Sunday, August 3, 2014


July 31, 2014

Even though I had only slept for about four hours, I knew I had a long journey ahead of me, so got up at 6:00 am.  I slipped out of the hostel and caught a taxi to the southern bus terminal (6000 pesos) in time to catch the 7:30 bus to Armenia.  The bus went up and over the mountains opposite the ones I had crossed to reach Medellin and then headed through the Zona Cafetera (coffee growing region) to the city of Pereira.  Pereira was a much larger place than I had expected.  It sported many tall buildings.  The coffee business was clearly thriving.  An hour past Pereira, we finally came to the end of the line in Armenia.  Armenia was a smaller city, but they had a nice bus terminal.  I needed to walk all the way to the opposite end of the terminal and then outside and across a parking lot to catch a minibus to Salento.  Everyone there was very nice to me.  A security guard told me how to find my bus, a food vendor told me that Salento was a magical place, and the bus driver interrupted his break to open the luggage compartment so I didn’t have to stand around with my pack on my back.

Hostal La Floresta
Salento Square and Church
Salento lies 24 kilometers up a valley outside of Armenia.  I finally reached there about 4:00 in the afternoon.  Salento was a cute little mountain town with lots of hostels and restaurants and a small central square in front of the church.  A street of souvenir shops led uphill to a flight of stairs up to Alto de la Cruz, a lookout with views of both Salento and the Cocora Valley.  I had made a reservation at Hostel La Floresta, which turned out to be several blocks outside of the center on the other side of a pedestrian bridge which spanned a deep ravine.  I was exhausted from the bus ride and lack of sleep, so it was a chore to lug my pack several blocks down a steep hill and then back up to the hostel.  La Floresta lacked charm, but the staff was friendly and helpful and the WiFi was strong, if not overly speedy.  There was a nice garden area in the back with hammocks and a campground with its own kitchen and restrooms.

Bridge to La Floresta
  After dropping my bags, I walked back up the hill to the grocery store to buy food for breakfast, beer, and a picnic lunch for the following day’s hike.  I returned to the hostel and lay in a hammock, reading and drinking beer, until it started to get chilly.  I surfed the web for a couple of hours and then went out and ate lasagna at Los Urrea Trattoria, just off the main square.  When I got back, I wanted to work on my blog, but was too tired to write.  I uploaded photos for an hour or so and then went to sleep fairly early.

August 1 2014

Local Transport in Cocora Valley
Fearing that it might get hot later in the day, I got up at the crack of dawn and was in the town square, ready to take a jeep to Cocora, by 7:30 am.  Local transportation in the Cocora Valley is by Willys jeep.  They pack three people in the front seat, six more onto two seats facing each other across the back, and as many as possible standing on the tailgate.  We had eleven people in our jeep when we left.  We drove over the hill into the Cocora Valley and then up the valley to the village of Cocora.  Cocora consisted of a few houses, shops, and roadside restaurants strung along a barely two lane road between cow pastures.  The whole valley was intensely green.  The pastures were covered in Bermuda grass and looked like golf courses.  The jeep let us off just shy of the blue gate that led to the trailhead.
Beginning of the Trail

Suspension Bridge Jungle Style
Being alone, I struck up a conversation with another couple of hikers.  The first couple I talked to were from Brazil and Russia, respectively, although they lived in Berkeley.  They weren’t too friendly, so I left them behind and followed a couple of other Russians who didn’t appear to speak and languages I understood.  Soon, I passed them, too.  The path led through pastures and they entered a narrow, forested canyon with a stream running through it and began to climb more steeply.  The track crossed the river repeatedly on wobbly suspension bridges or log bridges with a cable strung across as a handrail.  I followed the path upward for almost 5 kilometers until I reached the Acaime Natural Preserve and Hummingbird House. 

Hummingbird House
Long-Tailed Sylph

View from Overlook
                                                                                                          The preserve was the brainchild of a local leader who wanted to preserve the natural environment.  The preserve maintained the trails (and bridges.)  There is a 5000 peso entrance fee (about $3.50), but I had no trouble contributing to the maintenance of the nice pathways.  For my money, I got a drink at the Hummingbird House.  The building was constructed on the side of a steep hill and had a kitchen and covered eating area surrounded by hummingbird feeders.  Several varieties of hummingbirds were in evidence, including purple throated woodstars and another iridescent blue green one with a long tail like a miniature quetzal called a long-tailed sylph.  I chatted for a few minutes with the keeper of the preserve about the spectacled bears that live in Colombia.  These bears are the only bears in South America.  They look and act much like black bears except for a white mask around their eyes.  Unfortunately, I never saw one.  Soon, another group of hikers arrived and I struck up a conversation with them.  The group consisted of one Italian, one American, one Filipina, two Colombians and a girl from Luxembourg.  They were fun a friendly and we all left together to climb the rest of the way up the mountain to the overlook on the top of the ridge.

Friendly Golden Lab
The ranger who lived at the overlook must have loved flowers because the buildings of the ranger station were surrounded with colorful blooms.  There were two friendly golden labs and a tiny black Chihuahua who was determined to sleep on top of the bigger dogs.  Despite being the oldest in the party by at least 20 years, I got to the top first and hung out with the dogs until the others arrived.  The view was fantastic and the weather was perfect.  I could have stayed there all afternoon, but we still had over five kilometers to hike back to Cocora.

Forest of Wax Palms
Once we regrouped at the top and everyone had a chance to have his or her picture taken, we set off downhill to walk through the forest of wax palms that were the reason for the whole outing.  Wax palms are the national tree of Colombia.  They grow to a height of up to 60 meters and have tall, thin trunks with just a pouf of broad, leafy fronds at the top.  They are really rather bizarre looking when you come across a group of them, as they grow widely spaced and just don’t look real.  The palms are endangered because people cut them down to use their leaves for Palm Sunday celebrations.  We walked for a kilometer or so without seeing any and then, suddenly, we were among them.  We kept stopping to take pictures of the palms and the dramatic scenery.  At the bottom of the valley was a pasture where horses grazed on Bermuda grass in a park-like setting studded with slender palms.  It truly was magical and none of us was in a hurry to leave the grove of palms.  We didn’t get back to the jeeps until just before 2:00 when the first convoy was scheduled to return to Salento.  We all rode back together.  We went our separate ways when we reached Salento, but made loose plans to meet up later.

Salento from Above
Despite having already climbed one mountain for the day, I headed off to climb the roughly 238 steps to Alto de la Cruz.  The stairs were painted blue, yellow, and green and had markers for the Stations of the Cross along the way.  One could tend to exercise and religious devotions simultaneously.   At the top, there was a playground and two overlooks: one facing the town of Salento, and the other a pleasant covered structure housing food and craft vendors, overlooking the Cocora Valley.  I would have overlooked the second one if a thoughtful soda vendor had not directed me to it.  I lingered to use the spotless public restroom and drink a Gatorade and then trotted back down the steps and off to my hostel to work on my blog until it was time to try to meet the others.
Graffiti on Alto de la Cruz

One couple had said they would be a certain bar on the square from 7 to 8:00.  I arrived there about 7:05, but there was no sign of them.  The square was gearing up for a big weekend and there were tents erected with additional tables in front of all the restaurants and food trucks set up around the park.  I made a circuit of the square, searching for someone I knew, and then retreated to a restaurant on the corner which offered Bandeja Paisa (Paisa Platter), the traditional dinner of the Paisa region I had just left.  I had never gotten around to trying it in Medellin, so figured I had better do so before I got any further away.  Bandeja Paisa has its origins among poor coffee farmers who would eat one high calorie meal per day to give them energy to work the steep mountain sides.  It consists of white rice and huge red beans, pork rinds, ground meat, a sausage, a fried egg, avocado, an arepa (corn cake), a fried plantain and maybe some salad.  I had no sooner ordered when four of my friends appeared and joined me for dinner.  We had a delicious meal and fascinating conversation. 

Daniel, a Colombian anthropologist who worked to alleviate malnutrition in indigenous communities, had a great sense of humor and was full of good insights about the interactions of different groups of Colombians.  Colombia has many different ethnic groups (whites, mestizos, Afro-Colombians, indigenous tribes) and they divide along racial and, perhaps more importantly, class lines.  The indigenous people end up at the bottom of the heap, either way.  Daniel was disturbed by the fact that Colombia marketed itself as having beautiful and passionate women.  He felt that was objectifying them, which was no doubt true, although even I found it hard to ignore the number of beautiful women in Colombia.  Then we all laughed about how disgustingly attractive Brazilians were.  I asked Daniel about the education system in Colombia, which he felt was quite bad.  Children go to school for 12 years, but the public schools were poor and he thought that even the cheaper private ones were quite bad.  The best university in Colombia is private, but the second best one is public.  Unfortunately, according to Daniel, there is no free speech, soldiers with guns patrol the campus, and “professional students” recruit students to join the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the largest of the guerilla groups.  Daniel was disgusted that the university did not engender an environment of free thought.  I could have sat there chatting all night, but I needed to finish my blog post and pack so that I could leave early the next morning.  Elise, the girl from Luxembourg, had been planning to come to Cali with me, but was considering changing her plans and going to Medellin with Teresa, the Filipina woman.  We agreed to meet at the 7:30 bus to Armenia if she was going to come.

August 2, 2014

I got up at 6:00 again, but someone had already beat me to the bathroom.  I still managed to get checked out and schlep my probably-too-heavy-to-check-on-an-airplane pack up the very steep hill to the bus stop on the far side of the main square in plenty of time to catch the 7:30 bus to Armenia.  (Also nearby is the city of Circasia.  Geography can get confusing around here.)  Elise arrived just as I was holding open the door of the luggage compartment so that the driver and a passenger could wrestle an entire mattress out of there.  She had decided to come to Cali, after all.  We rode for an hour on the minibus to Armenia and then quickly caught a collective van for the three hour ride through cane fields to Cali.  Cali sits about 1000 meters lower than Salento and it got warmer and warmer as we drove south.

Hostal El Viajero
We arrived in Cali about noon and took a taxi to the hostel.  The Hostel El Viajero in Cali is clean and has a pretty pool area and bar, but it is expensive for a hostel.  My private room cost $53, almost the most expensive room of my entire trip.  The room was nice, with a view of the pool, but the mattress was hard as a rock and there was no air conditioning.  I did get a ceiling fan, TV, hot water and safe.  Beds in Central and South America were made quite differently than in the United States.  Blankets and bedspreads are usually absent.  Top sheets are almost never tucked in and are frequently just left folded at the bottom of the bed.  This reflects the fact that it was usually too hot to sleep covered, although sometimes it was cool enough to use a sheet if I hung my feet out.  If I checked into a hotel and there was a blanket, I knew it would be blessedly cool at night and rejoiced.  No such luck in Cali, which was known for being hot.

Iglesia San Antonio
View of Downtown Cali
After getting settled in my room, I took a quick walk around the neighborhood and then ate a hamburger at a restaurant across the street that provided room service for the hostel.  The burger was large and filling, but the meat was tough and had a rubbery texture even though it was rare.  I could only eat half of the giant bun.  The drink selections were limited, so I ordered a limonada even though I dislike lemonade.  The limonada was delightful and tasted like a virgin margarita.  It even had ice in it.  It was the best part of my lunch.  After lunch, I walked up to the park at the end of the street and then up to the Iglesia de San Antonio, a pretty little church on top of a hill with a great view of downtown.  My first impression was that Cali was an unremarkable modern city of 2.5 million people.  A river runs through it.  It has a large Afro-Colombian presence and is best known for being the capital of salsa dancing.  While we had chosen our hostel for its salsa school, the daily lesson was already in progress when we arrived and there would be no lesson on the next day because it was Sunday.

River Promenade

Modern cities often have good modern art, so I headed for the modern art museum.  My walk took me through an elegant residential neighborhood studded with design related businesses.  Unfortunately, the museum was closed, although the hours posted on the door indicated that it should be open.  That was disappointing.  I continued down to the river and walked along an attractive promenade to the other side of Calle 5, a large street that runs like a freeway through the center of Cali and is almost impossible to cross.  I made a quick visit to the Iglesia de la Merced, which is in what remains of the old colonial part of the city.  I was unimpressed and got a little worried when someone warned me to hang onto my cell phone.  I usually leave it in the room, but had brought it because it contained my electronic guidebook.  I crossed back over Calle 5 where it dead ended at the river bank and bought an ice cream cone before returning to the hostel to relax. 

Iglesia de la Merced
When dinner time came, I walked around the corner and got a plate of fried chicken and potatoes for just over a dollar at a snack bar.  I spent the evening finally catching up on my blog.  About 9:00, I heard clapping and looked out the window to discover a show in progress.  Two young men from the local performing arts college were performing an acrobatic routine that concluded with fire dancing and climaxed with one of the young men breathing fire.  El Viajero had a nice atmosphere and it would have been fun to hang out around the pool if I had been 30 years younger.  As it was, I was tired and not in the mood for earnest young people.  I wasn’t even in the mood for beer, which was probably a good thing because all they had was crummy beer.  Club Colombia Dorada (Gold) was lousy, but they made decent red and dark versions when I could find them. Unfortunately, the hostel reverberated with loud music until midnight and it was later than that before everyone quieted down.  Some obnoxious French people came back at 4:30 am and talked outside my room for half an hour.  El Viajero was not a good place to stay if you valued sleep.

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