Having spent the best part of 6 months travelling solo and fully embracing a life of sobriety it has become pretty clear that the correlation between beer and women is without doubt POSITIVE!
C O L O M B I A N T I N D E R S C E N E
Whilst my wish to knock booze on the head was not bourn from a desire to perform a social experiment to see whether this world renowned hypothesis was true, the downside of this lifestyle choice has unequivocally shown the statistical correlation to slope in this depressingly positive direction. See data in graph below.
So having had time to reflect on numerous buses, long runs, sweaty (wee proof mattress covers) but lonely nights I decided whilst hanging about in Santa Marta for a few days I’d explore the Colombian Tinder scene and hopefully enjoy some much needed female companionship.
There’ll be very few people reading this other than my folks who need an explanation of what this “Tinder” thing I speak of is all about so I’ll make a brief description just for your benefit Mum and Dad.
Basically, it’s an application on iPhones, iPads or whatever device people choose to attach the palm of their hands to 90% of the waking day. It’s a heinously shallow monstrosity allowing you to view women, men and those in-between who are in your local vicinity who have also discovered a prohibitive correlation in their life choices or are just outright desperate for some bedroom gymnastics/ business time. You swipe right if you like what you see and left if you don’t. When there is a match of “likeness”, bingo bango, you can message each other and do whatever it is you need to do to make a rendezvous.
How has it come to this I hear you ask. Young, single, and travelling Latin America where the women are notoriously smoking hot. Surely there shouldn’t be a problem in this department?
Well I’ve long preferred a different type of living arrangement than a cheap party hostel with groups of 20 year olds having the same conversations about how much coke they’ve smashed up their snouts. I don’t really like the hostel scene that much. People generally hop between hostels every few days as they move in to the next tourist spot in Lonely Planet and consequently many hostels lack any atmosphere or interaction between guests.
Combine this with no partying and a propensity to be in bed with a paper back by 9pm and my life has spiralled in to a state of zero romancing. Days of back to back to back love making are well in the past but on the flip side, I’ve read some cracking books!
Enough is enough though, I’m missing some solid female companionship, there’s no doubt about it. But I’m done with spending it in the presence of someone I have no interest in talking with. Tinder then with an algorithm based purely on aesthetics might not be the best tool for success in meeting the three essential requirements; 1: world class 2: solid English and 3: interesting. (In no particular order of importance. All are prerequisites to love making with Latinos)
So I’m hanging about in Santa Marta enjoying not being on a bus or in the back of a 4 wheel drive jeep in the desert and putting my time to good use. (I’m actually waiting for some emails in response to some possible workaway jobs in the mountains.) I’m swiping right more than sporadically in the radius of 10km. I don’t want to open this search up too wide. The thought of having to travel too far to meet a random girl is not the name of he game here.
I’ll be honest but to date Colombia has not delivered on its world class status as the country with the most attractive women per square foot. Maybe I’ve spent too much time freezing my tits off on buses or hanging out in remote desert locations with Wayuu Tribes people (although I did find them surprisingly and strikingly attractive), so it’s a little harsh to ridicule Colombia as being on a par with England at this stage.
I’m getting some surprisingly solid results for the area. Exotic and indigenous. However, the language barrier becomes an issue and I’m getting bored of copying and pasting the same spiel only to find the girl doesn’t speak English to a great level and I’ve run out of Spanish verbs, nouns and adjectives.
Luckily Marcela comes to the rescue. Obviously the initial connection is based on complete shallowness, this girl is a 10 all day long, smoking hot, no doubt about it.
She moved from Bogota to Canada on her own at 15 to learn English and therefore ticks the English box more than proficiently. She is based in Bali where she sources materials for her own sustainable bikini manufacturing company. She divides her time up between work and travelling all over the place, mainly super remote islands working on projects helping people cut off from the rest of world. It’s one of the more interesting life stories I’ve heard for a long time and i find it very inspirational, aspirational and interesting. The requirement for a high interest level is thus met substantially!
We arrange to meet up on the only evening that Marcela has available. She’s doing a free diving course in the nearby seaside town of Taganga and it requires a lot of preparation and work so we do our best to arrange to meet up. I’m intrigued by her story and my mind wonders in the direction of curiosity.
Prior to “matching” up with Marcela on Tinder I’d decided, having spent four nights too many in Santa Marta which for me has nothing much going on other than a massive freight depo killing the sunset into the Caribbean Sea (how the fuck was this place allowed to be built here! Disgrace!), I was going to get the night bus out of there that evening.
I’d arranged to meet Marcela in Taganaga at 6ish. Taganaga was 5km away on maps.me so I set off at 5:45pm expecting to be there for 6ish easy and then to hang out, chat, and then catch my bus from the main terminal at 9pm. I actually liked this arrangement because my motives for meeting Marcela were not based on the activity of my second brain, I was truly interested in meeting her and hearing more about what sounded like a wonderful way to live life.
So I set off with all my bags and crap and I wait 10 minutes for the bus, he drives past me. Not sure why. I wait for the next, another 10 minutes and that one too drives past me despite me running into the road to wave him down. This is very un Latino America, local bus drivers go mental for a 25c bus fare and this was going to be well in excess of that so I’m not sure why they are turning me down. It’s sort of rush hour, or peak business so maybe the buses were all full. A woman then tells me there are specific bus stops and they won’t just stop anywhere in the road. So I move up the road and wait again. Another 10 minutes and I get on a packed bus where I piss half the passengers and the bus driver off by systematically smashing them in the face with my bags. I’ve also not got enough money to pay the driver the 2500 Colombian pesos journey. I’m 200 short. I can’t get into my bag to find the rest. He’s shouting at me and I’m not moving so we have a stand off and eventually he drives on. I’m going to be late but it’s not going to be too bad because it’s only 5km away.
Well that 5km journey took nearly 1 hour in the traffic and with all the stops to pick up more passengers. It dawns on me that getting back across town to the bus terminal, which is about 20km away, for the 8:45pm bus could take much longer. It’s close to 7pm now, I’m going to have to say hi and bye to Marcela because I’ll need to jump straight back on a bus to make it across town based on this little journey.
So when I get to Taganga I can’t find the restaurant we’ve arranged to meet at and I’m walking further away from the bus stop. I give up. Not having a working phone is ace most of the time but at this point I wish I could call her to at least apologise. I can’t and I don’t have time to find wifi and message her. So I go back to the bus stop and wait about 20 minutes for a bus.
It’s all a bit stressful and I feel like I’ve stripped myself of my freedom by making an arrangement that proved to be so tight. For a few hours I have placed a time barrier on myself and I’ll be honest it was horrible. It makes me appreciate my freedom so much more, a life where I am not run by schedules is the shizzle!
However, every cloud has a silver lining and whilst waiting for the bus I meet Granny Diana, her husband and two grandkids. She is absolutely battered! It’s the Colombian summer holiday season and between December and the first two weeks of January as previously mentioned the country is on holiday mode and Diana particularly is enjoying her vacation to the max. She is plastered big time. She’s on me like a flash and before I know it she’s whipped out a load of biscuits and is force feeding me them. She jokingly asks if I want a cup of tea with them. She can’t believe it that I don’t actually drink tea, that sets her off and she spends the next 10 minutes laughing about it. I’ve never seen a granny so pissed before. The bus comes and she’s giving me her number and telling me to come and stay with her in Bogota. Amazing lady! But sadly criteria number 2 was not met.
I make it to the bus depot with 15 minutes to spare only to find out all the buses to San Gil and surrounding areas are full. There are hoards of people stuck at the depot for the night because there’s no spaces left on the various buses.
Santa Marta whilst providing me my first decent stop and rest in two weeks has not delivered a workaway opportunity in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. So I make the decision to book my bus for the following night and ensure I get out of there.
I make the long journey back into town and back to the grim hostel I’d spent the last four nights at. I get into bed just after 10pm having spent the last four hours on or waiting for public transport. A bit of a shit night really.
But it did mean I got a second chance of meeting up with Marcela the next evening before leaving.
We meet up in Santa Marta and watch the sun set and stroll along the beach chatting not before a homeless guy drops his bag of aluminium beer cans down my back which was nice of him. Marcela was indeed super interesting and it was nice to spend a few hours with her. She suggest we go find some waves the next day in Palomino which is a pretty sick beach a short ride away but I can’t accept the offer, I’ve paid 130,000 pesos for a peak season long bus ride.
I regret this decision as soon as I get to the bus terminal. I should have let that cash slide big time for wave hunting with Marcela.
If you read this Marcela I am sorry and I will make it up to you next time we surf!
Word of advice to any prospective travellers, never ever ever pre book anything when travelling, you are just putting a blockade up on letting fate run its course. It’s the first time I’ve done it on this trip and I’ve been dealt a stern lesson!
I decide to treat myself to one of the bus terminal restaurants classic two course meals plus lemonade for 6500 pesos, that’s sub £2, to console myself. Whilst most people might turn their noses up on this sort of food, I love it greatly and always enjoy ploughing in. Frijoles and platano are just a dream combo! The perfect blend of salt and sweet. It works so well and I could live off it no problems, breakfast, lunch and diner, Latino style!
N U M E R O D O S P R O B L E M A S
Whilst I loved my classic Colombian fare it was pretty evident very quickly of being sat on the bus that I was in serious trouble!
Within 1 hour of the 12 hour ride I’m getting the spits and my belly is not right. I’m also boxed in in the window by the young guy next to me who is already asleep so it’s difficult for me to get out and make the emergency visit to the baño at the back of the bus. I climb over him, kneeing him in the head and rush down the isle clenching my bum cheeks tightly.
I just about get everything down before the eruption kicks off. I’m being thrown about all over the shop, it’s so bouncy at the back of the bus, it’s no exaggeration that I regularly get air time mid bowel movement. It’s so grim back there.
The rim of the toilet is gigantic as well, I’ve got a small bum and I was in danger of falling down it every time we went over a bump in the road which was often. Not quite sure why the bowl has to be so humongous, maybe to accommodate the fake booty trend that Colombian women go for these days, but I felt what it must be like for a three year old when they step up from the potty to the adults toilet! Frightening!
My next problem is I have no papel! So I have to open the door whilst still on the toilet and ask some random Colombian I’ve never met before for some bog roll. Luckily an America couple were sat at the back and they had an emergency stash and this major catastrophe was everted with minimal embarrassment.
I’m back and fourth all night to the toilet, front and back vomit, it’s a sorry state of affairs and I’m weighing up whether this is punishment from a higher being for my stupid decision to leave Marcela.
On a plus note, because you’ve always got to be positive right, it’s the warmest place on the bus and given I’ve spent about 10 hours of my journey in there at least I was warm.
Also they had wifi so I watched some documentaries at the same time.
S A N G I L
Another plus of being awake most of the ride was I had the morning view of the scenery and mountain range driving into San Gil. From Bucaramanga to San Gil and a lot before that it was outrageous scenes. Mountains rivalling the French Alpes for as far as the eye could see. I’m making a speedy recovery from my ailments.
I opt for hostel El Dorado because it’s described as quiet and chilled and has a kitchen with a blender. These are my basic hostel requirements. If it’s not got a blender I’m not interested. It’s a nice little place with a cool garden and mountain bikes to rent.
Within an hour I’m met out in the garden by a young German girl moaning about how hungover she is and I have to put my book down to pretend to be interested in her tales of rolling down hills pissed the night before.
Some Israeli lads join us and tell me all about their $3,000 new year in Cartagena. To be fair this was a story that I was a bit more interested in. Military service worked wonders on these boys! Bad men!
I shake off my little lurgy and sleep like a baby for the night. I decide to cycle to Chicamocha Cañon which I drove over the previous morning. I plotted a route on maps.me and enquired about a bike at reception. When I showed Pedro the route he asked me if I was sure. He said it was really difficult. I told him “soy Ironman, no hay problema, monto mi bicileta mucho amigo!” The routes only 39km. Child’s play compared to anything else I’ve done.
So we go outside the hostel with the ropey looking mountain bike and he oils the chain for me. My directions take me straight up the hill the hostel finds itself on. This hill has a gradient of around the 30% marker. I can’t even get her started on this hill and have to ride down the bottom to get a run up on her. Pedro stands in the door watching. I have to walk the first hill of the day.
I left at 8.30am and it’s already ridiculously hot. I’m sweating cobs after about 10 minutes. I consult maps.me and the whole 39km route is uphill. Still, I’m backing myself.
It’s tough going but spectacularly beautiful. It’s nice being out in the countryside and other than a few farmers tending to their tomato crops, it’s just me and the country roads and I’m pleased I didn’t opt for the tourist option at 20 times the price. This is my own little adventure and I’ll see how far it takes me.
By mid day I’d travelled about 20km and had another 19km to go. I stopped for lunch of rice and banana. Sometimes in Latin America when you ask for the vegetarian option they just take off the meat and leave you the rest. This was one of those and disappointed me. Never the less there was substantial energy in there to power me up the remaining 19km.
An hour further on and I’m struggling big time. I’m taking the walking option more frequently. There just aren’t any down hill rest-bites, it’s up steep hills all the way, up, up, up. Altitude might be an issue here as we are over 2000 meters above sea level at this point. Or I might be making excuses! Half Ironman was almost 2 years ago and I’ve done little other than demolish deep fried Latino fare the last 6 months.
Whilst the Colombian street food is possibly my favourite in Latin America thus far it has to be the dirtiest, filthiest and highest on the heart attack inducing scale and I’ve abused it severely! Even prior to entering Colombia things weren’t looking great. Panama Air had me weighing in at 77kg on their scales, that’s 7kgs over my fighting weight and my shorts and trousers are bursting at the seams.
So it dawns on me that I’m a bit of stupid twat to think that I could climb 39km of steep terrain on a mountain bike with essentially ground zero fitness. I am no longer half an Ironman and probably never will be again, I can’t think I can beast myself on random days in the Colombian mountains.
Thankfully a closed camino covered in barbed wire ends my day of climbing gigantic mountains and puts me out my misery. I don’t make the canyon but I get to cruise downhill all the way home which takes me about 45 minutes.
I treat myself to a lemon meringue that rivals my nans in El Bakery which is dangerously situated next to my hostel.
I’m pooped and hit the sack pre 9pm watershed.
The next day I meet this young American lad who has cycled from Cartagena to San Gil. He’s probably not much older than 21 but his journey of 750km is seriously impressive and puts my efforts of the previous day to shame. He’s a really cool kid and his trip is a real adventure. He camps along the way and has been to so many remote spots that no tourist can reach with public transport. I contemplate hiring a bike and riding the 200+ km with him to El Cocuy. Then remembering my fitness level is so off this guy I’d kill his journey and possibly myself. So I opt for walking, paragliding and hiring a motorbike and going for a spin in the mountains over the next few days.
Paragliding Chicamocha Canyon was absolutely spectacular and anyone who gets the chance to paraglide should take it up, such a cool feeling. Super peaceful at 3500 meters just following the condors thermal streams. The views speak for themselves. Different gravy.
My motorbike journey took me to a wicked little water fall called Juan Curi about 20km away from town. This waterfall whilst decent majorly made me miss curry and I sat in the jungle watching it pound into the pool below thinking of chicken tikka masala, popadoms, an elaborate pickle tray selection and a nann bread so big you could play frisbee with it!
Prior to my series of little day trips in the Santander area I’d got chatting to a young American girl called Bri in the hostel dining room. She wasn’t actually staying at the hostel but just using the wifi. She part owns a yoga community in the hills of San Gil with the cousin of the owner of El Dorado. Their little community called La Finca Palmita sounded really cool and I expressed an interest of staying with them if they had space. Bri said she’d get back to me about it.
Having spent a lot of time on buses in Colombia or in sleeping arrangements less than pleasing I was pretty delighted when walking out of El Dorado all packed for El Cocuy National Park to be told by Diego on reception that his cousin and Bri had a space at the farm if I’d like to join them. The thought of doing yoga every day in the grounds of a sick farm in the hills with everyone cooking for each other was verging on my ideal of paradise at this point in time. I jumped at the chance.
I then received an email from a guide I’d been recommended in Cocuy telling me the park had been recently closed for tourists because of the littering and general miss treatment of the park. I was very close to being on a series of buses again into the remote wilderness of El Cocuy for nothing so this timely intervention by La Finca Palmita felt extra special and right.
When I arrived Bri mentioned that the community was currently in a phase of change and the farm might not have the vibe as old. The three partners had decided to sell the farm and pursue other adventures before deciding what to do next. Consequently i arrived with two of the owners having recently left and the farm just weeks away from sale. So initially I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay, maybe two or three days popped into my head. I’d chill, do some yoga, read some books and move on to Bogota.
It’s pretty easy to describe this place. Beautiful, kind, sweet, creative, intelligent and honest people living in harmony, sharing their love of life in a tranquil setting in the beautiful countryside. My days were simple but so so rewarding. I’d wake to the gentle vibrations of Bri’s gong, we’d do yoga for 90 minutes, great yoga too, deep and timely holds of poses and always different, whilst someone whipped up a ridiculously nutritious and hearty vegan breakfast.
I’d then typically help clean up in the kitchen, shower, read a book in one of the hammocks, have a snooze, do some more exercise, help with lunch, more snoozing and reading and chatting to all the guys. It really was a beautiful stay and from the first minute of being there I loved every second and it was a pleasure to spend so much quality time with people with so much energy and positivity.
Big up everyone for the mega cooking, I learnt lots of great recipes and it felt like Xmas three times a day!
Big mention for Bri, a young lady with an outrageous energy for life and an ability to harbour a living environment anyone in the world would revel in!
Haha! Just thought of something which had escaped my memory and makes me chuckle. It was my birthday whilst staying here and the guys treated me to a mega meal at Tony’s, I went for the Carbo which is goat, which was extra tasty. But the real entertainment came when two guys walked in and started playing music. One guy with a standard guitar and another with a weird plastic keyboard flute thing. He honestly gave the accordion a run for its money as the worst musical instrument on the planet. It reminded me of some sort of plastic toy you’d buy from Woolworths for a six year old and then regret it for the rest of your days. He didn’t play this thing too well either.
So we are all looking at each other trying not to laugh out loud, he’s proper into it as well, almost making love to it with his mouth and then he places himself almost in Sanne’s ear and belts out some of his classics for the next 10 long minutes. Sanne bless her hands out a generous tip which I think made the guys life! I’m sure it’ll be his first and last tips he ever receives. Can’t knock his passion and love for his instrument though!
When we got back Bri had whipped me up a knock out vegan chocolate and forest fruits cake which was of the usual high standard of cooking at La Finca. There was loads left so I had some for breakfast the next morning. Miraculously it was more moist than the night before. A cake that gets moister with age, baking skills of the highest order from chef Bri!
I loved the mix of people staying at the farm. There were six or seven of us non locals and another five Colombians who lived in the house or down in a Yurt by Rio Ponze. The cutest little three year old girl lived with her parents in the Yurt. Itza was amazing to hang out with, she would try and copy our yoga moves. One morning I was doing Chi Gong with one of the girls which involves some funny noises and facial expressions being made. Itza watched us intently until falling about in fits of laughter. She was beside herself with laughter. Super cute girl. So fun and happy. A real pleasure to share the space with too.
My stay here allowed me the quality time to refocus myself, reconnect and consequently I had some pretty big epiphany moments. Just travelling from one tourist spot to the other covering ridiculous distances does not fill me with much satisfaction. It causes fatigue and a bit of an empty feeling. The first two weeks in Colombia spent doing 1000km just to get into the desert was ridiculous and I actually felt a bit ill and devoid of any love or enjoyment for what I was doing.
I see and meet so many people who are following this as a routine of travelling, just moving on constantly to next spot to get their photo of the same tourist spot everyone else is going to and then on to the next. I didn’t cope two weeks falling into this pattern so not sure how people do whole years like this. Each to their own but I’d say take your time, enjoy where you are right now, be present, don’t be so hasty to move onto the next location.
The time at the finca also reaffirmed that I am most happy when I’m learning something. When you move so quickly from one spot to the next it prevents you from interacting with people because you spend too much time on the road and not enough time in real situations with real people. Furthermore there is a reduced amount of time in which can you sit down and commit to learning something. It feels very empty to me when not interacting with people from all walks of life or actively trying to master something.
So for me I had the chance to read loads. Two books particularly felt of huge educational value. The Alchemist by Paula Coehlo was a beautiful little read and I’m not quite sure how this hasn’t found its way into my hands previously. Loved this and took a lot from it.
And DMT, The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman was a quite literal mind blowing book detailing the only ever medically funded experiment on humans with regards to this naturally occurring and phenomenal chemical produced by the brain. Strong recommendation for reading material here.
Coupled with some of the best daily yoga I’ve committed to, learning to cook vegan based breakfasts and dinners and great and interesting conversations with beautiful people, I’d returned to a state of pure happiness.
10 days later and I’m at the gate with my bags waiting for my taxi to the bus depot still questioning why I was leaving. But it felt like time. Bri and some of the guys were travelling north to Minca which is a long way back to where I’d come from and the opposite direction of where I was heading so it was definitely time to roll as much as it pained me.
C O U C H S U R F I N G – B O G O T A
I was excited to get to Bogota and check out the crazy street art scene which I’d read so much about. Basically ever since Justin Bieber sprayed some paint on a wall in Bogota after a gig in 2013 this city has exploded with colour. Strange catalyst for it, I’m sure there was a big scene before but it’s off the charts now. Everywhere you look there’s some crazy murals adorning walls and large pieces of concrete which would otherwise add a bleak grey colour to this concrete jungle.
I’d say in the vast majority of cases it is well thought out, highly political and an outright impressive display of very creative art that covers the city. There are class pieces in London spread out all over the place in random spots which is cool but never have I seen a whole city covered head to toe in paint. It’s wicked.
Spending the day cruising around on Boris Bike style wheels on closed roads on the Sunday checking out the art was a huge Colombia highlight for me. If there is a city in the world with a bigger street art scene and of this calibre I would love to see it.
Here’s a few of my favourite pieces from my four days in Bogs.
An interesting feature of my stay in Bogs was popping my Couchsurfing cherry! I stayed with Ana and her family in the Salitre Zona which was conveniently located near the bus terminal. Ana’s English whilst better than my Spanish was at a level where we conversed a fair bit in Spanish and she helped me lots. I hope I helped her with her English too.
For those not familiar with Couchsurfing, possibly for you Mum and Dad again here, it’s another application which allows you to find hosts in pretty much every city in the world who want a cultural exchange and invite a complete stranger into their house for a short period of time at no cost. It’s an amazing concept and I get it massively. It’s also a great way for someone who doesn’t know a city as a foreigner to get the inside scoop on what’s going on in the city, where to go, where not to go, what bakeries are best in the area, all the important jazz. This is invaluable and if I did have a house in London I’d be hosting all the time. It’s a really nice way of meeting people from different countries and cultures and I enjoyed my stay with Ana and her family greatly.
To show my appreciation I cooked a vegetable stew for the family one evening. Sadly Miguel, Ana’s Dad is not too fond of spice so my light sprinkle of paprika sent him over the edge and he had to return it to the saucepan. He got some banana and chocolate pancakes though so he didn’t go to bed hungry.
I spent hours wandering around looking for tasty food to eat and just generally really enjoying the city. I went for a run around the cool Parque Simon Bolivar and soaked up the variety and colour each neighbourhood offered. It gets a bad rep off most travellers but it’s a bit like London, if you only go to Piccadilly Circus, eating expensive, shit food and go to the same tourist traps don’t generalise that the whole of London is shit.
I met up with various friends from my previous adventures in Bogota three years ago. Naty took me to her running club at 6am on the Saturday where I got put through my paces and met all her super friendly mates.
We then strolled around the city sourcing mega traditional food like the Chocolate Completo pictured below alongside the Peto Completo. Basically this is a hot chocolate or corn based milky drink with panela sugar cane, just like molasses sugar, and cheese and breads to dip in. Again another outrageous combo of salt and sweet that works so so well! Calories wise this is going to make you blind and possibly lead to a leg being amputated but I could wash this down happily bevery day.
So big up for Bogs! Ace city! And also nice to know that despite my love of the simple life in the country, I still buzz hard for big cities and all the mega stuff they have going on. Bogs has ace free museums too, the gold one was really interesting.
I surprised myself how seamlessly I settled into the hustle of the place. After the most chilled 10 days in a little yoga community I thought I’d hate the noise and the complete contrast of what I’d just experienced but I didn’t, the opposite! I love everything right now!
I went to Estadio Campin to watch the first football match of the season in Colombia between Bogota favourites Santa Fe and Nacionales from Medellin. Whilst the game was so slow and the keepers remaining untroubled for 90 minutes the stadium was rocking and the fans were class. Santa Fe basically have the same kit as Arsenal so I’m glad they edged a 1-0 win, just like the Gooners of old. Grinding out a 1-0. I miss those days!
S A L E N T O S A L E N T O
So good they should name it twice!
So Salento is a little town based in the surrounding hills of the Los Nevados national park. The drive there is the usual highly spectacular mountain scenery. The bus had this annoying sheet of dark plastic covering the upper half of the windows to protect from sun glare so I have to crook my neck really weirdly and annoyingly to get in the mountain scenes. It feels like we are climbing for hours.
Colombia is absolutely blessed on many levels and particularly in regard to scenery. I’m putting it up there closely behind New Zealand for scenes.
The country is made up of three mountain ranges stretching from north to south through the country. These mountain ranges cover about 1/3rd of the country. Another 1/3rd of the country is Amazonia with only 150,000 people living in that territory. The rest is sweeping flat lands of the eastern coastal areas.
This makes Colombia the most ecologically and geographically diverse country on the planet. I’d kind of thought this place was special both times I’d visited but having read Wade Davis’ book One River whilst here he’s filled me with statistical knowledge further cementing that this country is a must visit for everyone as soon as possible.
Basically the country is relatively infantile in regards to tourism. It’s probably been only “safe” to travel here in the last 10 years. Before that you could not travel by bus anywhere. You could fly between airports but roads were off limits. The countryside was a conflict of terrorist groups, guerrillas and paramilitaries. So in the 10 years that people have gradually started coming here there isn’t too much written about it other than the same few cities and tourist cites. A large part of this beautiful country is untapped with tourism and therefore can be enjoyed before it’s over populated and commercialised. Now is the peak time to visit in my eyes.
At all these little towns the big attraction is trekking. Salento takes in the national park Los Nevados and I find a tour guide doing a three day trek into the park. It looks and sounds sick! I’m on it. I try to round up a few more people from the sparse hostel I’m staying in. It’s just me in the 8 bed dorm so I struggle. I then receive a message from Keristein who I’d trekked El Mirador with back in Guatemala saying she’d seen i was in Salento on Facebook and was on the bus from Cali right now. I told her I was doing this walk and she jumped straight at it no questions asked.
When she arrived we went to the agents and booked ourselves on to the trek starting the next day. We were to walk with an Ozzy and a Polish couple.
The trek kicked off with a pre trek mega breakfast at a nearby restaurant at the start of the Cocora Valley. Chocolate Completo was served up with granola, yogurt and breads. Cracking breakfast it really was. There’d be no starvation on this trek like the last time we trekked together in Guatemala.
This 3 day trek to Paramillo Del Quindio was without doubt my favourite trek of all time. And Wade Davis factual accuracy is confirmed, this country is ecodiversed to the max! Within a couple of hours we’ve walked through a landscape of crazy tall palm trees into a cloud forest and then into a land covered with funny looking plants of the sunflower family. Three completely different eco systems and it’s like being in a different world. The variety of scenery blows us all away.
The first days walk is almost 20km and pretty much all up hill, the weather is lush and it’s a sweaty work out but any concerns with the level of work being put in is forgotten about because the scenery is top draw.
We’ve got two cool guides and as a bonus the female guide is giving Colombia a little boost in my rating scale which has seen them drop below England in recent weeks!
We sleep the night in a finca called La Primavera which is cozy enough with three fleece blankets and all my clothes on. The food is substantial and tasty. If you should do this trek be aware of the 3am cockerel, the barking dogs and the crazy 4 year old, Sebastian. He’s got a thing about threatening to kill Polish girls.
The trekking company provided us with a little snack bag per day. It’s full of treats like brownies and cinnamon rolls, just opening them up each day on its own would be a pretty exciting day so to tuck in whilst on top of a giant mountain 4,750 meters above sea level is a pleasure beyond what words can describe.
Receiving a bar of Santander, 55% pure in cacao at the summit with a little message of congratulations was a nice touch from the tour company so fair play to them. They deserve big kudus because to date the service they provided and the experience offered was golden.
Each night we’d have a little team trek meeting where Diana would tell us all how great the day had been and what was in store the following day. It was just a really well run trip and great at every turn. So if you are in Salento, go visit the lovely ladies of Paramo Trek and they will get you up some of the sickest mountain scenes in Colombia.
Those funny skiing pole things were provided free of charge as to were some walking boots for me which fitted like a glove. This feels like a business who aren’t trying to drain every last penny out of its customers, a refreshing change.
The walk itself was not for the faint hearted but so so worth it. Beautiful diverse scenery, snow capped mountains, glaciers, forests, lakes, mountain side picnics, basically every serious ramblers dream!
We got on really well with the couple and we agreed to meet up on Sunday and go for dinner at a curry house they’d had recommended. I was obviously delighted with this. But first and as part of the trekking package we had dinner paid for at a restaurant in Salento.
This turned out to be the curry house we’d planned to go to the following day so I got my fix a day early. And I can’t complain, it was better than decent and came with a sensational nann. One of those fluffy ones. Only critique, no pops but still I’m in a sleepy little Colombian town, any curry is good curry. But this was better than that.
As it transpires Salento for me proved to be one of my favourite places for food in the world. This is no exaggeration. Nowhere else other than maybe Melbourne have so many top draw eating options of so many varieties in such a small place presented themselves to me. Maybe Brixton Village could give it a run for its money.
The food scene is quite spectacular, just like the mountains that surround it.
So for anyone coming to Salento here’s my list of must visit eateries:
1: Super Breakfast
If you are going to call yourself Super Breakfast then you are teeing yourself up for criticism but this tiny little cafe just over the yellow bridge towards La Sarena serves up more than “super” breakfasts. It deals in the realms of “espectacula” breakfasts.
Go combo #3 and swap the tea or coffee for a jugo de fruta, with granola, yogurt and fruit with some fat pancakes and maple syrup for a bargain basement 9000 Colombian pesos!
Open 8am to 1pm this can be enjoyed best at elevenses in my view. A nice stop gap between an early breakfast and a late lunch.
Dear god this place is naughty and I’m kind of grateful I only discovered this with about three days left of my stay here.
Owned by a nice American guy called Jeff the menu is vast covering all classic kind of American food but for me the prize asset of the restaurant is the Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownie with Homemade Peanut Butter Ice Cream.
I’d actually say it’s worth flying to Colombia just to sample this monstrous chocolate delight.
The cinnamon roll is different class too.
As for the mains, I only vacuumed up this huge taco thing on Indian bread. As you can see it was big time massive. Maybe looks like a pile of greens in the picture but rest assured this was a grand feed and after a day of fasting and a diet of reduced spices and the like a few days before this was a very welcome return to ‘normality’.
3: The Veggie Place El Punto Vegetal
Proper decent vegetarian and vegan menu. The quinoa burger grande is exceptional and at 10,000 pesos is another top feed for sub £3.
Again really nice people here too.
4: Tuncha y Patacon anywhere in the square
Tuncha is trout. Trout abounds the Quindio River. It’s super tasty in a creamy garlic sauce and comes with a massive crispy flattened and fried banana. Love this.
5: Chocolate ringed donut with jam in the ring
Can’t remember the name of this bakery but their donut is class. They don’t even know it’s class but it rivals Krispy Kreme for filth. Less than 50p. Great little nibble.
6: La Liana
Curry as mentioned above. Fluffy nann central.
7: Kasaguadua Natural Reserve
So this isn’t an actual restaurant but leads me on quite nicely to my next long stay at my now favourite hang out in the world.
Kasaguadua is an official nature reserve in the jungle about 3.5km outside of Salento. It is owned by two guys, Carlos a Colombian from Bogota and Nick from London.
Their story is beautiful tale of a chance meeting in the depths of Burkina Faso at a African musical event some 15 years ago. Their friendship lead to a mutual dream being harvested over several years when Nick lived in Colombia and Carlos in England (reversal).
Nick had quit working in an investment bank in Canary Wharf at the age of 27 citing it was “bullshit” and after travelling Africa playing his drums he moved to Colombia and taught music and English for seven years. Carlos moved to London post their random meeting in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou (best name for a capital city in the world). But they remained in communication and the shared dream of living in the jungle within the native habitat of the region was realised over years of research and eventually securing the land and building their project.
I discovered these guys on trip advisor as a guided walk around a nature reserve which was highly recommended by all attendees.
The crux of the project and the reserve is to retain a piece of land that is true to the landscape and the habitat of the region as it was before the Spanish invasion and the introduction of cattle farming and foreign plant species likes grass to the area.
The wax palm tree which is the national tree and the crown jewel of tourism in Salento will be extinct in 10 years because the soil quality has been destroyed by clearing the land to make way for cattle. Whilst the palm trees remain the soil is poor and they are too exposed to the sun and will not regrow in the area. They will in Kasaguadua Nature Reserve though because the habitat in which these palms use to thrive in is present.
There’s many more examples of this in the guided walk round the reserve too. It’s a beautiful jungle with loads of bamboo trees hence the name, Guadua is Spanish for bamboo. I learn lots about this amazingly strong and renewable tree. Very interesting stuff.
Part of the walk includes a brief tour of their living quarters which also turns out to be a hostel.
Keristien and I instantly decide on the spot we want to stay for a few nights. It’s such an amazingly well built home. I don’t want to call it a hostel because the guys have set it up just like a home environment and you feel that as soon as you walk in with the shared cooking and lounge area.
We rush back to Salento, get our bags and head to the Casa where we book ourselves in to the four bed dorm for three nights. I’d planned on leaving the following day to go surfing in Ecuador for a month or so but I’d put that right off as I’d discovered this absolute gem of a find.
It’s an amazingly built and made substantially out of bamboo and everything about its design is built with the environment in mind including the bum gun which Nick is clearly very proud of as he introduces guests to it almost within five minutes of arrival.
What’s striking is these two guys with no experience in engineering, architecture, design or building have constructed this property with their bare hands. It’s impeccably well thought out, not a stone unturned, it’s top draw and is without doubt the coolest and nicest place I’ve stayed at on this trip.
It’s stupidly cheap too. 27,000 per night including breakfast. That’s about £8. Which brings me onto the food. The guys are the nuts in the kitchen!
They will happily whip you up lunch and dinner every day for a donation and having spent two weeks living with them I can tell you their cooking is of a standard equal or superior to that of the Salento food scene in general. Carlos soup specials and his vegetarian Thai infused curry are different level! Make the request, he’ll deliver maximum love for sure.
Not saying they’d take table bookings but I think everyone planning on visiting Salento should go check out the project and see for yourself just how brilliant this place is.
Again an absolute pleasure hanging out with Carlos and Nick, great conversationalists, mega book cabinet, decent DVD stash and just the perfect ambiance to enjoy nature at its best.
The coffee tours are close by from here too plus there’s loads of nice walks in the area as well.
As is typical with my trip when I like somewhere I’m happy to roll my stay on so my three nights here turned into thirteen and it transpires of the 2000 plus guests they’ve had since opening 15 months ago I am the longest serving!
The guys are making a plaque to place above my bed in the dorm room in honour of my service!
In the duration of my stay the calibre of guest was top notch too. Met so many great people coming through their doors and that’s striking as well. Whilst they are remote and living in the depths of the jungle they certainly aren’t cut off from society, quite the contrary, they’ve got a steady flow of amazing like minded people coming through the reserve every day. I met a football journalist from Holland, an aspiring opera singer from Cambridge Univeristy, an Ozzy dude who liked trekking national parks solo and getting himself dangerously lost and many others.
So much respect and love for these guys. It’s an inspirational story of making a dream come true and living a life full of health, happiness and in an environmentally positive way.
My time here gave me the opportunity to read more great books, pick the guys brains on many subjects and perfect my cookie come brownie recipe. The biggest thing I can take away from my spell here though was seeing how without the skill set associated with building this project they were able to acquire those skills to make it happen. I think generationally I am from a group where we are OK with paying other people to do stuff for us. Whereas my parents and their parents would have a go themselves before considering dropping cash to have someone else do it for them. Maybe they wouldn’t learn the skills needed to complete the work to a high standard, or maybe the work just wouldn’t get done but they’d never consider having someone else come do the work as the first port of call. With the freedom available to apply yourself to learning then it’s possible to gain enough knowledge to do almost anything as these clever fellas have displayed.
They are basically self taught architects specialising in bamboo design, ethnobotanist, ecologists, farmers, hoteliers and the best chefs you’ll have the pleasure of meeting.
Quite often I’d say to Nick, “so whom did you have to employ to do this then?” And he’d respond, “mate, we did that ourselves.” They literally built the whole shebang themselves.
In my whole time of working and living in London, nine years, other than qualifying as an accountant which took three I learnt nothing other than to be a robot. I didn’t have the time to even read a book in that spell. Maybe I have to hold my hands up and say I didn’t focus myself on much else other than getting my job done and getting out of there but the lifestyle of being in the office for 40 plus hours a week doesn’t lend too much time for other more positive life vocations outside of employment.
So thank you Kasaguadua for further instilling in me that anything is possible.
And in summary of Colombia; I feel like colombia is worthy of a year of travelling all on its own. Endless national parks with world class mountains and trekking trails, some sick Caribbean beaches (although I didn’t get to see them this time round), remote deserts, a huge and diverse indigenous population, vast Amazonian jungle, strong cultures throughout the country and a pretty mega food scene, makes this one of my favourite countries of all time.
I’m keen to hit the surf for a good month so have undoubtedly missed out on loads more great stuff in Colombia but if you are thinking of travelling South America give Colombia ample time. It deserves it!
So that’s Colombia wrapped up. Signed off with a Super Breakfast Combo 3 and a cinnamon roll with peanut butter ice cream from Brunch. I’m leaving colombia in style culinary wise although my mode of transport is not.
I write this whilst sat on a 20 hour bus ride to Quito, Ecuador. So far no irregular movement but I’m not carrying an emergency loo roll stash. This could be fatal with 6 hours and 43 minutes still to go!
“Follow your legend!” (The Alchemist – Paulo Coehlo)
Tune of the edition:
What You Wanna Do – Vocal Edition
Books of the edition:
One River – Wade Davis
For anyone travelling to Colombia this is a must read. Insightful read into Colombian history and the indigenous cultures of the country.
The Valkyries – Paulo Coehlo
Some big life lessons in here.