Kandy: Week 1 

I wasn’t sure if I’d have enough wifi to blog on this trip, but I’m currently sitting in a cafe waiting for England to wake up before I can FaceTime so I thought I may as well write a wee post!

In my first week, I basically made my way down the west coast from Negombo to Galle before taking the train back up to Kandy. To hear about my time at the Galle Literary Festival, check out my other blog here.

After this, I made my way to Kandy where I will be volunteering for the next few weeks. This was my first experience of the Sri Lankan train system and, while it was quite fun to sit on the floor by the door from Galle to Colombo, I didn’t particularly enjoy doing so with my massive rucksack and a throbbing headache. Fortunately, the train from Colombo to Kandy was much nicer and I was able to see the beautiful views as we travelled East into the Hill Country.

Here in Kandy, I will be doing a similar thing to what I did in Colombia and Ecuador – teaching English through a local organisation. We are put up in a volunteer house which is a lot busier than I’d anticipated. 28 new people arrived on the same day as me and so the house is bursting with eager volunteers from all over the world.
Rather than going straight in with our projects, we took part in an orientation week for our first five days. This was pretty full-on and absolutely exhausting, but it did provide a reasonably good introduction to Sri Lankan life and culture and an overview of all the best things to do and see in Kandy. It was also a great way to get to know the other volunteers before we all get stuck into our different projects.

Monday morning was our official volunteer orientation, in which we were told about the many different projects we can do. I came here to teach English but I didn’t realise how flexible the organisation is and quite how many different projects there are. I have decided to change every week and try three separate projects, but I’m sure I’ll change my mind about which ones as time goes on. Tomorrow, I will start teaching local Buddhist monks. This is what I came here to do so it seems a sensible place to start, and I’m hoping it’ll be as rewarding as teaching in Colombia was.

The rest of the week flew by, but I’ll try and write a little about what we did each day.

On Monday afternoon, we went into Kandy to see the city centre for the first time before watching a cultural show. This mainly consisted of dancing and singing and ended with a fire-eating spectacle. It was energetic and rather entertaining, butnid seen something similar in Galle already so I kind of knew what to expect.

On Tuesday, we started with a visit to an Ayurvedic spice and herb garden. I was obviously fascinated by this and I took loads of notes about the beneficial properties of vanilla, cinnamon and sandalwood among many others. We drank a special spiced tea, were treated to neck and shoulder massages and were given a brief introduction into the science of Ayurveda.


We then went to a tea factory where we learnt about the manufacturing process of Sri Lanka’s main export. The country is the second biggest producer of tea in the world (after India) and the greatest exporter. Sri Lanka has 1200 tea factories, all of which use the same production processes. We learnt that green and black tea are produced from the same leaves but by different processes, while golden and silver-tipped leaves are different plants which undergo the same process. Having just read Dinah Jefferies’ The Tea Planter’s Wife, I was particularly interested to see the process in action. Perhaps my favourite fact of the morning was that the word ‘tea’ stands for Tanin Enzyme Aroma. Who knew!

Amazingly, they still use the same burner brought from Belfast in 1938


We then had lunch in Kandy before a boat ride on the city’s beautiful lake.


Following this, we went to a gem factory to learn about the many stones produced in the country, most of which are different coloured sapphires.

On Wednesday morning we were treated to a cooking class at our accommodation. It was not quite as hands-on or informative as the one I did a few days earlier in Unawatuna, but it was fun to see how dhal and coconut sambal are made again and then great to eat the finished products!

Some photos from the course I did in Unawatuna. Our Kandy cooking class was slightly less colourful and varied! 


In the afternoon, we had a Sri Lankan culture lesson, which told us about a range of topics including arranged marriage, the country’s four national parks and the different flags.

We then went to meet a Buddhist nun and learn about the religion and how monks and nuns live. They eat one meal a day and fast from 12pm until the following morning. They are not allowed to ask for food, but simply walk down the street with their special bowls in the hope that generous locals will give them a scoop of rice, dhal or curry. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the monastic lifestyle is their rejection of the monetary system. Buddhist monks and nuns do not use money, and so they have to rely on other people’s generosity in order to get anywhere or acquire material goods. The nun has a mobile phone but she is not allowed to ask people to top up her balance. Instead, she must wait until they realise it has run out and then offer to lend her a few rupees. We then meditated with the nun for 15 minutes or so which was interesting but more difficult than using my Headspace app!

On Thursday morning we visited the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy’s main tourist spot. We bought pretty purple flowers to offer to the sacred tooth, and spent a while queuing before being herded through the temple at immense speed. It was a surprisingly chaotic experience for such a religious place, but I enjoyed the music and colour in the temple. It was certainly lovely!




We then went to the museum of Buddhism and learnt about the different manifestations of the religion across the world.


Following this, we went to a wood carving factory to learn about the different kinds of wood and the painting process. I was particularly interested to learn about the properties of rainbow wood, which can be mixed with various chemical substances to create different colours with which to paint.



Finally, we went to a Batik factory to learn about the process of designing patterns on clothes and other materials. It is rather a slow process, consisting of painting cloth with wax before dying the whole sheet in order to leave the waxed areas white. This process is repeated many times, with the colour of the dye getting darker each time. The cloth is then placed in boiling water in order to melt the many layers of wax and thus leaving a multi-coloured picture on the cloth.


For lunch, I went with my new group of friends to a restaurant called White House which is supposed to be one of the best places to eat in the city. We had a nice Indian meal for a good price, but I wouldn’t have said it was outstanding. Kandy is different to how I would have imagined it, but it’s still a fun city to explore.

On Friday morning, we climbed up to the White Buddha overlooking the city. We got some pretty good views of Kandy and then met the chief monk from the temple up there. As we drank sweet tea, the monk blessed us all individually. I found it rather touching and will no doubt keep on my little white bracelet for a long time.


We then went to a Hindu temple which was equally interesting. It was so colourful and I was somewhat surprised to see so many neon, LED pictures – it gave the temple a totally different feel to other places of worship I’ve visited.

We went to an Indian restaurant for lunch, where we are our food with our hands for the first time. Slightly difficult when you can’t eat the bread that is usually used to scoop up the curry, but I enjoyed it nevertheless!

The final stop on our orientation week was an Ayurvedic massage. I opted for a 20 minute back and shoulder massage which was quite pleasant but nothing extraordinary. It was still a treat to be offered this, though!

Although I have some minor complaints about the orientation week – such as the fact that we were hereded from place to place like school children without much information about where we were going beforehand -, it was a really enjoyable five days and I am extremely grateful to Green Lion (the organisation I’m working for) for planning it all for us and for organising it reasonably well.

After a few days in Kandy, I’m only just starting to get my bearings and to figure out how to get around, but I’m sure it’ll come with time. I have started going for 20 minute runs around our apartment (which is in the middle of nowhere north of the city centre), but I’m still pretty unsure about directions so I tend to run back and forth in front of our driveway!

To get to the cafe where I am right now – and get some functioning wifi- I had to get a local bus into town. From our house, it’s a 20 minute walk down to the Main Street where the supermarket is, followed by a 20 minute bus to the town centre. It’s not too difficult, but I wanted to do it myself to check I actually know where I am – after a week of total independence, I’m finding it a little hard to adjust to completely relying on the Green Lion staff to get me around!


I have really enjoyed the last week but I’m looking forward to starting my placement tomorrow and meeting the little monks I’m going to be teaching. That’s what I’m really here for, after all!

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Back en route!

Hello, I’m back!

I’m sorry I didn’t get round to finishing my Year Abroad posts. This was by no means intentional, but I’m actually quite glad I didn’t finish writing about Peru, Bolivia and northern Argentina. It would have been hard to do justice to all the amazing experiences I had, especially if I wrote them after returning back home. I had the most fantastic time in South America (and on my year abroad in general), and I’m sure that anyone reading this will have heard about it from me first hand at some point in the last year!

I am now thrilled to have finished university and to have time to travel again. The next stop on my adventure is a quick trip to Eastern Europe before I graduate in July. As always, plans are fairly flexible, but we aim to work our way from Budapest to Prague before popping over to Barcelona for some Spanish sun. I haven’t had much time to  plan the particulars of the trip, but I’m looking forward to going with the flow a bit more and hopping on the travel bus that my friend Katy will be leading.

I’m off on Friday and am really excited to visit places I’ve heard such great things about from so many friends. Let me know if you have any tips!

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Ecuador Part 3: a week of luxury with Ruth and Kev

After four months away from home, I was starting to miss the fam. It was also approaching my 21st birthday, and so I was ready for some love and attention. Mum and Dad (who are probably the only people reading this anyway) were travelling round South America themselves, so we met up in Ecuador for a week together before heading in opposite directions.

They arrived in Quito a few days before I finished volunteering, but I was desperate to see them so we met up for a delicious dinner at Lulo, one of Quito’s best restaurants. I was loving all the local Ecuadorian meals but it was about time I had some properly tasty food. Mmmm the fish at Lulo was divine (although it still came with about 5 different kinds of potatoes!!)

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We met up again the following night and they took Katy and I out for another dinner after some amazing cocktails at their beautiful hotel in Plaza San Francisco.

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After the mothers’ day celebration at school on the Friday morning, I rushed off to meet them and begin the first stage of our little holiday together: a trip to Mashpi, an Eco hotel and national park in a beautiful cloud forest a few hours north of Quito.

Mum wrote down all the facts about the many species of birds in the park, so ask her if you want more details! but it’s enough to say that the number of species at Mashpi was astonishing. We went to a hummingbird sanctuary to view some of the 120 different species of the birds they have there in the park. We got some pretty cool photos through the telescope, and dad got an amazing video which you can see on Instagram at @charlesplowden!

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In the afternoon, we did one of the best things I’ve done during my whole trip: a sky bike over the cloud forest. It takes about 10 minutes to peddle above the trees, and then you turn around and come back. You are on a level with the clouds and can see the volcanoes in the distance and the streams many metres below you. It was a weird sensation to be so high up and move at a fairly slow pace (unlike zip lining) but an unforgettable experience. I got to go twice so I could accompany both mum and dad, and it was quite amusing to see them both get pretty nervous when we first set off!!

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In the evening, we went on a night walk to find tarantulas, snakes and frogs, which was kind of cool. Mum was great at spotting all the creepy crawlies!

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The hotel was amazing. The food was unlike anything I had eaten in the previous few months – all fresh fish and fancy cocktails! -, and it was beyond spoiling to have my own luxury room to myself. I didn’t know what to do with all that space and the hot showers!!

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On my actual birthday, (after getting some extremely generous presents and gorging on a delicious breakfast of amazing coconut juice and tropic fruit!!) we went to a butterfly sanctuary to see the beautiful creatures.

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After lunch, we had to get the three hour bus to quito. A bus expert by that stage, I actually quite enjoyed getting to spend my 21st birthday in two such wonderful places. We spent the afternoon sitting in my favourite cafe in the main square, had delicious cocktails on the rooftop terrace with fantastic views of the city and went out for a scrummy dinner at one of the best restaurants in town. It was all very spoiling and I can’t express how happy I was to be able to celebrate my birthday with my parents (or how grateful I am that they came to meet me in Ecuador).

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The following morning we were up at the crack of dawn for our flight to the Galapagos! Rather than staying on a boat, we stayed at a fancy new Eco hotel on Santa Cruz Island. We only had five days there, but we managed to fit in a lot!

We went on two day trips on the hotel’s yacht, seeing an incredible amount of animals on about 5 or 6 different islands. Blue footed boobies, frigates, penguins, flamingos, condors, crabs, land and marine iguanas, sea lions, sea turtles, a shark (!!), among many others!

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We went swimming with the sea lions, hiked up a hill for the famous view of the Galapagos, and saw many incredible varied habitats, from white sandy beaches to volcanic rock islands.
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It is impossible to describe how mind blowing it is to see such a wide range of nature in so little time. Really makes you think!

We had two days at the hotel, where we relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company. We visited the Charles Darwin Research Centre to see all the giant tortoises at various stages of their lives, strolled around the main town on Santa Cruz, and went to a giant turtle reserve.

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I can’t say what my favourite part was because it was all so amazing, although watching the joy on my daddy’s face while he swirled and spiralled in the water with a sea lion was pretty high up there!

Visiting the Galápagos Islands really is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I had the most incredible time. I certainly would not have had the opportunity to go there if mum and dad hadn’t been there (and may not ever have made it there in my lifetime!) and so I am beyond grateful to them for taking me on such a luxury holiday. It was the best 21st birthday present a girl could ask for, and it was also fantastic to see them after 16 weeks apart!

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After an awkward goodbye on the plane at Guayaquil, mum and dad went off to Bogota while I returned to Quito. Although I was really sad to say goodbye to them, I was very glad I was going back to a city I knew and loved, and that I was able to spend the weekend with Katy again.

I stayed in the Mariscal area, which felt very strange and unfamiliar after my experience in the homestay in the south, but it was nice to see what it would be like to visit Quito as a backpacker. On the Saturday, I finally got to walk through the Parque Carolina and explore some of the buzzier areas of the city. We went to an amazing artisanal market, where Katy got very overexcited buying souvenirs! We then spent the afternoon back at our beloved cafe in the main square, before curling up with our books (and many chocolate truffles) in a cosy restaurant in La Ronda.

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It was a lovely way to spend my last day in Ecuador, and made me excited rather than nervous for my next few weeks on the road through the continent!

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Ecuador Part 2: Baños

For our long weekend, we decided to head to Banos for a few days of water sports and adventure. I had been dying to go to Baños, but it’s definitely not the place to go alone, so I was thrilled to hear that Katy was also game. On our first day – after a traumatic bus journey the previous evening- we hiked up to the Mirador Bellavista, gorged on veggie burgers, and indulged ourselves with cheap massages at our hostel.

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Saturday morning was delightfully sunny, so we decided it was the perfect opportunity to head up to La Casa del Arbol. We had to queue for almost half an hour to get our three pushes on the ‘Swing Over The Edge of the World’, but it was more than worth it.
The swing is nowhere near as scary as it looks- you are very securely strapped in and barely go over the edge of the cliff-, but you do feel like you’re flying for those brief few seconds, which is an unbeatable feeling! And the photos look kind of cool…

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In the afternoon we headed to the famous waterfall, La Nariz del Diablo. We climbed under very low caves to get to the top of the waterfall, and Katy went right up close while I stayed back to take photos!

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n the evening we had an hilarious experience at the steam baths, anointing our bodies with sacred water. We were locked into wooden boxes which were filled with steam, then taken out every 10 minutes to be doused down with buckets of freezing water. It felt somewhat unpleasant at the time, but we emerged from the baths buzzing and ready for a good night.

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Our attempt to go out in banos more or less failed, but we had great fun making cocktails in our hostel and testing out the town’s various bars. Baños is an incredibly touristy town, but there were way more Ecuadorians and fewer gringos than we had been expecting. This meant that the vibe in the few bars was kind of strange – they were mainly full of older Ecuadorians and their families enjoying their bank holiday weekend and grooving away to awful American pop songs. We had been hoping for some classic Latin American music – or at least some good western tunes -, but we still managed to enjoy ourselves!

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On our final morning we went whitewater rafting which was super fun. It was the closest I got to the Amazon, and the scenery was really beautiful.

In the afternoon, I hiked back up the hill to go to the second viewpoint, a wonderful white statue of the Virgen del Agua Santa, before meeting Katy at our new favourite cafe, Casa Hood for hot chocolate.

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After missing our bus on the Sunday night we ended up spending another evening in Banos, heading back to quito the following morning. VCE always gives volunteers Mondays off so that they have enough time to travel at the weekends (a huge group had actually gone off to the amazon, but it just seemed like too far to go for only 3 nights…), so we had a free day in Quito.

Poor Katy was feeling ill after the bus journey, so I headed off by myself to the Mitad del Mundo, as I thought it was going to be my only opportunity to seethe Equator. Typically, I ended up going a second time with mum and dad, but we visited the museum rather than the monument, so I didn’t mind going twice!

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I am so pleased I made it to Baños in the end; it definitely lived up to expectations. It was a fab, adventure filled weekend, and it was also so nice to do some travelling with Katy- we had a great time together and are now planning her trip to Europe next summer!

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Ecuador Part 1: Volunteering in Quito

So my Colombian journey had come to an end and it was time to add another stamp to my passport.

When I was planning the volunteering part of my year abroad, various people made me nervous about the Cartagenan Spanish accent. So instead of working for 6 weeks with Emerging Voices, I decided to spend my final 2 weeks with IVHQ in Quito, a city famous for it’s language schools and desirable accent. I also wanted to stay in a homestay because I knew it would be more beneficial for my Spanish than living in an apartment with other volunteers.

I arrived into Quito on the Sunday night, unsure what to expect and somewhat sad to be leaving my beloved Colombia behind for unknown waters..(note a theme here- I always get a bit nervous before entering a new country)

On the Monday morning, all the new volunteers met up at the Volunteer Connection Ecuador office for a walking tour of the city. We were living and working in the south of Quito (the poorer side of this massive, elongated city) and so would not otherwise get the chance to visit the city’s main sights.

We climbed to the top of the Basilica del Voto Nacional for fantastic views of the city, visited the Plaza San Francisco and the main square, Plaza de Independencia. Every Monday at 11am the president comes out into the square to have his photo taken, and children from a local school do a performance. It was a nice way to spend our first morning in Quito!

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It was also a great opportunity to meet the other volunteers. Fortunately the other girl in my homestay (also new) was an absolute babe, and we instantly became great friends, planning our weekend trip away and getting excited over frozen yoghurt in the mall next to our apartment.

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We were living with a family of four in their cosy home in Barrio Nuevo. They were very friendly and made us feel at home (I felt so guilty because I was sleeping in the little girl’s bedroom…). The food they gave us was much more basic than the luxurious dishes Rita whipped up in Cartagena, but the Ecuadorian cuisine was fairly similar and generally pretty good (in spite of the potato overdose…)

On our lunch breaks from the volunteering projects we would head to a cheap local cafe for a $2 ‘almuerzo’. These were delicious: soup, juice, chicken with rice and potatoes and sometimes even a pudding. Very economical!

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On our first Wednesday night Katy, Joshua (our third flat mate) and I opted out of dinner and headed into the centre of town for dinner. We decided to visit the famous ‘La Ronda’ street where many restaurants, bars and souvenir shops are located, and ended up at an hilarious karaoke bar having burritos. Not exactly a traditional Ecuadorian night out, but it was great fun nevertheless.

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Katy and I were both supposed to be teaching English, but the school was closed for a holiday or something, so we spent our first week working on the Street Children Project. This involved going to food markets in the poor areas of the city and entertaining the children whose mothers ran the stalls. The children were adorable and I really enjoyed reading to them and playing with them (I even had to play the grandmother in the Little Red Riding Hood play a couple of times!), but I was still looking forward to teaching English in my second week.

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Unfortunately, this didn’t quite go to plan. They didn’t really need the teachers in the same way that the Colombian projects did, and I felt more like I was in the way than helping. Katy and I both decided we might be more useful working with the Kindergarten children, and I cannot express how pleased I am that I switched projects. The children were an absolute delight. We looked after them all morning, helping their teachers wherever we were needed. And they were completely adorable. I instantly fell in love with a few in particular, such as Lesley, the nerdy little girl who always finished her work first, and Gisela, who would run up and hug me at every opportunity.

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I loved supervising the kids during playtime, helping them with their ‘experiments’ and making sure they ate their snacks properly.

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I was also extremely lucky to be there for the Mothers’ Day celebration on my final day. The children had spent all week making cards for their mothers and rehearsing songs and dance routines for the big performance on Friday morning. All the mums came to watch, and we sat in the sunny playground with a beautiful mountain backdrop and watched them do their thing.

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I nearly cried when Gisela gave her mum her card, and when my little Puerto Rican, Marcos’ dad came to pick him up on the last day. The teacher I was working with was an absolute legend (although I have since been told that she had a dramatic heart problem one day the week after I left…I really hope she’s ok), and I was really inspired by her patience with the children.

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I had a fantastic time volunteering in Quito, but it was extremely different to my experience in Cartagena. The projects themselves were nowhere near as rewarding, but I loved the homestay and getting the opportunity to live in Quito for a couple of weeks.

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I also know that I wouldn’t have loved it as much if I didn’t have Katy with me.

In our time off, we would head into the centre of town to visit the sites, such as El Panecillo, the little mountain which offers fantastic views of the city.

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I found my match in chocolate-gorging, and we’d spend a lot of time tasting Ecuadorian truffles in the many shops on La a Ronda.

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We also developed an attachment to this random little cafe in the main Plaza, where we’d sit and drink tea and read our books. I loved this place so much that I forced mum and dad to come there with me on my birthday!

I only spent 2 weeks in Quito, but I became very find of the city. I liked our little neighbourhood, but I absolutely loved the Centro Historico, with it’s many churches and quirky little streets!

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Bogota

Next stop was Bogota. I was very excited to see what the capital of my new favourite country would be like, and Bogota more than lived up to it’s reputation. I’ve found that people either love Medellin or Bogota (perhaps depending if you’re more up for a party or interested in culture…), and I definitely preferred the capital. I obviously had a great time in Medellin, but the city itself didn’t have anywhere near as much to offer as Bogota.

I crammed as much into my four days as possible. On my first afternoon, I visited the Botero museum, which was absolutely fantastic. I already knew from Medellin and Cali that I liked the sculptor’s work, but it was great to see so many of his pieces together alongside other well-known artists.

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In the afternoon I went on a pretty rubbish free walking tour of the city. It was nice to explore La Candelaria a bit, but I felt I could have done a better walking tour myself using the triposo app. We tried some delicious coffee and chicha (a traditional lightly-alcoholic drink made of fermented corn), and went to watch some local workers play tejo, but our guide just spent most of the tour pointing out his friends’ restaurants and having a good time himself!

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The following morning I decided to hike up Montserrate hill to see the fantastic views of Bogota. Although I knew that the city was at a higher altitude than anywhere else I had been so far (and was not enjoying the cold temperatures!), I had not been expecting to feel so unfit during the climb. I had to stop every 200m to catch my breath, and my ears were really hurting by the time I finally reached the summit. The views were fantastic though, and I’m so pleased I walked up instead of getting the cable car. It was just very depressing seeing all the locals sprinting up the mountain so early in the morning, while I was huffing and puffing my way up the steps!!

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Of course, I had to visit the Gold Museum, one of Bogota’s main tourist attractions. It was fascinating to learn about the metalwork, and I was particularly excited to read about the indigenous culture of the Sierra Nevada mountains after my Lost City trek.

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A girl I’d met in Salento had raved about the Police Museum, so I thought I’d pay it a quick visit. However, I was rather disappointed – there wasn’t really much to see except Pablo Escobar’s motorbike…

I also went to the Museo Nacional, which was much more interesting. It was a great thing to do on my last afternoon in Colombia, rounding off all I’d learned about the country’s political, social and cultural history.

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A must-do when visiting Bogota is a trip out to Andres Carne del Res, a steak restaurant-cum-club 3 hours from the capital in a town called Chia. Fortunately I was staying in Bogota over the weekend, and so I was able to join in on the multi-hostel party bus expedition to the club on the Saturday night. You pay your £20 or so to be driven there and back and provided with unlimited free drinks on the bus. The drinks were disgusting and extremely strong, but you could pay around £15 for cocktails in the club, so we all made the most of the free drinks while we could. Unfortunately, this led to me needing the loo about an hour into the journey, which didn’t make or a very enjoyable experience…
Anyway…although we were there to party, the famous steak had to be tried. A lovely American-Colombian girl from my hostel ordered a massive platter of food and many jugs of sangria, and invited us all to share it. I have to say, it was perhaps the best steak I’ve had in months, and I spent 2 months in Argentina!!
It was a really fun night, although the people in my hostel were fairly odd. I’d expected slightly better from Bogota’s best backpackers’ hostel!

On my final morning, I attempted to join in the famous ‘ciclovia’, but without a bike. Bogota is famous for it’s modern bike system, and the main streets are all completely blocked off on a Sunday for people to cycle, walk or run down the streets at their will.

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I donned my iPod and went for a nice stroll up the main street, before heading to a delicious Aussie cafe for my final meal in Colombia. I figured that I’d had my fair share of local,
Colombian food in the past 6 weeks, and thought I could justify a delicious veggie burger in the trendy, cosmopolitan area of Colombia’s capital!

And that, my friends, was the end of my time in Colombia. Obviously my travels are not over yet, but I am guessing that Colombia will probably remains favourite South American country. I fell in love with almost every place I visited, and completely loved how varied all the different regions were/are. The people were almost always extremely friendly and fun, the food was more or less delicious (northern Colombian cuisine is still my favourite – all that fish and tropical fruit!) and the scenery was stunning.
I’m sure I’ll make it back at some point, and I really recommend devoting some time to exploring the country if you ever go to South America.

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Colombia is changing, and it’s really worth paying a visit.

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Cali: the Salsa Capital of Colombia

My next stop was Cali.

You may have noticed from my raving reviews of Colombia that my experience of the country had been almost entirely positive. Far from the dangerous, drug haven that many (ignorant) foreigners expect, Colombia is really just a beautiful country that is very much on the ‘up’ at the moment. I had kind of been expecting this after speaking to various friends/acquaintances who had visited Colombia before, but it’s always nice to prove a prejudice wrong yourself anyway, isn’t it? Obviously I’d been keeping my wits about me and not whipping my white iPhone out in public, but I felt a lot safer in Colombia than I did in Rio, for example. (Or even in Buenos Aires, where a group of 6 year old children tried to mug us on one of the safest streets in Palermo…)

Cali, however, felt slightly more dangerous. Although I was completely safe and certainly did not have any issues at all, it’s slightly disconcerting when your hostel tells you not to go out alone after 3pm or when a local advises you not to go on a walk up to one of the city’s major sites at 11am on a sunny morning!

It definitely didn’t help that my hostel was in one of the more dangerous areas of the city, an area which Lonely Planet advises you not to go alone…I spent one night at La Pinta Boogaloo, but decided that it would be a wise idea to move further into the centre for my next two nights in Cali, to avoid having to get taxis absolutely everywhere I went and to put my mind at rest. My second hostel, El Viajero, was completely perfect, and I was so happy I moved. The hostel had a lovely pool (Cali is unexpectedly tropical), multiple hammocks, an attractive Happy Hour cocktail menu and, most importantly, free Salsa and yoga classes.

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Every hostel in Cali offers free salsa lessons on a nightly basis, because Cali is the salsa capital of Colombia. Completely malcoordinated, I was not particularly looking forward to embarassing myself in front of my new friends, but I actually really enjoyed my salsa classes and got quite in the swing of it! That didn’t stop me from sneaking out of the class on the second night when they tried to make us dance in pairs!

There isn’t that much to say about the city itself. All the main sights in the centre can be covered in a couple of hours. There are some lovely churches and beautiful parks, but I certainly wasn’t overwhelmed by Cali on a cultural/architectural level…

I did go to the modern art museum though, which I really enjoyed.

We tried to go up to see Christo Rey, but when we arrived at the bottom of the hill we were told it would be a stupid idea for three English girls to go up alone (it’s a popular place for muggings), and so we decided to give it a miss. I’d already seen Cristo Redentor in Rio and wasn’t too bothered about skipping this sight for the sake of safety and a couple of extra hours by the hostel pool!

On the way back from the mountain, we stumbled across quite an entertaining exhibition of cat sculptures, which was a tribute to the famous Gato del Rio statue.

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The most fun I had in Cali, however, was definitely when we went out to celebrate one Canadian girl’s birthday. After a salsa class, some good Greek food and a few delicious Happy Hour cocktails, we headed out to practise our new moves!

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In the end, my experience of Cali was definitely a good one, and I would still recommend other travellers spend a few days there. Many people in my hostel seemed to be staying there for quite a while and taking the salsa lesson thing seriously, but it’s also a fun place to stop off at on your way somewhere else. I would have loved to go to San Cipriano if I had had more time in the area (read about it in the trusty Lonely Planet guide!), but other than that I feel like three days was a good amount of time to spend in the city.

Next stop, and final destination in Colombia: Bogota!

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