Wednesday 15 May 2013

COLOMBIA PART 1. Volunteering in Colombia

Cocora valley
December, 10th. The official at the border was nice enough to place the stamp above the Ecuadorian one (of course I had to use my charming smile). Im running out of pages in my passport so if I wanna make it all the way to Mexico, have to be extra careful, plus Colombia already used a whole page for the visa). I reckon that if I manage to fit 6 stamps on every page, I will be alright.

Ipiales is the town at the border with Ecuador where no one stays more than a night. They have one thing though that is worth the stay - El Santuario Las Lojas, a church, build in the rocks. An image of Jesus or the virgin appeared there one day and for that reason it was built at such an unusual place. Met a guy from Holland and together we went looking for a place to stay. Found an ok hotel room for 30 000 Pesos for both (18 US$) and next day headed together to the bus station to take buses to Popayan and Ecuador respectively. 

Tried my first arepa (corn cakes) here, the most typical Colombian food.
Cheese arepas

Popayan – the white city in Colombia
Reminded me of Sucre in Bolivia, all white and neat, beautiful with its colonial houses but somehow Sucre had more of this nice backpacker spirit. And it rained almost all the time. At least I did some shopping and got myself a new pair of denim shorts cos mine old ones had holes everywhere (had to think twice before kneeling). The second night in Popayan I surfed with Carlos who had the most impressive collection of butterflies – around 5000, all sizes and colours (the third biggest in Colombia).

Cali – the salsa capital
Surfed with Jose Diego. We went to a salsa club (of course!), together with his girlfriend and 2 other German couchsurfers. I just wish I had learnt how to salsa before! They are really good, reminded me of the Brazilians when they dance samba. First time I tried Colombian aguardiente (anise flavoured alcohol) , tastes just like the Greek ouzo, so not a big fan of it. On the second night Diego took me to a birthday party, salsa again. But Cali itself is just another big city with its traffic and annoyance, nothing really spectacular to see there unless you wanna practice you salsa steps.

San Antonio at night
My first Oblea 
I couchsurfed in Salento, Brian who runs a bar called Easy speak, hosted me. Salento is very touristy and big backpackers’ destination but there is a reason for that. It´s pretty with its narrow streets and colourful houses, fine views to the valley open out from the village. A must do thing is going to Cocora valley (Valle de Cocora) and Palm tree forest to see the highest wax palm trees in the world. The valley of Cocora is regarded by Colombians as the cradle of the WAX PALM (Colombia´s national tree). These palm trees are now protected and grow to 60 metres tall and can live for up to 120 years. The most popular walking route is to a nature reserve called ACAIME which is roughly 2 ½ hours walk from the valley of Cocora. As you arrive in Cocora the trail is on the right hand side as you walk into the valley and away from Salento. I would recommend a visit to the hummingbird farm, you pay a fee of 3000 COP and it includes a hot chocolate or “agua panela” and you can see lots of hummingbirds. Make sure you rent boots from your hostel in town or when you get to the valley (before you start the hike, there are a few shops where you can rent them), it´s very muddy and wet, sometimes you have to cross small creeks and rivers. 

Another jeep going to Cocora valley
The beginning of the trail

Colombian girls hiking in their mini skirts and rubber boots
Loved the hummingbirds!

Wax palm trees

Brian took me on his motorbike to the hot springs  at Santa Rosa de Cabal. I really liked the town and its houses and hostels with their gardens and beautiful views over the hills. The hot springs were a bit pricy but still enjoyable. I can`t really stay long in any hot springs or thermal baths and after 2 hours of soaking was bored enough to start hassling Brian to go back home (Salento). On the way back we stopped at a hostel Brian knew they take volunteers. It wasn’t bad but it looked too calm, even for me (Im not a big fan of party hostels). That left me with the other option – volunteering in Sogamoso, Boyaca in a beautiful backpacker´s hostel called Finca San Pedro.

The hot springs in Santa Rosa de Cabal
Brian in Speak Easy
Speak easy
Going to Sogamoso is definitely off the bitten track, Finca San Pedro is the only backpackers`place in town and it is not a small one at all. My job was to water the plants (and I love plants) two and a half hours in the morning and help in the kitchen after breakfast so basically by 11 or latest 12 o`clock I was done and the whole day to play with. Juan and his mum Gilma took me to quite a lot of events and beautiful villages in the area, each one of them had its own spirit and story that made it unique.
Finca San Pedro
Some of flowers I had to water in the morning 
Temple of the sun 
Its very popular to do the Christmas tour, visiting 6 of the villages, all lit and beautiful. They love their Christmas lights there. Corrales is one of the most enlightened municipalities of Boyaca - winning Christmas lighting contests. And it is really lit; every single edge of the houses, churches, stairs… has its own lights. 

Around Christmas a few people were around in the hostel, mostly backpackers and mostly English so what we made for the Christmas day was a big English lunch-dinner with chicken, gravy and crackers…
And later on when we all were gathered around the fire, Ben surprised me just turning up a day earlier. He came from Cuzco (leaving his bike there) to spend New Years with me.
The table is ready 
On the Christmas day
Crackers ready too :)
Christmas fire

In Colombia its all manual (half naked guys change the bowls)
Tejo is the Colombian national sport. It involves hurling a heavy piece of metal towards a clay target laced with packets of gunpowder. So when you hit it, it explodes. And lots of beers! Usually playing is free but you are expected to buy drinks. It´s enjoyable for max 2 hours, after that gets boring, even after many beers.
 Playing Tejo
Villa de Leiva.
Villa de Leyva is Colombia's best preserved colonial town. The white walled buildings run along old cobblestone streets. It is very popular with weekenders from Bogota (and very quiet during the week). In our hostel we meet long term backpackers, expats, normal North Americans and Europeans on short vacations, and Colombians visiting for just a night. Didn’t do much in the town but it was still pretty pleasant. Hitchhiked to Tunja on the way back, an American-Colombian couple picked us up. 

View from the room

I bought a whole bag of lolly pops, can you tell?

Graffiti session

On December 31st we finally made it to Lake Tota (biggest lake in Colombia) and the famous Playa Blanca. It´s quite random to find this beautiful beach with white sand so high up in the mountains. Unfortunately the water is quite cold so I quickly gave up on the idea of swimming. We walked for a few hours around the lake, bought some beers from a local “pub” on the road and kept walking hoping to get a ride back to Sogamoso which didn’t happened and it was getting late and cold (2500m altitude). And it was the last day of 2012 so most of the people were home with their families. Finally we got a bus to Sogamoso, the last one, made it to town in the dark and on the way home stopped at a liquor store to buy provisions for the night.
Lake Tota and Playa Blanca

Lake Tota

They had these puppets everywhere, made just to be burnt later

No one wanted to pick us up. So beer break with locals instead

It´s getting late, its Decemeber 31st and no cars wanna take us back to Sogamoso

More dolls for the fires
New Years in Sogamoso was pretty unusual.. Basically me, Ben and Adam and a bottle of White Russian roaming the empty streets of Sogamoso. We were told that the Colombians spend New Years with their families, so different to Europe. But we got invited to a house where 3 generation of Colombian were celebrating, was weird but kind of fun. First thing I realized in 2013 when I woke up in the morning was that my nose hurts massively and somehow I got this massive bruise on it, didn’t go away for 2 weeks and looked and felt pretty painful, still can´t explain it to myself how I got it.

Mongui is 40 minutes by bus from Sogamoso and was declared as the most beautiful town in Boyacá. Everyone who came to the Finca went there. So 2 days before leaving, Adam (the other volunteer) and I, finally made it to Moingui. It’s quite ancient main square, the Basilica, the enigmatic monastery, the Calicanto bridge full of stories all along its paved narrow streets, make it a place worth visiting.  All the hikes to the “paramo” strart from Mongui too. 

There was some kind of a horse contest going on

Main plaza in Mongui

I accompanied Adam to the Vineyards in Puntalarga where he wanted to volunteer in a cool project and a few days later we went back again for the annual Beauty contest to choose the queen of the wine. It was quite cheesy but still fun.
The vineyards in Puntalarga

The beauty queens
Crushing grapes for winemaking
The red team was my favourite
Paola and Ximena bustling in the kitchen
Gilma is the soul of Finca San Pedro
Left to San Gil on 7th of January after 3 weeks of volunteering in Sogamoso. It is the Colombian capital of extreme sports. The town of San Gil was also really cool, set on a hill with crooked old streets and generally a good vibe. Took a day to go to Barichara, a rather quiet village any serious adult traveller would describe as lovely. Quite a contrast to the party and adventure sports in San Gil. I hiked the Camino real from Barichara do Guane which is not difficult at all but I underrated the heat. Walked in the middle of the day when it was 40 degrees Celsius and felt so exhausted. When I finished with mu lunch in Guane, the bus to San Gil was already gone (only 3 buses a day) but it didn’t take long to hitch a ride to Barichara and to San Gil afterwards. 
San Gil

San Gil
Hiking the Camino real from Barichara to Guane

Bucaramanga was on the way to Venezuela and as much as I didn’t want to stop there, I had to wait for Adam to bring my laptop charger which I forgot in Sogamoso. I surfed with Julian and his lovely family. Met some of his friends in town, tried fruits I hadn’t tried so far in Colombia in his friend´s house. He took me to the market to buy some ingredients for his granola (he is a vegan) and I also bought flax seeds and Sesame seeds for my special bread, it´s not that easy to find seeds and spices in Colombia. His girlfriend and cousin came over and together we cooked a pretty good vegetarian meal and played board games till 3am. I realized that im not gonna get my charger any time soon so decided to leave to Venezuela without it. Which meant no internet, kind of. Headed to Cucuta on a night bus.
Veggie burgers for dinner in Bucaramanga
Here is the link to my first trip to Venezuela, just before Chavez´ death: Venezuela before Chavez´death and another one to my second post about Colombia: Colombia part 2. The coast

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