arriving. Where I had it easy chillin’ and sleeping in the bus, he had a bit of a struggle the first day, covering only 70 km of the 210 he was supposed to ride. Camping in his tent on the porch of a house. Catching up the next day with 120 km straight to Cali, looking for a hostel without a name outside. But he loves cycling…

After his arrival, we went out to eat something together to fill his empty stomach – mine was still full with the delicious fish I ate before – and took off to shower together and spent the rest of the night in our room, chatting about the past two days and checking out how much energy exactly Ale still had left. Quite a lot, apparently.

Enough energy the next morning to start exploring. – After doing our laundry, yep, has to happen as well, especially when cycling clothes tend to get a bit smelly after two days of sweating in them – While I really enjoyed seeing San Antonio by night, when everybody is outside, chatting and socializing, warm air, lights everywhere and music on the streets, I thought we could also visit San Antonio by day. About one hour walking that passed by as if it where five minutes, admiring the trees loaded with Frangipani flowers, who leave a delicious scent in the air. All the way talking about those flowers, trees, our families, his love for cats, the Belgian government, Mexican food, name a topic and we were talking about it. That’s mainly what we did that day, talking effortlessly, as if we’d known each other for years and not only five days. Climbing the steep streets of San Antonio to the square where my first evening out in Cali started…just to be a bit disappointed. The magic of two nights before had disappeared. Apparently, the atmosphere and the people, the lights and the vendors are a night-thing. In the daytime, there’s not much to do besides taking the odd picture about the view upon the city, before trodding off to Parque del Gato – Just next to the San Antonio area -, a quirky little park with a bunch of cat statues, like a tiny cat-lovers amusement park. Well. Since I also love cats and I was accompanied by a Mexican crazy about cats – Although a bit more about bicycles. Even though I saw enough pictures of Sebas to be thinking I’ve been to his house and got the know his cat myself. – , we spend quite some time strolling around, looking for our favorite statue and of course, forgetting to take a pictures of it.

Still in San Antonio

After lunching in a vegetarian restaurant in San Antonio, we made our way back to the hostel for a little siesta before the evening. We would be so ready to tackle the Cali nightlife and become the best salsa-dancers this city had ever seen. Ha. Until it started raining at about 6 o’clock. Waiting out the rain, was the plan. The plan failed a bit, since the rain didn’t stop and before we knew it, the street resembled the Amazone river and I was affraid we would have to call for a taxi boat instead of a regular car to bring us to the club. And I kind of didn’t want to get that wet. And we kind of wanted to eat first in San Antonio – catch that vibe again – before going dancing. And we kind of cancelled our dancing plans after seeing the little river running through the street. Instead, we put on something that looked like a huge pink garbage bag – me – or a raincoat – Ale – and risked our lives crossing the street to get a pizza. With pineapple, of course. In the meantime getting a reggeaton lesson on the television blasting music inside the tiny pizza place, while we decided to take it away and eat it in front of Erika’s television. The hostel had Netflix and we were the only guests. So pizza + netflix + zombiemovies – Obviously Ale’s choice. He likes cats, bicycles and zombies. – replaced our salsa night out in Cali.

Getting ready for the picture.

Biggest cat-lover.

More cats…

RAINY DAYS

Next day: rain. What else can you do besides staying in bed when each other’s company is more than enough? There you got it. Spending the morning in bed ‘getting to know each other better’ is not something I regret. Neither do I regret traveling together with a Mexican cook making you the very best pasta you’ve ever tasted in your life that same day. – I could die a happy woman after eating that pasta one more time – And I already wrote here how much I loved going to the supermarket with Ale and just discovering the things that would form our lunch / dinner, especially when the result is this finger-licking good. This rainy day in Cali is also known as the day were we started our ‘Shithead’ – a card game – competition. During our quest in the supermarket, scanning the shop for the most delicous food at the cheapest prices, we were also searching after some playing cards. Not finding them in this gigantic warehouse filled with tons of stuff, but luckily seeing them in one of the tiny street stalls along the road on our way to the hostel. Ale thaught me the card game during that rainy day. After a couple of times I got a hang out of it, and started beating him every time we played. – To be continued. –

Frangipani flower.

A day with a lot of doing nothing, ended very energetic: yes, we finally went dancing together! Again in ‘La Topa Tolondra’, were we arrived a bit early, to find the dance floor rather empty. Never too shy for words, we were chatting and waiting until I found the courage to step onto the dance floor. Courage that I needed after Ale told me he got classes when he was 22, being quite good at dancing Salsa. Help. My nerves got the overhand at the first passes I set – Come on, who would like to be seen as clumsy and a bad dancer in front of somebody you really like? -, but later on I started to enjoy myself and relax a little bit more. Until the real pros started dancing and watching them and their fast feet was suddenly more enjoyable than being on the dance floor myself, struggling with twisting around. After the big dance battle, we called it a night and went home – as a traveller, I guess home is where your backpack is -, just to fall asleep together. One of my favorite parts of sleeping with Ale were his hugs, abrazos empanadas I used to call them, completely surrounded by his arms, refusing to let you go. It’s one of the things I miss the most.

Early in the evening, ready to dance.

Somewhere during those rainy Cali days, we must’ve decided that our time travelling together wasn’t over yet. Plans were made, bicycles were being prepared – well, one bicycle – and our next destination was known: we would see each other again in Popayan! Read more about my adventures in Colombia in the NEXT blogpost: Popayan – What to do in the whitest city of Colombia?

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HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?

Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in Pereira and Cali, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.

Transport

Bus Pereira – Cali: one way – 27.000 COP / 7,71€

Accommodation

2 nights in Coffee & Travel Hostel, Pereira: private room – 32.500 COP per night / 9,73€ per night for two people (breakfast included + comes with a ping pong table on the terrace. You might even find our names on the wall…)

4 nights in Alma Viajera Hostel, Cali: private room – 25.000 COP per night / 7,48€ per night for two people (breakfast included)

Activities

Entrance fee La Topa Tolondria: 5000 COP / 1,43€

Twenty minutes of internet in an internet café: 800 COP / 0,23€

Food

Menu del Dia in Pacific Coast restaurant: lunch menu at the restaurant across the street of my hostel, with a drink, soup and main dish including fish – 11.000 COP / 3,09€

Pizza + drink on the rainy-night: 10.000 COP / 2,81€

Menu del Dia Lasagna in Vegeterian restaurant San Antonio: lunch menu with soup, fresh juice and vegetable lasagna – 16.000 COP / 4,49€

Ingredients for the most delicious pasta ever made by personal chef Ale: 35.000 / 9,91€ – for two people, two servings – yes, we ate it for dinner and lunch, and we drowned it away with a bottle of wine

Pereira – Meeting a cicloviajero and how to spend a day at the Termales de Santa Rosa

After saying goodbye to Mr. X – who showed me the way to the right exit and where to walk, to a ‘good part’ of town – I was on my own again, direction to my hostel somewhere in a city I barely even heard of. Where I definitely didn’t know what to do or to see. A real adventure I guess.

Since modern times have us all traveling with iPhones and iPads, the adventure was a bit further than expected, and I found my hostel in no time thanks to maps.me – a very handy app, it lets you download maps so you can use it without internet – in a nice quiet part of town. A local barber on the street corner, the typical lot of Spanish ‘new’ colonial type houses with bars in front of windows and doors, a tiny plaza with some trees where the elderly sit and chat the whole day. Nice and quiet and definitely not what I expected from the most populated city in the Eje Cafetero. – not realizing I was at least half an hour walking of the city centre – Well, I was about to find out soon anyway.

CHRISTMAS TREES & CITY LIFE IN PEREIRA

Arriving at my hostel awaited another surprise: the owners had already set up their Christmas tree! Being only the 9th of november and suprisingly hot after spending some time in Bogota, this was just one giant mindfuck. Christmas trees and hot chocolate and cold weather and dark days and tiny little lights and presents are something for the end of december in Europe…definitely not the beginning of november when I’m sweating just thinking about stepping outside. Especially not in a country where you don’t even have pine trees, snowflakes and snowmen, as to be seen on ALL the decoration hanging off almost all the houses in Colombia. – Seriously, I would love to have the opportunity to decorate my house with pineapples and palmtrees for Christmas…but I guess that ruins the atmosphere a lit bit? Baby Jesus with sunglasses and swimshorts on, anyone? – Anyway, I had to chuckle and take a picture while I was being led around the hostel by Julio, the Argentinian volunteer, and where I met the only other person in the hostel at that moment, Ester, from the Netherlands. – Jup, only three different places that I visited in Colombia and I could already speak Dutch in all three of them. I need to work on my Spanish guys, I already speak Dutch! – Apparently I was sharing the only dorm with them and one still unknown ‘ciclo viajero’, a guy traveling by bike. Who was off cycling somewhere at that moment, but left a pile of bags next to both sides of his bed. Hungry as I was, Ester offered to accompany me to the supermarket and even better, make diner for us that evening if I provided the lunch. Well said, well done. And I even bought a bottle of wine, which is ridiculously expensive in the Northern part of South America, but I was in the mood for a drink at the roof terrace, where you had a fantastic view over the mountains and the rest of the city.

I saved the wine for the evening and took off with Ester and Julio, ready to explore this new unknown city a little bit. Pereira doesn’t have as much to offer as colonial Cartagena or famous Medellin, but it definitely is alive. Where other Colombian cities are known for their beauty, colonial heritage, dance – yep, Cali is coming up soon! – or awesomeness, Pereira is mainly made for business. Centre of trade in the Eje Cafetero, the city is booming and filled with restaurants, squares, markets and a lot of shops. Somehow they managed to build a big neo-gothic church to top it up. A long story short, Pereira is buzzing with daily life: people going to work, childeren walking back from a day at school, though guys doing their daily push-ups in the park, sellers yelling loudly on the streets to get rid of all their avocados. While any other city has you frantically looking around to thick everything off your to-visit-list, Pereira is perfect to sit down on a square, relax and watch Colombian life pass by. – Which you can do in basically any other city as well, now that I think about it. – The lack of a main ‘what-to-see-in-Pereira’ list just gives you the time to get a feel of normal Colombian life, which is actually the reason why I travel, to experience life and places in other countries, how average and normal they might seem. – I don’t know how to describe this, but just people watching, visiting a market with unknown fruits or just getting handed over a note in the streets that advertises love potions is just something that gets me excited – Big plus for Pereira is the environment: even in this city without mindblowing highlights, laying in the heart of the Eje Cafetero, it is surrounded by so many beautiful things to see and to do.

MEETING A CICLOVIAJERO

After a couple of hours exploring the city life of Pereira, clouds started to gather above our heads and it became time to hurry ourselves back to the hostel before the big downpoor came. We arrived, just on time before getting soaking wet. But apparently, somebody else arrived as well in our dorm.

Now, this person is the reason why I’m a bit behind with these posts, since I have been doubting a lot about what to write exactly. My blogs about Colombia are a travel journal, where I am as honest as can be while I’m trying to give you an insight on how I see the world, and what you could experience when you plan a trip to Colombia. Of course, you could just read it because it’s amusing. – Or you just want to know everything about my life and you’re secretly stalking me, so this blog really helps you a lot. – Which means that I have to get personal from time to time, hopefully without losing my privacy. Well, you might already guess that this person has been very important during my travels in Colombia – not only during my trip, but also to me, more than I expected or wanted him to be – and in no way can I leave him out of these blogs, since I simply couldn’t write any blog about Colombia any more. I’ll just try to make it not too emotional, alright?

I got contact with Ale – even though his name is longer and I call him by another nickname, let’s call him Ale – the day before, when I decided where to go, since I didn’t got a clue. As all travelers, I use some apps to help me during my travels and one of them is this app where you swipe left and right and hopefully meet somebody who doesn’t send you a dickpick after two seconds of conversation. This time, I got a nice ‘hola’ and a tiny introduction of a fellow traveler who was looking for some company and who invited me for an ice-cream or a drink. Always in for an adventure – maybe you do remember this post when I decided to go camping to Sweden with this guy I met 15 minutes before – I said ‘yes, I would like to’ and ‘I’m off, do you know a good hostel?’ and that’s how I ended up in this specific hostel in Pereira. Since Ale got the crazy idea to travel by bike from Colombia to Argentina, I didn’t meet him upon arrival in the hostel, but a couple of hours later, after he finished a little bike trip to the Termales de Santa Rosa and after I got back of my discovery tour of Pereira.

The moment we met, was strange. I could call it awkward, but rather a mix of 15% awkwardness because of the situation and 85% of…instant connection? An instant click. A day later he would call it chemistry – ‘chimica‘. The only thing I truely remember is that we started talking and didn’t stop, as if the world stopped spinning around us and we were in a little bubble of our own. Heading off to the roof terrace, where the rain was still gushing down but we were dry and cosy and confident enough to open my bottle of wine. Soundtrack of the evening ‘Chilanga banda’, because somehow when traveling you always start talking about languages and guess where he comes from… – even now, when I hear this song, I’m still on that roof terrace, watching the rain falling down upon the city, enjoying a moment of nice company – Almost forgetting the food, that Ester prepared for us, but I don’t remember any conversation but the one I had with this Mexican guy, who I barely knew and already was intrigued by. Still in our own world, we continued the conversation from the roof terrace to the diner table to my bed, where we were sitting and talking and finishing the wine, not noticing anything going on around us. – at least I didn’t – Needless to say we spent the night together, deciding the next morning that one evening together definitely wasn’t enough and we reserved another hostel for the night, one in the city centre and with a bit more privacy.

LOS TERMALES DE SANTA ROSA DE CABAL

Even though Ale just returned from a bike trip to the Termales – hot springs in english – he didn’t mind visiting again, this time by bus and with a white Belgian girl accompanying him instead. – Jup, very white as you can see on the pictures. And yes, a blow dryer always comes in handy when you have a fringe – Now, I told you Pereira is surrounded by beautiful nature and if you stay in the city, you simply can’t miss a visit to the hot springs, which are easily reached by local transport. I already knew the way to the bus station from the day before, when mr. X showed me how to walk to the hostel and as easy as it is, we immediately found a bus going to Santa Rosa. – As always with the radio station blasting reggaeton. Which I really like, to be honest – Once in Santa Rosa it is a bit of a hassle to find the bus, which is cheaper and goes every two hours, but you can also take one of the collectivo-jeeps that go when they’re full. Opting for the bus – Ale is traveling very low budget -, we walked a couple of blocks before finding the right stop – after asking twenty times and being pointed in twenty different directions -, to mistakenly jump into one of the collectivos instead, thinking it was the bus. Sitting in the back of this jeep/pick-up/no-clue-what-exactly-it-is turned out to be much more rewarding, the views from the back were absolutely stunning.

Hot springs are something you can find all over Colombia – at least the part I visited – but the ones in Santa Rosa are by far my favorite. Not only for the excellent company I had when visiting them – hehehe – , even more because of the beautiful waterfalls on the background. You can spend hours going from one hot bath to another slightly hotter bath and then decide to cool down beneath the freezing water of the ‘cascada‘ thundering on top of your head. Or one of the showers, the choice is upon you. To be honest, visiting hot springs is something I prefer doing when having company and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more than with a travel partner who I could push under water, almost drowning, who got me as a monkey hanging around his body and who ate the potatoes from my soup during lunch. – Yes, I don’t like potatoes. Yes, we started a bit of a habit right there and then – Oh, I shouldn’t forget to mention, someone who supports me when I’m almost sliding down the wet slopes of the hill we are climbing, just because I’m good at almost falling down. I kinda need the support once in a while. After a couple of hours swimming, relaxing and getting to know each other better, we had to get back to Pereira city and switch hostels…

More about the adventures of Ale and me in the NEXT blogpost: Pereira & Cali – How my travel plans changed and I ended up dancing Salsa in Cali with a Mexican.

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HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?

Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in Pereira, I wrote down how much I spent while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.

Transport

Bus Pereira – Santa Rosa: one way – 3700 COP / 1,06€ (2 ways of transport: bus – jeep combination)

Bus Santa Rosa – Pereira: one way – 2600 COP / 0,75€ (twice the bus, with a change in Santa Rosa)

Accommodation

1 night in Parceros hostel, Pereira: dorm – 16.000 COP per night / 4,57€ per night (basic accommodation, but comes with a Christmas tree in November!)

Activities

Los Termales de Santa Rosa de Cabal: one day entrance to the hot springs – 23.000 COP / 6,57€

Food

Menu del Dia – lunch menu at the Termales, with a drink, soup and main dish – 14.000 COP / 4,00€

My highlights of Colombia’s Eje Cafetero – Part II – Coffee tasting and Pereira’s surprise

After two days in Salento – hotspot number one on the backpacking route in the Eje Cafetero – I didn’t even got as far as taken as sip of the black gold that is known as Colombian coffee. Well, I did in my hostel actually, but is that really the same coffee as the super-de-luxe high priced I-don’t-know-how-roasted delicious Colombian coffee they sell in every tent in Europe with a bearded barista behind the bar? I was about to find out.

But first: after the early morning and 5-hour long hike of the day before, I only wanted one thing – TO SLEEP IN. Which I did. Which made me miss the departure of my newly made friends. Which I regretted. Luckily Facebook and WhatsApp are always there to come to the rescue…even though saying virtual goodbyes aren’t as good as the real thing. Not that I had a lot of time to think about goodbyes, since I was promoted to translator between Lili and the two new Dutch guests that arrived only minutes after my sleepy head showed itself in the kitchen. Seated with a cup of coffee, we discussed the usual where-are-you-froms and where-have-you-beens, until we realized that we all had the same plan for the day: visiting a real Colombian finca. Ready for some more coffee.

A little hour walking from the city centre lays Finca Las Acacias, a small family-run coffee farm. The best about Las Acacias is not even the finca itself, but how to get there: a 45-minute walk through the town of Salento and along a muddy road that takes you deep inside of the hills. Every once in a while to be passed by a Willy tuffing slowly to its destination or one of the always present scooters. – Seriously, I’m surprised I’ve never got hit, half Colombia is born on a scooter I think – Only to be surrounded by blanket of green hills changing with every step you take, from grassland to farms to rows and rows of coffee plants. – Which I didn’t know yet where coffee plants, but hey, we travel to learn, don’t we? And maybe sometimes to get a tan on a beach. Wich was a bit difficult in the coffee triangle – After admiring the views and snapping some pictures, we arrived at the finca and were welcomed – of course – with a steaming cup of Colombian coffee. You don’t need an appointment or make a reservation to tour the farm, just show up and wait a while for some other people before you start the tour. Waiting with a cup of coffee and surrounded by magnificent views is not so bad after all. Anyhow, after half an hour 10+ people had showed up and we were more than ready to learn where our daily dose of caffeine comes from. I’ll be honest. I’m not going to explain the whole shebang to you here and now. First of all, it’s much nicer to experience it all than to read about it here. Second, I forgot half of the tour. – The fact I’m writing this blog with a couple of months of delay might be the reason, even though I do have a pretty lively and detailed memories of most of my trip. Only not of the coffee tour, sorry! – What I do remember, is that it’ll be very hard to find the best Colombian coffee in Colombia. Yes, I drank some pretty decent cups, but all the high quality beans are shipped to my own continent – Europe, in case you forgot -, the US and A,… to be roasted according to the tastes of each country. Which makes me a bit sad, to know what’s considered one of the best ‘coffees’ in the world is mostly exported and for other countries to enjoy…

After an hour touring around the finca, getting to know every stage of the coffee plant and two whole cups containing enough caffeine to reach double my daily dose, I headed back to the hostel to get rid of my now muddy walking shoes. – Not so much luck with the rain that morning – To my surprise I wasn’t the only Belgian in the hostel anymore, instead Brecht from Gent – hurray Gent! – and his Colombian girlfriend Danna arrived, with whom I started chatting almost immediately after arriving back to the hostel. Who also invited me to join them on a discovery tour of Salento. And guess what: that day is still known as the day I climbed the Mirador for the third time, luckily each time I need to take less and less “photo-stops” to make it to the top. Still a magnificent view though. At least I deserved a treat, so I didn’t feel too bad going out eating a little bit more fancy than I was used to so far…which was still in a restaurant in a garage after all. Even though the interior was interesting – uhum, garage -, the food was good, the atmosphere and the talks where even better and it was just nice to chat about Gent and the story of Brecht and Danna. – it’s their story to tell, but I have to let them know somehow much I admire them choosing to be together, even though it musn’t always be easy – With full bellies and sleepy heads we headed back to the hostel, where I still had one thing to do before going to bed….pack my backpack again.

Actually, I had been busy with a decision earlier that day, as in: where next? I wanted to head to Medellín north from the Eje Cafetero, but I had the feeling I was rushing too much, even though nothing was keeping me in Salento anymore. I got some great tips from Lili and Brecht & Danna to definitely NOT miss Chocó and the Pacific Coast, which I could easily reach by plane from Medellín. But something was holding me back, I had the feeling I wasn’t finished with the Eje Cafetero yet and wanted one more stop before heading to famous Medellín. One stranger made me decide, and the next morning I headed for the bus station and the city of Pereira.

Now, I love taking the bus in Latin America. It’s just always an adventure, or you’re propped up in a tiny mini-van with 30 people where there’s place for 10, or the speakers are blasting reggaeton while Jesus is watching over you, making sure you don’t get drilled out of your seat on the beat of the music, or you just meet the nicest people chatting away until you reach your stop. Exactly what happened to me that day. – not the Jesus part, that only happened the next day – Generally, when I was travelling in Colombia, I just went to the bus station, bought my ticket and hopped on the next bus already waiting for me at the stop. This time was no different, only that the bus wasn’t there yet and I appeared to be one of the only ‘strangers’ – yep, let’s call me white even though I’m not that fluorescent illuminating white that some other people tend to be – going in that direction. So when I came to sit next to mr. X – I call him mr. X since I never got to know his name, but I flashed him a smile and ask if the seat next to him was taken – I got to know the famous Colombian friendliness. Curious about where I was from, he started asking me a couple of questions which leaded to a deep conversation about both our lives, his work and life in Pereira, the differences between our cultures and ended with him telling me to be careful travelling on my own and showing me the right way to my hostel so I wouldn’t accidently walk into the wrong neighbourhoods. People go out of their way here to help somebody, doesn’t matter if it’s a fellow Colombian or a stranger, without expecting anything in exchange. – most of them are nice, but of course, there’s always exceptions. Just trust your guts and you’ll definitely meet the nicest of people

Hopping off the bus, headed in the right direction straight to the hostel, I had no clue what was waiting for me. Little did I know I would meet somebody in that same hostel that would change my plans, my trip as a whole drastically, without me ever even thinking about it.

More about what happened in Pereira in the NEXT blogpost: Pereira – How to spend a day at the Termales of Santa Rosa.

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HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?

Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in the Coffee Region, I wrote down how much I spent while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.

Transport

Bus Salento – Pereira: one way – 7000 COP / 2,0€

Accommodation

3 nights in Casa Lili: dorm – 22.000 COP per night / 6,6€ per night (with the luck of having a private room for 2 nights, while the dorm was full)

Activities

Visit to Finca Las Acacias: one (or if you’re lucky, two!) coffee included – 8000 COP / 2,29€

Food

I don’t really include food here, since it really depends on how you travel, but I will make a monthly roundup where you can see how much I’ve spend with all the homecooked meals, fancy diners or fast papitas-y-nada-mas lunches counted together.

My highlights of Colombia’s Eje Cafetero – Part I – Salento and hiking Valle de Cocora

After four mostly rainy and jetlagged days, I decided to leave the capital for what it is and make my way to the very photogenic – at least, according to the tons and tons of pictures I saw on pinterest – coffee region. Salento apparently being AND in the middle of El Eje Cafetero AND startpoint to the magical Valle de Cocora – the Cocora valley, known for its wax palms, growing more than 60 meters tall – AND again, hyper-photogenetic according to all the pictures popping up during my research online, I decided to go for Salento. With the night bus.

Now, I’m a person who can sleep everywhere. I slept several times in the tiny Charleroi Airport in Belgium on the floor. – you know, budget travel and early flights and no late trains – I managed once to fall asleep on a plane before take off, to wake up when its wheels touched ground again in my destination. Usually it takes me five minutes in a bus before my head starts nodding up and down, almost drooling on myself while driving to my next destinations. Not on the bus Bogotá – Armenia. What was supposed to be an 8-hour drive from 10 pm until 6 am the next morning, became a race against the clock and our driver definitely broke the speeding record. While I installed myself with a blanket and the warmest sweater I own – Yes, you better put on a layer or five if you want to spend a night on the bus in Latin America. I learned my lesson the first time I travelled through Central America. Overall temperature outside the bus: 35° C. Inside: -10° C. Be prepared! -, nothing special happened. Until we reached the mountains and the driver decided it was time to show us his Formula-1 skills. Sitting in one of the front seats, I had perfect view on the road. Or at least, a view on the houses and trees buzzing past us, one big blur due to our high speed. The bus started swaying dangerously from left to right when cutting the corners and at one point I guess we went from 100km/hour to a full stop. Did I already say we were in the middle of the mountains, on a well-used road, in the dark?

Nevertheless, I reached my destination in one piece, two hours earlier than expected. Of course, the local buses to Salento only started their services at 5 am. Somehow the hour passed quicker than expected and once on the road, I didn’t even want to close my eyes anymore. The sun started to show itself, throwing a golden-pink glow over the green hills rolled out in front of us. Driving an hour past the most beautiful green landscapes made me think that crazy bus driver did a good job after all, bringing me early enough to enjoy the rising of the sun over the Eje Cafetero.

View of Salento - stairs to the Mirador

SALENTO

At 6 am, I still had the whole day in front of me, aching to wander through the colorful streets of Salento. While making the climb up to my hostel, I could already admire a part of the city and from what I saw, I knew it was a good idea to leave Bogotá: I felt much more at ease and full of energy to visit my surroundings. But first, getting rid of my big backpack at the hostel.

Hostal Casa de Lili was definitely one of the best choices I could’ve made, being welcomed by Lili herself, straight out of bed, who offered me a cup of coffee and a chat in the kitchen. – Something she did with everybody that decides to stay in the hostel, being curious about what brings them to Colombia and helping out wherever she can. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll learn it fast with Lili. – Being very very early, she urged me to visit the Mirador now, before all the Colombians on a holiday would climb out of bed and go en masse to the viewpoint. And my bed/room wasn’t ready yet anyway. After another cup of coffee I took off to climb the steps at the end of the street, all the way up to the Mirador. My body clearly wasn’t ready for that. After little to no sleep, only 5 days in the country and still not yet adapted to the heights, climbing the stairs like a mountain goat was a big no-no. Luckily, I’m good at stopping somewhere to take pictures of random flowers, while I’m actually faking a photo-opportunity in order to catch my breath again. Or just to pretend I’m not stopping THAT much only because I can’t breathe. Actually, it was not that bad. Just a little reminder I’m not as good with heights as I thought I was. The view was amazing though, the mountains stretch all the way to the Valle de Cocora and if you’ve got good eyesight – ugh, clearly not me – you can see the first wax palms in the distance.

Sweaty and a tiny little bit tired after a night-bus-without-sleep and my early exercise, I decided to go for breakfast and take a shower, just to freshen up before I would continue my sightseeing. It was there, at the hostel, that I would meet Julieta – bonding over the wifi-password – and after saying our nice-to-meet-you’s, we went each our separate ways, just to bump into each other again a mere 20 minutes later on the street. So she did what any other backpacker-who-already-made-friends would do – or at least, I hope they would do –: she invited this solo-traveler to have a cup of coffee with her and her friends, which was the beginning of a long day sightseeing in Salento. Starting with another climb to the Mirador – sigh, this time luckily in good company – to take pictures and going down to a part of the village I hadn’t seen yet. Besides the fact that it’s the main gateway to the Valle de Cocora, Salento is known for its colorful colonial houses and artisan shops. Picture perfect streets, with a big town square or Plaza in the middle acting as the number one meeting point and views upon lush green hills, the heart of the Colombian coffee region. Since it was a Saturday and a holiday, the streets and shops were alive with people, eating, drinking, dancing, music in the background. So I found out the best way to discover – as it always is – is just to go and see, go wherever your feet take you and be curious. Get lost. Take pictures. Watch people.

VALLE DE COCORA

Number one reason why most people go to Salento in the first place – no, not for the many beautifully colored houses, the many restaurants and bars or the nice Mirador – is because it’s the gateway to Valle de Cocora. A green blanket of sloping hills, dotted with the national tree of Colombia, the Quindío wax palm, growing up to 60m high. Background for some pretty spectacular pictures – as seen on the internet before I left – I definitely wanted to see this mysterious Valley. More, I read about a hike, taking about 5 to 6 hours to complete, crossing rivers and watching colibris until you’ve reached the heart of the Valle de Cocora and find yourself surrounded by the tallest palms in the whole wide world. Sounds pretty good, no?

My newly made friends and I decided that the day after our little trip in Salento City would be perfect to discover the Cocora Valley. We jumped out of bed and ran to the main square to catch a Willy to the valle. Well, not necessarily ‘jump’ and ‘run’, rather drag ourselves out our very comfy beds – King size, booked a dorm and got a private room upgrade for the same price. Happy Anke – at the unholy hour of 5.30 in the morning to frantically look for a breakfast before catching the Willy to the valley. I scored an almost black banana and a very crumbled cupcake, which I lost somewhere in my backpack earlier. For your information, Willy is not a guy, it’s a jeep from the WWII era, sold by the American army. When the locals saw you could drive up and down a flight of stairs, they were sold and those Willy’s as well. Now the ideal vehicle to ride on unpaved roads, preferably with whole swimming pools of mud, in the mountains. And to the Valle de Cocora, of course. In the Willy – I really like to use that word – we met with Annaëlle, a French girl obviously also going to conquer that Cocora hike. Before we knew it, we were dropped off at the entrance and ready to start the day, upcoming sun already illuminating the mountains surrounding us. While Julieta & co preferred to visit the Valle de Cocora first, we split up in two groups: Annaëlle and me doing the long hike, the rest doing the shorter version. Basically, go to the left at the blue gate for the short one and to the right for the longer hike. Apparently we didn’t need to pay for the entrance to the National park, since it was not yet 7 o’clock – we left Salento at 6.15 – and nobody was sitting at the entrance. Lucky us.

First part of the hike slowly leads you to higher grounds, walking besides grasslands dotted with cows waking up from their sleep. Sun starting to shine, illuminating the valley in front of us. Clouds and mist surrounding the Valle de Cocora on the mountaintop. The further we walked, the more we were surrounded by forest, crossing bridges and going higher and higher up. Well….do you remember Bogotá and me having a cold? The Mirador and my not so coincidental photo stops? If I thought I was prepared for this hike, I was mistaken big time. Annaëlle was very fit, already having travelled for a while – probably not living off of potato chips and having a sedentary lifestyle like me when not on the road – and I was catching my breath after every steep climb. Somehow, I managed to wrestle myself to the colibri reserve AND to enjoy the sights along the way. Colibri reserve meant a place to rest and have a hot drink before heading for the hardest part of the hike: the Mirador at a height of 2860m above sea level. Sigh. After stopping every two steep curves, I told Annaëlle to leave me behind and wait at the top. Struggling with legs that wouldn’t walk more than 50m at the time – a result of less oxygen in the air I guess – I still managed to reach the top, maybe half an hour later than my hiking partner. Sweaty, red and still breathing for air, I felt king of the world. The view was simply stunning.

What followed was walking down into the Valle de Cocora, by far the easiest part of the day: from one moment into the other being surrounded by the tallest palms in the world is an incredible feeling. I’ll just let the picture speak for themselves this time.

HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?

Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in the Coffee Region, I wrote down how much I spent while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.

Transport

Nightbus Bogotá – Armenia: 8 hours normal / 6 hours with a speedy driver – 53.000 COP / 15,04€

Bus Armenia – Salento: 40 minutes – 4200 COP / 1,2€

Willy to Valle de Cocora: one way – 3800 COP / 1,08€

Accommodation

3 nights in Casa Lili: dorm – 22.000 COP per night / 6,6€ per night (with the luck of having a private room for 2 nights, while the dorm was full)

Activities

Entrance colibri reserve: one hot drink included – 5000 COP / 1,43€

NEXT: My highlights of Colombia’s Eje Cafetero – Part II – Coffee tasting and Pereira’s surprise