Medellin and Guatapé

From Salento we took a small minibus (with aircon and wifi!) from the centre of the town that took us on the 6 and a half hour journey to Colombia’s second largest city. The journey took us through beautiful scenic mountains and lakes, although the roads were very windy so we were relieved by the time we’de arrived in Medellin. We were dropped at the main bus shelter in the centre and even though our hostel was close by we had been advised that the highways we not safe to cross at night - luckily there were many taxis drivers on the prowl for a good deal.

We had decided to book a dorm at El Alternativo Hostel in the charming district of Poblado - arguably the nicest area in Medellin for backpackers and filled with great bars and restaurants. Unfortunately they had double booked so we had to sleep in separate dorms for the first night, one of which was an 8 bed dorm with no air con and a room full of smelly treckers! The hostel however was decent, and had a great little roof terrace for breakfast and chilling before venturing off to explore the city.

We spent the first day exploring Poblado area, sampling the great cafes such as Ganso & Castor which did a great poached eggs on toast (something we hadn’t had in months!). The area felt very gentrified, with graffiti clad walls, trendy architecture and busy bars serving decent food and beers. There happened to be an Argentina game on for the Copa de Sudamerica, so we wandered into one of the busy pubs to watch the match with a bit of atmosphere.

One of the main attractions in Medellin is to take the Metrocable gondola to the top of the mountain to get panoramic views of the city, so we met up with fellow travellers Amanda and Daniel who were staying at the Black Sheep hostel nearby. As it was a clear day we managed to get some great shots of the sprawling city and surrounding mountains as we ascended.

We passed 3 stops before continuing some distance to the Parque Avri, an ecotourism park with a series of walking paths through the forest. We wandered around a few of the paths and trails, but to be honest there wasn’t much to explore besides a small food market near the entrance, and agreed the cable car ride was definitely the highlight. We decided to head back to visit the Parque Explora in the city center and explore the aquarium.

We took the metro again to the Universidad stop next to the Parque Explora, and headed to the entrance to get our tickets. We started with the aquarium where there was an array of beautiful Amazonian and tropical fish displayed in amazing tanks. We spent a while peering at pirannas and giant Arapaima, before moving on to the reptile house to see the various poison arrow frogs, lizards and even a giant anaconda!

After a couple of hours of exploring we grabbed a quick lunch at the museum cafe. As we headed off to leave we noticed there was an interactive science exhibition (mainly aimed at kids) where you could play around with different installations that explained physics. We basically acted like big kids for half an hour before realising that we were the only adults! We ended the day with a nice meal at Tal Cual in Poblado, and then ventured out to Parque Lleras, the party district of Medellin. The bars were all pretty tacky, but we enjoyed a leisurely bar crawl,sampling different cocktails, with the sound of Reggaeton blasting from every bar going, before heading back to our hostels.

City Walking Tour

The following day we had signed up to the walking tour - which we were told was one of the best in South America. We met in the city centre and the guide began with a very informative and engaging intro to himself and Medellin, with a brief history of the Paisas, (Medellin locals) and the infamous drug trades that stigmatised Colombia for many years. The famous criminal was how Pablo Escobar was refereed to, so as to not offend the locals within ear shot.

After the talk we walked to the Botero Plaza, where we saw the amazing, surreal, plump sculptures created by the famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who had donated them to the city.

We ended the tour by visiting the main square, a huge empty expanse, where we were told about the bombing that had taken place whereby someone had placed an explosive in one of the bird sculptures in which as a result a small girl had been killed in the crowds. The destroyed bird sculpture had been left as a memorial, as well as a new one donated and placed next to it, by Botera as a symbol of peace. It was a beautiful, yet sobering tale.

The tour ended at a small but bustling square where many locals were sat around chatting, the guide explained that this is the real Medellin, very social and friendly. we also learnt that the churches are strangely the meeting ground of prostitutes. After many walking tours in South America, this one definitely stood out as memorable and really informative.

That evening we headed over to the Black Sheep hostel where Amanda and Daniel were staying. They very kindly cooked us up an amazing Vietnamese meal and we drank beers while socialising with the other hostel guests. It just so happened that two other travellers we had met, Gary and Jack, were also staying in that the same hostel - we had realised by this point that the backpacking trail was pretty well established.

Guatapé

Guatape is a small, brightly coloured town about 3 hours bus ride from Medellin. After leaving with Amanda and Daniel from the terminal in the afternoon we arrived and checked into Lake View Hostel, ironically not looking over the lake but the nearby marshland. The hostel however was great, with very attentive staff and big, clean rooms.

That afternoon we decided to explore the colourful town, and walked through the main square and along the streets that were lined with beautifully brightly coloured houses with unique, intricate doorways. Cobbled streets and old street lamps made the area feel very rustic and as the streets were quiet we got some great shots of the Colombian architecture. We grabbed a cheap lunch in one of the many lakeside restaurant on Calle 32 that served authentic pork stew.

The main attraction in Guatape is to walk up the iconic Piedra del Penol, a huge rock about a 20 minute walk from the town and a steep 400m climb up the built-in staircase to get to the top. Tickets were quite pricey - but it was more than worth the 700 steep steps to the top, where we were greeted with picturesque views of the network of turquoise lakes amongst the green hills. At the very top there was a small bar serving cold drinks, so we grabbed some beers and waited for the sun to go down before heading back. As it had gotten dark we jumped in a cab back to the hostel. 

One of the perks of staying in Lake View Hostel is the amazing Thai restaurant located above the rooms. That evening we headed up to check it out, and ordered green curry and pad Thai, both of which were delicious, and a rare treat for South America. We stayed up drinking beers with the other hostel guests before settling into a decent nights sleep in the large, comfy dorm beds.

One thing we had heard you could do in Guatape was paint balling in one of Pablo Escobars abandoned villas. This turned out to be slightly tricker to book than we had thought, as there was clearly some controversy and rivalry among the tour groups. Luckily Amanda was very proactive and called around various places and finally managed to fit a group of 12 from our hostel into a trip from Medellin, allowing us to join the following day. We pulled into the roof of a crowded jeep and drove to the huge white luxury villa once inhabited by Escobar family.

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We spent 2 hours paint balling in a near by, purpose built arena which was fun but very hot. We were then given a tour of the ruins where we were taught about the history of the villas, and how Escobar’s family has been present for the raids. Escobar and the drug trafficking that was in full force during the 80-90’s had a devastating impact on Colombia, including Medellin and the surrounding area, as it was his home town which he refused to ever stray too far from.

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It’s hard to know if this tour was necessarily responsible tourism, as it somewhat trivialises such a dark period of the area’s past. The fact that we felt guilty doing it probably answers that question. To learn more about this point in Colombia’s history, we highly recommend the book Killing Pablo, which was the book that the hit Netflix show Narco’s was based from. 

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On our last day we decided to hire scooters from the place near our hostel and venture out to explore the surrounding scenery. We had borrowed a fishing rod from the hostel and a few lures, so we drove to a nearby river to try our luck. Unfortunately we didn't manage to get any bites, but the scenery was beautiful, and and we managed a swim in the peaceful, deserted river. 

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As we hadn’t had much luck fishing we headed to the nearby trout farm (which although was cheating we knew we couldn't go wrong!). After catching about 4, we headed back to where we left the scooter and headed back to the hostel. We hasn't left much time to get the bus, and so it was a little stressful as they were quite infrequent! Luckily we managed to catch the last one back to Medellin and checked into a private room in hostel El Alternativo for a much needed sleep.

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Popayán and Salento

After a rather long-winded journey and border crossing from Ecuador, we had finally made it to Colombia! We were planning on reaching a pretty colonial city called Popayán by the following morning, but before that we wanted to visit 'Las Lajas Sanctuary', a basilica church just outside the border town of Ipilaes. We caught a cab to the bus station and bought tickets for the night bus that would leave around 9pm. After a twenty minute taxi ride we were dropped at the top of a hill (unfortunately with all of our bags) and made our way down the steps to the canyon of the Guáitara River where we were met by this spectacular church.

Bridging across a river gorge with it's intricate grey and white Neo-gothic decoration, it was an impressive and somewhat unusual sight for a small South American border town. We spent an hour or so taking it in from the various view points before grabbing a quick beer and watching the sun go down. Once it got dark the church was lit up in various different colours that faded from one to the other, showcasing the churches impressive form in fairytale style.

We then slowly made our way back up the hill with all our bags and eventually managed to share a cab with two Colombian ladies and headed to the bus station. After a hilarious 'lost in translation' moment which left them thinking Stef was the daughter of tennis player Steffi Graf, we said goodbye, boarded the night bus and vowed to try harder at learning Spanish! The bus was not as comfortable as previous ones, so without much sleep we pulled into Popayán at 4.30am and wearily headed to the station cafe to kill some time before the hostels opened.


Popayán

We took a cab to Hostel Caracol, which had good reviews and luckily for us 2 beds that were available at a good price. We only had a day to explore Popayán so once rested we set off, excited to experience our first full day in Colombia. Popayán, also known as 'The White City', is known for being one of the prettiest cities in the country. We wandered around the quiet colonial streets, taking in the many white stone buildings and churches. It was easy to see how the city got it's nickname.

After a while it began to rain pretty heavily, so we headed into La Cosecha Parillada Centro keen to try some traditional Colombian food. We had noticed by now that no one spoke English so we welcomed the chance to test out our (not so great) Spanish skills. We ordered the Bandeja Paisa, a national dish containing eggs, beans, avocado, pork crackling, pulled pork, steak and roast potatoes. It was like a combination between a full english breakfast and a burrito and was very tasty, not to mention incredibly filling!

Once the rain has passed we decided to work off our enormous lunch and see a bit more of the city. We walked through the square past some craft stalls and headed up the hill towards the Iglesia de Belen Santuario de Belen. After taking in the view from the top we headed back to the square and explored more of the old cobbled streets and buildings. We opted for a light dinner near our hostel and settled in for a decent nights sleep ready for another full day of travel ahead. 

The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast from a small cafe opposite our hostel and made our way back to the station by cab to get a bus to our next destination: Salento, a small colonial town located just north of Armenia in the heart of the Colombian Coffee region. There was no direct bus route from Popayán, so after 5 hours of bus travel we caught a 2 hour minibus from Armenia to reach Salento itself.

Salento

Salento is a bustling colonial town with brightly painted houses, great craft markets and restaurants and a great launchpad to explore the surrounding national parks. After getting dropped off by the minibus it was a short walk to Hostel El Zorzal, a peaceful hostel on the outskirts of town with lovely little bungalow rooms and friendly staff. After checking in we grabbed a beer in the pretty surrounding garden, teaming with colourful birds.

We set out to explore the small town and spent a wonderful hour or so taking photos of the colourful and picturesque buildings and walking amongst the gift shops selling beautiful gifts, jewellery, bags and clothing. We then made our way up the steps at the end of the main street and ascended to the look out point, with one side giving a view of the town, and the other side a fantastic view of the lush mountains of the surrounding coffee region. 

By chance our lovely friends Amanda and Daniel (follow their amazing journey on Vivalavida) who we had travelled with in Peru had also arrived in Salento that day. After meeting them and catching up with their news we decided to try our hand at the traditional Colombian game of Tejo. Known as the national sport of Colombia, Tejo is a similar game to boules where the aim is to throw iron weights into a central iron ring set into a small clay pit. Small packets of gunpowder are positioned on the ring and explode on impact, gaining the player extra points. Intrigued and excited by this we couldn't turn down the chance to play!

Amanda (with her now perfect Spanish) had asked around and heard that the best place to play was at Los Amigos, a ranch style bar in the centre of town. For 10,000 pesos (£3) you got a beer and unlimited time to play, which was a fantastic deal! We were led into a barn type space where locals where hurling weighted balls across the length of the room and with sounds of splatting clay, exploding gunpowder and cheers. It was definitely one of the strangest games we'd played but we embraced the tradition and got fully stuck in. We played for about an hour (to varying degrees of success!) and then headed to the very pretty main square, soaked up the busy Friday atmosphere and sampled the local food trucks.

Trekking the Cocora Valley

One of the highlights of visiting Salento is a trip to the Cocora Valley, famous for the worlds tallest wax palms set amongst stunning green hills. After a great breakfast at our hostel we met with Amanda and Daniel in the main square and found a spot on one of the many colourful jeeps that shuttled visitors to the valley. After a fun (but cramped!) 30 minute jeep ride we were dropped at the entrance to the national park and set off along the trail in our wellies, waded across streams and headed into more dense forest with rickety wooden bridges and rushing water beneath us.

After crossing many bridges and walking up lots of slippery stone steps we ended up at our first stop, the Acaime Humming Bird sanctuary. We each gave a small contribution to the owners, and in return were given a hot drink and a snack. We stayed for an hour or so to marvel at the lush garden around us and tried to capture shots of the hundreds of colourful hummingbirds birds that had made this place their home.  

We set off back down the hill and found the path that led us to a look out point. We stopped for a while to catch our breath and watched the clouds rolling past us through the valley below. We then continued through a forest of huge pine trees, yet another type of terrain, until we made it to a clearing where we got our first glimpse of a some of the impressive Quindío wax palms, the national tree of Colombia.

As walked a little further we spotted a huge, bright blue wasp dragging a tarantula through the grass. We all got pretty close to get a good look and take pictures, but it wasn't until later when we looked it up that we realised it was a tarantula hawk wasp, an insect that gives the second most painful sting in the world. It paralyses a tarantula, drags it back to its nest and lays an egg on its back. The wasp lava then eats the tarantula from the inside out - it was like something from a horror film! We might not have got so close if we had known but we're excited to have witnessed it. 

It was pretty cloudy at this point, and so we couldn't see into the valley but were able to marvel at the height of the palms above us, some standing over 45 meters tall. The clouds continued to roll passed and suddenly the valley became visible, and we got a full glimpse of the wax palms dotted around the stunning green landscape. We wound our way through the impressive, prehistoric scenery and back to the starting point where we had to wait a while to get one of the jeeps back to Salento. The trek had definitely stood out as one of the most memorable of our trip.

Horse Riding & Waterfalls

The following morning Amanda had arranged for us to go horse riding to one of the nearby waterfalls through their hostel La Eliana (which also has a great restaurant). Following another tranquil garden breakfast at our hostel we met in the town and headed to some stables where the locals set us up with our horses. After some brief instructions we were on our way and rode out of the town and into the lush landscapes that surrounded Salento. 

The weather that day was perfect for riding, and being just the four of us and our local guide made for a really memorable experience. We trotted and cantered whenever we got the chance, and after an hour or so we reached a spot to tie up the horses and made the short walk to a waterfall.

We changed into our swimwear and even though the water was pretty chilly it was very refreshing after our ride, and set in an idillic spot. After swimming as long as we could we got out and noticed hundreds of butterflies basking in the sun all around us. We managed to get some quick shots of them before mounting back on our horses and continuing on our rather steep and muddy ride back up to Salento.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the picturesque town, soaking up the atmosphere and milling amongst the craft shops and cafes. As it was Stef's Birthday the following day we all decided that it would be nice to ditch the backpacker budget for a change and get dinner from a highly recommended restaurant called Cafe Bernabe. We went for a very tasty steak with a blackberry sauce followed by birthday cake, and had a lovely evening enjoying the great food and company. Amanda and Daniel even offered to pick up the bill as a birthday treat!

Stef's Birthday 

We woke the next morning to a spectacular sunrise from our hostel terrace, and Stef caught up with friends and family sending her Birthday wishes before checking out of our Hostel. Life on the road could be pretty fast at times so it was great to dedicate some time to catch up with loved ones properly. We then headed to Brunch de Salento to try the legendary peanut butter brownie. We both agreed it's only OK to have brownie for breakfast on your birthday! We then wandered over to Cafe Jesus Martin for an ice coffee and juice.

It was then time for the birthday surprise, and we headed up the hill and stopped outside the gates of the boutique hotel El Mirador del Cocora! We had the most beautiful double room with a balcony and our own jacuzzi overlooking the amazing Cocora valley. After opening a surprise pile of gifts (treats from Otavalo market and Salento) we spent the afternoon relaxing in the hot tub, listening to music and drinking wine. Birthdays don't get much better than that! We then headed out for dinner and cocktails in the town to to top off the day.

Our time spent in Salento was magic, and became one of our favourite destinations of the trip. From colourful buildings and bustling atmosphere of the town, to the incredible treks and horse rides through the stunning Cocora Valley, it had been an amazing mix of experiences. We had heard so many great things about Colombia from fellow travellers, and even after 5 days we were completely blown away. It was a perfect introduction to an amazing country, and we couldn't wait to explore more.