I always feel a bit of a rush every time I arrive in a new country, especially on my own. The excitement of the unknown is one of my favourite things about travelling. Despite listening to many travellers’ tales of how wonderful Colombia is, I was still not certain as to what extent the media portrayal of Colombia being full of kidnappings, drug cartels and bombings would be true. As I entered the town of Ipiales just inside the Colombian border I saw, graffitied on a wall at the side of the road, the abbreviation for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC (the largest of Colombia’s guerrilla groups fighting in the civil war which has gripped this country for several decades). I had arrived in Colombia.
Border towns usually offer little more than a few grimy hotels and bootleg goods. Ipiales was no different. The reason, however, I spent a night here was to visit the famous Sanatuario de las Lajas, a large neo-gothic church a few kilometres outside the town. The church is spectacularly set into the side of a picturesque valley where an image of the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared. People come here to ask the virgin for help and miracles and to give thanks if and when they are received. There are an incredible number of plaques on the walls around the church giving thanks for miracles – the most recent I saw had been placed that very day, the earliest going back to just after the church was completed in the early 1940’s.
The following day I embarked on the long, but very picturesque journey north to Popayan. The road has a history of kidnappings and bus burnings and the advice is to leave early in the morning so to avoid the more dangerous nighttime. Security has been significantly stepped up along the road recently anyway and so I encountered no problems at all and was able to take in the gorgeous scenery, with a nice Colombian girl next to me acting as my guide to the region.
Popayan is a gorgeous colonial city. The area around the plaza has some of the most beautiful colonial buildings I have ever seen. On the second day I was leaving the large cathedral when I saw a truck pull up and large numbers of military pour out from the back, some heavily armed. I wondered what on earth was going on until I realised that they were simply going inside to pray, the armed men acting as guards outside. I was evidently the only person in the busy plaza area to raise an eyebrow at this apparently normal occurence.
After leaving Popayan I travelled east to the archaeology parks of San Agustin and Tierradentro. Both parks are set in gorgeous surroundings and contain tombs and statues from pre-Columbian times.
The first big city I encountered was Cali, know for it’s women, salsa and cocaine – figured I was going to have a good time in this place! As the above suggests Cali is a nighttime destination, the days being useful to sleep off the previous nights hangover.
Following some good times in Cali I was in need of some detoxification and so a few of the group we established in Cali moved onto coffee country and Salento famed for it’s wax palm trees – the tallest palm trees in the world, no less! Exciting, no? Indeed, I thought so too. We spent a day riding horses through gorgeous countryside and enjoyed some equally gorgeous coffee and fresh trout.
Next stop, El Capital; Bogota. Bogota certainly doesn’t rank as the prettiest (or safest) capital city i’ve been to, but I still enjoyed my time there. Highlights included taking the cable car up to Monserrate (a large hill overlooking the city), partying in swanky Zona Rosa, an art gallery displaying work by Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, and (one for the Brits) eating in a Wimpy restaurant… what the hell? In South America?!?
Just in time for the weekend I arrived in Medellin – party central! The reputation for the prettiest girls in Colombia is split between Cali and Medellin. Personally I think Medellin has the edge. We had some good nights out in Medellin.
Medellin is the former stomping ground of drug boss and all round nice guy, Pablo Escobar. I visited his surprisingly low-key grave on the outskirts of the city. The famous Medellin cartel collapsed after his death in 1993, although other cartels quickly filled the void and today the Colombian cocaine industry still thrives despite such obstacles as the US War on Drugs and Noel Gallaghers decision to go cold turkey.
After picking our tongues up off the floor we left the discotecas of Medellin and headed north to the shores of the Caribbean. Cartagena is a city of contrasts. Contained within the old city walls are some of the most beautiful (certainly the most colourful) colonial buildings in South America. Outside the walls it’s a different story; the beaches are unattractive and the rest of the city isn’t much different. It was great to finally be on the coast though and we all had higher hopes for Santa Marta further to the east.
Santa Marta and Taganga (a fishing village nearby which is where we spent most of our time) are indeed much nicer. The real treat though was Tyrona National Park. It was here that I finally got some diving in in South America. Myself and a friend did a Rescue Diver course; a course concerned with safety etc, which was ironic considering that the dive shop we booked the course through was the shoddiest I have ever seen! There were numerous faults with the operation and equipment, the worst being a girls regulator mouthpiece getting detached from the actual regulator at a depth of 20 metres – a girl learning to dive for the first time!
Apart from diving a good few days were had hanging around in hammocks, cooking fish (that we had to buy after giving up trying to catch some ourselves) on bonfires, and of course getting eaten alive by mosquitos.