12. Colombia 1: Cali, Cake and Coffee

 

To fly or not to fly, that was the question! When facing either £2000 Peru to Galapagos to Colombia flights, or numerous days spent entirely on a bus (one being Liv’s birthday), we were stuck in an endless loop of SkyScanner and sketchy local transport websites. Our unconventional solution finally emerged involving a cheap return flight to Peru which happened to stop off in Quito (northern Ecuador). After “accidentally missing” our remaining two connecting flights south, we headed north by bus (when it finally arrived) towards the Colombian border. As it’s safer to cross in the daytime, we stayed the night in the confusing little town of Tulcan (which bears no resemblance to Google Maps) and then made the painfully slow crossing by foot the next day. Once across, a crazy taxi driver (who clearly had even more of a death wish than our Buenos Aires La Boca taxi) whisked us to Ipiales airport where, after numerous cups of tea, we boarded our cheap internal flight to Cali. IMG_3493Feeling elated that our unorthodox route had actually worked, I set to work finalising all of Liv’s birthday surprises whilst we wandered the streets of Cali. Known as the Salsa capital of the world (dancing not sauce), Cali is located in the south west of Colombia and has an interesting mix of churches, parks, bustling streets and quirky neighbourhoods. Food was, of course, the first thing on our minds and, after randomly bumping into the local Rabbi in a coffee shop, we headed towards the upmarket neighbourhood of San Antonio for an incredible vege dinner at El Buen Alimento.

Whilst the food was great, we left feeling a little on edge after discovering that Cali is known as one of the more dangerous cities in Colombia following a recent wave of motorcycle armed robberies.  A fellow “gringo” sitting on the table next to us had been held up gunpoint just last week and we later met a local who’s aunt had recently been killed. Thankfully crime like this is vastly improved compared to the days of war between the Colombian government, drug cartels, paramilitary groups and guerrillas. I’d recommend watching Narcos for the best (and most entertaining) overview.

24th August: The day of birth! After a celebratory jug of Yorkshire tea (rationed supply reserved only for special occasions) and a compilation of birthday video messages (thanks Shenkers for your help!), we headed to Zhana for amazing (and cheap) relaxing massages – it’s a tough life!

A couple of weeks earlier Liv had joked that it would be amazing, although obviously not possible, to have a Colin the Caterpillar cake on her birthday. To misquote the words of Herzl, “if you will it…and then call/email numerous bakeries, send many WhatsApp pictures and pay a small fortune…it is no dream!” Say hola to South American Colin:

After a brief encounter with some giant flowers, we honed our dancing skills at a comically fast-paced salsa class, before meeting Gina (our Colombian friend who we met in Bolivia) and Christhian (her boyfriend) for dinner and dancing. Thankfully the strength of our cocktails more than made up for our lack of dancing ability!

With Colombia being our final South American country, we thought we’d treat ourselves to a car-hire and, several hours of price haggling in Spanish later, we were on our way to the Coffee Triangle. One small, gangster looking 4×4, two relieved Roamingtons (once out of the hectic city centre) and numerous beautiful winding country roads.

Located in the east-central part of Colombia, the combination of climate and altitude allows farmers here to grow some of the best coffee in the world. Thankfully the 4×4 conquered the pot-hole riddled roads, and we arrived into the heart of the coffee region to the delightful Hotel Bosques del Samàn for a weekend of R&R and TLC… Tremendous Levels of Coffee! Whilst the food was average and the massages were comically bad, the swimming pool, nature walks and general scenery more than made up for this.

My personal highlight was the coffee tour. From plant to cup, we did it all: picked, squashed, dried, cracked, roasted, ground and of course drank!

With our hearts already racing from excessive caffeine (is 7 coffees a day too much?!), we visited the Parque del Café near Armenia. Whilst this coffee theme park is set within a tranquil coffee plantation, the rides were anything but! With park swings usually being my g-force limits, the soaking wet log flumes and twisting, turning roller coasters were truly terrifying!

All adrenalined out, we let our hearts return to normal levels whilst roaming around the coffee museum and watching the amusing interpretive dance version of the history of Colombian coffee!

A short drive from Armenia brings you to the small sleepy town of Salento, where after successfully navigating the numerous one-way roads, we checked into the hotel Salento Real for a whale of a time, before staving off hanger with some delicious salmon from Café Bernabé Gourmet.

Salento became popular due to it’s proximity to the stunning scenery of the Valle de Cocora (Cocora Valley), and each morning, floods of tourists can be seen hanging off the back of Willys (classic WW2 Jeeps used for coffee farming) en route to the start of the hike. Sweeping valleys, soaring wax palm trees and winding streams…are usually what can be seen, but alas in true Roamington style, our view was at times a little different:

Halfway through the trek we arrived at the hummingbird sanctuary and, whilst the bizarre combination of hot chocolate and cheese wasn’t for us, the incredible speed and agility of these birds was mesmerising to watch. Having the fastest wings of any bird meant getting a selfie proved trickier than expected!

With a confusing series of paths ahead of us we made friends with an American family who had a guide and successfully made our way back to our car which we then discovered had had its headlights on all day – oops! Thankfully it started and we headed back to Salento where we met up with Bess and Jona (friends from back home) who were at the start of their travels.

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The next few days was a treat for all the senses. The beautiful scenery for the eyes, the delicious food, the incredible smells of coffee from Cafe Jesus Martin, local butterflies landing on you whilst walking and weirdly the incredibly loud bangs from a gunpowder-based sport called Tejo. This game involved throwing rocks at metal rings with packets of gunpowder spread around it and was a lot of fun!

There are many places known for their customer service… alas Cali airport is not one of them! After driving back from our over-caffeinated week in the coffee region, we discovered that our flight had been cancelled. Pulling together our best Spanish, we attempted to find out what was going on and were told that it was good news. There would be a new flight in only 5 hours time and that we would receive compensation for the delay…of a 6-inch subway sandwich! Any talk of swapping for something more gluten-free friendly was met with blank stares so there was nothing for it but this…

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Find out in the next blog if we ever made it to Medellin and, most importantly, what happened after eating this incredibly average sandwich!

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