Armenia, Cali, Popayan, Silvia, Pasto, Ipiales

Trip Start Jul 31, 2005
Trip End Feb 18, 2007

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Where I stayed
Calidad House

Flag of Colombia  ,
Friday, September 15, 2006

The Coffee Heartland

We're off to visit the main farming area of Colombia's famous export product. No not Cocaine, coffee of course! As we take the coach from Bogota to Armenia, a town in the heart of Colombia's coffee region, we climb up and over a high mountain range and past some of the most spectacular scenery which we've seen in a while. We drop down into Armenia, which we're pleased to say was a bit warmer than Bogota, and check in to a hotel in the centre. There's nothing really to see in Amermia. In fact, the only sightseeing that seems to take place in Armenia's town centre, is the locals staring at you, with a kind of air of curiosity. However, just a 30 minute bus ride outside of town is the National Coffee Park. We visit the park the next day, and luckily, as it's a Saturday, it's open. It's closed part of the week during the low season. It's an interesting place to visit, and starts off with a kind of informative walk through various different coffee plantations. Afterwards, you can watch a coffee show put on by local people, go for a walk in the bamboo woods, or go for a ride on one of the many attractions at the park. We only had time to try a few attractions, one of those was a cable car over the park affording great views of the surrounding countryside.

Cali, The Salsa Capital

On the bus to our next destination, Cali, we're pleased to be travelling on a rare flat road in Colombia, most of the roads away from the coast constantly wind up and down mountains. This meant we covered the 200km in three hours, instead of the usual 7 or 8 hours. That was a nice surprise. We check in to an atmospheric hostel, Calidad House, which is in a great location, a stone's throw from the Zona Rosa. Cali doesn't have any major tourist attractions, but most people come here to sample the nightlife, with the city being especially famous for Salsa. That evening we kick the night off budget style with some beers from the hostel fridge, sit out on the patio, and get chatting to the usual multinational group of backpackers. After we'd drunk the beer fridge dry, well the group was mainly comprised of Brits, Aussies and Kiwis so it's to be expected, we head out to the main nightlife strip in the Zona Rosa. The locals seemed to be fairly fascinated at such a large group of Gringos, wandering about on a Saturday night around their untouristy town, and Patricia got to try her hand as the group translator for the evening :)

A Slow Climb up to The Highlands

From Cali, which is a fairly hot and low lying city, we begin a slow climb up a road which heads up to the Colombian highlands and on to the border with Ecuador. Our first stop along this road is Popayan, which is described in the Lonely Planet as being one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Colombia. Um, we came to realise that is a very subjective opinion. In our opinion there's nothing special about this town. The colonial buildings are fairly average. If they pedestrianised some of the streets, it might be better, but a narrow colonial street, accompanied by a few hundred cars, kind of makes it lose it's charm. However, nearby, and as coincidence would have it every Tuesday, which happens to be when we are here, there's an indigenous market an hour away in a mountain town called Silvia. The highlight of this market is the colourful Guambiano people, who travel in from nearby indigenous communities, both to shop, and to sell their goods. This group of people wear very distinctive clothing, which appears to be identical for everybody of the same sex.

From Popayan, we travel nearer to the Ecuadorian border, and gain some 1,000 metres of altitude, before stopping overnight at Pasto. The road from Popayan to Pasto has the heaviest army presence that we've seen anywhere so far, probably because of the high number of guerilla attacks in this part of Colombia. Our coach was pulled over and searched four times, and no, male foreigners are not exempt from the searches, though women are for some reason!

Just before leaving behind Colombia and heading into Ecuador, we take a side trip from the border town of Ipiales, to visit El Santuario de Las Lajas, a church built deep in a gorge and over a ravine. What an awesome site for a church and it's also been designed and built in a way that it complements the surroundings.

The Lucky 7, Observations about Colombia

1. We like the concept of shops doubling as locals. Most shops put out tables so you can socialise and drink your beer there. A mega cheap night out!
2. Coaches have electronic speed displays so the passengers can see how fast the driver is going. If the driver exceeds the speed limit, an alarm will go off. Also coaches must print the number of the traffic authority inside the bus and at the back of the bus along with a sign encouraging people to report the driver if he drives badly.
3. There are just about the right number of tourists. There are enough travelers around to make friends, swap travellers stories and to have company to go out and drink beer, but no where near enough to take away the authentic feeling of the country.
4. It's supposed to be a fairly unsafe country to travel in, but if you avoid the trouble spots and don't travel at night, it seems to be Ok. In fact, the Colombians don't seem anywhere near as worried about their personal security as the Salvadorians, where barred wire security fences, thick steal bars protecting the shop keeper and armed security guards are the norm. We didn't see any of that in Colombia, nor did we feel threatened at any time.
5. People are generally quite honest, as they don't get too many tourists they tend to look after the ones that they do have. Not once did a taxi driver try to overcharge us.
6. The country is quite well developed with lots of shopping centres, foreign restaurants, modern buses and good roads.
7. The country is diverse in terms of people, scenery and climate. In fact comparing the Caribbean coast with the highland towns in the south, they are so unalike, they feel like two totally different countries.

Would we recommend Colombia as a good country to visit? DEFINITELY!
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