Colombia is not one of those places I ever really wanted to go and check out but since I was there I figured that I may as well tag along with Georgia, Rachel and Kathryn Preston an see a little bit of the real Colombia away from the insulation of the World Games.
It was really hot in Cali when we wandered out of the Hotel and headed down the road on foot to the public bus station. Colombia like NZ has some rail but its pretty much disestablished so buses are the way to get around. In the bus station it seemed like complete chaos, very intimidating with people everywhere, drivers trying to get you to buy a ticket on their bus and generally not what I was used to after the last week.
Once on the bus it was a long journey to Salento, one of the recommended tourist spots about 4 hours north of Cali. Just like the World Games there was police everywhere and also something that we hadn’t experienced, police checkpoints. We were only stopped at one as we were making our way into the mountains but I did kind of think twice about how smart it was to have the clear resealable bag of washing power I was carrying in my pack…
Eventually we reached Salento in a tired and hungry state. After a bit of wandering around we managed to find a pretty nice looking little place on the main street. This was definitely a tourist town with a street lined with tourist shops and plenty of places to eat. We were a little bit higher than Cali here at around 1720m above sea level and trout was the specialty of the town, so trout it was for dinner. After a long day of travel we headed back to our hotel to discover that the main street was pretty lively and with little insulation and just shutters for windows it was really quite loud.
Freshly made pineapple juice was the highlight of our breakfast of traditional scrambled eggs, then it was off to find a jeep to take us up the valley at the edge of the National park nearby. We wandered up the valley to the rest house in a managed nature reserve with in the National park. At the rest house which was set up especially for tourists with Humming bird feeding stations. It was pretty cool to see some actual humming birds in the wild, they were quite amazing little birds. Georgia, Kathryn and I head up the valley to another house a bit higher up, in fact the highest I have ever been and we didn’t even get above the bush line at 3200m. We came back via the wax palm forest which gave us a chance to sit down and enjoy the view in the relative calmness compared to all the chaos of the cities and towns. The ride back on the jeep was fairly packed so I ended up standing up on the back holding onto the roof rack for a bit of extra excitement.
On the way to dinner that evening we passed two soldier patrolling the street with assault rifles which I was sure was to make the tourists feel safe but it had me a bit frightened to be honest. The next day was a busy one and we wandered down the road to take a tour of a coffee plantation which is what the area is famous for apart from trout. It was quite an interesting process to see even for me the non coffee drinker tag along. On the way back we saw a few more army guys patrolling, all geared up some with machine guns, a radio man and the rest just assault rifles. As we got closer into town there was Colombian flags everywhere and the main street was especially busy with people. It wasn’t until after lunch we worked out that it was a public holiday to commemorate a famous victory over the Spanish. The afternoons plan was to hire bikes and ride 15 or so km’s to Filandia, a less tourist friendly place with an interesting tree house like structure that looked out over the plains. Once we got to the centre of town we realised that Filanda was the place for the locals today. Up at the tree house there was a huge military display going on, and just upon our arrival a recreation of the battle of Boyuca commenced along with explosives monitored and set off by the military. Quite a random celebration for us to come across completely randomly. I huge rain storm looked like it was building and we didn’t stick around long to wait for it. The ride back up the hill was tough and then add in the altitude and it just felt like the legs had no power left in them at all.
By the next day we felt we had done Salento, so with two days left Georgia, Rachel and I caught the early bus to Popayan, while Kathryn caught a later one as she was heading home. There was an increased police presence on the road it seemed like, and I along with all the other men in the bus was subjected to a bag search at one checkpoint. Once past Cali our crazy bus driver wasn’t stopping for much. This road was apparently notorious for robberies in the past and sentry guards standing alongside the bunkers gave the impression that it wasn’t safe to stop either! Popayan is know as the white city and it certainly was white. It didn’t feel like Colombia at all, it was very European in appearance. Our budget hostel certainly was budget and the review that indicated there was security cameras everywhere was far wrong at all! It was an interesting city with some pre-Spanish history complete with a huge man made pyramid. Georgia and I went out for a run in the evening which once again satisfied our running needs in Colombia. I was fairly scared given my previous experience with Chris and I was just glad to be back in the Hostel.
The following day it was time to leave Colombia and it decided to put on a show with a massive thunderstorm causing what we would call flooding in NZ but I’m sure it was fairly normal for Colombia! But just before it was time to get on the bus to the airport the police singled me out and checked my passport one last time. It was an enjoyable trip to see the real Colombia, I’m glad I went and saw it but I was also glad to be on that bus heading back to a place that at least feels a little bit safer even if its not all that much different!