After a whirlwind South America trip, coming down from the Colombian experience has been made all the easier by focusing on the beauty in our own backyard. With the last days of Winter reminding us very much of Spring and a lengthy visit from my parents, returning to the usual routine has been pretty special. These snap shots are more about keeping our own diary of life than really about sharing anything new. As always, it feels like the little things – nature, special food, good people – that always add the most to life. Kris
After such an amazing month in Colombia our plan of stopping over in Santiago was more about breaking up the long haul flights home to Australia than really getting time to explore anywhere new. Within a couple of hours in the capital we could tell that we had totally misjudged the appeal of the city.
Then there’s the food. For seafood and wine lovers Chile knows how to win you over with crisp whites, tasty reds, killer oysters and locally sourced ocean delicacies. From what we could tell mid week the night life also has a gregarious, pisco sour infused style all of it’s very own – with plenty of options to shake it like a latino!
We chose to stay in the creative heart of the city in one of the many historic buildings that have been transformed in to hostels – close enough to the river, grand central parks, main museums and galleries. After exploring the areas of Bellas Artes and Bellavista we realised you could spend a couple of days indulging your palate in the cafes, restaurants and nightclubs in these two suburbs alone.
The edgy style of Santiago and the super friendly locals inspired a conversation about returning to spend more time in Chile; besides the obvious hiking appeal of all the naturally diverse spaces we realise that the skinniest country in South America deserves a lot more special attention. Next time!
Leaving the beautiful countryside around Salento behind we headed across the coffee region towards the town of Montenegro, an area dotted with traditional coffee plantations known in Colombia as fincas. What is special about the region is the opportunity to spend some time staying at a finca in a traditional country house, in a way that kind of feels like ‘fantasy Colombia’. We found an incredibly peaceful place (above) surrounded by expansive views of plantain fields, fruit trees and coffee crops. A totally chilled experience that will remain a highlight for us this trip.
We spent a couple of nights in an old two storey home as the only guests apart from a Dutch mother and son. Andrés and I took over the top floor, complete with creaky timber verandahs, hammock views and wide open skies. A place with no internet, antique furniture, wholesome home made food, excellent coffee and nothing but the heavy sounds of frogs and birds; pure country bliss.
Our finca was down the road from the unusual but incredible Parque del Cafe; over 100 hectares of botanical gardens, coffee crops and a tasteful amusement park. We spent six hours walking the steep garden trails, tasting the local food, riding dodgem cars, the cable car, and jumping on a water driven tube ride to cool off. All good, surprisingly wholesome fun!
This region of Colombia is now officially my favourite part of the country. If only we had more time to explore we could easily spend a month in the coffee region alone. Below you’ll find images from our farm stay as well as the natural highlights from the Parque del Cafe. As per usual, I’m hoping the images tell more of a story than I can ever say in words. Gracias por todo Colombia, que han sido increíble!
Next stop Santiago de Chile!
Hiring a dirt bike to wind our bumpy way through the mountains surrounding the beautiful town of Salento might just have to be regarded as one our best experiences this trip.
Passing through shady roads alongside towering bamboo forests, along high mountain ridge lines and through tiny villages…
After hours on the bike we came to the surreal Valle de Cocora (the final photos below). It is the only place in Colombia where the tall wax palms grow, a tree that has become a national symbol of strength for the country. Moody, high contrast and consistently changing, it was easy to see how this valley is so popular with hikers.
After so much time spent during previous visits in other parts of Colombia, and by no reasonable explanation, Andrés and I had never visited the coffee growing region together – even for him it remained some kind of vague childhood memory.
I realise now that we might have saved the best until last, because I’ve fallen hard for this tiny town. A place with expansive green vistas in every direction; with the perfect Spring-like, high altitude climate and friendly, horse-riding locals.
Made up of few streets, a main plaza and gregariously painted homes and shop fronts, the little village of Salento screams in colour for tourists. Add to that a steady supply of naturally inspired activities, coffee scented air, chilled hammock-strung hostels, a thriving art scene and traditionally dressed farmers, and you can begin to see why Salento is a place I would go so far to say is my favourite place in Colombia.
Colombia, being the world’s third largest producer of coffee behind Brazil and Vietnam, means it’s kind of hard to escape the aroma as you travel throughout the country. After four years avoiding the stuff I made an executive decision as soon as we arrived that not drinking coffee on this trip was absolute nonsense. It would be like not drinking beer in Ireland – loco!
In the town of Salento where we are exploring the country’s coffee region the waft of coffee beans is certainly not subtle. In the main town and along the local trails, you can constantly smell coffee – mixed with the heady scent of fallen fruits like banana, avocado and guava. Farmers will wave or offer a friendly smile and locals get about on dirt roads in jeeps and motorbikes; happy to stop if you need a point in the right direction. You can imagine why the ultra green, mountainous region is easy to fall in love with.
Salento is a colourful little town at an altitude of 1895 metres that is popular with travellers as a chilled place to explore nature, and to load up on world class coffee of course. Besides hiking, horse riding, tasting the local delicacies (trout and pork) and chilling in a hammock, visiting a coffee plantation rates pretty highly for most tourists.
We can highly recommend this one as a well regarded, sustainable and ethical coffee farm. It’s a beautiful walk about an hour from the main plaza through hilly homesteads and country lanes and the tours are in English or Spanish. You get to pick your own ripe coffee cherries on the farm and sip some of their first class brew.
Here’s a taste!
Palomino came recommended as a down to earth, yoga on the beach, hippy-esque kind of place “that you guys would love”. A tiny village on the Caribbean coast, about 6 hours by bus from Cartagena, where the jungle meets the ocean below the Sierra Nevada. What’s cool is the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta sits as an isolated mountain range apart from the neighbouring Andes mountains, making it the world’s highest coastal peak and naturally appealing to us.
What is also unique about the area, besides the UNESCO declared biosphere region, is the cultural diversity of the locals. Most of the population are Mestizo, followed by Afro-Colombians, Andean famers and by traditional indigenous groups. The Kogi and Arhuaco Indians that live in the Sierra Nevada Mountains visit Palomino constantly to get sea snails, exchange their handmade products or to perform their native rituals next to the ocean. You will see the Kogi dressed traditionally getting about the town and hanging down the beach in small groups. They now also guide jungle treks and bird watching expeditions for interested tourists. Sadly though, the Kogi are crying out against a tidal wave of modern development that is fast destroying their native environment.
Travelling to Palomino, the scenic drive made all the right noises as we passed by sugar cane fields, makeshift food stalls, and away from the high rise development of Santa Marta. As we arrived, the vibe instantly felt creative and low key, but by not wanting to plan too much this holiday we made a rookie mistake; finding ourselves on a Colombian long weekend with almost no accommodation options. Staying in a ‘party’ hostel in a dirty dorm room with a suspect pool wasn’t our first choice but that’s how things played out.
Regardless of our digs, Palomino seems like the kind of place where Colombians of all ages always gather to party; drinking heavily on the beach, drinking heavily in the pool, drinking heavily at the river and smoking weed on the beach (not to mention the robust sniffs that could be heard throughout the night in the dorm bathroom). Such an overtly enthusiastic approach to partying, while I am the last to judge, shaped the whole vibe of the place in a dark way. Because people weren’t too friendly (read: wasted) and the town is poorly lit I was left feeling a little on edge compared to other parts of Colombia.
The sketchy vibe was not too dissimilar to the treacherous shore break off the main beach that rendered swimming in the surf completely unappealing. As an Aussie I can appreciate that I’m a tough critic when it comes to beaches but considering very few people were swimming in the surf the locals knew what was up as well. Not being able to swim safely when it’s hot kind of blows, and I’m guessing the number of drownings, let alone drunken deaths is pretty high. It is safe to swim in the river close to the beach though and that’s pretty nice, albeit crowded.
On the plus side, it’s always nice to be beachside and we were treated to some gorgeous sunsets and lazy, quiet time. Staying close to the ocean we headed down after dinner to sit under the stars (super clear in this part of Colombia), feel the force of the coastal winds, listen to the lively music and watch the shady shenanigans on the beach. If you’re looking for a luxury or moderately cushy Caribbean paradise Palomino won’t fit the bill, but for others it might just be the precarious disconnect you’re after. I’ve added a few photos to help you decide for yourself.
Next stop: we’ve shifted to an old favourite, the (grubby in a good way) fishing village of Taganga.
Cartagena is one of those places in Colombia that you kind of have to find out what all the fuss is about. Imagine a huge, stone fortress wherein classic Colombian buildings have been turned in to upmarket hotels and fine restaurants; interspersed with bars and markets that have attracted local patrons for hundreds of years. All enhanced by a crumbling, artistic beauty that takes on a kind of magical ambience at night.
The historic walled city sits on the edge of a busy Caribbean port where the culture has developed from island living, seafaring Spanish trade, freed African slaves and creole cooking. The heat is relentless, the street food fresh and the all night salsa music infectious. Knowing that the city is a jumping off point to exotic islands, coral reefs, and powdery beaches it’s easy to see how Cartagena is the most visited destination in the country.
As tourists staying in a friends’ home style hostal in Getsemani, our days were spent sitting in the shade when it was too hot to move, sipping cerveza, and watching the colourful passage of locals pedalling anything from rum infused coffee to salted green mango and octopus cerviche.
You could spend days working your way through the exotic list of fruit cocktails, coconut infused deserts and seafood options alone. Add to all of that a thriving street art scene, a small surfing community and an elite group of international tourists with money to burn and you’ve got an eclectic destination that’s well worth spending a few days.
Thanks for an awesome stay Senor Faustino!
Taking some time out to explore the natural spaces that Andres grew up in, we took the old family jeep out for the day. Climbing through the dusty roads that intersect windy corn fields and flowering fruit trees we visited a stunning monastery built in the 16th century.
Amongst the steep green mountains and ochre dirt, farmers plough fields by hand or with the help of well worked animals, living simply in rough hewn houses along unnamed roads. The extensive area surrounding the beautiful town of Villa de Leyva is another reason to put Colombia on your travel list! K+A
A few hours drive outside the capital of Bogotá is a place I like to think of as ‘fantasy’ Colombia. A place set in a valley below the Andes mountain range where some locals still ride horses and meet in the square wearing a sombrero and a poncho over their shoulders. A traditional village where cobblestone streets, white washed walls and terracotta rooftops assemble in a grand historic plaza.
It’s no wonder that Villa de Leyva sits at number two behind Cartagena as the most popular tourist destination in Colombia. As a beautiful maze of hotels, restaurants and shops, Villa de Leyva remains virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, a testament to the durability, peace and good government of the Colombian community that lives there.
Together with Andres’ parents we spent a few days enjoying all that the village has to offer; food slowly cooked in the smoky coals of the wood fired oven, futbol games watched fireside, and chilled time exploring the rustic streets and restaurants.
Besides all of the obvious charm, what is great about Villa de Leyva compared to Bogota is the feeling of safety; especially being able to walk around autonomously as a woman who is clearly a tourist. In the capital, due to big city crime, I generally don’t like to carry anything of value, so it’s not only good to get some country air but feel free to get creative with my camera.
With all that in mind here’s a peak at the historic vibe of this stunning part of Colombia.