Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Despite having an architectural gem of an historic old town that would rival nearly anything in Europe, the city was my least favorite place I visited in Colombia.

First of all I will outline the positives and there were many as it should be understood that being my least favorite place in Colombia does not mean that a place is not very nice indeed and well worth a visit. A very impressive outer wall encases street after street of time warp. Aesthetically pleasing colonial edificios dating from the 16th century onwards are on every side and everywhere. There are beautiful churches, government buildings, mansions, plazas and equally interesting colonial buildings from the poorer parts of the old town. To sit in a plaza at night, eat a beautiful steak and watch the people go by is really quite special. In the day it is a buzzing place with much to see. Wandering around the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (a huge fort just outside of the walls) and down into the tunnels was particularly impressive and enjoyable.

A very peculiar incident occurred while wandering into a posh Argentinian (more steak) restaurant with flip flops, wife-beater and not in the best of states, but they served us seemingly happily and there was sumptous amounts of hilarity.

Cartagena also gave us a few fun nights out. These highlighted the problem with the place. Unlike the rest of Colombia that is relatively untouched by tourism, Cartegena is overrun. There is nothing per se wrong with tourists – I am one – but when there are a lot of foreign dollars about people tend to treat you as a walking bill not a human being. Part of what has enchanted me with the rest of Colombia has been how locals have so welcomingly embraced our presence with barely any noticeable attempt at exploitation – it has been a delight. In Cartagena almost everyone wants to exploit, from beggars, clubs 90% full of prostitutes, to every vendor trying to charge absurd rates for everything. All in all pretty frustrating. Now I do not blame the locals for this, as it is almost inevitable when so many people come off cruise ships etc dripping in money. There is easy meat to extract money off, but it is still unpleasant. A good example are the little boys who threaten you with broken glass bottles or on one occasion the sharp end of one of those long fluorescent bulbs that frequent class room ceilings. I barely even noticed them asking for as little as 1000 pesos ( less than 30 pence) because they were so small. Sebastian’s answer to the problem was to do a little dance with the kid which worked pretty well - that guy has an enviable ability to confuse.

It was here that we said goodbye to the ever so slightly very crazy pair of Sebastian and Mark who sailed off towards Panama on a little yacht. A great idea that Dave and I seriously considered (alongside Venezuela), but my limited time coupled with the imposition of Colombia, let alone Pananma, being exceedingly far from my ultimate destination of Buenos Aires, acted as sufficient detterent. It had been a crazy and ridiculously enjoyable few weeks with Sebastian and 10 days or so with Mark that I will certainly not forget. I hope they are having fun and have not killed each other. (Authors note: Some time later I discovered that the captain of their ship had decided to force them to smuggle drugs at knife-point before the ship ran aground, they were forced to swim to shore and were then stranded on the Darian Gap for a week)

Anyhow, Categena it is a city worth seeing, but if you go there before the rest of Colombia do not take it as typical because it is far from it and to leave Colombia at that would be to miss the heart of the place.

Cheeky Luxury and Playa Blanca Reunion

The next morning we awoke with similar problems to before. Moving around in the area to the west of Cartegena is not generally a well trodden backpacker route, so things do not fall into place with any ease. As it happened (and indeeed often happens), this worked to our advantage as the only way to move towards Playa Blanca by boat was via a relaxing morning on a luxury island resort – damn. So four quite smelly backpackers arrived on an island that costs 250,000 pesos (about US$120) a night to stay on. We had some breakfast, saw my first toucan and quite cheekily went to lie in their hammocks overlooking the pristinely cared for beach, ordered a beer from the staff and had a bit of a swim – sweet!

After this we took a couple of lanchers to Playa Blanca. This is a beach that would not be embarrassed in the company of many others, with its bleach white sand, palms, and turquoise crystal-clear water lapping against the shore. After failing to recover my sandals from the boat (grrrgh, but at least I have Havanas to replace them) a very pleasant reunion occurred as we bumbed into what seemed like the majority of the Medillin crowd. Amongst others Crispin, Dub, Alessandro, Kye etc..etc and had a extraordinarily chilled out night before collapsing into hammocks. Seeing a whole herd of cows get led along the beach was a notably strange addition to the experience.

The next day was spent in much the same vein (I have not played with buckets on the beach for many years but it proved fun - notably on this occasion we had no spades). Rum coconuts aided the relaxed confusion of a lovely day on the beach. Even stepping on something that left some not unthreatening spines in my foot did not lessen the day as self-surgery was surprisingly successful.

On we all jumped for a final hour or so on a lancher towards Cartegena, the legendary Spanish port where the gold of the new world was send back to the Hispanic peninsular, if they were not rather impolitely intercepted by pirates (or as we like to call our own British ones – naval heroes – god bless Sir Francis). Approaching the extensively walled and defended old city was quite a sight – and the whole bunch of us were rearing for another big Saturday, notably as a send off to Alessandro.

Our Own Private Island

We woke up almost early and faffed around town purchasing significant supplies before jumping on a lancher (it may or not be spelt like that but is effectively a speed boat) out to some very interesting little islands. The first we arrived at was the very one on the wall in the Black Sheep. A crazy little shanty island barely 100m across. This is surrounded by some stunning tropical islands and, to my remembrance, three strange huts sitting out on the sea all by themselves.

We were heading out blind to be honest and after much slow negotiation (this is the Caribbean after all) we managed to commandeer one of these strange huts all to ourselves for a night for less then a tenner each (pounds of course). So after a very interesting trip to the shanty island (I really can not stress enough how odd it is to have a little piece of shanty in the middle of a holiday brochure type vista) where we bought further supplies and Cali shirts ("cali-cali-cali") we set down for the evening all on our lonesome (OK we had a meal delivered to us by boat).

The sunset that ensued over the sea will stay with me for the rest of my life. Truly, remarkably spectacular. It went through so many stages from the golden ball descending vividly below the horizon, a sky of starkly clashing colours of blues, reds, oranges, and yellows to name just some that splashed across the lightly clouded sky and, when the sun had disappeared, the unforgettable blood red sky that took my breath away. It left me with that inexplicable spiritual feeling of connection and light of understanding juxtaposed to feeling minute and too insignificant to truly contemplate what this life and being is.

That set up the scene for an incredibly chilled out evening of discussion, laughter and eventually a surprisingly good game of chess with Dave.

Mud Volcano and Oncoming Storm

Dave, Sebastian, Mark and myself arrived at an absurd hour to a completely different Colombia to that I had seen before. It was what I imagine to be typically Caribbean. The population is overwhelmingly more of African descent, the climate hot and humid, palm trees and tropical plants abundant, colour everywhere, and an undeniably chilled out atmosphere ever pervading.

A couple of clicks down a random road we found a little sign advertising the volcan de lodo (mud volcano) and up a muddy path there it was - a circa 10m by 15m puddle of mud. To the front spread out the azul Caribbean, to either side beautiful vistas and all in all we were quite satisfied in a smug sort of way. This satisfaction turned into downright hilarity as we entered the pit. Mark entered first and the best way I can describe his reaction is a comic shriek of confusion and enjoyment. Jumping in next, my reaction followed suit. The reason for the lady like noises was that in the brown sludge you are neutrally buoyant. You can lie on your back, shove all your limbs in the air and just lie there. Alternatively and most oddly you can shove your legs down and just stand there. This is a bit disconcerting as the vulcan is probably very deep, but however much you breath in or out you just hang there. We did many similar and more silly things that the mud allowed us before doing what it is best for - lounging back mostly submerged and slowly baking in the sun. For a bit of added excitement you can lie over the sizable bubbling blurges of warm sulphurous gas that pop up from deep in the earth to the centre of the pit. Great fun!!!

After washing the stuff off in the Caribbean the afternoon was spent lounging and collapsing on a veranda looking out over the sea and chilling down to Caribbean pace.

This was followed by a severely less chilled few hours jumping around in cramped taxis as increasingly torrential rain turned roads in to rivers and soaked all my stuff through - quite fun really. We did eventually arrive in the little port of Tolu in time for some needed food off the street, a beer and then an interesting few hours watching the storm build and approach from the sea. Dave, Sebastian and I sat back in our hotel room and in very chilled out fashion watched and listened to this monster of a storm. Bright lightning and thunder that shook the building and many of its contents to a disconcerting degree moved from 45 seconds away to about 10. We were awaiting the inevitable when at the last minute it changed direction and we were spared having to put into action our contingency plan involving mattresses and hiding beneath them. Probably a damn good thing one thinks!!

Sunday, November 27, 2005


Medillin – oh Medillin! In the 5 days in Colombia’s second city, in some ways quite disgracefully, I did not see much of the city centre. The basic set up of the backpacker scene in Medillin is currently centred around the Black Sheep hostel and full of a nearly entirely male backpacker contingent, a large percentage of whom are getting lost into various beautiful Colombian Chicas.

Besides that, there is a lot of fun to be had with a some great blokes and really awesome places to go out to. In particular, there were three big nights all of which adhering to the common theme of ending sitting outside the hostel as the sun came up with the very occasional sound of gun fire in the hills to add some edge to the place.

We had a great night in a live salsa bar with again much dancing on tables and even conga dancing for some reason. Sunday night was perhaps the pinnacle of nights out in Colombia at The Pub, a place that played everything from Salsa to Rancid and had such a fantastically fun atmosphere - perfecto. This country really puts some dancing vibes in your system.

Beyond the great nights we had time to catch Medillin beat Perreira (thanks Gloria for taking us) – more great atmosphere despite being soaked through to the bone with a pointed headache – and spend a lot of time in Exito. I will not go on about how much I enjoyed that daily trip to the supermarket as it might make you think I am a bit odd – but it was excellent!!

I think I also reached the pinnacle of my Spanish by somehow managing to teach Sandra and Christina to play Risk nearly entirely in their native tongue. I find that after about 2-3 hours of conversing in my poor Spanish my head feels like it wants to roll off and the only cure is English and beer.

The combination of the likes of Sebastian, Dave, Mill, Kye, Mark, Paul and others was a bit of a messy one. Good thing then that Mark (another person who has more than a little loco in him – I do not think Colombia is a good place for his long term health), Dave, Sebastian and myself woke up after a 12 hour bus ride to what seemed like a totally different country – the place was Arbolites and one heck of a strange 2 weeks on the Caribbean coast began!!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Solento AKA coffee region

Travelling through Colombia definitely seems to have a pattern to it - spend a weekend in a fun city having muchos fiesta before spending the mid week in some stunningly beautiful piece of the countryside and then on to another city for another long weekend. Not a bad pattern it has to be said and at this point the pattern was in full sync. Dave, Sebastian and myself headed out from the Calidad House and Cali in general to a small place called Solento in the coffee region.

To get there it was only a few hours on a comfy bus (most of them are pretty good here) to Armenia (well known for a large earthquake a few years back) and then on. The only problem is we missed the last onwards bus, but a bit of haggling, a taxi con lots of crazy driving and techno on loud, a good feel by the police at a checkpoint, 30 odd mins, and a lot of fun later we arrived in little SOLENTO. A pretty town with a nice plaza and the best restaurant, food wise, I've been to in SA (thank you Lucy's) and for reasons I will not go into, an English fire engine. The only hostel is called the Plantation House. Owned by an English guy and his wife, it has a stunning setting looking over the stark lush green hills covered in coffee plants and various palms. The only downer is a lassie type dog with a foot fetish.

We had a really chilled out 3 nights there re energising and taking in the surroundings. We also had two exceedingly worthwhile trips. The first of these was out to a coffee finca (no idea of spelling - basically a COFFEE plantation). Only an hour or so walk away, we were taken around a plantation owned by some really friendly locals, shown many plants and how everything is done. This was really nice, but the highlight of the trip beyond a soaking jeep ride home, was a bit of a Europe/South America clash of football cultures during a kick around with some local kids - I put my own poor showing down solely to altitude and nothing to do with any possible lack of skill - great fun!!

The second excursion was off to a national park I believe to be called Cocora or something similar. This was really special. The Colombian national tree, the wax palm, grows to absurd heights over the sharp hills (I believe to 60 m odd and from the ones we saw I have little reason to doubt this) which combine to creat quite a backdrop. With Mill (commy teacher cool welsh guy, with more than a fetish for Brava and a poncy Kevin Pieterson stripe in his hair - sorry it is poncy) and Dub (french diving ex-rugby playing dude) hired some horses to do a bit of a trek. After a bit of a struggle we managed to acquire some horses that were quite unlike others I have ridden in SA - they were damn fast and generally healthy. A trek through this landscape up towards and then into the CLOUD-FOREST was something else. After crossing the first river these horses did a great job climbing up slippery stone and mud paths through the forest. The atmosphere was dark, cloudy and quite mysterious. The plants at these altitudes are interesting and at times a little alien. I did not even mind getting soaked through.

The largest adrenalin experience on this trip was undoubtedly the ride back (even beats the prison). All the horses were quite happy to giddy-up, but it seemed Mills and mine were most keen. This meant a literal FULL GALLOP for God knows how long along a thin bumpy path with intimidating barbed fences on either side. Hanging on for dear life with strange shouts of exhilaration and possibly a little anxiety whelping out from the two of us, as the horses carried us (it would not be fully accurate to say we were riding them at this point - that I believe necessitates control) through a valley with the wax-palms clinging to the steep hill-sides. When we finally pulled them up the others, at some pace themselves, were still 5 odd minutes behind and when they did catch up all our horses wanted to do was go full gallop up the final ascent of the return trek. So much fun - this is my third time on horse in SA and it will certainly not be the last - I'm more than considering one of the big treks in the Andes.

This was of course followed by suitable relaxation and chilling back in Solento (and an interesting experience with the local youth). More of similarish nature was planned (a quick note on plans - I have always liked to think them up and constantly change them but on some coercion by those around me and with more time then before I am slowly learning to use them less - things seem to work out better that way) for the next day but on waking up to considerable rain the momentum shifted to Medillin, the next weekend city on the current route. A quick little bus and a flagged down bigger one got us to Perriera. From there the journey was an interesting meant to be 6 hours (was about 8 or so) on to MEDILLIN. All was going well until a wee whole set of landslides resulting from torrential rain caused a real bugger of a delay as we were, as one might say, champing at the bit for the Friday night out. The worst effected I believe was Mill and the beers picked up at a couple of waiting places did not help mattes sufficiently as they were quickly gone through before we entered the big city - Colombia's second and famous for being the coke capital of the world.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Feliz Sebastian

Cali Mark 2

In a nutshell, we another a fantastic weekend in Cali. We were very lucky to spend most of the weekend with three chicas Jez had met at Halloween dressed as angels and who had proved themselves excellent city guides from the weekend before (did I mention that that night we ended up in at 6am in a very strange gay club surrounded by witches and a guys on stilts with huge horns - slightly disturbing). They are Anna, Nana, and Nata (all apologies if names are spelt incorrectly).

They drove us around, showed us the nice neighbourhood they lived in (Anna's dad is another lawyer like I may actually become one day) and at night showed us fantastic places to go out. What was perhaps nicest was that there was no pretence from these girls, they did not want anything out of us but were just great fun.

SATURDAY - RAVE IN FIELD. Yup that is where I spent my Saturday night. As many of you will know, hard-core electronica all night raves in a field are not exactly my thing, but I had a great time. In fact I've been enjoying a bit too much electronica for my liking recently - not healthy. Nothing more complicated then a pretty good DJ and a lot of cool people dancing in a field until way after light. Genius, but somehow expensive - 5000 pesos for a water and I was on the red bull. Another example of how friendly the people are here is that the only alcohol drunk was provided free of charge in swigs by Anna's cousin and his mates. Above should be a photo of the night. Almost as good as the night was the Pan Queso at 7am on the way home.

SUNDAY - SALSA. This was one of the funnest nights I have had. In a sentence, only loco locals, solo spirits, muchos salsa, fantastico live band, people going crazy dancing on tables, compact smoky atmosphere and life in the air everywhere. Even free aquadiente (dodgy dodgy local spirit) for those who danced craziest (definitely not best) and we did our part in winning the second bottle. Also a bit of a salsa lesson from one of the chicas who is a teacher just to polish the night off - 'bienvenido en Colombia' will forever resonate in my head.

We even had time to catch Cali v Perreira (3-0 but not the best quality footie) and see a bit of the downtown of the city. We made it out of Calle 6. The match did have a rather dodgy feel about it, not helped by a young local lad collapsing and convulsing in front of us while queing for tickets, but I think he ended up being OK. We also climbed the three cross topped hill (mountain for blighty) overlooking the city and sat back agawp at the spectacular view. As night fell, thousands of lights lit up the city below.

Overall I was very sad to leave Cali as it is a city with beautiful friendly people and just a general nice feel about it (or at least the areas we went to). It is people that make a city and I have to thank the three chicas for everything they did. Hopefully we might catch them at some future point in time. Oh, I forgot to say that this weekend (in general when I say weekends in Colombia I mean about 5 days) we also met Sebastian - loco alemagne, and it is with him and saying goodbye to Jez that Dave and I headed north to the coffee region!!

Clowns and Guerillas

Right, this little chapter is about travels to SAN AGUSTIN- one of the most important archaeological sight in the Americas involving many strange statues from a forgotten civilization.

I think I'd better start with how I ended up going rather backwards in a southerly direction when trying to head north. The first weekend in Cali involved a very strange Halloween (very big here) party up on the mountain overlooking the city that I am lead to believe was un poco mafioso. Intensely interesting and a lot of fun. Perhaps the most beautiful crowd of people I have ever seen, a lot of plastic but a lot that is not as well, no beating about the bush Colombians are very beautiful people. Then a couple of days hanging around and a little too much Brava out of a giraffe later (don't ask), I made a snap decision with Dave and Jez to back track go see some statues.

We headed down to Popayan, a very beautiful old colonial town and spent a night and a morning wondering the streets and generally looking at the people (see photo of town, Jez and me), playing a bit of chess in the park and avoiding a well planned out ploy to nick our stuff involving a "sick" young lady and other accomplices. Then we headed out on the 6 hours or so very dodgy road (Felix - it is not quite on the same level as national highway number 6) through and into Guerrilla territory where the statues are situated. This does not sound a very sensible thing to do but in reality is quite safe. The political situation here is very complicated and I'm not getting very close to understanding it, but essentially large tracts of the country are Guerrilla dominated and they run them autonomously (not too long back the government even officially gave them a part the size of Switzerland, but that has since "officially" back under government control). Also there are a number of different Guerrilla and paramilitary groups in different areas who act very differently from each other. For instance where I am now up north is closer to ELN territory, whereas the Guerrillas circa San Agustin are FARC - the largest group with over 20,000 soldiers I believe.

So anyway, this amazing journey took us up through some of the most strange and alien landscape. Colombia is one of the most bio diverse countries in world. Much of this is owing to a multiplicity of altitudes and this trip was a classic example with the scenery altering completely in very short spaces of time. My favourite was a very high altitude boggy type forest of fern and exotic flower, mist and cloud floating over mysterious and largely impassable landscape - a rare reminder that man does by no means control all this planet. "FARC" signs on the side of the road indicated a change of occupying authority and one of the strangest sights I will ever witness occurred at our first check point out in the middle of nowhere at a little lunch hut. We got out of the car and had a friendly chat with the men with big guns before a performing Uruguayan took the show. He pulled out a unicycle and started riding around the guerrillas to a bit of confusion but much enjoyment. Standing there with the far too young soldiers looking in shared confusion at what this crazy guy was doing. The antics of the couple of clowns (literally) on the bus did strengthen in me a lesson I am learning in this part of the world that a big smile and a bit of a joke can diffuse so many situations and get what and to where you want.

At the end of the long bumpy road we encountered another checkpoint where the FARC were friendly enough to help us change from the bus (left my only bloody jumper on that bus - grrrr) and arranged a free ride into the town - no problem at all except that they wanted Jez´s gafas as a present (sunnies). Perhaps the thing that surprised me most about the guerrillas was how well equipped they were - I am not sure what I expected to see but it was not perfectly matching uniforms, webbing and the minimum of a semi-automatic each. These guys are here to stay if no political solution is reached (unlikely at present).

We then stayed in a really chilled out cabana owned by a Swiss guy (there has been a definite theme emerging of male travellers hooking up with locals and setting up hostels) for a couple of nights, just sitting back and chilling. So relaxed except for a very silent confused time - hmmm. From there we took a simply spectacular horse trek with a cool couple called Sa and Shena, up down and around the simply stunning scenery and to some of the statues. The backdrop is gob-smacking with large revines, powerful rivers fed by huge waterfalls and greenery as far as the eye can see (see photo). The statues themselves were intriguing but I felt somewhat unfulfilled since there was no good info on them and it is hard to make too much out of the statues themselves - that said, some of the figures were really quite funky.

A quick note must be made of Jez's very elegant fall from the horse as he tried to turn a corner at a with a touch too much momentum - quite a bit of mud but luckily no injuries. It freaked the horse out though - it ran a good km or so and the guide had to retrieve it.

We later went to the main archaeological parks. It is true that some of the statues are impressive - a culture very interested in the phallic side of things - but the experience was lessened by an idiot of a guide who kept on putting random dates and percentages on things and making claims about everything from little scratching proving these people traded with Africa to conjecture about aliens. I am a strong believer that in places like this it is often better to know nada then to be fed a whole lot of dodgy rubbish. With little background it is difficult to disseminate the facts from the tripe and after a while you just stop listening. I almost started challenging him properly, but it was not worth the effort. So we ignored him and took a lovely snooze on the top of a hill that allowed quite a vista of the surroundings.

A sighting worthy of note was a coral/milk snake (hard to tell which - the former being a bit too poisonous for my liking) right by Dave's foot. Loads of fun!!

After another seriously chilled night the guerrillas assisted us by "convincing" the driver of the last bus of the day back to Popayan that we could squeeze on to the floor. 6 hours of pure fun - some how the music is the worst - oh and I never realized I could sleep standing up before. All an experience and I've had far worse journeys. We had to make it back to Cali for the weekend - and we did!!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Got a bit distracted!

Hello there,

I have just realised that I have added nothing significant to this blog since entering this fantastic country - Colombia - and this micro update is a precursor to a more serious one while enjoying Carthena this weekend.

Basically I have made my way from the southern border to the northern Caribbean coast over 20 awesome days. Joining Colombians in what they seem to do best at weekends - partying in the cities - and seeing stunning natural sights in between.

Currently in a little seaside town called Tolu and about to head out to some interesting tropical islands - just hope the storms hold off and the sun shines - finally getting towards sunny season!!!

Updates on Cali x2, Medillin, Solento, St Agustin, Popoyan, and a very strange mud volcano will follow!