Follow Sybille's adventures through South America. To read her first chapter in Brazil click here.
My AirBnB hosts in São Paulo had introduced me to the concept of Free Walking Tours in that city and so it was that on a Free Walking Tour of the historic centre of Rio de Janeiro I met the delightful young couple Nicolas and Kelly from Bogotá, Colombia, and after 2 funfilled days exploring Rio are paths parted but they had left me with a heartfelt invitation and the promise that if and when I made it to their neck of the woods they would accommodate and entertain me.
My knowledge of Colombia was shockingly limited to knowing that Bogota was its capital, Pablo Escobar its most infamous son, and that not so long ago it was considered to be one of the most dangerous destinations for solo female travellers. Having braved two months in India the previous year I was not going to let such negativity deter me.
My Colombian adventure began in Leticia, a bustling border town, surrounded by the Amazon jungle right at the southernmost tip of the country, with Brazil and Peru being its immediate neighbours. It is only accessible by boat or air, and I was quite surprised how many tourists I came across.
Leticia's main attraction would be the jungle but I had a memorable encounter in the little Parque Santander in the middle of the town which at every sunset attracts literally millions of parakeets that flock to the trees to roost there for the night. You see them arriving like a dark cloud from quite a distance and the cacophony of screeching birds is ear piercing. This spectacle goes on for at least an hour until every branch of every tree in the park is black with birds. Fascinating!
Flying over the endless jungle to Bogotá the following day gave one a good perspective of how vast this ecosystem truly is.
Bogotá lies at an altitude of 2628meters above sea level and coming from the sweltering tropics the cooler climate was a very welcome relief. My young friend Nicolas collected me from the Eldorado International Airport and my first impression was that Bogota is a sprawling cosmopolitan city with excellent highways, modern vehicles, and a multitude of high rise apartment buildings, edging up the surrounding mountains that hem in the city and more restaurants than I had thus far encountered in South America.
Having mastered the public transport system in Brazil, conquering the Bogotá bus system was a breeze. Nicolas very soon realized that I did not need hand holding and I can only say that at all times I felt completely safe exploring the different parts of downtown. I loved the art museum dedicated to the famous Colombian painter Botero, the Museo del Oro which is arguably the most important gold museum in the world, housing innumerable gold pieces of pre-Hispanic times and the inevitable Free Walking Tour this time specializing in Bogotá's burgeoning street art culture. The hospitality shown to me by Nicolas and Kelly was indicative of the Colombian warmth and friendliness throughout and I was quite heart sore when I boarded the Viva Colombia flight for my onward journey to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast.
I have to admit that during the seven days or so I spent at the coastal town of Taganga and then on to Cartagena I was hit by a serious bout of travel fatigue and though I forced myself to do a day tour to the coffee region around Minka, inland from Santa Marta and a Free Walking Tour of the beautiful Cartagena and visited the obligatory sights my energy levels were at an all time low and the excruciating heat did not improve my mood. Maybe that is why I had a senior moment and arrived at the Cartagena bus terminal 2 days to early for my overnight bus to Medellín. But I need not have panicked, they graciously changed my ticket for that evening's departure.
I fell in love with Medellín. It has a perfect all-year-round springlike climate and is beautifully situated amongst lush mountainous terrain. Considered to be the friendliest locals in Colombia, the paisas, as they are known, have every right to be proud of their city. During the 1990s Medellín was the centre of the worldwide cocaine trade with murder and mayhem an everyday occurrence and a no-go zone for foreign tourists, but since that black past the city has literally pulled itself up by its bootstraps and is today a model of urban renewal. This was mainly due to the building of the Metro, Medellín's pride and joy, which is so immaculate you could eat off its floor. They have also connected the metro with a network of cable cars leading up to the poorer barrios, which must have had a huge impact on the lives of those residents.
At my AirBnB accommodation I was blessed to have met and made friends with Georgia, a young lass who was Colombian by birth but had been adopted and had grown up in Lugano, Switzerland who became a delightful travelling and sightseeing buddy in and around Medellín and together we explored barrios such as Communa Trece (13) which is a shining testimony that poverty does not mean squalor. This particular barrio had recently been connected by a series of escalators which were as spotless as the Metro. The community had built gardens wherever there was some space and had used colourful street art not only as social commentary but to beautify their surroundings. And at all times I felt completely safe and secure.
One of my Colombian highlights has to be a day trip to the nearby Piedra del Peñol, a 200 m high monolith which towers above the picturesque little town of Guatapé on a huge dam built in the 1960s. It was worth huffing and puffing up every one of the 700+ steps to the top to experience one of the most breathtaking views you will find in Colombia. In the town itself every building was decorated with colourful zucolas (concrete bas relief scenes) depicting what was sold or being offered by the shop or the belief or customs of the residents. I found Guatapé even more colourful than Cartagena.
By now I had very much regained my travel spirit, and my two day sojourn in the pretty little town of Salento in the heart of the Zona Cafetera was a tonic. On my memorable hike into the Valle de Cocora with its hummingbird sanctuary and the palma de cera, or wax palms towering 60 meters above the cloud forest I had to eventually stop myself taking another photo of the jaw-dropping vistas.
Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world and a trip to this area would not be complete without a tour of a working coffee plantation and a taste of Colombia's finest Arabica. I can now understand why it is sometimes called Black Gold, and after oil the most traded commodity in the world.
And the highlights just kept coming. A southbound overnight bus ride away from Medellín lies the otherworldly and achingly beautiful small Desierto de la Tatacoa. Young Giorgia had forfeited a flight ticket to Bogotá to accompany me there, and thanks to her being fluent in Spanish we took advantage of local knowledge and bypassed the dusty village of Villavieja and headed straight for the desert where we overnighted in the more than adequate Noches de Saturno. According to Lonely Planet, Tatacoa is only 330 square kilometers in size, so with a very early start the next morning we managed to explore both the Red Desert and the Grey Desert before lunch. And though I had only planned to head on to the pre-Colombian archeological sites of San Agustin the following day, there were still enough hours in the day to decide to press on.
One sad thing about solo travel is that you are constantly saying farewell to new yet firm friends and I felt quite melancholy when I hugged Giorgia good bye.
I did have some anxious moments because I had not made any prior hostel bookings in San Agustin and arrived at my destination well after dark but my kind bus driver took pity on me and took me to the doorstep of the the Finca el Maco, as recommended by Giorgia, out of town and up a steep incline, and the Universe once upon smiled on me, because I managed to get the last room available. For two days I scampered around some of the continent's most significant pre-Hispanic archeological sites where a past culture had flourished between the 6th and 14th century and honoured their dead by building elaborate tombs guarded by magnificent statues carved out of volcanic rock and overlooking the luscious rolling hills of the Cordilleras.
And then on to Popayán, my last stop in Colombia. Although it lay only 129 kilometers from San Agustin it took the better part of 4 hours on probably the worst roads I had experienced thus far on the continent. There was also a very evident army presence along the route which makes me think that there were still guerrillas active in this area, in fact we had been warned not to attempt this trip at night time.
The main reason for visiting Popayán was to visit the nearby town of Silvia where on a Tuesday the place comes alive when one of Colombia's many indigenous tribes, the Guambino, descend from the hills to sell their produce, buy tools and clothes and hang out in the market square. Their language, dress and customs are still very much in tact. I managed to snap some surreptitious pictures of the people, but they come here to work and trade and do not take kindly to tourists thinking this is some kind of theme park. On our return trip to Popayán we were rerouted to a gravel road and it was only afterwards we found out that the main road had been closed due to some guerrilla activity, but we had been blissfully unaware of the action.
That evening at the Hostel Trail I came across two very pale young travellers who that afternoon been accosted by some young hooligans on a motorbike and robbed of their very visible camera as they were heading up to one of the tourist lookout points, the El Morro de Tulcán. The irony was that one of the youngsters came from South Africa, known for its rampant crime rate. I, on the other hand, had walked alone all over the town in complete safety.
It made me wonder whether with maturity and savoir-faire the older traveller does not start exuding a certain “don't mess with me” aura and thus experience less unsavoury incidents.
Popayán was to be my last stop in Colombia, from where I had ambitiously decided to press through to Quito in Ecuador in one day. But that is a story for another day.
Five weeks in Colombia sounds like an inordinate amount of time to explore a country, but as with Brazil I again felt as though I had only scratched the surface. It would have been to my advantage had I spoken Spanish, but with the help of google translate, a little Spanish/English phrasebook for travellers and lots of sign language I was confident I was always going to get from A to B. The Colombians will always have a special place in my heart because of their sincere hospitality and generosity, and I am so grateful to the Universe to have given me the opportunity to get to know this diverse and magnificent country.
Muchas gracias and Hasta luego.
About Sybille Essmann
After a sheltered upbringing in the fairest Cape I flew the coop straight out of school and headed to Germany for a gap year (completely unheard of in 1972), which eventually ended after 9 years. During the ensuing years I qualified as a nursing sister, but on my return to South Africa I turned my back on that profession and instead put my knowledge of the German language to good use and worked as a tour guide for three years until marriage put a stop to that. With that came another career change into the world of finance, and for 25 years I advised clients as to how best to invest their hard earned money.
After the end of a 20 year marriage I embraced singledom again and with that a whole new world of travel opened up for me. I explored India, Vietnam and Thailand and in my 59th year decided to throw caution to the wind, reverted back to my maiden name, sold my business, rented out my home and set off a solo 8 month bucket list trip which took me to India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysian Borneo and Nepal. I have come to the realization that I have a restless soul and that life does not end at 60, and as I enter my 3 score, I will be heading to the vast continent of South America and who knows where to after that. Life is a journey and I would love to share it with you.
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