As one of our top selections when it comes to South American countries, we were lucky enough to find some good priced tickets to fly to Colombia from New York. As we need to leave the country every time our visum runs out (90 days) this was a perfect ‘excuse’ to add this beautiful country to our list of destinations in the Americas. Our first stop is of course Bogota after a very sober 6 hour flight, a long line at immigration and another one at the car rental. As we will get to Bogota several times this trip we stay the night but straight after we leave the city to head into the countryside.
Colombian coffee: Hacienda La Gaviota
Our first destination is a beautiful coffee farm called Hacienda La Gaviota, right in the middle of the ‘ruta de cafetera’ and some 300 kms away from Bogota. While we were warned about the roads, we still managed to arrive much later than anticipated and after dark, which made finding the place a bit of a challenge along the narrow roads. It is not that the roads are in terrible shape (to the contrary actually) but the road is so incredibly windy that it is hard to speed up and heavy traffic slows it down even more. Almost 10 (!!) hours later we arrive and are warmly welcomed and prepared a tasty pasta meal (and a cup of coffee of course 😉) before we go to bed.
The next morning we get to really appreciate the surroundings as we see from the hacienda the fields filled with coffee plants while we enjoy our breakfast. Jorge and Carolina are amazing hosts and after breakfast we head into the plantation to get an explanation about the coffee plant and the work that goes into it. It turns out to be a lot, and we are in luck as we arrived right in the middle of the harvesting season and get to see the harvest live. Growing and harvesting Arabica coffee is a lot of work, and picking is only done by hand as the plants are grown on steep hills. Once the beans are squashed out of the berries, they need to be washed, selected by quality and dried which we help doing by flipping the drying beans laid out.
After this we take the car and drive through the coffee fields on our way to Marsella, a small traditional town. As we almost get to our destination we get surprised by a landslide situation where the going gets a bit tougher. We manage to cross it, but wonder if we can make it back if there will be a rainfall in the afternoon that would turn it all muddy? In town the highlights are slim pickings as the local botanical garden seems to not have been updated since its initiation in 1979. The house of culture is a nice mish mash of local treasures and random items (like a Olympique Marseille shirt signed for the local school?), but enough to entertain for an hour, but the colonial square is alive with the crowd that has gathered to celebrate San Valentin.
We opt for a quick meal, not wanting to have to cross that landslide in the dark, and give it a go knowing the afternoon was relatively dry so we should be able to make it and we do. The next morning Jorge takes us on a journey through the history of coffee and explains the different ways of coffee making with of course a tasting. We learn a lot and are very excited about the stories he tells, and of course the boys love the fact that they will have their first and last cup of coffee! Around noon we say our goodbyes as we have another potentially long drive ahead of us to our next stop;
Unfortunately luck is not on our side, and the drive to Medellin is again way longer than expected. After a quite fast first hour we hit a part of the road that apparently has a lot of roadworks, which in itself is not a real problem, but the consequence is that we stand still for half an hour – three times in 15 km! Very frustrating as time keeps ticking and progress is very slow. Then we get to make quite a good speed again before our last mountain crossing where again our luck runs out as both an accident and another road work delay us for more than an hour. And thus, a drive of 4 hours turns into an 8 hour one! Very tired we roll into our hotel and manage to find a pizza oven on the street around the corner to get some food quickly before falling asleep.
Medellin is a huge city stretched out along the river valley, and with that and its 6 million inhabitants it takes a moment to get used to the hustle and bustle again. We first find a nice breakfast restaurant where we have some great smoothie and fruit/cereal breakfast before walking through the old center. A modern, light, beautifully designed library takes the prize for nicest building, while walking the ‘Parque de les Esculturas’ with all the Botero sculptures conjures up the most laughs. The adjoining museum gives an interesting mix of art (a lot of Botero) and history of the area, all piled up in a imposing building.
Walking through Medellin’s streets, we take the opportunity for the boys to get their hair cut at the men’s barber shop. The price of a haircut here is so good compared to our western prices that we take advantage of the great service and prices. Another big difference for us is the really cool atmosphere these barber shops have, something that has only come up more with men having beards back home, and women being the hairdressers normally, here it is a real culture and the boys love getting their hair done by these cool tattooed barbers!
The botanical garden is unfortunately closed to the public as they are cleaning up an event that was held in the weekend, but after a cup of coffee there we walk to the metro for some public transport. Might sound strange to count taking public transport as an outing, but here in Medellin the metro-system is extended with cable carts taking you up the mountain! A fantastic way to open up the city to the inhabitants higher up the hills, and for us to go up and enjoy the view. We run into student Juan on the way up who invites us on a walk around his neighborhood and gives us more insight into Colombian/Medellin life and studies.
After we say our goodbyes, we take the metro back down and on to the popular neighborhood ‘El Poblado’, to find ourselves a nice restaurant for dinner. There is plenty of choice here, so as we enjoy some not so typical Colombian food and go over the day’s highlights, we find ourselves especially hoping tomorrows drive will not be as long… how mindful of us 😊. The hotel is only a quick uber ride away so tonight we get to bed on time, ready for another day!
After a quick breakfast in a bakery around the corner, we brace ourselves for the next 150km, counting on another 4-5 hour drive. We get very pleasantly surprised as we manage to do it in less than 3 hours, which means we get to our accommodation just after lunch. We have booked a cabin at the ‘Paraiso Escondido’, and it turns out to be truly hidden (the road in is rough) and paradise (we are the only ones there with a refreshing river to swim in and hammocks to relax in). And so we spend the afternoon relaxing, swimming, exploring and hanging… FANTASTIC!
Dinner is also very good, and as the boys explore the grounds they even run into a very cute little friend… of sorts. No kissing/turning into princesses here, so we get around the bonfire and enjoy the peace and quiet before rolling into our little cabin for the night. The next morning we have a great breakfast served and say our goodbyes to our hosts and the house cat for a day of action.
‘Dia Extremo’ on the Rio Claro
Right around the corner of our accommodation is the Rio Claro Reserve and a company there provides river adventures that give you a full experience of the river. We find out we are the only ones so we basically have a private tour which is really cool, starting off in a raft down the river. We have rafted before in Chile, but the temperatures there were not near as comfortable as they are here – warmer water and more sunshine! We are putting our experience to action as we paddle down the river and take some small rapids through the beautiful nature of the area. Unfortunately at our first stop we are not so alone, with a large school group taking up the entire little beach, so we decide to have a quick stop and get ahead of them.
By the end of the rafting, we leave the boat at the landing site and go on to the second part of the experience: Body rafting! Really fun as we both take one of the boys and float down some rapids and let ourselves be whisked downstream by the currents. While a short distance, it really is one of the most fun parts of the trip! Then it is on upstream as we climb up boulders and experience the canyoning part of the ‘dia extrema’.
Turns out walking through water at some point even feels more comfortable than walking over rocks and the side of the stream, so we splash on and climb through towards the final part of this trip. The grand finale is a walk/scramble/canyoning through a huge cave that is pitch dark. We are handed 1 small flashlight and are warned about the bats making noise as we pass through, but nothing could have prepared us for the deafening screams we are welcomed with as we walk into the dark. Phased a little bit by this, the boys manage to gather their courage and push through, in the end of course deeming it “the coolest thing they have ever done!!”.
Getting out of the cave and through the fields, the turkey vultures are awaiting us, but alas no victims for them to scour on this time ;-). We hike back up to the main road where we get picked up and dropped at our car again, with a great new experience under our belts! We have a long drive ahead of us for which we keep our fingers crossed it will be better again than expected. We manage to shave off 1 hour in the end, even if we got stopped by the police for overtaking 3 trucks at a double line (we know, but everybody does it) who let us go when he realized we were foreigners/too difficult to deal with.
Back to Bogota… almost
Our place for the night is lovely cabin with a stellar view across the valley. The hosts are superkind and even keep the restaurant open a bit longer to still provide dinner for us. The night is not bad, but a metal roof and massive downpours don’t go together very well waking us all up – except Bo that is who seems to not be awaken by ANYTHING! The next morning we enjoy breakfast and drive our final short sprint to the airport for the next flight… or so we think!
As we roll into Bogota literally 10 minutes away from the airport we are stopped by police telling us today is a day that personal vehicles and motorcycles are not allowed into the city. We had no idea about this so we ask if we can turn around and then get in touch with the rental company to see how we get to them and the airport, but the policeman is firm and tells us it is too late for that and he will get our car impounded! Interestingly the military police that is there to support the police when they encounter aggression, actually come to our aid and help by calling the rental company while the tow truck pulls up.
In the end we spend almost 1,5 hours besides the road with communication back and forth, the tow truck leaving again, the police officer even leaving (handing our passports to his colleague) and the rental company coming to us with an electric car that IS allowed to go into the city. Funny side note: the rule is apparently to counter emissions, but all the trucks and nasty buses are still rolling by us while our little hybrid is stopped… not sure about the actual impact of this day but OK. With all that we still turn out to get to the airport on time – thank goodness it is a national flight and we only carry hand luggage! – and leave Bogota for our next destination; Cartagena!
Next week: Cartagena and the Caribbean coast