Botero and beyond: Bogota, Salento & Medellin, Colombia.

30 Apr

After having been encouraged to take 2 planes, the fast boat, 4 taxis and 6 days to reach Bogota from Lima (flight time 3 hours) I’m ready to put my feet up. Unfortunately, there is the nagging itch that as we were in transit for the best part of a week, it would be good to get out and get to know a place again. So it is that we find ourselves on foot exploring Colombia’s capital, Bogota, on a rainy Monday morning…

We are far from alone, a large demonstration is gathering supporters and momentum, the protestors outnumbered only by the well-armed riot police (who are ready for anything, blood types are marked in red on the side of their helmets). Even the horses are dressed for battle, which is a little disconcerting, less so their riders, who are clearly bored waiting on the sidelines and are happy to have their photo taken…

Carrera 7 is the street we want but is unfortunately also the route which the thousands of demonstrators are heading along, jostling for position, cheek by jowl. Instead we weave through a couple of side streets, pausing to buy umbrellas as it is tipping it down before emerging in the Plaza de Bolivar, unbeknownst to us, this is also the focal point for the protests. We squeeze our way through the crowd, minding our manners and our money, stopping only to note, that a couple of the sights we had planned to see were closed for the day because of the demonstrations. Instead we decide to take in the rolypoly sculptures and paintings of famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero at the Donacion de Botero…

… Before heading up under clearing skies to the Cerro de Monserrate via a funicular railway to take in the sweeping views of Bogota, the home of over 7 million people.

The following morning after mooching round La Candaleria, the suburb we’re staying in, we head to the Museu del Oro to marvel at some of the gold pieces from the major Colombian pre-Hispanic cultures. We then head back to the Hostel, loading up at the local Tescos as the next day we are set to head out into the countryside and the Zona de Cafetera, the coffee region.

It takes all day to travel by bus from Bogota to Armenia, 300 kilometres to the west. Time enough to reflect on just how many long distance buses we have taken on the trip, by our reckoning more than 40 buses in South America, taking over 2 weeks in total. This doesn’t help our mood, the road twists, turns and the bus pitches and rolls for 9 hours before we arrive queasily in Armenia. Our mood goes from bad to worse when arriving by taxi in our final destination, Salento, the original price agreed on before we set off, has gone from 6,400 pesos to 60,000!! We both look at each other increduously; has our Spanish really not improved at all in the last 6 months? No it has, it’s just that we have completely been taken for a ride.

Seeing as we have arrived at our destination, and have yet to part with any cash, I ignore the wailing and arm flapping coming from the driver and sit on his bonnet, smoke a cigarette and wait for him to calm down. All the time he’s wasting on us, he’s not earning any money so I figure soon enough he’ll lower his ridiculous demands. Time passes and eventually after some swearing, a sum is agreed. On production of the cash our man is now all smiles, and best of friends, gold teeth glinting he takes his money ‘Gracias, amigo’ he says. I’ll resist the temptation to write what was said in return.

Our noisy arrival at Hostel La Serrana is not quite in keeping with its calming views and sleepy, chilled out vibe…

… We feel like we’ve unintentionally disturbed the peace and tranquility of the place, so think it best to head into the town of Salento for a quick feed. Salento is a pretty little town with brightly painted colonial houses and a charming main square, perched on a hilltop with great views of the lush green countryside surrounding it.

We don’t return until after nightfall, to our newly constructed room, which of course doesn’t have any hot water!

Next morning we decide to explore the surrounding countryside and take a long walk to Sachamama, an organic coffee plantation. Unfortunately for us this turns out to be a very long walk as the spray painted arrows used to guide visitors to the plantation have washed off in the rain.  Undeniably, however, the scenery is spectacular…

We eventually arrive to find that we were so late that the owner’s wife had been dispatched into the valley to search for us. While we await her return, we drink coffee (what else?) before being taken for a show round the property. It was once an old coffee plantation, upon which the owner has let nature take over and it has resumed its organic growth. He has 60 hectares of rain forest from which he gathers by hand 500kg of coffee beans annually. He begins his tour running through the process. First the husks are removed, then the beans soaked in water for a couple of days before being left to dry for about a week in the sun. The shells are removed before the beans are toasted in a small drum for 15 minutes at 250C before then being ground.

It was an interesting afternoon, and after several espressos we set off for the hostel, unsurprisingly, the walk back took a lot less time.

The next day we set off in open backed jeeps (these are the one-and-only taxi available in Salento) for the Valle de Cocora – 13 people crammed in a 6 seater Land Rover for the 30 minute drive up to the hamlet of Cocora from where we start our trek.

We descend into the valley, following a river upstream to a hummingbird sanctuary. Where we stop for coffee, and just long enough not to capture any of the main attractions in flight.

It was then a steep climb to take in fields of 50m wax palms, the national tree of the Colombia. Their size and shape having an almost prehistoric character, you almost expected a brontesaurus to come wandering over a the hilltop opposite to complete the picture.

The following day we left the charming coffee region and headed up to Medellin, again an all day journey by coach. Arriving late in the afternoon there was time enough to explore our suburb, El Poblado in Medellin’s nightclub district, before turning in.

Next day we take the subway (Colombia’s only) north where we connect with the Metrocable which skims rooftops as it climbs up to Parque Arvi. We enjoy nice views of the city on the way up, and an even nicer pork humita (pork & vegetables wrapped in a light corn dough, then baked inside a banana leaf) when we get there.

Heading back to the centre of town we take in more Botero paintings in the Museo D’Antioquia and more of his sculptures in the Plazaleta de Botero opposite before wandering the pretty streets to Parque de Bolivar.

The next day we were hoping take the tour run by Pablo Escobar’s brother, unfortunately Snr Escobar is not an early riser, and with us booked on a flight leaving at 7pm for Cartagena we didn’t have enough time for his afternoon tour. So with the day ours at leisure we pottered and blogged until “Crikey is that the time?” we had better leave. All we had to do today was catch that plane, and leaving the city centre at 5.15pm it is beginning to look a little tight, especially as our driver has just taken a wrong turn and is now at a dead end street.

Things go from bad to worse, once on the main road to the airport we hit rush hour traffic and can barely manage a crawl. After making it to the outskirts we pick up speed, it looks like we’ll make it to the airport by 6pm which is just enough time for a domestic flight, then we round a bend to see a string of brake lights. No-one is going anywhere, there’s an accident up ahead. This takes too many precious minutes to pass. It’s now gone 6.20pm (which, according to our confirmation email, is the latest time allowed for passengers to check in), though we quietly start to delude ourselves into thinking that if we can get to the check in by 6.30pm perhaps we’ll be ok.

Our driver needs no encouragement to pick up the speed, he undertakes, overtakes and squeezes us between cars as we near the airport, then doesn’t slow down, at all. We tear through the pick up / drop off zone at about 40 miles an hour screeching to a halt outside the Avianca desks. English reservations set aside, we charge breathlessly to the front of the queue frantically repeating “Cartagena”, “Cartegena”.  We’re in luck, the flight is delayed and we made it with an hour to spare. Time enough for a vino tinto or two before heading off to the Carribbean coast.

Cheers for now

Matt x

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One Response to “Botero and beyond: Bogota, Salento & Medellin, Colombia.”

  1. Father Bear May 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    Your trip to the coffee growing area reminded me of Hilarie and my recent trip to the Lake District. The main difference was Hilarie carried the backpack!

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