3 Pockets of Peace in Colombia’s Countryside
“Wake up!!” Bronson prodded me. “Whaaaat?” I murmured, eyes clamped shut against the very early morning. “Look out there,” came the awed whisper back. I obediently lifted my head above the windowsill level and breathed a little gasp. Here’s what I saw – the calm before the daily wind ruffled the waters.
1. GUATAPE – Less than 2 hours east of Medellin
We were staying just outside the little town of Guatape at El Encuentro, a peaceful, luxurious and cheap hostel set in the heart of Colombia. Guatape sits on a hilly island surrounded by a snaking maze of royal blue water. In the sixties, a hydroelectric dam was built transforming this lake-riddled district into a fantastical seascape dotted with emerald green isles. The lack of sandy beaches and rocky outcrops give the islands smooth edges and a surreal feel.
The best place to see this crazy landscape is from the top of a monolith. Yep, another fantasyland feature of this otherworldly place. Nicknamed La Piedra (the rock) by the locals, this 200m natural viewing point has 600 or so steps wedged in a crevice up its side. We walked 3 hours from El Encuentro to La Piedra past curious farmers dotting the arable terraces and tufty pastoral fields. Guatape was one of those “we booked for one night, stayed five” places.
The amount of times I heard, “Take care/Be safe” from well-wishers about Colombia are uncountable, but the people are so friendly, helpful and kind and the countryside so dramatic, varied and peaceful, it’s hard to align this country with the reputation it still holds. Granted, walking the city streets alone versus with a man at my side was a rather different experience, but London’s not exactly peaceful for a girl walking alone either. Don’t worry Family, I was very careful in the cities, never walking by myself after dark. In fact, the reason I love the South American countryside so much is that I feel safe in it compared with the cities. I can explore without worrying about my wallet. Except to the lookouts. (NB: Never walk to up to the town lookouts in South America.) Today my new friend Duncan (there’s always a new friend when travelling) and I went on an epic bike ride exploring waterfalls, but that’s another story, one based in Ecuador. Back to this one….
Bronson and I were spending our last few weeks together before he headed back to Australia for his brother’s wedding, seeking out the most breathtaking and peaceful places of Colombia and I think we found them down south. We’d loved the Caribbean Coast, but we were ready for some places a little less ridiculously hot and sweaty.
2. SALENTO – 7 hours south of Medellin
Three buses, a jeep taxi ride and nine hours later, we arrived in Salento from Guatape, edging ever closer to Ecuador. We were super lucky with our room at La Serrana, a beautiful eco-lodge a kilometre or so out of town. They put us in a separate house called Las Camelias that looked like some sort of romantic chalet hideaway. With the other two rooms vacant, we had the massive L-shaped communal lounge and kitchen, with floor to ceiling windows of the dramatic valley, all to ourselves.
Salento is famous for the Valle de Cocora where the world’s tallest palm trees stripe the steep valley sides. The middle section of this four hour hike is deep in ‘cloud forest’ (I think you can use your imagination for that one) and about halfway in lies a hummingbird sanctuary. In true South American style, the birds just hang out drinking sweet nectar while you drink coffee – no cages, no formality.
3. SANTUARIO DE LAS LAJAS – Near the Colombia/Ecuador border
Two more days on buses with a stopover in the white colonial city of Popayan, and we reached Santuario de las Lajas. This little town tucked in a crevice of a valley, spirals downhill to centre on a church worthy of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. The story goes thus: in 1754 a lady called Maria was trekking between two villages with her deaf dumb daughter Rosa strapped to her back. They stopped for a bite to eat in the valley and the little girl wandered off. Suddenly she came running up exclaiming, “Mama, Mama, the Virgin is calling me!” pointing halfway up the cliff where she’d seen the Virgin Mary’s image. She had been cured! The spot became a place for pilgrimage and then the 50m tall neo-gothic church (below) was built on a 50m tall bridge in 1949. Its altar plate covers the Virgin’s image.
As we meandered in view of the village, we saw a procession of lights in the darkening street below. Our very jolly taxi driver explained, “Oh! It’s the Festival of the Virgin Mary!” and elaborated that we’d arrived smack bang in the middle of the two week festivities. We dumped our bags in our grotsville of a hotel and wandered down the cobble walkways to find mass just finishing. Perfect! The doors were open, everyone processed out again to the discordant tones of a brass band and then the fireworks started. We gazed up as the sparks and stars filled the space of sky between the valley walls, the air smelled of pre-Christmas/Guy Fawkes festivities and we oo-ed and ah-ed along with little wrapped up nuns and families in their winter-woolies.
Our last couple of weeks together in Colombia passed in a vivid dream of fantastical landscapes. All in all I spent two months in this beautiful country, much much longer than I had planned. It started in Bogota, couchsurfing with the ‘can’t-do-enough’ Javi, then in the north sweating it out on the Caribbean Coast exploring the Lost City and travelling to the far north tip of South America and the Colombian adventure finished in the lush coffee-growing south. Colombia is hugely varied and seriously needs at least two months to be fully explored.