Cali es Cali…

…lo demás es loma.

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Which more or less translates into ‘Cali is Cali, the rest is over there’. Basically not as good as Cali. Which couldn’t be more spot on.

Tons of people warned me how dangerous it would be, or how boring it would be, but I really could not see it. Sure, it was definitely a slow burner, but once you get to know it and its surrounding, it was irresistible.

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View from Tres Cruces

After a long trip from Salento which involved getting stuck in traffic for ages and catching a taxi that had no idea where were going and couldn’t read a map (something that will slowly but surely become a recurring theme of my stay here), I finally arrive at my hostel. Which I couldn’t recommend more! Drop Bear Cali, best hostel I’ve ever stayed in.

Anyway I arrive, grumpy but happy to see Gabriel (the owner) and Emily (a friend I made in Medellin). In another excellent case of small world, I also discover that two friends from Bogota (including David, who kindly hosted me in Bogota back at the start of my trip) were staying there too, as they were playing a cricket match over the weekend. Nice to see so many familiar faces!

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Beautiful Cali

We quickly get ready and head out for a much deserved dinner and drinks. We then decide to hit a famous salsa bar called La Topatolondra, as it’s Friday night and I totally need to let my hair down.

It turns out to be one of the best nights out I had in a while, despite the realisation that the salsa I learn in Medellin was so different from the authentic salsa caleña. We danced so much, drank some more and made many new friends. Everyone is so willing to teach you and help you learn.

The night continues with us driving around Cali, at high speed (don’t tell my dad), in a car with some new friends and a beautiful caleño boy, and getting home at 6.30am, with a great grin on my face.

The grin disappears later on when my head is pounding and my feet are hurting. But it’s a night with no regrets!

We gather our energy and finally head out to explore the surrounding areas, followed by more salsa dancing in the evening, this time at another famous salsa spot called the Tin Tin Deo with a friend from the previous night.

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New friends at Tin Tin Deo

I have a reasonably early night, ready to do some more exploring the following day. Sadly we wake up too late to hike up the Tres Cruces, a big hill overlooking Cali with three crosses, so we catch a taxi to Cristo Rey, which sits opposite Tres Cruces and still gives us amazing views over beautiful Cali. We also learn that Cali is a reasonably new city, it used to have approximately 40,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 20th century. Now it reaches roughly 3 million!

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Cristo Rey

We also visit Parque de los Gatos,which sculptures of cats are all painted and designed by women and are incredibly interesting and creative.

I finally sign up to learn the proper salsa caleña, for 10 intensive hours. I am not going to lie, the first lesson is quite disastrous, more because I feel like I haven’t learnt anything previous in Medellin (and my teacher was quite strict and tough), but I don’t give up easily and stick to learning and dancing every day, for hours.

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Basic steps of salsa

We sign up for more ‘tourist’ stuff, such as two tours on the same day by the same funny Dutch guy (which I strongly recommend, Callerojos Tours, look them up!): firstly the street food tour, followed by the walking tour.

The street food tour is nothing short of a mind-blowing sensory explosion, where my taste buds are going absolutely crazy. We try dozens of different fruits, snacks and drinks that I’ve seen being sold on the streets but never had the audacity to try.

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La Galeria

Some of my personal highlights were visiting La Galeria (a huge food market) and try roughly 18 different fruits, and finding avocados nearly as big as my head.

Also visiting the statue of Jovita, (‘la reina eterna de Cali’ – the eternal queen of Cali), whose story was interesting to say the least. Jovita took part in a radio competition where you had to sing a song, and if you were out of tune the station would have some dogs barking. Jovita was beyond out of tune, and despite the incessant sound of dogs barking, she continued to sing as she did not agree with the radio station opinion. Persistence was clearly her middle name. She proceeded to become very famous and the students of the Valle University in Cali decided to crown her as a queen. She took these coronations incredibly seriously and wore a crown (as depicted in the statue). She took part in parades, official events, and even opened the very famous Feria de Cali (a huge festival taking place over Christmas). Her funeral was deemed to be one of the busiest events that ever happened in the City.

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Jovita (and yes she was that beautiful)

Anyway, back to more tours! In the afternoon we take part in the walking one and we discover areas of Cali that I wasn’t even aware existed, and learnt some of its interesting yet destructive history, obviously including what happened during the Cali Cartel reign of terror.

On a happier note, a new friend I made in Salento arrived that evening and on the following day we head out to the open air indigenous dance taking place in the beautiful Lomo de la Cruz. I immediately fall in love with all these stunning and friendly indigenous people, eat pizza and dance (badly) a lot. Such an excellent yet simple evening.

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Indigenous dancing

At last, we make it to the Tres Cruces hike with a very early wake up call (to avoid the scorching midday heat). The walk is tiring and tough but reasonably short (roughly an hour, including stops) and incredibly rewarding. We even have to climb up on our hands for a few parts of it but the views were outstanding and the feeling when reaching the top was exhilarating. We even caught some refreshing rain on the way down!

….and obviously another weekend arrives, and we head out to the Tin Tin Deo again to dance more salsa (and show off some of my newly learnt salsa moves), and then onto my favourite, La Topatolondra. It’s even more fun when you know what you’re doing (who would have thought!) and even my friend David with whom I’ve danced on the first night I arrived in Cali noticed the improvements. Such a great feeling!

Saturday night we decide to ditch salsa for some much-needed rock music and we head to a venue called Bourbon St. In all honesty it wasn’t very rock to begin with, but it turned out to be such a fun filled night!

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Bourbon St posse

On Sunday we decide to just chill by the pool and be lazy Colombian bums too, which was much needed. We then head out for a huuuuge pizza and sit in Parque San Antonio and people watch (including a woman walking a white bunny: the dream!).

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Just a bunny going for a walk

So… all in all, Cali has truly stolen my heart. Even more than Medellin, and I can’t wait to be back!

And because I’m a crazy stupid romantic fool, I take the impulsive decision of heading up to Manizales (five hours north of Cali, back towards Medellin) instead of heading down towards Ecuador, to visit someone I met on my first night in Cali.

As I always say, never a dull moment.

More to come soon….

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PALM TREES, HIKING AND HORSES: THE MAGICAL SALENTO

…and here I am, after 8 hours on a small but comfortable bus (hello Finding Dory in English), arriving in the beautifully green, little town of Salento.

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Hello Salento

I am staying at this gorgeous hostel/farm a bit further out from town called La Serrana, which is so peaceful and surrounded by luscious green hills and nothing but nature. Much needed after nearly a month in crazy Medellin.

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Meet Pablo, the hostel’s dog

I have an early night in preparation for my first proper day out, exploring Salento, which includes horse riding to a nearby waterfall. It is just me and the horse owner on this hack, which is nice as he adjusted it to my experience (i.e. we galloped most of the way and he let me do whatever I want. I love a fast ride!)

The horses are so strong and well-kept, and within a couple of hours riding through hills, rivers and big fields, we arrive at the waterfall. Not as impressive as I thought, but worth it nonetheless.

We stop over briefly for a spot of aqua de panela con queso (a warm, super sugary tea like beverage, with a side of cheese. Yes, cheese! Sounds weird but it works perfectly, somehow) and then we head back to La Serrana, not before the lovely horse owner asks me if I want to swap horses. Which I obviously agree to, and what a great decision this was! I liked my initial horse, but the new one is so much faster and much more of a challenge.

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Aqua de panela con queso

I come back to the hostel, tired but happy, but with still some energy left for the free salsa lesson at another hostel down the road. Can’t be a late one for once though, as I am doing the much-awaited Valle de Cocora hike very early in the morning.

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Beautiful Valle de Cocora

Which turned out to be one of my favourite hikes on my trip so far! My roommate and I decided to head out early to the centre to catch one of the Jeeps taking you to the entrance to the valley, and we meet other travellers willing to share the ride. Which turned out to be a great bunch of people from all around the world!

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So beautiful

The hike itself started with a beautiful sight of a side of the valley. The weather had been very kind so far, crisp air and gorgeous sunshine. We then head into the forest, where we cross very frail bridges over a stream (and we get told off for crossing the bridges more than one person at a time, whoops!).

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Bridge 1 out of 7

We then sadly split the group, as some of us want to visit the Hummingbird House whilst others want to continue. I’m so glad I was in the ‘pro’ group, as I was surrounded by tons of tiny and beautiful hummingbirds (and managed to slurp a hot chocolate and cheese in record time!).

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So many hummingbirds, and oh so close

The rest of the hike becomes very tough for my short legs. Half an hour of very steep uphill, at an altitude of 2800/3000m. But despite the fatigue, we make it to the top which is Finca La Montana. Sadly we are surrounded by a huge cloud (that will follow us up until the palm trees) so the view isn’t as clear as we had hoped, but we were so pleased we made it to the top!

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So many routes
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New amazing friends, stuck in a cloud

We then continue to the famous, tall palm trees, which are absolutely outstanding. Never seen such huge trees in my life, and probably never will.

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Hello I’m a tourist and I love it

We take a ton of pictures (sorry not sorry) and then head back into town, before the rain washes us out and to prepare for our much-awaited Thanksgiving dinner.

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Super eerie

I usually don’t celebrate it, but it was great to gather with newly-made friends and spend an evening together reminiscing the great day we had, and playing a bit of tejo.

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Happy Thanksgiving ❤

For those who don’t know, tejo is a very typical Colombian game where you throw rocks onto paper triangles filled with gun powder, with the aim of making them explode. Sounds weird but it’s so much fun! I then try to head out to a salsa bar with the guy running the tejo games, but it turns out all bars are shut (!) and so I get a lift home on a motorbike, in the pouring rain, with no headlights nor streetlights. Near death experience #4252175?

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Tejo winner

And so my short but sweet adventure in Salento comes to an end, filled with great memories with new but excellent friends.

Very excited about heading to Cali though…. Watch this space for more (mis)adventures!

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We so tiny

The City Of Eternal Spring and Beautiful People: Medellin

And here I am, in the beautiful Terra Paisa.

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Everyone warned me I would fall in love with Medellin and its people but I didn’t think they would be so spot on, apart from being quite confused and shocked to be in a busy, colder city again (after more than 6 weeks on the stunning Caribe).

But as it was a Friday and I was excited to eventually be able (allowed?) to get to Medellin (see previous post for the standard FranOnTheRun misadventure), so I headed out straight away to meet some acquaintances I made previously in Santa Marta for some dinner and drinks…

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Just a standard night out in Poblado

…but who am I kidding, I ended up having an excellent, crazy night involving me finding a job at a hostel pretty much immediately (yay!) and discovering a great rock bar with a super talented live band (which later would become my regular weekend haunt, so much that most of the band members know me by name, and the bar staff by drink choice!).

The hangover the following day was not so great, but we ended up heading out in Parque Lleras again for some reggaeton, bachata and salsa dancing with some old and new friends.

On another note, Halloween is absolutely bonkers in Colombia (or at least in Medellin!). People celebrate on both weekends (pre and after-Halloween) and the costumes are INSANE (including some slightly politically incorrect ones – see below).

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What?

I managed to partake as well, this year on a much smaller scale than my usual years in London, but was quite satisfied with what I managed to put together in a few hours.

After some much-deserved rest, I finally started working at the new hostel I found. What was meant to be 5 days in Medellin turned out to be more like 25…! The manager and owner are amazing and super friendly, the area (Poblado) is excellent and safe and the job is reasonably easy and straightforward. I’m also working mainly evenings, which gives me time to explore the city and its beautiful surroundings.

The first tour I did was quite controversial to say the least. Thankfully the tour guide was very impartial and respectful, and provided us with historic facts that helped shape the Medellin of today, rather than glamourising who ultimately is a mass murderer and drug baron (that I will refuse to mention by name). We visited some history-defining places, such as the Monaco building (where he lived with his family and was targeted in 1988 by a truck bomb containing more than 800kg of explosives. Picture below. Yikes), the Barrio Pablo Escobar (which still idolises him, contrary to everyone else in Medellin) and the place where he died.

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Very important lesson: a country that doesn’t know its history is condemned to repeat it

We then headed to the beautiful Comuna 13, which was once considered one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the world and now is hosting a huge amount of thought-provoking and interesting graffiti and street art. I ended up visiting it again with a guided tour to find out a bit more about the graffiti history itself as the art was absolutely fascinating (my favourite graffitis are by the artist called Chota. Check him out!)

We continued our ‘cultural exploring’ with the walking tour, which was mainly focused on the city centre (the ‘real Medellin’ as I call it), which was just as fascinating and interesting.

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Spot the goth with pink hair

The hustling and bustling of Medellin kind of took over me and thankfully we took a break from it by visiting the stunning Guatape, a few hours by bus from the city itself. And what a change of scenery it was! Beautifully green hills, huge (man-made) lakes and lagoons and one of the best views I’ve had since Montserrate in Bogota, this time climbing up La Piedra (775 steps of pure pain). We were so lucky we were blessed with beautiful weather, clear skies and a crisp, refreshing breeze.

Another weekend approached, and more madness ensued (including finally getting inked in Colombia).

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First ink of the trip, by the amazing Diego Florez at Sailors N Mermaids

Highlight of the night (that I can disclose on here) was finding a ball pit playing Rage Against The Machine and tons of other rock music.

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Carolyn and I enjoying some balls

Weekends in Medellin were not all focused on fun times (I promise!), and we managed to squeeze in more sightseeing, including a visit to the beautiful El Castillo in Poblado. It’s a breathtaking, old-style castle perched on a hill with a stunning view of Medellin, filled with mind-blowing European art including statues, paintings and a huge library as well. Strongly recommend it if visiting Medellin!

A few days later, I was asked by the hostel to be an interpreter for a coffee farm tour in Jardin (a few hours south of Medellin) and I’m so glad I agreed to it (despite the 5am wake up call and being murdered by insects). It was beyond interesting and informative, and I was moved by how passionate the man running the farm was. He is now producing coffee for Nespresso, and the process has taken more than 12 years in the making. He also had the cutest dog called Nacho which I promptly fell in love with.

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Beautiful Jardin

And in true FranFashion, I obviously got another tattoo done, this time a pina colada representing my time on the Caribbean coast (again). Viva Colombia indeed!

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Pina Colaaadaaa

As my beloved new friend Carolyn was in town, we decided to head to Guatape again for the second time, this time visiting the Hacienda Manuela by boat and explore its interesting and slightly creepy surroundings, accompanied by this really affectionate and cute dog I proceeded to rename Juanita. This Hacienda was one of the many properties owned by ‘the man that cannot be named’, built isolated from society and surrounded by man-mad lakes. The fact that it was cloudy and grey made the place even more eerie. Although a very interesting experience, I was quite happy to go back to land.

On the following day and after several attempts, we finally made to Parque Arvi with the Metro Cable. We didn’t know what to expect so we rocked up in flip flops and cute dresses, which was a big mistake as it was a beautiful natural reserve with tons of hikes. Forever unprepared, but we explored Piedras Blancas and had a nice browse at the local market. Nice to break away from the hustling and bustling of Medellin for a little while, and enjoy excellent views of the valley from the Metro Cable. I headed back alone the week after, now fully equipped with hiking boots and shorts, and explored a bit more on my own. Stunning place, considering how close to the city it is!

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Beautiful Piedras Blancas
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All roads lead to… nowhere

Spent the rest of my days in Medellin practicing salsa every day (which will definitely be a good start for my upcoming trip to Cali), going to my favourite local bar, Pub Rock Lleras, but also visiting museums, such as the interesting Casa de la Memoria and the beautiful Museo de Antioquia. It contains a huge collection of Botero’s works (both paintings and sculptures), as well as various other pieces of local Colombian art.

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Museo de Antioquia
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Casa de la Memoria

Before I head to Salento, I finally visit Pueblito Paisa, a replica of an Antioquian small town on top of a hill in Medellin. Absolutely stunning and with great views over this beautiful city, which is bitter-sweet as I know my days in Medellin are counted…

And here we are, another difficult goodbye…

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My Tiger Hostel family ❤

Medellin has truly been a dream. The people, the landscape, the nightlife, the nature, all packed in such an innovative and buzzing city.
The locals are friendly, helpful and genuine and have rebuilt a city from its ashes, after several bloody decades and everyone has been asking me to tell you all how welcoming and beautiful it is.

So here it is: please visit Colombia and Medellin, the city of the eternal spring.
Hike, explore, dance, drink, fall in love like I have in these past few weeks.
Don’t let its sad past preclude you and prevent you from visiting one of the most mind-blowing countries in this whole world.

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My Medellin, I love you and I will be back very soon.

Salento, brace yourself!

The Ups and Downs of a Caribbean Coast Dream – Part 2

Another day, another (mis)adventure.

I decide to head to The Journey Hostel again to just relax and use their excellent Wi-Fi (yes, I have my priorities set out all right), and somehow decide to do the ‘Monkey Walk’ with two new friends I made at the hostel. For once I decide not to be in charge of navigating a group, and I let the guys take the lead, which I thought would make things easier and more relaxing for me.

And we managed to get lost. We start crawling through mud, jungle and so many mosquitoes, which by the looks of it absolutely loved my legs. We finally work out (after more than half an hour walking through a deep jungle) that perhaps we took a wrong turn. To make things even more interesting my flip flop broke in the mud and had to walk barefoot. In the jungle. Yikes! Thankfully I came out of this unscathed albeit a bit traumatised but amused at the same time!

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The Monkey Walk jungle

We finally found the right path and made it to the beautiful Los Naranjos beach. Lesson learnt though: never trust other people to navigate you, ha! Still, a beautiful and interesting walk exploring!

I spend my last day off at the beautiful Costeño Beach hostel, sipping on delicious piña colada, playing beach volley and swimming in the boiling Caribbean sea. Couldn’t think of a better place to relax and be a lazy beach bum for once!

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Hammock time!
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Workaway friends 🙂

The weekend was fun (and booze) filled, featuring some serious karaoke at The Journey Hostel (first time singing since my vocal chords surgery) on the Friday night, followed by some excellent dancing on the bar at El Rio Hostel on the Saturday night. The hangovers were not as excellent, but managed to ride one of the most difficult horses on the Saturday morning (potentially still drunk from the night before, but exceeded my expectations on how things were going to go!), which was quite emotional. It took us around three weeks for us to be able to catch the horse, Capitan, which has clearly been mistreated in the past and is quite frankly terrified of humans. And what a beautiful ride he was!

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Riding Capitan for the first time!

I lead another tour on my very last day at the horse tours company, riding Capitan again, this time out for the first time and boy, can he gallop fast! I’m not going to lie, the day was quite emotional. I really enjoyed working with horses on a daily basis, despite some hiccups here and there, but seeing the progress we had with the horses in such a short amount of time was incredibly rewarding.

But I was ready to move onto my next adventure, which was Parque Tayrona, a beautiful National Park located on the north coast of Colombia, very close to where I lived and worked for four weeks.

I stayed at a great hostel nearby (The Journey Hostel, perfectly located near the entrance, with the nicest staff ever and two beautiful, kind and huge dogs) and woke up at dawn to enter via Zaino. The hike itself was reasonably easy and a bit steep, but only moderately. The main problem is the heat, which is quite unbearable. Not only I felt like I had never sweated so much in my life, but also it made my hands and fingers swell up so much I really couldn’t even close them. Yikes.

I arrived at Cabo San Juan, my home for a night, after roughly two hours of hiking in the scorching weather and immediately dived into the reasonably chilly waters. Thankfully my limbs went back to normal size and I was able to relax a bit and explore the nearby deserted beaches. We were greeted by a humongous storm shortly after dinner (which I later found out it destroyed a lot of houses and blocked roads) but my hammock was safe and dry.

Despite being able to sleep much on the hammock, I woke up once again at dawn to start hiking back, this time via a longer and much tougher route called Calabazos, going through an indigenous village called Pueblito. The hike was quite strenuous as it was mainly going uphill, climbing on huge rocks, but feasible (especially since the heat was quite bearable).

…until I got defeated by a huge rock I simply could not climb. I tried for a quite a while but it was twice my height and with nothing to grip on. After trying for more than half an hour, I had to admit defeated (with a few tears down my cheek). I headed back to Cabo San Juan and tried to see if there was another route, perhaps by horse, but locals advised it was too dangerous, so I reluctantly and grumpily headed back to Zaino, the same route I already walked the day before. My Tayrona experience was over but I promised myself I would try and walk that route again, either the way around (hence descending) or accompanied by someone who could help me up, ha!

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Fuck you rock

Treated myself to another night at the beautifully relaxing Costeño Beach resort before heading back to Santa Marta, where it all began more than a month before! It was great returning to Drop Bear Hostel, and seeing some of the people that worked there the first time around (and made new, amazing friends!). A textbook weekend at Drop Bear ensued (dancing, drinking, and more misbehaving!) which was quite different from the previous week but fun nonetheless.

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Last sunset at Costeño Beach
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The only picture I took from the night (sums it up really)

To counterbalance the madness of the weekend we all booked a sailing trip across the waters near Santa Marta and Tayrona, which was one of the most beautiful activities I have done in Colombia. Lots of snorkelling, swimming, and diving off the boat. Much needed after so much partying!

The following day we headed to Minca, a mere forty minutes drive from Santa Marta but a complete change of scenery. Lots of trees, crisp fresh air, surrounded by uncontaminated nature and beautiful sceneries. Shame the route from/to it are insanely bumpy and resemble more a rollercoaster ride than anything else. Still, definitely worth the trip to escape the insane heat down town. We went on a very short hike in the afternoon (trying to avoid the torrential rain) and drank my first coffee in eleven months (sorry doctor!). Tasty, but so strong it gave me a headache (and more, ha!). We stayed up on the mountains at Casas Viejas, which is incredibly isolated yet relaxing, with excellent views over the valley (when the low clouds aren’t blocking the view!).

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View from Casas Viejas
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First coffee in 11 months!
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Kitty trying to steal my food

The next day we went hiking again (after a spot of yoga right by the mountains, bliss!), this time to El Campano, Los Pinos and then ending at Casa Elemento. Considered ‘easy’ by the locals and ‘all flat’, it reminded me never to trust Colombians when rating the difficulty of a walk, as it’s always underestimated! Thankfully we made it, despite it being mainly steep and uphill. The views were outstanding once again, and we narrowly missed the torrential rain that started as soon as we arrived at Casa Elemento (and took the obligatory picture on the giant hammock). Another very relaxing night ensued (after a terrifying motorbike ride down from Casa Elemento to Minca), in preparation for my long trip back down to Santa Marta and then onto Cartagena.

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On top of the world!

I will skip the part where I travelled for nearly 9 hours from Minca to Cartagena via Santa Marta as it was horribly boring, delayed and uncomfortable (part of travelling around the world, I guess) and will focus on how beautiful Cartagena is, and how I wished I stayed longer than two nights!

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First view of Cartagena

What can I say about Cartagena… I heard mixed reviews about it somehow, but I was utterly amazed by its beauty and architecture, despite its very sad history (linked to the slaves trade, which I will not go into much details here but I strongly advise you look into it).

I spend the one and a half day I have at my disposal sightseeing and exploring this beautiful city, despite the scorching heat and humidity. It’s definitely one of the hottest and most uncomfortable places I’ve visited, temperature-wise!

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Perfect spot for lunch

I also take one last dip in the (very warm) Caribbean sea for the last time in a while (quite emotional in all honesty) but the sadness is quickly overturned in the evening by an excellent salsa bar (called Donde Fidel), where we find ourselves dancing with excellent Colombian people, which are always so kind and incredibly willing to teach you how to dance salsa properly (and how to sneakily take several shots of Aguardiente, a typical Colombian aniseed-based liquor which has caused me several headaches already!).

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My last dip in the Caribbean sea (with a much different view than usual!)

My Caribbean coast dream has come to an end (for a little while as I will definitely be back!), and my Paisa dream is only about to start, but not before another misadventure (obviously!).

I book a flight from Cartagena to Medellin with Avianca as cost-wise was very similar to the bus ticket (but 14 hours shorter!), wrongly assuming that the crew strike that has been ongoing for quite a while would be resolved by the time I had to fly. Ah how wrong I was! My morning flight was cancelled but thankfully I was booked onto the next one in the afternoon… until I rocked up at the airport and was advised that the flight was overbooked and I may not be able to fly after all. Never a dull moment!

I had to wait until everyone had boarded before I could find out whether I was allowed to travel or not, which was stressful to say the least, but luckily I was given the golden ticket (my boarding pass) and I was finally able to head to Medellin.

Watch this space to follow my (mis)adventures in la Terra Paisa…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ups and Downs of a Caribbean Coast Dream – Part 1

Landing in Santa Marta was a bit of a shock, weather-wise. I got off the plane and I was met by a wave of super hot air, at the smallest airport I’ve ever seen. I catch a taxi and head to my hostel, Drop Bear. As soon as I arrive I finally remember why I booked this specific hostel: it was an ex cartel house! The hostel is quite quiet and I find myself in a dorm by myself, with the biggest bathroom I’ve ever seen in my life.

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Drop Bear Hostel

Being the nosy woman I am, I started exploring the hostel and looking for any ex-cartel clues with my new friends (it literally takes me five minutes at the bar and I end up chatting to everyone, walls included). And I found a tunnel! In my closet! Apparently it leads to a few roads down and allegedly Pablo Escobar escaped through there a few times in the past. Woooooah. There’s also rumours that money has been hidden in the walls and several people died in there (including a small girl whose ghost is now haunting the garage) but haven’t found either. And obviously all these chats kind of precluded me from having a good night sleep (dammit).

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Yep, that’s a tunnel in my cupboard

The next few days at Drop Bear are spent chilling by the pool, drinking (way too much) and partying (too much again). I had my first supermarket experience which was quite eye-opening, and slightly traumatic (meat is chucked in big ‘fridges’ and all piled up and looking quite grim).

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Drop Bear Hostel by day

Hell breaks loose when happy hour starts and we all drink a bit like maniacs, and end up jumping in the pool at midnight with the hostel owner and staff, as well as learning some salsa and merengue.

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Felt more than tipsy

I wake up with a horrible hangover (when will I learn?), a massive bruise on my knee and a familiar sense of shame as I can’t remember a lot from the night before. I have to pack my bag to head to Buritaca, an hour and a half from Santa Marta, to start working with horses. Not the best state to show up but textbook me for sure! The bus journey was so hot, bumpy and painful. And nauseating.

What a change of scenery! Buritaca is a very small Colombian town with just a handful of basic houses and a couple of shops, and that’s it! My accommodation for a month is a very simple apartment above a shop, sharing with other two volunteers, the owner and the cutest and funniest dog ever, Phoenix.

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The view from my house
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Beautiful sunset from Buritaca

I’m shown the work we have to do in the afternoon (just feeding, as riding is done in the morning) and it’s great to be around horses again. The farm where they’re staying is very simple, chaotic and full of other animals (puppies, chicks, cows and the cutest donkey called Chepe).

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Chepe the donkey and I

Needless to say Colombian horses are very, very different from the European or American horses I’ve been used to. They’re quite wild and not very accustomed to human company, and as a matter of fact quite hard to catch for the morning ride. The ride was beautiful, despite sinking in the quicksand with my horse (eeeek!). Galloping on the Caribbean beach is definitely at the top of my experiences so far.

The following day, feeling quite dehydrated (it’s beyond boiling and my body isn’t accustomed to it yet), I decide to chill and relax to give my body a bit of rest. I hear a knock on the door and I see two foreigners at my door. Confused (there’s hardly any ‘gringos’ in Buritaca) I open the door and I find a good friend of mine stood by my door. Completely random! He has no idea I’m in Colombia, and neither do I. Beyond shocked by this, I find out he was looking for a Colombian acquaintance who spends time with us from time to time. Biggest case of small world so far! He’s staying at a great hostel nearby  (El Rio hostel) so we decided to party together that evening.

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Blurry but exciting rendez-vous!

The following days are quite slow and relaxing. Not a lot to do during the day as incredibly hot, apart from swimming in the river nearby which is incredibly refreshing, and trying to learn to ride a motorbike (but failing).

The most eventful day is probably when leading my first tour on horseback, when I have a couple of near death experiences, including sinking in the quicksand again and nearly drowning with my horse Nelly as the tide was so high and we couldn’t head back on our only route, in the sea. I get quite injured (a wave whacked me against a tree and bruised my rib) and slightly scarred, but we make it back alive (and wet!).

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Leading my first tour / pre-near death experience

Needless to say I was very happy to spend the following couple of days chilling at El Rio hostel, reading on hammocks, playing cards with new friends and eating great food. With the risk of sounding very cliche, when living in such basic conditions you truly learn to appreciate the small things in life.

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El Rio Hostel

The other volunteers join me tubing down the river on my days off, which was one of the most fun activities I’ve done so far. We walk for quite a while up by the river to reach a good spot, and then floated downstream on our inflatables whilst sipping on ice cold beers. Bliss! We also jump off big cliffs into the water (first timer here, and I was shaking like a leaf, but totally loved it!).

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Tubing fun times with Lo

We head back to El Rio on the Saturday night for a bit of partying, and we ended up dancing on tables and being general menaces. And yet another hangover!

The following days are spent mainly recovering from the heavy weekend, heading to beautiful Palomino, eating pizza, swimming in pools and the sea.

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Beautiful Palomino

Until I got bloody conjunctivitis! It was SO painful I visited an eye doctor in Santa Marta as I thought it was something more serious. Motto of these past few weeks? Never a dull moment! Had to wait 5 hours for my appointment so I walked around Santa Marta in the sweltering heat. Not the best town to visit to be completely honest. I was completely devastated I couldn’t wear glasses for a week, and had to cancel my stay at a surf camp as a result. Swimming with glasses isn’t a good idea, and I am quite blind I didn’t want to take the risk.

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A spot of sightseeing in Santa Marta

In the following days I’ve started exploring the surrounding areas a bit more with the other volunteers and alone. One of the highlights was the Valencia waterfalls. Stunning view, despite a tough-ish hike in flip flops through jungle, mud and climbing up rocks barefoot and bare handed. Ouch. Still, very much worth it!

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Valencia waterfalls

And then it was World Cup qualifier match! Colombia vs Paraguay. We headed to a beautiful hostel called The Journey Hostel near Tayrona Park to watch it, donning some glitter Colombian flags on our cheeks (and spreading the glitter love!) and matching outfits. Despite the disappointing result (2-1 for Paraguay, both goals scored in the last five minutes), it was great watching the match with some local Colombians eating empanadas, and being taught more salsa and merengue. Which I am loving so much!

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Empanada y cerveza
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Stunning view from The Journey Hostel, looking onto Parque Tayrona
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Carolyn and I, with our glitter flags

Spent a few more days off in Palomino, chilling by the pool, playing beer pong and, obviously, dancing more salsa, now with some people from Cali, the capital of salsa. I think I may have found my new passion….! The night ended by sitting on the beach with new friends. Perfect day!

I also met one of the best people I’ve met on my journey so far, Giulia, and it simply amazes me how quickly you can click with someone from a different country, different age and background. We spent the whole weekend together, exploring the beach and the river, swimming a bit and chilling by the pool.

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Giulia and I in Palomino

On the Saturday we somehow found ourselves at a squat party (only that instead of a dirty dodgy warehouse it was at a villa still in construction). Much rum was consumed, more salsa was danced and I only slept three hours (as I had to feed the horses in the morning), but definitely worth it!

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Sweaty squat party crew

More (mis)adventures coming soon….

MY BOGOTÁ ADVENTURE – PART 2

DAY 4

Despite walking 114 floors up Monserrate on day 3, my legs and back were absolutely fine when I wake up, so I’m up for some more sightseeing and exploring!

I was very kindly hosted by David for a couple of days, who’s a lovely friend of a friend originally from Essex, but who’s been living in Bogotá for eight years. He lives in the North, so to get to the centre for the Graffiti Tour I have booked, I have to catch a bus (or an Uber, but I’m counting my pennies). My very first Colombian bus experience!

Colombians are probably the most helpful people I’ve encountered so far. Always willing to lend a hand, give directions, and generally polite and friendly. The bus journey on the other hand, despite being super straightforward, is the bumpiest ride of my life. Who needs to pay for a rollercoaster when you have Transmillenios eh? Despite this, I genuinely enjoy my ride and  there’s a lot to see as it’s going through a lot of neighbourhoods I wouldn’t otherwise explore. Perhaps stating the very obvious here, but the contrast between the rich and poor is incredibly stark and grim. Something to keep in mind when visiting…

Anyway, I make it into town to start the Graffiti Tour, which is one of the most interesting tours I’ve ever done. So informative and eye-opening, touching on some serious cultural and social issues that the country has been struggling with for years. One of the most poignant writings for me was ‘Mas no es mejor’, which translates into ‘More is not better’, and I couldn’t agree more!

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Beautiful cats!

Once the tour has ended, a bunch of us solo travellers head to a bar for some much-deserved beers. The beauty of travelling solo is that you can pick and choose who you want to spend time with, and I found a good bunch of people to have a few drinks (and even try ‘chicha’, a local fermented corn-based drink which tastes and smells pretty rank. In a metal bar.)

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Chicha!

And this is when I encountered my first case of ‘small world’. I befriended a lovely girl from Birmingham called Emma, who knew about Stoke Newington. And then when she added me on Facebook I realise she’s a friend of a good friend of mine, who lives near me too.  WHATTHEHECK.

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Emma and I

We have the best dinner I had in Bogotá (excellent Mexican food at a place called Dos Gatos y Simone) but then tiredness takes over me and I head home for an early one again.

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Best meal in Bogotá!

DAY 5

As my last day in Bogotá before I head to the Caribbean coast, I decide to head into town again in the morning to do some more sightseeing (Gold Museum!) and meet up with Emma again for lunch.

I said before but I’ll say it again. The kindness and helpfulness of Colombian is incredibly refreshing. They’re so resourceful, warm and artistic, and are now definitely some of my favourite people in the world. If it wasn’t for them I would have found myself in some hard-to-solve situations (transport system and mobile data are a bit of a complicated disaster!). Definitely a great life lesson there (NEEDTOBELESSGRUMPYANDMOREHELPFUL).

The Gold Museum was very interesting and informative, and it was great catching up for the last time with the new friend I made the day before.

Heading to the airport was reasonably stress-free, and the cab journey was made even more pleasant by the Uber driver who spoke excellent French, and we were able to chat throughout the journey. My French is ten times better than my Spanish, so less awkwardness and made-up words for once!

I am definitely going to miss Bogotá, it definitely exceeded my expectations (not a huge fan of cities) and I found it quite fascinating and beautiful in its own way. Hasta luego!

IMG_0705 (1)Santa Marta and the Caribbean Coast, here I come…

 

 

My Bogotá Adventure – Part 1

DAY 1

Off I go!

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Off I go!

Little did I know that this smile would slowly disappear in the next 24 hours (you’ll soon find out why, no spoilers!),  but the excitement, matched with a healthy dose of fear, still hasn’t faded to date. Phew!

The bad news started when, upon check in, the airline staff advised of a two and a half hours delay. I didn’t mind too much, as my connection in Orlando was five hours and I would have rather spent time in Gatwick than Orlando. If you’ve ever flown in or out of the States, you know why! Turns out the delay was closer to four hours, and I only realised I could miss my connection when an air stewardess interrupted my film-watching binge (including me balling my eyes out watching The Notebook) to get my details to see what they could do, should I miss my flight. Yikes!

We landed with less than one hour to spare to connect to our Bogotá flight and the airport crew wouldn’t let us off the plane for nearly half an hour, as immigration was overcrowded. There were no other flights to Colombia that evening, so it looked like I would have had to spend a night in Orlando. I’m not sure why, but it was news that I simply could not accept. I wanted to give it a try and catch that flight, despite staff offering us hotel rooms. Turns out there were three other people in my same position, so we all ganged up and tried our best to get on it. In a lucky twist of events, the flight was more than an hour delayed and after a lot of wandering around sweaty and tired and confused in that very bizarre terminal, we made it onto the flight. What a relief! What a win.

On the other side, when I landed, all I could dream of was a hot shower, a clean change of clothes and a comfortable bed. Ah, how far from reality that turned out to be. After waiting for more than an hour at the luggage carousel (I’ve been travelling more than 24 hours by then and could barely keep my eyes open!), three of us were presented with the awful news. Our bags were nowhere to be found, and were probably still stuck in Orlando.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried. Maybe I was tired, hungry or simply disappointed that this was the start of the trip of a lifetime and it all went so wrong so quickly. So I reluctantly got on a taxi and headed to my hostel, with nothing but my hand luggage which stupidly had two pairs of underwear, socks and a sarong but not much else.

Thankfully the hostel staff (Cranky Croc in Candelaria, highly recommend it!) was beyond helpful. They washed my only set of clothes overnight (had to wear a sarong to bed and in the morning) and a security guard took me to a little shop down the road to buy some toiletries. Faith in humanity restored, for a little while!

DAY 2

After a terrible night sleep (a mix of jet lag, over-tiredness [is that even a word?] and worry about my rucksack which contains all I own on this trip), I drag myself out of bed (in my beautiful sarong) and try to make the most of my day. Managed to find some shampoo and conditioner in the shared bathroom (thank you forgetful stranger, you made my day!) and headed out to Bogotá to try and buy an outfit for the evening (going out with some friends of friends, and definitely can’t wear a sarong! But ask me again in a few weeks…).

First verdict of Bogotá? I. LOVE. IT.

Which is weird, because I’ve never been a huge fan of big cities, but Bogotá has something special that I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s buzzing, it’s busy, it’s loud but it’s lively and positive I am slowly falling in love with it.

The beauty of not having internet working on either of my phones probably makes me appreciate my surroundings even more. And I can dedicate a healthy amount of time doing my favourite activity: people watching!

After finding something half decent to wear for that evening (I’m going to be honest here, not so sure about Colombian fashion…), I start wandering around Candelaria, the neighbourhood I’m staying in.

And oh boy, isn’t it colorful, beautiful and overwhelming! Pictures don’t do it justice, but look at them anyway.

I sit in Plaza de Bolivar for a little while, observing the crowd and somehow noticing I am one of the few Western tourists there. Yes! And also how much Colombians love their snacks. So many vendors, selling food and drinks I am not so sure what they are but will most definitely try at some point.

I quickly head back to the hostel and get ready for the evening. I’ll be meeting a friend of a friend who’s lived in Bogotá for eight years and I look forward to seeing what the nightlife here has to offer.

We start drinking at a ‘tienda’ (like an off-licence but with a few tables and chairs. Genius idea! But it wouldn’t work in the UK ha!). My first drink in Colombia, and boy did it taste good (and was super cheap!).

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First beer of the trip

We then go and meet some other British friend of his, living and working in Bogotá at an Irish pub (yes yes judge away). We are joined by two lovely Colombian girls so I have a chance to practice a bit of Spanish. Which made me realise how much I’m struggling with it. Despite studying it for a year and being Italian, I seem to get stuck when trying to speak, even if I understand the vast majority of what people are saying. Frustrating, but I am confident that in a few weeks I should be OK.

We move onto different bars and clubs, all located in this beautiful neighbourhood called Chapinero, that somehow reminds me a bit of California and with a very distinct Western vibe. Despite having an excellent time meeting new people and trying to dance as well as all the beautiful Colombians there,  I soon have to admit defeat and head home at a ‘reasonable’ hour (3am).

DAY 3

I wake up with a slight headache and still no sign of my beloved rucksack (sigh!) so I head to the communal area of the hostel to have some breakfast. Turns out the chef is too hungover to cook (ha!) so I head out and explore Candelaria a bit more in search of some food. My rucksack suddenly turns up as I was leaving, which puts me right into a great mood. Woohoo!

On a side note, I’ve been very impressed with the vegetarian choices so far. I even found a vegetarian cafe on my first day and every place I stumble upon seem to have a couple of vegan/vegetarian friendly options, which has been incredibly reassuring. But I guess this may change when heading to more remote areas next week…

I’ve tried my first arepa today, a delicious bread made with maize flour and then, whilst looking outside the cafe window onto Monserrate, I decide to venture up there. I vaguely did some research on it, and I know it’s a bit of a walk, but I definitely was caught slightly unprepared.

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Breakfast with my first arepa!

I changed into some more comfortable clothes and my hiking boots and I make my way towards it. Monserrate is a mountain that dominates the south of Bogotá and which has a church called El Señor Caído. I can’t find the entrance of the cable car (didn’t look hard enough clearly) so I follow the crowd and start walking up the mountain.

That was probably the most strenuous and tough hike of my whole life, but I am SO glad I did it and made it to the top, which is 3,200m above the sea level. I nearly gave up a few times across the path as the ascend was so intense and steep, and the air so thin, that it made me incredibly dizzy and lightheaded. But I was determined to reach the top, and with the help of a fruit paleta (ice lolly!) freshly made by the locals, tons of water, and some rest every few minutes (ha!) I finally made it to the summit.

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The view was beyond spectacular and the atmosphere was so buzzing that I nearly shed a happy tear.

I ‘cheated’ and returned by cable car as I was too exhausted to descend the same way, and I was ready to go back and have a much-deserved shower.

I strongly recommend making that trip if in Bogotá by foot and not by cable car, despite it being very tough. With the risk of sounding a mother, wear appropriate shoes and sunscreen. I didn’t, and my face now has a nice shade of lobster. Ha!

More exploring beautiful Bogotá tomorrow, if my legs haven’t given up on me.