Next stop and next country from Otavalo, Ecuador to Colombia.
We took an early morning bus from Otavalo to the border town of Tulcan, Ecuador. From there we had to take another mini bus to the other border town of Ipiales on the Colombian side. After successfully navigating the border crossing we were on a bus to our next destination, the colonial town of Popayan only a short 12 hours away!
Again, due to the number of places we visited in Colombia we decided to split the Colombia edition into two releases (see below). So embrace yourself for Colombia (Part I)…
Colombia (Part I)
Colombia (Part II)
We arrived in Popayan around 10 in the evening and decided to find our accommodation and bunk down for the night, however, before going to bed we planned our walking tour for the next day!
Popayan is one of a few colonial towns in Colombia with beautiful white painted colonial buildings lining almost all of the streets close to the central plaza. Popayan is located in southwestern Colombia between western and central mountain ranges. Popayan has a population of about 300,000 people and is some 1,700 metres above sea level.
Popayan is well-known because of its beautiful colonial architecture and its contributions to Colombian cultural and political life. Popayan is known as the "white city" because most of colonial houses and places in the city downtown are painted white!
Some interesting facts…17 past presidents of Colombia have come from Popayan! Also, the University of Cauca, located in the town of Popayan, is one of the oldest and most distinguished higher education institutions in all of Colombia.
There are no records regarding the pre-Hispanic history of the indigenous village of Popayan, but on 13 January 1537 the Spanish conquistador Sebastian de Belalcazar conquered the village and declared the foundation of Popayan. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Popayan was administered by an appointed governor under the jurisdiction of the royal audience of Quito. Popayan was a very important town during the colonial period because of its location between Lima, Quito and Cartagena. Even after the discovery of the Pacific Ocean, Popayan remained a transfer point of gold and riches going to Cartagena on its way to Spain. Popayan also served as a colonial mine, producing various denominations of the Escudo gold coins and silver reales from 1760 through to 1819.
As a result of its colonial importance, Popayan is one of the most traditional places in the country. Popayan has been destroyed by several earthquakes. The most recent and destructive lasted eighteen seconds and occurred on 31 March 1983. The earthquake destroyed part of the city although there are still several colonial bridges, museums and churches that remain. Popayan is the home of an ancient pre-Hispanic pyramid known as El Morro del Tulcán. It was already abandoned when the first Spanish arrived to the city in 1535.
During our very limited time in Popayan we were fortunate enough, through CouchSurfing, to meet up with a delightful young local lass called Yulieth!
Yulieth agreed to meet and give us a walking tour of her town. We enjoyed our few hours walking around the main plaza and nearby streets admiring the immensely beautiful buildings adourning this wonderful colonial town. Our guided tour also included a visit to a nearby cerro which also serves as one of the main miradors in Popayan with a great view of the local landscape.
Thanks Yulieth for your time and we are sorry we could not spend longer with you! We had a fabulous time exploring this important Colombian town even though our time was very limited – check out our photos on the website!
We departed Popayan early in the afternoon and after some 5 hours reached our next destination – Cali!
Cali is the third largest city in Colombia (behind Bogota and Medellin) with a population of some 2.5 million inhabitants! Cali was founded on 25 July 1536 by the Spanish conquistador Sebastian de Belalcazar. Cali is short for the official name of the city Santiago de Cali. The first part of the name honours Saint James the apostle whose feast day is celebrated on 25 July. The origin of the word "Cali" comes from the local native Indian tribe the "Calima" or "Calimas" descendants of the Chibcha tribe. Others believe that the word "Cali" has Quechua origin and it was brought by the Yanaconas Indians that came from Quito serving Sebastian de Belalcazar.
Although Cali has one of the fastest growing economies in the country it is fair to say that it is more famous for “Salsa” dancing…and it just happened to be the time of the year when the World Salsa Championships were on!
We couchsurfed with Felipe, his lovely mother and grandfather whilst in Cali. The madre y abuelo were very friendly, engaging and Felipe helped us with transportation tips around Cali and also told us about the free salsa lessons that were being offered by the Centro de Cultura during the weeks of the world championships!
Although we didn’t get to see any of the live performances we did manage to watch some of the extraordinarily amazing dancing on television. In addition we attended the free lessons at the cultural centre and enjoyed 4 hours learning different salsa styles and techniques – all very energetic moves and quite exhausting by the end of the four hour session! We also went out one night with our CSing host Felipe and his girlfriend to an all night Salsa Techno Club…dancing finished at 4:30am! What a marathon night!
So after Cali it was a short few hours to the beautiful town of Salento, which is set high up in the mountains and home to the world famous coffee region of Colombia.
Salento is set at about 1,800m above sea level and a short one hour drive from the nearest city of Aremenia. Salento is famous for its colonial architecture, being the kick off point for the world famous Valle de Cocora and it goes without saying the important coffee region.
Salento is extremely laid back and a world away from today’s common metropolis concrete paradises. Salento is home to some 5,000 people and has retained much of its colonial architecture over the years. We spent 5 days in Salento relaxing in the tranquil environment whilst also getting to enjoy some hikes to the mirador and Valle de Cocora. We also enjoyed catching up with our good friends from London, Abby Kegg and Andy Cremin, with whom we did a coffee tour at a local plantation!
During out stay we ventured by Jeep about 30 minutes away to the jump off point for Valle de Cocora which is the principal location of the national tree and symbol of Colombia, the Quindío wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense), as well as a wide variety of other flora and fauna (some endangered), all of which are protected under the park's national status. The valley and the nearby town of Salento are among the most popular tourist destinations in all of Colombia. Valle de Cocora offered us some of the most unique and stunning scenary of all our time in South America. After seeing the vastly beautiful landscapes of Patagonian Argentina / Chile, Atacama desert in Chile / Peru and in general the incredibly indescribable Andean range throughout South America, you think you have seen it all! This is when Valle de Cocora jumps out of no where and completely blows you away. For me it was one of the most unique and spectacular scenes I have witnessed on this trip. The randomness of giant wax palms dotted about on almost pristine lawn nestled in a valley created by the Andean range is just breathtaking and something I would highly recommend to friends travelling to Colombia or even those Colombians we have met who have not travelled to this region in their country! MAKE SURE YOU CHECK out our PHOTOS! The scenary will remind you of the movie Jurassic Park.
It was great catching up with the Abster and Cremin whilst we were in Salento. We enjoyed a few nights on the lash with them (well it was just Andy and I playing pool for shots – all very messy business) and one day we all visited a small finca de café (coffee farm). At the time of writing, this was to be our first of three coffee farm visits! We love coffee and if you come to Latin America then it is a must.
After several hours in the bus we finally arrived in Medellin, home to the infamous late drug barron, Pablo Escobar, and also home to some of the most beautiful women on the planet!
Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia and one of the most northerly of the Andes in South America. Medellin has a population of 2.7 million. Medellin was founded in 1616 by the Spaniard Francisco Herrera Campuzano. In 1675 the queen consort Mariana of Austria created the Villa de Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria de Medellín (Town of Our Lady of Medellín). In 1826 the city was named the capital of the Department of Antioquia by the National Congress of the young Republic of Greater Colombia (Gran Colombia), consisting of present day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama. After Colombia won its independence from Spain, Medellin became the capital of the Federal State of Antioquia until 1888, with the proclamation of the Colombian Constitution of 1886. During the 19th century, Medellín was a dynamic commercial center, first exporting gold, then producing and exporting coffee.
In August 1541, Marshal Jorge Robledo was in the place known today as Heliconia when he saw in the distance what he thought was a valley. He sent Geronimo Luis Tejelo to explore the territory, and during the night of August 23 Tejelo reached the plain of what is now Medellin. The Spaniards gave it the name of Valley of Saint Bartholomew, but this was soon changed for the native name Aburra, which means the "Painters," due to the textile decorations of the natives. However, the conquerors were not attracted much by the valley at the time, because of the lack of wealth and the hostile attitude of the local inhabitants. In 1574 Gaspar de Rodas asked the Antioquia's Cabildo for four square miles of land to establish herds and a ranch in the valley. The Cabildo granted him 5 kms of land.
In 1616 the colonial visitor Francisco de Herrera y Campuzano founded a settlement with 80 Amerindians, naming it "Poblado de San Lorenzo," today "El Poblado Square". In 1646 a colonial law ordered the separation of Amerindians from mestizos and mulattos, so the colonial administration began the construction of a new town in Ana, today Berrio Square, where the church of Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria de Ana was built.
Medellin was once known as the most violent city in the world, as a result of an urban war set off by the drug cartels at the end of the 1980s. As the home of the Medellin Cartel funded by Pablo Escobar, the city was victim of the terror caused by the war between the organization headed by Escobar, and competing organizations such as "El Cartel del Valle". However, after the death of Escobar, crime rates in the city began to decrease.
For those who don’t know, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was a Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist. He was an elusive cocaine trafficker and at his peak one of the richest men in the world. During his rein his operation were shipping up to 20 tonnes of cocaine to the US per day and controlled up to 80% of the international cocaine trade! According to his brother the cartel spent around USD 2,500 just on rubber bands to wrap stacks of cash. They apparently stored the cash in their warehouses and had to write off 10% per year as spoilage because rats would chew away on the stash! Escobar’s cartel continuely struggled to maintain supremacy and this resulted in Colombia quickly becoming the world’s murder capital with 25,000 violent deaths in 1991 and 27,000 in 1992. This increased murder rate was fueled by Escobar giving money to his hitmen as a reward for killing police officers, over 600 of whom died in this way. In 1993 Pablo Escobar was taken out in a sting by US / Colombian authorities and to this day his bloodied shirt and remnants of the murder scene are on display in the police museum in Bogota!
Fortunately we were offered lots of information on Bogota and surrounding areas by our wonderful CS hosts Paula Arcila and her father! Medellin may not be the dangerous city that it once was, but it still has an undoubtably edgy feel to it which requires you to have you wits about yourself 24/7! For us the city centre and recommended touristic area is quite unimpressive and is intensely dodgy even during daylight hours with all types of characters parading the streets from the homeless to junkies shooting up to general ladrones looking to swipe your wallet! Even our couchsurfing hosts went out of their way to make sure we only walked in certain areas in the city centre and also informed us that they rarely ventured out alone in the centre.
One night we stayed home with Paula and her father and made a wonderful meal (vegetarian of course Paula) and on another night Paula took us out to one of her favourite vegetarian restaurants in the hip area of Medellin. Wonderful night and very grateful for the experience.
It should be further noted that Medellin is definitely home to some of the most beautiful women in the world, albeit most times with help in the form of plastic. Regardless of what help they have had they are incredibly beautiful, but easily second to my beautiful wife!
One of the valuable recommendations from our CS hosts was to do a day trip to Guatape. Prior to arriving in Medellin we had no idea what or where Guatape was, but we feel extremely fortunate to have been offered this advice as it really made our experience in this region a highlight. Guatape is located a good 2 hours by bus from Medellin and its main attractions are the incredible hydro electric dam that was constructed by the government back around 1970 and the massive rock called Penol (which offers a fantastic 360 degree viewing plantform of the entire local landscape). The whole visible region was dammed by the authorities to create one of the most important hydro electric facilities in all of Colombia. Today it is extremely popular with tourists and rich Medelliners who flock there on weekends to enjoy the tranquility of the surrounds. Easily a highlight of Colombia for us as it was again a new experience and like nothing we had seen in our lives – you must check out our pictures on our website!
So that was it for Medellin and the nearby Guatape…the next edition will be under the stewardship of our guest blogger, John “Juan boy” Mestas, who joined us in Colombia for all of Part II. Enjoy and be happy and humble! Love to all