Settling In in Villavicencio

Whoa, I was pretty lost for real there for a while! I took a break from writing to focus on a few other things in my life, and since I’ve returned to Colombia it’s been a bit tough getting settled in to my new city. But things are coming together finally so I thought it’d be the perfect moment to continue adding some entries, starting with one about my new city: Villavicencio!

Villavicencio?

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More fondly called “Villavo,” (‘vi-ja-vo’ for the non-Spanish speakers) by the locals, Villavicencio was a city I never thought twice about let alone a place I thought I’d be living in. But here I am! I was back in Toronto wondering what to do and where to go when I got a message saying that the Teaching English in Colombia program still needed fellows. Hmm…

I had decided not to continue back in January because there had been a major change of organizations that left the program in a bit of a mess – I didn’t know anything about the new organization running the program and didn’t know if I could trust them. But after speaking with some previous fellows who had returned who said it was all normal, I decided to go for it once again!

In With the New…

I decided to choose a new city I’d never been to with some particular assets: somewhere relatively close to Bogota, and somewhere with hot weather. That led me to choose Villavicencio! It’s just a three or four hour drive from Bogota (depending on traffic and most of that is just getting out of Bogota’s gridlocks!) but it’s nice and HOT in comparison to the capital and other cities nearby. It’s in the department of Meta, and is known as “La Puerta al Llano:” the gate to Los Llanos – the Plains of Colombia.

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Overlooking the plains from a viewpoint up in the hills called “Mirador Piedra del Amor”

The city itself is nestled right at the foothills of the Andes so on one side, you can see mountains, and on the other, flatlands as far as the eye can see! The plains stretch all the way to Venezuela and are actually shared between the two countries.

“Llanero” Culture

The ‘cowboy’ culture is strong in this region of Colombia and cattle raising, horse-riding, meat-eating are all aspects of the Llanero culture. There’s also a well-known sport practiced here called “coleo” – basically a rodeo, where cowboys on horses chase cattle on a path to try and make them fall down… I personally wouldn’t want to see such a spectacle due to my love for animals and belief in animal rights but nevertheless, it’s a tradition in this region.

There’s also a famous dance here called “joropo.” This aspect of the Llanero culture is a bit more my speed! Here is a youtube video for anybody interested in seeing what it’s like:

Pretty incredible how fast the dancers can move!

I’ve yet to experience the typical Llanero culture firsthand though – I’m still pretty new here and haven’t gone out exploring too much besides roaming the streets in search of a place to live.

Home Sweet Home 

Speaking of which, I finally found one! After some shuffling around, I am finally somewhat “settled in,” living with another fellow in the teaching program, a guy from Switzerland. We found a two-bedroom apartment that is behind a family’s house and that is pretty central for both of our school placements. The family is very kind and have two daughters that are starting to feel like our little sisters! They also have the most adorable pug named Hannah who loves to snuggle.

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One of their daughters also goes to the school where I teach, but is in a lower grade so I’m not her teacher. Nevertheless, the family has been super nice with us, giving us some furniture, some food, and general advice about different things in the city; it’s nice to have our own space but also to be able to count on a ‘family’ just a few metres away.

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The new neighbourhood: “La Esmeralda”

The neighbourhood is beautiful too with lots of nature! The only thing – there seems to be some sort of a bird – a cockatoo? a parrot? that frequently “talks” with another cockatoo or parrot and together they sound like screaming children. Plus, it seems that the same family also has an actual screaming child! I’m already getting used to it though, luckily – all part of the morning wake-up call. 🙂

School Sweet School 

The new school I’m working at is amazing too – it feels like a natural park! It’s up in the hills so it’s nice and cool compared to other parts of the city where it feels like a furnace.

The buildings are also very colourful with lots of student art around, there’s lots of interesting trees and plants and flowers, and there are also interesting animals, namely, monkeys! I’ve seen them three times so far swinging up in the trees. There are two dogs  that live there as well and I love getting snuggles from them between classes. 🙂

Of course I miss my old school in Manizales a lot, but I’m so happy that my new placement is another beautiful place with friendly staff and students (and monkeys…and dogs…)!

Here are some photos:
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And that’s all for now – short and sweet! But keep an eye out for future posts about Villavicencio and other cities and towns in Colombia.

Thanks for reading!

L

Filandia: A Salento Alternative

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As you may have read in my last post, I really love Salento. I rave about it on a regular basis for its cuteness as a town and for how close it is to the amazing Cocora Valley.

However, there’s a lesser-known town nearby that is very similar to Salento, but with less tourists and more of an authentic feel! That place is Filandia.

Twin towns

You can think of Salento and Filandia as twin sisters. They look a lot alike: both towns are surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, both have a main square with a park in the middle, and both have similar colourful houses lining the streets. Additionally, they’re only 20km apart and both are part of the department Quindio.

But if we talk of their personality, Salento is the outgoing, social sister while Filandia is the more introverted, laidback, hippie sister. Both are awesome to get to know in their own way but each one offers something just a bit different.

My Visit

I visited Filandia with my mom as part of our weekend trip through the Coffee region. We stayed in a cute little place on the outskirts of town called Hostal Campestre El Santuario – but here’s where I should mention that Filandia is small. We were on the outskirts, but that meant just a 5-minute walk to the main square.

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One of the rooms at our lovely guesthouse

For that reason alone, I highly recommend Filandia as a day-trip or weekend trip. It’s quaint and comfortable, plus easy to navigate!

We weren’t there very long, just one evening and one morning, but that was enough time to realize how laidback it was, with a really calm, positive energy.

Argentinian Food & Acoustic Despacito

In the evening, we went to a little Argentinian restaurant/bar with awesome live music and great food. We had intended to visit the restaurant across the street from it (Helena Adentro) after reading great reviews on the internet, but the music coming from this place, Nata Lu, drew us in.

We didn’t regret it – the musicians played really well, and even played Despacito on acoustic guitar and a bongo-type drum (I evidently don’t know much about instruments). The waitress even had me and some others up and dancing at one point. All the staff were really sweet, and the food (Colombian-Argentinian fusion) was delicious. 

Coffee and Views and Sheep, oh my!

The following morning, after a tasty breakfast in the main square, we were picked up by our guide for a tour at Finca El Miradora beautiful coffee farm in the surrounding countryside.

The coffee tour was a highlight for both my mom and me – how could it not be when it was personalized just for us! I organized the tour by phone a few days in advance, and it all worked more than perfectly. Like I said, our guide picked us up (and dropped us off after), and opened the farm just for us.

Even the tour was just us three; she showed us all around and we learned a lot about the process of coffee and how to distinguish between good and bad quality brews. Here’s an abridged version of the (very long) process:

Besides learning lots about coffee, the place was simply stunning. It was a hot, sunny day, and with a name like El Mirador (The Viewpoint), you can just imagine how beautiful it was. But a picture speaks a thousand words so…

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My favourite part though, being the animal lover I am, was meeting the sheep that lives on the farm. Her name is Coffee, she’s super friendly, and yes she eats coffee!

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I even managed to get her to play with me! Putting my hands out over the fence, she jumped up so her fluffy head would bump my hand. It was toooooo cute.

OK Cool, but how do I get there without a car?

Getting to both Salento and Filandia is easy by bus. You can catch buses to both towns from Armenia and Pereira. And if you want to travel between the two? That’s easy as well!

From Filandia to Salento, catch a bus going towards Armenia, ask to get off at the road to Salento, cross the highway, and wait for a bus there that has a sign saying it’s going to Salento.

From Salento to Filandia, catch a bus going to Pereira, ask to get off at the road to Filandia, cross the highway, and wait for a bus there that that has a sign saying it’s headed to Filandia.

Of course, if there’s any confusion, just ask! Colombians are generally very happy to help with any concern you have.

Colourful architecture of FIlandia; similar buildings can be found in Salento!
Colourful architecture of Filandia; similar buildings can also be found in Salento.

So, Salento or Filandia?

Ultimately, it depends what you’re looking for!

In general, I’d recommend Salento simply because of its close access to the Cocora Valley. But, if you’re looking more for the town feel of each place, remember the ‘personalities’.

Salento is outgoing: go there if you want to go out at night, try lots of food, and be surrounded by lots of people. Filandia is relaxed: go there if you want a calm getaway, a less touristy atmosphere, and very short walking distances!

 All in all, though, both are great places to visit, so hey, if you have time for both, go for it!

Happy travels!

L

Coffee Region Paradise: Salento and The Cocora Valley  

 

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In my last post I wrote about hiking in Los Nevados National Park – a chilly but absolutely beautiful park here in Colombia’s coffee region.

At the end of the hike, we arrived in the Cocora Valley, or Valle de Cocora en español. The valley is stunning – as you may remember reading, it’s home to some of the largest palm trees in the world! We walked through the valley for just over half an hour before arriving at the main public area and from there, we promptly caught a jeep into the town.

Hiking through the valley looking up at these giants
Hiking through the valley looking up at these giants

Arriving in Salento was exciting, I’d heard so much about it – it’s one of the most visited places in Colombia! And sure enough, I could quickly see what all the hype was about – the colourful houses were bright and bold and the whole town is surrounded by lush green mountains.

My cousin and my friend and I had booked a hostel for the night to explore the town a bit the following day, so the jeep took us straight there. Where we stayed is called Luciérnaga Food Drinks Music Hostel and I definitely recommend it if you’re planning on visiting!

It’s really modern with big spacious rooms, hot showers, and amazing balcony views. And as the name suggests, it has food, drinks, and music in a modern American-style restaurant below the hostel.

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View from the hostel balcony!

One warning though – extreme caution with the bedside lamps!! My arm was burned pretty nastily by the lightbulb as I was attempting to scramble down from my top bunk. It was probably bad luck on my part and doesn’t change my good opinion of the place but it gave me a good laugh (and scar).

I’d survived the tough four-day hike at high altitudes with no injuries or incidents, but once safe and sound in a modern hostel, voila! Perhaps it’s the universe telling me that I should just stay outdoors… hmm… that wouldn’t be so bad!  🙂

That night we wandered into town and as it was the Saturday night before Easter, there were hordes and hordes of people. We also got to witness a pretty funky Easter night celebration.

It involved someone in the upper church window sending down balls of fire on a string that led into a bonfire… these lit it up and people had come prepared with candles that they brought forward to be lit from the giant flames. I don’t know where people come up with these things but it was definitely amusing to watch.

Oh, there was also a Jesus truck.

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This is the moment where I should mention that I also visited Salento and the Cocora Valley a second time, about a month later, when my mom came to visit!

We did a little tour around the coffee region (more details in a future post!) and Salento was one of our stops. After the first trip I knew I had to take her to see it, it’s too beautiful to miss!

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Beautiful and typical Salento houses

Of course, even after two trips, I am no Salento expert. BUT, here’s a list of some of the things I did and places I visited that I recommend if you’re planning on making the trip:

  1. Cocora Valley
    You may have gotten the idea already that I really love the Cocora Valley. You absolutely can’t miss it if you’re in Salento. To get there, you can take a jeep (or a “Willy”) from the centre square. A bunch of them leave about every hour and will the ride will cost you just under 4000COP per person. The trip lasts about half an hour. In the valley itself, there’s camping and various accommodations so you could even stay a night if you wanted. Otherwise, you can do a variety of things like hiking, horseback riding, or just enjoying the sights.20170528_175307
    Hiking is definitely one of the most popular activities. You can do a short walk through the palms, or do the well-known loop trail (I haven’t done it – will write about it if and when I do!). You can even do a multi-day trek, using it as the starting point into Los Nevados the way that it was the endpoint on our own hike.There’s also a trout farm that I visited with my mom upon the pressing insistence of a man who’d caught the jeep with us. People go there to fish for trout, or visitors can pay a small entry fee to get a bag of fish food to give to the fish.You’re essentially paying to fatten up their fish which is a little messed up, but oh well, it was cool to see all the baby trout and adult trout swimming through the water and charging for the food.
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    The last scheduled jeeps back to Salento leave around 6:30, although you’re not completely stuck if you end up staying later. Workers there can call jeeps to come when needed, just be prepared to possibly pay a bit more.
  2. Main Plaza
    The main plaza in Salento is very cute with a pretty park in the centre and the church watching cooly over the square. There are also lots of restaurants and food/drink stands around so head there if you’re hungry or thirsty.unnamed-4-copy
  3. Empanadas de Trucha
    Also in the main plaza, you can find a stand that sells trout empanadas. Time to eat fried dough stuffed with potatoes and the fish that you helped fatten up at the trucha farm!!! Yikes.But anyways, they’re really unique and tasty. Look for the “Centro Artesanal” on the right hand side when facing the church and it’s right beside it.
  4. Centro Artesanal
    After enjoying your empanada de trucha, you can go into the centro artesanal. There, you’ll walk down a corridor with lots of little businesses along the sides.If I had more money and more luggage space, I would have bought so much here – there are really cute handcrafts, clothing, art, and plants, all at very reasonable prices.I ended up buying a cute pair of colourful handmade shoes (partly out of necessity – my flip flops were killing me – but also because they were cute!) If you’re looking for a souvenir to take home, this could be your place.
  5. Walk the Main Street
    The Main street starts in the square, and both times I visited it was buzzing with activity. Didn’t find anything in the Centro Artesanal? Maybe you’ll find something here – the street is lined with cute shops, cafes, and restaurants (psst – some even give out free samples).On my first trip there, we also happened upon two gentlemen singing and playing some amazing guitar music. We took a stop on our stroll and enjoyed for a while!20170410_062719There are also lots of friendly street dogs if all you really want in life is a furry friend!

    All I really want is life is a furry friend, personally.
    All I really want in life is a furry friend, personally.
  6. Check out the Viewpoint
    If you continue down the main street walking away from the square, you’ll eventually arrive at a large set of stairs. Climb these, and you’ll be rewarded with a great view of the town and the surrounding landscapes.There are a few vendors up there too in case you want an ice cream or a beer. Plus, there’s a (dodgy-looking) swing set. YES! Unleash the inner child!20170410_061116
  7. Enjoy Western-style food
    I personally love Colombian food and could eat it all day e’rryday, but I know a lot of visitors here find most of it to be too bland. Salento is your chance, dear visitor who doesn’t fancy Colombian food, to eat what you’ve been missing.Check out Brunch de Salento or Luciérnaga (mentioned above) to kill that craving.
  8. Postres!
    Postre is one of my favourite Spanish words. It means dessert! You can’t go wrong with the postres in Salento, they’re all crazy good. One of the tastiest I had was an oblea filled with arequipe (basically caramel sauce) and cream.Also, there’s a great café near the main square called Jesús Martín. The cakes we had there were amazing and the place’s aesthetic is super creative and colourful. They specialize in coffee as well, leading to my final tip…

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    Jesús Martín cafe
  9. Coffee
    Salento is a prime coffee region town. There are lots of coffee farms around if you’re interested in taking a tour. I’ve heard in particular of the fincas, El Ocaso and Don Eduardo.I personally took a tour a bit farther away in the nearby town of Filandia at Finca El Mirador. It was amazing and they have even have a sheep named Coffee (!) in case you’re interested in visiting a smaller, less busy but equally cute version of Salento.

    My mama and I at Finca El Mirador in Filandia.
    My mama and I at Finca El Mirador in Filandia.

Conclusion: If you’re able to make the time to visit Salento on your travels in Colombia, don’t let it go – the town is adorable but even the Cocora Valley alone makes it worth the while! Happy travels!

Til next post,

L