Cañón del Combeima provides a good reason to visit Ibagué

The city of Ibagué isn’t known as a major tourist destination and most foreign visitors don’t consider travelling there. To be honest, the city itself isn’t that appealing. There are big shopping centres and some really good restaturants, but most of Ibagué resembles a nondescript small town. The most interesting thing about the capital of Tolima is the fact that there is a square named after Lidice, a village that was destroyed during World War II in Czechoslovakia, with a sculpture commemorating the massacre. I had a chance to meet its author, José Augusto Rivera Castro, who now plans to donate a large version of the sculpture to the Vatican City.

Even if you aren’t a history nerd, there are other good reasons for visiting Ibagué. Its warm weather is really pleasant and there are many green spaces. You can find two impressive places just a short taxi ride from the city centre: Jardín Botánico San Jorge is a great spot for hiking in a beautiful area, and if you like flowers, you shouldn’t miss Orquídeas del Tolima. Ibagué is also used as a starting point for climbing Nevado del Tolima, which is one of the most challenging adventures in Colombia. There is no need to go as far as the volcano, though. The access road via Cañón del Combeima will take you to other amazing sights.

Cañón del Combeima

If you are on a budget, you can simply take bus number 48 to its final stop in Juntas, which is approximately 20 kilometres away from the centre of Ibagué. Most of the road is fine, but there are some bumpy parts as well. You will see numerous restaurants along the way, and that’s where Ibaguereños like spending their weekends.

There isn’t that much to see in Juntas, so when you get off the bus, you can just continue walking down the road. When you cross a bridge, you will see a path to Termalitos through Quebrada Las Perlas. That used to be a popular camping spot, but the whole area is protected, and many activities, including swimming in hot springs, have been banned. It’s still a very nice location for hiking and you are allowed to walk there. Just remember to respect the rules because the river Combeima is Ibagué’s main water source and it needs to be kept pollution-free.

La Rivera, Cañón del Combeima

If you stay on the main road, you will soon reach Mirador Los Sauces, which is worth checking out since it offers very nice views of the canyon. The best sights are found further north, though. You can try to hitch a ride because there are always visitors at the viewpoint, but even if you have to walk the 4-kilometre distance, you won’t regret it. Amazingly, there is a gondola lift ready to take you to La Rivera.

Yes, someone really had the brilliant idea of building facilities for tourists on the other side of the canyon! The cable car looks a bit scary from the outside, but the 5-minute ride is actually quite comfortable. La Rivera is located in a brillant spot and you can even see Nevado del Tolima when the sky is clear. There are various activites that you can do there; I particularly liked the greenhouses with carnivorous plants. La Rivera was accessible to the public when I went there, but it seems that you need to make a reservation now, so make sure to get in touch with them before your trip. Don’t forget to pack a jacket because it can get rainy and chilly in the mountains.

A carnivorous plant, La Rivera, Cañón del Combeima

If you have some spare time, consider adding Ibagué to your travel itinerary. A bus ride from Bogotá usually takes 4 hours, unless you get stuck in a traffic jam in the capital during peak hours. Lesser-known cities may not be among the most popular places to visit in Colombia, but they can offer nice opportunities for interesting trips. Cañón del Combeima is a great example of that because it’s a pretty impressive destination that is definitely worth exploring.

My experience with learning Spanish

The first time I spoke Spanish was on a plane from Barcelona to Bogotá. I was equipped with a few basic phrases, so I managed to order a bottle of water and say ‘Thank you’. The next few weeks in Colombia proved to be rather tough in terms of communicating with people. Moving on my own to a new country without really speaking the language was pretty dumb.

In my defence, I didn’t have a lot of time to learn Spanish. In April, I made the decision to move to Colombia and immediately bought my ticket so that I couldn’t change my mind. I quit my job at the end of May. Then I took a month-long CELTA course, and in July I was on the plane. During that limited time I went through a few lessons on StudySpanish.com and Practical Spanish, so I had a vague idea about the way Spanish nouns and verbs behave in sentences.

Learning Spanish isn't always easy

My original plan was to stay in Medellín, where I booked an apartment for a few weeks. I got lucky because the guy managing the place speaks English, and he and his brother helped me a lot. Obviously, they couldn’t stay with me all the time, so I had to sort out many things on my own. Even simple stuff like getting a local SIM card and a public transport pass was a bit tricky. For the first week in Medellín, I spoke exclusively in English to other people and when they responded, I just said ‘no hablo español’. Such a strategy proved to be very ineffective and it only made me feel stupid. I quickly realised that it was time to change my approach.

The first point to note is that Latin America isn’t known for high proficiency in English. Most people don’t speak the language, even at places where you would expect it. Talking to people in English will clearly mark you as a tourist, so if you want to integrate into the society, you have to take that into account. In fact, now I speak English only at work. Colombia’s low level of English proficiency makes the country a great place to learn Spanish because it offers you an opportunity to have an effective immersion experience.

Even though I never took a Spanish class, I managed to make progress quite fast. Six months after my arrival, I had an interview with a psychologist before getting a new job. A few months after that, I led a parents’ meeting on my own and talked to them about their kids’ performance. Both of them took place completely in Spanish and I felt really comfortable.

I believe that it’s necessary to start speaking Spanish right from the beginning. Even if you make loads of basic mistakes in your speech, it’s still preferable to speaking English. The locals will appreciate your effort and try to help you. Jumping in at the deep end is challenging, but it can be fun as well. You can start with transactions in supermarkets, where you will learn numbers and short phrases. It will be difficult at first, but then you’ll inevitably celebrate small victories. I don’t like using apps like Google Translate when talking to people since it takes too much time and I don’t want to attract attention to myself by taking out my phone. I prefer to check new words in the Span¡shD!ct dictionary at home. Many words and structures are similar to English, so learning the basics isn’t that difficult.

One of the best things about living in Colombia is eating out. You don’t really need to cook at home because there are so many places where you can have lunch for an affordable price. I am a big fan of small restaurants that offer ‘menú del día’. Those places are great for practising Spanish because you are forced to talk to people who tell you very fast what dishes are available that day. Some places make it trickier because they have many options for different prices. At first, I had no idea what those words meant, so I just ordered random food and learnt it that way. When you get more confident, you can ask the waiter or waitress to describe the food to you. Restaurants are great for learning Spanish because the conversations there aren’t that predictable and you can also practise small talk.

Making local friends is helpful as well, but talking to them isn’t always easy. At the beginning, I really struggled in big groups because my Spanish wasn’t good enough to react quickly. It took me approximately three months to start participating. I found one-to-one chats more effective thanks to having more time to organise my ideas. You can find some tips for finding communication partners on Real Fast Spanish. Even better, finding close friends or a romantic partner will inevitably lead to amazing progress in your Spanish.

Speaking the local language has other practical advantages. Travellers to Colombia are always told not to hail taxis on the street. Well, I have done that in every city I have visited without any bad experiences. I communicate with taxi drivers exclusively in Spanish and usually drop a few hints that I have been living in Colombia for some time. This seems to work well because I have never had any unpleasant taxi-related issues.

I recommend that you read this article on Medellin Guru about the likelihood of being charged extra money for goods or services on account of being a foreigner. I usually avoid places that cater for foreign tourists, so my experience is limited. In fact, I am aware of only one attempt to overcharge me. It happened when I ordered a few drinks at a Playa Blanca beach bar for me and my companions after confirming the price with the barmaid. Suddenly, the bar’s English-speaking manager appeared and tried to charge me a ridiculously inflated amount. I called him out on that and paid the original price.

I am now reasonably happy with my Spanish because I can comfortably communicate with other people. I know it’s far from perfect because I still need to work on expressing hypothetical situations and in the past, and some irregular verbs still drive me crazy. Some accents (Bogotá) are easier to understand than others (Santander), but that’s part and parcel of living in such a diverse country.

Learning a new language can be very frustrating and you will feel completely lost at times. However, such experience is very useful for teachers because you develop sympathy for your students. I know I will never be mistaken for a native Spanish speaker because of my accent, but I don’t lose sleep over that. As a result, I believe that it’s beneficial for my students to have realistic expectations when it comes to their accent in English. Intelligibility is much more important because it is necessary for successful communication, and I think that’s where our priorities should lie.