Jardín: So Worth the Adventure

I had heard the legends about Jardín. A beautiful, colourful, cowboy town hidden amongst the banana plantations in the middle of the Colombian Andes. I knew I had to go there.

So, when I found myself with a bit of spare time in Manizales, I made a last minute decision to jump on bus and duck up to Jardín.

If only it had been that easy!

Most people head to Jardín as a side trip from Medellín, but being that I was in Manizales, seemingly nearby on the map, I figured we could find some quick way to get there.

Everything I could find online talked about the need to take a van to a little town called Riosucio, and then a chiva or second mini bus across the mountains from there. It sounded like a bit of an adventure, but no one had really suggested it was too challenging.

The internet travellers spoke of three daily buses leaving Riosucio, one at 8am, one at 2:20pm and one at 3pm. We wanted to spend the day exploring, so, we decided to get up early and aim to be in Riosucio to make the 8am bus.

When we arrived at the Manizales terminal, though, (at 5:30am), we were told that no buses left early enough to get us to Riosucio in time for the 8am bus.

The man selling us the ticket told us that things weren’t completely hopeless, there was another bus leaving from Riosucio at midday. We wouldn’t have to wait too long.

We finally left Manizales at about 6:45, after waiting for our little bus to fill up, and set off on the two hour journey to Riosucio. We were both frustrated and sleep deprived but the journey through the mountains was gorgeous enough to cheer anyone up.

When we arrived at the Riosucio terminal, at around 9am. A hoard of incredibly cheerful bus company men told us that there was definitely no midday bus. The buses always, only left to Jardín at 8am, 2:20pm and 3pm. We should have slept in!

We bought a ticket for the 2:20 bus (26,000 COP), left our bags with the jolly bus drivers and headed into the Riosucio with five hours to kill.

Riosucio actually turned out to be a pretty cute stopover, with a couple of nice squares, multiple restaurants and far too many casinos for such a tiny town. We had coffee, breakfast, lunch and people watched in the square.

Finally 2pm came and we headed back to the terminal and crammed back in a van, waiting again for it to fill up.

The second trip through the mountains also was stunning, but unexpectedly long. We arrived in Jardín finally at around 5:30pm. Just in time to watch the cowboys drift in from the outskirts of town and fill the square.

Little Jardín, with it’s colourful, toy-like tables and chairs buzzed with atmosphere, as locals gossiped, sipped beers and waited for the sun to go down.

We checked into our hostel, Sgt Peppers, and after finding (some fairly average) dinner, turned in for the night, exhausted from spending almost 12 hours trying to get to Jardín. For anyone coming from Manizales, my advice is to sleep in and aim to be in Riosucio for the afternoon buses!

In the morning we set off to explore around the town. We were advised on a number of good walking spots and set off to track down the first of the trails, a short walk just outside town to Charco Corazon.

On the way we passed a small waterfall which told a legend of everlasting love for those who kissed in front of it. My friend Georgia and I kept walking.

Charco Corazon, a small sandbar in middle of a fast-running river, was a great spot for us to stop and swim for a while. The water was icy cold, but was welcomed after our walk in the sun.

Later, after a quick stop in the back in the town square we headed off down another pebble path on the edge of town and soon arrived at a little bridge and another tranquil river spot.

Surrounded by mountains, rivers and valleys, Jardín was full of picturesque places to explore we just needed follow the inconspicuous paths hidden at the end of the streets.

We had been told about the old, wooden cable car that takes travellers up into the mountains to a colourful cafe that overlooks the city. We headed up there in the late afternoon.

After buying our tickets we waited for the cable car to be sent down. Soon a small, yellow, wooden box, which looked more like an outhouse, was bumping down the cable toward us.

While the view from the cable car was fairly obscured, the novelty was definitely worth it as we were dragged up through the banana trees.

We stopped for some beers on the side of the mountain and admired the view. After getting some advice from a couple of other travellers we headed, walking, back down the mountain, just before the sun went down.

The walk was easy and we were back in the square again in time to see it fill up with big hatted, thirsty locals.

I was up early the next morning for another huge day of travelling. Trying to make my way back to Cali. The road Jardín to Cali is fairly under travelled and it took me ten hours and 3 buses to get home.

The traveller legends about Jardín were all true. A picturesque little cowboy town, nestled between the banana trees in the Colombian Andes. I would happily take on the mini buses, the early mornings and the too many hours again, to spend another perfect day following the pebble paths of Jardín.

 

Desierto de la Tatacoa

For those on a quick trip through Colombia, the itinerary is often the same: Bogotá; Salento; Medellín; Cartagena and a few more Caribbean hotspots. These places are beautiful, interesting and easy tourist destinations.

However, sometimes hopping from hostel to hostel, running into the same travellers at every stop and taking in the sites through the local walking tour can become a bit dry. Every now and then it’s fun to try something a little less comfortable.

Over the weekend I decided to visit the Desierto de la Tatacoa. A small desert region in the South of Colombia nestled somewhere in between San Agustín and Bogotá. I first heard of Tatacoa through a small write up in the Lonely Planet. It was described as a hot, rustic, yet beautiful part of Colombia with the most incredible stargazing in the country. Perfect for the kind of off track adventure I was looking for.

I had done a little bit of research on getting out to the desert. I found stories about travellers who arrived in Villavieja and were coaxed into a moto desert tour by local legend “Chopo” for around 40,000 COP. While I was prepared to struggle to get out there and determined to avoid the tour, it turned out to be quite easy for us.

We arrived in Neiva, the closest bus destination town, at around 5:30 in the morning on an overnight bus from Cali. From Neiva, I had read that you take colectivo buses to Villavieja, from which you can organise a ride to the desert. When we discovered the colectivos in the Neiva bus terminal, we realised they would just take us directly to the desert. This is a new service that has just been introduced by Coomotor and made our lives much easier.

We paid 20,000 COP per person for a colectivo that would take us directly to where we wanted to stay in the desert. The trip from Neiva into Tatacoa takes around an hour.


The Lonely Planet also had a couple of suggestions about places to stay in the desert. Once you get out there there are a number of spots nearby the desert observatory from which you can rent rooms, campsites, tents, or hammocks. The colectivo stops in front of the second observatory and from here you can easily jump out and find whatever you’re looking for.

I had read an impressive description about El Peñon de Constantino, a desert oasis two kilometres past the observatory that rents out cute mud brick cabins, fancy tents, hammocks or campsites. We asked the colectivo driver to take us straight there. We had no reservation but organised to rent a couple of hammocks for 20,000 COP each.

It was only about 8am by the time we arrived, so we chilled out for a while and splashed around in the pool that they have there at El Peñon de Constantino. For people who aren’t staying on the site, you can still come and pay a few pesitos to use the pool. After a few hours walking through the desert, you’ll definitely feel like a swim!

After our swim, we were starving so decided to walk back toward the observatory to find something to eat in one of the local restaurants. The walk was hot but incredibly beautiful. We were surrounded by huge cacti, herds of wild goat and even saw the occasional wild horse!

We walked into a restaurant and ordered the local lunch specialty. Grilled goat and rice. The food was definitely an ‘off the beaten track’ experience. After our goat soup (which I loved), we got our grilled goat, which was fairly past done, and a serving of a kind of fried rice mixed through with vegetables and chopped up goat kidney. While the food was ordinary, it was a pretty fun experience.

We bought a 5 litre bottle of water and went out into the deadly sun to explore some more of the desert. We walked to El Cuzco, the most famous site in the desert, an incredible maze of red rock formations. We wandered through here for a while until the heat got too much for us and we decided to start the walk back to our campsite.

We sat near our hammocks and watched the sun go down before heading down to the little restaurant at our site for a few hands of cards and some dinner. When it started to get really dark we headed further back up the hill to gaze at the stars Tatacoa was famous for.

It did not disappoint, and it was easy to lie there on the hill for a few hours and watch the shooting stars fly by.

We climbed into our hammocks later for a fairly comfortable nights sleep. The temperature turned pretty cold in the early hours of the morning, so make sure you have something warm if you are planning to sleep outside.


The next morning we stayed close to our campsite and spent a bit more time in the pool. We organised the colectivo to come and pick us up after lunch and headed back to Neiva to catch the night bus home.

Tatacoa is a unique part of Colombia, the scenery is incredible, the stars are breathtaking and the food is super weird. It was fun to get away from the hostels and the tour guides and spend a night swinging under the desert stars. For those who are beginning to feel a little too comfortable along the tourist trail, a trip to the desert might be just what you need.

Salento and the Valley

When Tyson and I arrived in Salento, we stood behind the desk of the hostel and listened to the coffee-hyped, European hostel owner tell us that we were in the most important tourist destination in Colombia.

“The Valle de Cocora,” he told us, as he pointed out Salento’s wonders, “that’s a can’t miss!”

This we knew. Although, we hadn’t told the hostel owner, this was our second trip to Salento. A few weeks earlier we had explored the hilly, colourful streets, tried the coffee and tasted the pink fleshed fish Salento was famous for.

On the morning we had planned to get up and trek the valley though, it was pouring down rain and we were fated to another pleasant day coffee shop hopping and snapping shots of the streets before we headed back to Pereira for work on Monday morning.

After all the hype we had heard about the trek, we decided we would have to come back and see for ourselves what all the fuss was about.

The Valle de Cocora

A few weeks later, after waking up early to clear skies, we packed the camera and the raincoat and headed to flag the bus to Salento, in order to walk the valley that morning.

After more reading more about Cocora, it became clear that rain was more often than not. It was best to start trekking as early as possible in order to beat the rain that rolls in on most afternoons.

The savviest travellers take to the trail with waterproof bags, umbrellas, spray jackets and even gumboots. We however, rarely savvy, had one raincoat between us and not even a plastic bag for our valuables.

By the time we arrived in Salento’s main square it was almost 9am. We crammed in the jeep that takes you out to the start of the walk and tried to sneak peeks at the already incredible scenery around us.

The start of the trek was sun-soaked, scenic and pretty easy going. A little way in we came across the point to pay the 2000 COP entry, from which the trail turned to mud. We slipped and sludged along until we hit the mountain, which we followed up, to the first major stopping point Acaime.

Known for the hummingbirds that are lured in for the tourists, Acaime is a pleasant, and often busy, spot for trekkers to stop for a drink or lunch halfway along the trail. Here we sipped hot chocolate and coffee and then picked ourselves up and left the crowd, to find the turn off to La Montaña, the next stop off on our walk.

Near the entrance to Acaime is the start of the trail to Estrella del Agua. I had read about this track and whilst it was supposedly beautiful, it was also meant to be a steep and difficult walk. As the clouds were already rolling in we decided to head straight up the walk to La Montaña.

Unexpectedly, the short walk through the pine forest up La Montaña was also fairly steep and difficult. Luckily we found plenty of logs to rest on, on the way up and happily let other, more athletic trekkers take the lead.

By the time we reached the top the mist had settled around the bottom of the mountain giving us an eerie, spectacular view above the clouds.

From here we started our decent down the mountain and tried to catch glimpses of the wax palms which occasionally revealed themselves through the mist.

We arrived at a clearing which, looked over the valley and across the palms. We sat here for a while, amazed by the trees that stretched over us. The bizarre palms sprung from nowhere and it seemed as though they belonged somewhere else.

The promised afternoon rain soon got us moving again and we made out way out across the valley, walking amongst the wax palms. We walked out of the park soaking wet and smiling and made our way back to the crowded little jeeps.

The five hour walk through the Valle de Cocora was beautiful from beginning to end. It’s no wonder that so many people come to Salento to walk it. The little European hostel owner was right, the Valle de Cocora: it’s a can’t miss.

 

Outside Medellín: Guatapé and Santa Fe de Antioquia

Everyone will tell you that Medellín is great. Before I arrived, travellers filled me with stories about the fun, the excitement, the perfect weather.

It’s true, Medellín is fun, it can be exciting and it does have perfect weather. But in the two weeks I spent there I was constantly waiting for the Medellín magic to kick in. Maybe i was missing something, but it seemed to be just another big city full of partying travellers and fancy cafes.

Modern Medellín lacked some of that unique Colombian charm that wins you over, and that you can find in spades around the rest of the country. Luckily though, if like me, it’s charm that you are looking for, you don’t have to go very far.

Guatapé

We took a trip to Guatapé on a weekend before we left Medellín for Colombia’s coffee region. The little town is famous for its almost blinding colour, the little pictures that skirt the colonial buildings and beautiful lake that it sits on the edge of.

While most people visit it in a day or two there are plenty of things to keep you entertained if you wanted to stay longer. We spent the weekend roaming the cobblestone streets, listening to the buskers in cafes that line the little outdoor amphitheatre and making the most of one of Colombia’s biggest lakes.

It takes about two hours to get from Medellín to Guatapé and on the weekend it fills up with Medellín locals, so if you are looking for a more relaxed experience aim to get there during the week.

Just outside of Guatapé is the Piedra del Peñon, which is a giant rock that once climbed gives you an impressive view over the lake. Wanting to ride in the decorated moto taxis, we took one of the tuk tuks from the cute main square to the bottom of the rock and lined up with the hoards of tourists to climb to the top.

The view was nice, but I am not sure it was worth the crowds of tourists, I wouldn’t recommend if you are there on a weekend like we were.

There are also other places around town to go exploring, waterfalls and nice spots along the lake. We stayed in Lake View hostel and they recommended a few spots and offered motorbike or horse rentals if you wanted to go and check them out. You can also get out on the lake in various boat tours and other things.

We mostly stayed around the town though, and were pretty content with the beautiful streets and musical buzzing atmosphere. Little Guatapé is definitely worth the trip, especially if you are feeling a little underwhelmed by Medellín like I was, this place has plenty to keep you inspired.

Santa Fe de Antioquia

Arriving in this little white town was a breath of fresh air. The bougainvillea twisted around the streets and led us from one pretty square to the next.

Once the capital of Antioquia, this little town is oozing with old, presidential charm. The main square, which was sadly under construction when we were there, is lined with plenty of restaurants where you can sit and watch the day pass.

Although, there isn’t a great deal of big draw attractions, the town makes for a pretty and relaxing day wandering through the streets. If you wanted to learn a little bit more about it there is also a small free museum hidden in one of the many colonial buildings.

To get to Santa Fe, we caught a quick and easy bus out from Medellín which took a little over an hour.  It was the perfect little terracotta town for a day trip, and it was well spent, relaxing in the sun out of the city.