We stayed in Salento for 10 days, much longer than any other place we went to in Colombia. Salento didn’t really have a cute plaza where you can hang out (unlike Jardín), nor did it have the prettiest houses (that’s Guatapé). But we ended up staying much longer than we expected for other reasons.
There is something about Jardín that makes you feel like you’ve entered a time capsule and transported back to a non-descript time in the past. A time when people did nothing much other than hanging out on the main plaza and drinking coffee or tea – was there ever such a time?
You might think, ‘Palm trees? I’ve seen enough palm trees to last me my lifetime.’
Well, that’s what we thought too. But Valle de Cocora still managed to impress these palm-tree hardened hearts. The photos don’t do this place justice.
The very first thing we noticed as soon we got off the bus in Barichara was how quiet everything was.
After the hustle and bustle of the main square of San Gil, and even Giron, the sight of a main square devoid of street food sellers, kids running around, and teenagers hanging out on the benches was striking.
As we were wandering around, we found that the stone streets of Barichara were almost always empty.
Every now and then an old person would walk by. He would stare at us in the same curious way I imagine we were staring at him. Glad to see somebody else is out and about.
There were walled courtyards half a block in length, but the colorful windows were shuttered closed, and the ornate, painted doors were padlocked.
It’s like the pueblo is entering its hibernation period.
Where is everybody?
Multiple scenarios to explain this phenomena were running through our head.
Do the adults work in the city and commute?
Maybe they work on their farms outside the pueblo?
Maybe there’s a zombie population that’s holding these villagers hostage. They come out at night and feast on them and that’s what’s causing the population to decline? This would surely explain the lack of kids in this pueblo. Kids can’t outrun zombies.
For a pueblo that has earned superlatives such as ‘most charming pueblo’, ‘most beautiful’, or ‘colonial gem’, we felt the pueblo was just a tad too quiet for our taste. Maybe it has done too good of a job of preserving a way of life from 200 years ago.
It doesn’t mean that it was boring to look at.
Oh no, quite the contrary, my friend.
Barichara has some very beautiful churches. The inside of the main church on the plaza was particularly beautiful to look at.
But this is probably my favorite building in Barichara. Jack couldn’t stop making fun of me when I told him that ‘it screams character’.
But it does! Don’t you agree?
Barichara also has an old cemetery, filled with ornately designed and carved tombstones. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of taking pictures of churches and cemeteries.
A guidebook describes the main church of Barichara as ‘seemingly too big for the city’. But I felt like the whole pueblo is too big for the population.
Barichara was photogenic, there’s no doubt about that.
But as we meandered around on its stone paved roads, and among blue and green painted doors and windows, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were walking around a Hollywood movie set – albeit a pretty one at that.
The colonial town of Barichara can be reached by a local bus from San Gil. 40 minute ride (3600 COP). The bus station is located on Carrera 10 in San Gil.
it’s unfortunate that there seems to be an implication that unless you have 5 hour to spare, you won’t be able to see the palm trees at all. A couple of people at the hostel didn’t feel like they would be up to such a tough hike and were quite bummed at the fact that they might not be able to see the trees.
But see, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Guatapé looks like it’s taken straight out of an old Disney movie.
The buildings in Guatapé are painted in highly saturated colors. The front side of the walls are decorated with painted reliefs.
We walked among rosy-cheeked school kids with their crisp uniforms while the smell of freshly baked bread filled the clean narrow alleys. Even the street dogs were friendly and well-fed.
Is this town for real?
We soon expected to see the village’s baker and his wife, along with the other villagers, strolling down the street hand-in-hand singing a catchy Disney tune.
Being a cynical person that I can be sometimes, I wandered around looking for signs that things are too good to be true.
We saw a group of painters painting the 3D reliefs that decorate most of the houses in Guatapé. That’s right. Every single one of these was hand painted.
We passed a school (or a sport center) equipped with a brilliant blue swimming pool. We peeked through a window to see a gym well worth a hefty admission price in the Bay Area.
It’s like as if someone had written down a list of things an ideal pueblo should have and built Guatapé based on it.
Picture perfect church facing the main plaza? Check.
Colorful, hand-painted moto-chiva? Check.
Nearby tourist magnet in the form of strange rock jutting out of nowhere that you can climb to the top? Check.
Friendly local residents? Cute main plaza? And did I mention the friendly dogs? Check. Check. And check.
No, Guatapé seems to be truly too good to be true.
Even Jack, a man of the opinion that ‘a pueblo is a pueblo is a pueblo’ admitted that Guatapé was kinda nice. That should tell you something.
As we were waiting for the bus that’d take us back to Medellin, I decided to wander around to take a last round of pictures.
And that’s when I stepped on a pile of dog poo.
As I sat on the (immaculate) sidewalk trying to scrape off the offending mess off my sandals I realised that I’ve finally found the imperfection I was looking for.
And in a way, it makes Guatapé even that much more perfect.
We heart Guatapé.
When we started our around the world trip one month ago, we knew that traveling long term would come with challenges. We thought about the difficulty of constantly saying goodbye and the stress of balancing traveling, research, work, and enjoying ourselves.
And they were all true to a certain degree, but there have also been some unexpected challenges we’ve encountered here in the first country in our trip.
Things such as:
Missing food from home
It might seem silly to be missing food from home when we’ve only been away for such as short period of time. You can either see it as how spoiled we have become from having access to best food the world has to offer by having lived in the Bay Area, or as how uninspired the food here in Colombia.
Either way, we can’t deny what we feel.
We miss that thousands of sensations from each bite of Thai or Indian curry – the satisfying taste of a bite from a strong cheese. We miss oven baked pizzas topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
We miss spices. We miss varieties.
We’re tired of fried food and salt. And unexpected mysterious pieces of meat floating in our supposedly vegetarian soup.
Thankfully, not all is lost.
The fruit here is AMAZING. We drink freshly squeezed juice every day. My favorite is guanabana (although maracuya is a pretty close second). Jack goes for his usual pineapple, orange, and banana combo.
But I can safely say that we’d be more than okay not seeing a ‘comida tipica’ menu ever again.
Not speaking the language
Not being fluent in Spanish has affected our experience much more than expected.
I have never felt more like an outsider and more detached from the country I’m visiting than now. We know enough Spanish to ask for information and how to get around. But to understand enough to be involved in conversations? Far from it.
What makes it worse is the fact that Colombians are so curious and so friendly. And here we are, two gringos, butchering their beautiful language and making a fool of ourselves.
The feeling of disconnect, of not understanding – not just the language but what makes a country tick.
It’s really frustrating.
We’re doing things to improve our Spanish – listening to podcasts, talking to people, etc, etc. But it seems that we don’t do enough and are not learning fast enough.
Traveling can be so rewarding but it’s definitely not without its challenges. Or maybe it is rewarding because of the challenges that one overcomes?
Anyway, don’t worry…
Despite the challenges, we did manage to have fun too. Too many stories to tell, but here are some of them:
– Cueva de La Vaca – A caving adventure
– Vulcan del Totumo – Playing in a bottomless mud pit
And we’re eating more fruit than we’ve ever had.
How you deal with food and language challenges on the road?
San Gil, Colombia
As I prepare myself to go underwater in the frigid water of an underground cave, I thought, ‘How did I get myself into this?’
I blame it on the rain.
See, we have been hanging out in San Gil for awhile, waiting for the water level on the Suarez river to drop. We want to go white water rafting but due to heavy rain, rafting on the Suarez has been a no-go ever since we got here.
I was antsy and bored.
So when a couple of people from the hostel said they were going caving at a nearby cave, Cueva de La Vaca, with little hesitation I signed up. Then I remember that not only am I not a big fan of the dark, I’m also terrified of being in water where I can’t touch the bottom.
But despite my pre-departure trepidations, I’m SO glad I decided to give caving a go.
Because caving in Cueva de La Vaca turned out to be a blast.
Within 10 steps of entering the cave we were already neck-deep in water, making our way into the cave.
We slid and slithered. We climbed and crawled. At one point we were 80 meters below the surface.
At one section in the cave, our guide told us to turn off all of our headlamps.
The darkness that followed was absolute.
Holding hands in a line, we slowly inched forward calf-deep in water in total darkness. Every now and then someone would stub a toe and an ‘Ouch’ would be echoed back and forth in the cavernous room we were in.
When we finally turned on our headlamps again, I could see Jack’s face reflecting a silly grin I know was plastered on my own face.
This is so much fun!!
Then comes the dreaded underwater part
In order to get to the next room, we had to dive underwater. There was a rope to guide us and they key here was not to walk since the opening was not very high, but to just pull ourselves using the rope.
I was slightly freaked out. The guide kept telling us, ‘Es muy facil.’ Then for emphasis, ‘Facil, facil, facil.’ It only takes 7 seconds. Everybody has done it.
Great. No pressure now.
So there I was neck deep in water, shivering slightly from the cold, thinking of the crazy things boredom often has led me to do, and duck my head underwater and pulled.
And pulled and pulled and pulled. Not daring to think of what would happen if I’d get stuck down there.
And somehow I was on the other side.
I made it. High five all around. The guide was not lying. It was really that easy.
And not only that, that was fun!
The last 2 rooms were definitely the highlight.
The ceilings were covered in minuscule stalactites. It was beautiful and nothing like I’d ever seen before.
Our guide told us that an exit out of the cave was still not found despite attempts to do so.
That meant we had to retrace our way back.
So that also meant we had to do the underwater part one more time. No whining on my part this time. This time I was ready.
Then we slid and slithered. We climbed and crawled. Back the way we first came.
We came out into the sunshine feeling victorious. We were drenched in water and mud, shivering slightly and wishing we could’ve stayed inside feeling like Indiana Jones just for a little bit longer.
You’d think after having a mud bath inside a volcano we would have our share of mud on this trip, eh? But apparently not.
Already we can’t wait for our next caving adventure.
Cueva de La Vaca
– Cost: 25000 COP ($13) pp.
– The company we went with was Gua-Iti. The trip can be arranged through a hostel or one of the many expedition companies in San Gil.
– Cueva de La Vaca itself is on the way from San Gil to Curiti. Take a bus from the local terminal in San Gil and asked to be dropped off right before entering Curiti (2000 COP).
– Wear longer shorts since sliding around in very short shorts was… uncomfortable.
Have you gone caving before? What is your favorite cave you think we should check out?
When I first heard about it, I couldn’t wait to try it. I also couldn’t wait to try to get Jack to eat it. See, he’s somewhat of a finicky eater so it should be fun to try to cajole and bribe him to try it.
We arrived in Cartagena fearing the rain (the weather forecast predicted thunderstorm for every single day of our say). We quickly felt silly because every day we would be greeted with a blazing sun, cloudless sky, and temperatures in the high 80’s.
Cartagena is a town made for wandering around and except for a half a day visit to El Vulcan del Totumo, that’s pretty much what we did. But only after 4 pm – before that we were too busy hiding from the sun sipping fruit juices on our hostel’s terrace.
We knew that the old city of Cartagena is divided into three* districts: Getsemani, El Centro, and San Diego, but did not realize how different in characteristics they are.
*Note: Actually four. But Matuna is so small and modern it is of little interests to regular visitors.
Getsemani – gritty, young and fun
Getsemani was filled with backpackers due to the concentration of budget hostels in the area – especially since we stayed there during Semana Santa, a holiday week for many of the locals. We stayed in cozy and friendly Hostel Marlin on the main street of Getsemani that faces the busiest street in this part of town, Calle de La Media Luna.
The street was very active at night and a mix of sound of people, traffic, and music quickly became part of our daily evening work time on the hostel’s terrace.
I must admit that Getsemani is a little rough around the edges and we were often on the cautious side of things at times, but I found it charming in its own way. We have taken many walks around and gotten to know some of the residents.
Compared to the beauty and the richness that the El Centro offers, Getsemani feels gritty and real.
Not to mention this is also where the cheapest food can be found inside the old city. We called this area home during our stay here in Cartagena. We talked about moving to a different neighborhood, but we never did.
The place just grew on you.
El Centro – old, pretty, and touristy
El Centro is where all the tourist attractions are: Plaza de Bolivar, the museums, and the most charming and colorful buildings. But it’s also where most of the tour companies take their tourists to – busloads of them – and with the tourists come the aggressive street vendors selling antyhing from paintings to emeralds to watches to anything in between.
It’s not without its charms though – some of the most photogenic buildings in Cartagena can be found in this area.
San Diego – dreamy and magical
Through meandering around we found ourselves in Fernandez Plaza in San Diego part of the old town.
And we were instantly charmed.
A Colombian lady we met described the area as ‘magico’ – it IS magical.
Ironically, this is the area where we took the least number of pictures. We were too busy wandering around enjoying the atmosphere of the place.
The magic is hard to describe.
There are small, leafy plazas surrounded by outdoor cafes and bars. People were playing chess on the plazas. Neighbors were gossipping on the front steps of the houses.
The roads were not as busy and the parks were filled with young families with kids and couples. It felt like a neighborhood should be – a place where neighbors can hang out and get to know each other.
It felt lived in.
During our many days of wandering around the old city of Cartagena, we were inevitably drawn to this neighborhood and found ourselves at the end of the day sitting in one of the many plazas with a cold drink.
Without a doubt San Diego is our favorite neighborhood in Cartagena.
But ssssh, don’t tell anyone. We don’t want the busloads of visitors to swarm this area and turn it into El Centro, do we?
San Gil was a mere 2 hours away. But we decided to break the journey after a sleepless night on the nightbus and explore this colonial city, a 15 min drive away by taxi from Bucaramanga bus station.
After checking at Las Nieves, a cute hotel facing the main plaza in Giron, we went out to look for food. It must have been around the time the school was out because there were a lot of kids in school uniform walking around on the streets.
I figured we should enlist their help in finding a cheap, local place to get food.
All it took was a single ‘Hola. Hablas ingles?‘ to one of them and all of sudden we were surrounded by friendly, chattering, kids in uniform eager to know every single thing about us.
They singled out a shy kid out of the crowd as the best English speaker who didn’t look too pleased to be in the spotlight.
‘What’s your name?’, we asked in English.
‘My name is Juan.’
‘My name is Jill, and this is Jack.’
‘Thank you!’, he grinned, and melted back into the crowd.
Did you hear that? He said thank you after introducing himself! How cute.
We started walking together and the barrage of questions started.
Where are you from?
Are you married?
Where are you going?
We indicated that we’re looking for food.
They got all excited and gestured that we should follow them. And we did.
So there we were, being led through Giron with its white washed colonel-style buildings, across a park, to the non-colonial part of the town where these kids apparently live in, and in the meantime the conversations never ceased.
Sometimes multiple threads would be going on. I’d be talking to a kid about what her parents do (or trying to), and another one would grab me and start pointing at all the snacks on a stand talking slowly as if to a baby, ‘A-re-pas. Con hu-e-vo y queso. Eso es em-pa-na-das.’
Next we passed a fruit stall and the lesson continues, ‘Ba-na-na, man-za-na, ki-wi.’
They were laughing at our broken Spanish, and they were laughing when we couldn’t understand their Spanish.
I have to say, these kids were so darned charming they could charm the socks off of Kim-Jong-Il.
I personally think they were delighted to be the ones playing teachers for a chance.
Then they indicated that we’ve arrived at the restaurant of their choosing.
We were expecting your usual restaurant selling ‘set lunches’ filled with locals eating their lunch ya? Or something authentic or at least Colombian like that.
But we’d never expect them to take us to a Chinese restaurant.
Jack and I looked at each other, ‘I can’t believe they took us to a Chinese restaurant. Do you think it’s because I’m Asian?’, I wondered. Jack only shrugged.
Even though eating in a Chinese restaurant was the last thing we had in mind to do in Colombia, it was too late to back out. How could we, these kids looked mighty proud of themselves as if they’d just shown us the lost city of El Dorado.
They even helped us decide on the menu. See, we’ve mentioned somewhat in passing that we liked ‘camarones’ – shrimps. They spoke in rapid Spanish to the propietor and I heard ‘camarones’ mentioned many times. I think they were giving the owner instruction that whatever happened, we had to get our shrimp fix.
And as quick as they gathered, they shouted ‘Ciao’ with a huge smile and disappeared into different alleys towards their homes. Their good deed of the day accomplished.
So the propietor, who I’m sure was slightly confused at being invaded by two gringos and very noisy half a dozen kids, smiled awkwardly at us, pen ready.
‘Arroz con camarones? Dos?’
Here in Giron, the friendliness of the Colombian people come in pint size. But they’re potent.
And because of that, sometimes you’ll never know where a single ‘Hola’ would get you.
Where to stay in Giron: I don’t remember the name, but the hotel we stayed was right on the plaza (60000 COP).
How to get there: 15 min taxi from Bucaramanga bus station – 7500 COP