As previously alluded to, I began the week in Cali- Colombia’s third city and the salsa capital. Travelling there solely on impulse (because a flight was cheaper than buses to anywhere else) it ended up being totally unlike anything I had expected.
The city seemed to sprawl far and wide and, thanks to the abundance of cars, felt much more LA than NYC (or so I assume.) Luckily for my weary feet, this meant that the ubiquitous city walking tour was replaced by an afternoon in a jeep, seeing some of the more bizarre sights. As with Medellin, Cali is proud of its transformation post-cartel era, turning areas of crime into shining beacons of hope. Inexplicably however, this pride is here manifested through the creation of ‘Cat Park’; a park inhabited by 20 giant sculptures of cats, each designed by a different artist and each as quietly creepy as the next! The hillside overlooking Cali is also home to an enormous warm up to Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue. Standing a few metres shorter than its more famous rival, and on a much lower hillside, this imposing statue still provided me plenty of practice for my selfie game prior to reaching Rio in June!
Other than that, Cali has a rather hippy, chilled out vibe. Days were comfortably spent lazing by the pool, or exploring street food, warming up for salsa-filled nights. I tried any unattractive looking fruit that the market traders forced my way; some spectacular (newly obsessed with Mangostines), others, well, one looked like the burnt scrapings of the barrel at KFC… Hopefully I’m staving off scurvy though, whilst also feeling pretty local.
Despite my hostel offering free salsa classes (in the hottest, windowless room known to man), I’m sorry to say, I haven’t improved. As a female gringo, everyone wants to partner me in a club, and despite my warnings and protestations, they are all certain I simply can’t dance until I’ve been led by them… And then the flailing begins! A lot of fun though, a chance to practice my Spanish (in very close quarters) and a free work out (battling the Colombian passion for deep frying things) all in one.
Famously quite stubborn and independent, I’ve spent my trip so far with people who are my best friends in the world, for a few days, and then I up sticks, have some ‘me time’ on the bus and repeat the mingling process. However, after wiling away an entire day laying by the pool, with an Aguila in hand, I bagged myself a new multi-stop travel buddy.
This was particularly fortunate as our bus the following day crashed into a stationary car and, as you can imagine, chaos ensued. One particularly sassy woman spent the next hour or so finger pointing and throwing her two cents (or 1000 pesos) in at anyone who would listen. I appreciate that, alone, this could have stressed me out no end, but as it stands, Harry and I embraced the people watching, repeatedly asked “Como es el mani?” (= ‘How’s the peanut’ = ‘What’s the haps?’) and chased our bags from bus to bus, finally making it only as far as Popayan. A small colonial town, where everything is painted white, every third building is a church and where we had no intention of being at all!
The following day, we made a break for it, determined to make it up to the mountains, along the reportedly “ghastly” road, to San Agustin. Admittedly the road was only partially paved, and supremely windy, but the views through the national park were pretty spectacular (and the promise of a hostel with friendly dogs and great Thai curries at our destination was enough to make the journey worthwhile!)
San Agustin, as a town, has little to offer, short of some delicious food (of course nowhere has a menu, so we just nod and hope for a plate of deliciousness, and are rarely disappointed!) and a copious amount of daytime drinking. It’s mostly famous for its unfathomably old (well, 3300 years, ish) stone statues, dotted around the surrounding area. As with all the treasures in Bogota’s gold museum, so much time, craftsmanship and intricacy was devoted solely to the dead; with not so much as a ‘thank you’, I can only assume!
A campfire, a lot of Chilean wine and a LOT of rain later, we were turned down for white water rafting and left with little else to do but look at more rocks or head for the border.
Several buses (and another trip to our beloved Popayan!) later, we made it to Ipiales. I was determined to squeeze one last sight out of Colombia before we left, and despite the rain and enormous, dorky rucksacks, we persevered to visit the church built into the valley-side. I’m not sure whether it was the surrounding waterfalls, the spectacular gothic architecture or the genius use of the rock face itself as a ‘feature wall’, but move over Prague Cathedral, I have a new ‘favourite church ever’!
Having satiated my touristing for the morning, I took great pleasure in running over the bridge to my first ever land border. Used up the last of our pesos and excited to be in a country where the coins will be consistent, rather than randomly stamping a price on any size or shape of metal! Bring on Ecuador- so far, all I’ve seen is green…