Medellin Gondola

Crossing the Andes and hiking in the clouds

So I got out of cold, gray, expensive Bogota as quick as I could. I was going to head in the direction of Medellin which meant I was up for my first Andes crossing. The road went from 2600m to 2900m down to 700m back up to 1700 and finally I was down to only 200m above sea level at the spot where I camped. All these mountains were no problem for the van (whoop whoop). The camp I picked was along a river where rafting tours end. I thought it was just a short drive on the dirt road along the river but it turned out to be a 20 min drive, but the spot was great. There was a huge clearing in the forest next to the river full of cows and vultures. The change in altitude is great: it’s warm, dry and sunny down here. I like it already. When I arrived there was one other car. A large Colombian family had their Sunday day out here at the river. They invited me over for chicken stew dinner, beer and slow Spanish conversation. Once the family left I was the only person there. I was so happy with the heat and no rain that I stayed another day to do nothing but swim in the river.

Rio Claro camp

On the way to Medellin I have to climb some more mountains. Today has a 2000m climb and it’s rainy, but just when I get to Guatape it clears up. Guatape is a colorful village at a huge artificial lake. The main attraction is a 200m high rock sticking out of the landscape. More than 700 steps bring you to the top for a beautiful view over the area. When I arrive at the art hostel for the night there is a lot of people and a cow in the driveway. Turns out the cow escaped from the neighbor’s field and was running across the hostel land. Once the cow was gone and the hole in the fence closed I could park my van. Since I’m back in the mountains again it rained all evening.

Guatape lake

In the morning it’s sunny again so I climb up the hill behind the hostel to the viewpoint. After that I drive to Guatape town which is famous for it’s very colorful buildings. Great for some sunny pictures. Since I didn’t want to repeat my hostel/parking lot drama of Bogota, I decided to camp outside of Medellin. The city is located in a valley between steep mountains. There are multiple gondolas that are part of the public transit system. One of them ends at a natural park on the top of the mountain. Not far away from there is a hostel where I can camp. Sounds like a good plan. When I arrive there is a Dutch car (only the second one in a year time, last one was in Canada) and an American van. Five minutes after I arrive it starts pouring rain, so I spend the evening hanging out with my neighbors. The Dutch couple is heading north and has some good tips for me. They started many years ago in the Netherlands and drove from there through Iran and the rest of the Middle East via Africa to South America. That’s a trip with many good stories.

Guatape

The next day the American guy and I take the gondola down to the city. Because the city is 1000m lower the weather is much nicer there. The gondola ride down has impressive views while you fly over/between the poorer parts of the city down to the center. We spend the first half of the day walking around a 6 block square of car repair and car part stores. Every store is specialized in one thing: one only does brakes, one only tires, one only has oil, another only hoses, etc., etc. After that we head to the main square that is filled with funny looking Botero statues. We walk to the main cathedral but accidentally take a bad street there. The street is filled with military police that just raided a shop and people doing all kinds of drugs. Interesting. Once we get back to camp the Dutch couple had decided to use the hostel oven and make lasagna for all of us. Awesome! I stay at the camp for one more day: laundry day.

Botero statue in Medellin

After my zigzag across the Andes it is time again to head south. The coffee region of Colombia is supposed to be really nice with loads of good hiking. When I drive through the town of Salento on my way to the campsite I see Renzo and Mary at the side of the road. Turns out they’re at the campsite I’m heading for so I give them and the German couple who are camping there as well a ride for the last few kilometers. The camp has a great view over the coffee fields and the mountains. A bit later two German girls with a VW bus arrive as well. So there are now four cars camping: two German, one Swiss, one Dutch; three VW vans and one big truck. I had not realized that this weekend was a long weekend in Colombia. According to my travel guide Salento is very busy on normal weekends and insanely busy on long weekends. Well, I can confirm that. The town was very crowded, but that makes for good people watching. I also walked up to the viewpoint on top of a hill just outside of town but that was even more crowded..

Salento camp

Very close to Salento is Valle de Cocora. A small valley with the famous wax palms. These trees can get up to 60m tall and are very skinny, it is a very weird landscape. It’s still the long weekend so when I arrive at the campsite it is full with loads and loads of parked cars. But the security guy assures me I’ll be the only person here tonight. For the afternoon I have planned a hike which loops through the valley. I starts along a river between fields with cows, it slowly heads into the forest where you can visit a small finca (ranch). They serve hot chocolate (yum!) and there are a ridiculous amount of hummingbirds. I also spot some nose bears! After that it’s a very steep hike up to another finca and then down between the wax palms. When I return to the campsite it is already getting quiet and at 5 I’m the only person there. While I’m having dinner I enjoy a big lightning storm in the distance. Who needs a TV…

Valle de Cocora

Valle de Cocora is one of the places where you can access the National Park los Nevados (after the snowy mountain peaks). It’s probably too cloudy to see any Nevados today but I still want to go hike. The first bit of the hike is the same as yesterday’s loop. There’s no signs so during the day I have to tell five couples that they are not on the 15km loop road but instead on a 30km one way trail that goes from 2000 to 4800m. But I also meet a French couple that is actually hiking the same trail as me so we continue together. The goal is to get to a finca at 3500m. The path is steep but when the clouds move away the views are great. After 12 km we meet two Canadians who still think they’re on the 15km loop path. They’re so far on this trail that they might as well join us for the rest. We make it to the finca where the sun starts shining and the lady offers us a hot sugarcane drink. Tasty. On the way down we get stuck behind some cows. They can’t really go anywhere but the path so they keep walking ahead of us for at least half an hour. These are proper mountain cows and they end up being way quicker than us. They actually wait for us regularly and start mooing when we were take too long. Once down in Cocora we have a beer and after 30km of hiking with 2200 height meters I happily fall asleep.

Valle de Cocora

Because the last Andes crossing went pretty well I decided to head back another time. But that is the story for next time.

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