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Spanish School, Volunteering and Adventures: San Carlos, Colombia

San Carlos has been our home for the last four weeks. It’s a small, safe town with friendly locals, it’s surrounded by mountains and rivers and even though it’s 120km away from Medellin, you can get everything you need here. However, it hasn’t always been this way. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a war in Colombia between the guerrillas and paramilitaries who fought to take control of areas within the country and in 1999, San Carlos was invaded by both groups. Most of the population fled the town because with all of the violence, San Carlos was not a safe place to live and only around 5,000 people remained. Now though it is a different story. The town has grown to over 25,000 people and it’s an example of peace in Colombia. San Carlos does remember the tumultuous past with a rememberance garden in the main park (each colour of flower represents a different type of victim) and the CARE (Centro de Acercamiento, Reconciliación y Repatracion), a former hotel transformed into a sort-of Casa de Memoria. Drawings and photos line the walls, showing exactly what the local people had to endure during almost two decades of war and serving as a reminder to never let something like that happen again.

On the annual Day of Rememberance (which was on 09/04/19), there was a theatrical performance in memory of the people that lost their lives in the violence, were displaced or lost limbs after stepping on a land mine. It was really intersting the way they used humour to lighten the mood and remember the past, and it was really moving to think that these people were in the middle of a war zone so recently but we, as tourists, are now here enjoying the town and interacting with the local people. (There is an interesting article about San Carlos in The New York Times, read it HERE )

The streets are now really colourful with artwork adorning houses on most of the San Carlos streets and the townspeople live in peace with their neighbours. There’s so much graffiti that Steph started a collection with new a “daily graffiti pic” every day! (This blog would be even longer than it already is if she put more than four in, so this is just a very small selection).

A few years ago, Daniel and Camilo moved back to San Carlos from Medellin and founded ‘Spanish Adventure’. They have created a popular Spanish school for people looking to get off the tourist trail, go on fun adventures in the natural environment and to learn Spanish at the same time. (Read more HERE ) We can safely say that we have had the best time at Spanish Adventure and we are really sad that we have to leave. If it wasn’t for our visa expiring at the end of the month and exciting new adventures planned for the next few months (more on that at the end of this blog) we would have asked to stay longer!

This was our third Workaway experience and it was another incredible month of making new friends, learning Spanish and having a place to call home. In return for accommodation we did a few hours of volunteering work each day and contributed to the running of the school. Steph taught English to some of the children and adults from the community, which meant playing games, singing songs and teaching people who were willing to learn. Basically all of the fun parts of teaching without the marking, paperwork and tests! Ben was part of the home improvement team and although the house looks small from the outside, it is deceptively large and there was a lot to do. He refurbished an ‘Adventure Room’ for all of the outdoor equipment, wired new lighting for the Chimbita (outdoor classroom/general chill-out area) and repainted the balconies. 

A typical day at Spanish Adventure was action-packed: We started the day with two hours of Spanish lessons, we would squeeze in a bit of volunteering work, eat lunch at the School’s restaurant, have an ice cream at our favourite heladería and then go on an adventure in the afternoon. This usually involved  practising our Spanish language skills on the way to a swim in one of the many rivers around San Carlos. Laura and Edwin always had a fun activity to get us talking to each other and to the locals, from making up stories to finding things in the environment. One time whilst walking to the river we had to take photos of three specific things, but we didn’t know what the words meant. Steph asked two local guys what ‘boñiga’ meant and they were so confused (and amused) because she’d asked them where she could find some cow poo! Then the evenings were slightly more chill with time to shower, eat and relax after a busy day. 

Everyone lived together in the school so you really got to know one another and because there was always someone around, you were never bored. It also meant that you shared the cooking, so you only made dinner one night a week and the rest of the time you had food cooked for you. When it was our turn to cook we made sure everyone had a hearty meal (with a dessert… of course!) and Steph has the extra kilograms to prove it! The other great thing about staying at the school was having a dog for a month. Dobby came everywhere with us and was so excitable, always wanting to accompany us on every adventure whether it’s to the river or just to the shops. We’re going to miss him! (Steph did ask Ben to make a trailer for Dobby so he could come with us, but he would miss Daniel too much, so we decided we’d just have to come back and visit him!)

In addition to the lessons and adventures, the school has a strong link with the community and in our first week we participated in a protest to stop a dam being built on the last untouched river in the area, the Rio Samana. The San Carlos region produces over 30% of the country’s power from Hydroelecric dams but it comes at a cost and the environment pays that price. For example, there is a spieces of fish here that swim upriver to lay their eggs but if this new dam is built, they won‘t be able to get there anymore. So we made banners and marched around the town with the locals, dancing and singing, and we hope the government takes notice. 

There is also a weekly intercambio event, a language and cultural exchange where locals have the chance to practise their English and the students, Spanish. Plus a monthly trip to the sports centre, where we each had an activity to run, to help the elderly people get active, socialise and have fun. The activity that we were in charge of involved walking/running/dancing in pairs with a gym ball to a point and back. It was a lot of fun!

We visited the local dog sanctuary, which is a local lady’s house, where she takes care of 50+ dogs that were either abandoned or mistreated. We all donated some money to buy them some dog food and the dogs were really excited to see us. After being shown around, some people helped to clean some of the dogs ears while some of us just played with (and cuddled) the puppies!

One of our cultural adventures was to play ‘Tejo’, the national sport of Colombia which involves throwing a heavy stone at a target and if you hit it, it explodes! The man who owned the Tejo place told us the rules and gave us a lesson on how to hold and throw the stone. It was so much harder than we thought and took a while to really get the hang of it. The losing team bought the winners’ beers and sadly our team lost, so it’s a good job that beers are well cheap in Colombia! (~£0.75 a bottle!)

The Friday night adventure is a lot of fun. We sang karaoke, starred in our own TV show and performed a dramatic reading. This was all in Spanish, obviously, but Daniel and Camilo did theirs in English and it was always hilarious!

Around all of this we had to do our homework so we would often be up late or wake up early to finish it off, just like going a real school!

Each Saturday there is a big adventure organised which is a full day activity, either hiking or canyoning, exploring the mountains and rivers around San Carlos. Sadly, we were unable to go on the adventure in our first week because our bikes were still in Medellin and we needed to collect them. (If you remember in our last blog Steph had her wisdom teeth removed and we didn’t have the time for her to recover and still arrive in San Carlos on time to start volunteering, so we took the bus). We went back to Medellin on Friday Night and it felt so busy and noisy after a week in San Carlos, but it was nice to have a warm shower in Jeremy’s apartment! (As San Carlos has a warm climate all year round, the school only has cold showers. They are actually really refreshing and you get used to it). We rode out of Medellin on Saturday morning, up a ridiculously steep hill, it was at least 20% gradient in parts, and cycled almost 100km to Gauatape. 

We had heard Guatape described as a Colombian ‘Disney Land’ and we can confirm that it is definitely one of the most touristy places that we have been to. Despite this reputation which could put some people off, Guatape is a really pretty town much like Jardin or Salento with the colourful houses, but here they also have interesting designs on them. It was nice to spend an evening here wandering the streets, taking photos and soaking up the ambience of the place before riding back to San Carlos the next day. 

The following Saturday we climbed Piedra del Tabor, known by the staff at Spanish Adventure as ‘The F*cking Rock’. We took a motorbike to the start of the trail and then the real work started. It was a steep hike, often a scramble, using the trees and rocks to haul yourself up but our cycling fitness served us well. The rock is the highest point around so the view over the surrounding valleys was impressive, if slightly obscured by clouds at times. The town of San Carlos looked much larger from up there too. Going back down our legs felt the burn but after a glass of lemonade at a local farm and a swim in the waterfall, all the pain was forgotten.

Last Saturday we spent the day at El Indio, an idyllic swimming hole just out of town. It is one of the most beautiful rivers we have ever swam in with clear water, a rock to jump from and a sandy beach. It’s perfect! 

The other people taking lessons and volunteering at the school definitely made our time here special and we have made some really good friends. We stayed with the 3 students – Mark, Angelina (from California) and Clare (from Birmingham), and 3 other volunteers – Hanna (from Germany), Joe and Bernie (from London) for three weeks and it felt as though we were one big family. Sadly they left last Sunday and we had to start again with a new group, which has been nice, but its not the same when you know you are leaving the next week. Still, the type of people that come to Spanish Adventure are definitely our type of people and it’s always nice to make new friends. As we were told once, if you never leave a place you will never meet new people, and that’s part of the fun of travelling for us.  

So what next? We have two weeks left in Colombia and we‘re going to ride to the Caribbean coast, which means we are very nearly done with South America (for now!). It feels strange to be so close to the end of the continent and we already know that it won’t be our last time here. But for now we have big news. After Colombia we are going to… The USA! 🇺🇸 

We’re going to ride the East Coast, from Florida to Toronto, to be more precise. Our plans changed when we were invited to three of our friends’ weddings in the space of a month, starting at the end of August, which we really didn’t want to miss. The thought of rushing through Central America wasn’t appealing either, especially as it’s their wet season, so summer in the States sounded like a better plan. Plus the flights were cheaper!

Our plans may have changed slightly but we’re still going to cycle through all of the Americas, just on a different route than we originally had thought but then, our journey has always been unscripted! We’re going to return and ride from Alaska to Panama, but this way we’ll have seen a part of the world that wasn’t originally on our route. It’s going to be a culture shock after 19 months in South America but speaking the same language is going to make things easier. We have a vague idea of our route through the Appalachian mountains, we want to visit Washington D.C., New York City and Niagra Falls but if anyone has any recommendations for other places we should see/things to do/people we could stay with, we’d love to hear them. Send us a message or comment below. Cheers!

Nos vemos!

Steph y Ben

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1 comment

  1. Hi Steph y Ben,

    It certainly sounds and looks like San Carlos was a fun place to spend a few weeks, working and learning Spanish. It reminded me of the Spanish school I did back in 2005 in Quito, Ecuador – although it sounds like yours was both more immersive and fun. I loved the idea of having to work out what 3 random Spanish words are and them find examples of them…although maybe I’d have loved it less when I found out one of them was cow dung! The graffiti again looks amazing. The sloth one has to be my favourite. Solana will love that when I show her to – she developed a real love of sloths when we were in Costa Rica.

    You have certainly surprised us by your next steps, East Coast USA plans. We were psyched up for a journey through Central America! Solana will be disappointed when I tell her in the morning that you won’t be going to Costa Rica yet – I think she was looking forward to sharing some of her travel stories. I agree that you can’t pass up the chance to attend 3 weddings though – and add some more variety to your travels at the same time. And, like you say, it will be good to be able to speak English to everyone again – I remember that feeling, when we hit Belize, after 6 months travelling in Latin America. I just hope it is not too challenging budget-wise, travelling through the US & Canada.

    I now have 10 days off work over Easter. We spent today driving up to Troon, on the West Coast of Scotland, to visit Laura’s family. It is a journey that both/3 of us have done many times before but is also now the longest journey that Isabella has ever done, and the first time she has left England, so the journey had a lot more significance for us today. After 6.5 hours and 3 stops, we are now here – and, so far, Isabella seems happy to be somewhere new and visiting her Gran. We hope her happiness continues – especially as this trip feels like a big milestone for us. We are hoping if Isabella is OK here, that will be a good sign for future family holidays, including possibly more adventurous ones in the future – like her big sister Solana….

    Hasta luego,
    J, L, S & I x

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