Colombia part 8: Salento

Our next destination was Salento, a small village nestled in the Mountains of the coffee region, south of Medellin. The main draw of the region being the Cocora valley famous for its 60m tall, eerie looking wax palms. These palms are the national tree of Colombia and grow exclusively in the high altitude of this area. The wax used to be used to make soap and candles; the outer part of the stem for building houses and water supplies; the fruit for food for livestock and the fronds were used by Christian worshippers on palm Sunday. This overuse of the wax palms prompted the Colombian government to protect the remaining trees which are now a source of pride for the locals as well as an attraction for visitors.

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We reluctantly packed our bags to leave Medellin, a city we had both fallen in love with. Vowing to come back soon we climbed onto the bus that would take us to Salento. After seven hours travelling through more stunning scenery we arrived at our quirky hostel on the outskirts of the village. We were pretty shattered following the journey so tucked into one of the hostel’s famous curries and then headed to bed to get some rest for our hike the following day.

We got up early, dressed in or hiking gear and headed into town in search of the jeeps that would take us up to the Cocora Valley. We arrived at the square and noticed to our disappointment an already full jeep about to pull off and resigned ourselves to wait for the next one. Oh how wrong we were: we were soon bustled towards the jeep and told to stand on the small step jutting out the back and cling on for our lives. Against our better judgement the crazy Colombian man lifted us up onto the back and we were soon speeding off up the hill. After we had accepted our fate and relaxed our hold slightly we realised there was something quite exhilarating about whizzing through the hills with the wind in our hair.

We jumped off the jeep at the start point of the trek, our knees feeling only a little shaky after the journey. Yet again we realised we had come prepared with only three lines of instructions for the five hours of walking through jungle, mountain and forest; we’d managed last time, surely we can do it again? After very nearly going wrong at the first turn we were on our way and soon realised the track was a very well trodden route.

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We began with a nice gentle incline through open fields, the jungle-filled mountains looming ahead of us. Louise, unable to contain her excitement at being in the mountains skipped off ahead while Ellen befriended some northern English girls also starting out on the trek.

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It could have been Louise’s excitement setting off her weather controlling powers or just our luck in general, but twenty minutes into the trek the heavens opened yet again and what would have been a nice walk through the jungle became a treacherous puddle-hopping mudslide. Louise, in her element was loving every minute and kept exclaiming at how beautiful the river was. She clambered like a monkey along the somewhat rickety bridges over the now gushing water. Ellen, on the other hand, was not so enamoured by the experience; her mood becoming increasingly worse as the slope became steeper.

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After Ellen had been through all the evolutions of grumble (grumble-bee, grumble-dore, grumble-saurus-Rex, grumble-stiltskin etc etc…. you get the picture) and a fairly strenuous climb we emerged out of the jungle to encounter a completely different landscape. The scenery opened up into green plains dotted with the out-of-place looking wax palms. As the mist rose around them the whole landscape appeared quiet, eerie and strangely romantic. Louise, not dampened by the rain or Ellen’s mood pressed on into the midst of the forest. As the rain began to ease and the clouds started to lift we were able to fully appreciate the stunning scenery around us. Hummingbirds started to flit between the flowers and Ellen finally couldn’t help but enjoy herself realising she would never be in a place quite like it again.

We completed the trek in record time, 3 hours, and headed back to the jeeps and to our hostel to change out of our soggy clothes.


That night we treated ourselves to dinner at a restaurant we had been recommended by some travellers back in Santa Marta. By complete coincidence our salsa friend from Medellin, Leonie, happened to be walking past as we were ordering so she joined us for dinner too. We tucked into perfectly cooked fillet mignon with various different sauces including blackberry and coffee infused reductions. Three delicious courses later we were amazed that our bill only came to the equivalent of £30. Embarrassingly, Ellen’s card was declined despite her being sure she had sufficient funds for the meal. Louise stepped in to pay. As we were setting off to leave, Ellen received a notification that her card was unable to process the £300 payment she had just tried to make. We suddenly realised what had happened and managed to eventually explain to the staff that we had been charged several million paesos, 10x the required amount. The staff, finding the whole situation pretty hilarious (the poor young waiter looked very embarrassed) processed our refund and we went on our feeling very relieved!

That weekend was a public holiday in Colombia so Salento was teeming with holidaying locals meaning all the bars were filled with people celebrating. We headed to a bar with live music for a few cocktails before heading to one of the bars on the main square where the dancing seemed to be kicking off. The music was an eclectic mix of Latin salsa and 90s Europop. The locals soon welcomed us into their dancing and the evening became a strange mixture of them teaching us to salsa and us teaching them the moves to the YMCA; still it was great to have another evening dancing with the locals.

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Colombia part 7: Medellin II

The following day we attended the Medellin free walking tour, something every traveller visiting Medellin recommends. The tour is so popular that it has a ticketing system similar to that of Glastonbury or an Ed Sheeran concert: you have to go on the website at a certain time and register as quick as you can to be in with a shot of securing a ticket. We wondered how a 5 hour walk around a city (seemed a bit excessive to us) could be so in demand. We were not to be disappointed!

The tour wasn’t really centred around the sites and monuments of Medellin but more of the history of the city and it’s people during Colombia’s darkest times. Our guide, Carolina, an engaging, knowledgable and incredibly entertaining local girl was so passionate and proud of her city; her people and her country. She talked us through the difficult times and changes the country has been through in the last 20-30 years. We were shocked to hear what someone of our generation had had to go through but also amazed how she could speak so positively and optimistically of a country that is still trying to repair itself.

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Medellin city

To begin with Carolina asked us if our relatives were concerned about our safety while travelling to Colombia. Most people in the group raised their hands. If we had been travelling 20 years ago then this concern would be completely legitimate as, at this time, Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world (in 1991, 392 in 10,000 people were murdered in and around Medellin. Put into context in the current crisis in Venezuela the same statistic sits at 142 per every 10,000). Now however, Colombia receives over 5 million visitors per year (compared to 50,000 back in 1991) and the Colombians are considered some of the friendliest and most welcoming people in South America, partly as they are incredibly happy and proud to finally have tourists returning to their beautiful country. This is noticeable everywhere you go, people wave at you in the street, ask where you are from and are generally very warm and welcoming.

We continued to explore more of the city with Carolina, she explained more about the political history of Medellin as well as the effects Pablo Escobar and his regime had on the local people. One of the main messages we took from the tour was the resilience of the Colombians. Despite having been through an incredibly traumatic time they have come out the other side positive and optimistic. Carolina mocked her people for taking these attributes a bit too far by celebrating even very small achievements, which to other countries would seem insignificant. A few examples being, the country went into a complete state of celebration after Colombia drew with the German football team (despite losing when the game went to penalties) or when a Colombian cyclist won, not the entire thing, but just one stage of the Tour de France. These small victories for the Colombian people gave them an excuse to celebrate and importantly forget for the time being what they had been through.

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A monument built to honour the change and development in Medellin

After having had our fill of Columbian history and politics (as well as plenty of its culinary offerings at Carolina’s recommendation) we continued to explore Medellin city centre and shopped in one of the many markets.

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A statue depicting the story of Medellin

After a day of walking and learning we were feeling a little peckish. We had previously spotted a cafe offering an entirely chocolate based menu and decided we had to visit it before we left. We felt very indulgent as we tucked into our food: to start cheese croquettes with chocolate sauce (an interesting but actually very tasty combination) followed by chocolate fondue with fruit and marshmallows, finished off with chocolate lemonades. Delicious! We headed back to the hostel feeling very naughty.

That night we had decided we must experience the salsa bar scene Medellin is famous for. We had befriended Leonie and Anna two Dutch medics currently working in the Caribbean who were both also keen for a night of dancing. We all got ready and jumped into a taxi heading away from the touristy, gringo-filled (A South American colloquialism for tourists) El Poblado district to downtown Medellin.
We arrived at the Salsa bar and despite the hostel reception staff’s recommendation that it was a popular spot the bar seemed pretty quiet with no other Europeans there! We sheepishly made our way to the bar and ordered some beers. The bar staff could not contain their excitement at having four complete salsa novices to teach for the evening. Leonie, the only one of us with some Salsa experience (she even had her own salsa shoes) was soon whisked onto the dance floor with the head dance instructor where she was spun and twirled with ease. We all looked on a little jealous but mainly terrified that it may soon be our turn. We were soon all paired up and beginning to master the basic steps.
After a few dances, we took a break and joined the boys at the bar for a drink. We were handed a large shot of Medellin rum on ice with a dash of coke, this was now becoming our drink of choice (sounds awful but actually pretty delicious and very refreshing). Feeling slightly more relaxed we were able to enjoy the dancing and lose ourselves in the music while our partners lead us effortlessly around the dance floor. Needless to say, we all fell in love with salsa dancing and left the bar with a desire to learn more. We jumped into a taxi back to our hostel all on a bit of high after enjoying a truly Colombian evening.

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Colombia part 6: Guatapé

Our alarms went off at 6.30am and we headed across El Poblado to the bus which would take us on our tour of the colourful Guatapé town and the surrounding archipelago of islands.

Our first stop was a small town on the outskirts of Medellin where we enjoyed a typical Colombian breakfast of Arepa: thick pancakes made with maize flour with a topping of soft crumbly cheese and spicy salsa accompanied with bitter hot chocolate. We were not allowed to use utensils so Ellen was almost immediately covered in salsa and cheese requiring a quick trip to the bathroom to clean up. We headed back to the bus feeling very satisfied after a delicious breakfast.

We continued our journey through a farming region. We were in awe of the beauty of the Columbian countryside. Luscious green rolling hills lay all around us; we were amazed at how anything could be cultivated on the steep landscape. The farms were stunning, we passed hillside upon hillside of avocado bushes, fruit trees and an abundance of cows, alpacas and goats amongst which were dotted extravagant farms houses.

Guatapé has a very interesting history, the whole area used to be taken over by farming. In the 1970s a big company from Medellin built a large hydroelectric complex across the river feeding the region. The dam was to provide 30% of Columbias hydroelectric power. What it did mean however was that an enormous farming area along with several towns and villages would be flooded. This was not taken well by the locals but after the rebuilding of several towns at higher levels the stunning archipelago was produced. As a result drawing tourists from all over the globe and providing a new income for the area.

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Another big draw for tourists is the enormous, bizarre-looking rock: La piedra del Peñol that at 200 metres high towers over the enormous lake providing spectacular views of the area. This was our next stop, we climbed the 750 steps to the top and took in the breathtaking views.

We climbed back down to a local restaurant for lunch where we tried a traditional Colombian dish: bandeja paisa. This consisted of BBQ-ed pork belly, bacon, minced meat, rice, spicy beans, salad, plantain, bread, half an avocado and a fried egg accompanied by an incredibly sweet sugar cane drink. Not the healthiest of lunches but certainly delicious and filling!

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Feeling very full we boarded the bus and headed to our next activity; a boat trip through the archipelago. We had befriended a (slightly hungover) Texan girl and an ecuadorian girl holidaying with her family. We all grabbed chairs on the top deck and settled in to enjoy the sun and the scenery around us.

The sun was short-lived however as Louise’s keen meteorological senses soon caught sight of the dark clouds gathering ahead. Ellen was beginning to wonder if all this rain was infact not a coincidence and that Louise, in an attempt to feel more at home, had some strange Scottish powers over the weather. Everyone around cursing whoever had been careless enough to bring a weather-controlling-Scot with them, hid under their waterproofs prepared for a full on storm. The clouds however soon passed over and we were able to enjoy the relaxing boat ride; everyone keeping their eyes peeled for glimpses of the ruins of one of Pablo Escobars old mansions.

Once we returned from the boat we were given time to explore the beautiful town of Guatapé. When the area was flooded the residents had to find a way other than farming to make money. They decided to make the town as beautiful as possible so they could attract visitors and raise their economy through tourism. The town truly was stunning, all the buildings were painted bright colours with each building having tiles along the facade’s lower walls in bright colors and dimensioned images. Many of the tiles are tied to the products sold by the shops, or the beliefs of the residents, others are cultural images of the farming heritage of the community.

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Once we had wandered the quaint little streets for a while, Louise’s senses started tingling again and the heavens opened. We sprinted back to bus for the journey back to Medellin. The rain was tireless, on arrival we took cover in the bus for a further 15 minutes to see if the rain would ease up. Deciding the storm was not going anywhere we sprinted to a bar we had spotted across the street. After a quick discussion we managed to convince the barman that it would be a good idea to give us happy hour prices as we would be staying till the rain stopped. Score!

A few rum and cokes down, the rain eventually eased enough for us to stumble/jog back to the hostel and shower for another night out in Medellin.

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Colombia part 5: Medellin

Our next destination was Medellin; located at 1495m above sea level the enormous city sprawls it’s way along a valley as far as the eye can see. Being still of the student mentality to save our pennies in any way possible, we had already shared a taxi to the airport in Santa Marta with a Texan we had met in our hostel. On arrival, another opportunity presented itself in the form of two British medics, we soon convinced them it would be a good idea for them to share a taxi to the city with us and we were on our way. Said medics were soon to learn our frugal ways but this did not stop them boasting about their superior digs (a twin room in a hotel compared to our 10 bed hostel dorm), they claimed they needed to get over their jet-lag, we suspected vets are just a bit more hardcore…..
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Our hostel was located in the El Poblado region of the city, we dumped our bags and set off to explore. We immediately loved El Poblado with its clean wide streets boasting many restaurants, bars, cafes and boutique shops as well as vendors selling the classic deep fried street food and fresh fruit. We ambled into a couple of boutique shops and tried on a few things. Ellen soon found a bikini shop and was quickly trying on several from the garishly bright selection. Having chosen a bright yellow two piece she was pleasantly surprised to find it was half price, bargain! Purchases away in our bags we headed off in search of some lunch.
We found a cute cafe on a little side street and scanned the menu. We ordered what we thought was chicken and pork and waited to see what would arrive. It turned out we were about to experience our first ‘Menu des Dias’ which included a soup, salad, main (meat and rice), juice and fruit all for incredibly cheap prices; perfect considering we thought we had only ordered a main! The food was delicious and a welcome break from deep fried street food.
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We decided, what better way to take in the vastness of Medellin than to run and leap off the edge of highest point of the city strapped to a strange man with a kite. Neither of us had been paragliding before so now seemed a good time to try it. A two hour journey across the city using various forms of public transport lay ahead of us; walking followed by metro then a local bus. On our walk to the station we sampled many of the exotic fruits Medellin has to offer: pineapple, mango, strawberries, papaya, melon and coconut. Delicious!
We arrived at the metro station and spent a few minutes figuring out how to purchase tickets and were soon on our way. Ellen was still blissfully enjoying the last few bits of mango when she was told sternly to put them away while on the train. Feeling a little confused and that the police officer was overreacting slightly she sheepishly extracted her brand new bikini from its bag, shoved it to the bottom of our rucksack and replaced it with the mango. Later we found out that eating or drinking on the metro is a massive faux pas in Medellin. To the locals the building of the metro came at a time when the city was truly at its worst and marked a turning point in its history. Therefore it is now seen as a symbol of change, progression and ultimately hope. For this reason it is treated with utmost respect by everyone using it. We did feel a little silly after hearing this!
The next part of our journey was to catch a local bus to San Felix, a little town in the outskirts of Medellin up so high that you can see the entire city. The bus started to climb up the hill giving us glorious views. We had been given very vague directions by our hostel (‘get off at the orange steps’) so were worried we might not make it to our destination, a kind local however soon came to our aid.
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On arrival in San Felix we were told to climb up said orange steps, an easy feat under normal circumstances but it was at this point that the altitude hit us, we were soon gasping for air after only a few steps. Eventually we made it to the top and were greeted with spectacular views of the city. We had time to take a few photos before Louise was whisked away by Juan & David, the strangers we were to be strapped to. It all happened very quickly, one minute she was standing nervously putting on a helmet and the next she was running off the edge of the mountain. Ellen’s fate came quicker than she anticipated and she was also quickly strapped into a harness and told ‘don’t sit down, run till I say stop’. Her protestations that the ‘harness does not feel tight’ fell upon deaf ears as they started to run towards the edge, ignoring David’s advice she immediately sat down and was unceremoniously, bumped off the mountain like a beached whale.
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Despite the slightly hairy take off we were both soon flying through the air taking in the beauty of Medellin. We soared over the city and relaxed to enjoy the view. This was short lived however as our partners decided that now we were settled they’d like to show us some tricks, we spiralled towards the ground, Louise spiralling so low her feet scraped the top of the trees. Ellen (much to her horror) was even given the handles and told to drive the kite herself being assured ‘don’t worry, it’s very safe, see if I let go it’s fine’. It was fine but she still clutched the handles extra tight anyway! 20 minutes was over all too quickly and we were spiralling back to land. Still on an adrenaline high we made the journey back to the hostel before heading out for a quick dinner before getting ready to go out.
We headed to the Happy Buddha, a renowned party hostel and bumped into our medic friends just heading out on a bar crawl. We decided to tag along. To join the crawl you had to pay 40,000 COP which included entry to all the bars and a free drink in each one, this (£10) seemed a bit steep to us so we opted for the 10,000 COP option which included only entry, no free drinks. We mainly saw this as a challenge however and were soon sipping away on the free drinks while the slightly disgruntled medics looked on. A few bars later it was our turn to buy the boys a round. Having negotiated a price for 4 drinks in the previous bar (the mention of a free drink if you did a body shot caught our attention briefly) we dragged the boys back to this bar to purchase a round of tequila shots (they had requested rum and cokes) for them to work out we had only saved ourselves 30p per drink. Every little helps, eh? After some dancing and a few more drinks we decided to call it a night and headed back to the hostel ready for an early start to Guatapey the next day.
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Colombia part 4: Palomino and Santa Marta

Ellen was woken early the following morning by the Italians getting ready to leave for Tayrona park. The views over the mountains at 6am were exceptional and a perfect way to start the day.

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After a quick breakfast we made preparations for our trip down the mountain. We opted to take the Moto-taxis back to save some time. We climbed onto the back of the motorbikes sitting uncomfortably close to our drivers (Louise’s didn’t look much older than 16), likely bruising their sides as we gripped tightly with our knees prepared for the terrifying descent ahead of us. We soon realised that the journey down was to be much more sedate so relaxed and enjoyed the scenery.

We arrived back at our hostel in Santa Marta, swapped our hiking boots for bikinis and set out on our next adventure. We headed to what we thought was the slightly less touristy, sleepy town of Palomino where we could enjoy a couple of days relaxing on the beach. Our 2013 edition of Lonely Planet ended up being slightly out of date as Palomino turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap consisting almost entirely of a single street of more than 30 hostels and touts selling various different tours. On exiting the bus we were swarmed by people trying to sell us trips, we politely declined and headed towards our hostel. However about 10metres down the road, Louise realised that in the confusion and some incredible slight of hand her mobile phone had been substituted for a river rafting business card. We searched through all our bags and pockets but could not find it anywhere. We retuned back to where we had exited the bus, located a police van and tried to explain the situation. The police unfortunately were not much help and the language barrier proved a slight issue. Feeling helpless and untrusting of the so far incredibly friendly Colombians wasn’t something we had wanted to experience and the incident left a slightly sour taste. Our faith in the locals was quickly restored as a friendly Columbian (holidaying from the South), noticing Louise’s distress came to our aid and tried again to explain our situation to the police officers. We eventually managed to extract a website address so we could make an official report and accepted there wasn’t much more we could do. Our friend stayed with us to help translate the incredibly complicated police incident form and after several failed attempts to fill it in we gave up and headed to the beach to drink cocktails and enjoy the sunset.

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We spent the following morning relaxing by the pool at our hostel, the incident of the previous day making us regret slightly that we hadn’t joined the Italian boys camping in the Tayrona national park.

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We jumped on the bus back to Santa Marta and went on a hunt for a new phone. We found a shop filled with locals and started to explain what we were after. The salesman unfortunately quickly resorted to his Google-translate app. Louise started to become a little exasperated as he (clearly working on commission) kept trying to sell us the most expensive phones in between asking us out for pizza. Eventually we managed to secure a decent deal for a pretty shitty but functional toy-like handset. Feeling pretty pleased with ourselves we headed back to the hostel for an evening of bingo, another new set of friends (British and Australian this time) and prepared ourselves for the next part of our adventure: Medellin

Colombia part 3: Santa Marta & Minca

For Louis, 6 weeks travelling in South America was coming to an end, his parting words of wisdom (after bundling us into a taxi) were ‘don’t take the first bus offered, shop around a bit, try to use your Spanish’. On arriving at the bus station a guy loitering outside the station shouted ‘Santa Marta?’ We nodded and were rushed through the station to jump on a bus already backing out. On sitting down we looked at each other and laughed having done the exact opposite of Louis’s advice and hoped we hadn’t been ripped off too badly…

The journey went smoothly until we reached a bridge over an estuary and the bus came to a complete standstill. We appeared to be stuck behind a horse and cart. Smaller cars and motorbikes mounted the curb precariously to get around the obstruction but we were forced to amble along behind it. When we looked further ahead however we noticed that buses and lorries were backing up as far as we could see along the bridge. With no other route around we realised we may be sitting here for a while. After about 45minutes and having moved about 2 metres we were becoming a little twitchy as it was starting to get dark and the bus driver appeared to have given up on the journey entirely. Eventually we started moving and finally made it to our destination, a main dual carriage-way seemingly in the middle of nowhere… we cobbled together some of our new Spanish phrases and managed to organise a taxi with the the bus driver. Our novice linguistic skills became a slight issue at this point. The driver quoted ‘siete mille paesos’ to us, outraged at the 10 fold increase compared to previous fares we politely declined. We were left standing a little baffled on the side of the road. We quickly flagged another taxi who quoted the exact same number, accepting this must be the cost we climbed in. On arrival at our hostel (a mere 10 minute journey; definitely not worth 70,000 COP) we realised our error. Handing over 7,000 COP we committed to memory the difference between siete and setente. Whoopsie!

One of the benefits of Hostel Fatima was a complimentary Cuba Libre on arrival, not being ones for turning down free things and having developed a taste for Colombian rum we headed up to the roof top bar. A party atmosphere was already developing on the terrace with several groups of people chilling in the hot tubs sipping beers. We collected our drinks and quickly got chatting to a group of French boys; the first of many European, all-male groups we were to befriend over the next few days.
It turned out that 3 of the 5 boys were medics (the others a dentist and banker) so the discussion quickly diverted down a scientific tangent. After a few more drinks we headed into Santa Marta and to another roof top terrace. The French banker appeared with an entire bottle of very nice rum (the medics all grinned at us explaining their slightly better off friend liked to treat them on nights out), we weren’t complaining! We were soon sipping rum and enjoying the Regaeton music blaring across the bar. The boys soon lead us over to the dance floor where we got our first taste of (slightly clumsy) salsa dancing that they had learned while in Medellin.

Our next destination was Minca; a town in the mountains famous for its jungle trekking. We got up early and set off to find the local bus station. ‘Donde esta……?’ Seemed to be becoming our favourite phrase. Spanish is spoken very quickly in Northern Columbia; Ellen was beginning to understand the responses we received to our Spanglish but Louise would freeze and stare blankly; become confused; panic and respond in very broken French, bringing great amusement to the locals.

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Giant hammocks in Casa Elemento

 

After purchasing a variety of empanadas (aforementioned deep fried meat filled pasty-like snacks) to keep us going on our hike we were bundled into an incredibly warm mini bus and driven up the winding roads to Minca town. We had booked a night at Casa Elemento, a hostel at the top of the mountain boasting incredible views over the rainforest from the biggest hammocks in Colombia. As we set off we bumped into a confused looking group of Dutch boys and asked where they were heading; the same destination as us. They had been warned by locals that the trek would take over 3 hours and that the best option was to take a Moto-taxi (aka clinging on for your life to the back of a motorbike as they careered up the very muddy, very bumpy ‘road’ if two strips of broken cement surrounded by streams can be called a road). We opted for our original plan of trekking: our hostel had given us directions claiming it would take only 2 hours. The directions consisted of only 3 lines assuring us it would be all we needed to navigate the jungle. We set off in what we thought was the right direction, what could possibly go wrong?

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Moto-taxi

After a couple of minutes we caught up with two English boys also on the same route. After an exchange of the now well practiced travel introductions we ascertained that these boys were also medics, who had also studied at Cambridge, in the same year as Ellen and had therefore attended the same lectures. Small world eh?!!
Our first instruction was to head towards a waterfall, simple enough. Due to the lack of signs, the boys opted to head back to Minca to obtain some more detailed instructions. We determinedly carried on and soon came across an Aussie couple who assured us our instincts were correct and we were heading in the right direction. They did warn us however that due to the recent downpour of rain we may have to remove our shoes and wade across a couple of rivers on our ascent.
We started the climb through beautiful jungle, amazed by the enormous bright blue butterflies flying just in front of us. We made it to the first stream which we indeed needed to wade through but the water was only ankle deep and nowhere near as treacherous as the Aussies had implied. The track turned out to be a well trodden route and we only need to follow the sounds of the motorbikes to keep us in the right direction.

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An hour into the walk we bumped into the Dutch boys again. They seemed a little disgruntled that they had endured the terrifying Moto-taxis and we had managed to catch them up anyway. After the hair-raising experience they had opted to carry out the rest of the journey on foot so we decided to all walk to together. They were soon commenting on our superior fitness level as we powered off up the hill, determined to beat the suggested two hour target. Just under an hour later and after a lot of complaining from the boys we reached Casa Elemento just as the heavens opened at it started to pour with rain.

We were a little disappointed as the view was completely obscured by clouds but we settled down to a game of cards. While waiting for the storm to pass we got chatting to our third group of European friends: a group of boys from Italy.
The clouds eventually began to clear to reveal a stunning view out over the rainforest, down to Santa Marta town and over the Caribbean. We headed down to the enormous hammocks and sat for a while soaking up the beauty around us.

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We spent the rest of the evening drinking beer and playing cards with our new friends. We were taught a new Italian card game which turned out to be pretty complicated but we eventually got the hang of it. Our contribution was ‘Cards against humanity’ (if you haven’t heard of it, google it) which, when English isn’t your first language, is pretty hilarious/ occasionally awkward; let’s just say that our English humour was often completely lost on the Italians.
We continued playing games late into the evening after which we decided to all head to the hammocks and lie under the stars enjoying the lightening lighting up the hills ahead of us. A perfect evening in paradise!

 

 

Colombia part 2: Isla Rosario

The following morning we headed to the Rosario islands. We got up early had a quick breakfast of empanadas (a fried pasty-like pastry filled with various meats that would become a staple part of our diet in the days to come) and very strong coffee (Ellen was buzzing for the rest of the day!) and made our way to the port. After haggling for a cheaper price we were ushered onto a crowded boat. We shuffled our way to the back having to apologise for knocking everyone with our bags. We settled in for the 1 hour journey nestled under our pile of rucksacks.
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Blissful ignorance
The journey started off very pleasantly, we enjoyed views of Cartagena as we pulled out of the port followed by beautiful coastline. Our first stop was Playa Blanca to drop off some of the day trippers. We waited a few minutes surrounded by crystal clear blue water while people disembarked the boat and then set off on the 20minute journey to the Rosario islands. We headed away from the coast out to sea. Looking ahead we suddenly noticed that where clear blues skies had been about two minutes previously, an enormous black cloud now filled the sky and we were headed straight for it…. Louise, who’s interest in environmental geography meant she had a prior knowledge of cloud formations and weather patterns was fully aware of what we were heading for. Louis and Ellen however were blissfully unaware at the back of the boat chatting to a Spanish couple. Their ignorance was short lived however as we were hit by a full blown twister/ hurricane. Despite the canopy over the boat we were immediately soaked as the rain pelted down. Ahead we could see the twister forming but luckily our drivers had enough time to divert our course away from it. Later we were to be told that another boat about 30minutes behind us witnessed a smaller local boat get picked up and tossed upside down scattering people and their belongings everywhere.
We continued at a snail pace against the hammering rain, cowering over our bags in a vain attempt to keep things dry, wondering to ourselves whether to laugh or cry. After what seemed like an eternity we arrived at our destination exactly as the clouds parted and the sun shone through, Sod’s law! We extracted our now incredibly soggy bags from the boat jumped down and wadded through the water to shore. We were welcomed by the hostel staff (chiselled abs, surfer hair and model faces appeared to be the selection criteria for the job). Ellen’s 5 year old flip flops unfortunately meant any pretence of poise was lost as she slipped spectacularly down the steps to be hoisted up by her rucksack like an over turned turtle, the beautiful Tarzan-look-like couldn’t quite contain his laughter.
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Playa Blanca before the storm 
Hostel Paradiso was a set of 7 separate brightly coloured open plan, wooden houses with large hammock-clad verandahs all clustered around a central pool and bar area. We settled our bags into our room and set off to explore the island. We had a quick look at the map on display in the hostel and set off into the jungle pretty confident we could find the closest beach. The route to the beach turned out to be more complicated than anticipated as the small winding paths split off in many directions confusing us almost immediately. After 40minutes of walking; a visit to a swanky beach club (we didn’t have enough money even for one drink…) and a deserted hotel we arrived at Playa Libre, a beach the opposite side of the island to where we had intended. The view was stunning and we quickly stripped off and ran into the warm, crystal clear water; Louis with snorkel and go-pro in hand. After a quick swim and dry off on the beach we made our way back to the hostel before it got dark. We spent the evening enjoying Cuba Libres and getting to know everyone at the hostel.
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The following morning we got up early to head out on a snorkelling trip. We enjoyed a breakfast of pancakes and the entertainment that came with it: Tarzan bench pressing an enormous tree (even Louis was staring in awe).
A boat took us out to the reefs and we jumped into the water and spent the next couple of hours exploring the colourful coral and the wreck of a crashed sea plane rumoured to be one of Pablo Escobar’s cocaine planes.
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Lacrosse buddies reunited (#CUMLC)
On our return we headed back to Playa Libre this time taking the much quicker direct route through the island’s local town; a bizarre mish-mash of buildings with children, dogs and pigs all running around together. We enjoyed an afternoon of sunbathing on the beach followed by a delicious lunch of fresh seafood. We were presented with buckets of live lobster and freshly caught fish for us to choose from. We negotiated an incredibly decent price and sat on the beach enjoying BBQ-ed lobster and local snapper with salad and plantain. Life couldn’t get any better!
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We had been told that we could enjoy the incredible sunset from kayaks rented from the hostel so we packed our stuff up at the beach and headed back. The kayaks needed to be carried about 200m from the hostel to a jetty from where we would set off into the mangroves. At this point we realised the necessity for enormous guns and chiselled abs as Tarzan lifted the massive two seater kayak with ease and shrugged off any attempts we made to help.
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We set off through three sets of lakes surrounded by mangroves, Louis on his own and Ellen & Louise in the double. We wiggled our way through narrow streams between the mangroves and eventually appeared out in the ocean. After a fairly strenuous kayak through the surf we rounded the corner to catch sight of the stunning sunset. We linked our kayaks together and bobbed around enjoying nature in all its beauty.
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That evening the hostel was showing all of the most recent Game of Thrones episodes so Louis excitedly settled himself in for the evening while Ellen and Louise enjoyed a few beers and some cards with the others.
The following morning we swam out to a pontoon just off the beach and spent the morning sun bathing and chatting. Our boat picked us up early afternoon and after a much less eventful journey we arrived back at Cartagena. After Louis had imparted a few more essential Spanish phrases to our now slightly less limited repertoire we got into a taxi headed for the bus terminal to take us to our next destination, Santa Marta.