Week 21 - Salento to Cali

Trip Start Aug 01, 2007
Trip End Dec 19, 2008

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Hostel Nelly

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Dec 21st - Salento to Neiva

Woke up to a gorgeous and crisp sunny day in Salento (makes a change...it's been pissing down and chilly since I've been here...fleece and waterproofs needed every day).

Am so tempted to spend Xmas here as it's a nice cosy atmosphere at the Plantation House (apart from Tim, Christina and their family there's going to be Adam and Wendy (English couple) and a German couple (can't for the life of me remember their names. They baked some delicious Austrian biscuits called Vanilla Kipferln. Making the huge mistake of offering me one and then leaving a bowl of them to cool in the kitchen I had to use allot of ingenuity to cover up the missing biccies (sorry!)).

Instead of spending Xmas here I'm going to slowly head to Cali the Salsa capital of the world with my new buddy Javier (a Colombian bloke from Santa Marta..nice bloke and of course there’s the added bonus of practicing my Spanish and also a translator when needed..resulto mundo!).

Caught the 8am bus from Salento to Armenia ($1.50) and then caught the next bus to Neiva (best place to catch another bus to San Augustin, a small town near to the ancient statuettes). What was supposed to be a 6 hour ride turned into a 12 hour job due to landslides on the road and a few accidents.

A few of the locals told me that 2 days ago two trucks were too greedy in trying to pass each other and ended up leaning over in the same ditch and becoming stuck together right next to a cliff. The traffic ended up backing up 3km and everyone had to sleep in the buses and cars all day and night. Eventually a giant tow truck and team came but the dodgy truck drivers had no money to pay them. They ended up having to walk around with a hat collecting money from the cars and buses (of course everyone contributed because they wanted to get the hell out of there).

Half the people in the bus I was on (a small mini bus) was full of rowdy and cheeky military type scamps who were on leave for the Xmas holidays. Still not sure if it was good to have them on the bus or not (for security reasons). As an ongoing joke they would suddenly yell "Robbers!" (ah ha..funny guys...of course I wasn't amused). They were jeering the driver a lot of the time too but that was all good natured.

Noticed a hell of a lot of soldiers around on the roads and on pickup trucks. Apparently this is to protect people for the holiday season (a lot of money and presents going on the buses throughout Colombia). Also noticed that the police stations in every small town had huge walls of sandbags around it to stop any sniper or surprise attacks.

Heard a story the other day about a big police station in a town somewhere in south Colombia that happened to have a plot of land for sale nearby. So, what the FARC rebels decided to do was buy this plot of land under the pretence of building a hotel. What they in fact did over the space of 6 months, whilst at the same time building this hotel, was to dig a tunnel all the way under the police building. One night they broke through into the armoury, stole all the weapons and using the police weapons captured everyone there and took them off into the jungle somewhere to be held as captives.

Although Colombia used to have a bad rep for robberies and kidnappings it's getting way better now (or so I've been told). There are a few areas that aren't safe to travel in, mostly in the west around the Darien area and also in the east in the Amazonian area. There is still some FARC (socialist rebels), AUC (right wing paramilitaries..and by far the worst human rights offenders) and other paramilitary activity there and also in a few spots where there's heavy drug trafficking.

The US is pumping loads of money into Colombia to help with the drug and paramilitary problem and for the secondary reason of helping with crop substitution. This is opening Colombia up to mass tourism and soon there'll be masses of tourists coming here to enjoy the hospitality of the friendly Colombians.

I was supposed to reach San Augustin and its mysterious stone statues (3300bc...how old is that!!!!?) today but on arriving in Neiva at 7pm I found all the buses closed for the night (maybe not too wise to travel at night anyway). Found a cheap and dodgy hotel in the middle of 'Cracksville' (wrinkly crack heads walking around outside) for $5 per person. Later in the night me and Javier headed off to check out the local talent in a few recommended bars. Very lively with a happy hour that finishes at 9pm (buy 1 beer at $1 and get one free...cheap like the budgy!). The bars were pretty decent but not very lively so after a few rounds we headed to a club. It seems dress code is a universal thing...what was I thinking going out on the town wearing sandals and a T-shirt. In the end headed back to the hotel ready for a good night’s sleep for tomorrows bus.

Fell asleep listening to some Reggaeton on my MP3 player because the neighbours had music blaring at 5 million decibels (I checked it out but there was no party..just a noisy neighbour).

Dec 22nd - Neiva to San Augustin

Bit of a rough head this morning but managed to get to the bus terminal by 8am (the 8am bus didn't leave till 9.30 anyway..and cost $10). The bus was a small van with loads of seats thrown into it and the driver had a 'need for speed'. There was a Colombia teenage fella wearing headphones with his girlfriend behind me who started singing Phil Collins songs (got me well paranoid but then he started on Sting tunes..phew). Eventually arrived in San Augustin for 1 pm.

San Augustin reminds me of Salento but bigger. Nice cosy town with red faced locals (Rancho's) who wear the usual cowboy hats and boots (they all seem to be rosy cheeked round here..oh and most blokes look like Freddie with their big taches).

Did some internet stuff (trying to book a hostel for Xmas in Cali...seems everyone has the same idea so it's all full and will have to see how it pans out when I get there). The choice of stay was the Hostel Nelly, a bit out of town but set in beautiful gardens and really friendly owners.

After chilling for a while and after getting ready to go out for the night the skies opened up and all enthusiasm for a night out were abandoned when I saw the state of the pathway back to town...a good 20 minute walk in ankle high mud and in the dark. In the end it turned into a quiet and chilled night of chatting to the owner and her daughter (well, Javier did most of the chatting and I piped in with the odd si or claro.

I still haven't reached a level of decent and basic conversational Spanish and as usual it's quite frustrating for me. My vocabulary is improving though and it will take more time to get there. I have to listen to my Michelle Thomas MP3's a bit more I suppose.

Tomorrow I'm going on a jeep tour around a wide area to catch the ancient statuettes and waterfalls ($12).

Dec 23rd - San Augustin

Got picked up in the tour jeep at 8am. In the jeep were me and Javier, a Colombian couple and an American called Adam (interesting fella who'd spent his young years as a missionary's son in West Africa...had many good stories to tell).

First stop was the San Augustin museum (really not much to write home about but it had one statue and some burial sites). Then a long drive to the second highest waterfall in South America...wow..it was well impressive and noisy (beautiful). Then on the way to the first area of statuettes we had our first of many military searches. It was all done pretty professionally, asking us to get out of the jeep, stand spread eagled against the side of jeep (hmmm...flashbacks of the Tikal robbery here) and a thorough (yes...the usual embarrassing private parts pat down happened to all of us) search ensued. It was all very professional until the soldier searching me (just a kid really) asked me for a ciggie. I pulled out my packet and told him it was the last one to which he replied that’s ok, took it and said thanks (cheeky blighter).

Then it was on to some more hilltop statue sites. Most of the statues were found quite recently and were found lying down on top of each burial site. Some believe they are protection for the buried and some believe they are made in the image of the buried.

There followed another 2 military stops which went smoothly enough. In the car behind us they found a handgun in the boot but our driver pulled away just as it was found so not sure what happened there.

Last stop of the day after was another beautiful waterfall in the middle of bright green hills. As we left there and passed a small village outdoor billiards bar with a gang of locals playing pool our driver lost all sense of width and decided to plough into one of their motorbikes (nice one fella). A disagreement followed (quite rightly) and at the end of it the bike rider was looking the more sheepish and seemed almost willing to pay for the damage himself (weird one...couldn't quite work that one out..our driver was a tiny gentle fella).

After a day of a bum, back neck and skull shattering jeep ride it was decided to go out on the town. The night started at a local Rancho bar with only red faced gnarled locals screaming, singing and dancing to the music. Then it was off to a bar recommended by a local girl (Javier nearly got lucky there).

This bar was the most amazing and creative bar I've ever been to. It was built totally out of wood and the interior decoration was all wood and bamboo. It had sofa seats, wooden bicycles on the wall, an open fire, a Tarzan rope to get from the toilets to the seating area and the icing on the cake was a fireman’s pole leading from the first floor to ground floor (although maybe this isn't such a wise thing in a bar...wonder how many mishaps have occurred using it...some brave fella in the past and after a few too many beers probably announcing "I'm sure I can do this head first). Sadly, what the bar had in amazing interior and toys it lacked in customers. Even at 11am it was empty except for the three of us (me, Javier and Adam) fooling around as if it was some kind of playground. It’s a cardinal sin that this place was empty.

Getting late it was decided to head for a club. On the way there Javier started acting the goat (well, we were all mixing the Cerveza's with rum) and decided he would would around town with his top off (it's pretty cold here at night). Needless to say all the locals laughed and shunned all our requests for directions and we nearly didn't get into the club. The club wasn't up to much anyway...a bit of dancing and allot of blokes standing at the side of the walls.

I called it a night by 12.30am and after a long, staggering and arduous walk back to the hotel Nelly I realised Nelly's house was dark and locked...me not having a key this posed a problem. An hour of banging on the door followed but no joy. I was destined to sleep outside in the cold. So curling up in the hammock I attempted to sleep in a hammock outside in the garden. It was near impossible with the amount of shivering to get any sleep.

Dec 24th San Augustin to Cali
At 5.30am, as it was getting light (well, at least I caught a sunset...rare for me) I continued the door banging and shouting. Then noticed Javier curled up outside the room door (poor fella just had a pair of shorts and a T-shirt on). Woke him up too as we had a 6.30am bus to catch to Cali and we both continued knocking on Nelly's door for the next hour. Eventually Nelly woke up and shouted at us for not carrying the key (bloody hell...the key ring was the size of a car battery...how the hell can I pop that into my pocket).

Entered the room and the lure of a bed with blankets was just too much (6.30am bus be damned). Woke up at 9am ready for the 9.30 bus.
Checked out and understandably I was only charged a third of the room price for last night’s nonsense ($3). The bus was delayed by an hour but eventually headed off towards Popayan (from where I need to catch another bus to Cali...no mean feat on the biggest national holiday Xmas eve).

The three of us (Me, Javier and Adam the Yank) chose seats on the bus badly. On bad roads the back seat is a disaster and on a few occasions our heads nearly went through the roof. More bum, back, neck and skull shattering roads ensued for 4 hours.

Arriving in Popayan at 3pm I bid farewell to my new mate Javier. He wanted to stay in the town for a few days (I suspect he was just too damned cold and tired from last night to carry on) and I wanted to carry on to Cali.

Thankfully the roads turned from pot holed off-road tracks to smooth road and the bus finally reached Cali at 7pm. There I bid farewell to Adam (a small fella but a giant of drinker...he drinks a beer like it’s a bottle of water) and hopped into a taxi.

My plan for tonight and a Xmas present to myself was to find a top range hotel that has Wireless access so I can Skype call my family tomorrow morning (maybe even video call). After driving the cab driver up the wall (he got lost easily) and checking about 10 different hotels I found 'the one'. The hotel Santiago had rooms at $40 (20 quid for a top hotel...not bad) with wireless internet, a roof pool, a sauna and room service (sheer bliss). As I had a cold coming on after the hammock antics I made a beeline to the sauna (boy was that good) and then swam in a rooftop pool watching the stars.

By 11pm I headed back to the room and checked out the internet. Doh!..it didn't work. As I'd already used the hotel facilities I couldn't change hotels so I just relaxed and enjoyed what there was. I'll have to call the family from an internet cafe in the morning. A half hearted effort was made to go out on Xmas eve but standing outside waiting for a taxi for 15 minutes I gave up and went back. So Xmas eve for me was a verrrrrry relaxed affair.

Dec 25th - (Christmas day) Cali

Checked out of the splendid Hotel Santiago at 10am and headed for the part of town where the hostels are (north east). After numerous failed attempts at getting a bed eventually the Hostal Calidad had a room for grabs. On Xmas day and what with the Salsa festival starting in full swing tomorrow this was a godsend. Sadly no wireless to call my family so headed out on a mission to find an open internet cafe.

After 2 hours of walking around town I finally got to the shopping centre 'Chipa Chappas' and found a place that was open. Was good to hear the familiar family voices on Xmas day but as well as the family I missed some turkey with trimmings and a pile of mince pies with custard (sigh). Xmas lunch for me at 3pm was chicken, chips and salad with an ice cream for pudding (at a local supermarket with cheap grub).

Chipa Chappas is a very trendy place with loads of cool cats smartly dressed buying expensive stuff (in $'s mostly). The Colombians (hate to say it...but its true) are a vain lot. Always preening, checking themselves in mirrors and generally well presented. I can't remember the amount of times Javier would break out his mirror and check himself (reminded me of Cat from Red Dwarf).

As a Xmas treat I decided to make use of this shopping centre and caught a film. Can't even remember the name of it but it had Craig Daniels and Nicole Kidman in it...some kind of fantasy. It was ok, but a kids film.

Rather than go out on the lash I decided to stay in and do some Xmas pondering and planning for the years travel ahead of me. Had a chat and a few beers with my fellow hostellers and made a plan for some bull fighting (something that I suppose has to be seen), Salsa'ing and drinking tomorrow. All in all it was a good Xmas for me and spending it in the heat and humidity of Cali was kind of cool.

Dec 26th - Cali

After a long walk around Cali catching some of the plaza's and churches (Cali's not a bad city but there isn't much to do here during the day...everything here happens at night) I headed back to the hostel. At 3pm it was time to head off to the Stadio del Torro (the bullfighting arena).

Now, I've never been a great fan of the bullfighting and disagree with the argument that the fight is fair and equal but thought it best to see for myself what it’s all about. Queued up for a while and bought my $25 ticket for the ensuing bloodbath. A lot of lashed up locals outside making fools of themselves. Some even taking photos of me and the gang (fella from Bournemouth and a Czech fella). Loads of vendors selling the usual ciggies, crisps and drinks. Also, plastic cushions being sold which I shrugged off as extravagance at $7 (big mistake). Just as I bought my beer and sat down it started to piss down (damnit). I was soaked within seconds.

Things in the arena started off with a round of the Colombian national anthem. Then the band played a number to bring the main stars out; main matadors, secondary matadors, horseback matador, some fella's riding heavily protected horses and finally the horses that drag the bulls body out of the arena.

The first bullfight was an absolute nightmare and I was so close to walking out. The guy just couldn't kill the bull (he was a beginner) and people started booing him with frustration and maybe sympathy for the bull. Thankfully things got better.

The build up to a fight is as follows; bull is let loose in the arena, fellas on padded horses and secondary matadors wind the bull up by sticking small lances behind its head (I suppose to tire and anger the bull), main matador springs into action and does a 10 minute show with his cape and the bull (pretty graceful...I have to admit..of course the obligatory 'Ole' is shouted every time he jigs the bull). The final act is when the matador raises his sword, points it at the charging bull and if any good he'll kill the bull straight out. What the first matador did badly was have 4 attempts at stabbing the bull before another guy had to come in and put the bull out of its misery. The crowd was booing, throwing cabbages at him. He walked off with a lot of shame. Apparently if you don't kill the bull quickly it can't be eaten because the meat goes bad and obviously it's terrible for the bull.

One matador was a horse backed one who did some amazing riding...dodging the bull, taunting it by riding sideways and then killed the bull in one fail swoop (kinda smooth..respect).

The rest of the fights (6 in all) went pretty smoothly (which is more than I can say for the weather..I was drenched sitting there for 3 hours).

Bullfighting really isn't my thing and that'll be the last of my bullfights. Most of the time I felt like jumping into the arena and helping the bull out. But in saying that, the spectacle of the whole event was great.

Drenched and shivering I headed back to the hostel. Made some dinner and chilled out watching some TV with other hostellers.

Dec 27th - Cali

After yesterdays gory event it was time to check out some beauty. Cali had a Latin America beauty contest (I'm attending purely for research purposes). Before going I had to rush to the Cali government building to try and blag a press pass (this was recommended for the festivities in Cali..getting discounts and free entry to events). All went smoothly and I walked back to the hostel with a new press card hanging round my neck.

The beauty contest was held at the Intercontinental hotel so press card round neck and camera in hand (well...I had to look like I was a photographer...even with a digital compact) I strolled in with the gang from the hostel. We were seated in the press area. Some of us were even interviewed by the local TV station (thankfully not me...my cover as a press photographer would have been blown).

Well, needless to say the girls walking around the pool wearing mere bikinis were gorgeous (with a capital Gorge). To name but a few, Miss Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Costa Rica..(sadly no miss Brazil). The winner for day was miss Bolivia (I was pipping for miss Colombia).

After 2 hours of boiling in the sun outside and mixing with the real press it was time to grab some lunch. On the way out of the hotel there was an excited crowd gathering around a fella in a woolly hat. Turned out to be an ex footballer called Xavier (?..I think he played for Liverpool).

In the evening the hostel crowd gathered for much beer drinking and silly word games (name a beer brand using each letter of the alphabet..name 10 leaves...Sweet Jesus...it went on for too long). I really felt sorry for the non English speakers (the Czech fella and 2 Korean girls).

When the tedious word games were finished (there was almost a revolution started by me and a few others we finally all set off to a place recommended for drinking and dancing at midnight (Calle de Cerveza...the street lined with beer). It would have been more apt to name it big field of mud with beer stalls on side and big stage with live band at end. It was well packed with lashed up Colombians Salsa'ing, bopping and Merengue'ing around. Beer was sold by the litre for $1.50 and every 5 minutes some bright spark would toss a full glass high in the air.

2 hours later and nobody was having much luck with the local girls so after the usual hushed murmur of "they must all be lesbians" we strolled off to another place called Love Park where there were loads of outdoor bars with dance floors. I think the 3 hours of sitting in the hostel playing painfully boring word games and drinking were paying its toll by this time and nobody was in the mood (great shame...could have been a great night out).

By 4.30 we all headed back to the hostel and crashed out discussing missed opportunities and such (sigh..I'm going to pay for this in the morning).

The plan for the next week is another day in Cali then bus it to Bogota (making one stopover on the way). Bogota will be where I have my new year’s celebrations..hopefully catching a club or two. Then heading into Venezuela (with quite some trepidation..not much good is said about Venezuela at all..kinda rough..but I have to see the Angel Falls and the mountains of Merida. Apparently it’s a must to smuggle dollars into Venezuela..you get 3 times the local currency on the black market. Maybe not so easy as a few fellow travellers have reported strip searches at the border (I swear to God nobody's putting on a rubber glove in front of me!!).

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iancosgrove on

great blog, mate
really enjoyed reading the Colombia blog as I have been here a few weeks myself and know a little of what you have experienced. Only stumbled acroos it looking for directions to Love Park as someone metioned a show called 'Delerio' and I thought I could find out something about it, but reading your blog was far more interesting! Enjoy Venezuela!

rolls on

Re: great blog, mate
Cheers Ian, enjoy the rest of Colombia. What a country! Venezuela's had alot of shitty reports from other travellers so not sure how its going to work out.

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