The Magic of Medellin

“Imagine there is a line here,” said Carolina, our tour guide, as she drew an imaginary line in the pavement. “This side is the legal side, and this side is the illegal side.”

“What side do you think Colombians like to stand on?” she asked.

As a few of us gave our guesses, she answered; “We like to walk down the middle of it! Well actually, we prefer to salsa down it!” she remarked, as she casually salsa-ed down the elusive line of morals.

I was on a walking tour of the city, and Carolina was taking us through Medellin’s downtown area where people were selling, well, everything. Bootleg DVDs, fried street food, sweets, fruits, knock off sneakers, knock off soccer jerseys, hardcore porn being sold right next to a church, as well as women of a certain profession offering their company to churchgoers; literally anything you could have wanted to buy seemed to be readily available.

I had arrived in Medellin a few days prior, after relaxing at a small finca in Manizales, and as much as I loved the coffee country, I was craving some city life. And Medellin certainly delivered.

Medellin had my curiosity early on in planning my trip; my uncle had lived in Medellin in the 80s during its most tumultuous period, and I had read a lot about the city going through a renaissance in recent years. I had mixed responses to people when I told them I was going to Medellin (and Colombia in general, but especially Medellin). Many people looked at me wondering why I wanted to visit the world’s most dangerous city, alone. It seems old statistics die hard, yeah? Others, mostly people who had actually been to Medellin, couldn’t have been more excited for me and went on to tell me it’s one of their favorite cities they’ve ever been to. What I knew about Medellin was a tale of two cities; I am well aware of Pablo Escobar and the violence he brought upon the city and the rest of the country. But I’ve also read about the city’s innovation, the pride of its citizens, and how it’s been rebuilding itself and writing new chapters to its story. I guess I was eager to see it all for myself and get my own perceptions of the place.

I hit the ground running when I arrived; immediately meeting up with friends I had made in Salento, and because it was the weekend, we walked to Parque Lleras, a party area where people drink in the park and socialize before heading to bars and clubs that surround the area. Similarly downtown’s shopping area, Parque Lleras is a sight for the senses. Lots of young people dressed in their best, sharing bottles of booze and laughing in the park, with people hawking cold beers and cigarettes, among other vices. The more you imbibe and submerge yourself into the scene, the blurrier the lines get. Take a double look, that seemingly innocent transaction of buying a pack of cigarettes might have been something else. That pretty lady flirting with your friends has a deeper voice than you expected…

The next morning I felt the pain and the shame of my hangover wash over me, and it took me a while to get going. I felt the anxiety of not getting up early and exploring the city I had heard so much about, but I spent the better part of the day lounging around in my hostel with no stamina to do any sightseeing.

My guilt finally got the best of me, and I made it out of my hostel to meet a friend for lunch. Along the way, I met a few Brits who had the perfect antidote for my hangover; Cuba Libres. Lots of Cuba Libres. Through our drinks, we came up with a great plan to do some sightseeing the next day and to go to the Atlético Nacional football game, one of the only things on my list of things I really wanted to do while in Colombia.

As things turn out, the game ended up getting canceled/postponed! What?! Super bummed, but still determined, we were told there was a football game going on in Envigado, a town right outside of Medellin. A much smaller scale than a Nacional game, but hey. We ended up grabbing a beer before the game at an unassuming outdoor restaurant. As it turns out, the restaurant was just about to close, and after the grill is put away and the plastic tables and chairs are stacked up, the eatery is also the home of the people running the restaurant. Soon, the family members brought out their own tables and chairs and began socializing with each other and playing card games. Suddenly, we felt very intrusive and tried to finish our beers quickly so we could head out.

Instead of being met with annoyed faces by the restaurant/homeowners, a man came over with a bowl of snacks and sat down with us. We stumbled through a few sentences, our Spanish not holding up so well and him not being able to speak English, but eventually he called his nephew over to help translate. After a few laughs and exchanges, the man started getting emotional and grabbed a napkin to wipe a few tears from his eyes. His nephew said that he was just very overwhelmed with talking to the three of us; apparently we were only the second group of foreigners he had ever talked to and he said it was a very special moment in his life. We eventually forgot about the football match and decided sitting outside of this man’s home and sharing beers with him was a much better night out.

The next day I set out for a walking tour of the city, where our guide, Carolina, gave us a really amazing rundown of the city and its history. I learned about the paisa culture, which is the name of the people who come from that region in Colombia. I learned that paisas were originally Basque and Jewish, which I found interesting as that is my heritage as well. Carolina took us all over the city, to many places she said locals would never recommend travelers to visit as they can be kind of seedy, but these areas are part of the city nonetheless. She also gave really great examples of how Colombians continued to live their lives and be their lively selves even during the most tragic and violent times.

  

While listening to Carolina tell stories of Medellin’s most darkest days, I was simultaneously watching the current state of the city; people selling things at the market and curious passersby smile and welcome us to their city. It was touching and emotional to learn about the turmoil the people of Medellin went through not so long ago, but to see how alive the city is today. It left me feeling inspired and optimistic about life in general, to see a city go through such a rebound and to see the people along for the ride.

After becoming a bit travel weary (I was getting sick of packing my bags and hopping on a bus, or catching a flight, and checking into a new hostel every few days), coupled with the vibrancy of the city, I extended my stay and spent the remainder of my days slowly but steadily exploring the corners and nooks of Medellin.

I biked around the very hilly and lush hills of Poblado, weaved my way through the crazy traffic downtown, and somehow managed to cycle up a mountain to Pueblito Paisa to take in more views of the beautiful city.

I took the metro up to the cable cars, which bring people up to comunas that are built high up in the mountains. The views alone from the cable cars are spectacular, but getting off and exploring the neighborhoods are also a real treat… A group of us explored Santo Domingo, the streets were filled with locals enjoying sunny day.

  
We were met with curious looks whenever we venture to an area that isn’t well traversed by foreigners. Almost always, we are asked where we are from, why we are here, and how we are liking Colombia.

While admiring the brightly colored street art in Comuna 13/San Javier, a woman on her porch started asking me and the group of girls I was with such questions. Her curiousity was piqued when we all gave her different answers to where we were from (the US, Germany, Canada, and Belgium). Once we told her we had just met at our hostel, and that we were all traveling through Colombia solo, she became very interested. She invited us into her home so we could meet her daughter and grandson. Between me and the three other girls I was with, we were able to pool our Spanish speaking skills together and had a lovely chat in her living room as she passed around photos of her family and asked us about our lives.

  
  
As we left her home, we all felt like we had just stumbled into a really special, magical moment. It seemed these little chance moments were following me in Medellin; to having a beer with the man from Envigado, to being invited into that woman’s home, and to having a family cook me lunch in their home!

While I was in the Amazon, I met a family from Medellin who were staying at my hotel. Camila, who is about my age, spoke English and told me that her parents wanted to invite me over to their home and cook me lunch. Camila picked me up at my hostel, and brought me to her beautiful high rise apartment in Poblado. I was welcomed by Camila’s parents, her brother, Camila’s boyfiend, and his young daughter who was very excited to tell me all of the English words she had learned in school.

Camila’s mom prepared a delicious lunch of traditional/typical dishes of the region. Over lunch, I talked about all of the things I had done in Medellin, and everyone declared that I had seen a lot! So it was decided that instead of Camila showing me around the city, we’d go for a swim and laze around their apartment’s pool. Fine by me.

After a few hours of swimming and napping poolside, Camila drove me back closer to where I was staying in Poblado. We wandered around a bit, and I asked her about growing up in Medellin; what it was like to grow up during the city’s most violent days and to watch it transform. It was really fascinating and I felt grateful that I was able to get firsthand accounts about what it was/is like living in a city that is so captivating.

Medellin was certainly a city of extremes. Seeing the tangible vivaciousness of the people and the daily life was contagious; watching people play soccer, skateboard, and enjoy the sunshine in Parque Ciudad del Rio, the kids running about and biking down the steep hills in Santo Domingo, listening to the man shout “Empanadas!! Empanadas!!” while selling the home cooked delicacy to his neighbors in San Javier, dancing at a club in Parque Lleras in a large circle with Colombians while screaming the lyrics to a song I had just heard for the very first time, having a girl armed with a Super Soaker loaded Aguardiente squirt some of the fiery beverage into my mouth, having strangers come up to me on the street to shake my hand and welcome me to their city… This whole mish-mash of life confirmed why I love city life so much.

But then there was the sheer beauty of Medellin; nestled in the Aburrá Valley with the lush, green Andean mountains surrounding it. Every view seems to be more beautiful than the last. Is it city living that makes me feel more alive or is it the mountains? I’m not too sure, but with Medellin, you don’t have to choose. You get to have both.

 

I ended up staying in Medellin much longer than I had planned on, which seemed to be a common theme among many travelers passing through. After I finally willed myself to pack my bags and move onto my next destination, my hostel was full of people who were researching apartments and trying to figure out a way to stay in Medellin for the long term.

I’m not sure if it was me falling in love with Medellin that made me stay longer, or me knowing that my next move, up to the Caribbean coast, was to be my last destination before it was time to head back home. I thought, maybe if I just ended up staying in Medellin just a bit longer, it would somehow put a stoppage in time and my inevitable departure from Colombia…

Paradise In Coffee Country

After my journey into the jungle, I flew back to Bogota for one more night, before heading out to the coffee region of the country.

I was greeted by a friendly British girl in my dorm room named Kirsten, and we set off to explore La Candelaria a bit; we went to the Botero Museum, had fun posing with some of his brilliant portraits, and then went to a bar nearby which was excellent. It was located in a small plaza where loads of people were chilling out, playing music, drinking, and smoking. The bar was tiny and rustic, it was super cute.

The reason for my night out was to meet up with a travel blogger, whose blog I have been reading for a few years now. Dani writes a blog called Globetrotter Girls, and coincidentally we were/are traveling through Colombia at the same time, and happened to be in Bogota at the same time as well! It was so cool to meet her in person and chat about our travels.

After a great last night in Bogota, I hopped on a quick flight to Armenia, one of the cities part of Colombia’s coffee region. The moment our plane started descending, I felt my heart grow a few sizes; I was in complete awe of the beauty of the region. Lush, green mountains as far as you can see. Green plants of all sizes are speckled with colorful flowers, and you see the life of Colombians living in this area; cowboys riding horses or pulling mules and people selling food out of tiny food stands on the sides of the streets. The scenery was exactly how I pictured Colombia to be like in my mind, it was so classic and picturesque.

I took about an hour car ride from Armenia to Salento, a tiny cowboy town where I spent the majority of my time in coffee county. The town is excellent! Very small, hilly roads, and people passing by on horses frequently.

I ended up staying at an eco farm/hostel which was about a 20 minute walk from town. This place was really special. It felt like staying at a person’s guesthouse/hacienda more than a hostel, and the people I met during my time there were fabulous.

My first day I took it easy, wandered around town a bit, and just sat around my hostel and took in all of the beauty. My second day was a lot more active; I hopped in a jeep with several people I met at my hostel and we headed out for Cocora Valley to do some hiking and see the wax palms, which are Colombia’s national tree.

The hike was great, but challenging in the heat. The views were beautiful, though. About an hour or two into our hike, we made our way to a little sanctuary where humming birds fly all over the place and you can grab a refreshment. The refreshment? Chocolate con queso! And interesting combination of hot chocolate served with a side of cheese. Colombians like to dip the cheese in the chocolate, let it soak a bit, and then eat it. Strange, yeah? But it wasn’t bad! On my way up to the sanctuary, I was hot, sweaty, and tired, and I thought to myself that the last thing in the world that I want right now is some hot chocolate. But, it really did help give me a boost and gave me a second wind to complete my hike.

We eventually made our way to the valley to see all of the wax palms, and they were gorgeous. The sun was setting just as we we were finishing, and we were greeted with some spectacular views, with the mountains and palm trees becoming gorgeous silhouettes against the colorful sky.

   
 
The following day, I had intended on going horseback riding, but my day took a different route. As I was relaxing in the morning, Thomas, a German guy who I hiked with the day before, told me he was chilling with some people outside. I ventured out to join, and there sat Alex, a guy from LA, and James, an Aussie. We were just shooting the shit, and naturally the conversation shifted to politics. We all had lively chats about each of our countries’ history, culture, and political systems. Along the way, someone moseyed to reception to grab a bottle of wine, and somehow, suddenly, the sun was setting with about a dozen empty bottles of wine at our feet.

We had several people join us during our little chat, and it was really neat to watch our circle expand and contact over the hours.

  
We somehow were able to walk over to the farm’s restaurant, ate dinner, then wandered into town to a bar to watch a band perform traditional Andean music, which was great.

The next morning, I woke up miraculously hangover free, and determined to have a more active day, other than walking to and from reception to buy wine.

I took a coffee tour at a nearby finca, which was 100% organic. The clever and simple ways the farm can remain organic was really fascinating.  

  

 

After our coffee tour, a group of us went horseback riding which was incredible!! My horse, Corozzo, was a beast. He was able to navigate really steep, muddy, rocky, narrow paths, and when we had open land, he really likes to gallop. Horseback riding in Salento was absolutely gorgeous, and it made me feel like an actual cowboy (cowgirl?). I had been horseback riding before, but only on a farm, so this was my first time riding through the mountains.

We made our way to a stream with a waterfall, which was FREEZING, but we decided to swim for a moment anyways. After our swim, we made our way to a little restaurant for a beer and some patacones con queso; fried plantains mashed into chips and then topped with cheese, so good!

  

After we galloped back to our hostel (I think our horses were ready to get rid of us), we all had dinner again at the farm’s restaurant, which might have been the best meal I’ve had in Colombia so far; BBQ pork and chicken with coleslaw and an amazing spicy mango sauce. It was a really lovely dinner, at that point a large group of us had become quite close, and it felt like a big family dinner.

We then started a bonfire, and spent the rest of the evening chatting and drinking wine around the fire. It was a perfect day, beginning to end.

It was so hard to pack my bags and leave Salento. Every day was eventful, yet relaxing. And the views never got old. I could have stayed at the farm/hostel for months. But I had another stop in the coffee country before I got back to city life in Medellin.

I’ll write about my quick but relaxing time in Manizales, and then about the fascinating city of Medellin in my next post…

It’s hard to believe my trip is winding down. Every day has been a new adventure, and now that Salento is behind me, I can safely say that those days spent in that small town were some of the best days of my life.

 

Colombia Calling: First Jaunt To South America

I’m a week into my first trip to South America; a new country, a new continent. My first trip where I am flying 100% solo. Planning and taking a trip alone stirs up questions, excitement, and doubt more than other kinds of trips. I kept going through the highs and lows of wonderment; will I be safe? Will I make friends? Will my Spanish hold up?

I’ve been in Colombia for a little over a week, three different cities, and so far I can say:

 1. I’ve felt safe and totally at ease traveling alone throughout the country.

2. I’ve met so many lovely people, both Colombian and fellow travelers, who have made my time in each place very special.

3. Yes! My shoddy Spanish has been getting me around! I think I can attribute that more to friendly and helpful Colombians than my bilingual prowess.

Choosing which country to first explore in South America was difficult; it is such a large continent, but I know several friends and family members who have either lived in or traveled extensively in Colombia, and every one of them expressed how much they loved their time there. After doing my own research, well, it was an easy sell. The Amazon! The Andes! The Carribbean coast! 

I had initially planned on starting in Peru, trekking to Machu Picchu, then making my way to the Amazon and taking a boat to cross into Colombia. However, after breaking both wrists in the fall, I figured trekking in the Andes was probably not the best idea. So I had to put Peru on the back burner and focus my attention on Colombia.

My adventure started by me arriving late at night into Bogota; the next day I was graciously invited out to do some sightseeing with my friend Zach and his family. Zach works as a tour director at the same company as me, and I had only met him just a month prior in Boston. He lives in Tunja, a town a little ways outside of Bogota. His family was serendipitously in town to visit, and it was great to have some company on my first day in a new country.

Zach introduced me to his friend David, a Colombian guy living in Bogota, and after Zach and his family set out for Tunja, David took over as a tour guide and showed me around Bogota. We hit up a few museums and walked around La Candelaria. 

Later in the night, we met up with my friend Juan; he is the brother-in-law of my friend and former boss, Kelly. She put me in touch with Juan and he was so great! He invited me out to go drinking with his friends. Everyone immediately welcomed me as if I had been a longtime friend and we drank and danced the night away.

Later in the night we went to one of Juan’s friend’s apartment, and even though it was well into the early hours of the morning, they immediately put on salsa music and started dancing in their apartment. I got a kick out of it because I had heard how much Colombians love to dance and now I was witnessing it. Juan was definitely the best; he is from Cali which is the salsa capital of the world and it showed! 

The next day I was feeling the effects of the night before, so I took it easy and just wandered around the neighborhood I was staying at, Chapinero. My hostel was really chilled out, with a really diverse range of travelers. It was really nice sitting out on the patio drinking and chatting with everyone, and hanging out with the hostel’s two dogs!! Every place I’ve stayed at has had dogs. Beautiful.

That night, I watched the Super Bowl at one of Juan’s friend’s place. It was a mixture of Colombians and a few American expats looking to watch some futbol americano. I had fun explaining the rules to Juan.

The next morning I set out to fulfill a childhood dream, explore the Amazon!! Arriving in Leticia was a sensory overload; hot, muggy, people of all types zipping by on motorbikes, the sounds of the jungle buzzing in the background, with all types of Latin music blasting virtually out of every corner. It was my first taste of small town South America life.

After wandering around town a bit, I randomly chose a restaurant to eat at. The restaurant was basically a concrete patio with plastic chairs and tables. No sign or name that I know of. The server said to me as soon as I approached “solo pescado” (fish only). Okay, sounds good. A few moments later I was given some soup, and then a platter that consisted of a whole, bone-in fish, rice, beans, and a plaintain, and some delicious, fresh juice. And here I was expecting to just receive a single piece of fish. 

  
Eating here was an experience; I almost felt like I was intruding on a family BBQ, everyone else there either seemed to be close friends or family. It was nice to sit for a bit and take in Leticia life; the kids running up and down the street chasing after the ice cream vendor, motorbikes and tuk-tuks flying by, and street dogs who are savvy enough to look both ways when crossing the street, and people narrowly avoiding collisions with motorists as they cross the streets where traffic lights and stop signs don’t exist.
The next morning, it was time to set out for the jungle. Myself, along with a husband, wife, and daughter from Medellin staying at the same bed & breakfast as me were taken to Leticia’s port, another sensory overload! Leticia is on the border of Peru and Brazil, so as you go out along the river, you are staring at three different countries at once.
We made our way to a nature reserve in Peru, and spent a few hours in the jungle with our guide. He spoke no English, but I enjoyed the challenge of trying to understand what he was saying. Camila, who is about my age and the daughter of the family I was with, spoke English really well and helped translate which was so nice!

The rest of the day was spent kayaking, fishing, and lazing around in hammocks. I met a Colombian named Pedro who has lived in San Francisco for the past 30 years. He said he took a spontaneous trip to the Amazon, “to escape the Super Bowl”, as he put it. He was really surprised and impressed that I decided to choose Colombia as my first South American country to visit and that I was traveling alone.

The next day, we basically spent the entire day on the Amazon River, while visiting a few small towns. On this journey we saw lots of pink dolphins and crazy squirrel monkeys that had a penchant for jumping on you and giving you awkward hair massages. It was a long day, but I loved spending time around the small towns and learning about how indigenous communities lived. 

  
   
 
 

My final day in the Amazon was a special one. I set out to explore the jungle once more, by myself. I we a bit apprehensive without having the safety net of my Medellin family by my side and with Camila helping with translating, but it turned out to be incredible.

I was taken around the jungle with my guide, Ramillo, who was around my age. He spoke no English, but he did a great job explaining things to me in simple Spanish that I would understand. 

Somehow I convinced myself to go zip-lining to see the canopy. I am terrified of heights but how could I go to the Amazon rainforest and not see the canopy?? As I was climbing up to the very top, the guide on the tree’s platform must have saw the fear on my face and asked me, “Are you afraid?” in English. “Yes, very,” I responded. It actually felt cathartic to be able to express my fear in English instead of constantly repeating “Ayyy….dios mio!!”

Zip-lining through the canopies was wild and I’m glad I went through with it despite my sneaking suspicion that this was going to be how I died.

After zip-lining, Ramillo and I went kayaking down a stream; it was so peaceful and serene. Ramillo saw how much I had been bit by mosquitos, so he stopped and found a bamboo-like plant, ripped it to get the pulp, and rubbed it on my bites to stop them from itching. He also showed me a very natural repellent; tiny ants that you squish (RIP) and rub all over you. 

We had a nice swim in the stream and sat for a few hours or so talking. In Spanish! We talked about so many things; Colombia, the US, our governments, our cultures, dating, our jobs, etc. It was amazing how much we were able to convey despite my very basic speaking abilities.

Shortly after, we were greeted with a massive downpour and had some lunch (Ramillo and another guide taught me how to eat a whole, bone-in fish, thank god). After that, Ramillo walked me out of the jungle to wait for my tuk-tuk and we parted ways. It was a perfect day!

I am currently in the coffee region now, which I will write about in a separate post. But it’s been incredible. I have seen and experienced so much, and I still have a lot more to see. Trying to take it all in, one day at a time, because trips like these just fly by. Until next time, hasta luego!! 🇨🇴