Sunday, 13 April 2014

Colombia, our introduction to the South American continent

Greetings from Ecuador and welcome at our Colombia write up! I am sure you have all looked forward to this next episode!

Last time we were able end our post with some really nice pictures of our sailing trip through the San Blas islands. Still the main goal for taking this trip was to reach Colombia, more precisely the city of Cartagena, where our car would be arriving more or less at the same time as us! We can only tell you that we really needed those relaxing days on the sailing boat to be prepared for the stressful days ahead of us, getting a car out of a harbour is nothing impossible, but it requires a lot of patience, a lot of humour and a lot of taxi rides.

But let us first tell you something about Colombia, a country which mostly brings up cocaine and the FARC to most people. What actually happened is that the country really isn't as unsafe as has been shown in our news over a decade ago. We cannot guarantee that no harm will overcome you when visiting, but we have felt very very safe during our visit. The streets are filled with police and military (obligatory military service helps) and never have we been stopped in attempt to bribe us - they only want to hear how much you are loving their country! In addition, we felt that Colombia is a relatively rich country. Sure there is some poverty and living conditions are not always excellent, but Colombia has the largest middle class of South America, something which can be seen in their way of transportation. Where the previous countries that we have visited have the bus as a main source of transportation, the Colombians have motors, lots of them and the majority ridiculously slow and unable to stay on the right side of the lane. We can only assume that the middle class can afford to by a moto and avoid the waiting times and the slower transportation times involved with buses. The country is filled with mountains, warning us that the Andes are waiting for us in Ecuador and the overall road conditions are good - logically as half of the roads are being worked on and a large part of Colombians seem to be working in roadworks. On that, we have also been surprised about the ridiculous amount of trucks in this country. We originally thought that the USA had many trucks, but Colombia easily overtakes them, with the majority of the trucks transporting flammable liquids. About the Colombians themselves we can only be lyrical, they are truly kind people who are always eager to help someone. In addition, we have seen that the general Colombian enjoys life as it is and they do not necessarily need fancy things for this. This translates in the fact that many Colombians have visited their country and can advise you on places to go to.

So after this long introduction on Colombia, let's get back at where we left: arriving in Cartagena, according to many one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Upon arrival our goal was very clear: take the car out of the harbour. This process required Alex ands Matthieu - as owners of the vehicles - to spend a considerable time in and around the harbour areas. Being brief on the process: we made it in four days of struggling through unligned processes running between Port #1, Port #2, the Douana, banks in the centre to change our dollars to COP and local insurance offices. At the end of the day four we drove our cars out of the port at 20:30 in the evening, much after the official working hours, with a big smile on our face. South America here we come!

The city of Cartagena therefor is not our best visited city so we cannot say to much, apart that we really enjoyed the places we have visited. The majority of them are located within the historical part of the city, surrounded by a big wall. In fact Cartagena is one of the only walled cities in South America.
After having picked up the cars, we were ready to attack the rest of this mountainous country which is a bit bigger than Spain and France together. In total we drove 3.700 km in a bit over two weeks, which is a lot. Our average speed might have been around 30 km/hour. Driving 10 hours a day has not been exception, but we cannot complain, as during all of these long hours we have been presented with stunning mountain scenarios - explaining why there are so many pictures. On top we had to drive quite a lot as we are a bit in "a hurry" due to our extended Central American visit. We can say that we visited the majority of the things we wanted to see, for which we are happy!

So after Cartagena we went to the North for a bit, first stop: the volcan de lodo el Totumo, probably the worlds smallest volcano at 15 meters high ( in reality the volcano is under ground and only the top part of it is out - I don't know if this makes sense but a geologist told us). The fun part is that you can enter the volcano as it doesn't have lava but mud inside of it! Once you go in, you float and can't touch anything underneeth you! From this funny 'volcanito' we wanted to go further north to visit Santa Marta and the famous Tayrona national park, but we had to go back to Cartagena to get some insurance and we had already seen so many beautiful beaches in Central America that we could skip Tayrona. Instead we went South to San Gil, which took us 2 nights! One of it we slept in a school, where we met Umberto and Bilma, a nice colombian couple. San Gil, an adrenaline capital, where we did some really really fun rafting with some cool rapids with our friends Mathiew and Nico. From here one of the nicer villages in Colombia, Barichara was just an hour drive. This village has almost nothing to do but is just a cool relaxed colonial village with nice people.

From here we went on a monstrously long drive to the national park of El Cocuy, one of our highlight in Colombia, where we have climbed till the snowline of the glacier of el pulpito and to the glacier of Ritacuba Blanco at 5300 metres. The climbs were though and we have both been challenged due to altitude, resulting in some altitude sickness symptoms like headache, sleepiness, stomach ache and others. Still the hikes were totally worth it, the glaciers were precious and the general scenery as well.

From the glaciers of El Cocuy we went to relax at Lago Tota, a beautiful lake which receives little foreign tourists. Here we stay at Playa Blanca, a mysteriously perfect whitesand beach at the lake. We are camping here together with 10 or 15 tents with Colombians, which was fun to experience - camping hasn't been very populair in the previous countries.

After playing some beachtennis and relaxing we continue our trip direction Villa de Leyva, a must go stop according to all tourist guides. It showed as we paid a lot to camp here - for the same price we could sleep in a hostel and there wasn't much going on apart from the touristy shops. Still, it was a nice village located in a nice mountainous - of course! - area, where we could enjoy our bikes. From here it was not far to the village of Zipaquera, once the trade capital of Colombia. Here we found a very large salt mine where the Colombians had created an attraction park as something special had been made within the mines by the miners. While excavating salt the miners had made the efforts to make a cathedral within the mountain. The total is an impressive combination of rooms and pillars.

From here we go to Manizales, a village which doesn't have much apart from it being the entrance to Colombia's coffee area. We pass by the thermes of Santa Rosa, which are set within the mountains and have some waterfalls on the background. The next day we would tackle the coffee area and what better way to do so by visiting a coffee finca. Here we learn more about the flavors and about the production process. Colombia is mainly known for it's Arabica coffee and due to it's position nearby the equator, it has two harvest seasons a year instead of one, which means the plants get two times fruit . At the finca we meet two dutchies, Michiel and Yilian, who we take to our next stop, the village of Salento, from where we would visit the Valley de Cocora, home to the palma de cera, a large palm tree which is the national tree of Colombia. They had the great idea to play a game of Tejo in Salento. This explosive game requires people to throw a metal disc to a box filled with mud. Within the box a metal ring is placed on which small packages of explosives are placed. The goal is to throw on the packages in order to have an explosion and to get points, depending where you throw you get more points- really fun game!

The next day we would visit the Valle de Cocore, which treated again with amazing scenarios. As expected the mountain hills were covered with forest which occasionally had a 60 meter high palm tree sticking out of it. After having connected so much to nature in the past days, we were ready to go to Cali - also known as paradise on earth for Mireia's cousin Toni, as Cali is known as the world capital of salsa. Everything here is about salsa and is was really cool to see how everybody breaths the music here, something that we do not really know. So we took the opportunity to take some salsa classes to improve our skills and to lose the stick stuck in us. It turned out to be quite fun although it was more of a show by the teachers to demonstrate how well they could dance. As Cali wasn't really a place to leave the car we had decided to leave it in Pance, a holiday area for the people from Cali located one hour in the mountains, in a finca administrated by a very nice family, we really enjoyed their company. When leaving the car there there was absolutely nobody, when picking it up we took three hours to get there via one taxi, a bus, another taxi, walking and finally another bus as everyone in Cali wanted to go and cool down in the fresh river.

So we made a fool of ourselves in Cali and went back to what we do best: drive on beautiful roads and visit colonial villages and mountainous areas. So we head to the desert of Tatacoa, passing the white village of Popayan. This village is also referred to as the white village as it's colonial center is entirely white. In all honesty, it's nice, but it didn't blow us away - especially after all the great things we heard of this place. So, we continue our long drive direction the desert, where we were hoping to arrive at night fall so we could join a tour within a star observatory. Bad luck was that we arrived just on time but the sky was cloudy so no observations were made - more luck next time! On the other hand, the desert was a nice change from the mountains.

After the desert the Ecuadorian border was calling us. A special road recommended by the Lonely Planet would bring us here. 'El trampolin de la muerte' is a legendary death road, over 500 people died here in 2011, so we were prepared for something spectacular, and spectacular it was - from a view perspective. The road itself has undergone some major transformations in the last years, being railed for the majority - which is great for the mortality statistics! Anyhow, we didn't let this ruin our fun, we really enjoyed the views! After this we only had one last site to visit before crossing into Ecuador. The sanctuario de las Lajas, a church built within a valley on a high platform (this is the most impressive part of it). After, we felt ready to leave for Ecuador. In three weeks we managed to see most of the things we wanted to see and we have truly enjoyed the country it's people and it's mountains.

We have talked a lot about mountains, it's time to overload you with landscape pictures!

Alex and Mire

The beautiful streets of Cartagena at nightfall
The streets are filled with equally beautiful ladies

Street view
Nice wall at one of the nicer terraces of the village

It is not an ants nest, it is a volcano.

And inside you find mud in which you can float! Entering and leaving happens via some very slippery ladders
We stayed in a school for a night and the care tackers invited us for breakfast at their place in the morning - views on their natural lake in the garden

Don Humberto explained us that he was collecting turtles to prepare for Easter - he probably already had more than 10 ready for consumption, he is expecting many guests!

Views from the road to San Gil

The gang is ready for some serious fun rafting down a river at San Gil
Part of the fun were the games played at calm parts, making that everyone fell in the water at least once. In case of emergency Alex will safe a French with a moustache.
The picturesque streets of Barichara are perfect for strolling around

There is not much to do but enjoy the views

The main plaza had a nice church and some small shops

From Barichara we drive to El Cocuy which brings us to some beautiful twisty roads where we are alone to enjoy the views

Well, not exactly alone... but these Rastafarian sheep didn't care we passed by, they were relaxing

Let the mountain views start
On our first day in the park we couldn't see the glacier due to the clouds, still the hike was great and a good preparation for the next day

The altitude doesn't make it easy, we are out of breath and feel a bit dizzy

Approaching the snowline of the El Pulpito glacier we see some snow - we're going in the right direction

We made it, although you cannot see the top of the glaciers, but we had to force ourselves to make this picture - Alex didn't feel well at the last part

At this altitude we have often been surrounded by this plant which looks a bit look a palmtreecactus, the frailjon

Ready for action. For 20 years the park was a no go area - like many parts of Colombia - as it was occupied by guerillas. Since 10 years the army has been able to push them away and visiting the parc is safe again. 

Day 2, or actually day 3 as we took a resting day after El Pulpito, we decided to give it another try. This time we tackle the Ritacuba Blanco (5330 meters)

The satisfaction is great when walking on the glacier in these perfect weather conditions

Happy people who forgot that a glacier is one big mirror and who had a tomato nose for the next ten days  

Final view from the glacier when we descend back to the car. Satisfied we made it, but more satisfied we make it back to the car - these hikes are doable but are though at times

Our next stop is Lago Tota, located in the onion area of Colombia

It was a great choice to come here. We were definitely the only foreigners, although there we're several Colombians camping for the weekend

Playa Blanca, white beach, is a strange place, no other beaches exist around this lake. During the day it's nice and hot but from the moment the sun goes down it gets very chilly.

Sport enthusiasts could enjoy to look at a game of beachtennis

Trucha (trouth, forel) is very common in Colombia. They are delicious, although they look and taste more like salmon...

Nowadays it is simply impossible to get some time for yourself, there's always a dog to pet

Leaving behind the lake we go to the colonial village of Villa de Leyva, which is set in a beautiful landscape but which is a bit touristy for us

Still it's worth to hang around for a day in these big cobble stoned streets

In Zipaquira there is a saltmine and everyone knows how religious miners are. They decided to build a cathedral in the salt mine. Sure the lights make it look a bit cheap, but in reality it's really well done.

The Colombian mountains are stunning at all times

Nothing better than to finish the day in thermes, especially when they are located in such beautiful scenery
Therms Santa Rosa at day light

After Manizales we arrived at the famous Colombian coffee zone where we take a tour at a large finca to learn a bit. Our previous coffee experience was in Honduras at a local  small producer and it was stunning to see the difference between both.

Peeled coffeebeens ready for being sold

Who knew that a pineapple starts it's delicious life being pink?

At the coffee finca we meet Michiel and Yilian from Holland with whom we go to play a game called Tejo, which involves the throwing of 2 kilo weights into the mud where there are some small explosives positioned - really fun!

Luckily we could start on the baby track, the official one is twice as big, as it is not easy at all to play. Where we didn't always throw within the mud area the locals consistently throw it in.

Small baby vaquitas when walking in the Valle de Cocara, home to Colombia's national tree (yes they have a national tree)

Plenty of colibries could be spotted on the top

And as always the views were amazing

Group picture together with the palmtrees

So this national tree is a giant palmtree which can get up to 60 meters tall!

Cali, the world capital of Salsa, what better place to practise our skills a bit!? It turns out we are not that bad!

Or yes, confirmation that Alex is from Belgium and therefore dances like a stick - not that the other men were doing that much better

The city is not extremely beautiful, but there are some things to see, it somehow has it's charm

When visiting Cali we left our car at this house in Pance, a mountain village which apparently is touristic. Monica and Alex explain us a lot about the country and the life here!

Popayan, 'the white village', is a popular touristic stop - the historical centre is entirely white, which is nice. When you take one step out this centre, everything becomes a bit less charming fast

Another beautiful road for us to pass

Desierto de Tatacoa requires you to make a long drive, but it's totally worth it. The landscapes are totally different than what we saw before.

We wake up early to visit - we love to make full use of our days in Colombia

When Alex is snoozing, Mireia takes control of the wheel, taming the land cruiser like Cesar Millan tames a dogg

We are occasionally surrounded by American Kestrels, a tiny beautiful falcon

Mireia and the General are friends for life

More dessert landscapes

Just another day transporting sheep. 2 men and 4 sheep!

More dessert landscapes

San Augustin is home to one of the more famous Colombian ruins, consisting of graves and freaky looking statues

We head to the border with Ecuador following 'El trampolin de la muerte' - the trampoline of death

In 2011 more than 500 people have died on this 75 km stretch of road

Nowadays the road is in excellent condition with rails on 70 percent of the road

One final pitstop prior to the border is the Santuario de las Lajas

Here we see our first lama, although we are sure there are many more to follow in the next months

Final vistas nearby the desierto de Tatacoa


  1. Gracias por hacernos participes del viaje. Este blog hace que os tengamos un poco más cerca. Nos encanta

    1. Hola Papà!
      gracies! cada cop queda menys per que estiguem a barcelona!

  2. Me espero en el volcan de barro mientras pensais en si cartagena es la ciudad mas bonita del mundo.
    Espectacular todo
    Pasadlo bien

    1. gracies nacho!! espero que tot vagi bé! ens veiem d'aqui 3 mesos!!
      love youuu

  3. Beautiful, beautiful, 3 x beautiful!! What an amazing journey this is. Thanks so much for sharing.
    Keep on going!
    PS: did you know that Tom Waes was jumping also in that vulcano in his tv-program 'Reizen Waes'?

    1. Thanks a lot!

      Had a look and I thubk that Tom Waes webt to cano cristales- a pretty touristic spot to which we didn't go because it wasn't the right season - maybe the volcano was somewhere else?