Since our flight from Bucaramanga was cheapest to Pereira, a city without a whole lot to see or do, I did a bit of research and discovered there were some natural thermal baths just a bit out of town. After exploring the town on Wednesday night, we got up bright and early on Thursday determined to make it to these Termales de Santa Rosa before heading on to Salento for the rest of our trip. We stayed at Kolibri Hostel, which I highly recommend, and asked them how to get to Santa Rosa. The man working literally told us to walk past the gothic church, turn right, make an immediate left, and then look for a man shouting Santa Rosa on the street. Sure enough, walking down that street, we saw a skinny, dirty, old Colombian man standing on the street corner with a bus behind him…literally shouting “Santa Rosa!” repeatedly.
The bus costs 1,800 mil and goes about 20 minutes out of Pereira through some sketchy parts of town. Then it dropped us off on a random street corner in Santa Rosa. We had no idea where we were or where to go, so I asked a random lady who straight up ignored me. Then we asked a group of police officers, they told us to go down a few blocks because it was by the police station and near where the “stop” was. We followed the directions, which were wrong, but eventually found the street corner by the station. On the way, we clearly stuck out with our bright raincoats and tennis shoes, and so we got plenty of looks and comments. One man even came up and inquired where we were headed, and then, with keys in hand, offered to take us himself. We insisted we wanted the chiva bus, but he told us it didn’t run on Thursdays. Naturally, we’re paranoid and assumed he just wanted us to get in his vehicle, so I firmly kept telling him no. Finally he walked away.
While waiting at the street corner, gazing at the goat tied up across from us and the stray dogs milling around, two more men came up offering to take us to the Termales. Although we were starting to wonder if they were right and the bus wasn’t coming today, we still kept saying no.
The wait seemed like an eternity, but luckily we had plenty of entertainment. The police station appeared to be a teen hangout, and even a group of police officers were just standing there chatting. Then things got real exciting. A police van came pulling up, there was some commotion with the teens crowded all around, and then I saw a boy and girl kiss frantically before he and another girl were shoved into the van. As it drove away, the group of teens followed the van, with one of these girls sobbing. So strange.
We also got to see everything typical of Colombia…horses pulling carts of piles of bananas, construction materials, furniture, and everything under the sun. Oftentimes with someone else sitting on top of the materials. Men pulling their own carts with similar items. A guy climbing on top of a moto with his goat (that he finally untied from the street corner). Same with random chickens. Jeeps filled to the brim with people on the top, back , and inside. A police officer left his truck running on the corner and we nearly got carbon monoxide from all the fumes. A million stray dogs. (This is only slightly an exaggeration. We probably saw over 200 strays in the course of our 6 day trip.) A young girl eating an ice cream cone at 9:30am.
All this happened over the course of the hour and half that we sat on the street corner waiting, still not even knowing if our bus was ever going to come, as we watched maybe 50 other buses pass by every couple of minutes. Finally, an older, nicely dressed older man and younger guy with eggs and potatoes arrived on the street corner, and we eventually discovered they were going up that way too. The same old guy that first tried to offer us a ride came again and offered to take all of us. The nicely dressed older man bargained and decided he would go for 3 mil a piece. When we realized both the older man and young guy were gonna go, we figured the bus might never come and this was our only chance to make it to the Termales. Everyone kept reassuring us it was safe, including a man from the store outside of which we had been waiting. We walked up and realized it was one of those jeeps we had seen filled to the brim with people. The men all realized how hesitant we were and they were nearly laughing at us. I tried to explain we were not accustomed to things like this, but we climbed on into the back of this jeep and decided to trust it. Colombia is the Wild West, after all, and you just have to go for it. The jeep took off bouncing along, but it wasn’t long before we picked up another random guy on the street as he came running trying to catch up. Before hopping onto the back of our moving jeep, though, he threw money back at whoever he had just been talking to….into the street, so the other person ran out in front of the cars to grab it.
Along the way, the driver kept slowing down anytime he saw people waiting on a street corner and shouted out “Termales?” to see if they needed to hop on. If not, he sped right back up. One lady did join us and this was when I realized this is another version of a bus here. No signs, no real stops, just people offering rides on the street and shouting out things as they drove by. On the 20 minute trip up to the Termales, we dropped off people one by one until it was just us left bouncing around the back of the jeep and nearly falling out at every turn.
We finally arrived safe and sound and couldn’t believe this was actually real life. We paid to get into the Termales, which is normally 31,000 pesos for adults, but our hostel Kolibri had given us a 10 percent off so we only paid 28,800. As soon as we entered, it was like an oasis and well worth all the struggle to arrive. You have to go into a downstairs area to change, which took us awhile to figure out, but they do a clothes check for free at lest…meaning they put them in a giant trash bag, write your name with a sharpie, and use packing tape to close it.
They have channeled the water from the mountain into 4 stone hot water “baths”, but they almost just look like giant stone swimming pools. We relaxed in the steaming water, while I tried not to think about the bacteria level. Later, we looked at some artesian shops they had up the hill by the baths and almost missed the only bus we could take, so we ended up practically running down the wet cobblestone rocks toward the entrance. Luckily we were fine because the bus had gone further up the mountain before returning. We hopped on and it took us back the 20 ish minutes to Santa Rosa (only 1,300 pesos for this bus). Again we were dropped off on a random street corner, but luckily the bus we needed to get back to Pereira was right behind our bus pulling up. (2,000 pesos this time…very inconsistent costs, but the tarifa is always posted on the inside, so just look for it).
After such a long morning, we were starving when we got back to Pereira. Unfortunately it was around 3pm and pouring rain, so even worse, we were cold, wet, and hungry. We wanted lots of food. We saw a restaurant with the name burger in the title. We go in and sat down, but they informed us they didn’t actually have any meat left to make burgers. What?! I told them on the way out in my bad Spanish that a place with burger in its name should have burgers. (Also, that was the only thing on their menu…). Went to another place and it didn’t work out either. Continued up the street and found a hole in the wall restaurant with a man outside next to their sign that listed the lunch special with a good price. After standing in the rain and deciding on what we wanted with the special, we go down into the hole and sat down. Then we found out, they didn’t have anything left for the special because it was past typical lunch hours. All they had to serve us was rice, beans, and a little bit of meat. I asked for an egg and they agreed to do it all for 5 mil. Then they brought it out and we even got some tomato slices, grated carrot, and juice. It may have been because we were so hungry and tired, but it turned out to be one of the best meals. And for only 5 mil (about $3).
After all of this, we still had to get to Salento, so we grabbed the rest of our belongings, got a cab to the bus station because it was still raining (only 4 mil from Hostel Kolibri and about 8-10 minutes). Thank you Pereira for actually having a legit bus station with terminals, ticket counters, waiting area, and restaurants with food. (As legit as bus stations can be in South America, that is). The bus to Salento costs 6 mil a person and took about an hour. I fell asleep hard on the bus and when I woke up, I was in a fairy tale!
But really, the bus dropped us off in the center of town and it was a surreal scene. Kids playing in the square, a beautiful church right next to the plaza, brightly colored houses, mountains in the distance, people getting off the willys (jeeps) in their muddy boots….”I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.” Such a refreshing change. Salento doesn’t actually have taxis at all because the roads are so rough that they are unable to navigate. (And it’s a law for some reasons.) So we got another jeep taxi (called Willys) to take us out to our hostel, La Serrana. It was a bumpy, 10 minute ride out to the hostel along this muddy road with the most beautiful scenery. (6,000 total for the jeep one way)
Hostel La Serrana was adorable. We walked in and it was like entering someone’s home. People were in the kitchen, on the computer, lounging on the couches, watching tv….as we wandered in, you could feel the hominess. Turns out the guy working was out and about elsewhere on the hostel property, so someone else showed us which dormitory was probably ours. After a bit, we did get settled, grabbed our top bunks, and got our names on for dinner. From Monday to Friday, they have a dining room that serves dinner family style for 13 mil at 7pm. It was awesome and all we wanted after such a long day. Their dining room is amazing, too, with the ceiling and wooden beams covered with a wide assortment of wine bottles. Unfortunately I never got a picture.
We ate with two French guys and then afterward, played this Rana game where you throw metal rings into holes and try to get it in the frog’s mouth for points. Then they have a campfire every night so we joined people there and some of the British travelers had marshmallows, so I scavenged through the yard and found a good roasting stick. Really great conversation and fun hanging out with people from all over the world around a campfire. Finally, we crashed in order to prepare for a visit to an organic coffee farm the next day!
The rest of the trip was like a dream. I can’t wait to tell you more about it!