If you asked a random stranger what they associate with Colombia, motifs like coffee, salsa music, and drug trafficking might come up. But I'd like to use the photos I've taken over the course of the last week to argue for a different calling card: the great outdoors. On the way from the coffee growing region of Salento to the tranquilo streets of San Agustin (with a pitstop in the decidedly urban Cali), hiking and biking through Southern Colombia was a feat for the eyes.
Last week I hopped in a shared van on the way out of Medellin, holding down my lunch while the driver dizzily weaved back and forth through tight mountain turns, steadily climbing into the mountains and out of the city. The luscious green mountains, fertile river valleys, and floral biodiversity made it easy to see why this is one of the best areas in the world for growing coffee. Late in the afternoon I arrived in Salento, a tiny oasis only accessible via two winding, steep roads. Immediately upon plopping down in a hammock at La Floresta hostel, I was greeted by a breathtaking sunset, as the clouds reflected the last rays of sunlight across the sky, making it look as though they were lit by fire.
The following morning I was pleased to find two other guys at the hostel with the same plan for the day as me: hop on a mountain bike and explore the surrounding area. We set off on a loop on dirt and gravel trails around the valley, knowing that every minute speeding off downhill would eventually amount to breathtaking work ascending the other side. The first 10KM was straight downhill, and we set off at a breakneck speed, immediately greeted by stunning views of the natural scenery.
Along the way we stopped at a coffee farm for a quick tour, getting a hands-on look at how a small local farmer goes from planting seeds to roasting and selling beans. A river runs on the valley below, and we decided to follow it for about an hour off the main trail, biking through the forest, hiking the muddy sections, and even fording a couple of streams. The sweaty adventure culminated perfectly in an icy yet refreshing dip at the base of the waterfall. Already exhausted at this point, the final 3KM climb straight uphill was depleting. By the time we all made it back to town, we immediately collapsed in some hammocks for a couple of well-earned cervezas.
While in Salento I also visited Valle del Cocora, known for being home to wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world. They are native to the weather and altitude of this specific valley in Colombia and were once at risk for extinction, but the Colombian government has made efforts to conserve them, including with the creation of this national park. The trees are an amazing feat of biological engineering: some of them can grow up to 200 feet!
There'a great 4-5 hour hike you can do from Salento that takes you up through the mountain trails and then down through the Valle del Cocora. On the jeep ride over, I met an American who lives in Brazil and his friend from Canada, so we decided to tackle the hike together. From afar, the trees look like tiny pins sticking out of a cushion.
Throughout the hike the path crosses back and forth around the valley's river five times, each one with a rickety bridge.
After a pitstop at a hummingbird farm for some chicha, we ascended all the way to the top-most point of the hike at La Montaña, more than 2,000 meters above sea level. Here, low-level cloud cover originating from the valley floor rolled in over the adjacent mountain.
While chowing down on some granola from this picturesque outlook, the clouds played hide and seek with the valley below, at times shrouding them in fog. But along the way down to the thickest areas of the trees, the sun began to burn the cloud cover off, making for some truly spectacular views of all the jaw-dropping trees.
A Brief Aside: Tejo
Salento is also known for Colombian's national sport, Tejo, which is most simply described as: "It's like cornhole, but things explode!" The point of the game is to launch a heavy metal puck across the room, attempting to make contact with tiny packets of gunpowder placed on a clay board, setting off explosions. 3 points for hitting a packet, 6 points for landing in the center of the metal ring, 9 points for exploding one AND landing in the center. Like bowling, pool and cornhole, Tejo is best enjoyed with about one beer per game.
The third largest city in Colombia, Cali is sprawling and energetic. It will hit you straight in the face with a heavy dose of heat, traffic and construction sites, but underneath the hectic facade is definitely a fun and charming city. Smaller than Medellin yet with a more urban feel, Cali is growing up fast and with over 80 salsa clubs, has a burgeoning nightlife scene.
I only had one full day in the city between travels and made the most of it to get some more time outdoors, taking in incredible panoramic views of the city's expanse from Cerro de las Tres Cruces (Hill of the Three Crosses), the highest point in Cali.
That night Colombia took on Brazil in The 2015 Copa America, eeking out a 1-0 victory and causing hysteric delirium among the citizens of the soccer-loving country.
It's currently the rainy season in the tiny town of San Agustin, which makes rain pattering on tin roofs a constant accompaniment to the sounds of the surrounding forest. Every night, just as the streets begin to die down, the heavens open up right and cue, raining all through the night and sometimes long into the following morning. But the rain brings a welcome respite for the town's popular archeological sites.
Thousands of years ago, the same weather patterns and geography of the area today led to the creation of an ancient civilization whose mysteries are now primarily lost to time. After at least 2,000 years of consecutive inhabitation, all that now remains are ceremonial statues carved into volcanic rock, but their meaning is largely unknown.
In fact, the museum adjacent to the UNESCO world heritage sites raised more questions than answers: were they tombstones? Interpretations of the gods? Protection from evil spirits? Whatever the truth may be, those who created the statues were masters of their artistic craft, constructing them with intricate details and fashioning their likeness to represent monkeys, frogs, lizards, and snakes. Along the path to the park I met up with a Norwegian traveler and we did our best interpretations and impressions of the petrified images.
There's something rejuvenating about spending so much time immersed in nature. Whether you're taking a vacation, unplugging from technology or just exploring, the great outdoors are good for the body, mind, and soul.