Bogotá had become our home for over and month and we were surely going to miss it. We had so many incredible adventures and met so many wonderful people in that city. We had become very comfortable taking the Transmilenio buses, we had our favorite places to eat, our favorite parks to visit, our favorite places to buy fruits and vegetables, many local shops we liked to visit and many people with whom we enjoyed spending time. It had truly started to feel like home for us, but it was time to move on. We were definitely going to miss Luisa, Guillermo, Emma and all of the cats. During our last few days in our apartment in the Chapinero neighborhood of Bogotá, our host Luisa was out of town due to the poor health of one of her family members. We were about to head to Ibagué, Colombia by bus and we did not get a chance to say goodbye to her in person. So, we wrote a goodbye message to her with a dry erase marker on the wall of the kitchen, as that was the customary way of leaving messages for people in the apartment. Luckily for us, she left Guillermo with the keys to her car and he very kindly offered to give us a ride to the bus terminal.
Guillermo suggested that instead of trying to book bus tickets online we should just show up to the bus station and shop around at the terminal for a ticket to Ibagué. We arrived to the bus station a little before 10am. Guillermo not only gave us a ride to the bus terminal but he also came inside with us to help us navigate through the seemingly endless array of bus companies trying to persuade us to ride with them. There were several different bus companies that offered rides to Ibagué. At Guillermo’s recommendation we chose to book our trip with Expreso Palmira, which had very nice modern buses with WIFI and a bathroom on board. We approached the counter and Guillermo asked for two tickets to Ibagué. We were then asked to provide our passports so they could get our information. The ticket agent then told us that the fare to Ibagué would be 25,000 COP (less than $9 USD) per ticket. Guillermo chose some good seats for us near the front of the bus, we paid for the tickets, and then we proceeded to the very small waiting room to hang out until it was time to board.
When the time for boarding had arrived, we said our goodbyes to Guillermo and headed out to the platform where the bus was waiting. We took our bags down to the side of the bus where the conductor was loading luggage underneath. He put our bags in the bus and attached a small strap to each bag. Then he gave us a plastic claim ticket with a corresponding number for each of our bags. We then boarded the bus and with much excitement we awaited our departure. A couple minutes after the scheduled time of departure our bus pulled out on the road and we began our trip to Ibagué.
Traffic was heavy and Bogotá is huge. It took a little over an hour of driving for the bus to finally make it out of the city. The bus was very comfortable, with plenty of legroom and reclining seats. The WIFI on the bus wasn’t that great, loading pages slowly if they loaded at all. However, we got really lucky as we were seated across the aisle from a very kind gentleman who happened to work for the bus line. He was just traveling for leisure and was not working on this particular trip. He told us that the WIFI on the buses is very limited and he gave us the password for his own personal hotspot generated by his cell phone. We were extremely grateful for his kindness and we enjoyed a nice quick internet connection for the remainder of our bus trip.
Once outside of Bogotá we passed through several smaller towns before we started climbing high up into the mountains of the Cordillera Oriental (Eastern Mountain Range). The scenery was quite beautiful and the road had many tight curves. After about four hours of a wild bus ride, going up, down, and all around, we reached the beginning of the enormous Cordillera Central (Central Mountain Range). Ibagué is located at the eastern edge of this mountain range. Our excitement was building as we entered the city. There was so much to see, it was a visual feast for our eyes.
We pulled into the terminal in Ibagué, exited the bus and waited for the conductor to open the cargo bin to collect our bags. Once we had our luggage we exited the terminal where a line of taxis was waiting to bring people to their final destinations. We grabbed the next taxi in line, loaded up our bags, and we were off to the Airbnb we had reserved. We made our reservations with a young man named Jairo, but he was in Germany at the time of our visit. Instead, his mother, Magdalena, and his father who was also named Jairo received us. The Airbnb was located above a restaurant owned by the family called MaggieExpress.
Magdalena and Jairo greeted us very warmly upon our arrival and showed us to our room. It was a nice room that appeared to be their son’s room judging by the skateboard stickers, posters and other pictures adorning the walls and furniture. The room had a very comfortable bed that was supported by wooden pallets and the windows in the room gave us an excellent view of the street down below. The house was amazing and was very nicely decorated with antique furniture and beautiful artwork covered the walls.
Ibagué is a pretty small city in comparison with Bogotá and we were eager to explore what this new place had to offer. Magdalena and Jairo drew us a map of how to get to the center of town and made a few suggestions of places we could visit. We headed towards the center of town without any concrete plans. At a lower elevation, the weather in Ibagué was quite warm. We were not used to heat after having spent over a month in Bogotá and it caused us some fatigue. We wandered around the center of town, visiting different plazas and taking many photos. It was so warm that we decided to stop in a small shop and get some helado (ice cream).
Ibagué is known as the Music Capital of Colombia and this was evident by the various street musicians that we encountered as well as many music-related sculptures and murals scattered throughout the city. There was a very artistic giant guitar sculpture prominently featured in one of Ibagué’s main plazas.
Aside from the music and art, there were many vendors spread out up and down Carrera 3, the main pedestrian street. They were selling everything from food to jewelry, to pieces of art and umbrellas. Luckily for one of the umbrella vendors it began to rain, so we purchased a small umbrella for 15,000 COP (about $5 USD). The umbrella has been invaluable to us, especially for Sally who uses it not only for rain, but also for shielding herself from the extremely powerful sun in the region. We walked around for several hours going as far as one of the city’s large stadiums, mainly used fútbol (soccer in the US) although it occasionally serves for other community functions such as concerts. We became quite hungry and weren’t sure if we could hold out until dinner. So, on our way home we grabbed a couple slices of pizza from a restaurant just down the road from where we were staying.
In the evening we came downstairs to MaggieExpress, the family’s restaurant that specialized in crepes, patacones and arepas. You get to choose your filling from a list of about 12 combinations and then you decide whether you’d like to have it in a crepe, an arepa or piled on top of a large patacón (flattened patty made up of non-ripened plantains). The food was incredibly delicious, although neither of cared to eat the small egg that decorated the top of our respective dishes.
The next day, after a great night’s sleep on the very comfortable bed, when we came downstairs to a wonderful surprise. Jairo and Magdalena had prepared us a breakfast of fresh fruit and Zucaritas (Frosted Flakes). The fruit was absolutely delicious and consisted of bananas, pineapple, mango, strawberries and papaya. It had been years since either of us had had Frosted Flakes as we don’t normally eat sugar cereals, however we scarfed down the bowls and found them to be quite tasty. We very much enjoyed the breakfast table conversation that we had with Magdalena and Jairo. Magdalena speaks a little English but understands almost everything. Jairo speaks just a few words and phrases of English and he really seemed to enjoy conversing with Joe in Spanish. Joe acted as a translator for the Spanish that Sally was not able to pick up.
That day we decided to go to a museum and our hosts recommended that we visit one of the city’s only museums, the Museo de Arte del Tolima (Art Museum of Tolima). Ibagué is the capital city of the province of Tolima in Colombia. The museum was quite small and featured many works of local artists as well as a few pieces of art from international artists such as Andy Warhol. The museum cost about a dollar to visit and we enjoyed the short time we spent there.
Back in Bogotá we had become fans of a dish known locally as lechona. Lechona is basically a whole pig roasted and seasoned, then the meat is removed and it is cooked again with rice, peas, onions and spices. It is often served with bubbly chunks of the roasted pig skin. Guillermo, one of our hosts in Bogotá, had told us that the best lechona was to be found in Ibagué. He and Luisa had been there a few times and thoroughly enjoyed the lechona that they had although they couldn’t remember for sure the name of the lechonería that they visited. We asked Jairo and Magdalena to recommend a good lechonería for us and they wrote down the name of their favorite, Lechonería Eduvina, which had several locations in Ibagué. After finishing the art museum and wandering around the town center for a short while, we hired a taxi to bring us to the closest Lechonería Eduvina. The first one we arrived at was apparently only open when the other locations were very busy. About a block down the road we came across another Lechonería Eduvina which was indeed open and we had the driver drop us off there. A young girl of about 12 years old came out to take our order. We decided on the 10,000 COP lechona to share and a couple of sodas to drink. A few minutes later we were presented with our pile of tasty lechona, complete with a tasteless mini arepa that usually comes with each order and a tasty panela cake. After having our fill, we wandered back to Magdalena and Jairo’s on foot through the streets of Ibagué, taking a meandering route to see more of the beautiful city.
Later that night we once again dined at MaggieExpress, this time trying different combinations of crepes and patacones. Again we were delighted with the amazing flavors of the food made by our hosts. There was a TV in the restaurant and the locals seemed to be quite fanatical about a press your luck trivia game show that seemed to be on the air each time we ate at the restaurant. Magdalena and some of the customers were glued to the television set during the show and soon we found ourselves getting into it as well. After dinner we retired to our room to wash up and pack, for the next day we off on another bus trip. This time our destination would be Armenia, Colombia.
The next morning, upon descending from our room, we were treated again to a wonderful breakfast by Magdalena and Jairo. This time, in addition to the large plate of fruit, they had made us delicious cheese arepas. We ate and ate and ate, enjoying another great conversation with our spectacular hosts. We continued to eat until we couldn’t eat any more. Then we returned upstairs to pack our last minute items before coming back downstairs with our bags ready to go. Magdalena helped us flag down a large* taxi and we were off to the bus station once again to continue our adventure.
* By large taxi we just mean one with a trunk large enough for at least one of our bags. Most of the vehicles in Colombia, taxis included, only have enough room in the trunk area for a couple small bags of groceries.
Lastly, here are a couple of photos of Ibagué from the bus as we were heading out of town on our way to Armenia: