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Beautiful Columbia

After a seriously hair raising flight from Panama City to Medellin, where we hit a storm and at one point I thought we weren’t going to make it, people screaming, clinging to their chairs. We finally, to my relief landed, although I think I am a little scared from the experience – god help the next flight! The El Dorado airport was a 45 minute journey away from Medellin, so we hopped on an collectivo bus and headed into the city…

Medellin is based in the Aburrá Valley, a central region of the Andes Mountains, it’s extremely picturesque, even at night with its blinking lights, the hole basin is lit up like a Christmas town… Arriving in Medellin after our collectivo, we jumped in a taxi and headed to El Pablado, a district in the city, very similar to the NQ in Manchester, it was a Saturday night too, so was bustling with activity, Colombians eating and drinking out on the streets and generally enjoying their weekends. After dropping the bags off, we headed out to join in on the action, ordering up some beers and food whilst adjusting to Columbia culture.

Having spent a few days in Medellin, we still felt there was so much more to see, so we made sure to swing back round at the end of our Columbia trip. Here’s a run down of the highlights in Medellin.

We took the cable cars up over the barrios – in Medellin they have a total of 249 districts grouped into 16 official urban communes which hug the mountains around the valley. All the barrios are connected by cable cars, this is their public transport. We took a ride up and down and got some amazing shots of the barrios carved into the steep sides of the mountain ranges.

The view from the cable car
The view from the cable car
A view from the top
A view from the top

Paragliding – owing to Medellin being overlooked by the Andes it makes it the perfect location to paraglide… Both me and Tom hadn’t done it before, so we were a little nervous, but we were in safe hands.. it was an amazing experience, as you got to take in the stunning vistas whilst overlooking Medellin. The pilot even did some air acrobatics, (be warned you feel pretty sick afterwards).

Me flying high...
Me flying high…

It was a great experience definitely something I’d do again. After the flight, we sat down for a traditional Antioquian meal of Bandeja Paisa known as the fattest dish in Columbia and some say the world, however I doubt that!

Bandeja Paisa is a traditional Antioquian dish consisting of beef, pork or chicken, chorizo, chicharron (pork fat), fried plantains, a fried egg, refried beans, rice, avocado, and a small salad. This bigger than life dish is hard to finish, and probably contain’s a month’s worth of cholesterol.
Bandeja Paisa is a traditional Antioquian dish consisting of beef, pork or chicken, chorizo, chicharron (pork fat), fried plantains, a fried egg, refried beans, rice, avocado, and a small salad.

Pablo Escobar tour – although harrowing, we heard great things about the Pasia road Escobar tour. We were picked up form our hostel and taken around the various buildings Pablo had frequented. Now for those of you who aren’t sure who he was, he was a notorious Colombian drug lord who, at the height of his career, supplied about 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the US. Known as “The King of Cocaine”, he was the wealthiest criminal in history, with an estimated known net worth of US$30 billion. Whilst driving around, the two tour guides enlightened us on his history, the devastation he brought to the city, the people who were killed, the grief he caused and how he tore apart the city of Medellin. It was really upsetting, but really insightful into what Columbia once was, and how it has changed today.

Pablo Escobar's house - all his building's were white, to represent the white of cocaine.. Pablo Escobar’s house – all his building’s were white, to represent the white of cocaine..

Another of his buildings - again in white
Another of his buildings – again in white
His grave, yes we were taken to see that as well!
His grave, yes we taken to that as well!

We went on a free city walking tour, where we took in Medellin’s downtown (El Centro) with a local Columbian. Exploring the historic districts, whilst being told stories, descriptions and urban legends that really made this fascinating city come to life. The tour educated us on the Paisa culture, the people and their stories, it really was inspiring to listen to a country that was once ravaged by drugs and cartels, to a country that has completely turned itself around. During the 4 hours of the tour we discovered the most traditional parks, squares and streets of the city.

Sculptures by Fernando Botero
Sculptures by Fernando Botero
Statues on one of the main plazas
Statues on one of the main plazas
Sculptures by Fernando Botero
Sculptures by Fernando Botero
Sculptures by Fernando Botero
Sculptures by Fernando Botero
The Palace of Culture is designed in a Gothic Revival style and was built in the 1920s. The building is home to all the cultural programs in Medellin
The Palace of Culture is designed in a Gothic Revival style and was built in the 1920s. The building is home to all the cultural programs in Medellin
Getting down with locals on the walking tour
Getting down with locals on the walking tour

Tom was keen to watch a football match so one Saturday night we headed to the stadium, having bought the tickets earlier in the day, for a mere £4.50 to see a football match – Independent Medellin from Panama City to Medellin

El Pablado – such a lively district of the city from Thursday – Sunday, after that it is like a ghost town, so quiet. We loved it here, we never had a bad meal falling in love with a curry house, called Naan – it was so good and a 4 course meal with gin and tonics cost us as little as £20, we couldn’t get enough of the places.

Missing curry in our lives, we headed to a curry place and ate and drank like kings - the food was amazing
Missing curry in our lives, we headed to a curry place and ate and drank like kings – the food was amazing
A Cardamon G&T to accompany the curry!
A Cardamon G&T to accompany the curry!

Saddened to say goodbye to Medellin, we left taking a flight to Cartagena, on the North coast of Columbia on the Caribbean coast, back to the humidity, that Tom so desperately despises. Being a colonial town, it was great for wandering around and taking pictures, of course we ate a lot, had to get the last of the Caribbean flavours somehow…

The quaint streets of Cartagena
The quaint streets of Cartagena
Amazing Caribbean food - Seabass
Amazing Caribbean food – Seabass

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From here, we flew to the capital, Bogota, however we didn’t stick around, landing we jumped on a collectivo bus North to Tunja in the mountains, we used this a base to stayed the night, in a dump of a hotel close to the bus station – on entering the owner looked startled to see us, we don’t think he’s had many guests in a long while. It was so cold, my feet were like blocks of ice, the all season sleeping bags had to make an appearance to get us through the night. Setting the alarm for 5am, we headed to catch our bus, the first one to Villa de Leyva..

Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva's main square - one of the largest in Columbia
Villa de Leyva’s main square – one of the largest in Columbia

After getting acquainted with the town, we hired some bikes and headed out into the countryside, it was brilliant, with lots of places to stop off and visit. We stopped at the Museo el Fosil, dedicated to one giant swimming dinosaur fossil and several thousand ammonites, it was really interesting. Next stop was a winery, Colombian wine is something I’ve not tasted before, and there’s a reason for that, it was like paint stripper, anyway the views were amazing, and with a big plate of cheese, we managed to drink the Cabernet Sauvignon, but we had to leave the Sauvignon Blanc.

The winery
The winery

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Tom with his not so nice wine and platter of cheese
Tom with his not so nice wine and platter of cheese

From here we headed to a town where a lady had recommended a restaurant for a famous meaty dish, I was pretty full from my cheese fill, but Tom ordered a plate…

A huge plate of fried meat and blood sausages..
A huge plate of fried meat and blood sausages..

After a knackering ride back, I think we cycled 40 miles in total we arrived back to Villa de Leyva. It was Friday night so we headed to the main square for a few beers, joining the locals as they did the same. On the way back to the hostel (which was pristine and just lovely and cost us £5 per night) we saw a lady selling empanada’s in a hole in the wall, made to order. Wow! They were amazing, I think we must have consumed about six each, if not more, and they came in at around 0.15p each… Bargain!

Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva
One of the three lakes we visited on our bike ride
One of the three lakes we visited on our bike ride
Views from the bike ride
Views from the bike ride

The next day, we raced to catch the only bus that day out of Villa De Leyva, with seconds to spare! Packed on like sardines, literally 30 people in a people carrier that has 12 seats, we were on our way further North to San Gill. Now it’s quite hilly and the roads are none exsistant, gravel, stones and mud, the van didn’t sound in a good way, he was struggling to get it into gear, needless to say, 20 minutes into our journey the gear shaft went and the van broke down – so we were all turfed out in the middle of nowhere and we waited 30 minutes for a replacement.

San Gill

Here we did white water rafting on Rio Suarez, I’d wanted to do it on a Cat 5 river (Whitewater, large waves, large volume, possibility of large rocks and hazards)and this was just that. After signing our life away on the disclaimer forms, literally, even going as far to not only sign it but leave your finger print, we set off to the river. The operator we did it with were the Columbia rafting team, so we felt like we were in safe hands. It was an amazing experience, really exhilarating and fun, we didn’t lose anyone from our boat but on the last set of rapids the boat in front lost 3 members, we pulled one of them into our boat and he looked pretty shaken up….! Having already done it before I knew what to expect, Tom enjoyed it too, we’re already planning to do in Chile. (Photos to follow)

San Gill wasn’t the prettiest of towns, but it had a nice town square which was filled with an abundance of street vendors, who came out late afternoon with their hot coals, selling skewers of steak, chicken, chirizo all served with a potato on top. They worked out at 0.20p a skewer and you could grab a cool beer for around the same price from the corner shop – needless to say this is what we ate every night for the duration of our stay.

Tom awaiting his skewer of meat to be cooked with baited breath
Tom awaiting his skewer of meat to be cooked with baited breath

On one of the days we headed out of San Gill to Swim in the natural pools and waterfalls of El Balneario de Pescaderito, a 30 minute bus journey and then an hour’s walk, where we passed by small villages.

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The natural pools, which were full with locals
The natural pools, which were full with locals

Leaving San Gill we headed even further North to Barrichara, a really quaint town and renown by many as being the my beautiful town in the whole of Colombia’. When we arrived we were greeted by a white wash Colonial town, bright sunlight bounced off terracotta roofs which was matched by by striking bright orange clay fields. A mountainous backdrop and an abundance of warm weather flora and fauna topped off the picture postcard look of the town.

Stunning view from the top of the town
Stunning view from the top of the town
Beautiful church in Barrichara
Beautiful church in Barrichara

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We checked into this lovely place that overlooked the valley, it was idyllic, what’s more the shower to our room was secluded yet outside on the balcony, so whilst showering you could look out on to the valley and soak up the vista.

Our b&b with views over the Andes
Our b&b with views over the Andes
Another view from the b&b
Another view from the b&b

Having spent some time walking around and photographing Barrichara, especially from the upper area of the town to capture the rooftop vistas, we embarked upon a gentle hike to the nearby town of Guana. During this journey we got our first real taste of Andean countryside and Colombia’s version is beautiful and lush. We could have spent forever exploring the rocky old roads that meander through the green fields and colourful countryside to link villages that are forgotten by everyone but their inhabitants.

Tom taking in the views on our walk to Guana
Tom taking in the views on our walk to Guana
The milestone to Guana
The milestone to Guana
The quaint streets of Guana
The quaint streets of Guana
Guana's beautiful surroundings
Guana’s beautiful surroundings

Leaving the countryside behind, we headed to further North to Bucaramanga, the capital city of the department of Santander – passing through in the taxi, it was not the most attractive of places, our overnight stop here consisted of us walking to the nearest broaster (A rotisserie chicken place), to get our evening meal. The next day we picked up our flight back to Medellin where we spent another 4 days there, before picking up our flight to Peru.

To summarise, we loved Columbia, a mecca of everything! The people went out of their way to make you feel welcome, the food was fabulous (and ridiculously cheap) and the landscapes was stunning, and despite all the warnings, we both felt really safe there. A country ravaged by cartels and the marching powder, making headlines for all the wrong reasons has tried tirelessly to rid itself of its reputation, which in parts of the country it has, and its now slowly turning itself around. It’s no wonder, all the Colombians want you to do, is love the country they love so much, and to tell your friends. And that’s just what we plan to do. I would highly recommend. All hail Columbia….

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