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A Colombian Dream – La Cabaña Eco Hotel – Review

Green Acres is the place to be.
Farm living is the life for me.
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide.
Keep Medellin and give me that countryside.
 
Sometimes you return to a place which you loved, only to find it a disappointment. Perhaps it’s no longer trying so hard. Or maybe it’s under new management. Or, most often, the memory is just somehow better than the reality. This is not the case with La Cabaña Eco Hotel.
You may remember this place from last August when you voted that I visit Colombia. While there, I’d heard about Salento from locals and travelers alike. Still, many of those travelers seemed to be staying at hostels in town and I was looking for a bit of peace. I searched on one of the many online booking sites and found La Cabaña Eco Hotel.
One of the toughest parts of traveling non-stop is the decision-making. Every day, one must decide where to go, how to get there, in what area to stay, which flight to take, which hotel, Airbnb, guesthouse, pension, or other accommodation in which to stay, how to pay, who to trust—oh, so much. This is the reason I appreciate you so much for telling me where to go; one less decision. Because of this, it’s such a great feeling when you realize you’ve made the right decision. This place was one of my victories.
When I found myself back in Colombia, specifically in Medellin, to research an article which I hope to sell, I knew I’d need to find a little peace after a month in my very noisy Airbnb. A month of listening to (or trying not to listen to) the ruckus from the event space and three bars located below my fifth-floor apartment and wafting through the windows, which didn’t quite fit their frames, had me craving the quiet, natural surroundings of Salento. When my work in Medellin was done, I hopped a bus headed for Salento.
Thanks to construction along the way, I arrived in Salento after a six-hour bus ride which took nine hours. Apparently, flag-men make up 60% of the workers in Colombia (don’t quote me on this, as I truly have no idea). When I visited in August, I was dropped on a street corner without any clue how to get to La Cabaña. They’ve now built a bus terminal. Well, it’s actually a parking lot with a few cement buildings selling snacks as well as a kind of cool modern art sculpture. I texted Hector, one of the owners of La Cabaña and, within ten minutes, a dark SUV pulled up with a familiar face behind the wheel.
Main BuildingLess than ten minutes later, we arrived at La Cabaña Eco Hotel. La Cabaña is divided between two red and white wooden buildings situated across the street from each other. The main building, with five Porchsleeping rooms, some with lofts so you can throw the kids up there and forget about them (though you’re required to take them with you when you leave), also houses the kitchen, dining room, and various outdoor seating areas which are nice places to enjoy a glass of wine before dinner or a beer after a hike. Being in the coffee region, there’s River Housecoffee available 24-hours-a-day (also tea).
At my request, my room was not in the main building, but in the River House across the street. I planned to be here for a month and it just seemed as if it might be a bit quieter in the four-room house (five, if you count the couple who works here and lives in the room next store with their two daughters) away from the kitchen. If I chose to cook my own meals, the River House had an outdoor kitchen with a four-burner stove, a full-size refrigerator, microwave, sink, and all of the pots, pans, and accessories you need to cook a fine meal. I just needed to supply the ingredients (there’s a small supermarket and fruit stands in town) and the wine. Always the wine.
ManureAfter driving through the wooden farm gate and up the tracks cutting through the grass we arrived at my building. As I stepped out of the car I immediately landed in a soft pile of cow manure. (TOMS were not made for this.) As Hector apologized, I laugh it off. After all, this is a finca which translates to “farm” in English. To be more specific, it’s a dairy farm, producing approximately 2,000 liters of milk per day and, on a dairy farm, well, shit happens.
I entered my room and though it seemed smaller than the one I’d stayed in previously, with a king-size bed, there was plenty of room for an enjoyable month-long stay.
CowsI awoke the following morning to noise. Sure, I chose to be away from the kitchen, but some things are unavoidable. Approximately 132 different species of birds live in this area and their morning songs created an orchestra filled with a variety of instruments which were joined by the base of the cows mooing while chomping their way through the grass field outside my window. Comparing this to the cacophony coming from the downstairs bars in Medellin might be like comparing Acid Rock to the Boston Philharmonic.
Directly outside my door, the picnic table provided a desk with a beautiful view to sit and work each day (or cruise Facebook and pet dogs). Oh, yes, that brings up Dogthe dogs; Lassie and Bimbo. Lassie belongs to Hector, Lina, Maria Camila, and Alejandra. They’re the family who owns this farm (it’s been handed down from Lina’s family), as well as nearby avocado and coffee farms. Lassie is the most amazing dog I’ve ever known. She’s not just a pet, but a worker; herding cows and horses, and sometimes people. She knows her job and goes to work with no prompting. And when her work is done, she appreciates a good belly rub. (Don’t we all?) Bimbo belongs to the family next door to me. He’s a younger and smaller black and white dog who Other Doglikes to follow Lassie around on her herding chores with the understanding that, as it’s not really his job, he can leave at any time. His favorite hobbies are chasing horses (not herding, just chasing), eating bugs, and biting at my shoelaces as I walk across the street to the main house.
A breakfast buffet is included here. Depending on the day, it may consist of eggs, cheese, toast, cereal, tamales, rice and beans, arepa (a ground corn flour circular-shaped bread), fresh fruit, pancakes, french toast, juice and, of course, coffee (this is the coffee region).
Horseback rideAfter breakfast, you can to go hike in the Cocora Valley (the main reason people come to this area) amongst the Quindio Wax Palms, the tallest palm trees in the world. You may also want to go visit of coffee farm to understand the entire coffee-making process from growing the beans to brewing the perfect cup of joe. Horseback riding is a great option and can be done directly from the farm. The wrangler will take you up into the surrounding hillside or to a nearby waterfall. Another half-day tour will take you by car to the cloud forest where you’ll enjoy the most amazing views of the area, including a forest of Wax Palms, and a visit to a finca where you’ll be served a local, non-alcoholic drink called Agua Panella. This area is a wonderful place to watch the colorful colibríes (hummingbirds) native to this region.
TreesFinally, another option is to simply hike the green hills surrounding the finca. While doing just this, I happened to pass the pasture where the cows were being milked. Stopping to say hello to David who was handling this process, I was invited to do some milking myself. David showed me the pull and squeeze method (wait, that sounds dirty, but you understand) and then held a cup while I milked. He then invited me to drink it and, with some hesitation, I agreed. I’m not sure why I was surprised when it tasted like, well, milk. Nothing like a fresh milk break in the middle of a beautiful hike.
SalentoIf you choose, you can walk the just-over two kilometers into the town of Salento (one of the family members will also be happy to drive you) for dinner and a game of Tejo—what Colombians like to call their national sport—which involves beer and gunpowder.
HammockStill, even with all these activity options, one of the best things to do while staying at La Cabaña is to lie in a hammock and read while listening to the birds and the rushing river in the background. You can also enjoy watching the frenetic flight of the hummingbirds from here.
Should you choose to stay at the finca for dinner, La Cabaña serves a small menu with some traditional Colombian specialties including trout (grilled or in a garlic sauce) and bandeja paisa, what I like to call the Heart Attack Special, which includes rice and beans, chorizo (sausage), chicharron (fried pork belly), fried egg, and patacones (smashed fried plantains). This is Colombia’s twist on the phrase, “To see Paris and die.” There’s also pasta, a nice sandwich, and grilled chicken.
HectorIf you happen to be here during a busy time, you may have the great luck to enjoy their Lomo al Trapo. Hector or Maria Camilla prepare beef and pork loin by coating it with salt and tightly wrapping it in cotton cloth. They then place it in the hot coals of the campfire burning on the front lawn. Dinner is served under a canopy on the lawn with the meat, potatoes, a tomato salad, sauces, and wine (always wine). After dinner, there are marshmallows to roast while Hector pulls out his guitar and serenades the crowd with traditional Colombian songs in a beautiful baritone voice.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’d planned to stay for a month. Well, we all know how I feel about planning and, as I saw no reason to leave, I stayed for two months, only leaving because, after a total of three months in Colombia, my visitor’s visa was expiring and instead of renewing it I decided it was time to explore more of the world.
When you stay at La Cabaña, you become part of the family.
If you’d like to more information about La Cabaña Eco Hotel, you can visit their webpage at: https://www.lacabanaecohotel.com/, like their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/lacabanaecohotel/, or follow them on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/lacabanaecohotel/
This stay was not hosted and no special rates were provided in exchange for a review. I just really love this place.
 

The Good, the Bad, and the Gracias's – Colombia

Here I am! Yeh, I know it’s been a bit too long. I left you without a Drop Me Anywhere ending. I seemingly went under the radar and, for all you knew, decided to go live with a lost tribe in the Amazon (would you be surprised?). Or, perhaps Tarantulina Jolie decided she no longer wanted to be friends. In an effort to improve my editing skills, my challenge is to tell you about it in 5 sentences. Here goes: Immediately after returning from Colombia, I began leading a couple of tours (writing isn’t famous for its livable salary) which had me working 80-90 hours per week. During this time, my friend Rose had an emergency back in the Congo. I’m head of her foundation (yeh, I have a few secrets but, now that you know, check out www.RoseMapendoFoundation.org) and we had to gather some money for her to return. Then to New York, for meetings and to London for a conference (with a stop in Norwich, UK to, you know, sleep). Immediately following the conference, I flew to Vienna because, when you’re location independent and have to be somewhere anyway, why not Vienna.
So, Vienna is where we’ll finish talking about Colombia with our traditional final article on a location, The Good, the Bad, and the Gracias’s. This is where I let you know what was good in Colombia, what was not so good, and who I have to thanks for helping me along during my visit. I’ll also tell you how much things cost me, so you can figure out your budget should you decide to do a similar trip, as well as rounding up all of the various links to hotels, restaurants, local tour companies, and more, which were included in the serious. Yup, they’re wrapped up in one nice package (with the receipt attached should you wish to return it for something you really like).
First, a couple of small things to note. It is Colombia, not Columbia. This is not Washington DC (District of Columbia), but a whole different place. It’s even pronouncedd Co-lōm-bia. And, as I learned, Medellin is pronounced Me-de-jzean. Traditionally “ll” is one letter in the Spanish alphabet which would be pronounced as a “y”. This is why most of the world pronounces it as Me-de-yeen. For some reason, nobody could explain why, but Colombians don’t pronounce it that way. And, for those who would argue, might I just bring up Arkansas, Worcester, and all of those UK “shire” places pronounce much differently than they’re spelled. Medejzeen it is!
 
The Good
Where to begin? There was so much good!

  • Let’s start with the people. Colombia makes it into my top three places with the nicest people. Ireland comes in at number one, and Colombia is now tied for second with the people of St. John’s, Newfoundland. Hell, it might just pull in front of St. John’s. Or perhaps that’s only because it’s been a while since I visited there. Regardless, I’m reassured that there are extremely nice people all over the world.

 

  • Corcora ValleyThe beauty. Colombia is beautiful. The green mountains, the jungle, hell, even the birds (I’m really not a bird person) are gorgeous. The Corcora Valley has made its way into my top 10 travel experiences and the striking beauty is a big part of it. And Medellin, that’s the big city which doesn’t just lie in the base of the mountains but is part of the mountains. As my taxi climbed over the hill from the airport it gave me a spectacular first view of this city in the mountains, which literally took my breath away. And the taxi driver was so proud of it that he insisted on pulling over so I could take a photo.

 

  • That’s another good thing; the pride of the people in their cities and the country as a whole. They remember how bad things were and are so very proud of how far they’ve come. It wasn’t all that Restaurant Ownerlong ago that Colombia was a place which must not be visited. And, if you did, you might as well have bought a one-way ticket as there was a good possibility of you being murdered by a drug lord. From the people who were anxious to show me around their cities to those who simply shouted out on the street, “Welcome to my community!” their pride in their homeland is both remarkable and a joy to experience.

 

  • Their games. ‘What?’ you say. ‘What’s this about their games?’ The Colombians are full of From the men playing chess at tables set out on the street to Carambole, the three-ball billiards game I somewhat learned in Salento, it’s clear that a sense of play is part of the culture. And, Tejo, what Colombians call their national sport, involves beer and gunpowder. What could go wrong? The game is played by throwing a hard, metal disc at a rectangular board filled with soft clay which has been set at an angle on the ground. A circle of small, triangular packets of gunpowder is set around the center. The object is to land your clay disc in the center. Should a player miss by just an inch, the disc will hit the packet of gunpowder and, boom, well, that’s even more fun. Oh, and drinking beer while playing is part of the game. Now, who couldn’t love a country like this?

 
The Bad
 

  • The travel warnings. I’ll be honest, my sister really didn’t want me to go to Colombia. She’d read the travel warnings put out by the U.S., the U.K., and Canada, and was so concerned that she had her family and friends voting for another location. Still, some out there really wanted me to go to Colombia and, for every vote she and her family cast, there were two or three votes for Colombia. Sure, Colombia has its dangerous areas and cities like most other countries, but I felt as secure heading out alone after dark as I have in most other countries and even more comfortable than in some.

 

  • The coffee. What? So here’s the thing; it’s not that the coffee is terrible, it’s just that it isn’t the Coffee Growergreat coffee I’d expected to find in a country known as being one of the top coffee producers in the world. I like my coffee like I like my men – strong and bitter. Their coffee (like many men) disappointed me. It isn’t terrible, just a disappointment if you expect to drink some of the best coffee in the world. I learned that the excellent coffee which they’re known for is exported to make money, while the crappy stuff stays within the country.

 
The Gracias’s
 

  • New FriendsBig thanks to my new friends Fabian and Marcella. Fabian, for telling me so much of his story and the story of his country, as well as inviting me to the 130th Anniversary party of El Espectador and introducing me to Marcella. To Marcella for taking me shopping and introducing me to new areas in Medellin, and for allowing me to have some much-needed girl time. I’m often asked if it gets lonely being location independent; these are the people who help that loneliness subside.

 

  • Gracias to El Espectador, for allowing me to come to your party and meet the very handsome mayor of Medellin. May you continue telling the stories of your country for another 130 years.Newspaper
  • Gracias to Hector and the entire staff at La Cabaña Eco Hotel Your lovely place showed me what heaven on earth looks like, and your dining experience by the fire will always be a memorable night for me.Hector
  • Thanks to the Volunteer Hostel for the good work you do and for hooking me up with FEM who are also doing good work helping to educate the kids in more economically challenged villages. And thanks to Kristy from Cartagena Connections for showing me the Bazurto Market, as well as hooking me up with these folks. Please click on the links below to read more about these wonderful organizations.

 

  • Thanks to the wonderful people of Colombia. From the lady on the airplane who invited me to stay at her farmhouse (perhaps next time when I have more time) to the people in Medellin who taught me Colombian blackjack, to Jean Paul at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana who offered to give me a lift to a town two hours Seriously, these Colombian people are so darned nice.

 

  • Finally, as always, thank you to you, my Virtual Travel Buddies. For reading, for traveling along with me, and for patiently waiting for the ending of the story. I hope you find it useful and worth the wait. I plan to return to Colombia this winter to write, work on the Drop Me Anywhere book, and enjoy the beautiful people and scenery. I hope to see you there.

 
The Budget
Should you ever decide to do a similar trip (mine was 27 days), here’s the breakdown of my costs so you can have an idea of a budget:
Airfare/Bus – $709.81 (Airfare from Phoenix to Cartagena and Bogota to Phoenix; bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta; flight from Santa Marta to Medellin; bus from Medellin to Salento; flight from Periera (Salento) to Bogota.
Accommodations – $1,119.96
Food/Drink – $368.84
Taxi’s, Mass Transit, Bike Rental, Motorbike rental, etc. – $114.27
Admissions and activities – $97.50
Tips, Luggage Fees, other Miscellaneous – $80.69
Total cost – Approximately $2,490.27
 
The Links
Accommodations
Eco Hotel La Cabaña
Estelar Blue
Hotel Lomas 10 (Medellin)
Hotel Minca la Casona (Minca)
Old Town Premium B&B Cartagena
Volunteer Hostel  (Cartagena)- Stay here or even check out their place to purchase crafts made by, and supporting local indigenous communities.
Activities
Cartagena Connections
Comuna 13 Tours
Corcora Valley (hiking and beauty)
Free Tour Cartagena
Hollywood Casino
Museum of Antioquia (Medellin)
Oviedo Mall (Medellin)
Palace of the Inquisition and Historical Museum
Santa Fe Mall
Vergel Tours
Air
Jet Blue
LATAM Airlines
Miscellaneous
El Espectador Newspaper
Orbitz
Restaurants
La Mulata
Lazy Cat
Salon Malaga
Transportation
Flota Occidental Transportation
Marsol Transportation
Medellin Metro
Volunteering
FEM (Fundación por la Educación Multidimensional)
 
 
 
 
 

Fifty Shades of Green

HammockFollowing yesterday’s long hike, I wake expecting to feel more sore than I do. With just a little tenderness in my quadriceps, I choose to have a relaxing morning hanging on the farm and writing. A light on-and-off rain is falling and the various chairs scattered on the porch surrounding the building are very comfortable. I’m sure the hammocks also are but I have yet to perfect the skill of hammock-writing.

By 3:00 pm both the writing and the rain are finished and it’s time for a horseback ride. There’s no need to schedule the ride with a tour company as, La Cabaña Eco Hotel, doesn’t only have cows, but horses too. While my guide, Andrés, saddles up the horses, I get to know Carrot and Caroline. No, these aren’t the horses, but a couple of twenty-something Dutch women who will also be riding today. While her real name isn’t Carrot, it’s something which sounds quite similar and, understanding that non-Dutch people have difficulty with it, she throws me, well, a carrot, and invites me to call her that. Immediately, I impress them with my knowledge of the Dutch language which I learned from sailors, saying in Dutch both, “Hello, how are you?“ and, “Your fly is open, Dickhead.”

With our flies closed, we climb up on our horses (some more gracefully than others) and begin walking off the farm. My horse, a beautiful mare named Tequila, seems to have a crush on the male horse which Carrot rides, getting her nose close enough to his butt to catch a whiff of his farts the second they exit his rear, which they do quite often.

The ladies have never ridden horses before and, while I got quite good at it during my adventure tour-guiding days, it’s been some time so, when they request to go slow, I have no problem with it.

Crossing the road, we ride through a field which, like all fields here in the Corcora Valley, is blanketed by greener-than-green, soft grass. Three of the ranch dogs accompany us, running alongside seeming to Horseunderstand their job of taking care of the riders and making sure the horses behave. The field soon takes us to a trail just as muddy as yesterday’s, only this time it’s the horses’ hooves being covered by the slippery brown mess. Before long the trail skims the side of a green hill and I reflexively lean in towards the hill as, should the horse misstep or slide in the mud as I did all day yesterday, I’ll get a close-up look at the bottom of a canyon. The ride takes us through paths of flowering trees which open up to beautiful tree-dotted hills displaying every shade in the rainbow, as long as that rainbow is green. With the variable weather, the clouds which hang over the hills sometimes giving way to sunshine provide a hundred-different views of the same vista.  All the while Tequilla, my slutty horse, has her nose so far up the ass of her boyfriend in front of us that, one good sneeze and she’ll be flying out of his nose.

Horse TunnelAbout 45-minutes into the ride, we enter an old railroad tunnel. As the horses click along the partially-buried old trestles, I look to my left and see a statue of the Virgin Mary placed in a small arch carved into the wall. I’m not sure if it was placed there when the train was active, or even if it’s a tradition in all tunnels in Colombia, but she stands there now keeping watch over less-than-skilled horse-riders during the day and the jungle flora and fauna at night.

An hour into our ride, we park (does one park a horse? maybe dock?), Andrés helps us dismount and, walking with our “I just got out of the saddle and can’t seem to bring my legs together” gate, we take a short, somewhat painful stroll to a waterfall. This one isn’t like those in Minca where swimming was an option, as there’s no easy place to enter the water. Still, it takes nothing away from the beauty of it.

WaterfallAfter some time, we head back to the farm on the same trail we came in on. My horse continues to chase after the one in front even though I try to explain to her that she’s acting a bit slutty. Besides the amazing scenery, part of the fun of this trip is watching the dogs do their jobs. It’s clear which is the alpha who spends all his time bossing around the other two and sending them on missions.

“Hey, you, get back there and make that horse get a move on.”

“Check up on that redhead because I’m not sure she knows what the hell she’s doing.”

Arriving back at the farm, I hop in the shower and head back across the road to the main house. It’s a special night as Hector, the owner, is making his famous Lomo al Trapo. Coating a loin of beef in salt, then Beefwrapping it tightly in cotton and tying it with string, it looks like a Indian baby swaddled in a cradle board. He places it into a fire pit filled with gray coals emitting bright orange heat from a fire he started an hour before.

TableA long table decorated with wine glasses, bread, a salad, potatoes, and sauces is set out on the lawn under a tent next to the fire ring. There are also marshmallows which, some of my fellow travelers, two little girls from Switzerland, decide make great appetizers (who am I to argue?). We eat our marshmallows and drink our wine and, soon enough, the steaks are done.

Firepit

 
 
 
 

From the wonderfully prepared meat and the fresh salad, to tasty red wine (oh, and the marshmallows), this is an excellent meal. Of course, there’s a dessert of fresh fruit (Colombia is all about the fresh fruit and you can buy at least ten different kinds of freshly-made juice on just about any street-corner) and cream.

GuitarWe finish our meal and Hector pulls out his guitar. This is not “Karaoke Night on the Farm,” but a wonderful local experience of dinner and entertainment, both provided by Hector. It turns out, not only is he an excellent cook and welcoming hotelier, he is also a fine singer and guitarist. He sings traditional Colombian songs and, Gustavo, another guest, originally from Colombia, invites me to dance. The night is magical as, fueled by good food and wine, we dance to music under the stars. Calm down, there’s no magic between myself and Gustavo as he is joined here with his husband Leo.

In the past week, I’ve done a four-hour walking tour, a five-hour hike, and a two-hour horseback ride. All I can think is, why am I not skinnier? Oh, and then there’s the marshmallows.

 

Tomorrow – Wake up and smell the coffee.

How Green Was My Valley

Stop what you’re doing! Seriously, stop right now and get on your computer – oh, I guess you’re already on it. Ok then, leave this page and immediately book a trip to Salento, Colombia. You can fly into Periera or Armenia (yes, Armenia, Colombia) or, if you want, you can fly to Medellin or Bogota or Cali and take a long, curvy bus ride.
Still unsure? Here’s a taste of why you should do it:
 
Following the long and winding road I took from Medellin to Salento, and after finally arriving at the Eco Hotel La Cabaña, I enjoy a brie, apple and prosciutto sandwich while sharing a bottle of wine with the French family staying in the room next to me. They’ve also arrived today but, as they came earlier, they’ve taken a dip in the river behind our house. We’re all hungry and the owner’s daughter, Maria Camila, has brought us dinner to enjoy on the porch in front of our rooms where we chat about our Colombian adventures thus far and our plans for the next couple of days.
The Eco Hotel La Cabaña consists of two houses across the street from each other with a combined total of nine rooms accommodating 26 people. As I settle into my room, a few flying creatures welcome me. This is a leche finca or dairy farm, and, though only a five-minute drive from the town, it’s still in the countryside and, though there don’t seem to be mosquitos, there are moths and other random bugs. This is no reflection on the cleanliness of the place, it’s just my room has lights and these types of insects are attracted to them. After unpacking and catching up on the news (yup, it has cable TV), I settle under my down quilt for a good night’s sleep.HotelWhen I  awake in the morning I don’t want to get out of bed. It’s a bit cool, not cold, but after the heat of Cartagena, the change in temperature (low-60’s Fahrenheit in the morning) is a shock. Climbing out of bed, I open the curtains and consider the possibility that my bus through the Andes might not have made it to its destination safely and I may have died and gone to heaven. The daylight allows me to see what I couldn’t last night; large black and white cows roam the pasture just outside my window chomping on perfectly green grass looking as content as I feel.
 
PuppyI dress and walk outside, immediately hearing the splash of the gently rolling river behind the house. I now get my first real look at the two houses of the finca. The white buildings with red trim are built in the local style with railed porches surrounding the entire structure and Dogwhich remind me of the Antebellum homes found in the southeastern United States. Walking over to the main house I say hello to the very friendly and very-well taken care of dogs who belong to the ranch owners and some staff before settling in a seat in the small dining room where I meet some more fellow travelers and staff.
Breakfast is fresh fruit, tamales, eggs, toast, homemade cheese from the cows on the farm (well, the cows didn’t make the cheese, but they did supply the milk and the farm staff made the cheese), juice, yogurt (the yogurt in Colombia is in the form of a drink), and, being in the coffee region, coffee is available 24-hours a day.
During breakfast, I speak with Maria Camila about the options of activities here and, as the weather is nice today, both Maria and I decide it’s a good day to hike the Corcora Valley.
The Corocora Valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park and is known for its Quindío wax palm trees which, growing as high as 150-200 feet (45-60 meters), are the tallest palm trees in the world. It’s also filled with other incredible flora and fauna, as well as lots of mud.
JeepThere are a few ways to see the Corcora Valley. 1) You can drive there and enjoy lunch, coffee, or a beer while contemplating the incredible scenery. Oh, and by drive I mean you catch a ride on one of the many Willys. These Jeeps, which were left over after World War II when the U.S. government no longer had a need for so many, found homes in the coffee region of Colombia. These workhorses are normally outfitted with some bench seats lining the sides of the back and can carry up to 10-or-more people using the front and back seats, as well accommodating four people standing on the back bumper while holding onto Jeep Insidebars on the roof. 2) Grab a Willy to the entrance and take a 2-hour hike into the Valley. 3) Grab that Willy (wow, this is beginning to sound dirty and perhaps you should do that in private) to the entrance and take the 4-6-hour hike through the jungle, up the mountain (up even further if you want to go see the hummingbirds and parrots), and then down into the Corcora Valley. Choosing option number 3, I grab my Willy (wait, do I even have one of those?) and head off.
The first step is to find a Willy. I’m staying just out of town between Salento and the Corcora Valley and most people find their Willy in the town square. (Please excuse me as I need to take a moment to bang on my ear to force the Willy jokes out of my head.)
Okay, I’m better now. On a normal day, I could wave down a Willy with an empty seat, or back bumper to climb on and bring me to the hike. Unfortunately, today is a holiday and many Colombians have come to the area for the long weekend. (I’ve been here for three weeks and this is the second holiday, though I don’t really understand what either holiday has been about.) Maria Camila calls a Willy for me which, as it’s now private, costs me 10-times as much as a shared one would (COP31,000 versus COP3,100 or about US$10.00 versus US$1.00).
I arrive at the park about fifteen-minutes later and find my way through the blue gate to begin my hike. I’m told the hike is well-marked and I shouldn’t have a problem with getting lost. I later find this to be true as I get lost without any problem. Before long, I arrive at a small wooden structure next to which stands a man pointing to a map painted on a wooden sign. He’s giving instructions in Spanish and eight or ten people from various countries who don’t speak Spanish are nodding their heads pretending to understand. The man collects our COP2,000 entrance fee and we move on.

Mud
General trail conditions

I slide along the muddy trail thankful for my waterproof hiking boots yet, as good as the traction may be, I still manage to accomplish pratfalls which leave my pants, shirt, and hands a healthy shade of brown. (It’s my own personal mud bath.) The trail winds through the jungle, up hills, and across a multitude of footbridges made from wood planks and wire which bounce and sway as I walk across. Being sure to wait for the person in front of me to exit before taking careful steps to balance on the wood while touching the thin wire along the side, I quickly learn not to grab the wire as some connecting areas on the bridges and many areas along the trail are linked with barbed Nun Crossing Bridgewire. At the first bridge, I wait for the habit-covered nun in front of me to cross. She stops for a moment before stepping on the bridge. Touching her head and chest, she first crosses, and then she crosses.
I continue on, meeting travelers from all over the world – lots of French and Israelis – slogging through mud, up and down hills (though mainly up), and crossing questionable bridges. I’d already decided not hike up to the birds as I had my fill of Hummingbirds in Minka and, as they surrounded my hotel verandah, I didn’t have to hike uphill for an extra half-hour to see them.
Top of hikeThough I was told the trail is clearly marked, there aren’t really any signs and, at the few intersections I come to, it’s a choice of one muddy trail versus another. Still, hikers help each other along the way to find the correct path. The last forty-or-so minutes are strictly uphill. Eventually, I come to a clearing which allows me to see a series of switchbacks climbing the side of a beautiful green hill. Taking a Flowers Mountain Corcora Valleybreak every twenty steps, I finally crest the hill where I find grateful people happy to have reached the top and enjoying just breathing while sitting on benches or lying in the grass. The sunshine and incredible views give us renewed energy while everyone refuels with snacks they’ve brought. Joining in, I take a half hour to simply breathe.
The rest of the hike is downhill. Along the way, I meet two Italian women who are hiking with a guide they’ve hired. We enjoy nice conversation before coming to the Corcora Valley. Around every bend Corcora Valleywe find unbelievable scenes straight out of a painting. The grass coating the rolling hills is perfectly trimmed and dotted with wax palm trees reaching high into the sky. The guide has us scraping our fingernails on the tree in order to feel the wax coating which indigenous tribes melt and use as a waterproof coating for their legs while crossing the river. She also tells us of the tradition to hug a wax palm and points us to one twenty-feet away on the side of the hill. I and one of the other women go in for the hug while the other lady introduces me to an Italian phrase, “I have arrived,” meaning “I’m done.”
Wax Palm TreesEventually, I do arrive and have a coffee at the small indoor/outdoor restaurant while sitting on a bale of hay and chatting with some locals and travelers. I walk over to the parking area and grab a Willy with one extra spot for me on the back bumper. I stand with three other women and, buzzed on adrenaline, we’re all feeling powerful after our hike and enjoying the wind combing our hair while traveling through the picturesque countryside. Fifteen-minutes later, I jump off the bumper, pay the driver (only 3,100 this time) and head straight to the shower.
Riding on the back of WIllyNow, what the hell are you still doing here? Book a trip to visit this paradise of Salento and the surrounding region right now!

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

UniversityIt’s my final day in Medellin and I don’t want to leave. Then again, I didn’t want to leave Cartagena, or Minca so I guess you could say I love Colombia. I spend the day exploring some different areas with my new friend Marcela. We begin by visiting the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana where Marcela went to school. The campus is lovely and, as we walk through a central area lined with dozens of different types of snack bars, Marcela explains, it’s here that students gather, sometimes with each other and sometimes with their professors. There seems to be a great exchange of knowledge and ideas, as well as food.
Continuing on to a different area, we sit down for coffee with one of Marcela’s old professors (well, not old, but previous) and now friend. We have a nice conversation about this crazy world we live in and are soon joined by another professor, Jean Paul. After a nice talk, Jean Paul mentions he’s headed to Val Paraiso the following day and invites me to come. It would mean leaving Medellin a day early which wouldn’t be a huge problem as I’ve already stayed longer than I planned. I decided I wanted to spend more time in this fascinating city and, though staying meant giving up on visiting the Amazon, I also realized that I have fallen in love with this wonderful country and will soon return and can make that trip to the Amazon as well as to other South American countries then.
Salon MalagaMarcela and I leave the University and, taking the Metro to the San Antonio area (not the Texas one), stop by the historic Salón Málaga restaurant. This place opened in 1957 and keeps the feel of old Colombia alive Black and white photos of customers from days long past and signed photos of musicians cover the walls. Tango performances and classes are offered weekly. This is a place one might expect Ricky Ricardo to walk in at any minute carrying his tall bongo drum (yes, I realize he was Cuban but you get the idea).
TramAfter a drink, we head outside to the tram station. This is my first tram in Medellin and, unlike the Metro trains, the tram is thinner and travels at a slower pace on surface streets. We’re traveling a short distance to Marcela’s apartment which she shares with her sister and mother. While mom isn’t home, we sit and talk with her sister for a while. These are two beautiful, educated, and feisty women and I take pleasure in meeting them and joy in knowing that strong, smart women decorate this world. In these troubled times, they’re the ones who give me hope.
Marcela and I step outside and head back to the Poblado Metro Station, as she has an English class to teach to a 10-year old and I have some writing to do. I spend the evening checking for some sort of transportation to Val Paraiso or surrounding areas to Salento in the coffee region with no luck. There are no airports in that area and none of the buses to the coffee region seem to stop near, so I must decline. (So sad as the scenery, both Val Paraiso and Jean Paul, was sure to be beautiful.)
 
Another new day and it’s time to leave Medellin for greener pastures (literally) in Salento, Colombia. The area is part of the coffee triangle which, to this coffee lover, sounds like heaven. And though I’ve been looking forward to visiting this region, I’m not looking forward to the six-hour-ish bus ride to get there. I’ve booked a ticket directly through Flota Occidental Bus Company at a cost of COP40,000 ($13.49). I was able to reserve my seat on the website and, as the bus travels through the winding roads of the Andes Mountain Range, I choose seat number 1; up front where I stand half a chance of not losing my lunch.
I catch a cab to the city’s South Bus Terminal and wander through the mall it’s connected to (yup, another mall). Checking in is a complete 180 from my troubles at the Cartagena bus station as all goes smoothly and I’m handed my ticket and pointed to the door from which I will board.
Buying some goodies for the bus (always a good idea to have to calm your hunger pains or to share with others and make friends) and taking one last bathroom stop (also a good idea because, well, because), I walk over to door number seven and, after a few minutes, we’re called to board.
Our driver loads backpack after backpack in the rear as I walk up with a smile, introduce myself (winning some friendliness points), and say, “lo siento” as I present my one large bag (actually smaller than some of these huge backpacks) and one roll-aboard carry on. He smiles and replies, “no problemo” as he finds just enough space in the storage area. I climb aboard and find my empty seat at the front on the left as I enter. I’m happy I took the time to reserve it. I’m also happy I remembered to wear my Sea-Bands (wristbands which use pressure point technology to help prevent motion sickness) and to buy a green apple in the bus station (this can also help prevent motion sickness. My cruise ship employment history sometimes comes in handy).
Before long, we’re off. I play with the TV screen in front of me, happy to see both the individual screens and the listings of some movies in English. Also, there’s Wifi on this bus! No, it isn’t British Airways, as almost all of the English language movies are some sort of action or science fiction films (not at all my favorite types). Finding Dori is also on, but I’ve seen it (don’t worry, Dori gets found, though I’m not sure she even remembers getting lost). The only other option is The Shack. I read the book and enjoyed it but not enough that I think they should have made a movie about it.
As we exit the city and enter the curvy roads, I quickly realize that I can neither type or read if I have any hope of keeping my breakfast down. Suddenly The Shack seems like an excellent choice. I don my earbuds and spend the next two hours with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Oh, and aStreet sign guy named Emil. Following the movie, I fall asleep for about ten minutes before the bus begins to slow and the driver announces, “Quince minutes por comer y baño.” (Fifteen minutes for food and bathroom).
I happily exit the bus and head to the bathroom. Unlike the bus station in Medellin which charged COP600 entrance fee (there’s even a turnstile) plus another COP200 if you want toilet paper, this one is all-inclusive for COP1,000. I then head over to the lunch counter where a guy named Dave mans one section and seems very proud of the food he’s cooked. I can’t resist his hot, mini-casseroles which seem like some good comfort food in the middle of this long drive.
Before long, my fellow-travelers and I gather outside the bus waiting for the driver. Thirty-minutes into our fifteen-minute stop, the driver appears and opens the door.
As we head out for the second-half of our journey, it’s clear that the worst is over and, though we still travel on two-lane roads, these are not nearly as windy as the please-don’t-let-me-vomit road which brought us here.
Finally, just after dark, at about 7:00 pm we arrive in Salento. I had doubts about staying in Salento as I was just coming from a big city and was looking for the peaceful beauty I had heard the coffee region offered. Three-days-ago, when I began looking for a place to stay, it seemed like Salento might have some hustle and bustle. I considered the town of Filandia (supposedly beautiful and smaller than Salento) but was convinced by Marcela’s friends to go to Salento and maybe stay at a place just out of town. I found a finca (farm) to stay at called Eco Hotel La Cabaña – this is quite popular outside of the big cities in Colombia – and booked it, all the while wondering if I was making the right decision.
The bus driver unceremoniously stops the bus in the middle of a busy intersection in the small town saying simply, “Aqui!” I have no idea where to go. I know my place is at least a few kilometers outside of town and Google Maps tells me it’s a thirty-one-minute walk or a five-minute drive. Walking there while dragging my bags behind is not an option so I ask the driver, “Taxi?”
“No taxi.” He curtly replies.
I ask the lady who seems to be directing traffic at the intersection who repeats the driver’s words. I ask the driver if he can drop me and he laughs while shaking his head from side to side. Standing there, unsure of what to do, the crossing guard indicates for me to get the hell out of the street. This is upsetting, as the people of Colombia have been so ridiculously nice so far and I’m unprepared feeling shunned. Stepping into a delicatessen, I ask about a taxi and, though much nicer in their response, it’s still negative. I call the hotel (I’d put the name, address, and phone number in the notes in my phone) and begin jabbering about how I E-mailed the previous night providing my approximate arrival time and letting them know I would catch a taxi. As I received no response, I assumed all was well. Seriously, I probably should handle it better and I’m sure the man on the other end thinks I’m nuts as he instructs me to call another number, which turns out to me his daughter, Maria Camila, who calms me and tells me she’ll be here in five minutes to pick me up. (Not my proudest moment.)
True to her word, Maria Camila arrives and we drive along a very dark, very curvy and hilly tree-lined road (no way could I have walked) before pulling up to a red and white building. It’s difficult to see much in the dark but, as she shows me to my two queen-sized bedded and very spacious room, I’m relieved.
Tomorrow, the big hike.
 
 

It's News to Me

I had to switch hotels today. I didn’t want to as the Estelar Blue is wonderful and equal to what would be a four-star hotel in the U.S. And no, I’m not a rockstar who got drunk, smashed the headboard, threw a TV out the window and was banned from the place. I got a smokin’ deal on this place due to a combination of Orbitz coupons and the nights I was staying. This hotel is in a business area just around the corner from a conference center so, unlike many hotels, the Estelar Blue is less expensive on the weekends than during the week. Now that the new week is here, they have no room and, even if they did, the price would double.
I catch a cab over to my new digs at the Hotel Lomas 10. It’s not only new to me, but new this year and it seems that nobody has heard of it. This does not bode well for me. While still in the La Pablado area, it’s about 1.5 kilometers from Estelar Blue. Though not quite as high class as the last one, they are friendly as I walk in and seem incredibly eager to please. A nice lady walks me to my room, spending a few minutes to take inventory of the minibar, gives me the number to call reception should I need it, and leaves me to enjoy the city view as advertised on the website. As I open the curtains, besides a couple of nice buildings in the distance and a few somewhat run down houses below, there are two guys hanging from ropes directly outside. It seems like they’re still working on the outside of the building and, while my room in Minca had a big spider (I wonder if Tarantulina Jolie misses me), this one comes with Spiderman and guest.
I quickly head out to explore my new neighborhood, walking down the sidewalk along the steep road. Medellin is a city of hills and you don’t so much walk it as you hike it. Still, between the various means of public transportation which we spoke of in “When Good Triumphs Over Evil” and the inexpensive taxis and Uber (yup, it’s here), there’s usually an option should you become tired.
As I reach the bottom of the hill, I turn right and walk past a cigar bar (I like this neighborhood) and a bunch of restaurants before coming across what looks like the office of a newspaper. It’s called El Espectador, and the newspapers hanging in their window, one with Donald Trump on the front, catch my eye. Wanting to know more about what they’re reporting and the general feel in Colombia regarding current U.S. and Venezuelan politics, I walk in and ask the woman sitting at the desk, “Habla Ingles?” She smiles and says no, but indicates that I should walk upstairs. Upstairs I find an area with four desks and a bunch of helpful people who call over a colleague to assist.
Fabian, an energetic twenty-something gentleman comes over and I explain why I just sort of randomly showed up. (Didn’t even bring a bottle of wine.) He welcomes me and invites me downstairs to talk. Fabian works in sales and explains that El Espectador, an opinion paper, is the oldest newspaper in Colombia. He shows me some of their online stories and then tells me more of his.
He was living in Cali with his wife, who had just given birth to a baby boy, when a gang associated with Fabianthe FARC came to him, hit him with a gun, and threatened that, if he didn’t pay extortion money, they would kill his son. Wasting no time, he told his wife that she had to leave with the five-day-old baby. They came to Medellin where Fabian soon joined them. Though he had been an office worker, the only job he could get was in construction. He didn’t have the proper certificate to work in that field but was hired anyway. After a little while, the paychecks stopped coming. The owner kept telling him he would be paid the following week but, after three months without pay, and a wife and baby to support, well, he had to find something else. He eventually landed a job at El Espectador and is now one of their top sales people.
We chat for an hour and Fabian contacts his friend Marcella who agrees to show me around a bit tomorrow. He also invites me to an event honoring the 130th anniversary of the newspaper. I’ve talked about how nice the people of St. John’s, Newfoundland are, out-niced only by the Irish; Colombians give both a run for their money.
I wander around my neighborhood window-shopping and stopping in a church before walking to Parque Lleras. I have no idea what this park is like and have never heard of it but it turns out to be a great area with just a few street vendors selling artwork and jewelry, and more than a few restaurants selling food and drink. I settle in a seat at the Basílica (not another church but a restaurant and bar) where I proceed to write while getting a little tipsy on pisco sours and ceviche. I subscribe to the writer’s creed, write drunk, edit sober. As the happy-hour is 3-for-1 and I’m already a little drunk it would be shameful not to claim that third drink (mom always told me that I shouldn’t waste because children in Africa have no cocktails – or something like that)  so I order a beer and, soon enough, am on my way.
 
The following day I meet Fabian’s friend Marcela at the office of El Espectador. Our plan is to walk Me and Marcelaaround the city so she can show me some different areas but, get two women talking and, well, we drink coffee and talk in the office for an hour-or-two. Marcela is an engineer who teaches STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). As Fabian puts it, she’s beautiful and smart. Eventually, we leave the office and walk along the streets of Medellin, past Parque Lleras and over towards Oviedo Mall. In my opinion, Medellin has some things in common with Kuala Lumpur; both have wonderful and unique mass-transit systems and both have an abundance of very modern malls.
Marcella and I say goodbye in order to go back to our respective abodes in order to freshen up, Mayor of Medellinattempting to make ourselves look beautiful before catch taxis to the Museo de Antioquia where the 130th-anniversary celebration for El Espectador is being held. Traffic is terrible and I arrive forty-minutes late. Still, the presentation begins just after I arrive. First to speak is Federico Gutiérrez, the mayor of Medellin. He’s very well-respected and, oh yes, he’s easy on the eyes. He speaks in Spanish and I have no idea what he’s saying but I enjoy looking at him. Marcela eventually shows up during a question and answer session with some of the editors of the paper.StatementSoon, the official part ends and we walk across the way to a display of some of El Espectador’s covers throughout their 130-year history. They’re divided into the triumphs and tragedies of the past 130 years Tragedyand it’s riveting looking at the 100-year-old headlines and photos in Colombia. Drinking wine in the courtyard for just a few minutes before a giant thunderstorm arrives we move the party inside. We spend a few hours meeting Fabian’s workmates, some of whom are in sales, some work as assistants, and others are reporters. Oh, and FYI – they think Trump is crazy. The wine continues to flow and hors d’oeuvre are served while we laugh and sing to a violinist and saxophonist who now stroll around inside playing some familiar tunes (New York, New York anyone?).
It is a great night with locals who I now call friends.
Office Party
 
Tomorrow – leaving Medellin to find coffee.
 
 

When Good Triumphs Over Evil

Today I finally get to know Medellin. I’m taking a walking tour of Comuna 13, notorious in Medellin’s recent history and the center of the Medellin Drug Cartel headed by Pablo Escobar.
RunnersI walk down to the meeting point at the Poblado Metro Station via Carrera 43A, a main boulevard here in Medellin. Opened in 1995, the Medellin Metro is the only metro system in Colombia. It’s Sunday, which means half of the boulevard is closed to motorized traffic so people can walk, run, bike, rollerblade or use any other Healthmeans of non-motorized transportation they wish to enjoy a healthy Sunday in Medellin. Hell, I see one woman running and juggling (obviously training for the new Olympic event similar to cross-country skiing and shooting). These Sunday closures are all about health and I see signs of that all around. Besides the runners, walkers, bikers, and rollerbladers, I encounter a couple of medical type people set up on the sidewalk taking people’s blood pressure, as well as a fitness trainer holding a class involving jump ropes.
Mass TransitArriving at the Poblado Metro Station just before 10:00 am, I easily find the meeting point for Comuna 13 Tours. Twenty-or-so people are gathered and within a few minutes, we have at least thirty. Our guide, Oscar, introduces himself and shows us the metro map indicating where we’ll be visiting during our four-hour-tour.
We enter the metro station and walk through the turn style, following Oscar’s direction. We’ll be taking public transportation on this tour, all of which is included in our COP70,000 fee Medellin Subway Car(US$23.47). This is a great introduction to the city’s public transportation system and will help when I‘m taking it on my own. Our train soon arrives and we all follow closely, fearing we’ll get separated from our group. The trains here are wide, much wider than any other city’s public transportation I’ve taken, and very clean.
While on board I meet two twenty-somethings from the U.S. They’re very nice but exhausted and a bit hungover from a long night of drinking and dancing. While they say it was a great night, perhaps today’s plan should have simply been a late breakfast of pancakes while wearing sunglasses. (Unfortunately for them, there’s no Denny’s here.)
Stopping at the San Antonio station, we switch trains and, 25-minutes later, exit at the San Javier station where Oscar gives us some information about the neighborhood, before taking us to eat some typical Colombian street food; empanadas and arenas de choclo con queso (flat corn cakes with fresh cheese). The French people in front of me order seconds before I order my first and are totally “me chiant” (pissing me off, in French, according to Google Translate).
From here, we board a private bus (remember I told you about these when we were in Cartagena?) and, as I board, an old man sitting in a seat by the door takes my water bottle from me. As it’s not my reusable bottle, but one supplied by Oscar, I don’t fight him and think, though strange, well, who am I to deny a thirsty person water? The bus is crowded and I’m standing when we not so much depart, as enter a race through the street of Medellin. The trip is mostly uphill and the bus, being a manual shift, with the driver apparently been trained on an automatic, we jolt, bounce, thump and bounce up the hill, while careening around corners, my hands gripping the above bars and feet swinging like an Olympic parallel bar champion. By the time we arrive at our destination, I feel as if I’ve just completed a gym boot camp (I need a drink). As we exit, the old man who stole my water hands it back to me. It turns out he knew what the ride would be like and that I’d need both hands to hold on.
Cable CarWe step out and head up the cable car. The cable cars were installed in the aughts (mid-2000’s) as an official part of the Metro, or mass transit system. Medellin is a city of hills and mountains and, before the cable cars were installed, it could take up to three hours and a variety of buses, to commute to work. Now it takes an average of 25 minutes. And while the original idea was simply another form of commuting, the cable cars have become a major tourist attraction.
ElevatorsNext, Oscar introduces us to the Escalator Project. This series of five escalators covere in distinct orange and glass coverings, opened in 2011 and was designed by Carlos Escobar (no relation Pablo). Prior to its installation, the citizens of Comuna 13 had to climb the equivalent of 28 stories when commuting from the city to their homes in this poor neighborhood. And these people had surely been through enough.
In the early 1990’s and into 2000 this neighborhood experienced 8,000-10,000 murders per year. Think about that for a moment; not a city, but a neighborhod. Comuna 13 was controlled by the infamous drug-kingpin Pablo Escobar. People here wouldn’t dare exit their homes after 5:00 pm and friends and family wouldn’t think about visiting. Guerrillas stationed themselves in houses high on the hill and fired bullets at anyone who might be outside. Many innocents were killed as targets on the streets and

House
Houses where guerillas stationed themselves to shoot at people below.

bystanders in their homes.  In addition, anyone who the guerrillas felt might be speaking up against them, or even family members of those, Escobar ordered killed at a cement wall which came to be known as the Wall of Execution.
 
Escobar was caught and imprisoned in 1991. The prison wasn’t so bad though as he built it himself. Oh, and he went home on the weekends to visit his family. In 1992, he “escaped” as extradition to the US was being negotiated. He had plastic surgery and, when he was hunted down and killed in 1993, many weren’t convinced it was actually him. (Side note: you can now go to the former prison as part of Pablo’s Paintball Tours to shoot paintballs at each other.)
MuralsFollowing Escobar’s apprehension, imprisonment, and ultimate death, things didn’t immediately change. Now that Escobar was dead, various drug cartels and gangs fought for control of Comuna 13. Finally, in 2002, the government led an operation to take back the barrio. The rebels were so heavily armed that a police car was destroyed by a grenade. Over the three days of the operation, 400 people were killed.Finally, the citizens of Comuna 13 felt as if they’d escaped from prison as things began to turn around with the help of Mayor Alonzo Salazar and his efforts to enact change. Comuna 13 is now full of life. Graffiti decorates walls throughout the barrio. This is not gang tagging, it’s art expressing the history and voices of this community. And though these murals are up for interpretation, some of the artists have spoken out explaining the meaning of their murals. Elephants can be found on some walls. Oscar explains that elephants have long memories and, while the people here have chosen to forgive in order to move on, they say they will never forget the horror which happened here. Some other paintings depict scenes from nature signifying that we take from Mother Nature but give nothing back.
Dog and Cat
Everyone gets along now.

Today, the streets are filled with the sounds of music, the smells of home-cooked meals, and the bustle of people working and children playing. On our arrival in Comuna 13, a woman walking up the street tells us, “Bienvenido a mi comunidad!” (Welcome to my community!) The people of Comuna 13 are very proud of the revitalization of their community.
At the top of the last escalator we come to a staircase, next to which is a three-lane slide. Fifteen years-ago parents would hardly allow their children to leave home. Now there’s a built-in slide for them to play on. I, of course, can’t resist playing and take a trip down the slide.
We enjoy some more street food – yummy churros (fried doe with a choice of sweet syrups) and paletas (fruit-filled popsicles made in a cup with a wooden stick in them) before heading back down the escalators, where we’re picked up by our bus, along with its crazy driver. I rush on to grab a seat this time and we’re taken to the Metro. After just over four hours, we’re back, almost to where we began.
Oh, and the two tired and hungover American girls? They disappeared somewhere during the tour. When traveling, it’s difficult to be both a night and a day person for very long.
This tour is a must-do in Medellin in order to know the city and appreciate what they’ve been through and why they seem so joyful. I am now in love with this city and considering staying longer than planned.
Note – While Comuna 13 Tours was nice enough to host me on this tour, this did not sway my opinion at all. And, at COP70,000 (about US$23.50), this four-hour tour which includes some local street food, is a bargain.

It's a Gamble

Following my Minca jungle adventures, I take an early-morning cab ride to the Santa Marta airport from where I have a 9:00 am flight to Bogota for a quick connection on to Medellin. After a really smooth and on-time LATAM Airlines flight, I land in Medellin at 12:15 pm. I’m incredibly impressed with Colombian airports as, so far, they’ve been easy to navigate and have had the cleanest restrooms of any airports I’ve been in.
ViewA taxi to my hotel in the Pabaldo neighborhood takes about 45 minutes and costs about $20.00. As we drive, I begin to see the beauty of this city. With a population of about 2.5 million, this big city still retains its natural beauty with tall, green mountains and parks decorating the landscape. The mountains are striking and, as I gasp at the beauty, my taxi driver smiles saying, “You like?”
“Si, muy bonito!”
He seems proud of his city and stops on the side of the road insisting that I take a photo.
He drops me at my hotel, the Estelar Blue, a business hotel at which I was lucky enough to score a great deal using Orbitz and a coupon code. The hotel is in the Poblado district of Medellin, an area where most have told me to stay as it’s nice and safe. (We’ll talk more about safety tomorrow). Upon my arrival, I’m happy to hear that, though I’ve arrived at about 1:30 pm, my room is ready.
I enter my room and breathe in deeply. Though there was nothing at all wrong with my room in Minca (though I could have done without Tarantulina Joli), it’s really nice to have the luxury of a large, softer bed, a TV (well, one channel is in English and, unfortunately, it’s HLN), a shower which can hold at least five people (hey, I’m good at making friends), an air conditioner, a minibar, and teak floors (I’m feeling all classy). The price of this place includes breakfast, as most hotels in Colombia do, as well as a light dinner (this is unusual).
I spend the rest of the day grabbing some lunch and taking a nap as it seems I’m a bit exhausted after non-stop travel since May.
Keeping it simple the following day, I walk less than a mile to the Santa Fe Mall. With 380 shops, it’s the largest mall in Medellin and there’s nothing you can’t buy here (including a car). It’s also a great way to see the fashions in another country as well as getting out of the tourist shopping areas. And malls usually have salons to get your hair cut, and I desperately need one. I enter a salon and ask if they have someone who knows how to cut pelo rizado (curly hair – thanks, Google Translate!). The lady disappears and returns with their pelo rizado expert who agrees to cut my hair for the low price of US$14.00. If you’ve been with me since the beginning of Drop Me Anywhere, you’ll know that I used to have hair issues and had to accept the possibility of bad haircuts while traveling. In the end, the cut is good, but only because I wanted my hair shorter. If not, I might need a few drinks.
As I walk through the Santa Fe Mall, I come to an atrium filled (and I mean filled) by a giant peacock. This peacock is made from over 200,000 of colorful flowers and is only on display temporarily a leftover from the recent Féria de Las Flores, the Medellin Flower Festival, which ended just a few days ago (really sad that I missed it). It’s beautiful and delicate, and its size is overwhelming.peacockI walk back to my hotel and, in the way, I encounter one of the many street performers of Medellin. These men and women earn money mainly by juggling in front of cars stopped at red lights. This guy happens to be incredibly talented and, as the light changes, to red, he quickly grabs his rope which is tied to an electric pole and runs across the street to ties the other end. He then jumps on the rope, removes his hat which he throws onto his right foot, balances a ball on his head, which he begins spinning (the ball, not his head, though that would be cool), and starts to juggle clubs. Again, this is all being done at a red light. I stand smiling and applauding while a car horn beeps from the back of the line. Just as the light turns green, he jumps down and gathers his rope to allow traffic to proceed. Impressed, I reach into my purse and hand him COP10,000 (US$3.37).
JugglerJust down the street from me is the Hollywood Casino where I spend the evening at a blackjack table, learning some of the different betting rules here in Colombia. There’s the lucky lady circle, where you can lay down extra bets where you’ll win more money should you draw one or two queens, as well as another unnamed circle which will earn you more winnings if you get dealt two of the same numbers or suits in your initial deal (or something like that). I stick to the basics and lose COP100,000 (US$33.73). Still, I enjoy speaking to a few local fellow players who speak English and I consider my losses money well spent on an enjoyable evening. Oh, and like Las Vegas, drinks are free!
Walking back to my hotel, the streets are well-lit and bustling and I feel perfectly safe and look forward to tomorrow when I’ll walk through some of the, formerly, most crime-ridden streets in the world.
 

Chasing Waterfalls

There’s nothing like relaxing in the jungle and today is proof of that. I came down with a cold last night and, between that and the really hard beds of Colombia, sleep was difficult to come by. As I’m in Minca for four nights, which seems a bit longer than most who come (though I don’t know why as it’s beautiful), I take this day to catch up on work, reading, and hammock time (not to be confused with Hammer Time). This a reason I like slow travel. You don’t feel the need to run and see everything quickly, even when you’re just not in the mood. Also, when you’re location independent, you need those days to relax or catch up on personal hygiene and shopping needs.
HotelMost hotels here include breakfast in the price and I awake in time to eat before it ends at 9:00am. While I plan to spend most of the day catching up on work, the relaxing atmosphere of the Hotel Minca La Casona draws me in and, though I finish my breakfast, I seem to have some trouble going to my room to fetch my computer. Instead, I choose to open my iPad and read the New York Times. (I subscribed to the app last week which, with the news lately, might not be such a good thing. Still, I choose to be involved in the world and not bury my head in the sand.)
PoolI finally get vertical and decide to walk around the small hotel (14 rooms in all) and explore the Hotel Minca Las Casona used to be a convent and I see signs of that in a few small paintings hanging in the halls, as well as the arches lining the walkways. I stumble upon a swimming which I wasn’t even aware the hotel had (ah yes, I really don’t research a whole lot prior to coming). Once I know of it, it’s too tempting not to take a dip. As I exit the pool, I notice two hammocks lining the walkway outside some rooms which seem like the perfect place to lie down and drip dry. Reading Vanity Fair on my iPad (I’ve subscribed to their app since I left home for Germany, and it’s excellent), I soon become drowsy and take a short hammock nap. (Yeh, this getting work done thing is going well.)
HummingbirdFinally, it’s time for some work which is made more enjoyable given the view from my traveling office – the hotel veranda looking over the vast jungle, hummingbirds flittering about sucking up sugar water from the feeders. These incredible creatures are growing on me as they seem to defy the laws of gravity by stopping mid-air with only their wings flapping. And, it turns out, they’re not so nice. I watch them knock each other around when one tries to hone in on another’s feeder. You can actually hear them crash into each other. I remind them that sharing is caring, yet they remind me that all’s fair in sugar and water.
As I sit working, thunder rolls in from the distance and, before long, tropical rain begins pounding on the tin roof. I take a break from working to enjoy some spaghetti bolognese for lunch (you can also have lunch in the hotel restaurant for a fee) while watching and listening to the storm pound around me. Tummy full with the storm continuing, I become a cliché writer, sitting on the veranda overlooking the jungle while sipping ginger tea.
StormThe hotel doesn’t serve dinner so I choose to skip it instead of breaking my day-long fast from the outside world. I write, I read, and I watch a movie which I’ve downloaded from Netflix. (Hooray for Netflix now having downloads!) I also wash some clothes in my sink. As they soak in the bubbly water with the assistance of my shampoo, I turn my back for a moment only to find, when I turn back, large ants crawling through the bubbles and on my clothes. Emptying the water in the sink, I flick the ants off only to have more appear from the overflow hole in the sink. They’re coming out so fast, they look like they’re on the last hill of a log-flume ride. I throw on some clothes (I’ve also just showered), head to the front desk and ask the owner Iliana to come to see them.
She looks and heads out to call her husband Sergio, the other owner, to come with a can of get these ants the hell out of here. Spraying loads of the stuff in the sink and down both the main and overflow drains, they then call the housekeeper who sweeps up the carnage. Apologizing, they tell me this is due to the unusually warm temperatures the last few days and hasn’t happened since they bought the place five years ago. They’ve taken care of it quickly and, with both the ants and Tarantulina Jolie gone (I haven’t seen her since we both chose to ignore each other), I’m mostly okay. Still, for the next twenty-four hours, I have Insectus Epidermus Imposter Syndrome, also known as that feeling of itchiness from imagined creepy-crawlers climbing on you. (I may or may not have made that term up.)
After a long day of relaxing, I’m exhausted and head off to sleep.
 
I awake today, grab some breakfast (the standard in Colombian hotels seems to be scrambled eggs with Roadtomatoes and onions) and head out to grab a moto-taxi at the bridge. The power has gone out this morning which means it’s a great time to head to the jungle. I run into my driver Luis Alberto again and we head to Cascades Marinka (Marinka Waterfall). After the pounding rains of yesterday, the roads are even worse than they were a couple of days ago. And the road to this waterfall is even more rutted and steep. I hold on and try to distract myself with the beauty of the jungle. Minca is known for its 350 species of birds and, along the way, Luis Alberto stops and explains that he hears the call of a beautiful bird, a toucan. We look in the tree but have trouble spotting him (yes, we follow our nose as it always knows). We never do find him but there’s so much beauty here in Minca, I can’t be disappointed.
Jose Luis stops the bike at the side of the road near a restaurant in a wooden shack. He points down the rocky side-road saying “siete minutos” (seven minutes) and indicates that he’ll wait for me at the restaurant.
The road is steep and, nueve-minutos después (nine-minutes later), I walk through a gate, paying the guy attending my 4,000 peso entrance fee (US$1.34) before hiking down a series of rocky steps until I finally arrive at the bottom. There’s only one person there and, after chatting, he tells me he’s from Argentina and is traveling long term. As I’m entering the water, he’s stepping out.
WaterfallThe water is slightly warmer than the previous waterfall and I’m quickly up to my chest in water. One of the travel rules I have for myself is to be sure to put my head under every waterfall I come across, and I swim over and accomplish my mission here. Swimming in these spots deep in the jungle, with few tourists around is an amazing feeling – peaceful and freeing.
After a bit of chatting with the Argentinian (my Spanish is getting better while here), I step out of the water and the Argentinian leaves. I hike back up the rocky stairs and stop for a beer at the shack at the top before hiking down the steep path to meet back up with Luis Alberto. We have another harrowing, twenty-minute ride back into town.
Arriving in town, I find the power-outage still going on and it’s city-wide. Still, being Minca, everybody seems to take it in stride. I sit down outside a restaurant and order one of the things they can make without electricity, a ham and cheese panini. This is made using their gas burners and is served with various sauces. Minca caters well to vegetarians (there’s hummus everywhere) and environmentalists and I enjoy a walk through the few shops there, buying some natural mosquito spray and macramé bracelets.
I head back to pack while there’s still daylight in case the power remains off. Still, as the window in my room provides minimal light, I make good use of the various flashlights I travel with. I shake out all of my clothes prior to packing them just in case Tarantulina Jolie has decided to hitch a ride and walk back down to town to enjoy a vegetarian stir-fry back at Lazy Cat.
Tomorrow – A visit to a city formerly off-limits.

Minca – A Gem in the Jungle

After a long day of traveling to Minca, Colombia, I tear myself away from the spectacular view from the terrace of my hotel while I’m shown to my basic twin bed room (though there’s one bed, no twin). It’s simple but has all I need – a bathroom, ceiling fan, and nightstand. No air conditioning as it’s not really Hotel Roomneeded up here at a cooler temperature and no TV. Each room in the Hotel Minca La Casona is named after a type of tree here in the jungle. Mine, room number 5, is called the Guayacán. This area,, and particularly this hotel, is known as a bird-watchers’ paradise. Most who know me know that I couldn’t give a flying, uh, bird about the bird watching. To clarify, I enjoy watching them and even appreciate the different music they provide to accompany a day in nature, I just don’t care what they’re called. The way I figure it, they don’t know what they’re called, so why should I? I’ve been on safari in Africa when I’ve spotted a giraffe and a lion, yet all the bird watchers wanted to know was, “What kind of bird is that?” Perhaps it also involves a bit of jealousy as I’ve always wanted to have the ability to fly; not in an airplane, but just me, levitating freely above the earth. Still, I consider that this place might increase my appreciation for our fine-feathered friends.
As I unpack my bags (I fully unpack if I’m staying in a place three nights or longer so I feel more settled) TarantulaI notice a black spot on the wall near the floor. As I approach to see what it is, it uses its multiple legs to begin moving. I inhale and hold my breath. The front desk closes at 6:00pm and I arrived just before. The owners live in a house down the driveway which you can go to in case of an emergency but I’m not sure a tarantula in your room in the jungle qualifies as an emergency. I decide to take a shower and hope it will just disappear.
When I step out of the shower (yay, hot water!) the tarantula is still there. I decide the only way to come to terms with it, is to consider it a pet. I name her Tarantulina Jolie (I’ve used this technique before when I worked on a ship and had a pet cockroach named Fred). Keeping one eye on Tarantulina, I quickly throw on a dress and head out to enjoy the view from the lobby balcony. I get just a few minutes of light as the sun sets early here in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At 6:45 I head out for dinner.
It’s tough to navigate a town in the dark when you haven’t seen it in the light. I bring my flashlight which, though not vitally needed, helps me navigate down the long drive to the main street. On the way, I meet some other tourists who point out the main area of town. It’s about a block long and it’s here that I find the Lazy Cat Restaurant. One of the hotel owners has told me this place has a nice atmosphere so I walk in. There’s a back porch sitting high above the Minca River which seems like a lovely place to eat. Unfortunately, many have the same idea and there’s not a seat to be found. I wander down to a lower balcony which, with its one light bulb, reminds me either of an interrogation room in a third-world prison, or that time I sat in the hotel restaurant in the Indian jungle. This is where my flashlight comes in handy.
Passion Fruit MargaritaAfter a dinner of a fine hamburger (I had a craving) and an even better passion fruit margarita, I walk the ten minutes back to the hotel. As I enter my room, I notice Tarantulina Jolie has moved to the wall just outside the bathroom. I grab one of the many brochures of the region I’ve picked up and attempt to entice her to climb aboard so I can relocate her outside. Apparently, I startle her and she jumps; so I jump and scream. I look for her and she’s disappeared so I decide my best move is to climb into bed and hide. I place a pair of shoes on the nightstand so, if I have to get up in the middle of the night, I won’t step on her nor will she be in my shoes.
After enjoying breakfast on the main balcony while watching the hummingbirds enjoy theirs from the many feeders hanging around, I walk down to the main road and find the gathering of motor-taxis at the bridge. These motorcycle taxis are the way one travels in Minca as they can navigate the muddy, steep mountain roads better than any other type of vehicle. I’ve heard of a coffee plantation in the hills here as well as some wonderful waterfalls with pools to swim.
Luis Alberto, one of the many drivers,  has offered a ride up the mountain to the coffee plantation COP15,000 (about US$5.00). He offers me a helmet (unlike Cartagena, they mostly use them in Minca) and I hop on the back of his bike (actually, the hard beds have exacerbated a hip issue and his bike rides high so I not-so-much hop on as I do negotiate my way from the side of a curb).
Dirt RoadWe ride a few-hundred-feet down the road before we hit dirt and begin climbing into the mountains. Jungle surrounds us on both sides and, the more we climb, the worse the “road” gets. In most parts, it’s simply mud, surrounded by rocks, with deep holes. Sometimes there’s a strip of firmer dirt or even cement which Luis Alberto traverses like a tightrope-walker working without a net (remember, we’re climbing up a mountain with steep drops on the side). With the incredible jungle and views surrounding us, I would call this a dangerously beautiful ride. At one point, dozens of bright blue butterflies flitter around accompanying us on our ride.
coffeeTwenty-minutes-later, we arrive at the coffee plantation. A tour in English has just begun so I join in. We learn about the coffee bean process from picking to bagging. It’s fascinating that most of the movement of the beans throughout the process is done through a combination of gravity and water. It’s on this tour that I meet two Irish lasses, Ailbhe and Caoimhe, pronounce Alba and Queensly, I think (those crazy Irish names). They’re on a day tour of Minca from Santa Marta with their guide Luis. We enjoy good conversation over a cup of coffee at the end of the tour and decide to stay and have a beer and chat some more.
Irish Girls at WaterfallThe next stop for Ailbhe and Caoimhe is Pozo Azul which is partway down the mountain. As this is also my plan, we decide to go together. Luis calls a mototaxi for me and we head back down the muddy path, through a gate, and onto a rocky path. Ten minutes more and we’ve arrived. Walking down some dirt and rock steps, I catch my first glimpse of Pozo Azul. As “azul” translates to “blue,” Luis tells us the name came because some people hiking at night saw it and, in the moonlight, it was a striking color of blue. As we look at it, it’s a murky marrón (brown). It’s not dirty, just colored from the soil and rains.
Removing our clothes (we have swimsuits on underneath, get your head out of the gutter) we wade into the frigid waters. The bottom is sandy and there’s no need for water shoes. Within a minute, the Irish girls have dived in. Being Irish, they’re used to cold, wet places. It takes me a few more minutes to wade in but, once in, I slowly warm up (or, perhaps, I just become numb). Luis joins us as we play in the water and under the falls. He then climbs up the side of the waterfall and jumps in. The Irish lasses soon follow. For me, I already have prior experience cliff-jumping, as well as both climbing up waterfalls and repelling down, not to mention jumping off, backwards, into a tube in a cave (read about that blackwater rafting experience in New Zealand here), and decline the invitation as I’m just not feeling the climb in me today.
Luis soon appears in the water with a fresh pineapple and begins slicing off pieces for us to enjoy. After an hour of hanging out at the falls, dried off (well, sort of), we say our goodbyes and the girls and Luis head off down the mountainside on their motorcycles, while I decide to walk down, enjoying the jungle at a leisurely pace.
Mountain ViewOn the way down, while enjoying the beautiful views,  I stop at a restaurant (actually a wooden shack with picnic tables) and ask to use “el baño.” Walking through the curtains, I find a toilet next to a large bucket filled with water in which to wash my hands. The guy running the place seems to be around seventy and wears a straw cowboy hat and a big smile. I can’t resist him and we jokingly trade hats while I sit down to enjoy a beer and some chorizo sausage.
Restaurant OwnerI say my graciases and adioses and hike the rest of the way down the mountain. A light rain begins to fall yet I hardly get wet given the cover from the jungle flora. Between the friendly beauty of the people and the glorious natural beauty, I’m pleased to have found this gem in the jungle.
 
If you’d like to book a tour with Luis, you can book contact the company he works for here.