Middle Colombia: Manizales to Bogota

As we wound our way for eight hours through the mountains from Guatape, our stomaches rolled and the scenery turned drastically more intense as we entered the mountains of the northern Andes. We were headed to coffee country and our first stop would be the small city of Manizales. Not much to look at itself (except for a beautiful cathedral in the central park), Manizales is surrounded by rolling green mountains and nature reserves. We made our way to  the Recinto Del Pensamiento, a nature reserve about a 20 minute bus ride outside of town. Set in a cloud forest, we walked trail after trail of beautiful woods seeing more than a dozen varieties of orchid flowering along the way. At the top of one hill we found ourselves surrounded by beautiful flowers (Colombia is the flower growing capital of the world) and 14 species of hummingbirds wizzing all around us. It was unreal. We took a ski style chair lift up over the trees as butterflies flew below us and Lauras feet kept hitting the tree tops. We also walked through a medicinal herb garden learning about the different herbs of the region. The nature reserve was spectacular and a testament to the Colombian peoples appreciation of their natural bounty. It definitely made our stop in Manizales an amazing one.

A couple hour bus ride south and we found ourselves in the rarely touristed town of Santa Rosa de Cabal. We stopped in Santa Rosa because we had heard about the termales, the hot mineral pools in the surrounding woods where locals go to soak and relax. After dropping our bags in the one hostal in town and throwing on the swimsuits, we made our way by taxi out a dirt road to the Belneario de Santa Rosa termales. As we walked up the path alongside a gorgeous river with tiering waterfalls down the hillside, we came around the bend to see a series of 90′ waterfalls flowing down a cliff from the green jungle above and a large grassy green clearing laced with creeks and dotted with soaking pools. It was uterly amazing. We discovered the hot mineral water comes down from another hillside through a series of chutes and joins up with a bit of the cold water of the waterfall in several cement pools set amongst the rolling green grassy hills. After cooling ourselves in the cold natural waters at the base of the waterfall (it was freezing!) we spent the day soaking with the locals in the hot mineral baths with the gorgeous giant waterfalls looming overhead. What a spot. Don’t tell anyone about it though, it was nice being the only gringos there!

The next day we made our way to the beautiful coffee village of Salento. This is the heart of coffee country and the town is surrounded on all sides by green hills and coffee fincas. During the days we wandered the dirt roads through the hills past fields of coffee plants and banana trees. At one farm we met the old man who owns the place and he invited us to sit on his porch and have a cup of coffee with him, grown right there on his land along a river. He was a kind old man in a wide brimmed farmers hat and the coffee was delicious, especially good in its natural setting. At night the only thing to do in Salento is play Tejo! We met some locals who took us to a Tejo field behind a dingy local bar and taught us the game. Essentially a steel ring about 10″ in diameter is placed on a hill of mud and then covered with paper packets filled with gunpowder! This is the national game of Colombia by the way. Then you stand about 20′ away and throw a 2lb steel weight at the “target”. If you hit one of the packets they explode! Theres a whole scoring system which I never really got but what a fun way to spend your evening. Walking home from a game of Tejo at night in the cool mountain air down stone streets with people heading home on horseback we really felt like we were experiencing Colombia the way we had hoped to.

A 10 hour bus ride to Bogota, the capital city, a quick nights sleep and then a 7 hour bus ride East and we found ourselves in the town of San Gil. San Gil is the “extreme” adventure capital of Colombia and since we’ve already done ziplining and rafting and kayaking etc. we figured, why not try out paragliding?! A truck took us to the highest peak in the area, a rolling grassy hill overlooking the valley for miles and miles with howling winds, specifically updrafts. We harnessed ourselves to the front of our pilots while a bunch local kids pulled out the shoots behind us until all at once, the shoots caught the wind, and up we went! 2000 feet up we went. Nearby clouds were at eye level as our feet dangled below us over the plateau, over lakes and roads, trees and canyons, fields and houses. For what seemed like an eternity (20 minutes or so) we flew, silently over the earth. It was an amazing sensation and one we won’t soon forget. While in San Gil we also did a short hike through the Parque El Gallineral, a forest of what we called “ghost trees”. Which were actually just a variety of ordinary trees covered with long hanging grey moss. It felt like we were in Sleepy Hollow though and was cinematic to say the least.

A brief detour through the beautiful colonial town of Barichara and then on to Bogota for one final stop to visit the Museo de Oro, the Gold Museum. A spectacular collection of South American historical gold work spanning thousands of years. Colombia has been good to us. Very good to us. Such an extraordinary country and people it is hard to leave. But our next stop is Quito, Ecuador. At zero degrees latitude we’ll be right on the equator. I’ve never been south of it, I wonder if it’s different down there?

Northern Colombia: From Cartagena to Guatape

When most people from the west think about Colombia they think about Pablo Escobar, drug trafficking and the hundred years of war and violence that plagued the country for the better part of the 20th century. To look at the country today you never would know that was once such a part of their culture and daily life. Colombia is probably the most beautiful country we’ve visited so far with tremendous mountains, beaches and flora and fauna. It also feels like one of the safest. The people of Colombia are so friendly and positive and the culture of education and nationwide infrastructure development is unparalleled by any of the countries in Latin America we’ve visited so far. It is a country so proud and moving forward rapidly from a dark past in so many ways it’s exciting to be here at this stage in their history. Our first stop would be Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.

When I was a kid, the film Romancing the Stone with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner was one of my favorites, I probably watched it a hundred times. The adventures of Jack T. Colton and Joan Wilder were ingrained in my mind as they made their wild quest across Colombia to Cartagena. “Cartagena”. The name has always held a place in my heart and had an adventurous allure to me to the point that I always hoped one day I’d see it too. Well check that one off the ole bucket list. Old town Cartagena is surrounded by a 300 year old 20′ stone wall lined with turrets to defend the spanish colonial gem. It is a World Heritage Site and therefore the whole old town has been preserved immaculately. Continue reading