Weeks 43-44 – (Co)lombia

After three flights and two long layovers, we traveled from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere, from Chile to Colombia. The contrast between the north of Chile and the north of Colombia was stark: desert and sea, backpackers and beachgoers, Andean culture and Caribbean culture.

(Co)lors of Cartagena

I knew of Cartagena from my early teens. At that time, I was reading many adventure books. One of them was “Captain Blood” by Rafael Sabatini. At some point in the book, buccaneers attack Cartagena, an important port where treasures were collected before being sent to Spain. And now, I’m here in flesh and blood.
For a couple of days, we wandered around the walled city. The brightly painted colonial buildings was a welcome change from the adobe houses of San Pedro de Atacama. Salsa music was coming out of every joint. Colorfully dressed women were offering equally colorful fruits, or to take a picture with them.
While there, we joined a street food tour. It was fun to try the various cheap and tasty snacks we usually avoid. My favorite was mangoviche – slices of mango in a ceviche sauce.
One night, I was offered one gram of cocaine on the street. I refused under the pretense I already had my fix: ice cream.
For the rest of our time in Cartagena we just relaxed either at the pool, at the beach or on our balcony. We hadn’t had this type of mellow vacation for a while.

P.S. Despite the rainy season, there was plenty of sun. As usual, I got sunburnt.
P.P.S. What the street food couldn’t do to me, an upscale restaurant did: food poisoning. It was a tough 24 hours.

(Co)caine and Medellin

Once considered the most dangerous city in the world – thanks to Pablo Escobar, El Zar de la Cocaina, and the bloody war between drug cartels – Medellin is slowly shrugging this image off. Nowadays, even joking about cocaine may get you in trouble with the police. So, we didn’t.

During a city tour, Hernan, our guide, would not mention Escobar by name. He referred to him as “the famous criminal”, to avoid any possible comments from local passersby. 25 years since his death, it’s still a sore topic for many people. Hernan’s narrative included the paisa’s (people from this region) “exceptionalism” in comparison to the rest of Colombians, grim stories from a not so distant past, a lot of optimism for the future, and a strong pride for the progress that Medellin and Colombia have recently made to curb the violence.

Medellin’s downtown, although not the safest area, is quite an interesting place. It is full of people: some selling, some buying, some playing guitars, some singing, some dancing, some drinking (in spite of the law against it). There were groups of older men exchanging old watches; there were prostitutes right next to a church; there were stalls with hardcore porn for sale next to another church; there were Juniniars (or window shoppers); there was a plaza full of Botero’s sculptures; and according to our guide, there were plenty of pickpockets too.

The following day, armed with Hernan’s assurance that it is quite safe (during the day) to go to the once infamously dangerous Communa 13, we ventured out to see the city from the top of the hills and check out its graffiti. We explored these areas using the cable car and escalators that link these neighborhoods to the rest of the city. The view was great, the graffiti were quite good, and we felt perfectly safe.

El Poblado, the area of ex-pats and wealthy people, failed to impress us. To be fair, we only saw a very small portion of it.

Medellin has a nice vibe. The people are friendly. And the weather, when it’s not raining, is pleasant. It’s called the city of eternal spring for a reason.

(Co)ffee in Salento

A quick hop to Salento and we were in Eje Cofetera, the coffee growing region of Colombia.

However, the first thing we did after a short introduction to the city wasn’t a visit to a coffee farm but a seven-hour hike around the Cocora Valley.
We rode up to the entrance of the trails in an old Willys Jeep, a kind of public transportation around here. From there went through an open valley then made our way into dense rainforest. Lucky for us it hadn’t rained the day before and it was sunny so the trail wasn’t too muddy. However, we could see how it would be challenging on a rainy day. The trail followed a river which we crossed back and forth a few times, over hanging bridges.

Eventually, we reached Acaime, a hummingbird sanctuary. We saw several types of hummingbirds up close.

After half hour of bird watching, we backtracked a bit to the start of the trail to Finca La Montaña. It was the steepest part of the hike. Nevertheless, the efforts were worthwhile – when we reached the finca we enjoyed the view of the mountains and the valley below.
From there it was all downhill until the grand finale, the wax palms. Hundreds of them. It’s the only place where they grow in their natural habitat.

Then we were back into a Willys and back to Salento.

We didn’t go to a coffee farm the next day either. We decided to have a lazy day. We strolled down to the Quindio River. It was still early, so we kept walking. A couple of hours later we found ourselves at the Santa Rita waterfall. Another hour and a half with a strenuous hike up the mountain and we were back in town. And so our “lazy” day became a full-fledged trekking day.

On our last day in Salento we finally went to a coffee farm for a tour. This, however, didn’t go over smoothly: I rolled my ankle on the way, quite badly. However, being proudly stubborn, I continued to walk down to the farm for a couple of kilometers. Then I struggled through the tour. And only then did we get into a Willys to get back to town. By then my ankle was pretty swollen. But, now I know that: coffee fruits are called cherries and when they are ripe they are red or yellow not brown; they are still handpicked; farms pay pickers around 17 cents per kilogram; all high-quality coffee is exported.

These weeks in numbers:

0 km – distance cycled: I had to drop my Brompton off in Bogota until I replace the rear tire
1 – twisted ankle
6 – flights taken to visit three cities
8 – coffee cherries handpicked between Julie and me
214393 – steps we made while out and about