Category Archives: Colombia

The Best Hostels in Latin America

Travelling for a year, constantly on the move, rarely staying more than three or four days in one place, where I end up staying makes a huge difference to my my stress levels. End up in a nice hostel, with things like comfy beds, warm showers, free breakfasts, a good location and a nice atmosphere keeps me far more relaxed and happy than when I’ve been unlucky enough to end up in somewhere lacking some or all of those factors.

Luckily, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to find the vast majority of places I’ve stayed in have been brilliant. Finding the good ones isn’t too hard either – best of all is to get personal recommendations from other travellers, failing that, a quick look on hostelworld or hostelbookers gives a pretty good (and crucially, up to date) steer on where’s good. One of the main reasons to avoid using guide books is that new hostels are opening all the time, and in many places the best hostels have only opened recently.

Seeing as personal recommendations are the best kind, I thought I’d thank some of the best places I’ve stayed in by giving them a bit of a plug here – I make no apologies for the fact this list is entirely subjective (it’s not like I’ve been everywhere in Latin America, and I only ever stayed in one place in each town). But I reckon if you happen to be a budget traveller in any of these places and choose to stay in them, I hope you won’t be disappointed.

1. Casa de Dante, Guanajuato, Mexico

Me on Dante's roof

This one has pretty much everything going for it – Dante is the perfect host, welcoming new arrivals with a beer and a brilliant explanation of everything to do in the fantastic city. His mother is an amazing cook, and the free breakfasts (including fresh fruit, a cooked breakfast, delicious fresh smoothies and coffee) cooked by his mother are the best I had in any hostel by far. Add to that the peaceful roof terrace with views all over the city, and wonderful personal touches like the fact they fly flags on the roof for every nationality staying there on a given night (although let me know what Dante does if you happen to stay there and come from a small country he doesn’t have a flag for) and you have a real home from home.

2. Hostel Lao, Mendoza, Argentina

The Hostel Lao probably had the friendliest atmosphere of any hostel I stayed in. And it definitely had the friendliest (and possibly maddest) dogs too. There’s a huge garden (with a pool) too, and the weekly barbecue is really not to be missed – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that much meat (and the salads are pretty awesome too).

3. Casa Felipe, Taganga, Colombia

There can’t be many backpacker hostels in the world that have a chef who cooks posh restaurant quality food. Casa Felipe is certainly the only one I’ve ever come across. Great breakfasts too, and the rooms are really spread out, each with their own hammock, and with a lovely shaded outdoor seating area for chilling in, this is the perfect place to relax and recover after trekking to the Lost City. This is also one of the few where it’s definitely worth booking ahead – it’s always full.

4. Hostel Patapata, Valparaiso, Chile

Hostel Patapata

Valpo was my favourite city in Latin America, and a not insignificant part of my enjoyment was the wonderful Patapata. It’s in a big old 19th century townhouse on the best of the city’s hills, and is another family run place that really has a proper family feeling. Another place with great breakfasts too.

5. Albergue Churup, Huaraz, Peru

Huaraz sunset from Albergue Churup's balcony

Huaraz is a hikers’ and mountaineer’s town, and if you are either of those, Albergue Churup is the perfect place to stay. It’s really popular with the serious outdoor types, which can help if you’re looking to join up with people for activities. Best of all is the top-floor communal area, with huge windows giving perfect views of the mountains (and even better ones from the outside terrace), and a coal fire to keep you warm on the cold mountain evenings. Really hot showers are also an essential after a big hike, and they don’t disappoint. Yet again (bit of a theme developing here from me) the breakfasts are great (I can highly recommend the banana pancakes before a big day of activity).

6. Altons Dive Shop, Utila, Honduras

Alton's Dock

If you’re diving, this is the best bargain in the Americas I reckon. For a start, you get free accommodation if you’re doing a course. Even when you’ve finished a course, divers get a special rate, which was easily the cheapest I paid anywhere (just over $3!). And for that, you can get a room right on the dock, with beautiful views across Utila harbour. Hammocks on the dock are perfect for chilling too, there’s a bar right on the dock too and a weekly sunset booze cruise (more civilised than it sounds) and barbecue too. In fact if they just did decent Baleadas (yummy Honduran street food) I would barely have needed to leave the place the entire time I was there.

7. Camping Mihinoa, Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

It’s in one of the best locations on the island, sitting right on the edge of the ocean facing some of the island’s most dramatic waves. The beds are comfy, the showers are hot, and there are not one but two decent sized kitchens. Marta is the perfect host too. And best of all, it’s the cheapest place to stay on what is a pretty pricey island.

8. Medialuna Art Hostel, Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena is HOT. Ridiculously so. And very humid too. Walking around the city by day is a sweaty and tiring experience. So what you need is a hostel with somewhere to cool down. The Medialuna has two: a pool in the downstairs courtyard, and a nice high roof terrace that frequently gets a breeze that’s missing at street level. Housed in a lovely, whitewashed colonial building, it’s one of the more beautiful hostels I stayed in too. One note of caution – out of all the ones listed here, this is one that can be a bit noisy at night.

9. DN Hostel, Bogota, Colombia

Bogota is COLD. In my first hostel I nearly froze to death, even in my room. The DN, on the other hand, comes with wonderfully warm, thick duvets, atop one of the comfiest bunks I’ve stayed in. It has a really friendly owner too, and is another place that does a great weekly barbecue.

10. Casa Margarita, Creel, Mexico

Margarita’s gets a bit of a knocking sometimes, because the staff can apparently be a bit pushy about tours (although they weren’t to me), and admittedly the rooms aren’t quite up to the standard of most of the rest on this list. But it earns it’s place here for one very good reason – value for money. It was the cheapest hostel I stayed in Mexico, and yet it included not only a two course breakfast, but also a huge three course dinner – unique amongst all the places I stayed in.

That’s it for Latin America now – posts on New Zealand, Australia & Indonesia will be on their way soon as I work through my backlog of posts!

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Highlights of Latin America

I had such an awesome time in Latin America it’s pretty hard to pick out favourite moments. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. Here are the best things I’ve seen and done over the past six and a half months, along with links to what I originally wrote about them.

Favourite City: Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso

Runner-up: Guanajuato, Mexico
Hilly cities with lots of colourful houses are clearly the way to keep me happy.

Favourite Capital City: Mexico City

Mexico City Cathedral

Runner-up: Santiago de Chile
Quite a contrast here between enormous, chaotic, slightly crazy Mexico City vs Clean, calm, orderly Santiago. But I could live in ‘em both, I reckon.

 

Favourite Food: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
Best street food in Latin America from the Mexicans, whereas the restaurants were at their finest in Peru.

Best course: Learning Spanish in Guatemala
Runner-up: Learning to Dive in Honduras
Who knew learning could be such fun? Learning Spanish enriched my whole experience in the continent, and diving was way more fun (and way easier) than I ever thought it could be.

Favourite activity: Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru
Runner-up: Cycling tour of the wineries, Mendoza, Argentina

Favourite Hike: The Huayhuash Circuit, Peru

The Cordillera Huayhuash

Runner-up: The Lost City, Colombia
Again, quite a contrast. The Huayhuash took me to the most stunning mountain scenery I’ve ever come across, and was the toughest walk I’ve ever done. The Lost City was less visually appealling and easier on the legs, but made up for it by being with the best group of people I’ve me on the whole trip.

 

Favourite Natural Wonder: The Copper Canyon, Mexico

The road to Batopilas, Copper Canyon

Runner-up: The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sorry Colca Canyon, you may be deeper but Mexico’s is way better. It also gave me my favourite journey, along the Copper Canyon railway. Meanwhile, Uyuni was like a trip to another planet.

 

Favourite off the beaten track place: Mexcaltitan

Calle Venezia, Mexcaltitan

I feel like a bad traveller. I was pretty firmly on the gringo trail the entire time. Except in Mexcaltitan, tough to get to, not a lot to see, but one of my favourite stops so far.

 

Best Night out: Sargento Pimientas, Lima, Peru
Runner-up: Mazatlan, Mexico
My last night in Lima was a chance to say goodbye to two good friends I’d been travelling with on and off since Colombia, accompanied by the best music I’ve heard in ages. Mazatlan on the other hand was an entirely random night out with three Mexican women who I was introduced to by a clown.

Favourite Beach: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park

Runner-up: Mazunte, Mexico
Sleeping in a hammock on the beach in Colombia was pretty close to paradise. Meanwhile the waves in Mazunte kept me entertained for hours.

 

Favourite Market: San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Runner-up: Oaxaca, Mexico
A pretty small hill town in Guatemala with the biggest, most sprawling market I’ve ever seen. Oaxaca was my favourite of the Mexican markets, especially for the crammed, smokey food section.

Favourite weird religious spectacle: Semana Santa in Guanajuato, Mexico

Semana Santa in Guanajuato

Runner-up: Meeting Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Catholicism may have its heart in Europe, but the way they do it in Latin America makes our version look pretty tame.

 

Favourite Country: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
I’ve probably bored everyone I’ve met on this trip to death by going on and on about Mexico. But I don’t care. I love it.

Colombia round up & budget

Colombia was a last-minute addition to my itinerary based on the rave reports I’d read from other travel bloggers, and as I travelled through Central America, I heard more and more people gushing about how it was their favourite country in South America. So how did it turn out?

After a very disappointing start in Bogota, I ended up loving the country. For a country with such a dangerous reputation, I actually felt safer in Colombia than any other country so far. You’d never know either that mass tourism is relatively new here either – it’s a very easy country to get around andI stayed in some of the nicest hostels to date.

Freshly picked coffee beans

Freshly picked coffee beans

There were plenty of highlights – Villa de Leyva is one of the finest little colonial towns I’ve seen so far; Tayrona gave me the best beaches I’ve ever seen; climbing Nevado del Ruiz took me above 5,000m for the first time; Medellin is one of the most fun cities I’ve ever visited; visiting Hacienda Guayabal to see how coffee is grown and made was both beautiful and fascinating; San Gil gave me the opportunity to try paragliding, and the Lost City trek is the best hike I’ve ever done.

Colourful Guatepe

Colourful Guatepe

I even grew to love Bogota in the end. It’s funny how much of a difference the weather can make to my enjoyment of a place – after a cold, wet and grey first experience, on my second visit I arrived to glorious sunshine, blue skies, and warm weather. And suddenly the city looked beautiful (and not like Croydon so much). I ended up in a much nicer hostel (the fantastic DN) in a slightly safer-feeling area, discovered some beautiful little side streets and some of the nicest and friendliest little bars and restaurants I’ve seen on my trip so far.

Every country has its downsides, and for me the only real letdown was the food. The Colombians seem to have a penchant for deep-frying everything, which was not great, and pretty much everything that wasn’t deep-fried seemed to be stuffed with cheese (even when you least expect it). It was generally quite expensive too, compared to other countries I’ve been to, and even the supermarkets were poor – I found a better selection of many things even in Guatemala, a much poorer country. There were some highlights, such as the hot chocolate with cheese, and some excellent street-food chorizos, but on the whole it was all a bit disappointing.

But my happiest memory of Colombia is nothing intrinsic to the country – it was instead the other travellers I spent time with. In the Macondo hostel in San Gil I met a fantastic selection of Brits, Irish & Americans. I did the Lost City trek with six of them, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better group of people. After that, every place I visited ended up being with a selection of the group from San Gil. Thanks for helping make Colombia such a special experience.

The unusual Bolivar statue in Manizales

The unusual Bolivar statue in Manizales


I’m now getting used to the fact that each country never turns out to be as cheap as I was hoping, and Colombia was no exception. I found food to be especially on the costly side, although as usual I did myself no favours by spending far too much partying. Still, on the brightside I spent the least since Guatemala, and only a touch more than I spent in Mexico. Here are the daily averages:
Transport: $6.69
Accommodation: $7.80
Museums, activities & excursions: $9.58
Food & drink: $24.52
Miscellaneous: $1.27

And now onto the serious business – here’s how Colombia shapes up in numerical terms (and what’s really noticeable now is how much church fatigue has set in – the number has plummeted since Mexico)
Buses 20
Taxis 21
Flights 1
Jeeps 2
Churches 3
Beaches 4
Beds 13
Hammocks slept in 5
Night buses attempted to sleep on in the face of over-enthusiastic aircon and suicidal drivers 3
National Parks 3
Hot springs 1
Laundry 6
Postcards 2
Phone calls 3
Cash withdrawals 12
Museums 2
Lost cities 1
Volcanoes 2 (1 mud, 1 normal)
Coffee farms 2
Cable Cars 2
Days spent hiking 8
Paraglides 1 (disappointing)
Water Parks 1
Ants eaten – several (which was probably several too many)

On the people I met front, the biggest disappointment is that I didn’t get to spend more time with Colombians – all the ones I met on the street and so on were incredibly friendly, but because I met such a fantastic group of travellers early on in San Gil, I ended up spending most of my time with them and didn’t make enough of an effort to go out and meet more locals. Must try harder. On a positive (geeky) note, Colombia did give me the opportunity to add a few more unusual countries to my list (French Guiana, Isle of Man, Guernsey, Egypt)
UK 21
US 15
Israel 12
Australia 9
Colombia 7
Ireland 5
Argentina 3
Canada 2
Isle of Man 1
Norway 1
Egypt 1
French Guiana 1
Poland 1
Guernsey 1
Romania 1
Uruguay 1
Germany 1
Spain 1
Belgium 1
France 1

You can catch up on any of my Colombian posts that you’ve missed here and see all my photos here.

Marvellous Medellin

After not really liking Bogota, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Medellin, Colombia’s second city. I needn’t have worried – from the moment I arrived in the bus station I had a feeling I was going to love it.

Considering the city was notorious in the 80s and 90s as the home of Pablo Escobar, the country’s biggest Cocaine baron, the place has made a fantastic turnaround and has to be cleanest and most prosperous feeling city I’ve encountered so far on my Latin American travels. Admittedly, compared to some of the places I’ve been to so far, it doesn’t have a huge list of obvious attractions for tourists, rather it’s the kind of place where you instantly feel at home, and is one of the first places I’ve been to that I could actually imagine living in.

Medellin from above

Medellin from above

That’s not to say it’s devoid of sights. One of the most interesting are the cable cars. As part of the transformation of the city, the authorities built a cable car up the steep sides of the valley to connect what had been the city’s most dangerous slum to the metro system (and the cost of the cable car is included in the price of a metro ticket, to make it affordable). It’s been a huge success, the area is much safer now, and it makes a great introduction to the city, offering great views across the valley.

Another highlight is the Museo de Antoquia, which has a huge collection of paintings by Ferdinand Botero, Colombia’s greatest artist, as well as a big collection of sculptures by him in the square outside. I’d first been introduced to his work in the Botero museum in Bogota, and I can’t believe I hadn;t heard of him before. He is equally at home with portrait, still life and sculpture, and the one thing that links everything together is that they are all fat. There’s a real cheekiness and humour in his pictures, it’s very much the kind of modern art that’s accessible and fun – which is probably why he’d never have got very far in the UK.

A typical Botero

A typical Botero

The surrounding area offers some great (and some not so great) day trips. The first one we tried was the water park. After months of seeing lots of museums and churches and doing lots of strenuous outdoor activities, it was fun to just spend a day messing about and having fun, with barely another gringo in sight. Highlight was probably floating around a circular ‘river’ on inner tubes, as early on my friend Matt & I foud our rings hijacked by a rather bositerous group of middle aged Colombian women attaching their rings to ours, and then surrounded by a group of teenagers who found the two gringos and the four ladies a hilarious combination. There was much splashing, much bad Spanish and much bad English, after which I could only come to the conclusion that all Colombians are mad. I told them this and they all seemed to heartily agree.

La Piedra

La Piedra

I liked Medellin so much I actually went back for a second time after leaving for Salento, and on my second weekend there I took a trip out to nearby Guatepe, famous for the huge, almost vertically-sided granite monolith that rises out of the gently rolling hills of the area, and very imaginitively named ‘La Piedra’ – the rock. You can reach the top by climbing a set of very steep stairs. It’s all worth it when you make it to the top though, as the view over the surrounding landscape, a man-made lake dotted about with islands, is stunning.

View from La Piedra

View from La Piedra

You can see more of my photos of Medellin and the surrounding area here

Who needs Starbucks?

After a fair amount of distinctly average tintos (the ubiquitous small cups of Colombian black coffee – unfortunately most of the best stuff is exported) I was keen to try the real thing, and my stay in Manizales, at the heart of the Zona Cafetera was the perfect opportunity.

The highlands south of Medellin have the perfect conditions for growing coffee, with the lower slopes of the Andes having the ideal soil and climate, producing some of the world’s finest beans (Colombia is unusual in only growing Arabica beans and not the cheaper Robusta ones). Just outside the city of Manizales is the Hacienda Guayabal, a large coffee finca that provides daily tours, and it was a fascinating experience.

Diana Carolina and a map of the Finca

Diana Carolina and a map of the Finca

Our brilliant guide Diana Carolina took us through every step of the coffee-making process, starting with the seed beds where the seeds are planted, explaining the complex process by which the seedlings are grown and replanted several times before finally being planted on the hillsides to become mature plants (with Diana Carolina taking delight in telling our mostly male group that they mostly plant female trees, as they are bigger, stronger, and make more and better beans than the rather pathetic-looking male trees), taking several years before the first beans are harvested.

Coffee seedling

Coffee seedling

We were lucky enough to be there when many of the plants were flowering, meaning the lush green hillsides were interspersed with the beatiful white coffee flowers, and as we wandered round we got to talk to the coffee pickers, who travel from finca to finca picking beans as and when they harvest, something that’s become much more unpredictable in recent years with global warming. The picking process in Colombia is especially labour intensive too, with the pickers picking individual beans at the right stage of ripeness, rather than just stripping the whole branch at once, which would be far easier and quicker but which would result in poorer coffee.

Coffee flower

Coffee flower

Unripe beans

Unripe beans

Freshly picked beans

Freshly picked beans

The whole farm was beautiful, with the coffee fields being interspersed with bamboo, red banana trees and Heliconia (Bird of Paradise flower), and with colourful insects and hummingbirds flitting around between the plants.

Bird of Paradise flower

Bird of Paradise flower


Giant green beetle

Giant green beetle

After seeing the farm itself, we got to see the various stages of the production process, from washing to drying and shelling, with the best beans being separated for export, and the poorer quality ones remaining to be ground up for use in Colombia. Finally back at the finca itself we saw the final stage of roasting and grinding, before getting to taste coffee made with the farm’s own beans, with Diana Carolina expertly describing the correct way to taste coffee, picking out the five key aspects (aroma, body, sourness, bitterness and aftertaste). I’ve never had a single-estate coffee before, and I’m not sure if it was just because I’d had such a perfect day in such a beautiful place, but it was absolutely delicious.

Freshly roasted beans

Freshly roasted beans

I never had any idea quite how complex and how many stages there were in making coffee, it’s something you just take for granted. It was quite an amazing experience, and if you’re thinking of going to Colombia and have a love of coffee it really is a must-see.

You can see the rest of my photos of the Hacienda Guayabal here

Snow in July

Altitude sickness is a serious matter. In mild cases it can lead to headaches, dizziness and vomiting. In more serious ones it can lead to death. The good news is that it’s easy to avoid by ascending slowly once above 2,500m in altitude…

…and not by going straight from less than 2,500m up to 4,800m in a couple of hours by bus before hiking straight up to 5,200m. Which is what you do if you take the day trip to Volcan Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia’s second highest mountain. I’d already met several travellers who’d done the trip, and who’d reported numerous cases of people vomiting immediately on leaving the bus.

Nevado del Ruiz on a clear day (unlike the day I went, sadly)

Nevado del Ruiz on a clear day (unlike the day I went, sadly) - photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chilangoco/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

So why was I mad enough to give it a go? Well, I’ve never been above 3,800m before (I’d come close in Guatemala and earlier in Colombia), so was curious to know who susceptible I’d be – as it varies significantly from person to person, based more on genetics than on fitness – especially as once I get to Peru I plan to do significant amounts of high altitude trekking, so I thought it would be a good idea to find out if I’d need to change my plans to allow for longer acclimitisation on arrival.

The journey getting there was pretty beautiful, as the road wound up the mountain from Manizales, giving spectacular views across the lush valleys of Colombia’s coffee-growing region. We soon reached higher altitudes, where the Paramo (a zone of vegetation only found in the tropical Andes between 3,800m and the treeline) begins, which was full of weird-looking stumpy cacti (unfortunately the bus was moving to quickly to get a good pic of this).

Once we crossed the treeline, at about 4,500m, the landscape changed to a bleak, grey area that looked much more like the moon than anywhere else I’ve seen on earth. Unlike the neat, conical volcanoes I’d seen in Guatemala, Nevado del Ruiz is huge, with numerous extinct craters, sheer cliffs and old lava flows interspersed with huge sand dunes formed from eroded rock.

Sand dunes on Nevado del Ruiz

Sand dunes on Nevado del Ruiz

We left the bus at 4,800m and I could feel the affects of the height instantly – even walking around on the flat left me slightly short of breath, and you could taste the thinness of the air. Next step was the relatively brief ascent to 5,200m, just below the crater. It’s only a 400m climb (and 1km in distance on the ground), but every step was knackering. It took us about 40 minutes of slow trudging to get up to the snowline, which was quite a novelty – getting to experience snow in the northern hemisphere, just a few degrees north of the equator.

Bleak conditions (and a rather battered flag) on the way to the top

Bleak conditions (and a rather battered flag) on the way to the top

Unfortunately it was a little bit of an antic-climax – the thick cloud meant there was to be no spectacular view of the area, the snow wasn’t really of the right consistency for a decent snhowball flight, and anyway, it was bloody freezing (the wind didn’t help) at that height, so after a relatively brief stop, we soon hiked down again to try and warm up. Luckily the tour included an afternoon stop at some natural hot springs further down the valley, which felt absolute bliss after being chilled to the bone earlier on.

I blame the cheesy pose on altitude-related light-headedness

I blame the cheesy pose on altitude-related light-headedness

Overall it was a fun day out, but by no means the most exciting day hike I’ve ever done. I’m not stupid enough to think this means when I get to Peru I can throw myself straight into that sort of height again (there’s a big difference between a one hour hike and trying to do it at that altitude for up to eight hours), but at least I know I’m not too badly susceptible, hopefully meaning a few days acclimitisation in Huaraz should be sufficient before I tackle the 10 dayHuayhuash Circuit, which is the single thing I’ve been looking forward to most of my entire trip. Bring it on!

You can see the full set of my photos from Los Nevados here.

The Perfect Day Hike

I’ve done some pretty good day hikes since I started my trip back in March, but my visit to Salento in the Zona Cafetera (the main coffee-growing region of Colombia) unexpectedly gave me my most enjoyable so far, on a walk into the Valle de Cocora.

Neither too strenous nor too easy, about the ideal length, with a great group of friends (Rob & Vicki, who I first met in Guatemala and then bumped into again in Cartagena, with their mate Becky), and with several new experiences made it pretty much the perfect day hike.

The Jeep that took us on the half hour journey from Salento to Cocora only sat eight people, and so Rob & I ended up sitting on the roof all the way. Not the most comfortable ride I’ve ever had by all means, but with perfect weather and great views it was certainly a fun way to travel.

One of the main claims to fame of the valley is that it is the home of the Wax Palm, Colombia’s national tree and the tallest palm tree in the world, growing up to 60m high. The valley is full of them, and on arriving in Cocora they were a pretty impressive sight, towering above the valley and all the other vegetation, on think trunks that make them look like it would only take a moderate gust of wind to blow them over.

The hike itself sets off through the valley, running along the banks of the river and criss-crossing it at regular intervals on rickety ‘bridges’ (which mostly consisted of a couple of tree trunks lain across the water), and all the while gently ascending through the forest.

After a couple of hours we made it to our first stop, a little finca called Acaime, that’s most notable for its large population of hummingbirds. At the finca they have various feeders set up, filled with sugar water to attract the birds. The feeders meant we were able to get really close to them – and they make a pretty stunning sight, especially for a European like me who’s never seen them in the wild before this trip. While we were there we got to see six different types, ranging from brightly coloured green and blue ones through to ones with unusually long tails and another that was jet black with a white breast. We sat there for ages, amazed at the sight of them hovering in mid air whilst feeding, and listening to the loud hum as they hurtle past you at high speed. Definately my best wildlife experience so far.

After our stop at Acaime, we were faced with the one steep climb of the day, a half hour ascent of the rather unimaginatively-named La Montaña. The whole way up the mountain was shrouded in fog, so we were a bit pissed off we were going to miss out on the views, but it turned out our luck was in. Just as we made it to the top, the clouds cleared for just long enough for us to to get a good view of the mountain opposite and snap a few photos, before it clouded over again, which was a signal for lunch.

Ever since reading Jillian & Danny’s description of Hot Chocolate a la Colombiana, I’d been dieing to try the unusual local combo of hot chocolate with cheese, so we were delighted when the woman running the finca at the top of the mountain apologised when she told us that was all she had to offer us to drink. Jillian & Danny’s description is pretty perfect, so I won’t repeat it, but I have to agree that what sounds like a rather unpleasant combination turned out to be absolutely delicious, and the perfect reward after a steep climb.

After that, it was a gentle walk back down the valley taking in the views of the palms along the way, before heading back to pretty little Salento to relax and recover with a cool beer on the coffee finca we were staying on, and then dined on trout farmed in the very valley we’d just walked through. I really can’t think of a much more pleasant way to spend the day.

Cartagena

Even though I’d just read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, with its vivid description of the heat of Cartagena in the summer months, nothing could prepare me for quite how intense the humidity would be when I got there.

Even just wandering around slowly, taking in all the beautiful colonial buildings, left me almost as sweaty as I’d been hiking uphill through the jungle on the Lost City trek. Which is a shame, as I could easily have spent all day every day just strolling around the streets of the old town – there are very few modern buildings, and it’s easy to get lost just taking in all the picturesque little lanes filled with colourful houses with pretty little wooden balconies.

Cartagena initially grow wealthy as one of the main ports for exporting gold and other precious metals from the colonies in South America back to Spain. Attracted by this wealth, the city was regularly attacked by pirates. Most succesful of these was Sir Francis Drake, who destroyed a huge section of the city, and who was only succesfully disuaded from doing so again by the payment of ransom that would be worth $200m in today’s money. I’d grown up knowing of his exploits in saving England from the Spanish Armada, so it was interesting to visit a place where he’s better known as a ruthless pirate.

After these attacks, the Spanish were determined never to let it happen again, so the city’s defences were boosted with huge walls and an imposing fortress overlooking the city. Even the Cathedral, destroyed in Drake’s raid, was rebuilt in unusually sturdy fashion. So I suppose you could say that the Colombians have a Brit to thank for the city’s current beauty!

If anything, the city is even more beautiful by night (sorry folks, you’ll just have to trust me on that one, as I forgot to take my camera out in the evening), as the walls and all the churches are lit up, highlighting all the beautiful colours, although unfortunately it’s still nearly as hot and humid.

One evening I finally got the chance to meet up with my first ever fellow travel blogger – Liz and her husband Adrian, who are on quite a similar trip to me, and whose blog, Where are Liz and Adrian? I’ve been following since the start. We’ve been to several of the same places already, although never at the same time, so it was great to finally meet, have a chat with Liz about the difficulties of trying to keep a blog up to date when there are a million more fun things to do all the time, and with Adrian about the various things he misses from the UK after living in Canada for so long. They’re now elsewhere in Colombia, but hopefully we’ll get to catch up again somewhere else along the way.

Luckily the city offered a couple of ways to escape the heat – my hostel (the beautiful Media Luna) had a pool which was the perfect way to spend the afternoons after a hot morning traipsing around. Even better was a trip to the nearby mud volcano.

I had no idea what to expect, and to be honest I was only going because I’d been told it was one of the area’s ‘must dos’ rather than out of any urgent desire to see it. There was no way I expected to enjoy it anywhere near as much as I did – it’s a truly bizarre and quite unique experience.

Just along the coast from Cartagena is a region where mud bubbles up from the ground, and in one spot it has formed a little mud volcano (which has actually been shored up by the locals to make it look a bit more impressive). It’s only about 15m high, and you climb up the side on a little wooden staircase before clambering down into the lukewarm mud.

It’s one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever felt. It’s a bit like being dunked in a giant pot of tepid chocolate mousse, and it’s so dense that it’s absolutely impossible to sink – despite not being able to touch the bottom, with no effort at all you can just stand there. In fact you’re so bouyant it’s quite easy to find your legs floating up behind you to the surface, threatening to leave you face down in the mud, so you have to get other people to push you back down. It’s hard to describe why it’s quite as fun as it is, but we spent an hour in there and spent most of it in absolute hysterics, particularly later on as we were almost packed in like sardines. In fact I had so much fun I enjoyed it more than Cartagena.

Which is a lesson I’m increasingly learning on my trip – there are plenty of places that are absolutely beautiful and worthy of their fame as tourist destinations, but more and more it’s the little unusual and quirky places like the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato and the mud volcano in Cartagena that are standing out as my favourites.

You can see all of my photos from Cartagena and the Mud Volcano here.

Getting stuck in Taganga

When I arrived in Taganga, my first stop on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, I wasn’t all that impressed. And yet I somehow managed to end up staying more time in the area than anywhere else I’ve been so far on my trip.

The obvious highlight of the place is that it’s a great place to start the Lost City trek from, but there are plenty of other reasons to stick around too.

After five days of intense, sweaty hiking, all most people want to do is go and recover on a beach. Fortunately enough, Taganga is right next to the stunning Parque Nacional Tayrona, which has some of the finest beaches I’ve ever seen.

It’s a bit of a trek getting there – an hour on the bus, followed by an hour’s trek through the jungle of the national park, followed by another hour of hiking along the beaches (although if you’re the flashpacker type you can skip all that hard work and just get a boat direct to the beach from Taganga) – but boy is it worth it.

My accommodation: sleeping in a hammock on the headland

My accommodation: sleeping in a hammock on the headland

As it’s a national park, the area is almost completely undeveloped, with just a few cabins on one beach, and then an area with camping and hammocks to rent a few beaches along at Cabo San Juan. Aside from that, it’s just pristine beaches, backed with palm trees, and then with thick jungle behind that. With most travellers for some reason staying put at Cabo beach, that leaves the next two beaches along almost empty. There’s nothing to do there apart from lie on the beach, read your book, and cool off with the occasional dip in the crystal clear, warm sea. So that’s exactly what I did for a few days.

Aside from the Lost City and Tayrona, Taganga itself has a few other things going for it that keep people sticking around. Best of all was the hostel I stayed in, La Casa de Felipe, which is the nicest I’ve stayed in. Perched at the top of the village with a view across the bay, it’s a fantastically relaxing place, much more spread out than most, with a lovely garden for wasting time chilling out in hammocks. Probably the most unexpected feature there is the restaurant. Most hostels I’ve stayed in don’t serve food at all (or at best offer breakfast). Not Casa de Felipe. They have a French chef who makes amazing food at very reasonable prices for Colombia. The place is packed out every evening as people come from all the other hostels, mostly attracted by his amazing filet mignon in a red wine sauce. If only backpacking was always like this.

After filling up on steak, the place is pretty lively in the evening too. There’s always something going on the beach, which is where we ended up most nights, and on Wednesday the village fills up with Colombians coming up from nearby Santa Marta to visit the one nightclub in town, El Garaje. It’s semi open-air, and is a fantastically relaxed spot to spend an evening, dancing (or in the case of most gringos, not dancing but sitting there admiring and envying all the locals salsaing away. Shame I have two left feet or I’d have been up there with them) and chatting away, followed by heading back to the beach to continue the partying into the small hours.

With all that to do I managed to spend nearly two weeks in the area, and still didn’t even get to try out the other thing the area is famous for, its diving. I kind of wish I’d hung around for a few days more to get my advanced course done, but I just never seemed to have the time. It’s the kind of place that willl do that to you – pretty much everyone I met ended up overstaying for days (weeks even) longer than planned.

Finding the Lost City

Despite the doom-laden warnings from the Foreign Office (
We advise against all but essential travel to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, including the ‘Lost City’. Armed groups are still active in this area, there is extensive cultivation of illegal drugs and the risk of kidnap remains high. While tour organisers may assure you that the area is safe, we do not believe it to be so.
), trekking to the ‘Lost City’ (properly known as Buritaca or Teyona) was always right at the top of the list of things I wanted to do in Colombia, and it really didn’t disappoint.

On arriving in the little Caribbean coastal resort of Taganga, I ran into the group of people I’d gone paragliding with in San Gil, and it turned out they were booked onto the trek leaving the very next morning. So with no time even to see the beach, I spent the day running around sorting things out, buying the essential such as mozzie spray and water purification tablets.

Day One

Our first great view

Our first great view

After meeting at 9am, we started off with a two and a half hour drive along the coast and then up an extremely bumpy dirt track to the start of the hike. After a thorough search by the Army (despite the warnings by the British government, the area is almost entirely under the control of the army these days), we set off. The first twenty minutes or so were deceptively easy as we trekked along the river, but it wasn’t long though before we reached the first tough bit. Straight after crossing the river, we began a long steep climb. It would have been pretty tiring in normal conditions, but doing it in 95% humidity was simply exhausting. We were all soaked to the skin in sweat after about five minutes of the climb, and it went on for two long, relentless uphill hours. The pace in particular was punishing, as we were being led along the way by Fernet, the 12 year old sign of our guide Jesus, who was helping his dad out on his summer holidays. Despite only having done the trek once before, and not looking all that fit, he hiked at a very fast pace, and was clearly not at all happy about being asked to slow down. Each bend seemed to hold out the promise of a flat bit, but they always turned out to be deceptive. Eventually we reached the top and were rewarded with our first spectacular views of the jungled valleys all the way back to the coast. After that, a short downhill hike took us to our first night stop, where we were able to cool off by hiking down a very steep muddy slope to the bottom of a waterfall, which was just what we needed after all that heat.

Steep and muddy

Steep and muddy

Day Two

Indigenous village

Indigenous village

After a restless night’s sleep in the hammocks (the local bitch was on heat and her chosen sleeping spot was right under my hammock, so I spent most of the night being woken by horny dogs fighting with each other trying to get to her), we set off for the next day. This was the easiest day of hiking, as we mostly headed downhill – although the enjoyment was tempered by the knowledge that downhill on the way out would mean uphill on the way back. This day also gave us our first real contact with the local indigenous people, descendents of the people who built the lost city, living in little villages of circular wooden huts that we passed along the way. With such a short day’s hiking, we had loads of time to kill, and I was lucky to be with such a great group of people. The seven of us (two Americans and four Brits and one Irishman) got on brilliantly – it makes all the difference when you’re hiking in difficult conditions that we had a real laugh all the way.

Kogui Indians

Kogui Indians

Day Three

One of the many river crossings

One of the many river crossings

Day three was possibly the most tiring day, but was also the most fun. After yet another steep climb onto a ridge, we descended to the river valley and spent the next hour or so walking right along the river. With steep cliffs rising up on either side, the path is forced to cross the water nine times, so we spent much of the day wading through waist deep water and trying to hold our balance in the face of strong currents and slippery rocks. Falling in and getting our bags wet would not have been fun, especially as things don’t really dry out at all in the humidity. Immediately after the final crossing, we reached the start of the site – yet another steep climb up 1,300 very narrow, very slippery steps. With Fernet again dictating the pace of the climb, we were all pretty broken by the time we made it to the top, and we amazed at the fact that our cook made it all the way up carrying all our supplies in a huge sack on his back, smiling all the way. It was all worth it though – after passing through the lower part of the site, we made into the main section, sitting right at the top of a ridge, with spectacular views across the valley. Absolutely stunning, and aside from the local soldiers living around the edge of the site, the seven of us were the only people there. It’s not very often you find ruins like that with so

The Lost City

The Lost City

few visitors.

We spent the afternoon just relaxing, admiring the views and chatting to the soldiers – I really felt sorry for them, it may be a beautiful setting but they’re stuck there for three months at a time with pretty much nothing to do (although they have a nice sideline in selling various bits of their kit to tourists).

Knackered, sweaty, but very happy to have made it

Knackered, sweaty, but very happy to have made it

Day Four

For most of us day four was pretty simple, with the main hurdle being to get down the 1,300 steps without slipping over. Unfortunately though, several of the group had spent most of the night awake and in and out of the toilets, meaning they were pretty shattered when it came to the walking. Despite all the water purification tablets, it was probably the food that caused the problems – I imagine it’s pretty hard to keep everything fully hygienic when all five days food is being carried along from the start.

Day Five

The final day was probably the hardest day of hiking, as we covered the same distance that we did on days one and two, and having seen what we came to see, we were fed up with being constantly sweaty from all the humidity, from being ill (although yet again I am extremely grateful for my iron constitution – I was the only one not to get ill the whole five days), and most of all from being bitten by mozzies, and all we wanted to do was get back. With Fernet as always leading from the front, we made the hike back in less than five hours, with the best part being going down that steep hike from day one – it was so steep, it was actually easier to run down than to walk, so we ran the whole way down, doing what had been a three hour hike on the way up a half hour run on the way back.

It’s certainly not the most challenging hike in the world – with a maximum height of 1,100m, there’s no worry of altitude sickness, and the climbs aren’t all that bad compared to many other South American hikes like the Inca Trail – but five days of of hiking 52km in that humidity really took it out of us, and boy were we ready for the beach.

You can see all of my photos of the trek here, and if you want to read about the rest of my experiences in Colombia you can subscribe to updates viw RSS or email by clicking the links on the right.