The story of a journey through Latin America by a twentysomething English backpacker. I quit my job to travel 5,000 miles from Yorkshire. Follow my adventure as I learn to travel light and wonder 'What's the Spanish for cheesy chips?'
Latin America has something for everyone. And if it’s spine-tingeling, nervewracking adrenaline hits your after, it won’t disappoint. I started the trip as the sort of person who refused to look down when on an escalator, but the next seven months soon turned that around. The thought of not knowing if you’ll ever be back again does strange things to a person’s mind, and bravery. And, well, #YOLO.
Here’s the top ten things to do on the Gringo Trail to get your kicks. Let me know what I’ve missed out and if you did the same…
Hang-gliding, Rio, Brazil
There’s nothing like running off a hillside thousands of feet above Rio, strapped to a Brazilian man telling you “If you don’t run fast, then we will fall”, to show you the true meaning of trust. You realise after three seconds of free fall, that the wind has lifted you up, and you dare to open your eyes, finding yourself soaring above pools, sea and tanned stick-insects below, the sweat off your palms being whisked away, along with your nerves, you’re FLYING, feeling sheer joy at being alive, not being dead, and being in this life-affirming city.
Narrowly avoiding whirlpools, clinging on for dear life, feeling like the boss, rafting in Ecaudor’s Banos is one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. And we didn’t fall out once. Our guide, Pato, from Natural Magic, was supernatural and king of the waves.
Banos is an action-packed little town surrounded by stunning scenery and thermal pools to sooth the aches of a week’s worth of adventure. Hire a bike and explore the valley, you won’t regret it.
Mountain Biking down Death Road, La Paz, Bolivia
When I started our trip, a friend had recommended ‘Death Road’, where you bike 12,000ft down a Bolivian valley, with little oxygen, a sheer cliff-face metres away, along a dirt path the width of a lorry. There was NO way I would ever do that, I replied, horrified. Five months later, I was cycling down, blanking out the makeshift crosses where riders had fallen, lining the side, and horror stories from our guide, feeling very much alive. We entrusted ourselves with the excellent Gravity, do the same.
Canopy, Monteverde, Costa Rica
The only activity on the list that made me cry. Although this was before I spread my arms like superman and flew hundreds of feet above the Costa Rican forest at 40mph, praying that the wires, or myself, didn’t snap. We canopied with Aventura, who have over 1500m of zipwire, and a tarzan swing at the end that I chickened out of. Well, it was only a few months into the trip. Dave did though. Dave’s brave.
Volcano boarding, Leon, Nicaragua
Probably the most extreme way of ruining your pumps, and giving your other half a month-long limp, volcano boarding down the side of Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro is certainly an experience. In good and bad ways. Good in that you reach speeds of up to 60mph, bad that you only have yourself in control, and will twist your ankle. Bigfoot were the first and best, plus you get a free t-shirt.
Scuba diving, Blue Hole, Belize
A bit of a cheat entry, as we only dived off the coast of Belize’s Caye Caulker, and not at the sinkhole that lies a few hours out to sea, with depths of 480ft. We heard people rave about it, so for Padi qualified drivers, this is a must. Though for the queasy among us (hiya), a plane ride above would definitely be on the bucket list.
Hydrospeed, Pucon, Chile
If you think rafting takes some balls, just imagine the balls you need for rafting on a bodyboard. That’s hydrospeed. And it sure is speedy. And terrifying. Once you get over the fear of coming face first to whirling water (full of rocks), it’s exhilarating. We booked through our gorgeous hostel Chili Kiwi, which is more than worth a stay.
Canyoning, Banos, Ecuador
Another entry for Banos. This time we spent a morning abseiling down waterfalls with the brilliant MTS Adventure. They catered to big babies like me and daredevils alike, finishing off with a mini zipwire down the final waterfall. Just don’t look down.
Caving, Lanquin, Guatemala
Probably the most dangerous of the lot. I’m hardly Michel Phelps at the best of times, especially when I’m wearing walking boots filling with water, carrying a candle in one hand, in the dark, in a cave, following a group led by a teenager. That’s Semuc Champey for you, the glorious pools and waterfalls that lead you to the caves where you climb up slippery ladders and throw yourself into pitch-black pools. Not to mention that the cave could fill up and drown you at any moment. Or that we heard that someone died there a few weeks later. Kids wait for you outside selling bottles of beer, I’ve never needed one more in my life. We booked through Oasis the Traveler hostel. Make sure you can swim.
Mountain biking down Cotapaxi Volcano, Quito, Ecuador
If waking up at 6am and biking down from an altitude of 4000m is your thing then you’re going to love the dirt paths and roads of Cotapaxi, just outside of Quito. Feeling the wind rush past you as you speed down the forest-lined roads is a wonderful end to a brutal morning. We went with the best of the rest, Biking Dutchman.
Any that I missed out? Let me know. Not that I need another excuse to go back.
San Francisco de Quito is Ecaudor’s capital, and the highest capital city in the world. At 9,350ft above sea level, you feel that you could stand on top of the towers of the city’s La Basilica del Voto Nacional and jump up to touch the clouds. You don’t walk up its hilly streets in a rush. Thankfully we weren’t in a rush, and neither are the highland natives, who are relaxed and welcoming. We’d come to dig deeper into the culture of Ecuador, and throw ourselves down a volcano on a mountain bike.
First though, our lovely taxi driver had taken us on the sprawling 45 minute journey from Terminal Carcelen in the north of the city, to the central Hotel El Rosal, after our three-dollars-for-three-hours journey from Otavalo. The hotel isn’t obviously signed, but he got out of the cab to find it for us and we were greeted by the adorable owners who immediately grabbed our bags. I was right about Ecuadorians. I’ve never smelt a hotel so clean, the floors were sparkling and the family that ran it treated us like royalty. El Rosal is right near the Centro Historico that houses the main sights in Quito, and close to a little microbrewery we had read about, Bandido. It’s a real gem and reminded me of home. It sells gorgeous craft beers and cheap design-your-own pizzas that are a steal and so good we went back two nights in a row.
We did the free walking tour that meets at the Community Hostel – where 10% of the price of a night’s stay is given to community efforts to improve education – that we had originally wanted to stay at until it had been booked up. The tour explores the area that the city is famous for, it is one of the largest and most preserved historic centres in Latin America, and was declared a World Culture Heritage Site by Unesco, in fact it was THE first site ever listed. Our guide was brilliant and animated as he explained Quito and Ecuador’s history, telling us how the Sucre was replaced by the American Dollar in 2000, after it kept tumbling in value, nosediving 17% in just one week in 1999. But first, food. We started off with a tour of the local market, tasting local fruits and the most delicious fresh juices. Ecuadorians know how to do street food too, you won’t find tacos here, instead you’ll get pork crackling, sweets, bread, more sweets and more bread. We had lunch looking up at El Panecillo hill, which the guide warns us not to venture up, as it’s renowned for muggings with your belongings ending up at the black market, though he suggests you can always buy it back off them at a stall.
Iglesia de San Francisco
An artist we visited on the Free Walking Tour
Iglesia de San Francisco
Iglesia de San Francisco
The real pull of the city though is in its magnificent architecture, and that includes the Palacio de Gobierno, where our guide got us up close to the poker-faced guards. The churches are the most spectacular we’d seen on the whole trip so far, our guide advised us to go to Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus once the tour had finished, as it costs $5 to enter, and you can see why, the interior is plated with 37KG of pure gold, it dazzles, it shines, it’s staggering. I’d never seen anything like it. Photos are strictly forbidden, but I managed to sneak one while the staff weren’t looking. It was too beautiful not to. Though if you’re strapped for cash, the glorious and free Iglesia de San Francisco comes a close second. Dave was brave enough to climb the rickety steps up the towers of La Basilica del Voto Nacional, I settled for peering my head out to get a spectacular panoramic of the never-ending city.
View from Basilica of the National
View from Basilica of the National
Quito street art
Church of the Society of Jesus
View from Basilica of the National
Quito street art
View from Basilica of the National
We’d soaked up so much culture that we were ready for a day off to bike down the world’s highest active volcano, the Andean Cotapaxi, with the Biking Dutchman. We left Quito along with our Irish friends at 7am, arriving at 15,000ft at 8.30, ready (not ready) to descend to a tropical 11,300ft. We entertained ourselves in the car ride by listening to Mark explain why he HATES coral – ‘It’s SO boring’ – to horrified Americans who were looking at each other whispering; ‘Who hates CORAL?’. It was bumpy as hell but completely brilliant…when going downhill. 5% of the track is uphill, but there’s always a jeep behind ready to pick you up, so pick me up it did. I was the last of the group as the rest of the riders were secret pros. The landscape is so barren and grey-green, we were immersed in fog that day, it reminded me of Ireland, I didn’t feel like we were in Ecuador at all. The best part of the tour came when we hit the tarmac road, and zoomed down with the wind and rain hitting our faces. I managed to not fall off once until we came to a stop at the end and I lost my balance.
Biking down Cotapaxi
Biking down Cotapaxi
Biking down Cotapaxi
We celebrated surviving that evening by hitting the town. We went round to our friend’s flat they had rented on Airbnb and tried out Plaza Foch (where the ‘Foch Yeah!’ sign lies, a phot must) where most of the bars – and mortal teenagers – lie. I’ve never seen such drunk people in years, the Andeans don’t break down alcohol as well as Europeans, plus with the thin air, you end up seeing grown men hanging onto walls to walk down the street. We somehow stayed out til 5am and bumped into a group of friendly male teenagers who Dave and Mark were naturally really keen to hang out with, and who told us to come to a house party on the outskirts, though we ended up skipping for bed even though those two were lapping up the attention.
Inti Nan Museum
Inti Nan Museum
Mitad del Mundo
Mitad del Mundo
Inti Nan Museum
The next day we managed to drag ourselves out of bed to get to the Teleferico cable car up Cruz Loma, it’s the highest skyrail in South America and goes up at an unreal angle leading to a gigantic panormaic. Be warned it’s tricky to get a cab back down from the station so either ask the driver to wait for you, or be prepared to spend a bit of time flagging one down. We hailed one and asked the driver to take us the thirty minute ride to the equator, Ecuador’s namesake. First we went to the original, and inaccurate equator (did they not have Google Maps in 1736?) line at Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the world. It’s the best one for photos, you can pretend to straddle both hemispheres at once, but it actually lies 150m south of the real equator, where its rival museum, and more surreal Inti Ñan lives at latitude 00°00’00”. The real equator is not as popular as the imposter down the road, it houses a collection of strange objects from a fake snake that we’re told is real, to a shrunken head that was a traditional Amazonian practice of local tribes to keep as trophies. The tour guide convinces us that it’s harder to balance if you walk along the equator, and to keep an egg still on a pinhead, but take that with a pinch of salt. Don’t forget your passport if you visit this and if you like collecting stamps, but they can always stamp a piece of paper for you to stick in, like I did. So after that bizarre afternoon our taxi takes us back to Quito (expect to pay $30 for a three hour round trip, not bad between three of us) and we treat ourselves to our first curry in months, at Sher-E-Punjab, next to our friend’s flat. We were served by a British Indian guy and it makes me feel like I’m back in Leeds, Ecuador is strangely homely.
Quito street art
On our last day we explore El Ejido park, (which really shows off what a great lifestyle you can have in the city, with locals crowding round to watch their beloved volleyball, and a setting surrounded by the glorious volcanoes) grab a McDonald’s (Dave went to the poshest and heaving KFC I’d ever seen, although I read that Subway is the most popular fast food place in South America) and head up to the ‘Capilla del Hombre‘ (Home of Man) museum and former residence of Ecuador’s most renowned artist, Diego Guayasamin. Our friends had raved about it but sadly the day we visited was a Monday, when most attractions are closed, so we could only peer in and not properly explore the lush interior, although the architecture still looks modern today, decades later. The museum is dedicated to the Latin American people, and features politically and emotionally charged pieces by Guayasamin that we almost get stuck in a Spanish-speaking tour about, managing to slip away while the guide’s not looking. It’s not the easiest place to get a taxi back from, as it’s up another of Quito’s rolling hills, but we walked a little downwards til we could flag one down.
Our time in Quito was over so we got a taxi to Terminal Quitumbe, forty five minutes south of town and only £7 to get to. The ticket booths are organised by location (are you listening, Colombia?) in the sprawling and gleaming bus station that looks more like an airport, so it only takes us seconds to buy our tickets to our next stop of Baños, even the toilets are nice. Fitting really, as Bañosis Spanish for just that.
We headed off from Popayán to get a bus at 7am, the start of our mammoth three-part journey to Otavalo, a little market town that’s the first stop in Ecuador. Popayán was smothered in dried white paint and foam – thanks to the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos – it looked like a ghost town in the hazy blue dusk light, like the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, if the zombies were bakers. We got a minibus along the gorgeous route to Ipiales, a town half an hour away from the Tulcan border that connects Colombia and Ecuador. I’d read online that there is a stunning church – Las Lajas Sanctuary – that lies ten minutes from Ipiales. Our Aussie friends were happy to take a quick detour, so we dropped our backpacks off in baggage at the bus station, and hopped in a shuttle bus that takes tourists there and back. I was hoping it looked as good in real life as it did online, and that we hadn’t dragged our friends for no reason, it didn’t let me down. It sits hidden in a valley above a river, with a surreal Neogothic style, it would make a perfect film set. The present building has only existed since 1949, but the site has been a place of pilgrimage since a vision of the Virgin Mary was sighted in 1754. The sanctuary has been believed to cause miraculous healing since, with photos of loved ones dotted around the site, waiting for a miracle.
As we passed the collection of shops up the street, we saw our first dead guinea pig – a Ecuadorian and Peruvian delicacy – rotating around a spit, waiting to be eaten. I put the image in a part of my brain marked ‘REPRESS, REPRESS’. Thankfully a man distracted us and asked if we wanted a photo with his llama – another national delicacy – there were a pair of them with sequinned crowns and capes, it only cost a dollar and it was better than eating them, so we couldn’t resist.
Once we arrived back to the bus station a policeman came over and started talking to us, while he was distracting us his friend started taking photos. Once we realised what he was doing they laughed and scuttled off. Colombians love men with beards. We felt like a rare species. We were relieved when we got a taxi to Tulcan – not before Colombians pushing in front of us at the border queue – and ran across the bridge to Ecuador, literally sprinting.
Once we crossed the border it felt like heaven. There was an orderly queue, someone to tell us what we had to do, and an official that was amazed my last name was Perry, so called his friends over to come and have a look at the surname on my passport (maybe Ecuadorians love Katy Perry?). We left border control and needed to find out how to get to Otavalo. As we walked towards the taxi rank a group of Colombians came over and shyly asked if they could have a photo with all of us, so we did. I’m sure we were all over Colombian Facebook that day. Beards, seriously. We got a taxi to the bus station down the hill, and found a bus for four dollars (!!) for the four hour ride (Ecuadorians charge a dollar an hour for buses) to Otavalo. We made sure it went into the town centre, as we heard some buses drop you off at a highway outside of town, leaving you in the middle of nowhere. We weren’t sure whether to trust the conductor when he insisted he’d take us there, but for four dollars, even if we didn’t end up in town, we could afford a taxi to town. We enjoyed/didn’t understand Spanish dubbed Let’s Be Cops on the journey there and then got dropped off a couple of minutes from the town centre, and got a taxi (who knew exactly where he was going, what a treat) straight to our lovely home for the next two nights, Hostal Chasqui.
We were treated to such a warm welcome from the hostel staff, who took our bags up the stairs to our rooftop room, and spent ten minutes explaining the map and town in detail, in Spanish that we actually understood (a big change from rapid Colombian Spanish). Otavalo is 3,700m above sea level, 2,000m higher than Popayán, and you could feel the temperature plummet in the evenings which we weren’t used to (err, we only traveled here to escape British winters), but the bed was covered in blankets (and a TV with a stack of DVDs!), so we felt homely and cosy. In the day the sun was still strong, so the next day we headed out to explore the famous market of this little town. I was amazed to find bakeries and sandwich shops, a rare find in Colombia, Ecuadorians like their carbs, and cakes. We headed to a local restaurant our Irish friends had recommended, for two dollars we got a drink and plate full of veggies, roasted potatoes and luscious pork. We made our way with our bellies full to the huge handicraft market that sells goods from the Andes (and a few sly imports), the best in Latin America because of its exquisite textiles that have been sold here since pre-Incan times. It’s full of ponchos, purses, beads, blankets, lamps, local instruments, cushions and trinkets. We practised our haggling skills and stocked up on a few small things we could carry in our backpack for the next few months.
In the evening we headed to the Benecosi Rock Burger Cafe, which rocked great music and food, but they insisted we drank more beers than we had, and no matter how much arguing we did we ended up paying the extra money, well, the money would go further for Ecuadorians, but it left a bad taste in our mouths. Thankfully the next day was more successful, we did a bit more shopping and found a cafe that did bagels with cream cheese which I’d been dreaming over for months. I was chuffed and stuffed. There wasn’t much to see in the town itself, but it’s a great place to people watch and have a change of pace, in a beautiful, calm setting surrounded by clouds and volcanos. It’s very relaxed and the people are authentically friendly, plus no-one stared at the beards, or us in general, unlike Colombia. 25% of Ecuadorians are indigenous, compared to 3.4% in Colombia, and the differences were even more obvious in this little Andean town. The locals are naturally very elegant, the women wear draped dresses wrapped around themselves, with gold beads hanging over their woven skirts stopping just above their canvas sandals. They either looked 20 or 80. The men had a effortless style with long hair in ponytails with tall, round hats. There is a softness to Otavaleños which was a welcome change. We felt strangely at home, even though on first impressions it seems a culture shock. There are no malls to be seen here, but the strangeness made me miss home less than say, Medellín, where it looks more like home on the service, but you feel more like an alien. I was excited to explore more.
We were tempted to stay a few more days to see the market on Saturday – which is the best day – and take the Tren Crucero – the steam ‘railway through the sky’ – across the Andes that you can hear tooting its away across the town, or take a trip to the beautiful Laguna Cuicocha in the mountains surrounding Otavalo, but I had caught a cold since arriving, maybe it was the altitude that wiped me, and we needed to make time to get to Peru for the pre-booked Inca Trail, so we said our goodbyes and headed to Quito the same day. We liked the taste of Ecuador so far, and couldn’t wait for more.
Locals taking down poles in Plaza Bolivar
A statue of Rumiñawi, an Incan general in the 16th century who resisted the Spanish
We arrived with our Irish friends at Cali bus station to book our two hour journey to Popayán, easy right? Haha, NO. This is Colombia. The lady in the ticket booth of the main operator ignored us when we went over, we were trying to speak to her and she was blanking us, she then got exhausted from blanking us and went and had a fag break. Charming. So we went with another company, as thankfully there ware a number that work that route. I say thankfully, but that wasn’t really the word that came to mind when the Colombian children behind me on the bus started pulling my hair and prodding us. When we got to Popayán’s taxi rank, after what seemed like days, everyone offloaded the bus and pushed into the ‘queue’. The drivers were picking up whoever they fancied in no order, eventually we hailed one, and headed off to Hostel Caracol, a lovely colonial building a short walk from the main plaza, peace at last. All that prodding had made us hungry, so we headed for the delicious Restaurante Pizzeria Italiano and stuffed our faces with our old reliable friend, pizza.
The next day, we went to explore La Ciudad Blanco – The White City – and all its colonial charm. Popayán gets its name from the bright white walls of the glorious plaza and cobbled streets that gleam throughout day and night. We headed out to visit the churches and museums but everything was closed, so we settled on soaking up the rays in the park and by El Puente del Humilladero – The Bridge of Humilation – a stone bridge from centuries ago that is so called because it was built to allow the rich to walk over the poor below. The main plaza was lit up with Christmas stars and hearts tied to the trees, it really is a charming town that’s a real gem of Colombia. When we returned to the hostel we found our Irish friends covered in foam and heading for the shower, they had been caught in the wildfire of El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos – The Carnival of Blacks and Whites – which is basically one big foam fight. Or more historically, it’s a few days to celebrate the racial equality and diversity of Colombia. One day celebrates whites, where everyone covers each other in white powder and foam, and another to celebrate blacks, where people covers their faces with black paint. It’s celebrated from 2-7th January, mainly in the city of Pasto but all over south western Colombia. It was proclaimed by UNESCO as the one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It’s still an excuse for a party and you’re safe from no one. Not toddlers, not grandads, nobody. The main days of fighting started tomorrow, so we prepared ourselves by going back to the same pizza restaurant, taking our Aussie friends who had arrived today. This was going to be interesting.
Our Irish friends headed to Otavalo the next day, desperate to escape and get to Ecuador, which we had high hopes for, despite it being a bit of a South American underdog. We decided to stay put as the main day of the festival was today, we considered going to Pasto, where the biggest carnaval is, but we had heard it was dangerous, and it was 6 hours away. We had a deadline to get Macchu Picchu to start the Inca Trail in a few weeks, so we decided to stay put. The Aussies had taken a trek up the mountain surrounding Popayán, we were tempted to join them, but we were feeling lazy, so Dave & I set off to have lunch, only to find most places shut for the holiday. We spotted one coffee shop, one sea food restaurant and one local cafe that the whole of the town had descended on, so we settled for that. We wanted to catch the parade in town but missed the start of it, so we set out to buy cans of foam and start attacking the locals. We felt shy at first, but gringos are a prime target for Colombians, and we soon found ourselves getting smothered in a rainbow of paint, so we fought back, getting snuck upon by kids and drive-by foamings. Colombians take it seriously, wearing bandanas and scuba goggles, they don’t mess about. We started a battle with a family that resulted in us getting soaked through, I creeped up behind the dad when he thought the war had ended, and smothered his goggles in foam. He turned around looking furious, realised it was me, and burst out laughing. Success! We headed back to get changed, but before we reached the hostel, a car that was by the side of the road wound down its window and covered us with powder. We made it to the hostel door and ran inside, I changed out of my nude bra which was now stained green, donned sunglasses (must-haves), picked up our Aussie friends and headed out for round two. It was SO on. Show. No. Mercy.
Run for your lives
Starting to get foamed
This kid should have known better
Locals covering each other in foam
Kids were the deadliest opponents
The dad from the family we battled against
Me & Thee
Waiting to pounce on the locals
The plaza was packed now, everyone had stepped up their game, tag-teaming and hiding behind cars and trees to jump out and spray you in the face. Jeeps were driving around with groups of people armed with spray cans in each hand. This was war. We felt like big kids running around spraying everyone, like a marginally toned down Battle Royale. An American couple asked if they could join our troupe as they were getting hounded, so we combined forces, covering each other’s backs. Some locals were getting carried away and sprayed me in the eyes while my sunglasses were off, clumping together my eyelashes and contact lenses, a lovely family came to my rescue, pouring water into my eyes and rum down my throat to cheer me up. They were so welcoming and friendly that we hung around with them with the daughters helping translate our conversations, and telling us to avoid some dodgy guys who came over offering us booze. If only all Colombians we met on the trip had been like this. They headed back home and again us gringos stood out from the crowd. Locals were asking for photos with us and were fascinated by the guys’ beards. We grabbed some chorizo from a food stall and called it a day for the night. There was the party and concert in town that looked like madness, but there were queues down all of the streets, and we had to get up to get a bus at 7am the next day to Otavalo, Ecuador.
So this was our final night in Colombia. I wish we had explored more of the remote regions of Colombia, met the indigenous people and dug a little deeper. As it was with Cali, I think you have to put the time and effort in to get to know the country. When we did, as we had done today, it was easily one of the highlights of the trip, and one of the best days I’ve ever had. Sheer joy and mischief. And it’s far, far safer than its reputation makes it out to be, Colombia’s global image is in need of an update. I found Colombia wasn’t as diverse as I expected, I had imagined it to be a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, but apart from Cali, it didn’t seem that way to me, unless it’s so seamless you can’t even notice. Well we had to save that digging for next time, along with the five-day Lost City Trek into the northern Colombian jungle that we sadly couldn’t squeeze in. Next time I want Colombia to prove me wrong. But it was time for Ecuador.
Santiago de Cali, the place the phrase ‘rough around the edges’ was based upon. It’s a bit gritty, and not one for good first impressions. On the journey into the city we were quite tempted to turn around and never come back. The streets were bursting with piles of litter instead of bags of charm, but I’d heard it’s a city of substance over style. And I’ll try anything once, so try we did.
Cali’s slogan compares itself to its neighbours: Cali es Cali y lo demás es loma, ¿oís?’ (Cali is Cali, and the rest is just mountain, y’hear?) We were in the mountains of Salento, and to reach Cali you head to the main plaza and get a local bus to Pereira for 45 minutes. At the bus station you’ll have place names shouted from ticket booths in the hope that one of them is your destination. A number of operators serve Cali, so we window shopped and settled on the cheapest one. We asked if it was a big bus – comfy seats, air con – the Colombian Del Boy said yes. Obviously, it wasn’t. It was a minibus packed with three grumpy children and a mum who wouldn’t move their suitcases from under our feet, so Lonan, Mark and me sat with our knees pressing into our tummies, in sweltering 30C heat. Dave got front seat as his ankle was still playing up, and enjoyed the cool breeze with the window down, legs outstretched. We pretended he didn’t exist.
We arrived hot, sticky and squished to Cali bus station. We got a taxi and thankfully by this point of our trip I’d learnt to screenshot the address and map of our hostel on my phone, as Colombians taxi drivers take unknown levels of pleasure in not knowing where anything is. We got within a couple of streets of La Maison Violette, and thought, that’ll do. Our British friends were already there and we had planned to spend New Year’s together, Colombian style.
Sadly we had just missed the Cali Fair, a music carnaval that shows the world why the city’s called ‘The World’s Salsa Capital’. So we went to explore the San Antonio neighbourhood near our hostel and line our stomachs for the evening. We found a delicious pizza place that was not only covered in Aerosmith posters and ran by a lovely lady, but was opposite a house with a fluffy husky puppy leaning out of the window, we were sold. Our bellies didn’t know what hit them.
Colombians have a tradition at the end of each year to create homemade effigies from straw, newspaper and fireworks of national figures, and setting them on fire to meet their maker at midnight on New Year’s Eve, as part of the ‘Año Viejo’ (old year) tradition of burning away the old year, to make way for the new. On the way back from the pizza restaurant we stumbled across an effigy of Alfonso Cano, the leader of the ultra-marxist militant group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who encouraged kidnapping of politicians. He was killed in action by the Colombian army in 2011, and it didn’t look like tonight was going much better for him.
As our British friends had stayed out til 10am the night before and were a bit worse for wear, and we had a great view of the city from the rooftop of the hostel, we decided to stay in and watch the fireworks at midnight, after an almighty booze run at a shop with bars across the window, where Mark practiced his exceptional Spanish ‘Uno ron y dos coca por favor’. Our Aussie friends from San Blas joined us and we took it in turns to play DJ, before I got sashayed away after insisting on having The Corrs. We counted down to midnight dancing to December, 1963, as fireworks bursted into the sky for two hours. It’s tradition for Colombians to light them at New Year’s, often in effigies, (sorry Alfonso) and every house in the city was lighting up the night, making for an unbelievable sight, one I couldn’t stop staring at and didn’t want to end. I felt so excited for what the new year had in store. We blasted out Prince’s 1999 and Auld Lang Syne once the clock struck. At 5am we fancied seeing if there were any bars open around the neighbourhood, but the only people left standing were old men sat in the street drinking and shouting, tempting, but we decided to finish the evening off arguing about the merits of the royal family before it got too heated and we went to bed. Oh what a night.
On New Year’s Day we woke from our pits at 1pm and lazily headed down to the same pizza restaurant to pick up a takeaway, we waited an hour until they were ready, the two guys waiting at the hostel sent out a one-man search party, Dave, who we bumped into on the way back, crisis avoided. We did nothing but stay up and take photos with kitchen appliances in between me napping on the rooftop hammock.
We lazed around again the next day, as there are no proper must-sees or museums in Cali that we hadn’t seen before, it’s more of a night owl than a morning lark, and one that you have to put the effort in to get anything back (Cali was one of our British friends’ favourite place on their trip, we weren’t really putting anything in). We were tempted to take a trip to the Pance River out of town like our Aussie friends did, but we knew we were heading to plenty of places of rivers so prioritised what to save our time and energy for. I wish we had made the most of going out to soak up the samba, but I was zapped, I need to take a leaf out of Colombian pensioners’ books.
In the evening we decided to try the yummy Meli-Molo Japanese/Belgian fusion restaurant in the El Penon district a ten minute walk away, it was surprisingly delicious, and did a mean fish and chips (perhaps it was a Samurai favourite). On the walk back to the hostel a local girl came up and stroked my arm and we were convinced people were staring at us; really I’m not that interesting, all I want to do is nap. Some of us had started to get a view that Colombians were a bit strange, in the cities anyway, although others found them the friendliest of our trip so far. Maybe they need effort putting into too.
The next day we said goodbye to our British friends who were cutting their trip short after catching travel fatigue from 8 months on the road. We were looking forward to spending the next few months following their tracks but couldn’t imagine how tired they were, we were only 10 weeks in, and I already couldn’t survivie without a catnap. We headed to the Chipichape mall a short taxi ride away to drown our sorrows in clothes racks, but couldn’t find anything on our budget besides McDonald’s. We had ANOTHER pizza at the inspiringly named Pizza restaurant on Valle de Cauca, that sits alongside the gorgeous El Nacional park in the San Antonio neighbourhood, and left the kitchen appliances alone for one night.
In the morning, before the bus to Popayan, we squeezed a visit to the Cristo Rey, a Jesus statue that’s a pocket-size version (if you had a BIG coat) of Christ the Redeemer sitting on top of the Cerro de los Cristales (hill of the crystals). JC was built in 1953 to commemorate fifty years since the ending of the War of a Thousand Days, an armed conflict between the Liberal and Conservative parties that caused 100,000 casualties and economic ruin for Colombia. We caught a taxi ride from town (that didn’t feel much shorter) up the hill to enjoy the views of the sprawling city at the top. After about ten minutes we were done, there were no taxis in sight so we walked 45 minutes down the hill before we managed to hail one down. We were done. This auld acquaintance will not be forgot, and Cali, you were Cali, but I don’t think the rest is just mountains. We had one more stop left to find out. Onto Popayan…
Before spending New Year in Cali we made a stop off at the halfway point from Medellín; in the little colonial town of Salento. Salento sits in the Cocora (‘star of water’) Valley, home of the national tree and symbol of Colombia, the Quindío wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense, if you must ask). Quindios are not your average palm tree. They’re not even your average tree. They are mammoth, spindly, elegant monsters that shoot up into the sky. They’re taller than Stephen Fry, Stephen Merchant and Snoop Dogg COMBINED. Imagine if Giacometti did trees, and then elongate them ten fold. You’re almost there. These things are TALL. See if you can spot me in the photo below, then stand back and let that sink in.
I told you. I’m not actually trapped in some tropical Lord of the Rings fan fiction, that was REAL LIFE and here’s how we got there and what we got up to, in a place that actually exists.
To get from Medellín to Salento, you get an all day bus (hello old friend) from Terminal del Sur – near the airport – to Armenia, then get off at the bus station and catch a local one. When we arrived at Armenia we could not get a clear answer as to when the buses departed, so we saved ourselves a headache and considered a taxi a late Christmas present. In fact, it was barely any more than the bus would be, and 45 minutes of peace and quiet. This was the first – and last – time we hadn’t booked somewhere to stay on the trip, we decided to window shop once we got there and had a few places circled in the Lonely Planet, so went to check them out. All booked up. Great. We drag our 70l backpacks up and down the town’s cobbled streets until we finally find somewhere for a decent price; a cute whitewashed hotel ran by an adorable old lady, with pastel blue window shutters that open up to give views of the street below. I make myself look presentable and we head out for food, although having arriving so late, everywhere is shut, it’s only 10pm (dare I say I miss you Medellín?). Luckily we stumble across a tiny takeaway in the main plaza that’s serving chicken and chips, run by a lovely local family, so I order a portion of chips, and then another, and head to bed.
Our Irish friends were staying a few streets away, and we’d planned to meet them to visit the palm trees together the next day. It’s recommended to head to the main plaza for 7.30AM in order to pick a jeep to take you on the short ride to the valley, from where you start the classic loop trail across La Montana. You turn up, haggle with one of the dozens of cars waiting, climb onto the back, hold on for dear life, and set off, wind blowing into your hair. It’s a beautiful day, and the valley is saturated green, the scenery in Colombia is remarkably surreal, and more expansive than Central America. We arrive slightly dizzy at a collection of huts and shops, where you begin your five hour hike to the palm trees. We arrange with our driver to get picked up at 3pm and set off, taking extra care along the trail, as our British friends did the same route the week before us, took a wrong turn, and ended up adding another three hours onto the hike.
As we’re walking along we find a camera on the path, shortly after three locals on horses trot past and we ask them if it’s theirs, they look confused, shrug and leave us. We look through the photos to see whose camera it is, in case we pass them later on the trip, and you’ve guessed it, the memory card is full of photos of the three locals. Mark runs full speed back to catch up with them, they look even more confused, grudgingly take the camera, and don’t even thank him. Colombians, they’re a funny bunch.
To reach the glorious views of the valley you have to do a gruelling thirty minute sharp ascent up a hill, I go delirious and horizontal starfish as soon as I reach the top. We stop to soak in the panoramic, and feed Pringles to the skinny local dogs while the owners aren’t looking. I feel so high up, the mountain peaks are peaking out from underneath the clouds, we’ve not hiked since Guatemala two months ago, and my heart’s pounding. We pass creaky river bridges along the way, topping up our water from the sweltering sun. We make our descent through the valley where we finally come across the rows upon rows of palm trees, trying to escape from earth into the sky. I can’t stare at them enough to let it sink in, they’re staggering, ten times the size of me and neck-bending to look up at. Once we’ve passed them we realise that field with them in can actually be reached from a five minute walk from the car park. It was kind of worth it though…
Back in town we reward ourselves with a late lunch at the delicious Lebanese veggie El Punto cafe, then have a nap and head out to scoff on a huge pizza at Pizza Punto y Coma in the evening, so huge that I get paranoid that the locals must be staring at me and try to shield it from view. The town is beautifully painted with primary colours and surreal Christmas decorations, and has some gorgeous shops I could spend a fortune in, but we decide to save our money, as we’re heading to Otavalo next week, which is meant to have the best market in South America. The locals have a different pace of life than Medellín, and it shows in their temperament. We had wanted to take a coffee tour to explore the plantations around the valley, but we have to leave for Cali the next morning in time for New Year’s Eve, so get an early night ready for another bus. And what a bus it was…
This post has been a long time coming! It seems squeezing Latin America into 7 months means there’s so much to do, that there isn’t any free time to type up what we did. We barely had enough energy left over for Instagram. But here’s what we got up to, resuming in Medellín, remembered thanks to my journal and elephant memory. I’ve been lugging both around for a long time. So get ready for lots of posts, and lots of tea breaks, this is a LONG one. And a festive one, so y’know, don’t despair. We’ll get through it.
What better place to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus than the former murder capital of the world? A place where over 6,000 killings happened in 1991 alone? I’ll be damned if I can think of a finer place than Medellín. Thankfully, things have changed dramatically since the Nineties, not only have there only been a tenth of the murders this year compared to twenty years ago, it’s now got a reputation as the Christmas lights capital of the world. That’s right, this city TWINKLES. In fact, it’ll twinkle the shit out of anyone that even tries to out-twinkle it. Just try, you don’t want to mess with Medellín.
So why did was it so trigger happy back then? That’s down to that old troublemaker and drug lord Pablo Escobar. Good old Pablo, you remember him, the one who introduced hippos to Colombia? Yeah he was also ‘The King of Cocaine’, one the wealthiest criminals of all time, earning billions of dollars and eventually controlling over 80% of cocaine imports to the US. If the name Ruth was synonymous with bloodthirstiness then he put the Ruth in ruthless. Sorry Ruth. As a child he was already stealing tombstones and striking deals with Panamanian smugglers. He probably never got picked first in PE.
Escobar began his fortune processing and then exporting Bolivian and Peruvian cocoa paste to America, and worked his way up to drug-trafficking, controlling all crime in Medellín and murdering thousands of people – including policeman, politicians and judges if they didn’t accept his bribes of ‘silver or lead’. By the mid 80s he was the 7th richest man in the world and was seen as a local boy done good by many of Medellín inhabitants, thanks to his donations to schools, parks and charities to win public favour. Eventually, in 1992, after crossing one line too many, the government ordered him to go to prison, he fled before he got behind bars and a manhunt finally chased him down in 1993, when he was shot on a rooftop. The fatal bullet passed through his ear, leading many to debate to this day whether he committed suicide. With Escobar gone, Medellín’s cartel lost its control over drug trade to its rival Colombian cartel from Cali. Crime rates have fallen ever since, also thanks to the city’s majors who have attempted to integrate the city’s surrounding poorer areas into the centre with the metro line and cable cars. So, Christmas was sure going to be interesting…
Colombians don’t do buses. When they do, they get restless and pull your hair. The mountains that separate Medellín from Bogota make for a 12 hour bus ride, so we travel the Colombian way; in the air. The flight to Medellín was delayed by a couple of hours, though I’m feeling unnervingly calm as our last flight from Cartagena to Bogota was plain sailing. I’m more hungry than anxious, as we set off early to fill our stomachs at the airport, but traffic left us sitting along the highway for an hour, and the Colombians regard queue-jumping as a sport, no British scowls or tutting will stop them from winning, so we wait another half an hour at check-in.
We finally fly off into the darkness at 10pm and are hit straight away by turbulence. The air steward starts to hand out drinks but only gets to the first few rows before the coffee is jumping out of our cups. My heart drops to my stomach as the plane suddenly falls with a jolt. I’m grasping onto the armrests and squeezing the blood out of Dave’s hands once the captain announces we are descending after 20 minutes; I thought this was a 90 minute flight? I’m convinced it’s an emergency descent, but it’s so dark outside I can’t tell how high up we are or if we’re spiralling to our deaths. I tell myself that we can’t possibly die at Christmas and desperately press the plane tracker button on our screens, it tells me we are circling Medellin. I breathe out the biggest sigh of the trip. It really was a 30 minute flight all along. Well Colombians do love to fly. Unlike me. We come into land and just as the runway lights get bigger and bigger, the plane suddenly shoots upwards in a steep ascent and my eyes well up. The captain comes over the tannoy and mutters in Spanish, all I catch is ‘situation normal’, but all I want to do is get off this tin can that’s hurtling up into the night’s sky. We circle the city for another 20 minutes before we finally land. I can’t breathe out until I know we’ve touched ground.
I leave the plane shaking and glad to still be breathing. A sea of faces are pushed up against the glass of the exit doors, waving at the passengers; mums, dads, grandmothers, grandchildren; all grinning with their arms outstretched. The only welcome we get is from taxi drivers outdoing each other to rip us off, and quoting us more money than we have on us. If I hadn’t cried yet this almost set me off. It gets worse when we can’t find an ATM and once we have and are driving off to our hotel, we realise Dave’s left the Lonely Planet by the cash machine. We get in the taxi feeling like Shane & Kirsty, seeing a better time, when all our dreams come true. The taxi winds its way down over the hills surrounding Medellin, and here they are, the best Christmas lights in the world, meandering along the river, shining over the water and surrounded by the lights of this huge city. It was *beginning* to feel a lot like Christmas.
We booked a hotel to treat ourselves for Navidad. A five star one at that (hmm…). A doorman greets us and carries our dirty, scruffy backpacks into the marbled reception, I feel about as filthy and haggard as my Osprey. The receptionist gives us the eye but I’m too exhausted to care as we crash onto our huge bed, feeling out of place and out of sorts, too tired to get food and too tight to get room service. Though hang on, what’s that I spot in the bathroom…? A hairdryer! My hair hasn’t been blow dried in two months. At least my hair’s happy if my head isn’t. We check our messages and let our Irish friends from San Blas know that we’ve arrived, we planned to stay in the same hotel as them and celebrate Christmas together. We soon realise that they’re in the Dann Carlton Belfort and we’re in the err, well just Dann Carlton, a taxi ride away. Feck. Christmas for two it is.
We spend Christmas Eve at the mall down the road, raiding Forever 21 for some desperately needed new clothes, and then celebrate our hard work by lounging by the pool. An American starts talking to us, arm in arm with his much younger Colombian girlfriend, who looks so stereotypically Colombian – right out of the 80s, probably fake books – that she seems plucked from the pages of a trashy novel (in reality Colombian women are PRISTINE). He tells us that the hotel is renowned for visits from prostitutes and is a lot seedier than it appears. I’ll never look at the 10 foot Santa in the reception the same way again.
In the evening we decide to sample the rooftop restaurant we read about on Tripadvisor, but once we reach the top floor, we’re told it’s been privately hired out. The receptionist looks shocked that we want to eat out tonight, and like it’s such an effort to give recommendations. He tells us everywhere is closed on Christmas Eve, but to try the local plaza a taxi ride away, so we do. We find a burger place, Barbacoa, that’s heaving with the only Colombians who seem to be out to celebrate Navidad, and get some food. (We later find out that Christmas Eve is for family time, Christmas Day for friends). I ask the waiter for a cocktail (in Spanish), he scowls and says ‘No, you mean COC-TEL’. Yeah whatever mate, just bring me a drink. He doesn’t bother in the end, so we grab the bill and head back, with minimal festive cheer, and fed up.
On Christmas morning I’m woken by Dave playing Christmas songs on Youtube, he’s bought orange juice and champagne to make homemade Bucks Fizz, though the more we try to make it Christmassy, the more it fails to feel like it. Breakfast is chaos, you have to wait your turn to be seated, which Dave ignores, we then are told to go back and wait in reception until we are called, which is full of Colombians who are impressed we’ve learnt from their queue jumping tradition. Embarrassed, we sit down and wait our turn, before drowning our sorrows in the buffet. We spend the afternoon Skyping the family – plus dog, in reindeer ears – and lazing by the pool. We get stuck in a conversation with an American who, when we tell him we are planning to stop off in Miami before we head home, tells us, with a straight face, to avoid the beach ‘the blacks’ go to. We refuse to hold our tongue but just about resist pushing him into the pool. Eurgh. The clientele suck. This guy really sucks. Americans can give Americans a bad name.That’s the last time we miss Christmas away, or spend it in a hotel, at least hostels have different types of insufferable people.
Thankfully Christmas day gets better. It gets chilly in the evenings and we’ve made plans to meet up with the Irish and Australian couples from San Blas so we hop out, warm up our goosebumps, and dress up for the first time in ages, dry hair and all. We line our stomachs with pizza and head to a little goth bar one of us knows abouts – Bar Underground En Vivo – where they’re playing… err, Oasis. We instantly feel at home. A guy from Texas starts chatting to us, Mark does a cowboy impression and mimics shooting his boot with his finger pistol when he tells us where he’s from, we find out later Eli did the same two minutes before, sorry amigo. The bartender serves us whatever he fancies, he’s got tattoos on his face and wears a short black hat, I have no desire to fuck around with him, this guy oozes death. We all enjoy ourselves a bit too much and as we leave I spot four Spanish girls are singing Feliz Navidad, I turn my head around and sing along, they grab me by the neck and we spin around and I make a quick exit before the dizziness hits me. A very Merry Christmas it turned out to be.
It didn’t wake up feeling like Christmas, but I certainly felt like something in the morning. I wake up in my dress and makeup at 2pm, and we decide to finally make it to the Christmas lights in town. We head down later on to try and avoid the crowds, but at 10pm it is still rammed. The streets along the river are packed with burger stalls, drink shacks, and locals samba-ing joyfully. Colombians really know how to party. Speaking of which, the party buses we saw in Nicaragua have migrated down South, old American school buses are crammed with Colombians dancing and shouting out the windows, with disco lights spinning around and balloons floating from the roof. The lights themselves ignore all the madness behind them, patterns hover above the water, flickering on and off, the square is lit up by glowing fountains, drenching the kids running around underneath and getting soaked through. The lights are so imaginative and colourful, nothing like the naff themes that are hashed out at home year after year. Colombians don’t do things by half.
We can’t stay longer than Boxing Day at Dann Carlton as the hotel is full up, there’s no love lost so we head over to the Medellin Royal for a couple of nights, for proper five star service. The staff are exceptional, giving us maps and offering to order us taxis before we even ask, they always tell the driver where were are going to avoid any Spanglish confusion, plus, the hotel dog is a four foot fluffy monster who was born to be cuddled.
Before we reached Medellín I came across a photo online of a staggering rock in Colombia that I’m dying to visit, and I’m so excited to find out it’s actually an hour and 45 minutes from Medellín on the bus. Our Irish friends have heard of El Penon de Guatape – the rock of Guatape – too and so we plan to meet at the bus station, but the place is so rammed and disorganised that we can’t spot each other. There’s no planning to Colombian bus stations, it’s pot luck to get the right bus and everyone tells you different directions to the right ticket booths. Either way we find a bus and reach the tiny town that shares its name with the monolithic formation that dominates the skyline, shooting up and down either side. The indigenous tribes used to worship the volcanic rock, and I can see why. We climb the 650 steps to the top that gives mesmerising views around a gigantic panoramic. The scenery looks like Tolkien, bright, saturated, never ending green with bumps and lakes, like a surreal Switzerland.
The town itself is a quaint little pueblo that looks like it’s straight out of Disney Does the Lake District. We hire a tuk-tuk from the rock and potter around the streets people-watching. A zipline towers over the lake while visitors sit at the lakeside to watch, one unlucky guy drops his wallet and phone into the water on the way down, PLOP! But the town’s facade can’t hide the fake, touristy feel of the place, and the shocking service in the restaurants. My view of (some) Colombians changes after Medellín and Guatape, some people act like they don’t need the tourists, and the welcoming waiters we’ve had throughout Latin America are few and far between. Although it seemed obvious to me that in Medellín, the people are proud of their city, and that’s it’s got a bright future compared to its murky past. Perhaps they’ll get used to the tourists. Either way we get the bus back to our hotel for the last day of exploring.
On our final day in Medellín, we take the cable car up to the Parque Avri, an ecotourism reserve located at the top of the hills surrounding the city. We quickly realised there is nothing of note to see there, just a wood that would make for a nice picnic, or a lazy Sunday, but the views over the metropolis, and over the forest on the way up to the park, more than make up for it. So we explore the rest of the city, heading to the botanic gardens where teenagers pose in glittering ball gowns for photos to celebrate their quinceañera (fifteenth birthday), and to the striking Plaza de Cisneros – part of the renovated area of the city that’s one of the focuses of the modernisation of Medellín – to stare up at the three hundred 24m posts, standing confidently, just like Medellín. Although the old stereotypes ring true sometimes; we sit in the plaza admiring the sculptures when two teenagers walk by, one snorting powder right off his hand. Well, it’s a work in progress.
In the evening I’m desperate to take the cable car up to see the lights across the city, we read that the area you pass over to reach the line can be dangerous, but we take a risk, take a half hour tube, and reach the cable only for the panicked attendants to tell us that the cars are now only going up, not down, and the tube is closed. They escort us nervously to the exit and point towards a taxi – please don’t let this be our last moment, I think – the driver is twitchy and drives like a maniac, what if he’s driving us to the cartel? Oh God. Thankfully he doesn’t, we stop at the mall near the hotel and run for our lives up to our room.
So that was that, and that was Medellín. A confusing, contradictory, but curious place, one that’s now way safer than, say, Buenos Aires, one that’s steeped in modern history, and with an exciting future ahead of it. Our immediate future consisted of getting the bus to Salento the next day; we’d seen the cocaine capital, now time for the coffee kingdom.