Valle de Cocora – Home of the Wax Palms

The last major activity on our fall break trip included a nearly day long trip to the Valle de Cocora, up into Acaime and past the finca La Montaña. When I first started researching this trip, the pictures I kept seeing were from this area. The valley is full of the wax palm tree, palma de cera, which is Colombia’s national tree and one of the only places left you can find them. They pop straight up into the sky and look almost comical, like the Truffula trees from Dr. Seuss. (I secretly wonder if this is where he got his inspiration for them…)


With having such a late night the evening before in town, we had a hard time getting up at 6am so we started our day a bit later than planned. We walked into town, got some food to take for our hiking trip along with the extra clothes and plastic sacks we had brought in case we got caught in a down pour again. We were lucky enough that a willy jeep was just leaving the main plaza and heading out to the valley. Unfortunately there was only one seat left, so I ended up joining those standing on the back of the jeep as we drove about 30 minutes away. It was terrifying initially because I could have easily accidentally fallen off and gotten really hurt, but then I began to enjoy it! Very liberating feeling.


Upon arrival to the valley, there are a few little shops and restaurants. You have to find the wooden sign that says “Alquila de botas”. Everyone we had talked to had recommended that we rent the tall rubber boots because the hike is so muddy. It only costs 4 mil and they let you leave your shoes there during the hike.

IMG_8289 We set off, happy and excited. About 20 minutes down the road, we realized the back of one of my boots had a hole in it. :/ We decided to keep going. Then we came to a river/waterfall you had to cross….decided I needed to go back and exchange my boots. So we walked all the way back and then returned to the river. After crossing the river and looking at the first signs we had seen, we realized we went the wrong way. By this point, an hour had passed so we were a bit annoyed. We backtracked  again and found a guy standing by a gate that was the entrance to the valley with the wax palms. You pay 3,000 pesos to enter, which is well worth it. It was gorgeous and we stopped for a while to take some fun pictures next to the giant palms.

We continued on the path, passing only an older couple going down. I had read that there was a cafe at one point along the trail, so I kept expecting to see it anytime. It got hot, so kept stopping to strip off layers. It was an incline the whole way too, and with the increase in altitude, you definitely noticed it was harder to breathe. About two hours later, without having seen anybody else, no signs, and no indication that we were on the right path, our patience was wearing thin. Finally we happened to run into some German girls we had met the night before, going the other way. They actually had a map, which we took a picture of (get one before you depart…we had asked someone and they said the paths were well-marked and we didn’t need one. Don’t believe that. Get a map.) They told us we were close to reaching the finca called La Montaña, but we had gone the opposite way as everybody else. Basically we were going up what everyone else would go down. Whatever, it worked out. I don’t know what they meant by soon, though, because it was at least another 45 minutes before we reached the finca, a cute house where a family lived.

At this point, the path got way muddier and harder and we passed a few more people going the opposite way as we entered into the actual forest. One Australian man we passed was BAREFOOT. I was in awe…he told me he just had strong feet. Haha. By now, I was wishing I had worn my hiking boots, even though they were still wet from the day before. The rubber boots had zero support and when you’re going down the path, your toes slammed into the front of the boot and made even my toenails hurt. We kept on keeping on, though, we were getting quite exhausted.

Finally we saw a sign to go up to Acaime, a nature reserve and hummingbird sanctuary that took you up to one of the highest points you could go and there is a little cafe there to have some cheese and hot chocolate. It’s off the main path, though, so you have to deviate from the trail, go up and then backtrack down. I wasn’t sure if we’d make it with our friendship and sanity intact, but we went for it anyway. It seemed like it was way further than the map indicated and just straight up. We saw some other hikers coming down and they told us only 2 minutes more….again, I don’t know if I just have a different concept of time or something, but it definitely took us another 15 minutes from that point to the top. I wanted to kiss the Acaime entrance sign. You pay 5,000 pesos, in order for them to keep the bridges updated and for the chocolate/cheese. It’s some amazing hot chocolate, and resting up there for about 45 minutes was so rejuvenating and exactly what we needed.

Right as we were about to leave, it started raining. Of course. Luckily, the forest mostly protected us from it. We continued down the path that everyone else had ascended. We asked another couple that was hiking how much further back to the beginning and they told us 3 hours. That about shot all our new enthusiasm to hell. Mind you, we had already been hiking for 5 hours at that point. And my feet were killing in those boots. But this part was into the cloud forest, where we were sinking into mud left and right, and crossing seven different bridges. Although some of them I hesitate to call bridges since they were literally just logs placed across the river and some just had a piece of wire to hold on to. Others were pretty nice, but again, just slats of wood with giant spaces between them. The first one I took real slow, but by the seventh, I was feeling more confident. It was actually really fun! And this whole time, we only passed a few other people mostly going the opposite direction.

With how many times we stopped and times we backtracked though, I was a bit concerned we wouldn’t make it out of the forest before dark. Neither of us had a flashlight or were prepared for that, and so I kept looking around us, recalling all my knowledge from survival tv shows of how to use bamboo, vines, and giant leaves to build shelters, how to gather water from the river, and so on.  Luckily it only took us about an hour more until we were out of the forest and from there, you follow a long muddy path through some pastures and beautiful landscape. A family that we had seen up at Acaime at the top even passed us on their horses. Unfortunately a ways up, one of the horses actually lost his footing in the uneven muddiness and fell…partially on top of the 9ish year old boy riding him. His parents did not seem too upset or concerned though, and he seemed to be okay besides the dent in his ankle. As I’ve mentioned before, Colombia is like the Wild West and you do things at your own risk…knowing that many safety precautions are not in place. All I could think about was how in the states, parents would have been all about suing the guides immediately for something happening like that.

Another hour or so on this path and we FINALLY reached the little “town” where we were dropped off 8 hours earlier. The hike should have only taken 6 hours, but like I said, we backtracked too many times from being lost, stopped to take pictures, and needed a serious rest at the top. Ultimately, it was challenging, but so rewarding. We experienced many different emotions throughout the 8 hours, but looking back, I can’t wait to return to Salento again and do the hike again, with my newfound knowledge of the paths, what I need to wear, and what to pack.

We took the jeep willy back to Salento and then got some trucha (river trout) with a patacón (giant flattened plantain…of course fried) in our muddy clothing and went back to the hostel. Both of us were in bed asleep by 9:30 pm and slept hard until 8 the next morning! I was so glad to have brought my ear plugs because I didn’t wake  up once when other people came into the dorm.

My suggestions and tips if you’re heading to the Valle de Cocora:
–Leave early and try to take one of the earliest jeeps leaving from the plaza. They also leave when one fills up, but you don’t always know when that will be. It costs 3,400 pesos per person out to the valley.
–Take plenty of food and water. (Get in town before you leave.) You’ll need the breaks and nourishment.
–Wear waterproof hiking boots that you know will get covered in mud. We stepped into mud that came up nearly as high as the top of my boots. The suction almost caused me to lose my boots a few times. If you don’t want your hiking boots ruined so much, rent the rubber boots, but carry your hiking boots and change into them after the muddiest parts. Your arches and toes will appreciate  it.
–If you rent the rubber boots, check them before you leave the rental place for any holes or cracks!
–Get a map so you actually have an idea of when and where you will reach different stopping points.
–Sunscreen! I was mostly covered, but my neck and arms where I’d pushed up my sleeves got really burnt.
–Raincoat plus poncho if you go in the rainy season. We were lucky it only rained a little near the end, but we talked to other people who were in a downpour for the entire six hours. (Or more)
–Camera obviously. It’s so beautiful.
–Definitely go up to the Acaime reserve. It’s extra time, but well worth it, and then you can continue on to the finca La Montaña from there. I believe you can even stay the night up there, but keep in mind, there is no electricity and very rustic conditions (of course, less rustic than sleeping on the ground….which I wouldn’t recommend unless you want to sink into mud throughout the night.)

Some people took horses up into parts of the mountain and valley. I’m sure it makes it much easier, but they can’t go everywhere you can on foot, and plus, I personally don’t know if I’d trust the horses on some of the terrain. I still have no idea how they crossed some of the bridges or if they took a different path. Regardless of what you do, enjoy the valley! It’s amazing!

Don Elias Coffee Tour and Salento

Our first full day in Salento started off rainy and misty. Of course, this describes most days in this region due to the altitude and it being the rainy season. We had already decided it would be a good day to visit a family-owned, entirely organic coffee farm nearby. Honestly, it was one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip and I was not disappointed!

We got up around 7:30 and had breakfast in the hostel dining room. La Serrana includes breakfast and you can choose between fresh fruit salad with some bread or 2 eggs how you want, fresh bread, and fruit from their trees (oranges that look like limes on the outside). I’m such a breakfast lover that I got the second, along with two cups of good coffee. (There are also some extras that you can put on your tab. The last day I got some amazing French toast with bananas and honey…and coffee.)

We headed down the path walking toward the coffee farm we were told about, called Don Elias. We kept stopping to take pictures, so it turned into maybe a 45 minute walk, but really enjoyable. Luckily there were lots of hand painted signs along the way, traditional houses where people still live in such a simple and rustic manner that I can’t even imagine it, beautiful scenery, plants, and animals. When you arrive, you enter down a path lined with banana and plantain trees before coming upon a house with several people milling about. Again, it was so casual that you felt like you were intruding in someone’s home, with girls hanging out, someone cooking in the kitchen, and so on. It turns out that Don Elias, who has run the farm for 20 years, was in town. So his grandson and another guy met with us. As soon as we met them, we knew this would be no traditional tour. They were immediately joking with us and making us laugh.

The grandson, Carlos, took the two of us down the paths where all the plants were as he started to explain. The best part of this tour was how intimate it was…just the two of us with him, so we got to ask any questions we wanted. Me being me, I had already read a ton of information about this particular tour from other blogs on the internet, and I actually told several things before he even explained them. He was, of course, surprised and wanted to know how I know it all. I couldn’t just say I’m a research nerd, now could I? Haha.

I can’t remember how many hectares they own, but everything is run by the family and just a few workers. It is entirely organic, so they use plenty of natural methods to protect the coffee plants from bugs. One way is by having lots of fruit trees on the property, like oranges and pineapples, so the bugs are attracted to those instead of the coffee. We even got one picked straight from the tree. Also, they plant yuca which has super strong roots in order to prevent landslides, since most of the land is on a hill. Also, they rotate plants like the banana and plantain trees in order to keep the nutrients in the soil rich.

Coffee is harvested two times a year, in November and May(?). The plants have a life span of 25 years, but Don Elias replaces them after every 17 years because the productivity decreases so much. They grow best in shade, except for the new plants which need more sun in the beginning. Coffee actually looks like a bright red berry when ripe. We were able to pop the seed out from a ripe one and taste it…has a sort of coating on it, but it’s hard to describe the flavor.

The coffee is still green until it is harvested in another two months, at which point it should be 70% red or more.

The coffee is still green until it is harvested in another two months, at which point it should be 70% red or more.

The next step faster harvesting is to separate the bean from the outer layer of skin. You use a special machine with a hand crank to do so. The skin is then put back into the ground to help restore nutrients. The seeds are soaked and any that float to the top are bad, so they are also put back into the ground. Then they leave them in the water to ferment for like a day or so (can’t remember exactly). Carlos said if you don’t do this step, they will have a bad flavor.

Next step is to dry them, which Don Elias still does in a very traditional manner by spreading them out on the ground underneath a greenhouse type structure. It can take up to a month for them to dry during the rainy season, otherwise, maybe two weeks when it’s sunny.

Beans drying in the greenhouse type structure.

Beans drying in the greenhouse type structure.

Then we have to remove the dry shelling on the outside of the bean, which is done by hand and then blowing off the dry flaky part. Next is roasting! They go in a cast iron pot on the fire and roasted continuously for about an hour, while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. You can see the beans before roasting and after in the picture below.


Finally we grind them using an actual hand crank! This is quite a workout and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t need to do any weights at the gym, if only I ground coffee all day long. The smell was so fragrant and unbelievable. I just wanted to bottle up the smell. Too bad Yankee Candle doesn’t have a “Freshly Roasted and Ground Colombian Coffee” candle yet.



Last, the lady at the farm brewed the coffee for us and we sat down to enjoy it, black and perfect without any need for milk or sugar. (Although I do love a café con leche as well.) I would highly recommend this tour to anyone wanting to see a family-run, traditional, organic coffee operation in the coffee region of Colombia. And for only 6 mil, it’s a steal! (About $3.50) Even getting bags of coffee were only 11,000 a piece, so naturally we each got a few.


We were quite hungry by this point, so one of the guys from the finca took us down the path to a “restaurant”. It was more of a shack, but the lady there made us some delicious trucha (the local river trout that is the specialty in the area), with rice (as always), plantain, mini salad, cream of fish soup, and natural juice from the tomate de arbol.


While waiting for our food, we had a beer and played a bit of Tejo….a traditional Colombian game I had been wanting to play. Basically, you have metal disks that are quite heavy and you throw them at a board covered with mud and clay. In the middle of the clay is a metal ring, on which you place little triangles of paper filled with gun powder. There’s a system of points, but your main goal is to hit the ring and gunpowder papers with your metal disk, in order to make an explosion! It’s really fun, unless you never make the explosions….which I only was able to do once. I think our Midwest corn hole experience helped prepare us for the game, though, because we weren’t too awful!


Juan, the guy from the finca, told us about a different walking path we could take back to Salento, and he even was kind enough to draw us a map. It took us down some slippery muddy paths, but eventually down to the river and a bridge. Unfortunately, it started to pour by that point, so we walked for the next 45 minutes in a complete downpour. My rain jacket apparently isn’t too waterproof because I got soaked underneath and our hiking boots still haven’t dried from that day (4 days later as I write this). It was a beautiful walk, though, and it takes you to a stop in Boquia, where you wait for a bus to take you back to Salento for 1,000 pesos. The first bus that passed was too full, though, so we had to wait another 20 minutes for the next, which was also full. We joined the people standing in the front and later, one lady got on that Nichole had to basically put her arm around so she didn’t fall out, since naturally, they just drive on these winding mountain roads with the door open. 🙂

Salento was nice and calm with the rain having scared people away, so we explored the town and shops. At the end of the main street, there is a giant set of painted stairs taking you up to the Mirador, or look out point over the town and area. It’s beautiful. By this point, I really had to use the bathroom, so I found a house along the street that let you use their bathroom for 500 pesos (about 25 cents). Going into this home made me appreciate the comforts that I’ve grown up with. It had a floor that was falling through, some dirt walls, dark, and dingy, although it was completely open to their garden and where they hung their clothes. Some boys were running around playing in the house, while the older sister passed out some toilet paper to people using the bathroom and scolded the boys for having bad manners when they almost ran into me. The next time, the boy asked for permission to pass. I laughed and told him much better!

Salento is like a town suspended in time, but it’s clear that there is a lot of tourism there, evidenced by an entire street of artesian shop after shop. There were some amazing handmade art pieces and jewelry that I saw…if only I had the money and space to get it all! After wandering through some of the cute town, we headed back to our hostel to shower and clean up.

View from the Mirador

View from the Mirador

The guys from the coffee farm had invited us to join them in town that evening to watch the Colombia vs. El Salvador soccer match. They stopped by the hostel to grab us and we started the dark walk back into town….at one point, Nichole stopped because she saw what ℗ appeared to be a long stick in front of her. Then it moved. Yep, it was a big snake that she had almost stepped on. Juan, the guy we were with, knows all the snakes and creatures because he used to be a guide to the Ciudad Perdida. He grabbed a stick and the snake wrapped itself around it…he got a better look and told us it was a cabeza de candado (lockhead snake). Turns out it’s one of the most poisonous they have in the area. If she had stepped on it, it could have been much much worse! Needless to say, we watched out for snakes on the path the whole rest of our time there. We did see another, but it was already dead and much smaller.

In town, we got some food from one of the street stands and watched the game, which Colombia won 3-0, so it was super exciting. Then we headed over to a bar with more Tejo and played a game of 4 on 4. By this point, we had met some other people including Colombians, 2 girls from Switzerland, and a guy from Holland. We had a lot of fun and my team won, so the other team bought a bottle of aguardiente, but it was a yellow one from manzanilla or something. It was better than the traditional guaro, but still bad! I did learn something new though…apparently because Mother Earth is so important to the Colombians, that when they open a new bottle of something, they always pour some back onto the earth to give back. It’s not something I’ve seen done in Bucaramanga, but maybe I just haven’t noticed.

People crowded around the outside of a bar with a TV playing the Colombian soccer game.

People crowded around the outside of a bar with a TV playing the Colombian soccer game.

People are always on the streets and often dancing...some of which were doing that when I snapped this photo.

People are always on the streets and often dancing…some of which were doing that when I snapped this photo.

To end the night, we went dancing and had a lot of fun with salsa, merengue, NAND bachata. I’m still so amazed at how good all the guys are at dancing here! The Swiss girls were also staying at La Serrana, so we walked back together and spent some more time bonding. They were awesome. Definitely my favorite part of traveling is meeting people from all over and with incredible stories. Inspires me to do more cool things and travel more!

New friends...and the guy who owns the tejo area and bar.

New friends…and the guy who owns the tejo area and bar.

Las Termales de Santa Rosa

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.

Really neat chalkboard at our hostel. Can't believe this was done all in chalk!

Really neat chalkboard at our hostel. Can’t believe this was done all in chalk!

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.

The bus drivers here love decking out the bus....with fringe.

The bus drivers here love decking out the bus….with fringe.

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.

Police motos, stray dogs, and a tied up goat were only part of our entertainment as we waited on the street corner for an hour and a half for the bus/chiva that never came.

Police motos, stray dogs, and a tied up goat were only part of our entertainment as we waited on the street corner for an hour and a half for the bus/chiva that never came.

Just one of the many horse and man pulling carts that passed by.

Just one of the many horse and man pulling carts that passed by.

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.

Man hanging along the back as we drove along picking up more people.

Man hanging along the back as we drove along picking up more people.

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.

Our driver and kind old man, whom we later saw again at the Termales.

Our driver and kind old man, whom we later saw again at the Termales.

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!

Weekend at the Finca

As I’m on my way to the Zona Cafetera for fall break, I figure I better update about my past weekend at a nearby finca before I forget everything. A finca is kinda like a vacation home out in the country. Here, people rent out their fincas or in the case of the one we went to, the family lives in the main house full time and then there are separate cooking/kitchen and sleeping areas. Some of the younger Colombians from the school organized it and then five of us gringa girls tagged along.



We left late Saturday night, which I thought at first strange, but later realized it’s because you party when you first get there and then sleep and have all day the next day to lay out by the pool, darty, and have fun. Of course, before leaving, we had to stop at three different places and pick things up. 🙂 By the time we left, we were leaving an hour and a half later than planned, but luckily the trip was maybe 30 minutes long. Another neat aspect of Colombia that we don’t have in the states (or at least not readily available like it is here) is that you can rent a mini-bus and driver to take your group somewhere and they return when you ask to pick you up. Really convenient!

The finca was simple, but met all of our needs. The main house was big, with different buildings for the kitchen and bathroom. Then the pool was out back, along with a covered cooking area, big dining area, bathroom stalls (no tp…..and we forgot to bring some haha), and big bedrooms filled to the brim with beds and bunk beds. It was like living in the 6 girl at Theta, but less space and more beds! And lots of bugs. Lots and lots of bugs. The night we arrived, there were the giant ants they have here all carrying pieces of leaves in a steady stream to their home. I mean hundreds. I took a video of them, but also some pictures.
IMG_0026.JPG The Colombians brought their GIANT speakers, so we immediately had music blaring. Everyone made drinks and hopped in the pool. Thus ensued a night of fun. (While I am enjoying most music here, by the next morning, we gringas needed some English music, so we plugged in our phones. They definitely thought our music was as strange as we think some of theirs is! Haha.)

IMG_0035.JPG The next morning, we had some breakfast and spent all day by the pool, playing games and getting burnt. We even taught the Colombians how to play Kings! Although we couldn’t do the 9-Bust a Rhyme due to language differences. It also made a few other categories more difficult, but fun. While playing, I had some bad luck and got stung by something on my arm. There was a wasps nest in one area of the pool, so I immediately started panicking and one girl got my Epi pen for me. However, the sting just got red around it and was fine, so it must have been something much smaller. Later, I cut my finger open on the drain at the bottom of the pool. This is after one of the guys cut his toe open, along with another girl. We all were getting injured left and right, but it pretty much just added to the experience. Haha

For lunch was lots of and lots of meat. They even brought something called chunchurros (not sure how it’s spelled), but it’s cow intestines. I said I would try a tiny piece and no more, but when they said you can’t cut it because it’s so tough and you have to gnaw it off, I decided to pass. There were so many health code violations if we were in the states. Bloody meat just sitting out, flies all over, and all over our food. But we ate it anyway, it tasted good, and no one got sick! I even was dumb enough to fill my bottle of water out of the tap, which we do in Bucaramanga now that we’ve acclimated to it, but probably wasn’t the best idea in these country. But again, I’m fine and maybe now I’m hardening my stomach! Haha ah



IMG_0030.JPG By Sunday afternoon, we had had enough sun and were all pretty exhausted. Monday morning at school was pretty funny because most everyone who went to the finca was bright red and burned. But it was a great weekend and enjoyable mixing with some of the Colombians rather than just expats. We’re hoping to organize another for one of our puentes in November! At the moment, our flight is about to land for our layover in Bogota, so I’ll update again in maybe a week to let you know how our trip to the coffee region in Colombia is!






San Gil, Santander

Although several weeks delayed, time spent in San Gil is well worth writing about, if only to help me remember it years from now.

San Gil is a smaller town about two hours south of Bucaramanga, known for its extreme sports. There are all sorts of options for the thrill-seeking outdoor enthusiasts, such as parapenting/paragliding, rafting, caving, rock climbing, rappelling waterfalls, mountain biking, and more.

With it being so close to Buca, we luckily were able to make a trip on a regular weekend, leaving Friday after school. Unfortunately it was an absolute monsoon when we were heading to the bus stop called Papi Quiero Piña (Yes, this means “Papa, I want pineapple”…no one knows why, but it’s one of the major bus “stops”). You have to travel up and along the edges of mountains in order to get to San Gil, so I knew the rain would make the trip a bit longer. I was prepared, though, and had already taken my motion sickness meds and my iPhone was charged for music. However, I was not prepared for the fact that the bus roof was leaking water onto me for the first 45 minutes….or when we stopped randomly on the side of the road for awhile with no explanation why. And then again. And then again when we stopped at some random locale for nearly an HOUR. By this point, we had figured out that something was mechanically wrong with the bus. In typical Colombian fashion, the bus driver and helper decided to try and fix it by flashlight on the side of the road. Eventually the trip continued…in the rain…in the dark by this point…on the curving edges of mountains…with a broken bus. Clearly we were feeling really secure. hah! Eventually we made it to San Gil, with a 2 hour trip that had turned into 4 hours. Oh, the interesting experiences that we have in this country. 🙂

On our way to find our hostels.

On our way to find our hostels.

On Saturday morning, a few of us wandered around town to find some breakfast and fruit. Even though it was early morning, we discovered the very busy main street filled with itty bitty shops of everything from shoe cobblers to butchers to fabric to used appliances to toys and more. Now, coming from the more well off area of Floridablanca, we’ve missed out on some of the typical things you’d find in Colombia…like a lady taking apart dead chickens with bare hands on the street in front of you…or all the raw red meat sitting out with hoards of flies all over…or the scruffy stray dogs everywhere…or massive vehicle/pedestrian/moto messes. While exploring this area was interesting, it definitely made me appreciate the area that I live in much more.


Not only can you buy raw meat, but take your pick of little animals to raise…


Relaxing in the hammock on the balcony at one of the hostels.

With so many options of activities to do in San Gil, it was hard to narrow down what we wanted to spend our Saturday doing. Some of the other teachers had recommended the torrentismo/rappelling at the biggest waterfall there, Juan de Curri, and at only 45,000 pesos (about $25) it’s a bargain, so we decided to head out that way. (I definitely plan on going back in the next few months to try rafting and caving next!) Finding the bus station was interesting because, as usual, it was unmarked and didn’t look like much. At least this one wasn’t in an alleyway and had several other buses there. 45 minutes later, we arrived to the base of where you hike up to the waterfall. Only five of us were doing the torrentismo and the rest were just going to hang out at the bottom of the waterfall where there are some natural pools, so about 20 minutes into the hike, we split into different directions. I was not prepared for how strenuous the hike up was! Literally there was a rope attached to the trees to hold on to, as well as the ground, rocks, and anything I could grab in order to ascend the nearly vertical muddy path with only about a two foot width before the drop off over the side. At one point, we even had to cross over a small waterfall (with no rope), where if I had taken one wrong step, I would probably have fallen all the way down this mountain. By the time the five of us reached the top, we were dripping sweat. We had THE most incredible scenery awaiting us though. We were at a flat point where the waterfall continued above us, surround by edges of mountain covered in green plants, moss, and trees. It was like a paradise that can only be explained by imagining Avatar. Unfortunately, none of us had our phones or cameras because we would be doing the rappelling from that point down the waterfall. (Although we later learned they put all our stuff in a waterproof bag and lowered it, so we could have.) Just close your eyes and imagine standing on top of rocks with water streaming over them, hearing and seeing a waterfall in front of, making a circle and being surrounded by more mini-waterfalls and vibrant green in three directions….in the other quarter view is off where the waterfall continues, you see more mountains, and part of the valley below. Paradise.

After getting off the bus before the hike.

After getting off the bus before the hike.

Love the candidness of this photo.

Love the candidness of this photo.





Part of the hike back down...just cross over this, no worries.

Part of the hike back down…just cross over this, no worries.


Where you paid to enter the paths had some houses, animals, and so on.




image_12We found the guide at the top of where the waterfall continued, ready to set us up with our equipment and give us some directions. Looking over the drop off is when I really began having second thoughts. I don’t actually like heights. At all. I get utterly terrified anytime I do something like this. But I love the feeling I have after I complete it so much that I end up doing it anyway. But seeing our other teacher friends at the bottom of the 60 m. drop off really made me question whether I wanted to follow through. (La Cascada de Juan Curri is actually 180 m., but you only rappel down the last 60 m.) The first two boys went down, then another girl, and then it was my turn…I was feeling panicky, sick, shaky, and my heart was racing. The guide got me all hooked in and tried to show me how to control the rope as I go down. I was having issues getting it right and so I REALLY started freaking out. I leaned back like he said, putting all my weight (and trust) into this one rope keeping me from plunging to my death, with legs spread and braced against the wet, slippery rock wall. However, the guide could tell I was scared out of my mind. After going back a few steps and literally suspended perpendicular to the wall over the drop off, he made me put out my arms (imagine Titanic) and kept saying “Tranquila, tranquila”. Without looking down, he helped me step/slip over the metal bar of the drop off and begin my descent.

Within a few feet, I realized it was much harder than it looks. The waterfall is pounding down on top of you getting water in your eyes (nearly knocking out my contacts multiple times), your feet are having a hard time gripping the wet, slippery wall, everything is uneven, and you’re trying to focus on releasing the rope in the right way. About 15 feet down, I actually lost my footing and the waterfall knocked me over to the right and into the wall, so I was just hanging by the rope and harness around my waist. Again, I knew I could not look down and I just focused on releasing the rope, sliding it through my other hand, putting my right foot in a secure place, and then the left. After awhile, I got the hang of it and it was fun! That is, until my rope got caught with the rope of the girl who had gone down a ways before me. I couldn’t release my rope out anymore, so I couldn’t move and as I tried to shout up or down to the guides in Spanish, they couldn’t hear me. So eventually I may or may not have just let out a string of curses instead. 🙂 Finally the guide at the bottom fixed it and I was on my way again!


Yay for a teacher at the bottom taking pictures!

Yay for a teacher at the bottom taking pictures!

At this point, you couldn't even keep your legs on the wall, so you're just lowering yourself with the rope.

At this point, you couldn’t even keep your legs on the wall, so you’re just lowering yourself with the rope.

Getting closer to the bottom, I kept wanting to see how much further I had to go, but when I finally decided to look, it was a bit too soon. By that point though, the fun had fully kicked in and my fear was gone. I kept having moments during the torrentismo where I nearly needed to pinch myself to know if this was real life. My weekends were never this exciting in the states! Upon reaching the bottom, I was so happy and proud and thrilled. This is the reason I will try [most] things once…the regret of not having taken an opportunity is far worse than doing it and hating it. You never know if you don’t try!

That little speck rappelling down is one of the English guys we met...but that was me minutes before! :)

That little speck rappelling down is one of the English guys we met…but that was me minutes before! 🙂


Just part of the way you got to the base of the waterfall and natural pools….and this was the easy path.

Hanging out at the base with some food and drinks.

Hanging out at the base with some food and drinks.

We spent another hour at the base of the waterfall before hiking back to where we caught the bus on the side of the road. While some people went back to the hostel to sleep, three of us decided to visit this beautiful park with some English friends we met right before doing the rappel (they went immediately after us). Imagine a botanical garden, but not overly groomed. It was wildly natural and gorgeous. Some of the trees were HUGE.

Beautiful flowers in the park. It was so heavy duty!

Beautiful flowers in the park. It was so heavy duty!




Some more hormigas culonas...the giant ass roasted ants. I did not partake in this round.

Some more hormigas culonas…the giant ass roasted ants. I did not partake in this round.

After showers, dinner, and time at a few of the bars, it was time to call it a night. Unfortunately we had to head back by mid-morning on Sunday, so we were unable to fit in any more activities, but I can’t wait until next time!

The most peculiar thing I saw walking through a small park in the center of town. This is a real cow head and I'm not sure what the body is...not sure I want to know.

The most peculiar thing I saw walking through a small park in the center of town. This is a real cow head and I’m not sure what the body is…not sure I want to know.

Oh, and our bus was mechanically fine on the way back, but I did have my first experience of being told by a random taxi driver to buy our bus tickets from another random man in a random shop on the street. Then we sat down on the curb to wait. Sure enough, that’s how it works here in Colombia and we were all set, with an even cheaper bus ticket to boot! My only issue with driving back this time was that the bus was going SO fast that I was sure we would either collide with a moto on one of the sharp curves or we would go flying off the edge of the mountain….since, you know, actual space next to the road or sufficient guardrails is too much to ask for. 🙂 Oh, I love it here.


Sitting on the side of the road waiting for a bus.

Gorgeous view of Chicamocha Canyon on the drive back.

Gorgeous view of Chicamocha Canyon on the drive back.

Also seen on the drive home...hormigas culonas, ready in minutes! They'll run out back, collect them from an anthill and roast them right in front of you. Yummmmmmm......?

Also seen on the drive home…hormigas culonas, ready in minutes! They’ll run out back, collect them from an anthill and roast them right in front of you. Yummmmmmm……?