A Travellerspoint blog

Medellín

Another look at city life

rain 20 °C

Pictures should be up soon on Shutterfly!

"The city of eternal Spring" is Colombia's second largest city after Bogotá. With a mere 2.4 million people you shouldn't be fooled by its relatively small population (Bogotá is home to nearly 8 million inhabitants). The city itself is a bustling traveller's destination. Not for the easily bothered by constant requests on the street for money, patronage, or attention. While it has marketed itself as one of Colombia's premier tourist destinations, home to museums, plazas, art, history, and flora and fauna to boot, I wouldn't say its the most leisurely of Colombia's cities. But, I guess if you are going to South American city with over 2 million people, can you really claim to be looking for leisure?

Luckily, we were able to relax, for perhaps a little more than we liked on our 10.5 hour bus ride from Bogotá to Medellín and our 9.5 hour bus ride back (please note that tour agencies all claim the ride is 8 hours. Ha!) Nevertheless the frigidly air conditioned, Vallenato-music playing ride showcased gorgeous scenery for nearly the entire trip. There aren't so much highways connecting major cities, or small cities for that matter. Rather, winding 2 lane roads barely wide enough for the semis to traverse that carry cargo and passengers day and night. The result is that you drive through jungle canopy layered above river basins covering mango and banana tree lined streets dotted with waterfalls, tiny little towns peddling food and wares and occasionally opening up to see a view of the entire valley in between you and the next mountain. Its stunning.

We arrived in Medellín to a highly recommended backpackers/hippie hostel which welcomes visitors with a free BBQ on Friday nights, hot showers, coffee all day, a beer fridge stocked to your liking, internet, breakfast included daily, access to a full kitchen and happens to be conveniently located next to a huge grocery store and the metro. Oh yeah, Medellín has a real metrorail system. Like on tracks. Where like people actually are allowed to exit the train before the frenzy of passengers tries to get on and "Exit Only" turnstiles so to not clog up traffic leaving the station. Genius! Ok, but the hostel is great. Great, like-minded travelers who are just looking for a place to chill out after a day of doing whatever it is you do in Medellín.

So about what you do in Medellín; Its a cultural and art highlight of Colombia. Most famous for the massive collection of work by Fernando Botero whose numerous portraits and sculptures of fat people brighten up the streets and museum walls alike. While he manages to depict a very whimsical portrayal of each person or object, his historical and social commentaries are not forgotten. Check out some of his portraits here and sculptures here. The Plaza Botero and the biggest exhibit at the famous Museo de Antioquia (Antioquia being the department that Medellín is in), are dedicated to Botero's work and his personal collections. I like art but art museums are generally not the first thing on my list of places to visit when I go to a city. Botero however, I would like to meet (he is still alive). His stuff just kinda makes you giggle.

We did manage to pry ourselves away from staring at caricature-like statues of disproportionate men, women and dogs long enough to walk all over the city. Our first day was actually a mix of walking, metro-ing, and getting lost. We started by meeting with the folks at the YMCA in Medellin to hear a little about their programs. It turned into one of the more interesting history lessons in my life as we learned all about La Comuna 13 (a large sector in western Medellin) that was literally the battle ground between drug cartels, paramilitaries, militia and government intervention up until about 6 years ago. Unfortunately it was the civilians that paid the price for the violence and fight over money, territory, power, influence, etc. The effect of which you can still see throughout the city in the mangled limbs of beggars on the streets, public art dedicated to the lost and (still) missing and at the same time a true jovial spirit of the relative freedom and security most now enjoy. For these reasons the Y in Medellin has a much stronger focus on peace and 'convivencia' (peacefully living together).

Next we headed to lunch in El Poblado, a touristy bar and restaurant neighborhood in the southern part of the city led to a stroll through the Parque Zoologico de Santa Fe, aka Medellin's Zoo. Initially unimpressive, the small zoo is home to big cats, native and non-native, hippos, your standard assortment of African Plain animals; Elephants, Giraffes, Antelope, Zebra, etc. and a really impressive collection of birds, most of which are native to South America. Wandering a little further north we ventured up a million stairs (ok, like 300) for a pretty good view of the city atop El Pueblito Paisa, a replica of what a typical village in the region would look like. Complete with 'town bar', chapel, replica of an old colonial home and plenty of vendors to remind you what century you are really in. The sculpture garden coming down from Pueblito Paisa was unimpressive but we were ready to get back to the hostel anyway for the BBQ!!!

Turns out not many Americans are into Colombia right now, or at least not at the hostel that we were staying at but we couldn't complain as the Dutch, French, Italian, British, Spanish, German and Colombian company wasn't lacking. We had a great time just chatting it up with other travelers, getting the inside scoop on other places to see in Colombia and recounting our own tales thus far.

Day 2 could be affectionately called the day of strike outs and disappointments followed by successes. Mango Maduro was an awesome find courtesy of Lonely Planet South America for a fresh Bendeja Paisa (typical Medellinesen lunch). We hopped across the street to Parque Bolivar and wandered under the huge tropical trees, past guitar-playing old men dressed in suits and to the Metropolitan Cathedral constructed with more bricks than any other church in South America. Our quest for the Parque de los Pies Descalzados, a zen park where you can take off your shoes and walk through different kinds of rock and sand before dipping them in different wading pools was fruitless. When we finally found the place it started to pour; welcome to the tropics! We couldn't be too upset as the rain forced us inside the Museo de Antioquia and Plaza Botero where we spend the afternoon being all artsy-fartsy. Strike out number two came later that night at an attempt at seeing one play only to end up at a small indie theater that had gone all out do make the audience feel a part of their production of 5 intertwined tales by Edgar Allan Poe. Candelabras, a death march on the accordian, a dimly lit house set a great stage for "4 Mujeres", literally 4 Women, but is a tale spun together of 5 of his works, Ulalume, Berenice, Ligeia, and Lenore all broken up by a creepy dude reciting The Raven- aren't you proud Dad-- your literary interests have apparently rubbed off a bit.

Our last full day we had learned our lesson and got out early before the rain came. Just in time to take in the beautiful botanical gardens filled with tropical plants, birds, animals and any gardeners dream set-up. The orchids were awesome and made even more cool by the iguanas climbing in the trees a few meters away. After marveling at the gift shop which included an exotic plant nursery (you too can own your own carnivorous plants and rare orchids!) we strolled through the nearby Parque de Los Deseos and outside Natura (an Exploritorium-like interactive museum) just before getting caught in a downpour. Soaked, but satisfied with the morning we headed back to grab lunch before taking advantage of Medellin's MetroCable. Literally a gondola that is part of the metro system to reach and transport the populations on the mountains surrounding the city. A metro ticket will get you all the way to the Candelaria (the area at the highest point on the metro map) where we were greeted by 2 eager 8 year olds who dished on all the important info on the MetroCable built just a few years ago and the more recently opened library poised on the top of the hill. The views of the city were a little hazy but still pretty impressive.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the ride up to the Candelaria was the evidence of how quickly Medellin is "izing". That's to say modernizing, industrializing, standardizing, and globalizing. The MetroCable was installed only a few years ago and its already its obvious that among the thousands of houses stacked almost literally on top of each other and pressed together tightly, separated by crumbling roads, falling roofs and other marks of what most definitely used to be one of Medellin's more impoverished areas, things are improving. In particular around the "metro stops" on the mountain, fresh paint and new tablecloths are brighten restaurants while plants and new signs attract people to other stores and shops. However these marks of modernization do not exist a mere few blocks away where MetroCable traffic isn't nearly as heavy. "Izing" I tell you. And its all over the city in different forms, its just so blatant in La Candelaria as you can see the entire neighborhood as you approach and leave dangling just a few feet overhead.

Our last night in Medellin we decided to make dinner and relax with the other hostelers while recounting our weekend. We are glad to have visited Medellin and found the 3 days ample time to see almost all the things we wanted to see. We have also decided that if we have to pick a city to be living in, we are glad that its Bogota. Medellin is a very cool city with lots of things to offer but its obvious that the reputation Medellin has earned for its history of violence and drugs is still being shed. As a result their rapid "izing" has made it very tourist friendly in infrastructure but with many businesses and citizens still struggling to recover emotionally or economically.

Like I mentioned before, Medellin is a city for travelers not tourists but if you have your travelers had on, then by all means; Enjoy!

Posted by tuffchix 15:48 Archived in Colombia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Bochica Camp

Where the rainforest meets crazy!

all seasons in one day 15 °C

It has been hard to concentrate on anything but the election since getting back to Bogota after this weekend, but our time at Bochica Camp, the YMCA's only campsite in Colombia, deserves more than just a nod.

The campsite itself is its own little rainforest paradise just an hour south of Bogota. Past a huge 'salto' (waterfall), down the windy cliffside road, along a contaminated thus smelly, although picturesque Bogota River, you arrive at Bochica Camp. The pictures say more than I ever could so you will have to take a look!

Like any campsite filled with high schoolers, things get a little crazy. However, the constant sound of flowing water, amazing flowers, trees, coffee plants (yes, I saw my first live coffee plant and coffee berries growing on it!), adorable little red roof cabins connected by cobblestone pathways and nearly hidden by rainforest vegetation were just the ticket to enjoy camp in a new way.

It all started on Friday morning when the kids arrived (ahead of schedule) and our week of planning was shot to hell. You see, we had planned for 4 days of activities, games, stories, skits, songs and more for a group of fairly good English speakers only to be notified as they were walking in the door that they actually didn't really speak all that much English. Awesome. Enter stress. Like most first time campers, they were shy and reserved, nervous about speaking what little English they knew (turns out a lot of them actually could understand us pretty well). Meanwhile Marty and I are half mad that our week of planning just got blown to smithereens and half scrambling for what we were going to do for the next 4 days with a group that didnt have a clue what was going on.

Like most things at camp, you just take what you get and go with it. So, as the kids warmed up, remembered that "oh yes, I have taken English before" and started to relax, we got the show going. The games began, literally, and we just tweaked the schedule as we went. A lot. But it worked, and the kids loved it, so much so they didn't want to leave (thankfully not an option), and they had nothing but good things to say about their camp experience.

Aside from walking away with a nasty head cold, this weekend's work was probably the first time I have walked away from something I have done with/for/on behalf of the Y, that I am proud of. Its definitely more the kind of work I was hoping to do here. Still a pretty big focus on English, but the reality of the weekend was the English level meant that a lot of our activities, explanations, discussions, etc were either English and Spanish or purely Spanish. Which meant the cultural exchange was mutual. More importantly, I have spent more than half of my life a part of a community of campers who have learned to and love to live in community with one another. To learn from each other and to stretch yourself while pushing others to do the same. In coming to Colombia, I was and still do hope that these are the kind of experiences I have and I provide for others, whether it be in or out of camps. It is this kind of service that the Y promotes and this kind of service leadership that I came here to do. I guess what I'm saying is; FINALLY!

Finally I feel like I am in the right place doing the right things, and when you are thousands of miles from home doing things you never thought you would be doing in a place you never thought you would be doing them, the question of whether you are doing the right thing is a constant. Thankfully, there are weekends like Bochica Camp to remind me that I have figured at least a few things out and seem to be on the right track. Yesssss!

Unfortunately, like all good things, camp comes to an end. We made the trek back into Bogota on Monday to arrive back at our apartment which was roommate free!! A nice little surprise ending to an accomplished weekend.

Since then we have been glued to CNN watching election coverage (Wow!) and I have managed to squeeze in another not-so-small adventure to the Colombian post office. Apparently 2 kilograms (less than 4 LBS) is the max for any package you want the Colombian postman to carry. Overweight packages require a bus ride to nowhere, a walk even further, an entry process not unlike a CIA background check, a hefty fee, a bunch of paperwork and the joy of hauling it all back on crowded transportation after getting out of the post office just in time to make rush hour traffic! Nevertheless, it was soooo worth it. If it hadn't taken so long, I never would have gone back to the Y office to meet up with Marty wrapping up English club and thus never would have had the priviledge of trying a Santanderean treat; ass ants. Read here and take a look here. Ok, but really-- getting home and being able to open 2 boxes filled with Trader Joe's goodies, Halloween candy, a cookbook for the oven challenged, cute decorations and a whole lotta love just makes your day- Thanks mom, dad and grandma!

This weekend we are taking our comp days earned from camp so we will have a nice 5 day weekend. Looking into Medellin in what will probably be our last big break before the holidays. We hope all is well at home!

Posted by tuffchix 18:14 Archived in Colombia Tagged educational Comments (0)

Presidential Election 2008

From Colombia and Beyond

sunny 17 °C

As Americans abroad, we spend a lot of time responding to political questions about how things work, who does what, who believes what, what we think will happen, etc. While addressing the questions and concerns about various people, places and plans in the US, I often find my self walking a very fine line between my own criticisms and the reality of issues our world faces today. Precariously balancing the attepmt to break the stereotypes of a nation strangled by its own overextension and truthfully identifying many of its faults can and often does leave many confused, least of all, me.

Nevertheless, in what I have no doubt will be one of the most historical and memorable moments of my life, my confusion and criticism have been put on hold, at least momentarily, to celebrate what it means to be a witness to true optimism and hope. The culmination of hours, months and years in a country plagued by doubt and disappointed was the showing of millions of people who came out to take a stance one way or another, to make a change for what they hope would be the better.

Now, I have been sitting here for the last 30 minutes typing and erasing, typing and erasing, trying to figure out what this means for someone spending 9 months in a foreign country trying to make a difference in the lives of others in what I hope will be the better, while trying to "figure out where to go in life", and I just don't know. What I do know is that, it feels like it just got easier. Maybe its a nervous excitement knowing I will be going back to a country different than the one I left. Maybe its apprehension that the seemingly giant steps in a new and positive direction, won't come to fruition. Maybe its joy in feeling like I can actually get behind US citizens for their ability to not only have an opinion but to do something about it. Maybe it feels like I'm not on my own in making a pretty big leap of faith here and hoping for the best--and that that is not a careless thing for once. Or, it could be that it just generates an 'even the things we hoped but never expected to see, are actually happening' feeling that extends beyond political arenas to personal and professional ones where there may also be new doors to open.

While I can't quite put my finger on why it feels different now than it did yesterday morning, I do know this; for the first time that I can remember, I am actually proud, not just thankful, lucky, or fortunate, but proud to be American. Not just for who we elected, but for the spirit and enthusiasm a nation, often criticized for its apathy, showed in making its choices; red or blue, black or white, male or female, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. We truly have made a difference.

Posted by tuffchix 08:20 Archived in USA Tagged events Comments (0)

Tunja and Villa de Leiva

= Villa de Vacations!

rain 18 °C

According to anatomists, there are anywhere from 600 to 850 muscles in your body. In all my years of athleticism I am pretty sure I have only located about 70% of those, pulled or torn a solid 30% of those and of the others remaining intact, managed to bully or coerce about 10% into good shape at one point in life (roughly 5% off my total muscles). However, thanks to 4 solid weeks of sucking wind in ultra thin air, while walking uphill daily to work (and sometimes from—yes, that’s uphill both ways), to and from “bus stops”, Transmilenio stops, YMCA offices, etc, I have managed to locate and persuade a few more of those absent 30% into good form. Unfortunately, athleticism is not a coveted trait here among Colombian women (I would categorize most on more of the fragile side), and it was entirely too evident today at the Fería (fair) we worked at a couple weekends ago.

Partnering with the YMCA of Montreal, Marty and I helped to promote their International Language School at an informational fair for all types of students wanting to go/do/learn/experience something international. While our booth in general did really well (apparently 2 American gringos speaking Spanish in Colombia about French programs in Canada is a novelty), it was not my personal fitness accomplishments that attracted people to our booth. However, if you are looking to attract hoards of students (female ones in particular) just stick a 6’2” white guy with bright green eyes, long eyelashes, in his Sunday best, who speaks Spanish out in the aisle and they’ll flock. The program coordinator from Montreal got quite the kick out of this and I can’t say she was alone.

Nevertheless, the week moved on and this weekend we were finally able to snag a few days to get out of Bogotà and see something other than the lively, but often overcrowded streets of Bogotà. We took Friday off to head north to the state of Boyacà on a much appreciated luxury charter bus (comfy seats that recline, clean, tv with movie showing, doesn´t stop every 500 meters only to through you farther into the tangle of arms, strollers, and backpacks. We headed for Tunja- a small university town, in the gold and emerald mining area about 2 1/2 hours outside Bogota. It was just a stop for us, a quick stroll through the central plaza (named Plaza Bolivar after Simon Bolivar, liberator of Colombia and surrounding countries. If there is but one plaza in any Colombian city, you can bet its called Plaza Bolivar), and a run in with a fellow San Diego-an who is opening up a Coldstone there!

After our quick jaunt in Tunja, we boarded a smaller bus (aka a van about the size of an old VW van but with twice the seats). We were kindly led to our bus at the Tunja bus station by a man spouting the name of our destination, Villa de Leiva, at the top of his lungs and at hyperspeed. We boarded, and headed out with our driver ever-so-craftily closing our sliding van door by coming to a quick stop just before leaving the parking lot where it slammed itself shut. He also had a rockin´ mullet. He’s pretty high up on the memorable "bus" driver scale. Anyway, we were finally off to the quaint little colonial town of Villa de Leiva.

The pictures speak to the beauty and tranquility of the town better than I. You will find them on our NEW PICTURE WEBSITE (there are too many to put up on this one) at http://beyondbogota.shutterfly.com/. Villa de Leiva is a small town marked by “cobblestone” streets (read: large stones places haphazardly in a street-like formation, sometimes filled in between with concrete), gorgeous little villas with whitewashed walls, decorated patios, and flowers, and art to adorn the walls. Our hotel was no exception. The hammocks that welcome you in the front courtyard scream “Relax and read a book in me while drinking wine under a gorgeous Colombian sky, free from smog and noise of the big city” –which we did. Hotel Villa de Cristina is actually a family home turned into a hotel where Señor and Señora Cristina still greet you, serve you breakfast and make sure you enjoy your stay- which we did!

We spent our first day out on rented bikes, pedaling from El Fosíl (a fossil of a Cronosaurus, a ginormous prehistoric alligator-like dinosaur they built a museum around instead of moving it), to what we believe is Villa de Leiva’s only vineyard and winery. There we did a little tasting and rested out tushes after a bumpy road in. We also bought a bottle, so first visitors to Colombia get to drink it with us! From there, we pedaled back toward town, but not before stopping at El Infiernito, an ancient astronomical site of the Muisca people (natives of this area) who were quite obsessed with fertility and have the phallic stone statues scattered all over their ‘observatory’ to prove it. From there we made our way back to town after a long (and getting wetter) day. We decided to coin this part of our trip the ‘Motor(bi)cycle Diaries’ for a few reasons: After biking along some pretty gnarly terrain (rocks, potholes, curves, up and down hills, being poured on, being poked by prickly pear cactus spines, encountering Colombia’s largest spider and largest frog, Colombia’s most primed Turkey, half-naked men bathing in the vineyard’s irrigation pools, large stone phalluses, and then some, we were almost as cool as Che in his early years.

We made it back to town, took a little descanso (rest) and headed out again to work out all that lactic acid in our muscles. After strolling through the rest of the small town, past artisan shops, plazas, restaurants, other tourists (at any one time Villa de Leiva can be 50% tourists and foreigners) we bellied up for the best medicine after a long ride: German beer. Aren’t we so multicultural? As luck would have it, there were some fellow American travelers with the same idea and we spent an enjoyable evening soaking up local liquids, food and good (English speaking) company.

Our last morning, we were up for our homemade breakfast, a pretty standard inclusion, and off to church in the plaza. A short but contemporary mass, to the tune of Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, followed by a church-y remake of Simon & Garfunkle’s Sounds of Silence made for a nice close to the weekend. Perhaps our favorite thing about church here is just how welcoming they are, even dogs are allowed in for mass!

After rounding up our things, it was time to head back to Bogota. The much needed weekend of rest was a reminder of how hectic life is in Bogota at times but a sign that we are starting to really gain our independence here. This next weekend we will be working at a camp for high schoolers and are working this week to get everything all prepped and ready. Since we have to work all weekend (including the Monday holiday) they have promised us some rest and we are looking forward to another glimpse of Colombia somewhere else.

Thanks for making it this far. Don’t forget to check out the photos on our NEW PHOTO SITE.

Posted by tuffchix 10:25 Archived in Colombia Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Photo Update

We have a new photo website!

rain 18 °C

We have too many photos to put up on this site, so we have a whole other site just for photos. Your can find it at http://beyondbogota.shutterfly.com/ or click here. Enjoy and stay tuned, latest entry coming soon!

Posted by tuffchix 19:03 Archived in Colombia Tagged photography Comments (1)

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