Salento – Small Town in Colombia

After spending 2 weeks in Guatape, we decided to slowly make our way to Ecuador. This meant, we had to travel south. We had read and heard about Salento a lot so we decided to stop there for a few days.

Salento is a small town in the Zona Cafetera area of Colombia. It is famous for Colombian coffee, Valle del Cocora and the Colombian sport, Tejo. The village was home to coffee and milk farms until backpackers discovered it. Now, Salento is home to many hostels, tour operators and restaurants. Many backpackers have liked the place enough to stay back and open a business.

Salento

Getting to Salento

We left at 8am from Guatape to get to Medellin. The bus from Guatape gets to Transporte Terminal de Norte in Medellin, while the bus to Salento leaves from Transporte Terminal de Sur. We jumped in a cab and in 15 mins, we were in Terminal de Sur.

We had researched about getting to Salento from Medellin and most posts said we will have to change bus either at Pereira or Armenia, the bigger cities close by. After checking with a few bus companies, we learnt that there was a direct bus to Salento! Firstly, we were surprised and secondly, we loved the idea of just sitting in the bus without having to change constantly.

The direct bus from Medellin to Salento leaves at 9am and 12pm everyday. The ticket was 43,000 pesos (USD 14) per head and the journey takes 6 hours. The scenery along the way is beautiful so maybe sure you are awake for some bits of the drive.

First Bad Weather

Although we had an amazing time in Salento, it will always be remembered for the bad weather during our trip. Apparently, Salenteños had been crying for rain which hadn’t been showing itself lately. Well, the Rain Gods answered the day we arrived and blessed the town heavily every single day we were there.

Luckily, the view, especially from the Mirador (viewing point) and the temperature of the rain meant that we didn’t quite hate it. We carried a rain jacket around and bought a pair of waterproof hiking shoes. No bad weather only bad clothes as they say in England!

View from Mirador on Raining Day, Salento

Coffee Finca

One of the things we wanted to do in Colombia was get a fresh cup of Colombian coffee. However, most Colombians don’t drink the best coffee, read about it in your Drinks in Colombia post. They drink it as a shot in the morning and it tastes horrible. 70% of the best coffee is exported to richer countries. The other 30% is kept by the coffee farms and sold in their shops.

Well, our first task in Salento was to walk down to a coffee farm and enjoy the coffee. As it happened, the coffee farms were around 4-5 kms away from main town. Since we were already on the path, we decided to just walk down. The path was all downhill and there were signs for the coffee farms with the distance remaining. However, the view of the valley below was incredible and we were glad to have walked.

Walk to Coffee Finca, Salento

Finca Ocaso, SalentoWe chose Finca Ocaso as it has some nice signs, offered an English tour and also because we reached it before any other fincas. The property was huge and it took us 10 minutes to walk from the door to the reception. Once inside we asked for the English language tour which was scheduled to begin an hour. We rested and killed some time in the game room.

Finca Ocaso, Salento

Coffee Tour, Finca Ocaso, SalentoWhen our turn came, we joined Paula, our guide and 15 other people. Our first job was to tie little baskets around our waists for coffee picking. Paula explained the basics of the coffee plant, its types, plantation, issues with various coffee species and Colombia’s place in the code world. Colombia is the 3rd largest producer of coffee in the world and its coffee fetches some of the best prices in the world.

Coffee Tour, Finca Ocaso, Salento

The next part was picking coffee. We all actually got into the coffee bushes and looked for red coffee beans. Mind you, Finca Ocaso is rain forest certified which meant there was a lot of trees in the area. I really got serious about it and headed deep into the bushes. It only occurred to me later that I never checked with Paula if there are snakes in the bushes. Eeek! After 15 minutes, we compared our coffee cherries and some people had more red than others.

We then took our cherries to the peeling machine. This was a manual machine used in yesteryears. Following this process was the drying, sorting, roasting and packing. In this farm, everything from the tree was used – the cover of the cherries, the dry husk of the cherries and the cherries which are not of the highest quality. Those are sold to local coffee companies to be consumed by Colombians.

Finally, after learning the process, some volunteers ground the coffee beans produced from the farms. Shruti then volunteered to put hot water into the coffee infuser to create the brew. Cups of the best Colombian coffee was then passed to each person in the tour. How did it taste? Not bitter at all, a little sour and easy to drink. It was quite refreshing and possibly one of the only cups of non-milk coffees that I loved.

Finca Ocaso, Salento

To remember our time, we bought a 250gm packet of coffee beans. As we hadn’t eaten all day, we ordered two bandejas with rice, soup, veges, meat (in my case) and a fresh glass of lemonade. A great meal in a beautiful location.

Bandeja, Salento

The return journey was not so fun though. It had been drizzling through the day but as soon as we left after our meal, it started pouring. There was no shelter or a taxi and we were forced to walk. The walk uphill combined with the rain was no fun. We tried waiting in the shelters but to no avail. Although the view of the valley was phenomenal, we couldn’t wait there forever. We ended up walking the whole way back in the rain, sometimes getting splashed by passing vehicles. Although it wasn’t the best walk, we still had fun and best of all we didn’t get sick!

Walking back to Salento from Coffee Farm in rain

Shopping in Armenia

After the coffee farm, our shoes were soaked to the point of no return. In addition, we had to hike the Valle Del Cocora. It would be impossible without good shoes. Moreover, we realised that our next destination, Ecuador was currently in the wet season which meant our current shoes were bad for this area.

Therefore, we decided to spend a day in Armenia looking for shoes. Getting transportation to it was easy. One way ride costs 3,400pesos (USD 1) per person. When we arrived in Armenia, we realised that the town was similar to small Indian towns. It had a market for bikes and bike parts, a market only for clothes, a market for shoes and other one for electronics.

With our limited Spanish in hand, we headed into shoe shops. We tried a few but the quality just wasn’t right. As we walked from one shop to another, the lady from the previous shop followed us in. It seemed that she owned a few shoe shops. She patiently helped us both try many shoes. We had to make sure we get shoes which would be waterproof but the shoes had no specific mention of this. In the end, we paid 85,000 pesos (under USD 30) which seemed a bargain.

Since it was one of our last times shopping in Colombia, I must take a moment to commend the shop keepers in Colombia. They were always welcoming with their “a la orden”, helped us as much as possible and were never pushy. Thanks Colombianos!

Tejo

Tejo, SalentoTejo is a Colombian sport which involves throwing a metal object from a distance onto a clay pit which has a metal ring with some triangles full of gunpowder. As the metal object hits the gunpowder triangle over the metal ring, there is an explosion. It requires some skill, patience and a lot of alcohol. There is a point system and the closest metal object to ring gets 1 point, blowing a triangle gets 3 points, getting in between the metal ring gets 6 points and blowing more than one triangle gets 9 points. Simple!

Tejo, Salento

Tejo, SalentoWe visited Los Amigos in Salento which is the most well known place to play Tejo. The cost to play was 1000 pesos (33 cents) and you had to order alcohol. While there, we met David and Sylvia from UK who were tourists like us. All of us realised that we sucked real bad at this game. However, we persisted and the final score was 21-20 to the POMS due to a late surge. It was all in fun and we had some great laughs later bursting the triangles from close proximity.

 

Tattoo

Shruti had wanted to extend her tattoo for a while. While in Salento, we saw a tattoo shop, Eternal Present Tattoo, and talked to the artist about it. The price was good but we couldn’t get it done that day as we had to hike the Cocora Valley next day. At this point, even I decided to get my first tattoo. We went home, decided on our fonts and the designs.

Finally, after the hike and some rest, we arrived at the tattoo parlour around 6pm. The tattoo artist heard us out individually on what we wanted, designed the tattoos and when we were happy, he started with the work.

Eternal Present Tattoo, Salento

Eternal Present Tattoo, SalentoShruti was first and she nearly cried in pain as it was on her foot. Her current tattoo depicts a place she loves – somewhere with sun, water and peace. For about 3 years now she has wanted to extend the tattoo with the word “wanderlust” across her foot. Of course that would hurt, but she says it is worth the pain! And now she is even more happier, she has an aeroplane on her ankle.

Eternal Present Tattoo, Salento

Eternal Present Tattoo, SalentoFor my first tattoo, I was surprisingly calm. I guess I had wanted to get the words – Prajna, Sila and Samadhi from Buddhism tattooed for a long time but had never gone through with it. As the artist started his work, I realized why I hadn’t! The pain was not unbearable but it was difficult to stay still. It was like a needle being pulled through my skin. I could not even imagine how people do it all over their bodies.

Eternal Present Tattoo, Salento

Anyway, it was over and the result for both of us looked good. It turns out the artist was also influenced by Buddhism and the name of his shop was also Buddhist-influenced. The total cost of both tattoos was 220,000 pesos (around USD 70). Meaningful tattoo for a great price, Thanks Salento!

Eternal Present Tattoo, Salento

Food

There are plenty of great food options in Salento due to the backpacker influence. Our hotel, Casa La Eliana provided fresh baked pita bread with hummus. I also enjoyed a great trucha (trout) with patacon (flat fried banana) at a local shop.

Trout, Salento

We visited Brunch Place which was a backpackers favourite. The breakfast was great and cheap. We also encountered Beta Town which was a restaurant with soccer field, tejo spot, darts and plenty of place to chill. We ended up getting massive burgers for dinner and massive breakfast as well.

Cocora Valley

Leaving Guatape, we headed towards Salento. Before we get into everything Salento, we wanted to share our experience at one of the most amazing parts of Colombia, Valle Del Cocora, Cocora Valley. It is close to Salento in the Quindio province of Colombia. It is famous for its beautiful hills and the Colombian National Tree – Wax Palm, known as Cocora in espanol.

Cocora Trees, Wax Palm Trees, Cocora Valley, Colombia

Getting to Cocora Valley

There are plenty of Willys going to the valley at set times during the day, though based on observation, they usually ride off once they have 10 passengers – 2 sitting in front, 6 at the back and 2 standing outside! Willys are old jeeps bought from the army and repaired. They usually have a silver horse on the bonnet similar to the Jaguar on the Jaguar brand.

Willys, Salento, ColombiaThe drive costs 3,900 pesos (USD 1.3) per person, takes approximately 30 minutes and is quite scenic. Along the way there are plenty of dairy farms and grazing pastures with cows sitting and chewing cud.

The jeep drops you off at a fork in the road which is the start of the trail. On the right is a dirt road which takes you to Estrella La Agua and Finca Acaime. If you are interested in doing the complete loop that takes about 5 hours, head this way.

Start of Cocora Valley Loop, Colombia

On the left, there is a gravel road which goes to farms surrounding the palm trees. It is also possible to do the loop in this direction, though you will see the Valley of Cocora as one of the first things. Then, you can either continue to hike to Finca La Montaña or return. This route is recommended if you just want to visit the Valley of Cocora without doing the loop. The walk to the valley is about 40 mins.

Rural Beauty

We had decided to do the complete 5 hours loop and so took the path towards Finca Acaime from the fork. The trail was uneven and rough with rocks, horse shit and large puddles. We had bought water resistant shoes from Armenia only because we had heard about the rain and the puddles on the trail. Those shoes paid off!

Rough Trail, Cocora Valley, Colombia

Despite the difficulties, the trail was scenic though mostly uphill. Lush green pastures lined both sides of the trail with the hills having wax palms. In addition, there was a stream coming down the mountains which provided the background music for the trail. We were lucky to get blue skies here which made the view simply stunning.

Rough Trail, Cocora Valley, Colombia

Tip: Ignore the signs to Estrella La Agua, unless you are interested in additional 2 to 3 hours of hike.

Hiking Through Forest

Further on, the trail led higher into the hills and came a hike through a forest. There was very little sunshine and a lot of water around. At times, it was hard to find the trail and we had to split up and search.

Jungle Trail, Cocora Valley, Colombia

The other interesting thing on the trail were the bridges created over the stream. While we were there, the stream was only small and it was possible to cross it on foot. However, during the rains the stream might be a torrent. Hence, the bridges. These bridges were made of metal ropes and wooden pallets. Walking on it was fun and dangerous at the same time as the bridge would start swinging in both direction.

Jungle Trail, Cocora Valley, Colombia

After the 6th flimsy bridge, there is a fork again. The path on the right leads to Acaime, the spot with humming birds and drink, while the path on the left leads to Finca La Montaña. We decided to head to Acaime first, relax a bit and then return towards Finca La Montaña.

Fork in the trail, Cocora Valley, Colombia

In total, we crossed 6 bridges and 1 wooden log bridge twice during the complete loop. Believe me there were some nervous moments.

Log Bridge, Cocora Valley, Colombia

Humming Birds

We walked to Finca Acaime which was a farm and a shelter for the humming birds. Various varieties of humming birds and other small birds live in the valley forest. Humming birds were just fluttering around everywhere!

Humming Birds, Acaime, Cocora Valley, Colombia

Hot chocolate drink, Acaime, Cocora Valley, ColombiaThe cost to enter the finca was 5,000 pesos (USD 1.5) but they provided a drink, a place to sit, relax, watch the birds and take in the beauty of the area. As an added extra, some coati ant-eaters came in to have some water. Cute guys!

Coati Anteaters, Acaime, Cocora Valley, Colombia

Tough Climb

We stayed half an hour at Acaime and then headed back towards Finca la Montaña. We should have guessed from the name that we were literally climbing up the mountain. The climb was strenuous and we had to take a break after every few minutes. The climb up is tough but not technically challenging. Just remind yourself that the climb is worth it!

Way to Finca la Montaña, Cocora Valley, Colombia

After 30 minutes of blood, sweat and tears climbing up a mountain, we reached Fina la Montaña. There wasn’t a lot there except the amazing view, lots of tourists doing the loop and a small shop. The best thing though was the rest of the way to Cocora Valley was downhill. Finally!

View from Finca la Montaña, Cocora Valley, Colombia

Walking Down to Cocora Valley

The road from the finca was a gravel road built on the side of the mountain. At first, we didn’t see much. A little view of the valley here and there. After about half an hour on the road, we got our first glimpse of the Cocora Valley with the clouds rolling in and palms standing mighty tall.

Cocora Valley, Colombia

As we went further, we came to a view point high on a rolling green hill right in the middle of the palms. Being surrounded by the palms overlooking the valley, we realised that we were in the best looking place in Colombia. We were finally viewing the Cocora Valley.

Cocora Valley, Colombia

That feeling continued as we finally saw what a cloud forest looks like. The clouds rolled in and covered up the valley slowly. Distant thunder, forest, high trees, rolling hills and clouds. Ah, beauty of nature!

DSC04055

Our final stop was alongside the valley which had a few farms over the green hills and hundreds of palm trees. The beauty of this stretch of the valley is hard to explain. The farm animals, the huge palms, green hills and the clouds. Photographs may capture the scene but they certainly can’t capture the feeling one gets after trekking through 10 kms of forest and mountain.

Cocora Valley, Colombia

Having said that, we took lots of photos and videos in Cocora Valley as we were sure we wouldn’t see anything like this again. We walked along the hills on the gravel road, which led us to where we had started. Surely, a complete loop!

As we jumped in one of the Willys ready to head back to Salento, the skies opened up. Luckily, we avoided the rain as we left the valley. Definitely another highlight of the trip!

Estimated Times and Advice

We had heard that the Cocora Valley loop is about 5 hours long. However, we were unsure about the fitness needed for that time. We are pretty unfit at this moment of our trip and we managed to complete the loop in just over 5 hours. So I suppose, if you were fit, you could complete the loop in 4 hours.

Also, wear steady shoes for the hike. There is lots of mud and stones around. Water-roof shoes or rain boots (these can be hired at the shops where the loop begins) are a must.

It is recommended to start your day early so you can enjoy the valley as the clouds roll in. But if you delay, you may encounter rain. We were at the Salento Square at 7:15am, and managed to start our ride in Willy towards the valley at 7:25am. We were on the loop trail by 8am.

Lastly, dress comfortably. In the morning it is quite chilly, but 15 mins into the trail, we had to get rid of our jackets. We recommend wearing comfortable, light-coloured t-shirt with a jacket that can protect you from chills and rain. Also, carry enough water and some snacks, such as nuts, for the trail.

Here are our times:

Start to Finca Acaime – 1 hour 50 minutes with stops

Halt at Finca Acaime – 30 mins

Finca Acaime to the fork that leads to Finca la Montaña – 20 mins (remember you need to cross the wooden log bridge only)

From fork to Finca la Montaña – 35 mins of slow but steady climb up the steep mountain

Finca Acaime to Finca la Montaña – 55 mins in total

Halt at Finca la Montaña – 10 mins

Finca la Montaña to end of loop – 1 hr 45 mins with many halts

Total time – 5 hours 10 mins

Cocora Valley, Colombia

Drinks in Colombia

Before we arrived in Colombia, we had only heard of the beer Aguila and Colombian coffee. After spending 6 weeks in Colombia, we discovered a whole range of drinks in Colombia for all purposes.

Fresh Fruits

Colombia should be known around the world for its exotic fruits! There are many different types of fruits that we had never seen or heard of. In fact, many fruits here do not even have an English equivalent. Moreover, Colombians have a culture of enjoying fruits, whether it be drinking fresh juices or eating them. There are juice stalls everywhere.

Fruit Stall, Colombia

While in Colombia, we tried few exotic fruit juices:

Mora – Mora is blackberry but the taste is nothing like the bottled juices. Made fresh it tastes amazing.

Lulo – Lulo is a citrus fruit in Colombia with no equivalent in English.

Corozo – A small red fruit only consumable as juice. It tastes a little like cranberry.

Tomate Arbol – This is tree tomato which obviously tastes tomate like. It is usually used to add to other fruits for juices.

Maracuya – A common juice in Colombia it is basically a yellow passionfruit.

Feijoa – We only had this juice once in Bogota and never saw it again. Apparently the fruit is called Pineapple guava.

Guanabana – Camillo at Rock A Town hoste in Guatape decided to make us a juice of it. It tasted kind of milky.

These are all the Colombian fruits which we were able to taste. We also had fresh pineapple, strawberry, papaya and mango fruits and enjoyed fresh lemonade and coconut lime juices. Most places offer the choice of plain juices with water or with milk. Whichever option you chose, the juices are delicious and refreshing.

Fruit Juices, Colombia

To make it even better, you can mix two or more fruits. The price usually ranges between 3000 pesos (USD 1) and 6000 pesos (USD 2) depending on the options chosen.

Fruit Juices, Colombia

I am not one for fruits and fruit juices but somehow the weather and the culture makes juices a perfect match. And in any case, juices are a healthier option to beer and coffee! Having said that, it doesn’t mean we didn’t drink beer or coffee.

Coffee

Colombian coffee is known all over the world. It is served in cups in the café around the world. However, when you come to Colombia, you realise that most Colombians have never drank that high class coffee at all.

Although the coffee chain sell the barista style coffee just like anywhere else in the world, this type of coffee is simply too expensive for many Colombians. A cappuccino at Dunkin Donuts cost me 3,500 pesos (just over USD 1). For that price, you can get a coffee and an empanada (fried snack) making a full breakfast.

In general, there are two types of popular coffees on the streets of Colombia, tinto and con leche – means black and with milk. Both of these use the ground coffee from a box instead of the high quality from the coffee region. They drink it short, sweet and hot.

On the other hand, we visited a coffee farm in Salento, Quindio which is right in the middle of Zona Cafeteria of Colombia. There we learnt that Colombia focuses on producing Arabica coffee. At the end of production, there are two types of coffee produced – class 1 & class 2 Colombia Coffee. Class 1 coffee gets exported to other countries while class 2 is consumed by locals. Now everything makes sense!

Enjoying the best coffee, Colombia

We tried class 1 coffee and it was one of the best coffees in the world. The taste was not bitter at all. Colombians don’t consider bitter coffee to be high class. In fact, Colombia’s enjoy their coffee without sugar and without milk. We wish we could have that day in day out!

Milk Based

We tried a few regional homemade milk based drinks in Bogota and Mompox. Avena which was a mix of oatmeal and milk is usually drank cold and can substitute a meal. It is sweet and filling.

Chicha in Mompox, on the other hand, is made from milk, sugar and rice. It is served cold but not as filling as avena. In any case, both these drinks are perfect for hot afternoons.

Chicha, Colombia

In addition, any of the juices listed above can be drank with milk making it healthy and filing.

Guess what? I found lassi in Colombia. They call it Kumis and it is the same as the sweet lassi made in homes in India.

Alcohol

While we are not the biggest drinkers, we do like to try different types of drinks. We tried a few while in Colombia:

Club Colombia Red and Black – readily available but we hated its taste. It is too bitter for our liking.

Aguila Normal and Light – This is our regular beer in Colombia. We actually tasted it in Sydney and have liked it ever since. Its taste is just perfect and its best drank freezing cold.

Costeñita – We had this beer in Mompox and loved it but the sad thing is that we haven’t seen it since. It was very smooth to drink.

Costeña – A bogota beer which tastes similar to Coopers pale ale. Not bad!

Redd’s apple ale – It tastes very much like a cider but apparently it is not cider. Made in Colombia but is USA owned.

Aguardiente – A local brew of Antioquia, it is popular in all of Colombia. It is a better tasting sambucca made of sugar cane and anise flavored.

Chicha in Bogota – Chicha was sweet with a little sugar and very pulpy. It tasted like drinking apple pulp.

Local Rum – Medellin & Ron Caldas – Medellin rum was the average rum for Colombians to get drunk on. On the other hand, Ron Caldas was more expensive and smooth.

Guatape – Beautiful Town

Guatape is a small town 2 hours away from Medellin known for its scenery. Most people come to Guatape for The Rock ‘El Peñón de Guatapé’ and Guatape Lake. It is one of the favourite weekend gateways for people of Medellin. Some come over for a day while others spend a night.

When we decided to visit Guatape, we thought we would spend a night. But we fell in love with the town that we decided to stay longer!

Guatape, Colombia

Getting to Guatape

Getting to Guatape is quite easy from Medellin. Buses from No. 13 of the Terminal Transport de Norte leave every half hour for Guatape until 7pm. The cost is 13,000 pesos (USD 4) per person.

If you decide to get to Guatape on Sunday, we suggest you book your tickets in advance, especially for return to Medellin. Those buses usually fill up quickly.

La Piedra

La Piedra is the main tourist attraction in Guatape. It is a mighty rock, 200 metres in height from its base and can be seen from a few kilometres away. There is a G and half U painted on the flatter side of The Rock as Guatape tried to own The Rock but the residents of El Peñol, nearby town, wouldn’t let that happen.

La Piedra, The Rock, Guatape, Colombia

There are around 670 steps til the Top of The Rock. However, there is a viewing platform which stands at 740 steps. The entire climb can be done in 20 minutes if 1) You are physically fit 2) You don’t stop for photograph along the way. We took about 30 mins to get to the viewing area.

La Piedra, The Rock, Guatape, Colombia

The view from the Top of The Rock is just outstanding. There is water and land in all directions. And the hills in the background just add to the beauty. The landscape makes the sight one of the most beautiful in the world.

La Piedra, The Rock, Guatape, Colombia

Following the Colombian tradition, there are beer and snacks stalls and souvenir shop and a restaurant on the Top of The Rock! You can never be thirsty or hungry in this country.

La Piedra, The Rock, Guatape, Colombia

The entry to The Rock is 15,000 pesos (USD 5) per person. The buses from Medellin make a stop at La Piedra, so you could get off the bus and climb The Rock before getting to the town. From the bus stop to the base of The Rock you could either walk (10 mins), take a tuk tuk or a horse ride.

From Guatape to The Rock, there are tuk tuks and the bus heading back to Medellin. Getting to The Rock is pretty easy from the town.

La Piedra, The Rock, Guatape, Colombia

Lake

In the 60s, the Colombian Government dammed the river nearby creating a huge man-made reservoir lake. All the towns in the area were demolished and moved higher up on the hills around the lake.

Guatape, Colombia

Along the lake shore one can hear “lancha” (boat) as you walk alongside the beach. Those are the boat owners willing to take you on a ride in the lake for a small cost. We took a shared boat or lancha on the lake with some Canadians and local tourists. We paid around 15,0000 pesos (USD 5) per person. It could have been cheaper with a bigger boat and more people but we got a good deal. We got our life jackets on and got in the boat for an incredible ride.

Guatape, Colombia

First of all, you get splashed by water as soon as the boat pulls out of Guatape and keep getting mildly splashed the rest of the time. You soon forget about that as the water gets deeper and the hills around get higher. The beauty of the area has to be seen to be believed. Behind us, a storm cloud was threatening the wooded mountain making the town and the lake look so different.

Guatape, Colombia

As the boat goes on, the captain stops at different sites. A government hotel, houses of models and football stars and finally in one area the houses of Pablo Escobar, his family and friends. At one time, Escobar had 400 farms on the lake. Now, his old home is burnt down and used for paintball by tourists.

Guatape, Colombia

The final stop before returning is the site of the old El Peñol town which now lies underwater. A big cross on a brick pole marks the site of the church of town. There is a pit stop here for 15 mins to see the museum of the old town and the only house to survive the flooding of the area. The cost of the museum is 1,000 pesos.

Guatape, Colombia

The site of the cross is perhaps the most beautiful on the lake with mountains all around sometimes being seen in the turquoise water. We left as quickly as we had arrived there and headed back for town. On the way, we saw a party boat with music blasting and drinks flowing. For once we were glad we were not on that. The silence around the lake was really peaceful. 15,000 pesos seemed a bargain for taking in some much beauty of the area. A must do in Guatape!

Guatape, Colombia

The Beautiful Town

We arrived in the town without knowing much about it at all. Our host in Taganga, Ingrid, had advised us to stay the night in Guatape. The town itself has only 5,000 people and is surrounded by hills on all sides. The lake shore makes for one of the main streets in town.

Guatape, Colombia

However, we only accidentally discovered the most distinctive qualities of this town. For one, each house in the town had an artwork made of plaster on the concrete wall about 2m high from the ground. In addition, each artwork outside each house was painted with vibrant colours. The artwork is called Zocalo and Guatape is known as the village of Zocalos.

Zocalo Art, Guatape, Colombia

The next quality was even more unbelievable. We discovered the most colorful little plaza (Plaza De Los Zocalos) in the town, dedicated to the zocalos around the town. There were apartments, surrounded by shops and more apartments in this plaza. The unique thing was that each story of apartments had a different color and each step of stair was also colored differently. It looked like a real life doll house.

Plaza De Los Zocalos, Guatape, Colombia

Here is a quick video tour of the Plaza De Los Zocalos.

Most zocalos are different with only a few similar ones around town. Someone may have sheep, horses, boats, scenery and The Rock too. As time progressed, people started putting entire stories in form of zocalos. The largest we saw took up 3 walls.

Zocalo Art, Guatape, Colombia

Moreover, we heard about Ignacio Suarez, the guy who has created and painted 80% of zocalos around the town. He may be called the Godfather of Zocalos. We promised ourselves that we would meet him before we left. As fate would have it, we found him working a corner away from our hostel and we had to say hi. He was a small, round, old and extremely humble. He looked a bit like the stereotypical Chinese Masters with their long mustaches. We communicated to him that we were honored to meet him. What a guy!

Ignacio Suarez, Zocalo Art, Guatape, Colombia

Make sure tou have at least 1.5 hours set aside for walking around the town. There are amazing colours and artwork and each time we walked the same streets, we discovered something new. Additionally, over the weekend the main square gets busy! All the pubs and clubs are open till late at night – the town transforms like Cinderella!

The people & the food

In the two weeks that we stayed in Guatape, the people were extremely nice to us. We met and got to know Camillo, the owner of the hostel, and Carolina, who looked after the hostel. Of course, we got to know Carolina a lot less as she only spoke Spanish, but one afternoon she offered to make pancakes for us!

Pancakes by Carolina, Guatape

Don De Sam, Guatape, ColombiaWhat surprised us the most was meeting Shekhar (Sam) who runs an Indian restaurant in the town. We walked into the restaurant, Don De Sam, not knowing it was an Indian restaurant. Once in, there was hindi music on and the menu sort of confused us a little. Within couple of minutes, Sam walked over and started talking to us in Hindi. We were really shocked and taken aback a bit. It was quite a bit for us to digest! After chatting to him for a while he suggested cooking aloo tikki and chole (fried potato with chickpeas), type of street food, which we hadn’t had in months and in Shruti’s case years. He sat down with us to enjoy the freshly cooked meal and told us his story. He arrived in Guatape for 3 days visit and never left. WOW!

Namaste Cafe, Guatape, ColombiaAnother amazing person we met was Adriana, the one who runs a vegetarian cafe called Namaste. She cooked amazing lunches and we visited her a few times. We initially wanted to volunteer there but she already had all the volunteers she needed. In any case, the lunches at Namaste were incredible with a French, Indian and worldwide influence. The price for a meal is generally 13,000 pesos (USD 4) with a fresh juice which was a bargain!

Namaste Cafe, Guatape, Colombia

In addition, other than an auto driver who took us for a ride (repetitive pattern!), everyone in town was nice and helpful. Despite our limited skills of Spanish, people still conversed with us as if we were locals. A few times we felt we were getting tourist prices but it wasn’t regular at all.

Exploring Around Guatape

We hired a scooter to ride around Guatape from Guatape Motos. James and his volunteers had set up the business a few months ago. Once we reached his shop, he handed us a bike, a map, a mobile phone and generally gave safety instructions. Once that was done, we were on our way to San Rafael.

Scooty Ride, Guatape, Colombia

Despite being a sunny day, we were feeling cold due to the Andean winds in Guatape. However, that changed 10km out of Guatape as we descended towards San Rafael. San Rafael is 1000m below Guatape but the road descends gradually. This was good for our little scooter as it would not have handled hairpin turns.

The scenery is absolutely amazing as one really sees the height of the mountains around Guatape when going down to San Rafael. The mountains around have some amazing peaks and deep valleys. In short, the ride is simply stunning.

Ride to San Rafael from Guatape, Colombia

Our first stop was Bizcocha which is a sleepy riverbank. We looked around for a decent spot to bathe but decided against it mostly due to the direct sun. Apart from the heat, the view is incredible with mountains on all sides, a mountainous river and various small bridges over the river.

Bizcocha, San Rafael, Colombia

Our next stop was La Casuela, a waterfall which could only be accessed by foot as the path leading to it was not paved and the scooter was not fit to be ridden over it. We met 3 other backpackers from USA, Netherlands and Britain while looking for the path to the waterfall. We chatted about their travels as we walked for 30 minutes. That may have been painful but the bath in the waterfall was equally good because of it. We stayed there for an hour before heading back to San Rafael for lunch while our friends went back to Guatape.

La Casuela, San Rafael, Colombia

San Rafael was surprisingly big compared to Guatape. It had a large square, a beautiful church, bridge over the river and again an incredible view of the mountains around it. We tried to find vegetarian food for Shruti with no luck until we saw sign for avena on a bakery. We ordered avena and some fresh cheese bread. The avena was refreshing in the heat while the cheese bread was absolutely delicious. We were still a little hungry so decided to get a pizza.

San Rafael, Colombia

That was an experience again as the pizzeria didn’t have a non-meat pizza available but the lady agreed to make one fresh for us. The fresh dough and fresh cheese with a slight sweetness gave the pizza an incredible taste which we will not forget for a while. We said goodbye to San Rafael and rode back to Guatape. The ride back was interesting as it was entirely uphill. I kept the acceleration high to be able to manage 30-40km per hour speed.

Scooty ride to San Rafael from Guatape, Colombia

We still made it back to Guatape by 5:30 for a quick trip to La Piedra, The Rock, for some photos. A quick fuel stop later we returned the bike to James without any damage. Being a nice guy, he handed us a cold beer. Can a day get any better?

Guatape, Colombia

Tip: Guatape motos is on the main street of Guatape. The scooter cost was 110,000pesos($40USD) for 2 people from 9am-6pm.

Volunteering

We had wanted to stay longer than a few days in Guatape. However, that would not be possible without volunteering and saving on accommodation and food. We asked Camillo at Rock a Town hostel if he knew any volunteering opportunities around town. As it turned out, he was looking for volunteers himself. In the 2 weeks there, we had lots of chats with Camillo about Colombia, Ecobar and his history, Guatape, his time in Melbourne, his Indian friends there and of course, Indian food which he loves.

Rock a Town Hostel, Guatape, Colombia

Our daily jobs included helping with changing beds, cleaning but mostly looking after the hostel from 6-10pm. It wasn’t a lot of work but we got to understand how tough running a hostel can be. In addition, since we were mostly just “hanging around” the hostel, we were able to chat with a lot of travelers about their travels. Many people were on short-term travels and were in town for a day while others were there long-term spending their time reading and chilling in a hammock.

Rock a Town Hostel, Guatape, Colombia

Moreover, though long-term travel sounds cool and relaxing, most of the time it is a lot of planning and running from on place to another. Volunteering at the hostel gave us a bit of chill for a while which we were grateful for. We ran through scenarios of further travel and life after travel. In short, it was a lot of fun, a little bit of work, hanging out with a great guy and memories of a life time. Thanks Camillo!

Things to do in Medellin

Here’s a little secret: We nearly skipped Medellin! We are glad we listened to all the locals and travelers we met along the way because we would have missed the best city in Colombia.

Things to do in Medellin

We have already posted about our great experience in Slums of Medellin. This post focuses on other things to do in Medellin. But first, getting to Medellin.

Getting To Medellin

As we were in Mompox, the best way to get to Medellin was through a direct bus that took almost 15-16 hours. Copetran is the only bus company that operates the direct Mompox-Medellin route. We bought our tickets for 120,000 pesos ($40 USD) and geared up for a long bus ride. Fortunately, the ride was comfortable. The bus had wifi, toilet and amazing seats with foot rests. The only issue was the aircon at night – the driver really turns it on high! If you are taking a long route overnight bus in South America, do not forget a nice jacket or blanket. You will need it!

Copetran , Colombia

Medellin is generally well connected with rest of Colombia. There are two bus terminals within the city so the buses from all around drive to one of the terminals. Additionally, you could also fly in. The airport is about 45 mins away from the city.

The Metro System

Medellin’s metro system started in the mid 90s and has grown since. At initial glance, it looks like a small network with only two lines but add in the metro cable cars and it is a bigger network spread across the vast areas up to the mountains.

The metro is generally not too crowded (except peak hours) and is a good experience. Most of the popular sites in the city can be seen from the metro system, all you need to do is ride from one end of the city to another. In the previous post, we wrote about how to ride the cable cars, so don’t forget to read that while planning your day.

Metro in Medellin

Another great thing about the metro is that the ticket is flat fee, 2150 pesos (less than $1 USD). So travel to the next station or spend an entire day using the metro system. It really depends on you!

El Centro

The Centre of Medellin is similar to the Centre of Bogota. It’s old, it’s crowded and it had a reputation for crime. Although many historic buildings in the city were destroyed during Escobar era, Medellin council and people are working hard to transform its reputation and infrastructure.

The first place to visit in Medellin Centro is the Plaza De Botero and the Museo De Antioquia. Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous artist, is from Medellin and has donated vast amount of artwork, paintings and sculptures, to the city.

Plaza De Botero, MedellinPlaza De Botero, Medellin

His art is different from any other artist to say the least and a large part of Museo De Antioquia is his artwork. Moreover, since it is unique, the museum provides excellent explanations for his art and why its important. Plaza De Botero is free while the museum entry is 10,000 pesos (USD 3.5) per person.

Museo de Antioquia, MedellinAnother interesting aspect of the museum are the interactive rooms. We have been to plenty of museums by now and nowhere did we see an opportunity for visitors to interact with the art. There are sketches, board paints and even a web camera section where you can take your photos and email it to yourself! It was really fun playing around in these rooms.

Museo de Antioquia, MedellinPlaza De Bolivar, Medellin

Plaza De Bolivar is another nice place in Medellin Centro. Old people read their newspapers, coffee sellers sell their coffee and families visit the cathedral nearby. It is a great place to just watch life go by. We sat here for a while and realised that the city provides free Internet in plazas!

Plaza De Bolivar, Medellin

There are plenty of Cathedrals around the Medellin Centro. While walking around the area, we came around three churches. The architecture is really pretty and historic.

Cathedral, Medellin

If you’re into street shopping, El Hueco and Junnin Street are not to be missed. These are near the San Antonio station. There are shops and hawkers selling practically everything on the streets. If you’re looking for a bargain, you may find it in this area.

Street Shopping, Medellin

Tip: The Centro of Medellin empties out at night as workers and vendors leave. It is suggested not to hang around late at night.

El Poblado

El Poblado was once a far away village of Medellin. Now it is only 4 metro stations away from the Centre. The rich of Medellin moved into Poblado and it is now a rich and safe part of town. Perhaps due to this reputation, the backpackers started moving into Poblado many years ago and changed the night life of the area.

Poblado has businesses and residential areas but as a tourist, most of your interaction is with the streets in and around Parque Ileras. This is the party central of Poblado and on a Friday and Saturday night it resembles Kings Cross (Sydney, Australia) minus the fighting.

Parque Ileras during the week, MedellinPS: this picture of Parque Ileras was taken on Tuesday, during the week.

As we were living in the area, we visited a few clubs and found the Latin style of partying to be very different to others. There is a lot of sensual dancing and alcohol but in general there is no violence and macho culture that exists in Australia. The music and the energy is immaculate!

Parque Arvi

Medellin has a huge National Park within the city borders somewhat like Cape Town on top of the mountain. The cable car from Santo Domingo can get you there in 20 minutes, read all about the cable car ride in the previous post. There are guided walks, camping and picnic points in the park so you could either spend few hours, an entire day or few days in the park. Suit yourself.

Parque Arvi, Medellin

In addition, there are small vendors selling food, wine and jewelry. The park has little restaurants selling food, tea and other eatables. Going to a national park in Colombia is always fun if not for the nature then at least for the food and drinks.

Parque Arvi, MedellinWe spent sometime in one of the stalls that was selling Coca products. We tried out some coca leaves and had coca tea. A good way to unwind after a long day.

Parque Arvi, Medellin

Watching Soccer

While we were in Medellin, the local team, Independiente Medellin, had a home game so we decided to go attend. We asked our hostel to arrange for the tickets. It was the second game of the season so there was a lot of excitement!

Soccer Game, Medellin

When the guy arrived with the tickets, I was wearing a green tshirt. He looked at me and said, “Nooo! Change tshirt. Fight”. I quickly understood that green colour belongs to the opposition team, Juniors, and I went to change to a red tshirt, colour of the local team. He also suggested wearing comfortable shoes because if a goal was scored, the entire crowd would run down. We were a little confused but we decided to follow his advice anyway.

Soccer Game, Medellin

We got to the stadium just at kick off time. And oh my, the queue to enter was long. After waiting around for 20 minutes, we were finally inside. We got ourselves a good spot and joined the crowd.

Soccer Game, Medellin

The fans in our stand were the hardcore followers. Throughout the game there was chanting to the band’s rhythm. Almost everyone there was enjoying some drinks or smoking some joints. We were actually surprised how they got it through the security!

Soccer Game, Medellin

Overall, it was a great experience. Although no goal was scored this game, we felt like we were attending a party. Here is a complication of the game and crowd highlights.

The Positive Feels

Everyone we met in Colombia before getting to Medellin, local and traveler, told us that we have to go to Medellin. They couldn’t point to a single reason and we were a bit confused. However, we only realised what they meant after getting here.

While Medellin went through a terrible time during the Escobar era, the city is really turning it around. Added to its geographical beauty, the fact that the government is really working hard to put the pride back in Medellin. The metro, the cleaning up of the slums, the roads, high-rise buildings, the nightlife, its brand as the Silicon Valley of Latin America and almost no visible crime make Medellin a great place to be in.

There are plenty of cafes, restaurants and small pubs around the area which gives a feel of a western city. There are plenty of expats in this part of Colombia and we can see why! We recommend spending some time in Medellin, whether it is for a holiday, short-time stay or a few years. There are quite a few things to do in Medellin.

Cafes in Medellin