Colombia - San Gil and Salento

Trip Start Jan 03, 2013
Trip End Jul 21, 2013

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Flag of Colombia  , Santander Department,
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

We slept intermittently on the bus from Medillin and arrived at 6:45am in Bucaramanga. The bus to San Gil left in 20 minutes so we grabbed a quick drink and breakfast before settling down to the last 3 hours of our journey. We both dozed as well as admiring the spectacular views of a huge canyon that we were crossing.

We arrived in San Gil, the so-called adventure capital of Colombia and got a taxi to the hostel we had booked. It was nice to arrive and have some space to ourselves after 2 days on the road. We showered and relaxed for a bit before heading out into San Gil. We had to be back by 12 as much the Sean's delight the hotel has the England v Wales six nations match on the tv so he settled down to watch it. The result was not as Sean (and the rest of England) would have hoped so we walked into the main town again. We wandered around, and sat in the main plaza for an hour watching the world go by. We headed back to the hostel and spent the next few hours planning our time in San Gil and the next few months as we were very aware that time was ticking away fast as we still had so far to go!

After a successful few hours we headed out to dinner and found out that they only seem to like roast chicken or pizza here. We decided to go for a cheap roast chicken dinner complete with plastic gloves to stop your hands getting greasy - Sean thought this was a great idea! An early night was needed, in a proper bed after the past 2 nights on a bus!

After a much needed good sleep, we were picked up at 9am by our guide for the day, Jose. We had arranged with the hostel manager to do a multi-activity  canyoning experience, which was focused along the local river. After a short drive out of San Gil, we arrived at a random house, and it appeared to be the start of the trail. We made friends with an old woman, who had lived at this house for 50 years. She offered is an traditional local drink served in half a coconut shell, which tasted foul but we had a couple of sips to keep her happy. God knows what is was!

Jose seemed preoccupied, and was on the phone, apparently dealing with some issue at home. Nevertheless, we set off and started the trail, starting with some caving action. It was good fun, there were plenty of bats, some big spiders, and some cool water channels. Alexa explored deeper into the cave than Sean who was happier nearer the entrance and Alexa set off down some muddy wet tunnels. It was fun exploring in the darkness as our head torches weren't very bright. After this, headed down the river, clambering over the rocks and shimmying down the banks. At a couple of big drops, Jose rigged up some ropes and we abseiled over the drop (otherwise known as rappelling) and others through waterfalls (known as torrismo). This was great fun, though a little scary when you first went over the top. We continued along the river, climbing over rocks, and enjoying a jump into the murky coloured water below. It was a great setting in the columbian countryside exploring the rocky river and we even spotted a green tree snake. We arrived at the pickup point, wet but having had a fun few hours. We freshened up at the hostel, had some lunch there and then took a walk into the town to get some provisions for dinner. It was Sunday, and there was a large parade happening in the town, with marching bands playing and the army, police, and ambulance services all represented. We navigated our way through the crowds in the town square and bought some food for dinner, along with some pastries. We enjoyed them with a cup of tea back at the hostel and relaxed in the hammocks reading for the rest of the afternoon. After making some spaghetti Bolognese (kind of) we chilled and had another early night, knowing that we had another night bus journey the following night.

The next day, we walked into the centre of San Gil to catch a bus to Barichara, a village in the hills nearby. The windy road took is up the dry hills behind San Gil and we arrived in the picturesque colonial village 45 mins later.  The cobbled streets with white washed buildings with different coloured windows and doors, complete with terracotta tiled roofs were beautiful and we wandered around for a short while before heading up to the start of the Camino Real. The Camino Real is a 10km walk along an ancient fossil encrusted stone trail between Barichara and another village Guane. We enjoyed spectacular views along the way, overlooking the dry hills and valleys and it was lovely to be out in the Colombian countryside in the sunshine. We didn't see another soul on the whole walk, apart from when we stopped at a local farmers house for a refreshing cold drink.

We arrived in Guane and it was every more beautiful than Barichara. This tiny village was like going back in time and it's was so quiet, with hardly anyone about. We had nice lunch (although the meat and fish were rather overcooked!) at a restaurant off the main plaza. We just missed the bus back to San Gil so waited 2 hours for the next one, although the time went quickly with Alexa visiting the tiny local museum with impressive collection of fossils and local indigenous artefacts. Sean also made friends with 2 lads who were playing marbles in the plaza and joined in for a few games. They then spotted Alexa's iPhone and that was much more interesting to them and they played on that until the bus arrived.

We traveled back to San Gil and showered and changed at the hostel before heading out for dinner. We had a delicious dinner, was 3 courses for £4 each! We went back to the hostel and waited until 10pm when we caught a ride to the bus terminal ready to catch the night bus to Bogota. The night bus was uneventful and we managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep before we arrived in Bogota at 5:30am. Conveniently, we found our next bus to Armenia was leaving at 6 so we grabbed some food and went to the bus. It was another 7 hours to Armenia and we dozed, read and admired the dramatic scenery to pass the time. Once we arrived in Armenia, it was only a 50 minute journey to our destination, Salento, a small town in the coffee growing region of Colombia.

We arrived and it seemed like our sort of place with old local men sitting in cowboy hats in the plaza. We had prebooked a hostel that was a little way out of the town and caught the local 4 wheel drive jeep taxi to La Serrana. It was set in stunning scenery with amazing views over the surrounding lush green hills.

We walked into the centre of Salento to grab a quick bite to eat as we hadn't eaten a proper meal all day and it was 4pm by this time. Empanadas did the trick and we wandered round a few of the artesan shops and grabbed some food provisions for the next few days.

Dinner at the hostel was served in a communal dining room and we enjoyed a Mexican dinner. Chatting to people, they recommended a coffee tour so we decided to do that the following day.

After a good and long sleep, we woke to a beautiful morning and enjoyed breakfast outside our room overlooking the stunning scenery. The green Salento hills looked like Scotland but with a much warmer climate! After breakfast, we set off on a walk to Sacha Mama, a coffee and Eco farm run by Pedro and his family. The 2 hour walk descended into the valley, across a river, and then up the road towards Sacha Mama. The route wasn't particularly well marked and we lost our way at one point but fortunately got back on track when 3 others from our hostel caught us up and we all found the right way. We arrived at the farm late morning to be welcomed by Pedro and his dog. His house was set in a beautiful location, overlooking the hills, and looked as if he had built it himself. Pedro spoke Spanish only, but we managed to understand the jist of what he was saying. His wife served us coffee, which was of course excellent, even Alexa enjoyed it! It was served with Panela, and kind of locally grown sugar cane which looked like fudge. Pedro then took us on a tour of his farm, which not only had coffee plants growing, but also avocado, guanava, pineapple and much more. His philosophy on organic food and his passion for coffee and Eco tourism was infectious. He no longer sold the coffee commercially, instead sharing his knowledge and products with tourists who hopefully were interested and wanted to learn about this way of life. We picked fresh coffee 'cherries' off the bush and then removed the flesh leaving only the coffee bean inside. These beans are then left to dry in the sun for at least 2 days.

After an amazing vegetarian lunch made by Pedros wife with home grown products of course, Pedro continued the coffee tour and went through the production stage, so skinning the husk off the dry beans, and then finally roasting them. Most coffee growers in Columbia will only the beans, before selling them on larger companies to be processed and sold to the consumer. Pedro is therefore unique, by growing the coffee and then processing it on site. He took us to his small workshop which contained a number of traditional machines, and coffee paraphernalia. He then showed us how to roast the beans, which took a mere 20 minutes. Gradually the colour of the beans changed and we started to smell the coffee, a really strong aroma. After grinding the beans, he then prepared some coffee and we all enjoyed the freshest coffee we'd probably ever drink. It was a great insight into coffee making, and we couldn't resist buying some beans to take home with us.

We set off back to the hostel late afternoon and made good time, arriving back before dark, tired from climbing the steep hill. We freshened up and cooked dinner in the hostel kitchen, chatting to a German guy who was 3 years into a trip that started in Alaska. He was cycling! It's amazing the people you meet travelling!

After listening to the rain and thunder all night, we woke up to a cold, cloudy day with rain hanging in the air. The low lying cloud made it impossible to see any of the surrounding hills. We had planned to do a days hiking in Cocora valley but it didn't seem the most appealing thing in the pouring rain!

After talking to some people over breakfast, we decided to wait for a few hours to see if the weather cleared up so chilled and read our books until 11:30. The rain seemed to have weakened, although it was still drizzling but we decided to go for it anyway and it dressed up in our waterproof gear. We walked into Salento and found that we had missed the cheap lifts to Cocora so paid 3 times the price to get a private taxi. As we drove there, the rain started hammering down again. Typical! The walk started on a muddy and rocky trail down into the valley then up alongside a rushing river. We could barely see the surrounding hills, but it did give it a mystical quality. We got to the edge of the forest and after a quick lunch of leftover pasta, decided to plough straight in. It was a fun trail clambering over rocks and roots, scaling muddy slopes and crossing rickety bridges over the gushing river.

Having forgotten our map, we got to a junction at 2650m and made the decision to go up, instead of along into the jungle further. It was a tough climb up the steep middy trail especially in the rain and we could feel the effects of the altitude so stopped quite a few times to catch our breath. At the top, 2950m there was a farm and we walked down the track at the other side. There was several viewpoint where we saw a few of the famous palms but unfortunately the cloudy obscured the majority of what we were sure was a fantastic view. As we walked down further, the clouds started to clear a bit and we saw the palm covered hills which looked great. We arrived back at the pick up point, wet, cold, muddy and in time for the 'bus jeep' back to Salento - phew!

We showered back at the hostel (thankfully it was hot!) and decided to go out into Salento town for dinner. We went to a recommended local place and for 6000COP (approx £2 each) enjoyed soup and a banana, chorizo sausage and lots of trimmings including rice, beans and crispy potato things and a drink. We went for a drink in a traditional pub filled with old local men wearing cowboy hats and ponchos (Alexa was the only girl!) and they were playing French billiards on pool-like tables but with no pockets. We watched for a while and enjoyed our beers before heading back to the hostel tired and looking forward to being warm again tucked up in bed. We were leaving the countryside the next morning and heading the 3 hours to the salsa city of Cali.
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