The Atlantic coast — Santa Marta and Cartagena — to the border of Ecuador

The Atlantic coast — Santa Marta and Cartagena — to the border of Ecuador

We landed in Santa Marta on the Atlantic coast on May 3rd, exactly one year from the day we’d landed in Cairo at the start of our journey.

santa marta market

Santa Marta was the first Spanish settlement in the Americas and dates back to 1525. The dominant cultural influence is ‘Caribbean’ since the people who live there are the descendants of the mixture of indigenous people, European colonials, and slaves. It was clear from listening to the taxi driver on the ride from the airport that people speak differently here. It reminded me of the Spanish I heard growing up in NY by the many Puerto Rican residents. The speech is fast and furious and I’m told that it’s not enunciated as well as in many other Spanish-speaking regions–Caribbean-flavored, as it were. For example, they may say “bu” leaving off the “s” when saying “bus”. The accent is different, too. Just as I was getting used to pronouncing my “ll’s” as a “j” sound, I had to re-adjust pronouncing them as a “y” again! Folks from Medellin told me they have difficulty understanding the people on the coast. Still, I’m sure glad I took those several weeks of Spanish classes as they’ve come in quite useful.

The first cathedral built in the Americas

The first cathedral built in the Americas

I went to neighboring Taganga to check out the town, the beach and opportunities to do scuba diving. An old fishing village turned backpacker town, the main street runs along a beautiful beach which stretches a few hundred yards.

taganga beach

Except for the main street, Taganga appears quite run down. Some of the narrow and ruddy unpaved side streets made me think of scenes from spaghetti westerns.

santa marta street

The lonely looking little church in the old town square clinched it for me.

church in santa marta

We did a very strenuous hike through the hot steamy jungle of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Tayrona National Park. All of my clothes were quickly soaked in sweat. As planned, we stopped at pre-Hispanic ruins called “Pueblito”. At one time, this area had supported a community of about 1400 inhabitants.

Pueblito huts

Pueblito huts

Pueblito is a smaller version of another part of the park called The Lost City which involves a 4-5 day round-trip jungle trek. It took a bit over 2 hours to get to Pueblito. The round huts were constructed on large circular stone terraces built into the hillsides and the city is connected by paths of large sandstone boulders.

Cindy on a sandstone boulder-bridge

Cindy on a sandstone boulder-bridge

The trail from Pueblito to the sea is paved by boulders and surrounded by massive ones. Descending to the sea was not easy as we had to slide, hop or jump from boulder to boulder.

The numerous beaches that sat at the base of the Sierra Nevada were stunningly beautiful.

Cabo San Juan in Tayrona National Park

Cabo San Juan in Tayrona National Park

The return hike was relatively flat as it followed the shoreline, however, Cindy’s knees took a beating on the mountains so after a few kilometers we took advantage to rest when we came across some locals with horses for rent. It was a ‘bail-out’ option one usually doesn’t encounter.

bill and cindy on horses

Cartagena

The Cathedral of Cartagena

The Cathedral of Cartagena

Sometimes it’s amazing what you get when arranging b&b accommodations. We booked 4 nights (private room with bath) right on the beach and a 15 minute walk to the old city. We met a few other guests upon arrival and since the owner had a couple of other properties he rents out, he decided to put us in one of them. It meant doubling the walking time to the old city but it turned out to be a major upgrade. We landed in a 5-bedroom apartment all to ourselves on the 34th floor of a high-rise apartment right on the beach.

cartagena apt

I’d read that Cartagena had numerous touts but was surprised as to the extent. They were everywhere we went, selling hats, jewelry, purses, drinks, food, watches…even little ‘animals’ made from palm leaves. It was unusual to find them persistent in their approach but the volume was intrusive. It was a constant reminder that we are still tourists and I pined a bit for the every day local living of Medellin.

The touts were at it again. Oh wait, that was a guide with a tourist in Museum of the Inquisition.

The touts were at it again. Oh wait, that was a guide with a tourist in the Museum of the Inquisition.

Sitting in an outdoor restaurant in the old city did not provide relief as the owners saw no need or interest in shooing them away. I took this to be a social contract of sorts. We’d seen a variation of this on almost every local bus ride we’d taken, Medellin included. Someone, usually a vendor of candy, gum, pens, or snacks, would come on to the bus and go into a sales pitch. During the pitch, they would hand out a piece of whatever they were selling to anyone who’d accept the item. Most people would take and hold whatever was being sold. By the end of their sales pitch they would go back through the bus to either re-collect the item or take money for the sale. Bus drivers never turned anyone away and I think I’d seen one or two being tipped by the vendors. There were also singers (acapella or with amplified, pre-recorded accompaniment), guitarists, and rappers who would board the bus for a song or two and then leave with anything anyone would give them.

Although Santa Marta was the first established settlement, Cartagena soon dominated as a full-blown colonial city due to its protected harbor. We visited two areas, the old city and the neighborhood where we stayed called Bocagrande. The old city was beautiful; a wonderfully preserved colonial town with outstanding 16th and 17th century fortifications.

Colonial architecture of Cartagena

Colonial architecture of Cartagena

One of the most impressive and well-preserved fortifications sits on a hill just outside the confines of the old city called Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The guns command a view of the whole area and bay, and the fortress contains a complex maze of underground tunnels.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Of course, we also took advantage of the fine white sand beaches and warm tropical waters.

Bocagrande, Cartagena

Bocagrande, Cartagena

We flew south to our last stop in Colombia only a few kilometers from the border with Ecuador. There is a huge basilica church called Las Lajas which rises 330 feet from the bottom of a spectacular gorge and is connected to the other side of the canyon by a bridge.

Las Lajas Sanctuary

Las Lajas Sanctuary

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Trips out of Medellin

Trips out of Medellin

While in Medellin, we focused on touring the city and going to school but we did take some time to see some sights out of town. We went to Santa Fe de Antioquia, also known as The Mother City. It was founded in 1541 and was the regional capital until the government moved to Medellin in 1826.

Colonial architecture in Santa Fe de Antioquia

Colonial architecture

The historic Bridge of the West is a National Monument which spans the Cauca River.

The Bridge of the West

The Bridge of the West in Santa Fe de Antioquia

Below is a photo of a photo taken during a Catholic religious ceremony in Santa Fe. I wasn’t able to find out the significance of the hoods (perhaps they are supposed to represent angels) but it highlights the differences in cultural meanings.

sisters with hoods

We had wanted to go to a beautiful area called Zona Cafetera (the main coffee growing region) since we first heard about it. It was close to Medellin, but not close enough for a day trip. Knowing this would probably be our last chance, we woke up on the Monday of our last week in Medellin and decided to play hooky from school (there was a holiday during that week anyway). That was at about 8:00am. We ate breakfast, packed some things and were out the door minutes later. We grabbed a taxi that had just dropped someone off and headed for the south bus terminal. Once there, the search was on to find the window of the transportation company that sold tickets to Pereira. It took a few minutes until we found the right one among the dozens that were lined up one after another. When I asked what time the colectivo (a shared taxi/minibus) would leave, the woman at the counter told me 9:30. As I looked up at the clock it was indeed 9:30! We paid for the tickets, went right out to the gate and at 9:37 we were on a colectivo heading for Pereira, one of the major cities in Zona Cafetera. It was a 5 hour ride including a stop for lunch, and once there, we had to find another colectivo to our destination, Salento. I quickly found the right transportation company and while waiting for our next colectivo, I called a hostel and made a reservation for the next few nights. We boarded another colectivo and in less than 1 hour we had arrived in Salento.

We stayed in the Plantation House Hostel owned by an Australian ex-pat who also owned a local coffee farm. His name was “Tim” but that didn’t sound too Colombian so he changed it to “Don Eduardo”. The tour was excellent, covering the coffee growing and processing business from A to Z. After the tour we got to sample a couple of different kinds of coffee.

Coffee in every form from right off the tree to ready to brew

Coffee in every form from right off the tree to ready to brew

The next day we did a 5-hour hike to The Acaime Nature Reserve in the Cauca Valley. To get there, we went to the center of town where there is a cadre of old Willys jeeps that shuttle people to the village of Cocora.

cadre of willys

Amazingly, they each carry 13 people...including 5 that stand on the rear bumper

Amazingly, they each carry 13 people…including 5 that stand on the rear bumper

The first part of the trail goes through farmland and is lined by a barbed wire fence. After about 20-25 minutes, there was a most unusual obstacle blocking the trail. A farmer stood guard over one of the biggest bulls I’d ever seen and it was smack dab in the middle of the trail. There was no negotiating this situation. The farmer recommended everyone go around the bull by going over/under/through the barbed wire enclosure. So we all did.

dodging barbed wire

Hummingbirds at Acaime Reserve

Hummingbirds at Acaime Reserve

Wax Palm trees are the national tree of Colombia

Wax Palms are the national tree of Colombia

That night I went to a local bar/restaurant to play one of the national games of Colombia called Tejo. Tejo involves throwing 2-kg metal discs into a pit containing gunpowder-filled paper charges with the objective of hitting them so they explode. I played with a couple from the hike and some others they had met in their travels. Drinking beer and shouting are obligatory. It was great fun!

Guatapé

Guatapé

On one weekend excursion out of Medellin, we stopped at La Piedra (The Rock) Del Peñol on the way to the town of Guatape. La Piedra is a unique geologic formation with a rock face that is over 200 meters high.

La piedre del Peñol

La piedre del Peñol

Climbing to the platformed summit involves ascending 740 steps built into one of the rock’s breaks. The town of Guatape was originally built in 1811. A virtual ghost town at one time, it metamorphosed into a tourist town a few years ago. Most of the tourists appeared to be weekend-tripping Colombians.

View from La piedre (The Rock)

View from La piedre (The Rock)

The summit provides a sweet 360 degree view of lakes and hills which were dramatically altered when much of the area was covered by water due to construction of a hydroelectric dam in the 60’s.

bill and cindy summit guatape

We took a short cab ride to the charming town of Guatape where we strolled the narrow cobblestone streets whose houses were lined with colorful frescos.

fresco I

street in guatape

We dined on local paisa dishes and took a canoe out for a ride on the lake.

On the lake; la piedre in the background

On the lake; La Piedre in the background

The secret of Medellin is out

The secret of Medellin is out

Every morning I walk outside and the weather feels the same. Short sleeves and about 75 very comfortable degrees……..every day. Medellin is known as La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera or The City of Eternal Spring.

The friendly, warm and courteous local people are called “Paisas” or Antioqueños after the larger Colombian region of Antioquia in which Medellin resides. It’s clear the residents have a lot of pride in their city and make efforts to keep it clean and hospitable. Although this is a city of 2.4 million people, it’s not unusual for people to express a daily greeting like, “buenas tardes”, along with a broad smile. Paisas are very straight forward and direct. Unlike many other cities, there is very little to fear about getting ripped off simply because you’re a tourist and automatically a target. Given its reputation from the 80’s as the second most dangerous city in the world, Medellin would surprise many people at home as to how safe and “everyday” pleasant it feels with its supermarkets and shopping malls.

Statues by famous local artist, Fernando Botero, outside the Museum of Antioquia

Statues by famous local artist, Fernando Botero, outside the Museum of Antioquia

As social norms go, there are some things that just are or are not done. For example, although it can get warm here, its unusual to find people dressed in shorts. I’d estimate that 70% of the people in the city regularly wear blue jeans. The men dress casual and are always neat and presentable. The women are impeccably put together without a hair out of place.

Pueblito Paisa: a recreation of a turn of the century Antioquian village

Pueblito Paisa: A recreation of a turn of the century Antioquian village

The only clothes I have are quick-dry t-shirts and pants making it very easy to spot the gringo in the crowd. I wondered if I’d blend in if I put on a plaid shirt and jeans. Cindy assured me that I would not.

cindy enjoying the day

I often see high-end road bikes around the city ridden by cyclists dressed in matching regalia as they do back home. Although Colombia is a relatively poor country, there is a visible population with high disposable incomes.

One of the aspects of ‘life in the big city’ here is that drivers have the right of way and they exercise that right at most times. Not that anyone would intentionally hit you but cars and especially motorbikes go very fast. The general guideline is that the larger vehicle has the right of way so pedestrians rank quite low. Often traffic lights are pitched only towards drivers’ view making it difficult for pedestrians to know when it’s safe to cross the street.

taxi with monkey hanging

I went for a long walk on my own one day unfortunately forgetting my cell phone which I have specifically for situations like this. I didn’t have a map either. So, when I got ‘lost’ and had to ask for directions, it was a game of language survival skills to get back to home base. I thought this was kind of cool. I stopped and asked a gentleman for directions to the metro. I got the drift of what he said but he had also used a term twice that I didn’t understand. He used the word “derecho” (straight ahead) which I took for “derecha” which means “right”. The word came up again with another person I asked after traveling down the street a ways. Then I got it. The second gentleman gave me explicit detailed instructions of how many blocks to go, in which direction, where to turn and how to recognize it because of the gas station on the corner……., of which, I understood 100%. I was on my way. It’s great to have things like this happen as it makes up a bit for all the times I don’t understand most of what people say.

looking to poblado

As were returning from one of our exploration excursions, we stopped at one of the larger plazas at the mall that happens to be on our daily route. Cindy had seen some dancers that morning so it looked promising to see a show.

Sure enough, at about 4pm a band came out for a set. I was surprised to see a harpist/vocalist leading a seasoned professional band playing Latin tunes. After their set, an emcee came out on stage to announce that the show would start at 5pm. What baffled us was the ensuing 3-4 dance groups who appeared to be prepping for the show in the most disorganized and undisciplined fashion possible. We were wondering if it was going to be worth waiting 45 minutes.

The gig started promptly at 5pm when they brought out couple after couple of the most fabulous salsa dancers tearing up the dance floor with ferocious physicality. These young adults were in great shape. I gleaned from the emcee that many of these dancers had competed internationally. There were even a couple of dancers as young as perhaps 8 or 9 years old whose legs were spinning as fast as blades in a blender.

What a treat to see such great local talent.

And Now for Something Completely Different

And Now for Something Completely Different

I often thought of writing those words, though, it seemed we would find something completely different almost every time we’d crossed a border. But now we’ve put a hold on rambling for another lifestyle, settling in with a wonderful host family in Medellin Columbia and returning to school to learn Spanish. This certainly is completely different. We even took on different names that are more phonetically appropriate since pronunciations are different in Spanish; Bill is usually, “Beel” and Cindy is, “Ceendy”. Here, they call us Chucho and Sofia.

I’ve wanted to learn Spanish for a long time. Growing up in NYC I had many Latino friends and enjoyed living alongside the culture, the music and the language. We had family friends that were from Spain, too. We’ve traveled to Latin American often and it’s so invitingly close for more trips, learning Spanish seemed like a useful, fun and interesting thing to do. Colombia is proving an excellent place as the people are always appreciative when you try the native tongue and so very friendly and helpful in learning the language. It’s a truly rich experience being immersed in another culture. And we’re loving that there are very few tourists.

Medellin is cradled in the Aburra Valley

Medellin is cradled in the Aburra Valley

Our class time is pretty intensive. We’re attending Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana for 4 hours of daily class room instruction plus one hour of free grad-student-mediated club time (culture/grammar/conversation) about 3 times per week. It feels strange being back in school sitting at a desk, putting on the ol’ thinking cap and using whatever side of the brain language learning resides. Admittedly, learning the language is more challenging than I’d anticipated. There are so many ways to say so many things, irregular verbs, cognates, false-cognates….I wish I had done this when I went to school as a child. I find it fascinating that even though it has been over 40 years since 3 years of French instruction in school, I still understand quite a bit of it; far more than Spanish, but of course, that may be too much to expect for only 3 weeks of instruction. It’s strange how the mind works, especially when it comes to learning a foreign language.

Reputations die hard, as is the case with Medellin. Aside from some hiccups, the city has been on the upswing since a roof-top chase ended in the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993. Ironically, that initiated the tempering of the city’s violent past, where today, Medellin is a modern, western-style world class city. Known as “The eternal city of spring”, it’s set deep into the gorgeous Aburra Valley with a micro climate that accounts for pleasant year-round temperatures. Looking up from almost any place in Medellin, it’s impossible not to notice the soaring mountains that cradle the city. This metropolis has an efficient, clean, secure metro, a cadre of inexpensive intra-city bus routes, a modern cable car system and potable tap water. It’s impossible to hold back when describing the friendly, helpful people who smile sweetly when you stumble your way through buying tickets or ordering food. Medellin has even been written about positively in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Still, “life in the big city” rules apply as caution is a daily watchword.

During our first free weekend in Medellin, we took a school field trip to Parque Arvi, an ecological reserve set high in the mountains above the eastern slope of the Aburra Valley. We started with an easy to navigate public metro system which took us right to the metrocable.

The metrocable carried us way up the eastern slopes of the valley

The metrocable carried us way up the eastern slopes of the valley

And then a chiva took us to the park entrance….

A chiva

A chiva

We toured the insect and butterfly houses in the reserve.

Looking outside the insect house at Parque Arvi

Looking outside the insect house

A transparent butterfly at Parque Arvi

These guys had transparent wings

Parque Arvi

Parque Arvi