The road south from Cali – to Popayán and Pasto and on to Ecuador

Popayán street

Many countries have a north/south divide and Colombia is no exception. As you head south from Cali, the landscape changes, the mountains are bigger, the roads scarier and the people look different too – ethnic Andean features begin to predominate. The warmth and friendliness of Colombians thankfully remains the same, as does, sadly, the general awfulness of the food. 

En route from Popayán to Pasto

I was in Cali over a long holiday weekend and the city really didn’t grab me. There’s not a lot to do anyway, and although wandering the buzzing streets of downtown would have been diverting, the whole place was shut down all day Sunday and Monday, making it extremely unsafe. I had to take a bus through the centre to get to Granada, the main restaurant and nightlife area, and what I saw out of the windows was frankly terrifying – several run-down blocks with demolished buildings and people rummaging through the debris, figures slumped in shuttered doorways smoking crack, a few policemen in full body armour. 

Popayán street

I fled to San Agustín (see previous post), then backtracked to spend a few days in Popayán. It’s known as the Ciudad Blanca, the White City, due to its many whitewashed buildings. I was lucky enough to stay in one. Through an anonymous door sandwiched between shops on a commercial street was a beautiful two hundred year old house, occupying about half the block. My room looked out onto the open patio, where the owner cultivated a charming garden, containing a fig tree as well as a coca plant. Apparently, it’s acceptable to have one plant for medicinal purposes.

Clock tower, Popayán

I spent a day exploring the streets and colonial churches and also climbed up the Morro de Tulcán, a hill with great views over the city. The clock in the tower next to the cathedral was made in England and fitted in 1737. It was damaged in the earthquake of 1983, but repaired by the same English company. It’s no longer working.

Humilladero bridge, Popayán

The next day I was back on the Pan-American Highway for the six hour ride to Pasto. The bus driver drove so fast and recklessly that we made the journey in record time. His technique seemed to consist of accelerating into 180 degree bends, avoiding using the gears as much as possible and overtaking on blind curves. My knuckles were white the entire journey. 

Laguna de la Cocha

Pasto is an undeveloped authentic Colombian town, with many old-fashioned shops, almost untouched by chains. There’s not a lot to see, but I enjoyed just walking around and barely seeing another tourist. I spent a half day visiting the Laguna de la Cocha, where you can take a boat out to an island, and then had some nice fried trout. It felt almost like being in the Lake District in England, with suitably moody weather to match.

Laguna de la Cocha

From Pasto to the border town of Ipiales it’s just an hour and a half in a minivan, past some stunning scenery. It’s in Pasto that the mountains split as they go up through the country to the Caribbean, so from here I will be travelling down the main spine of the Andes and the peaks are going to get more impressive. 

Laguna de la Cocha

There’s always something thrilling and a little scary about land border crossings, but also something satisfying too. From the bus station in Ipiales I caught a shared taxi to the border at Rumichaca. Avoiding the plague of money-changers, I found Colombian immigration and luckily no queue. The woman at the counter spent ages looking at my passport and called over two other colleagues for their help. 

Behind the glass screen I couldn’t hear what the problem might be, but just as I was starting to get anxious, she looked up and smiled and stamped my passport. This is one of those borders you have to walk across, so I headed out onto the bridge and into no man’s land. I’d spent ten weeks in Colombia, but now I was keen for a new challenge and a new country, so I picked up my pace and stepped into Ecuador.

The Lost Civilisation of San Agustín

Statue, San Agustín

The Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayas may get all the attention, but there’s far more to ancient civilisations in Latin America than Machu Picchu. Five hours by bus from Popayán in the south of Colombia down an extremely bad and bumpy road lies the town of San Agustín, where a long-forgotten culture once held sway in this remote area almost two thousand years ago. 

Tomb, San Agustín

Little is known about the people who lived here, in fact we don’t even know what they were called, since they disappeared well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. However, they left behind some extraordinary sculptures which often guarded their tombs. The first excavations were done only a hundred years ago and there has been a great deal of tomb raiding since. Plus, this area was controlled by the guerilla army, FARC, until just a few years ago. My guidebook still warns against travelling the road at night, although things seem very safe to me.

View over the Magdalena gorge

The mountain setting is imposing and the area overlooks the spectacular gorge of the Rio Magdalena. The source of the river is just a few days’ horse ride away. The indigenous people built many of their tombs on prominent hills, so when visiting the sites you get not just a cultural insight, but a chance to appreciate the verdant scenery.

Parque Archeológico

On the first morning I set off to visit the main attraction, the Parque Archeológico, just a few kilometres outside the town. It’s a vast area and I spent at least three hours exploring. Many of the statues have been moved here and placed under protective shelters, but they are still fascinating.

Rock carving at La Chaquira

In the afternoon I toured around four other sites close by, the highlight of which was La Chaquira, which has a viewing platform over the Magdalena canyon. Most people visit by horse, but travelling alone it worked out cheaper for me to hire a moto taxi.

Salto de Borodones

On the second day I went on a full day jeep tour to more remote sites, as well as natural attractions such as huge waterfalls. The trip includes the Alto de los Idolos, which has the statues in their original location guarding tombs and the Estrecho  del Magdalena where the waters of the river are forced through a narrow crevice in the rocks. The road is for the most part in extremely bad condition, but the route is picturesque as it takes you through planations of sugar cane, banana trees and the delicious local fruit, lulo.

Lulo trees


Like many civilisations around the world no one knows exactly why the people abandoned their cities or were wiped out. Climate change, war, conquest, depletion of resources are often cited as possible reasons. Sounds familiar? Today, perhaps, we are arrogant enough to believe that we have reached a level of advancement which means our own civilisation will endure. But I’m sure the people here, like those in Cuzco, Egypt and Ancient Rome, all thought the same thing. 

Statue, San Agustín

Giant wax palms, talking trees and brightly-painted Willys – everything you always wanted to know about Salento, Colombia

Wax palms, Salento

Did you know that trees can talk to each other? No, neither did I until I spent three days in Salento, a charming town in Colombia’s coffee region and surrounded by some inspiring scenery. It’s the home of the palma de cera, the wax palm, which is the national tree and here grows the highest in the world.  And as for the Willys, well they are old WWII jeeps which are the main way of getting around.

Willys in Salento town square

I was happy to leave Medellín and head for the countryside. I was even happier to discover that there was a direct bus, although this was occupied entirely by foreign tourists, so there was little local experience to be had. The driver was a character, though, and had obviously made an attempt to learn some English. When language failed him, he was quite adept at miming, for example, when demonstrating how to use a sick bag.
Fruit juice stand, Salento

I stayed in a traditional family guesthouse with just two rooms and this also made the trip for me. Salento now receives about 130 tourists a day and the main square and street are buzzing with shops and restaurants. The main attractions, however, lie outside the town. 

Cloud forest

On the first day I took a fascinating tour of a nature reserve, the Kasaguadua. It was there that our enthusiastic guide, Nick, an expat from London, told us about an astonishing discovery that scientists have only recently discovered about how trees can communicate with each other. I’ve seen so-called walking trees in the Amazon, those which can bend and move their roots to seek sunlight in the overgrown canopy, but talking trees?

Nick at the Kasaguadua

Nick showed us a tree which seemed dead, but which he explained was merely on holiday, or in a kind of hibernation. It turns out that when competing for valuable and scarce resources in the soil, these trees can send chemical signals to each other, instructing one to shut down for a while and conserve energy. Two others nearby of the same species were thriving, while the third was resting. It seems Nature knows things work best when they cooperate together. It’s such a pity we don’t seem able to learn that lesson.

Wax palms

On the second day I set out to see the star attraction, the wax palms, in the Valle de Cocora, despite ominous rain clouds looming overhead. I jumped in a Willy and headed out to the start of the trail. To do the whole loop takes about 5 hours, although there is a shorter route. The trail was incredibly muddy, so I decided to hire some Wellington boots which proved to be indispensable as at some points I was ankle deep in water and mud. 

The only way across

The path takes you through farmland and past grazing cattle before entering the cloud forest and there are some rickety old suspension bridges to negotiate. It’s then a steep climb to a hacienda, before the descent takes you right into the thick of the palms. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, it was raining heavily, but the enormous palms rising out of the mist still made for an impressively eerie sight.

Humming-bird in the Valle de Cocora

No trip to the area is complete without doing a coffee tour and there are many farms offering this. I went to the one at El Ocaso and it was a fun 90 minutes, learning about the whole process from planting to processing. We also got to strap on a traditional basket and go out to pick some berries for ourselves.

Working on the coffee farm

Salento is growing in popularity all the time and may be too touristy for some, but for me it provided a welcome respite from Medellín and I really enjoyed living in a local house and being able to interact with a Colombian family. One afternoon I took a trip to the nearby town of Filandia, which was actually much nicer than Salento and sees very few tourists and so would make a great alternative place to stay.

Filandia
Hats for sale, Filandia

Medellín – once a no-go city, now firmly on the tourist map

Medellín

In the 1980s and 1990s Medellín was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Violence, kidnappngs, bombings and terror were commonplace then, as Pablo Escobar ran his drug empire from here. I first came to Colombia in 1999, but gave Medellín a wide berth. In the last decade or so it has been working hard to shrug off its unenviable reputation. But has it succeeded? I spent a week exploring the city seeing for myself. 

Street vendor, Medellín

Medellín has a wonderful location in a valley surrounded by mountains. It reputedly has an eternal spring-like climate. I was looking forward to a Mediterranean Spring, but unfortunately got a cloudy, grey and rainy English Spring. 

Paisa (a local) in the rain

Despite several reports in guidebooks that Medellín is now completely safe to visit, I had been warned about staying in the city centre as it can be very sketchy after dark. So I stayed in the neighbourhood of El Poblado, a safe area a few kilometres south of the centre with good restaurants and where most traveller accommodation is to be found. 

Botero statues

I ventured into the centre on my first day and found it to be rather unappealing. The rain didn’t help, but there are almost no old buildings and the atmosphere is distinctly edgy. There are, however, some great statues in Plaza Botero by famous artist Fernando Botero as well as in the Museo de Antioquia. 

The Death of Escobar by Botero

I don’t mind a bit of urban grit and didn’t feel particularly ill at ease, but I just didn’t like the energy or atmosphere. There were probably more down and outs and drug addicts on the streets than I’ve seen anywhere. Obviously, the city suffered hugely from lack of investment during the time of the cartels and is now slowly taking back control of previously no-go areas, but it still has a long way to go.

Cable cars

The next day I went on a walking tour organised through Real City Tours, which put the city into context with Colombia’s history and was really fascinating. Our guide, Julio, told us how he remembers being woken up as a child by an explosion in the street which blew out the windows of his house.The city was basically a war zone, so it’s hardly surprising it’s taking a while for the city to regenerate.

Parque Arví

The metro is a symbol of the city’s rejuvenation, however, as are the new cable cars which link some of the poorer parts on the hills above the city with the districts below in the valley. They are a tourist attraction in themselves and I took two of them to reach Parque Arví. There are several walks you can do, but you have to go in a group. Not only that, but at one point on the Laguna walk which I did, two mounted policewomen accompanied us. Clearly they were there for a reason.

Guatapé

A great trip out of the city is to Guatapé, a town by a huge artificial lake, famous for its colourful frescoes adorning its houses. Just outside the town is a huge rock, the Piedra de Peñol, you can climb for extensive views over the area. It’s just under two hours by bus, so it’s possible to do it as a day trip, although I wish I’d stayed overnight. There’s also a great Indian restaurant, Donde Sam, which makes the trip worth doing just for the curry alone.

Piedra de Peñol

Medellín is a city which is drawing travellers. Everyone I have spoken to has either been or plans to go. To be honest, I can’t see the huge attraction. It’s pleasant enough and it’s fascinating to learn more about the history, but there are more interesting cities in the world. The centre is just not somewhere I’d want to spend a lot of time and hanging out in the tourist ghetto of El Poblado has limited appeal for me. I’m now looking forward to getting out into the surrounding countryside which is home to countless coffee farms.

View from the Piedra de Peñol

Off the gringo trail on the beaches of Tolú, Colombia 

Playa del Francés, Tolú

As Colombia becomes a safer place to travel, tourists are arriving in ever greater numbers, from cruise ship passengers to gap year backpackers. Consequently, it’s becoming harder to get away from the crowds, but there’s one place just a few hours along the coast from Cartagena that sees comparatively few foreign travellers – Tolú. It’s a seaside town popular with Colombians, but its rustic beaches make for a wonderful escape from the gringo trail.

Rickshaw, Colombian style, Tolú

Tolú is a laid back town with a pleasant sea front and an Afro Caribbean vibe. The best way of getting around is to walk or take a bicitaxi. These are similar to Asian rickshaws, but are uniquely Latin American, with salsa and cumbia music blaring out from their loudspeakers. About 20 kilometres away is Coveñas which also has good and less developed beaches. Between the two off the main road lie many beach front cabins, but I opted to make Tolú my base.

The only other visitor at Playa del Francés

A short moto taxi ride away is the idyllic Playa del Francés, which was empty during the week. Most places were closed, but I had an amazing if pricey seafood casserole at the Camino Verde resort.

Isla Múcura

The next day I took a boat trip to the Islas de San Bernardo. Many agencies offer this excursion, but I found it a bit too touristy. It’s the only way to visit though. We passed Santa Cruz del Islote, the most densely populated island in the world, which basically looked like a floating slum, then had several hours to laze on the sands at Isla Múcura and eat fried fish. On the return journey in the speed boat the waves had picked up and sitting at the back like I was pretty much guarantees you’re in for a soaking. Given the heat, it was actually quite welcome.

Santa Cruz del Islote

Another great day out involved taking a canoe into the Ciénaga de Caimanera, a swampland where caimans can be found. However, the main attraction is to glide through narrow canals lined with mangroves along whose roots you can see crabs scuttling up and down. It lies midway between Tolú and Coveñas and afterwards I caught a mototaxi to Playa Blanca, another beautiful beach with incredibly warm waters.

Mangroves

On my last day I went to Palo Blanco where you can eat yet more fried fish right on the beach. Tolú’s popularity with foreigners is growing, but right now it’s a much cheaper destination than other places along the coast. You probably do need some Spanish to get by, however, particularly when bargaining with boatmen and motorbike taxi drivers.

Playa Blanca
Tolú has been the perfect ending to my time on the Caribbean and I know I’m going to miss the heat when I head to Medellín next week. Medellín was once terrorised by drug gangster Pablo Escobar and even five years after his death when I was last in Colombia, it was still too dangerous to visit. Now it’s firmly on the tourist map.

Tolú

Cartagena and Barranquilla – a Tale of Two Caribbean Cities

Cartagena

Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast is the country’s top tourist destination and has an incredibly rich history. It’s a wonderful place to spend a few days soaking up the atmosphere of a bygone age. The buildings in the old colonial centre have been immaculately restored and the city boasts some impressive forts. There are also city beaches as well as some islands waiting to be explored. What more could you ask for? Well, fewer tourists and more authenticity for a start. 

Cartagena

Sadly, the truth is that Cartagena is a victim of its own success and has changed almost beyond recognition in the 18 years since I first came here. The danger of similar places around the world is that they become little more than outdoor museums, lacking the vibrancy and vitality of a real place where real people live. In fact, they don’t. They live outside the Centro Histórico, since all the buildings there are now boutique hotels, top end restaurants and glitzy jewellery shops.

Cartagena

I was happy to stay outside the main tourist ghetto in the gritty neighbourhood of Torrices and enjoy a real Colombian experience, while making short journeys into the centre. Prices are high for the major sights as they are catering to the international visitor who’s probably just stepped off a cruise ship, but there are still a few cheap local places to eat. 

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

While Lima in Peru was the Spanish administrative centre during colonial times for the Andean south of the continent, Cartagena de Indias, to give it its proper full title, ruled over the northern province of Nueva Granada, encompassing Central America and Venezuela as well. All the wealth from the region flowed through here on its way back to Spain and consequently the city was often under attack, including by the English captain, Sir Francis Drake. A huge fort was eventually built to defend the city, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, which is well worth a visit. 

Palacio de la Inquisicion

In the centre a great museum is the Palacio de la Inquisición. No, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition either, but they were a huge presence here from 1610 onwards spreading terror and hatred towards anyone who thought differently from the Catholic Church’s view of the world. A timely reminder that intolerance of different points of view and opinions has been around for centuries. At sunset the thing to do is walk along the old city walls and watch the sun dip behind the Caribbean. 

Cartagena city walls

My favourite trip was to the Fuerte de San Fernando, a fort at one of the sea entrances to the city in the bay near Bocachica. The journey there by local boat was the highlight as it made a few stops at fishing villages.

Carnival at Barranquilla

A couple of hours north along the coast lies the grimy port city of Barranquilla. The contrast with Cartagena couldn’t be more different. It’s a real working city with few vestiges remaining of its colonial history and consequently there’s little reason to come here. Except it puts on one of the biggest Carnivals not only in Colombia but the whole of the Americas and luckily I had planned my visit to coincide with this huge party.

Carnival at Barranquilla

Things kicked off on Saturday with the parade of the Batalla de las Flores on Via 40. I hadn’t bought a ticket in the stands so I wasn’t able to see much, which was disappointing. My recommendation would be to splash out on a seat or get there early. On Sunday there was another huge parade down Calle 46 which was more open to people just standing at the sides. 

Carnival at Barranquilla

My favourite day, however, was Joselito Se Va con las Cenizas on Tuesday when Jose, a fictitious local character, dies and people gather to mourn over his ashes. It’s symbolic of the last day of Carnival, but it’s a whole lot of fun. The widows in black are sometimes not all they seem, as dragging up for the occasion seemed very popular.

Carnival at Barranquilla

Although I was a little disappointed by Cartagena, it’s still a must see destination, but it helps to be aware that it’s overhyped and overexploited. Barranquilla during Carnival, however, certainly lived up to its expectations. It’s also much cheaper and much safer than carnival in Rio de Janeiro. 

Carnival at Barranquilla

Punta Gallinas – the northernmost point of South America

Punta Gallinas

Guajira province sits right at the top end of Colombia and the peninsular juts out into the Caribbean. If you are imagining idyllic beaches and swaying palm trees, you’d only be half right. Instead of top end resorts, travel here is basic and rustic. The continent peters out in an almost savage landscape of desert and dunes. The Wayuu people call this home and they lead an impoverished yet independent existence based on fishing, handicrafts and tourism.

Wayuu women

It’s quite difficult to travel here by public transport, so I opted for an organised tour in a jeep with five other tourists. I organised it through a company in Santa Marta, although they were just the agents for Kai Ecotravel in Riohacha, where the tour actually began. I took a three hour bus journey to Riohacha and stayed overnight. 

Salt mines at Manaure

The next day I met my travelling companions and guide and we set off to our first destination, the salt mines at Manaure, which were a surreal sight. Then we headed to Cabo de la Vela where we were to spend the night. Accommodation is strung along the only road which runs parallel to to the beach. You sleep in hammocks, or the locally designed chinchorros which have blankets at the side. There are basic rooms available as well. 

Cabo de la Vela

Cabo de la Vela has a bit of a frontier feel to it with sandy unpaved roads. We climbed the local hill, called Pilón de Azúcar, which has great views over the surrounding area, then swam in the beach below, before watching a spectacular sunset.

Off road in the desert

The following day we continued our journey north to arrive at Playa Taroa, a beach which you access by sliding down sand dunes. A bit further to the west is the lighthouse at Punta Gallinas which marks the northernmost point of the continent. It’s wild and rugged, yet tropical at the same time. Our jeep got stuck in the sand dunes and we spent a hour or so digging out the wheels and pushing.

Playa Taroa

For much of the trip you are travelling off-road, across barren desert landscapes, but occasionally you pass along dirt tracks through Wayuu settlements. The kids and some adults operate a toll system, in which they pull ropes across the roads and only allow you to continue if you contribute gifts, such as water, rice, coffee and biscuits. It’s quite a sad sight. The Wayuu protect their independence fiercely, but in return they get little help from the government. Like indigenous groups all over the world, they are at the bottom rung of the ladder in society.

Wayuu boy accepting a handout

The third day was basically the drive back to Riohacha, but we began with a pleasant if short boat trip across the Bahia Honda. On the whole it was a great trip, but like many organised tours too much time was spent travelling in the jeep. If you are in a group and can share costs, it’s also possible to go independently. It’s not an easy experience, but it’s definitely a real adventure. 

Landing bay near the hostel in Punta Gallinas