My confinement in Colombia: the story of an unpredictable trip

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Traveling to South America and finding yourself stranded in Colombia, due to a global pandemic. No, this isn’t a movie scenario, but one from my last trip.

October 2019, on the move to fulfill one of my dreams: discovering the wonders of South America, alone with my backpack. A well-considered decision, but not all that organized.

A one-way ticket to Patagonia, a first stopover. That’s all there is to it. No Spanish lessons, no set itinerary. The aim is really to let yourself go. No booked dates for changing countries. Just last minute, « live in the moment », something we often forget.

Everyone has their own way of traveling. I chose mine: take my time, stay open to the opportunities that cross my path. Anyway, things never turn out the way you imagine them, do they?

Indeed, if someone had told me that I would end this trip in a global crisis, confined to a small village in Colombia, I would have laughed. But that’s the experience I had, and I’d like to share it with you today.

Moments of doubt and fear, but also of real happiness. Encounters with other confined foreigners, but also with the locals. I’d like to tell you all about these 3 months of confinement in Salento, a colorful little village in Quindio.

The start of my Colombian adventure

Why Colombia, and how did I end up confined to this small village in the Quindio region? In this first part, I’ll tell you all about the beginning of this unexpected experience.

Colombia has always been a country that attracts my attention, I couldn’t tell you exactly why. But one thing’s for sure: its diversity and warm atmosphere have a lot to do with it.

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Medellin La Comuna 13 & the Guajira region – Photo credit: Camille Nagel

Having landed in Argentine Patagonia, the logic of my trip was to make my way quietly up the continent, with a small idea in the back of my mind to end up in Central America. But as I said earlier, things never go according to plan.

Indeed, after a few months spent mainly in Argentina, I decided to fly to Colombia. In fact, my basic idea was to continue the trip in Peru, except that by then the rainy season was beginning. In the end, I was going to start at the end and work my way back down toEcuador and Peru, while the wet season worked its way through.

So, here I am at Bogota airport in early February 2020, after two flights and a one-day stopover in Panama. As day breaks over the enormous capital, a mixture of apprehension and excitement swirls inside me.

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View of Bogota from the Montserrate Photo credit: Camille Nagel

On the plane, I met a Colombian woman who was to be picked up by her brother at the airport. In the end, they took me with them to my hostel. As the hostel couldn’t take anyone in at that early hour, they took me to their place, offering me food and a bed to rest in.

I couldn’t have wished for a better welcome when I arrived in Colombia. Proof of the warmth that so characterizes this country.

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Graffiti Tour Bogota Photo credit: Camille Nagel

Getting back to the main subject of confinement, I was lucky enough to be able to discover Colombia for 1 month, before all this started. My route from Bogota took me to Salento, the very village where I was going to spend the confinement. Except that, at the time, I had no idea what would happen next.

When you travel, you meet countless people, but some have a greater impact than others. This was the case for me in Salento. I’d have stayed there a bit longer, but the rest of Colombia just didn’t feel like it.

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Salento, Quindío – Photo credit: Camille Nagel

The adventure continued from Medellín to the Caribbean coast. Between small villages lost in nature, the Tayrona National Park, a visit to the indigenous people in the heart of the Sierra Nevada and the discovery of the Guajira desert, Colombia gave me the chance to see everything.

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Tayrona National Park & La Guajira Desert – Photo credit: Camille Nagel

My awareness of the situation

In a way, my discovery of Colombia ended in Cartagena de Indias, the emblematic city of the Caribbean coast in the north of the country. I’d just spent a week on the island of San Andres, a Colombian island of incredible shades of blue, close to the Nicaraguan coast.

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San Andrés IslandPhoto credits: Camille Nagel – Beatriz Gomes

And it was when I landed at Cartagena airport that I began to realize that the health crisis, which in my eyes was still just a little flu on the other side of the world, was taking on greater proportions than expected.

Indeed, a sizeable number of people were wearing masks at the airport, the first time I’d seen this. Baffled, I left my idyllic week on the island without really understanding what was going on. An oppressive atmosphere was beginning to make itself felt, not to say apocalyptic.

By the time I arrived at the hostel I’d booked, the restrictions imposed by the situation were becoming increasingly severe. I barely had time to visit the city of Cartagena, a vestige of the colonial era.

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City of Cartagena de IndiasPhoto credit: Shutterstock – RONEDYA

From there, I decided to rush back to the haven of peace I’d discovered in Salento. If I’m going to be stuck, I might as well be there, in the nature and tranquillity of this small village in the Zona Cafetera (coffee region).

Indeed, being stuck in a big city didn’t inspire me much, especially as unlike Salento, I hadn’t had time to meet anyone in Cartagena.

The journey to Salento

As soon as the decision to return to Salento was taken, it was time to act. As the village is over 800 km south of Cartagena, the quickest and most logical solution was to fly. The plane took me to Pereira, a town about 1 hour’s drive from Salento.

Relieved to have passed the most important stage, I was not at the end of my surprises. Indeed, as the restrictions became more and more severe, entry to the village of Salento was no longer authorized after 8pm. Unfortunately, I arrived at Pereira airport too late.

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Town of Pereira – Quindío Photo credit: Shutterstock – wamayar

With no other choice, I had to book a private room in a normal hotel. The youth hostels, where I was used to staying in normal circumstances, didn’t really seem to suit the situation any more. What’s more, more and more hostels were beginning to refuse foreigners altogether.

That evening, alone in that hotel room, I became acutely aware of the situation. The horrible thought of being stuck in that city hotel, alone, was haunting my mind. And to top it all off, I wasn’t feeling very well, not to say I’d succumbed to the paracetamol. Hello psychosis!

Last stop to reach Salento, a bus journey of about 1 hour from the Terminal de Transportes de Pereira. I arrived at the terminal with a lump in my stomach, afraid they’d refuse me the ride. Because yes, things were getting more and more complicated.

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A night in PereiraPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

To find accommodation, I had tried to book in two different places, with negative feedback each time. « In view of the situation, we are no longer able to accept tourists. » Fortunately, on my first visit to Salento, I’d kept in touch with the owners of the place where I’d stayed. A French-Argentinian couple, who immediately agreed to welcome me back to their hostel.

As I’d imagined, taking the bus to Salento wasn’t easy. Fortunately, I was starting to get the hang of Spanish so I could negotiate the journey. I had to argue that I had a place to stay and that I knew people there. I even went so far as to disassociate myself from my tourist label. In the end, there were 4 of us on the bus, including me, the only foreigner.

The change of atmosphere and the start of confinement

Just-in-time arrival in the village

Sitting on the bus, I admired with emotion the green landscapes of this region, which were now familiar to me. I was happy and grateful to have come all the way back here, and to return to what I had left behind on my first visit a month earlier.

As you can imagine, I arrived just in time in Salento. It’s March 18, 2020. Miraculously, I don’t get checked at the village bus station.

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Hostel Estrellas Sin FronterasPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

Finally, I arrive at the Hostel Estrellas Sin Fronteras, where I can finally take a breather. What a relief to be here again, it almost felt like home. An environment that was familiar to me, where I wasn’t afraid of getting stuck.

When I said I’d arrived just in time, I also had to point out that the village closed its doors the day after my arrival. No one left, no one came in. Scary and perfect timing at the same time.

Time for containment

Although I was very happy to be back in Salento, this second stay was going to be very different from the one I had spent the month before. A few days after my arrival, it was time for confinement.

At the hostel, I meet three French girls and an Italian girl, realizing that we’ll probably be spending some time together. It’s still hard to grasp the scale of the situation at this precise moment.

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Salento – Hostel Estrellas Sin FronterasPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

Stuck for a few weeks, then continue the journey? Be forced to return to France? Under what conditions? So many questions we couldn’t answer. There was at least one comforting thing: we weren’t alone. The presence of the Franco-Argentinean couple who ran the inn was also reassuring.

Even so, the atmosphere remained oppressive. With the new restrictions, it was only allowed to go out for basic necessities, not forgetting the mask and gloves. We foreigners had somehow brought the virus back from Europe. A nice contaminated label.

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Containment – Hostel Estrellas Sin Fronteras, SalentoPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

One day, the girls went out together, one to do some shopping, the other to go to the bank. A village is a village, and things get known very quickly. Once the girls returned home, it didn’t take long for the village police to arrive at the hostel. Their aim was to take photos of our passports in order to register all the foreigners in the village.

Personally, the first few days weren’t the easiest. Since the night I spent in Pereira, I still didn’t feel « normal ». I’d taken the virus lightly just a few weeks earlier, but the karma quickly kicked in. Especially as my health insurance had just expired. I couldn’t tell whether my head was heavy from thinking too much, or whether I really felt sick. Added to this was the fear for my loved ones, over 10,000 km away. And if something happened and I wasn’t able to reach them… the guilt overwhelmed me.

After the early days of confinement, the atmosphere gradually eased. For my part, with a little rest, I was feeling good again. With the girls at the hostel, a little routine began to settle in. Organizing shopping and meals, card games, travel stories, daily calls with loved ones, sports sessions… Each of these activities set the pace for our daily lives.

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Containment – Hostel Estrellas Sin Fronteras, SalentoPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

Two weeks later, I decided to change my place of confinement. And so began the second part of my Salento confinement experience. New place, new environment and new encounters.

The evolution of my confinement: my village bubble

This change of quarantine location marked a second turning point in my experience of confinement in Colombia. A new environment full of wonderful encounters, both with locals and with other confined foreigners.

So April begins in an apartment that will become my new little house of confinement. Unlike the inn, which was at the bottom of the village, this new place is at the other end, in the highest part. A few steps from here are the stairs leading up to the Salento viewpoint.

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Salento – Tabara ApartahotelPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

The pace had been pretty intense for several months, sleeping from hostel to hostel, sharing everything with other travelers. It’s true that finally having a little place of my own wasn’t out of the question. The joy of settling down for a while, of being able to unpack the whole backpack.

Well settled, a new life of confinement began. Thanks to the people I met when I first came to Salento. It was thanks to them that I was able to find this accommodation at a lower price despite the situation.

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Salento, Quindío – Motmot houtouc (bird species)Photo credit: Camille Nagel

In the absence of an exterior, the apartment had a balcony overlooking the small alleyway of colorful houses that give Salento its charm. Perched at an altitude of 2,000 meters, the village is surrounded by lush greenery, which I could admire directly from the window.

I was so grateful to have had the chance to visit the surrounding area before confinement, especially the Cocora Valley. In a way, this famous valley is the reason why Salento is so popular with tourists. It’s home to the impressive Palma de Cera, the world’s tallest palm trees, which can reach heights of up to 70 metres!

Then there’s a visit to the coffeefincas, where you can learn about the different stages in the production of Colombia’s famous coffee, not forgetting how to taste it.

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Cocora Valley, QuindíoPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

Back to confinement. New surroundings mean new neighbors. And village life is different from city life. Here, everyone knows everyone else, and there’s a real sense of closeness. With the shutters open and no windows, you can observe everything.

I wonder what the locals who live next door will think. Why is this foreigner moving here now? Will they accept me?

Meeting the locals

Little by little, I get to know the neighborhood. Next door lives a del campo family. Farmers who raise calves just below my window. Every day, I watch them taking care of them and feeding them. I want to come down and help them. Something I’ll end up asking for.

As a result, they’ve even offered me the chance to visit their fields with them from time to time. The land they own is home to some of their other animals. That’s how I’ve sometimes escaped from the apartment to get a taste of nature’s fresh air.

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Quindío, ColombiaPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

A little clarification, but not the least: about a month after the start of containment, it’s official: the village has no cases of the virus! That’s enough to reassure everyone. Despite the restrictions still in force, we can go shopping much more serenely. On the other hand, distrust of other people is also easing.

In addition to my next-door neighbors, I got to know the people across the street. A Colombian family steeped in art, with a hostel all their own. I really fell in love with these people, who have an incredible and contagious positive energy.

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Salento, QuindíoPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

Exchanges across balconies in the morning over coffee, my favorite routine. Little attentions I won’t forget, like the day my neighbor came to bring me some of her arroz con leche (rice pudding), a dessert that’s widely made there.

Despite the Colombians’ joie de vivre, the situation is still difficult and burdensome. Salento is a village that lives purely on tourism. Restaurants, hotels, guides… without foreigners, there’s no business. As a result, my neighbors, like many others, have unfortunately had to give back their hostel to the owner, and return to live in their house on the outskirts of the village.

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Tupinamba – Salento, QuindíoPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

However, I was impressed by their creativity and responsiveness when they presented me with their new project: « Tupinamba« . A compendium of flavors from local products, sold in glass jars. Exotic recipes for jams, pestos and many other delights. I’m happy to follow their project, which is still evolving today thanks to networking. A fine example of rebounding from this crisis situation.

A new pillar of my confinement

Calle Real is the main street running through the village, normally packed with people. In this special situation, I was shopping in an almost deserted Salento – a historic first! Despite the difficulties of the situation, this emptiness made the atmosphere pleasantly peaceful.

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Calle Real SalentoPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

One day, while shopping at the Supercocora, the only supermarket in the village, I met a new Frenchman. He told me that there were a dozen foreigners confined together in theHostel SOA. And it just so happens that this same hostel is just a stone’s throw from where I was staying!

As you can imagine, this place became a sort of second home to me. As Salento was unaffected by the virus, my visits represented no health hazard, despite the fact that they weren’t exactly legal.

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SOA Hostel & Calle Real Salento – Photo credit: Camille Nagel

France, Russia, Croatia, Switzerland, Colombia and Venezuela: our meals, evenings and shared moments formed a beautiful cultural mix. We were all together in this strange situation, but so rich in human terms.

In my little village bubble, I was happy and surrounded by beautiful people, including the one I’d met on my first visit to Salento.

Escapades in the surrounding countryside

Two months after the start of confinement, it’s true that the need to get out was felt. But unlike in France, the rules were stricter. We were only allowed 2 days out during the week. These days were defined according to the last number on the passport. And this day out only consisted of shopping.

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Tolima, Colombia – Photo credit: Camille Nagel

Despite this, some of the hostel’s guests often went for walks in the mountains. In the end, going off to recharge one’s batteries in nature doesn’t do anyone any harm. So I ended up getting out too, and these few escapades were the beauty of the end of my experience in Colombia. Here are the two most beautiful of them.

La Carbonera: an immense green paradise

Most foreigners who pass through Salento on their trip to Colombia come to visit the Cocora Valley and its famous palm trees. But in reality, there’s an incredible, even bigger place that’s home to entire palm forests: La Carbonera.

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La CarboneraPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

Perched at an altitude of 3,000 meters, this little-known paradise is clearly off the beaten track. You may wonder why this place has remained so little known. The reason is mainly logistical. As the Cocora Valley is closer to the village, it has quickly built up its reputation.

La Carbonera, on the other hand, takes around 1h30 from Salento. For those who like to discover authentic, less-frequented places, the drive is clearly worthwhile.

When I first came to Salento, I wasn’t even aware of the existence of such a place. It was during my confinement that I heard about it. So I decided to explore the Carbonera before it was time to return to France.

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La CarboneraPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

Organization was pretty straightforward. Along with other people from the hostel, we were a small group of four. We managed to find one of the famous jeeps in the village, which normally take tourists to the Cocora Valley. After explaining our idea, the owner was willing to reserve a day for us and take us there.

When the day of the getaway arrived, excitement was at its peak. For weeks, our only outings had been to the races. And now we were off to explore an incredible place, in a rather privileged situation.

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La CarboneraPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

Standing in the back of the jeep, the scenery along the way was a spectacle in itself. Above the village, we climb even higher in altitude, to change valleys and reach the famous Carbonera.

We were amazed when we got there… endless forests of palm trees, each higher than the next. A place out of time. After meeting up with the driver, we had the rest of the day to explore the area. And the most wonderful thing of all was that we were completely alone. Alone in the middle of this immensity.

Discover the Cerro Machín volcano

This second escapade was undoubtedly the craziest. What an idea to venture out on a motorcycle to find a volcano, whose name we only knew, in the middle of a confinement period! Still, it remains one of my best memories.

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La Carbonera & at the foot of Cerro Machín – Photo credit: Camille Nagel

Cerro Machín is a volcano located in Tolima, in the neighbouring department of Quindío.

Normally, expeditions can be organized from Salento to the volcano. However, the volcano is located at a considerable distance from the village, making the excursion less accessible than the other must-sees around Salento.

From one day to the next, we set off by motorcycle in search of this volcano. Without a map or Google Maps, we’d just asked for directions. And it turned out that the path to the volcano leads through La Carbonera! This magical place, which we thought we’d explored the time before, is actually so much bigger.

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La CarboneraPhoto credit: Alberto Sosa – Camille Nagel

When I said that the idea of discovering Cerro Machín was crazy, I meant that it took us a good 3 hours to get there. And that’s without taking into account the state of the road, which at times was nothing more than mud, not very reassuring for the back of the machine, which was losing its stability. To find our way, we let ourselves be guided by the families of the few farms we came across along the way.

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On the way to Cerro Machín Photo credit: Camille Nagel

Finally arriving at the foot of the volcano, which looked more like a mountain, we found ourselves in front of a farmhouse, not really knowing which way to go. The owners informed us that it was no longer permitted to climb the volcano due to the situation. After all that driving, it was impossible for us to leave like that. Eventually, we managed to negotiate the passage.

In the mist that had settled in, we began the climb up the volcano. Passing through the forest, with its immense leaves and strange plants, seemed like an excursion into the middle of the jungle. Finally, the smell of sulphur heralded our arrival at the summit.

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Ascent of Cerro MachínPhoto credit: Camille Nagel

Cerro Machín is unique in that it has no crater. Instead, it breathes by spewing smoke through its cavities. A magical natural spectacle to behold from the top. Thanks to the volcano’s activity, the rocks on the ground are pleasantly warm, despite the humidity and cold.

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Cerro Machín volcanoPhoto credit: Alberto Sosa – Camille Nagel

In Colombia, it was already getting dark around 5pm. So the return journey to Salento was not going to be easy. With the altitude, the cold quickly set in, and the occasional fog didn’t make the journey any easier. We may have arrived exhausted after a 6-hour day on the bike, but the experience and the memories we made will stay with us forever.

A complicated return to France?

These last beautiful escapades around Salento marked the end of my experience in Colombia. Indeed, repatriation planes managed by the French embassy were put in place during the period to enable French nationals to return home.

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The last days in Salento – Photo credit: Alberto Sosa – Camille Nagel

All French people stranded in Colombia have been assigned a place on a list according to their situation. For example, people with commitments in France or those who are more vulnerable are given priority. So if a French person is among the first 100 on the list, he or she is guaranteed a seat on the next repatriation flight.

Gradually, I saw almost all the French and foreigners I’d known in Salento leave. As for me, I confess I lingered a bit. And yet, I could have had a seat on the very first plane. But I felt so at home in my little village bubble. So much so that I was refused three planes in a row, before finally deciding to leave on the June 26 flight.

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Salento & Bogota airport – Photo credit: Camille Nagel

When traveling, it’s always a good idea to stay an extra day or two in a place you really like. We explore the surroundings, meet some nice people, and then go our separate ways.

But this kind of departure, after having experienced so much and forged such precious bonds, is something different. It’s leaving a place and leaving a part of ourselves behind. And in exchange, leaving with a soul full of unique memories. Isn’t that the most beautiful of riches?