Leaving Bogotá and spending some time in Ibagué, Colombia was quite an adventure. We greatly enjoyed our time in both places but it was time to continue our journey and make our way to Armenia. Heading from Ibagué to Armenia we got lucky and were once again able to take an Expreso Palmira bus. Our tickets were 23,000 COP (about $8 USD) each. This time the ride on the bus was a bit more curvy and bumpy as we crossed through the gigantic Cordillera Central (Central Mountain Range). The road was so twisty and mountainous that a journey of about 84 kilometers took us almost six hours to complete. That is a little bit of an exaggeration as we spent the much of the last two hours sitting completely still waiting for the road construction to open up and let us through. In the late afternoon we finally reached the bus terminal in Armenia. We then sent our host Mario a message via WhatsApp, letting him know that we had arrived safely and we were ready to be scooped up at the station. However, due to our delayed arrival, he asked us to wait at the terminal until after he picked up his daughter from school. We waited a little longer than half an hour before Mario showed up in Nissan sedan to bring us to his hotel where we would spend the next few days.
Although we had made the reservations through Airbnb, our lodging was actually a mid-sized hotel right in the heart of the city of Armenia. The name of the building was called Hotel Torre Fuerte, which translates to strong tower or strong fort. As the name describes, the hotel was built like a fort within the bustling chaos of the city of Armenia. The ride from the bus terminal to Torre Fuerte was like an intense safari through an urban jungle with masses of people wandering all around, with varied intentions and crossing the streets in every possible direction. There were new buildings, old buildings, partially constructed buildings, as well as partially destroyed buildings and piles of rubble where buildings once stood. There were new cars, old cars, burned-out cars and destroyed cars strewn across the chaotic urban landscape of the bustling city. There were all sorts of people roaming around, from the homeless and destitute to the wealthy metropolitan businessmen and businesswomen. It was a city with everything, and lots of it.
On our ride to the hotel Mario informed us that the city had suffered a devastating 6.2-6.4 magnitude earthquake in 1999 that left most of the city in ruins. That explained the special blend of devastation and development found in Armenia. It gave the city a very intense feel, almost overwhelming. There were more homeless people there than either of us had ever seen before in one place. Sensing our uneasiness, Mario kept reassuring us that the city was completely safe despite the large number of dispossessed people. He told us that most of the people were just looking for food and completely harmless. He also explained to us that many of the Armenians that had the means often gave food to their hungry fellow citizens, thus keeping them from becoming criminals in order to survive.
The sobering realization about the magnitude of the hunger situation in Armenia was made very evident to us when we went out for our first meal in the new city; we were approached at least three times while we were eating by people who were hungry and looking to us for just a small bit of food. We gave one gentleman a bowl of coleslaw (which the restaurant called ensalada americana or American salad) and watched him eagerly devour the food in a short minute. He returned the empty bowl to us and thanked us for our kindness. Almost as soon as he left, another gentleman who was also asking for food approached us. This time we refused to give out any more food and he walked away to find someone else who might be able to help feed him without bothering us any further.
Exhausted from our travels, we slept very well our first night in Armenia. Although the weather was quite warm our room had a wall-mounted fan that really only functioned properly on high speed, which was quite fine for us. We awoke the next day and were ready to do a little bit of exploring in Armenia. We were a bit nervous about wandering around the hectic city so we just decided to plan a route to the city’s main plaza and check out that area. We got ourselves ready for the day and headed downstairs to the main lobby of the hotel to begin our Armenian adventure.
Upon arriving downstairs we were greeted by Mario and a middle-aged Armenian gentleman who we had not yet met. The stranger, who was a friend of Mario, introduced himself as Jimmy and asked us where we were headed for the day. We explained that we didn’t really have any concrete plans but that we were going to head toward the main plaza to explore. Jimmy said that he was heading that direction himself and offered to accompany us. Since he was very friendly and he was from Armenia, we decided that it would be a good idea to head out with him towards the plaza. Little did we know that we would end up spending the entire day with Jimmy.
Jimmy had once been a guerrilla fighter, involved with various brands of crime and drugs. Now, however, Jimmy had reformed himself, cleaned up his act, became a pastor at a local church and dedicated his life to helping those who were struggling with many trials and tribulations similar to those that he had overcome. He is now a warrior for love, kindness and the betterment of his fellow men and women. We are truly thankful to have met such an inspiring individual who has overcome so many obstacles.
Jimmy led us down very busy roads, filled with car traffic and people, until we reached a pedestrian only street right in the center of Armenia. It was filled with shops, sidewalk vendors, street artists, performers, and many people wandering all about. Jimmy asked us if we wanted some coffee, as if he could read our minds, and we headed into a small café to have a few delicious tintos (black Colombian coffee). While sipping on our coffees, the three of us chatted about all sorts of things, Jimmy trying to impress us with his broken English. Jimmy was very interested in our travels and wanted to show us around Armenia. Since we had no specific plans for the day, we decided to accompany him around town and let him show us his city.
With Jimmy we wandered all over town, completing a few of his errands and visiting many places that tourists don’t normally go. He brought us to his parents’ apartment way up on the 8th floor of a huge building. At his parents’ home we had the opportunity to go out on the observation deck where we were able take photos from high above central Armenia. The view from the apartment building was spectacular.
Jimmy took us around to several parks and plazas scattered throughout the city. We visited a very beautiful church, the Catedral la Inmaculada Concepción de Armenia, located in Plaza Bolívar, the city’s main plaza, where we took a few photos. Jimmy also brought us to his very modest home in a very un-touristic part of the city. He gave us a bottle of cold water as we had been wandering in the heat for a while and had developed quite a thirst. After that, he took us to meet his adorable grandson and his nephew. Then, Jimmy led us to an area of the city where his father’s farm had been. It was in a very scenic and secluded area full of wildlife, mountains and coffee fields.
While we were wandering around this area near the edge of the city we noticed, in the front garden of a house, a table that had been inlaid with tiles in the form of a Parcheesi board. We were admiring the table, as Parcheesi is one of Sally’s favorite board games, when an old woman came out of the house and started speaking really fast. She quickly grabbed Jimmy’s arm and started pulling him to the door and inside of her house. We followed the woman and Jimmy inside the ornately decorated home. The woman urged us to sit down on the sofa and began conversing with us. She seemed to take an immediate liking to Sally even though they did not share a common language. Sally did her best to try to speak some Spanish while the old woman did not even attempt a word in English. She hugged Sally tightly and then posed for a photo with her. We spent about ten minutes in this woman’s house, believing that she was a good friend of Jimmy’s. It was only later that we discovered that Jimmy had absolutely no idea who this woman was, making the experience all the more enriching.
As we heading back towards Jimmy’s parents’ house, we stopped at a small cart in the street where there was a vendor selling a type of reddish-orange fruit called chontaduro. Jimmy told us that we should try it and we each got a small cup containing several small chunks of this fruit; the vendor covered them in honey and sprinkled salt on them. Sally enjoyed them but Joe found them to be quite dry and hard to get down. They were very filling and difficult to eat so we were unable to finish them. In hindsight we should have shared one portion instead of each buying our own.
Later on, we visited a really nice mall in town that had a food court on one of the upper levels, providing a beautiful panoramic view of Armenia. By this time it was starting to get a bit late and the sun was beginning to set. This spelled trouble for Sally who was wearing her prescription sunglasses and whose regular glasses were back at the hotel. We told Jimmy that soon Sally would not be able to see so we headed back to the hotel so that Sally could switch glasses.
After we had gotten back and Sally had grabbed her normal glasses, we were all pretty hungry and decided to grab some dinner before it got too late. Jimmy, being a native of Armenia, knew exactly where to take us. So, we followed him through the darkened streets of the city until we arrived at one of his favorite dining establishments, El Sabor Paisita, whose logo featured a pig wearing a Panama hat, sunglasses, a scarf, blue jeans, a white t-shirt and a shoulder bag. We ordered some incredibly delicious food, Joe had a carne de res encebollada (grilled steak with onions) and Sally had a carne asada de cerdo (grilled pork); it a great way to end such a long and entertaining day.
After dinner Jimmy walked us back to the hotel, through the dark streets of Armenia. At one point Jimmy told us that we shouldn’t walk along these particular streets without him because they were, as he put it, “hot”. This confused us a bit and we asked for clarification; he responded “danger”. Criminals and drug addicts often frequent the particular streets that we were walking. A little further down, alongside mountains of rummaged-through garbage, we encountered a middle-aged man in the streets, wearing tattered clothing and holding a small electric motor in his hand. Seemingly oblivious to us approaching on the street, he began recklessly throwing the motor onto the asphalt sending chards of plastic and metal flying in all directions, kicking it down the road a bit, picking it up and violently throwing it again. Jimmy quickened his pace and urged us to keep walking. After we were a safe distance from the crazed man, we asked Jimmy what the guy was doing. He replied with one word, “stress”. We understood.
We soon arrived back at the hotel where we said our farewells to Jimmy and where Mario our host was gathered with his wife and daughter. Finding out that Sally spoke English, Mario’s wife wanted their daughter to practice speaking with her. After their daughter Sofia overcame her shyness, she and Sally began a rather lengthy conversation. She spoke English wonderfully and really enjoyed the opportunity to practice what she had been learning at school. When his daughter was ready for bed and said goodnight to us, Mario pulled out a special treat, his foreign paper money collection. Joe, who also collects foreign currency, was especially delighted. Mario showed us many different banknotes that he had acquired over the years from different guests staying at his hotel. He had quite a collection featuring bills from a wide variety of countries around the world.
After spending a little while conversing with Mario and his family we retired to our room to pack up our things and get ready to head out the next day. While we were packing we heard a knock on the door to our room. It was Mario, carrying a tray with two freshly prepared cups of very strong traditional Colombian coffee. It was quite a surprise and extremely delicious; it did however ensure that we would have difficulty sleeping that night. We graciously thanked Mario, drank the wonderful coffee, showered, finished packing and then attempted sleep. After all, the next day would be another long day of travel for us as we were headed by bus to Cali, Colombia, the salsa music capital of the world (or at least of Colombia).
We woke up early the next morning and headed downstairs to the main lobby of the hotel. We rang the buzzer by the door of Mario and family’s apartment as he had told us that he would bring us to the bus station.
A short while later Mario appeared and asked us if we were ready to go. He needed a couple minutes to get ready and then he emerged from his apartment all set to take us to the terminal. He asked us for 5,000 COP (less than $2 USD) for the ride to the bus station. Instead of the Colombian pesos we gave him a US $5 bill, which we had noticed he did not yet have in his collection. He told us that he did not have any change to give us but we just told him that we wanted him to keep it and add it to his collection. He was very grateful for the new addition and he sincerely thanked us. We soon arrived at the bus terminal, unloaded our bags and then got Mario to pose with us for an ussie. We said our goodbyes and headed into the terminal to purchase our tickets for the bus to Cali.