Sunday, November 16, 2014


Alyssa and I took our first in country flight from Medellín to Cartagena. If you don't already know... Alyssa and I are rather stingy, especially when it comes to flights. We have packed incredibly light to avoid having to purchase checked or even carry on bags. Though we weren't sure how strict Colombia's airport security would be. Instead of shedding our groceries, shampoo, and conditioner in Guatapé we decided to risk it. Though I did give a beer to the lady cleaning the restrooms, she looked like she could use it.

I pride myself on being efficient when going through security. I take my belt off, I double check my pockets, and unlace my shoes to make the entire process easier on everyone involved... I do all of this while waiting in line to go through security. In the States there is ALWAYS a long line waiting for security, though this was not the case in Colombia. I wasn't prepared. I was still wearing a belt. my computer was inside my pack, I didn't even attempt to take off my shoes, and I had coins in all of my pockets. Of course the machine beeped as I walked through, I hadn't even had time to properly think about all of the things I had forgotten to take off.

Of course the agent pulls out his wand to figure out why I'm setting off the machine. He begins asking me questions (in Spanish), "Are you wearing a belt?". I answered that I was, though he didn't wait for me to show him he took my word and moved on. "What do you have in your pockets?" This prompted an impromptu English lesson as my first answer was "change" he repeated this new word. I then said "coins" again he repeated it. Finally I remembered my Spanish and told him I had money. He nodded and asked me to turn around. Finally he asks me, "Do you speak Spanish?", which struck me as an odd time to ask since all of his questions and directions had been in Spanish... I told him that I do speak a little Spanish and figured he was about to give me detailed instructions to go back through the machine. Instead he said, "You are very beautiful." Silly me... he didn't want to give me instructions, he just wanted to make sure that I would understand his compliment.

We landed in Cartagena amid a massive downpour. We were quite lucky that we arrived at our hostel when we did because the road outside our hostel very quickly became a river! We sat on the balcony of our hostel watching as taxis tried to make it through until we worked up the courage to head out into the rain to find some dinner.

Looking down from our hostel

Blurry but an idea of how deep the water was in some places

A quick passage about Cartagena from the book I'm currently reading, The Fruit Palace by Charles Nicholl:

Cartagena de Indias - the Carthage of the New World - was founded and fortified in the early 16th century, the chief port on the Spanish Main for the shipment of plundered gold and jewels back to Spain. Sir Frances Drake came to sack the city in 1586. They paid him 10 million pesos to spare them from the torch - the receipt he signed can still be seen in the Palace of the Inquisition. The town is ringed by 7 miles of wall, in some places up to 50 feet thick. It is said that the walls were built with a mortar mixed with bulls' blood. 

Inside the old town everything is very tall, narrow and close. It is beautiful, but sombre and inquisitorial: dirty white walls, deep eaves, cobbled streets, huge wooden doors studded with iron nails. 

Alyssa and I enjoyed walking down the narrow streets, popping into small restaurants and cafés. Our favorite by far was a cafe and bookstore, because who doesn't love drinking coffee or a beer while perusing a book?

Favorite cafe/bookstore

If I haven't said it before, staying in Hostels is without a doubt the way to go. The lodging is cheap, the common areas often have hammocks and a "take a book/ leave a book" bookshelf, you can buy groceries and cook your own food, and you get local information from the people in the hostel as well as the locals working. One of our favorite people in The Roof hostel, where we're staying, gave us the lowdown on how to get to one of the more popular beaches in Cartagena without needing to join the hordes of tourists on the boats. 

Playa Blanca (white beach) was about 1 1/2 away from Cartagena overland. We took a local bus into a very tiny dirt road village where multiple motorcycle drivers fought over Alyssa and I as soon as we hopped off the bus. It was an interesting dynamic between the moto drivers, they all charge the same price with no haggling so they all have an equal chance to get business. Though they were speaking such fast Spanish that I struggled to understand what everyone was saying, eventually one of the drivers took my hand and led me over to his motorcycle. Much to the dismay of the other drivers, in fact Alyssa's driver talked to him about this unfair move multiple times on our journey. I wasn't able to understand all of it but he clearly felt that my business had been unfairly stolen from another driver. 

Alyssa and I knew we would need to ride on a moto to get from the small town to Playa Blanca but we had figured it would be a 10 minute ride or so. Something that we could easily walk on the way home. We weren't expecting a 25-30 minute ride! The ride started off down an extremely muddy and rough road and then moved onto a highway. It was exhilarating. And don't worry parents...we both had helmets(most of the time)!

The beach did not disappoint! When we first arrived the beach was virtually empty and we had our pick of where we would like to post up. There were a lot of locals tying to get us to buy their wares, though after Thailand and Cambodia Alyssa and I appreciated that when we said 'no' they promptly moved on. A few others at our hostel commented that they struggled with getting hassled so often by the locals... I guess it's all perspective. 

My name is Katie.. and I like to read

The beach was basically empty except for a few other tourists and many many locals selling their wares

After a couple hours the hordes of tourists began arriving on the boats

Beautiful day!

The next day Alyssa and I signed up for a Volcano Mud Bath tour. We weren't sure what to expect but we figured that it was something we probably shouldn't pass up. And good thing we didn't! It was an absolute blast. Alyssa kept comparing the mud to being in space, indeed it felt as though we were weightless. I often needed help to get my legs below the surface of the mud. 

Getting into the mud

They had us all lay on our backs so they could give us massages

Floating was effortless

At one point they guy taking pictures starting taking pictures of the cows...

Alyssa and I are the ones without hats... 

Our last full day in Cartagena Alyssa and I went to one of the beaches closer to Catagena, Bocagrande (big mouth). I do not have any pictures because Alyssa and I brought only what we needed and wouldn't mind getting stolen so that we could both swim in the water at the same time. That morning a guy from Azerbaijan had all of his clothes, money, keys, and shoes stolen from the beach while he was swimming, when he related the story to the woman working at the desk she said, "Welcome to Colombia!" We were smart about it and didn't have any of our stuff stolen! 

Street/hostel cat

Overall our time in Cartagena was a much needed vacation. It was without a doubt the most relaxing time Alyssa and I have had while traveling together. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Welcome to Guatapé!
A quaint town for those who seek refuge from the large cities. Foreigners and Colombians alike.
It's a manmade reservoir with speckled land masses offering much to explore. We arrived midday and enjoyed this quiet place till the next afternoon. We fit in a hike up "La piedra del Peñol", went for a dip in the refreshing water, made friends with a dog, and waited out the rain in the open balcony of our hostel.

Here's the view from the top of the rock.

"La piedra del Peñol", The rock of Peñol

We made it ALL 675 steps. Followed within 10 minutes by a little boy and his family who we had passed on the way up. It's up for debate wether he completed it by himself!

A glance at the typical lunch.  Always with the option of Juice. "con jugo? En leche o agua?(in milk or water?)

The tuktuk of colombia. Not easily found, but served us well with our limited time. Our driver's name was Mauricio.

The dog that befriended us. She initially refused to enter the water when we went swimming despite our constant coaxing. It wasn't until we were a ways out that she came in to try and save us. When seeing that we were on our way back she turned back to shore, her mind at ease that we were not drowning.

Gotta love the yoga poses.

It's good for you.

On the journey to the airport we came across this band. They were showering the street with animated gypsy jigs. We could have easily stayed for hours but our flight wouldn't wait. 
The name of the band is Tarantismo: enfermedad o plaga de baile involuntario (Tarantism:sickness or a plague of involuntary dance.)

(this blog post is brought to you by Alyssa!)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Never Offer Up Your Papaya

We're in Medellín!

Medellín... the second largest city in Colombia, known as South America's 'City of the Eternal Spring', last year's most innovative city of the year, home of Colombia's first (and only) Metro, location of the proud citizens known as Paisas. . . . and the home of Pablo Escobar.

At first glance Medellín feels like it could be another city in the US. It's surrounded by beautiful jagged mountains as the Rio Medellín cuts the city in half. It's strangely hard to pinpoint the exact city center when there are at least 100 skyscrapers scattered throughout the area, and getting around is fast and easy with Medellín's prized Metro.

Where is the infamous Medellín that I've read about? Where are the drugs, gangs, and favelas? Where is Pablo Escobar?

It's only been 11 years since Pablo Escobar was killed (killed himself?) and it seems that Medellín is anxious to leave Pablo Escobar, and the violence associated with him, far far behind them. When walking around one gets the feeling that if it weren't for the stigma associated with Medellín then this city would be a major tourist destination.

Our first full day in the city Alyssa and I signed up for a free walking tour. Our guide was born and raised in Medellín, though had traveled a great deal outside of Colombia. The first two pieces of knowledge he imparted on us were something he said Colombians see as the 11th and 12th commandments. First, don't offer your papaya. Second, if papaya is offered someone must take it. He went on to explain that our "papaya" is our personal property, our cameras, purses, money, and jewelry. At first I struggled with this idea, it felt like victim blaming. Though I quickly came around and realized that this is how the world works, even if I don't like it.

Our guide, Hernan

This free walking tour differed greatly from our walking tour in Bogotá. The tour in Medellín was incredibly well organized and very informative. Though the group size was much larger and therefore we didn't feel as connected to our guide and our group as we had in Bogotá. This may also be biased because we both feel more connected to Bogotá than Medellín and we befriended our guide from Bogotá. Still I think our feelings are valid and only swayed slightly by our biases.

Group photo

Hernan, our guide, set the tour off by talking about Pablo Escobar and La Violencia right from the start. While he made it clear that we were not on a Pablo Escobar tour he also admitted that Medellín's history cannot be talked about without addressing Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel. He acknowledged that while we were in Colombia, and were playing a role in turning around the stigma of the city of Medellín and the country as a whole, our parents and loved ones at home were freaking out that we were in Colombia. 

It's strange to think that Alyssa and I are playing a role in turning around this stigma. At first I balked at this idea. What could Alyssa and I possibly be doing to help other's view of Colombia? Even my Dad is still uncomfortable with me being here. And yet... I realize that even this blog is helping. Just by posting about all the things Colombia has to offer, and that we've felt safe most of the time is helping. A friend that is going to be going to South America in the next 6 months is beginning to look at Colombia as a starting point that he hadn't previously considered. And. . .there's a decent amount of hesitation and selfishness here too. I enjoy being in a Colombia where the locals still don't speak English, where people aren't pushy when trying to get you to buy their wares, and where everyone is nice, friendly, and welcoming. Part of me wishes that Colombia would stay the way it currently is, we've seen Thailand and Cambodia overrun by tourists... I would rather not see that happen to Colombia. Though it is comforting to think that we are here before the boom. Hopefully Colombia can continue to hold on to it's distinctiveness throughout the changing times.

Statue portraying the history of Medellín

Lots of detail

One of the first stops on the tour was El Parque de Luces. Hernan explained to us that the park used to be a hotspot for homelessness, drug use, prostitution, and gambling. City Officials didn't know what to do with it, it was seen as a lost cause. That it was and always would be an area for illicit activity. Until they decided to flip the plaza to make it into a park. Now there are huge poles that light up at night, giving it the name Park of Lights. Hernan explained that a more apt name would be Park of Hope because it gives hope to the citizens of Medellín.

Our guide promised this would be a great picture, he didn't disappoint

Better look at the park

The tour lasted for about 4 hours though we only explored the area surrounding two metro stops, just to give an idea of how expansive Medellín truly is. We walked down tiny city streets with locals selling different knock off brands, juices, and sweets. One of which used to be a city street with cars driving down it, until the street vendors took over. Then we wandered into a plaza full of Botero statues. Colombians are clearly very proud of Botero, especially since during a time when most artists were involved in abstract art Botero took it in a different direction. At first glance his statues and paintings look like they depict fat people and animals. Though it was recently pointed out to us that the subjects aren't fat, they are disproportionate. 

Busy streets

Used to be a street that cars drove down, until street vendors took over

Was a federal building until it fell into disrepair.
Foreign company bought it, now it's a shopping mall.



Supposedly the ladies say that something is disproportionate here
Guys say, "Give him a break, it's cold!"


Hernan made a point of taking us to places that, "Colombians don't want tourists to see." One of which is an old church in the middle of Medellín that used to be a place of worship for tourists. Now it's a place where men come when they need a "love provider". Then the man and the love provider head to a hotel for a few hours... Crazy thing to be happening in front of a church, especially in such a religious population, eh? Hernan went into more detail about how people can be funny about the ways that they use the church and their Catholic faith. Talking about thugs or hit men going into the church and asking for the Virgin Mary's support. "Please Virgin Mary, I am supposed to kill this guy. I don't know if he's guilty or not but you do. So I'm going to pull the trigger but you decide if he gets hit and dies or not."

Church with the "Love Providers"

You can see one of the love providers with white pants on if you look closely

He also showed us a building that looked like a church. A foreign architect was building it and the people began to complain to him that they thought the building was ugly. He ended up getting so disgruntled that he quit and left the structure half completed! Colombians figured that they didn't need him and resolved to finish it themselves. After looking over the blue prints multiple times they decided to throw them out all together... and built a wall. Hernan joked that he's pretty sure they said, "Well it's supposed to be black and white so let's do the white now and tomorrow we'll do the black." It's still just white...
The wall completing the building

The tour concluded with us walking around through multiple plazas and parks to do some people watching. Hernan would often tell us when we were in an area with a lot of pick pocketing. Reminding us not to offer our papaya! A piece of advice that Alyssa could have heard a couple days prior...

Playing music and dancing

More music

Selling candies, chips, and cell phone time

During a music festival in 1995 a Botero sculpture of a bird exploded suddenly, the blast killed 30 people and wounded more than 200. No one took credit for the explosion but it was suspected that the extreme left had done it since they had used such tactics in the past. Officials were wondering how to clean up the shrapnel and what to do with the remains of the statue when they got a call from Botero himself. Botero insisted that the statue stay in place and not be moved. Botero explained that the Colombians all too quickly forget about the tough things in their past and this statue would remain as a reminder. Then he created another statue to be placed next to the destroyed one. It is said that the old one shows the old, scary Medellín. While the new statue shows the new, vibrant, and alive Medellín.

Exploded statue

Exploded statue and new statue
Old Medellín and New Medellín

At one point during the tour someone asked, "Why are Colombian's so happy?" At first Hernan said that it's because Colombian's have a selective memory and easily forget the hard times from their past. Which is why Botero insisted on keeping the destroyed statue in the park. Though after a moment Hernan changed his mind. In order to help us understand he gave us a metaphor. 

Imagine that you're stuck in a river or a bog and the water is rising. Sometimes the water is at waist level, sometimes it's up to your neck, and even sometimes it's above your head. Suddenly you're able to grab onto a branch and pull yourself out! You celebrate! You're stoked to be alive. That, Hernan says, is why Colombians are so happy. 

10 years ago Colombians were living day to day life with the water completely over their heads. They were afraid to go to the grocery store or to send their kids to school... Hernan remembers the 1990 World Cup when Colombia played Germany and how the people celebrated after that game!
Colombia tied with Germany and the people still celebrate and watch that goal! Colombians have learned how to take small wins and celebrate them with all their heart. 

The image that comes to mind...

The next day Alyssa and I decided to try to check out Comuna 13, we had heard of a recent walking tour that opened in the area but decided to try to risk it on our own. For those that don't know much about Comuna 13... 

Comuna 13 is the most populated district in Medellín with the majority of the population under 39 years old and in the lower economic strata... and the most dangerous district in Medellín. As a recent article from Medellín Living states:

In the last 15 to 20 years, Comuna 13 has been an epicenter of violence and struggle for criminal control within the Medellín valley. As a result, residents of all ages have been caught in the crossfire, and forcibly removed from their homes.

Its has long been an area of strategic importance to guerrilla and paramilitary groups, as well as gangs looking to control the San Juan Highway leading west out of the city (and north to the Caribbean coast). Control the highway, and you control the illegal goods flowing in and out of Medellín, and much of Colombia. 

In 2010, more than 10 percent of the city's 2,019 homicides occurred there.

I can just hear my Dad saying, "Exactly, read about it. Don't go there." And after reading all of that why would we want to go there? In a simple answer, to see the cities award winning efforts at urban renewal. And maybe a bit of, "Just to say we did."

Medellín has coined a new term, social urbanism, they're quite literally opening up the poorest areas of the city. When Medellín revamped it's public transportation system it saved it's best projects for the city's poorest areas. They acknowledged that many of the problems in these areas came from the citizens, of places like comuna 13, not feeling respected or acknowledged as a part of Medellín. 

One of these projects is an outdoor escalator rising 400 meters (1,300 feet) up a mountainside. Before the escalator residents had to trudge up and down a series of stairs, equivalent to a 26 story building! Estimates are that this escalator has cut residents travel time down from 35 minutes to just 6 minutes. 

Comuna 13

View from the Escalators
Notice the images painted on the roofs of the houses

A look down at these outdoor escalators

"Medellín is painted for Life"

Houses perched on the mountainside

It was important for Alyssa and I to be smart and safe while being in this area. We stand out like sore thumbs throughout all of Colombia, and especially in areas like these. Many residents were clearly happy to see us visiting their area and called out to us, "Welcome to our barrio (neighborhood)!" We spent about 20 minutes in comuna 13 and didn't wander past the escalators. While riding the bus over to the area we chatted with a little girl heading home for her lunch break from school. When she heard we were from the United States her eyes lit up. At one point she asked us if the United States was a nice barrio. 

Medellin is painted for life, is a project to brighten and liven up the favelas of comuna 13. That's why all of the houses are painted bright colors and the reason for the colorful artwork on the walls surrounding the escalators. 

Another of these projects to open up the poor areas is a series of Metro Cable Cars. 

Riding in the cable car

Interesting translation

One of the many views

In most cities, cable cars are reserved for wealthy areas and tourist traps. In Medellín the cable car lines are in the poorest areas. Another effort to show the citizens of these areas that they are not forgotten...

It's important that I am not portraying these areas to be tourist attractions. The areas we were in are still incredibly dangerous and we needed to be smart and safe. It's important to show respect to the people and places we were in. While riding the cable cars we had an opportunity to be in our own cable car, so we took pictures and talked excitedly about what we were seeing and experiencing. On the way down we rode with a few other Colombians, we needed to remember that while we were treating the ride as a tourist destination, this could easily be a way of life for those in the car with us. 

Getting off at the last stop in Santo Domingo we saw a huge library perched on the hillside. It's currently under construction though it's three buildings were created to look like black stones. It's one of 5 new libraries that are popping up in Medellín's poorest areas. These libraries are a place for residents to check out books, use the computers, or just as a place of refuge. As Alyssa and I walked in the door a young girl spotted us and took the opportunity to tell us all about her library. We found most of the rooms to be full of people looking at books or using the computers. 

Biblioteca de España

Park outside the library

Alyssa and I joked later that we had spent the entire day riding public transportation! It was a long and eye-opening day. On they journey back to the hostel, we sat in a tight corner of the metro, kiddy corner to a guy and a girl dressed in what looked like RTC outfits. The guy stole glances at us, muttered something to his friend and stole more glances at us. He said a few English words, "hello, me speak little English", clearly wanting to say something more but embarrassed by the little English he knew. This continued for a few minutes. Finally, he asked if we understood Spanish, we said yes, and he slumped down in his seat, pulled his hat over his eyes, shoulders heaving in embarrassed laughter. The laughter was contagious and our little corner of the metro was lost in full out belly laughs and chuckles. We enjoyed being able to break through the language barrier and laugh wholeheartedly at the situation, needless to say the guy was more than happy to exit the metro.

When we got back to the hostel I was finally able to breath comfortably. Even though we had felt safe throughout the day it was important not to let our guards down and to keep in mind that we were not in a safe area.

Metro station

Speaking of public transportation, Medellín has the nicest metro station I have ever seen. Hands down. This is clearly the pride and joy of Medellín. The metro runs North to South with many stops connecting the city. It was completed in 1995 in the middle of one of the scariest times in Medellín's history. Residents are so proud that they have Colombia's first and only metro station that they take care of it religiously. Notice that there is no graffiti on the walls, there is no trash on the tracks, and inside the cars there aren't even names scratched into the seats. It's amazing what people can do when they feel respect and pride. 

Window in our room

Takin selfies with our wine, books, and bread with nutella

Delicious dinner we made for ourselves

Botero painting 

Decided to go out in Medellín until it started pouring!

So much rain

Arriving back at the hostel soaked!

Overall, I appreciated being in Medellín though I didn't necessarily like the city. It didn't feel like "home" in the same way that Bogotá felt to us. Medellín seems to represent both the old Colombia, that scares people, and the new Colombia, that tourists will flock to. I feel lucky that we were able to come at a time that Colombia is deemed safe enough to travel to and yet hasn't been overrun by tourism.