A Travellerspoint blog


Cartagena Dances to its Own Caribbean Beat

Three days in this historic city round out Colombia

rain 85 °F

Cartagena is a walled city first settled in the 1500s, and a UNESCO World Heritage site

Cartagena seems like a whole different Columbia than Medellín and the “coffee country” we had visited so far. Cartagena is Caribbean. You feel the humidity immediately like a blanket on your face. The pace seems faster and louder. Even now, I hear the Caribbean drumbeat as I type this from the rooftop terrace of my hotel. The people are celebrating the victory of Gustavo Petro, who just won the Presidential election. Horns are honking near continuously. On Friday night, our first night here, the neighboring bar blasted its music till 3am. Just as Americans go to the Caribbean to party, the rest of Columbia comes here for a good time.

The view out the balcony in our room at Hotel Monterey

However, I have always travelled to a different drumbeat. I was not here for the beaches or salsa dancing to all hours of the night. I wanted to see historic Cartagena - the fortress of colonial Spain’s defenses. Settled in 1533 by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia, it is named after a city of the same name in Spain. That city’s name means New Carthage - as in the Carthage of Hannibal who fought and was ultimately conquered by the Roman Republic. Cartagena is a walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking those walls was definitely part of my plans.

The streets of the walled city are cobblestoned and lined with buildings from the colonial Spanish period

It wouldn’t be on my first day in Cartagena, though. As throughout much of the trip, it was raining when we landed and took our taxi to the hotel. The Hotel Monterey is in a great spot - maybe 150 yards from the main gate of the Old City. The Plaza of Heroes separates our hotel from the gate, and our balcony looked across the plaza towards the gate. The building is a thick-walled, colonial era house with high, beamed ceilings. Centuries of humidity have thoroughly seeped into its bones, though. There was a musty smell in our room and hotel that a cranked air conditioning and ceiling fan on high could never dissipate. Still, the chill blast of AC when we returned to our room each time from our explorations in the city was a welcome sigh of relief.

Our guide on the free walking tour pointed out many of the historic buildings and told stories about them

I’d mentioned the Presidential elections earlier. They would throw a curveball into our plans. Colombia approaches its elections soberly. So soberly that no alcohol would be sold after 6pm the day before the election (and none on the day of). In addition, all museums and many sights would be closed Election Day (the third and final day of our visit). Since we didn’t check in to our hotel till close to 5pm, we had a lot to cram into a short amount of time. We decided to spend Election Day walking the city walls (they were free and open 24 hours a day), and taking an Uber up to a scenic overlook at a historic convent on a hill above Cartagena.

Rich golds and pastel colors gave the city the look of a Renaissance era city

After the great experience in Medellín with its free city walk, we definitely wanted to do that and scheduled it for first thing the next morning. Out guide, Edgar, did a good job but we both admitted that Dio in Medellín had spoiled us on tour guides. The rains came down about a half hour or so into our tour. Edgar pivoted well, and did his best to keep us under cover until it tapered off to a drizzle. He gave us chances to take pictures but Mother Nature was not so kind. The rain stayed present most of the tour. I would have to wholeheartedly recommend potential visitors to stay away from visiting in June. Colombia is country #97 for me, and without a doubt, the second rainiest trip of my life. Only the Philippines beats it, with Scotland coming a distant third.

After the walking tour, our next destination was the Castle of San Felipe

Like Dio, Edgar tried his best to get us into the mind of Columbian people. He tried to bring customs to life and explain why people do what they do in his country. For example, an omnipresent sight in the walled city are the colorfully-dressed women from Palenque, Colombia. This was a settlement of escaped slaves that the Spaniards had been shipping to South America to work for them. When Domingo Bioho led a group of 30 escaped slaves to found their own settlement in 1619, Palenque became the first free African town in the Americas. Anyway, once their free status was guaranteed by the Spanish crown, the women of Palenque would come to Cartagena to sell fruit, carrying it to market on their heads. According to Edgar, that tradition continued for centuries until cruise ships began to arrive in Cartagena in the late 20th century. The day tripping tourists wanted photos of the brightly dressed women with fruit on their heads, and paid them for it. Since then, the Palenque women don’t really sell the fruit in the bowls on their head, they instead pose for pictures and get money for that!

the castle is the largest and most powerful fortress built in the New World by the Spanish

Edgar also told us the story of Father Pedro Claver, a Jesuit priest who’d come to Colombia in his early twenties in 1600. He was appalled by the way African slaves were treated and regarded not as souls, but as property. He made it his mission to convert them, showing Christian kindness and treating and caring for them as fellow human beings. His kindness paid off, and he became beloved by those he came into contact with. He ignored the Spanish who told him to stop and is known as the patron saint of African slaves. It is estimated he baptized around 300,000 Africans and became St. Pedro after his death. A bronze statue stands in honor of him in the square in front of the church dedicated to him.

Tunnels under the battlements allowed defenders to move back and forth safely between different sections of the fortress

Edgar walked us around to the main churches, plazas, and colonial era buildings. After the tour ended, and the rain had finally tapered off, we revisited many of the places he took us. There are so many cool, Renaissance era buildings in Cartagena, it seemed a shame not to have pictures of them, now that the sun was coming out. Their golds and pastel colors deserve bright sunshine to bring out their rich tones. When the rain came back, because this is Colombia in June, we ducked into the Palace of the Inquisition, one of the museums that sounded interesting. It was actually fairly subpar as far as museums go. There was very little on the torture aspect of it, but more of an accountant’s numbers look at it. It is also the museum of the history of the city, but this part was only marginally better. I would recommend visitors give it a pass and do something else.

After raining off and on all morning, we were lucky at the castle and got sunshine and no rain

Definitely recommended, though, is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This massive sprawling castle guards the land approach to Cartagena. It’s battlements and walls bristled with cannons of all size and weight and were never taken by English or French attacks. There are tunnels leading from section to section, and you can still explore them. It is regarded as the greatest fortress ever built by the Spanish in the New World. There are lots of people exploring the fortifications, but it’s massive size swallows them up, so you don’t feel like you’re standing in line. You can climb to the top, make your way through all the various spurs and sections of the fort, and admire the great views across the waterway to Cartagena.

Looming above the castle is the Convento de la Popa, which we would visit the next day

Unfortunately, there were a lot of Selfie-obsessed visitors, taking a whole series of photos at the most dramatic viewpoints. Maybe that is our 21st century, Insta-world, nowadays. In my four decades of travel, we’ve gone from the tour group who wait patiently to take their turn getting photographed standing at attention in front of a site, to a population of supermodels doing Victoria’s Secret photoshoots in their mind while monopolizing choice spots at a site, taking as much time as entire tour groups once did. Neither is good for the individual traveler trying to lose themselves in the atmosphere of a historic sight.

Later that evening, we headed into the Getsemani district, which has graffiti and more of a backpacker vibe

Still, the castle was an amazing place to visit, and definitely worth the couple hours spent walking around it. There are some signs explaining features of the castle. Visitors can also rent an audio guide, but those have always fallen flat on me. You spend more time worrying if you’re at the correct spot than you do absorbing the history. Thankfully, the offers of in-person guides are not as obtrusive, constant, and annoying as inside the Old City.

The buildings of the Old Town shelter behind the encircling city walls still standing after centuries

Later that evening, after dinner, we walked to the Getsemani (as in the biblical “Garden of...”) district. This is more of the backpackers area in Cartagena, just outside the walled city. It is a little loud and a tad seedy in parts, but it is 100% geared towards visitors and has more restaurants and bars than the Old City. It is also where much of the cool graffiti art is in Cartagena. We were heading to Beer Lovers Cartagena, which had 18 Colombian craft beers on tap. There we met school teachers Rick and Tim, an American and Dutchman. We had a blast talking travel, politics, science, and more with them. We had planned on having a couple beers, but they were so fun we ended up having three. Jenny heard Rick getting chewed out on the phone by his Colombian wife, so they must have been having fun and stayed longer than planned, too!

The walls are open 24 hours a day, so were the perfect sight to see when nearly everything is closed in the city

A nice side effect of the Election rules in Colombia was the bar next door to our hotel was shuttered. No loud music till 3am (though the hotel’s thick walls and my ear plugs had reduced it to a mild annoyance the night before)! So, we were well rested for our final day of sightseeing in Cartagena. It was a good thing because we walked nearly 10 miles that day. We explored the entire circuit of the Old Town’s walls. This included ascending and descending more than half a dozen times, as the walls are not contiguous and have breaks in them where they were pierced for modern traffic.

Both the city walls and the castle yesterday had plenty of cannons lined up to increase the historic atmosphere

Much like yesterday’s visit to the castle, I had a great time exploring the Spanish fortifications. Their are cannons placed here and there a throughout the battlements. The rough stone walls have firing positions, musket or crossbow slits, round stone sentry boxes, and are an atmospheric walk back into History. Although the walls weren’t packed with visitors, there were a good number of people out walking and enjoying the sights. There seemed to be fewer Selfie Addicts, though they were present, pretending to do their Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoots in their minds. It was fun and challenging to line up the best camera shots to take in the scope of the walls in one frame. I switched between my normal and long lens, and later was happy with some of my shots. A lot were washed out and overexposed, though. I will need to figure what I am doing wrong on my camera. It has more bells and whistles than I understand, to be honest.

The interior of the convent was pretty with its stone architecture decorated by plants and flowers

Equally fun, I had a great time taking pictures of the Old Town. The tile roofs and pastel colors were augmented by the blooms of flowers and plants growing on the balconies and railings. I recognized many of the buildings or churches from yesterday’s walking tour. Still, it was a new angle to see them from the elevation of the town walls. Unlike yesterday’s walk, we had sunshine and at least partly sunny skies for the entire circuit of the fortifications. Most days start out at least only partly cloudy and the rains don’t come till afternoon. Yesterday had been the exception, with rain early.

The view from the hill high above Cartagena where the convent keeps watch over the city below

Still, this is Columbia in June (wait, have I said that before?), and the rains came just as we took an Uber up to Convento da la Popa. This 1600’s nunnery sits atop the highest hill overlooking Cartagena. On religious festival days, the image of the Virgin Mary is carried down from the convent in procession and paraded through Cartagena’s streets. It is a pretty convent, decorated with flowers and have a small museum of sorts attached. The main reason we went up there, though, was its views of Cartagena. The whole city, old walled part and new one of skyscrapers is laid out beneath you. The rain wasn’t a downpour, but it was an annoyance and probably made the pictures taken from their less striking than they could have been.

The waterfront along the skyscrapers of the new city of Cartagena

This was also the only time I felt potentially scammed by Uber on this trip. The first ride we booked sent a message asking for three times the amount he agreed to because the gas requirements to climb the hill. Thankfully, we agreed to say no. The second one who actually picked us up began to make noises about the “map being wrong” and she thought we were going to the neighborhood at the foot of the hill - not up the hill. We asked if she wanted more, but she said no, it was okay. Then she began to make noise about how “dangerous” it was atop the hill. We asked if she would wait for us in the parking lot and we’d pay her cash for the ride back to the hotel.

One of the rich, decorated doors in the Old City

First of all, the actual uphill drive was all of about five minutes, and not that steep. And the convent and souvenir stands just outside of it were hardly dangerous. Getsemani is way more seedy in some parts, and central Medellín even more so. I think she was trying to scare us into doing exactly what we did - hire her to take us back down. What’s more, knowing she was waiting would make us hurry our visit. All in all, it was the first time I was a little annoyed with Uber in Columbia. Otherwise, it was a perfect, efficient, and inexpensive way to get around in Columbia’s big cities.



A statue honor St. Pedro Claver and the compassion he showed towards the African slaves of Cartagena

Shortly after returning, we heard furious, rhythmic honking outside our balcony. It was only 5:30pm or so. Could the Election results be in already? I checked online and yes, only an hour and a half after the polls closed, 99% of the vote had been counted. Gustavo Petro had won. And - as a huge lesson for a certain narcissistic U.S. politician - his opponent conceded and said he would respect the results. This was an election that was polling 50/50 up to the day of the voting. And yet, they had almost all their votes counted, winner declared, and opponent conceded, in an hour and a half! It seems America could learn something about the conduct of elections from Columbia. It makes you wonder which country is pulling itself out of decades of chaos and civil war, and which is (supposedly) the greatest nation on the planet...

Posted by world_wide_mike 20:07 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

From My View, Guatape More Than a Daytrip

Climbing “The Rock” & Exploring the town worth two nights

rain 65 °F

The amazing view from atop Piedra del Penol, aka “The Rock”

Many people see our next destination as a day trip from Medellín. However, we wanted to take our time seeing Guatape, so booked two nights at a hotel on the main square in town. Guatape was a pretty town, with brightly painted buildings along steep streets busy with walkers, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks. These are 3-wheeled taxis, usually garishly and colorfully decorated. Essentially, they are a motorbike with an extended back cab attached to it for 2-3 people to sit.

One of the main taxis on the streets of Guatape - tuk-tuks, 3-wheeled motorbikes, essentially

After unpacking and a quick lunch, we hired one of the tuk-tuks to take us to our #1 reason for coming to Guatape: Piedra del Penol. This is a spike of granite rising 656 feet above the surrounding lakes and lowlands. Steps have been carved into the rock to allow visitors to climb to the top, where there are amazing views of the lakes and towns all around. When you first see the stairs, zig-zagging up the sheer surface of the rock, you think, “Wow, my legs are going to be burning after this!” Still, the pictures I’d seen on the Internet convinced me to do it. I am a sucker for scenic views and will hike for hours on the promise of a gorgeous panorama.

The stairs up the sheer face of the Rock - 675 of them by some count, 700+ by others

I’d actually changed into shorts for the first time on the trip for this climb. The sun was out, too, which is why we seized the moment and went to the rock right away. Sunny weather is not something you can count on in June throughout Colombia. The weather forecast on my phone has shown rain every day of the trip in every city we’re visiting. Typically, the day starts out overcast, then the sun breaks through in late morning. Most of the time it is sunny from about 11am till sometime in the afternoon. On lucky days, it waits till late afternoon for the skies to open up and let loose with a drenching downpour. On unlucky days, it happens mid-afternoon. Usually, it rains off and on from that point throughout the evening and early morning hours.

Partway up the stairs of Piedra del Penol

For the climb - and more importantly the view from the top - we had brilliant, warm sunshine. The climb actually wasn’t bad. It was nothing near as strenuous as the Cocora Valley Loop hike. It took me only about 20-25 minutes, and that is with breaks for photos on the way up. Atop the rock, people clustered here and there along the surround railing taking in the magnificent view (and posing for duck-lipped selfies). The valley below was threaded with multiple arms of a vast lake created when a dam was constructed here in the 1980s. Because it flooded all the low-lying land, leaving the hills above water, it is not a circular or oval lake. It shoots off arms in all directions like a vast, blue octopus. Hilltops and ridges became islands and peninsulas formed by the flooding, making it a gorgeous tableau of green and blue beneath you. It was truly worth the exertion of climbing the 675-plus steps to the top.

A beautiful, 360-degree panorama awaits those who make the climb to the top

There is also a three story building on top with a circular platform on the roof that is the highest point. Of course, after catching my breath and taking some photos, that was where I headed. This was where the selfie-takers clustered. All around, self-absorbed girls and women were playing paparazzi with themselves for a whole series of images. I know that sounds sexist, but the selfie culture is definitely a phenomenon that inflicts the younger generations more than the old, and ladies more than men. All over Colombia I saw groups of girls as young as the middle schoolers I teach pretending to be runway models and flirting suggestively with their phones. At most, I have one photo of myself taken per day on most of my trips. I have always preferred photos of the destination I have come to see rather than me standing in front of it. I realize culture changes, though, and I have no problem being a curmudgeon when it comes to monopolizing the best spots for pictures!

I took a LOT of photos up top!

In addition to a few souvenirs shops, there are a handful of cafes up top to sit down, relax, and enjoy a beverage with a million dollar view. The weather was perfect. The rain had held off so far, with no towering, dark clouds lurking anywhere on the 360-degree horizon. As I had seen so far in my week-plus in the country, most tourists were Colombians. Maybe about 25% were Europeans or Americans. Interestingly, I saw almost no Asian tourists in Colombia. I am not sure why the demographics play out this way. It is just what I’ve seen fairly consistently. I think lots of domestic tourists is always a good sign for a country. That means there is a large enough middle class to get out and enjoy their own country’s heritage and sights.

When I travel, I always seek out scenic views from on high, so The Rock was perfect for me

I took LOTS of photos up top, as I imagined that I would. I knew it would be a challenge honing down the number of images to put here on my blog to a reasonable level. I switched between the normal/wide angle lens and my long lens to zoom in on the various luxury hotels or condominiums on their own private island or peninsulas. Boats were out on the lake, leaving their feathery white wake behind them. Two helicopters did a circuit of the rock and lake, landing beneath us on the helipad to drop off and pick up a new batch of deep-pocketed tourists. There was even a helipad on top of the rock - perhaps for medical emergencies? Or visits of dignitaries?

The lake far below is actually man-made from a hydroelectric dam that supplies 30% of Columbia’s electricity

Descending Piedra del Penon was easier than ascending, as you can imagine. The steps are regular and well-maintained. In fact, they were doing maintenance on part of the staircase resulting in the lower half of the route being shared by people going up and those descending. Normally, you go up one staircase and down another. Below, there is a massive collection of souvenir shops and restaurants, booming music and cheery greetings to entice visitors to enter. After making a brief circuit of them, we walked down the road to where the tuk-tuks pick riders up. There was no wait, and we were soon bouncing our way downhill and buzzing along the road back to Guatape. Hiring the tuk-tuk costs only 12,000 Colombian pesos each way - about $3-$4 US dollars.

I switched back and forth to my “long lens” so that I could zoom in on the islands and their luxury hotels below

Once in the main square, I went up to my hotel room to stretch out on the bed. Within minutes, the rumble of thunder sounded. The daily rainstorms had arrived, effectively putting an end to sightseeing activities for the day. We did discover a cafe that evening which had a great selection of microbrews, and watched a bit of a Columbian soccer match there with a cheering group of fans.

The next day started off with a lake cruise

The next morning, we headed out to the shore look for lake cruises. There are all sizes of watercraft that ply the lakes, from renting your own kayak or paddle boat to small and large sightseeing boats. It seemed few people were out that early in the morning, though. We wanted to get our lake cruise in earlier rather than later, so that we didn’t get caught out on the water during a thunderstorm. We found one dock where they offered us a private lake tour for one hour. The price - 100,000 pesos came to about $25-$30 between the two of us, so we said, “Si!” and climbed aboard.

It was an enjoyable hour on the lake motoring past all the lakeside homes with their wonderful views

It was still overcast, but we could see the sun beginning to break through in the distance. Luckily, that was the direction we were headed. After about 10-15 minutes, we were in sunshine. Our drive spoke no English, so we had to interpret what he was telling us as best we could. There were hotels and wealthy villas spaced out along the various byways and cul de sacs of the lake. One was a burnt out shell spray painted with large warnings in red not to approach. It was the lakeside villa formerly owned by the notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar. In 1993, a rival vigilante gang calling itself the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (“Los Pepes”), planted a bomb at the villa which ripped it apart. The mansion, pool, tennis courts, and discotheque were gutted and the police used the opportunity to raid the villa and seize the drugs hidden there.

The bombed out ruins of Pablo Escobar’s lakeside villa and the stark warnings it is off limits

We had eschewed the “Pablo Escobar Tour” in Medellin, but there is no way of avoiding the most famous stop on a Guatape lake tour. The blackened concrete shell is slowly being overgrown by nature. The ruins are off limits to the boat tours, though it appears if you pay enough money you can book a tour and clamber around the ruins. One site claimed that for both this Escobar mansion and the one in Medellín, you sign up to play paintball there and live out your drug hoodlum fantasies. Needless to say, that was not on our itinerary!

The pretty church square was where our hotel was located in Guatape

We continued exploring the lake, photographing the homes of Colombia’s rich and famous along the shoreline. Speaking of Escobar, our boat driver pointed out the home of one of his family members. We also got a nice view of the Rock. The sun wasn’t hitting it well, and the distance and rocking of the boat meant my pictures were less spectacular from the water than from atop. One of the final stops was the watery grave of the original town of El Penon. The largest settlement in the area, it was covered by the lake when the dam was built in the 1980s. A cross protects from the water to mark the spot of the town’s main church. Apparently, those on helicopter tours can make out the sunken ruins of the town beneath the surface. We couldn’t see anything from our boat, though. We motored around the cross and past a building which stood on a hill above the original town. Now, it sits near the lake’s surface - just barely surviving the flooding.

Guatape is a pretty town with brightly colored buildings and decorations

As we returned to Guatape, we took pictures of its waterfront from the lake. The sun was shining on the buildings and it looked much more bright than the overcast skies we’d cast off under. Disembarking, we took advantage of the sunshine and walked around Guatape’s streets. One of the most colorful parts of the town are the zocalos. These are painted panels on most buildings that depict the job of the original residents. So, you see horses on the homes of the ranchers, bread on the bakers, lambs on those who raise sheep, and so on. The more modern trades haven’t been left out, either. You will find depictions of ice cream on the gelato vendor’s building, motorcycles on the repair shop, and even bicycles at the place that rents or sells bicycles. It was fun to walk along and photograph them.

One of the colorful zocalos, framed relief paintings at the front of nearly all the buildings in downtown Guatape

Probably the most photographed street by visitors was the Plazoleta de los Zocalos. Every building on all four sides gleams in bright pastel colors. Suspended above the street leading to the plaza are dozens of colorful umbrellas. When the sun is shining, the light streams in translucent shades through the umbrellas. I jokingly called it Calle Selfie. It was impossible to walk through at busy times as nearly every person was posing for a selfie, or waiting for the chance to also block traffic to get photographed in the perfect spot. It was a pretty street, I admit. However, it became annoying at peak times and would be a spot to avoid on the weekends. Like Salento, Guatape is a Colombian town that is supposed to come alive on the weekends. Having already experienced what that meant in Salento, I was happy we were leaving the next morning (Friday).

The street of the Zoacaletos with it pastel colored umbrellas turning sunshine into a rainbow of light

We were kind of running out of things to do, so decided to take a shared Jeep taxi to the Replica El Penon. This tiny cluster of buildings sits on a hillside overlooking the lake where the original town was flooded by the dam’s waters. A reconstructed town square with replica church sits in the center of it. There are souvenir shops and cafes, and we found a breezy spot to sit, enjoy a refreshing beverage, and look out over the pleasant view below.

Another colorful zocalo on the bottom panel of a building’s facade

Catching a ride back was a bit more adventurous than going out. We had caught the Jeep in the main square, paying the roughly $1 each fare. We were dropped off at the side of the main road leading up to the replica town. We were told that to return we just flagged a passing Jeep taxi down and climbed in. IF there was space. After 10 minutes of waiting, one finally arrived and stopped in answer to my wave. It looked pretty full already, but the locals inside made room for us. We clambered in and we’re soon back in Guatape’s main square. Tired from a busy day wandering about in the tropical sun, I went up to the hotel room and stretched out on the bed. Once again, I was awakened by a crack of thunder. The afternoon rainstorms had arrived, so I guess that was it for our sightseeing in Guatape!

The replica village square of El Penon was erected on a hill overlooking where the original town lies slumbering under the lake’s waters

When I think back in it, someone could easily pack in all of Guatape’s sights in one day trip. It would mean your wandering of the colorful streets would be less leisurely, and it would have to count on cooperating weather to get everything in. Still, I felt Guatape was a lot more relaxing stretching that day trip into two nights. Only one more city remained before our two weeks in Colombia were complete. So, we happily took it easy for our remaining hours in Guatape, and enjoyed the slow pace of the town that evening.

This cross projects from the lake’s surface, marking the spot where Old El Penon’s church rests on the lake floor

Posted by world_wide_mike 01:53 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Graffiti Tour in Communa 13 is (Hip) Hopping

More fascinating stories from Colombia’s tragic past

sunny 72 °F

The highlight of my final day in Medellin would be a Communa 13 Graffiti Tour

After yesterday’s amazing walking tour, the Communa 13 Graffiti Tour had a hard act to follow. We would head up the hillside by public transport in a group of 10 guided by Walter, who seemed a nice and friendly guy. We took the metro first, then a cable car, and finally a public bus. Our goal was to learn about this poorer neighborhood which was the scene of a lot of the violence during the civil war years in Colombia. A focus would be checking out the incredible graffiti painted on the walls by the residents.

Communa 13, one of the poor hillside districts of Medellín

From the station on the first stop of the cable car, we looked out over the panorama of the neighborhood. Walter took that opportunity to give us a historical background on the formation of Communa 13. It was started by residents fleeing the fighting in the countryside. With the flat ground of the Medellín valley already full, refugees began building their homes on the hillsides. There were made out of whatever materials the could scrounge up - tin roofing, wood, etc. Actually, this process is still going on, today. Walter pointed out a neighboring barrio that was “illegal.” It had not been granted Communa status by the city government and had no electricity, water, or other services. He said that it may take years but eventually it would be granted official status and given a number.

Communa 13 started out as an illegal squatters settlement, like some hillside barrios are today

This was also how Communa 13 began. Residents had fled the countryside hoping the government would protect and take care of them in Medellín. That didn’t happen. In fact, the police would come from time to time and knock down their shacks and try to drive them off. Government indifference and hostility drove the Communa 13 residents into the arms of the leftist guerrillas. The guerrillas would attempt to impose some kind of order, acting as a court to solve disputes and overseeing some basic services. In return, the guerrillas taxed the residents. This income led to turf wars between the guerrillas. Shootings happened every night with residents caught and often killed in the crossfire.

Today, Communa 13 enjoys amenities provided by the city government such as the cable cars and escalators

Periodically, the government would launch military operations to try to drive off the guerrillas. Inevitably, this led to even more civilian deaths. At long last, peace began to arrive in Colombia and the Medellín government actively tried to improve the lives of the residents of Communa 13. The cable cars were one step. Escalators were also installed on the slopes making it easier for residents to make their way up and down the steep slopes.

Graffiti decorates many of the walls of homes and buildings in Communa 13

More importantly, the residents themselves banded together to improve the lives of their young. Walter said they focused on four paths for the kids to make their way in the world. One was the graffiti. The most talented and successful graffiti artists were actually hired locally and abroad for commissions and became internationally known. Another was rapping and hip-hop music. With social media as an access to the world, successful rappers have come from Communa 13. Break dance was another venue. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the community focused on educating their young. Learning was emphasized as a path to a better life.

Education is one of the ways Communa 13 residents have focused on to improve the lives of their young

As stability returned to Medellín and tourists began to arrive, Communa 13 was ready to take advantage of the opportunity. We saw a number of rap performers entertaining visitors and likely making good money on tips. Walter took us to one of these, as well as a break dancing exhibition. It is good to see these young men and women using their talent to make their way in the world. Musically, it is definitely not my cup of tea. The audience during the rap were laughing and enjoying the lyrics, but since it was all in Spanish, I couldn’t enjoy their cleverness.

Young hip-hop artists break dance for our group and other visitors during our tour

My favorite part was definitely the graffiti. The murals were beautifully done and Walter explained the political and social commentary that was going on in the paintings. What I thought was also really cool was the use of Instagram and social media to market themselves. In the corner of many murals were the Instagram accounts of the artistic, providing them a chance to advertise their services. Once again, one of the four outlets was providing a way for the most talented to make a living in the world.

Many Graffiti tours comb through the staircases, alleyways, and streets of Communa 13 every day

I really enjoyed when Walter broke down a mural and explained what everything meant. I would actually have preferred more of this and less of the refreshment breaks. It was a graffiti tour, after all! I did my best to snap as many photos of the graffiti as I could. The portraiture and shading was incredible. The imagery was creative and showed that these are true artists.

Graffiti artists in Communa 13 use Instagram and social media to advertise their talents

The tour wound down and Walter gave us a choice of remaining in Communa 13 or returning to our start point with him. Everyone chose to leave with him. I never felt unsafe in the barrio, and there were TONS of tour groups present. So, I could have stayed, but not knowing where to go, which street or staircase would lead to more graffiti, I decided to call it a day. Walter did a decent job. His historical background was enlightening and his analysis of the graffiti was helpful. He had not surpassed Dio and his heart-wrenching stories. However, it was a good way to spend four hours and learn more about Medellín.

Leanring is the key to unlock the mind is the theme of this piece of art

It was our last day in Medellín, so we finished it off doing some things we hadn’t had a chance to do yet. We walked around the corner from our hotel to a religious shrine we had seen people visiting every day. We were curious what the heck it was. The answer was well beyond anything I could have imagined. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands in a little grotto, with a pulpit for a priest (who was present and sermonizing). The V-shaped walls of the grotto are covered with plaques honoring deceased friends and family members. I know - all very Catholic, so far. However, it’s nickname is the Shrine of the Assassins. It was where the infamous Pablo Escobar’s hitmen would come to pray before going to kill someone. Yep. Praying before murdering someone on a drug hit. How very religious! Escobar paid for the upkeep of the shrine and its part of his “Robin Hood” allure. The mind boggling contradictions at work here only highlight the craziness of a man who murdered thousands of their fellow citizens somehow remaining popular with a segment of modern Columbian society.

The Shrine of the Assassins (really?? Yes!) was a religious sanctuary near our hotel

As night fell, we ticked our final item off our list: a pub crawl of Medellín microbreweries. With the help of Dio, we had tracked down the locations of three and we visited them before calling it a night. Both Walter and Dio fervently hoped that the visitors they guided on their tours would return home and tell family and friends that Medellín is a safe, beautiful, thriving city and encourage others to visit. I agree wholeheartedly. It is one of the most scenic cities I have ever visited. It is inexpensive, friendly, and incredibly easy to navigate. I enjoyed my time in Medellín and will always remember it’s stunning views and the way it’s citizens have been through tragedy and triumphed over it. Viva Medellín!

A final look at Communa 13 and Medellín’s scenic hillsides

Posted by world_wide_mike 02:08 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Stories From Medellín

Return to Medellín for 3 days

semi-overcast 68 °F

Apparently, my ‘Must Pet Every Dog’ credo extends to giant bronze sculptures of them

If my first visit to Medellin on this trip was, “Gee, look at this gorgeous city!”, the second stop was a dive into its culture and tragic history. Most Americas know this thriving metropolitan area of four million as the infamous home of drug cartels and violence in the 1980s. That was only one of four chapters of Medellin’s history, according to Dio from Real City Tours. Since then, the city has entered into the fourth epoch of its story, which he calls “The Transformation.”

Plaza Botero in downtown Medellín features 23 bronze statues designed by famous Medellín artist Fernando Botero

And transformed the city has been. No longer does Dio go to sleep hiding under his bed to avoid getting hit by stray bullets, as he did in his childhood. Now, Medellin welcomes thousands of visitors a day, many walking through and absorbing the history of neighborhoods that were its worst battlegrounds by day and night. Everything I had read beforehand said to take advantage and hear the first-person stories from local guides who’d lived through these experiences. So, we booked a walking tour with Real City Tours for our second day back in Medellin. For our last day, we booked a Communa 13 graffiti tour. Communa 13 is one of the hillside neighborhoods that poorer residents live crammed together in multistory residences.

The statues are in a seedy area of town replete with more prostitutes I have ever seen

However, for our first day back, we were on our own. I really wanted to visit Plaza Botero, a square where 23 bronze statues by Medellin artist Fernando Botero are located. Botero has a unique style where his subjects are portrayed way out of proportion (some might say in a chubby or obese style). His artwork has been displayed all over the world, so it would be cool to see how the city honored its native son. I’d read the neighborhood could be a bit seedy, so we seized the remaining daylight after unpacking to Uber down to the square. As we approach Plaza Botero, we drove through a neighborhood which “seedy” would be a compliment. Dozens of homeless had box-like shacks, rough-looking crowds stood around on the streets, and it looked like the place where plopping down a relatively wealthy gringo like me in the midst of would be like chumming the water in a school of Great White Sharks!

Not all of Botero’s sculptures are nude, but they all have the unique out of proportion style

Thankfully, Plaza Botero where we were dropped off was a bit more safe looking. There were families posing for pictures on the statues, vendors with carts selling snacks, and most importantly, policemen patrolling the plaza. That said, I had never seen so many prostitutes in one place in my life! And some of those in high heels and skirts seemed to be of questionable gender. There were also the random homeless or dodgy looking characters that filtered through the square. I kept my eye (and front towards) these when they approached, and never really felt threatened. I saw the police frisk or give a hard time to one or two of the toughs, so felt at ease enough to enjoy the plaza.

My favorite of Botero’s statues - it looks like Winston Churchill on a merry-go-round horse

The statues were a combination of whimsy and exaggeration, in my mind. The next day as we passed through the plaza quickly, Dio emphasized it was proportions - not obesity - that was they key to Botero’s style. I enjoyed taking pictures of the statues. They had loads of character. Many are nude, and folklore has sprung up about them. The naked Roman soldier (carrying a small shield not nearly large enough to protect his...um, vitals) is said to be where a woman looking for a lover should visit. She is to reach out and rub a certain portion of his anatomy - a rather proportionally small, I might say - and she will soon find her lover. Being bronze, the often rubbed parts of the statues are shiny gold and the rest a dull, mottled metallic brown. So, it was interesting to see what parts of the statues were shiny and try to guess what might be the result the supplicant was seeking!

Rubbing certain portions of the anatomy of Botero’s sculptures is supposed to bring a particular kind of luck

I think my favorite was “Man on a Horse,” which with his bowler hat looked like Winston Churchill on a merry-go-round horse. Of course, I had my picture taken in front of the Roman soldier - being a fan of Ancient Rome. Equally unsurprisingly, I noted the inaccuracy of his helmet and nudity. That would be their enemies, the Gauls! I also had my photo taken petting Perro, his cute, cartoonish dog statue. Many of the statues had people hanging out by them, and even more with people getting selfies in front of (or kids perched on top of). I alternated between waiting for them to finish or moving on to an adjacent statue and coming back. The photographer in me was enjoying the heck out of the plaza. I get a lot of pleasure out f composing subjects and their background. I am not nearly as skilled a photographer as many that I know, but I get the artistic principles enough to be the blind squirrel finding a nut now and then!

Botero’s cute dog statue, Perro, another of my favorites

On the other hand, I am also not a big connoisseur of nude art. Most of Botero’s statues are sans clothes. However, they are cartoonish enough for that to be irrelevant. I simply enjoyed composing an artist’s creations in my lens. Some statues appeared to be purposely paired with each other. Adam and Eve are an obvious example - two separate statues positioned so they are looking directly at each other.

The Palace of Culture looks like a cross between a Moorish mosque and a Renaissance cathedral

In the background, looming like a cross between a Renaissance cathedral and Moorish mosque, is the Palace of Culture. This domed building is starkly patterned in black and white stones. It reminded me so much of Andalusian architecture with its abstract patterns and use of contrasting black and white. Despite its religious look, it was never designed to be a place of worship. It has a very interesting genesis, though. Apparently, the Medellin public complained about its cathedral look so angrily and persistently that the Belgian architect actually walked off the job and quit! In a fit of artistic temper, he left the city to finish the building on their own.

It was starting to get dark, and not wanting to give the seedy nature of the plaza a chance to sprout, we summoned our Uber and headed back to our hotel. It was a great start to our exploration of the culture of Medellin.

Parque Berrio, one of the downtown plazas we visited on our Real City walking tour

Day 2, Medellin Part 2

For this trip, I minimized the guidebooks that I normally read when planning. Instead, I tried to used more recent blogs. One site I leaned on was Wander-Lush’s discussion of the top things to do in Medellin. You can find a link to their page here: https://wander-lush.org/things-to-do-in-medellin-colombia/. Number one on their list of 30 attractions was the free walking tour of the city run by Real Tours. In hindsight, I can say the passion our guide Dio put into his storytelling about Medellin made this the highlight of my stay in Medellin. As a History teacher, I know that my subject is all about stories. Dio poured out his heart to us in the four hours of the tour. The gut-wrenching and searing stories he told about growing up in Medellin during phase three of its history, The Tragedy, were the types of things people usually keep locked away in the dark corners of their mind. I will always treasure the trust he showed by sharing those glimpses into the past with our group of 10 international travelers.

A crescent shaped sculpture that tells the story of Medellín’s history in different phases, like our guide

After all this praise, I should put in a disclaimer. Dio’s tour was not a “take a picture of this famous building while I talk about it” type of tour. He even joked that, since a big chunk of time was us seated while he spun his tapestry of stories, we may feel this was a “sitting tour” and not a walking tour. Still, it was exactly what I wanted. I honestly think that I travel to learn. The four hours I spent with Dio were so inspiring that I was already Googling books to read later this summer so I could delve deeper into the stories he told.

Plaza de Luces in Medellín, whose 300 poles are lit up by LED lights at night

As mentioned earlier, Dio divided Medellín’s history into four phases: Origins (before European contact and most of the uneventful colonial phase); Growth (late 1800s and most of the 20th century, when the coffee industry and railroads led to a burst of expansion in the city); Tragedy (1980s to 2000, with the wars of the drug cartels and thousands of residents killed); Transformation (the last 10-15 years when Medellín was reborn as a modern and stable city attracting investment and visitors from around the world). The colonial period is considered uneventful because there was very little Spanish settlement in the Medellín area. Lack of gold and other riches the conquistadors were looking for led them to ignore the area. Medellín’s only rich draw was its year-round, temperate climate. This climate also led the area to be particularly suited to growing coffee year-round. This, of course, was a big part of the Growth phase.

One of Botero’s sculptures was sabotaged by terrorists with a bomb hidden inside during a concert, ripping it apart and killing 23 people

The tiny colonial presence, Dio explained, was why he didn’t have grand colonial walls or cathedrals to show us on our walking tour. Most of the buildings and monuments we visited on our walking tour were from modern times. We stopped by the old railway station, the office building of the mayor and government, and an interesting sculpture in the shape of a crescent that tells the history of Colombia. It begins at the point of the crescent near the ground with god (whose face is nearly identical to the artist who sculpted it!) creating the native people, then curves upward telling the story of colonialism, industry expansion, civil war, and more.

The view from the Eight Wonder Bar on a hill high above Medellín

We also visited Plaza de las Luces Medellín. This arrangement of 300 towering poles lit at night with LED lights was built on a downtown block of Medellin that was crawling with crime and homelessness. They city leaders wanted to transform the area into one of hope, of light. They built homeless shelters to house and take care of those evicted from the area. Medellín also built a series of modern libraries to engage the youth across the city and lure them away from a life of crime on the streets. Two nearby brick buildings that had fallen into disrepair and drug use, were cleaned out and became the headquarters of education. Dio talked about how each area of the very stratified city is ranked from 1 to 6 based on its wealth. Utilities and the cost of higher education are based off of the wealth of the citizen. The poorest pay a fraction for water, electricity, and college that the wealthiest residents of Medellín pay. If there is one overriding theme of Medellín city government the last 20 years it is honestly trying to help its poorest citizens.

Medellin’s urban sprawl as seen from the bar, high above

We also visited places I’d stopped by yesterday, including Plaza Botero and the Palace of culture. Dio wasn’t trying to sugar-coat the blemishes on his city. He acknowledged the prostitution, saying that it is legal. Only “pimping” employing and taking a cut of the hooker’s pay and child prostitution are illegal. An interesting approach reminiscent of Amsterdam’s “red light” district. We also visited Parque de Berrio, which he feels is the beating heart of downtown. He urged us, if we have time, to come back around 5pm and watch the office workers gather there and have a few cervezas. Traditional bands are always playing in the square, and as the people have a couple more beers, a huge dance party erupts in the square.

Lights begin to twinkle as night falls over Medellín, a city that has experienced both tragedy and transformation

We ended our tour at the Parque San Antonio. It is a wide open plaza designed to be a place for concerts and outdoor events. It was in use for a concert when a bomb was detonated from inside a Botero sculpture of a bird. Dozens were injured and 23 concert goers died. Neither the guerrillas on the left, paramilitaries on the right, nor drug lords claimed responsibility. The shattered bronze statue was left in place as a tribute to the victims. Botero created a new one, which sits placidly next to first one as a Bird of Peace. As the tour ended, we thanked Dio and exchanged numbers, as he had some advice for us on things to do in Medellin.

We closed out the day at a spot Dio had recommended, the Eight Wonder Restaurant. It is perched high atop a hill, overlooking the city. We arrived after a torrential downpour as light was beginning to fade. It was nice to watch the dusk deepen and the lights begin to wink on in the city below and the surrounding hillsides. The city looked peaceful, glistening in the valley below. It was a positive, hopeful way to end a day replete with past tales of tragedy and woe.

Day 3 of my return to Medellín will be covered in the next blog post

Posted by world_wide_mike 21:13 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Coffee Keeps You Up at Night

Low-key last day in Salento

overcast 65 °F

On our last full day in Salento, it was time to head deep into coffee country for a plantation tour

Salento is supposed to come alive on the weekends, transforming from a sleepy little town catering to travelers into a weekend festival, packed with Colombians streaming in from the countryside and surrounding towns. And come alive it did! Shops that had been shuttered our first few days were open for business. New kiosks sprouted up in the middle of Calle Real, the main shopping street, selling honey, snacks, and souvenirs. There were throngs more people walking the streets. There were bands playing in the square and Dancing Grandma boogied all day long in front of her donation box. And as we found out that evening, revelers partying late into the morning hours.

Salento welcomes a huge influx of visitors on the weekend and it becomes a fiesta town

Our travel plans were rather light, today. First order of business was to take our filthy hiking clothes (and the other things we’d worn the previous days of travel) to a local laundromat. They charged us about $5 for 4 kilos of clothes, and said it’d be ready at 5pm. Travel in Colombia was turning out to be really affordable! We also scouted out our pickup point for the afternoon’s coffee plantation tour. We had booked an English language “premium” tour, which was said to last 3 hours. The one we selected was one of the highest rated on Trip Advisor, so we figured it should be interesting. The tour wasn’t until the afternoon, so we spent the rest of the morning checking out the various souvenir shops and artisans. We admired the jewelry and other crafts. We mentally marked a few shops to return to that evening, taking a few hours to mull over what we might buy.

On weekends, the normally tranquil streets of Salento throng with weekend visitors

Our boots were still drying from the hosing off and scrubbing we’d given them after the hike, so it was a tennis shoes day. The plantation tour description talked about going out into the fields and actually picking beans. I was hoping that would not mean wading through muck, again. After a tasty lunch at a local cafe, we walked to the town square where another of the Willy’s jeeps would take us to the coffee plantation. It was about a 20-30 minute drive along progressively more narrow roads. Asphalt became stone and earth, and finally dirt roads. We were deep into the rural countryside of the Salento area.

We’d booked our coffee plantation tour with the highly-rated English language tour at Ocaso

The Jeep dropped us off at the turnoff to the plantation, which turned out to be another 10 minute walk away. The staff of the plantation were all very friendly and knowledgeable. It turned out that we would have about nine of us on the tour. Most were a Colombian-American family from California whose kids didn’t seem fluent in Spanish, though mom and grandpa obviously were. They started with an overview of what we’d do during the tour and tested our knowledge of coffee and the coffee-making process.

Coffee beans drying in Ocaso’s greenhouses

We began by strapping on traditional coffee bean picking buckets and Andres our guide explained how coffee plants are intermixed with banana and plantains. The other plants provide shade and protection for the beans allowing them to ripen more slowly. He told us how the plantation is divided into different lots that mature at different times throughout the year. Andres explained Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world partially because their climate allows beans to mature all 12 months of the year. The plantation has a huge number of variants of the arabica coffee plant, and each lot is marked with its type and when it was planted.

The plantation staff explained how the different varieties of coffee beans are produced in Columbia

A fascinating thing was the relatively short life cycle of a coffee plant. It doesn’t start producing beans until it’s third year. He produces beans for fiver years, and then is cut back and given two years to regrow before beans can be harvested, again. It then produces beans for five more years before being cut back a second time. After two years to regrow, it produces beans for four more years then is chopped down and the area replanted with completely new seedlings.

The most fascinating thing for me was how each coffee plant has a prescribed life cycle before it is cut down and a new one planted

We then sent forth to pick beans - only the ripe ones! It was at this point I was mad at myself for not putting on insect repellent. I got bitten more than half a dozen times by mosquitoes. Andres then inspected our haul and admonished anyone whose beans were partially green and not fully red and ripe. We brought our haul back to a vintage machine which separates the red husk from the tan-colored bean. We then were walked through the stages that the plantation put each lot’s haul through - keeping them labeled and separated.

Each lot of plants on the farm is carefully labeled and beans from it are recorded so they can analyze every aspect of growing, drying, and production

It was all very enlightening and was done with the same science and art of winemaking, I felt. Andres explained the varieties of weather and rainfall can affect the coffee’s taste so that two batches from the same lot but harvested and processed at different times may taste completely different. The final hour-plus of the tour was in the tasting lab. The science of smell and taste was a bit over my head, as he passed around vials with different scents in them. After that grounding us in that, he ground out four different types of coffee and had us smell them before hot water was added and afterwards at one minute intervals for four minutes.

It may seem like heresy, but even after the tour I enjoy the smell of coffee more than the taste!

I had to admit this part was way beyond the subtleties of my palate. Finally, it was time to taste each of the four types. We would taste only a spoonful, and Andres demonstrated how we were to slurp it (ensuring we got the maximum amount of air in with each taste). So, to me, this was right up there with the wine aficionados who swish and spit out each taste of a vintage. That’s not the way people drink either wine or coffee, so why were we doing it here? I know, I know. He was trying to train our palates to be able to discern good coffee. And to recognize the “notes” in a coffee’s taste. Honestly, I have never been a coffee drinker. I could tell at least three of the varieties apart at the end, but the experience was a bit much for me. Fascinating, but maybe too much?

Columbia is the third largest producer of coffee in the world behind Brazil and Vietnam

Upon our return to Salento, we picked up our laundry and headed back to our room to relax and unwind a bit. The streets were full of people and we marveled again how much more alive Salento was on a Saturday. Lots of families were out strolling, buying treats and shopping for things that caught their eye. After an hour or two, we headed back out into the throng to hunt down a recommendation we’d been given for dinner. Last night’s recommendation from the same person (our driver from the airport) was spot-on and a magnificent dinner. Tonight’s turned out to be good, as well. So, if you’re ever in Salento, definitely eat at Quindu and Donde Laurita! After dinner, we strolled through the evening drizzle and did a little more shopping for souvenirs.

Another Willy’s Jeep with a load of travelers and then some heads out of town

Then it was off to bed, but we were about to find out the bad side of a town that comes alive on the weekends. First, some guys in our hotel sat outside on the terrace drinking and laughing till 1am. Then, weirdly, at 3am, the music from somewhere in the city began drifting to our hotel. Why whoever was playing it waited till 3am to crank it, I have no idea. It went on till well after the sun was up. So, needless to say, I slept fitfully that night, light sleeper that I am.

Posted by world_wide_mike 00:33 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Slip-sliding Through Trail in a Muddy Cloud Forest

Second stop is Salento for hiking

rain 64 °F

After my hike of the Cocora Valley Loop - note the mud-splattered shoes and pant legs

After our short stay in Medellín (we will be back in a few days), we flew south towards Salento. There was a hike we wanted to do in Colombia’s “coffee country.” Not wanting to endure an 8-hour bus ride through mountain roads, we chose to fly. And that’s where the adventure began! As we were gliding in for a landing in Perreira, the captain suddenly hit the thrusters and we climbed up, away from the airport. Five more times we circled the airport, lined up for an approach, and aborted landing. No announcements in English, so I stopped a flight attendant who said it was weather in the airport was supposedly socked in. Except we saw the ground clearly on descent. And com to think of it, I never did hear the landing gear come down before we did our initial go-around. Hmmm. Either way, it was way more exciting than I like for my flights! We returned to Medellín, refueled, then got in on our first try the second time!

The view from our room at El Mirador del Cocoran

Colombia’s coffee country is mountainous and scenic, so I had booked a room that had a view of the green hills stretching into the distance. The view out our hotel room lived up to its billing. Our room at El Mirador del Cocora had one wall that was all window. So sitting in a chair or laying in bed you are presented with an amazing view. After checking in and unpacking a little, we set out to explore Salento. It is a small town, but it’s shops, restaurants, and cafes are brightly-painted. It is definitely a town geared towards visitors with lots of amenities and places to dine, drink, or buy souvenirs. The sky had been partly cloudy on our drive in from Pereira, but now the dark clouds slowly were gathering. Before long, it began to rain and proceeded to do that on and off for the rest of the evening.

Another view from our hotel room in Salento, Colombia

I was worried about the weather for tomorrow’s hike of the Cocora Valley. It is a 4-6 hour loop through jungle, Cloud Forest, and the valley with the wax palms, for which it was famous. The last thing I wanted was for it to be pouring rain all day. The trails were supposed to be somewhat muddy already. During a rain storm, I imagine they would be turned into muddy creeks. We would ascend to almost 10,000 feet, so going up and down would be dangerously slippery if it was pouring rain. However, the morning dawned at least partially sunny, so maybe we would get lucky!

Salento’s Calle Real and it’s colorful stores and buildings

Backpackers and hikers come to Salento for two things: the hike and the coffee tours. The way hikers are shuttled out to the trailhead from Salento is really interesting and part of the experience. Locals have refurbished dozens of WW II era Willy’s jeeps. Think of the classic American Jeep you see in movies. Now paint it bright colors and trick it out with a vinyl roof that can be rolled up or down depending on the weather. The round trip fare is about $2, but drivers make up for it by packing 8-10 people in. This includes 2-3 standing on a metal rail in the back and holding onto the roof frame! I knew the roads would likely be not only winding but also bumpy, so I said “no way!” to the standing!

One of the brightly-painted Willy’s Jeeps that are the taxis in Salento

However, it is very organized. You buy your ticket for the half hour trip at a little booth and then wait in a line. When your Jeep is next, the guy in charge collects your tickets. Once everybody is seated, he solicits those still waiting to hang off the back. Every Jeep I saw had willing volunteers clinging to the back, taking selfies or videos of the experience. I had done similar things in my younger days, but seeing how I am less than a year away from 60, I will leave such thrills for the younger travelers. The ride out was scenic, and it was smoother than I had figured. Upon arrival at the trailhead, we found a sprawling tourist set up, with horseback rides, cafes, and an almost amusement park feel. It wasn’t just hikers who made the trip here. Families came here for the experience and to see the wax palms - Colombia’s national tree - which soars nearly a football field in height.

Beautiful Cocora Valley, known for its towering wax palm trees

Which brings me to my first gripe about the Cocora Valley Hike. The information online is somewhat misleading - especially once site that calls itself “The Ultimate Guide to the Cocora Valley” (by The Culture Trip). His or her account is complete bogus, making me wonder if they even visited or if instead compiled it from second hand sources. First, the completely reverses the directions. It recommends hiking in a clockwise direction if you want to see the wax palms first. Um, “Ultimate Guide”, you got that backwards. What’s more, the site makes it sound like you hike through the jungle for a ways then suddenly come to the valley. The trailhead IS the valley. It is where most the wax palms are located. That’s why all the non-hikers are there, Mr. (or Mrs.) Ultimate Guide! Sure, if you hike in the opposite direction from your recommendation, you do come to some nice viewpoints. But there are other nice miradors right in the area of the trailhead.

Another view of the wax palms from the trailhead area of the hike

My second gripe is the trail has ZERO signs or “blazes” to mark the path or turnoffs. In fact, the only signs along the path are essentially advertisements for the local conservation organization. One of their signs, in fact, conceals the proper branch the loop hike should take. Everyone I met along the hike or before or after lost their way on it more than once. We had downloaded the All Trails map app for our phones and STILL took three wrong turns. For such a draw that this hike is for visitors to Salento, you would think they could invest a little in signage infrastructure. When you are talking about a hike rated as “Difficult,” through thick jungle and mountainous terrain, the potential for hikers to get dangerously lost is high.

The beginning of the hike with its wide dirt, rock, and mud surface curving away beneath the trees

Had we not had the app, we would have never known we had gone off the trail. How many hours of our hiking would have been in the wrong direction? The lack of infrastructure on this hike makes this a somewhat risky venture. I would warn potential hikers to be prepared with maps or some sort of equipment. There was no cell signal once we were into the Cocora Loop Trail, too - so hikers cannot rely on that. We met only two groups in the first hour of our hike. Both were turning back because they had lost the way forward. For the next four hours, we met no one going in either direction. It was only in the last hour of our more than six hours on the trail that we saw other hikers. If someone fell and injured themselves in the middle part of the trail, I am not confident they would be found anytime soon.

The first - and most substantial - of the bridges we crossed along the trail

I’m sure everyone is lining up, now, to follow in my footsteps and hike the Cocora Valley Loop trail! So, without too much foreshadowing in the above disclaimers, how did our hike go? It started out easily enough. The path was wide, a mixture of mud, dirt, and rocks. The mud tended to be in the center of the trail where the horses (or perhaps pack donkeys?) go. Their hooves churn up the trail into a mud porridge, so there was a lot of picking your way to find the firmest ground. Thankfully, we had brought collapsible hiking poles. They proved helpful here and invaluable on the steepest and most difficult portions of the trail. The loop crosses a river a couple times, and as we continued on, the bridges got more rickety and “Indiana Jones” like. In fact, the first bridge was where we thought we had lost the way. We discovered the All Trails app is less reliable the more you zoom in to the onscreen map. You need to keep it relatively zoomed out. We spent about 10 minutes thinking we’d missed a turnoff until we figured it out.

All this Indiana Jones bridge was missing was Short Round jumping up and down on it to prove how safe it was

The second bridge was a mini version of the swaying “See, lady? This bridge is safe...aaah!” bridge from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom scene. I wasn’t like Short Round and didn’t fall through into the raging stream below. It was at this point that the second of groups who’d turned back passed us going the opposite way. We went a little further and saw why. A steep rock staircase ascended from this point. The wide dirt, mud, and rock road was gone. Not for the first time, Jenny eyes widened as she looked up and reminded me she’d be going at her own pace. As it turned out, an all-rock staircase was one of the easier portions we’d encounter on the trail. As we ascended, we noticed the clouds rolling in. Any “views” would be of cloud and fog for the time being. I kept waiting for us to come to the valley of wax palms “after a half hour hike through jungle” as the Ultimate Guide claimed. Instead, the trail narrowed and became narrower and steeper. The hiking pole became essential at this point.

Off trail, we came to this “bridge” of two logs crossing a rushing, white water stream

Finally, we came to our first sign on the trail. It turned out to be essentially an ad for their nature conservancy organization. It featured pictures of animals in this park zone, including - alarmingly - a mountain lion! What?? Mr. Ultimate Guide never mentioned cougars! The worst part of this sign was it actually hid our turnoff. The well-intentioned group had placed their sign at a critical branch in the trail, literally hiding he correct, ascending path behind its pictures of animals and such. I have only three words for the do-good moron who erected the sign: Whisky. Tango. Foxtrot (WTF?). What were you thinking? Blissfully unaware, we took the wider branch onwards, baffled as we began to descend rapidly. This was supposed to be a steep upwards portion - not a slippery descent. I think it was at this point, or maybe not because I had three, that I took my first tumble. I was covered in muck and used about a quarter of my water bottle to clean off my camera lens cap that had come off and my hands.

The trail narrows to a slippery, muddy tracks as you climb ever upwards into the jungle

Uninjured, I plodded on down the path, extra wary in the slipperiest sections. We descended to the river and found our third bridge. This one was literally a couple logs braced across the fast-rushing stream below. There was a wire to hold onto, though, and we made it across in Indiana Jones style without incident. Except the app was telling us we were off course. We climbed on out of the gulley, but according to All Trails, we were on a completely different trail. We sighed, and retraced our steps. I was worried that the detour might have convinced Jenny to turn back as the others had. We resolved to check the app more regularly and it led us back to the offending sign, which it insisted was a fork in the trail. That’s when I scouted around behind the sign and found the hidden passage - Cocora Loop’s secret path.

The mist and fog closed in as we ascended into cloud forest

From there, the going simply got more and more intense. The trail was a muddy morass, the switchbacks became steeper and more frequent, and the mist intensified as we entered the Cloud Forest. We kept tabs of our progress on the app. The fractions (“halfway,” “two-third”) were rising slowly. Too slowly from for as tired and out of breath Jenny was becoming. I began to worry that she simply might not make it. We had seen no other hikers in the last couple hours, going either way. I was getting tired, but was fine - well, other than falling again. I tried to encourage her, calling out when we had a relatively firm and not so steep section. I hinted going back would be more grueling than pushing on. Without saying it,we had truly passed the point of no return. Unsaid was my thankfulness that it had not started raining. The mist was gloomy, and at one point we both heard a grunting or rumbling of an animal not far from the trail.

In the damp gloom of the cloud forest, we heard a large animal rumbling and later saw paw prints of a...cougar?

Eventually, thankfully, the top arrived. We had ascended to the peak of the hill and had somewhat flat going as we walked along a ridge for awhile. What goes up must come down, though. So, we began the even more slippery descent. I fell again, of course. At one point I clearly saw a large, clawed fresh footprint in the mud. I took a picture of it to check to see if we were having a near encounter with Colombia’s biggest cat. We saw the prints again and again. I hoped it was a dog ambling along with a hiker, because doesn’t everyone take a large German Shepherd hiking with them? I might next time I do this!

After we summited the mountain, the mist slowly began to clear and the going became easier

I thought it was a good sign when the trail meandered out on what looked like a meadow. It got more and more mucky and I eventually realized it was a bog on the side of a hill. What? To make things worse, we’d lost the trail again. We ended up flailing along in the bog in the direction the app said the trail was. After a harrowing interlude, we were back in the woods. Eventually, I caught sight of the trail - wide dirt and rock like at its start. And walking along the trail were two other hikers! People!! But there was a ten foot sheer drop between where we stood and the sanctuary of the honest-to-goodness trail. The hikers motioned us to our left, where they said it was less steep. We found a potential spot, and ducking beneath the barbed wire, slid down to the trail. Both of us were uninjured with boots on a wide trail we hadn’t seen in 3-4 hours of slip-sliding up and down the side of a mountain.

One of the viewpoints of the wax palms towards the end of the hike - still foggy

From that point, the Cocora Valley Loop was literally a walk in the woods. We even came to the viewpoints of the wax palms that the Ultimate Dyslexic Guide said we would arrive at five hours ago. The mist was still cloaking the valley, so we took some photos anyway. One of the miradors even offered a shortcut back to the trailhead. We jumped at the chance to shave some distance off our loop and followed it downhill. All around us now were the day trippers and families, taking selfies and posing with backdrops of the palms as the fog began to lift. The last mile or so was one steps with slabs of stone set into the hillsides. We had made it, and even the sky began to clear a little to reward us.

The mist slowly cleared as we ended the hike, giving us glimpses of the scenery at the trailhead

The Cocora Valley Loop was certainly not what it was billed to be. You don’t need to hike it to see the wax palms. The only reason to take this hike is if you enjoy a grueling challenge. Now, it may be easier in less rainy parts of the year. But my final criticism of this hike is there is no “payoff.” There is no grand vista that others who don’t go through your trials and tribulations don’t get to see. Am I glad I took it? I am not sure. Challenging oneself is always a thrill. Yes, I physically still have what it takes to do a difficult hike like this. But was it worth it? If my goal was to see cool scenery, then no. If my goal was to test the limits of my 59-year-old body, then yes. But otherwise, I will leave it up to you...

Posted by world_wide_mike 02:08 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

High Above Medellín

Taking in the scenery of this sprawling, Colombian city

semi-overcast 75 °F

View of Medellín from atop Pueblo Paisa

A decade or so ago, I wouldn’t be taking this trip. The drug wars that plagued Colombia and caused havoc have ended. Since then, Colombia has recovered from the chaos and is now a much safer place to visit. In fact, Europeans have been coming here for years. However, if you mention flying to Medellin to Americans, the words “cocaine” and “Pablo Escobar” are what you will likely hear in reply.

Medellin is Colombia’s second largest city and would be my hub for my travels

Landing at midnight is not my preferred way to arrive in a new country. And certainly not after waiting almost two hours in the Immigration lines. By the time I checked into my hotel room, it was nearly 2am. I unpacked a little, and went straight to bed. Medellín would be the hub of my two weeks in Columbia. I would come and go from there to visit other parts of the country. This time, I would be leaving after just two nights to go down to Salento - Colombia’s scenic coffee growing country. So, I really had only one day of sightseeing during “part one” of Medellín. My hotel was in the El Poblado district, which is where most travelers stay. Conveniently, there was a shopping mall across the street where I could get water and other essentials before beginning my exploration.

Medellin sprawls through a valley and up the slopes of the surrounding hills

Driving in from the airport the previous night, I’d gotten a glimpse of the city’s sprawling landscape. The city spreads across a valley and up the slopes of the surrounding hills. Overlooked by green hills and vistas all around, Medellín is a scenic city. The hotel receptionist suggested starting off my sightseeing at Pueblito Paisa, a green hill sprouting up amidst the urban sprawl. Atop the hill is a touristy little Pueblo - a replica country village square - with lots of souvenir shops and some cafes. More importantly, it has great views of the city. To get there, I took what would become my main mode of transportation in Medellín: Uber. Prices for trips around town are amazingly cheap (usually about $3 US). Service is quick and efficient, and the drivers were friendly and helpful.

Pueblo Paisa’s village plaza atop a hill looking down on Medellín

The views from Pueblo Paisa were excellent. There was a slight haze, but no sign yet of the rain that threatens to plague this trip. Looking at the weather forecast for the coming week, it shows rain every day in every city I plan to visit. Yikes. I am hoping it doesn’t rain all day, every day. That would be a miserable two weeks. So far, it was looking good. After exploring the hilltop and Pueblo, I relaxed in one of the cafes with a snack and Colombian beer. Where to next? I had read on a visitor’s blog that the cable cars were an excellent way to see the city. In particular, it recommended the K and L lines that go all the way to Arvi Park. I checked the map I had picked up at the tourist information booth in the Pueblo, and figured out how to get there. I arranged another Uber and was soon on my way.

The cable car network in Medellín are part of its metro system

The cable cars were built by the city as a way for the residents of the hillside neighborhoods to get back and forth between home and the city. Some of the hillside settlements are impoverished neighborhoods called communes in Columbia. These were the scene of a lot of misery during the drug wars, and the cable cars were a way for the government to try to improve the lives of these citizens. A pleasant side effect for visitors is they are a great way to see the city -especially the poorer areas which might not be as safe to visit. I know it sounds a little harsh, but I love getting views from above. I would have taken the cable car no matter how wealthy or poor the neighborhoods were that it went over! So, this wasn’t a “Gee, Mom - look at the poor people!” tour!

The steep climb up the hillsides in the cable car

The cable cars are part of Medellín’s efficient Metro system. It was easy to use one of the automated machines and purchase a card and load it with money for the ride. As it turned out, Line L that goes up and over the surrounding hillside to the park was relatively expensive as transportation goes in Medellín. Of course, by expensive I mean more than just a few dollars worth in Columbian pesos! The gondola of the cable car says it can fit up to 10 passengers, but most of the time, we had one to ourselves. The line climbs steeply from the river bank and quickly begins gliding above the city. The views were every bit as fantastic as advertised. It was cool to see how the buildings of the communes are constructed in a number of ways, most containing multiple dwellings. Tin roofs, often weighed down by large stones, were common.
Just as common were the colorful murals that Columbians decorate their walls with. I had been snapping pictures of the most striking all day. Some are cartoonish, but others show a skillful use of shading and light that display the talent of the artists that created them. My favorites were the portraits of people, although I admit I had know idea who they represented. On my return to Medellín from Salento, I plan on taking a graffiti tour. So, expect more on the graffiti in a later blog entry.

The settlements along the hillsides are constructed out of many materials in many different styles

Central Medellín was receding below us in a haze, but our aerial view of the hillside settlements continued to unfold beneath us. The buildings became less city-like of brick or plaster, and more village-like as we ascended. I saw more farm buildings and livestock like goats, horses, and donkeys. Sounds drifted up to us, too. From dogs barking and music blasting, it slowly morphed into faint rural sounds of roosters and soon only the whistle of the wind.

Colorful graffiti and murals adorn the walls throughout Medellín - not just in the communes

Eventually, the last of the hillside villages faded away and the trees grew thicker as we entered Arvi Park. The park has hiking trails popular with residents and visitors, but I was not planning on that today. I have a big hike scheduled in Salento, plus I had left the hiking shoes and rain gear in the room. Floating above the treetops, I was able to see the variety of trees and plant life in the park. The cable car line went on and on. We passed over a hill and descended into another valley. The ride was much longer than I expected. Ominously, I could see dark clouds gathering in the distance towards where we were heading. I thought that it would be a bit frightening to be trapped in one of the gondolas, floating through a thunderstorm! Rain drops were dotting the windows when we finally arrived at the park’s visitors center.

more views of the hillside communes from the cable car’s gondola

The rain didn’t come in force, yet. So, we explored the little craft and fruit market just outside the metro station. I’d had a big breakfast at my hotel, so was content with snacking on a fruit bowl and drinking freshly squeezed juice. The clouds continued to darken, so I figured it was time to head back. The return ride on the cable car was just as scenic as the trip out. However, it was mid-afternoon, and at each stop, the gondolas were picking up more passengers. As we drifted into the final station, we no longer had the gondola to ourselves, but instead their were six of us. The long line of passengers waiting to board made me wonder how crowded the Metro would be as we neared rush hour.

The buildings become more like rural farms and less like urban shacks as you ascend the hillside

The plan was to make one more sightseeing stop, but the rain began to fall and I decided to head back to the hotel. By the time I disembarked from the metro at the El Poblado stop and summoned an Uber home, it was a torrential downpour. I regretted the tennis shoes and leaving my rain gear by the time I ducked inside the Uber. Still, for a day that was supposed to be mostly rainy, I had been able to squeeze in a decent amount of sightseeing. Hopefully, the rain would continue to hold off most days and allow me to enjoy the beautiful sights of Colombia.


Posted by world_wide_mike 18:22 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

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