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 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.
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:
On our hike to the sacha mama eco tour:
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
Our guide Rambo, an awesome guy with the patience of Job.
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.
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.
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.