24. Colombia- Cali & Salento

The journey to Medellin from Quito took me through Colombia’s homes of salsa and coffee: Cali and Solento.

Journey Ecuador – Colombia – 25 May

I was meeting old housemate Jim West in Medellin on the 2nd June so it was time to start heading north. After eventually finding our way to Quito’s north bus terminal via their bargain but confusing city bus network we jumped on an express bus to Tulcan- one of the main border towns with Colombia.

Last look back at Ecuador’s border

Teaming up with Swede Mathias and Peruvian Carlos, we made it across the border without fuss; although the efficiency of the Ecuadorean customs officials leaves something to be desired. From there is a short taxi / collectivo into Ipiales, Colombia’s Tulcan equivalent. This is a pretty forgettable place but does serves two purposes: from here we can get a night bus to Cali and it’s close to one of the prettiest churches in South America.

La Lajas is an extremely striking church set low down in a lush green valley in the middle of nowhere! It appears suddenly below you as you snake through the mountains and you are instantly transported to France. The only sad thing is when night time falls they light it up- not in a classy understated sort of way, but with flashing and changing coloured lights making it look like a fairground ride.

Sanctuary La Lajas

That was our afternoon successfully used so we grabbed some grub in a part of town which looked like it never saw gringos, and got the night bus to Cali. This was uneventful other than two long sets of document checks by heavily armed police – welcome to Colombia!  

Cali – 26 May

I only spent 28 hours in Cali and I loved every one of them. This is yet another city with a less than enthralling rep- “skip Cali” is a common saying- bollocks. 

Our hostel (Colombia Home Hostel) was a converted house in a nice residential area and it helped us have a relaxed non touristy day. We got breakfast at the local cafe, got a haircut and did some salsa! Salsa is huge in Colombia and Cali is undoubtedly the home of the Colombian version. With this in mind as well as the advice from some expat locals – “don’t try and chat up girls- Salsa well and they’re yours”- I got some lessons (the “well” part worried me).

We tried to do the afternoon walking tour but missed it by 10 minutes; this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Carlos got chatting to a young local girl and she agreed to show us around. We didn’t do any sights but walked around some neighbourhoods, had some street food and ended up chatting on a hilltop, rooftop cafe over some coffee. A much better way to see Cali than a gringo tour; less historical facts but more ‘humans of Cali’ stories. Our host was 19 with a 3 year old son who, as a result, had had to drop out of school whilst remaining in an unromantic relationship with the father.

Rooftop coffee with a view of Cali

Evening meant Salsa. Time to put my 50 minute lesson into practice! We went to Cali’s most notourious bar which was packed with people of all ages swinging their hips and sweating profusely. It was great to see so many people having fun and dancing without having to be arse over elbow drunk. However for the uninitiated (me and Tom), a couple of stiffeners were required before we trusted our feet enough to ask some locals to dance. All was good and it made for a great night.

There was time enough the next morning to watch the gooners salvage a season by winning the FA Cup before getting a bus the 4 hours up to Salento, via Armenia.

Salento – 27 May

Salento is a really cute town about half way between Cali and Medellin, in the heart of Colombia’s substantial coffee industry. A lovely central square is surrounded by quiet streets and rows off pretty buildings with red tiled roofs. As Monday was a public holiday that week too, the atmosphere was buzzing- local weekend breakers outnumbering the gringos giving this undoubtedly tourist centric place an authentic feel.

In the night we played Tejo, a game similar(ish) to boulles with some twists. One throws a metal weight at a ring within a clay pit. The closest to the ring wins a point- but thats not exciting enough, so they put little packets of gunpowder on the ring and if you explode them you get extra points! Forgetting the health of safety risk of the locals game next to us (30 yard ‘pitch’ with beers mandatory for entrance) it was great fun.

The next day was ‘a little chilly’ to start, but warmed up nicely and we squeezed in the other main two activities. First we got some jeeps 30 minutes out of town to the trailhead of a little trek which had some great views of the valley. It just so happens that it’s also home to the tallest palm trees in the world, and tall they are too!

Tall palm trees ey

In the afternoon we did our coffee tour which was hugely informative. I was actually completely naive about how a drink I consume over 500 times a year is produced. Turns out it’s on bushy plants which produce a cherry like fruit of red or yellow. These fruits contain white seeds, which are extracted, dried and roasted to become our lovely dark brown coffee beans. We got to see / help out with this whole process from plant to pot, finishing in the kitchen where we ground the beans and filtered them into mugs for the group to taste. The coffee was surprisingly average, a bit weak and sweet (no I didn’t put sugar in it), but it didn’t really matter.

End of the production line – drinking time

After an effficinent visit, it was time to continue on to the highest rated city on the backpacker trail- Medellin.


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