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Backpacking South America: The Best Hostels – Tried and Tested!

March 3, 2018

If you’re planning a long-term trip through South America, or are simply travelling on a budget, you’ll need to keep an eye on your accommodation bill.  Thankfully though, backpacking doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be scraping the bottom of the barrel – quite the opposite!

Throughout our six months in South America, we were delighted to find a number of incredible hostels and would recommend each and every one of them.

The Best Hostels in South America – The Top of the Pack

Most Social – Chili Kiwi Lakefront – Pucón, Chile

Chili Kiwi was the first South American hostel to really win us over and it did it in a big way!  During our 2.5 week stay (that’s right, it was that hard to leave), we made friends for life.  With friendly staff, a great range of accommodation options (we especially liked the hobbit holes), a stunning lakeside location and enough activities to keep you entertained for weeks, you’ll find it hard to pull yourself away from Pucón’s best hostel too.

Whilst travelling, we’re always on the hunt for hostels where travellers are friendly and keen for a chat but happy to let everyone sleep when the time comes.  Chili Kiwi was the epitome of what we look for – a social hostel, yes, but not a party hostel – perfect!

Best Breakfast – Discovery Hostel – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Though Discovery Hostel is so much more than a fabulous breakfast, it’s hard to think of much else as you pull up a chair first thing in the morning!  With pancakes, cinnamon sugar french toast, fresh fruit, sauteed veggies and the most incredible fresh-from-the-oven banana bread, it’s an included breakfast that goes far beyond what you’d expect of a backpackers.

Aside from the breakfast (which we’re still dreaming of), we loved the location of the hostel (super safe, near the metro) and found the hostel itself to be very social.

Most Idyllic Location – Happy Hammock Eco Guesthouse – Paraty, Brazil

A 15-minute boat ride from Paraty, Happy Hammock, set on the shore of a semi-private beach, provides the most incredible hostel views imaginable.  With friendly hosts (who are particularly adept in the kitchen) and plenty of hikes and swimming spots close by, it’s the perfect place to relax.

Best of all though?  Once the sun goes down, Happy Hammock turns on the magic!  Guests are invited to done mask and snorkels and jump off the wharf where bioluminescent plankton light up the sea.  Though we only planned to swim on the first night, we couldn’t resist a dip on the second night too… Should you pay them a visit, you’ll see why.

Best City Location – BlackPine Hostel – Medellín, Colombia

Set in the leafy suburb of Poblado, BlackPine is the perfect hostel for travellers new to backpacking.  With incredibly respectful guests, comfortable beds, tidy bathrooms and smiling staff, you’ll get a great nights sleep without breaking the bank.

With hot showers (which are in short supply in Colombia) and a choice of yummy cooked breakfasts each morning, BlackPine is a great place to relax.  Should you wish to go further afield though, they’re well located close to a range of low-cost restaurants (hunt out the Mexican – you don’t regret it) and the metro.

Best Showers – Magicpacker Hostel – Cusco, Peru

Any stay in Cusco is bound to be action-packed with so many amazing hikes, archaeological sites and activities in the region.  At the end of a busy day, you’ll need somewhere restful to recharge your batteries and Magicpacker is exactly the ticket.

With some of the best showers we encountered on our travels, a massive TV set to stream NetFlix, social guests and the most fabulous dinners offered (on certain nights of the week), it very quickly became our home away from home.

Best Chill Space – Wild Olive Guest House – Huacachina, Peru

Situated right on the edge of South America’s only natural oasis, the Wild Olive Guest House is a super comfy option for travellers.

With comfortable sofas, another massive TV, friendly guests and a delicious included breakfast (you even get to order off their menu – oh the choice!) it really is a great place to relax in what’s considered a bit of a party town.

Most ‘Worth the Effort’ – Llullu Llama – Quilotoa Loop, Isinlivi, Ecuador

The first stop for us on the Quilotoa Loop, a three-day hike, ended up being a real highlight of our time on the trail.  The hostel itself was incredibly comfortable and served up hearty food and tasty cocktails, perfect to refuel our energy stores.  It also had a lovely spa (though we didn’t think to take our swimmers!), an unbelievably massive (and gorgeous) St. Bernard and best of all, it attracted a social, friendly group of travellers.

We hiked for the next two days with our newfound friends and though we didn’t find the hike itself to be quite as impressive as we’d expected, we had absolutely no regrets, largely thanks to Llullu Llama and the new buddies we made there.

Honourable Mentions

Snuggliest Fire – Margouya Patagonia Outdoor – Puerto Varas, Chile

There’s nothing like a roaring fire when it’s chilly outside… it’s even better when it’s right in your bedroom and lit by someone else each night!

Margpuya Patagonia Outdoor provided respite from the cold whilst being a comfortable, social hostel.  The rooms themselves were a fairly good size and there were plenty of activities on offer through the front desk, along with staff that were always happy to help with local bus information.

Most Helpful Staff – La Justina – San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

Though we arrived late to La Justina, Leonardo, the manager, was ready and waiting with lots of information to help us make the most of our stay in Bariloche.  Throughout our stay, Leonardo extended every kindness to us, and to our two friends who were free camping in town – he didn’t need to but it was so very much appreciated.

The hostel itself was comfortable with a great chill-out area and an expansive kitchen.  The beds were comfortable and whilst we were there, the hostel was quiet enough that we got the dorm to ourselves – awesome!

Best Spanish Practise –  Hostal Princesa Maria -Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador

Though travellers are emersed in Spanish whilst in South America it’s remarkable just how little Spanish is spoken in hostels.  On the occasions when we did come across someone who only spoke Spanish, it was often fast and in unexpected contexts, making it difficult for us to understand.

What a treat it was then, to meet Victor, the owner of Hostal Princesa Maria.  He spoke Spanish slowly, simply and with a great deal of patience, making us realise that our Spanish really had improved, we’d just not had the chance to put ourselves through our paces at the right level all that often.

The hostel itself was well located, close to town but out of the noise of the main square, and provided access to well-priced activities with professional guides – really though, Victor was the shining light of the property.

Best Value – Landscape – International B&B – La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz was a city that really surprised us – it was a busy, hectic South American city but without doubt, it had a real soul.

Located a bit out of the tourist centre, Landscape International provided excellent accommodation at very reasonable rates; so much so that we didn’t have to think twice about upgrading to a private double room – a real treat on our trip.

Beautiful Location – Casa Relax Minca Hostal Boutique – Minca, Colombia

A 15-minute walk out of the centre of town, Casa Relax Minca was a lovely escape from reality.

With friendly guests and plenty of assistance from the staff in planning our day, it was the perfect base from which to explore the local area whilst chilling out.

Pro Tip:  If possible, request one of the rooms downstairs (if you’re there for the weekend) as the rooms upstairs don’t have their own ceilings, which means that the sound from the lounge transfers over.  Don’t let it put you off though, it’s a great hostel with respectful guests – just book a room downstairs if it’s Friday or Saturday.

Bucket-List Views – Refugio Paine Grande – Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia

Though it was far from our favourite hostel based on facilities, you just can’t beat Refugio Paine Grande for its incredible location.

Right in the middle of Torres del Paine, Chile’s iconic national park, we experienced some of the most incredible hikes we’ll probably ever have the pleasure of undertaking.  At the end of a big day out on the trails, there was nothing better than snuggling up, knowing that such incredible beauty was just beyond the window.

Backpacking in South America – You don’t have to rough it…

Accommodation in South America can be both cheap and cheerful.

Without a doubt, we encountered our fair share of disappointing hostels but with our tips, you can skip right to the best of the best!

Even if you’ve never backpacked before, we’d implore you to give it a shot.  With a real community of like-minded, respectful travellers on the continent, staying in South American hostels needn’t be a scary thought – quite the opposite, a great hostel is an opportunity to meet new friends whilst saving money and staying in comfort.

… and that’s muy bueno!

If you want to save travellers from bad hostels, pin this post so they spot the good ones! 

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Six Months on the Road: Colombia and USA – San Francisco & Hawai’i

February 18, 2018

After countless night buses, flights, dorm beds, hikes, new friends and once-in-a-lifetime experiences our six month adventure throughout South America is over!  As I sit here, back in New Zealand, it’s hard to believe how many miles we’ve put behind us and just how much we’ve seen.

How lucky are we?

… but now we’re home, life kind of just goes on!  We’ve not forgotten about you though – as always, we’ve recorded our costings, route and suggested activities, only this time we’ve got a few stops up in North America for good measure too…

First time reading our monthly round-up?  We suggest you start with our first, second, third, fourth and fifth months on the road in South America before getting into this one.

Cartagena, Colombia

Our first introduction to Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, Cartagena was our favourite ocean-side spot (which I must admit, surprised us) in the country.  With colourful old buildings, an afternoon spent walking through its winding streets is a day well spent.  We found two nights to be more than we needed but there are worse places to spend a few days than Cartagena!

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm at Casa Torices Real @ COP29,450 each/night (USD10/NZD13.80) – we were lucky to have the room to ourselves but with a cold shower (that did actually come out with a touch of warmth), a dorm toilet with only a shower curtain to provide privacy from the rest of the room and a taxi required to get into town, it wasn’t the best value around.  Of course, hotels there would be much louder and more expensive, but we’d probably look elsewhere if returning.

Activities:  With such beautiful buildings, we spent the day wandering through the colonial streets, admiring Cartagena’s beauty.

Onwards travel to Santa Marta:  Organised through Juan Ballena, we got a shuttle from the office in Cartagena to the office in Santa Marta (USD23 each).  You are able to get a taxi/bus/taxi combo but it takes twice as long and doesn’t work out a heck of a lot cheaper in the end.  If you do decide to book, you can use the following promo code to save 5% on your booking ‘CARTAHELLYEAH!’.

Santa Marta, Colombia

Santa Marta is, for most people, a jumping off point to Minca and Tayrona National Park – for us, it wasn’t much more than that.  There’s a beach that’s flanked by oil tankers (doesn’t that sound delightful?) and a town that lacks the charm of Salento.  All in all, it wouldn’t be top of our list.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm at Mareiwa Hostel @ COP30,000 each/night (USD10.20/NZD14.05) – the hotel wasn’t anything special but was reasonably close to the action in town and did have a little warmth in the cold shower.  It didn’t have a great social spot to relax but the beds themselves were comfortable and the hostel clean enough.  It wouldn’t be our top pick in town, but the price was right, as was the location.

Activities:  Very limited – we took a wander down to the beach (which really wasn’t anything special) and picked up some food in town.

Onwards travel to Minca:  COP8,000 each for the colectivo from Santa Marta to Minca – you can pick this up on the corner of Calle 12 and Carrera 9 (and pay in the little office before boarding the van).

Minca, Colombia

Up in the mountains, above Santa Marta, sits Minca, a sleepy forested town, popular with tourists looking to relax.  It’s clean, green and a lovely break from the hustle and bustle of the neighbouring coastal area.

Accommodation:  4 nights at Casa Relax Minca Hostal Boutique in a 6-bed mixed dorm @ COP35,000 each (USD11.90/NZD16.40).  The hostel is a little way out of town but it has a lovely relaxed feel to it (though the rooms upstairs could do with proper ceilings to help cut the noise out).  The beds were super comfy, breakfast was tasty and the setting was perfect – we’d recommend a stay for sure.

Activities:  Minca’s all about relaxing and getting amongst nature.  Whilst there, we hiked to Cascada de Marinka (COP4,000/USD1.35/NZD1.85 each) and also to Pozo Azul (no entrance fee).  Both of these walks can be accessed by moto-taxi but if you have a little time on your hands and a reasonable level of fitness, we’d recommend you hike.

The walk out to Pozo Azul is slightly easier than that to Cascada de Marinka but both are totally manageable with only Cascada de Marinka have a decent dose of hill-climbing towards the end – other than that, both hikes quietly gain elevation on the way there and of course drop down again on the way back.

If you only have time to visit one spot, we preferred Casada de Marinka – the hike was a little more involved, there were fewer people there, and the two beautiful waterfalls are set in a lovely tropical garden.

Pro Tip:  Be sure to take your swimming togs (bathing suit) so you can cool off – both Cascada de Marinka and Pozo Azul provide opportunities for a dip.  Be warned though, they’re both pretty chilly!

Onwards travel to Palomino (via Santa Marta):  Collectivo from Minca to Santa Marta (where it dropped you off) for COP8,000 each (USD2.70/NZD3.75).  Once in town, round the corner at the bus station and jump on the bus from Santa Marta to Palomino for COP10,000 each (USD3.40/NZD4.70) – these buses run constantly and you just pay onboard.

Palomino, Colombia

Whilst travelling, a number of people exclaimed that we had to visit Palomino, so that’s exactly what we did.  We were told that Palomino offered much of the beauty of the Tayrona National Park, but with the added benefit of having more comfortable and affordable accommodation.  Did we find that to be true?  We planned on staying for four nights and ended up cutting back to two so we’ll leave you to decide.

Accommodation:  1 night in a private room at The Dreamer Hostel – Palomino (be sure to book the right one – we booked Santa Marta by mistake!) @ COP110,000 each (USD37.45/NZD51.60) and then 1 night at the Palomino Breeze Hostal in a 6-bed mixed dorm @ COP35,000 each (USD12.35/NZD17).  Though we loved our first hostel, it really did hurt our wallets (and even at that price, it was a cold-water shower)!  The second hostel was very basic but it had a pool and did the trick for one night.

Activities:  We chose to chill out beside the pool but you’re able to head out tubing on a local river and can also catch the bus to Tayrona (though it’s closer to Santa Marta).

Onwards travel to Barranquilla:  Bus from Palomino to Santa Marta (COP10,000/USD3.40/NZD4.70) each – speak to your driver as he’ll be able to drop you off at the big roundabout in Santa Marta where you can get straight on a minivan to continue on.  From there, head into the office of Berlinas where you’ll get a ride in the van to their main Santa Marta office and a ticket right through to Barranquilla for COP20,000 each (USD6.80/NZD9.40).

Barranquilla, Colombia

With flights out of Barranquilla, we always knew we had to spend a night there but we really weren’t planning any more than that.  In the end though, when we decided to move on early from Palomino, we figured we’d skip through Santa Marta and try our luck in Barranquilla – what a great choice that ended up being!  Our hotel was super comfortable and there were lots of yummy food options in the local mall.  Sure, it wasn’t what most of our travels were about but it was the perfect way to finish up in South America before flying on.

Accommodation:  3 nights in a private room at the Holiday Inn Express Barranquilla Buenavista @ COP78,375 each (USD26.79/NZD36.75).  This was the perfect spot to chill after a busy six months!  The beds were crazy comfortable and breakfast was filling – though it was a little bit of a splurge compared to the hostels we’d been used to, it was money well spent and great value.

Activities:  Absolutely nothing!  Though there are a few things to do in Barranquilla, it’s mostly an economic hub for the Caribbean side of Colombia.  For us, it was a place to recharge our batteries for a few days before heading up to the US.

Onwards travel to San Francisco:  Flights booked through Kiwi (click here to get a €20 on us!) at USD631.55 each (NZD870.40).

San Francisco, California, United States of America

Having visited the West Coast countless times before but never making it to San Francisco, we decided it was finally time to check out the city that we’d heard so much about.  Taking pride of place on the bay, San Francisco was everything that was promised to us and then some – it’s fair to say we fell in love with this incredible city.

Accommodation:  5 nights in a private room at the San Remo Hotel @ USD32.60 each/night (NZD51.80) and another 2 nights where we treated ourselves at Hotel Griffon.  Both hotels are well located, San Remo near Fisherman’s Wharf and Hotel Griffon being right on the water in the middle of town.

Make a difference.  Though we’ve seen homelessness elsewhere, we’d never seen it on the level that we did in San Francisco.  Expensive housing, a high cost of living, a relatively temperate climate and a lack of government support means the city has an exceptionally high level of people down on their luck.  You’re able to help though – when you leave a restaurant that offers free soft drink refills ask for a takeaway glass (commonplace in the US) or top your own takeaway cup up when you leave a burger joint.  Hang on to any leftover food, hotel amenities or articles of clothing that have been replaced on a US shopping adventure.  Anything you’re able to donate will likely be gratefully received.

Activities:   With so much to do in San Francisco you’ll be hard-pressed to tick all the boxes but if you manage your time well, it’s easy to fit a couple of activities into each day.

Alcatraz –  San Francisco’s most recognisable attraction,
Alcatraz Cruises is your go-to tour provider.  For USD37.25 per person (NZD51.40), they’ll take you over to the island and provide everything you need to explore the most iconic prison in the world… and yes, it really is a must do!  The audio tour that’s included in the trip is amazing – with background noises and sound effects, it genuinely transports you back to the prison’s heyday.

We considered both the day and night tours and found that each had their own pros and cons.  The day tour allows guests to explore the park on the island, giving them much more freedom to move about as they please.  By comparison, the night tour is apparently much more dramatic (can’t you just imagine the moody atmosphere in the old prison at night?) but it comes with a slightly higher price tag, less flexibility to do your own thing and that chilly San Francisco night air.

By the time we decided to book the night tour, the tickets had sold out!  Instead, we visited during the day where we happily spent half a day on the island and would suggest you combine it with a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf whilst you’re in the area.  There are also a number of other activities available in this part of town so no doubt, you’ll find yourself back there.

Biking the Golden Gate Bridge – Touted by friends as a must-do in San Francisco, we picked up our ‘deluxe infinity shifting priority hybrid bikes from
Wheel Fun Rentals and headed for the iconic bridge.  Though the names of the bikes sound complicated, in reality, they’re anything but; the gears shift smoothly, without any hang-time, allowing anyone to jump on and figure out the system quickly.  The bikes also come with a self-guided GPS system, taking riders through key routes and sharing interesting local information.  The ridge over the bridge itself is easy and bike lanes throughout the journey mean you’ll spend very little time on the road itself – yes, you’ll probably end up with a sore behind but the views are totally worth it.

Pro Tip:  If you’d like to cut the time you spend on your bike down, you can ride over to Sausalito (on the other side of the bridge) and catch the ferry back over towards the city.  Likewise, if you’re on a budget, simply turn around at the end of the bridge and bike back to save yourself a ferry ticket.  We really would recommend a trip out to Sausalito though, so if you don’t include it as part of your biking excursion, try to include it with another day trip (like we did whilst visiting the redwoods).

Muir Woods & Sausalito day trip – One of our must-do’s in San Francisco, we joined
Extranomical Tours to get up close and personal with the incredible redwoods.  The day itself was very relaxed, starting with a visit to the ferry building for breakfast and then a visit to the Muir Woods before heading to Sausalito and stopping off for amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and a breath of fresh air, making the whole experience a real highlight of our time in the city.

Big Bus Tours – For years Nathan has talked about jumping on a Big Bus Tour but it took us hitting San Fran for it to finally happen!  We loved the flexibility these tours offer – for 24 hours we were able to hop on and off again as often as we wanted, with entertaining, personalised commentary all the way.

Though it would be been great to have taken our tour on a fine day, it was a great way to see the city, even in the rain.  When you’re on the tour, be sure to jump off at Haight-Ashbury, the vibrant, summer-of-love part of San Francisco.

For those of you that grew up watching Full house, yes, you can check out the aforementioned houses whilst on the tour!

California Academy of Sciences – Not somewhere initially on our list, we were so pleased our CityPASS included tickets as it was literally one of the best, most interactive set of exhibitions we’ve ever seen.  With an incredible array of fish and marine animals, an amazing planetarium and exhibits to capture everyone’s attention, it was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon seeking shelter from the rain.

Even better, the Big Bus swings right past the entrance and continues on its way again so it’s easy to fit into your schedule.

Aquarium of the Bay – Again included in our San Francisco CityPASS, the Aquarium of the Bay is conveniently located at Fisherman’s Wharf and combines well with other activities in the area.  We spend around 1.5 hours at the aquarium, checking out their sharks, otters and other fabulous exhibits.

Scale-wise, it doesn’t compare to the Academy of Sciences but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially if you have a CityPASS and therefore, a free ticket.

AsiaSF – If you’re looking for a unique night out in one of the most liberal cities in the world, a visit to AsiaSF will tick your boxes!  Proud supporters of the transgender community, these stunning ladies are the epitome of ‘fabulous’, performing to enthusiastic audiences whilst serving up delicious Asian-inspired meals.  Go equipped with a sense of fun and humour and you’ll have the best night out!

Take in a basketball game – An easy subway ride from the city, a basketball game is a fantastic (albeit expensive) way to spend an evening!  With the Golden State Warriors in fine form and games running frequently throughout the week, chances are you’ll be able to pick up tickets to a game at a relatively reasonable price with advance notice.  We paid USD80.40 (NZD108.85) each to sit up in the top stalls – they weren’t the best seats in the house (quite the opposite) but allowed us to enjoy the game and unique atmosphere.

Pro Tip – Leave your big cameras and bags at the hotel!  The stadium has a strict bag-check policy and having to make use of it will cost you USD10.  If you’re able to, it’s best to pop the essentials in your pocket and avoid the hassle.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom – Never ones to turn down a good rollercoaster, a visit to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom was a non-negotiable for us (well mostly me) on our San Fran trip.  We had a great day out at the park with new friends, racing around all of the best coasters in the park.  Our top picks?  The Joker (an amazing wooden/steel hybrid with lots of airtime) and Medusa.  I also loved Wonder Woman Lasso of Truth (but couldn’t talk the others into joining me) and would have loved to have gotten on SUPERMAN Ultimate Flight had it not been closed for maintenance.

Headed out to the park?  You’ll need a rental car!  City Rent-a-Car will sort you out for the day from their central Union Square location for only USD50.

Pier 39 – Popular with tourists, a visit to Pier 39 can cost you as much or as little as you like.  We enjoyed strolling along the wharf, people watching and of course, checking out the Californian sea lions.

The San Francisco Dungeon – If you’re looking for a comical introduction to San Franciscian history, the Dungeon might be the place for you.  With a couple of rides and lots of theming and on-point actors, this immersive experience is entertaining, if a little different to your normal tourism activity.  The rides themselves were a little disappointing if we’re being honest but the experience as a whole was worthwhile, especially on a rainy day.

Onwards travel to the Big Island, Hawai’i:  We booked from San Francisco to Oahu (and then on to Auckland, New Zealand) through Hawaiian Airlines for USD625.10 each (NZD861.55).  We then connected from Honolulu to Kona for USD82 each (NZD113).

Big Island, Hawai’i, United States of America

Tropical beaches, near-perfect weather and all of the benefits of cheap American shopping; we didn’t need to visit the Big Island to know that we’d fall in love!  When tossing up between Maui and the Big Island (also known by the state’s name, Hawai’i), we elected for the later for one key reason – mantas.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Mauna Lani Bay and 2 nights at Hilton Waikoloa Village.  Both hotels were absolutely glorious!  Mauna Lani Bay has access to fabulous snorkelling just off the beach whilst the Hilton Waikoloa Village had a massive lagoon, perfect for guaranteed turtle snorkelling.


Manta Dive with Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii – The main reason we visited the Big Island, this is the best place in the world to swim with these gentle giants.  Absolutely massive, with an undeniable grace, these harmless beauties are attracted to the surface at night to feed on plankton – we were just lucky to observe them in their natural habitat for 45 minutes or so.  We tossed up whether we’d snorkel or dive with the mantas and in the end decided to snorkel to save a bit of money (it cost USD123.40/NZD167.10 each).  With amazing views of them throughout the snorkel, we were more than happy with our choice, though we’re sure the dive would have been amazing too!

Morning Snorkel with Fair Wind Cruises – Touted as the best snorkelling on the island, one of the only practical ways to get to Kealakekua Bay (home of the Captain Cook monument) is on a cruise.  Fair Wind provide so much more than just transport though – snorkelling gear, delicious food (breakfast, lunch and soft drinks all at no additional charge), a fabulous boat (complete the high-water dive platforms and two waterslides) and stand-up paddle boards.  We love that they really follow through on their eco-friendly policies, encouraging guests to do their bit to help cut down on waste and providing them with environmentally aware alternatives.

Onwards travel to Honolulu, Hawai’i:  Hawaiian Airlines, USD82 each (NZD113).

Honolulu, Oahu, Hawai’i, United States

Having visited Oahu before, we knew it would be the perfect was to finish up our trip.  Plenty to do should we wish but no pressure to tick activities off either – we’d been before and no doubt we’ll go again.

Accommodation:  1 night in a 4-bed mixed dorm at the Waikiki Beachside Hostel @ USD47 each (NZD64.75) and then 3 nights in a private room at the Surftide @ AUD65.20 each (USD50.95/NZD70.25 – booked through Wotif).  By far the most expensive hostel we stayed at on our travels, the Waikiki Beachside Hostel was also one of the most basic – with gaping holes in the glass, a ranchslider that barely closed and rubbish trucks passing by at all hours, we couldn’t say it offered particularly good value for money.  Our move to the Surftide was the best choice we could have made.

Activities:  As we’d visited Honolulu a few times before and were at the end of a long trip, we wanted to spend most of our time on Oahu relaxing and that’s exactly what we did.  We did, however, manage to squeeze in a few new experiences!

Discount shopping – The Waikele Premium Outlets are a little out of Waikiki but if you have a rental car, they’re well worth a visit.  With lots of popular brands (new Levis jeans, Ugg boots, Clarks heels and a whole lot more made their way into my bag) at fantastic prices, be sure to pick up an extra suitcase to cart all of your bargains home.

Cage-free shark snorkel – This is literally the best thing you’ll ever do on Oahu.  Jump in with One Ocean and leave the cages to everyone else – you don’t need one!  The One Ocean team is made up of scientists and environmentalists and is on a serious mission to improve outcomes for sharks and to educate people about their plight.  Even with 50+ sharks in the water and no real protection from them, we felt incredibly comfortable.  If you’ve never spent time with sharks and are a little nervous about doing so, we guarantee a morning out with these guys will change your thoughts on them!

Drive around the Island and check out the North Shore – Possibly the most famous surfing spot in the world, the Banzai Pipeline is the best spot to catch massive waves and surfers with equally massive amounts of courage to take them on!

Hanauma Bay – One of the most popular natural attractions on Oahu, Hanauma Bay is a great place to learn how to snorkel.  The protected bay attracts all sorts of beautiful sea life and calm water conditions means it suits snorkellers of all abilities.  Unfortunately, the fish weren’t as abundant as we remember it being in the past but we were told by a local that if you get out beyond the waves (where few people go), that it’s much more impressive.

Entrance is USD7.50 each (NZD10.25) and the bay is open every day apart from Tuesday.  To get there, jump on the 22 bus for USD2.75 one way.  If you have enough exact change, pay for the return ticket at once (USD5.50) and you’ll be given a day pass allowing you to ride the bus elsewhere at no extra charge.

Diamond Head Luau – Just how I’ve been to Hawai’i so many times without ever attending a luau is beyond me!  This time though, we changed that, heading along to the Diamond Head Luau just down the road at Waikiki.

With a new ‘farm to table’ buffet offering, the quality of the food was top notch and in typical American style, served up with a smile.  Tickets included a range of Hawaiian crafts and traditional skills, three cocktails to kickstart the night, a fantastic show, delicious buffet and entrance to the aquarium at the end of the night.

Though we didn’t visit any of the following attractions this time around, we almost always do – be sure to let us know if you’d like help planning them; Pearl Harbour, Ala Moana Shopping Mall and the Dole Pineapple Plantation.

Onwards travel to Auckland, New Zealand:   Included as part of our flight with Hawaiian from San Francisco to Auckland – we chose to add a stopover in Hawaii at no additional charge.

Lessons Learnt on the Road

  • Big expectations can be hard to meet.  Throughout our travels we heard practically everyone rave about Colombia.  To be honest though, it really didn’t live up to our expectations; there was a lot we liked about certain spots (Salento, Medellín and Minca for example), but the Caribbean coast was a surprising disappointment.  Colombia was far from a bad spot, I think we’ve just learnt to temper our expectations.
  • There’s nothing wrong with heading back to a favourite spot.  In fact, doing so can be a great choice!  It certainly wasn’t the first time we’d returned to a favourite spot but after 2.5 years of visiting places that were new to us, it was a lovely change to revisit a part of the world that we already knew we enjoyed.

So that’s us, all done!  Six months of full-time travel behind us and incredible memories to last a lifetime.

Machu Picchu, Patagonia, the Iguazu Falls, a luxury cruise through the Galapagos Islands, white water rafting, ziplining, scuba diving, sandboarding, shark snorkelling and more.  We attempted to learn a new language (and were relatively successful in doing so) and made it through a whole bunch of challenges, hopefully coming out the other end better off for them.

We’re so grateful for the last six months and looking excitedly into the future.

One thing I know for sure; this isn’t the end of our adventure.

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Our Previous Months on the Road

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Colombia Salento South America Valle de Cocora

A Guide to the Cocora Valley – Salento, Colombia – Home to the Tallest Palm Trees in the World!

January 21, 2018

One of the most recognisable tourist attractions in Colombia, the Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora) is home to the country’s national tree and symbol, the towering Quindío wax palm.  An easy trip from Salento, the region was our favourite and a must-see on any Colombian itinerary.

Formed in 1985 (which might I add, was a mighty fine year!), the Cocora Valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park.  Prior to the formation of wildlife sanctuary, there were concerns regarding the exploitation of the wax palms, but the national park has since provided a safe haven for these gorgeous trees along with countless other species of local flora and fauna.

Navigating The Cocora Valley

Transport: How to Get to the Cocora Valley

Getting to the Cocora Valley is surprisingly easy and affordable thanks to the colectivo 4WDs (affectionately known as ‘Willys’).

These old trucks give travellers a ride out to the Valley for only COP3,800 each (one way) – the ride isn’t particularly comfortable and they are sin seatbelts, but hey, you’re in Colombia!

Normally you’ll find the colourful Jeeps in the main square but when we found ourselves in Salento over New Years Eve, the square was closed so we made our way to Willys HQ which you’ll find just before the corner of Calle 3 and Carrera 3.  Basically, walk up the main road (Carrera 6) and turn left when you come across Calle 3.  From there, walk down and up the hill again until you get to Carrera 3 (it’s not too far) – there you’ll find the 4WDs on your left.

Though there are officially set times of departure (check with your hostel as they seem to change a lot), we learnt that in reality, the trucks just leave when they’re full (in both directions).  We do suggest you leave no later than 9am, though, to ensure you make it onto the trail with plenty of time to spare.

Need Help Getting to Salento in the First Place? Check out our travel guide to help you get from Bogota to Salento and from Salento to Medellín (or vice versa).

Option One: The Short Trip To Valle de Cocora

If you’re tight on time or just aren’t in the mood for a full hike, you can still tick off the highlight of the Valley, those giant wax palms.

Once you arrive, just keep walking straight ahead and after 20 minutes or so, you’ll find yourself at the base of the palms.  From there, you’ll be free to head higher towards La Montana or to stay down on the lowlands – both are gorgeous.

Option Two: The Full Hike Through The Cocora Valley

Do you have more time to explore?  With a whole day at your disposal, we really recommend you undertake the full hike, looping around Valle de Cocora.

To start, you’ll want to turn right at the blue gate, following the path down the hill.  This track will take you past the trout farm and eventually through the cloud forest, along the river and up to La Montana before winding back down through the palms.

The Highlights of the Full Hike Along the Cocora Loop

Checking out the Trout Farm

As you approach the bottom of the hill, soon after passing through the initial gate, you’ll come across a trout farm welcoming visitors.

The farm itself isn’t anything spectacular but we enjoyed wandering alongside the tanks, trying to spot the biggest fish whilst scattering food.  It certainly wasn’t the main highlight of the day, but if you have the time, it’s a worthwhile stop on the hike.

Cloud Forest Beauty

The start of the hike along the loop is a fairly uninspiring one, working its way along a muddy walking path, with paddocks on either side.  Before long though, grass gives way to the most beautiful cloud forest; if not for the lack of ferns in fact, we’d have sworn we were back home in New Zealand!

The hike through the forest is absolutely gorgeous.  Aptly named 7 Puentes (or 7 bridges), hikers move back and forth over a series of bridges, always weaving their way over the cascading river.

The hike itself isn’t incredibly challenging but on a muddy, misty and surprisingly warm day, it’s fair to say, we felt it that evening!  If you’re prepared and take it slowly, you’ll make it through the hike without any problems, regardless of the weather.

Acaime – Hummingbirds Galore

Tucked a little off the main loop, you’ll find Acaime, a hummingbird sanctuary.  Though the sanctuary is basic, it’s a great opportunity to see these incredible little birds in the wild.  All of the birds are free to come and go as they like (but with sugar water on offer, why would they ever leave?!) and a reasonable array of species can be found showing off.

Entrance includes a drink and there’s a very basic kitchen if you’d like some food cooked up.  The walk adds approximately 40 minutes each way to your hike but if you have the time, it’s a worthwhile addition to your day.  We sat happily for 20 minutes or so watching the birds flitting around – I just can’t get enough of them!

La Montana & The Main Event – The Wax Palms

The icon, both of this region and of Colombia itself, the wax palms are no doubt the main reason visitors make the pilgrimage to the Cocora Valley.

When we first reached the palms, just down from La Montana, they were absolutely enveloped in mist.  Though the mist brought with it its own sense of magic, it was a little disappointing to have finally made it to the palms, only to find them practically unrecogniable.

Though visitors are able to walk down (or up) the steep mountain path, due to the rain and mist, it was abundently clear to us that it wasn’t a good idea at that point in time.  Instead, we continued our hike down the road, where we could be sure of our footing.

As we neared the bottom, we were finally rewarded with clearing weather and beautiful views of the trees that we came to see…

Seriously – look at them!!

The Cost of a Day at Cocora Valley

The real beauty of a trip to Valle de Cocora (aside from the obvious natural beauty) is its price.  A day in the national park will cost you very little but even at twice the price, it would be a bargain by international standards.

  • Colectivo to Cocora Valley = COP3,800 per person, one way (USD1.35/NZD1.85)
  • Entrance to the park (for the longer hike) = COP3,000 each (USD1.05/NZD1.45).
  • A self-guided tour of the trout farm = COP3,000 including a bag of fish food (USD1.05/NZD1.45)
  • A visit to the hummingbird sanctuary, AcaimeCOP5,000 including a drink (USD1.75/NZD2.40)

All up, a that’s a total of COP18,600 each (USD6.55/NZD9.00) which, if you ask us, is fantastic value!

NB: We’ve been hearing mixed things about hiking directly to the palm trees… some people say that part of the hike is free, whereas others have said it’s more expensive than entering from the other side of the park.  If you’ve recently visited Valle de Cocora and decided to head straight to the wax palms, we’d love to hear of your experience.

Gear List: What You’ll Need for the Cocora Valley

  • Good shoes.  Ensure your shoes/boots have good soles on them (and that you don’t mind them getting dirty).  If you don’t have anything that fits the bill, you may like to look at hiring a pair of gumboots from town before leaving Salento.

  • A rain jacket.  Due to the location and elevation of the palms, they often sit amongst the mist and rain in the afternoon.  This needn’t stop you but be sure to take a jacket (or at the very least, a poncho) so you can hike in comfort.
  • Water and snacks.  There are a few places on the trail where you can buy food and drinks (La Montana and the hummingbird sanctuary) but options are limited.  You’re best to take your own and supplement your packed lunch with treats should you wish.
  • Sun protection.  Though we didn’t need it, on a nicer day, you won’t want to be without a hat and sunscreen.
  • A good backpack.  If you undertake the full loop you’ll want to put your gear in a comfy day bag.

With gorgeous views, iconic sights, a good dose of exercise and a price tag that’ll make your wallet happy, a visit to the Cocora Valley, just outside of Salento is an absolute must whilst you’re in Colombia.

… just remember, we told you how muddy it can get!

Headed to the Cocora Valley?  Be sure to pin this post!


  • Reply Tom ! Plan my trip February 21, 2018 at 6:48 am

    Hey there! Lovely detailed article Sarah!

    I love Salento and the Wax palm trees are just amazing! I agree, the full hike is easy to do but so muddy! Sometimes, you can rent or take plastic boots at your hostel.

    The only important thing during the hike is to not turn first right on the way back from Acaime. As you can see on the map, it’s a loooong path leading to Los Nevados (Estrella de Agua and La primevera cabanas). Many travelers make this mistake ^^

    The trek to los Nevados is awesome too but you have to book in advance and it’s a 3-4-5 days hike.

    I hope you’re enjoying Colombia! 🙂

    • Reply Sarah - Exploring Kiwis February 21, 2018 at 8:44 am

      What fantastic advice, Tom – thank you!! Wouldn’t it be a shock to the system to end up on a surprise multi-day hike! We’re back home now unfortunately – can’t complain though. Hope you’re well!

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    Colombia Ecuador Itineraries Monthly Round-Up South America

    Five Months on the Road in South America – Ecuador & Colombia

    January 7, 2018

    Our penultimate month in South America (that’s right, five down, only one to go!) was a welcome change from the backpacking we’ve been enjoying for the majority of our trip.  We returned to our Abu Dhabi roots and soaked in the more luxurious side of Ecuador – after all, nobody has the budget for five-star hotels for six months at a time but everyone loves a good treat every now and then!  For those of you operating on more of a budget though, don’t worry, there’s something in here to suit you too.

    As always, we’re all about those ‘bucket list adventures’!

    If you’re new around here, we suggest you check out our first, second, third and fourth months on the road in South America before starting on month five.

    The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

    The highlight of our entire South America trip (and there have been lots of highlights so that’s not an easy feat) and potentially of our travelling career, our time in the Galápagos was incredible.  We’re not going to go into a tonne of detail here as there will be plenty to come, but you should know that it’s worth scrimping, saving and bending over backwards to make a cruise around this incredible islands work!

    Accommodation:  7 nights aboard the MV OriginEcoventura‘s luxury ship.  Followed by 2 nights at Casa de Jeimy in a private room @ USD22.40 each/night (NZD31.55) on San Cristobal.

    Activities:  Incredible animals and nature galore!  If there’s one place in the world where you can see a massive range of animals in their natural habitat, the Galápagos is it.  We swam with sea lions, sea turtles, marine iguanas, reef sharks and marble rays.  We also got up close and personal with massive land iguanas, tortoises, whales, hummingbirds and my favourite, the beautiful boobies, all whilst relaxing on a luxury vessel with the most fabulous guests and staff.

    We also intentionally checked out a day trip (as lots of the backpackers we’ve met along the way have talked about them as a cheaper alternative).  To be frank though, it didn’t compare, even remotely.  If you’re able to, we really would recommend saving more and getting yourself aboard a ship to see the outer islands.

    Onwards travel to Quito:  Flying TAME from San Cristobal (SCY) to Quito (UIO) for USD193.30 each (NZD269.75).  It’s important to note that Ecuadorian’s get a discount on flights – don’t tick this box unless you’re eligible for the discount, otherwise you will be denied boarding.

    Quito, Ecuador

    The capital city of Ecuador sprawls out from North to South but it’s the historic town centre where you’ll want to spend most of your time.  Though the traffic is, at times, a real nightmare, we enjoyed spending a few days in the city.

    Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Casa Gangotena.  Absolutely old-school charm, this hotel is a must in the city if you’re looking to splurge.

    Activities:  A guided tour that took us through a local neighbourhood within Quito, showing us a side of the city that few visitors get to experience.  It was followed by a visit to the most iconic spots in the historic centre and the most fabulous museum.  If you’re in Quito, we highly recommend this alternative walking tour, ‘Live Quito like a local‘.

    Onwards travel to Mashpi:  Organised by Mashpi Lodge – we joined a mini-bus of other guests, stopping at a local museum on the way.

    Mashpi, Ecuador

    Having already immersed ourselves into the jungle in Peru, we knew we wanted another experience along the same line.  Masphi offered the opportunity to do exactly that, but this time in the lap of absolute luxury in the cloud forest.

    Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Mashpi Lodge – a National Geographic “Unique Lodge of the World”.  As you’d expect, it was absolutely incredible!

    Activities:  Night cloud forest walks, a ride on their very own cable car (known as the ‘dragonfly’) and their skybike, along with hikes to cascading waterfalls, hummingbird spotting, toucan sightings and more.

    Onwards travel to Baños:  Mashpi Lodge took us back to Quito and from there, we boarded a bus to Baños for USD4.40 each (NZD6.15).  We got our ticket at the Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe and jumped on the next available bus – they run frequently, all day.

    Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador

    The adventure capital of Ecuador, Baños was always a must-see in Ecuador as far as we were concerned.  We loved it so much that we spent a full week there checking out all this vibrant little town had to offer.

    Accommodation:  7 nights in a private room at Hostal Princesa Maria @ USD10.50 each/night (NZD14.80).  A quiet hostel, as long as you ask for a room upstairs.  Victor was an incredibly friendly host!  He didn’t speak a great deal of English but was happy to go out of his way to help.

    Activities:  Our hostel organised for us to go whitewater rafting (USD20/NZD27.90 each) and canyoning (USD25/NZD34.90 each) with Expediciones Amazónicas – both were great fun and excellent value for money.  The team also had high-quality gear and well-trained, English speaking guides.

    We also took local buses around town – we went up to Casa Del Arbol where we swung at the end of the world and also visited Pailon del Diablo (the Devil’s Cauldron – a stunning waterfall).

    Onwards travel to Latacunga:  Again, buses are easy to organise on the day.  We caught the bus from Baños to the turn-off (a big roundabout) of Latacunga – just be sure to let the attendant know that you want to get off at Latacunga and he’ll point it out to you.  From there, taxi’s will take you into town (no more than USD4).  Unfortunately, I lost our receipt but the bus Quito-Latacunga was only a couple of US dollars each.

    Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

    Though we weren’t planning on hiking in Ecuador, we decided to make a move to the Quilotoa Loop for Christmas, rather than spend another week in Baños (though we did love it there!)

    We caught a local bus in the morning from Latacunga to Sigchos (USD2.30/NZD3.20) each and from there, hiked to our next stop for the following three days.

    At the conclusion of the hike, we made the decision not to stay in Quilotoa (though it looked like a great little spot on top of the mountain), instead catching a ride with in ute back to Zumbahua (USD2 per person) and then a bus to Latacunga (another few dollars).

    Accommodation:  3 nights in total across the loop in the following spots:

    Activities:  Hiking, hiking and more hiking!  We hiked from each location to the next, always with the fabulous new friends we made on the loop.  Compared to the scenery we’ve seen on other hikes (and let’s face it, we’ve been spoilt by Patagonia and Peru), it wasn’t as spectacular but the people we met really made the trip!

    Onwards travel to Bogata:  We were planning to catch a bus (all 34 hours of it!) but when it sold out, some of our new friends very kindly came to the rescue and helped us by letting us fly standby with them.  The flights are expensive normally so if you’re planning on taking one, definitely book in advance.  Alternatively, if you do plan on catching the bus, Cruz del Sur will take you all the way through (which was our preference to save on accommodation and lugging our gear from bus to bus), or you can take a combination of local buses (which would be cheaper but would take much longer).

    Bogota, Colombia

    After five months of travelling, all we’ve ever heard people do it rave about Colombia!  After a night in Bogota, I must admit, we were starting to wonder why.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the city (in fact it was nice to get back to the bright lights again), but it just didn’t wow us.  Rio?  You bet!  Lima?  What a pleasant surprise.  Bogota?  Aside from the gorgeous street art, it didn’t do a lot for us.

    Accommodation:  2 nights in a 5-bed mixed dorm at Hostel Casa 32 DC @ USD7 each/night (NZD9.75).  The beds were comfortable but the bathrooms and kitchen were an absolute mess (and I’m not the cleanest person in the world, so that’s saying something!).  The people were lovely so it’s a pity that we can’t really recommend this hostel.  On the upside though, it was cheap!

    Activities:  We joined the Bogota Graffiti Tour which was a fabulous way to see the more authentic side of Colombia’s capital city – it’s a tips only tour and certainly something we’d recommend doing whilst in town (just book online ahead of time if possible).

    Onwards travel to Salento:  We caught a local mini-bus from Bogota to Armenia and then on to Salento.  It was straightforward but we learnt a few lessons on the way.  If you’re making the journey, we have full instructions for you here.

    Salento, Colombia

    A colourful little colonial town, buzzing with New Years excitement, wax palm trees reaching high into the sky, coffee plantations and hummingbirds buzzing around – what’s not to love about beautiful Salento?

    Accommodation:  3 nights in a private room at Walker’s House Hostel.

    Activities:  We hiked the Cocora Valley, completing the full loop (starting at the fish farm, taking in the hummingbirds and finishing with the palms).  It was a full day and relatively challenging due to the massive amount of rain they got the night before (and unbelievably muddy conditions) but it was well worth it.  Rides out to the Valley (and back) are COP3,800 each way (USD 1.30/NZD1.80 per person), the fish farm is COP3,000 each (USD 1.05/NZD1.45 including a bag of food), entrance to the park itself is COP2,000 (USD0.70/NZD0.95) and the hummingbirds are COP5,000 each (USD1.70/NZD2.50 which includes a drink).  Food and drinks are available at a few different points on the walk but we packed sandwiches and drinks to take with us, making for a reasonably cheap day out!

    Onwards travel to Medellín:  Again, we bused but this time on a direct service which made life so much easier!  COP47,000 (USD15.75/NZD22.15) was all it cost us and full instructions can be found in our guide.

    Medellín, Colombia

    Ah, beautiful Medellín!  Colombia’s second largest city really is a world away from Bogota and an easy place to spend a fair amount of time in!

    Accommodation:  1 night in a 4-bed dorm at the Samarian Hostel @ COP23,300 each/night (USD7.95/NZD11.20) with lovely travellers (but small rooms and cold showers!) before moving into a 5-bed dorm at BlackPine Hostel @ COP33,300each/night (USD11.35/NZD16) for 7 nights.  We loved BlackPine – a great location, clean and tidy, comfortable beds and awesome staff.

    Activities:  Paragliding with DragonFLY (normally COP130,000) – absolutely amazing!  We also toured both Comuna 13 and La Sierra in what were memorable and interesting visits (COP70,000 each, all inclusive).

    Finally, we headed out to Guatape with VIT Escobar Paintball and though we wanted to love our day, practically everything that could go wrong, did!  I’m sure a normal tour with them is great, but when things go wrong, they really do and for this reason, I’m not sure we could recommend them (more on this soon).  Guatape is lovely though and well worth a visit, either with another company or independently on the bus.

    Onwards travel to Cartagena:  Flight with VivaColombia from Medellín to Cartagena.  Though we’re flying with a discount carrier, we have a fair few bags now (those llama blankets were too hard to ignore) so we’ve paid COP260,291 (USD89.60/NZD125.05) each.  This will be our last flight before leaving South America behind!

    … and that’s all for another month!

    Lessons Learnt on the Road

    • Always preload maps onto your phone.  I generally do but occasionally I forget.  We got a reality check in Quito though where we had no choice but to get into an unmarked, unregistered taxi.  Initially, the driver said he knew where he was going but 1/3 of the way into the trip he kept asking if we did (even though he had working sat nav).  We realised at that point in time, how vulnerable we were – for all we knew, he was driving us in the opposite direction in the dead of the night (as he continually said ‘two people, two people’ on the phone in Spanish…  I was terrified we were about to be mugged!  Had we had our maps loaded, we’d have been able to follow along on our phones and the ride would have been much more pleasant.
    • Long-term travel is tiring!  I’m not sure if it’s just because the end is near or because we’ve picked up the speed of our travel but we’re pretty tired now.  We’re making sure to allow ourselves some ‘down days’ where we just vege out because at this stage, we need them!

    It’s hard to believe our time here is coming to an end.  With a month to go, we’re starting to think about jobs, housing and life back in New Zealand but the fun’s not over just yet… stay tuned for the rest of our Colombian itinerary along with San Francisco and Hawaii in the US.

    Check out our Recent Posts

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    Salento Travel Guide: Buses to/from Medellín and Bogota

    Comuna 13: Touring What Was Medellín’s Most Dangerous District

    Our Previous Months on the Road

    A Month on the Road in South America – Chile & Argentina

    Two Months on the Road in South America – Chile, Argentina & Brazil

    Three Months on the Road in South America – Brazil, Bolivia, Chile & Peru

    Four Months on the Road in South America – Peru & Ecuador

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    Colombia Medellín South America

    Comuna 13: Touring What Was Medellín’s Most Dangerous District

    January 6, 2018

    Violence and lawlessness was rife in what was one of the most dangerous barrios (districts) of the most dangerous city in the world.  Citizens were short on money and opportunity and were often left with nowhere to turn.

    Life was tough in Comuna 13.

    This was the most dangerous barrio in Medellín.  It was impossible to reach the centre of town; we were stuck here. All our elder brothers were on drugs or dealing drugs. I just lived in the house, and the bullets came flying in, during dinner…

    Sebastian, 16

    What a difference fifteen years can make though.  As it stands today, it’s almost impossible, as an outsider, to imagine Comuna 13 (a part of the San Javier district) as it once was – a haven for guerrillas, local gangs, drug cartels and paramilitary groups.

    In place of the danger that used to envelop the region, there’s now a surprising sense of peace; a living, adapting community that is a testament to the human spirit.

    If Medellín is to be considered one of the most innovative cities in the world, Comuna 13 would have to be one of the most transformed.

    What did the community come from though?

    An All-Too-Recent History Lesson

    The ’80s-’90s

    Controlled by groups with loyalties to Colombia’s notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar, life in the district was beyond anything I can imagine.  With danger around every corner and unbelievable crime statistics, Escobar’s death in 1993 did little to calm this troublesome part of Medellín.

    Instead, crime continued to escalate as drug cartels fought for control of the hillside city, it’s location of key importance due to its geographical link to the San Juan Highway.

    Those that had control of this highway controlled all illegal goods flowing in and out of Medellín, and, in turn, much of Colombia.

    In their minds, it was worth fighting for at practically any cost.

    2002 – A Time of Unexpected Change

    Now infamous within Colombia, October 16th, 2002 saw Operation Orion carried out.  The national military (along with controversial assistance from unofficial paramilitary personnel) sprung a surprise attack on Comuna 13 in a bid to drive out the occupying rebel groups.

    After one failed attempt to rid the region of the rebels (due to corruption within the police force), the second was strong and unrelenting.  Over 1,000 troops and police attacked the area whilst its 100,000 inhabitants did their best to shelter from the siege – all too often, unsuccessfully.

    Bombs, mortars, machine guns and helicopters rained down on locals and criminals alike, unable to differentiate between targets and bystanders.

    Life After 2002

    In all, hundreds lost their lives whilst many, many more were seriously injured before the week was through.

    Understandably, locals were heartbroken by the events that occurred in October of 2002.  Many of the local children had been drafted into the guerrilla forces (with no genuine alternative) only to find themselves the target of such extreme violence.

    Hundreds of people from the community were taken, both innocent and guilty, never to be seen again; it wasn’t until recently that the location of their bodies was revealed as being at the rubbish dump on a neighbouring hill.

    The alternative of continuing on as they were before Operation Orion was far from ideal but nor was the eventual action.

    And all of this for what?  The guerrillas’ presence was replaced soon after by a paramilitary group led by an heir of Pablo Escobar, Don Berna, along with others vying for control.  It seemed like in Comuna 13 would not see the peace it so badly deserved without a fight.

    Incredibly, a reformist alliance eventually emerged and with key players extradited and others promised jobs in exchange for peace, the community could finally start rebuilding.

    Through hardship, Comuna 13 has risen.

    Residents began expressing their concern and anger through community events, music and artworks, crafting the community that we know now – a world away from what it once was.

    Comuna 13 Today

    Today, Comuna 13 is full of life and is almost the antithesis of its former self.

    In a bid to create more opportunities for the local residents and to reduce crime in the area, a modern cable car was installed (connecting to a rail and bus network) and six covered escalators were installed to make it easier for people to climb the steep city streets.

    The sound of gunfire was eventually replaced by the sounds of children playing again.  Hip hop music sings out across walkways, giving local breakdances an ever-present beat to move to.  Colourful street art now attracts visitors from all over the world, both to observe and to create.

    Comuna 13 has emerged with a new sense of pride that’s visibly clear throughout the area.

    More than anything though, the lessons to be learnt in this community shine through.  That a group of people could come through such challenging times and emerge out the other side is mindblowing.  That tourists can now walk through this area with cameras dangling freely from their necks, chatting to locals without reservation, is more than I could have imagined before visiting for myself.

    Without doubt, the community still has it’s fair share of challenges though.

    Yes, there’s been a transformation. And of course we agree with the changes. But they need to keep attacking the causes, not the effects.  Inequality, bad education, no jobs or opportunity – that’s where we need the changes.


    Regardless, Comuna 13 can’t help but grant visitors a sense of optimism for the world.  If they can turn their situation around and make their community a place of such beauty, we all can.

    Reviewing the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour

    Do I Need to Book a Tour to Comuna 13?

    Let me start by saying that, no, you don’t absolutely need to join a tour to this barrio.  Yes, you can make the trip out to Comuna 13 by yourself.  The metro system is easy to figure out and though the buses aren’t as simple, you can pick up free wifi in the subway and order an uber easily enough.

    We never had any intention of travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most interesting parts of Colombia just to wander aimlessly through their street art though.

    The power of Comuna 13 is in their history and in their stories.  These two things simply cannot be understood as an outsider walking through the city; to really dig into the district, you’ll want a guide.

    Why Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour?

    With tip-only tours available elsewhere in Medellín, we opted to join one that had a set rate.  Why?  For two reasons – number one, their
    amazing reviews and number two, simplicity.

    We have a bad habit of turning up to walking tours a little behind schedule because we almost always try to join them when we first make it to a new city.  They’re a great way to orientate yourself to a new place but of course, not knowing your way around can make it difficult to get there in the first place!  Imagine our excitement when we realised the meeting point for this tour was our nearest metro station, Poblado.  Not only the tour pick up the cost of our metro ticket but setting such a convenient starting point is a massive help to tentative tourists.  We’re relatively comfortable navigating South American public transport systems now (albiet whilst running a bit late) but there’s nothing wrong with getting a helping hand every now and then.

    We loved that the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour included everything within the very reasonable ticket price (COP70,000/USD24/NZD33.60) including metro, bus and cable car tickets, drinks and best of all, fresh local snacks – seriously, try the corn arepa (made crispy with butter, yum!) and without doubt, the fresh mango iceblock – I’m still dreaming of it!

    Oscar, our guide, was passionate, informative and personable throughout the duration of the tour.  He was always more than happy to answer our questions and shared his personal insight to Medellín’s somewhat troubled past.  We loved the manner in which he was upfront about the challenges the city has faced whilst remaining upbeat and of course, respectful – this is after all his city and one that he loves unreservedly.

    The more time we spend here, the more we can appreciate why.

    Keen To Book a Tour?  Here’s the Key Information You’ll Need:

    • Book: Email Arthur of Comuna 13 Graffiti Tours.  Tours run seven days a week and are conducted in English.  Bookings are required.
    • Pay:  COP70,000 each directly to the guide (additional tips not required, though I’m sure appreciated if you feel so inclined)
    • Meet:  Outside the ticket station at the Poblado metro at 10am.  This is a popular place for visitors to stay so may well be your local stop.
    • Visit:  Start by taking in the views at the top of the cable car and then make your way over to Comuna 13 where you’ll soak in the local street art and most importantly, gain an understanding of what life was like in this barrio and how it has changed over time, in the face of great adversity.

    Thank you to Comuna 13 Graffiti Tours for hosting us on this tour for the purpose of this review.  As always, all thoughts are 100% our own – it just so happens that we unreservedly recommend this tour.

    1 Comment

  • Reply Jos January 6, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    Very informative article. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Leave a Reply

    Colombia Salento South America

    Salento Travel Guide: Buses to/from Medellín and Bogota

    January 2, 2018

    If you’re travelling to Medellín or Bogota and have a little extra time up your sleeve, you’ll want to include a visit to Salento – the only question is how you’ll get there.  Regardless of which city you’re travelling from, this guide will help ensure you make it to and from the quaint town of Salento safely, comfortably and without spending a fortune.

    Bogota to Salento Bus (or Salento to Bogata)

    To get to Salento from Bogota, travellers need to transit either via Armenia or Pereira as, at this stage, there are no direct connections.  The journey is easy going, even with minimal Spanish, so don’t be put off making the journey.

    Bogota to Armenia (or Pereira)

    Buses depart frequently from Terminal De Transporte Salitre and tickets are readily available to purchase, even if you’re looking to depart on the next bus.

    When you make it to the terminal, take the entrance on the right and you’ll find the ticket counters directly in front of you.  Though there are many companies offering reliable transfers to Armenia, look out for Expreso Palmira, Velotax and Fronteras.

    Pro Tip: We made the mistake of standing in the Velotax line and being pulled out by a local tout.  We were told we’d get on a smaller bus leaving much sooner but instead found ourselves waiting, both in the terminal and onboard the bus, for much, much longer than expected.  Whilst we waited, our original (more comfortable) bus came and went and still, we waited for all of the seats onboard the bus to be filled.

    Given the option, we’d suggest you stick it out in the main lines rather than being pulled off to the side – you’ll end up with on a larger, more comfortable bus and will be assured of your departure time.

    You are able to jump onboard buses both to Armenia and Pereira but the onwards connections from Armenia are much more frequent; because of this, it would always be our preferred route.

    Trip length varies but it took us 9.5 hours as we ran into heavy traffic towards the end of the journey.

    Tickets cost approximately COP60,000-70,000 from Bogota to Armenia on the bus (USD20-23.45 or NZD 28.30-33) and we suggest you aim to leave the city by 10.30am if you want to guarantee a connection through to Salento the same evening.

    Armenia to Salento

    When you deboard the bus in Armenia, follow the footpath around to the main terminal.  Once inside the terminal, turn sharply to your right and head right through the terminal and back outside.  There, you will see signs for Salento and mini-vans that depart every 20 minutes or so.

    Bus tickets from Armenia to Salento are COP4,500 (USD1.50/NZD2.10) and are purchased onboard.  We were told buses run until 8pm daily though later transfers may be available at certain times of the year.

    Salento to Medellín Bus (or Medellín to Salento)

    Getting to and from Medellín is even easier as direct connections are now available through Flota Occidental.

    At present, departures are available from Salento (at the same station you’ll be dropped off at) at 8am, 10am, 11am, 12pm and 4pm.  Tickets can be purchased at the small counter at the station for COP47,000 (USD15.75/NZD22.15) and availability can be checked online.  We had no problem booking our ticket half an hour before our 10am departure but if availability is limited, you may like to walk to the station the day before to secure your seats.

    The journey takes approximately 6 hours,  drops passengers at Terminal del Sur Medellín where local buses and reasonably priced taxis are available to take you to your final destination (just remember to ask the driver to put the meter on).

    Making the Trip in Reverse

    Obviously, if you’re wanting to make either of these journeys in reverse (Medellín to Salento or Salento to Bogota) the same instructions can be applied, working from back to front.

    Generally tickets do not need to be purchased in advance in Colombia but if in doubt, check in with the carrier online or pop along to the bus station a day ahead of time to secure your spots.

    Salento is a beautiful, relaxed town that’s absolutely worth going out of your way to see; a must-see on your Colombian itinerary.

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