Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Adventures along the Caribbean in Colombia and Reuniting with Old Friends

The nice thing about returning to a place where you've been before, is that things are more familiar and the return trip seems to go much smoother. If you're lucky, maybe you made a few friends on your first trip and have someone to visit when you go back again.

This second trip to Colombia was all about visiting old friends and I felt comfortable and relaxed traveling solo to a not-so-foreign place.

Roland was kind enough to take some time away from his hostel to show me around his neck of the woods in the in northern Colombia, along the Caribbean. We hiked up from his town of Palomino into the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, visiting with local Kogui people - his neighbors and friends - along the way.  We walked along a dirt road that narrowed into a footpath, which became a strenuous hiking trail. People who live up here (mostly natives) rely on the land to survive and make trips into town with horses and mules to sell produce, coffee, butter and handwoven bags along the highway.  We passed families who were all making this trek down into town. It was clear that everyone had a role, even small children who helped carry things down or steer a horse. Roland and I were going in the opposite direction, away from town and up into the hills to take in the beauty of the river. To escape the heat of the day, visitors can go tubing down the calm waters and it eventually spits you out into the ocean.

Another day we hiked into Parque Tayrona, a National Park along some of Colombia's most beautiful coastline. The entrance is half way between Santa Marta and Palomino, so either of these places is a good jumping off point for visiting the park. We went with a girl visiting from Belgium as well as a local Palomino girl who lives at his hostel. It was a full day adventure, with a hilly five mile hike in to reach beautiful beach coves, which made for a refreshing swim before hiking back to reach the car by sundown. A lot of people backpack in and camp inside the park. If you do this, I recommend packing light and realize that you will be sleeping in a tent next to lots of other people. The views are incredible though. 

A red flag marks dangerous, forceful water where swimming is prohibited.

Crowded campground inside the park

No cars can reach this point but venders manage to carry in jewelry and other items to sell

Another nice spot to visit is Minca, a mountainous little coffee growing town, just up the hill from the coastal city of Santa Marta. This is definitely worth a visit and its 2100ft elevation is a breath of fresh air after spending time on the hot and humid coastline. We stayed at Casa Loma, which can only be reached by climbing up about 400 steps from town, but the view from the top is worth it. The British owner, Jay, is a friend of Roland's and welcomed us in like family. 

Casa Loma has a tree-house-like feel to it

After hauling our bags up the 400 or so steps a cold Aguila (Colombian brew) was a nice way to cool off and take in our surroundings.

View from the hostel
The next couple of days were spent hiking to waterfalls, tasting the local coffee, happy hour on a recently built deck above the hostel and delicious vegetarian dinners with other guests at the outdoor communal tables. 

Iguana just hangin' out in a tree

Casa Loma is a wifi-free zone, but there is an outlet mounted into a tree for charging your devices!
Roland on a business call

Safe(?) river crossing

A little "cafe" (which was really just someone's house) with Garfield at the entrance to greet us

The time went by quickly and before I knew it, I was saying goodbye to Roland and was on a flight to Bogota. (Viva Colombia offers cheap domestic flights which are faster and often cheaper than taking a long bus ride). From Bogota I took a 4 hour bus ride back to my beloved town of Villa de Leyva, where I volunteered a couple of years ago at the Colombian Highlands hostel. The rest of Roland's family lives and works at the hostel and this is where I met Roland and several other locals who became friends during the 5 weeks I spent there. 

Other than Roland's brother Oscar who owns the hostel, I hadn't talked to anyone in Villa to tell them I was coming. Since Oscar was out of town and I had nobodies phone number, I arrived in my familiar town feeling like any other visitor: I knew no one. Not a problem; Villa is a small town with a big central plaza where most people congregate in the evenings. As soon as I arrived at the hostel I dropped my bags and walked straight down to the plaza. I decided to get a beer and sit on a bench in the plaza to wait until I saw someone I knew. 

My plan worked! I hadn't even finished my beer before I heard my name from a familiar voice with a middle-eastern accent. "Tracy?!" It was Ali! Oscar's brother-in-law! He heard that I would be coming but wasn't sure when. Right away we decided to go to dinner to catch up (I love how people live for the moment here).  As we were walking down the cobblestone road I asked him about Mauricio, the wine maker. Just then Mauricio approached us from the opposite direction, completely surprised to see me. We all chatted for a bit and made plans to go biking and visit Mauricio's new apartment/winery in a couple days. 
The rest of my time in Villa fell in place just like that. I connected with old friends, made new ones and by the end wasn't ready to leave.

Lunch with Ali after picking out delicious produce at the farmer's market

Avocados come in a variety of sizes in Colombia

Reunited with my little friend Carolina at the hostel

Finally visited the crazy clay house in town

Henry, the bike shop owner, was still wearing the "Si Se Puede" bracelet that I gave to him 2 years ago

Fernando Botero, the talented artist and one of the kindest people I have ever met, surprised me in the plaza with a bread loaf full of flowers

Last night in Villa, sipping on Mauricio's delicious wine at the Enoteca.

My return flight to the states was from the beautiful city of Medellin, Colombia. I am so enamored with the art of "The Other Fernando Botero" who lives in Villa de Leyva, that I decided to pay a visit to the more famous Fernando Botero. Known for his inflated sculptures and painted figures with works all over the world, he is originally from Medellin. My hotel happened to be across the street from the Botero park and museum.
There are over 23 bronze sculptures outside in the park, for all of the public to enjoy.

Perhaps voluptuous Colombian women are a source of his inspiration? 

The park/plaza is a nice escape from the busy city streets, and gave me something interesting to do while waiting for my bus to the airport. 

Goodbye for now Colombia. I will return again. 

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