La Aussie gringa in Colombia: Only one thing is for sure and that is that nothing is ‘for sure’

Day four in Palermo:

Paula’s friend Nestor has been really helpful in our hunt for the car but unfortunately his timing isn’t great when he shows up the morning we’re meant to be working through our options. Nestor is keen on having shots of aguadiente (the Colombian version of ouzi/sambucca) but it’s a bit too early for me so I use the time to nut out what I see are the options, their challenges and associated opportunities. My plan is for us to work through potential solutions once Nestor has moved on.

We farewell Nestor in town but he keeps popping back… We finally get to spend a couple of hours in the bibliotheca (library) to workshop the options before the planned meeting with the plumber. Here they are:

Option 1 – 9 bed, 2 wings, masonry construction (pre-arrival option)
Option 2 – 3-4 bed, 1 wing, masonry construction, front deck (essentially the plan as currently being prepared by architect with a deck)
Option 3 – 3-4 bed, 2 wings, single story, masonry construction (basically taking the two levels and putting them on one level)
Option 4 – 3 bed, single wing with deck, earthbag construction (what we were contemplating for the single bungalows but as the main house)
Option 5 – multiple earthbag bungalows (allowing progressive construction).

All the options are considered stage 1 options, with potential to build more accommodation on the property as a stage 2 if successful/desirable. Bearing in mind what we had already agreed in Australia as our exit strategies.

Once we’ve worked up the solutions and identified all the info we’ll need for me to make a decision on proceeding or otherwise. We both conclude that option 1 is too risky for the likely cost (just based on basic m2 estimates provided by the architect – and we all know they always underestimate!).

Option 2 and 3 could still work but I’m not prepared to look at them without more precise info on the construction cost. We’ll have the plan/drawings for option 2 whereas option 3 would be delayed a bit while new plans/drawings are prepared.

Options 4 and 5 both appeal to us because they’re more aligned with our desire for an ‘Eco-resort’ but are contingent on council approval of this type of construction. We’ll need new plans but they take a lot less time to build so that’s helpful.

We also like the idea of experimenting with earth bag construction and maybe doing one in Australia if it worked out …maybe on the Ridge Cliffy???

There’s still a lot of things to check for all the options – excavation/foundation challenges given granite Boulder terrain, amount to be excavated, water access – but it feels like we’ve made progress and are on the same page with understanding what the various options would entail and the risks with each.

We leave the library to meet with the plumber, Juan Pablo, who actually turns out to be a builder. He communicates that he prefers to work with a fixed contract so he can control the work/labour and that he only wants to do things legally – sounds like my kind of guy! We promise to drop off the plans the next day if we manage to get them that night. He claims he’ll need a couple of days to come back to us with an estimate. He says he can start in three weeks and that he thinks the single wing option would take about 5 months with five to six guys and himself.

We head back to Lilia’s for a bite to eat. I share my tuna and tomatoes on toast and she kindly says I’m a good cook…its my ‘go to’ in this meat loving country …I don’t tell her that I’d much prefer her delicious vegetable soup!

We head to the square after dinner. We meet up with Nelson, Alejandra and Valaria and before long Tato (Paula’s artist friend) turns up with the engineer, Carlos, who has our plans/drawings from the architect. We have another cerveca to celebrate followed by a few more. I pay for the drinks as we’re getting ready to go but then more arrive and I realise Nelson feels compelled to reciprocate on the beers. At Alejandra’s shock that we’ve polished off six beers each I accept defeat and decline to finish the stubbies sitting in front of me!

It had been a very funny night. As Paula sat talking to Tato and the engineer I tried to converse with Alejandra, Nelson and Valaria.
They tell me to get a boyfriend while I’m here in Colombia. I tell them I already have one but they insist that doesn’t matter. I laugh and let them know that many men in the town have their teeth missing! They look confused; obviously hadn’t noticed and who knows where the nearest dentist is!

They had gone to great lengths to let me know that I am now like family and I should feel safe and that everyone in town knows I’m here with Paula. They let me know that if I go missing that I will be bought back to Paula or one of her family members. At this point I’m hoping they mean if I get lost in the streets, which would be near impossible given there would be no more than six streets in Palermo and none of a length more than 200 metres!

It had been a great night after a productive afternoon and the cervecas had certainly given me the Dutch courage to apply my Spanish. We were all surprised by how much it’s improved in a few days.

Day five:

Time to collect the necessary information to allow us to assess whether the solutions for the options we’ve come up with can assist in the decision making! The bug free night at Lilia’s meant a good night’s sleep and a clear head for the day ahead.

The first set back for the day…on revision of the plans in the morning we realise the architect has labeled the floors the opposite way around! The stairs also hadn’t changed from the original plans I’d seen in Australia, which meant going outside the building to go between floors. Back to the drawing board so to speak and more time delays.

Off to Tamesis for the information gathering required.

The municipal council was the first stop. Not so good news – there is currently a 45 working day timeframe for approval of plans….when I enquire that was working days – nearly nine weeks! Paula was keen for my decision because her preferred builder is ready to start on Monday and she’d been worried he’d take another job if she didn’t get him to start (he’s apparently very popular because of his reliability). Paula’s intention was to use him and his team for labour and to manage the project herself (ie, not a contract as proposed by Juan Pablo). He hasn’t given any quote and Paula had been working on a three month build time so the Council timeframe and build time estimate by Juan Pablo are big points for Paula whichever way things go.

The good news is that the council will approve earthbag construction if all of the necessary info on building design is provided and traditional features are incorporated (doors, windows, roof). Frustrating that they couldn’t give any indication of the number of individual bungalows that could be approved (this would be decided once plans are submitted) but it was sounding like only a few – that’s not great from a return on investment risk point of view!

Next stop is the business registration office for advice on operating for commercial accommodation. We chat with Nelson’s sister about our query. The staff are reluctant to let us know the cost of the fees without specific information on what we’re offering but on pressing they finally give us a range of what’s currently paid by hotels in the town. It’s substantially less than the annual $15k Paula had thought (which was a driver for not changing land title purpose and limiting advertising as a hotel) so that’s a good outcome!

We visit 3 hotels in town to assess accommodation quality, facilities, rental prices and occupancy rates. Mixed quality – two are quite new and clean with neat finishes. One is old and in need of some TLC but colourful and filled with plenty of character. One of the newer places is double the price of the others and while all look empty the most expensive looks the most empty! They all say they’re heavily booked but they may just want to give the impression the accommodation is in high demand?

We pass an excavator with a ‘for hire’ sign so grab the details given the other guy didn’t show up or get back to us.

Next stop the construction centre (think small suburban hardware). We pick up a lock for my bedroom – I’ve been too chicken to sleep in there until now because it can’t be locked from the inside. The bedrooms at the finca open onto the verandah so they’re not secure even if the house is locked up – not that we can lock the house anyway. Having said that it feels very safe high on the hill with the property manager’s family living in the adjoining house. Hopefully Alsides (the Finca property manager) will be available some time during the day to fix it or can lend me the tools.

We ask around for the sale of the tamping tool we need if we go down the earth bag construction path. No one has them – they suggest we get it made if its necessary (which it is). Ok not great but if we can find someone to make it we have a solution at least and the guy across the road from Lilia’s has something similar it’s just that it weighs a to me so we’d be exhausted after tamping one bag…but muscly by the end as Paula points out!

A big lunch of crunchy fried fish while all the shops are closed for siesta and then it’s off to get a cup of tea at a hip little cafe located at the town’s library, passing The Hilton (???) on the way. The little cafe is really out of keeping with the rest of the town but perhaps an indicator of a potential rejuvenation of the town, which would be a good selling point for people visiting our little nearby village of Palermo.

We head back to Palermo for a power-nap at Lilia’s before heading back up the big hill with the groceries to the Finca (Las Delicias).

A mango (we have an abundance from the trees), vegemite on tostadas (thanks Penny) and the rest of the candy Easter egg (thanks mum) sees dinner complete!

Not long after we return to the finca Paula gets a call from the earthmoving contractor who didn’t show up, who apologises profusely, and agrees to meet us at the block tomorrow at 9am. It will really push my buttons if he doesn’t show so I’m doing my best to be optimistic!

It’s getting late and while I was hoping to start an interim assessment on the options based on all the info gathered today I hit the sack instead.

It had been another productive day so my spirits are high.

Day six:

I forgot to set the alarm and so I get up too late to go to the block with Paula to see the earthmoving contractor. Paula comes back with the good news that the contractor thinks he’ll only need a day and maybe a day and a half (if he hits a few boulders) to clear the block. He also says he can level some areas on the other side of the block, which is a real surprise to me because I thought they were just too sloped for a wheeled excavator. This is good news as it means potential for extension. Maybe I was being too pessimistic?

I spend the day reading up on some earthbag construction engineering studies and working through some potential operating costs so we can do some sort of RoI analysis once we get the quote from the builder.

Paula heads off to town and I meet her, Tato and his friend the engineer, Carlos, down at the block. The engineer and Tato convey their views that they don’t believe the earthmoving equipment will be able to get up to the other part of the block so it will need to be done by hand. Seems my pessimism may have been justified – however a structure with poles and a timber floor would work … but in this termite infested area?

The trip back up the hill was fine as it turned to night. It’s getting easier and it was a real delight to see all the fireflies along the way. Tato and Carlos join us for a bite to eat and drinks before heading home. I wasn’t involved in the conversation but I could sense that Carlos had some very definite ideas about the plans. I couldn’t work out if they were good or bad but there was a lot of head shaking. Hoping I’ll get the run down in the morning.

I entertain myself by sketching – it’s s great de-stressor (thanks Amy). My notebook got a work out today too – sorry Karen, not quite being used as the travel journal you’d envisaged but proving to be a consistent companion to me!

Day seven:
We head into Tamesis to change the lock that didn’t work (grrr) and to see if there’s a TV option for Lilia and a better internet coverage approach. Not much luck on any fronts. Still a productive morning getting prices on house stuff like mattresses, TVs, washing machines, etc.

A siesta before the expected arrival of Alejandra and Nelson at 5pm to visit a country house for dinner. We get the news they’re arriving early… in 30 minutes!

As we turn into the driveway of the finca I turn to Paula who’s already smiling to ask her if this is the home that we could see from Alejandra’s and Nelson’s casa. She nods with a bemused look on her face. Not a story for publishing…should be an interesting evening….

Turns out to be a lovely evening. The grounds are absolutely amazing with the various families of the padre living in houses around the huge hand made lake (I’m talking by “hand”). The padre once occupied the little house in the lake that was once only accessible by an electrically operated bridge. Why such limited access you might ask…

The kids and I teach each other English and Spanish. Everyone gets a laugh at my attempts at espanol and everyone is quite amazed at how this vegetariana gringa is surviving in Colombia as they sit down to their plate of beef, chicken and a potatoe!

One thing was for sure, the fake tan wasn’t fooling anyone – I understand when they were saying to Paula that my skin was quite pink! I’d also been brave enough to give Salsa a go with Nelson – it had been a while since the dancing with Ricardo in the Galapagos…a great laugh for us all.

I was very grateful for the invite from Paula and her friends. We may have even scored a trip to a country house in Jardin, which I’d really like to do.

I’d missed a message from Naomi to call home and the shops weren’t going to open for at least another 8 hrs. Messages from the family are few and far between so i went to bed hoping all was well back home. Maybe mum was still worried about my adventures in this country so mysterious to her.

And the second week in Palermo begins….

The next couple of days are a bit of a blur but end in some clear decisions about a way forward.

I get off to the store with international phones as soon as they’re open after another message from Cliffy to call home. I come away numb after the shock news that Uncle Ron has taken his life. My head is spinning.

We have a quiet day up at the house. So much going through my mind. I’m thinking I’d like to be home for the funeral and I’m trying to work out how this can be achieved with the required trip to Manizales to validate my business visa (I only have until Tuesday to do it or the visa is null and void. I know my family don’t expect me to come home but Uncle Ron was a present feature in our lives so I’m feeling the pull to return.

I’m conscious we’re meeting with the builder the next day to get the estimate and that I’ve committed to making a decision about the investment by the end of Sunday. I’m also conscious Paula’s booked in the earthmoving contractor for Monday so that means a trip to Manizales solo, which would be fine if the staff at the Immigration Centres spoke English…which they don’t.

Decision day:

We head off to Juan Pablo’s with Lilia for lunch. A bit of small talk and then we sit down to talk about the plans. While Juan Pablo steps away Paula conveys that it can’t be done as a fixed contract because of the changes being made to the plan. I feel exasperated and my face shows it. Paula conveys her frustration at my response and airs her view that she thinks she should just go it alone. I know it’s a heat of the moment comment but I use it as an opportunity to withdraw from active participation in the conversation.

I don’t really feel much at this stage only perhaps a bit of relief that Paula’s made the statement. She’d said she’d do it alone if I didn’t come in but hadn’t directly said she’d prefer that. At the end of the conversation with Juan Pablo Paula communicates what He estimates for the construction, which I’d been following from their conversation anyway. He also now says it would only take three months with him and three other guys – a big change from his preliminary thoughts. With the fitout of the property it will likely be more than the amount we’d discussed on the coast earlier in the year and for half as much rentable accommodation.

My decision is made, which I communicate to Paula that evening once we’re alone and she’s found me in the park restaurant …the guys on the street had told her where I was as she approached Lilia’s house – everyone knows what la gringa is up to!

I had been mindful how frustrated Paula was getting with my insistence of following the respective rules, getting estimates and working out whether there would be any return on our investment. She was less concerned about these things as was truly happy to just use the project as an experience.

I was also mindful that Paula was relying on the sale of her house in Cali and my contribution for half the land to be able to contribute financially to the project.

I was really questioning whether the small nature of Palermo would make it an attractive tourist destination – unlike nearby Tamesis, which was more lively and seemed to have a moderately more affluent population so a bit cleaner. Paula’s block was relying on the beautiful views of the mountains. Therefore, I thought the build of a place that could be used as a house for Paula and/or bed and breakfast was probably the best approach.

Paula wanted to start the construction in two weeks without the plans approved, which I was not at all comfortable with. It’s one thing for a local to use discretion in the application of the local laws but completely another for a non-national. I was also still not comfortable with the deed showing the purpose as ‘familiar’, i.e. not commercial.

So, I’ve decided not to invest in the property but to lend Paula, for six months or until her house is sold, what I would have invested in the land. This gives her the opportunity to start the project, buy a car over here, etc, reap the benefit of any increase of value in the land since she purchased it 3 yrs ago and for her to have absolute direction of the project. Paula was really happy with the decision as she too felt that we were going to have trouble bringing it home harmoniously given our different expectations and she acknowledged the loan would allow her to get going, which she seemed desperate to do.

I offered to stay on until at least I head off to Cuba in mid June to help where I could – design, landscaping, fitout selection, etc. in between I would do a bit of travel and start the other projects I had in mind. I said I may also come back for the three months after Cuba or may spend the rest of the time travelling. Again, Paula seemed really happy with me hanging around and helping whenever I wanted to.

At the same time the wonderful Bec had been on the job of getting me home for the funeral and back again. My travel insurer is non-committal about what it will do but my conscious isn’t.

So, it was a big pack of all the stuff I don’t need, a three hour journey back to Medellin from Palermo and then dinner at a cute little Mexican joint.

The hostel was really clean and quiet and close to where I would be meeting Monika, my friend Alex’s daughter, before I headed off to the airport.

As I sit having breakfast I feel good about my decisions. I’m honouring my emotions and desire to be home to farewell Uncle Ron, applied good  due diligence on the investment, honoured the commitment I’d made to my wonderful friend Paula and kept the opportunity for more adventures over here alive.

I am looking forward to helping with the build on my return as I know it’s going to be an interesting and colourful process and will be wonderful to see Paula in full flight with these guys!

Hasta el final de la proxima semana Colombia!


A visit to the Tamesis Municipal Government House


A decorative piece in a Tamesis Hotel


“We should climb that Letitia”…..yeh, right!


Rule: pedestrians must give way to cows, horses, tuk-tuks and cars.


…..and another one


They’ve clearly reduced their standards here..


A hip little Tamedis cafe serving teas with herbs and fruit


Lilia’s hidden treasure


Parallel parking outside one of the Palermo pubs


You can’t escape Lycra anywhere. Must be death defying riding a road bike on the dirt and potholed paved roads


Carlos, Tato, Paula (known by everyone as Marcela), Belaria, Nelson and Alejandra


Valentina showing us how you eat a mango that falls from our tree, skin and all!


Entertaining myself while the conversation continues around me…




Resident blue and yellow macaw greets us at the country house



The beautiful grounds at the country house – manually dug lake!


Enter a caption


Alejandra, Sandra, Paula, Luz and Choclo


Lake house – once only accessible by electronically operated draw bridge


A perfect spot for an asado (barbecue)


Elliessa, Sandra, Alejandra and Nelson ….spot the eggplant!


Getting my salsa on with Nelson


Nelson, Paula and Valentina enjoying some candy Easter egg up at our Finca Las Delicias


Thanks Lucey girls….I should be able to find it!


Love capturing the view of Palermo



Workshopping at the bibloteca (library)


The butcher with his meet hung for selection.  Did you spot the old Inter dad?


Enjoying some luck at Juan Pablo in his very old family home – Druvi, Lilia, Juan Pablo, Paulo (?), son and Paula



A great view to help digestion!


The old traditional kitchen using hot coals to cook



Ok, one more aguadiente before we go!


77 year old Lilia leads us back to town



Early morning hike up to the Finca through the clouds to pack


The Potty key ring left for my return….not in the lock obviously!


Everyone in town seems to be a cousin, aunt or uncle of Paula’s needless to say this bit of damage was caused by a cousin, with a wide load on his roof racks!






About Teesh

Out and about, living life to its fullest.
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4 Responses to La Aussie gringa in Colombia: Only one thing is for sure and that is that nothing is ‘for sure’

  1. Kath says:

    Very sad news Teesh – thinking of you and all the family. Kath xx

  2. Maria Lucey says:

    Hi Teesh, sorry I’ve only just read your post tonight. It was wonderful to read that everything has evolved and that you’ve made your decision now, which you obviously feel confident about it. Although the terms of our catch-up in Brisbane are of a sad nature, we’re very excited at the prospect of seeing you. The girls would absolutely love for you to have a sleep over or two, if you can fit it in. Maria x

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