My flight to Medellin provided a subtle reminder of my day on Isla del Pirata with the food packaging being adorned with photographs of Leticia and the Amazonas.
It was a smooth arrival into Medellin – security of your baggage is great in all Colombian airports with no one being able to exit the terminal without showing the bag tags and corresponding tags issued at check-in.
The view on the way into the city was spectacular – you drive down into the Valley Aburra, which has buildings perched on the Occedente, Oriental and Central branches off the Andes the lights immediately gave you a sense of the size of the city district. My driver got a little lost on the way to my accommodation but assured me he would get me there and that I was staying in the nicest part of the city (thanks for that tip Paula).
Once in my accommodation’s neighbourhood it seemed like we were driving through the jungle with the tree canopies covering the roads.
It was an informative trip with the driver enlightening me on the size of the population (2.5 million) and advising that textile manufacturing and flower farming are the major industries of this department (Antioquia).
My accommodation was lovely with the apartment looking over a lush park of trees reaching above our 10th floor and with the lovely sounds of a nearby creek gushing by.
My first day in Medellin and the guide fails to show for my city tour so Pauli, my airbnb host, gave me the tips on how to use the public transport and off I went to visit Parque Arvi at Santa Elena and the city centre.
After waiting a while for my ‘green bus’ I was wondering if I was at the right stop. So how do you ask someone who doesn’t speak english whether the green bus stops here? Give up? Well you pick up the nearest (and preferably biggest) green leaf, point to it, say the word ‘autobus’ and mimick the bus coming down the hill. “Si, Si” are the words you want to hear!
I was happy once on the metro with the knowledge I was heading in the the right direction; all with the help of Juan Pablo, a lovely young man studying interior design who would like to travel to Australia to study English – his English was already very good. During our conversation (I sensed he wanted to practice his english) he declared that Colombians can tend to speak very differently to other South Americans, which we both had a laugh about when I asked whether that was the ‘Gloria’ factor.
From the metro I got the metro cable (one of three built in the city to allow the residents of the poorer parts of town to get into the city without sitting in congested traffic for up to two hours) up to Parque Arvi passing over the communas. The poverty was clearly worse the higher you went. The parque was lovely, providing a great space for locals and visitors to explore the lush hilltops. There was a large food tent at the entry, offering lots of tasty morsels that I couldn’t help but sample. The height of the parque means it is mostly in the clouds and is subject to pretty wet weather but also very rich for growing fruit and vegetables.
Medellin is known as the ‘eternal Spring’ with its comfortable and constant temperature year round; perfect for exploring the city. It is populated with red brick buildings that blend in beautifully with the abundant lush hills. The hills running down into the city have numerous streams running alongside the roads and buildings.
My nest stop was Plaza Botero with its 23 bronze sculptures donated by the artist in 2000 (Medellin is Botero’s home town although I understand he now lives in Italy). This is one artist I can’t get enough of so I decided to visit the Museo de Antioquia. While the museum contained a large number of Botero’s works it also contained plenty of local artists – Maripaz Jaramillo, Beatrice Gonzalez and Leonel Estrada were among my favourites – the art ranged from seriously religious to provocative. Aside from some portraits of a heap of men the art seemed to be all from the 1900s.
The food is a real treat. I’ve been just been checking with vendors that their offering doesn’t contain beef, chicken or pork and then going for it. I sometimes end up with something I thought was going to be sweet but turns out to be savoury and vice a versa but I am never disappointed. My favourite so far has been some fresh coconut strips that were coated in a burnt caramel syrup – I can feel my weight increasing as I type!
The city is also very clean, which I suspect is partly from the wash down it gets each night as it rains.
Like Bogotá, cycling is a popular pastime for Sundays with road closures and dedicated cycling direction lanes established – we could take a leaf out of Colombia’s book in this regard.
Realising I was running out of days to get in my ‘must visit’ spots I rang a local tour operator at 9:30pm in the hope I could get onto their tour for the morning. Success.
An early morning start to meet the tour bus and I was off for my trip to Guatapé. As warned by the operator, my booking was too late to organise a bilingual guide so I’d be going Spanish for the day. I was actually surprised by how much I understood but I was definitely at a disadvantage during the Simon says game!
We passed Guarne, one of the towns where the muisca had been exploited by the spaniards in pursuit of their gold – after killing so many the spaniards brought in the African slaves who proved more resilient to the extreme working conditions.
We had a quick stop in Marilla for a peak at one of the oldest homes left in Antioquia. This one was made of compacted cow manure and then painted with a light plaster. The inside had an eclectic collection of prints (mainly religious) sewn onto layers of brown cardboard.
El Peñoń was the next stop. A new town that has replaced the old town following its damming to create a reservoir of water that now contributes to the generation of all of the electricity supply to Medellin and other parts of Antioquia. From here we could see destination el Peñol – an imposing monolith above the town of Guatapé.
Time to walk off all the scrumptious Colombian dulces! After climbing up the 659 steps of El Peñol we headed for our humongous lunch….to ensure our energy reserves weren’t fatally affected by the climb (?!?).
The views from El Peñol were wonderful – looking down to the gorgeous green valley and turquoise waterways. There’s always a story with the colour of the water. I found out from Karen and Jenny (who’s names didn’t at all match their El Salvador origin and Latin American looks) that the guide had explained that the waterways contain an algae that’s killing the fish (wish I had of known this before I ordered the trout) and so it’s being drained so some chemicals can be added to kill the algae.
A boat ride on the reservoir provided some glimpses up to el Peñol. The music was deafening; the crew of each boat seem to compete on who has the best speakers.
We then had a walk around the town of Guatapé, which has lovely colonial homes decorated with zócalos in the form of family, person or culture. A recent initiative of the mayor was to mandate the use of these decorations on all homes as a means of eliminating the illustration of wealth by property owners who were formerly the only ones who could afford them.
It’s a cute town with motochivas running around everywhere. Of course it and the other towns visited all had their Plaza Bolivar. He also liberated Ecuador so there’s plenty more to come!
It was ‘No cars in the city day’ an annual event prohibiting private vehicles in the city – I believe it’s done in Bogotá too. Seems the Colombians are quite progress in the environmental initiatives – imagine invoking that law in Brisbane or Sydney!
Feeling adventurous I decided to spend the next day inSante Fe Antioquia. For this one I needed to catch a bus from the north bus terminal – easy peasy once the transport company found someone who could speak English so I could book the ticket. Thankfully the victim was also to be my driver – Guys. Guys’ dad was from the US so Guys had spent 15 of his 33 years there – his spanish/american accent had earned him the nickname ‘gringo’ with his workmates.
After dropping off all the other passengers my mate Guys announced he has some spare time between trips so is taking me to the river to see the Occedente (west) Bridge – I’m discovering there are some definite advantages to travelling solo!
The Occedente Bridge is a lovely suspended timber and steel bridge, built in 1895 under the direction of Jose Maria Villa, who studied in New York and was part of the Brooklyn Bridge construction team. Sadly a local teacher and his child being carried on his shoulders died last year when they fell through some rotten timber on the pedestrian side – needless to say the pedestrian access is now closed while they arrange for renovation of the access.
Santa Fe Antioquia was settled in 1541, the same year as Medellin, and at the time was the capital of Antioquia.
There was an interesting wall commemorating significant people of the department. I was taken by Maria Centeno who it seems owned the biggest gold mine in Santa Fe during the 1800s and 1900s – Gina would be proud!
The bus trip back was lovely, once again passing the lush farms on the hills and driving into a thunderstorm listening with the driver playing The Cure – they have just played in Cololmbia. The train trips were becoming secondhand. I must have shaken that ‘lost puppy’ look because on the train and then on the platform I was approached by women for information about the trains – a response of “no hablar espanol, disculpe” and a mental note that it’s time to visit a hairdresser.
That evening I ventured out for cocktails with Zaida, Marisabel and Marellu, Venezuelan women I’d met on the Guatapé tour. We went to a gorgeous rooftop bar in the Charlee Hotel – think Brisbane’s Cloudland and Sydney’s Ivy; it was a fun night.
Finally the city tour. Everyone’s seen the movie Blow with Johnny Depp (yes I might be a tad infatuated with the man), well this is the town of the drug lord he worked for, Pablo Escobar. The man who managed to give Medellin ‘the most dangerous city in the world’ tag. Things have certainly changed since his death.
Pablo was born on a farm but moved to the city in his teens where he started committing crimes with his cousin – first stealing marble headstones and then moving onto car theft, which landed him in jail.
When he got out of jail he started selling marihuana before discovering the opportunities to process coca paste obtained from Bolivia and Peru and on sell it. He sent some of his people over to the US to start getting the coke market moving (the quintessential marketer he gave away free samples hoping for later return on investment).
By then Peru and Bolivia were generating enough for his demand but he was having trouble getting the demanded quantities into the States so he used the poorest of the poor as mules. By now his power had increased substantially and killings had commenced to ensure his business activities were not exposed or his power undermined. He had also made some ins with the other significant drug cartel, Cali.
Pablo had 480 homes built in one of the communas, which provided him enough popularity to get him a seat in congress until the party discovered his business interests. On this revelation at they kicked him out and promised to end the cartels by sending their leaders to jails in the States – making it very difficult for them to control the drug trade in Colombia. Pablo and Cali were not in agreement about how to respond, Cali preferring a path of bribing police and government officials and Pablo a path of violence.
Cali sensing their interests could be derailed by Pablo’s actions started a war against Pablo. First they bombed the apartment block where his wife and children lived (they now live in Argentina under different names and police protection). Pablo retaliated by bombing pharmacies owned by Cali.
The government turned up the heat on Pablo who in turn realised he would have to surrender (or likely be caught and sent to a US penitentiary but negotiated the terms) – the most significant being that he would build his jail and his people would guard it; as ludicrous as that sounds the government agreed in the hope of peace on the streets. Of course Pablo just continued his business from his palatial surroundings masquerading as a jail (it’s now a monastery).
After a big find of money ($20m) Pablo questioned his people on why the money had been kept from him. Dissatisfied with the response he is alleged to have killed them during their visit to the jail. In response the president decided to send him off to a maximum security prison but on this news he escaped with his brother and eight associates (he had the jail built so knew how to disable the security). He stayed on the run for a year and one week, causing havoc during that year with endless bombing and killings. He was finally tracked down through a phone call with his children and killed on 2nd of December 1993 on the roof of a property neighbouring his hideout.
The Cali cartel were then hunted down – a number of the leaders are now serving time in a New York jail.
It was interesting to visit the three landmarks – apartment block bombed, roof where he was shot and his grave – with the knowledge that Medellin has moved on since then to become a wonderful city that feels safer than many I’ve visited.
I finished the tour with a visit to the Metropolitan Church, apparently modelled on St Peter’s, which was built in 1875 of red brick (of course it was adjacent to Parque Bolivar).
My afternoon was spent learning to salsa – it was hard but lots of fun. Yul was convinced I had the ability to feel the beat so would become addicted to salsa.
I found a lovely vegetarian restaurant in Parque Lleras (unfortunately no frijoles) to reflect on my travels through Colombia and to finish reading the book on Colombia’s history that Juan had recommended. What an amazing political history – from the conquering by the spaniards to the liberation by Bolivar to the shifting between conservatives, liberals and dictatorships to the power sharing of the New Front aimed at ending La Violencia. It’s now a turning point in Colombia’s political history as the good will of the government and guerrilla factions to finally attain peace is tested.
Colombia has been wonderful – the people so friendly, the landscapes so diverse, the food amazing and the experiences exciting. After my visit to the hairdresser (thanks heaps for the translation Paula) I’m now ready to head off to Quito for my cruise of the Galápagos Islands. No wifi for a week and a bit – I’m suffering separation anxiety already!