Colombia...topping the charts of South America!
The journey after Machu Picchu, from Cusco to Lima, was long and chilly. Why on earth South American coach operators feel the need to freeze the passengers onboard to a state of benumbed rigidity is and always will be beyond me. Lima was unimpressive and served simply as a transit stop for Steph, Nat and I before we journeyed off in our respective directions. I left the girlies to bus up to Ecuador, a lengthy trip that I would be doing on my lonesome, whilst they took a shorter option to the coast of Peru and the hot spot of Mancora. All was going swimmingly for me until I reached the Peru-Ecuador border, and then, disaster struck. My passport was stolen. I'm not sure when the deed took place exactly but I know that when I entered Ecuador, I was sans passport. As a result, Ecuador did not hold many joys for me...I spent my time in Quito, the capital city, taxi-ing from police stations to embassies to immigration offices, ending up £300 poorer and with increasing levels of stress wrapping around my heavy shoulders. Alas, I succeeded in obtaining an emergency passport, but the cherished one containing all my stamps, memories and sentimental value was no more. Although it was a nightmarish time and one that I had to experience on my own, after it was all done and dusted I felt stronger and more independent as a traveller than I had ever felt previously. Having to cope, alone, in the face of diversity, in an unfamiliar country where you do not speak the native tongue, is certainly an empowering exercise for the mind and soul (saying that, I would give my right leg not to have to go through it again!).
I took a flight from Ecuador to Cartegena in Colombia and spent a night in the city of romance, greedily soaking up the new-found heat of the Nothern Colombian climate and absorbing all I could sponge from the delicious and sumptuous exoticism. I could tell I was going to like Colombia. The time had now arrived for Bristol love and affection, familiar faces, and some good old fashioned party time. I trundled excitedly off to Medellín to reunite with some very special friends of mine, Sohail and Dom. I was ready for the love!
Medellín is Colombias second largest city, with a population of 3 million, and was once known as the most violent city in the world (don't panic Mum). This unenviable title was the result of an urban war set off by the drug cartels at the end of the 1980s. As the home of the Medellín Cartel, headed by Pablo Escobar, the city was victim of the terror caused by the war between this organization and its enemies. However, after the death of Escobar, the crime rates in the city began to decrease. The city still has its' problems with crime and corruption but the will to change and regenerate is palpable, and the improvements that have been invested in are a point of pride for Medellínians city-wide. An impressive and vast urban transport service, Metro de Medellín, became the pride of the city when it was constructed in the early 1980s, conjoining the whole city, from poor to rich districts. Sohail and I took the Metro up the hill towards a park that lay past the plateau and the sights were incredible. The city spanned out in a burgeoning metropolis for as far as the eye could see and as we glided up and up we soared over myriad slums and houses that teetered down the steep hill, reminiscent of Rio but with its' very own flare and vibrancy. And with these homes you could peer into their windows almost - Big Brother goes Metro! On that Metro ride up into the heavens, a teenage girl chatted busily in Spanish to So and I, us not really understanding what she was saying for much of the time, but the smiles on our faces telling all, and further compounding my perception of Colombians to be some of the friendliest in the world. The warmth and graciousness that exudes from the people in this city is a privilege to behold. And another little fact that is interesting to know: Medellin is a leader in plastic surgery and boasts a veritable carnival of protruding body parts. You can't go one block with seeing a pair of bulbous boobs or enhanced buttocks strutting down the street! Some say all the fake breasts, bums and facial features are a lingering reminder of the profound influence drug lords long exerted on Medellín's culture and aesthetic. It certainly was a bizarre sight to see...but one that kept all the boys gawping for hours on end!
Seeing Dom and Sohail for the first time in 8 months was a true treat for the eyes. We reunited with hugs all round in a hostel called Casa Kiwi, situated in the wealthy and bustling area of Zona Rosa. In true Bristol style we spent our first day together drinking rum in the parks around the Zona Rosa. It would be rude not to! Casa Kiwi was a really great place to stay, confirming the realisation for me that the majority of travellers in Colombia are slightly older and more mature than in the other countries I have visited in South America. Less gap year students, more late 20's career breaker types. I imagine this is probably thanks to the negative reputation that the country has been labelled with due to drugs, crime and corruption, a reputation that Colombia as a homogenous entity are attempting to banish and revive both for the people inside and the outside world. This underdog status, the rawness and the undiscovered element of the country made me love it even more. You don't get the established gringo traps as in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil...instead it has a sense of the uncontaminated and unique, something I tend to crave when I travel.
The best part about Casa Kiwi was undoubtedly the numerous, swinging, all-encompassing hammocks that hung from the walls in a sheltered area outside. I use the adjective "all-encompassing" because you could literally get four people in those things - a trick we practised a fair few times, along with our very own theme tune! The group that we had accumulated spent the bulk of our time "swinging in the hammocks..." Obviously we managed to squeeze in a few nights out on the world-renowned tiles of Medellin. With the 15-strong group of travelling folk that we had mustered up, we had fun times galore under the big city lights.
Sohail, Dom and I headed to Manizales after Medellin with our new-found friends, Harry, Laura, Monica and Corey. Unfortunately, due to excessive rain fall and post-party time head, Manizales didn't really ring my bells. Manizales is built within the Andean mountain region on a number of ridgelines and steep slopes and so the chance of dodgy weather is as high as the altitude. On a clear day you can see snow-capped peaks in the distance (apparently) but we were not afforded such sights. We did however get to some delightful thermal springs and there was a hot tub in the hostel (!!!) and as I'm sure you'll agree, sitting in the rain, in lovely warm water, makes precipitation seem slightly more bearable! The excess of water and lack of sun did start to mess with my mind after a few days (I was after all, in my last precious weeks of travelling and needed to think about the tan factor with increased urgency), Sohail had left for Bogota ways and I was well and truly done with Manizales. Next stop: Salento and a cow finca!
Salento was like a healthy helping of sumptuous heaven pie, served with freshly made cream from the cows milked in the finca that we stayed on! Salento itself is a sleepy little colonial town full of "real men" in cowboy hats that lead their livestock around on ropes, there is a quaint little plaza in the center boasting an idyllic church, and brightly painted buildings line the narrow streets. The place was truly brought to life by the sunshine that graced us on a few of the days we stayed in Salento, the beams of light flickering and bouncing from pink and green paints and from the smiling faces of shop owners and passersby. Our little family of six stayed on a cow finca (Spanish for farm) - cum - hostel that had only been a few weeks in business. It truly was the most amazing hostel I'd ever stayed in, feeling far more like a luxury ranch than your run-of-the-mill travellers rest. The grounds of the finca were enormous and we were surrounded by rolling hills and valleys that hid behind clouds and then reappeared mysteriously. The landscape was ever-changing but yet always remained the same, reinforcing the comfort in the security of nature and its' beautiful, reliable continuation. There were even some snow-capped mountains that, if you were perseverant and stubborn enough, you could see clearly in the light of the early morning. A rustic atmosphere was present in all corners of the large farm house that we stayed in, from the wine bottles hanging from the roof to the antiquated typewriters and sewing machines scattered around the place. Our group milked the cows one morning, cooked impressive meals together, had bbq's in the sunshine, chilled on the homely sofas and watched endless films in cosy bedrooms. Relaxation station!
The most amount of activity we achieved in those tranquil days in Salento was a group walk to Valle de Cocora, a national park famous for the wax palms that reach up to the sky on delicately thin trunks, splaying out to the sky in its' lofty palm glory. The weather that day started off cloudy but bearable, we could certainly see enough to appreciate the stunning valley and its' army of wax palms. However, after a wrong turn and a resulting trek up a massive mountain, we became well and truly enveloped in a world of precipitation, soaking us all through our sweat. Harry, one of the group of eight, had for some reason decided to not wear any rainproof gear whatsoever and somehow ended up in what can only be described as "beach wear"...but we weren't on the beach...we were up what soon became a freezing cold mountain, in the rain! The stress of losing our way and being really quite chilly were eased fully by the sight of little Harry, prancing around in the hazy mist in his bright orange swimming shorts, a waist cape that had his soaking wet jeans attached, and his flip flops. Harry - I salute you!
Although I was with the most amount of people I had ever travelled with over these weeks in Colombia, I found that I could easily achieve space when I needed it and when I desired company I had a smorgasbord of beautiful characters to chose from. Dom, Harry, Laura, Monica and Corey will have a special place in my memories and heart from those amazing times in Salento. Salento certainly afforded me with the time to reflect, to write, to think, to read...being around and inside nature opened and relaxed my mind and allowed me to think freely about what I had achieved in the almost nine months that I had been away. I will always be extremely thankful for that precious time.
Next stop, last stop, the big city of Bogota and reuniting with the wonder that is Sohail Rostam-Shirazi. Almost the end now readers...hold back those tears if you can!
Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Reuniting with So and Dom. Bristol lovings!
- Being in Salento and being with the amazing people that I was lucky enough to share that special time with.
- Harry, up a freezing cold mountain, looking like he was accidentally inserted into the wrong environment. Should of been a beach...not a mountain!