As we mentioned in our previous post, leaving San Agustín behind, we had planned to take over the adventurous route to Caño Cristales, a river located in la Macarena in the province of Meta. Until the mid-2010s, this area was a guerrilla activity stronghold making Caño Cristales almost completely inaccessible. Today, the Colombian military has 100% control of the 30km area around La Macarena, the dusty small town that serves as the gateway to Caño Cristales, making the region open and safe for explorers. Caño Cristales is commonly referred to as the most beautiful river in the world, “River of Five Colors” or the “Liquid Rainbow”. The reason for that is its stunning colours. The river bed, from the end of July till the end of November, gets shades of yellow, green, blue, black and red, caused by a type of algae that grows in the river. Just reading the above was tempting enough for us to make the attempt.
Getting there was challenging, as it took us almost two long days after the point we left the main highway, with the views along the route though paying off. Going off the beaten track also gave us the opportunity to meet great people and to visit parts of this country that very few people know. Although we tried to approach the park that the river is part of individually, that wasn’t possible. A guided tour was compulsory even for us the “no-tours” fanatics. We must admit though that the daylong tour we took was worth 100%. In the early days of Caño Cristales, visitors were largely unregulated causing great damage to this microclimate. Now environmental protection rules are strictly enforced: mandatory guides, groups of no more than seven people, a complete ban on wearing sunscreen or insect repellent when visiting the river and lastly a limited area where swimming is allowed. After registering with the government run environmental office and escorted by our guide, we took a motorized boat from La Macarena along the Guayabero River. A short 4WD ride on a pick up that followed brought us to one of three different hiking trails. The rest of the journey into the actual Caño Cristales was done on foot. We criss-crossed the river many times, we took tons of footage, we enjoyed a magnificent local lunch by the river and at the end of the day, a swim in the river. Even Rochelle got a bite on the bum for lunch). Words cannot describe the beauty of Caño Cristales. So please take a moment and check out our footage in the movies that come with this post.
During our stay, locals talked to us about Caño Canoa, a further out river that is even more isolated but equally spectacular. We must admit that we were tempted to head there as well. But in order to get there, we needed to tackle numerous river crossings and two extra days of bad road, one way travel. We decided to wait one or two days more in order to join up with another overland vehicle, so we could assist each other if needed. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, so we decided not to risk heading out by ourselves and skip it. After four days on standby, we took the way back. An important note here is that Caño Canoa lies in the area beyond the 30km safe zone that is still designated as a red zone from the government and therefore safety is not guaranteed within it.
Surrounding Caño Cristales is Los Llanos, a plain that measures some 16 million hectares and accounts for about a quarter of Colombia’s total land mass (info by Lonely Planet Colombia). Truth to be told, completely unaware and by a GPS mistake, we took a shorter, scenic tart road that led us after six hours through a beautiful cloud forest over the mountains to the city of Neiva, a port on the Río Magdalena, that doesn’t have much interest to the traveler but serves as a gateway to the Desierto de la Tatacoa, our next destination. Tatacoa, although called a desert, isn’t really one. However Voukefalas’ thermometer tried to convince us otherwise (39°C at times). It’s a dry landscape of cliffs and gullies, sculpted by the infrequent rain, an ecosystem unlike anywhere else in Colombia. What is not mentioned in any of the guidebooks though is that this so called desert is inhabited by a specific type of a vicious mosquito that is hardly visible by the human eye and is MEAN!!! We were there for a 48-hour music festival that was happening in the desert and while we didn’t make it to the actual event, we ended up parking Voukefalas right on the entrance and together with some other locals (they seemed like local mafia), we created our own party. Great times!!! When we got back to our campground, we went to bed unaware of the thousands of bites we had gotten. To cut the story short, in the middle of the night we both had to go to the hospital and have antihistamine injections in order to avoid the painful reactions from the bites. It was an experience that we both want to forget. By the way, Rochelle, in her attempt to assist in the emergency situation, cut the lock of the door in the camping with pliers in order to open it since no one from the camp was around. As you can imagine, after the hospital we couldn’t go back there. So in the middle of the night, we decided to push forward with destination the Zona Cafetera and Salento, a village set among gorgeous green mountains.
Why did we pick to go there? The coffee plantations, the trout farming, its quaint streets, the typical paisa architecture and its proximity to the spectacular Valle de Cocora are just some of the reasons. Salento was founded in 1850 and is one of the oldest towns in Quindío. The main street, Calle Real, is full of artesanías (local craft stalls) and in the picturesque central square someone can find many small restaurants. At the end of the main street are stairs leading up to Alto de la Cruz, a small hill decorated with a big cross overlooking the village, Valle de Cocora and the mountains that surround it. We didn’t climb it but we had every intention to do so. We based ourselves in a beautiful finca , 1km out of the village and made ourselves at home after our harrowing overnight Tatacoa adventure. If the skies were clear (usually only early in the morning), from our camp we could see all the way to the snowcapped tops of the volcanoes on the horizon. No, not me, I didn’t bother getting up. Rochelle though did and mentioned it to me.
After so many months of constant moving and our latest mosquito adventure, we both felt that that was the perfect place to gear down and recover. We spent almost two weeks there and except from fully recovering our time included the village exploration, a very informative day at a coffee plantation and a visit to the highlight of the area, the Valle de Cocora. This broad green valley stretches east of Salento, into the lower reaches of Los Nevados, surrounded by sharp peaks. What distinguishes it from others is the “palma de cera” (wax palm), the largest palm in the world (up to 60m tall) and Colombia’s national tree that covers its plains. We took the most popular of the walks through dense cloud forest from the small hamlet Cocora to the Reserva Natural Acaime. At Acaime you can rest and get a hot chocolate with cheese while watching hummingbirds feeding. Rochelle’s attempt to film them this time was successful. Yeah!!!
After our two weeks decompressing, we moved to Filandia, a very similar place one and a half hour down the road. Slow-paced Filandia is an authentic coffee town. It’s charming and gets much less visitors than Salento. We had heard about a hacienda owned by an ex-overlanders British couple that picked this village to make a new start. After enjoying Filandia’s best-preserved architecture and fine handicraft market, we took the dirt road to the hacienda. We spent two nights there and among others we were joined with a couple of Australian bikers, friends of Rochelle’s that were traveling the opposite route than us coming from Alaska. After exchanging information over dinner and a couple of wine bottles, a really wonderful night came to an end. The next day ,another adventure over another scenic mountain route brought us in Jardin, that has self-proclaimed to be the most beautiful town in Antioquia. Jardín is an agricultural settlement with brightly painted two-story houses surrounded by small coffee farms that climb the slopes of the green mountains that top up the valley. Funny enough we were here for Halloween ,not that we new or had planed for it, so as we do in most towns we directed ourselves to the Plaza central, the centre of almost every towns life dominated by the village’s main church . What a great surprise we got when we saw all the colourful dressed locals of every age roaming around with out any other reason than to see and be seen. A great welcome I must say!!! It seems like that the entire community had come out to socialise over a drink and talk over the days gossips.We fitted right in. After spending two quite nights in a trout farm we headed to Medellin ,the city that Pablo Escobar called home (originally was from Rio Negro a smaller city further north).
Situated in a narrow valley, the city’s high-rise apartment and office buildings are harmonically set against a backdrop of jagged peaks in every direction. Thanks to its pleasant climate, the city is given the nickname the City of Eternal Spring. As in every big city, a camping area is difficult to find. So we based ourselves in Poblado, an up market suburb with a North American feeling to it. On the weekends, the place attracts the city’s “beautiful people” and many discos prefer techno or reggaeton to salsa or vallenato. As many travelers had mentioned to us before, Medellín affects an indifference to the rest of Colombia and puts on metropolitan airs. The traffic officers wear Italian-style round, boxy hats and the city looks overseas for the inspiration for its next great public-works project. The following days, we started exploring this bustling city which, by the way, is the second biggest in the country. The city sprawls north and south along the valley and slums hug the upper reaches of the hills. It’s here that Pablo built whole cities in order to improve his public image and get elected to Colombia’s congress. A cable car ride took us over the slums (it’s not recommended for tourists to wander around here) where poor people still stay loyal to Pablo’s paisa (people of Antioquia) roots and pay their respects to him. Further we visited Comuna 13, an area that suffered from the drug war more than any other and is now a peaceful neighborhood, full of street artists and thousands of graffiti, stating that now than ever they are looking to the future with hope. Lastly we visited La Cathedral, Pablo’s own built prison, which nowadays is an old people’s home.
With that completed, we were ready to move to the pleasant holiday town of Guatapé, that is located on the shores of the Embalse Guatapé, a sprawling artificial lake some 100km away from Medellin. This town is known for the fresco-like adornment of its traditional houses. Brightly painted bas-relief depictions of people, animals and shapes cover the lower half of its already colourful one-floor houses.
Although many travelers reach Guatapé as part of a great day trip from Medellín, there is enough there to keep you entertained much longer if you are like us and fancy a peaceful location more than a city. That didn’t go exactly as we wanted since we were there in a long weekend and the town was packed with Colombian tourists. That didn’t stop us at all though, as the lake is huge and in the surroundings we found a lakefront hideout camp with the relaxed pace we were looking for. All we did, except one visit in Guatapé, was to take a boat ride in the lake with our host, stopping at the sights. One of them is a villa of Escobar (he owned 800 properties in the whole country) on the lake that now is a tourist attraction and a paintball training center. For more about Guatepe though in the upcoming post….