Colombia – my first days in the jewel of South America

Everyone I have met that has been to Colombia has loved it, without exception, and I have been so excited deep-down ever since I left the UK to reach this place. And now I’m here!!

I touched down in Cali Airport after a terrible hungover journey and shared a taxi into the old part of the city. My first impressions were of a really charming place and I look forward to exploring.

My plan is to start exploring Colombia a little further to the south and then work my way back up through Cali and beyond, so this stopover is just so I can relax a little, do ALL my laundry (so much got damp in the rainforest), sort photos and catch up on blogging a bit.

I spent two days in Cali so far and love it already, it’s just so easy to find nice food and good places to explore. I spent a lot of the time here in a cafe called Macondo, which serves excellent coffee and delicious fresh brownies in a great setting. I even ate dinner here and tried both a burger and a salad on different occasions. The main dishes were delicious too and it’s all very good value, with a brownie and ice-cream costing $7.000 COP (Colombian Pesos) which is about £1.75 and a burger or salad costs $18.000COP which is £4.70. It’s by no means cheap for Colombia but it’s a treat.

My first night there was Sunday and the vibe was great, with live music starting at 9pm and the place packed out.

Cafe Macondo also has a small cinema and every night in April except Sundays they are showing Oscar-winning films for free. On Monday night I watched Dunkirque (Dunkirk) in Spanish with English subtitles. It was really good! And we were able to order food and drinks to enjoy with the film which was perfect (and was the reason I ended up eating there twice).

Early on Tuesday I caught a bus to Popayán, a student city a few hours South of Cali. I stayed in Hostel Trail for $27.000COP (£7) and liked the place. It’s in a pretty good location towards the edge of the old centre. The centre is beautiful – it’s the White City of Colombia. I explored the city in the afternoon and visited a few churches.

I saw a beautiful building with lots of people walking in and out. I went in and found out that it’s part of the university where they have night classes for people studying to become lawyers and a really nice man was telling me about living and working in Popayán.

In the evening I heard beautiful singing coming from the cathedral so I went in to listen. There was a service going on so I stayed for a while before grabbing a beautifully prepared coffee at Juan Valdez café and sitting in their rear courtyard.

For dinner I went to La Cosecha Restaurant and had a delicious steak in plum sauce, cooked to perfection and I paid $32.000COP (£8.40) for the steak and a juice, again, not overly cheap but I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The hostel price didn’t include breakfast so I had scrambled eggs, toast and coffee for $7.000COP and then got a fancy coffee at Juan Valdez and strolled around the main square (Parque Caldas) until 10am when I joined a walking tour.

The city is absolutely fascinating.

Niguas plagued people’s feet and the government discovered that quicklime worked to burn the niguas so they painted all the buildings with quicklime (a bright white chemical) and people could rub their feet on them to clean the bugs off. Now every year before Holy Week the whole city is repainted white.

The 1983 earthquake caused severe damage to the whole city, particularly the churches. There were people trapped inside the cathedral so they decided to wait in “safety” under the dome. The dome collapsed and killed 90 people.

The Spaniards built churches all over the city as they were so keen to convert the indigenous people who lived here, there are even 5 in the same street.

Within the administrative building of the university there is an incredible complex painting describing the history of the city. It’s beautiful and the description of each group of characters and how they contribute to the history of the city is interesting.

There are signs showing that UNESCO recognise the city’s incredible intangible cultural heritage in the form of the Easter processions. Houses here have also got plaques to show that they are unmodified in 450 years.

It’s also a city recognised for gastronomy. There are some wonderful typical dishes to try. Mora de Castilla is a great place to try this food. Open until 7pm though.

After the tour I headed to Mora de Castilla and ordered all the specialities from the lovely owner.

The dishes to try are:

Empanaditas de Pipián – mini empanadas filled with Pipián which is made from potatoes, beans, peanuts and are served with hogao (tomato and onion sauce).

Tamal de Pipián – steamed pockets filled with Pipián, I was not a fan of this one.

Carantanta con hogao – thin crispy crackers made from maize accompanied by hogao (tomato and onion sauce).

Salpicón de Payanés is a blended frozen drink with mora (blackberry), lulu (local grown fruit) and slices guanábana (like a big Cherimoya). It was absolutely delicious, a great balance of tangy and sweet.

Lulada is a lemonade made from lulu fruits. I didn’t get to try it as I chose the salpicón but I trust it’s delicious too.

The prices were all very reasonable, with dishes less than $4.000COP each. I ordered all that to myself and paid $15.100COP (under £4).

After lunch I hiked up El Morro del Tulcán which is a pyramidal hill just outside the city. It is manmade and was built in the pre-Columbian period between 1600-500 BC by a society that had disappeared before the arrival of the Spanish. It does seem controversial that there is now a monument of a conquistadors on his horse atop this ancient monument.

The weather turned pretty rainy so I headed back to the hostel and I decided to catch the 4.5 hour bus to San Agustín.

I got a taxi to the bus station for about $6.000COP and then paid $30.000 for a ticket to San Agustín. The guy tried to overcharge me for the ticket by $5.000 but I had seen a note in the hostel about prices and buses and I always make a point of taking photos of things like that so I just told him that I thought it cost $30.000 and he said ok.

The bus ride was horrendous! The road was mainly dirt track and pothole and the driver was a maniac with a death wish.

I got talking to the guy sitting in front of me during the parts of the journey where it was safe to talk without risking biting your tongue off! Harry is travelling before he goes to university back in the UK. He and I stayed in different hostels but when we arrived in San Agustín we booked to go on a horse riding tour of the ruins starting at 9am the next day, and we had dinner in a really bog standard place almost exactly where we got off the bus. The food was fine but I was disappointed not to try somewhere nicer! Anyway. After dinner I headed up the hill to Hostel Bambú, which was a nice place with a good atmosphere. I chatted with some people from France, England and Germany on the roof terrace then had an early-ish night.

The hostel Bambú price doesn’t include breakfast and unfortunately it wasn’t possible to pay for breakfast either while I was there (although it usually is) so I went out early in search of a bakery. I found one, eventually, but it was surprising how many hardware stores were open compared to zero cafes…

The riding started a little late but as promised the horses arrived outside my hostel and were stood all across the road. I went out and was given a really beautiful horse as I have ridden before, and the dude told me they fed my horse dynamite for breakfast. I think he may have been telling the truth!!! My horse was a machine, so fast and always keen to canter.

The trip cost $60.000COP (£15) and lasted from about 9:30 until 14:00. We visited four of the main historic sites around the area of San Agustín.

San Agustín and the surrounding area is home to the many mysterious relics of a long lost civilization and is a fascinating place to explore and dream about the stories behind the sites. Local inhabitants and explorers have found hundreds of anthropomorphic stone carvings scattered all over the River Magdalena valley, many lost deep in the jungle. Upon closer inspection, most of the sites were realised to be burial sites, all of which had been heavily looted, but the statues remained.

The rocks had been deposited on the hillside by an eruption of the now peacefully sleeping volcano and the people of the time had carved the stones and turned the areas into their burial grounds. Most of the statues have been moved now to make displays and to preserve the stones under cover.

Our first stop was El Tablón where we saw our first five statues lined up in a row. The styles were all quite different so it was a good opportunity for our guide to explain the current thinking behind the designs.

After a lovely gallop along a meandering track we reached our second site, La Chaquira, where we descended a steep path and lots of steps with a great view over the Magdalena valley. We saw a few very cool petroglyphs there; the main one is thought to depict a Shaman and if you look closely you can see a much fainter carving to his left, this is possibly an evil spirit! Freaky.

As we left La Chaquira we walked past a fruiting tree and our guide climbed right up to get us some pods of fruits to try. They were absolutely delicious, if not very strange. The fruits had thick white fur but that didn’t make them seem dry at all. They were sweet and weren’t too dissimilar from a Cherimoya or a lychee-type flavour, with a huge green-black seed in the middle.

Where we left the horses there was a stall selling little souvenirs and I bought some of the little resin figures of the statues. I know I’m going to struggle to look after them but they were so lovely and they weren’t expensive.

Next we rode to the last two sites, La Pelota and El Purutal. We had to ride through puddles and the horses loved it, I was riding next to somebody else and we both got soaked! Four of us were much faster and we ordered fresh juice at a cafe just outside the ruins while we waited. I made friends with a super cute dog who sadly couldn’t come with us as we went up to the next site.

The last two sites are accessed from the same entrance. The first has my favourite statue which shows an eagle eating a serpent. It seems so symbolic to me despite nobody knowing exactly why it was made.

On the walk up to the last set of ruins our guide was able to show us the plants that give both the red and yellow paints with which the culture used to decorate the statues.

El Purutal has been well preserved and excavated. There is a mound with tombs and the excavation shows the funerary corridors lined with standing stones and covered with slabs. At the back there is a chamber holding the tomb and the statue stands guarding the entrance.

After our walk we jumped back on our trusty steeds and thundered back to the town. The ride was so fun!

We arrived back into San Agustín and walked to a restaurant called El Fogón, which was recommended by the guide. We had a tasty two-course meal for $6.000COP.

For the rest of the afternoon, four of us went to the archeological park just outside the town. You pay $25.000COP to get in (students pay $10.000COP) and you get a passport which lasts for two days and is also required for Alto de los Idolos (which I will visit tomorrow). The best bit by far was the woodland walk full of statues. Some of them were really strange and lots of them had similar features to the ones we had seen with the guide earlier so we told each other stories about the history of each monument.

The wood is really nice and reminded me of the jungle in Ecuador, the cicadas were deafening.

On the way out of the park we walked through an artisans market and Harry and I negotiated for a pair of beautiful incense burners made from bamboo.

Then we walked to the hostel where the other three were staying, Casa de Nelly. It took us about 40 minutes and then I chilled out in the garden hoping to spot hummingbirds. It’s not often safe enough to take out my good camera so I was hoping to spot them in the safety of a hostel garden but no luck this time.

Harry and I took a taxi down to the town for dinner at an excellent restaurant called HumuSapiens. They serve Arabian cuisine and the only downside is that they aren’t open every night (closed Thursdays, along this most other restaurants in town).

We shared a few things from the menu and it was all delicious. The beetroot hummus and pitas were both to die for and all dishes came with a small side dish so we got to try the Arabian salad, baba ganoush and tabule too. The fresh lemonade with mint was fabulous and the whole meal came to $33.500 (£8.50). Definitely the best restaurant in town.

In the morning I went out to breakfast at a café but again, I had real difficulty finding anywhere open. Eventually the cafe on the main square opened and I had eggs and toast for $8.000 which was quite overpriced. At 9am I met a French couple, Pierre and Laura, who I had met on the walking tour in Popayán and I joined them for a 4×4 tour for the day.

The tour cost $35.000COP per person, which I think was a bit more expensive than if we had paid for the vehicle and driver as a group and then split the cost. We were joined by a family of three from Bogotá and a man studying in Popayán. The weather was absolutely horrible which definitely didn’t help, however, I didn’t really enjoy the tour very much. The vehicle was in terrible condition and the window kept sliding open in the rain and there wasn’t quite enough space for us all in the car.

We visited two waterfalls and I didn’t think either were particularly stunning as they were both a bit too far away but the valleys were still pretty when the mist cleared. We had to pay $4.000COP to visit the first one (not sure why really). Then we went to Alto de los Idolos, definitely the best bit of the day! We paid extra for a tour guide and headed out into the rain to see this impressive burial complex. Here, many of the tombs have been reconstructed with the statues and the sarcophagi so it is an impressive place.The carvings here were some of the most detailed and 3D, some of them were even holding out offering bowls. The sarcophagi were very interesting too. No bodies were ever found here (due to looting) so it’s not possible to be sure whether there were differences between male and female burials.

The last historic site on the trip was Alto de las Piedras, another burial site, this time without guide but with signs (in English and Spanish). The security guard (armed of course) accompanied us and gave us the low-down on each tomb which was nice.

This is the site of the carving of the pregnant woman, (embarazada in Spanish).

Our final stop before heading back to San Agustín was El Estrecho which is a strait (super narrow section) on the river Magdalena. The river is so powerful at this point and you can see it thundering down the valley into the bottleneck. I stood right on the edge and was periodically splashed by the water. The guide recommended we moved right back as every now and again a huge surge can wash over the whole area where we were standing. I definitely believed him; we saw whole trees being swept downstream as if they were twigs. I saw some huge spiders running about down there too and boy were they fast!

Back at the hostel I spent some time in a hammock and then went to dinner with a couple of people from the hostel. Hardly anywhere was open! Not sure what was so special about this particular Thursday night but we had all of two options for dinner. Brahama & Mar was recommended by an app I have but it was as if they were talking about a totally different place. Nevermind, the food was tasty enough, just not the quality we expected. It was cheap, only $8.000COP each for a set dinner.

I had delicious fresh fruit for breakfast and then walked into town to catch a bus back to Cali. The hostel helpfully has a bus timetable written out showing each company. I had missed the Cootrans Laboyana direct bus but went to Sotracauca for their 9am bus. The dude tried to charge me $55.000 rather than $50.000, but again I said that I thought it should be the lower price and he dropped it immediately…

Bus left on time but stopped every few minutes to try and get more people to jump on. And then almost as soon as we left San Agustin we promptly broke down in a cloud of smoke. I thought that we would have to wait a long time but the next bus from a different company stopped and picked us up – very efficient!

We stopped in a tiny village along the way for lunch and it was very good! $8.000 for a soup followed by steak, rice, lentils, fried plantain and some shredded carrot.

I was keen to get back to Cali in time to get to Cafe Macondo for the film at 19:30 – they were playing Baby Driver and I loved it the first time I saw it. I made it just in time! I had a delicious salad for dinner while I watched the film. The film was in English with Spanish subtitles so it was good to learn a few more words in Spanish as my progress has slowed over the past few weeks.

Next post… Learning to Salsa in Cali x

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