A Tale of Ransom & Robbery
Okay, so this title may sound misleading and it’s not actually me being held to ransom or even robbed but you’ll get my drift as you read through the story…
Sometimes when you travel, you become complacent and forget about the dangers. During a weekend trip to Salento, a mountainous coffee region in Colombia, I let my guard slide and ended up questioning my whole trip.
As soon as I was on the bus from Medellin, I felt like I wanted to go back. I was leaving my comfort bubble and venturing into an area I didn’t know. After a few weeks of being in the same place, the thought of even going somewhere else was really daunting. Those doubts that you always get as a solo traveller kicked in: “Will I be able to find the hostel? Will I even meet anyone or will I spend the whole three days alone?”
Silly questions and doubts that shouldn’t even be an issue.
But when I arrived in Salento, and checked into an eco hostel (Hostal Casa del Loro to be exact) I immediately felt at ease. And then I met my friend to be for the weekend, a French girl exactly the same age as me (very unusual to find travelling solo), and we quickly became friends.
Even the family who ran the eco hostel were incredibly nice and I felt silly for having any concerns. But the real reason I was here, wasn’t really for pleasure. I was here to collect an iPhone, one that belonged to my friend who had lost it in a field in Salento. Luckily for her it had been picked up by a local farmer (who had probably never seen an iPhone before), and I was here to collect it.
Thinking the whole transaction would be a relatively easy one, I waited for the farmer to arrive whilst the owner’s son kept me company, telling me all about the eco hostel and how it was an exciting new concept and the only one like it in Colombia.
Then the subject changed.
“I think the farmer is expecting a reward,” he said. I had anticipated this and had already came to a figure with my friend.
Expecting a man to turn up (never presume), I was surprised when a middle-aged lady was let in and sat on the sofa. Immediately the atmosphere was a little frosty to say the least. It appears that the family had actually had a falling out with the farmer after they had agreed to let them use their electricity and she had abused their generosity. This now seemed more like a peace mission than just retrieving some lost property.
I stood there with my 20,000 pesos ready to give to the farmer which we had agreed was a generous amount, after all, the phone was lost property and it wasn’t as though they were actually selling it to me. But my 20,000 got me some blank stares and the farmer didn’t even blink at the amount. So, with the family all standing around me (by this time the father had also appeared out of nowhere), and with much negotiation (and translating) I gave in, and handed the farmer the money – 50,000 pesos (it only actually equates to about £20 and just sounds so much more). Then the mood changed and for the first time since the lady farmer arrived, she smiled. I thanked her for all her help in my basic spanish and the lady from the eco hostel shook her hand. It seemed that this peace mission had been accomplished.
Note – It was only when I left that I saw the hut that the farmer lived in. My room in the eco hostel was bigger than the whole square feet of where she lived. I was happy we had upped the amount (even if I discovered later that the sim card had been taken out) hmm…
After I had collected the phone and fulfilled my peace mission, I was free to do as I liked.
So it was off to the Valle de la Corocora for the day with Marie, my new French friend. A four hour trek through a gorgeous valley, over brooks and streams, walking along the most rickety of bridges, trying to keep my balance whilst walking uphill along muddy (very muddy may I add) tracks. If you stop half-way you can watch the hummingbirds over a cup of hot chocolate and cheese – a Colombian delicacy for 5,000 pesos. Wanting to get to the top for the view, we carried on, now as a group of four having tagged onto a Colombian girl and British girl (had I known about the chocolate and cheese drink beforehand, I definitely would have stopped).
Valle de Corocora did not disappoint. The only downside was being asked by a local farmer for money as we trespassed his land, (I see a pattern emerging here). Seeing that walking across his land was part of the public track, Marie refused and slid under the gated fence. The only thing I could do was follow suit as they seemed surprised at our exit.
Jeeps take you from Salento to the beginning of the track in 45 minutes. If you feel that you can’t walk the whole way, you can hire a horse for the trek. I did feel empathy for them climbing the steep slopes carrying people on their backs. I would definitely opt to walk and you can hire special boots for a better grip in the mud (again if only I’d known beforehand but hindsight is a wonderful thing).
After a fab day out, I made plans to walk to a coffee plantation the next day, one that Marie had walked alone the day before. I was excited to be seeing my first ever coffee plantation especially in Colombia so that night we explored the tiny square and treated ourselves to trout, the dish that Salento is known for and met Marie’s friend, who had also happened to have visited the same coffee plantation that day.
“You’re going alone?” her friend asked me, wide eyed, when I said I was going the next day.
I nodded, taking a sip of my mango smoothie. The look on her face began to fill me with concern.
“I need to tell you something,” she began, then proceeded to tell me an event which had happened earlier.
In a group with others she had met at her hostel, they had taken the walk to the coffee plantation through the quiet picturesque fields, which I didn’t realise were actually rather isolated, (Marie later told me she hadn’t seen anyone else during her walk there and back). On their way they had seen a man coming the other way accompanied by police. The man was crying and they were stopped for questioning. Apparently, the man had just been robbed by five masked men who had held a gun to his head until he handed over his valuables. The man was understandably still in bits and traumatised. Marie's friend looked at me. I knew exactly what she was about to say.
“Don’t walk that route alone,” she confirmed.
I nodded, actually in shock at what she has just said. We went back to the hostel and I told the boy there.
“Not possible,” he said. “Salento is the safest town in Colombia.”
“It actually just happened,” I said, annoyed at his ignorance.
“Well they must be people from outside Salento,” he added. “People in Salento wouldn’t do that.”
“Whether they were people from outside the area or not, it still happened,” I reiterated. Was this not something bad that had just occurred? It definitely was from where I was from.
I slept badly that night, slightly freaked out by the wind blowing through the eco hostel. Being built of recyclable materials, certain parts of the hostel didn’t seem so sturdy in what I thought was a near hurricane condition.
The next day it hit me – that could have easily been me, walking by myself in an isolated area when five masked men could have held me up at gunpoint too. Not just one masked man but five! God knows what else could’ve happened being a lone female in an isolated area of woods and fields.
One of my biggest fears is people wearing masks and the more I thought about it, the more my imagination led itself down a darker path. Then fear gripped me, and suddenly I didn’t want to be in Colombia anymore. What was I thinking, being here by myself? Travelling solo through a country that is still up there in the danger stakes. Just because tourists now came here didn’t mean that it was completely safe to travel through. I had let my guard down and forgotten where I was.
I knew I was panicking about something that actually hadn’t happened to me. You hear stories like this but I had felt so removed from them before. This time I had met someone who had seen a person it had happened to and if it had made a grown man sob, it had made it even more real for me.
From that point, I was out of control. Marie was out for the day, so I hid in my room, crying my eyes out, not wanting to see anyone. Occasionally I suffer from bouts of agoraphobia and this definitely brought it on in full force. I wanted to go back to Medellin straight away, back to the comfort of my room, my flat mates and an area I knew I was safe.
Looking back now, I was being totally irrational and completely let my fear run away with me and for the second time since I had ever experienced during all my travels, I wanted to give up this lifestyle and return home.
Hours later, completely cried out, Marie returned and I told her how I felt. She had felt the same after going for a walk to a viewpoint and had thought about the story and returned quickly.
I knew that I couldn’t let this irrational fear get in the way of my trip. After all nothing had actually happened to me directly, so I plucked up the courage to go out the gate and walk into the town. I looked at everyone with a suspicion that I didn’t have before, through the eyes of fear yet I knew the town square was completely safe. I brought some street food and sat in the park on a bench next to an old man. I still didn't want to speak to anyone, having lost my confidence at the little spanish I knew.
I sat quietly and ate my food, observing two young boys playing football with each other. Gradually I allowed myself to just be in the moment and enjoy where I was, and when I was finally relaxed enough, I got up, and said goodbye to the old man. Then I walked back slowly, admiring the countryside in the distance. I stopped in a corner shop and when the shopkeeper asked me questions in Spanish, I returned his answers in Spanish until I realised I was actually having a conversation in another language.
Then I was back at the eco hostel, refreshed, with regained confidence and realising that this town actually isn’t that bad after all.
So I didn’t get to see a coffee plantation, but I did recover a friend's phone, help make peace between neighbours, made three new friends and practiced my Spanish (oh and I did get to hike in a gorgeous part of Colombia). Not bad for a long weekend…
How to Get To Salento
Buses take anywhere between 5 to 7 hours from Terminal de Sur in Medellin. Large buses (coach size) cost 40,000 pesos and include a movie half-way or you can take a collectivo (a minibus) for 30,000 which is meant to be slightly quicker. The collectivo stops for toilet and food breaks but if you're travelling by bus, stock up on food before you get on as it doesn't tend to stop. The roads are very windy so be prepared if you suffer from motion sickness.
Note – I’m not writing this to tell people not to go to Salento. It’s a really cool town with lots of artisan gifts, nice trout dishes (and an amazing pizza place), and old men wearing cowboy hats playing some strange game of billiards, and should not be missed off a itinerary. Just be aware that it is still is Colombia and be very very careful if you choose to walk anywhere alone.
Have you ever been scared too?