My first impression of Colombia was the small border town of Ipiales. Everything you could possibly dislike in a town, squished together decrepit buildings, a distinct lack of any decent restaurants, and a sprinkling of run down hotels with rude staff. Still, the Las Lajas church I mentioned in my previous post does offer a small redeeming quality.
So it was with a pessimistic heart we rode into Cali, the third largest city in Colombia and one that the Lonely Planet is quietly disparaging about. True, while it lacks the attractions that most travellers seek out: museums, public attractions etc, it welcomes you in with open arms and propels you out into a mad sea of salsa, great restaurants and an unbelievably welcoming and friendly populace. This is a city that thrives on the pulsing beat of salsa, and the people practically glide their way down the street, propelled on the rhythm of whatever song is in their head.
On the first day, myself, still accompanied by the three I had crossed the border with, clambered bleary eyed from our night bus from Ipiales. The journey is 12 hours, and while even 18 months ago this would have been a foolhardy journey to do overnight, today the route is patrolled heavily by military and transport police (we were searched in the middle of the night by a shotgun-armed man) and the trip was surprisingly pleasant, with far-reclining seats and snacks handed out after we left. The bus company was called Transipiales, and tickets at time of writing were between 60 and 75 thousand Pesos (about £20). Oddly for a Monday, everything appeared to be closed, until we were told that it was a national holiday (the last day of Christmas, which gets shunted to the following Monday from last Tuesday).
I checked into the Caelum hostel, a converted house on the edge of the busy section of the city, and run by a group of charming and lovely people. At time of writing, due to an issue with gas from the city, there were no hot showers. It’s my only complaint, though with the heat of Cali it wasn’t too onerous an issue, especially at about 10am. It’s surprising just how extreme a 6 hour bus drive made to the temperature, in Ipiales it was 8 degrees and I was shivering, while here it’s pushing 30.
One of my companions had heard of a Colombian game, located in a workers club on the far side of the city, and encouraged us all to pile into a taxi and head on over. When we arrived, the entrance looked like the entrance to a small house, but after crossing the threshold, we found a group of amazing people happy to serve us the local Colombian food specialities (half of it was on the house), provide us with ice cold beer and show us how to play their game, called Tejo. The idea is simple enough: take a stone, throw it about 25 feet into a plate of mud and try and get as close to the centre as possible. The catch is that in the centre of the plate lies a metal ring, about 15cm in diameter, where four paper arrows are placed. Inside these arrows is, wait for it, gunpowder. So, if you hit one of those, an almighty bang fills the room, everyone gives a cheer, and you get a point. Fantastic game.
We reluctantly, and somewhat drunkenly (the only thing to do in that heat is drink something ice cold, and you can guess how many other beverages they served), stumbled away from the club a few hours later and sobered up in preparation to head out for an evening of salsa. My god. The only way I can describe Colombian dance clubs is if you got a group of supermodels, gave them the skill of the professionals from Strictly Come Dancing, had Luis Vuitton dress each of them, and pushed them into a hall with a bar at one end and a dozen speakers blaring Salsa music, you would be close. We gringos sat on the edge, jaws agape as they span, twisted and dipped their way around the room. And then, jaw-droppingly friendly bunch that they are, they invited us to dance with them. Apparently they call it a Culture Exchange evening, and it’s every Monday. I so truly humiliated myself I checked myself into Salsa lessons for the next day. My muscles still haven’t recovered.
So, Colombia: leave your preconceptions at the border, because this place is truly incredible; Argentina is in serious danger of being knocked off the top spot of my favourite South American country. And hell, it’s only my fourth day in the country. Wow.
My apologies for the lack of photos, I have managed to break my power converter and thus cannot charge my laptop until I find a new one, which is easier said than done in this part of the world!