La Gringa in Colombia – the only way is up!

The trip to Salento got off on a funny start. I had misunderstood the bus departure time so I arrived at the bus stop an hour early – some would say that’s not a bad thing for me given my propensity to be more a ‘just on time’ person ….but not when it had meant a 5am start after a big day before!

Uncharacteristically the bus was a little late – they’re generally pretty punctual. As usual I got help from my fellow passengers on where to get off. I was then shuffled onto a minibus once I communicated I wanted to go to Manizales – all the while hoping I was on the right bus!

It was a lovely trip, mostly along the Cauca River. There were a heap of homes with swimming pools on the river’s edge. I was intrigued about the water management that was or wasn’t going on with the pools.

As soon as I hopped off the minibus in Manizales I headed for the Migracion Colombia office. Thankfully the guy I’d been communicating with via email in the week before, Carlos, was working that day. He asked me if I was ‘Leticia’ as soon as I walked in and before I could say a word. Carlos was ever so helpful. He managed to get his supervisor’s approval to waive the $250 fine for not having gotten my ID within the required 15 days. He said I’d have to collect the ID card once it was returned from the capital, Bogota. I said I was heading off to Salento so would be able to come back in five working days. With that he rang his friend in Salento to let her know I would be in town and may need a guide. Super nice guy.

Next stop, bank…..closed! Decided to have a quick look around the major sights in Manizales. It’s a university city and feels quite clean and well organised. The cathedral is known to be one of the tallest in the world but it’s boring exterior gave it a bit of an unfinished look and the plaza with mosaics representing the coming together of the tribes was rather austere. Still there were plenty of people out enjoying the comfortable weather.

I went with a bit of a lucky dip with the street food and was pleasantly surprised I didn’t end up with any chicarron (fried to death pork belly)! I was wrapped to find the caramelised coconut pieces I’d loved when visiting Colombia in 2013!

My morning visit to the bank was reasonably fruitful with one of the staff members having reasonable English. I left with some hope that my account was on its way to being cancelled.

It was a mad dash to make it back for the next bus to Pereira (my connection point for Salento) with the taxi driver giving me a Spanish lesson while I looked on at all the civil construction sites with their humongous drops with no meaningful fall protection – the strip of plastic tape really wasn’t going to achieve a lot….but they all had their hard hats on!

I nearly missed the Pereira stop ….for a change there was no one sitting next to me on the bus for me to hassle. The driver had called something at the stop that didn’t sound anything like ‘Pereira’ to me and it was only when we were taking off again that I saw a small sign saying Pereira above the terminal building entrance. The other passengers soon joined in my cries of “senor, senor” when they realised I hadn’t got off at my stop. With a chuckle from us all I farewelled my fellow passengers.

Found the right bus for Salento and headed off – first time this entire trip that I’d experienced a bus full of tourists. A reminder again how isolated I was in little Palermo. The countryside to Salento was dotted with beautiful homes with varied architectural characteristic representing many parts of the world – Switzerland, Austria, California. Must be money in coffee!

I checked into my hostel and then wandered the streets. The ‘tourist’ bus made sense – the place was very cute but very touristy. I found out in later days that the town had only really made it onto the tourist map ten years earlier after some successful strategic marketing by the first hostel owner. The place was now packed with hostels, tourist shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. Perhaps someone for Paula to chat to for ideas.

I decided to eat in at the hostel owned by a Jewish family (the big Israeli flag at reception gave it away) and had the good fortune of witnessing a kosher blessing (at least that’s what I think the ritual was) by the owners and Jewish guests as I was preparing my food. I love that about travel – new and unexpected experiences!

We experienced a big storm that night, which made me shutter at the thought of my planned hike in the Cocora Valley the next day. Five hours was claimed to be the standard trekking time, which would be miserable in rain or even very muddy tracks.

I headed off in one of the first Willys (jeeps are the form of transport in this town) of the morning to leave the Plaza for the valley.

My room mates had told me their horror story of taking the wrong path along the track, which had them go a further two hours up hill!  I was a little nervous I’d end up in that situation so did my best to keep up with others who’d ventured off at the same time. Of course that didn’t last long as I was stopping frequently to capture the lovely views before me.

I heard a young Australian couple come up behind me with the young woman insisting they would do the trek in four hours and that she was sure they were going the wrong way. I tried to offer my assurance that so far we had stayed true to all of the directions from my hostel and my guide book. She wasn’t convinced and quickly shot past me….I don’t think she was quite living the ambience of the hike.

The hike was a little harder than I had anticipated. Dodging the mud made it a bit slow but the altitude made it even slower. The hike started at around 2 300m (only a hundred meters more than Mt Kosciusko above sea level) and would get to around 2 600m. Shouldn’t have been such a big impact on me but it was causing a bit more huffing and puffing than normal. 

After leaving the valley with the cemetery of wax palms dotting the hills the climb to Acaime, the Colibre Sanctiario, began. The hike had me feeling a little Indiana Jonesish as I crossed log and suspended bridges on the way up. It was lovely to reach the sanctuary and see an abundant number of hummingbirds (colibres) enjoying their freedom (…and to have hot chocolate and cheese!). Also got to see a family of the local cusumbo.

This was the spot that was danger territory for taking the wrong path so I asked the other visitors at the sanctuary if I could tag along with them to ensure I took the right path. Turned out the Spanish tourist, Inez, was with a local guide and he, Julian, was more than happy for me and another Aussie traveller, Chris, to join them.

Back down we went and then took the required path to reach the highest part of the hike. Once on the switchbacks to the top the memories of the hike in the Swiss alps came flooding back. Another ‘I’m so lucky to have this life’ moment!

We reached the top to look across at the lovely mountain that had a peak of 4 800m. Apparently very popular amongst mountaineers….not for this little black duck!

We peeled off for the viewing point of the valley. As indicated in all the tourist literature, it is a rather surreal landscape. The palms are between 60 and 70m in height and each frond extends to about 8 metres. They came to be dotted within the pastures as when the Spanish cut down the other trees to make way for the pastures and to make furniture from the lovely rainforest timber they had no idea what to do with the palms and so they left them there. Without their natural canopy they had grown to these incredible heights.

It had been a lovely morning and with a few hours to kill in the afternoon I wandered around the little town.

The next day I headed off to another hostel further out of town, La Serrana. I was there too early to have my bed so I ventured off to El Ocaso, for a coffee plantation tour.

Colombian coffee is said to be one of the sweetest in the world. I was surprised to learn that Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia make up 75% of the world’s coffee production.

The plants start producing fruit after 18 mths but it takes three years for the completion of the first production. The fruit is grown over two seasons of the year. The plants are chopped off and regenerated every 5 yrs (up to three times), which means the plants last 23 years but have only 14 years of production (the rest is spent in plant development).

A cross bred plant is now used, which was the industry’s solution after a fungus killed all the plants in the 80s and the broga bug killed them all in the nineties (the farmers refer to these times as the crisis and you can see why given the huge investment in coffee).

It was nice to hear that the farmers are required (and apparently regularly inspected) to have a certain percentage of forest within their crops to ensure ecological sustainability.

We got to do a little fruit picking of our own. The pickers take their 10 kg bags to the weighing area where they get 500 pesos (that’s 25c) for every kilogram. Our combined group of about 15 people managed to pick 1 kg in 20 minutes. Needless to say noone in the group was offered a job!

Got to chatting with a lovely Dutch psychologist, Charlotte, who was traveling with her musician partner who was back at the hostel recuperating from a virus he’d picked up.  She gave me some great tips on visiting Leticia in the Amazon, which I hadn’t yet done. 

I negotiated with some homegrown travelers for us to share a ride in the Willy they’d booked – I wasn’t keen on taking the uphill road back to the hostel.

La Serrana was a perfect chill out location. It was an old farm house with cosy lounges and beautiful views. My only other physical activity for the day saw me venture into town to call mum for Mother’s Day. It was lovely to talk to mum and then to Maria and the girls to receive some news from home.

The rain rolled in the next day, which was again perfect chilling weather. I’d been chatting with Sarah throughout the day as we discovered our shared passion of getting a combie for weekend adventures in our home countries. Sarah, a Brit, is over here developing a leadership video for some executives in Bogota. Interesting project with a bit of circus being throw in – Sarah’s background had involved the performing arts.  Some ideas for the safety space!

We headed into town for a few drinks, this time hitching a ride in the back of a ute of a couple who’d passed by us as we were waiting for a Willy. We found a couple of nice spots to enjoy a vino or two. I had a laugh when Sarah recounted her story of partying with a couple of American diplomatics a couple of nights earlier. I had seen the guys wandering through town the night before – pretty conspicuous with their police security flanking them – and had wondered who these ‘special’ people might be.

Time to head for the jungle! I was off to Kasaguadua to stay in an ecolodge. I’d been really looking forward to staying in my ecopod!

I got dropped off at the gates, unlocked it with the hidden key as instructed and started to make my way down through the narrow jungle path. Back in Indian Jones territory! Decided to put the thought of the return uphill journey out of my head for now – I’d face that when I had to.

This place certainly had the wow factor. I couldn’t get over my luck at having this opportunity. The reserve had been bought by two guys (one Colombian and one English) who’d struck up a friendship in Africa at a drumming workshop some 15 years before. The ecolodge had been built in a way that demonstrated you can have all the creature comforts of a home while causing little impact on the environment. So I did all I could do, I swung in a hammock as I surfed the net, read or watched a bit of satellite tv and booked in for another night and then another night!

On the middle day of my stay I climbed out of my hammock to take the morning tour of the reserve that’s offered to guests and visitors. During the tour I learnt that the wax palms I’d seen in Cocora Valley were some 120 years old and not expected to live more than another 20 years old. It really was a cemetery! The ephatytes (eg, bromeliads) on the palms and other plants were an essential part of the ecosystem of this jungle and help keep the water production so essential to the system.

Back in the hammock until I retired for my last night in my pod. I’d loved everything about the accommodation. Still can’t believe it was only $16 Australian including breakfast!

The next morning I braced myself for the hike up the hill with my backpack. I was worried I’d miss the public bus (yep, a Willy) so went faster than I’d have liked and so was quite exhausted when I reached the top. The open jeep certainly helped to cool me down but my fellow passengers were still bemused by my beetroot red face as they climbed into the back of the jeep.

I’d managed to find the spot on the highway to get dropped off for my bus back to Pereira. I arrived into Pereira mid morning so took the advice Carlos from Kasaguadua had given to go to Santa Rosa to experience the termales (thermal pools). I booked my backpack into the bus terminal storage booth for 3,000 pesos for 12 hours ($1.50) and found the bus to get me up there.

Of course, the usual happened and I missed the stop. This time two young guys behind me called to the driver “senor, senor” and as the bus came to a stop they motioned for me to get out and pointed up a hill. Thankfully they’d overhead me mention Santa Rosa termales to the guy who’d been sitting next to me who’d gotten off the bus earlier.

The backdrop at Santa Rosa termales was fantastic but the concrete pools were a little disappointing. I think I had the very natural rocky thermal pools I had visited in Chile in my mind. Nonetheless it was a lovely way to pass the afternoon with the local Colombian travelers…until a big storm came through that had us clearing the pools. A sign to head back to my accommodation.

I made my way back to Pereira and then went out for a bite to eat on what was know by the locals as ‘Calle hambre’ (hungry street). My hopes for a nice vego meal were soon dashed as I saw establishment after establishment selling some kind of meat being roasted on tables on the footpath.

Thankfully it turned out I had a little food angel in Hungry Street – Rueben. A young enthusiast English speaking waiter who’d only been able to offer me veggie sticks and salsa earlier came running after me ‘senorita, senorita, I have found something for you to eat’. Yippee …one thing in the whole street! Turned out to be a Mediterranean sub, which was very tasty! I was very grateful to Reuben who remained very attentive to my drinks needs during my meal – his place was getting my drinks sales as their spotters fee!

My overnight stay was memorable having been woken in the middle of the night by thunder crashing so loudly that my room buddy and I both sat straight up in bed, screaming “what was that?”. I was sure we were experiencing an earthquake but after a minute of the crashing continuing realised it was just a very loud and close storm. Out came the earplugs and I was back to sleep in no time!

I headed back to Manizales having been told my ID wasn’t yet ready for collection but hoping I’d had some luck with the bank account cancellation …not so, although I was promised that it would be all completed by 26 May. Just realised that’s today and I still haven’t received word! Grrr…
I made my way back to La Pintada where I sat and I sat waiting for the Palermo bus. During the wait I had a local guy come up to me to ask if I needed help. We got to chatting and turns out he’d spent a couple of years in England hence spoke pretty good English. He’d returned to Medellin as he’d missed it. We said our farewells and I waved him off as he rode off to Pereira on his motorbike. More waiting and then I see my new friend Jose Grajales is back. He tells me he’d like to give me his phone number in case I get stuck at any time in Medellin and need his help, eg, translating etc.  He said he’d wished he had such a contact when he had arrived in England. How nice is that! We test out the phone number and off he rides again.

A bit more waiting and after 2 hours the bus turns up …did I start this blog by saying they’re generally always on time?…

Rio Cauca

Manizales Cathedral


plaza commeroration of the treaty of the city

Manizales Government House

The hard hats will help them when they fall four floors…???



The Manizales taxi shop!


In the Cocora Valley and on the tail of the hiker ahead

120 yr old wax palms dotting the hills

Indiana Jones territory!

Hunmingbird Sanctuary



Uphill again…

Apparently the 4 800m mountain provides a great hike…I’m sure it does!

Enjoying the hike with Chris (Perth, Aust) and Inez (Spain)

Always room for a few more ‘on’ the Willy

Salento’s pretty painted buildings

Willies (the town’s taxis) waiting for business

Coffee plantation tour at El Ocaso

Considering all my vocation options….coffee picking is not for me!

A friendly farmer offers a lift – couldnt refuse!

The palatial Willy taxis

Arrival at Kasaguadua Reserve

Hammock heaven

Bedroom for a few nights

The tour of the reserve begins

The Willy public bus – farewell Salento

Santa Rosa Termales

About Teesh

Out and about, living life to its fullest.
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