Cartagena, Medellin, Guatape, Coffee Country and Cali

Just along the coast from Santa Marta is the beautiful fortified city of Cartagena. You can actually walk on top of these walls overlooking the sea, which is quite a sight, and all the buildings are sweetly colonial. These a nice set of market stalls under arches just across from the clock tower which sell sickeningly sweet treats; the fudge block shaped like a baby was delicious/

 

Moving away from the coast, one reaches an area that little-less than thirty years ago was fiercely controlled by gangs.

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Medellin in particular was badly affected by narcoterroism, having been the home of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. Nowadays, Medellin isn’t considered quite as dangerous and parts of the city, namely the trendy El Poblado, full of hip open front bars and stunningly dressed young people, are even quite nice to stay. You can still visit Escobar’s grave and the rooftop on which he was shot. Beware, not all the facts in the TV series “Narcos” are correct, though certain parts, such as his brutality to blow up a plane just to get at one person, are true. Furthermore, it is the fault of Escobar that wild hippos roam the hills just outside Medellin, as they escaped from his mansion which featured a menagerie of the sorts.

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The centre is still a little rough in comparison, but hosts a lovely square full of fat sculptures of various animals and people created by the artist Botero.

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A couple of hours out from the north terminal of Medellin and you reach the beautiful countryside surrounding Guatape. This area is dominated by a huge rock; El Penol. This isn’t so strenuous to climb up the 700 or so zig-zagging steps, and the view of the eerie lake complex and woodlands beyond is more than worthwhile.

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Coffee country was next – onwards to a Finca just outside Manizales where we were able to sample different types of coffee grown in the beautiful mountainous scenery and have a look at the factories, then to Salento, a pleasant little town known for its hiking, but where pleasant fresh water trout is also on the menu.

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One of the last stops in Colombia was Cali, yet another city badly affected by drug trafficking, due to the Cali Cartel. Though much of the town is still a bit… rustic, the San Antonio area is nice to stay in, especially walking up the grassy hill just beyond which had a number of music acts, food vendors and dog shows when I was there.

 

 

A quick stop in the colonial town of Popayan and it was a night bus to Ipiales, the border town. Onwards to Ecuador then!

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Monteverde and Santa Elena, Costa Rica

I have just left Monteverde after being up the mountain for 6 and a half weeks!

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View of the beautiful Monteverde Reserve. Only about 10% is open to visitors and it is thought that at least one jaguar lives in this area

First and foremost I must recomend the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens – My residence throughout my time there. The place is full of so many self-confessed bug nerds who are all amazing people, know their stuff on our six-legged friends and always give enthusiastic and worthwhile tours. Not only will you get to see some of Costa Rica’s beautiful native butterflies, but you’ll also learn some interesting facts and even get a chance to get up close and personal with some non-lepidoptera parts of the insect order – a cute giant peppered cockroach or zebra tarantula anyone? Well worth a visit!

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Sign for Monteverde Butterfly Gardens

Aside from the butterfly gardens, there’s plenty to do in Monteverde. The world famous Cloud Forest Reserve draws thousands of visitors each year, and rightly so. I had a wonderful day trekking the trails, seeing waterfalls and spotting wildlife such as capuchin and howler monkeys, agouti and coatis. If you manage to spot the rare Quetzal bird, any naturalist will be extremely jealous of you.

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A coati sniffing around at the reception of the Cloud Forest

The Bat Jungle on the way to Monteverde from Santa Elena is also worth a stop with detailed exhibitions and a stunning bat cave. When I was there, there was even the most adorable baby bats clutching onto their mothers tummies! So cute.

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Suspension bridge in the Cloud Forest

In Santa Elena itself, I would recommend the Chococafe to sample some of the country’s prized coffee, or fruit smoothies if you’d prefer. The staff are wondrously polite and their veranda is a great place for productivity – many pages of my ongoing novel have been composed there. Furthermore, there’s the Orchid Cafe just a little bit down the hill which does great vegetarian food, and also Taco Taco which does great take away tacos, quesadillas and hibiscus iced tea and also has a nice veranda to sit on and use the wifi. Note also that if you see a butch looking blonde chihuahua hanging about the town with a black cross on his head, his name is Taco and you call it enthusiastically enough, he’ll come running up to you tail wagging.

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Smoothie at the Orchid Cafe

For nights out, there’s the Taverna near the Orchid Cafe which has a fire pit outside and does reggae night on Fridays which are always enjoyable. A weird mix of locals and tourists turn up here, but there’s a ping pong table with occasional games of beer pong! Otherwise the town’s discoteca goes via the name Bar Amigos. It does cheap food and has a mix of general club music and reggaeton. Remember to sample the local spirit shot, chilli guaro, which honestly tasted to me like a shot of spicy soup and gave me acid reflex after my fifth one. Consume in moderation, you have been warned, and it’s also most likened to a Bloody Mary in its essence.

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Mint chocolate coffee frappe from the Chococafe

If you’re feeling really adventurous, Cerros Amigos is the highest peak which can be reached from Monteverde. Head towards the posh Belmar Hotel (great for a girly cocktail on the balcony overlooking the extraordinary view of the Nicoya peninsula) and follow the track round. It should take you about an hour at good pace – all up pretty steep hills mind – and be sure to say hi to the bees living on the path when you’re about two minutes from the top. Go on a nice day, or you won’t be able to see anything when you get up there!

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Capuchin chilling in the trees of the Ecological Sanctury

So that pretty much sums up my six weeks, though I guess I left out getting a lift in the back of a pick-up truck from a drunk driver, stealing the Bob Marley flag from Reggae Night when the DJ played his version of reggae and refused to change it and that time when I found a scorpian in my bed. Not to mention I played Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, attended multiple Zumba classes (which is hilarious if you know me) and learnt what an empanada was. I could keep on going, it has been an eventful few months, but I would really recommend that you get on up the mountain and experience it for yourself!

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Me looking a bit disgruntled next to a waterfall