Notes from a traveller: part seven (continued)

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Kaye’s itchy feet have taken her to Colombia. Read the latest instalment of her ‘Notes from a traveller series’, only on Just About Travel

Continued from yesterday

From Bogota, I boarded a bus to Salento – a laid back colonial mountain hideaway in the heart of the Zone Cafeteria – Colombia’s major coffee growing area. (Colombia mighty be more readily associated with cocaine, but the country is actually the world’s third biggest exporter of coffee).

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Coffee country

As a self confessed caffeine addict I was, ahem, full of beans about the prospect of visiting central Colombia’s coffee plantations – and even opted to stay on one. Take a bow Plantation House – the tiny town’s first and most reputable hostel that was set up by Tim, an amiable English man who moved to Salento 11 years ago.

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Zone Cafeteria

Tim met and married a Colombian lady called Chris but, romance aside, I can see why he’d want to stay. Standing at 1895m tall with a population of 5,000, Salento is certainly pitched at tourists – everywhere that isn’t a home, is a hostel, a hippie cafe or craft shop – yet simultaneously manages to serve as a perfectly preserved example of Colombian country life. Pastel painted houses are packed around cobbled squares, which still work as public spaces and draw the locals in every evening.

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Salento

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Alas a wave of weariness crept up from somewhere and washed over me. It didn’t matter how much excellent Bourbon style coffee I drank or how many amazing set meals (called almuzero at lunchtime and comida at dinner) that I enjoyed, my body was starting to break leading me, on my first night in town, to lay down and embrace sleep. 

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Plantation House’s owner, Tim

I needed to nap because the next morning I was due to hike the breathtakingly beautiful Valle de Cocora – often described as a tropical version of Switzerland and famed for its palma de cera (wax palm). Sadly on reaching the start of the trail – after a thrilling journey to Cocora by jeep –  I still felt like I died and gone to hell (truly I have never been so tired in my life) and unable to contemplate the great stretch of reserve to walk in hot and hazy temperatures. My mouth was cotton wool dry and, despite my epic sleep the previous night, I was dazed and exhausted.

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Journeying by jeep

 

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Coffee time!

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Billiards are big news in Colombia

Turns out, dear reader, my body had been invaded by a parasite – a great, if far from pleasant, way to lose weight. My advice? Avoid drinking the local water (even if the Colombians convincingly assure you that it is drinkable). Fortunately if I had to be sick somewhere, sleepy Salento – where nightlife revolves around billiards at Billar Danubio Hall rather than bars – offered some much needed respite and, after a few days of rest, I felt energised enough to move onto Medellín.

Yes you read right: Medellín. Cast aside any preconceptions you have of Medellín. Sure, Medellín may have been off-limits once upon a time (as anyone who has read Mark Bowden’s book, Killing Pablo – aka the cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar who was eventually gunned down by security forces on a rooftop in 1993 – can attest). However fast forward to 2015 and Medellín is back on the menu.

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Medellín is in the spotlight for all the right reasons

So much so that if you weren’t au fait with the fact that Medellín was once the hometown of Escobar (who interestingly remains popular in some city circles owing to his benevolence to the poor), you’d never think that, during the 90s, Medellín was the murder capital of the world and off limits to all but the most intrepid of travellers.

Today Medellín is most definitely having a moment and boasts Colombia’s only metro system (of which the paisas [residents] are justifiably proud and go to great lengths to keep spotlessly clean), a plethora of attractive parks and gardens, a year round spring like climate  –  not for nothing is Medellín nicknamed  the ‘City of Everlasting Spring’ – and superlative shopping, dining and drinking options in the El Poblado barrio.

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The paisas know how to party

That said,  Medellín’s biggest draw is arguably its people – the paisas – for whom partying is paramount. Make no mistake: they play hard here as my Airbnb host Paul, an Essex boy, who gave up his home and job in Chelmsford to move to Medellín, was at pains to point out.  One evening over a beer (wine is vile in Colombia, especially coming from Argentina), I asked Paul if he’d ever go back to his life in England.

His reply? “If you’re asking me if I want to put on a suit and drive through traffic in a car that I am still paying for, in order to get to a job that I need to pay the mortgage on a house I’m not even mad about and cover Friday nights out in Faces [an Essex nightclub], then the answer is no.” Paul confessed that he did miss the Premier League (he’s a Liverpool fan, for his sins) but was able to follow most of the action abroad and enjoyed – as an English teacher, football coach and Airbnb property mogul –  being able to have his fingers in many Medellín pies.

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Guatapé

From Medellín, I took a day trip tip to the pretty lakeside town of Guatapé – a popular weekend getaway for paisas – before continuing to Cartagena, the jewel in Colombia’s already crowded crown. Without a doubt Cartagena is one of the most beautiful and seductive places I have ever visited – think cobbled alleys, flower bedecked balconies (a prize is awarded every year for the most beautiful balcony), horse drawn carriages and elegant plazas. Simply put, every single street looks like something out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.

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Postcard perfect Cartagena

Fittingly my final night in Cartagena was a magical one full of mojitos and music, that had me pinching myself in disbelief: what was a little girl from hum drum Watford doing in colourful Colombia? My life at home is a long line of fine but my spell in South America has been so far beyond fine, that I don’t think I can ever go back to just ‘alright.’

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Colourful Cartagena

Happily, however, I don’t have to… yet. For while I may be leaving Colombia – truly a country that’s on the verge of great things – I’m off to the land of dreams. Here’s looking at you, Los Angeles.

Talk soon,

Kaye

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To be continued on 9 June

 

To read part one of Kaye’s ‘Notes from a traveller’ series, please click here

To read part two click here and here

To read part three, click here

To read part four, click here

To read part five, click here and here

To read part six, click here and here

To read part seven, click here

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