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Colombia

Colombia - Leticia

35 °C

Flying down to Leticia in the south east corner of Colombia, a town deep in the Amazon jungle, inaccessible by road, we were hit like a wall by the heat and humidity (and some tropical storms!). It´s a small town that borders the less pleasant Brazilian town of Tabatinga with loads of motor bikes and friendly people.

We only had a couple of days, so Paul made the most of it by doing a trip with Juan, a local guy who lives in an off tributary of the actual Amazon....in a small hut on the water with his family. They live without electricity and are fully self sufficient, eating jungle plants (jungle potato, pineapple, tomatoes), and fish they catch. The trip involved exploring the area in a small wooden and leaky boat, with a number of landings to see massive trees with branches that re-reed themselves into the ground and grow new trunks, strangling any other trees in its path! Tree iguanas, monkey´s, all sorts of birds were abundant and a highlight was the `Casa de Anaconda` an area where Anacondas live. This time of year only the small ones are there (4 metres long), even so we have to be quick as it was dangerous in the small boat we were in. Juan claims to have seen an Anaconda over 10 metres long with a head as wide as he is demonstrating below! Scary stuff.

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Colombia - Medellin

29 °C

Known as South America's most up and coming city, including an overhead metro system, Medellin is pretty impressive, with perfect 'springtime' weather year round to top it off. However, as in many big cities, Medellin comes with more than it's fair share of homelesness and violence, and we paid a visit to Pablo Escobar's house. A famous Colombian drug lord who was shot in his hideout in 1993 during the time when Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in the world!

The Wandering Paisa was a great hostel. We visited the Zona Rosa where most of the other hostels are locted, in a nice district full of bamboo, boutique shops and restaurants. A night out to remember not too far from there was at Dulce Jesus Mio (My Sweet Jesus), a theatrical, bizarre, neon light discotheque. All the staff were dressed up in different outfits, with live music, dancing and sparkelers when midnights strikes (after a countdown of course) with all the locals getting right into it, jumping up on stage. We also had endless supplies of popcorn and other nibbles on our table and soup appeared at one stage of the night...and if you do make it to Dulce Jesus Mio, a visit to the bathroom is a must - to check out the crazy sculptured sinks and toilets, we'll leave it at that!

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The city centre has a few nice plazas, such as Plaza Berrio and the nearby plaza full of entertaining sculptures by the famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Plaza Cisneros (Plaza of Lights) is another that is full of three hundred giant poles that light up during the night. There were also other festive and impressive Christmas lights dotted throughout the city.

The metro made it super easy to travel, and included in the price of one ticket is a ride on a cable car halfway up the valleyside, travelling over some of the poorer neighbourhoods and slum areas, (who the cable car has been supplied for to make transport easier) with a view down over Medellin up the top. We've never visited a city before which uses cable cars on their public transport route, and on the weekend it was nice to see lots of local families and children enjoying the ride.

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Colombia - Cartagena

33 °C

We've been hanging out for some wamer weather, after months of travel through mountainous, high altitude terrain. You can't get much hotter than Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, it's the sort of place where a siesta is mandatory. The gorgeous walled in colonial centre sits surrounded by water, and is perfect for wandering through the old narrow streets, and finding shady spots in the many plazas. Luckily on our first day, the sun stayed behind the clouds allowing us to explore and walk around the old town on top of the wall, without melting! In the cooler evening, we enjoyed a nice dinner at La Cocina de Carmela, I (Lucy) recommend the vegetarian plate full of all their tasty sides!

Cartagena is the most visited destination in Colombia, with the largest number of tourists we've seen in months. Therefore there are lots of people targeting tourists, constantly trying to speak to you in the streets, sell you things or take you to 'their bar'. This can get pretty annoying, but the charm of the city fortunately pulls through, and we enjoyed a few days here. One nice character of the town are the men who wander the streets with baskets full of thermoses, offering cafesitos small coffees and aromaticas herbal teas (with lots of sugar), in thimble-sized cups, perfect for sipping on the go.

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Something we definately hadn't done before was swim in a mud volcano. The Volcán Totumo is about an hour from Cartagena, and is actually only a mound 15m tall, but over 2,300m deep. Luckily you float, so there's no risk of ending up a few hundred metres underground! So we jumped on into the soft clay like substance which makes you feel almost weightless once you're in...a very strange sensation. After soaking, floating, and absorbing all the natural minerals the mud supposedly contains, we waddled to the nearby river to have a swim and wash off the thick clay. Definately worth a visit if you're in the area.

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Colombia - Santa Marta & Tayrona National Park

We've made it to the Caribbean coast, a big landmark for us as we have just crossed the entire continent of South America by land. From the icy southern tip of Ushuaia in Argentina, to the northern coast of Colombia. That's a lot of hours clocked up on busses over 10 months of travel!

You can't visit Santa Marta without going into Tayrona Natonal Park, and the Dreamer Hostel is set up perfectly for exactly that. The bus leaves from around the corner, and there's a pool at the hostel to help cool down in the sweltering heat. We spent two nights, three days at Park Tayrona. After catching the bus out to the eastern end of the Park (don't forget your passport for entry) there is an hour of walking through lush rainforest full of lizards and leaf cutter ants running around. And I think Paul would've rather not spotted the bright green snake he saw slithering away from him! The next hour or so of walking is along the coast, through little coves, over boulders and around plam trees. Eventually we arrived in Playa San Juan - magical! Lush covered boulders lining the edges of two beachs, framing the clear blue water and we dived straight in. No amount of description will do it justice, so check out the photos, or even better...go!

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Unfortunately we were a little late arriving and ended up in tents (instead of hammocks). We weren't aware how bad this could get until it started to rain and we had to pull a big tarp over the top. As it was so humid, imagine a sauna, or something a little hotter..we resorted to sicking out heads out of the tent to cool down in the rain.

We spent the day on the beach and in the water, and admiring the fantastic setting we found ourselves in. In the middle of the two beaches there is a small island upon which a hut is perched and where, thank goodness, we managed to score ourselves a hammock for our second night. Who would've thought a hammock would be so comfortable, it was the best nights sleep I've had in ages, and with a nice breeze all night we didn't need mosquito nets. In the moonlight we could see out over the water and could hear the soothing crashing of waves just below us. When morning came we watched sunrise over the water without moving! Ahhhhh.

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There's a boat you can catch back to Santa Marta at 4pm from playa San Juan which takes an hour and a half and is 45,000 COL for anyone contemplating the trip, you buy it a couple of hours beforehand on the beach. We chose to walk back before the heat of the day and we enjoyed a nice cool shower when we made it back to the hostel.

After, for the mostpart, a relaxing few days we returned to Santa Marta. The town itself is smallish and quite nice, however it's beach is next to a shipping port. We went into Taganga for dinner, which was originally a small fishing town only ten minutes away, and has been hit by tourism! It'a good spot for some tasty fish, and to hang out among tourists as there are hostels and party spots lining the beach. In contrast Bahia Concha was a nice day trip from Santa Marta if your after a more appealing beach to swim in. It sits inside the west end of Tayrona Park, and feels like your in the Caribbean, with white sand and blue water...and many toters walking along the beach with a smorgers board of snacks, ceviche and drinks on offer.

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Colombia - San Gil

San Gil is a small town nestled in a valley on the bank of Rio Fonce, offering an array of adventure sports, and the climate is near perfect! We went white water rafting, where we managed to 'accidentally' fall into the cool water several times, and swam down some of the more gentle rapids.

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Then I couldn't pass up the opportunity to paraglide over the spectacular Chicamocha canyon. After waiting for the clouds to lift, my instructor and literally ran over the cliff edge into the canyon....and we were airborne! Up in the air for around 25 minutes was plenty of time, and the company Paravolar located in the San Gil plaza were very professional and offer a video included for COL150,000. After all the excitement of paragliding, Paul couldn't miss out so and decided it was time to try out a zip line offered in Chicamocha Park, around 1000m long with nice views of the canyon.

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We stayed at Le Papillon Hostel, which was nice and small, great rooms, suprisingly cheap and a nice place to hang out. The Swiss owners were so friendly and shared their home baked bread and pizza with us. Also worth a visit is El Mana for a set lunch at 10,000 a piece (about $5) you get a fabulous 3 course meal, with extras and silver service (Colombian style)! Barichara and Guane are two small completely colonial towns about an hour from San Gil, with white buildings, cobbled streets and painted wooden shutters. So gorgeous, a visit here made us feel like we'd stepped back in time for the afternoon.

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Colombia - Villa de Leyva

25 °C

A beautiful whitewashed colonial town, full of mystique and unchanged since the 15th centry, with cobblestone streets and a giant central plaza, we don´t get this sort of thing in Australia! Arriving on the weekend, the town was full of Bogotan people getting away from the city for the long weekend, which gave the small town a fantastic buzz. The beauty of Villa De Leyva made it easy to fill in a day just wandering around exploring the streets and poking our heads into the numerous small doorways which lead into courtyards, filled with restaurants or boutique tourist shops.

One evening we had a nice dinner in Plaza Guaca, one of the many restaurant filled courtyards. We sat on a candle lit terrace overlooking a courtyard, with live music playing in the background, casting a fantastic intimate atmosphere coupled with great service, food and wine. If your saving up for a special dinner, this is the place to have one! After we´d overloaded on food we stumbled out to Plaza Mayor, the large cobblestone plaza in the centre of town. It sits on a slope and has steps lining highest side, where people make theselves at home with litre sized cups of beer or a bottle of Aguardiente (a local spirit translating to firewater) to chat, sing or play music and while the night away, while looking down across the plaza.

To explore the surrounding windswept countryside we decided to hire bikes. We rode down the small country roads, which was mostly downhill on our way out, with great views and after about 12km we arrived at the scenic winery, Ain-Karim, which sits at the base of sloping farm land. After a wine tour and a glass of reserve cab sav, we were sitting enjoying a cheese platter when I got a tap on my shoulder form a friendly Bogotan couple who gave us half a bottle of wine they couldn´t finish because they had to drive! This really gives you an idea of the friendliness and generosity of the Colombian people, so thank you Diego and Angelica! Just as we pried ourselves away from the lovely setting of the winery and picked up our bikes for the uphill slog, we discovered Paul's tyre was flat. So we were driven back into town in a 1974 Jeep, nice.

Farm-style El Solar was a great place to stay, you couldn't find a frendlier owner "mi casa es su casa!".

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Colombia - Bogota

18 °C

After our time in small, sleepy Salento, it was a bit of a shock arriving in the big city of Bogota. It probably didn't help that our bus arrived at 3 in the morning, in the rain, and with a population of around 8 million, it's pretty big. The city itself is a little more worn than other South American cities, and being at an altitude of 2,625m (I thought we'd finished with cities at altitude!!) it's cold, and raining the majority of the time during this time of year. The Candaleria is the old part of town and a nice area to stay (we stayed at the very nice Alegria's Hostel), the buildings have a nice character, and there are lots of uni students buzzing around. The nearby Monserrate cable car gave us a perspective of just how big this place is. It stretches up the green mountain bordering the east side of the city, giving great views out across the metropolis.

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We popped into the 'Museo de Oro' (Gold Museum), which was great, full of gold artefacts dating back hundreds of years and houses more gold than any other museum in the world. We aso visited the Mueso Botero, which is a free art museum which houses a few pieces by Picasso and Monet, along with many by Botero.

Our favourite time in Bogota was a Sunday. The main Avenue in the city centre, which stretches for several kilometres, is closed off to traffic, and every one flocks out into the street and walks, jogs or rides along. We hired bikes and checked out the street vendors along the way, sampling an interesting fruit salad and cheese combo, and some corn on the cob, and for a change the sun was shining. It's a really nice family day, and such a great idea because cities are so often quiet and rarely used on a Sunday...come on Australia!

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We visited the nearby 'Underground Salt Cathedral' at Zipaquirá, a daytrip from the Bogota. It was formed within an old salt mine, a large complex of tunnels stretching for a square kilometre. It started off as a mine which has been transformed into a holy place, with giant rooms in the middle for congregations of up to 8,000 people, which sits 180m underground. The walls have natural deposits of salt, so crystals are visible through the walls whole place. Paul loved it, but for me I prefer the traditional Cathedral, out in the open air, which doesn't lead you underground leaving you wondering if you're ever going to see daylight again!

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Colombia - Salento (Coffee Heaven)

25 °C

Salento sits just outside of Armenia, in the Zona Cafetera. It has a quaint small town feel, gorgeous green surroundings, pleasant walks and coffee plantations galore! We walked through nearby farmland, with views out across the rolling hills and banana trees. Along the way we visited two coffee fincas (farms), Don Elias and El Ocaso, where we were shown the process from growing to coffee plants, picking the beans, to roasting and then most importantly, sampling a coffee at the end. All the producers we visited specialise in Organic coffee, and most of them produce on a relatively small scale.

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A highlight for us was organising a day visit to Finca SachaMama (meaning mother of the forest). Run by a delightful family of four (Pedro, his wife and two daughters) who live a couple of hours walk out of Salento. We were met half way by Pedro, the owner and led down into a large valley where we followed a winding river into their gorgeous porperty.

Here we learnt about the ´libre´ way in which their coffee is grown, amongst all the other plants on their property. Their focus is on nature and restoring their property to it´s natural environment, re-growing native species of trees, encouraging many birds back into the area, which we were able to see first hand. Humming birds even flying through their house! For them the environment comes first, then their production of coffee, which is of course organic. We had a lovely lunch with the family, and then learnt about the coffee they process. It is produced on a small scale, and only sold on their farm to people who come through. At the end we helped prepare and roast their coffee beans, and straight out of the roaster we ground the coffee, and drank a cup...can´t get much fresher than that..!

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Thinking it couldn't get much better, we headed to the Valley de Cocoura just out of Salento. Another area with absolutely breath-taking scenery. We walked for about six hours, which involved a climb up to a little farmhouse, surrounded by hummingbirds. The admission (a whole $2) included a big bowl of hot chocolate and a hunk of cheese for the hungry hikers. After this we climbed higher, and as the clouds rolled in we found ourselves surrounded by mist! Just as the sun began to creep out from behind the clouds we arrived in the valley of wax palms. Giant 80m tall palm trees stretching out across the rolling green hillsides, a magical sight.

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Needless to say we absolutely loved our time in Salento, and when we weren´t out walking we had a great place to relax at La Floresta Hostel, run by the friendliest family, who offered us fresh cups of coffee all day long!

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Colombia - Cali

30 °C

Big, bustling, hot and loud....Cali was our first big Colombian city, and it was great. We actually felt like we were in a different part of the world unlike other relaxed South American cities where we don´t always feel that far from home. It felt sketchy, there were people shouting, selling fruit and juices on the side of the street, open air bars and cafes on every corner. No shortage of quality coffee in this part of the world! Everyone we encountered was friendly, and trying to help, by telling us to watch our bags (i didn´t think we stood out that much!)

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We joined in on some salsa classes in the hostel (Iguana) then tried out some moves on a night out on the town... Cali is known as the salsa capital of Colombia, before they learn how to walk, they learn how to dance. They are very proud and rightly so, they are extremely good dancers. We were lucky enough to be taken out by a local man and salsa expert, who showed us some great clubs that play classic salsa music where we experienced the lifeblood of Cali. We settled in had a drink - which consisted of a bottle of rum on the table, and a shot glass each. With that down the hatch we braved the floor, surrounded by rhythmic Afro-Colombians, we were never going to blend in. All the same it was a great night, and a little better after being taken for a spin by a local or two!

We had a great time, apart from the walk to the bus station...In the centre of town Paul thought it would be a good idea to fall over, head first and found himself pinned down under his big backpack! (I was laughing too hard to help)

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Colombia - San Agustin

26 °C

Colombia - San Agustin the most significant archeological sites in Colombia...can´t pass that by! We arrived after a 5 hour bus ride on a winding unsealed road...we won't go into detail about the number of people vomiting out of the bus windows.

Not only are there numerous sites of carved stone statues dating back thousands of years, the setting is beautiful, very much worth the trip. San Agustin really is another piece of paradice; lush vegetation, surrounded by coffee plantations and fruit/veg farms. We enjoyed some stunning, (and sweaty) walks through the countryside, taking in the views and statues along the way.

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The carved stone statues were placed over toombs and have been discovered and restored over recent years. Our favourite was La Chaquira, which is the only stone not to have been moved from its original place, and sits facing out across a breath-taking valley. We stayed in eco-friendly buildings at Casa de la Francois, which was a short walk from town and felt like a retreat, complete with hammocks we were surrounded by lush greenery and beautiful views.

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Colombia - Popayan

25 °C

After our stop over we braved the winding road and 8hr bus journey to Popayan. We chose to travel during the day as the road is dangerous at night due to guerilla presence. Our bus was searched by police several times during out trip. My favourite being when a policeman jumped onto the bus to check ID´s and balanced the barrel of his giant shotgun perfectly on Paul´s knee!

Popayan was lovely, a clean city centre, with whitewashed colonial buildings, and at our hostel (Park Life) we had a room overlooking the buzzing central plaza. Paul and Pete (a fellow Aussie) had the AFL Grand Final up on the hostel TV, and with a supply of cold 'Poker' (Colombian beer) began to teach a group of Europeans, Americans and anyone else who would listen, about a 'real' sport...

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The three boys Paul, Pete and Stefan, went on a daytrip to the Purace National Park, where they encountered gurgling sulphur hot springs, kilometres of walking through rainforest and paramo landscapes at 4000m altitude, and eventually thumbed ride back to town... managing to persuade the driver he could fit another 3 men into the back of his already overflowing pickup truck (11 in total).

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We also experienced our first earthquake in Popayan. Whilst sitting in the hostel mid-morning enjoying a nice cup of coffee, everything started to rock. It lasted for about a minute with wall and light hangings just holding on! Paul, just out of the shower, was faced with the dilemma of whether it was worse to run outside into the plaza in his towel or stay inside and get dressed.. Luckily there was no damage caused, but a reminder they can happen at any time! Loving the warmer weather and the constant availability of tasty coffee in Colombia!

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Colombia - Las Lajas

We travelled 6hrs from Quito to the border, with food sellers jumping on the bus at every stop desperate to make some money...with anything from home made ice creams, to fried pork on offer! We met some other travellers at the border and formed a happy bunch of 5. The road into Colombia is pretty dangerous at night due to guerillas in the area, who hijack busses and relieve everyone of their valuables fairly frequently, even when the buses travel under police convoy!

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So as it was nearing dark we chose to stay near the border town of Ipiales, next to the spectacular Las Lajas Cathedral. The Cathedral was completed in 1949, built on a bridge spanning a spectacularly valley. There are waterfalls spurting from the surrounding lush cliff sides and a river running underneath. We sat back an enjoyed a drink and the view as the sun went down, feeling pretty happy to be in Colombia.

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