Constant Summer

Paul & Victoria's Travel Blog

Month: October 2015

Salento, Land of Coffee and Palm Trees

Our trip to Salento took four different buses, a total of 20 hours from start to finish. We left lovely Villa de Leyva around noon and headed out on a collectivo to Tunja. Right when we arrived at the bus station in Tunja we were directed towards a bus to Bogota, and that was just the beginning. Once we got to Bogota we navigated through the bus station, which felt more like an airport, with four terminals and walk ways that were lined with restaurants and shops – the most tempting of which was Dunkin Donuts. Once we finally figured out which terminal to buy our tickets from, we ended up having about a 5 hour stay in Bogota. Since we knew that we would be staying in Bogota for a few days later in the trip, we decided that it would just be easier to spend the time at the terminal. Thankfully, the bus company that we had bought our tickets from had an air-conditioned lounge with computers, comfy chairs, and areas to plug in our phones and tablets. We had to get ready for another over night bus ride that would take us to Armenia and then to Salento.

The Jelly Donut Incident

This left us with time to grab some of those tempting donuts, two jelly-filled, powdered sugar-covered treats. After Paul took a bite of one, he happily handed it to me to share in the tasty donut. Somehow, there was a slip in my grab, and next thing I know, not only my face but my black shirt is covered in white powdered sugar. Even Paul had gotten it all over his tablet and pants. As we looked at each other all we could do was laugh, because it occurred to us that being covered with a fine white powder in a busy bus station in the middle of Colombia might look – ahem – a little suspicious. Especially having just watched the show Narcos on Netflix. Luckily we were able to get cleaned up without attracting the attention of any local law enforcement.

A Long Overnight Bus Ride

At about 11:30, we started to board our bus to Armania. One thing that makes these long bus rides pretty nice is that there is WiFi – not fast WiFi, but good enough to send a quick email, or view some ‘Friends’ on Netflix while leaving the city. And on this bus, there wasn’t anyone sitting directly behind us, since the bus was less than half full, so we were able to fully recline our seats to a comfortable position and relax. But once we were out in the curvy mountain roads, not only did the WiFi become useless, but our bus took an abrupt stop. Next thing you know, there is a load of people from another bus that had broken down, boarding our bus and filling up all the empty seats. So our ride that had started out so promising didn’t quite pan out as we had hoped.

When we arrived in Armania it was just about 7am. We quickly navigated through the small bus station and found ourselves at a sign that read ‘Salento’. Within minutes a collectivo pulled up and we got on for a 30-minute ride to the small town nestled amongst the lush green hills and mountains of the Colombian Coffee Region.

An Unexpected Adventure Starts at Brunch

Since we arrived in town nearly right at 8am and couldn’t check into our hostel room until 2pm, we had some time to kill. We dropped off our bags at the hostel and set out to find a restaurant called Brunch, which was recommended by some travelers we met in Villa de Leyva. We had been told that the food was great – home-cooked, large veggie burritos, great coffee – but most of all we had to try the peanut butter brownie. As we walked into the building, we right away felt at home in the cozy space. The walls were painted white, but covered in every inch by messages from travelers all over the world written in Sharpie. We sat down by the window with a view of the street outside and ordered breakfast. Paul had a tasty freshly made juice and I enjoyed the best cup of coffee I think I have ever had. Our food arrived and as we started to eat we both professed it was one of the best meals we had had since arriving in Colombia. As we were finishing up with our meal, the owner, Jeff came up to us to ask how everything was.

We chatted with Jeff for nearly an hour and knowing that we had much time to kill he gave us a proposition. He gave us a route to follow – a street up a steep hill to the end of town, then a small stone trail – that would eventually lead us to an overlook of the mountains and the Cocora valley. He told us that once we were at the lookout, he had a little something hidden, and if we found it and brought it back to Brunch, we would be given two brownies and would be able to keep the small find. Challenge accepted. We were off for our first little adventure in Salento.

After following the route Jeff described, we finally reached the lookout, a small wooden covered structure. In the rafters, we found a little clay jeep with the Brunch logo on the hood. Jackpot. We made our way back up the hill to another overlook that provided a beautiful view of the small town, then headed back to Brunch to pick up our prize. The peanut butter brownies were even more delicious than either of us could have imagined. Jeff makes and sells homemade peanut butter since it isn’t something produced in Colombia. If you can find it in a store, it’s only imported Jiff brand and very expensive.

Exploring Salento

We were finally able to check into our room and settled into our hostel for a three night stay in Salento. That night, we went out on the town and had some tasty wine at a cool spot where we nibbled on some chorizo and arepas and a small salad. We then made our way to the main square, the center of all the fun, and sat outside the busiest bar on their makeshift deck, had a couple more glasses of wine, and watched all of the Colombians hanging out and enjoying their evening. On our way back to our room, we stopped by a small cart where a woman was whipping up the best street food we have had on our trip: chicken sandwiches with every sauce under the sun, grilled onion and tomato. We nearly went back to get a second, they were so great!

Our second day ended up being a restful one. I had been fighting off a small cold and needed a day to just relax, so we spent the day reading, napping, and watching some Netflix. Paul did make it out for a hike into the mountains to the Coffee region and captured some great pictures of the surrounding area.

The Valle de Cocora

The next day was the main event for our time in Salento, Valle de Cocora. The valley is the home of the tallest palm tree in the world, and the national tree of Colombia, the Wax Palm. In order to get out to the valley, we caught a ride in a Jeep from the town square. Paul road standing on a small platform on the back on our way out there, while I opted for the seat inside, and after about 30 minutes we were dropped off near the trailhead.

From there, we hiked through the valley full of rolling hills covered in farmland, amongst these oddly tall palm trees. Never had I imagined to be in a place where I would see a cow grazing beautiful green fields next to towering palm trees. The trail lead us through the valley and along a river up into the mountains, where the terrain changed to dense cloud forests. At times, the trail felt as though we were walking through a land where Indiana Jones would be treasure hunting. We crossed a river multiple times on rope bridges with wooden planks, which were a bit scary and made for a slow walk over the bridge. We followed steep switchbacks all the way up the side of the mountain to end with a view of an even taller mountain (which I must admit was a rough go for me – there may have been a few tears shed). Sadly it was too foggy to see the valley below, but as we made our way back down the mountain via a winding dirt road, we had a few spots to get beautiful views of where we had started, and were able to stand right inside groves of the towering palm trees. As we neared the end of the loop trail, we were walking through the portion of Valle de Cocora that we had only seen in pictures. In some ways, it looked as though the area was straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. A very magical looking place, to say the least. Paul got some great pictures from this part of the hike, but even those don’t do the place the justice it deserves. We caught a Jeep ride back and this time I rode standing on the back with Paul, which I am very happy to have experienced!

Our time in Salento ended like it had begun. We had our last meal at Brunch, a yummy dinner with another enjoyable chat with Jeff. And we bought a jar of his homemade peanut butter to take with us. We got up early the next morning, and caught a collectivo from the main square to Armenia and made our way to the ‘city of white’, Popayan.

Videos coming soon! Check back…

The Spanish Colonial Paradise of Villa de Leyva

It was  long day to get to Villa de Leyva, to say the least. Our trip began with a bus ride from San Gil to a city named Tunja. The ride only lasted about five hours, yet felt like eight, as we rode through curvy   mountain roads with a bus driver that seemed to accelerate and brake nearly every few seconds. Along with that, the ladies riding in front of us felt it necessary to have their seats reclined as far back as possible during the entire trip, the backs of their heads just inches from our faces. Those few frustrations were matched when the bus driver pulled into the city of Tunja, stopped on the side of a main road in a random place, and literally dropped us off with no explanation of where the bus terminal was to catch our next ride. As we got our bags together and started to put our packs on in pure frustration and a little fright, a taxi pulled up and took us straight to the terminal, where we were able to get on a small colectivo (pretty much a shared taxi van) to take us the rest of the 45 minute ride to Villa de Leyva, which happened to be the last one to catch for the night. As the sun set we curved through the mountain roads while being crammed right in front alongside the driver, which was a small blessing after our ride to Tunja.

As we pulled into the small town of Villa de Leyva and got out at the terminal we realized the town was bustling with people. We had arrived on the Sunday night of their annual Tree Festival. Since we had been unable to book a hostel in advance for our first night there, we wandered through the crowded cobblestone streets to find a hostel or hotel to stay. Since the festival was happening, we found that most hotels were either booked or far out of our price range. After checking with about 5 hotels and 1 hostel we found a small little hotel ran by a sweet little lady which was right around the corner from the main square. After we settled in we set out to find dinner for the night. Since we had such a long day, we treated ourselves to a wonderful Italian dinner of lasagna and a bottle of wine. That dinner brightened our spirits and we began our stay in the lovely and relaxed town of Villa de Leyva.

We woke up and checked out of our hotel room by noon that day and made our way to the hostel, Colombian Highlands. Paul had stayed there during his previous trip to Colombia and remembered it fondly. The hostel is located about a 15-minute walk out of town up a small dirt road. On our walk we had a short but sweet conversation with a boy about the age of 10 who walked alongside us, asking us questions in spanish that we mostly couldn’t understand. After he wished us a good day and disappeared into his house, we passed by a small army camp. As we turned the corner we made our final steps up a hill and into a small paradise. The building was surrounded by trees and a small garden in the center. We had booked a private room with a bathroom, and were expecting to stay in the main building , but our host took us out of the building and we walked a few feet to a private villa which we hadn’t even noticed as we walked up because it was surrounded by trees. Our room not only was very spacious with an attached bathroom, the nicest we had used, but also a small porch with a table and chairs and even a hammock! We felt as though we were kings, and immediately booked the room for a third night.

The next couple days were spent exploring the town and surrounding  areas. We went for a hike out of town to a museum that housed a large dinosaur fossil and many other sea creature fossils. We later found out that at one point the entire desert valley had been completely underwater. As we were quite hungry  once we reached the museum we decided to grab a small lunch. Like many other times along this trip our order somehow got lost in translation. Paul had ordered a couple arepas (flat cornmeal biscuits usually stuffed with meat , cheese or veggies)  but what we got was a small basket, yes basket, filled with small baked potatoes rubbed with salt and cut up chorizo. We were a bit confused but the little snack ended up being very tasty and very filling.

After we got back into town and were heading back up the road to our hostel, we met another traveler named Amanda, from Nova Scotia, Canada. We had a nice conversation with her and since she was traveling the area alone we planned to meet at the main square in the morning to do a couple different hikes the next day.

We had a really great day with our new friend, exploring a beautiful waterfall park, and getting a little lost on some country dirt roads before finding the archaeological site, El Infiernito, described as “the Stonehenge of Colombia”. The site was built as a center for astronomical observation and religious ceremonies. With huge upright-standing stones randomly emerging from the ground and an area with two lines of stones aligned east and west, we noticed that the standing stones appeared to have a phallic look to them. As we tried to translate the explanations of the structures we came to understand that they were in fact meant to look like the male phallus. We learned that not only was the site a place for observation of the sun and religious ceremonies but that it also was used for fertility rituals.
Villa de Leyva was one of our favorite stops along the trip so far. We greatly enjoyed the quaintness of the small town. The cobblestone streets among the white washed buildings with large wooden doors and balconies on nearly every structure looked as though we were in a movie set. We loved our accommodations and the relaxed energy we felt the entire stay, but after a few days, excitedly moved along to our next stop, Salento, in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region.

Into the Colombian Mountain Towns of San Gil, Barichara, and Guane

Our escape from the oppressive heat of the Caribbean coast began with our first bus ride in South America, a 13-hour overnight trip. It started at the Santa Marta bus station, which was surprisingly nice, big, and had a lot of really good empanada stands. We had a couple hours to wait, and our bus company provided an air-conditioned waiting room with a TV showing The Voice (latin american kids edition), which was a great place to pass the time and eat a lot of empanadas.

Our bus ride was very comfortable, and to our disbelief, even had on-board, albeit slow and spotty, wifi. The first several hours took us through dimly lit towns and countryside in a large banana farming region, and then into winding mountain roads with lightning storms and periodic rain. We slept for a few hours in our reclining seats, then looked out the window for most of the early morning as we rode through impressive canyons deeper into the mountains before reaching San Gil around noon.

San Gil is a small city that sits in a canyon along a twisty river. It is famous for outdoor adventure activities like rafting, mountain biking, rappelling, etc, of which we did approximately none. We did, however, spend some time walking around the town, which isn’t too fancy but has a really nice central plaza, a couple of beautiful churches, and a lot of hostels and restaurants to cater to the large amount of tourists who are more adventurous than us. But our reason for staying in San Gil was its proximity to the perfectly preserved colonial town of Barichara, and its little sister, the nearby village of Guane.

We woke up early the day after arriving in San Gil and took a small bus about 30 minutes into the countryside to visit Barichara and hike from there to Guane.

Barichara sits on the rim of a wide, steep-walled valley. Apparently, it’s a popular film and tv location, thanks to the whitewashed buildings with red roofs, flat stone streets, 500 year-old churches, and a tree-filled plaza. It’s a town that is easy to get lost in, in a good way. All of the buildings and streets look very similar, but luckily we could spot the top of the enormous main church from pretty much everywhere we walked, guiding us back to the center of town.

The church towers over the plaza, with red-hued stone walls and a big bell tower. The inside was cavernous and decorated with statues and paintings on every wall. Only a few blocks away, we visited the first church built in Barichara, considerably smaller, with stone walls, a rudimentary wooden roof, and a fantastically intricate wooden reredos (which we recently learned is the name for the decorative artwork and walls behind a church altar – thanks wikipedia!). Next door is a cemetery with a wide variety of interesting gravestones. Ranging from very old and fairly new, some were carved with religious symbols, while others had more personal ties. One grave we saw was in the shape of a tree with a cowboy hat hanging from one of the branches. Another was in the shape of a soccer ball. The graves were very close together, making it hard to find an appropriate path to walk through. Outside the cemetery walls, a couple horses were tied to a tree, waiting for their owners. It couldn’t have been more charming.

Eventually, we found our way to a small restaurant where we had some delicious veggie burgers on fresh baked buns, alongside potato chips, some tiny carrot and celery sticks with mango sauce, and freshly-made blackberry and strawberry juice. The entire meal was just a few dollars each.

After lunch, we started our hike to Guane, the small village a few miles down in the valley below Barichara. The towns are connected by a stone “road” called the Camino Real. It was built in the 1700s to facilitate travel on foot and move livestock from the small farms down in the valley up to Barichara. It begins as a narrow, rocky trail descending down the steep valley walls below Barichara before leveling and widening out, with piled stone walls on either side. The scenery along the trail was breathtaking, with views across the entire valley, passing small farms with cows, goats, and chickens wandering all over. The entire hike, we didn’t run into any other people – the Camino Real was all ours, for a little while anyway.

A couple hours later, we arrived in Guane, a tiny village of only a few streets, a very old church and plaza, and buildings similar to the architecture in Barichara. Oddly, the town was packed, and it quickly became obvious that we had arrived in the middle of a political rally. We had been noticing billboards and posters throughout Colombia for candidates, but didn’t expect to get such an up-close look at one. With the tiny streets crowded by enthusiastic supporters waving flags and wearing campaign tee-shirts, a big motorcade suddenly rolled into town. It began with flatbed trucks carrying as many people as could fit on the back, blasting music and honking horns. Then, a fleet of supporters on motorcycles. Last, a police escort rolled into the plaza, surrounding a silver SUV. People ran alongside it, waving and tapping on the pitch-black tinted windows. It stopped at a corner where we lost sight of it, but everyone went into a large building so we assume the candidate got out there to deliver a speech.

With the commotion over, we figured it was a good time to head home. Just as we were trying to figure out how to go about that, a small bus pulled up. We jumped on, paid about a dollar each, and rode out of the valley, making a quick stop in Barichara to pick up more passengers, and then back to San Gil. We got a pizza that night and headed out the next morning for Villa de Leyva, another colonial mountain town about 5 hours south.

The Jungle Beach of Parque Tayrona

Our shuttle took us four hours northwest, up the Carribean Coast to the fast-paced city of Santa Marta. While there isn’t much to see in the city, it served as our launching point for a trip to the most popular national park in Colombia, the jungle beaches of Parque Tayrona.

Getting to the beach in the park wasn’t easy. Our day started with a 45-minute shuttle to the park entrance. After watching a required orientation video (in spanish), followed by an informational lecture by a park guide (in spanish), we were finally able to buy our tickets into the park. Another quick shuttle ride took us to the end of the road in the park, where we began our two hour hike to the beach. We brought a minimum amount of clothes and camping supplies for two nights, just one big backpack plus two small daypacks. Nonetheless, it was a gruelling hike due to the extreme heat and jungle humidity.

The trail traversed giant boulders, with vines hanging from trees like a Tarzan movie, and eventually opened up to views of isolated, sandy beaches without a single person in sight. We took periodic, somewhat involuntary breaks to take off our backpacks, drink water, and try to cool down in shady spots. As luck would have it, we came to a clearing in the jungle where a random colombian guy (amazingly dressed in slacks and a polo shirt) was selling ice cream bars from a cooler filled with dry ice.

Just before reaching our destination beach, Cabo, a group of tiny monkeys jumped through the trees over the trail right above our heads.

When we reached Cabo, we payed for a camping spot and set up our tent in a grassy area under the shade of a palm tree. Then, we headed straight for the water. The Cabo beach is a small encampment of long, thatched-roofed covered areas, flanking a horseshoe-shaped beach with blue-green water and soft tan sand. The water was cool and felt spectacular after our sweaty hike through the jungle. We played in the waves for a couple hours, then grabbed lunch from a rudimentary restaurant only steps from the water. Given the isolated environment, the food was surprisingly good: sort of a rice vegetable casserole with a side of fries.

We got back in the water and stayed in until nightfall, just after 6pm.

Sleeping in our tent that night was far from ideal. The heat and humidity was suppressing. By 7am the next day, our tent had heated up to the point where we had to escape back to the water. After an hour or so, we got out and hiked back along a short trail to visit a nearby beach that was completely empty. There, we had some apples and breakfast bars and spent some time watching crabs ducking into their holes near where the jungle met the sand. Eventually, a few other people showed up and we decided to head back to the beach near our campground.

Our plan had been to spend one more night in Cabo and then retrace our hike back to the entrance of the park, but the prospect of another hot night in the tent followed by the extruciating hike through the jungle made us reconsider. Luckily, we were able to book a ride on a small boat at 4:30pm back to the fishing village of Taganga, where we could taxi back to our hostel in Santa Marta.

The boat ride was an adventure in itself (see video below). They crammed about 30 people onto benches flanking the sides of the open-air, janky boat, and loaded everyone’s bags into a small compartment in the front. My seat had the unfortunate “extra” of five large plastic gas cans stored at my feet, their caps sealed with produce bags from a grocery store.

The boat was very fast, but the ocean swells were sizeable, and the boat slammed up and down as we made our way along the rocky coastline. After a couple stops at small beach villages, where they amazingly fit several additional passengers on board, we finally arrived at Taganga. A short taxi ride later, we were back in our air-conditioned room in Santa Marta.

We grabbed some food, did some laundry in our sink and hung it in our room to dry, and hit the hay. The next day we stayed in our room until it was time to head to the terminal for an overnight bus south into the Andes, to the small city of San Gil.

Bienvenidos a South America, and our first stop, Cartagena, Colombia

Our long trip through South America started with an overnight flight to Cartagena via NYC, arriving around 1pm local time. Walking off the plane felt like going into a sauna, with the temperature around 92 and 85% humidity. We went through customs, got our bags, and took a taxi to our first hostel, Hostel Mamallena, situated in the historic district just outside the walled portion of the old city.

The streets of Cartagena are buzzing with everyday people, traffic, vendors, horses, and tourists. Everywhere you go, you can hear music, though it’s not always obvious where it is coming from. Things are particularly chaotic along La Media Luna, a street mostly made up of small shops, restaurants, and hostels, including ours.

Inside the walled city, the streets calm down a bit, due to less traffic, but you never get away from the massive amount of people walking every which way. We constantly wondered, where are all these people going all the time? And what are they up to?

And all the while, it’s an inescapable oven.

All of this, however, is justified by the rich history and beauty of the old walled city. It was built by the Spanish beginning in the 1500s, with huge, cannon-bearing walls surrounding picturesque buildings. The city was the biggest port in the Carribean, shipping a majority of the gold that the Spanish were collecting from the native people across the continent. It was often attacked by pirates, hence the giant walls. All of this has been impeccably preserved, and walking around within this part of the city feels like going back in time.

While in Cartegena, we visited a history museum displaying a wide variety of artifacts from The Inquisition, including some torture devices that were used to punish anyone that didn’t follow the strict religious rules imposed by the Spanish. We also went through a gold museum containing a wide variety of pure gold jewelry and trinkets, as well as some urns and other ancient artifacts from the indians that lived in the area before the Spanish arrived. As magnificent as the city is, the dark history of violence here definitely stands out.

Our favorite time in Cartagena was walking around at night in the walled city. It’s like the whole place is having a party. Music everywhere, guys selling beer and street food on every corner, including on top of the giant walls, horse-drawn carriages clopping through the narrow cobblestone streets, flower-covered balconies, buildings in every color, groups of young people in elaborate traditional costumes playing music and dancing in tree-filled plazas – it all feels like something Disney would try to recreate.

The only land entrance to the city was defended by San Felipe Castle, which is basically a huge mound of brick and cement, covered with cannons, overlooking the city. Dark, low clearance tunnels run randomly through it, which were fun and a bit creepy to explore.

One day, we took a shuttle from our hostel to the nearby Playa Blanca, the nicest beach in the area. The water was perfect, very blue, and was so nice to get a break from the otherwise constant heat. The only downside was a small army of vendors walking along the beach selling everything from trinkets to raw oysters to massages, none of which we wanted. Sitting on the beach was an exercise in saying “No, gracias” constantly. So we stayed in the water as much as possible.

Our first food experiences in South America were great. It’s so cheap, and the quality of the food we were getting was impressive. Our meals cost only a couple dollars each. We had some plate lunches, street food (empanadas, meat skewers, corn on the cob), wraps, and even found a vegetarian restaurant serving a big lunch with soup, salad, rice, beans, and fried dough balls similar to a falafel. We also hit the grocery store a lot, which was pretty cheap and fun to browse around in.

After several days, we were ready to move on up the coast to Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona, a jungle beach paradise.

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