Friday, 19 April 2013

Colombia: "Dangerous? The only danger is wanting to stay...."

If there's one country that continually falls victim to rash stereotypes that were valid 20 years ago, it's Colombia. Whilst those who have never traveled there warn of the dangers of getting kidnapped, robbed or murdered, those who have been rave about the stunning beaches, the lush jungle, the clean and safe cities and the friendliness of the people. Perhaps it once was one of the most dangerous countries in the world but, newsflash, Pablo Escobar is dead, the guerrillas and paramilitaries all but non- existent, and the tourist industry is growing with a vengeance.

Colombian advertising campaign "the only risk is wanting to stay"

Lost City Trek

A big reason for wanting to come to Colombia was to tick off number 9 of Lonely Planet's top 10 things to do in South America- the Lost City Trek. My first ever couchsurfing host, way back in September in Malmo, Sweden, said it was the best thing she had done during her travels in South America. So, after mentioning it to my brother, he packed a bag and some walking boots and met me for a Colombian adventure to take in Caribbean beaches, jungle, mountains and cities.

Taganaga beach at sunset
The best place to base yourself for the Lost City Trek is in Sarta Marta, or better still, the small town just over the hills called Taganga which is like Gringo Mecca. After the novelty of being one of very few white people in Venezuela it was kind of a shock to arrive in Taganaga and see so many Europeans, Americans, Australians. Although I did feel a little bit like a rock star when people asked me where I'd been before and I said Venezuela ("wow that's SO COOL") : I didn't meet a single person who had been from or was going to Venezuela while I was in Colombia (apart from a woman who actually was Venezuelan, but even she wasn't going back- her family had all fled to Colombia to escape the regime.)

After a couple of days of sunning ourselves we set off for the stiff 5 day hike to the Lost City- and this was no casual stroll in the Lake District. Scrambling up almost vertical muddy jungle trails, wading through rivers, slapping at mosquitoes, we had sweat pouring off us in the muggy heat.
But it was absolutely stunning:

  One of the natural swimming pools
Our view when we woke up in the morning
Jungle paths
Sleeping in hammocks

Each night we slept in hammocks, and awoke with our guide offering us a coco or coffee, and then it was off again and onwards and upwards and downwards and upwards again. Some people really struggled- one Australian woman in our group who had hiked in the Himalayas some years ago almost gave up at one point. Another guy made the rooky error of wearing walking boots he hadn't used before- the bloody and sore combination of mosquito bites and blisters on his foot was enough to turn the stomach (he struggled on through the rest of the hike in flip flops!). We struck lucky with a really fun and interesting group though, and it made everything a lot easier.

Hilariously, the British Foreign Office warns British nationals not to do the Lost City Trek. Why? Because 10 years ago a group of tourists were kidnapped and held for a few months. Never mind the fact that Colombia have now brought the military in to guard the trail, and that the guerrillas have been wiped from the region. I have a feeling the British Foreign Office will only be happy if everyone in Britian stays tucked up in bed in their houses. (It also warns people not to go to Japan..... because of Fukushima and because China are a little bit unhappy with them at the moment. Oh ok. Because Japan is such a notoriously dangerous country....)

Colombian military looking out for us!

Anyway, we had been warned that the actual Lost City ruins weren't so impressive, and people were often disappointed when they got there, so we should really enjoy the journey rather than the destination.
I couldn't disagree more.
Hiking through the jungle for 3 days, then climbing 2000 moss covered steps and finally emerging above the trees in a mystically beautiful city that is only accessible by the trail you've just taken.... was incredible. Built by the Indigenous people 100s of years ago it was only discovered by gold hunters in the 1970s, and I felt incredibly privileged to walk past descendants of the same tribe going about their daily life, on my way to visit a city that people didn't know existed until a few decades ago.

Local Indiginous Children
Finally reaching the Lost City!

After the trek we collapsed, exhausted, back into Taganga where we stayed for far too long on the beach having massages and drinking cocktails and going out salsa dancing with all the crazy Colombians who had flocked to the coast for Semana Santa, the Easter weekend. Eventually though we thought we should probably move on, so we headed to....


Cartagena: the beautiful colonial town where the heat is blistering and the cold showers warm.
Cartagena has one of the most beautiful old towns I have ever seen, it's like you've stepped back into a European city, you could be in Spain or Italy and even then it would be beautiful. Horse drawn carriages weave round the narrow cobbled streets, and masses of flowers overhang the balconies. Set as it is by the Caribbean, though, it was ridiculously hot. A mere hour or two exploring the old town left me and my brother collapsing into a cafe to get a CocoLimonade (the most refreshingly beautiful drink I've ever had!) We quickly made the classic European error of trying to insist on sitting outside “Really? You want to sit outside?” “Well of course, it's a beautiful warm summer day! Why isn't there anybody else out here on this beautiful balcony?” After sitting for 5 minutes, sweat running down our faces, locals sniggering, we admitted defeat and retreated into the air conditioning. The waiters had probably had a bet on on how long we'd last outside.

Asides from the old town, there's not an awful lot else to do in the Cartagena. The real attractions lie just outside. We took a day trip to a Mud Volcano, which is exactly as it sounds, a volcano made of mud. It's more of a mound than a volcano, but what is really cool is that you can climb up the stairs they've made up the side of it and go into the crater- and then float on a column of mud that stretches a mile and a half down into the Earth. It was certainly one of the most unusual experiences of my life, with a local woman massaging mud into my scalp and the denseness of the mud making it feel like I was bopping around on a mound of giant melted marshamallows.....

Me and Nick celebrating have mud.... everywhere..!

The second highlight of Cartagena, which is actually outisde of Cartagena, is Playa Blanca. This is quite possibly the most beautiful beach I have ever been to in my life. It has the classically Caribbean warm, clear and ridiculously turquoise waters, endless white sand, and even a few palm trees to complete the look. It's a beach that's so damn beautiful that you end up taking identical pictures of the same scene, because you can't quite believe how beautiful it is.....

There are lots of tourists boats that take people there for the day, but these cost about $35, so we decided to elect for the cheapie backpacker option of taking public transport. The advantage of this was that we could also stay the night there, and get the beach almost entirely to ourselves once the droves of tourists went home on the boats at about 4pm and didn't come again until 10am.

So we packed our bags and headed to the the centre of the town where we could catch a bus, looking like complete gringos with our sunglasses and beach bags and towels over our shoulders trying to figure out which bus was the correct one. A Colombian lady took us under her wing and ended up running after our bus until it stopped to let us on. We clambered aboard and travelled for about an hour until we were dumped in the middle of some little village which couldn't be more different to the centre of the Cartagena. This was real poverty, this was where the people who could barely scrape a roof to cover the homes lived. We walked for a couple of blocks through the village until we reached a canal, where we were told we could get a boat across. This was all fairly painless, and I arranged with the guy who was in the canoe with us that he and his friend would drive us on their motorbikes at the other end to the beach. I tried not to think what my mother would say if she could see me clambering up on a motorbike behind a strange Colombian guy and speeding down country roads without a helmet..... but we got there not only in one piece, but only 5 minutes behind the Irish girls at our hostel who had taken the tourist boat (and they left the hostel before us), and of course we were about $30 better off than them. Score.

Motorbikes, step 3 of Playa Blanca
by public transport!

Our first step (after gaping at the beauty of the beach) was to find somewhere to sleep. Wandering down we stumbled across a local family who have a small restaurant and some hammocks for rent for about $2. Sorted.

Our day was spent in a continuous cycle of swimming, snorkelling, sunbathing and reading. And then, eventually, the tourist boats left and we got the beautiful sunset all to ourselves:

And THEN the true highlight. Night swimming. With phosphorescent plankton. After sunset, but before the moon rises, it's dark enough that if you enter the water and swish around a bit, the water will glow green where you've swished! This had me giggling like a little girl for at least half an hour....

After a yummy dinner, a few bears, and a CocoLoco (a coconut filled with various types of spirit) we retreated to our hammocks, with nothing but the sound of the soft Carribean waves and the sigh of the palm trees to lull us to sleep....

And then we had the sunrise, and at least 4 hours to enjoy the beach to ourselves before the tourists came again:

At which point we made our way back, and got ready to get on our flight for the final section of our adventure, MEDELLIN!


So, I've been pretty lucky with couchsurfing so far. Rooftop pools in Miami. Personal saunas in Finland. A string of incredibly generous hosts. But the place we landed in Medellin..... it was unbelievable. After sending off a fair few couch requests in Cartagena and Medellin and receiving nothing back (not even an "I'm sorry, no room") I was feeling pretty pessimistic about couchsurfing in South America. Which was really annoying as I was so eager to show my brother how great it was. But then out of the blue I got a message from a guy saying that he ran the International House in Medellin, and as a group of students had just left, he could let us surf in the apartment. We were kind of waiting for the catch, was it actually couchsurfing or did he want us to pay something? What kind of apartment was this? Where was it?

There was no catch. He was purely and simply a really generous guy, and we had an entire apartment almost entirely to ourselves, including leather sofas, cable tv, a kitchen, 4 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms and access to the rooftop spa and terrace. My two Colombian friends (who I worked with in Finland) lived in the same area, which was near to the university and full of students. We spent evenings hanging out on the rooftop with our host's friends, getting to know people, cooking dinners and having beers. It was perfect.

Medellin at dusk, from our rooftop terrace

Former home and haunt of drug lord Pablo Escobar, Medellin was once the most murderous capital of the world. At Escobar's pinnacle, he was the 7th most richest man in the world, and apparently he couldn't actually deal with all the money so they'd hide millions of dollars in his desk and give it to the poor. He also got rid of his money by paying anyone $1000 to kill a cop....  He's still actually considered a hero by many of the residents in Medellin due to his generosity to the poor. Anywho, ever since he got gunned down in 1994, Medellin has slowly opened up again, and it is now an incredible city. You would never think you were in South America, let alone Colombia. Clean, high- tech, it boasts a metro system and the 'Most Innovative City in the World' title. It was the first city to build a cable car to connect the poorer areas on the hillside with the richer areas in the centre. What is interesting about cities such as Medellin that are built in the mountains is that the further up the mountain you go, the poorer the people are. If you compare that to places like Beverly Hills, the higher up the mountain you are, the richer you are as you have the best views!

Metro system in Medellin
With my Colombian friendd!

One of many of the city's initatives to built public spaces. areas where
children (and adults!) can splash around in public parks!

Metrcar system to Medellin

I was incredibly lucky to have my friends live there to act as local guides, and we spent some awesome days exploring the city and I learnt from them what it was like to live and grow up in a city that had changed so incredibly during the last 20 years, well within their lifetime.We also visited a little town called Guatape nearby which is full of beautiful little coloured houses, and we climbed a huge rock to look over the landscape. I also joined the Spanish Conversation classes at the local university, which were free, so I could practice my Spanish and meet up with some of the local students, really good fun. But my Spanish is still pretty crap.

Climbing the huge rock near Medellin
Reached the top!

But like all good things, they eventually come to an end. My brother had to fly back to England, and I was off to Quito the following day. And what to do with my spare day? I'd been on the go pretty much non- stop for about 4 months so I gave myself a day to chill out in my beautiful apartment and take advantage of the super fast internet to catch up on such important things as 'Greys Anatomy' and 'Glee'...... Because travelling really can be exhausting sometimes!

Hasta luego amigos :)