Colombia: The Fiesta

It’s been a while since I last posted a blog, and while I am sorry, I’m pleased to say that we have been enjoying the fiesta life of Colombia…maybe a little too much!

After travelling through Peru and Bolivia, it was refreshing to arrive in Bogota, the capital of Colombia. While we did not have any luck with the weather (terrential rains in the dry season) we had great experiences with the people and the city. The second of December kicks off Christmas season down here with the turning on of the lights. Justin and I strolled through the elite section of Bogota called Zona Rosa. The modern buildings are filled with trendy clothes stores, restaurants offering high end cuisine and bars packed with Colombians ready for a party. The vibe here, and in all of Colombia is so alive and exciting to be a part of. The people are friendly and have a sincere interest in other travellers. Tourism is still new so they are not sick of us yet! That night we got right into the swing of things and headed on out meeting up with a friend, Alan, who we met in Cusco. He was staying with his friend Fabiano, a Colombian, who, along with his friend Lina ended up being our tour guides while we were in Bogota. They took us to the amazingly colourful eight story salsa club called Andres! This was a melting pot of different generations just having a good time and doing what they do best, Salsa!

As I mentioned above, Fabiano and Lina became our tour guides taking us to see the different Christmas lights in a small town called Usaquen, which has now been swallowed by Bogota’s urban sprawl. The Colombians go all out with the festive decorations, and parks all over the country are full of Alice in Wonderland multicolored lights. They even have fake snow that is sprayed every now and then which both children and adults alike go crazy for. Fabiano also invited us over to his Uncle and Aunt’s house where we enjoyed Onces. Onces happens every Sunday. Family and friends get together and enjoy hot chocolate, cheese and bread. They even enjoy dipping their cheese in the hot chcoloate as we would dunk biscuits. As with all Colombians, the family welcomed us in and we spent the evening chatting away.

While we were in Bogota we also visited Monserat, a cathedral over looking the city.Unfortunately we chose to visit on a Sunday, along with 90% of Bogota. We could only stand the crownds for 15 minutes. We also visited the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira. The cathedral is in a mine which is still functioning today and was initially built as a pilgrimage. The new cathedral was built in 1995 and has an artsy feel to it with well designed lighting. Now the cathderal is mainly a tourist attraction and is part of the Salt Theme Park.

Leaving Bogota we headed north to hit the colonial towns of Bogota.  First stop was Sogamoso, not really a tourist town, but was worth checking out for Lago Tato, the biggest lake in Colombia. The bus route from Sogamoso around the lake takes you out into the country and through all of the onion fields. We stopped at Aquitania, which is full of the pungent smell of onions and men in ponchos and cowboy hats riding around on motobikes. After checking out the lake for a few minutes before the rain hit us again, we headed to Iza the sleepier, prim and proper cousin to Aquitania.

Carrying on the Christmas celebrations the seventh of December was Dia de Las Velitas where families line up little candles in the street and light them at dark. In true Colombian style there is a fiesta consisting of fireworks, a salsa band, aguilla beer and dancing. The larger fiesta is in Villa de Leyva, however we stayed in Sogomoso for the more intimate version.

Our next colonial town was San Gil, further north halfway between Bogota and the coast. To get here we decided to take a day bus, which we regretted after the first ten minutes. I’ve complained about the driving before but Colombia takes it to a whole new level. They really do not care about overtaking on blind bends, overtaking when a semi truck is blundering down the road towards them, or driving right up behind another car or bus so close that they could almost touch. I think I’ve probably grown about another 10 grey hairs in the past month. We have now decided that we will just try and do night buses so you can’t see what is going on. However the night busses are freezing and you typically will need a jumper, a coat, a rain coat and a wooly hat to stay warm.

San Gil is set on a hill meaning the streets are steeper than those of San Francisco. I didn’t think that would be posible! While this is the adventure capital of Colombia we chose to chill out and enjoy some sun! Here, surprisingly, they were fiesta’ing as well . Justin and I shared a few beers with some local linemen (Justin couldn’t help himself) and watched the festivities in the park and across the way in a packed corner shop while the crowd was watching a tense football game.

Finishing off our tour of the Colonial towns we headed to Barichara, a very artsy town a day trip away from San Gil. Here the buildings are a brilliant white, the flowers are stunningly pink, the streets a intricately cobbled. You can tell that the people take pride in their pueblo. We wandered round here for a few hours then headed back to San Gil to get the night bus north. We were heading to the coast!

The next part of our journey were the beaches of Colombia’s carribean coast. We first stopped in Taganga, a growing fishing village. Here life is more tranquilo. Walking down the main strip you see the locals hanging out on the corner chatting with a bottle of Aguila and the beats of salsa music flowing through the air. The beaches here are OK (unfortunately the tranquilo goes a little too far and the beaches and water do have the odd bit of rubbish floating in them), but you really come here to either do the Ciudad Perdida trek  or to go to the beaches of Parque Tayrona. We decided to do the latter option because of time (Ciudad Perdida takes 6 days) and because the idea of more mozzie bites scared us. We joined a couple from San Francisco, Dallas and Peter and headed to the park. They told us it take 2 hours to get to the beach you can camp at, but as usual it took longer. We weren’t complaining as the views of the dense forest, the golden sand and the blue wáter was a nice change to being inland. The easy trail took us through the forest, along the beaches and through the mud pits which I loved! You would probably have top ay $200 for that mud back home. There were ladies selling orange juice and arepas (arepas are like a small corn tortilla and are widely used for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Colombia. I’m now over them!) which curbed our thirst and hunger after the hike. After 4 hours we made it to the Cabo San Juan. We took in the views of the cove, but our dreams of a nice refreshing dip were quickly taken away when the rain started pouring down. We settled in our tents (you can also rent hammocks, but they aren’t such a great idea in the rain) and then went and played cards while we were entertained by the thunderstorm over the ocean.

The next morning was picture perfect and we spent our day swimming in the wáter and sunbathing, well Dallas and I did, while Justin and Peter went on an adventure. Rather than hiking out we decided to get the boat back, which was an adventure in itself. I think we almost tipped it a couple of times!

After roughing it in Parque Tayrona, we were ready for Cartegena, the famous walled city of Colombia. Unfortunately again the rain was on the same itinerary and welcomed us on arrival and was still hanging around to wave us off when we left four days later. Sadly too tourism is a well established industry here and the people are either not so friendly or love to hassle you on the streets trying to sell coral necklaces or the product of the other well established industry. We still made the most of our time walking round the colorful streets, sunbathing over on Isla Pirata, a part of Isla Rosarios, (we only had 40 minutes of rain that day!) and eating some delicious food at a french bakery and La Cevicheria which Anthony Bourdain visited.  We also tried out Vulcan Totumo, a mud volcano. This was a strange but fun experience. The volcano is more of a mound shaped hill. They are very organized and have someone to take your photos while you wallow in the mud, men to give you a rub down and women in the lagoon to wash you off if you so desire. We just went for the photographer. As soon as you arrive, you are told to strip off down to your bathing suits and climb up the wooden stairs to the top of the volcano. At the top there is a pit just a bit bigger than a hot tub, and when we arrived it was filled with giggling geriatrics. After waiting for a while in our swimming cozzies, shivvering as the rain decided to sprinkle again, they were all pulled out and it was our turn to glide in. It was a very weird feeling as you can’t touch the bottom and the staff literally push you around. After twenty minutes, and maybe feeling a few years younger, we headed down to the lagoon for a quick wash off before heading for lunch.

Our last beach stop was in Tulu, a town full of loud Colombian tourists. Fortunaly our hostel was quiet and we were able to make the most of the hammocks. The beaches in Tulu are tiny and are backed up to a road, so we headed to El Calao Beach in Covenas.  To get here, we needed to take a local bus and then a moto-taxi. When we arrived in Tulu we were picked up by a pedicab, so I figured that a moto-taxi was the term they used for a car. Nope…it was a motorbike. I’ve never been on a bike before and here I am clutching on to my driver along the roads with no helmet and wearing only a top and shorts. I mean really, leathers are so last year. Fortunately we made it safe and sound arriving at the beach with no one else in sight. It was a nice change to the beaches of Taganga and Isla Pirata where every 5 minutes you are being bothered about something. We spent a few hours there and then hopped on the bikes back to town.

Next we were off to Medellin, well after a long night bus that broke down for 4 hours and was like the antartic! The city was big, yellow bumper car taxis honked away in the streets, the center was crowded with people getting ready for Christmas. It was all a little overwhelming for us. So we headed to Poblado, again the more upscale side of town and enjoyed some relaxing beers with a couple of other travellers we met in Bolivia. This side of town though may be chill in the day, but at night the bars and clubs are pumping.

In Medellin the big tourist attraction is the Pablo Escobar tour. Pablo Escobar was a famous drug lord and now his family do tours of his house and where he was killed. We decided against it since the money goes to his family, and they probably have enough funding from his drug habit. The other backpackers who have done it have said it was really interesting and worthwhile.

Christmas was drawing close so we decided to head down south. Fabiano and Lina, our friends from Lima had invited us to spend Christmas with their families in Ibague. Fabiano’s family welcomed us with open arms during their traditional celebrations. They celebrate Christmas more so on Christmas eve, going round to see different friends, and practicing Novenas. Novenas are prayers that they read every evening the nine days before Christmas. The Novena we were a part of lasted for about 45 minutes. Afterwards they serve dinner at midnight, which is meats, potato salad and little desserts with peach, and then they open their presents. On Christmas morning we had tamales for breakfast, which are slightly different to the mexican kind and then went to church. It was striking to me how casual the church ceremony felt, probably because they go more than once a year unlike most of us. They didn’t even have a hymn book and everyone knew what was going on. Later on in the day we went round to Linas for lunch and then took a drive out of Ibague where the locals were all partying in the streets and bars. It was a very different experience to our traditions at home and we feel very lucky to have had a real Colombian Christmas.

After Christmas, we decided to head for the Zona del Cafe! We had already experienced the Coffee park, which is a small theme park mainly for kids, but Justin and I enjoyed the rollercoaster and racing each other round in karts. But we were ready for the real coffee park, so we headed to Salento, a beautiful small town right in the heart of it all. The hills here are illuminous green, and the town is decorated with funky coloured buildings. The coffee, they argue here, is the best in the world, and while I am not a major coffee connoisseur it did the trick for me. We did a couple of coffee tours here and watched how they make the coffee by hand from start to finish. Unfortunately for the colombians, while the coffee is produced here the good stuff gets exported, while they are left with the leftover beans that have been damaged in some way. However, in Salento you can find a good cup at a local café.

We also did the hike to Valle De Corcora to see the tallest wax palm trees scattered through the valley. The hike also takes you up to a hummingbird reserve, where you can watch the birds zoom around and listen to their wings beating over a hot chocolate and cheese.

The nightlife in Salento is quite lively despite the size of the town. We were staying at Casona de Lili, along with Lili’s daughter and her friends. One night we bumped into them at a bar and joined in with shots of aguardiente and salsa lessons.

Our last stop in Colombia was Cali, the salsa capital. We arrived to catch the tail end of the salsa festival and for New Year.  We only booked our hostel two days before arriving, not normally a good idea when it’s new years, but lucked out and got a superior suite and an amazing hostel, which is more like a mansión with a pool, sauna and steam room. The owner is also a michelen star chef so we enjoyed a very nice meal the day we arrived for his birthday (we gave him the bumps in return). I think the owner before hand had some dealings with the white stuff based on the black and gold decor choices in our bathroom.

We had three awesome nights out in Cali. The first was a mix of our friend Carmel (who we did the Pampas in Bolivia with) and I in a dressing room trying on salsa costumes, a petrol station with fast and the furious style cars and a random bar. The second we were on a Chiva, which is a Colombian party bus, and then ended up at a bar dancing with a guy and a girl who compete in Salsa until 5 am. And the third was New Years. Again it’s different here, where most people enjoy New Years with their family and then go out after. Everyone at our hostel grouped together and headed on a missión to try and find something open. First we found the Intercontinental, and were tempted but then opted for the tienda on the side of a main street with patio chairs, bottles of Andres champagne and make shift fireworks. It was a hilarious way to ring in the new year and was then followed by, what more than a salsa club till 4 am. As you can imagine we were all wrecked yesterday but fortunately we had a pool to chill out by.

Tonight we head down towards the equator for some fun in Equador! Hope everyone had a great time over the holidays and Happy New Year!

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