El Peñol de Guatapé: Week 230

View of the man made lakes and El Penol: Guatape, Colombia

The route between Manizales and Medellín winds heavily along rivers and mountain ridges. Despite the narrow shoulder, houses, restaurants, and truck stops cling to the entire route. It is a beautiful drive, but not one you are able to appreciate if you prone to suffer from carsickness.

At the South Terminal in Medellín we caught a taxi to the North Terminal and from there we caught a bus to Guatapé. In front of us was a small group of tourists from Britain. All three were dutifully planning their next move in their travel notebooks, but they had absolutely no idea when they needed to get off the bus. Their heads poked up like gophers anytime traffic slowed.

Town shield and zocalo detail: Guatape, Colombia

The bus station in Guatapé was right along the malecón. With the exception of the zipline, the land along the waterfront was undeveloped. Dirt footpaths led from the sidewalk down to the boat docks, which made a killing during their sunset outings. We bought some sausages from one of the numerous food carts and walked to the end of town and across a bridge to our hostel.

We had learned from out last excursion that it is important to have a reservation during a three-day weekend. The only problem, we soon discovered, was that our reservation was one of the multiple overbookings at the hostel. Knowing there would be nothing else available in town, the owner offered us a mattress in the reception area.

“And how much will that cost?” I crankily asked.

“Free!” He replied. “Qué pena.” How embarrassing.

Sleeping inside the hostel reception, Guatape, Colombia

The bed was narrow, but we were able to fit comfortably and just when we turned in for the night we heard a timid rat-a-tat-tat at the door. I opened my eyes and saw the silhouette of a group of people out the window. “Barret, please open the door for them.”

Barret tossed off the sheets and unlocked the door. Our bed received a few curious glances, but then the next thing Barret knew he was helping people tally their beer from the fridge at the foot of our bed.

Colorful plaza: Guatape, Colombia

The long journey was worth it though. The following morning, once the rain stopped, Barret and I went into town for breakfast. Not many people were awake, so we had the streets to ourselves and a soft morning light for taking photos.

Guatapé is famous for its zócalos, the decorative boards the skirt all of the buildings. While the origin of zócalos is Spanish, the people of Guatapé have made them uniquely Colombian. The images cover a range of topics from local political events to traditional clothing and food.

Detail of an Avianca Airlines zocalo: Guatape, Colombia

Cobblestone streets with zocalos: Guatape, Colombia

Even the buildings on the outskirts of town were decorated. If not with zócalos, then at least with bright colors.

House with a horse zocalo: Guatape, Colombia

Block of colorful apartments next to a red rock: Guatape, Colombia

Row of painted houses with zocalos: Guatape, Colombia

Ticket stub for Penon de Guatape: Guatape, Colombia

After eating, Barret and I headed to El Peñol (aka Peñon de Guatapé). It is a massive, 200 meter high rock that towers over a landscape of man-made lakes and is also the most popular tourist destination in the area. While Guatapé had been quiet, El Peñol was a thriving mass of day trippers from Medellín. It did not detract from the experience, but it did make the climb up the zigzagging stairs feel like rush hour traffic.

Stairs leading up to the top of El Penol: Guatape, Colombia

El-Peñol-Stairs

Religious souvenir keychain from El Penol: Guatape, Colombia

There are a few things I feel like I can always count on in Colombia. The first is an abundance of religious trinkets and the second is a plethora of food stalls. On the summit of El Peñol I had a cup of salpicón (fruit cocktail) while Barret drank a Colombian michelada- beer with lime juice and a salt-rimmed glass. Together we shared sliced green mangoes covered in lime and salt. The steep ascent made us appreciate our refreshments all the more because we knew everything was carried up by hand. The mango we were eating had beaten us to the top by about 20 minutes.

One of the beautifully decorated tuk tuks that run to El Penol: Guatape, Colombia

Returning to Guatapé the cost for the tuk tuk (mototaxi) doubled, so Barret and I decided to walk the overgrown footpath back into town. Once we arrived we continued through the backstreets, which were just as decorated as the center of town, and out into the country on the way to a Benedictine monastery. The road was very quiet and the country views were peaceful. Had it not been late in the day, we would have continued all the way to the monastery. However, our feet were tired, so we turned back for dinner.

The backstreets of Guatape, Colombia

The cobblestone streets of Guatape in the evening: Colombia

The streetlights flashed on in the evening and warmed the cobblestone streets of Guatapé. Barret and I ended the night at a restaurant called D’Luigi. We sat in the back courtyard, which was filled with the scent of homemade pizza, and sipped a sweet version of mulled wine. The evening was perfect and the best part was that we had a proper hostel room to go back to.

Souvenir magnet from El Penol: Guatape, Colombia

How to get to El Peñol: From Guatapé it is a 15 minute tuk tuk ride or a 45 minute walk.

How to get to Guatapé: Hourly buses run from the North Terminal in Medellín.

Decorative fountain in the heart of the town: Guatape, Colombia

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Ecoparque Los Yarumos: Week 229

Yellow Jesus statue at Ecoparque Los Yarumos: Manizales, Colombia

We didn’t quite know where we were going when we set out Sunday morning; we were just heading in the direction of a giant yellow statue. It is quite visible, especially from our apartment in Cable.

It took us about half an hour, but we eventually found our way to a steep street lined with speakers blasting tinny melodies. The home of the yellow curiosity was Ecoparque Los Yarumos. It was early in the morning, so there were only a few families pushing their kids through the turnstile and into the park grounds. I was kind of surprised it was even open and staffed before 9am.

Barret and I had a quick stroll around before we found the cafeteria and bought two pintados. That’s the local term for a cup of milk with a splash of coffee. It comes in a sage-green plastic cup that is so thin the bottom tends to bulge from the weight of the liquid. I like the milk to coffee ratio, but Barret’s not quite convinced.

View from Ecoparque Los Yarumos: Manizales, Colombia

We found a bench near the top of the park and looked out over the city. While the view was great, it kind of felt like you needed kids to enjoy all the activities at Los Yarumos. There was a nature trail, but it was closed till the afternoon and only accessible with a guide.

Neighborhood playground: Manizales, Colombia

Not to worry though- it was a beautiful day and the walk back down was spent photographing Manizales architecture. Many of the neighborhoods are built terrace-style using cinder blocks and red bricks. The front of the house has a finished, painted texture, while the less visible parts of the house tend to be exposed brick.

Green house with purple tile work: Manizales, Colombia

I feel like the architecture is not wildly different from the US, but there are unique touches that remind me that I am somewhere foreign. The most obvious difference would be the bright color combinations. However, the tile work and the dainty decorative metal also catch my eye.

Font on an old public school: Manizales, Colombia

Even things that might seem standard are interpreted in surprisingly different ways in Colombia. Concrete sidewalks have patterns etched into them and I’ve even seen some hand chiseled curbs. It was Barret who noticed that the metal bars on windows tend to be on the inside of the house while the glass is on the outside.

Sidewalk texture: Manizales, Colombia

These are just some of the things that keep me busy during my walks or my ride to work. I might see these kinds of details every day, but I’m not bored with them yet.

Salento & Valle de Cocora: Week 227

View of Carrera 6 in Salento: Colombia

Colombia has a lot of three-day weekends. They are called puentes, which means bridges, and when my first one came up I leapt at the opportunity to get out of town.

So early Saturday morning Barret was squished in the back of a small buseta while I sat next to a woman in a blue cardigan and torn jeans. Ten minutes into the trip she pulled out a multi-colored rosary and began crossing herself every time we passed a church, went over a bridge, or stopped at a tollbooth.

She got off at a bus station in Pereira and on the way out of the parking lot I noticed a glass display case with the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus. It made me wonder who decided that was the right pose for a bus station statue.

It was mid-afternoon when Barret and I arrived in Salento. We ate at a restaurant overlooking the most popular and photographic street in the city- Carrera 6.

Architectural detail in Salento: Colombia

Only after our stomachs were full did we start the search for accommodation. The first guesthouse we visited was on the outskirts of town. The garden was filled with toys and sunflowers and the foyer was actually a living room with an overstuffed couch. It was an odd juxtaposition of private versus public.

The place was completely booked though, and the only thing they could offer was a tent on the porch with a thick sleeping pad and some blankets. Barret and I declined, but after a disparaging walk around the city, we quickly realized that the tent was our only option. If there is anything I have learned from traveling on a puente weekend, it’s that reservations are imperative.

We spent the first half of the evening watching a very untalented caricature artist and the second half in a small cafe listening to excellent live music. We weren’t in a rush to make it back to the tent, but when we eventually did, we slept well. The only exception being the return of a group of drunk Colombian tourists. Upon seeing a row of tents on the patio, one of the guys yelled out. Look at those gringos! What are they thinking?! 

Horses outside the trail head of Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

The following morning Barret and I woke up very early to begin our hike to Valle de Cocora. From the main square in Salento, we caught a jeep to the trailhead. There was an option to hire horses, but Barret and I decided to walk the whole circuitous route.

Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Valle de Cocora is famous for its sweeping views of the wax palms- Colombia’s national tree. This is in no small part thanks to the herds of grazing cattle that nibble all the vegetation around the wax palms. The trees are already slender and insanely tall, but when viewed unobstructed, they are even more impressive.

Rutted trail through the Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Bridge crossing in the Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Several hours into the hike we stopped at the Aicame Natural Reserve. It was a small hummingbird sanctuary located at the end of a seemingly never-ending ascent. There was a fee to enter the reserve, but it included a beverage. We also discovered that the reserve had a very basic but insanely cheap lodge. Beds were available for something like 10,000 pesos (USD$5) and the cost included food!

Hummingbirds at the Acaime Natural Reserve: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

We weren’t prepared to rough it another night, so after viewing all the hummingbirds we double-backed and continued walking the full circuit. An hour or so later the trail came to a head at a lookout point named Finca La Montaña.

The lookout point had a flower garden and a small building with a covered porch. An open door led from the porch into a small dark kitchen where a woman was making traditional Colombian hot chocolate over a wood-burning stove.

Woman making hot chocolate at the Finca la Montana: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

In its raw form, the chocolate comes in hard blocks that are dissolved inside a metal jug. Once prepared, the hot chocolate is served with a thick slice of queso campesino (a soft, spongy, and slightly salty cheese).

Hot chocolate and cheese at Finca la Montana: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

I was initially reluctant to drop cheese into my hot chocolate, but it actually tasted delicious. The cheese softened and the saltiness balanced well against the sweetness of the chocolate. I felt like that was a good metaphor for the weekend- the salty frustration of lugging our backpacks around town in search of a room was tempered by the charm of the city and the beauty of the valley. Having the one makes you appreciate the other so much more.

How to get to Salento: Direct buses are available from the bus stations in Armenia and Pereira.

Mi Tierra & The Botero Museum: Week 224

Entrance to Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Mi Tierra is reached via a long hall lined with vintage posters and punctuated with a neon sign. Unlike the bars on the other side of the church square, there was no one waiting outside to hustle you in. And unless you knew about the bar, the inability to see into the venue from the sidewalk might be a bit dissuasive.

Luckily Tiffany, one of my colleagues, was in the know. She rounded up a large group of people from our training program and we set out on foot for the Chapinero venue. It was about ten o’clock when we arrived only to discover a metal gate blocking the entrance. Our hearts sank.

Someone rattled the gate and called down the hall. A minute or two passed without a sign of movement and then we heard footsteps approaching. It was Arturo, the owner.

Mi amor,” he affectionately called out to Tiffany. “¿Cómo estás?

Stuffed dog decoration inside Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Of course the bar was open. Come in, come in. I wasn’t quite sure if they had opened up just for us, or if they just kept the gate closed when the venue wasn’t busy. It kind of seemed like in Bogotá, if there were enough people, anything could be reopened.

Interior of Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

During the day, Mi Tierra was an antique shop. There were no windows, so the musty smell of second hand goods filled the room. Some of the items were displayed while the rest were pushed aside to make space for the small dance floor and six tables. The most accessible items around the dance floor were wigs, hats, instruments, a wheelchair, and a small crocodile statue.

A crocodile statue and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

We sat down at the largest table, the one with a vintage hairdryer, and began ordering drinks. Many bars rush you to order, but it almost felt like it was an afterthought for Arturo. “Tranquila,” he advised me when I wasn’t sure what I wanted or even how to say it. Take it easy.

Ordering drinks at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Out of nowhere a birthday cake appeared for Arturo’s partner. We all sang happy birthday in English and then in Spanish. After the candles were blown out, Arturo grabbed the microphone for a heartfelt serenade.

A birthday celebration at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

The fact that such a large group of foreigners were invited in for a small birthday celebration just goes to show how friendly everyone was. While I had met a lot of nice people so far, it was the first time I felt such a generous ‘welcome’ in Colombia. If I’m ever back in Bogotá, you know where I will be.

The bar at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

On my last day in Bogotá, three colleagues and I went to the touristy neighborhood of La Candelaria. It is one of the most historic neighborhoods in the city and many of the buildings are beautifully preserved.

Our first stop was at the Plaza de Bolívar. It dates back to 1539 when it was first called the Plaza Mayor. Nowadays, it is a massive paved area that fronts the Catedral Primada and the Capitolio Nacional (Nation’s Capital). The plaza usually attracts more people on the weekend, but this Saturday it had two strikes against it: it was raining and Colombia was set to play that afternoon in the Copa América.

El Presidente, 1997: Botero Museum, Bogotá

El Presidente, 1997

Just down the street was the Botero Museum. It was founded in 2000 with the donation of 203 artworks from Fernando Botero himself. More than half of the art was his own work, while the rest was that of international artists like Calder and Bacon. Not only was it a priceless collection, but it was also free to the public.

Mujer delante de una ventana, 1990: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Mujer delante de una ventana, 1990

While the international art collection was great, I was really there for Botero. His inflated figures are both fascinating in form and grotesque for the greed they represent.  Their fleshy figures devour their clothing and their small eyes sink into their faces, like raisins in pudding.

I could have spent all day La Candelaria looking at national treasures. However, some of the most important Colombian things can’t be found in a museum; they can only be found on a big screen TV. It was time to head back to the hotel to watch the Copa América.

Guerrilla de Eliseo Velásquez, 1988: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Guerrilla de Eliseo Velásquez, 1988

How to get to Mi Tierra: Calle 63 #11-47 (In front of Parque Lourdes), Chapinero, Bogotá

How to get to the Botero Museum: Calle 11 #4-41, Bogotá

Hombre con Perro: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Hombre con Perro, 1989

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá: Week 223

Inside the underground Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

I spent my first two weeks in Colombia at a teacher’s orientation in Bogotá. Monday to Friday was filled with activities- from teaching methods to applying for national ID cards. Most of it went smoothly and most of it required being up early in the morning.

By the time the first weekend rolled around, I was more than ready for some sightseeing. I was also feeling a bit lazy, so when the program coordinators announced that they had chartered a bus to Zipaquirá, I was happy I didn’t have to plan anything.

Zipaquirá is a small town about an hour outside of Bogotá and it is famous for the Salt Cathedral. The Catholic cathedral was opened to the public in 1995 and, as its name suggests, it was built inside an underground salt mine.

Two women praying inside the underground Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

I have been to an underground church in the past, so I thought I had an idea of what it might look like- the passageways would be dim and the walls would be roughly hewn. However, that was about where the similarities ended.

Main nave of the underground Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

For starters, the scale of Salt Cathedral was massive. I had been satisfied with the first few rooms I saw and it took awhile for me to realize that those were only the Stations of the Cross. We hadn’t even gotten to the main nave! If only my Spanish were better, I might have been able to relay some of the interesting facts that I’m sure we were told.

The gift shops at the Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

The other thing that surprised me the most though was the shopping arcade. There were tons of emerald shops, booths that sold religious salt figurines, and anything else that could benefit from the addition of a little Virgin Mary.

It was going to be awhile till I got my first paycheck, so I decided to save my money and instead purchase an arepa from the underground cafe- La Tienda del Minero. The restaurant was decorated like a 1970s living room and had the lighting of a TV sitcom. I kicked back with a few other teachers and just absorbed the surroundings.

The underground cafe at the Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

I hadn’t arrived in Bogotá with high expectations of the capital city. Everyone I had spoken to had told me to get out as soon as I could. However, after a week in the city, I realized I was actually enjoying it. I was glad I’d eventually be living in Manizales, but for now I was in a nice dark salt mine, surrounded by good company and Catholic guilt, and eating a delicious arepa. You can’t ask for anything more than that.

About: The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá

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