La Aussie Gringa in Colombia – deep breaths

I woke on Monday morning to Tato (Paula’s cousin), Alsides and Cruz Elena draining out the fishpond. The fish were all being sorted and put into big buckets. I was told later that the big ones were going over to Alejandra’s and Nelson’s to be cooked and served at Las Palmas. The shallow pool out near the billiard cabana was then filled and the small fish put in there.

I left them to it and wandered down to the site.

The stairs for the house were giving Paula some grief. She was keen to have them cantilevered from the earth bag walls. Being the overly cautious person that I am I would be inclined to only pursue it once I had some engineering calculations to ensure they’d be strong enough for the potential weight of the likely foot traffic. Paula was also trying to work out the position of the stairs to ensure they gare access at the right spot.

Paula had received news from the Council that the plans were ready for collection so she headed to Tamesis in the afternoon. Alas, it looked like some more paperwork was required to gain the approval. It was all still showing the original construction – Paula planned to submit revised plans reflecting the current structure before the final approval was given.

The duck must have been feeling a bit lost with the change in pond because that night as I was preparing tea it decided to waddle up the steps and into the living room. Alsides, Cruz Elena and Valentina must have all been wondering from the back house who it was I was talking to as I was trying to shoo it out!

The English class on Tuesday had some more guys turn up. I was disappointed more women hadn’t turned up but on my way up to the library I’d passed a couple of women from the previous class waiting for something at the school so perhaps they’d be back the next week. I was still pretty happy that anyone was turning up!

I’d mentioned I would be away for a week and with that some of the adults requested an extra class – Thursday it was.

I went off to Tamesis in search of some cheap work pants – the mosquitos had me beat so I had been wearing my one and only good pair of travel pants on the job! I  finally had the honour of being the poor person in the middle of the front seats in the taxi ride back to Palermo. Let me just say it was a much more comfortable ride with the handbrake off – the driver was a tad embarrassed when we stopped for petrol and he had to reach for the handbrake again!

Great roll up for both kids classes in the afternoon. They were all very enthusiastic and asking me lots of questions about me and Australia. They were asking me what my favourite food was and with that I explained I was vegetarian – a group ‘ooooooo’ ensued.  Pretty rare in this meat loving country!

The caretakers at Las Delicias, Alsides and Cruz Elena have been really good to me while I’ve stayed up at the house by myself. They had recently asked to borrow a very small amount of money for a week. I really feel for them living week to week but I was glad to be giving Valentina and Cruz Elena the English classes at home as I knew they couldn’t get to the classes at the library. We’ve come to trading food. They give me produce from the property – lemons, plantain, guanabana and I give them things bought from town like eggs and milk. I wish I could think of a way to help them more.

That afternoon Andrea’s mum sent a plate of dessert to me in thanks of Andrea’s English lessons. I had no idea what it was. Guanabana (a popular fruit) was mentioned by Andrea when she dropped it off but I could only pick up coconut flavour. It was certainly sweets night as Cruz Elena also delivered a dessert that evening – creamed rice, one of my favourites!  I was certainly being spoilt up on the hill!

As I left in the morning I noticed the two dogs and cat resting in the shade as the turtle wandered past – much to my surprise they seemed to all be living in harmony.

I had decided that it was probably time for me to shift down to Palermo. The gnawing rat in the ceiling seemed to be getting closer to breaking through and I wasn’t quite ready for that experience. I knew I’d miss the peace, tranquility, constant birdsong, the beautiful vista and Cruz Elena, Alsides and Valentina but I also knew I wouldn’t miss the resident bathroom bat, the incessant insects and the duck going off at 5:30am every morning!

I was in two minds about whether I’d miss the hike up. While it was a hard slog it was hopefully helping to balance the potential weight gain from all the food I was trying and the refreshing cervecas! I had been very grateful to Paula’s cousin, Tato, for letting me stay there.

I was continuing to feel a little useless at the site. The guys were getting paid around 50,000 pesos a day ($25) so I wasn’t really saving Paula a lot by helping with the earthbags and if the advice wasn’t value adding I figured my presence was probably not really needed. I’d done some research on Providencia Island so that was looking like my destination for the next week.

Palermo’s streets were being working on so water was being turned off at certain times each day. Of course you weren’t told when it might be! Las Delicias with its water fed from natural springs was looking like a better option after all.

I could hear announcements from Palermo church that evening that contained the word “agua” but I had no idea if they were  announcing they now had the water on or when they might get it again.

Friday seemed to come around very quickly. I’d been unable to get the flights I wanted to Isla Providencia so I had to put that on hold until after the upcoming trip with Cliffy.

Paula had arranged for drinks with the work crew on the Friday night. It was fun having a dance with Jaime and Humberto. Negro didn’t show up, which was surprising.

We extricated ourselves from the work crew after a while to find ourselves drinking at a bar (well a door) at the back of the bar – I didn’t even know it was there. We spent a few hours drinking with our new friend Juan Nicholas and his young sons. Paula was taken by their horses (they’d ridden in from their finca about 6kms out of town) so of course ended up going for a ride.

I spent most of Saturday just chilling so when I woke on Sunday I felt I needed to do something. Emelio from my English class had invited me to his spa, Vitall, so I decided to visit. Popo took me down there in the tuk tuk and I was greeted with kisses from Emelio and his assistant Carmen. They told me the program for the day … I had understood sauna, piscina (pool) and something to do with tierra (I was thinking mud).

I was very close. I joined a couple who were staying at the spa (teachers from Medellin) for some pranayama breathing meditation in the sauna (with the occasional spray of cold water from Emelio). We also did a bit of reflexology and shoulder and back massage on each other.

We were then moved to the pool for a bit of Aqualates and chakra alignment. We were encouraged to do some deep breath sinking in the pool before being led out to an area under the palm trees for a coating of mud! After the removal of the mud we were fed a delicious meal before adjourning to the hammocks for an afternoon siesta.

Emelio showed us the Finca he owned across the road and the land on which he was hoping Paula could help him construct some earthbag houses. What a day … glorious!

When I got home Paula told me the news that Negro had decided he didn’t want to work on the project any more  Paula was a little relieved as he’d been a little troublesome the last couple of weeks – doing stuff the way he wanted rather than as per Paula’s instructions.  She thought she had someone to replace him so that was a relief as the job really needed at least three full time workers on it.

I headed up to Las Delicias with Popo. Surprisingly it was just the two of us in the tuk tuk for a change. You know what that meant – it was me out to push this time! I found the house a mess with Elkin’s son and his friends having had quite a party over the weekend. They’d gotten into my vodka, my door lock had been fiddled with and they were helping themselves to my food so I was glad I’d gone up there. It was another long weekend so they’d be gone on the Monday…deep breaths!


The older kids’ English class



The clouds move in over ten minutes


The bat poo has the bathroom basin growing into a garden!



Paula and Jaime chillin’



Negro, Jaime and Humberto






Out for drinks with the work crew



The exclusive ‘back door bar’ with Juan Nicholas, his son and one of his workers



Loving the serenity at Emelio’s Vitall Spa





Emilio giving his horses a treat of honey 


A visit to Emelio’s finca across the road from the Spa accommodation








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La Aussie Gringa in Colombia – solo en Palermo

Luis Carlos had given Paula the news over the weekend that he’s accepted a job further away. I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t prefer to stay here and continue digging trenches by hand!!

I’d developed a cold with a pretty bad cough so didn’t make it to the job on Monday and instead used the time to prepare for the English classes scheduled for the next day – I was working on optimism that I’d have a few more students. The questions of me by women and kids in the town had suggested I would but I’d been there before!

Turns out the notices had worked. Four women turned up for the morning class and two young guys had been brave enough to turn up and ask if they could join the class…how could I refuse such enthusiasm? I wasn’t too popular for not having offered a class for the men. I reasoned with Paula that if they were keen enough they’d get their partners and kids to share their learnings with them. I did admit though that part of it was motivated by my observation that the men spent a lot of time sitting around together while the women were stuck at home.

It was an interesting class given my limited ability to answer any questions they had but we struggled through, with the occasional use of Google translate for me to give an answer, and they seemed keen to come back the next week.

As for the kids, I arrived spot on time. One of my little friends who lived near Lilia’s was standing out front of the library exclaiming “muchas estudiantes”. I wandered into a class of about 40 kids. We had a fun time but it was a bit challenging to manage the big class with a big age range so I decided to split it for the following week. Thankfully when I explained this at the end of the class the majority seemed to understand and any that were unsure approached me after class to confirm the class they should attend. They were all so cute.

Back on the job on Wednesday. When I arrived I met the two new members of the work crew – Hernan and Humberto.

It was great to have the extra hands as I’d estimated it would take around seven weeks per level if there were only two guys working on the earthbag filling. Humberto and Hernan were mainly tasked with mixing the soil, water and concrete. It was tough work for anyone let alone someone who’s 70 (except my dad) and it was clear throughout the week that Hernan was struggling.

The timber frames marking out the position for the doors had gone in so it was really taking shape.

We had a stormy night and a misty morning followed. While the workers on site wouldn’t have been able to see me coming down from Las Delicias in the clouds but I’m sure they heard me as I coughed away. The site was very wet and it started to rain. I wasn’t keen to make my cold worse so I bailed and Paula joined me. I used the rest of the morning to sort out the change in times on all the posters in the shops.

By Friday Hernan had had enough. He let Paula know he was ‘just a simple farmer’ and that the work was too much for him. With that she gave him the job of tidying up the plants around the site for the rest of the day, which he was very happy to do.

I was getting a bit frustrated with the use of the people power – seemed very inefficient and anyone who knows me well knows I abhor inefficiency. Paula was getting equally as frustrated with my frustration. I sensed I might be being more a hindrance that a help so decided it might be a good time to take a trip away. I started to put my mind to where I’d like to go next – so many options – Caribbean coast or its islands.

My mid week classes with Cruz Elena and Valentina were going really well. They were greeting and farewelling me in English, which was great to hear. The neighbour’s nine year old daughter, Andrea, had now joined in on the home classes. We’d had a new member introduced to the family at Las Delicias – Pinky the tortuga (tortoise)! Pinky had been found by Alsides in the Las Delicias jungle while he was clearing. They were keen to know what it could eat so I did the old Dr Google things and tried to find the right species and its dietary habits. I then spent 10 minutes in the kitchen pousting to all the things it could be fed and mimicking earthworms….funny how you manage to get your message across. I was secretly hoping they’d release it back up to the jungle.

Friday night was spent in Palermo. I’d found out from the bakery that they make pizza bases on the weekends. We visited on Friday night asking for a pizza but they communicated that they don’t sell pizzas – only bases. They found a random kid in the street to take us to a house that makes and sells pizza. I made the order and returned in half an hour to collect it. Funny sitting in their lounge room waiting for my takeaway pizza, chatting to a Jehovah Witness couple who were keen to show me on the computer in the lounge room a video about an Australian family from their clan that travelled around Australia selling the good word.  I communicated I was atheist to which I got a lot of silent nodding  I hoped they hadn’t seen it as an opportunity to help me see ‘my wrongs’.

We ordered a few beers at one of the tiendas and ate our yummy vego pizza. Lilia turned up with her friends. They all looked so cute – it was like a little people’s club!

The vibe certainly changed on Saturday when the family arrived from Cali for the Mother’s Day weekend celebrations. I was intrigued at how we were all going to fit in Lilia’s little two bedroom apartment. I had volunteered to stay up at Las Delicias but Paula insisted the family were all keen for me to share the weekend with them. So with that, all nine of us squeezed into the apartment for the weekend. They were such a social lot that there was generally not more than five people in the house at any one time.

A Colombian rider had come second in the Italian Giro cycling and the town was abuzz with the news. Guiri Guiri, a colourful Palermo farmhand, decides it calls for a Palermo cycling challenge. Just as he’s joking with us about it at the tienda next to Lilia’s a random cyclist rides into town. He puts the challenge to him and the rider accepts. The local truck driver jumps in his jeep with the loud speaker attached and travels around the town’s streets announcing the challenge.

Guiri Guiri and the random cY list ride out of town with a police escort. The random cyclist is given a considerable distance handicap for the ride. Not sure how fair it was as the random cyclist had probably already ridden 50kms.

We’re all waiting eagerly as the local truck driver drives into town announcing on the speaker that Guiri Guiri is in the lead. The town cheers him on as he rounds the square. What could possibly follow this? Races in the street of course, bets and all. Sprinting, cycling and even sack races! The winning kids were also getting paid to ensure the betters had the entertainment. Hilarious! As one of Paula’s family members said – “solo en Palermo” (only in Palermo)!


Hernan and Hunberto join the work team



The assault on the rock continues!


Valentina and Cruz Elena bring Pinky over to my place for introductions


Must have felt like prising with that balustrading!


First English class with the women and the two young men who were brave enough to show up and ask to attend


They breed the moths big in these parts – check it out next to a gas lighter!


Not so hot today!


Door frames going in bring it to life



Starting to really become prominent on my walk down from Las Delicias



Popo delivers the concrete bags to site 



A bit of earthbag yoga!



Lilia and her little friends


Chilling with Paula’s nieces, Valentina and Juanita


Paula’s sister, Liliana, with daughter, Juanita, and partner Auguenio 


Guiri Guiri takes the lead in the impromptu Palermo Challenge


Paula and her eldest sister Omaira


Spending time with some of the numerous aunts and uncles that live in Palermo


The finish line is drawn and the bets are on!


This is what $AUD50K will buy you in Colombia


Some fresh potatoe crisps from the street stall – perfect with my mechalata!


Quad bike safety is high on the agenda over here …not …four kids and the driver on this one


Most of the Velasquez Sierra clan – Lilia, Paula, Omaira, Augenio, Gloria, Liliana and Valentina


The favourite aunt!



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La Aussie Gringa in Colombia – solid as a rock!

It was clear that more people were needed to get the place finished within a reasonable time so Luis Carlos joined the team on the Monday of week two. He was an older worker, sixty-five from memory, and wiry but as strong as an ox. He was a real asset because he understood the construction process and so in the absence of Juan Pablo, who was off working on a project in Medellin, he was able to help with establishing the levels – a godsend.

The dynamite guy was brought back for another three sticks of dynamite. It was always exciting as we took cover for the dynamite explosions but alas it just wasn’t getting into the rock enough.

The chipping away of the rock continued until it was clear the dynamite guy was going to be needed again. Rocks are always so much deeper than they appear. So the trench digging and bag filling continued around it. The first four levels required a mixture of soil, concrete and water so it took some time to complete each layer.

The dynamite guy made it back in the afternoon and let off another three sticks of dynamite leaving the guys to dig out the debris before he applied any more. This time the neighbour’s dog had wandered onto the site while the dynamite was about to be let off so it was a little nerve wracking as he was called back to the house.

This was all extremely hard manual work, particularly in the heat. The manual work of the Burma-Thai railway comes to mind! What took three people a week could have been done in less than half day by a machine but as the guys said “what would we do?”. That constant tension between productivity, safety and jobs!

Paula and I finally cracked open our champagne that evening to celebrate our first day together on the project. It was exciting times with what seemed a pretty clear picture of where it was all heading.

Seemed others were keen to join in on the party! Paula headed off to bed earlier than me as usual only to come out five minutes later exclaiming there is a bat in her room! We did our best to move it on through the window but it just kept circling and circling – regardless of whether we had the lights on or off. Eventually we managed to coax it out.

The earthbagging (not sure that’s a real word but if not it is now!) continued through the week while Luis Carlos pretty much stuck to digging the trenches. I was getting quite frustrated by the bagging process as it seemed we could be doing it so much quicker with a three person work team rather than two teams of two which involved a lot of down time for the person waiting for the buckets to fill the earthbags. We tried a few different approaches and seemed to strike a reasonably efficient method in the end.

We essentially had two guys on the earthbag filling with additional support from us. By my calculation of what had been achieved with two workers on earthbags so far, it was going to take seven weeks to complete each level with the earthbags (assuming we’d need 13 layers of bags per level)….a long time for the two levels!

I scooted off the job around lunchtime on Friday to get to the English class that Paula had arranged for me to deliver. Disappointingly only two girls turned up – one of them being the seven year old daughter of a mum who had asked me in a Palermo shop if her daughter could go to the classes. Neither of the two girls were part of the group of kids who had asked Paula for the classes to be provided.

I wasn’t going to be defeated! I knew the kids were keen and I felt the women would really benefit if they were to have a go. So I checked with the library on possible times I could deliver the classes and then I prepared a flyer advertising a class for women and a class for kids.

I put copies of it up in the library and the doors of shops around the town (with the shopkeepers’ permission of course). Even the shopkeepers were inquisitive with one handing me her phone which had her daughter on the other line. Her daughter explained she was living in Miami and wanted to bring her eight and fourteen year old over but couldn’t until they could speak English. The fourteen year old was getting English lessons in Medellin but the eight year old is living in Palermo with his grandmother and not developing any English experience. She offered to pay me to teach him but I explained I’m not qualified and only giving the voluntary lessons to give very basic English. She seemed disappointed but I really didn’t want to take it on. I mentioned it to Paula as a potential job for her.

We stayed in Palermo for a few drinks on Friday night. We met a guy who had been on a big cycle ride that had ended in Palermo and who was having a drink with some of Paula’s friends. His name was Jose Miguel. I was pleased when I heard him say “these empanadas are a bit greasy”…an English speaker!!! I detected an American accent in his English and it took a while before he admitted he’d learnt while living in the States for a short time.

Jose Miguel lived in Rio Negro (near the Medellin airport) and owned a country house nearby. He invited us to come for lunch over the weekend. He seemed nice enough so we said we’d be in touch and we headed off to the bar where we could have a dance.

It was Friday night but a bit cool so not many people around. I managed to coax the local on duty police officer, Jose Alvarez, into dancing a bit of salsa with me. It was my first attempt with a partner since my trip in 2013 so a little clumsy but it was fun all the same.

Paula worked at the block on Saturday mornings but I had decided I wouldn’t be working on my weekends.

I had invited Lilia to come to Jericho with me so we took off with Popo in the tuk tuk to the spot the transport office has told me the bus to Jericho would stop at 10am. On arrival to the spot Popo asked the property owner across from the bus stop if the bus stopped at 10am. He informed Popo not on Saturdays; next bus was 12pm. Popo then offered to drive us there and back in the tuk tuk and to give us three hours in the town – 80,000 pesos ($40) sounded like a good deal so off we went.

The trip was a bit longer than the hour suggested but it was lovely scenery all the way. Lilia went into mother mode and started enquiries about places that sold vegetarian food – they’re always so limited here but I can generally scrummage  something from a menu even if it’s just salad and rice. Turns out the place she picked was her cousin’s restaurant…no surprises there! These Sierras and Valesquezes seemed to be good breeders! From what I could understand (remembering Lilia can’t speak a word of English), Lilia’s family (mum, dad, etc) were from Jericho.

Jericho was a pretty little town and it was Saturday so the fruit market in the square and the cafes were buzzing. We visited the church which honoured Saint Laura, a nun from the area who had been canonised for her good work, particularly with indigenous kids from Colombia.

Lilia then gave me a tour around town – the cemetery where her family members were buried, the hospital, the semenary and the famous Jericho leather shops (surprisingly no purchases by me – was very traditional styles and not quite my thing). When we met up with Popo we asked that he take us up to the hill to the Christa Rey statue, with which he happily obliged.

The trip back was just as lovely, this time getting a better look at the number of waterfalls that just fell beautifully down the mountains. We passed the lovely Rio Frio where some locals were camping and enjoying the fresh water.

When I arrived home Paula said Jose Miguel and his country house property manager, Carlos, was picking us up in five minutes to go to Tamesis. A super quick shower (not hard when it’s cold water only) and off we went. After a beer in the park we stopped by La Candeleria for a few wines and some tapas. I was pretty tired and glad when it was decided it was time to head home. Then Jose Miguel convinced us that we should stop for a quick drink at his favourite bar in Tamesis. It was certainly more than ‘a drink’ – I don’t know how many aguadientes later we finally left. The bar had certainly filled by 10:30pm – we’d arrived at 9pm and I enjoyed picking the one and only non-South American song on the juke box – Men at Work, I come from the land down under.

Of course by this time Palermo had come alive and at least 300 of the 4 200 population seemed to be in the park bar dancing salsa. We had no chance of sleep with Lilia’s so close to the park so if you can’t beat them…

A big night so feeling average the next morning then we get the invite to Jose Miguel’s for a swim. I was in two minds but the chance to have a swim was too enticing so agreed to go along.

Jose Miguel’s country house was lovely. It was designed by his wife, who was an architect before she passed away some 20 years ago. The house was huge with nine bedrooms and six bathrooms. Even the horse shed looked good! We chilled by the pool and just as we were heading inside to make lunch Jose Miguel announced he was off to a friend’s place for an hour or so.

We made ourselves at home on the patio to eat what we’d prepared in the kitchen and then chilled by the pool. One hour passed and then two. I was starting to get a little nervous we’d be stuck there for the night – he’d been eager that we just stay but I had no intention of staying. I suggested we ring Popo but Paula thought it best to wait a bit longer. After another half an hour went by and then Pauls called Jose Miguel. He said he was on his way. He arrived back and we realised he expected us to get our own way home so we tried calling Popo but couldn’t get a hold of him. Jose Miguel was making no signs he would drop us back into town so I suggested we walk up the road to the main road and try and hail down a taxi or two motos (the taxi motorbikes). Thankfully Jose Miguel then offered to take us back. It had been a mixed experience – his hospitality was generous but not sure on his motives. I was glad to be back in Palermo.

Thankfully I was back in time to make it up to Las Delicias before it got dark.

Another week of interesting experiences in Colombia!


The first view of the site from the road down from Las Delicias




Work on the retaining wall continues


The work team – Juan Pablo, Jaime, Paula, Negro and Luis Carlos


Celebration sparkling for day one on the project together


Chocolato pleading for some of my lentils!


The misty morning path to site from Las Delicias



Need to remind myself to bend my knees!



Luis Carlos attacking the rock!




Negro giving the bags a tamp after he’s pretty much flattened them with his body weight!




The dynamite guy doing his stuff!


Taking cover


Better but a bit of digging out required before the next round of dynamite


My first two eager students – disappointed more didn’t show up given their requests


New strategy required given word of mouth didn’t work


Love an impromptu park empanada stall!


Just the average Palermo traffic


Arrival in Jericho with Lilia




Lilia showing me the sights


Honouring Saint Laura for her work with indigenous kids



Not many of these oldies around Dad



Glad I had the van for your stall Lea!




Catching the views of Jericho from the Christa Rey





The plantations lining the mountains



Some campers enjoying Rio Frio


Palermo and the Farallones in the distance


Random waterfalls cascading down the mountains



Popo and Lilia




Enjoying the full moon from La Candalaria


Locals out partying on the town’s chiva



Enjoying Jose Miguel’s lovely country house







Even the horse stables were lovely




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La Aussie Gringa in Colombia – it’s in the bag!

Back in Palermo after my little trip away. The visit to the Acaime hummingbird sanctuary had cemented my desire to commission a painting from Tato. Birds are his specialty so we negotiated a deal over a few drinks on Friday night. He was excited by the prospect of the commission (and no doubt the money for food … just like all struggling professional artists).

Work had started on the house on what was a very wet Tuesday in the week of my return to Palermo.

A visit to the block on the Saturday resulted in some introductions to Juan Pablo’s team. There were two guys – Negro (I was secretly and unrealistically hoping the nickname was based on his surname being ‘Black’) and Jaime (a young guy who happened to live in the house across the Las Delicias road from Paula’s block).

Paula had decided not to do any further excavation at the site and to go with the original planned position of the house (although it had to be moved a bit to fit so ended up over a very large rock). She had also changed her mind on the construction material deciding to now go with the two level four bedroom, five bathroom house in earthbag construction.

The work so far had consisted of digging some foundations, locating and connecting the two water tanks, which were fed from a spring on Paula’s brother’s property, and constructing the front retaining wall (supporting the house’s front corridor).

The local pyrotechnic had been brought in to blow up the big rock that had to go to make way for foundations and the slab. He’d had a go with three sticks of dynamite and then the guys had chipped away at it with their rudimentary tools (picks and crowbars) but it was clearly not sufficiently cleared for the slab and foundation levels. More dynamite would be required.

It was a cruisy weekend back in Palermo. A lovely early Saturday evening dinner at Las Palmas (Alejandra and Nelson’s restaurant). They had just had an area beside the restaurant cut for the construction of holiday accommodation. I found out later the plan is for eight ensuited bedrooms. They had told me when I had my first meal at Las Palmas that they constantly get asked if they have accommodation available for guests…so they are attempting to meet the market demand.

Sunday was spent in Tamesis. I got a well needed fringe trim, a hair wash and partial blow dry for 6,000 pesos (AUD $3.00)! On a wander past Hilton’s place he invited us in to show us his eclectic collection of stuff – hand crafted furniture and lamps. He thought I’d make a good sales assistant for his fruit kiosk out the front so asked me to do a work trial. I obliged and got some good feedback from the passing locals…my new vocation? “Aguacate, aguacate … delicias aguacate!”

We lunched in our favourite spot for the usual menu of the day – fish, salad, rice, beans and fruit juice (all for a killer AUD $4) – and then finished the day with the grocery shopping before waiting for a full collectivo taxi to head back to Palermo. The taxi trip costs 12,000 pesos ($6) and you share the cost between the number of passengers – any extras over four passengers means an extra 3,000 for the driver – so, the poor person in the front seat gets to share it with a fellow passenger. Thankfully, I’d yet to have that pleasure!

Paula was mainly staying in Palermo now because of the early starts at the site. I knew I wouldn’t be getting there at 6:30am no matter how close I stayed to the site so I decided to stay up at Las Delicias.

Paula returned to the house while I was getting my stuff ready to inform me that the kids had been asking again when I was going to do English lessons so she has gone with them to the library and booked me in for a class on Friday afternoon. Looked like my vocation was changing once again!

I arranged for Popo to pick me up in his Moto carro (tuk tuk). It was looking like it would be a very social trip as we picked up his father and his nephew and headed out of the Palermo centre. I soon realised the motive behind the extra passengers. The moto carro really struggled up some of the inclines of the road to Las Delicias because the ground was quite wet from recent rain, which resulted in a fair degree of slippage on the moto carro’s front tyre (which travelled on the middle grass/rock strip). No problem when you have dad and your nephew in the car – they just get out and push you up the hill!


First day of the job…just a tad wet and misty!




The string lines are out and work on the retaining wall begins



Negro getting his back into the concrete, soil and water mixing



Negro’s dog, Nino, hard at it!




Tato pitches in, proving painting hasn’t turned his hands soft



Juan Pablo and Paula using the water filled clear hose to get the levels right



The deal is done…4 months to deliver my colibres!



Ever the serious artist –  posing in front of a commission underway for Paula’s sister, Omaira



Enjoying the serenity at Las Palmas



Getting in on the Sunday groove in the Tamesis Plaza Parque




Hilton gives me a trial for a fruit kiosk assistant job


Delivery day for the Tamesis supermarket…not quite the branding of Coles or Woolies!



Squeezed in for the trip back to Palermo – loving the view of the much loved  Antioquian mullet


Off to Las Delicias in Popo’s tuk tuk


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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

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La Aussie gringa in Colombia – accelerated Spanish

I was very happy I’d gone home for the short trip. A sad farewell but comforting to discover some facts that point to Uncle Ron’s death more likely being  unintentional.  Mental illness comes in many guises and sadly most of us don’t have the understanding and tools to equip us to detect and help where we can.  An area very much deserving of the effort going into community education. 

Well, it was no short trip back to Palermo. After 40 hours airline travel, a one hour trip into Medellin and a 3 hour drive out to Palermo, with Paula’s non-English speaking cousin Elkin, I had to jump on a horse to get up to Las Delicias with my gear. You just never know what’s going to happen next in Colombia!

The next morning I was getting ready to head down to meet Paula in Palermo. Valentina and her little girlfriends were using our patio table to do their homework. One of them wandered over to my room and said something containing the words piedra, caminar, casa and anaconda. Now you don’t have to be any expert in the Spanish language to get a grasp of what that involved. Given my phobia of snakes this could be the shortest trip to Palermo ever! I tried to communicate with Cruz Elena to confirm there was an anaconda on a rock on the walk up to the house. “Si, si, grande”. Again, not what I want to hear!

Just as my heart rate is rising at incredible speed Paula phones to find out when I’m coming to town. Ahhh….like never – where’s the helicopter! In what must have seemed a garbled message I relayed what I thought they’d said. She was well aware of my phobia having been told by me on my arrival to Colombia not to tell me if she saw a snake unless it was necessary for my own safety. I pass her over to Cruz Elena. Again “Si, si”. Not good! Paula confirms with me the girls did see a snake and that it was very big but it was on the short cut the girls take through the paddock, which I had declined to take for what now seem well founded reasons.

I steel myself and head off down the hill. I jumped many a time at little sounds and the sight of blackened sticks that appeared on the path but made it down without a sighting to my great relief. Will only be taking the hike up in daylight now so given its a 30 minute climb I’ll need to keep ahead of myself with my planning!

It was an easy day in town eating, drinking and chatting with the locals (or mainly ‘listening in my case).

Of course I was happy for Paula to take the lead in the hike up the hill that afternoon Yes, it might come as a shock but I’m not above sacrificing a friend or two in a bid to preserve my sanity!

Paula had the earthmoving operator in while I was back in Australia. I really felt the block needed more cutting for the house pad to maximise the wonderful view that was available. We chatted about it and did a bit more playing with the pad siting until Paula was relatively happy. I also asked that she consult her engineer friend, Carlos, as he seemed to have a creative but practical approach from what I’d observed so far.

A big storm rolled in that night. The rainy season had arrived so the storms were apparently nightly. We had a huge lightening strike at what felt like metres from us with both of letting out a scream and grabbing each other. With that Paula went to bed and I stayed up to enjoy the show – I knew jet lag was going to prevent immediate sleep anyway.

A visit to nearby Tamesis the following day was highly productive with the purchase of a lock for my room and a thin foam mattress that would hopefully enable me to sleep a bit better. We also dropped into the mother of one of Paula’s boyfriends from her school years. We ended up giving them some design advice as they were midway into a renovation and were struggling to work out where to put their bathroom given the walls that had now been constructed. Not great planners these Colombians. It’s a ‘get started and work it out along the way approach’. This approach was going to be costly as our strongly recommended solution involved cutting a hole for a doorway in the newly constructed masonry wall!

After the big food shop there was no other choice but a jeep ride up to Las Delicias. The slipping and sliding of the jeep in 4WD confirmed there was no chance of either of us making it up there in a car without risking our lives! The anaconda wins on this one!

The next day was spent mainly in the square. Juan Pablo had attempted to take off with my backpack in his haste to catch his bus – my cries of “Juan Pablo mi mochilla, mi mochilla” had him returning embarrassed by his mistake.

Later that night over a few beers at Las Delicias with Carlos and Tato I started discussions with Tato on a possible art commission. Tato is a talented artist with his art being commissioned from all around the world but of course struggled with the usual low income of an artist. I thought of piece of art by Tato might be a nice momento of my trip.  His forte is the beautiful birds and foliage of South America. Cliffy’s contribution to the decision-making through the suggestion of a nude was later withdrawn when I mentioned I was good with that as Tato was not a bad looking rooster!

The next couple of days were spent at our house on the hill as I tried to sort out my visa issues. It looked like I had to get the identification card because I had the business visa and that I was up for a $250 penalty for not getting it within the required 15 days. A bit of a blow as $250 was what I was spending each week to live in Colombia. I started to think through my strategy for getting to Manizales to sort it all out. The upside to that was that I hadn’t yet visited this mountainous university town and it was close to the famed coffee region of Colombia, which was also home to Cocora Valley – forest of the world’s tallest wax palms.

The rain was really settling in and it was reeking havoc on the dirt road that leads to Paula’s place, which is the road delivery trucks would need to use. Paula commandeered her friend Tato and a couple of other workers to help build a trench down the side of the road to channel the water and plant a few fruit trees on the block. Of course it didn’t rain for days after that.

Later in the day we found out that a naturist country house owner had introduced anacondas into the region. Apparently they get up to five metres in length and very thick. Great; la Aussie gringa strangled to death in Antioquian department of Colombia. I was getting very encouraged to explore other areas while Paula waited for the builder to start.

We had Elkin and Diana’s eldest son, Juan Estavan, staying with us up at Las Delicias. Seems he’d chosen the peace and quiet of the finca to cook up a storm during his holidays. Was lovely to hear some classical music being enjoyed by a young twenty something. 

I had delayed my trip to Manizales long enough to go to the annual Santa la Cruz mass that everyone had been talking about. It was half about the mass and half about how you get there (being an atheist I was driven by the latter). The privileged would go by horse, some by car and then those of us crazy enough, by foot. Paula had secured one of her cousin’s horses albeit the less lively one that I had ridden.

I got down to Palermo bright and early in preparation to meet some walking buddies (or at least I was hoping I’d have some given its a five to six hour walk each way). I arrive to the happy greeting of “ah Lettie” from Lilia. Paula’s mum was the only person I’d ever let get away with using the traditional shortened name for Letitia. Alas that day my fellow walkers would also slip into its use … without objection from me.

Turns out I wasn’t early enough and my potential walking buddies had already set off. I scoffed down the last of my breakfast and jumped on the back of a motor bike to catch the group.

Half way down the road my akubra flies off – not the best head protection for a fall on the rocky roads.

I meet up with my walking buddies. Lucci (resident of the lake house), her sister Marta and their friends Nelson and Diana. Lucci spends part of her year in Miami so speaks English quite well.

We do a bit of immediate bonding with questions on whether we ride the kangaroos in Australia. I initially convey to them ‘only in the suburbs because of the traffic in the city’ but then fill them in on the true facts. I also think it might be a short hike with my new friends as they ask me questions about religion in Australia and my particular faith…had to come clean to these Catholics that I was in fact an atheist. To my delight I don’t become an outcast. 

I was forced yet again to rely on my Spanish and I wasn’t doing too bad. I’d actually managed to get an understanding of Nelson’s occupation and the production at the Tamesis water treatment facility, his workplace, all on my own. Feeling proud of myself!  I was always grateful when people used a slower speech, which is not at all customary in Colombia.

After five hours of uphill walking we arrived at the mass location, high up into the mountains. Enough time to have a few cerveca at the nearby Fonda … thankfully Marta’s partner was there with his car to take us the five minutes drive as I was beat!  Fun times at the Fonda watching some school kids getting into their dance – some liked to get a good bum wiggle up and others less so.

We then take our spot on the hill and the towns’ people start to pile into the natural amphitheatre. My new little friend Yehson (‘Jason’) turns up. We’d become buddies since I’d paid for him and his friends to have a bit of internet access at the general store a few days before.

Our crew starts to open their plantain wrapped lunch and I pull out my pre-prepared salad and tostadas. I see the curious faces as I spread my vegemite so I explain we grow up on the stuff and that it’s a great source of vitamin B. Everyone gets a taste on some tostadas – they’re not sold on it. Nelson decides it’s made from kangaroo poo.

A bag of beers arrive to Lucci – should be an interesting walk home – thank goodness it’s all down hill!

The mass starts. It involves saying a particular verse over and over again until ‘Jesus’ (‘hesoos’) has been said a thousand times and the distribution of the sacraments. I don’t make it to the end without needing to pee! I join Lucci when she says she’s going to the bathroom. Hadn’t quite picked up it was going to be a small clearing in the rainforest full of ticks. I was really hoping I wouldn’t end up with an unauthorized passenger as I wasn’t sure who I’d get to do the extraction …should be evident what I mean!

It had stuck me today just how devoutly religious Colombians are. Nearly everyone wears a cross or a medallion of a saint. Funny dice hang alongside rosary beads, few people go past a roadside spiritual statue without crossing themselves, houses are filled with biblical statues snd paintings and candles burn in honour of their religious leaders. The church bells ring regularly with mass held numerous times a day and the priest uses the church loud speaker to preach god’s lessons to his parishioners. It strikes me that the level of workshop is akin to that of what we see in our Muslim community.

We start to head back to town in Marta’s car but the beautiful landscape (that gives Switzerland a good run for its money) is calling me so I get out half way and jog/walk my way down.

Today I felt like I had been treated as a member of the community and not just a traveller passing through (though I doubt they’ve had any of those anyway). The smiles from the people who recognised me and the shy kids who were now asking me to help them learn English was gratefully welcomed.

I had hardly seen Paula through the day as she’d been enjoying time with her fellow riders and, I discover later in the evening, partaking in bucket loads of aguadiente. 

This Aussie gringa was beat and had an early morning bus off to La Pintada and then another to Manizales so it was buenos noches from me!

Back up to Las Delicias – the house in the clouds

Paula siting the house pad with the Farallones looking on

Another visit to the lovely Tamesis library

The mountaintop Christa Rey statue looks down over the Tamesis school

The bells of the chapel went jingle jangle…Palermo Cathedral

Bamboo – the go to material when you run out of formwork props

Appreciating the lovely old Tamesis houses

Our temporary resident chef, Juan Estavan, prepares the family’s lunches for the Santa La Cuz mass


Great spot to stop for morning tea on the Santa La Cruz hike – with Lucci, Marta, Diana and Nelson

Now you see it, now you don’t!

Four hours into the hike Nelson informs us its just behind that mountain

Some residential coffee drying

The local truckdriver cooks up some large pots of fare for the locals

The scene is set for mass. The proud constructor of the cross (some 40 years ago) introduces himself to us while we’re wsiting for the formalities to commence.

Great view of Rio Cauca

My little friend Yehson finds me on the mountain

…and the countdown to 1 000 begins!

A cowboy in the making…

The fiesta on the mountain

The trip home begins – Palermo becons in the distance


Coffee plant

The cowboys’ companions never too far away

Even the town’s matriachs don’t mind an aguadiente or three!

The fincas collecting their horses after a big day

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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!






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