Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Strolling through the streets of little towns north of Bogota

The identity of Colombia lies in its villages. While big cities are more western-like with their traffic, commercial centers and facilities, in the countryside everyone has time for a cafecito (small coffee) and not such a small talk. No wonder we always prefer small towns and villages.
Above Bogota there are few unmissable villages, three of which are on absolutely every "must see" list that I saw so far. Obviously that means crowds and higher prices in most cases. But not in Villa de Leyva. Places like that are a reason to travel really. Places that surprise us even though we saw every picture ever taken. First shock- no people, empty square, only a few locals, second- no one wanted to sell us a cow or not even a cigar. Villa de Leyva, ColombiaThird- the hostel we stayed in was really cheap (7 euro per bed) and absolutely stunning- two features that rarely go together. It had a huge outside common area overlooking the whole town with its mountains in the background. And the room itself was vintage in a European meaning of the word (in South America vintage is often synonym of broken, stolen from an old lady with dust untouched for quite some time). It was a pleasure to stay in Villa de Leyva and discover that there is so much more to it than just its main square. Charming broad streets, nice suburbs, mountains and superb ice cream is all we needed:)
After ice cream days we decided to burn some of the calories in San Gil- the capital of extreme sports. We started with our absolute favorite sport- walking in excruciating heat from the bus station to the hostel. JD was so tempted by the prices of extreme sports that he decided to try paragliding above the beautiful Canyon Chicamocha (170 000 pesos for a flight so around 50 euro). He didn't even have time to get scared before the flight because seconds after we arrived to the spot he was already tied to his instructor and the paraglide. The guy tied him faster than I could unpack the camera. True Ninja. San Gil offers not only paragliding but also rafting, caving, bungee jumping and sports that I have never heard about like rappelling which is descending from something (for example a rock) with a rope. We learn everyday while travelling:)Canyon Chicamocha, San Gil, Colombia
San Gil was actually also very close to another top destination village Barichara, supposedly the most beautiful town in Colombia. Definitely its cuisine has its charm as they eat "fat-ass ants" (hormigas culonas) which are deep fried huge ants. The town itself was also pretty although not as much as Villa de Leyva or any of the towns in the coffee regions. Maybe because it was Tuesday and Tuesday is the new Sunday in the area so most of the things are
closed and villages seem rather dead. From Barichara there is a nice, easy hike Camino Real (Royal Path) full of colorful birds that took us to Guane. It was like a mini Barichara, quite pretty streets with all the shops closed (Tuesday of course!) except for liquor shops (hmmm). After 10 minutes we already saw the whole village and there was nothing more left to do than to sit in the main square and wait for the bus to go back. It actually wasn't as boring as it sounds as there were really many beautiful birds flying around. Obviously too fast and too far for my photographic skills...



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Cartagena, Colombia

Lazy days in the Colombian Caribbean

Caribbean coast greeted us with unbearable heat and it didn't leave us even for a second. Sweating we started our trip in Cartagena, probably the most popular city in Colombia among all the travelers. And I really mean all even among old people dressed as if they were going for a Mount Everest expedition but with their balconies in front of them I don't think they go any further then the border of the old city. There is not even a need to go any further then that because the old town and the hip Getsemani neighborhood are all there is to see. But I have to admit that the old town is really gorgeous, charming, colorful, playful with its street art  and actually quite big so it was not difficult to get lost there for a few hours.

Especially that there are some beautiful shops with clothes, accessories and everything a person would (not) need. So we have done some window shopping as well:) Outside of the touristic places Cartagena is a city literally drowned in garbage and poverty. Many people live in ruins and the middle- class neighborhood where we stayed did not look middle- class even by polish standards. No wonder we were not sad to leave Cartagena to go to start our trek to the Lost City (that hike deserved a separate post so ...).
The trek was absolutely spectacular and worth the effort. To rest and chill out we went to Palomino, a small village with one paved road. The village itself was nothing great but strolling on its beaches and chilling was really great. Especially knowing that there was nothing in particular to see also not underwater as the currents are too strong to even enter the sea.

To rest from resting we went to Minca. It's pretty much known as THE coffee town. But honestly it missed the vibrant green surroundings of the town's in the coffee region, that I am not going to mention the architecture that they missed. The town looked pretty much built 20 years ago from cheap bricks and metal for the roofs. The views from the mountains around Minca were pretty nice but we felt a bit disappointed.

Luckily we also visited an amazing local farm specialized in avocado, cacao and coffee (La Candaleria). Beautifully situated on top of a mountain (definitely worth the walk) and super crowded with all sorts of gorgeous birds. Unfortunately way too fast for me to take a picture of most of them. Thankfully there was a lazy hummingbird going back and forth to the same flower and a beautiful toucan. And not only the birds were nice but also the family running the farm. They were really warm and excited about their farm and their cacao and coffee. And so were we:) a highlight of our trip to Minca for sure.

Lost City hike, Colombia

Pain, sweat and smiles on the way to the Lost City

The Lost City is the Machu Picchu of Colombia. The Tayrona people left it in the jungle, after being conquered by the Spanish, to be forgotten till the 1970s when it was rediscovered by grave robbers. Still we were hesitating if we should go to see it as the pictures of the main square didn't look like anything more than just circles, stone rings. In the end we got convinced by a big discount that I got for translating during the tour as obviously the guide spoke only Spanish 🙂
And there we were walking in a world of pain to the Lost City. It was 1 pm when we started the walk through the mountains without any trees or clouds. The sun was excruciating and we were sweating like pigs. The sweat was literally dropping even from my hands. It was so hot that even mosquitoes were not interested in their walking prey. I was already thinking that I seriously underestimated this hike as I thought after Salkantay and Choquequirao this would be a walk in a park. Only the indigenous kids were full of energy and motivated to pose for sweets from tourists. Obviously I didn't join that tradition, I don't want them to be teethless from that everyday- Halloween- sugar. Although there are three tribes living in the area we mostly saw Kogis, indigenous people who are directly descended from the Tayrona people or so they claim. They live in traditional huts made of wood and palm leaves but cell phones and pesos are already well known wealth that tourism brought to them. Lost City hike, ColombiaSo it's hard to say how much of their tradition is still really alive. Along the way we heard about other Kogis communities living higher in the mountains, that are isolated from the foreign money and culture but since we haven't seen them, we can't judge.
Apart from the communities along the way we also saw some spectacular views, high mountains, rivers, natural swimming pools and dense jungle. Our campsites were not a part of that spectacular scenery but they were OK. The main rules were: to take a shower before going to bed and not to put any backpacks on the bed. All of it to keep the beds as clean as possible because no one will change the sheets after every person...or 2nd or 3rd... Or maybe ever. Every time I went to sleep I could smell sweat from the sheets and I was hoping that no bed bugs were in there waiting for me. Gladly I was lucky. Also because I didn't get hardcore food poisoning during the hike. Judging by the look of the toilets (got almost sick from looking) and sinks (of course people vomit there, why would they do it on the grass??!!) at least half of the people got very sick. Some didn't even see the ruins. Well at least not live... Thankfully JD and I were doing quite okish and so we were able to climb those 1200 stairs to reach the top. And it was worth it. Lost City hike, ColombiaThe ruins were just breathtaking!! Huge, stone constructions, arising from the jungle. I can imagine it was hidden and forgotten for so many years. And the mystical atmosphere surrounding it. We could hear the birds and the nature was truly singing. We were not alone but the few people that were there got spread through the ruins and disappeared between the terraces. Just us, the ruins, nature and... a few young soldiers with huge guns. Good that it's all safe now because if someone would like to kidnap us (and it happened already in 2003 with a group of tourists and their guide) I don't know if those tiny boys with big guns would know what to do actually.
The Lost City left us thinking what else might be hidden in the dense rainforest in Colombia or maybe in the Amazons. Maybe there are still civilizations to be discovered... It would be history rising in front of our eyes.

Practical tips and info:

  1. The Lost City can be visited only with a guided tour and there are 5 agencies who do them: Turcol, Expotur, Magic Tour, Wiwa Tour and Guias y Baquianos Tour. All of them offer the trek for 700 000 COP and the price doesn't change if you do it in 5 or 6 days instead of 4. All of the agencies are equal, same food, same sleeping conditions, same level of chaos in their organisation. The only difference is maybe that Wiwa sends you with an indigenous guide.
  2. If you speak Spanish you can get quite a deal on the price depending on the level of desperation of the agency. I wrote to all of them a few days before and ended up going with Turcol for 200 000 COP 
  3. Bring: repellent (although not too much, it's still not the amazon out there), alcohol to disinfect your hands, electrolytes for those moments when you will be hugging the toilet, toilet paper, small money for water, chocolate and gatorade, a headlamp and a swimming suit for those many natural pools. Don't forget to bring soap and shampoo as there are showers on each campsite:)
  4. The first camp has electricity so you can still charge your camera, later on it's not possible
  5. Don't bring too much clothes, they will all stink anyway!! Bring your own sheets or very light sleeping bag to sleep in your own sweat!!



Pancakes for a bed- voluntourism

“Where do you come from?” and “How do you pay for this?” are two of the most common questions we get. For the second I’m often tempted to say that I earned it with my body working in the red light district. But let’s face it, with the look that we have now, no one would believe it anyway so we just have to answer with the truth- we saved it. But what if we didn’t have the money…

We met a lot of fellow travelers that focus their backpacking around voluntourism, so volunteering while they are travelling. And we actually spend 2 of our precious months volunteering as well. It saved us money but more importantly we got to stay longer in one place, we felt needed, we learnt a lot and we met amazing people. We had time to actually get to them and understand them and that is the best thing you can get while travelling- new friends.

But how do you do it? Where do you find the spots and what do you actually have to do?

What kind of volunteer opportunities can you get?

What can’t you do would be a shorter list. You can work in a hostel, in any type of wildlife preservation, with kids, with people from the slums, you can teach people yoga, you can heal them. Whatever floats your boat.

How did we find our volunteering opportunities?

Our first volunteering experience was in Argentina on a farm and to get that we used WWOOF.P1030959~01
It’s mostly made to find farms although you can also find teaching opportunities and possibly other things depending on the country you
search in. We don’t use it anymore because every country has its own chapter which means different rules per country, totally different web page each time and obviously a brand new fee as well. It ends up being expensive compared to other communities out there. Unfortunately, the Argentinian chapter was unorganized, the web page was unbelievably terrible to search through (the idea of wordpress still hasn’t occurred to them), the list of the farms was not actualized so we were sending emails to people that had long forgotten what WWOOFing even was. And if they had new farms you actually first needed to contact WWOOF to get their details to write directly to them. That I am not going to mention that there was no feedback about the places so the hosts could write you would sleep in a mansion with a pool and a spa for teaching English for 3 hours and no one would even verify if it’s true.

The two other times we volunteered we did it via Workaway, it’s a much better idea because it’s worldwide so you pay only once for 2 years. And you can have a couple account so if you travel with the two of you, you don’t have to have an extra account. And the places have feedback so the chance that you will end up with a psychopath is much lower. Workaway offers any kind of work really, farms, hostels, construction, schools etc. We also subscribed for Helpx, which is practically the same as workaway and many of the hosts are actually on both.

What do you get for your work?

That’s the question you always need to ask to your potential host. Because it depends. Typically for working in a hostel you can expect a free bed in a dorm (that’s what we got) and maybe a breakfast (we had it in one of the hostels). When WWOOFing it is more common to get also other meals. With other projects it varies, sometimes
you get a bed, sometimes a hammock, sometimes not even a place on the ground. So always ask!


When we were first thinking about volunteering we thought people would wait on us with open arms and everybody would respond to our messages just because we want to help. Nope, there are plenty of people who want to volunteer also many freeloaders who want to stay and take advantage of the fact that something is for free. wpid-img_20150418_141132.jpgIt’s a big business from both sides so some people don’t even respond or places are booked few weeks in advance. So to be sure you get something you always have to write to a few hosts and always a few weeks before. Don’t forget that some people earn money off the “volunteers” by for example charging a fee. So you have to pay to actually be able to work for free, because you cost money, because they need money for the food and for animals. Sometimes it’s true but many times it’s just a way to earn money off the naïve ones. We realized that when we were going through volunteering options of Volunteer Latin America and some were costing seriously thousands of dollars for a month and unless they are planning to ship you food from home or built a zoo from nothing, it doesn’t cost that much. Volunteer Latin America claims that they also have many other projects that they don’t put online and you need an upgraded account to reach them so we did that and then the only thing they did is to ask many questions about what you’re eager to pay and bla bla bla and then they only send us a list of emails that we could write, from which most of the projects were with a super high fee that we obviously didn’t want to pay. What’s more many of the hosts they have are on Workaway anyway so… 🙂

For those of you who plan on volunteering but didn’t know how, I hoped I helped. If anyone would have any questions, it won’t be hard to contact me to ask them

Alto Bonito, Salamina, Colombia

Peaceful time in Salamina

The best travel experiences are the best because of the people you meet every single time. Even if you are in the best place in the world and you're with a group of people that you don't enjoy there is no way you will enjoy the experience. At least for us. Our experience in Salamina was one of the best ones because of our Airbnb hosts Martin and Angelica. The idea in Airbnb
is to exchange experiences, knowledge and learn about each others culture while staying with locals but let's face it.. it's also a business. In final end you pay so many people don't care about local bla bla bla and many locals don't care about the guests more than a hotel crew. Alto Bonito, Salamina, ColombiaThis was actually our first truly, deeply amazing experience via Airbnb. Martin and Angelica are insanely cool people ! Yep cool because nice is an old lady in a hotel giving you towels and showing you around. And they were cool, sharp sense of humor, genuine interest in people and hypercreativity all that in 2 people. And we genuinely became friends. So no wonder that instead of 3 days we stayed 10 and instead of hiking around we mostly stayed there. It was a destination on it's own for us. One of those places where I get an illusion that I can be an artist too and I started an artistic project. Over there I started doing crochet and it's actually going quite well, so there is hope 🙂

But we did see Salamina and it reminded us of Filandia. Beautiful architecture, good coffee and wayyyy less foreigners as it's still not in Lonely Planet. And an hour away there was actually Samaria Valley, a wax palm valley very similar to the one near Salento. We obviously had to see it so we rented a jeep with a driver with a Canadian couple and we hit the road early morning. The driver was cheerfully explaining us things that we were passing by but he was not really interested in us, he didn't ask questions or anything. That's why I was surprised when he announced that we're gonna come for dinner to his place. Honestly I thought I misunderstood him or I thought that it was just one of those sentences "We have to meet...someday". I was even more surprised when he stopped and said he needs to buy potatoes tonight and bought kilos and kilos. Then when we arrived in the valley he asked a local farmer to give him some beans for us for dinner. So it was very much on and till the rest of the trip he was talking only about what his wife is gonna do with those delicious potatoes and beans. ColombiaIn the meantime we enjoyed the views on the palms and mountains just like the one in Cocora Valley but there were noooooo hikers, absolutely no one. Just this local farmer in his twenties explaining us his vision about the place. So it turned out his family had a beautiful patch of land there that they were planning to convert in the cheesiest touristic place ever. He told us how amazing it's going to be to fish trout from a tiny pond and ride a pony... I could imagine it being fun for a 5 year old but I couldn't understand how could it be nice to actually fish in a tiny pond when you have a river full of trout 5 min away. But Colombian tourism is different I guess.

After the trip our driver dropped us at our place and told us he would pick us up "Si Dios quiere" (if God wants) in the evening. I already thought it might not happen as in Colombia God often doesn't feel like doing anything. But I got surprised again when he came to pick us all up for dinner. The whole night was actually a bit of a shock since his vision was very different from ours... Let's say we were ready for a potato/ bean feast, Jandirk was practicing how to say politely that he can not drink because he takes antibiotics. Once there awkward silence set in... So I started what I do best. Asking questions and talking. Finally the dinner was ready and we got invited to the kitchen. But there were only four seats so we started bringing seats from the room. Our driver surprised said that they already ate and that it's only for us. We sat down all four of us, so me, JD and the Canadian couple and as soon as we sat down everyone of us got their "feast". Skinny girls from the "Devil wears Prada" ate more. On each plate there was one cooked potato and I mean little one not huge and half potato with a bit of something yellow on there and then an unidentified  tiny piece of pork. I knew that was the worse part so I basically swallowed it first, once I felt that chewing wouldn't get me anywhere. To drink we got an unidentified glass of something white. That was the most awkward dinner ever and the tiniest too. We thanked for all of it politely. Our driver mentioned that we could tell our friend how amazing we we;re received so that they would come as well to be his clients...  That day I promised myself never to except that sort invitation from people that don't talk to us. Obviously if they are not interested in us and they invite us they have to be interested in our euros. Travels learn us things every day.

P.S. If someone is wondering how I found the Airbnb place in Salamina (It's called Alto Bonito). I have no life and a sea of time so I went through all the Airbnb properties within our price range. I know many people don't have the time so here is the link 🙂

Medellin, Colombia

Christmas and Happy New Year in Colombia

In Colombia many things are over the top: almost naked girls, fake lips every now and then, booty that could serve as a table... No wonder that also Christmas lights are out of this world. It was one of the reasons I really wanted to spend Christmas in Colombia. I secretly like cheesy, flashy lights. So I was wondering where in Colombia shall we stay. Google told me that Medellin is nr 1 when it comes to Christmas lights, that they are the biggest, the brightest, simply the best. And so there we were... As soon as we took our first Uber taxi I started talking to the driver about the lights. "Yes, in the past years lights were amazing but this year the biggest are not there, the river where they normally are, is under construction...". So Google was not really updated on that...
It seemed like it was a mantra among all the drivers. They all were telling me how extraordinary are the lights in Medellin every year except for this year.Medellin, Colombia

Still we decided to see what they have because well, we were already there. And honestly it's hard to compare because we have never seen the real deal but what we saw was insane. Closed streets, people enjoying food, over the top lights and booze. It was not even a single place like that, nope there were few:) It was beautiful and insane but it's also true that with 30 something °C sweating in our kitchen we somehow didn't feel like it was Christmas...
And then New Year in Guatape. Everyone we met said it was beautiful, extraordinary and El Peñón so the crazy looking mountain/rock was stunning. Maybe it was but from far and when you look from the right side. From another side there was a "G" painted on it. I guess they wanted to paint the whole word Guatape but they ran out of paint and energy to do it. When coming closer, I saw that the stairs looked like inspired by communist Poland combined with a cheesy castle. And on top of it there is a hideous building that looks like a perfect house for a witch and a poor one cuz it looks unfinished. Guatape itself could maybe be ok but it looked like cheesy polish seaside village with all kinds of activities like riding a water banana or eating wafels. And it was packed!!! But the worse of it was the hostel. We chose one that was a bit out of city to be a bit calm but we ended up in a total hippie place where people slept even 2 in one bed, on hammocks, in tents and probably if it didn't rain they would also sleep in carton boxes. Guatape, ColombiaWhat they saved on accommodation, they definitely spent on weed. It was omnipresent at every hour. So were the screaming kids. But this I get, I would scream too. Actually mostly I wanted to scream while waiting to pee or to take a shower in the only bathroom available. Too bad hippies didn't want to be united with nature and pee outside... And as usual in places like that there were people playing guitar and singing, unfortunately without a least we were not alone:) Dominic and Sarah, the couple we met in Filandia, joined us. So we tried to make the best of it and we did some hiking and we rented a boat to go around the lakes. In final end we managed to change our reservation and leave earlier. When we were checking out the guy asked us where we were going. When I told him and he got excited and said it was an amazing hostel. It was indeed. Just that when we were checking out at 6 a.m. the party was still very much on, smell of weed was even more hardcore than in the first place (I thought it was not possible) and the recepcionists had an additional job of making lists who wanted some cocaine... Nice beginning of a New Year...

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