Category Archives: Colombia

Salento, Colombia Travel Guide

I never get tired of repeating this. Salento, Colombia was one of the highlights of our South America trip. The verdant valleys, long walks, the day trip to an eco farm and the warm hospitality of the La Serrana hostel are enough to make any traveler happy. Here are a few drawings that I drew showing what is where in Salento, Colombia. I love drawing little maps in my notebook. 
Here is how to get to Salento. Its not exactly on the main road or a routine stop with plenty of buses going to it. Its tucked away and we have heard stories of robberies in that stretch.
Best way to get here: take the bus to Armenia (get there before 8 PM) and take a mini bus to Salento. You could get off at the midway point shown below, but only if you are in a group and its daylight.
A little map of Salento. The viewpoint on the top of the hill is really pretty and has a swing! Jesus Martin coffee is not to be missed too.
The really beautiful Valle De Cocora:
If you are only interested in a good view of the palms and not a long hike, the follow the road from where the jeep drops you for another 10 minutes and turn into the black gate on the right. A bit further you will find excellent views for photos. Walk however long you want and return. The rest of the hike is quite beautiful, but the wax palms are only visible towards the end.

The Colombia – Ecuador border crossing

We were really excited about our first border crossing by land. The Colombia – Ecuador border is basically a bridge that spans a river, with Colombia on one side and Ecuador on the order. La Frontera or Rumichacha, as its called is a bustling place. In fact, earlier in the day when we took a taxi to a nearby church in Colombia, the taxi driver dropped us off at the frontera instead of the church, past the Colombian immigration! I had a few stress filled moments there while we took the taxi back into Colombia!
Anyway, people are free to cross the border and though there is a lot of police activity, the onus is on you to get stamped in and out. So we first went to the Colombian immigration building, stood in a long line, got our exit stamp and then walked across the bridge.
The border bridge, a beehive of activity:
Entering Ecuadorian immigration, the building on the other side of the road:
A jubilant Swami after getting our Ecuador visa.
Ecuador – no visa needed for Indian citizens
Citizens of any nationality do not need a visa to enter Ecuador for tourism or business up to 90 days. Knowing this, we confidently walked across the border, even though I wasn’t expecting it to be a smooth crossing. We were not disappointed. Our Indian passports caused quite a bit of confusion amongst the immigration officials. It was waved around, pointed at and conferred upon for about 45 minutes. Clearly, they have never seen one before.
I was getting a little tense, but when the border officer told me that I need a tourist visa for entering, I wasn’t about to give up so easily. I mustered up my most confident and firm tone and told him that  I spoke to my embassy and was told we do not need a visa. This led to more conferencing – at one point, ALL the immigration officials left their counters to go to a back room to talk about our case. I actually found this a bit comical. I should have been stressed, but I had come prepared with the Indian embassy’s phone number and was going to call them if it came to that. Swami was waiting as his officer decided to whatever was being done to my passport, so he was trying to use the 3G on our Kindle to get some solid proof about no-visa-policy.
At one point, our passport was literally bandied about between two immigration officers – they simply didn’t want to take on the hassle. They caught me looking at them doing this and gave me what I can only call a sheepish grin. I grinned back at them and felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders then. I just knew that they wouldn’t leave us in the lurch at that moment. In fact, my immigration guy (that’s what I’ll call him) was a really patient fellow. He made so many phone calls to find out what he should do. He told me a couple of times that I need a visa, but I never backed down. Eventually he must have gotten the green signal, so he stamped us immediately without asking a single question.
Its a pity that word of the new legislation about visa free travel did not reach these guys at all. I can only hope that we have paved the way for the next Indian traveler who comes this way. Don’t disappoint me friends! (Ecuador and Colombia are amazing places to travel, by the way).
We were thrilled to bits to when we got stamped in. Giggling like idiots, we took pictures with our passports outside the building. Getting into Otovalo from there was a piece of cake. 
Crossing the Colombia – Ecuador border
  • From the lovely colonial city of Popayan, get to the town of Ipiales. The bus journey takes 6-8 hours. Stay at Hotel Metropol, which is right across from the bus terminal.
  • Ask the restaurant in Hotel Metropol if they have “lenteja” – if you’re lucky, you can get rice, lentil stew and juice and salad (for the vegetarians).
  • Stay at the Hotel Metropol for COP25000 per night.
  • Next morning, get breakfast in one of the many restaurants nearby and take a collectivo to the border – La Frontera or Rumichaca. COP1500.
  • Cross the border – get exit stamp in Colombia without fail. Get stamped into Ecuador.
  • Get a collectivo from the Ecuadorian side to the city of Tulcan. [Tulcan has a Govinda’s, if you’re so inclined].
  • From Tulcan, buses to Otavalo cost $4 pp. There are many of them. Snacks and water are readily available everywhere.
  • Buses to Otavalo will drop you off on the Panamericana, from there a 10 minute walk will get you to the center of the town.

Cali – giving the big city a quick glance

We originally planned to spend christmas in Cali and attend the salsa festival there. However, as I mentioned in the previous post, we ended up spending it in Salento. Cali was also supposed to host a famous salsa festival and we were excited to attend it. However, we underestimated how big a city Cali is. We traveled from Salento to Cali with Ben and ended up staying in together in the same hostel. Predictably, the size of Cali put us off and we ended up giving it a wide berth by leaving next day for Popayan. So nothing much to report from Cali, except for the really tasty veggie lunch we had at a Hare Krishna restaurant.

From Cali, we made the decision to quickly depart to Popayan and then head to the border from there. Ecuador was beckoning!

Popayan – Colombia’s white city

Popayan is a lovely colonial city in the Southern part of Colombia. Its about 8 hours from the Ecuador border and was a lovely stopover for us.

Popayan’s central plaza at night is superbly lit and is a pleasure to walk around in:

The city is mostly painted in white, but what it lacks in color, it makes up for in its liveliness. People are buzzing about in the evening here:

Our room overlooking the plaza at hostel Park Life, highly recommended:

Potato empanadas and aji de mani (peanut-chili sauce). I ate so many and am so craving it now:

One of my other favorite finds, bocadillo is a sweet made with guava paste and sugar (or panela). Lightly dusted with sugar, this was the best boacadillo I had, in a shop in the town of Silva.

We took a day trip to Silva, famous for its tuesday market. But we went on a Wednesday and wouldnt recommend this day trip. I would have much rather spent my time eating potato empanadas and aji de mani!

Popayan is a great place to stop for a day or two if you’re heading to and from Ecuador. Its very relaxing, has great food, hostels and a lovely central plaza. Its only 4 hours from Cali by bus and buses are really frequent. 

We were struggling to find directions from the bus stop to the hostel when a friendly cop actually insisted on walking with us all the way to the hostel. It was a good 15 minute walk and he was so cool about it. Colombia’s people are just lovely. :)

Salento – Lush and Lovely in Colombia’s coffee zone

I had heard so much about Colombia’s beautiful coffee zone – zona cafetera that I admit its one of those things about Colombia that made me want to travel to this country. The zona cafetera is the area south of Medellin, where the eye is met with various shades of lush green as far as the I can see. The region is incredibly mountainous and studded with small towns and villages and a few big cities as well.

The travel grapevine in all our previous stops led us to the town of Salento, a little village thats quite hard to find on google maps. Its not the most straight forward to get to as well, but once you do make the effort, you’ll want to stay, just as we did. We had originally planned this to be a 2 to 3 day trip and Christmas in Cali (wanted to have a reservation for Christmas), but ended up staying here until Christmas due to all the awesome people we met.

We had checked into the lovely hostel La Serrana, which is basically a farm with a hostel building in it. Its a good 15 minute walk on a country road from the center of the town to this hostel, which we’d often end up doing in groups, sharing travel stories along the way. Imagine our surprise and joy when we ran into Neal (the traveler we met in San Gil, Colombia and had fun times with. Check out his neat Colombia travel video here). And then we met other travelers from so many places here – Alaska, New Zealand, Canada, Kenya, Tennessee just to name a few.

At some point I noticed that the hostel was hosting a Christmas dinner. They had the menu and a sign up sheet listed at the front desk. We’d look at it every time and think ‘how cool’, but never really made the jump to stay back for Christmas. I guess not celebrating Christmas at home makes us think differently than  others. Over the next couple of days, I saw every single person and couple add their name to the list. They were all staying on for Christmas! Now the pang set in for us. “Ah, Swami! shouldn’t we stay here too? Sounds like so much fun. And look at that menu!! Even for a vegetarian, it was an impressive menu. We’ll adjust a couple of days down south”, I’d tell Swami. Extending our stay was difficult as they were totally booked out, but we moved into a dorm and stayed back for Christmas – thanks to a lot of effort from the staff and owner of the hostel.

Here is a snapshot of our stay in Salento. If you are ever in Colombia, visit Salento.

Near the central plaza a road filled with artisan shops will lead to a series of stairs (about 300 steps). If you climb up there, you’ll be treated to fantastic views and a swing set. Get on the swing set to gaze down at the city:

The panorama view from the top of the hill:

Another view from the hostel:

Goofing around the bonfire lit by Ben (he did it nearly every day he was staying there – he is the guy who is making the smiley in the photo).

 On our hike to the sacha mama eco tour:

Pedro leads us to his house on the hike to Sacha Mama (the name of his property):

This cow totally digged the attention. She stood their enjoying everyone’s ministrations.

Eating lunch with Pedro and his lovely family at Sacha Mama. A pasta lunch never tasted this good. 

Enjoying a Kenyan dinner at the hostel. One of the volunteers was from Kenya, so she cooked a Kenyan meal for dinner night once.
A superb coffee shop in Salento – Jesus Martin.
Christmas dinner with fellow travelers. Hunkering down to celebrate amidst peregrinations.

And last but not the least, the incredibly beautiful Valle De Cocora. (I’ll have a seperate post about this and Sacha Mama later).

Barichara – a pleasant day trip from San Gil

Barichara Quick Facts:
  • About 40 minutes from San Gil
  • One way bus fares cost COP 3800
  • Walk around the central plaza and look for the cultural house. Inside they have a big map that you can use to navigate your way around.
  • Walk to the park atop the hill for excellent views

Every now and then, we take a day trip to a small town or a village. Such a place would not have any special sights to visit, but rather the town itself would be something of a tourist attraction. These are small towns to get away from the small towns. If you are ever in San Gil, do make the day trip out to Barichara. Its a very easy bus ride from San Gil. The bus stop to go to Barichara is a separate one – not the same as one to other cities. This bus terminus exclusively serves only nearby destinations.
Buses to Barichara are frequent, but beware that the last bus back from Barichara is at 5 or 6 pm in the evening. Cost one way per person was COL 3800. When you get off at the Barichara central square, ask the driver when the last bus back is and make sure you get back to the square by then.

Guatape: Day trip from Medellin

We’re a little behind on the blog. Weak wi-fi connections, a lot of day time travel and issues with uploading photos easily online on Picasa. We’re now approaching the end of our stay in Colombia and will be entering Ecuador on Dec 30, in time for the Saturday market in Otovalo, Ecuador.

Guatape Quick Facts:

  • Long but doable day trip from Medellin. Plan to leave around 8 AM from Medellin for the 2-hour journey to La Piedra.
  • Bus tickets cost about COL 12000 per person per way (Medellin to Guatape)
  • Try to buy tickets to El Pinon to get off at the rock. They’re a bit cheaper than tickets to Guatape.
  • Bus will drop you off at road leading to the La Piedra (rock). Its a slightly uphill 15-20 minute walk from here to the steps. There are shops and food near the entrance. No need to get overpriced food at the main road junction.
  • Buses/vans to Guatape from steps are available for onward journey.
  • Buses from Guatape to Medellin once an hour (buses stop on Lakefront road).

Every time we leave a big city, we tell ourselves “big cities are so not for us”. We love the peace and quiet of the small town that can never be found in a big city. Medellin is one such big city. Its amazing and vibrant, but maybe its not for us. But still, to give it due credit, Medellin is spectacularly located in a beautiful green valley and has a very pleasant climate. Great city activities too – restaurants, bars, dance clubs etc. However, the point of this post is to tell you that if you ever visit Medellin, try to make it to the small town of Guatape, which is a 2 hour bus journey from Medellin.

Guatape is an incredibly colorful town where all the houses are hand painted with the most vibrant colors. The cuteness factor is amped by the 3-d motifs along the lower half of the walls. (See pictures). However, there is one cool place to go to before heading to Guatape. Almost as though guarding the town is the huge monolithic rock La Piedra which has about 600 steps leading to the top. From the top is a stupendous view of verdant landscape dotted with hundreds of small lakes.

The climb to the top is where we met Santiago, a very smart young Colombian boy traveling with his grandfather. Despite our extremely poor Spanish skills, he never gave up trying to talk to us and thanks to his persistance in trying to understand us, managed to have his grampa give us a ride to Guatape town, which is about a 30 minute bus ride away. How cool! Time and again, incidents like this showed us how incredibly friendly and helpful the Colombian people are.

The color starts right at the bus stop, an indicator of more to come.

La Piedra, the rock. Totally fun to climb, with extraordinary views:

View from the top:

More lakes:

Here are the steps you climb. I was so wobbly after doing this, but the views are worth it. And the best part: there are shops at the top where you have food. What more do you need?
The enterprising Santiago and his amiable grandfather who saved us a ton of time by giving us a ride to town. All thanks to Santiago’s persistence in making himself understood.
Colorful Guatape:

Indian food in Cartagena and meeting a fellow Indian

It was just a week into our trip, but I was already craving Indian food. I was eating good, healthy vegetarian fare in most places and the trip was a blast, but when it was time for a meal, I’d think of Sambaar, rasam or chole (been on a chole phase lately). So when we got to Cartagena, I needed no reminders to recollect this lovely travel blog post (from Jack and Jill Travel the World) that I had bookmarked during my research.

These fellow travelers had stumbled upon an Indian restaurant (well, owned by a Bangladeshi) which only operates after 4 pm in borrowed restaurant space. During the day its a Colombian restaurant. So we found our way there one evening and I was just so ready. To our happiness, we easily found the place and settled in after our orders – a little too much food due to all the enthusiasm.

My first forkful of the karahi dhal led to a burst of flavors of cardamom, cinnamon and other desi spices and I was in bliss instantly. No chole yet for me, but this was very close and very good.

The menu is really small, but we were told they can make any dish with the ingredients they have on hand, so feel free to ask for something that is not on the menu.

After a highly satisfying dinner, we chatted with the Bangladeshi owner in Hindi and it felt so good. (Yes, I chatted in hindi too…not kidding). He was telling us about how he plans to open another more permanent space soon and how Indians who work in Cartagena come to his restaurant. One thing led to another and within a few minutes I was having a very random and unexpected cell phone conversation in tamil with a Tamilian guy from Tambaram, Chennai who lives in Cartagena. We promptly exchanged email ID’s over the phone and were very pleased at how the evening turned out.

Not the end of the story. Swami and I managed to meet Ravi, our fellow Tam guy next day over dinner. The super helpful and friendly Ravi has been living in Cartagena for four years and speaks Spanish like a pro. He took us to his favorite restaurant and it was so much fun talking to him.

We’ve been meeting tons of great people who are on the south american travel circuit – especially in our hostels. But this was our first time meeting a local and the fact that it was a tamil speaking Indian was a lovely coincidence.

How to get to ‘Pordesh Indian Restaurant’ in Cartagena, Colombia:

The restaurant is called ‘Berce’ in the morning. The Indian component is open from 4 pm to 10 pm in the evening (maybe on most days).

You wont find it on google, but its diagonally across the street from Hostel Casa Viena. Look closely for the sign “Indian Restaurant” – it will be dark in the evening and maybe easy to miss. Here is an approximate map (look for the green marker):

View Larger Map

Colors of Cartagena

Old Cartegena (the walled section) is an impressive city – colonial in style, mildly Caribbean in character and with more African influence than in the other cities of Colombia we’ve visited so far. It is a very ‘vivid’ city. Its difficult to describe the city in words, so we’ve had our cameras do it for us.

Our equipments include, a Canon S95, a D7000 with a Tamron 11-16mm F2.8 and 2 wide-eyed travelers.

I’ve included about 16 of the 50 or so pictures that I think represent Cartagena in this post. You can check out the rest of them in this Picasa Web Album.

Let us know what you think and any suggestions/recommendations you may have.

Caving and Canyoning in San Gil

San Gil is known has Colombia’s adventure capital. So when we booked a caving and canyoning package at our hostel, I had no idea what I was signing up for. The next morning, our happy go lucky guide Rambo arrived at the hostel with a big smile on his face. He speaks few words of english and we speak few words of Spanish, so his cheerful demeanor made a great start to the day. That and Bob Marley’s tunes were somewhat enough to keep my nerves at bay during the exciting drive up to the entrance of the cave.

Our guide Rambo, an awesome guy with the patience of Job.

We had to walk downhill for about 20 minutes to the entrance of the cave:

At the entrance of La Cueva Antigua:

You see, I was extremely nervous and worried about the caving bit. I am afraid of dark, closed spaces and fast, deep water. We cant swim either. Swami said he wasn’t very comfortable with them too, but he didnt look the least bit worried, as is usually his wont. I was also worried about the rappelling, but I really didnt know what this canyoning involved. I know the vague definition of the word, but where were the canyons in San Gil?

As it turns out, Canyoning is basically crawling, hopping and skipping down the river on slippery rocks, boulders and however you can make a path to get to the end point where a taxi would pick us up.

We first entered La Cueva Antigua, which I think is one of the less intimidating caves in the area. Over the next hour and a half, we walked through pitch black darkness, and then crawled and slithered through narrow widths, fit our bodies into tiny little spaces and walked through an underground river. The river was flowing rather fast and inside a cave, its sound is amazingly amplified. My heart was thudding to its own rhythm as we followed Rambo with blind faith.

Swami here is gamely making his way down a really tiny ‘puerta’ or entrance, which I refused to go down into. Thankfully, there was an alternative way just nearby, which was a little less smaller. Still small, though.

Putting the flash to good use:

Yes, we slithered through that. It was just for a few feet though and totally doable. I had a lot of fun here.

So here is where you find all the wet mud, wet due to the streams underground. Apparently the mud has therapeutic benefits, so we splashed around deep down the cave with tiny flashlights a far cry from the REI headlamps we had back in the hostel. 

Finally we exit the cave. Here is where you exit and you need to your arms a bit to make it out of the cave.

When I finally saw daylight at a distance, I was happy beyond words.  But, we were not even half done. We walked down the river – more like crawled, navigated and jumped on slippery rocks. And then it was time to rappel down, which was quite fun.

Rambo watches while Swami rappels down the falls. You can bounce a coin off Rambo’s abs here, cant you?

I’d face the toughest part of the day a little while later where we climbed down a really steep side banking the river. It was a smooth surface and was at about a seventy degree angle to the river, where the water is quite deep. To say that I was terrified was an understatement.  You either free jump into the river and swim further, or you work your way down this devilishly steep edge. I clutched Rambo’s arm with an iron grip and realized how strong he was when he helped me get down the rock. Of course, we all made it safely back – but I was a little bruised and completely exhausted.

At the end of it all, it was a lot of fun but there were sections which I found all too adventurous for me. A lot of travelers sign up for such adventures without second thought and go ahead to enjoy it, but I came to the realization that its okay to opt out of something despite what appears to be peer pressure. In retrospect, I’d probably have signed up for a less intense activity by finding out more specific information about each.

Practical Information

There are many flavors of each activity. Talk to the folks at your hostel/hotel and sign up for one that you feel most comfortable with. Get detailed information about how long it takes, how much walking is required and what the weather is like.

  • Caving and Canyoning package includes Caving, two Rappels (one in a waterfall and one regular), and two free jumps for those who can do it. Find out how difficult the alternate path is if you cannot swim. In some cases, the alternate path might be too arduous in itself.
  • The package costs COP 80,000 per person. We tipped COP 10,000 per person.
  • Take closed toe shoes like Keen if possible.
  • Transportation to and from hostel, gear and refreshments are included in the price.
  • Take a small point and shoot camera. The guide will bring a waterproof bag and keep it dry when there is water involved. He’ll also take pictures of you.
Other adventure activities you can do in San Gil: paragliding, white water rafting, speed-boarding (?), more serious caving and far too many things at a very reasonable price. The town is a great place to stay and relax even if you dont care a whit about adventure activities.