After our two days in hell travelling from Quito, we finally found ourselves in Salento. We checked into The Plantation House which I would certainly recommend. One of the original hostels in Salento, it is a series of dorms and private rooms coming off a network of wooden boards nestled within the jungle. It’s not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, but it more than does the job. It is also possible to stay on the owners nearby coffee farm, with some incredible views over the valley. Salento is surrounded by gentle hills carpeted in bright green forests, and is the main town where people flock to to see the Cocora Valley, ride horses, take long treks and visit coffee plantations. We were lucky enough to visit on a weekend in the run up to Easter, when the squares and streets were alive with locals, tourists and an abundance of food and artisan street sellers. I really liked the quaint town, which in so many ways felt like something from an old-school western movie, but with a brightly coloured twist.
For dinner we went to La Eliana, which was a stones throw from our hostel and had good reviews on Trip Advisor along with a mention in the Lonely Planet. It’s offers a range of food including brilliant curries, and the prices are pretty reasonable considering the quality. I can’t fault the food, but strangely two out of three of the starters were given to us after our mains; so no gold stars for the table service. We enquired about the ‘chocolate wine shot’ on the menu which actually turned out to be a home made chocolate flavoured spirit. As well as giving us the recipe, the owner was sweet and friendly and gave us a taster on the house.
I had previously spotted a sign for a place that sold peanut butter brownies in town (of course I would notice that, brilliant advertising on their part), so we headed into town in hunt of the little square of inevitable happiness. The place turned out to be called ‘Brunch’ and was an absolute find. We played the Monopoly Deal card game and simply died and went to heaven devouring the indulgent brownie and homemade ice cream. The wifi password was ‘ilovepeanutbutter’ so I knew this place would be more than agreeable with me.
So. Less about food and more about one of my other favourite things: coffee. We booked ourselves on a coffee tour with our hostel costing 20,000 COP, however you get a 5,000 COP discount for every night you stay, so we ended up getting it half price. The tour is carried out by the owner ‘Don Eduardo’ who turned out to be British born and otherwise known as ‘Timothy Edwards’. He took us first to his house, and then on a short walk down to his plantation. His 6 month year old sheep dog called Bonnie came with us; she had unending energy and would playfully bound around so fast that she would end up being sick. She would eat it straight back up though – waste not want not and all that. His British sarcasm was hilarious and refreshing, and his passion and love for his projects and lifestyle was brilliant to see, totally rubbing off on us all.
We were amazed to learn that Brazil produces 1/3 of the world’s coffee, more than the 2nd, 3rd and 4th biggest producers put together. Colombia – at number 4 after surprising countries like Vietnam – produces only Arabica beans at present, considered to be a higher class of bean than the alternative Robusta coffee bean. Don Eduardo only grows and sells traditional coffee, but had a few modern coffee plants (modified in a lab) for the purposes of the tour. At the beginning of the tour we were greeted by a hot cup of modern coffee, which went down rather well. He talked us through the whole coffee making process, and invited us to explore his plantation. After chatting to someone else on the tour I lost sight of the girls, so made my own way down to the bamboo forest in search of pineapples. The plantation dog joined my side for the majority of the walk and lead the way at points; lucky for me as it turned out no-one else managed to locate it! After exploring we watched some beans get freshly roasted over a low heat, taking in all the incredible aromas. Andrea blew off all the bean casings, and then another lady on the tour ground the freshly roasted coffee beans. We then all enjoyed a cup (or two) of beautiful traditional black coffee. It was smoother and sweeter than the modern coffee, and downright bloody amazing. None of that Starbucks shit!
After a long lunch – in Brunch of course – we hopped in a jeep taxi towards the Cocora Valley costing 3600 COP either way. We sat down at first, but a local kindly suggested we stand out the back of jeep to admire the views along the way. As you may have read in previous blog posts, these ‘jeeps’ aren’t officially Jeeps, although these ones were certainly the closest yet. These old school Jeep style cars could fit about 6 people, but double that jumped on, hanging off the back. The car make is called ‘Willys’ which one man told us was an English brand…we’ve since seen them everywhere, but still questioning that information! The drive to the valley was indeed as beautiful as we had been told. We ogled at the wide, green valley with sparse and super tall palm trees dotted around. Did you know palm trees can grow to be over 197 feet tall? Well, you do now. Something about the location made me immediately feel like I was in Jurassic World. Letting my imagination run away with itself, I was half expecting (and hoping) that a terradactyl might fly in at any point. The main drop off area is as touristy as you might expect, crawling with people, camp sites, restaurants and horse riding tours. With all the surroundings, we all remarked that it felt a little bit like a summer camp. We didn’t allow ourselves much time there, but there are numerous short and long hikes that you can do in the area.
Don Eduardo had invited us all to grab a beer and watch the sunset from his gorgeous garden, overlooking the valley and plantations. And for once it wasn’t completely covered by cloud! We sat and chatted to Caz and Toby, a lovely English couple on our tour, with Bonnie still bounding around us in a mad frenzy. The 5 of us headed into town and grabbed some BBQ’d corn, translated in Spanish as ‘choclo’ (which on more than one occasion we’ve mistaken for chocolate flavour…). We then went to a Creperie a few minutes from the main square and had healthy fruit smoothies with a shot of rum for good measure. Toby opted for a beer. We played cards for a bit and shared stories, before calling it a day and heading to bed.
The next morning we got a direct minibus to Medellín for 43,000 COP. We stayed in a new hostel called Galleria that was pretty cool and on a nice and quiet residential road without one a handful of other hostels. We stayed in a huge dorm that smelt and looked like an IKEA warehouse. There are certainly a few teething issues and bits that haven’t been totally thought through, but on the whole it was pretty good, and had a very well kitted out kitchen. We walked about 5 minutes to Exito supermarket which is ginormous and has everything your heart could possibly desire. It’s the simple things in life that get you excited, and for us, a good supermarket or department store is definitely one of them. We spent a while here and visited at least once, if not twice a day. Just to look, ya know.
Sid and Sam whom we had met way back in Brazil were in town, so we met up with them in the evening for a night out. Town was pretty quiet due to the Holiday, but we went to Happy Buddha hostel for a few and then found a pretty packed bar in town for the rest of the night. Arriving back home at 5am, we tried to grab a few hours kip before dragging our bodies to the only place that felt right: Exito. We got totally pretentious, clean, green smoothies along the way, which did actually do me the world of good. We decided to make the most of the afternoon so got a taxi to Pueblito Paisa. It means little town, and is located on the top of Nutibarra Hill. It is a replica of a typical turn of the century Antioquia town and is meant to give you a 360 degree view of the city. Covered in trees, it barely gives you that and although there are a couple of cute tourist stalls, I found it really quite underwhelming. We didn’t stay long, hopping in a taxi and heading towards the cable car for an aerial view of the city. Unfortunately this closed early and the cable cars are difficult to see out of, so our experience wasn’t as exciting as when we were in La Paz. Done with that, we got the metro to Paque Barrio and did a short walking tour of the old town, gaining inspiration from a tourist booklet that we picked up at Pueblito Paisa. I’m sure we didn’t really give Medellín a proper shot, but none of us were particularly won over by the city. In hindsight and since speaking to others, we probably should have done the Pablo Escobar tour which is very highly recommended, but at 50-100 USDpp for 2-3 hours, it was definitely out of our budget.
The next morning we packed just our small rucksacks with some overnight bits and got a bus to Guatapé for 13,000 COP. Due to the Easter weekend, all hostels bar one were fully booked in the town. Luckily we had a reservation at the popular Lake View Hostel. Or so we thought. Despite stating there was three of us, they had made the reservation for just one, and unfortunately there was no more room at the inn. The man on reception apologised profusely and rung around to find us somewhere else to stay. South Americans believe themselves to be somewhat infallible, so we were just so shocked and subsequently grateful that someone had apologised for their mistake, that we graciously thanked him and headed to an available guesthouse across the lake. We were greeted by a sweet little lady called Cristy, who showed us to our triple room. She made some comment in Spanish and pointed towards the bed; none of us understood, but assuming she was talking about the blankets she was pointing at, we politely gestured ‘no, no it’s fine, this will be sufficient’. After sitting down on the bed, I wondered if perhaps she has been offering us a mattress to go with our plank of wood.
We headed into town, wandering the cute little streets and locating the central square. After a recommendation, we stopped off for a coffee at Cafe La Viña which looks out onto a small brightly coloured square. We fueled our bellies with a 2 course meal costing 10,000 COP at a close by restaurant, before jumping on a bus to La Piedro del Peñol. It only takes 10 minutes or so, costing 2000 COP pp; you need to get off at the petrol station and then take the steps and path to the right of the row of restaurants. Alternatively, Tuc-Tucs from town will cost approximately 12,000 COP. La Piedra literally means ‘the stone’ in Spanish, and this one is certainly unmissable. The massive monolith looms 200 metres high over Guatapé, and thus has some breath-taking views from the top. It costs 15,000 COP to climb the 740 steps to the very top. It was one of those times when you wonder why the hell you’ve paid money to sweat and struggle to breath. Exactly why I don’t belong to a gym. Still, we made it up pretty quickly, looking like wet tomatoes at the top (…photos taken after a good 30 minute cool-down period). Guatapé’s reservoir formation is man made – created by Colombian government in 1960’s for a hydro-electric dam – which is quite astonishing in itself. As it was 5.30pm, we decided to stay another half an hour to watch the sunset. We got ourselves a well deserved Michelada (beer with mango pieces, lime and a salted rim) which unfortunately tasted like salty piss. Of course, the skyline was as cloudy as ever, but the sunset was a beautiful one all the same. Although the steps are a killer, if you choose to visit Guatapé then visiting La Piedra is 100% a must.
The next morning we headed back to Lake View Hostel at 9.30am for an organised tour to Pablo Escobar’s mansion. We eat breakfast at the hostel, and I had a breakfast burrito which was on some other level. We were meant to leave at 10.15am, but as it’s South America we didn’t leave until 11.30am. We paid 80,000 COP which includes transportation, a tour of the mansion and then a few hours (-1 grr) playing paintball in the ruins. It’s not every day you can say you went paint balling in the bombed out house of Colombia’s most notorious drug baron! The tour starts with a speed boat out to the house, followed by a tour of his ruined mansion. The mansion was built in 1985 and named ‘La Manuela’, after his daughter. On March 20th 1993, a secret armed group formed by the Cali Cartel, people persecuted by Pablo Escobar (Los Pepes) and secretly backed by US intelligence, came in a convoy of 5 vehicles to raid the property. Pablo had been given a tip off and evacuated the property. Finding no one at home, they planted a bomb on the patio in the centre of the house and set the place alight. All that’s left now is ruins; there are also many holes in the walls where locals searched for hidden money after it was bombed. But this was my favourite fact of the day: at its height the Medellín Cartel was making $60 million a day, and spending $2500 a month in rubber bands just to hold the money together. Often called ‘The King of Cocaine’, he is the wealthiest criminal in history and supplied an estimated 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the US. The tour is carried out in Spanish, but they offer a small booklet of information in English for the linguistically challenged like myself. This was followed by a few hours playing paintball in the ruins of his stables and look-out tower, and I’m sure i don’t need to tell you how exhilarating and fun that was. The boat took us back around 3pm, and then we headed into town for some lunch before getting the bus back to Cartagena. If you visit Guatapé then this 100% must be added to your list of things to do too. We eat at a small vegetarian restaurant called Hecho con Amor, which is run by an English woman. It sold hearty and healthy home made food and was exactly what we wanted.
Guatapé seemed to be Colombia’s equivalent to Cornwall. Cute, brightly coloured streets with that classic sea-side town feel. The place was busy with families at Easter, licking oversized ice-creams that were inevitably going to melt quicker than they could eat them. The place had bustling energy and vibrant colour and we loved it! We got a bus back to Medellín and immediately arranged an overnight bus to Cartagena. Information online suggests that the journey should cost 50-80k COP. However, we checked every single bus company who were all selling the tickets for 150,000 COP. This may be due to the Easter Holiday, but in general we have found that all prices for buses or activities are lower than they are at present. We ended up going with the main bus company Expreso Brasilia which is quite plush, and gave us a 5000 COP discount each as there was 3 of us. You don’t ask, you don’t get!
Love, Lottie xx