Category Archives: Colombia

All aboard the puke bus to Bogota

The morning after my fun jaunt through the death zone of Medellin was finally time to move on – to Manizales, coffee capital of Colombia. But not before finally meeting the Aussie guy also on a homestay across the street – the one the girls were doing impressions of the weekend before. I’m kind of irritated we weren’t told about each other, because it would have been nice to have someone to do things with and to chat to without my head exploding. Also, he was doing salsa classes, which I would have liked to know about, but it was too late. Oh, and the house he was staying in had a 360-degree-view roof terrace…

Anyway, I eventually got on the bus to Manizales, ready for a scenic four-hour drive through the mountains. On the bus was a Brit/Kiwi couple from London (Crystal and Simon), and it was nice to chat about home. I ended up seeing them a few times while I was in Manizales, a really sweet couple.

My first night in Manizales I spent chatting to the hostel guy about what I wanted to do in the region – there were only two things on my list – go see snow at Los Nevados and check out a coffee farm. But it turned out the crater at Los Nevados was closed due to the volcano erupting or something lame like that.

But anyway, it meant the tour up the mountains could only go so far, and for $65 I didn’t think it would be worth it. Then the hostel guy told me about a milk float (a chiva bus that carries milk up to the mountains for restaurants and houses) that comes past the Red Cross Hospital at 5am every morning and picks up nurses that need to get to the mountains. So I dragged myself out of bed at 4am, arrive at the Red Cross at 4:30, pull my hood over my head and enjoy an hour and a half of not being recognised as a gringa or a woman – but no bus…

At 6am I gave up and went back to the hostel, so ready for bed. But after a quick chat with the hostel girl I was convinced to go on the stupid expensive tour halfway up the crater. I had only two days in Manizales and it was half the reason I came. So I went to back bed for a blissful half-hour and dragged myself back out of bed at an unreasonable hour for the second time that day.

The tour bus came and I was the only English-speaking person on a bus full of Colombian tourists. They were very nice, but it made for a boring day – they were all older couples. The trip took us up the mountains (which were stunning, but I saw better views from the bus to Bogota two days later), and we had to keep stopping and walking around in an attempt to acclimatise to the altitude (5,000m). When we got to the ‘top’ there were a few pathetic smatterings of snow (it was funny to see the Colombians getting so excited about seeing snow for the first time though) and clouds covering any kind of view. Oh, and there was no oxygen. I could not breathe. I had a pounding headache and it was also flipping freezing – I was in hat and gloves.

The world’s highest toilet?

After, we went to some hot springs, which were a bit lame and really sulphorous, which I only discovered after I dunked my head in and tasted it by mistake – farts and eggs, mmm.

Anyway, after a bit of puking from one of the Colombians and a twisty ride back home I was relieved to be back at the hostel. I had big plans for a nice nap, but then something better happened – I got an invitation from Crystal and Simon to go to a Tejo Hall.

A Tejo Hall is where the locals hang out on the weekends, where they spend the evenings drinking cheap beer (50p) throwing rocks at gunpowder. The place was awesome. Kind of like a bowling alley but with upright pits of sand filled with small bags of gunpowder, which explodes with a flame, a crack that made me jump whenever it happened (although never to me) and lots of smoke that smelled like bonfire night – yum.

It turned out I was utterly hopeless – a danger to others in fact. But it was so much fun, the drinks were cheap (3 shots and a beer for $3) and the old men that patronise the place every weekend were really funny and friendly. It was great to do something that the locals do rather than hang out in a bar (although we did go to a British pub for a GnT after…).

The next morning I was booked on a coffee tour, and the driver came and picked me up at 8:30am – much more reasonable – when I discovered I was the only person on the tour! The drive (in an awesome old Jeep) was beautiful, and the driver spoke really clear Spanish, so I could chat to him the whole time without having to say ‘como?’ once.

When we got to the hostel at the coffee farm all I could think was that I wished I’d brought all my stuff – the hostel was gorgeous and right in the middle of the countryside. I was then told that the rule of the day was to drink as much coffee as possible, and got taken through the coffee process by a really sweet tour guide. Now buzzing, we went on a walk around the farm, checking out the factory, as well as the farm owners’ house. There were dogs, cats and peacocks everywhere, the house had a balcony all round, two pools and was so gorgeous. After cuddling the tiny dog and getting swiped at by the cat we went back to the hostel for lunch – rice and beans of course. I then laid about in a hammock watching all the animals wander past and scaring chickens by staring into their beady eyes.

When I got back I planned to meet Crystal and Simon and to head into Chipre 20 minutes away where you can see a spectacular sunset. After getting a huge icecream (Twix and mocha flavours, amazing) I wandered down the block to meet the guys.

The sunset was gorgeous, but it was too cloudy, so I started a little game of making funny sillouettes in front of it and taking photos, which killed half an hour while we drank our beers (Redds for me, natch), then we went into the nearest bar (after being frisked for weapons) which we were promptly laughed out of for ordering wine and mixers as opposed to entire bottles of aguadiente or vodka.

Got the bus back, which was adorned with fur-covered mirrors, tissue boxes and gear stick and a sticker of a motorbike – just to prove the driver’s masculinity.

Back at the hostel I watched Simpsons and Futurama in Spanish and somehow managed to get plain boiled pasta wrong.

The next morning I had to catch a bus to Bogota ready for my flight to Leticia last Monday. The ride was eight hours round twisty mountain roads – and the driver liked to take the tightest corners the fastest. Fortunately there were puke buckets lining the aisle… The view was spectacular though, I couldn’t believe how amazing it was. I took a few pics, which are on facebook/flickr now.

Post on Leticia and my epic Amazon river voyage coming soon!

Slumming it in Medellin

My last day in Medellin started off well – my visa got sorted in five minutes and then I went for a wandering Spanish lesson in which my teacher Jorge and I walked around town and ate a huge lunch. Then he had to go teach another class and I had a task to attend to – find a postcard and send it. Four hours later I’m in the post office being told it will cost US$45… To send a postcard. Finally sorted (elsewhere and not for $45), I jumped on the bus that had my suburb name on the front and promptly fell asleep. Woke up in the slums of Medellin. The driver then tells me there are hundreds of buses to my suburb and I’m definitely not on the right one. Very kindly he stops another bus going in the opposite direction and tells the driver where I’m going. I jump on and discover it’s just me, a guy in a hoodie and some weird guy behind the screen on the passenger seat doing some weird high-pitched manic laugh the whole time. Absolutely terrifying. Oh, add to this the cracking headache I have that’s rendered me entirely unable to think straight. The driver then stops, tells me the number of yet another bus I need to get, and chucks me out onto the now dark and rainy streets. He didn’t charge me though, which was nice.

So I’m on a busy street, no idea where and with no phone credit. I decide I’ve had enough of buses and flag down a cab. The first one points and says something that I took to mean flag one on the other side of the road. So I cross over and start flagging. One by one the cab drivers tell me no, they can’t take me there. Almost in tears I see a bus with the number I need. Run for it. Miss it. Then another bus turnss up, I squeezed myself in among the 3,275 people also on the bus and told the driver to tell me where to get off.

Finally get home to find Juan, the homestay coordinator, waiting for me. My head was in so much pain I almost cried at the thought of having to make conversation, especially in Spanish. I popped a pill, gave the family their gifts while I had the chance and have never been so relieved to go to bed.

Ok, here’s why I love Colombia, summed up in one short afternoon

The very morning I had to extend my visa for being here too long (never done that before) was the same day that demonstrated exactly why I have stayed here so long in the first place.

So the day started off pretty uneventful. I spent 5 hours sorting out my visa (which it is not sorted by the way, I have to go back at 7am tomorrow. I’m so not going in at 7am tomorrow), most of that time spent in the waiting room chatting to an Iranian guy from Canada who earned so much money he quit working and has been living abroad for 10 years. His monthly budget is $20,000 until he’s 100 years old. That’s US dollars. He spent most of the time telling me how much he earned before ($45,000 a month), how big his penthouse in Medellin is (380sqm with a 300m balcony…) and about the apartment he’s going to buy ($800,000, pool, 2 floors 500sqm). I sat there fretting over having to shell out $40 for my visa. Humph.

Anyway, that’s not the point. Visa not sorted, I headed out, belly rumbling. I got the bus to El Poblado for lunch, and ate an empanada Colombia style, leaning against the counter dipping it in hot sauce and listening to the locals laughing and joking.

I then wandered into the centre of Medellin, and this is the point at which I realised how brilliant Colombians are. To compare, my experience of Cuba was that people only speak to you to get money from you and that new, massively inflated prices are invented on the spot for tourists. My experience of Colombia today was the opposite. I was in Medellin and coming to the end of my time with my homestay family, so I wanted to buy them a gift. I decided the best thing to do would be get something for the family’s unborn baby and for the two-year-old boy.

So I went into a shop and bought a plate set for the baby and then into another shop looking for something for the kid. I told the guy I only wanted to spend $5. He pulled out a couple of toys and told me they were $10. I insisted I could only spend $5 so he said that it was ok, I could have whatever I wanted for $5. I then asked if they had any gift bags I could buy. The shop girl, Nathalia, pointed me in the direction of a girl who giftwraps toys and I left my toy with her.

Nathalia brought a stool for me to sit on, then started chatting to me. She was frustrated at first because she spoke no English, but as soon as she found out I knew a couple of rude words she got all excited, high-fived me and started teaching me more, writing them down for me too, including a new non-rude word parace – ‘best friend’. We did this until the wrapping girl was done, then I asked if she could wrap the other one too, even though it was from another shop. She took it, and Nathalia asked if I wanted ice cream. Of course! So she took me to the freezer and picked out my choice and opened it for me. It turned out to be the wrong flavour, so she put it back and got another one out for me – for no cost at all. We kept chatting some more, and then I realized I had only 20 minutes until my Spanish class. I was going to be so late. So she called her dad (the manager) over, and he let me use his personal phone to call home.

The wrapping was soon done – and to my complete surprise they only charged me $5 in total. Nathalia then walked me outside in the torrential rain where she hailed a cab for me and told the driver where I was going. We’re now friends on facebook and I hope I’ll get to see her again someday. This was just one person, but she stands for Colombians as a whole – they go out of their way to make sure you love and enjoy their country. Unlike England where we have an entire political party devoted to making sure foreigners feel unwelcome.

I also have note in my journal that I discovered months after meeting another Colombian girl with her email, number and the words in English: “you have a new friend in Colombia’.

What an awesome country.

In which I get really drunk in Medellin

I’m now four/five days into my homestay and Saturday night was a great turning point with my family – we got plastered together, Colombia style. But my story begins a few hours earlier, when I shunned Spanish lessons in favour of taking a day trip to Gautape, a cute town famous for amazing frescoes, and El Pinol, a big rock you can climb and see all the surrounding lakes. On the way up the rock I met a family with young girls who spoke a teeny bit of English, and they were all (especially the dad) very excited to try to talk to me.

Seven hundred and something steps later and some amusing English attempted by the dad, we reached the top of the rock to absolutely stunning views. I then had my photo taken on random people‘s cameras before we made our way back down.

After the rock, I got a little moto bus thing to Guatape, 2km away, and spent about an hour taking photos of all the colourful frescoes adorning the shops and houses, then sat down outside a bakery and ate half the contents of the shop (plus my first of many Redds of the day) and did some Spanish homework.

Feeling sick from all the sugar I went for a walk along the seafront where I came across one of those awful party boats blasting music with a man on a megaphone trying to entice people in. Next thing I know I’m 10mil pesos poorer and sitting on the top deck next to the speakers clutching my second Redds. There was a group of students next to me who saw I was alone and invited me to sit with them, only to regret it the instant they discovered I couldn’t speak Spanish. But, a few more Redds, plus several shots of rum and aguadiente from the table next to us and I was chatting in Spanish like it was my first language. After the boat trip it started raining so we legged it [read: walked really slowly, Colombia style] to the nearest bar and got, well it’s getting predictable now, more Redds. I then had a bus to catch at 6pm, managed to miss it, and after running round the square several times in the rain found another that left in half an hour. Half an hour to prepare myself mentally for a two-hour bus ride, blotto.

I actually slept [read: passed out] for most of the journey, waking periodically and trying not to puke. When I got back to the house dinner was waiting for me, but I just couldn’t wait to get to bed. Then, just as I was finishing dinner a lady came by the house – to pick me up for a night of drinking. Oh Dios mio. I was dragged to a small bar/shop where Jessica, Juan (her husband) and Marta were waiting for me with my shot glass ready. Urgh. Force fed aguadiente (tastes like a mix of sambuca and vodka and is drunk by the gallon here) and more Redds (I think…) I sat around chatting to all the people who stopped by. It was funny when a girl came by who also had someone staying at her house to learn Spanish – an Aussie guy – because the whole time she was ripping into him about how he pronounced things wrongly. They all proceeded to do impressions of him, then told me to repeat what they said to check my pronunciation – thankfully I have perfect Spanish and gave them nothing to work with. Of course. Anyway, they told me I couldn’t meet this Aussie because I’m not allowed to speak English while I’m here… Anyway, I managed to escape and get to bed at a reasonable hour with Jessica and Juan (who drove, drunk, the one block to the house), leaving Marta (my homestay mum) to sink the last of her 2.5 bottles of aguadiente.

Medellin

The next morning, I was told we were going for a walk – me, Arianna and Samuel. It turned out ‘going for a walk’ meant going to the next block and getting blotto with the entire family while watching a middle-aged man in a badly fitting suit sing outside a shop for its 10th anniversary. Six Redds later (do you know I love that beer?) and we moved on, back to the street bar we were at the previous night (which turned out to be someone’s house with a table outside, and when I went in to use the loo the toilet was literally in the kitchen. But when you gotta go…). Marta sank another couple of bottles, I played some fairground game and danced salsa with one of the cousins in someone’s garage much to the enjoyment of the crowd that gathered, then we headed to Jessica and Juan’s house (next to ours) for some more aguadiente (water for me – and I don’t mean that I drink so much it’s like water, let’s get that out of the way now…), then made the long journey next door for bed.

P3210866

This morning when I got up Arianna told me we were going for a walk after lunch. I told my liver to hold on tight and off we went. Turns out that today ‘going for a walk’ meant ‘taking all the neighbourhood kids to the library and sitting in the lobby for an hour waiting for the rain to stop’. One thing about Colombian women is that they really care about their appearance. Getting their hair wet in the rain is simply not an option. Eventually, we ran [again, read: walked really slowly] to the road to get a taxi, one of the mums with a black bin bag over her hair…

Tomorrow promises to be exactly 100% less exciting, when I need to go get my visa renewed. Don’t miss the thrilling next edition of the blog in which I tell the story of queuing for hours in a government building…

Further off the beaten path in Colombia…

After Cartagena Laura and I went off the beaten path (even more so than just being in Colombia…) to a place called Punta Gallinas. The Lonely Planet describes it as being near impossible to reach without being on an organised tour that costs $350 (for 3 days!), and also says it’s like the hidden island in The Beach, a place that photos won’t do justice, now you’re really travelling, people won’t believe you etc. Well, we took this as a personal challenge and set off at 7am from Santa Marta to embark on this ‘impossible’ adventure. As the guide book told us, we had to take a cab to the bus station, then a four-hour bus to Riohacha, then a ‘colectivo’ car to Uribia, then wait outside Peter Pan bakery (below) for a Jeep, take the Jeep to Cabo de la Velo, then get another Jeep to the port, then get a boat (three hours) to Punta Gallinas, the northernmost tip of South America.

Twelve hours, 20 fake Oreos, two numb bums, one bout of almost seasickness, a million cacti, all the constellations, one view of Venus and one sea lit up by plankton later and we were plonked in a Wayuu tribe’s hostel (10 hammocks and a cactus roof) in front of a plate of lobster. Then we settled into our chinchorro hammocks (huge) and slept like babies.

The next morning, after an amazing breakfast of scrambled eggs and arepas, seven of us got in the wooden crate on the back of a truck and sped through the desert to a completely deserted beach surrounded by sand dunes, craggy rocks and 10 donkeys. We took photos, paddled in the sea and burnt to a crisp (the wind covered the heat), then got back in the truck to see the big dunes. The Jeep journeys were long, hot and we were all standing the whole way, dodging the langostas, massive flying insects with double wings that look like lobsters but really really mean.

Then we went back to the hostel for a lunch of shark, took a nap, went to another beach for sunset, visited a couple of local families who live in mud huts in the desert, bought some Coke bottles filled with the local firewater and went back for some spaghetti followed by whatever the hell was in those Coke bottles. Not such a comfortable night’s sleep due to severe sunburn for Laura and getting tangled in the hammock for me.

The next morning the seven of us (me, Laura, two Canadian sisters Sylvie and Cait, a Belgian girl Sarah and a German couple) got back in the puke-boat (calm seas this time thankfully – on the previous journey there was air between our bums and the wooden benches 50% of the time), back in the Jeep and off to Cabo de la Velo, where five of us were spending the night.

We spent the day hiding from the ridiculously intense sun, playing with the little girls who live there (two of them grabbed my camera and went off shooting – note all my flickr photos with a thumb in the picture), attempted to walk to sugar hill for sunset, aborted walk to sugar hill for sunset due to the path being made of poo, washed feet in sea, had some delicious fish and settled into the smallest and most close together hammocks in the world. Not the best night’s sleep for any of us, as our hammocks were all tied to the same beam, so if one of us moved we all felt it. In the middle of the night I woke myself up laughing at some stupid dream and shook all five hammocks. Saw everyone start shuffling but for some reason couldn’t stop laughing. Then we were woken up at 4.45 as we had to leave for Santa Marta but we wanted to go to sugar hill (pila de azucar) to see the sunrise. Saw it, took photos and set off for the long journey back. Things didn’t go too smoothly for me and Laura though – but I did discover a newfound joy in yelling at people in English because they don’t understand a word I’m saying. Very cathartic.

To be continued…