Monday, August 11, 2014

CALI TO SAN AGUSTIN – TRAVELING BACK THROUGH TIME

August 3, 2014

Strapping the Luggage to the Roof
Elise and I were both keen to escape the noisy El Viajero.  We shared a taxi to the bus terminal with another couple of travelers which left no room for luggage and necessitated strapping all our bags to the roof.  We were concerned about the ability of the driver’s bungee cords to keep everything in place until he finally produced some proper rope, which made the stack much more secure.  We had no trouble locating the bus to Popoyan and even had enough time for me to use the ATM after loading my backpack into the luggage compartment of the bus.


Cane Fields on the Way to Popoyan
Park Life Hostel
It took us over a half an hour to clear the city limits of Cali because the streets were narrow and traffic heavy, even though at 10:30 am it was no longer rush hour.  Once we were finally free of the city congestion, we climbed over a range of hills and then descended through fields of cane.  The landscape was much drier than before and looked rather like California if you didn’t look too closely at the trees.  The cane fields were green in contrast with the brown hills and there were scattered coffee plantations that looked like they were struggling.  It took us about three hours to get to the Popoyan terimal and then we took a taxi to Hostel Park Life, which was located right on the main square, next door to the cathedral.  Hostel Park Life was a welcome slice of heaven after the raucous El Viajero.  It occupied the upper floor of a (probably) Victorian building overlooking the park.  My room had large, loft style windows that opened to let in air and the sound of pop music and occasional Peruvian flute players.  The common area was a former atrium which had been covered with a skylight to create a lofty, light filled space.  The management fostered an atmosphere of peace and quiet.  There was even a sunny attic reading room.

View from My Room at Park Life Hostel
Iglesia de San Francisco
I dropped off my belongings and headed out to find something to eat.  I ended up at a grill called La Cosecha (The Harvest.)  It was crowded with Colombians, so I figured it must be good.  I was hungry for some serious protein, so ordered the grilled liver.  It was delicious and came with a nice salad, rice, and fries.  I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to need dinner.  After lunch, I strolled around Popoyan.  The city was the original capital of southern Colombia, during colonial times, until it was surpassed by Cali.  It had many grand colonial buildings, all of which were painted white.  On a sunny day, it was rather blinding and quite warm.  I walked a few blocks to the Iglesia de San Francisco, but was unable to take a tour because it was Sunday and services were in process.  I then visited the early 18th century Puente Chiquita and its 19th century replacement, the Puente del Humilladero, which is still in use as a pedestrian bridge and looks quite solid, if a bit narrow for vehicular traffic.  Flowering trees were blooming beside the bridges and the scene resembled a Thomas Kincaid painting.


Puente Chiquita
I had been told that it was a bad idea to climb the Cerro del Morro by oneself but, when I looked up there and saw crowds of people, I decided that it would be fine to do so on a busy Sunday afternoon.  I walked across town and climbed up the zigzag path to the top.  Families were out enjoying the afternoon and the hilltop was swarming with ice cream vendors and children flying kites in the strong wind at the top of the hill.  The summit offered a nearly 360 degree view of Popoyan and the hills behind it.  I took a few photos and ate a popsicle before walking back to the hostel where I spent a quiet evening chatting with the other guests about languages.  After my big lunch, my dinner was a piece of leftover bread and a beer.
View from Cerro del Morro

August 4, 2014

Llama Rides in the Plaza
My original plan had been to go to the Parque National Purace to see the condors, but there had been an earthquake on Saturday night and the park was closed because they feared that the earthquake might signal an eruption of the volcano.  I later discovered that the park was always closed on Mondays, anyway.  Unfortunately, all the museums in Popoyan were also closed on Mondays.  I got up reasonably early, but lounged about the hostel, playing on the internet for a couple of hours, and then went out to the Juan Valdez Coffee Shop for a latte and a piece of carrot cake.  I went to the grocery store and bought food for lunch and dinner, as well as spare batteries for my camera and prunes and almonds to snack on later.  Colombia must produce almonds because they were available at a reasonable price, after having been impossible to find without paying a fortune since Mexico.



Cathedral in Popoyan
            I spent the afternoon at the very pleasant hostel, reading and trying to make a reservation for a place to stay in San Agustin.  Many of the other guests that I had met at the hostel were also going to San Agustin, so we resolved to go together.  At 4:00, I went running with one of the owners of the hostel and a couple of other guests.  I hadn’t really run in a few months, but managed to keep up for the first mile as we ran uphill to the university track.  I really noticed the altitude.  Popoyan sits at about 5500 feet.  Thinking I was going to have to run back and not wanting to be left behind, I alternated walking and running laps for the next 2.25 miles.  Then the rest of the group decided to walk back.  I should have just kept running instead of conserving my energy.  It was fun to run with others for the first time since Ixtapa.  I enjoyed a shower and a cold beer upon my return to the hostel.

I cooked myself a dinner of a pork chop, eggs, and carrots for a change.  I was just too tired of eating corn, rice, beans and bread.  Once again, I spent a quiet evening at the very pleasant and companionable hostel.  Unfortunately, none of the hostels in San Agustin seemed eager to answer my emails and the Hostel Park Life phone was out of minutes, so they couldn’t call ahead for us.  They suggested we use one of the many people offering phone calls in the park.  I couldn’t hear well enough to make a phone call in Spanish from a cell phone in a noisy place and no one else seemed inclined to do so.

August 5, 2014

Roadside Waterfall
None of the hostels answered my emails, so I set off on the 9:30 minibus to San Agustin having no idea where I was going to land, but hoping to find a place before my friends arrived late in the evening.  Everyone said that it was important to travel to San Agustin during the day because the road was so remote that if anything were to happen to the bus, it would be necessary to sleep in the bus overnight.  The road was, indeed, remote.  Most of it was rough dirt.  In many places, it passed through road cuts that were barely one lane wide.  It climbed up and over a range of mountains.  The top was covered in cloud forest and it was very cold and had started to rain.  My hands and feet were numb again, even though I had at least worn long pants this time.  We then wound our way back down the other side of the range and through some lower hills where coffee was being grown.  It took five hours to make the trip.  At one point, we passed a spectacular waterfall.  Finally, we stopped at a crossroads.  Because I was the only person actually going to San Agustin, the bus driver loaded me into a passing pickup truck that was going to San Agustin and headed off to the next town.  I rode the last 5 kilometers in a crew cab, which was at least warmer than the bus.

Our Yurt at Finca El Maco
The driver of the pickup didn’t really know what to do with me, so he dropped me at a travel agency.  That turned out to be a very good thing.  I had received a message from Anke, one of the women who was coming later, saying that there was room for us in the dorms at Finca El Maco and asking if she should make a reservation.  Unfortunately, I received the message randomly as I passed a public WiFi hot spot in the bus and was not able to answer her.  I asked the travel agent to call El Maco to see if we had a reservation.  We didn’t, but they still had room for us, so I made a reservation and then took a taxi up there.  Finca El Maco was one of the places I had tried to email to make a reservation.  Maybe Anke had tried, also.  They installed us in a colorful yurt with three young men.  The beds all had bright plaid bedspreads and mosquito nets.  There was only one bunk bed.  The rest were singles.  The roof was palm thatch and there was plenty of floor space, the lack of which was one of the reasons I usually hated dorms.  The situation was very strange, however.  There were several different yurts about the property and they could easily have rented us one of the others at a higher price.  They only seemed to be using the one, maybe because it was the low season.


Yurt Interior
After messaging the others to tell them where we were staying and determining that they weren’t interested in going horseback riding the following day, I walked back into town to arrange to go on my own.  At the travel agent’s, I ran into a French and Belgian couple that I knew from Popoyan and, since it took three people to make a group, we decided to go together.  I felt bad about not hiring the guide who worked for the hostel, but didn’t want to pay more to go alone.  I told him we would take a jeep tour with him the following day, but it didn’t work out that way.  I stopped at the grocery store to buy beer and some food for breakfasts and snacks.  The walk back to the hostel was about a kilometer straight up a steep, muddy, dirt road.  Once there, the only noises were mooing cows, squealing pigs, and barking dogs.  I ate a delicious yellow Thai curry for dinner and tried to spend the evening reading.  I ended up falling asleep by 8:30.  I had arranged for the others to be received after reception closed at 9:00, but they came in very late.

August 6, 2014

Having fallen asleep at 8:30 the night before, I woke up at 4:30 am.  It was pouring rain.  Not wanting to disturb the others, I stayed in bed until 8:00, but finally got up because I needed to be ready to go riding by 9:00.  No one else was stirring.  I got up, dressed, and ate breakfast.  I was sitting in reception, using the internet, when the travel agent called to say that the horseback tour was cancelled. The others had decided to switch to the jeep tour.  Since my friends were still asleep and I couldn’t consult them, I agreed to go along.  Kristyn had a meeting online and couldn’t go and Anke was still sleeping.  The jeep arrived a bit early, so I had to leave without getting a chance to invite her to come along.

We drove around San Agustin, picking up other passengers.  I got to see some of the other hostels.  We had to wait for two passengers at Casa de Nelly, so they gave us cups of strong, hot coffee while we waited.  It looked like a very nice place, but was full.  They hadn’t bothered to answer my query.  When we finally left, there were seven of us: Italian, French, Belgian, Israeli, Colombian, Malaysian and American.  We just laughed every time someone asked us where we were from.  Our driver, Marino, wasn’t an official guide, but had worked in tourism for 30+ years and was able to answer all our questions while navigating truly horrible roads running with water.

El Estrecho
Our first stop was “El Estrecho” (the straits) where the Rio Magdalena passes between volcanic cliffs.  Under different circumstances, it might have been fun to jump into the water, but it was a raging torrent when we were there. It had been raining hard for many hours.  We drove for quite some time to get there, but couldn’t see anything because the windows were all fogged up due to the rain.  From “El Estrecho,” we drove to Obando, a small town with a museum and some archaeological sites.  Little is known about the people who carved sculptures from the volcanic rocks surrounding San Agustin.  They had disappeared long before Europeans came to South America and were not related to the Incas, Mayas, or Aztecs.  They carved more than 500 statues in the San Agustin area.  Their burials consisted of covered stone alleyways, painted in red, yellow, black and white designs, leading to stone sarcophagi (sometimes carved) and guarded by stone figures.  Most of these tombs were raided before the archaeologists started to preserve them, but they never contained much in the way of riches.  The culture was not known for working gold.

Scenery on the Way to Alto de los Idolos
 From Obando, we traveled a long way through spectacular scenery to Alto de Los Idolos (Height of the Idols) where we ordered lunch and then climbed the hill to look at more tombs and sculptures while it was being prepared.  For some of us, the scenery was more interesting than the tombs.  Steep green mountains stretched away on all sides.  Unlike the mountains in the United States, where civilization tends to stick to the valleys, we could see roads and buildings lining the ridges.  Coffee, cane and plantains were planted
on the upper reaches of the mountains, where there was more sun, and the bottoms of the
Alto de los Idolos


valleys tended to be wild.  Crops were planted on slopes so steep that a person falling could roll a thousand meters or more to the bottom.  A hectare of land in such a place could be had for about 5,000,000 pesos (about $2700), whereas a hectare of reasonably flat land near San Agustin would cost 80,000,000 (about $43,000.)

Tombs at Alto de los Idolos
Sarcophagus at Alto de los Idolos

We ate a very nice lunch.  I had chicken with French fries, plantains, and salad.  The rain finally stopped.  Then we drove to Alto de Las Piedras (Height of the Stones) to look at more sculptures.  The most famous of these was the one often referred to as “Doble Yo” (Double me) because it has two faces on the front.  It actually had another two on the back, although they are harder to see.  
Doble Yo

Agregar leyenda
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The tombs were starting to seem repetitive and slogging through wet grass was getting old.  It was a relief to go to our next stop, a mirador (overlook) at Salto de Bordones, the second tallest waterfall in South America.  The falls were tall (450 meters), but we couldn’t see all the way to the bottom or get very close, so some of the effect was wasted.   With all the rain, there was plenty of water.  Our last stop was Salto Mortino, which was only about half as tall, but was spectacular because we were closer and could see the whole thing.  The owners of the overlook, who charged 1000 pesos (54 cents), had built a narrow walkway protruding about 10 feet over the cliff.  From there, we could see deep into the canyon.  There were beautiful orchids blooming along the edge.
Orchids at Salto Mortino

Salto Mortino

4-Wheel Drive Bus Used on Dirt Roads Known as a "Chiva"
The drive back to San Agustin was only half an hour.  The French and Belgian couple and I arranged to go horseback riding the following day if more didn’t rain.  I went in search of cash, but found the Bank of Agriculture ATM closed.  There was a rumor of another ATM in a supermarket further into town, but I was tired and it was get-ting dark, so I de-cided to try again the fol-low-ing day.  I dragged my tired self up the very steep hilll to the hostel.  Not knowing whether or not I would be able to obtain any cash before leaving San Agustin, I elected not to eat dinner in the restaurant.  I munched a hard-boiled egg, some crackers, and some fruit, washed down with a couple of beers.  I spent the evening in the reception area, using the internet until they closed at 9:00 and then retired to our yurt.  Anke and Kristyn were getting up early to go to the Archaeological Park and I was tired, so we all went to bed by 10:00.  We had no other company in our yurt.

August 7, 2014

Cacique (Chief)
It wasn’t raining when I woke up, which was a good sign.  I knew Anke and Kristyn wanted to get an early start, so I stayed in bed until they were done with the bathroom and then got up.  I had originally planned to go riding the first day and then launder my jeans on the second day so as to have them for the cold weather of Bogota, but that plan went out the window when my ride got rained out.  I turned my laundry in, but I would just have to do without clean jeans in the city.  Once again, my guide showed up half an hour early, throwing a wrench into my morning plans.  He picked me up on a motorcycle and drove me down to the campground where Francois and Funi (sp?) were staying and where the horses awaited us.  My horse was a small bay gelding named Cacique.  He was energetic and well behaved and had an amazingly comfortable trot.  It was actually easier to sit than his canter.  We got on well.

El Tablon
Our first stop was El Tablon where five statues were displayed under a covered structure.  The center image was the moon god.  To his right, were two warriors to protect him, and to his left were the image of a slave and his intermediary.  The people who carved these statues had no calendar or numerical system, so keeping track of the movement of the moon was difficult for them.  They would come to consult (probably the priests of) the moon god for advice on such things as when to plant crops or cut bamboo.  If you cut bamboo during a new moon, the sap has all gone out of the wood and it doesn’t last very long.

La Chaquira
Lookout at La Chaquira
It wasn’t very far from El Tablon to La Chaquira.  At La Chaquira, we climbed down nearly 300 steps to see figures carved into the stone overlooking the Rio Magdalena, Columbia’s most important river, which divides the Cordillera Central from the Cordillera Oriental.  The scenery was spectacular.  Waterfalls plummeted down the side of the canyon through nearly vertical coffee plantations.  There was a pleasant coffee stand and nice restrooms at La Chaquira and we stopped there for a coffee.
 
Vertical Coffee Plantation
La Pelota Statues
After La Chaquira, we took a fairly long ride to La Pelota.  We picked our way down rocky slopes and galloped back up again.  Everything was very muddy and we got spattered everywhere.  The roads were bad and I was glad to be traveling by horse.  At La Pelota, we stopped for coffee and fried pastries and then climbed an especially muddy hill to see a group of well-preserved statues.  We continued over the hill to avoid the worst of the mud, while our guide drove the horses around to meet us. 
El Purutal Female Figure

El Purutal  Male Figure
Another short ride brought us to El Purutal, where we saw male and female figures still adorned with their original coloring.  These figures guarded the tombs where imperfect children were sacrificed and then buried.  It appeared that the civilization believed that imperfect children would have difficult lives in this world and should just be sent along to the next one.  Each of the figures was depicted holding a baby.  The male figure was also holding what looked like a club, although our guide claimed it was a measuring stick to make sure that the child was symmetrical.  The female figure was holding a child superimposed on a cross, which symbolized perfection.  From El Purutal, we rode to the Parque Archaeologico, where our guide left us to enjoy the park in what was left of our afternoon.


Francois and Funi wanted lunch, but I knew that I had to get back to town in time to obtain cash, so I skipped eating and went directly into the park.  The park included four groupings of tombs and statues: Mesitas A,B,C & D.  Tombs from this civilization featured a carved figure standing in the “doorway,” a flat stone resting atop two pillars (hence the name “mesita” or little table.)  Behind the entrance were two fences of vertical stones creating a passage that led to a stone sarcophagus, often covered with a carved lid.  The term “mesita” also applied to the artificially leveled areas where tombs and dwellings were constructed.  Near the entrance to the park, there was even a raised walkway leading to the first of these areas that had been constructed in ancient times.


Mesita B Grouping
Mesita A had some nice sculptures, but Mesita B had the most extensive collection.  It also had the tallest of the sculptures.  Mesita C had some interesting sculptures that differed from the others in shape and size.  I somehow managed to miss Mesita D, probably because I also skipped the museum, being short on time.  I did, however, was to be sure that I didn’t miss Lavaplatos (dishwasher), an intricately carved set of channels, carvings and cascades that must have been used for ritual bathing or something.  A couple of thousand years of water flowing over the carvings had made them a little hard to make out, but the structure built over them was impressive.  A steel framework supported hundreds of plastic skylights.  At one end, a bridge made entirely of bamboo provided a viewing platform, as well as a way to cross the stream.


Lavaplatos

I was fascinated with the huge bamboo growing in Colombia.  Some of the trunks were as big around as my leg.  Our yurt was built with bamboo posts and rafters.  The structures covering the toll booths on the highways were even supported by bamboo.  Large bamboo was sometimes cut into lengths and crushed, which resulted in mats a foot or so wide that were used for walls and floors.  The bridge was a masterpiece of bamboo construction.  Suddenly, I felt like I ought to be in Asia.  The bamboo forests were also quite beautiful, with fluffy plumes of green bamboo waving in the breeze.
Bamboo Forest

From Lavaplatos, I climbed up a long steep hill to El Alto de Lavaplatos, where there were a few more sculptures, probably placed there to look over the view that probably would have been incredible if it hadn’t started to rain so hard that I could hardly see anything at all.  I didn’t spend much time up there, since the weather was so bad.  I headed back down, left the park and started the 3 kilometer walk back to town.  I got about half way there when my guide happened along on a motorcycle and gave me a ride to town.  The Lonely Planet Guide suggested
Bamboo Bridge at Lavaplatos
avoiding the “touts” who meet the buses, but they had been nothing but friendly and helpful to me and their tours were more economical that those offered by the hotel for a person traveling alone.  The company was Tour Macizo San Augustin.  I was helped by Christian Nunez, but everyone working there was very nice.

Trying to find cash in San Agustin was frustrating.  There were two banks across the street from the tour company, but both had Banco de Bogota ATMs and they rejected my ATM card because it had a magnetic strip instead of a chip.  The Agrarian Bank ATM had been closed for two days.  When I finally tracked down the grocery store with a BanColumbia branch in the back, that was closed, too.  I was starting to get desperate.  I went back to Banco de Bogota to see if their ATMs would take my credit card.  That didn’t work either.  In desperation, I tried my ATM card again because, although it had never worked in any city, the ATMs always said they were performing the transaction using the magnetic strip just before they rejected my card.  A miracle occurred.  I decided to pull my card out of the reader before it asked me to and it worked!  I got my cash and so was able to stomp back up the hill, reclaim my laundry and order dinner.  I would have enough pesos to leave San Agustin, after all.





Sunday, August 3, 2014

MEDELLIN TO CALI – COFFEE, PALMS & SALSA

July 31, 2014

Pereira
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.