The first taste of Colombia

19 Feb

For many years Colombia has found itself in the news for all the wrong reasons. It has been defined by civil war, high levels of crime, class ‘A’ drugs, gun-brandishing guerrillas and kidnappings. Governments all over the world advised against any kind of travel to the country and even the most daring of backpackers chose not to risk crossing the border from other South American countries where tourism was booming. During the last 10 years however, changes on a big scale have been sweeping across the country and Colombia has opened its doors to international tourism. Every person we met on our Latin America trip who had spent some time in Colombia raved about it and many described it as their favourite country in the whole Continent. We were very excited to discover Colombia’s riches for ourselves but we couldn’t shake a feeling of trepidation as we crossed into a world which had been hidden from the public view for so long.

Our local bus from Otavalo dropped us at the bus station of a bland Ecuadorian town called Tulcan, the main gateway to Colombia. From the terminal we took a taxi a few more kilometres to the border crossing. We stared at the wet ink of the Ecuadorian exit stamp in our passports and took a deep breath. It’s a strange feeling to cross a land border by foot and the distance between Ecuador and Colombia’s immigration offices was only a matter of a few minutes walk. The area was a hive of activity with cars and people walking back and forth, taxi drivers loitering and money changers hollering the chant of “Cambio, cambio” over and over. Our senses were on high alert – holding our day bags, containing all of our valuables, close to us and scanning the area for any signs of trouble. We were expecting long queues, stern faces, requests for bribes, sniffer dogs and the snapping noise of rubber gloves being pulled on for full body searches. Instead, we were met with a modern and orderly office with no queues and no lengthy forms to fill in. There was a row of smiling immigration officials and the man we dealt, who spoke near perfect English, bid us “Welcome to Colombia” as the stamp hit our passports.

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We changed USD for Colombian pesos with a money changer outside immigration and then hopped in a taxi to the bus terminal in the town of Ipiales, just 2.5 kilometres away. It was all going too smoothly and we feared the worst for the buses having already spied a few old school style ‘chicken buses’ on the road. However, we were pleasantly surprised. Apart from the only negative of having to spend 8 hours on the bus to our first destination, Popayan, the positives were large and comfortable reclining seats, a toilet, movies shown with English subtitles, free filtered water and WiFi! It felt like luxury, first class travel compared with Ecuador.

We loved the scenery in Colombia instantly and at times on the journey to Popayan we sat facing the window like we were watching a natural history documentary. The dry, treeless landscapes of the High Andes had been replaced with dense tropical looking vegetation with stalls by the side of the road selling bananas, mangos and fresh coconuts. The roads were endlessly windy to navigate the mountainous interior and we were pleased we hadn’t taken the front seats as the drivers were all speed freaks who overtook at every opportunity – even on blind corners. Sitting on the right hand side of the bus we had fantastic views down into a deep canyon with a ranging river and we tried not to think too much about the buses wheels teetering on the edge of the road.

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As it turned out, the hostel we booked whilst on the bus was probably one of our favourites in the whole of South America. ‘Parklife hostel’ was situated on Popayan’s main plaza next door to the cathedral so the location was almost as good as it gets. The colonial style building with high ceilings, glass roof panels and wooden floors, had been lovingly restored and had lots of cosy common areas to socialize.

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The staff were super friendly and offered plenty of suggestions for what to do and where to go out. Prices for accommodation in Colombia were higher than in Ecuador in general but in Popayan we were still able to afford a double room with a shared bathroom for 40,000 pesos (20 USD). In the mornings we heard singing and chanting from the cathedral’s congregation wafting through the windows which was really magical, even for non-believers. We were impressed with Colombia already and we’d been in the country for less than 24 hours.

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The photogenic white city of Popayan was founded by the Spanish in 1537 and swiftly became a hub of political, cultural and religious activity, being situated on the main route between Cartegena on the north coast, and Quito. Many of the city’s beautiful colonial buildings and churches were almost destroyed when a devastating earthquake hit in March 1983 but over a period of nearly 20 years dedicated restoration work has restored the city to its former glory and it’s now a great place to explore by foot.

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There are grand churches scattered everywhere in the centre of the city and even though we thought there may be too many for the city’s residents to fill, we saw many full and lively gatherings taking place. As in many of the Latin American countries, Colombians are devoutly Catholic and we were intrigued to see several processions making a pilgrimage thought the city’s streets with the statue of a saint leading the way, lofted high above heads at the front.

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The river Molino passes through Popayan and two interesting ancient bridges connect the old city with the new. At the entrance to the arched Humilladero bridge we found an artisanal market selling jewellery and where we enjoyed some impromptu live music from one of the locals with a guitar or a flute.

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After encountering touristy areas in Peru and Ecuador, Popayan felt refreshingly local and off the typical ‘Gringo’ circuit. The old town buzzed with busy markets and shops. We mixed with some of the city’s large university population in funky bars and cafes and we were pleased to discover it was still possible to buy a cheap almuerzo (set lunch 2 or 3 courses) for around 3 USD in Colombia.

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On our final afternoon in the city we climbed El Morro de Tulcan, a small viewing point with a great panorama of the city and the surrounding countryside and which is topped with a statue of the city’s founder Sebastian de Belalcazar riding an impressive steed. We joined several families and groups of students sitting on the bank of the hill to enjoy the weather and savour a fine city below us.

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We’d been given a very warm welcome to Colombia and we felt a little guilty for our initial concerns. Our first impressions of the Colombians who’d lived through years of civil troubles weren’t that they were bitter or sad like you’d expect them to be but instead that they were kind-hearted, happy people who lived for the moment.

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The locals weren’t jaded by mass tourism and they wanted to show off their country to travellers and holidaymakers who are still some what of a novelty. Earlier that day we’d asked a local for directions and he actually walked out of his way to show us where we needed to go – now where in the world does that ever happen?! He’d spoken passionately about Colombia, making suggestions on where we might visit and we couldn’t help but feel this enthusiasm rubbing off on us.

We’d arrived in Colombia at what seemed to be a perfect time and we were excited someone had let us into the secret before the whole world found out and decided to come here.

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