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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)
 
 
 
 
 

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.