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I have some exciting news for you

13 Jul

Following comments and feedback from my readers I have decided to revamp my blog.

I have purchased a new domain name and I am currently in the process of re-designing my web site (with substantial expert technical help!) I hope to have the new site up and running within three weeks, assuming I have access to the internet during this period.

Last week I instigated a little survey via Facebook (my technical skills most certainly did not extend to incorporating it into this blog) and I was delighted with the feedback. It mostly reflected my plans for the new site, and it confirmed that I am hopefully on the right track.

So please bear with me whilst I feverishly bang away at my computer and I create some new material. My blog posts here will have to take a back seat for the very short term, as will my plans to hit the Caribbean beach, but assuming my technical wizard is correct, I should be able to seamlessly switch you all over to the new, all-singing, all-dancing site very shortly.

In the meantime, I hope that you enjoy the following pictures of some of the more exotic birds that I have been lucky enough to see here in Colombia and in Ecuador – and do keep an eye on this space for the re-launch date.

P1030952 P1050787 P1060048 P1030761 P1030925 P1050296 P1030941

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‘I am sad and shocked’

29 Jun

The fantastic cable car system in Medellin

‘I am sad and shocked’.  M put into words what I had been thinking as our tourist bus negotiated its way through the city centre traffic in Medellin.  M only had a few days in Medellin before flying home so we had opted to go on one of those big red tourist buses and get a good overview of the city.  We had seen some beautiful places and parks but we were now driving along underneath the metro line in the Prado barrio.  Our hostel receptionist had marked this on our map with a big red cross for danger and we now knew why.  The long central reservation which was straddled by the brightly painted concrete legs of the overpass that held up the railway lines and which ran alongside our road was not peopled by jugglers, families or fruit sellers like in other places. In the cold light of day, or rather in the midday sunlight and sitting, standing or lying in full view were men and women either taking drugs or lying comatose from the effects of them.

sleeping it off in the park

A young woman who may have been seventeen or twenty seven with dirty blond hair stared at us with blank eyes as she deeply inhaled from a paper bag.  Watching her as she sat alone and cross legged on the paving slabs I could only think with a deep sadness that she was somebody’s daughter or sister or friend.  Just a little bit further along a man was heating up and inhaling something from a tin foil wrap and then we spotted countless other men and women doing the same.

flopped down between benches – nobody else bats an eyelid

It was sad and unsettling and in a country where massive numbers of people are dressed in rags and sleep on pavements or in parks, wash and clean their teeth in fountains and rivers or huddle barefoot under tarpaulins when it rains, it was a reality check.  Colombia is one of the richest countries in South America yet it appears to have more social problems, crime and danger than many of the poorer ones,  ot at least, the worst of them are on public show.

Our arrival in Medellin a couple of days earlier hadn’t boded too well either.  Despite meeting a lady on the bus who offered to negotiate with a cabbie at the station with us and would ensure that he would get us to our hostel safe, it went a bit wrong.

Drug dealing and drug taking under the bridge

sleeping it off in the midday sun

The gross man who had promised that he knew exactly where we were to go promptly stated that he was lost once we had left the lady behind and he drove round and round, whilst also getting cross with me because I had accidentally slammed the door a bit hard.  He had originally tried to tell us that we should travel with him with our rucksacks in his OPEN boot because they wouldn’t fit (I wish that I had listened to my instincts and not got in the cab) and then he eventually stopped outside what was obviously not our hotel despite having the name and the address on a piece of paper which he kept referring to.  The hotel had the wrong name, was in the wrong street and in totally the wrong area.  By now me and M were both very uneasy and M suggested we get out anyway and regroup from within the hotel as the staff had come out to meet us and take our bags.  The cabbie then tried to double our bill and I saw red!  I stuffed less than we had originally agreed into his hand and told the hotelier that he was a bad man and that we needed to get inside safe!  In Spanish!  So he heard this and lolloped around the cab at me, obviously threatening me.  There was then a little bit of chaos whilst we tried to drag our bags inside and shouted at him and then the staff came to our rescue and locked him out!

Phew!  My heart sank as after Cali I had really hoped that I would like Medellin.

But the staff at the Prince Plaza Hotel were fantastic.  In the first instance they offered us a room and whilst not overly expensive it was a bit out of our budget since we had booked into a dorm in a backpackers hostel.  But the staff were great and didn’t turf us out onto the street.  They continued to help us, offering us coffee and water, checking the directions for the correct hostel on the internet for us and they even phoned them to confirm that we had reservations and then got us a guaranteed safe cab to take us there.  They were so nice and reassuring and I am sorry that we didn’t stay, but what was really incredible was that this was all on Beatriz’s first day working for the hotel.  This all happened a couple of months ago so she may not even remember us that night but I really hope that she is still working at the hotel and that she is enjoying her job.    Customer service in Latin America is rather different to what we accept as the norm in the UK but this lady certainly pulled out all the stops to help.

houses cling on to the mountainside – view from the cable car

So here we were, after a not too auspicious introduction to Medellin, looking with dismay at the sadder side of life.  The previous day we had ridden the cable cars to the enormous park at the top of city and twice we had been turned back from our preferred route by security and warned that we were at risk of kidnap if we continued to hike up there!

As I have already said, M was due to head off to Bogota the following day and fly home and I had arranged to stay and volunteer at a hostel an hour outside the city.  I decided that I would honour that commitment but if the region didn’t grow on me soon I would cut my losses and bid farewell to Colombia and head south for Ecuador.

Sign up to receive future blog entries and discover what happened at the EcoHostel and find out what I got up to in Antioquia and what I thought of Medellin.  (Here’s a hint – later this week I am going to tackle the immigration office and see if I can extend my tourist visa!)

Note:  I have blurred the faces of the people who I have portrayed.  They are all somebody’s daughter or son and I would not want them to be identified

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pollyanna fails to like Cali

24 Jun

I sometimes wonder if I am travelling and viewing the world through rose tinted glasses.  I am constantly amazed by the sights and the people that I meet but I do worry that I am portraying a skewed image for you.  I know that I am a ‘glass-half-full’ sort of a person and I long ago decided that I would live every day looking at things with my holiday goggles on.  By that I mean that I go around with my eyes wide open and REALLY look.  Yes, that might be a dustbin lorry crawling along the road in front of me but check out the ballet of the bin men as they coordinate the rubbish collections with the dumper truck and watch the banter between them as they work.  Check out the fancy tile work on some of the ordinary suburban houses or snoop over a wall and see what funky furniture some people have in their gardens.

who couldn’t fail to be happy looking at this pot

Do you remember the story about Pollyanna?  She was an infuriating little individual who always saw the good in everybody but she was a happy little soul and ultimately she lit up the lives of everybody that she came upon.  I can bitch with the best of them (although lately I don’t do this very much at all), but I am far calmer now than I ever was and quite simply, I am happy to try to find the good in things.  I may be accused of sitting on the fence but there are always two sides to every story and with human nature as it is, there will always be widely differing opinions on everything and everywhere, so who am I to find fault with anything?

So – to Cali.  I really want to say that this city was amazing and beautiful and cultural and friendly but I am struggling.  There were plenty of things to see and I stayed with a great family and I also spent a few days in a fantastic hostel but Cali is not in my top ten of places to visit.  It is however, in the top ten (or seven, or five, depending on which report you read) of the most dangerous cities in the world but I don’t think that that has distorted my opinion either.

suburban living

I initially came into Cali because I had arranged to live with a family and teach/chat in English with Alej the daughter who is at university, but  unfortunately my visit coincided with her important exams so most of the time she had her head in her books.  I spent a lot of time with her mum Alba who was determined to feed me up on traditional Colombian grub and I have to say, was a very good cook.  I had my own room in the modern apartment  which was in a purpose-built block within a secure gated complex in the sprawling suburbs of the massive city.  Cali is huge and hot and swelters in humidity, so much so that some evenings everybody would just take to the streets and sit outside on benches or under trees to get some respite from the heat inside apartments with few air con units.

colour in Cali Zoo

Together me and Alba visited Cali zoo which is actually not too bad at all as far as zoos go.  There they are doing a lot of work to ensure that the enclosures are as animal friendly as possible and steadily upgrading them.  The highlight for me was a white tiger with her three six month old (orange) tiger cubs.  They were so naughty and were causing their mum no end of trouble but my camera battery chose to die just as we found them.  Just like a domestic cat she would occasionally round them up from the field where they were exploring and box their ears or carry them and dump them unceremoniously in a corner, before they would climb over her or romp off again as soon as her attention was fixed on another of her disobedient offspring.

La Ermita

On another day we visited the city centre where we saw the pretty little church of La Ermita and we walked around some of the parks and then went inside the small gold museum.  The collection here was pretty impressive, and like many other museums in South America it was set inside a bank.  I also travelled around on the Mio system – it was similar to the public transport in Lima and Quito but I never quite got to grips with it as the maps never matched up to the route that I took, so maybe this added to my feeling of disquiet.

While in Cali I also spent a few days in a fantastic backpackers hostel where I had a salsa lesson from a professional dancer.  Well, wow!  I learned more in that hour than in nearly a year of trampling around in my class in the UK.  What a difference a strong lead can make!  Although since that lesson I have been out on several occasions and I have found that most latino men can dance and can make me, who has two left feet, look as if I sort of know what I am doing, that lesson was magical and I really DID feel like Baby in Dirty Dancing.

ancient gold pieces

On my first night in Cali at the hostel I went out for some food after dark but I turned back within ten minutes, shocked by the number of homeless people who were sleeping on the street. I was literally stepping over bodies, sleeping, not in doorways but sprawled on the pavements.  Most were snoozing quietly but I didn’t feel safe at all, so grabbed a couple of packets of crisps from a small shop and fled for my hostel.  I met up with M on the Sunday and together we went into the city centre.  It was deserted apart from tramps, beggars and drunks and we very soon made our way back to the safety of my hostel where we could sit and chat in the shade.  I later found out that the city centre is a bit of a no-go area on a Sunday when all the shops are closed and the homeless take it over.

sometimes you need to chill

In the hostel, which had hammocks, a swimming pool and a good bar and was an oasis of calm in a crazy city,  I bumped into a traveller that I had met the previous month in Ecuador.  It always tickles me when I find somebody else that I know – this continent is so huge and whilst there is a recognised ‘back-packer circuit’ many travellers criss-cross and design their own bespoke route, so it is odd to find somebody by accident again.

At my hostel I also met a travel blogger who was in Cali with her Colombian fiance and a friend.  Both ladies have teaching jobs in a school in a nearby town and they were visiting Cali for the weekend.  The Open Minded Traveler was the first real-life travel blogger that I had met and I was really excited to chat to her and to find out about how she was making the nomadic lifestyle work for her.  Check out her blog here and discover how she also turned her back on normality to embrace a life of travel, uncertainty and happiness.  Subsequent to our meeting I have found out that she and her fiance are now expecting a baby so maybe she will not be quite so nomadic as she once was, but she has a real gem of a partner and I know that she will be more than happy to settle down with him in Colombia although I hope that she will continue to write.

The lions seemed content

So how can I sum up Cali?  Well, if you like salsa you should certainly visit but I personally found the city to to be edgy and scary and I am a lot happier going out in the evening in other cities and towns in Colombia.  The zoo is worth a visit and the town centre  and the parks which could be done in a day (but not on a Sunday) – but then personally I would jump on a bus and go south to Popayan or north to Medellin, both of which I loved. I don’t like to admit that I don’t like a place as there are so many facets and my philosophy is to see the best in everything if I can (like Pollyanna).  I liked the hostel and my home and host family in the suburbs and I am so pleased that I met the Open Minded Traveler and her fiance and friend.  Medellin has its share of problems (more of these later) but the homeless, drug addicts and drunks in Cali were so very visible – even bathing and washing their clothes in city centre fountains that I personally found it quite disturbing.

 

As a side note, I have been to India where the poverty is off the scale and whole families live and sleep on the pavements but I never found it as unsettling as in Cali.  Maybe that was because there were whole families on the streets in India with women and children in family groups who were there because of the grinding poverty.  In Cali I suspect that the majority of the bedraggled, unkempt men (there were women on the streets in Cali too but they were more discreet) were there as a result of drink or drug abuse and they seemed to take an unhealthy interest in two women strolling around.

 

Reasons to Travel

11 Jun

early morning mist rises over the mountains

There are many different types of traveller and out here on the backpacker circuit in Latin America I have met a fair selection.  They have various reasons for travelling and they are following different routes and experiencing life in a variety of ways.  Many have taken time out from college, university or work and these people are galloping around as much of the continent as they can, before heading back to where ever they call home before knuckling down to study or work again.

There are the potential ex-pats roaming around and hunting down potential places where they can put down roots.   There are sub-groups within this pack which include those who simply want somewhere cheaper/hotter/cooler to retire to, and those who are beginning to resent the rat race or the economic or political situation in their home countries and want to escape with their money and their sanity. whilst they are still able to.

a wibbly wobbly ancient railway bridge in Colombia

The adventurers are covering the continent on motorbikes, bicycles or hitchhiking and pushing themselves to cover as much ground as they can whilst earning money by busking, working on farms or blowing a lottery win. There is a hard core element here who are bungy-jumping, parascending off the side of volcanoes or mountain biking down Death Road.

I mustn’t forget the people who have come to Latin America to learn, whether it is how to salsa, how to cook or to learn Spanish or Portuguese.  Lessons are far cheaper here than at home and hey, if you want to learn to salsa then where better than somewhere where even the three year old children appear to know the moves

concentrating hard on English lessons

And some of us are actually working whilst moving around.  I have met people of all ages who are working whilst living a semi-nomadic lifestyle.  Some have put down tentative roots whilst they volunteer for an NGO, teach a foreign language or work in hostels.  Others are completing their books or are travel bloggers.  There is a whole realm of work that can be done digitally and supporting websites are popping up all over the place.  Writers, programmers and even virtual admin assistants are out here, pitching for projects and working.  Good old Paypal comes into its own as earnings are paid into bank accounts where it can then be accessed via the ATMs

But what am I doing?

700 plus steps but the view was worth every one

I write a travel blog but it is not all wall-to-wall pleasure and fun.  Well, it is for me but it may not be the sort of pleasure and fun that you might welcome or enjoy.  In exchange for free or discounted accommodation and other benefits I write reports or include links on my blog.  I take these seriously and they can be very time consuming, so rather than doing touristy, interesting things, I can be found chained to a desk or a table somewhere.  Granted, I usually try to find a table with a view or preferably a hammock, but I still need to knuckle down and produce some quality (I hope) articles.

I am also doing various kinds of volunteering work which tie me into a place and, shock horror, a timetable.  To date, I have volunteered and worked for three months at SKIP where I was mostly teaching English.  I have worked in a hostel on the beach in Ecuador, I have lived with a family in Cali where we are all learned about our different cultures and I hope that I went some way to helping the daughter of the family who is at university to improve her English and  I have spent five weeks working on a perma-culture farm and teaching English to children in the local school in the countryside close to Medellin

…and this was the view!

I am supplementing my feeble attempts at learning Spanish with formal lessons when I can find them cheaply enough and I have also done some salsa and yoga lessons, but apart from one dance lesson from an amazing professional dancer in Cali, these have all been free – via friends or in hostels.

I have finally got my act together and I have enrolled on some of the virtual workers websites and I am confident that I will find some writing projects sooner rather than later.  Along with the book that I am writing these will find me tied to a desk or a hammock again.  And nice though it sounds, I can’t work on my little netbook in the sun because I can’t see the screen so I have to stay in the shade.

And then I have to factor in the travelling.  Getting around in Latin America is relatively easy with its amazing network of buses, BUT for me, at any rate, who is not fluent in the language, travel can be most traumatic.  First you have to find the Terminal Terrestere.  Then you have to winkle out the correct and best bus from a swarm of touts who yell and push you around, whilst trying not to be parted from your rucsack.  Then get on the bus, wait,  work out where you are supposed to exit the bus and then even more trauma while you run the gauntlet of cabbies – real and rogues all look the same, dodge potential hi-jackers and find a hostel.

So why do I do it?

Even after I have factored in the air fare I can live so much more cheaply out here.  Money goes a long way and although it has been getting progressively more expensive as I travel north, it beats living in the UK.  I still have to do the sums but I reckon I am saving more than half of what I was spending to live day to day in the UK.  Which is just as well as because I wasn’t one of the lottery or inheritance winners.

sunset over the Pacific Ocean

I enjoyed my last job in the UK, but hey, who wouldn’t choose to be their own boss and to work for themselves?  You can decide what projects to apply for and, contracts permitting, when to move on.  If you have a day with no deadlines you can weigh up whether to get a bus up into the mountains, swing around in a hammock and chat to other people or take off to a coffee shop and watch the world go by.

I am seeing sights that I only ever dreamed of like Machu Picchu and sights that I never knew existed such as the Quilotoa crater lake.  I am learning a foreign language, I have done yoga at sunrise, slept in mixed dorms and courtesy of some very kind hoteliers I have stayed in some very nice hotels.

even with a storm looming, the world is a beautiful place

The distance between here and my home country is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand I miss my friends and family with a vengeance but on the other, the distance makes my loss slightly less painful.  I am NOT here in Latin America because I don’t care about those that are left behind, but sometimes when you have nowhere else to go you have to move forwards.  Every so often I have a major melt down when I think about my children and I would love to share my life and experiences with them.  The sheer scale of the continent and the totally different way of life, language and cultures, not to mention landscapes that I have never dreamed could be so jaw-droppingly beautiful, enclose me in a bubble that suspends reality and cocoons me, nurturing me and giving me strength and a determination to find peace.

Santa Semana and Popayán

31 May

We arrived in Popayán at eight in the evening but our cab driver was unable to get us close to our hostel due to road closures. Assuming this would be because of roadworks we were amazed to discover that the entire town centre was closed off and the streets were packed with spectators who were waiting for a procession.
Me and M and now our new friend Pablo tried making our way through the crowds with me bashing small children on my head with my rucksac and M taking out toes and ankles with her humungous wheely case.
The roads were lines with police and soldiers but one eventually took pity on us and hoisting M’s case onto his shoulder opened the barricades and hustled us down the centre of the road.

Popayan at night

Feeling like penguins in a zoo as EVERYBODY watched us and still puzzled, we walked down through the middle of the roads which were edged with silent crowds four deep until our policeman eventually got us to our hostel which was just a quadra from the main plaza and on the procession route. After checking in, we were thrilled to discover that our dorm had a balcony overlooking the street, so we went out and stood there and we waited to see what on earth was going to happen.

These things are VERY heavy

Out of the dark (by now it was nine thirty pm) a drove of drummers appeared and with enough noise to raise the dead they thudded and hammered their way very slowly past us. They were followed by a brass band and squadrons of soldiers, police, and then little groups from each of the major churches in the area who were all carrying massive religious icons which had been decorated with flowers and gigantic candles. They would walk a few steps and then pause to allow the bearers to rest on long wooden poles balancing the whole thing in a very wobbly way on the ground – these things were massive – and then they would set off again. The crowds by now had lit their candles and were patiently and quietly watching. The whole thing took over two hours to pass us by, but actually it took more like five hours for them to complete the whole route of the town, snaking around and up and down the streets. The following day I saw posters which instructed any observers to observe and participate in total silence in order to preserve the spiritual and religious meaning of the occasion. The silence, apart from the drums or the bands was initially eerie, broken only by the sound of marching footsteps and the occasional organ music (organists were rather bizarrely wheeled along on little carts playing church music to accompany some of the icons).

scouts from Cali on a pilgrimage

When we finally got out exploring the town the next day we were all really pleased to discover that we had rocked up during the Semana Santa celebrations. It turned out that Popayan is renowned throughout Colombia for having the best processions which mark the death of Jesus. Like Bethlehem at his birth, there were few rooms left at the inns and those that were available were overpriced but despite this we ended up opting to stay for three nights.

an impromptu geography lesson

With Pablo we walked down to the old stone bridge and then we climbed high up to the park which overlooked the town. Here I stopped to chat to a group of scouts who were, as always, immaculately turned out in their uniforms, despite having walked over the past week from the city of Cali on a pilgrimage. We all took photos together and then we continued up to the top of the hill where there was a huge statue and lots of people milling around.

icing sugar buildings

On our hike up I had given away a tub of green mangos with salt to a group of three little girls who had been sitting on the grass, and later, whilst we were sitting in the sun and admiring the view, they came over to talk to us. We then spent half an hour chatting to the eight, nine and ten year old and we even had an impromptu geography lesson when Pablo (Picasso) drew a picture of the world and we showed them where we had all come from. Pablo was from Chile, I was from the UK and M from Poland, and whilst the girls knew where Chile was, they didn’t know about the UK or Poland. They were adorable and so interested and interesting, and as usual, it struck me how we expect people to know all about Europe or the United States, when in fact, their more important and relevant world consists of Latin America.

the children’s parade

Semana Santa week marks a major holiday in Popayan with all of the churches stuffed full of cages of icons and hordes of people flowing in and out to view them. Armies of priests were directing proceedings as every day the icons were re-decorated with a new flowery colour theme and all of the public buildings and university buildings were open with free exhibits and squadrons of volunteers manned doorways and stalls, keen to give tourists guided tours of their respective spaces.

The processions would kick off in the late afternoon with the children who carried tiny versions of the icons and then the grown up versions would begin at about eight-ish every night. People would wait patiently whilst the procession curled its way around the town, often walking alongside with their candles. The children especially must have been exhausted by the end of the week because it seemed that the entire town plus all the tourists stayed up until midnight each night. Music and dancing were supposedly banned during this time but we did find a little salsa club which turned the music up and got swinging once the tail end of the parade had passed its doors.

its tough showing tourists around your university

Popayan is a very pretty town and not the first that I have been to in South America which is called the ‘White City’ but unlike those other towns this one really does deserve that reputation. The buildings are a sparkling white and at night under the floodlights appear to be made of icing sugar. The town reminded me of a film set made for a children’s programme with its cobbled streets, little balconies and ice white churches and at every corner I expected to see some TV presenters dressed up in bright clothes or dancing teddy bears.

We had to change hostels after two nights and find another, and we did end up sharing a room in both places with the most weird American guy that I have met yet, but to give him his due he was out there travelling solo. Dorms can be strange spaces and these had extra beds crammed in to accommodate the hordes, but even so, in my mind, your own bed is sacrosanct and you do not perch on the end of somebody else’s unless invited to do so first.

At the beginning of the week a bomb had exploded by the roadside on the way into Popayan and as many of the government and high ranking officials were attending the celebrations, the place was swarming with heavily armed soldiers and police, toting big automatic machine guns. I am a firm believer that guns should be removed from communities and police forces should not be visibly armed such as in the UK but it is very strange how quickly you get accustomed to seeing so many weapons on the streets. And they are not neatly holstered either but held ready for firing in many instances. And coming from the UK where knives are also not tolerated or allowed it is odd to see so many people walking along swinging machetes – although now that I have been using one on more than one occasion I have to agree that a machete is possibly the best tool ever invented.

In many countries, Semana Santa and Easter is a bigger deal than Christmas and I was very pleased that we spent it in one of the best towns and experienced the atmosphere and saw the processions. After three nights in Popayan we were to continue to head north and to Cali where me and M would go our own ways for a couple of weeks. I had arranged to stay with a family here and M was off to stay with friends of friends.

Casa Quimbaya Outdoors and Massive Trees

26 May
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the veranda at the Casa Quimbaya Outdooors

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the view from the balcony

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you just can’t tell how steep this is

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the glass shower cubicle

colourful balconies

Diana and her partner who run the Casa Quimbaya live outside Armenia on a farm which will soon be available as an alternative hostel to the one in town and they had invited me and M to spend a night there.
The house which will be named Casa Quimbaya Outdoors it is just a twenty minute bus ride south of Armenia on the road to Barcelona.
Another unique hostel, this is the only one where you can stay on a farm outside of the immediate vicinity of Salento which has several farm/hostels.
We left our big rucksacks at the town hostel and hopped on a little local bus towards Barcelona. The bus driver duly dropped us off at a roundabout and we walked for about ten minutes along a small lane to the house at the end of the track.
Only built ten years ago the house appeared older with wooden floors, stairs and a wrap around veranda. There will be several rooms and sleeping combinations available to visitors but the highlights have to be the large living room with comfy cushions and chairs, the veranda, the gardens and the peace and tranquility.
Out here, breakfast is included in the price of accommodation unless you opt to camp in the level camping area in the large garden and there are plans to cater for lunches and dinners too if required, although guests will also be able to use the kitchen. We ordered out that evening from a local restaurant (the Don Alfredo) that delivers for a nominal charge and we enjoyed the typical food of the region sat around chatting.
When we arrived the sun was out and brightly coloured tropical birds darted around the trees and bushes in the garden and you couldn’t hear any traffic noise at all. Me and M were walking around the garden just looking when we came across Jose, the man who lives next door, feeding his goats. Holstering – or should that be sheathing – his machete, he offered to show us around his and Diana’s land. Leading us down the steepest of slopes he proudly showed us his banana plants and avocado trees. Clinging on for grim death so that we didn’t slide down the hillside into the river at the bottom we followed him around, keeping a wary eye out for tarantulas, snakes and tigretos (little tigers – but he may have made that one up to scare M). Like many very steep but cultivated mountainsides in Colombia, the land is not terraced but little pockets of earth are scooped out and the trees grow in these, giving the impression of a hanging garden from a distance as the trees appear to hover on the impossibly sheer slopes.
Whilst I remember, I have to tell you at this point about one ace little feature that the hostel had. There was a massive shower cubicle in the upstairs bathroom with floor to ceiling glass windows. It was like showering out of doors and it felt very liberating and free. I just trusted Diana when she said that nobody would be around and looking up at that window from outside!

you can just see M at the base of the tree

Whilst in the area we took a day trip from Armenia to Salento. This attractive little town is on every backpackers list and for good reason. Set in the coffee region, fincas and ranches are dotted about the hillsides offering accommodation and coffee tours. The town itself has the prettiest, most colourful buildings, with the ones near to the main plaza containing hostels or little artisan shops. Unlike a lot of places on the tourist circuit these shops offer a wide range of good quality and different local products.
Because we only had one day we didn’t linger in the town but as soon as we could, we jumped into the back of a jeep for the ride up to the Valle de Cocora
After arriving at the base of the valley, me and M signed up for a horse trek up into the forest. We plodded along a stony track and through several rivers for an hour and after we had finished we asked our guide if he could take us on foot to the best viewpoint for the valley in the limited time that we had.
There is a four hour trek advertised but we wanted to be back in Armenia that night so we were happy when our guide agreed to take us up through the private farmland to the top of the valley. After a strenuous climb we found ourselves above the magnificent wax palm trees that the valley is famous for. These trees grow up to sixty metres tall and they can live for two hundred years. They grow on these grassy hillsides, randomly spaced apart and I believe that I am correct to say that this valley is the only, or one of the few places in the world that you can find them. We sat on top of the hill in the sun for ten minutes until the mist came down shrouding the valley in its grey droplets and dropped its damp veil over our world.

dancing in the mist

After slipping and sliding back down the hillside we sheltered from the rain on the veranda of a farmhouse where we were offered agua de panela to drink. This hard to describe drink is an infusion made from sugar cane pulp like a sort of tasty tea and is drunk all over Colombia.  We sat on stools made from cut off tree trunks, watching chickens scratching about in the rain and watched by two wide eyed toddlers from the safety of the kitchen doorway.
Back in Salento we tracked down a curry house – my first curry in months and then got the bus and rattled and bounced back to Armenia.

Our room at the Casa Quimbaya Outdoors was set off the rear courtyard and had brightly coloured bed covers and big patio windows out to the garden. In the evening we sat around chatting and reading whilst Diana’s partner, who is a very talented musician gently played his guitar and sang.  If you want a few nights peace and quiet and away from the busier hostels, come and stay at the Casa Quimbaya Outdoors.  By the time that you read this, it will hopefully be up and running and ready for visitors and is not so far off the beaten track that you feel isolated or secluded.

one of the bright rooms at Casa Quimbaya Outdoors

pretty Salento

As I travel around South America I am looking for my most favourite place. I had thought that it was Peru until I moved on. I don’t think that it is going to be possible to name one place or one area or even one country, but I know that Peru, and the north in particular, will remain very special to me.
I have felt the safest travelling in Ecuador but the people in Colombia are the smiliest and they will chat to anybody. Here in Colombia my favourite largish town has been Armenia, the small town has been Amaga and the best city is Medellin (although I will be visiting Cartegena soon), and I do hope to return later this year and check out all the bits that I have missed. I also hope to return and to revisit the coffee farm that I spent a day at (I am currently writing an article for that epic day) and I will return to Ecuador and Peru too.

Armenia and the Casa Quimbaya

15 May

lemon trees

After the intense searing heat of Cali it was lovely to roll into Armenia. There were more mountains but there was a subtle difference. The air smelt like an early summer’s morning in England when the promise of a beautiful day steals in with the dawn. Cut grass, pollen and rich earth smells attacked our sense of smell and although it was still hot the heat was not as spiteful as in Cali. The people, as everywhere in Colombia are just as quick to laugh and to chat and if you ever ask for directions, people always drop what they are doing and actually take you to the correct bus stop or to the supermarket entrance.

We arrived at our hostel, the Casa Quimbaya which is situated in a residential area at the top end of Armenia and then ensued half an hour of crazy Polish babble as M discovered that Cecilia who works on reception was also originally from Poland. As is often the way in Latin America my email requesting a reservation had not reached its intended audience but luckily there were some beds free in a dorm and we checked in.

Cecilia gave us a guided tour and our dorm was situated down some steps behind the kitchen and the laundry.  It resembled a cave with just two sets of bunk beds, a wall of large storage lockers and an en suite bathroom, beings small and narrow, but it was painted a bright white and was very clean.

We threw our bags inside and headed straight for the cafe downstairs and some lunch.  We settled on a sandwich each and a coffee.  My sandwich contained chunks of hot chicken and vegetables which had been stir-fried in a light sauce, stuffed inside a large roll and with oodles of cheese on top and served with banana chips.

the lovely cafe/bar

After lunch at the Casa Quimbaya hostel me and M decided to check out the Museo Del Oro. We even got ourselves an unexpectedly heavily armed escort for part of the way from one of the soldiers who had been standing guard outside the barracks that we passed. He had doubted our ability to find the museum but he actually managed to get us even more lost than we had been before by taking us down the wrong street.

a gold ornament

When we finally got to it, the museum was quite a nice surprise. It was a large brick building surrounded by lush gardens but best of all it was free to enter. We wove our way around the long corridors learning about the history of the region and its indigenous people, and we marvelled at the gold ornaments and jewellery. Luckily for us, the Quimbaya people buried treasure with their deceased which prevented those dastardly Spaniards from getting their greedy little hands on them and melting the necklaces down into gold bars.

We had arranged to go out salsa dancing that evening and we waited for our friends in the coffee shop while we listened to a great duo who played and sang while we drank a glass or two of red wine. The hostel has some really cool live music here four times a week and with candles flickering on the tables and many locals joining guests it is a cool place to hang out. There is great wifi here, a computer for guests to use, stacks of cupboard space in the dorms and spacey lockers for valuables, some of which also contain charging points. There is a large kitchen and laundry area and the reception is manned twenty four hours a day.

live music in the bar

The Casa Quimbaya is currently the only hostel in the true sense of the word in Armenia and it is situated on a corner plot just one street back from the main road. From the front it looks like any other suburban house but if you go around the side you will find the entrance to the open air cafe and coffee shop. This large space is where you can buy breakfast (I recommend the Ranchero eggs), hot sandwiches, snacks, drinks and of course coffee. So many places in Colombia serve disappointing coffee – they export the best beans – but here at the Casa Quimbaya they sell decent stuff and they have daily recommendations written up on the blackboard.

Anyway, I digress. Our friends Mateo and Brian caught up with us and we set off to the local club, Sky Blue where me and M were treated like celebrities by a group of very sweet eighteen year olds who were desperate to practice their English and wanted to show off their salsa, reggaeton, merengue and bachata moves. If you don’t know bachata check it out – it is hard to keep a straight face dancing bachata whilst being grilled about European culture by an eighteen year old. And it was all washed down with a box of aguardiente which we shared.  Aguardiente is an anise flavoured drink derived from sugar cane and on the scale of alcoholic drinks hovers somewhere between tequila and rum but is nowhere near as dangerous as raki (I only need to say ‘wheelchair’ to some people at this point!).  Bizarrely it is sold in boxes like wine which I reckon is so that it doesn’t smash and spill when you fall over.  Thanks to my super talented salsa teacher in Cali I was now capable of holding my own on the dance floor so I didn’t disgrace myself too much despite dancing until three in the morning.

the clever mural on the wall of the cafe

The Casa Quimbaya hostel has staff that really care. One of the owners, Diana has travelled extensively herself and this comes across in the ambiance that she creates. Diana told me that she believes that people have an energy and they leave some of it behind in the spaces that they inhabit. You can’t buy this energy but her hostel and her farm contain plenty of it. Previous travellers have put their stamp on the interior with some cool artwork including a massive mural of two Quimbaya people painted on the back wall of the coffee shop.

Parque de la Vida, Armenia

The following day we joined our friends and Mateo’s mum and went for a long walk around the Parque de la Vida. This huge public park has walkways and a river with terrapins and fish in it, cascadas and flowers, a forest, bird and plants. We wandered around at dusk with what seemed like half the town and half of the world population of mosquitoes.

In my next post I will tell you all about our stay at Diana’s new venture Casa Quimbaya Outdoors, our horse ride and our trek in Salento

cascada in the Parque de la Vida

Note:- Whilst I received complimentary accommodation at the Casa Quimbaya this did not influence my opinion or review in any way.  I have portrayed an honest picture of my stay

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