The extreme sports capital of Colombia, San Gil is situated 8 hours east of Medellin so we had to go and see what it was about. Arriving early morning we booked into our hostel – Sams VIP hostel. As we had a long sleepless journey we decided to rest for the day and look at activities to do. San Gil offers paragliding, white water rafting, bungee jumping, hiking, mountain biking etc. As we only had two days and limited money to spend we decided on paragliding and rafting. There were 2 options of rafting available, one with level 4 and 5 rapids and another with level 2 to 3 (5 being the highest). We opted for the 2/3 rafting as we had never done it before and also to save money.
On our second day we jumped in the van with others and made our way to the river starting point. After some safety instructions and explanations on how to sit on the boat we were put into 3 groups and off we set. We were given 4 instructions: forward, backwards, hold and duck. Fairly self explanatory. It didn’t take long at all to reach the first rapid. We went through a quick succession of rapids, with water either slightly spraying us, or most of the time soaking us. We eventually reached our first “duck” instruction. Here the boat looked like it was going to be completely submerged by water but eventually came through and it was incredible! Once we were passed the bulk of the rapids we were allowed to jump out of the boat and swim down the river. We then got back into the boats for the final part with some more rapids before arriving back in San Gil.
For our 2nd day of activities we headed up the mountain to do some paragliding. Stu’s first time and Niamh’s second. Again from the hostel activities there were two options. As we were on end of month tight budget we went for the cheaper option. A 10 min flight over some crop fields and forest. The more expensive one was a 30 minute canyon flight which sounded incredible. As it turned out, 10 minutes was enough for Stu. We ended up going with a really nice American family travelling Colombia together for a month, they had a son and daughter who were doing the paragliding. Niamh and their daughter went first. Niamh’s pilot ended up taking her so much higher than anyone else on the day as you can see from her video. The pilot also did some tight screw turns and went quite far out before starting their descent into land. Next up, the boys.
Stu eventually set off after a small struggle in taking off. The first 6 minutes were going perfectly well with his pilot doing crazy screw turns and very quick ascents and descents, unfortunately that was a bad idea. Shortly after the motion sickness started to kick in and for the final 2 minutes Stu was very quiet and flying as straight and as flat as possible. This was not enough to prevent the inevitable – being sick when he came into land. With no spare clothes the ride home was topless and not enjoyable. Still loved paragliding and would definitely try it again though!
On our first day here we visited the huge gold museum, much bigger than the one in Cartagena. This stretched over 5 floors with a selection of pre-Colombian gold, pottery, stone, jewellery and much much more. It all shows the life of societies before the Spanish conquest. One of our favourite rooms was the ‘Offerings’ room on the third floor where it shows how gold was used within spiritual rituals and shamanic ceremonies.
After a very filling lunch of the local speciality, ajiaca soup – potato soup with whole strips of chicken in with a side of rice, avocado and capers – we started our first city cycling tour. This specific tour is free and based on tips which you give your guide at the end depending on how good it was. Seven of us set off on the bikes from the historical centre La Candeleria into the busy centre where we first visited the founding three plazas. Here we learnt about the countries indigenous beginning, to Spanish colonialism, to independence and finally to the modern times. Next we cycled down the very pedestrianised cycle path towards Seventh Avenue into the La Soledad neighbourhood where we saw the change into a more artistic place. Here we got a free tasting of salchipapas – sausage and potato – and some delicious ice cream. The ice cream flavours were not your typical chocolate chip and vanilla, they were all related to Colombia in some way. The first we tried was green similar in colour to pistachio ice cream, this however was ‘Mambe’ made from coca leaves and the ash from various other plants, it tasted great. ‘Corozo’ was another which is made from a small red fruit grown on the Caribbean side of Colombia and has quite an acidic taste. The final one we’ll mention was a passion fruit and ginger ice cream which was one of our favourites, ‘Maracuya y Jengibre’, in Colombia there are a number of passion fruits this one being Maracuya which is yellow and the most common variety. Our final stop was Independence Park which hosts a Planetarium, Modern Art museum and bullring which is quite controversial as the new mayor has reopened it after bullfighting had previously been made illegal there.
That night we decided to go out to a club. There was nothing really going on at our hostel, or anyone doing anything so off we went just the 2 of us in a taxi. We decided to go to a place called Video Club, renowned for its selection of house and techno from local DJs. During the night we got talking to a few Colombians and spent our entire time there with them speaking in our broken Spanish and their very good English. This brought us to the end of our time in Bogota, onwards to Salento.
The trip to Salento was not short that’s for sure. We first got a bus from Bogota to Pereira. This was meant to get in at 6am, perfect for the connecting bus to Salento. However it was 2 hours early so we had a 2 hour wait in a cold bus terminal. We eventually arrived in Salento at 7am, 11 hours after leaving Bogota.
Salento is one of Colombia’s coffee growing capitals with ideal conditions for it. The small town is full of picturesque buildings with plenty of coffee houses, bars and restaurants. It’s a very popular place to visit. For our first day we had a relaxed day walking around the town and having some great trout for lunch. Trout is the speciality of the area with every place selling it. After walking around the main square for ages deciding where to eat, we settled for a nice restaurant on the corner. They had a special Sunday promotion where everything on their menu was priced at 14000 pesos (roughly 3.50 pounds). Niamh had her trout in a tomato, paprika sauce with peppers whilst Stu had a seafood one which came in a sauce and some pieces of prawns and squid.
The following day we had a big hiking day out in the Cocora Valley. This valley is home to the tallest palm trees in the world at a staggering 50m high! To get to the valley it was a 45 minute drive out of Salento in a collective jeep. With all seats taken on the inside, we had to stand on the outside holding on to the roof handles with 2 more people. It may sound dangerous but was completely safe as we went very slowly. The first part of the hike was relatively easy through farmers fields and into the forest which quickly became muddier and steeper the further we went in. There were also a number of questionable bridges where only one person could cross at a time.
After 2 hours of hiking we arrived at a hummingbird house where we got a hot chocolate and big chunk of white cheese to dip in our chocolate, yes you read that right and it tasted great. After eating we watched the hummingbirds flying around and got a few pictures before continuing onto the next uphill hike.
The second section took us around 2 and a half hours and was a lot tougher, however we were treated to the incredible view at the end of the valley covered in the massive palm trees. Once we got past the last hill it was all down hill with the palm trees to our left and the whole valley back down to the village starting point. Whilst we may not have had sunny weather, the rain and cloud cleared just in time for us to observe the valley and the trees. We made it back down and joined the queue for jeeps back to Salento, this time we all got seats.
That evening we decided to eat out at a nice little vegetarian restaurant. We both had a veggie burger and a hummus with carrot starter.
Having already done a coffee tour in Costa Rica we decided it was not worth doing it again to learn about the same thing so the next day we packed our bags, checked out and jumped on a bus to Cali via Armenia.
For once in Colombia we actually had a short journey from one place to another. A mere 4 hours. Upon arriving we got an Uber to our hostel, about 20 minutes away from the bus terminal. Once we checked in to our dorm we went out for some late lunch to an upmarket empanada place. Whilst they were roughly 1000 pesos more expensive than street food ones (a whole 25p) the fillings and pastry were so much nicer. We had some with chicken, cheese and mushroom in and another with spinach, cheese and mushroom. After this we went on a scouting mission for a gym to go to in the morning and the closest supermarket for dinner.
The next morning we got up for our free breakfast at 7:30 and shortly after went to the gym for the first time since we left the UK. The gym we chose was incredible. Entrance was 15000 Pesos so about 3 to 4 pounds but it included a personal trainer who set us exercises an arm and ab workout. We spent about 1h30 in the gym and we were exhausted by the end. We thanked our trainer, Hector and headed back to the hostel for a shower.
After a bite to eat for lunch from our dinner leftovers we decided to take a walk around some of the city. After a quick bit of research we found out we were closely located to most of the monuments and squares worth visiting. We walked through the Simon Bolivar park to the Iglesia Ermita, a stunning church. Unfortunately we couldn’t see inside but the outside was stunning. From here we went to one of the main squares, Plaza de Cayzedo en route to the San Antonio neighbourhood and its church on top of the hill with stunning views of Cali and the mountains in the distance. After chilling for a bit at the top we headed back down to the El Gato Del Rio statues. These cats were of many different colours and very pretty to look at. After checking all of them out and Stu insisting on taking a picture of every single cat we headed to our final stop, Plazoleta Jairo Varela. This square often has lots of live music on, unfortunately not when we were there. The cool thing about the square was the trumpet monument. Underneath it there were speakers playing salsa which was awesome. That night was a very cultured one… Mission Impossible at the cinema.
After just over a month going to as many parts of Colombia as possible it was time to head into Ecuador. We got an overnight bus to Ipiales, the closest town to the main land border crossing and after a 20 hour journey from our hostel in Cali to the one in Quito we made it.
Colombia has been our favourite country to date. The transformation it has gone through, its culture, its people and the variety of landscapes all made it an exceptional place. We loved every single day here from the Caribbean coastline all the way down to Cali. It was the perfect way to start South America. Stay tuned for our experiences in Ecuador!