Getting from Medellin to the Ecuadorian border is a bit of a mission and required a couple of solid days of bus travel. We had looked into internal flights but they are prohibitively expensive so buses it was! We started our journey with a long 10 hour day time bus ride from Medellin to Cali, which is situated in a massive valley full of sugar cane. We had been told not to take night buses through southern Colombia, but it was confusing as the first class bus only goes overnight so perhaps the situation has improved now. Still we decided to hedge our bets and be on the safe side anyway so we arrived at the station at 6.30am for a bus we had been told could only buy tickets on the day to then find it was all sold out. The guy from the day before who had told us this just shrugged his shoulders and directed us to another company. Grr we could have had more sleep! I'm glad we did decide to take the buses during the day as the scenery is spectacular. Lots of coffee, banana and sugar cane plantations along the roads and through the steep valleys. The bus wound its way up and down between the series of valleys and we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the roads, just as we have been through most of Central America, Honduras excluded (their roads were awful!). We did see lots of army solders at various stations along the road giving us a reminder that the country is still fighting a war on narco-trafficking.
As usual we had lots of street food vendors coming through the bus but no one selling watermelon which was what I was really craving. although one guy did have some home made blackberry ice-cream which was delicious!
Cali is a pretty uninspiring city, famous for its salsa clubs and was gearing itself up for the world games which it is hosting next month. We passed a lot of cyclists with their support teams in tow on our way into the city; crazy fools obviously in training on the extremely steep terrain, presumably getting acclimatised. There is a lot of wealth in some areas of the city but a clear disparity in other areas. We spent the day wandering around and checked out a couple of the shopping malls. There are a few Gothic and Art Deco style old buildings which are pretty cool but aside from that Cali lacks the tourist infrastructure of Medellin and Cartegena. We had some overzealous air conditioning on our bus and Ty didn't have enough clothes on so he caught a cold which meant he was feeling pretty average so we didn't go out to experience the salsa nightlife that Cali has a reputation for but Ecuador was playing Colombia in the football so we got to listen to the Colombian cheers echoing around the streets.
The hostel in Cali was known as a bit of a motorcyclist hostel due to the owner being quite vocal in internet forums and we met 4 guys who had recently lost the bike vs truck battle and had plenty of war wounds to show for themselves. Scary!
Heading down to the local supermarket to pick up some breakfast supplies I was excited to find feijoas, one of my favourite fruits from home, that I haven't eaten in almost 4 years. I didn't realise they are actually from South America so it was a really nice surprise. We also found some of the giant passionfruit which Jesus (from Medellin) had told us about. Mmmm delicious!
At one point we came across a massive crash between a couple of passenger vans and a truck sobering us and leaving us hoping that our driver took heed from the sight. Because it didn't look like anyone was going to be moving any time soon everyone started to get off the bus, only for our driver to decide on a 3 point turn and attempt to get down a dirt road almost leaving a couple of people behind. Despite getting told off by the transport police half way along the side road we made it to the other side only to realise that we actually were missing one person. oops! The ticket conductor ran back to the accident site but reappeared by himself and off we went without the missing person. Another key lesson: don't expect transport to wait for you! We made friends on the bus with a lovely American girl called Asal who we ended up sharing a taxi with to our hostel in Pasto. Pasto is bigger than we thought it would be but again doesn't have a lot of tourist infrastructure and is only really used as a stopping point for those heading north or south across the border. The centre of town has a nice big plaza that the guy who owned the 'Koala Inn' Hostel said we were safe to walk around at night but the rest of the city is wiser to avoid in the evening. We were all stoked to find that the hostel had some of the most amazing hot water pressure we have had in a while and all hogged the showers making the most of it and probably using more than our fair share of water!
We got on an early morning bus to Ipiales and when we arrived left our bags at the left luggage facility at the station in order to head to a nearby town to visit Sanctuario Las Lajas, a really cool Gothic style church which is perched on the edge of a valley over a river. It looks so out of place in the South American countryside and like it has been transplanted from Europe! The church was built on the site as a result of a deaf-mute girl claiming to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary at the site in 1754. As a result the church has become a popular pilgrimage site. We have pretty much lost track of all days and dates on this trip and didn't realise were visiting on a Sunday, although it was quite cool seeing all the locals and pilgrims attending mass and exploring the site.
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Perched on the edge of the hill
We caught a taxi with a couple of others back to Ipiales and the driver offered to take us all to the border so we grabbed our bags and off we went. We had no problem getting through immigration and Ty got talking to a lovely Colombian couple behind us who warned us about the money exchangers at the border. It was a story we had come across before but I didnt realise it is actually possible to jimmy a calculator as when we tried to change our Colombian peso's for dollars we knew we should have been getting about $100 usd but when the guy showed me the calculation it seemed legit but the answer came out as $70. Don't think so mate! Unfortunately Ty's phone had died so we had no way of proving the calculation ourselves so we walked away with pesos in our pocket. Will have to try and find a casa de cambio somewhere else.
Next stop: Quito (Ecuador)
* Disclaimer: this blog contains naughty words. If you might be offended its time to stop reading now*
It was about 40 degrees when we were due to leave Cartegena, and we were sweating just breathing so we flaked out and caught a taxi to the airport for our flight to Medellin. We knew our flight had been delayed 30 minutes before we left the hostel but it ended up being about 1 1/2 hours late by the time we took off. No bother though, since we didn't have anything or anyone waiting for us.
Arriving into Medellin, I decided to go to the bathroom while Ty waited for our bags to come from the plane. Finishing my business I looked down and saw something brown and floppy hanging under the wall between my cubicle and the next one which looked like the fake fluffy hair some ladies have on winter coats. That's weird I thought, its a bit chilly since we are at altitude but its really not cold enough for a winter coat. Next thing I see a pair of creepy eyes staring up at me. 'What the fuck do you think you are doing' I shouted out, before grabbing my stuff and rushing from the stall. A couple of local ladies were walking in and wondering what all the commotion was all about. All of my ability to speak spanish vanished in that moment and apart from 'there's a man!' the only word i could remember was 'veramos', which was completely inaccurate as it actually means 'we see', but clearly they understood my agitated state and the fact that I was bashing on the door of a closed cubicle and went outside to find security. I followed them out and the next minute the fucking creep saunters out like 'oh no security, I was just cleaning'. Like fuck you were buddy. I was so shocked that it had happened and just kind of wanted to get out of there so I headed back over to where Ty was waiting with our bags, and he bustled me off into a taxi. Sitting in the cab and all the right spanish words to explain the situation came rushing back to me, and even today as I write this I'm so annoyed with myself for not sticking up for myself more and trying to make myself more understood so that security would have hauled him away, because I basically let him get away with it, and I know he is the type of slimy bastard who will probably do it again. I just don't get what is hot about watching someone pee but I just hope that next time he gets caught by a feisty latin american senorita who will kick his ass.
Hanging on the cable car with Jesus & Jakoba
View from the cable car
20 years ago Medellín was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and had a highly disproportional homicide and kidnapping rate. It was the home of the drug lord Pablo Escobar and the so-called Medellín Cartel, who virtually took over the city during that time. Since his demise in the mid-1990's, the cartel has been disbanded and the city has rebounded tremendously. In 1991 there were 6500 murders in the city, by 2009 the murder rate decreased to 2900 and during the first six months of 2012, only 614 homicides were registered. A vast improvement by any standards! (cant believe im saying 600 murders is an improvement but still!)
Medellin is much bigger than I had anticipated and is situated in a valley surrounded by majestic mountains on all sides and driving over the hill from the airport we were greeted by the twinkling lights of the sprawling metropolis.
Downtown, and El Poblado (the slightly wealthier suburb where our hostel is) have a very metropolitan feel about them. The city boasts an impressive, affordable and immaculately clean metro system and a plethora of buses making it very easy to get around, but we felt completely safe walking about during the day. In fact, I probably owe Ty an apology. I have felt just as safe in both of the countries I was so eager to avoid because of their reputations, El Salvador and Colombia, than I did within Europe. Just like any big cities, common sense is needed but I have not felt dodged out at all while we have been here (minus the airport incident!).
Colombia has a reputation for its beautiful senoritas and I had joked with Ty before we arrived that I wouldn't be letting him out of the hostel unless he was blindfolded. Medellin is developing a reputation as the South American hot spot for medical tourism, and although nose jobs and senoritas abounded, Ty schmoozed his way into the good books by saying none of them were worth leaving me for haha.
The sprawling metropolis
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Botero lady standing on a man's head
Rising up over one of the city's poorer suburbs is a cable car, which takes tourists and locals alike to Park Arvi, a sprawling forest full of walking trails at the top of one of the mountains. The ride up gives fantastic views out over the city. We actually thought we were heading to the botanical gardens so it was a nice surprise to stumble across the park, being enjoyed by thousands of locals since it was a public holiday. Hiking down to what we thought was a lake, we were a bit disappointed to find just a stream (wrong directions maybe?). Ty dipped his toes in but his facial expression said it all - FRESH! a bit too chilly for a swim I think! It was surprising that the forest was very silent, seemingly void of birds or animals even though I'm sure there must be some there.
We spotted the actual botanical gardens on our metro ride back to the hostel so headed down there the next day. We wanted to visit the butterfly house but when we got there at just after 12 the lady told us they were going for lunch and to come back at 2. When we got back at 2.20 the door was padlocked. A 2 1/2 hour lunch break seems a bit ridiculous when the place is only open from 10 - 4pm anyway but oh well. There's supposedly a really interactive science museum so we walked over to visit that only to find it too was closed. Not our day! We wandered along the bustling streets to the central plaza which is full of art by reasonably famous Botero who is known for his 'fat' sculptures. The plaza is a great place to people watch so we treated ourselves to a glass of wine and sat on the terrace of one of the restaurants and just soaked up the atmosphere.
We met a lovely couple at the hostel called Jesus and Jakoba, who we visited Park Arvi with yesterday, and we spent the evening trading travel tips as they are on their way north and us on our way south.
Colombia is known internationally for its emeralds and my lovely boyfriend decided that he wanted to buy one for me, so on our last day we decided to visit a couple of the shopping malls to see what we could find. Our legs got a good work out walking up and down Medellin's steep streets but unfortunately we didn't find anything that was quite right within our price range.
Next stop: Cali
We spent many a frustrating hour trying to work out how to get from Panama to Colombia. Because of the prolific drug running that occurs through the area known as the 'Darian Gap' there is literally no overland route and travellers are left with two options. One: to sail through the idyllic San Blas Islands, or two: to fly. Obviously sailing through some tropical Caribbean islands is a much more desirable option, but when we were investigating we were unable to find a trip for less than $500 USD each. While the trips are for 4 days, and actually work out not too bad value for money when you consider it includes your accommodation and food, you also have to spend about $50 getting to the boat, and however much you think you may spend on alcohol during the voyage. If its anything like our Croatian sailing trip last year it adds up pretty quickly! While we did find one website offering students flights for $250 we were unable to fake our way into those so the average was about $350 each. Stupidly expensive considering it is a 1 hour flight!
Since unfortunately we didn't have the extra couple of hundred dollars available for the boat trip, we sucked it up and bought our flights while we were in Granada. It was pretty frustrating then to arrive into Panama City and see not one, but two boats, advertised for less than our flights had cost us. Oh well, rainy season has set in so perhaps the voyage would be a bit miserable! Well, that's what we are going to keep telling ourselves anyway!
We were on the red-eye flight to Cartegena so arrived at the airport at stupid o'clock in the morning, only to be checked in by a lady who had obviously woken up on the wrong side of the bed. Colombia's immigration regulations say that a person arriving without an onward ticket 'could' (and could is the key word here) be refused entry. Now, we have flights booked out of Chile for the end of July and intend to bus our way from Colombia to Chile. Unfortunately South American bus companies aren't as technologically savvy as some in the western world so its not actually possible to buy a bus ticket on-line before you arrive in the country. We were prepared to take our chances and do battle with the Colombian officials if we needed to (as we had successfully done in Costa Rica), but mrs grumpy pants was having none of it, refusing to let us board the plane. In the end we had to fork out over $1000 USD for a return flight to Panama (thank god my credit card wasn't maxed out!) which she assured us will be refunded. What she forgot to tell us is that it may take 2 months and they wont refund their fees or the taxes. Freaking fantastic! So a word to any future visitors, fake an onward ticket!
In one of the plazas
After a smooth flight we landed in Colombia, and surprise surprise, the Colombian officials didn't even ask to see our onward travel information. We caught a local bus into town and despite getting a bit lost (seriously who has two streets with the same name only a couple of blocks apart from each other!) made it to our hostel. We had heard that there are a couple of cheap airlines within Colombia and so had planned to fly from Cartegena to Medellin, as it was cheaper than the bus, but despite trying 4 different eftpos/debit/credit cards we hadn't been able to book on-line. Juan, the lovely hostel owner, helped us to ring the airlines and book over the phone. Not as cheap as the on-line specials but still cheaper than the bus, and will save us a miserable 18 hours! We spent the afternoon exploring Boca Grande, the somewhat posh beach area of Cartegena, and enjoying delicious icecream to cool off as it was a humid 35 degrees.
The following morning Juan booked us onto a tour to Volcan Tototumo, the mud volcanoe. Renowned for its health benefits, the 15m high volcanoe really looks a bit like a giant ant hill. Once you reach the top you climb down some stairs and lay back into the mud which apparently goes down 1300km. A little freaky if you think about it, but the mud is so dense it is impossible to sink!! Its the weirdest feeling! Ty was literally pushing down on my shoulders with all his strength and he got me down to my chin, but the second he let go, I popped back up to the surface. The company we went with works with a local indigenous community and there are guys in the crater who will give you massages for about the equivalent of $2 usd. Because the mud is so dense they can massage you on the front and back at the same time which is totally surreal. After a good soaking, you climb back out and head down to the lake where the local ladies proceed to wash you as if you are a child. While you think that its something you can certainly do yourself the mud is so so sticky that it really does take their aggressive washing style to remove it all, even if some of your dignity is removed at the same time. ha ha. We were then driven to a nearby beach for a delicious lunch before we were dropped back to the hostel.
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After chilling out for a bit we decided to walk into the old town, and despite it being much longer than the 15 minutes advertised on the hostel website, it was a nice walk along the waterfront. Cartegena's old town is very picturesque, with colonial spanish style buildings painted a variety of colours. Founded in 1533 it has been a major port over the years, particularly for the gold trade. We spent a lovely couple of hours wandering around soaking up the atmosphere and sitting in the many plazas people watching.
Next stop: Medellin