Isolation – Rionegreran Style

It´s funny how staying in for eight days straight can give you stuff to write about. My trip to Jardín last weekend seems like a lifetime away. Gone temporarily are the days when one could jump in the car on a Saturday morning and set off on a road trip with two mates, drink some beers, eat some local trout, then cool off in a charco etc. It´s amazing how quickly one comes to recognise the simple beauty and privilege in having the freedom to do all these things.

Things have ramped up in both Colombia and the UK this week, although the situation doesn´t feel so desperate here, yet. The local government has acted quickly, in first imposing a curfew and then a local collective quarantine. Even when President Duque attempted to cancel all local quarantine laws, the Mayors of Oriente united to defy the main man in an act which was widely applauded. At least by the people in my social media circle, which obviously reflects widespread public opinion. Nevertheless, Duque quickly followed in announcing a nationwide lockdown, which is due to start at midnight on Tuesday/Wednesday, with our local quarantine being extended to coincide with the start of Duque´s. So, as it stands, with Sophia now having left for the US, it will be an entire month of me knocking around in the apartment, on my own. I´ll even spend my birthday in complete isolation. When my brothers used to joke that I should hold my birthday party in a phone box, I didn´t ever think the punchline would ever come this close to fruition!

Alas, isolation hasn´t been so bad thus far. Firstly, I have been able to buy enough food to last me for a couple of weeks. Shelves don´t seem to be emptying at the same rate as they are in the UK. And, yes, I have toilet roll. In addition to this, local government across the country has introduced a policy whereby only people with ID cards that end in a given number can shop for food on certain days. The logic and common sense of such a policy is a breath of fresh air and will hopefully result in a more adult and mature way of procuring what each family needs for the lockdown.

Another fringe-benefit of being in isolation is the time it has given me and friends to catch up. Indeed, this weekend, I´ve had not one, not two but three house parties, which have involved rounds of pictionary, articulate, trivia and piano playing. My life has never been this exciting! I am, of course, referring to the House Party app as opposed to an actual house party. I´m not a complete wally.

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The community here has come together, too. Two ex-students gave me a bundle of tropical fruit before heading to the coast to be with loved ones; my neighbour, to whom I donated some of the lemons from the aforementioned fruit package, has text me every day with updates from the local government; my landlady has rang me numerous times instructing me not to starve and to let her know if I need anything. And, every night so far, at 8pm, many residents have ventured out on to their balconies to clap, sing or generally hacer bulla. It´s amazing how quickly one adapts and comes to cherish these fleeting but shining moments of humanity and solidarity.

No one really knows how long this is going to go on for, since most of us have never lived through anything vaguely comparable. We do know that there are some tough times ahead, though. No doubt it will get worse before it will get better. Yet, I hope we are at least on the right path now. After months of espousing the view that ´it´s just flu´ (a view to which I also subscribed), ´it won´t affect me´, ´people are fear-mongering´, the experts´ view does seem to be gaining traction at least. Even though it may have taken central government intervention, people will hopefully now take heed.

I consider myself very lucky to be able to merely stay at home, work and still receive a salary (until the end of May). I´ve been trying to support some of the local businesses that I love here, through ordering home deliveries but I know they face very tough times ahead. And, it goes without saying that the biggest losers in all of this will be those most vulnerable and already in poor health. Cooped up here, I really cannot complain. Staying in is such a drop in the ocean, when compared with what some will go through.

From here on, there will be a direct correlation between my updates becoming more regular and less entertaining, as I have more time on my hands with less to do. However, if I get bored, you, as my ´followers´, are coming with me. I´m praying that, by June/July, flights will be available once more so I can head back home but if there aren´t, that´s ok too. I can wait.

Cooped up en casa = new blog post at last!

The Coronavirus has finally arrived in Colombia, and Rionegro, giving me the perfect opportunity to update my neglected blog. Surely, since many others are at home, the readership may even climb above forty for the first time! Every cloud. In my outsider´s view, the Colombian government, and especially local government here, has reacted fairly well and quickly to the crisis, and it has started to impose preventative measures. Schools and universities have been closed nationwide, borders have been closed (via sea and land) and the local government has put a curfew in place until further notice. I feel like the UK government could probably take a few notes and take this a little more seriously. For some, it is ´just flu,´ and most of us will be ok, but the knock-on effects are too serious for this to be ignored and so I am staying at home for the foreseeable. Sophia, my flatmate and colleague for the past seven months, is being flown home by the US government, which makes me think I will follow soon. I hope not, but it seems like the most likely outcome. And, Pinchy – one of my best mates – has had to cancel his visit in April, which is extremely disappointing L

Drinking chicha to keep the spirits up

Alas, putting Coronavirus aside, I can reflect on a great last few months (maybe the last, last few months). Spending over two months in England (and visiting Spain and Belgium) over Christmas reminded me what I missed about Europe and about home: family and friends, the variety of food and drink not readily available here, seasons, even my old job and definitely my former workmates! My first few days back in Rionegro were blighted by a nagging feeling of wanting to be back in the UK. AS was the case last January though, as soon as classes started again, this feeling dissipated quickly. Although I have been lucky to never have a job that fills me with dread on a Sunday evening, the prospect of going back to work improving my mood and stress-levels is a fairly new and unfamiliar one for me.

Although there have been no big trips in the last few months, I have still travelled locally. Two weeks ago I visited a rain-drenched Cocorná, a town famous for its waterfalls and mountainous backdrop, and a perfect weekend getaway from Rionegro. Staying in an eco-lodge in the hills, 1km from the town centre, allowed me to revel in the local wonders. However, judging by local government plans to build hydro-electric plants to fully exploit the municipality´s natural resources, Cocorná´s attractiveness as a holiday spot could soon change. As I arrived, many local residents were in the middle of a protest against this very project. It is surely a microcosm of the conflicts taking place across the world as we grapple with how to preserve natural wonders while continuing to cater for booming energy demands. Undoubtedly, the answer at a micro level is to think a little more about what we do actually need to use and be smarter with how we use it.

Sophia and I, and the local community, were also without running water for all but one hour of the day, for an entire week. A real pain in the arse, especially since the water was turned on for the aforementioned power hour at 6am. A pain in the arse but we survived, of course. It actually made us realise 1. How dependent we are (obvious) on running water 2. How much more consciously we use water when the supply is so limited and still manage to survive comfortably. There is surely a lesson in there, which I hope I can learn from, at least a bit.

Last weekend, against some Colombian friends´ advice, I also went on a night hike to a local (well, three hours away) páramo. Taking advantage of the full moon, a local adventure group had set up the hike and published it on facebook. Luckily, I was not undone by my trusting disposition and lived to tell the tale, without kidnapping or getting stranded in the middle of nowhere. The group was predictably very in-touch with nature; upon embarking on the adventure, one of our guides lit a candle as an offering to the mountains and invited anyone in the group to say a few words, or even sing. *everyone looks to their feet*. After a rest of ninety minutes at around 2am, we arrived at the páramo´s summit at around 5.30am. Although completely foggy, the peace it afforded definitely made the hike worth it. Arriving back in the town at 9am, I was just in time to get the first bus back to Medellín….

The past weekend, I spent on a road trip from Rionegro to the coffee region with two students, Daniel and Jonny. Taking off on Saturday morning, we drove for five hours without reaching our desired destination, Jardín. Instead, we stayed in Venecia (my first time in Venecia!), sinking some beers, listening to Colombian music and playing pool. The next day, we continued on to Jardín, for a dip in a waterfall, some incredible coffee and a lunch of trout and patacón. A twelve hour round trip for four hours in Jardín may not have seemed worth it, but with such amazing scenery and great company, it definitely was a case of the journey being more important than the destination. And, I guess it will be my last journey for a while, unless I have to bring forward my journey back to London town.

Whether I leave in the next few days/weeks or in June, as planned, I will miss Rionegro and Colombia a great deal. For the most part, I have been so content here and it has provided me with most of things that make me happiest, namely access to natural wonders, hikes and the outdoors. I have had the opportunity to take up new hobbies – the latest, ceramics – and have done a job I have loved and felt good at.

Who knows what is going to happen next. Hopefully, I´ll get to return to class and do one more last road trip….if I do, you know where you can read about it!!

Living through a Natural Disaster in Jericó

Sitting in a freezing London living room makes me remember one thing I definitely miss about Rionegro: its climate. Athough locals would have you believe that Rionegro is possibly the coldest place on earth, being back in the UK has come as quite the climatic shock.

Leaving Colombia for the first time since my arrival back in July 2018 all came around very quickly. Teaching right up until the end, moving just two weeks previously and acquiring a rogue tattoo all meant my imminent departure was always somehow pushed to the back of my mind.

I did manage to survive my first natural disaster during my last full weekend in Antioquia. Sophia, Andrés, Andrés´ friend Paola, and I had decided to get out of Rionegro and settled on Jericó after days of fruitless Air b´ n B searching. None of us had ever been to this town in el Cafetero (Jardín´s less attention-grabbing sibling, I would say), yet it didn´t disappoint. Our first full day was spent hiking into Los Nubes (the clouds), quite literally, swimming in charcos (puddles – less literally), supping on the local brews and eating as much trout as I possibly could. We cooked, spent a lovely evening drinking ´fresh-off-the-tree´ guayaba juice and chatting Spanglish before heading to our (what we thought) ´safe´ beds. When 2am rolled around and we were awoken by a loud banging at our dormitory door, I assumed it was a drunken reveller (although I am not sure Jericó would have been the best weekend destination for them!). Alas, the knock was quickly followed by the words ´Avalancha.´ A C1 in Spanish was not necessary to ascertain that we needed to get out – quick! Indeed, upon reaching the main street, we were greeted by sights of strewn tree trunks, covered by a blanket of mud. We quickly got to higher ground (a seminary in the town) and were treated with such love and care by those who took us in; warm agua panela, biscuits and blankets were distributed to those most in need. Although we were finally able to leave around 7.30am and got back to our hostel at 10am, it was clear that we had been lucky. Vast swathes of trees were missing, having been swept down the mountain, and while nobody had been killed, the inhabitants´ vulnerability up against nature had been laid bare.

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Finishing up at la UCO and Rionegro was a strange feeling; it really has felt like home for the past sixteen months. However, I know I will soon be back, and I have some work to do and materials to create from London. I still have lots of things to tick off and see in Colombia. I think I have merely scratched the surface in what is such a vast and, in some places inaccessible, country.

Year 2….

After another period of (blog) hibernation, and with only a month before I return to London for while, it was high time to end the silence. Lots has happened since I officially closed year 1.

My ´summer´ was spent travelling a bit more of Colombia, perfecting (!) my piano and keeping myself in the black with a wave of private classes. After my trip to the Pacific with James, I headed northwards to Santa Marta and Minca with fellow UCO teacher, Andrés. Despite clashing over mini-table tennis, the five days in Santa Marta, and especially Minca, were incredible. In the latter, we spotted iguanas and toucans from our hostel balcony and spent the days hiking to coffee farms and waterfalls. A cracking little trip.

I also returned to Bogotá in late July and this time, I returned with a new North American colleague, Sophia, who has taken the place of Sara, both in the flat and alongside me at la UCO. Sophia also loves the outdoors and we have already been on hikes all over Antioquia with a few different hiking groups. I have again been reminded that I really don´t have to travel far, or even outside of el Oriente, to experience some pretty spectacular places. I think having someone new in town, akin to having a visitor, makes you do more than you perhaps normally would, as you become a kind of  ´guide´ while they settle in.

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The university term has been busy, although part of this has been due to the fact that the private classes have continued to stream in. I´ve also been teaching English Literature for the first time this term, which has been enriching, interesting and challenging in equal measure. Indeed, it has made me re-visit Shakespeare and Dickens, for the first time since school, really. I had forgotten how brilliant Macbeth and Shakespeare´s insults were; or maybe I just didn´t appreciate them at the time. Studying Shakespearean soliloquies, Oliver Twist, Romanticism and WWI poetry with Colombian students was never going to be a stroll in the park, but the students have taken to it with great energy and enthusiasm, and have produced some top draw work. It has been great to have Sophia here too, as she teaches the other half of the year group and is always on hand to share ideas.

Last month, another Draper came to visit, too (only one more to visit, now!!). Sam came for a couple of weeks in mid-September, and left last Sunday. Although I was still working during the week, we managed to see a lot, visiting Guatape, Cartagena, Jardín and the Coffee country, Bogotá and Villa de Leyva, which is a wonderful town, three hours from the capital. Famous for its whitewashed colonial architecture, cobbled streets, hugely impressive plaza and for being the home of the First Congress of the United Provinces after independence had been won from Spain in 1812, Villa de Leyva was an incredible destination to see off an amazing couple of weeks. It really deserves to be visited for more than the one night that we managed, and I will definitely be back.

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So, one more month left here and I´ll be back in London….I´ll try to write again before I leave, but, given my recent form, I won´t promise anything….

Rionegro: A Review

Now back on my hols again, I thought it was time to pen a reflection about my (near on) year here, in Rionegro. Although the time has flown by in some ways, in other ways, it has felt like forever: so many things have happened, I´ve learned so much and lots of people have come and gone. I guess that´s what I was looking for – something that would throw up new challenges and expose me to new experiences, outlooks and cultures. It´s certainly delivered.

Rionegro has provided the perfect location: a town of around 80,000 people, one hour´s drive from a big city, Medellín. The university, too, has been an excellent place to work. Much smaller than the universities in which I was previously accustomed to working and studying, its size has meant that I have quickly got to know both teachers and students. Working with students of university age has made me feel old at times, but has also inspired and motivated me to do and try new things. It seems that every student has a creative hobby, which, in turn, has encouraged me to try my hand at things that I had never considered in England: salsa and piano, being the two primary examples.


Some things have frustrated me: a laissez-faire approach to communication, students´ lack of willingness to take advantage of free spaces to practice English and often being the last to know about events or arrangements. My decision to stay for one more year, though, is testament to the fact that these frustrations have been outweighed by the positive aspects of the experience. Indeed, I have loved returning to teaching. My role gives me a certain flexibility in what I teach, which I have taken advantage of to try and expose the students to British culture and its idiosyncrasies. I have worked closely with one class in particular, helping prepare them for their APTIS exams, which has been an incredibly fulfilling experience, not least due to the improvement I saw in nearly all of them as the semester progressed.


I have also met some wonderful people. When you´re a long way from home friendships matter even more and, in my experience – both here and in Madrid – you tend to make strong and lasting relationships. In particular, Mike and his family, and Sandra and hers, have been an ever-present and constant source of support and kindness since I arrived. Spanish classes have been a particular highlight; by semester 2, they had become just an excuse for Sandra, Sara and I, sometimes accompanied by Sandra´s two lovely little girls, to go on a day trip. Andrés has also been a top man to work for and with, always on hand to offer advice, witty quips and a soundboard for my occasional moans. It´s nomal to be flavour of the month as soon as you arrive in a new place, particularly when that place happens to be so culturally different. However, that novelty soon fades and what you are left with are the relationships that really matter.


Before getting too deep, the year has also given me the chance to travel extensively through Colombia. I have been on both coasts – the Caribbean and Pacific – to two paramos, to various coffee farms and on numerous breath-taking hikes. I have tried loads of new fruits – granadillas (why these aren´t a thing in the UK is beyond me), pitayas, guanabanas – patacón (deep-fried plantain), chicharrón (essentially, deep-fried pork belly), chunchurría (deep-fried pig intestine, yum), learned lots of new slang, picked up a Paisa accent, and have even come to enjoy a bit of aguardiente, proving the old adage ´practice makes perfect´ to be correct. I have been lucky enough to welcome numerous visitors, with whom I have shared some of these new experiences.

And so, on to a new year, and what I expect to be my last in Rionegro…..although you never know, I guess. I have holidays for the next month, which I will use to travel a bit more and work on my Spanish, as I try to obtain a ´native´ level before I return. Since finishing up for the ´summer´ holidays, I have already been to Calí and the Pacific coast with a British Council colleague, James, visited Mike in Bógota and spent a night in the stunning Villa de Leyva, which just so happens to be a candidate for my new favourite place….I also had the chance to test the old español at a panel event to talk about my experiences learning a second language. Only 25% of the audience nodded off, which is an improvement. Anyways, that´s all for now….more to come in year 2….

Another six weeks without a blog post reflects the busy time I´ve been having, which is good, but it does make the blog post more difficult to write.

Last week was ´festivo´ in Colombia, with what seems like the whole country downing tools for a week-long holiday. I was no different. With my mum in town, who stayed for two weeks, we headed for the sweltering, yet beautiful, Cartagena, before making our way south to the cooler, wetter, but equally breathtaking, Salento. Founded in 1533, Cartagena is one of modern-day Colombia´s oldest cities (nearby Santa Marta, the oldest, was founded 8 years previously), and its architecture and layout is indicative of its turbulent past. Surrounded by 11km of protective walls, erected after our very own Francis Drake ransacked the city in 1586, Cartagena now presents tourists with a snapshot of its prior significance as both a port and a centre of the Inquisition in the Americas (alongside Lima and Mexico City). To walk its walls is enchanting, flanked as they are by the Caribbean Sea on one side and the old colonial-style city on the other. Cartagena´s charm and beauty does mean it´s a haven for both tourists and street vendors trying to make a quick buck, and you can expect to pay a premium to drink in the old-town´s bars or eat in its restaurants. Apart from enjoying a drink in the famous Café del Mar and enjoying a walking tour of the old city, we found the best use of our time was merely to walk the streets and admire the millionaires´ houses. We also opted to stay outside of the old city (athough still within the extensive city walls) in a bohemian area called Getsemani, which was an excellent choice. The main square, Plaza de Trinidade, was buzzing every evening, packed with a healthy cocktail of locals and backpackers, street performers and those wanting to be entertained. The inexpensive bars bordering the square provided the perfect venue for a rum nightcap, as one enjoyed the welcome sea breeze and panoramic vibrance. Cartagena is an experience and I would recommend it to anyone: the city is divided into distinct areas, which can occupy a curious mind for days. Although it is potentially dangerous, with the hordes of tourists representing a pickpocket´s dream, one cannot fail to be impressed by its architectural and cultural magnificence.

Salento, which featured in an earlier blog post (I visited the town with Matthew back in January) is a completely different prospect. Indeed, if one was asked to choose two places to demonstrate Colombia´s diversity, Cartagana and Salento would do the job perfectly. Lush, wet and surrounded on all sides by fincas and coffee plantations, Salento provided a perfect location to spend the last three days of our ´paseo.´ Although I enjoyed some of the same things as I had done with Matthew back in January – el Valle de Corcora and the impressive wax palms, trout and super patacón – this time, I did make it to nearby Filandia and to a coffee farm, which was a lot less commercialised than the one I visited a few months back. Run by a Catalan lady, passionate about permaculture and organic farming, La Finca Momota is a coffee farm in its infancy but gives an excellent example of sustainable production.

The first week of my mum´s visit was spent in and around Rionegro, puebleando (visiting local towns) and enjoying Antioqueñan hospitality. My Spanish teacher and students both threw me a birthday party and serenaded me with versions of ´Happy Birthday´ in both English and Spanish. In what was essentially a birthday fortnight, I also had a birthday picnic with friends followed by a night out in San Antonio, in the process learning more salsa in five minutes dancing with a friend than in eight weeks of classes. At the end of March, I also had one more weekend in Bógota, heading to the capital with three friends to see Lenny Kravitz in concert. What a performer! Over two hours of high-energy hits – mostly his Greatest Hits – left us knackered but rendered me a big fan.

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It has been an incredible few weeks and I felt ready and refreshed to return to work last week. Hasta la próxima!

An Active Month

For those of you worried that I may have given up blogging, rest assured that it´s only been pure laziness keeping me away for all this time. Like a quadruple-winning football team struggling to emulate the previous glories, which saw it amass a whopping total of 31 followers worldwide, I have merely been suffering from new-year/second-season lethargy.

The past month has actually been pretty active, unlike my blog page. Last weekend, I visited Bucaramanga, capital of the region of Santander in the north-east of the country. A couple of other British Council teachers work there and that was enough of an excuse for me to grab an overnight bus to the Santandereano city. Although the city was nothing special – apart from the live caimans on its university campus – the surroundings were a selling point. They even made a 3am Sunday wake-up call worth it; indeed, we (myself, two other English teachers and a lovely German couple) travelled three hours (poor roads rather than distance accounted for the journey time) to start a trek which would lead us to la Laguna “La Pintada.” The trek is challenging due to the altitude rather than any particularly tricky walking, but the prize is coveted (see pics).


After January´s booziness, February´s weekends have provided a welcome injection of fitness and outdoor pursuits. I´ve been mountain biking for the first (I think) time, in the hills around nearby Marinilla and taken part in an entirely uphill 10km run, which ended at Pablo Esccobar´s prison – the one he built himself! –, La Catedral. The mountain biking was great fun, but daunting. To be honest, I´ve always enjoyed biking ascents more than descents, but on a mountain bike the descents seemed to be even more treacherous, given the terrain and the rocky surface upon which you could well find yourself landing. Still, it was a great day, the cherry on the top being provided by Andrés´s mum, who made us a welcome hearty lunch upon our return. I´ve also returned to table-tennis after a 15 year sabbatical. I seem to remember being better than my current form suggests but, hey ho, a long-awaited return all the same, and I am convinced that the mojo will return….


The other event worthy of note here – aside from my return to the table tennis fold – is the Tour de Colombia, which took place in Antioquia this year. Not lacking in hills and stunning scenery, the race started and finished in the local area and passed through Rionegro twice on its way to a gruelling final climb to Las Palmas, situated on the outskirts of Medellín. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the race was dominated by Colombians, with nine of the top ten hailing from theses shores. I am told it was just a warm-up for Froome and co.

Life is ticking along in Rionegro: I´m loving my classes, this term. I have some excellent students and am beginning to build up a good rapport with my classes. I feel motivated every day to try to do a decent job.




Right, it´s Saturday eve….so off to have a few Pilsens and listen to some Ranchera music….

It was just ´banter´

As Matthew left, I welcomed two new visitors: George Harris and Jon ´El Diabético´ Burton, as he came to be known….(or simply ´El Diabético´ to all the waiting staff and air bnb hosts we came across along the way).

Landing early on Monday morning, we did the standard Rionegro day – visit El Parque (the town square, rather than a park as we would know it), San Antonio, where we had a heavy lunch of Bandeja Paisa and beer, and a walk in the countryside home, through ´Ojo del Agua.´ While showing Jon and George the delights of Rionegro and where I worked represented a welcome apppetizer , the trip really began on Tuesday, when we taxied early doors to Guatape with a local who happened to be transporting a door in the same vehicle. Welcome to Colombia.

Finding our accommodation was a struggle, mainly due to the fact that our host had posted the wrong address on her profile page. However, once we had, we went to the place any visit to the area should start: The Rock of Peñol. It was actually my second trip to the rock, as my most loyal followers will know (see blog post 6), but it was no less breath-taking, nor exhausting. Beers on the lawn outside of our accommodation, watching the sun go down over ´la piedra´ was the perfect way to see away a rock-centric day. We spent the next morning out on kayaks, navigating the vast expanse of water which makes up the Guatape reservoir, created in the 1970s in order to generate hydroelectric power for the region. Although not hot, three hours exposure on the lake didn’t do anything to help our state later on….

Indeed, upon arrival in Medellín on Wednesday evening, it was clear that we had eaten or drunk something that hadn’t agreed with us and the sun exposure and lack of water only made things worse. Nevertheless, even after a rocky night, we were not to be defeated and thus embarked upon a brave and, in hindsight, stupid ascent of el Cerro de las Tres Cruces, one of the hills surrounding the city, on Thursday morning. Already drained and fatigued, the heavens opened just over halfway up…and there we were, George and I unsuitably attired in Converse, slipping and sliding to what we thought would be inevitable broken bones. Having clambered to shelter – me at the top and my visitors halfway up – we waited for a good hour for the rains to abate, before descending, with George adopting an interesting ´surfing´ technique (see pics) in order to reach the bottom.

The following day was more pleasant; we spent the morning on a tour of Comuna 13, an area of the Medellín which was horribly exploited by drug cartels in the 1980s and 1990s and, until 2002, was a no-go for all but its residents. The military-led Operation Orion, which took place in October 2002 and which was reliant on balaclava-clad informants leading troops to drug dens and gang headquarters, marked the beginning of a slow process of transformation, which has been mirrored in other parts of the city. Since 2011, Comuna 13 has been serviced by a series of escalators which has not only made it much easier for residents (and now tourists) to transit between areas and climb the steep neighbourhoods, slowly erasing invisible boundaries in the process, but has also helped facilitate the area´s transformation into a vibrant, artistic and, crucially, peaceful district. The street art that now covers entire walls (pics above) depicts reminders of yesteryear´s violence but, more than that, offers promises of hope for the future.

The highlight of the boys´ visit, however, had to be Jardín. In actual fact, we stayed on a coffee farm outside of the town, around 25 minutes jeep journey up an uneven, rocky, dirt track. Greeted upon arrival with cups of coffee straight from the fields below and with as many refills as we wanted, this place was a winner in my eyes, within minutes. Yet, the best was to come. Staying at the top of the property, our cabin afforded incredible views over the surrounding region, mainly covered with coffee and banana plants. We had very limited time in and around Jardín; we just had enough time to have a tour of the coffee plantation (90% of the area´s coffee is bought up by Nestlé, apparently) on which we were staying, hike to the Caves of Splendour and spend an afternoon and evening in the town itself, where we nearly lost George. We decided to take the wooden cablecar, known as La Garrucha and ´not for the fainthearted´ according to The Lonely Planet, across the river valley to a lookout onto Jardín. Yet, as we boarded and the journey began, poor George was thrown violently across the wooden capsule and, but for a sturdy lock on an otherwise fragile-looking door, would have plunged into a deep valley below. Relieved that we didn´t have to make ´that call,´ the whole event caused Jon and I much hilarity and was possibly the moment of the ´holiday.´

A cracking couple of weeks with my visitors. Now, for a quiet week in Rionegro before classes start once more….

Drapers² in Colombia

Matthew came, Matthew went. As I sit down to pen this update, he´s on his way back to London Town. What a cracking couple of weeks, though. Rich in variety, we spent five days in el Cafetero (Manizales and Salento) before heading to Capurganá and the Caribbean coast for four days.

New Year´s Eve was very chilled, spent in what was a strangely quiet El Poblado. Matthew had arrived late the night before and we had an early bus to Manizales the next morning in order to arrive in time for what we – well, I – thought was la Fería de Manizales. As it turned out, we were a few days early and the city The Guardian recently labelled as ´the world´s riskiest city´ due to its history of mudslides, earthquakes and volcanoes was anything but explosive. We had a great time anyway, spending our only full day there at some thermal baths on the outskirts of the city and enjoying chilled Bogotá Beer Company craft beers on the mirador, while the sun went down over the undulating landscape. Very nice.

We then headed to Salento for a couple of days and this time we did get to see some fiestas! Unbeknown to us, Salento was celebrating its annual fería, with various musical and dance spectacles in the main square. Although very touristic, Salento is well worth a visit and has staked a claim for my favourite place in Colombia. The town is pretty, with cobbled streets and plenty of cool bars and reasonably-priced restaurants serving up local trout and SUPER patacón (basically, my dream dinner). However, it’s the surrounding countryside which really elevates Salento to another level, which we saw for ourselves when we hiked through the Corcora Valley, famed for the lofty wax palm trees that are recognised as Colombia´s national tree….every country needs one, I guess. Due to substandard navigation skills, a 12km circuit turned into a, largely uphill, 20km slog (which, of course, I secretly loved) through spectacled-bear-country. When we arrived at what we thought was a nice little stop off before we got to the highly anticipated waterfalls, a tour guide let us in on the secret: we were lost. Alas, we sucked it up, turned around and started back, eventually joining up with the original route and finally taking in those famous trees. A trip to el Cafetero wouldn´t be complete without a trip to a working coffee farm, so that´s exactly what we did on day 2 in Salento. While learning all about Colombian coffee and what goes into producing the magic drink – Colombia is the world´s third largest producer after Brazil and Vietnam, and only grows Arabica coffee beans – , we got our hands dirty, picking coffee beans direct from the tree and getting to taste the finished product, at the end.

From Salento and via an overnight stay in Medellín, we flew to Acandí for a complete change of scenery and a different type of mini-holiday. Indeed, from Acandí, we would catch a boat through choppy waters to Capurganá, a coastal town within walking distance of the Colombia-Panama border and supposedly off the average traveller Joe´s radar. I had heard great things about Capurganá and its surrounds and, in many ways, it delivered. It offered a chance to relax, take in some sun and disconnect. However, it didn´t quite live up to the rave reviews. We stayed slightly outside of Capurganá on Aguacate Beach, meaning we got plenty of exercise walking the 45 minutes along the coast to Capurganá, every day. What was a stunning walk was spoilt slightly by the heaps of plastic, which had been washed up on some of the more deserted stretches along the way. It is perhaps a timely reminder of what we are doing to our world; never had I been on a coastline where our overuse of plastics was so visible. Of course, the beach in Capurganá was pristine but, being high-season, was also full of sun-worshipping tourists. Nearby Sapzurro – the closest Colombian village to the Panamanian border – was a lot quieter and well-worth the beautiful one hour hike, through lush thick forest. In the end, we spent two whole days there, desperately trying to get a tan, swimming and sipping cold ones. All in all, Capurganá is a nice place; it just needs a bit more care.

The flight back from Acandí, though – blimey. Hairy, to say the least. First thirty minutes: no problems. Smooth as. Then, we approached Medellín….time for our descent. Although we later learned that the descent we experienced wasn´t anything out of the ordinary for the approach into Medellín´s smaller city airport, the pilot gave little warning of the nosedive that he was about to perform. Maverick. According to Matthew, I was ´white as a sheet,´ with good reason, I might add. I just wish the pilot had given a bit of notice….

Pleased to be on solid ground again, we had a few more days to spend in and around Rionegro before Matthew´s departure. Hiking in the hills around El Carmen with Emanuel and having lunch with his family was the perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday, before we headed into San Antonio for a night on the Aguardiente and beers in San Antonio with Andrés, Mike and family. We even took Matthew to the famous supermarket (Blog Post 1!) where a trip to the counter is always accompanied by un trago de ron or guaro. We had time just to pay a short visit to my Spanish teacher, Sandra, and her family on Sunday morning before heading off to the airport for Matthew´s odyssey back to London…..this blog post doesn´t really do justice to what was an awesome two weeks with my first overseas visitor….

A Slightly Different Christmas

First things first: Happy Christmas, all. Having originally planned on spending Christmas in Rionegro, turns out I have just returned from the Caribbean coast. Santa Marta and the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek was always scheduled, as I mentioned in my last update. However, after David, a German lad in my tour group, floated the idea of a surf camp just north of Santa Marta for Christmas, things changed….

The Lost City Trek, although expensive by Colombian standards, was incredible, for the journey as much as the destination (cliché). We had an international group (4 French, 2 Russians, 2 Germans, an American and me!), led by local tour guide Daniel, alongside a translator, Pedro (a Venezuelan who made the nationality count 7). We got on amazingly well, which made the experience even more enjoyable, sharing every meal together and even going out together once we had returned to Santa Marta. Setting off on Tuesday afternoon after a big fish lunch, it took just under two days of trekking through mostly jungle to arrive at the Lost City. The hiking was a lot more difficult than the guide books would have you believe, although try telling that to the inspirational 68-year old Russian who was leading the way throughout! Although we surprisingly didn’t see too many animals (no monkeys!!! In a rainforest!!) along the way, the vistas took one´s breath away – with every great climb came a more than satisfactory prize. We were also lucky enough to interact with some of the indigenous communities* that still live en route and stay in a camp, which was run by the Wiwa people. Although the balance between providing for tourists and respecting indigenous ways of life seems to be in a state of delicate equilibrium for the time being, I guess maintaining this will become a greater challenge with every passing year, and as the route´s popularity inevitably grows.

With a 1200 step climb to the Lost City – so-called due to its remote, hidden location and sheer size – we arrived on Day 3, early enough to enjoy the morning sun. At first sight, the ´city´ does not appear extensive; however, take a stone path through the trees and some (more!) steps up the mountain, and one enters a complex network of interconnected areas, each built with a specific purpose to serve the once-thriving community. Tourists can actually only visit a very small part of the entire original site, with the vast majority of the remains still covered by thick forest.

Many inevitably compare the Lost City to Machu Picchu but the Lost City´s age – historians believe it was founded around 800AD, compared with the 15th century formation of Machu Picchu – and its inaccessibility by road made it perhaps more impressive in my book. The Lost City has also only been in the public consciousness for just over forty years, compared with Machu Picchu, which was found again all the way back in 1911. Although at least some indigenous populations claim to have already known about La Ciudad Perdida, it was only ´discovered´ by some poor locals from Santa Marta in 1972. When they found that the site still contained a trove of gold artefacts, they looted what they could before selling the pieces on the black market. Stories vary as to how the authorities came to learn of the site´s existence – from archaeologists noticing pre-Hispanic gold pieces being sold at the local flea market to loose local tongues spilling the beans after a few too many aguardientes – but, once they did, the site was closed and guarded for professional excavation. It was opened to the public in the early 1980s.

Once we had completed a tour of the Lost City and met a Shaman (Local Wise Man) who, in a nod to the financial opportunity tourists provide, was intent on flogging wristbands to all and sundry, we began our descent and return to our day 1 starting point. Learning that we were to return along the same route was at first a bit of a disappointment but, although we now knew where the climbs and descents were, the views changed and little details quickly forgotten on the way were refreshed once more. It was an incredible experience.

The beach camp was a little different, and provided the perfect respite for the weary limbs. Due to limited availability at the surf camp, I had an extra day in Santa Marta before heading there on the 23rd. The ´surf camp´ turned out to be more just like a ´camp´ really, given that I didn’t actually get to have a class until my final morning on the 27th, with the surf school closed over the Christmas days. When I did get out, the sea showed me who was boss. I had been told that the sea was not ideal for complete beginners, with the frequency and size of waves being relatively high. It therefore quickly descended into me just grabbing any part of the surf board for dear life, as I eventually was spat out onto the beach. Luckily, with the class beginning at 8 in the morning, very few were there to see the ordeal and I was able to lick my wounds and catch my breath before strutting back into the hostel, surf board under my arm, like the cool surf dude I had originally envisaged becoming….and will become… day.


All in all, although the surfing was limited, both in terms of time spent on the waves and the success enjoyed once out there, the beach was a great place to spend Christmas; there was a party atmosphere, the drinks flowed, people were friendly, we played plenty of beach football and table tennis and we got to see Tayrona National Park.

I had time for one last night in Santa Marta – a city I actually really liked despite hearing mixed reviews before going – before returning to HQ early this morning. And now, a few days before the hordes (well, 3) of visitors arrive. Time to do my bi-annual tidy-up and catch up on some sleep – beach life is tiring!

*three indigenous tribes still inhabit the area around the Lost City: the Wiwa, the Koguis and the Arhuaco. We passed and stayed in a Wiwa village and met some Koguis in the Lost City, itself.