Bogotá and Salento, or the one where we play with pickaxes and throw stones at gunpowder

18th-25th January 2016
Travelling in big cities is so different from travelling in smaller towns; it is probably one of the things which most makes this trip feel so varied. In the time covered by this post, we went to the absolutely enormous Bogotá (almost 8 million inhabitants) to the much smaller Salento which, although not tiny, had a much more ‘countryside’ feel. Two completely different places in the space of a week, so plenty to keep us interested.

We left Amber in Medellín with plans to meet up a few towns later, and hopped on the long bus to Bogotá. It was a place I had relatively low expectations for. We had just spent a week in a city and had been told that Bogotá was nothing special in comparison, that it was just like any other city, and therefore it wasn’t somewhere to get excited about. As we rolled up to our hostel in a studenty/residential area, it did certainly see just like most other cities we’d been to (with the novelty of duvets, given it was significantly cooler than anywhere else we’d been!).

Bogotá: just another city?

The next few days were therefore surprisingly really great. The city centre was interesting and lively with lots to see, and the people were some of the most friendly, polite, and helpful I’ve come across in all of Colombia. We spent our first day just wandering around the centre, doing odd bits and pieces. We visited the National Museum of Colombia which had some cool art but in general was pretty bizarrely curated (everything seemed a bit mismatched and confusing, although maybe that added to the fun), and were amazed by the number of pigeons in the main square (people there sell food for you to give them, so think Trafalgar Square before the pigeon feeding ban).

Eclectic mix of exhibits in the museum
Pigeons pigeons everywhere

We were momentarily very confused in the square when a policeman came up to us and stared asking us questions about where we came from and what we were doing in Bogotá. I was definitely trying to work out what crime I might have unwittingly committed, possibly suspected pigeon theft. However, he was actually there to convince us to go to the museum of police round the corner so, with no other plans, we followed his direction and headed there. We didn’t know what to expect but it turned out to be a fun guided tour from another (again incredibly sweet and polite) police officer just out of training school, who told us lots about the different branches of the Colombian force, the problems they face with public disapproval, and also (seemingly the selling point of the tour because everyone was keen to tell us about it) showed us a room containing over 300 guns and other weapons all from various police forces. It definitely interested the big group of army guys who we shared the room with.

Pablo Escobar's coat
Army guys love guns

Our second day we spent in Zipaquirá, a town just to the north of Bogotá. It was a pretty and obviously well off town, with some beautiful views. What it is most known for is its salt cathedral: a small part of a salt mine which has been converted into a cathedral with big stone stations of the cross, huge chambers, and funky blue and purple lights which give everything a bit of a disco feel. As just a cathedral it might not be the oldest (actually only made in the 90s) or the most authentic (it’s not even technically a real cathedral as it doesn’t have an associated bishop), but as some salt caves it was awesome, and the lighting and decoration made it a fun place to spend a few hours.

Disco disco
Classic tourist shot

We had paid a couple of dollars extra to take the ‘miners’ route’, not actually knowing what it was but excited to do it because the sign said you shouldn’t if you had claustrophobia or lung conditions (always a sign something will be fun). It turned out it involved simulating the working day of a miner by walking through pitch black tunnels with only a rope for guidance, and ending up in a chamber full of pickaxes which we were then told to pick up and start whacking the walls. Apparently health and safety isn’t really a thing. But we got to play with pickaxes which was great fun, and got covered in salt falling from the walls as we did. Basically it was an hour of playing being a miner and it was great.

No caption necessary

On our final day in Bogotá we had planned on walking up the next door mountain to a viewpoint over the city. We’d heard a few rumours of robberies on the path so didn’t bring much with us just in case. Unfortunately when we arrived, the walking path was closed ‘for our safety’. So maybe health and safety is a thing, who knows? We could have got an overpriced funicular to the top but since it was a bit of a foggy day we gave up and went for a walk in the town instead. After a pretty relaxed walk about the beautiful La Candelaria old town, eating some amazing chocolate, and popping into the Botero gallery, we headed back and planned our onward journey.

Historic La Candelaria
Botero is known for all things chubby - I love the dog

A windy 6 hour bus through the mountains and an hour in a little collectivo minibus took us to Salento, a popular little touristy town in the main coffee growing area of Colombia. The surroundings couldn’t look more different than those we had in Bogotá – cows and fields rather than skyscrapers and cars – but it was still a pretty bustling town anyway. Our hostel had not only the usual hostel dog, but also a very cute kitten and a crazy amount of parrots. The most vocal of these enjoyed saying ‘rico rico rico’ (‘tasty tasty tasty’) on repeat all day long which definitely did not get old or boring ever.

Bit different from Bogotá

The main thing it seems that you do in Salento is eat trout. Every restaurant and street stall sold trout in about a million different ways, from gratin, to fried, to smoked. Even the late night burgers and hot dogs shop had a trout burger. We did eat a couple and they were good, plus as a bonus they came with the hugest patacones (plantain fritters) imaginable. Very fun.

Just ridiculous

Another thing to do in the area besides eat is go for a walk around Valle de Cocora, a beautiful valley in a nearby National park. The walk wasn’t easy, and I didn’t help by feeling tired and emotional that day, but had to admit that it was so worth going for the amazing views. The path takes you through varied landscapes, from countryside valley to jungle waterfalls, and takes you high up to a hummingbird sanctuary where you can sit with a coffee and watch dozens of the birds buzz around your head and all the nearby flowers. It really was lovely even if multiple times I thought I was going to die by falling off a rickety bridge or down a ravine. Rav took a longer route than me after the hummingbirds so I met her down at the bottom and we jeeped it back to town.

Country roads
Literally thought this might be how I died
It was gorgeous though
Also, hummingbirds

Of course since we were in coffee growing region, it is also popular in the area to visit a plantation and get a tour around. We walked to one just an hour out of town, and joined a little tour group to walk around all the coffee plants and have a go at picking our own and learn a bit more about the process. And when I say ‘a bit more’ I mean ‘everything’ since I didn’t actually know anything about coffee production. Turns out that the place to drink good coffee is actually not Colombia, as they sell pretty much all their first class coffee to other countries and drink the second class stuff they produce at home. But we did get to try a cup of really good fresh first class coffee, and generally had a bunch of fun once again playing make believe job as coffee pickers.

Drowning in coffee
Harvest time

That evening, we head out looking for a Tejo bar. Tejo is a local game sold to us by one of Rav’s friends as ‘top top bants’, so we knew we had to try it out. We found an American couple to play with, and got ourselves set up with a lane and some beers. The aim of the game is to lob heavy stones across the room (super safe feeling, especially if you were, like me, wearing flip flops) into a box of clay, with a metal ring in the middle. On the metal ring are several folded triangles of paper containing gunpowder, so that if you hit them with the stone they go up in spectacular flames and smoke. There’s also some scoring system but we almost immediately gave up on this, most of the fun just being in trying to make things catch fire. It was definitely top top bants, and surprisingly by the end everyone was miraculously injury free.

In action

I didn’t really realise when I started writing this what a busy week it had been, especially since we did so much lying around the previous week in Medellín. But we were on a roll with this, and it’s definitely good to be out and active for a while. The next stop on from Salento would be to meet up with Amber again in Cali and start planning for our last week or so in Colombia! As I write this we’ve been in the country a whole month, which makes such a difference to how well you get to know a place. It’s definitely going to be very hard to leave…

P.s. shout out to Bonnie for consistently asking for a shout out
P.p.s. shout out to Clara who is amazing at always reading my blog 🙂


2 thoughts on “Bogotá and Salento, or the one where we play with pickaxes and throw stones at gunpowder

  1. Enjoyed your post. It makes me think I should try to get to Bogota sometime, although I know that it’s going to be Medellin and coffee country instead this year. Still, Salento looks interesting enough, and it’s also on the itinerary.


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