Twelve Days in Colombia

Angie, Jess’s sister had been angling to go to Colombia for a while but couldn’t convince anyone to go with her. Since we were planning to go there anyway, we offered to meet up with her at the end of our trip and explore together. We flew to Bogotá from Quito because we had heard the Ecuador-Colombia border was a bit rough, and we wanted to get to Colombia more quickly. We were scheduled to meet Angie and Kevin in Guatapé, a small weekend getaway town two hours from Medellín, on May 8th.

We arrived in Bogotá around 9pm and requested an Uber to our hostel. We didn’t know at the time that Uber is illegal in Colombia, although everyone uses it. When our Uber driver finally arrived, he told us to get in quickly (no small feat with our big bags), so we piled in with Jess in the back seat under a mountain of backpacks, and he sped away. We were a little confused about how everyone could use Uber if it was illegal, but it seems Uber is not a registered transportation company, and other than fining drivers if they get caught, the government doesn’t do much to enforce the law. We arrived at the hostel around 10pm hungry, and with no food nearby we resorted to eating left over biscochos and nougat snacks Eric had snagged from a gas station a few days earlier.

We spent the next day obtaining bus tickets for a night bus to Medellín that evening for 60,000 COP ($18.42) per person and exploring Bogotá’s parks. We visited the Simon Bolivar Metropolitan Park and Parque del Lago (a.k.a. Parque de los Novios), walking eleven miles in total. Parque del Lago was particularly beautiful with a big lake in the middle and lots of ducks.

Our bus ride to Medellín was uneventful and we easily found the next bus to Guatapé – 15,000 COP ($4.60) per person. We arrived in Guatapé in the pouring rain and ran up the hill to our hostel where we hid for most of the rest of the day. We discovered that our playing cards had been irreversibly damaged by our rainy hike up Cayambe in Ecuador, so we played cribbage with a strange set of Spanish playing cards that only had twelve cards per suit.

Unusual cribbage game

Angie and Kevin were due to arrive at the Medellín airport at midnight after a series of annoying flight schedule changes by Avianca. From there they had a 90-minute taxi ride to Guatapé. Their first introduction to Colombia was way more eventful than any experience we have had in our four months of traveling around South America. Roughly halfway into the taxi journey, the taxi was pulled over by a pair of cops who proceeded to search the car and every pocket of Angie’s and Kevin’s luggage. While the search was happening, the cops were trying to suggest that Angie and Kevin should sell them their Bose noise-canceling headphones, or better yet, just gift them. Angie kept saying no, and finally the cops satisfied themselves with a $20 bill from Kevin’s wallet and let them go on their way. They arrived exhausted and slightly shaken outside the door of the hostel at 2am. The hostel owner had said they should call her when they arrived and she set an alarm to wake up around the appointed time. However, her daughter had been playing with the cellphone before going to bed and had turned the ringer volume off! This left Angie and Kevin outside with the taxi driver who was helpfully calling every number he could find for the hostel to no avail. Finally Angie and Kevin knocked loudly on the door and a hostel volunteer let them in and showed them to their room.

The next morning we went in search of a much-needed cappuccino – the coffee in Guatapé is delicious and comes with adorable coffee art! Then we went to the Piedra del Peñol, which is a massive rock formation poking out of the otherwise flat landscape. It resembles a large pimple on Guatapé’s face. In the 1970s, a dam was installed which caused much of the surrounding region to flood creating what is now a series of beautiful lakes. The view from the top of the Peñon is stunning and can be accessed by climbing 649 steps wedged into a crack on one side of the massive rock. Entrance fee is 18,000 pesos ($6.53) per person. Getting to Piedra del Peñol from Guatapé by mototaxi is easy and costs 10,000 pesos ($3.07). We took a mototaxi one way and walked back to Guatapé afterwards.

We spent the rest of our time in Guatapé exploring the small town and admiring the zócalos which adorn each of the buildings in the town. The town is wonderfully colorful with each house and building having a different colored facade. At the base of each building is a one-to-two-foot section with a clay mural depicting a scene from the region’s culture, history, the family’s feelings, memories or aspirations, or the profession of the person occupying the building. Some of the murals are phenomenally detailed while others are more simple representations. One street in Guatapé is called Calle del Recuerdo (Street of Memory) and displays some old zócalos that were carefully removed and transplanted here before half of the city was flooded by the dam.

Before leaving Guatapé, Angie, Kevin and Jess rented paddle boards and kayaks and paddled around the lakes for an hour. There are lots of small islands and many coves and bays that are fun to duck into. Kevin got out of his kayak and explored one of the islands. Jess and Angie found a small bay where they walk in the clay on the edge of the lake. The clay is full of minerals that give it different colors: black, red, beige. It was a beautiful place to explore. That afternoon we took the bus back to Medellín and met up with Eric’s friend Max who was visiting Colombia at the same time. We spent three days in Medellín learning about the city’s history and the steps it has taken to move past it.

Real City Tours: Sophia, who we met in Sucre, Bolivia, had told us the walking tour was really good and that we should make sure to sign up for it as soon as registration became available a day and a half before our desired tour time. For four hours, our tour guide, Juan, walked us around downtown Medellín telling us about the history and politics of Colombia as it pertained to Medellín. At the Square of Lights he told us about Medellín’s efforts to move on from its violent past. At one point in the 1990s, Medellín was the most violent city in the world. On top of Colombia’s security platform, the city of Medellín has added two pillars: Democratic Architecture and Education with Dignity. Democratic architecture includes transforming spaces that were previously “no-go” zones into vibrant city plazas with cultural and educational buildings and art installations. Education with Dignity is primarily centered around libraries which are designed to give people access to education and information. Medellín’s murder rate is now lower than that of New Orleans and pick-pocketing is the crime tourists are most likely to experience. Juan told us to be careful not to “dar papaya” which means give someone an opportunity to take something and told us the papaya level of each place he took us. In papaya level 4 areas, we took extra care to hold on to our belongings.

He took us to Botero Square which is filled with Botero statues and where the Palace of Culture sits. The Palace of Culture was designed by a Belgian architect. The architect got frustrated because the Colombians were complaining about the construction, so he returned to Belgium and the Colombians finished the second half of the building themselves in a more modest style. As a result, one side of the building is very elaborate and the other side is quite simple.

Just beyond the Palace of Culture, Juan told us about the metro system which is very important to paisas (people from Medellín). It is a symbol of the revival of Medellín and people respect it, keeping in clean and free from graffiti. Built in 1982, the metro system is a lifeline of the city which connects poorer communities in the mountains with the city below. The tour ended in San Antonio Park where there are two Botero bird statues. In June 1995 a bomb exploded in the bird statue killing 30 and injuring more than 200. Five years later Botero donated another bird statue to the city and the two now sit side by side as a memorial and reminder of the strength of the people of Medellín.

Two Botero birds in San Antonio Plaza

El Cielo Restaurant: After the walking tour we rushed over to El Cielo, a molecular gastronomy restaurant that specializes in elaborate multi-course meals. We elected the 13-course with 6-wine pairing option with no idea what the price would be, but we were there for the experience and ready for a splurge. The menu was delightfully creative with playful courses including one in which warm chocolate was poured over our hands and sprinkled with ground coffee and sugar for a luxurious and edible hand massage. The meal took more than three hours and every course was beautifully presented and delicious. The total bill was a shocking number, $2,000,000! (for 5, and in Colombian pesos, of course).

Coffee course at El Cielo

Memory House Museum: The Memory House Museum is free to explore and has a variety of interactive multimedia exhibits that showcase the victims of Medellín’s violent past through testimonials, newspaper archives, and art exhibits..

Metro and Cable Cars: After hearing about Medellín’s famed metro system, we decided we wanted to check it out. The metro is modern and fast and one of the cleanest metro systems we have ever seen. We took the Metro out to Acevedo station where we could access the Metro Cable (cable car) Line D to Santo Domingo. The views of the city from the cable car are so cool! We walked around the Santo Domingo neighborhood and found a very economical coffee shop (three cappuccinos and a coffee for $2!). Then we rode the Line L Arví Metro Cable to the end and back. Line L has a nice view over Parque Arví, which we unfortunately didn’t have time to explore.

View of Medellín from the Metro Cable
Santo Domingo

We spent most of Monday hopping from coffee shop to restaurant to ice cream shop and back to coffee, playing spades and whiling away the time until our night bus to Armenia (tickets purchased the day before for 50,000 COP or $15.46 per person). Randomly at one of the coffee shops, Jess saw a guy she studied abroad in France with twelve years ago and hasn’t seen since. We chatted with him for a few minutes before he had to run to catch his flight.

The night bus was very windy and sleeping was tricky. Jess has noticed that night buses that don’t have seat belts and take curvy routes make sleeping hard because it is hard to stay in the seat. This road was so windy some of us felt pretty carsick. When we arrived in Armenia, we found our next bus to Salento after some sleep-deprived searching outside the back of the terminal in the parking lot – fare was 4,700 COP ($1.43 per person) – and arrived at our hostel around 8:15am. Our hostel was located on a coffee plantation which offers three-hour tours starting at 9am, but we were too tired and hungry to do a plantation tour right away. We went in search of breakfast and found a mountain of delicious food at Brunch Salento, including Mickey Mouse pancakes! That afternoon we walked to Don Elias coffee plantation for a tour, and got caught in a downpour on the way. We had been told that it rains in Salento almost every afternoon and that we should plan to do any activities in the morning, but of course we didn’t listen.

View from Don Elias Coffee Farm

Alejandro at Don Elias was very knowledgeable and showed us around the permaculture coffee plantation. The plantation grows avocado trees to attract fungus and keep it away from the coffee, guava to attract insects, birds of paradise to attract hummingbirds, and banana trees to absorb water when it rains to reduce erosion and to share water with the coffee trees in drier times. Coffee trees can grow to be 18 feet tall, but Don Elias cuts them after eight years and then allows them to grow for another eight years. This improves production and makes the coffee fruit easier to pick. They have to pick every single coffee berry or they can get a parasite that affects the plant. After the berries are picked they are crushed with a hand-crank mill that reminded us of crushing grapes in Bolivia and then left to ferment in water for 12-24 hours. Beans that have parasites will float and can be removed. The beans are then dried for five days in dry season and three weeks in rainy season and then roasted. After showing us around the coffee farm, Alejandro prepared us a cup of coffee from Don Elias. He told us that the best coffee preparation depends on the way in which the coffee was grown, roasted, and prepared, and how you like your coffee. Filters will trap oils from the beans which can prevent sour notes, but also remove flavor. French press methods allow the full flavor of the beans to come through into the coffee.

A coffee plant at Don Elias

The next day we set off for a hike to the Cocora Valley. Roderick had told us we had to do this hike to see the crazy tall wax palms, but it was also on Angie’s list. We walked to Salento’s main square where we caught a Jeep, called a Willy, to the starting point of the hike. The Jeeps carry 13 people including three standing on the back, so Eric and Kevin stood on the back of the Jeep for the ride. Along the way we got stuck behind a herd of cows who were walking to a greener pasture.

Cows leading the way

We arrived in the Cocora Valley a short while later and were dropped off in the parking lot. We left the parking lot, walked left up the hill until we saw a blue gate on the right which marked the entrance to the valley. There’s a sign that says you can’t enter without permission and paying the fee, but there’s nowhere to pay the fee until you’ve walked down the path for a while. There are two checkpoints: one shortly after you enter the valley that costs 3,000 pesos ($0.91) per person and a second one after you enter the cloud forest that costs 4,000 pesos ($1.22) per person. There is a section of the trail that includes seven bridges across the river. Some are real bridges; others are just logs spanning the gap between the banks. After the series of bridges there is a hummingbird house which has an entrance cost of 5,000 pesos ($1.52) per person and includes coffee or hot chocolate with cheese. There were so many different types of hummingbirds and we had so much fun watching them. After the hummingbird house, we continued our hike up a hill to a series of viewpoints over the valley. We ate a picnic lunch at the first viewpoint where right on cue it started raining. We hid from the rain for a while and then continued walking down into the valley of the wax palms. The wax palms are huge and can grow to 200 feet tall! The views of the valley with these giant palm trees are spectacular. All in the hike was roughly 10 miles and we arrived back at the parking lot to catch our Willy back to town around 2pm.

Eric riding on the back of a Willy

The next day we were heading to Bogotá which meant we needed to take a taxi to the airport in Armenia which is roughly 90 minutes from Salento. The taxi cost 120,000 COP ($36.50) and dropped us off at the tiny airport. The airport is so small they don’t let you through to the gate until shortly before the flight is boarding. Since we had lounge access, we asked the security officer how to get to the lounge and they opened the security line for us. The lounge on the other side was very small, but it was nice to have a seat and wifi. The gate area quickly filled up with passengers when the flight time arrived, but there were no announcements. Pretty soon the appointed flight time had come and gone and we had heard nothing about our flight. We kept leaving the lounge to make sure we hadn’t missed the flight, but the gate area was still full. Eventually we boarded our flight and we were in Bogotá in no time.

Botero Museum: The Botero Museum in Bogotá is free and all the works of art were donated by Botero. There are multiple rooms of Botero sculptures and paintings but also exhibits of works by other artists Botero collected.

Museum of Gold: The Museum of Gold has the world’s largest collection of gold artifacts and contains many stone, metal, wood, and textile objects from the Pre-Columbian era. Entrance fee is 4,000 COP ($1.22) per person.

Bike Tour: On our final day in Bogotá we did a bicycle tour around the city. Bogotá has amazing bike lanes and bike highways around the city and lots of people use them. Our tour was close to six hours and included a stop at the market for some empanadas and a fruit tasting, a tour of some of Bogotá’s most impressive street art, and a visit to Bogotá’s main square where the Palace of Justice, Legislative building and cathedral are located.

That evening we went to the Bogotá airport together. Our flight to Philadelphia was at midnight and other than a very long check-in line, was entirely uneventful. Angie and Kevin chose to come to the airport with us even though their flight was at 5am to avoid another middle-of-the-night taxi ride but discovered they couldn’t go through security until midnight.

We arrived in Philadelphia around 9:30am and Eric’s parents kindly came to pick us up. Somehow despite traveling around foreign countries for four months and navigating just fine, we got entirely turned around at the Philly airport and ended up in baggage claim at terminal B instead of terminal A. Jess’s bag had decided it needed some extra time in Miami, so it didn’t arrive until the next day. Just like that Phase 1 of our year of summer was over!

Since we have come home, so many people have asked us why we went to Colombia – isn’t it still dangerous? While we are sure there are parts of Colombia that are more dangerous than others, we did not feel unsafe in any part of Colombia we visited. Angie and Kevin’s cab ride aside, our encounters with people in Colombia were nothing but pleasant. As incredible as it seems to us, there are parts of Medellin where people have never seen tourists and they are excited for what tourists represent: hope! It’s a sign that people on the outside think their country is moving in the right direction, and we saw nothing to indicate that wasn’t true. We would encourage people to visit Colombia, take the normal safety precautions you would anywhere else, and see what this beautiful country has to offer.

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