Colombia with Cadence!

We got our first (potentially only) visit from a friend! My friend Cadence was on her summer vacation from her job teaching Spanish and came to visit us in Colombia. She flew into Bogotá and then took a wee hop up to Cartagena to meet us. The plan was to travel together for about three weeks and we would end up back in Bogotá in time for her to catch her flight home. Scott and I were fresh from our adventures in truck shipping bureaucracy and ready to have some fun. 

We met Cadence at the airport and headed over to our Airbnb to decompress before beginning our exploration of Cartagena. Cadence was kind enough to bring us a significant resupply package from home. We had some spare parts for our water filter and a couple of tools we forgot to pack shipped to her house in the weeks leading up to her visit. Plus, she brought a virtual treasure trove of toiletries and luxury items that she knew would be hard to find down here. The handoff of all of those goodies felt like Christmas morning!

Between the guard cat and the broken glass we felt that our place on the beach on Cartagena was secure.

Scott and I had been in Cartagena for about a week and had developed a routine of hiding out from the main heat of the day and exploring in the evening. When Cadence arrived, we tried to venture out in the day because we felt like Cadence’s time with us was limited and we needed to see/do as much as possible. That didn’t last long. We began to melt immediately and found refuge in a café that was blessedly air-conditioned and served many varieties of jugos naturales (fresh juices). One of Cadence’s many super-powers is speaking Spanish. Like, for real, fluent Spanish. Our time that afternoon in the juice café turned into Colombian Culture 101. Scott and I can get by with our Spanish word-salad but an intelligent and in-depth conversation is pretty much off the table. It was fun to listen in while Cadence chatted up the staff in the café. She would clue us into what was happening in the conversation if we started to look too panicky and lost but mostly it was like she was opening a window into actual sharing of thoughts and ideas. Ah, communication. After our mid-day tourism experiment, we returned to the evenings as our prime time to enjoy Cartagena. We did what we do in most cities; eat food and take in the vibe. 

Jugos naturales!!!!!
Cartagena’s ancient city walls are holding up just fine.

While we were hiding out from the heat we managed to make a rough plan for our exploration of Colombia for the next few weeks. The number one priority in that plan was to get up in elevation as quickly as possible. Lucky for us, the highest mountain in all of Colombia was in a national park that was only a couple hours away. Unlucky for us, we forgot to get gas after rescuing our truck from the shipping container and promptly ran out within twenty minutes of leaving Cartagena. Lucky for us, we ran out within sight of a filling station. Feeling sheepish for having a witness to the relatively amateur move of running out of gas we headed for higher ground. We got nowhere near the peak of that mountain but we made it high enough up its ankle that we were comfortable sleeping without air conditioning. 

Oops.

We stayed at a hostel-type place a couple of miles outside of the town of Minca. On paper that seemed pretty close but in actuality, it was an hour of driving on a really rough road. On the bright side, it was a really pretty location. From there we planned on hiking to a waterfall. The proprietor pointed us in the right direction shaking his head at our enthusiasm. He told us that he just flat-out doesn’t like walking. We set off on our hike that turned out to be almost entirely on a road. It was a hot hike. Not Cartagena hot, but we were really looking forward to swimming in that waterfall. On the way, we passed a mirador named for the three pine trees growing there that afforded us views out to the Caribbean Sea. When we got to the waterfall it became apparent that we were not the only ones with this great idea by a long shot. The place was packed. To be fair, it was a weekend, but this was an exceptional amount of bodies in one place. There was a line of people waiting their turn to pose for a picture in front of the waterfall. We waited for a break in the posing and rushed in for a refreshing dip. Then we got out of there with a quickness. We later learned that it was Colombian Independence Day which explained the crowds.

Chasing waterfalls.

After the waterfall, we found a nice restaurant run by a Swiss lady who served delicious hippy food. With bellies full, it was time to get back to our hostel. Not one cab was willing to make the drive up the hill to our place. They laughed at the prospect. We did not have enough daylight or motivation to make it back on our own steam so Scott was kind enough to hop on the back of a little motorcycle with bald tires driven by a smiling guy with a sunhat on for head protection to go get the truck and pick us up. Meanwhile, Cadence and I enjoyed some delicious jugos naturales in downtown Minca. 

Safety first!
Waiting for Scott to come and fetch us from town.

When we left there, we headed towards Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Los Nevados to see about getting some trekking in. It was not a quick jaunt. When we devised this plan, we did not consider how big Colombia is. There were a few places we could have checked out along the way but most were far enough off the main highway that we opted to forego them in favor of making good time towards PNN Los Nevados. These were long drive days. At one point we stopped on the side of the highway to make some road snacks. We were just about to slice into some veggies when a giant truck full of soldiers rolled up on us and started piling out. I was instantly feeling annoyed. We had a long enough day ahead of us without the time it takes for a military search. They surrounded us and asked a couple questions about why we were parked on the side of the road. We told them about our desire for snacks and they told us about how it is unsafe to stop on the side of the highway and about how we needed to get ourselves moving ASAP and only stop in towns. Fair enough. We brought our veggies in the cab with us and headed to town. They were all smiles and waves as we drove away feeling markedly less annoyed. It was two long days of driving punctuated by one sleep in a charmless trucker motel before we arrived in the town of Manizales. 

My guidebook didn’t have anything nice to say about Manizales. We found it charming. The streets were impossibly steep and the people were very generous with their time and energy. When our truck wouldn’t fit in the hotel parking the owner personally escorted us to his favorite parking lot and gave us a ride back to the hotel with all of our bags. We were there to visit the park headquarters and find out as much as possible about hiking in PNN Los Nevados. Arriving at the park office we were greeted warmly, hosted in their conference room, given delicious coffee and free maps of the park. The ranger there spent almost an hour answering all of our questions. We felt like everyone we met was going out of their way to make our lives easy and enjoyable. After getting more information than we imagined we checked out of our hotel and went to pick up our truck at the parking lot. We were feeling pretty excited about heading off to enjoy the park. We asked the man running the parking lot to take our picture. He more than agreed. He insisted on props! It was like we were in a Colombian photo booth. He brought out a huge stack of hats for us to wear in the pictures. He was a little bossy about who should wear which hat and we took many pictures. We were feeling quite tickled with the whole experience and thanked him profusely but he wasn’t finished. He went back into his office/costumery treasure chest and returned with a stack of ponchos and scarves. We all took another round of pictures before we were able to peel ourselves away and leave what my guidebook called the “concrete horrors” of Manizales. Lonely Planet can’t get them all right.

Scarves and ponchos!
A man with many hats…

            Our next stop was the colorful town of Salento where we had a date with a forest of wax palm trees. Just outside of Salento is the Valle de Cocora. Here, the tallest palm trees in the world make their home. They reach up 200 feet towards the sky. There is a hiking trail that loops around through the palms and the pastures in which they grow. If mother nature had her way the palms would not be so striking. She would prefer that they are tucked in amongst a riot of forest vegetation. The hills around the valley are still in their natural state. If you look hard enough the palms can be spotted poking their fronds up over the surrounding forest. If they hadn’t been singled out for preservation most people wouldn’t think twice about them. The forest took one for the palms. Anyhow, it was quite lovely to walk among the palms and commune with the cows. The trail led us up one side of the valley and we opted to return via a forest trail which included about a dozen scenic bridges as the trail crisscrossed a network of small streams. If I left out the part where I stepped off the trail into a pile of human poo I would describe our hike as the perfect day in la naturaleza

Road trip!!!!
Cocora Valley.
Wax palms reaching for the sky.
Take it to the bridge!

            Armed with the map of PNN Los Nevados we headed into the mountains determined to adventure without the added hassle and expense of hiring a guide. We drove The Joan Wilder to the very end of the road in the “town” of El Cedral. The town consisted of one store/bar that served as a meeting ground for all of the local farmers bringing their milk down out of the hills on horseback. They told us that is was fine to leave our truck parked there for a few days and we bought some potato chips from them to reciprocate the kindness. We strapped on our backpacks and headed up the trail towards Refugio La Pastora. Thanks to Cadence’s aforementioned Spanish speaking superpowers we came prepared with a reservation for the night at the refugio. The trail was really more of a small creek bed with little side trails when the water got too deep or the mud got too thick. The view changed little as we hiked onward, encouraged by signs with arrows and % markers letting us know our progress. Giant cousins of familiar houseplants hung down from the trees and bromeliads bloomed from their branches. Time passed quickly and soon we were at the gate of Refugio La Pastora. 

Gotta love the waterfall in the distance,

            We were greeted by José, a slight and stoic man who, with the help of his two slight and stoic brothers, ran a tight ship in that forest. He spoke neither loudly nor clearly but his message was received when he pointed to the sun-faded sign indicating that our shoes were not allowed inside. Cadence was the only one of us hip to the drill and she had brought a pair of camp shoes. Scott and I padded around in our stinky hiking socks. The refugio had a couple dozen bunk beds, a dining hall, and a fireplace room. Outside, horses wandered around in the flower gardens. A tall waterfall on a distant hillside was visible through the trees. It was a peaceful tiny paradise. José proved to be an excellent chef. He even tried to cook for Scott. Unfortunately, the TVP was held together with eggs. Can’t win them all. After dinner, we, along with the other guests at the refugio, retired to the fireplace room to enjoy the ambiance provided by a crackling fire. 

La Pastora in all of its peaceful glory.

            After a delicious breakfast, we headed out further into the park. We had heard about a side trail to some waterfalls from other guests at the refugio and added that to our day’s adventure. We almost missed them as the trail was not the most well marked. We inadvertently headed down a muddy cow trail for half an hour until it disappeared into the forest. The sign for the waterfalls was tucked behind a tree where it is only visible if you are coming back from going down the wrong trail. They were pretty. As we headed up the trail the landscape began to change. The forest opened up and the mountains in the distance started to show their peaks.

We did not sample any of the purple berries.

We hiked with purpose because we were aiming for a farm, Finca Jordan, that provided room and board to hikers in the park. This time we were arriving without a reservation and if they didn’t have room for us it would be another couple of hours of hiking to the next finca. Scott arrived first and let the proprietress, Mariluz, a brusque woman who exclusively uses her outside voice, know that there were three of us. She seemed a little put out by our arrival but did have space for us. There was a couple from Spain and a woman from France staying with her as well. Cadence, Scott and I shared a very spartan room. The walls were papered with newspapers from 1998 and the ceiling was less than six feet high. They had recently acquired solar power so we did have the pleasure of hitting our heads on one LED bulb with a finicky switch. There was no sink in the bathroom so hand washing had to be done by turning on the cold shower and trying not to soak myself while washing up. Eventually, all of us congregated around a picnic table on the porch while we waited for dinner. Once the sun went down the temperature dropped significantly and the wind picked up. When Mariluz invited us into her kitchen for dinner we were all ecstatic. We huddled around her wood stove and she fed us a huge meal that was only remarkable in that the beef was too tough to cut and impossible to chew. The best part was that it was warm and the meal was followed by hot chocolate and aguapanela. Panela is a cake of unrefined cane sugar. Aguapanela is panela dissolved in hot water. Delicious. While we all enjoyed our hot beverages in the kitchen, Scott and I tried to follow along with the conversation that was flowing around us in thickly accented Spanish. Cadence helped fill us in on the general gist of the conversation. Apparently, funny pig stories were being exchanged while I was taking in our surroundings. Mariluz’s son throwing his plastic potato chip bag into the fire. The plastic bucket of raw meat sitting on top of a cupboard. The lack of refrigeration. Mariluz’s husband Mario laughing at the pig stories while self-consciously trying to hide the braces on his teeth. Mariluz shouting everything she said. It was a fantastic evening. 

Every farm should have a double waterfall in the distance!
No shortage of reading material there…
Still life with dirty dishes.
Mariluz in her kitchen.
Mariluz’s kitchen was so warm and cozy.
Finca Jordan in the morning.

            The next morning after a lovely breakfast in the warm kitchen we followed Mariluz’s directions and hiked on to a farm about an hour and a half away. We were aiming for Campo Alegre and hoping a woman named Nelita would agree to take us in for the night. This finca was not on our maps and involved directions that were less specific than we would have liked. Go up that hill and turn right after the river crossing. Okay… We crossed many rivers on our way to find Campo Alegre. Lucky for us there are only so many fincas and we were able to find our finca du jour with only a little bit of uncertainty along the way.

This was the river crossing we were looking for.
Erosion much?

Nelita won my heart when she greeted us with hot chocolate. Turns out that Nelita is Mariluz’s ex-mother-in-law and coincidentally also lacks an inside voice. After savoring our hot chocolate, we left our packs in our room and headed out for an unencumbered day hike to find the paramo. Paramo is the ecotype that exists above the tree line and below the permanent snow line. A signature plant of the paramo in Colombia is the frailejone. Friar John in English. They are members of the aster family but they resemble Joshua trees. If we hiked far enough there would be a lake in our future but it was a far reach to make it there and back while daylight was keeping us warm. The Paramo starts around 3800 meters which is around 12,500ft. Without the sun it is very chilly.

That is Campo Alegre in the distance.
Frailejones only grow about one centimeter per year.

We hiked high enough to be surrounded in frailejones and decided to head back to Campo Alegre to see what Nelita had in store for us for dinner. I was still feeling traumatized by the previous night’s beef so I told Nelita that I was a vegetarian. Dinner was pasta, rice, arepas (like small, very thick corn tortillas), salad and fresh homemade cheese. It was served with a hot cup of aguapanela. Campo Alegre did not have electricity so as the sun went down the kitchen grew dim. Her ceiling was made of corrugated plastic that functioned as a skylight. We were all pretty tired from hiking around in the thin air so we were quite happy to go to sleep with the sun. Our room there was papered in advertisements for rum and also served as a storage closet for clothing, cleaning products, and animal husbandry supplies. It was cozy. And dark. Nelita offered us a candle but we were too afraid of dying in a finca fire to accept. We had a little portable light that we hung from the ceiling and that was all we needed. 

Accommodations at Campo Alegre.
I am fascinated by finca kitchens.

            The next morning, we congregated again in Nelita’s kitchen and enjoyed a hearty breakfast. Rice, eggs, arepas, fried plantains, and more cheese. The portions were huge. I was still digesting the prior night’s dinner as I stuffed breakfast on top of it. The ubiquitous aguapanela was mixed with instant coffee for a little dose of morning motivation. Delicious! From Nelita’s place, we hiked back to the peaceful sanctuary that was Refugio La Pastora. It was all downhill and the weather cooperated by showing us views far out into the valley.

Sorry about my face…
Sunny skies for our hike out.

Arriving back at La Pastora was like coming home. We shed our hiking shoes, entered the refugio and followed José to our assigned room. This time we had a view out the back to the horses. The afternoon was spent relaxing in anticipation of José’s culinary magic. The night was unfortunately interrupted when I sustained a bunk bed injury while returning from a midnight potty break. I lost track of where I was in space and time and smashed my nose into the upper bunk as I aimed for the lower bunk. I may have let an unsavory word escape my lips as the stars circled my head. The bridge of my nose was compromised and blood was running down my face. The subsequent search for the first aid kit made sure that everyone was awake to share in my woes. Our first aid kit was missing the antibiotic ointment but luckily Cadence had some in hers. Once the bleeding was controlled we all went back to sleep. Well, I stayed up taking selfies under the covers to see if I was developing black eyes for a while and then went back to sleep. The rest of the hike back to our truck was uneventful. The forest jungle was waiting to envelop us as we descended to lower elevations. We were pleased to see that The Joan Wilder was waiting for us right where we left her entirely unmolested. 

Watching the horses from the meditation/fireplace room.

            Our first priority upon exiting the park was to get ourselves to hot showers. To that end, we drove to a nearby town and checked into a hotel. It was super cute and they charged us by the person instead of by the room so Cadence got her own digs for the same price. Unfortunately, they had not turned on the hot water heater so I had to channel my inner Wim Hof to endure the much-needed shower. The next day we made up for the cold shower by heading to the Termales de Santa Rosa de Cabal. There we enjoyed soaking in a series of hot pools, drinking jugos naturales, eating at one of the multiple restaurants onsite, and staring up at a beautiful waterfall. It was the perfect rest day after our days trekking through PNN Los Nevados.

Getting ready for some serious hot spring soaking.
Waterfall at the hot springs.

            From there we started to make our way toward Bogotá. Colombia is much bigger in reality than it was in my mind’s eye. It was going to be two days of driving to get to Bogotá so we decided to break up the drive with a stay in Armenia. We had some challenges trying to find a place to stay. We first stopped at a hostel that looked good online but all they had were bunk beds in a shared dorm that smelled heavily of the cologne preferred by post-adolescent men the world over. We weren’t resonating with the vibes there so we found a place on booking.com that looked good, made a reservation and headed across town. When we arrived, it was clear that it was not where we were going to be staying that night. It was an apartment in a building that was as close to being in “the projects” as my overprivileged self could imagine. We probably would have been fine sleeping there but I didn’t have much confidence that our truck wouldn’t be completely emptied while we slept. So, I set to applying for a refund of my ill-conceived online reservation while Scott drove us to a hotel that was recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. It did the job. By the time we were settled in there, it was pretty late. None of us was especially hungry so we set off on foot in search of jugos naturales. Armenia is not a tourist town. We wandered past more fried chicken shops and casinos than any town should be host to. At this time of night, most of the stores were closed and the sidewalks were piled with trash bags waiting for less fortunate people to sort out the recyclables and anything of value before the morning pick-up. Somehow, we managed to find ourselves on the only pedestrianfriendly commercial thoroughfare in the whole town. Gleaming like a beacon on that street was Mocha Toto, a coffee shop that also sold the much sought-after jugos naturales. We were chatted up by the owner, Juan, and invited to return the next day for a demonstration of his roasting process.  We were very excited to have happened upon such a fun diversion.

            The next morning, we arrived just in time for the roasting demonstration. We sampled his espresso and his cold brew. He did his best to convince us that medium roast was superior to dark roast. We smiled and nodded but in my heart of hearts I am a dark roast girl and don’t see that changing any time soon. Cadence was able to get a custom bag of dark roast coffee out of him to take home to her hubby but he was pained to do it. I was pretty jacked up by the time we purchased bags of his delicious yet under-roasted coffee for the road. Especially since Cadence is not a coffee aficionado and shared her samples with me. Fully caffeinated, we headed out to visit Armenia’s star attraction; the mariposario (butterfly farm). 

Juan giving us a roasting demonstration.
Cadence with her perfectly roasted bag of beans.
So full of love.

            The butterfly farm was far more than just butterflies. Admission included an optional tour of the grounds. We were blown away by the quality of the tour. The butterfly enclosure was shaped like a butterfly. We got to wander around its wings and were even encouraged to manhandle the butterflies. Our guide let us know which species were easiest to catch and which could be coaxed to alight upon our noses. It was magical. Butterflies fluttered about and free-range turtles wandered at our feet munching on the landscaping. After we had our fill of communing with the butterflies we got led through the botanical garden which included plants from most of Colombia’s ecotypes. We climbed an observation tower which afforded us birds-eye views of the butterfly-shaped enclosure. An unexpected treat was a giant mobile diorama of a tunnel project that was currently being built to connect Armenia to Bogotá. Our guide explained that the road connecting the two cities was really slow going because it crossed a range of the Andes, all of the large trucks go very slow, and accidents are common. We were especially interested because this was going to be our route for the next day. We were a couple of years too early for the tunnel but we did decide to get an early start on that drive! 

You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose…
One of many roving turtles.
Scott finding community on the road.
Bird’s eye view of the butterfly house.

            Other than one pit-stop to attend to our automatic transmission fluid, and watching dare-devil bicyclists hitch rides from the semis, the drive was uneventful. We arrived at our hotel in Bogotá with plenty of light remaining in the day; a novelty for us.

Crossing the Andes is not for the faint of heart.

We had given ourselves a couple of days to explore Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city. Our timing was right to check out the Festival de Verano. There is a huge city park a few blocks from our hotel that hosted the festival. It was a very big deal. They even imported an entire beach for the occasion. On our way to the festival, we wandered through a botanical garden. It was queer day at the botanical garden. We happened upon a tour explaining the queer sex lives of flowers. There is a tiny part of me that regrets not taking the time at the drag queen photo booth but we were on our way to the festival and had already spent a good part of the day watching a film festival spotlighting queer themes. They were supposed to be short films but the movie just kept going like a jam band taking an encore. We didn’t want people to think we were leaving because of the content, but we only sat down to justify taking the free popcorn and didn’t realize we were in for a feature-length short film. Anyhow, we did escape when there was a lull in the content and headed to the festival.  There were more kites being flown than was safe. Walking around was a study in not getting our eyes poked out. Families had pitched tents all over the park, perhaps for a sheltered siesta when the festivities got too crazy. I was overstimulated before we left the botanical garden but felt determined to experience this cultural extravaganza.

This giant corn is sometimes delicious.

            We were headed toward some blow-up balls you could get inside and roll around on the grass when we saw a big tent that was advertising a free army circus show. Yes, there is a division of the Colombian army that is devoted to circus performances. Apparently, it is to put a friendlier face on the army. The Circo Ejército travels all over giving free shows in remote villages. We couldn’t pass it up. They packed as many people as they could into the tent and then they had us all skoosh together so that they could fit about one hundred more people in. They basically did a reenactment of famous battles of Colombia’s history with the cast being all clowns. Also, there was fire spinning, hoop dancing, and a suspenseful bamboo balancing act. All was generously supplemented with artificial smoke for added drama. It was crazy. I was very happy to escape the tent unscathed two hours later. That was about all we could take of the festival but we barely scratched the surface. 

The crowd to see the circus before they had us squeeze in together.

            The next day we had a more traditional experience of Bogotá. We headed downtown and visited the Botero Museum. We tried to catch a graffiti tour but my sense of direction had us going the wrong way for too long and we missed it. So, we just wandered around looking at artisan shops on our way to a delicious vegan restaurant for lunch. After dinner, we spent the next hour or so in a taxi headed back to the hotel during rush hour. It was a nice way to relax and we got to see a ton of graffiti so it was like redemption for missing the tour.

Keeping the intersections safe.
If one gets too close to the paintings an alarm will sound.
Bogotá graffiti. No tour required.
Bogotá had no shortage of colorful walls.

The evening was spent sharing photos and Cadence spent some time packing up to head back to the States. Cadence had arranged to have a taxi come and get her in the wee hours of the morning to get to the airport. It was strange to have to say goodbye. We had anticipated Cadence’s visit for so long it didn’t seem possible that it was ending. On the bright side, if we dilly dally long enough on this trip she might visit us again on her winter break! 

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