Colombia - Cali and Popayan

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

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Flag of Colombia  , Cauca Department,
Saturday, March 23, 2013

We left beautiful Salento and caught the bus to Armenia to catch another bus for the 3 hour journey to Cali. We arrived in Cali mid afternoon and were immediately given a friendly welcome by Rodrigo, our taxi driver, who drove us to the San Antonio area of the city, safe and with a number of hostel options. Cali is Columbia's 3rd city, and its population has a reputation for working hard and partying even harder. It is the salsa capital of Columbia. After being dropped off at a recommended hostel, we were told that they had no availability. We tried another, but we were given the same answer. Fortunately, the owner was really helpful and invited us into her property and called a few hostels in the area to check if any had space. We got lucky and checked into a small hostel just down the road. It was a really friendly welcome to Cali.

We grabbed a quick bite at a local cafe, and caught the second half of Columbia's world cup qualifier against Bolivia. There were yellow football shirts about everywhere, and they were in good spirits as Columbia won 5-0. Colombians are mad about football, and now 6th in the world, hold their own among stronger neighbouring countries. After relaxing at the hostel, we headed out into San Antonio and had a lovely meal at a small restaurant offering world food. We both chose the daily special, a Columbian version of ribs, and it tasted great. We enjoyed a couple of drinks at a local bar, in fact we were the only customers in there as we were so early (9pm). We knew the locals only ventured into the bars around 11, but we were both tired and decided we would head out the following night to enjoy some Salsa!

The following morning we set off walking and exploring the local area. We walked into the centre of Cali, which despite being an unattractive city, grabs your interest. Sean found a Barberia, and had a much needed haircut and shave, much to Alexa's joy! We arrived at a salsa hostel and found out that we could join a group salsa lesson with 'Victor'. They said it was for 'beginners', and we were joined by some others from the hostel, so we went for it! It was hard work, but fun, even though we struggled to keep up with Victor, who clearly loved himself! We found it difficult, especially Sean who is not known for his dance moves! After burning some calories, we had a great cheap lunch at a local cafe, and then took a walk up to the park in San Antonio, with views over the city. Late afternoon we chilled at the hostel and did some internet research for the next few weeks of our trip.

We had a late dinner at a local fast food restaurant, and ate a strange meal which along with potatoes, included pork crackling and black pudding. We made our way to a recommended Salsa bar, hoping to experience the local culture and perhaps try some ourselves. To our surprise, the bar was packed and in full flow by the time we got there. It was located just off the main road going through the city, a rough part of town, which strangely added to the draw of the place. It was full of mainly young students enjoying some drinks and taking turns to salsa. Some of the dancing was impressive, and it was fun to watch, we were the only non Colombians in there. This made it a little overwhelming, which is probably why we didn't join in, along with the fact that we'd had 1 hour of practice! We had a few drinks admiring the salsa skills, and left well before the bar closed!

After a couple of nights in Cali, we travelled by bus to our last stop in Colombia; Popayan. This was not as straightforward as we'd hoped as there was a big cycle race in Cali (the Colombians love cycling) so lots of roads were closed, including the one outside our hostel. We walked to try and find a taxi but there were none around. So we headed to the Intercontinental hotel and a friendly police lady hailed a taxi for us. It stopped in the middle of the road and surrounded by honking traffic we put our stuff in and the taxi driver almost drove off without Alexa!

After a 3 hour journey to Popayan, we arrived and walked the short distance to our hostel. We headed out to explore the pretty white colonial city and wandered around the busy streets. Popayan is the focus for Colombians´ holy week or 'Semana Santa' celebrations with people from all over the country travelling to the city for the week. There were lots of families around enjoying this city. We had a cheap lunch and walked up to a small pretty chapel (chapel Belen) on the hill overlooking the city. It was obvious that quite a few of the families there had not seen too many white tourists before as we were being stared at a lot. We headed to another viewpoint el Morro on a large hill and sat and enjoyed the view for a while. We stopped for an ice cream at one of the many ice cream shops or heladerias. The Colombians love sweet things with ice cream shops or bakeries on every street!

The next day we booked a downhill cycling trip, which started at some thermal baths about an hour away. We met Henry our driver and got the truck (and the bikes) out of Popayan into the surrounding countryside. We climbed up through the beautiful hills to the thermal springs baths - natural but created into small swimming pools. We could smell the sulphur smell as we arrived and it was full of Colombian families enjoying the holidays. We got in the first pool, a cloudy and very smelly pool which Sean didn't enjoy very much. The water is said to have medicinal properties and there were lots of very old people there trying to cure their ailments! We moved to a hotter (and less smelly) pool and immediately some local men chatted to us which was nice. They suggested that we alternated between the very hot pool and the cold shower so we took them up on their advice and enjoyed the invigorating change of temperatures. There were lots of local people with green face masks on and we asked what it was. A local lady told us it was a sulphur mask that was good for your skin, so we joined in the fun paying 20p and rubbing the chalky substance over our faces and feet. After 5 mins, we washed it off in the freezing shower and were pleasantly surprised that our skin felt lovely.

We changed and headed off on the bikes, firstly on a rough rocky road that reminded us of that traumatic day in Ometepe! We stopped at a local house for some delicious strawberries and cream and cycled to the nearest town of Coconuco for some lunch. After lunch, we cycled down the nice smooth road, enjoying the easy and sometimes very fast ride downhill, stopping to take photos and enjoying the view. There was one uphill and as we cycled Alexa could feel the pedal on her bike coming loose. The bolt had come away and it was only a matter of time before it came off! It didn't take long and after a few hundred metres the pedal was on the floor with no way of repairing it! Typically just as we stopped, we heard the ominous patter of rain behind us and it started to pour down! We ran and sheltered under some undergrowth and hoped to wait out the heavy shower. The shower however lasted longer than we thought so we just decided to go for it - it's only water after all! So with one bike having one pedal we walked up the rest of the hill before speeding downhill, the rest of the way back to Popayan, feelin rather cold in soaking wet clothes. Thankfully we had been recommended a good place to stop for a hot drink on the way back and we enjoyed a delicious hot chocolate with some fresh cheese and little cheesy rolls called alejabanos. A Colombian favourite and just what we needed! The owners were very friendly and chatted to us as we warmed up.

We sped into Popayan and walked through the town centre back to the hostel. The hostel owners were mortified that the bike broke and gave it to us for almost half the price! We showered and warmed up, before packing and heading out to dinner. We had a delicious dinner in a small fish restaurant run by a friendly family of Caribbean origin and we had fish in a coconut sauce. The owners chatted to us and we were entertained by their mischievous 18 month old little boy, Daniel, who was causing chaos and his mum stress but he was seriously cute! We went back to the hostel and had an early night ready got the early start and the long journey to Ecuador.

We left the hotel before 6am and caught the first bus to Ipiales, the town closest to the Ecuador - Columbia border. We arrived in Ipiales after an 8 hour journey and after clearing Colombian immigration quickly, we queued for an hour at the Ecuador border control before having our passports stamped. It was the end of our two week stay in Colombia, a country we really enjoyed. Friendly people, beautiful and diverse countryside, great coffee, and some vibrant cities made it an interesting place to travel. We were looking forward to our stay in Ecuador where we had lots planned, including the wonderful Galapagos Islands!
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Howellsey on

We're heading to Cuba in November......sounds from your experience as if I should start working on my salsa moves now.....I've seen Bish's footwork and am pretty sure it's better than mine :-)

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