Hola Chicos! Yes, I’m learning Spanish. We spent the first two weeks and the final week of July learning Spanish in two different countries. In between, we headed back up to Quito to farewell Ecuador, crossed the border by bus into Colombia, had almost all our camera equipment stolen the following day and then headed up North to visit two of the most infamous cities in South America. Yep, July was a very interesting month!
Learning Spanish and Learning to Surf
If you’d asked me before we left Melbourne which of these two things was most likely to happen while we were away, I would 100% have said “learning Spanish”. I was probably the only Australian who’d never tried their hand at surfing. Cindy always says that she was looking for a blonde Australian surfer to marry but had to settle for a bald one who surfs the web a lot. But no more!
We arrived in Montañita early in the morning, pretty tired but excited about having some more Spanish lessons and eager to explore the town. After checking in to our accommodation at Montañita Cabañas, we headed up to Montañita Spanish School‘s headquarters to do our placement test.
As expected, with only my 20 minutes of Duolingo practice behind me, I was swiftly placed in the lowest group possible, while Cindy went into one level above me. You can read more about our experiences learning Spanish at the school in our detailed post but suffice to say it comes well recommended.
Hitting the surf
In the second week, we had surfing lessons included in our package. Cindy decided to sit them out but I decided that it was now or never. I fully expected not to even get up on the board for the first few days but it turns out that
I am a natural the quality of teaching is excellent and I was standing up within the first class.
Too old to party?
Unfortunately, I held the board too close to my body while heading out through the waves and in the first lesson I managed to bruise them. By the second lesson, they were pretty sore and by the third lesson, I was feeling quite uncomfortable (and feeling my age really). So I had to forgo the next two days of lessons which left me pretty disappointed. But I’m keen to give it another try when we’re back in Australia, although I may have to wrap my rib-cage in bubble wrap or something similar!
Montañita is a bit of a party town. It has a great atmosphere and although I’m not really into partying until we drop these days (was I ever?), I enjoyed the vibe. It was a great place to learn Spanish and everyone was super friendly.
I did, however, feel pretty old when we were learning the numbers and the teacher asked us to say our year of birth in Spanish. One of the girls in my class was born in the year 2000. That seems like yesterday to me! Imagine never having to worry about the Y2K bug destroying humanity. Kids these days have it easy!
Back to Quito
After leaving Montañita, we took the Wanderbus again, this time back up to Quito. This was a long ride but the Wanderbus made it comfortable, especially since they unexpectedly organised a free transfer for us to our hostel once we reached Quito. That was a nice bonus!
We arrived early evening and spent a couple of days chilling in the city. We didn’t do a great deal but we did make a trip out to the “Middle of the World” where the equator line runs through Ecuador. It’s a bit of a tourist trap but it was nice to get out into the countryside and the weather was some of the best we’d had in Quito.
Prepping for the border crossing
During our time in Quito, we mentally prepared ourselves for the border crossing into Colombia. We were a little apprehensive about it, mainly because South American border crossings seem to be a bit of a pain. Fortunately, several other travel bloggers had written about how to do the crossing, so we had plenty of information at our fingertips.
The main unknown was how the recent surge of refugees out of Venezuela into Colombia and up to the border with Ecuador would affect our transit times. We were also a little worried about safety. Border towns can be a little dodgy.
On to Colombia
To reach the border with Colombia, we woke up bright and early and our hostel organised a 20-minute transfer to Quito’s northern bus station. There we took a bus to the border town of Tulcan. That was relatively painless.
The next part was initially rather confusing. We found the line to wait in to get our exit stamps on our passports but after several minutes it didn’t seem to be moving. We began to think it would take all day. Fortunately, we soon realised that they were letting people into the main office in batches and we didn’t have to wait much more than an hour.
We then walked the short distance across the border bridge to the Colombia side where we waited in line to get our entry stamp. This was slightly more confusing as it wasn’t clear at all which line we should be in and for a while, we wasted time standing in the wrong line. It wasn’t well organised at all but we made it through eventually.
After exiting the immigration office we had to get a taxi to the bus station. But there didn’t seem to be any around. A young guy approached us asking if we wanted a taxi but he was driving a normal car. He said “Uber, it’s safe” although of course, he wasn’t with Uber. So we went with our gut instincts and took a risk. Fortunately, he didn’t take us to a dark alley and mug us and we made it to the bus station safe and sound.
In short order, we found a cash machine to withdraw our first Colombian pesos from and then hopped on board bus up to Pasto, the closest tourist destination to the border.
Dodgy guys on motorbikes
We’d booked a hostel only five minutes walk from the bus station and had read that other travellers had had no trouble walking there. It was daylight still when we arrived and we made it to the hostel with no problems. We had a quick dinner and quickly fell asleep after a long day of travelling.
The walk back to the bus station the next morning was not as uneventful, however. As we went to cross the road next to the river just after leaving the hostel, a guy on a motorbike came from my blind side and grabbed the camera bag I had hanging around my neck. As he drove off holding it, the strap snapped and he managed a quick getaway. The bag had all of our major camera equipment in it.
We tried to file a police report at the small police office near the station but without any luck. So keen to get to Popayan before nightfall we hopped on a bus and decided to file the report in Popayan.
Fortunately, the police officers in Popayan were super nice and one of them spoke good English. We still spent four hours at the station filling out the report but it was worth it. We’ve just been reimbursed by World Nomads for the current value of those items, minus excess.
Apart from the shock of being robbed, the biggest pain has been trying to find a replacement camera in Colombia. There aren’t many options and we spent several hours in Cali and Medellin trying to find the same brand as we had previously before opting for something different. Cameras here are a lot more expensive than in Australia and they don’t have the latest models.
Exploring Popayan and Cali
We next spent a few days in both Popayan and then Cali. Both of these cities are gradually becoming more popular with tourists.
Popayan is known as the “White City” because of its beautiful whitewashed colonial-style buildings. The surrounding countryside is very pretty but there’s not a great deal to do in the town itself.
Similarly, Cali doesn’t have a lot of sights but it does have a great vibe to it and some colourful history. We enjoyed walking around Cali’s San Antonia region that has lots of colourful old buildings, great restaurants and cafes and plenty of cool street art. We also spent a night at a nearby Salsa club watching the locals do their thing while sipping our Mojitos!
Lots of people avoid Cali due to safety concerns but we didn’t feel unsafe at all. You just need to stay in safe areas of town and take taxis late at night.
Salento and the Cocora Valley
Next, we headed up into the countryside to the pretty little town of Salento. We took an awesome bus to nearby Armenia, our most comfortable bus so far. It even had personal entertainment screens in the seatbacks and they gave us free headphones! Then we took a local bus from Armenia to Salento, about an hour away.
Salento is quite touristy but not so much as to be annoying. Apart from enjoying the town itself, one of the main reasons to head to Salento is to hike or go horseback riding in through the surrounding countryside, in particular, the nearby Cocora Valley.
We spent one of the days we were there hiking the Cocora Valley circuit which had some amazing scenery along the way.
Finally some good coffee
The region surrounding Salento is famous for its coffee production. We walked an hour out of town to one of the coffee plantations and spent a couple of hours taking a tour that taught us all about how coffee is grown and processed. It was pretty interesting. Surprisingly they don’t export to Australia yet – an untapped market!
The quality of the coffee was really good. We’ve really been enjoying Colombian coffee which is a step up from anything we’ve tasted during our trip. Yes, us Melbournians are coffee snobs!
On our final day there we headed to the nearby town of Finlandia which is arguably prettier than Salento. Sitting up on top of a hill, it also has some amazing views out over the valley below.
On to Medellin and more Spanish lessons
Medellin is a pretty cool city. Again, like Cali, it doesn’t have a lot of attractions but it’s a bustling city with a great atmosphere, a colourful history, and great restaurants and nightlife. Not that long ago it was the most dangerous city in the world but it is trying hard to shake off its past and of course to banish its association with the famous narco trafficker who used to call it home.
At the end of our week of Spanish, I finally feel like things are starting to click. I can build reasonably complex sentences and can speak and understand a whole lot more than I could a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll have time for more lessons so I’ll have to continue on my own. Fortunately, there’s plenty of opportunities to practice with the locals.
Heading up North
So that was July. We’re now heading further up north to explore more of Colombia, before flying back down to Lima to cover off Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Stay tuned for next month’s update!