Exmouth Harrier on Tour, now in Colombia!!
Okay, so it’s been a while since my last blog so I’m going to try to fill in a few gaps. I am now officially leading trips, which essentially means my workload has trebled and I have to make all of the decisions. I started working with Domingo in Cusco and had two very successful first leads to Quito in Ecuador. Then came my first ‘blind’ lead – a trip I have never done (and neither had Domingo for that matter).
It started with the standard busy day in Quito, Ecuador, sorting out all of the trip crossover information, before meeting the group at our pre-departure meeting that evening. A slightly older crowd, they ranged from 28 to 74 and a mix of Brits, Aussies, Canadians, Swiss and Americans, they were very enthusiastic about the oncoming trip.
We hit the road at a reasonable hour the following day, taking a trip to El Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the World). Ecuador cannot call this the equator, because in Spanish ‘Ecuador’ IS ‘equator’ and it just gets confusing! Anyway, we took the obligatory photos with a leg in each half of the world, and then discovered that the actual equator line is 200m to the north which as since been established using GPS… Small matter! The equipment used to initially pinpoint this area then went on to be used across the world as a measurement system – it was the origin of metric measurements.
We headed on up through Equador to a little town called Otavalo where we found a fantastic local market to do some food shopping ready for dinner that evening, before heading off up a mountain to find our campsite. The local was simply beautiful, with incredible views down to the town, and out to three surrounding volcanoes.
Otavalo is famous for its weaving, so the following morning we headed into town for an hour to explore and see the locals in their traditional dress. We then headed north to the Colombia border. A smooth border crossing meant we were in the border town of Ipiales with plenty of time to visit Las Sancturio de los Lajas, a pre-gothic church built across a deep gorge against a rock face where is said that an image of the Virgin Mary materialised. They have now painted a Virgin Mary on the rock inside the Church so you can’t get confused as to where this miracle took place!
The next day we headed out to the town of Popayan. One of the border officials had advised me not to stop for any reason between the towns of Pasto and Popayan as there is still occasional trouble with guerrillas along this section. Message heeded until we realised it was going to take us 6 hours to cover this stretch – difficult with no toilet breaks! We found a safe town to stop for lunch and then just headed on again. The scenery was incredible – we were following through the Andes and although winding, the road had fantastic scenery along the entire route. Reaching Popayan we found that we were at the tail end of one the Semana Santa festivities (Easter!) and there was an evening parade with the children going through town playing instruments which was fun to see.
We were back on the road again, heading to Cali, home of Salsa dancing! Arriving at lunchtime (having been nicknamed ‘Rock Star’ by my passengers for the amount of attention I was receiving from Colombian men for driving a truck!), we had a relaxed afternoon before chartering a Chiva bus for the evening. Now, traditionally the Chiva bus is used for locals to travel around the country bus (like a normal bus) but they are brightly decorated and made of wood. There are versions of these which have been converted to a mobile dance floor, with a DJ, for a bit of a party night. Best party bus EVER – we were driven around Cali for two hours of dancing, before heading into town to watch the experts doing some salsa. Nursing a hangover, I used the following day to catch up on paperwork, confirm bookings and do as little as possible!
Leaving Cali, we headed on to a coffee plantation near the town of Manizales. The Hacienda Venecia is located at the north end of the coffee axle, which stretches from Medellin to Bogota and Cali. The Hacienda was located down a long narrow drive which was very overgrown so we assisted with the pruning on our way down! Complete with a plunge pool and hammocks, the location was just idyllic. During the evening we had a barbeque and a fiesta night with traditional Colombian music and dancing which was a lot of fun.
The following day we headed up to Manizales to see a local charity supported by Dragoman, the Sagrada Family Charity. The Charity supports pre-school children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old who are from the slum areas of Manizales. It gives them a safe place for education, to play and to have a decent breakfast and lunch. For some of these children this is the only food they will have. It also allows their parents to go out and work. The slum areas still suffer from a lot of violence, with guns and knives a regular part of every day life. We were taken to see one of the schools, but the other is in an area which is too dangerous to take tourists – a bit of a wake up call! After the Charity we had a quick city tour of Manizales, exploring the sights and local market. Manizales is built along the top of a ridgeline so the views were amazing!
Our final day at the Hacienda was spent having a coffee plantation tour which was really interesting. We learnt some background and history about coffee, and what to look for when buying proper Colombian coffee (the Juan Valdez symbol on the back – if it doesn’t have it then it is blended with inferior beans!). We then had a guided tour around the plantation and processing plant, before an afternoon to relax and enjoy our surroundings which meant I managed to squeeze in a run! Having not run a step since I broke my shoulder on the 2 January I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I can still run 6Km without collapsing in a heap - a bit of work to be done if I want to consider the London marathon again next year though, assuming I’m back in the UK in time!
Back on the road, we headed further north to Guatape and my favourite part of the trip. Guatape is a small town in a beautiful location. Surrounded by lakes and mountains, it also has a mini sugarloaf mountain called ‘El Penol de Guatape’ which has 700 steps to get to the top and enjoy the views. It is a huge granite monolith, of which only a third is actually exposed. The rest is buried deep below the ground. We had two free days for activities whilst in Guatape, so I spent the first day doing a waterfall walk, literally up the
waterfall which was great fun, and the second day I finally managed to go rock climbing. This was a complete day off for me as no passengers wanted to come – a rare treat!
After Guatape we headed to Medellin, former home city of the infamous drug cartel Pablo Escobar. With a half day city tour which gave us our bearings of the city, we had plenty of information to go exploring the following day. The nightlife in Medellin is also excellent. Arriving on a Saturday meant we could fully enjoy this aspect! Incredibly in 1993 Medellin was considered one of the most violent cities in the world. Just 20 years later it is now one of the safest in South America, and the atmosphere and vibe is amazing.
Leaving Medellin, we had a long drive day to Covenas on the Caribbean coast – blue blue waters!! It was a late arrival with no time to explore, but the next day we headed out to the San Bernardos Islands. I was actually a little disappointed with this part of the trip as the islands, although beautiful, have become incredibly touristy and the locals just seemed to be out to make money. A complete contrast to the welcome we had received throughout the rest of Colombia where the people are very warm and welcoming, and can’t do enough to help. It was still a lovely day out, with highlights being a snorkelling trip using gear which leaked (yes, that is the mouthpiece!) but which provided us some great entertainment. Not an activity to recommend to my next group!
We headed out to Cartagena for our last drive day, arriving at lunchtime again after an unofficial city tour… we took a wrong turn and ended up in the old town where trucks REALLY shouldn’t be! With narrow streets, tight turns, balconies and street sellers to negotiate, I’m not quite sure how I got the truck through without leaving a trail of devastation behind me but I did! Cartagena is simply beautiful, the old town is picture postcard pretty. Every street is full of character, with beautiful buildings, different street sellers and good local food to be found. It is however very very HOT. With the temperatures never dropping below 31 degrees, the best way to explore this city is to walk for 15 minutes and then dive into the nearest coffee shop with air-con to cool down! It is the most beautiful city that I have ever seen so well worth a visit if you ever get the chance.
The final day of the trip involved a small contingent of the group taking a local bus to the Mud Volcano. Now this really was an experience!! You walk up the side of a big pile of mud to find a small pit at the top, completely full of mud covered people. The mud is actually over 200m deep, but it is so buoyant that you just float. It is impossible to move from horizontal to vertical without assistance as your bodyweight simply can’t sink into it! We had great fun jumping on each other in a vain attempt to push each other deeper. Once out of the mud bath we made our way down to the nearby lake to be washed off. A Colombian lady sits you in a foot of water, then proceeds to half drown you before (without warning) whipping off your bikini to give it a rinse!
The San Bernados Islands, on the Caribbean coast
A mud bath!
Katie getting down and dirty... what's new?!! ;-)