Sunday, 15 September 2013

Wax on, wax off and where is Mr Miyagi when you need him?

After the adventures and misfortunes described in my last post we were very much looking forward to discovering the rural side of Colombia, still in search of that 'Wow!' factor that so many travellers had reported and to also hopefully enjoy a much more relaxed existence.
I am pleased to be able to report that we were able to tick both of these boxes.

Our first destination after leaving Bogota was 4 hours north to the whitewashed village of Villa De Leyva. Once again we were treated to an 'in-flight' movie on the bus and when the film started with the statement that it was based upon a true story I turned to Arancha to declare my hatred of true stories.
The origins of this hatred can be attributed to my early childhood when Saturday nights in the Lambert household would be movie night (after watching the Generation Game and You Bet of course) and it always seemed to be mum's choice. This was back in the day when you would go to VideoBox to rent out a videotape and whilst mum was choosing another heartbreaker you would check that nobody was watching whilst you went to look at the back of the adult movie video cases.
Anyway, mum would always insist on choosing a movie 'based upon a true story' ie. it would be horrendous, mum would cry and myself and my sister would be contemplating suicide before we reached double figures in age - on Saturday's in any case.
There were 2 movies that I remember in particular and one of them was about a man in 1930's America who after his wife died had his 4 children taken away from him, with 3 of them being placed into a mental institution which ultimately resulted in them becoming somewhat, well, mental as well as being abused!

Well you can imagine my disbelief when the movie on this bus in the middle of Colombia was in fact this same movie that I remembered so vividly from over 20 years before. As much as I didn't want to I watched every second of it but at least this time I could laugh at some of it instead of mum tearily shouting at me that "You don't know how lucky you are!!!!"
Which always made me wonder if she had in fact considered the same course of action and then backtracked!

By the way, the other movie was called 'My name is Steven' and is about a young boy who is kidnapped in mid-town America and doesn't escape and return home until 8 years later. During his ordeal there is a scene where he (being about aged 8 at the time) is made to lie in between his kidnapper and his girlfriend whilst they all get it on. WTF mum!!

We arrived into Villa De Leyva and immediately had that feeling that even though we had headed in the wrong direction and would have to backtrack - we are supposed to be travelling south - we had made the correct decision.
The village was located in the highlands of Colombia and was surrounded by yellow and brown sun baked hills / mountains akin to the land around the Grand Canyon.
The village itself is unique in that it was declared a national monument in 1954 so virtually no modern architecture exists - all the better for the tourist. The entire village is whitewashed, almost uniform in its beautifully simple style and is all based around a vast central plaza that has absolutely nothing in it except for the most uneven and difficultly traversed cobblestoned floor.

We were also staying in probably the most homely hostel to date and the owner and her mother were very welcoming to us and very helpful.
Actually the mother was so helpful that she gave us a map of the town and indicated a number of great places that we should eat and drink at. One such place looked perfect for that evening's meal so with the aid of the map we set off in search of a meat feast.
It wasn't long before the night sky and plaza were illuminated with a number of brilliant lightning forks that seemed to touch down onto the mountains just above us and as the rains began we still hadn't found our restaurant.
We asked numerous people to assist us including a policeman and shop owners but to no avail, we just couldn't find the place. In the end we settled for option number 2 and enjoyed half a roast chicken each with heavily salted baked potatoes and super hot salsa sauce which Arancha felt compelled to share with the numerous stray dogs who had sat around our feet.
The reason that we couldn't find the restaurant or any other place on the map was because the old dear had given us a map for a town 30kms up the road!! If the locals couldn't figure this out about our map then what hope did we have?

We didn't plan to spend too much time in Villa so it was important to maximise our time here. We began our second day with a traditional breakfast dish called Changua, a piping hot milk broth containing egg, melting cheese and herbs, which I really liked.
After that beauty of a dish we hired the rustiest bicycles known to man and headed out into the dusty countryside to tick one of those travel boxes!
Firstly we made our way to El Infiernito, another ancient site this time composed of several upright standing stones that once served as a rudimentary observatory as well as burial site that is compared to Stonehenge in that is was pagan. We didn't actually get to explore it because it was closed for lunch and it was far too hot to hang around but through the fence we could see the stones and all you need to know is that they were all phallic shaped - like a lot of these old things tend to be.
Dirty pagans.

Next to the tick of a box. So far on my travels I have missed 2 separate dinosaur sites (Australia and China) and this time I would not be denied.
El Fosil is a minature museum built around the full fossilised skeleton of a Kronosaurus that was discovered in the exact place that it now lies in 1977. A Kronosaurus was a marine reptile measuring around 9 - 10 metres in length, had teeth up to 30cm long and lived around 112 million years ago. Cool!

I fell off my bicycle on the way there and as well as having a shrapnel (stone) filled bloody hand I think I also hit my stomach on the handlebars on the way down because my first 10 minutes at the museum were spent completely releasing every single thing from my insides. Just thought that I would share that.
Apart from the Kronosaurus, which was very impressive there were collections of various other fossils found in this area from when this part of the world was part of the ocean floor.

For our final day in Villa De Leyva we climbed up to the look out point for excellent views of the village and the surrounding land and it also gave us that kick up the arse to get a little bit more physical in our activities as although at a relatively low altitude we were knackered, and we have got some decent treks coming up!

This walk was completed by lunchtime so we wasted the rest of the day in the best vegetarian restaurant I have been to, probably because it was Tibetan inspired and we had a nice chat with the owner, as well as hanging out in the coffee and ice cream shops that adorn the whole of Colombia.

We had wanted to leave Villa and make our way directly to the village of Salento but owing to a total journey time of approximately 14 hours and the bus connections not working out we had to head back to Bogota for a night.

The journey was non descript apart from when we were arriving back into the backpacker area of the Bogota City I stood up to put my backpack on and as I swung my arm back to get my arm strap I felt my elbow come into contact with something whilst simultaneously hearing a loud crack, which is not an exaggeration.
I quickly spun around and felt quite horrible inside - I had just elbowed my girlfriend in the face and caught her square on the nose - was I now a wife beater?
For a few seconds that felt a lot longer I stood there in stony silence as Arancha, clearly in some pain, sat there with her hands covering her face and I was next expecting the blood to start p*ssing out through her fingers.
Fortunately, being made of sterner stuff there was no blood which was unbelievable because I hit her hard.
We got off the bus and finally I could look at AJ's face properly and my stomach dropped and my knees went all wobbly. Her nose was all crooked and there was a dent where I had caught her - I honestly thought that I had broken it.
Thankfully AJ had a sense of humour about the incident and didn't want to press charges and over the next few days we came to the conclusion that it wasn't broken but she had been left with a wonky conk and is currently sporting a lovely yellow and green bruise which stretches from her nose to the far side of her right eye.
It is at times like this when you need to be an expert in Reiki like my boy Mr Miyagi and fix the nose up straight away but I am just a lowly Daniel son still polishing the yellow car and painting the fence, so to make her feel better we checked into the same hostel as before and then went for a Mongolian stir fry and waffles smothered in Nutella for dessert by way of apology!

Next on the agenda was Salento, which for some reason we didn't have on the original list and very nearly missed the hands down highlight of Colombia. Thank goodness for the backpacker circuit and having a good old chinwag.
Getting to Salento was a long boring day not helped by the screaming spoilt kid sat adjacent to us and I would have gladly smothered the little sh*t.
Once again the buses put our sham of a country to shame. We had our own personal TV screens and a choice of over 50 movies (none of them true) - why can't our supposed first world nation offer this sort of service?
All in all it took us about 10 hours and 2 buses to reach Salento but it was so worth it.

We arrived early on the Friday evening into a packed central square. The whole village was out sitting under makeshift marquees to watch Colombia's latest World Cup qualifying match and to add that little extra spice it was a derby match against Ecuador. We had booked ahead for once so we quickly made our way 5 mins walk from the square to our hostel to check in before heading straight back again to watch the second half. The general atmosphere in this quant little village was great and took on an even more positive energy due to Colombia claiming a 1-0 victory and getting that little closer to automatic qualification - something that England are making hard work of; but we should be ok!

Our hostel was nice enough but we had been recommended one just up the road so the next day after a hearty breakfast which would have been worth staying there alone we hotfooted it to the Plantation House Hostel and sealed the deal in terms of Salento being the top destination of Colombia.
Plantation House felt as though it was in the middle of the country and miles away from civilisation and we were able to sit out and sip on the free coffee from the Hostel's own plantation (hence the name) whilst looking out over the rolling hills and taking in some of the local wildlife and birds of paradise.
We booked onto a tour of the plantation for that afternoon which left us the morning to explore the village itself and the surrounding areas. Unfortunately for me there was one road dedicated to shops full of local tit and tat so at least 45 minutes of my life was lost here; but at least I got to play on the swings at the top of the view point.

Salento is famed amongst other things for its fresh trout and there are a number of street stalls around the central square selling this speciality from the local trout farms. The dish also came with the largest plantain crisps known to man - they looked like elephant ears!
The fish was so tasty that I had to finish it all which meant eating my first fish eye and I can tell you that it doesn't taste that good and the retina is very hard.
I don't think I will be repeating it.

The tour of the coffee planation was excellent. The plantation itself was located a 10 minute walk away from the hostel down a lovely little rough trail with the countryside all about us and once we reached the actual place the land dropped away to reveal a vista out over lush deep, green and fertile valleys.
Along with 2 Italians and a Colombian/Israeli girl we were taken around the plantation by Julio which covered an area of 7 acres; 4 dedicated solely to the production of coffee and the other 3 to fruit.
The tour, conducted in Spanish, was really interesting and best of all we got to eat as we went around picking the coffee beans, bananas, oranges and blackberries off the trees and bushes as we walked.
We were given a demonstration of the coffee process from start to finish and you cannot get fresher coffee than when it is roasted and then ground whilst you wait.
Needless to say, we were awake a lot later than usual that evening!

The following day will go down as my favourite in Colombia and possibly my top day so far on our trip to date. After a delayed start due to a heavy storm we belatedly set off to explore the magical Valle De Cocora, home to Colombia's national symbol the Wax Palm tree.
We knew that we would be going there to see these strange but completely alluring trees that can reach up to 60 metres in height but we didn't quite realise what we were going to experience on our 5 hour walking loop of the valley.
Put it this way, as far as I am concerned the Cocora Valley now sits at number 2 on my all time list of natural wonders, knocking the Grand Canyon down to number 3 but just not piping the Everest Mountain range to number 1 (a view that you can see on the blog wallpaper behind this text).

Quite by fluke we did underwhelming part of the loop first as we walked along the edge of farmland before entering a very muddy and sludgy cloud forest that would take 2 hours to navigate through, up and over numerous rickety river crossings.

Finally we reached a little picket fenced entrance to the Hummingbird Sanctuary, which we had sort of forgotten we were supposed to visit. We passed through the gate that declared that 'Once you enter, you pay' and climbed up for another 1km to an opening in the thick canopy (I didn't realise how oppressive the forest had felt) where a few little wooden huts sat on the hillside in some version of a lost world.
We were now standing at about 3,000 metres and all of a sudden we heard a thrum and a cat like purr as one, then two and then a dozen hummingbirds zipped over our heads to feed at the array of nectar trays.
I think we saw 5 different types of hummingbird, all were new to me and each one of them a natural marvel.

We managed to tear ourselves away from the sanctuary as time was getting on and we had no idea how long it would take us to get back to the Jeep pickup point to ferry us back to Salento, 15kms away. The walk back via La Montana, a steep 1km climb to the top of the mountain and then down through the savannah-esque landscape of the wax palms was supposed to take between 2 and 3 hours but we had no idea of what we were about to stumble across, so it is a good job that we allowed ourselves more time to stop, stare, gasp or just stand in open mouthed awe as we ventured into the Cocora Valley 'proper'.
I am not even going to try to explain what the landscape of Cocora was like, I am not a good enough writer to do it justice but as my mate Latner put it, it looked like a scene from Jurassic park or some sort of land from a fable or place in another time and dimension like The Lord of the Rings etc. Basically, it was the sort of place that exists only in legend.
I think Wax Palms are my new favourite tree.
A picture speaks a thousand words, so here are a few pictures to fill the gaps where I have no suitable words to wax lyrical - get it?!!
Little AJ

We knew that nowhere else in Colombia could match the Valle De Cocora and we were right because we next found ourselves in Popayan, supposedly a very laid back city that combines the best of Cartagena, Medellin and Bogota; but all we experienced was a busy, packed, loud and polluted town.
The idea was that Popayan would serve as a base for us to go off and explore some other areas of southern Colombia, such as the ancient site of San Augustin or the desert and observatory of Neiva but in the end we really could not be bothered with more long and possibly complicated bus trips, especially when we know that we will definitely be able to do these things further down the road on our South American adventure, and so with that decision made there was little else to but to head towards the border and cross into Ecuador a week earlier than planned.
This not to say that we didn't do anything in Popayan, we explored the town, climbed to the look out, watched a dismal England claim a point against Ukraine and ate vanilla and cheese ice-cream - you read it right and it was bloody lovely, honestly.

With one more long bus trip left in Colombia we jumped aboard the Bolivario coach for the 8 hour journey and killed the time by watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Avatar and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. How better to pass the time?
Actually the view out of the window was decent enough and had me very excited as we we were now entering the foothills of Andes Mountain range; something on my list as long as the Himalayas have been ie. forever!
The driver not seeming to realise that we could easily die by overtaking trucks on blind bends with a huge drop next to us carried on as usual by careering along the road at 80kph.

The last stop before Ecuador was the dusty town of Ipiales, situated 2kms from the border. This town is one that most just pass through on their way either north or south but apart from being late in the day we also wanted to stay to visit a little hidden gem a few kilometres up the road.
We found the nearest hotel to the bus station as this would be an 'in and out' mission, before looking around the town for some dinner amongst the bewildered stares of the locals as to why we were there.

Our final morning in Colombia was an exercise in efficient travelling. We did some sightseeing, had breakfast and crossed a border to enter a new country all before the chime of 11am - that is how we roll!
We went to see the Sanctuary of Las Lajas, an impressive European style church built into the side of a ravine with supposed  divine waters running through the valley below, full of locals making their daily devotions.

And with that our first South American country was completed. Whilst we didn't find Colombia as captivating as many travellers that we have met have, it is not to say that we didn't like it. The country is so diverse ranging from the Caribbean coast in the north, the lush highlands in the centre to the dry dusty mountains in the south; and this is all without forgetting that its south-eastern quarter is part of the actual Amazon rainforest!
There is definitely a lot to explore in Colombia and maybe we will return one day but I leave the country with an even higher appreciation for good organic coffee and positive views; how can I not after it gave me the gift of the Valle De Cocora??
Next up, Ecuador!

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