The title translates into “Colombia my beloved homeland”. One of the few plans that I made for this round-the-world trip was to end it in my home country, Colombia. I grew up in Medellin and only had the opportunity to travel inside Antioquia before I moved to the US. I always knew the rest of the country was beautiful based on what I had seen on documentaries, magazines, and from what I’d heard from family and friends. I romanticized the idea of traveling through Colombia so much that I imagined sharing it with someone special. I actually ended up exploring it on my own but it turned out to be very special nonetheless. I got to share unforgettable moments with family and friends, and meet new people everywhere I went. And I confirmed that Colombia is in fact beautiful!
MEDELLIN & THE COFFEE REGION:
I was born and raised in Medellin but moved to the United States at the age of 13. I used to go back to Medellin with my sister during our summer breaks in high school and we always had a great time. When I began to make some good money after college, I started traveling more and more abroad but to other countries different than Colombia. I always wanted to see Colombia but traveling freely and independently was not an option for me since a lot of the places that I wanted to see were considered high-risk and dangerous areas. So now that it was safe to travel in most places in Colombia, I would realize my dream. It was important to me not only to see my country but to feel like I belonged there again. I only had about three months to spend there; which would not be enough to see everything so I decided to concentrate on the Northern part. But before beginning my solo travel adventure, I spent some quality time with my family. I spent Christmas with my father’s side of the family in Medellin. A few days I headed for Jardin, my stepmom Olguita’s hometown. This is where my dad and Olguita decided to retire, and where my half brothers joined us to celebrate the New Year 2017. I had a great time reconnecting with them and drinking all the aguardiente that I had not drank in a long time. The hang-overs were bad but the times we shared together were priceless.
I rediscovered Jardin a beautiful coffee town located only three hours southwest of Medellin. Jardin has grown a lot since I visited last in my younger years. The roads to get there are fully paved and offer beautiful scenery. The town is very colorful, with a big Basilica in the middle of the square, and lots of good restaurants where you can find all of the traditional Antioquian food like Bandeja Paisa, and Sancocho. Many of the cafes and bars have tables outside where you can drink your tinto (small cup of coffee) or periquito (coffee with a little milk), and watch people go by. This town is perfect if you just want to relax and enjoy some fresh mountain air. And even better, if you are an outdoors lover or thrill-seeker you can find outfitters that offer paragliding, trekking, trout-fishing, horse-back riding, bird-watching, and canyoneering. The town also features a cable car and a garrucha, or a type of a cable box. Both of these carry the campesinos (country-side people) to and from town. These are also used by tourists to go up to the taller peaks to get great views of the town and surrounding veredas (hills). The closest one to town is the Alto de Las Flores (flower hilltop) where you can get a fantastic view of Jardin’s main square.
I had a lot of visitors from abroad while in Jardin. Starting with Jan, one of my closest friends from the US. Followed by Jen, a friend from San Francisco. And lastly Roel, a Dutch friend that I had met in Indonesia. These guys definitely made my time there more memorable!
While Jan was visiting we traveled by bus from Medellin to Salento. This is a well known coffee town in Quindio where you can visit El Valle del Cocora. This is an amazing valley and a must-see when you go to the Eje Cafetero (coffee region) of Colombia. It is a great place to hike and admire the surrounding Andean mountains. In this place you will find the Palma de Cera (wax palm), an important Colombian symbol.
I ended my first month in Colombia with a quick visit to Medellin. It continues to be an amazing, vibrant, beautiful, and innovative city. Most of my time there was spent seeing family, visiting shopping malls (which is still a big thing here), and eating in wonderful restaurants.
After spending a couple of months in Antioquia, it was time for me to go out on my own and begin my solo adventure. My next stop was the capital, Bogota. I wanted to see my cousins Cata and Juanfer and finally meet their families. I had not seen Juanfer since I was a teenager and had not met his wife or kids. And it had been well over five years since I spent any time with Cata and her husband, and had not met their kids. Both families live outside Bogota in the beautiful green hilly country-side areas of Chia and Cajica. My cousins took turns taking me to see the highlights of the city like Barrio de La Candelaria- the colonial and historical part of the city center, Monserrate, the highest mount in the city from where you can get a spectacular view of the Bogota savanna, Andres Carne de Res- a wonderful restaurant with tons of different Colombian dishes and folklore, and Zipaquira- a town known for its cathedral built inside a salt mine.
After Bogota I took a bus to Turbo; which was the first stop before I could reach the fishing community of Marriaga in el Choco. Thanks to Vicki, Juanfer’s wife, I got to experience a part of Colombia in a way that I never expected… to read more on this part of the trip, read my last post: “Ecotourists wanted”.
I spent a few days in Santa Marta, one of the largest cities on the Caribbean Coast. It has a nice beach front and boardwalk and a couple of popular beaches- Taganga and El Rodadero. I also visited the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the famous hacienda where our liberator Simon Bolivar died in 1830.
This is the region occupying most of the northern peninsula of the country. I met my friend Roel from Holand in Santa Marta. He immediately fell ill with a stomach parasite so he spent a couple of days in the hotel but when he finally got better we moved on to La Guajira together. We reached the capital Riohacha located three hours from Santa Marta by bus. The city had a nice waterfront, a beautiful wide beach, lots of restaurants, shops, and the indigenous Wayuu people everywhere selling their traditional hand-made colorful mochilas. We winged it on the hotel and were lucky to find a room in a cozy and clean hotel named Las Colonias for only 35,000 pesos (US$10) with A/C, TV, and warm water.
We found transport to Cabo de La Vela, one of the major attractions of the region. This is a one-street town that runs parallel to the beach. All hotels are right on the road and you can rent a small cabin, a hamac, or a chinchorro (slightly bigger hamac) for fairly cheap. Most of the places seem to be ran by Venezuelans and all cars on the road have Venezuela plates. La Guajira shares a big border with this country and as you know things are not so great in Venezuela so there has been a big exodus from there and a big migration into Colombia. La Guajira feels like a very remote place where you still encounter electricity issues, and sometimes water shortages.
The area is all desert; which makes for amazing landscapes. We enjoyed an awesome and relaxing day at the Pilon de Azucar, a high mountain standing right up against the ocean, with crazy winds at the top but amazing views of the Caribbean. We later joined all the other tourists to watch the sunset at the Faro (lighthouse).
Next stop on our agenda was Punta Gallinas. It is very easy to book a tour from any of the hotels in Cabo. The roundtrip costs $150,000 (US$50) and does not include food or accommodation. You just ask the reception people to book you on one of the colectivos (shared taxis) that leave between 5:00 and 6:00am everyday. You will most likely stop at “cuatro vias” a junction near Uribia, the next big town, to pick up other passengers. We ended up traveling with four more people from Europe and Colombia. You also have the option to take a boat to Punta Gallinas from Cabo but it is not recommended as it can be a very long trip on choppy waters. I would suggest traveling over-land, although very bumpy, it is far more rewarding culturally and scenically. We had to go through many “retenes” or tolls set up by kids along the road. They usually hang a rope or metal cable from a tree or fixed pole on one side of the road to connect to the other. The local drivers know they will not let cars pass through unless you give them some gifts. They recommend to give small water pouches (sold in all local stores), candy, crackers, and cookies. The drivers usually carry enough supplies in case the tourists don’t bring anything. We learned from our driver that the Uribia government delivers free water to the communities every four days by truck, but it is still not enough to satisfy all needs. The environment is dry and harsh, it is not easy to live out there. People are only surviving from fishing and tending goats.
About four hours later we arrived to a dock area where we found a lot of jeeps parked and lots of backpackers standing around. Everyone was waiting to load the boats to do the final 30-minute part of the trip by water. This is offered on a daily basis but you need to reserve your space by telling the driver when to come get you to return to Cabo. If you want to end your journey in Riohacha, they will arrange transport leaving from Uribia.
There is only oneplace to stay in Punta Gallinas, Hospedaje Alexandra. They charge 15,000 pesos (US$5) for a hammock and 20,000 for a chinchorro or you can request to get your own cabin. I asked for a cabin to have a good night sleep but as soon as I stepped in the shower I saw three giant cockroaches and decided to get a chinchorro instead. At least I would be hanging off the ground, away from all the critters. They hang all hammocks in an open area only covered by a roof. There are a few shared bathrooms that also fill up with cockroaches at night. The food is very basic and poor in taste but they do have options of chicken, fish, and even lobster for very cheap. It is definitely not the best or most comfortable place but the landscapes that the tour includes are so fantastic that you won’t care about the rest. We visited the lighthouse marking the most northern point of the country and South America and the Taroa Dunes, the magnificent sand mountains standing against the ocean. You can literally roll down the dunes and fall into the ocean. This place was truly majestic. One of the best that I have seen in all of my trip so far.
On the way back I got pretty sick from the car ride so I decided to stay the night in Uribia instead of going back to Riohacha with my friends. Unfortunately when the bags were unloaded for the transport switch, someone offloaded mine by mistake. Thankfully they seem to be very honest people in this town and they took the “unclaimed” bag to the transport office; which is where I found it an hour later.
Before leaving Guajira, I decided to make one last quick stop in Manaure. I had to see the famous salt mines. Not a lot of backpackers go there yet because they don’t realize how beautiful this place is. They must not be interested in big piles of salt, but seriously speaking, this is one place where you can get a glimpse of a very different culture in Colombia. And you may not get the beautiful coconut palm beaches here but you get to see the colorful charcas or salt-water pools. I began my journey by taking a colectivo near the main square in Uribia headed for Manaure. The driver will ask if you want to be dropped off at the entrance of the processing plants where the big pile of salt is found. Once you arrive they offer a simple tour for 5,000 pesos (US1.50) or the full tour for 50,000 (US$15); which includes a guide and transport to all of the charcas and to some small lakes where you can spot large groups of flamingos, ducks, egrets, seagulls, and pelicans. The charcas are big pools filled with pumped water from the ocean that eventually evaporates leaving behind the salt and other minerals. What makes this place perfect for salt mining is the high winds, extreme temperatures, and very little rain; which makes the evaporation process easy. The salt that is extracted from the area does not need any processing as it contains the iodine already. It is straight out of the ocean! This place is fully managed and controlled by the Wayuu, the indigenous people in the region. I understand that there has always been a lot of controversy around the exploitation of the mines with the government wanting to take control and industrialize the production and the Wayuus wanting to control the land they rightfully own and do the labor themselves. Because it is such a manual process to extract the salt, the production is not as high as it could be. The environment is pretty harsh, the temperature runs between 80 and 100 degrees farenheit and you see the Wayuu people working mostly in the early morning. When I was there I saw some men working pretty hard in the middle of the day’s worse heat. The scenery is beautiful, with various charcas of different colors. The most impressive are the pink ones where the Artemia Salina live (type of brine shrimp) and turn bright pink when they consume high amounts of salt. My guide Bryan and the people working the processing plant were incredibly nice. They asked me to help them promote the place as they need more tourism in the area. This is one of those natural gems that are not part of the “backpacker path” yet and I would highly recommend seeing it before it gets crazy busy.
I still had to see a “Rancheria” before leaving Guajira. A rancheria is a traditional Wayuu settlement made up of a few houses where extended families live. The settlements are usually far from one another so the goat herds don’t get mixed up. I visited my guide’s mom’s Rancheria called Warapunjie. The Rancheria houses were built in traditional materials but the people had added nice toilet and showers rooms for tourists. My visit there coincided with a 10-year wedding anniversary celebration for a couple from Bogota. I tried to not get in the way but the Wayuu women actually asked me to join and be a bride’s maid. They put the traditional mantas or long dresses and the mochilas on us, covered our face with the special black powder they use as sunblock, and made us do the traditional dance of trying to catch the groom. We tried the fried chivo (goat) with yuca, and the corn chicha. If you go to Manaure and want to visit a Rancheria, please contact Idelsa Ramirez Epieyiu at ph# 3128917339, or email her at email@example.com.
I made it back to Santa Marta to head to Ciudad Perdida. I really wanted to visit the Tayrona National Park but unfortunately it was closed. The indigenous tribes were doing a spiritual cleansing the whole month of February. I decided to book a tour to La Ciudad Perdida or The Lost City to learn about the Taironas, the original inhabitants of the area (as far as 6,000 years ago) that disappeared after the Spanish colonization. The Ciudad Perdida is the most popular city of the Taironas, there is another one called Pueblito and archeologists believe there are more but they have yet to find them in the deep jungle. To visit the Ciudad Perdida you have to go on a guided tour with one of the four tour operators that are allowed to enter the park. They all charge the same price of 600,000 pesos (US$300) regardless of the amount of days you spend there. The fee includes the English-speaking guide, accommodations, and all meals. It is a high price for a backpacker but it is well worth it! Although the trek is very popular and sometimes the trails are crowded, I still found plenty of time to hike on my own. If I wanted to be one with nature, admire the scenery quietly, or just be one with my thoughts, I would just stay in the back of the line. The trek always offered excellent views of the lush jungles, and snow-capped mountains. Did you know that the highest peak in Colombia is located inside this range? it is Pico Cristobal Colon at 18,950ft (5,776m). What makes this trek really awesome besides the amazing views, is the clear emerald pools inside the jungle that you can swim in, and also watching the local indigenous life around you. On the trek you will pass a few people of the Kogi tribe; which is the most prominent one in this part of the park. The other tribal groups living in the Sierra Nevada range are the Arhuaco (or Ika), Wiwa, and Cancuamo. They all believe that they are direct descendants of the Taironas.
The first night our guide gave us a really great lecture on the history of the region, on some of the Kogis’ cultural norms, and the importance of coca to the tribes, and how the campesinos (peasants) in the area began to grow coca and sell it to the guerrillas. The Kogis believe their main responsibility is to maintain the balance with the universe. They use a lot of rituals, offerings, and meditation to achieve this goal. The most interesting part was learning about the importance of the coca leaves for the tribe. These are used on a daily basis, all men carry a mochila full of these and a few are exchanged when greeting another man as a sign of respect. The men chew these to get stimulated. They carry an instrument called Poporo also used by other pre-Columbian indigenous groups to carry lime or calcium. The poporo is filled with pulverized calcium that they get from conchs from the sea. They use a stick to get some of the powder and mix it with the wad of chewed leaves in their mouths. The alkaline content in the powder reacts with the coca leaves; which stimulates the ingredients that give them the desired high effect. As they pull the stick out of the mouth they rub it on the Poporo, leaving a residue behind that hardens and accumulates overtime creating a hard base. The Poporo is given by the “Mamo” or tribe king to young boys during a four-day “coming of age” ceremony. After the boys complete the ceremony ritual they are trained by an older person on how to have sex with a woman before they choose to get married to a partner picked by their parents. As the men get high they record all their spiritual knowledge, dreams, and thoughts on the Poporo.
The experience overall was very good, however, the last campsite before reaching the Ciudad Perdida, Paraiso Teyuna, was hardly a paradise. It was overcrowded, dirty, noisy, and full of sick travelers. Unfortunately we went during the time when they had the annual students’ visit to the park. There is a quota to be maintained by all the tour companies but when the students come they conveniently ignore it to make more money. There were only five toilets for more than 200 people. There were not enough beds for everyone and some people had to sleep on hammocks. It was hard to get a good night’s sleep as a lot of people were up all night vomiting. A few of us got sick after the trip as well. This may have been due to the consumption of bad water or inappropriately stored food. They definitely have to fix this campsite. When I tried to complain about the situation to the guides they told me to help them by making a formal complaint to the company; which a few of us did back in Santa Marta. We hope they make this campsite better for future trips. In my opinion this was the only bad part of the tour. The arrival to La Ciudad Perdida the following day was perfect. We went ahead of the other groups and had almost two hours to take photos with the ruins before everyone else arrived. Thanks to my guide’s connections, I had the chance to meet the main archeologist Santiago Giraldo and the Kogis’ Mamo (tribe king). Mr. Giraldo explained that once a year he and his wife bring middle school students from the top tier in society (considered the future politicians and business men of Colombia) to teach them to care for the environment, indigenous culture, and nature conservation. I would say this is really smart!
CARNAVAL DE BARRANQUILLA:
And to end my Colombian trip on the highest note, I went to Barranquilla to experience its annual carnival. I fulfilled yet another dream of attending the second most popular carnival of South America- El Carnaval de Barranquilla. I didn’t want to go to carnival alone, wanted to experience it with friends. It is a big party after all and one should not be alone. I tried to meet up with my friend Roel from Holand who was coming back from spending a few days at Palomino beach near Santa Marta. I waited around until 3:00pm waiting for Roel to contact me to take the bus together, only to find out that he was already on a bus on his way to Barranquilla. I tried to go with Boris from Germany, another friend that I had met in Ciudad Perdida. The previous night we had spoken about meeting early to go to Barranquilla together. I found out later in the afternoon that he had gone on his own. I was not very lucky about meeting up with people for the festival so I ended up traveling alone. I tried to do couch surfing to meet others but the one lady that offered her house already had 25 other guests sleeping on the floor. I opted to keep my hotel reservations that I had made months before. All accommodations fill up fast as you can imagine. This is a pretty big celebration and it has become very popular in the backpacker circuit. Once I arrived I reconnected with my friends via Facebook and made plans to meet on the first night. I decided (a while back) to buy tickets for a “palco”; which is a pre-paid seating area. I paid about US$99 for all three days’ parades. It turns out that you can get tickets just outside of the palco for a lot cheaper. You can just stand outside of the area of your choice and wait for someone to offer you tickets. That simple. I entered the palco all by myself feeling a bit awkward as everyone else was in big groups. I headed all the way to the back to watch the parade from a large perspective, from the highest seats. The seating was stadium style. To my surprise, the groups that were up there offered me beer and food right away. We started toasting to everything and before I knew it I was surrounded by a big group of friends, getting tons of flour thrown on me, and drinking beer after beer. We had a lot of fun until a fight broke out and I decided to escape from the scene. I had made some friends that seemed to be involved in “shady” business in Colombia. They offered me VIP tickets to their palco at a huge concert of very popular Colombian singers that same night. This is a concert that would cost over US$150-$200 to get VIP seating. One of the guys kept hitting on me in a very forward manner. At one point I went to the bathroom and he had me followed by some guy that he most likely paid to do it. It was very strange so once the fight broke out (which the same guy started), it was my chance to get away from them. That same night I tried to meet my European friends again and ended up going to a big street party. Once again my friends failed to meet me but I was lucky to meet some really nice Colombians again, Andres from Bogota and his cousin. I ended up hanging out with Andres, and finally reconnecting with Boris, and visiting many of the events during the next three days/nights.
An amazing display of color and culture:
This was an impressive cultural event that has earned the prestigious recognition by UNESCO of being one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. We lived an intense four days of parades and street parties; which included tons of Águila (beer) drinking, dancing, and getting maizena (flour) and foam thrown at us. The parades were very colorful, well organized, and very lively. We enjoyed wonderful displays of different folkloric music and dances. It was definitely one of the most beautiful events that I have ever seen, and one of the best experiences lived during my entire trip. Here is a quick recap:
Day #1: La Batalla de Las Flores or battle of the flowers. As the Barranquilleros tell me “y esto es solo el comienzo!” I enjoyed the parade from the Palco (seating area) named Arlequines, with free beer all day, tons of foam and Maizena flour flying around, and in good company. We had a group of Millos (street musicians) join us for a little dancing… I ended the festivities at El Troja, a 45-year old cultural and musical heritage site of Barranquilla.
Day #2: La Gran Parada de Tradicion y Folclor or great parade of tradition and folklore. We we enjoyed six hours of the most beautiful groups of Cumbia, Congo, Mapale, Garabato, and other performances featuring and honoring all musical traditions and races of Colombia, black, white, and indigena. A day filled with great music, dancing, and good vibes from locals and foreigners alike. What a beautiful day! We finished the night at the biggest street party “Baila la Calle” where they had three stages with music, street food, cerveza Aguila, and thousands of people dancing to different Colombian, and other Caribbean rhythms. This is a new tradition to bring back the spirit of the “calle” or “back to the streets”, where the heart of Barranquilla lies.
Day #3: La Gran Parada de Comparsas or great parade of dance groups. An impressive display of colorful costumes, great dance choreographies, and lots of music. It was my favorite day!
I returned to Medellin and Jardin in April to meet my sister and Bill (husband), and my nephews who visited during Semana Santa (Holy week).
We enjoyed a few days in Jardin watching the traditional parades and taking in the beautiful landscapes. My mom and stepdad Alberto also went to Colombia to celebrate my grandma Maruja’s 92nd birthday. We got to see uncles and cousins that I had not seen in years. I also traveled to another city of the coffee region, Pereira, to see my best friend from school Malala and meet her family.
It was awesome to reconnect with so many people after so many years. Colombia I LOVE YOU more than ever and I will be back!!!