Thursday, 6 July 2017


Tolima may not be the actual 'rooftop of the world' but it bloody well feels like it.
Nothing like a bold and almost completely false post title to grab attention, eh? A couple of weekends ago, I journeyed higher than I thought any sane bus driver could travel, all the way from Armenia, in the Quindio region, to Ibague [pronounced ee-bah-geh (more or less) - it's actually spelled with an accent over the e, but my laptop refuses to do that because I can only assume it's set to 'xenophobic layout'] in the Tolima region. They're only thirty miles apart but the trip takes three and a half hours because you have to exit the stratosphere before reentering Earth's orbit several times over. The trip involves a really high mountain road, is what I'm saying.

Colombia is, according to my studies, 99.8% mountains, which means it's practically impossible for any trip to involve a straight road between destinations. The downside is this adds considerable time to a journey, but the massive upside is that you get to marvel at this country's truly magnificent environment. With regards to the road to Ibague, the bus spent the first hour or so travelling through Silent Hill before the mist parted to reveal a gorgeous valley littered with cloud-shrouded peaks:

One thing I can never get my head around here is that everywhere you go, you'll find homes and tiendas (stores) perched right on the side of the road, with a sheer drop below and behind them. In terms of architectural integrity and aesthetic, it's like someone stuck a shed on a cliff, and I can only assume Colombians are completely immune to acrophobia. 

A rest stop in Silent Hill. Luckily, the mist hides the sheer drop behind the trees.
Good advice, road signs!

The only real, genuine con to travelling mountain roads is the terrifying lack of safety barriers. But at least they don't get in the way of the scenery, ah ha ha haaa oh dear.
A lovely, unobstructed view of your imminent demise. Just kidding, you'll be alriiggharrghh oh my god
Those of you allergic to spiraling mountain roads and excessive altitude can breathe easy, however: gigantic overpasses are currently being built in an effort to provide quicker, more direct routes between places. I only hope they install proper safety barriers on these because, er, that's sort of a worse drop:

To be honest, I only felt queasy during the last hour of the trip, and that was more down to being really hungry than anything else. I do know some people who aren't keen on the height/lack of barriers/prospect of landslides, but I reckon it's worth the (not massively high) risk. I mean, just give this view an eyeball! -->

*heavenly choir sound effect*
Plus the route is littered with mini-waterfalls, like this one:

Anyway, I evidently made it one piece and I'm sure you will too. So what is Ibague actually like? Well I'm glad you asked, because otherwise this whole blog post would be a massive waste of time. Get ready for INFORMATION!

It's gorgeous at dusk, for starters. I took this pic from the top of a multi-storey car park near Plaza Bolivar, and you can get some sense of the length of the city. I met a friend who's a Fellow in Medellin (as well as her friend from the States) there, and we thought we were headed to a quiet mountain town, like the ones you pass through on the way. Nope. It's huge and extremely hectic. It felt to me like someone had taken centro from Armenia and turned it into a city; it's one big bustling market.

We were there for a folklore festival (which has just ended) so we thought maybe it was chaotic for that reason, but I've since heard from actual Colombians that it's always pretty crazy there. I didn't mind it though, and quite enjoyed the atmosphere. I also felt safe, even as I also felt more like a gringo/tourist than any other time in this country - I relished the chance to use my Spanish, then felt a tad deflated when my accent apparently made me unintelligible to most people (my friend typically had to repeat what I'd said, and she's American which is the accent Colombians are most used to hearing). 

Ibague looks like most cities here, interspersed and intersected as it is with plazas and market streets. The mountains form a ring around the city, towering over all but the most ambitious apartment or office block. Local menu del dia restaurants share streets with Dunkin' Donuts, with hotels sandwiched between fashion boutiques and juice bars. Quite a few people were quick to share a smile or buenos dias, though appeared bemused that 'tourists' had made it to their not-so-little slice of Colombia. I got the sense it's more of a quick stop than proper destination, though the surrounding area is home to lush rainforests, volcanoes and cascadas (I'm keen to go back to do nature hikes). It's also, and I can't believe I didn't mention this first, the 'music capital of Colombia'. Apparently, there are a few places that make a similar claim, though Ibague has a bunch of music education/performance institutes, so the claim isn't unfounded (plus their crosswalks are painted to represent piano keys!).

A fountain in Plaza Bolivar

Friday night saw us have a wander around and soak up the atmosphere for a little while, before two of us had the worst crepe in the existence of the universe. It was a 'Hawaiian', so covered in ham, cheese and pineapple. All fine. Except it looked like a tortilla and was crammed with strawberry and cheese. It tasted WEIRD. However, the staff were lovely and my friend's friend's meat crepe was free of such an exotic filling. Plus, they sold some incredible looking ice creams, so if you're around Plaza Bolivar and see a crepe/ice cream place, just give the ice creams a go.

Oh, and I just remembered why I put a picture of a fountain - a local chap informed us that they only turn them on when there's a festival. He seemed annoyed that this was the case, as they're supposed to be dry, and we were a little bemused by his attitude because all four fountains looked really nice lit up at night. I have since found out that Ibague occasionally experiences droughts, so of course people there aren't going to be happy to see water 'wasted'. The more you know.

Saturday morning saw the entirety of Carerra 3 closed off for a parade, that in typical Colombian fashion didn't start until quite a while after the allocated time. We were lucky enough to get places right by the barrier and so had a perfect, unobstructed view of the various floats, costumes and dancers (there were a LOT of dancers):

For some reason, everyone was selling or wearing hats. Even this vehicle had its own sombrero!

The Devil, or some reason of him, made frequent appearances - as did various witches (brujas).

Different representations of Death also roamed the parade.

Bird hats. As you do.

Just when I thought "What this parade really needs is a jeep covered in fruit and veg"
lo and behold, a jeep covered in fruit and veg!

The floats were many and varied, though most involved birds and/or (I think) Andean effigies.


The last half of the parade consisted of floats featuring potential Festival Queens (I believe the crowning ceremony took place this past weekend). All of the ladies were from the surrounding region, although I heard candidates and floats from all over Colombia would be making an appearance at the end of the festival - given how busy Ibague was just for a parade of local performers, I can't even begin to imagine how crazy the city would be with several times as many.

An extremely happy Grim Reaper.

Colombia has an extremely reach and varied history of folklore, such that I couldn't even begin to scratch the surface of the multitude of tales, characters and myths involved (for instance, there's one story that involve a woman made of flames that can be scared away by insulting her - I don't believe I saw a version of this at the parade). Plus, I wasn't entirely sure if the characters in the parade were supposed to be anyone/thing in particular or simply a representation of an idea - for example, many people believe in witchcraft, so there were quite a few witches roaming about. Being a highly religious country, there were also various types of devil, most wearing goat-like masks and carrying an air of menace with them:

All-in-all, it was a really fun atmosphere, and the people in the costumes clearly had a ball shaking hands, spooking kids or otherwise having a good time. 

No idea.
We then spent the rest of the day wandering about and seeing what other festivities Ibague had to offer - including, as it turned out, a dreadlocked Colombian rapping over reggae (he was playing on the stage at the foot of these stairs):

The centre has a kind of coliseum for gigs and plays, tucked away below street level.

It was a small oasis of calm away from the festival.
We then ended the day with a super tasty meal at a restaurant called El Ilustre (I recommend it!) where, by happy chance, a fairly young live band were playing jazz versions of popular songs (including an adorable version of Jesse J's Price Tag):

My phone camera's awful but you get the idea. Lovely mood, nice decor - and free music!
And that was that. Back to Armenia the following lunchtime along the same route as before, this time on a bus showing RIDE ALONG 2 and then THE TRANSPORTER 4. I've now been on a few Colombian buses that screened slightly inappropriate action films, given the amount of kids onboard. Also, let me end by telling you that using the toilet on a bus here is 100% more terrifying than the actual mountain road journey. Often there's no light, a blacked-out window, the roar of air rushing past that threatens to suck you out if you manage to get the window open, no toilet paper or even a lock on the door. Not always, but don't be surprised if I've just described the next bus loo you see. Public service announcement: concluded. 

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