Updated: Mar 6, 2020
In my adult life, I’ve never really travelled anywhere without some stated purpose. I’ve hardly ever sat on a beach just to watch the waves crash into the sand, and it’s been 20 years since I’ve boarded a plane without climbing or ski gear. In Vietnam last year I remembered/realized that every time I’ve traveled abroad my interest in the culture has overshadowed my other motives (usually climbing), and I’ve always returned home feeling a little more open to the world; a little less stuck in my self-made identity. With all of this in mind, my girlfriend Lyndsey and I recently headed to Colombia for no other reason than to check out some of the jungles, mountains, and beaches, and to see what life is like for the people there. Why Colombia? Because over the years I’ve talked to a handful of people who went there and enjoyed their time, and that’s good enough for me.
Originally we’d talked about picking one city or town to serve as a home base in the mountains where we’d spend most of our trip before heading to the coast for a vacation within a vacation. The problem was deciding which city or town to choose. Colombia, as it turns out, has a vast diversity of landscapes. Most outsiders picture endless jungles, and maybe the sandy beaches along the coast, but really there are also high, glaciated mountains, pine forests, grasslands, and deserts. Each of these landscapes has shaped the culture of the people who live there.
Being mountain people ourselves, we decided to fly into Medellin and head towards what seemed to be the most accessible mountains in the country, which happened to be in the main coffee producing region. Still, deciding on a home base was just too big of a decision: the distances from one town to another are long, and the roads are often terrible. Unless you have your own car, day trips in central Colombia are pretty much limited to a 20 or so mile radius from the town where you’re staying. So in early November we landed in Medellin with the vague plan to head south to Jardin, and figure things out from there.
Trains, planes, and automobiles, as they say, and something like 24 sleepless hours later we were in Medellin, where somehow I was able to pull enough Spanish out of the dusty attic of my brain to get us from the airport to town on a shuttle, and then into a taxi where I had to use Google Maps to direct our driver across the city to the apartment we’d rented. This all worked out just fine, and after a nap we were wandering the Guayabal neighborhood for street food by sunset. After a couple of uneventful days, we headed for Jardin.
The road to Jardin, like most in the Andes, was windy and bumpy, with stops here and there to pick up food vendors, snake oil salesmen, and a guitarist who sang sad folk songs. As we got closer to Jardin the rain stopped, the golden light of the late afternoon broke through the clouds, and the jungle adjacent to our window gave way to a lush, deep walled canyon dotted with farms and brightly painted farmhouses surrounded by colorful shrubs and flowers. Our bus slowed as we made our way onto the narrower streets of the town and rolled to a stop in front of the non-descript bus station. We offloaded and followed the arrow on Google maps to our hotel.
The hotel was empty aside from the family who lived there, so they upgraded us to a room on the top floor with a view of the surrounding hills. We then walked the half block to the main plaza, where, as advertised in our travel guide, locals sat sipping coffee and chatting at colorful tables set all around the square. Kids chased pigeons that congregated around the benches and fountains in the center, and street food vendors were beginning to fire up their stoves and coals to get ready for the nightly rush. On the far end of the plaza a 200 year old cathedral loomed over the town, and the other sides were lined with cafes, ice cream shops, and bars. We wandered through it all, exchanging greetings and smiles with almost everyone we passed.
Jardin turned out to be our favorite place that we visited in Colombia. Weekends bring a festival like atmosphere as the town fills up with mostly Colombian tourists, but weekdays are quiet aside from the after work social hour in the plaza. We saw few other gringos even though the town has been raved about online and noted in travel guides for a few years now. During the days we hiked trails and roads in the surrounding hills to check out the views and look for exotic birds. We hid from the daily afternoon storms in one of the many cafes, sipping café con leche made from locally grown beans. In a country not really for its food, there were some very good and cheap places to eat. The locals were nothing but friendly and helpful, and we were offered none of the trendy tours or adventure activities that were pushed on us in other parts of the country. My favorite places to travel are those where there is little to do but wander and observe, and Jardin, for now at least, is one of those places.
We stayed in Jardin for a few days longer than we’d planned, and eventually moved to a little hostel/homestay on a ridge high above the town where we spent a couple of days walking roads through coffee and banana farms, practicing Spanish with a four year old girl, and reading. Lyndsey painted, and the most notable thing I did was coax a snake out of the house with a broom. Eventually we crammed into the front seat of a local farmer’s pickup for the ride back to town where we caught a bus to Riosucio, supposedly a few hours to the south.
As I eluded to earlier, getting around in this part of Colombia isn’t always casual. But the ride Riosucio was, for me, one of the highlights of our month in the country because it showed so much about the mindset and character of the people. A good bus or colectivo driver in rural South America is more than a driver. They are trusted to deliver produce and machine parts from one place to another. They decide which food vendors and other salespeople to allow on the bus. They are sympathetic and might give a poor farm worker or school kid a free ride now and then. They navigate windy, narrow, rough roads while being mindful of their passengers and other vehicles. In Peru a driver shared his lunch with me on a long ride, and later did us all a favor when he blew by a local militia that was trying to stop us. I was on a bus where the driver managed to change a flat tire just a few feet from the edge of a massive cliff in just a few minutes, and on another where I woke up in the middle of the night and looked out to see that the driver and his assistant had removed an axle to make major repairs in the middle of a desert. They aren’t all good… I’ve been on rides where the drivers pack 20-50 extra people on the bus so that they can pocket the extra cash, and was once right behind a bus that crashed and killed three passengers when its drunk driver tried to race a car.
The driver that took us to Riosucio was a good one. We sat just behind him, amongst boxes full of apples, eggs, glass jars of pickled vegetables and other packages. It was up to him to remember where they all had to go, and along the way we stopped in towns and farms to make the deliveries. This being the rainy season, the gravel road was rough and rutted; impassible for cars with low clearance. Our driver took his time, tooting the horn and holding up his hand in acknowledgement to every vehicle we passed. At some point someone going the opposite direction pulled beside the driver’s window, and the two talked for a while. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but the other driver seemed concerned. We continued on, and after a little while our driver backed up to a rock scree slope beside the road and hopped out. Eventually I got out and found him loading large rocks into the rear luggage compartment. He was chatting with someone as he worked, so I didn’t ask what was up. We went on and eventually saw what the other driver was worried about: a 20 foot long mud hole across the road that others had tried to bridge with brush and scrap lumber. Our driver plowed through, and then stopped and jumped out again. Again I followed, and found him knee deep in the mud, first moving the old bridge material, and then filling the deepest parts of the pit with his rocks. He smiled as he worked, and waved me back when I offered to help. We had already made it across; he was doing this for those who’s vehicles couldn’t make it. For the rest of the drive he would signal and then pull up beside oncoming vehicles to warn them about the road ahead.
Riosucio was just a one night stopover for us on our way to the tourist center of this region: Salento. We walked to our hostel in Salento during a heavy downpour (umbrellas highly recommended here), where its owner Fernando greeted us and told us right away that all it ever does here this time of year is rain. A little ominous, considering we’d come here to go hiking among the 15,000 to 17,000 foot mountains of Los Navados National Park. After a short hike the following morning and a couple of rainy days spent wandering the town, we’d ruled out going higher into the mountains. The town itself is beautiful but packed with tourists and the overpriced restaurants and shops that go along with them. I was ready to move on when, after a frank discussion about the state of Colombian politics over our morning coffee, Fernando offered to give us his “locals tour” of the area. He said that he wanted to show us was this place used to be like by showing us some places that most tourists don’t get to go. Generally I’m not really into being herded around on tours, but we’d made fast friends with Fernando, and this seemed important to him.
The next morning, we quickly drank our coffee and set off at a fast walk toward the bus station. Along the way we stopped for a loaf of bread that Fernando told us he would need to bring as a gift for the caretaker of the place that we were going to visit. We caught a bus out of town, and a few minutes later got off and began to walk along the highway. Eventually we headed toward a small collection of houses beside a large, abandoned concrete building, where Fernando knocked on a door and was warmly greeted by an older man who we were told oversees this land now that its original owner is in jail in the US for narco-trafficking. What followed was an eye-opening tour of the compound that served as the home of one of Colombia’s wealthiest drug traffickers in the 70’s and 80’s. Fernando wanted to show us the forces that had shaped the country. He told us stories about what it was like to grow up near this compound in those decades, and about the people who lived here. Many of the people we talked about are still alive today, so I’m really not sure what I can write about here and what I can’t. For now I’m going to leave it at that. Maybe eventually I’ll say more about this place.
After our tour we caught a bus for Periera, a bustling industrial city of 600,000. We’d seen a bit of what life was like in the country and wanted to check out city life. As it turned out, a big industrial city in central Colombia is like any in the US. Poverty and crime, yes, but also weekend street fairs, nightlife, good food, and plazas decorated with statues and Christmas lights. We stayed in an edgy neighborhood where we tried to avoid being out after dark, but that edge was softened by the amiable grandmother type who rented us our studio and lived in an apartment above us, who would hang out and gossip with neighbors outside of our front door.
With tropical rain and lightning still limiting our wanderings, we decided to give up on the mountains and figure out the best way to get to the coast. But I’ll leave it there for now. Coastal Colombia could be a different country than central Colombia, so I’ll give it a different blog post.