Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cartagena, Medellin, & Salento

Colombia was not on my agenda for this trip.  Not at all.  That all changed when I met Martha & Thiago on my camping tour in Namibia in July.  They are a lovely Colombian-Brazilian couple who I got along really well with on the trip, and since I was going to be in South America at that time anyway, they invited me to attend their wedding.  How could I say no?  The dates didn’t fit perfectly, so I had to give Bolivia and most of Argentina the axe, but I got to add the Galapagos and give Colombia a good exploration.

Colombia used to be one of the world’s most dangerous countries.  An armed conflict engulfed the nation for many decades, and it’s far too complicated to explain here, but drug trafficking and kidnapping were rampant.  You can Wikipedia that shit for more information.  It wasn’t until about a decade ago that the situation began to improve.  Ten years ago, there were only about fifty thousand foreign tourists coming to Colombia.  Now there are more than four million annually.  That’s a big jump in a short amount of time.  The country still has some dangerous pockets and you have to be on guard even in the safer areas – these are the main reasons I wasn’t originally contemplating a visit – but if you have a good head on your shoulders and don’t do anything stupid, then Colombia is actually a lovely place to visit.  Travelling around the country was surprisingly cheap and easy, though the winding mountain roads made for some nauseating bus rides.  Luckily, domestic flights were often cheaper than long-distances buses.  WIN!

A few highlights of my time in Colombia:

Everyone loves Cartagena.  The city is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in South America.  It has gorgeous old city walls which you can walk on, and funding from UNESCO has turned the old city into a gorgeously restored tourist mecca.  Like, super gorgeous.  But I didn’t like Cartagena.  Not at all.  Let me explain.

It was hot as fuck in Cartagena and I wanted to die.

Like, terrible hot.  I was melting.  It didn’t help that the whole neighbourhood’s power went out for 28 hours due to some rain (but it rains there all the time!)  So there was no AC and no fan in my hostel room one night.  It was like an oven.  I got up early to walk around and tried to find shade and a restaurant with air conditioning in the blazing heat of the afternoon.  I went to Cartagena’s best mall but it was pretty shit except for the fact that it had strong AC.  There are beaches not too far from Cartagena but it was just too hot and I am far too pale to be in the sun like that.  I spent my entire fourth day in the hostel.  Look at my photos.  I am so sweaty in every single one.  These will not be my profile pics anytime soon.  Or ever.

Aside from melting, I also did wander around the tourist sites.  I spent quite a bit of time walking on the old city walls and through the colourful streets and gorgeous plazas of the old city.  I visited the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – a big Spanish fort on a hill with views of the city – as well as several museums – none of which had much English explanation and all of which wanted you to hire an English-speaking guide for an exorbitant amount of money.  The Museo de Arte Moderno wasn’t anything to write home about, neither was the historical museum inside the old Palacio de la Inquisicion.  Surprisingly, the only one that was remotely interesting was the Convento y Iglesia de San Pedro Claver.  San Pedro Claver was a Spanish missionary who preached to and helped the slaves, and he became a saint due to his great work.  While I don’t normally enjoy religious-themed anything, the story of his life was something a bit different than you normally get in church museums, and he’s actually buried in a glass coffin right in the nave of the church.  His skull is visible, which is both creepy and intriguing at the same time.  The museum also had a normal, boring religious art section and I took a selfie with a statue of Jesus carrying the cross because there was really nothing else to do.

Even when I was planning Colombia, Medellin wasn’t on my itinerary until just days in advance.  Once the most dangerous city in the world and home to the most notorious criminal in the Colombian conflict – Pablo Escobar – Medellin is now a relatively safe tourist destination.  I started my time in the city with the Real City Tour – a four-hour walking tour which goes over the history of Medellin including much detail on the armed conflict that tormented the city for ages, and about its recovery.  If you have Netflix and have seen Narcos, it’s set here in Medellin and our tour witnessed them filming a scene in one of the parks.

The museums of Medellin were fantastic – leaps and bounds ahead of Cartagena.  The Museo de Arte Moderno continues to be one of the best modern art museums I’ve visited in Latin America.  The Museo de Antioquia contains a bunch of boring stuff – mainly colonial religious art – but its highest floor is devoted solely to Fernando Botero.  Botero is from Medellin and is one of Colombia’s most famous and most celebrated artists.  He’s known for his sculptures and paintings of voluptuous, disproportionate figures.  The museum’s collection was large and outstanding with plenty of English explanation.  Outside, the Plazoleta de las Esculturas contains around two dozen giant Botero sculptures.  I love it.  I didn’t really know Botero before this trip, but I absolutely love his work.  Also in the city I visited the Museo de la Ciudad.  It wasn’t so much a museum as it was just a gallery of old pictures of Medellin, but it was really cool to see old photos of the city, including those of the construction of the metro (see more below).  The Museo de la Ciudad sat atop Cerro Nutibara – a hill in the middle of the city.  The hill had great views and a small recreation of a typical village of the area.  Medellin had several fancy malls and a handful of high class residential and commercial areas.  The mall at El Tesoro was up on a hillside and had great views of the city.

Medellin’s Metro:
The most impressive part of Medellin, however, was the metro.  Medellin is Colombia’s only city with a metro system.  It has two lines – one that runs north-south through the long valley and a shorter one that runs east-west.  The metro also had two lines called the metrocable.  The metrocable is basically a cable car system like you’d find at a theme park, but it’s an integral part of transport in the city and your ticket into the metro includes the metrocable.  The metrocable runs into the hills where the normal metro can’t run and connects people in the poorest districts of the city with jobs and resources in the city center.  It has dramatically changed the socioeconomic landscape of the city and has been one of the biggest factors in the increased safety of the city since it opened.  Fantastic.

While in Medellin, I took a day trip with some fellow travellers to Guatape – a small town about 2 hours away by bus.  The town sits next to a big reservoir, and a giant rock nearby (675 step to the top!) offers stunning views of the region.  The town is painted bright colours with fresco-like adornment, but aside from a few pretty pictures and climbing the rock, there isn’t much to do there.  I think should have been skipped in favour of more time in the city.

I headed south to coffee country after Medellin.  I love coffee.  Coffee is my friend.  And thanks to Australia, I am a complete coffee snob, and realizing that coffee around the world is rarely as good as Australia has made me homesick quite a few times.  I visited during one of the region’s rainy seasons, which wasn’t the best idea, but I persevered anyway.  The town of Salento is quite small and only recently became a part of the tourist trail.  It features a lovely viewpoint up a hill and a lot small cafes and souvenir shops.  The best of the town, however, lies just beyond its borders.  Kasa Guadua is a private nature reserve and I took an absolutely excellent guided tour which went over the history of the area as it relates to the ecology.  I learned all about plants and animals in the cloud forest, and saw quite a few new bird species.   Did you know that Colombia has a species of bamboo but no pandas to eat it???  Nearby, I joined one of the obligatory coffee tours (because if you come here and don’t do a coffee tour then you’re an idiot).  I learned about the coffee process (it’s very similar to the chocolate process), the history of coffee in Colombia, the different types of coffee hybrids, and even got to pick coffee berries (I think this is how they get free labour…)  The end of the tour concluded with homemade coffee from beans grown and processed right on the premises.  I normally drink my coffee with milk, but this black coffee was delicious.

The next morning I tried my luck for a five hour hike in the Valle de Cocora.  The valley is famous for its many wax palms – the tallest of the palm tree species.  The wax palms normally grow in the cloud forest, but when the forest was cleared for agricultural land, the wax palms were left behind as their wood was considered useless.  The hike included scrambling over some dodgy bridges and logs, and a halfway stop at a little café that features hot chocolate with cheese!  Yummy!  It also featured heavy rain and fog for about four out of the five hours.


It was pretty despite the weather, but I’ll need to go back when it’s not terrible outside.

I have a lot more to write about Colombia – including Bogota and all about Colombia’s food.  This entry is already long enough so I’ll stop here.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Cartagena, Medellin, and Salento, follow this link:

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