After an amazingly relaxing weekend at home for Gubba's birthday, we got to LAX with, what we thought, was plenty of time before our flight - two hours! But when we got up to the desk to get our boarding passes and check our bags after waiting for what seemed like forever in line, we were told that, not only did we only have minutes to get to the gate before it closed (the desk agent said the gate closes an hour before boarding. Really???), but that we also needed proof of onward travel out of Colombia. Oh crap. In all of the research we did, never once did we read anything that stated that we need proof of onward travel for a trip to Colombia, so we hadn't looked into when we would leave the country, or what our exit city would be. How are we supposed to make these decisions in mere minutes before boarding a flight? Unsure of what to do, we pleaded with the desk agent to just let us board the plane. "My manager says you can go, but you might not be permitted to board your connecting flight in El Salvador without proof of onward travel," she told us. Oh great, El Salvador is definitely not somewhere we want to get stuck! But since the gate, as we were told, was closing in just a few minutes, it was a risk we had to take. We checked our bags through to Cartagena and ran through the airport, Home Alone style, to security. We arrived at the gate out of breath and bleeding (the clutz that I am, I somehow banged my elbow so hard against one of those posts that form the lines in security that it was bruised and bleeding!). And of course, it was all for nothing! Our fellow passengers were lounging at the gate; the flight hadn't even started boarding yet. Thanks a lot lady. Since we now had about 20 minutes to spare, Jake hopped online, found some decent flights from Bogota to Quito, Ecuador, and bought them. Now we had our proof of onward travel, and now we wouldn't get stuck in El Salvador (and yes, the gate agents in El Salvador did actually check! Phew!!). We were all set - let's go to Colombia!
Our first impressions: Cartagena is different, of course, but familiar - like in Asia, people sell produce from carts they push down the street, vendors try to sell selfie sticks and hats, another vendor sells coffee from a dozen thermoses. The biggest differences from Asia, really, are the music and the laid back attitude of the people here.
Oh, and it's HOT. It's SO HOT.
Since Cartagena is a popular tourist town, hostels and hotels were pretty expensive. No bother, we typically prefer Airbnb apartments anyway! So we had booked a private room in an apartment in the historic center of town. Our host, JJ, was a very nice, middle-aged single Spaniard from Barcelona. Based on the pictures of the place on Airbnb, we weren't expecting a super nice apartment, but it was rated 5 stars, and the Airbnb review system is usually pretty trustworthy. Upon checking in, I was surprised at the 5 star rating - sure, the location was perfect (a five to ten minute walk from everything, right in the heart of the old city near the clock tower), but the place itself didn't meet our already moderate expectations - it was a bit dirty, and, the worst part, our AC didn't work for 3/4 nights. Considering the weather was in the upper 90s* with high humidity, we were pretty uncomfortable. While I think the digital display on the unit might have also been a bit off, it told us that our room was consistently between 30 and 33* C (about 86* F to 92* F). So we spent a lot of time at the Colombian Starbucks equivalent, Juan Valdez, enjoying the AC and internet when we weren't exploring. It was just too hot to stay in our room!
When we were researching South America, one thing we kept dreaming about was the food - we were so excited to try the many flavors of fresh herbs and produce on the continent! Unfortunately, our first stop did not wow us in the culinary department. The food in town was….decent. But it was all fried! I guess not surprisingly, everything that is cheap and affordable is deep fried - empanadas, arepas (like thick corn tortillas topped with anything as simple as cheese to anything as complex as shrimp, peppers, potatoes, and sauce), mashed potatoes formed into balls. Our favorite meals, though, were not fried. We splurged a little bit to check out two of the top restaurants in town, La Cocina de Pepina and La Cevicheria. At La Cocina de Pepina, the #14 restaurant among 404 places on Trip Advisor, we enjoyed Caribbean/Colombian fusion dishes of hen stew and slow roasted beef in a sweet sauce with coconut rice. At La Cevicheria, a Peruvian style restaurant and one of Anthony Bourdain's spots from No Reservations, we devoured amazing plates of, you guessed it, ceviche! It was light, refreshing, and so, so delicious.
The old city was small and easy to explore on foot. We wandered the tall, stone walls that used to protect the town. As we walked, we were approached by a man selling walking tours of the area. Thinking that we were in for the hard sell, we bolstered ourselves up to tell them man "no thank you" about seven times. But we were pleasantly surprised by our interaction with him - he offered his services, we declined, and he didn't push. Instead, he just chatted with us and gave us tips on where to go, what to see, the best direction to walk, and then asked us about ourselves, where we're from, all about our trip, etc. He spoke fantastic English, and we tried our best to speak in broken Spanish, which he happily corrected for us and taught us new words and phrases. We chatted with him for almost 20 minutes, and I feel like we had a free Spanish lesson! While I can't remember his name now, I do remember how personable and kind he was, and what a refreshing change it was to just have someone be genuinely interested in helping a tourist instead of just making a buck. We had read and heard that the people of Colombia are among the nicest people in the world, and that they are one of the best things about the country. If even half of our interactions with Colombians are as pleasant as this one, we're in for a treat!
We walked all along the small streets lined with brightly painted buildings and climbing bougainvillea. The streets are really quite beautiful, and surprisingly clean! There was always a city employee sweeping up bits of trash everywhere we went in the old city. We quickly learned, though, that the old city is very different from the surrounding area. Walking to La Castilla de San Felipe de Barajas one morning was kind of like being in Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland when the ride gets stopped and they have to turn the lights on - the magic was gone. The streets were filthy, traffic was terrible, and people were sleeping on trash bags next to dumpsters. Life here, real life outside of the safe tourist confines of those ancient walls, is very different than the life we live in the US.
The Castle was pretty neat though - supposedly, it's the largest Spanish fortification and strongest colonial fortress built by the Spanish anywhere in the world, and it has dozens, if not hundreds, of tunnels all through it. It was a pretty important fort, too, as it guarded one of the few entrances to the entire continent. La Castilla de San Felipe de Barajas is certainly different from the castles of Europe in that there were no grand halls, no old furniture, no residences of royals to explore. It was simply a stone fortress, so we were able to wander through it pretty quickly. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's haunted. As we walked for what seemed like three kilometers into the bowels of the earth beneath the castle, surrounded by thick stone walls and illuminated only by the light of our cell phones, we became uneasy at the thought that some creature was probably hiding down there. We decided to turn ourselves around and make our way back up the slippery cobblestone hallway and into the safety of the blazing hot sun and humid sea breeze (which almost sent us back into the darkness to escape the heat).
When in South America, do as the locals do - watch futbol! At the recommendation of our young server at La Cocina Pepina, we watched the Peru vs Colombia World Cup Qualifying match at a local convenience store-turned-bar, Pacha, with about 50 locals. In line with the wonderful Colombian hospitality, we were made to feel welcome when we walked in. There were no more seats so we just stood in the back of the room with our ice cold Club Colombia beers, between the liquor and the chips, when the owner brought in two step stools for us to sit on. He placed them in the middle of the room and the others made space for us! These people are so nice! It was fun to yell at the TV and enjoy a few beers with the group! They take their futbol seriously, but not too seriously; someone had the guts to yell "vive Peru!" at one point and the group just shook their heads and laughed. It probably helped that Colombia won.
And I guess it wouldn't be Colombia if we weren't offered drugs at least once, but we certainly weren't expecting it in Cartagena. Medellin sure, since that used to be the drug capital (spoiler alert: we weren't offered drugs once in the former "Most dangerous city in the world", and Medellin is AMAZING), but certainly not in the small, picturesque tourist town of Cartagena. But looking back on it now, maybe that was naïve of me to think - perhaps I should have expected it to be more prevalent in the more touristy place since dealers would probably have better business among the tourists. In less than 24 hours, though, as we walked past a random loitering men on certain street corners, they would say to Jake, "anything you want, man, I can get it. Anything!" Hmm, I really don't want to know just what "anything" means. We gave them a simple "No gracias" and they left us alone.
Cartagena was a good first stop in our South American adventure. We realized we have a LOT of practice to do on our Spanish, but I think we'll get pretty good at it by the time we head home in January! 3.5 months of Spanish immersion should do something! And after sweating non-stop for four days, we're really excited to get to cooler temperatures - I'm ready for fall weather! That being said, we were originally planning on going to Tyrona National Park to do some camping next to a beautiful beach, but it's just SO hot, and lots of rain was forecasted, so we bailed on that. We'd had enough heat and humidity in Cartagena. Instead, we decided to use the time we were going to spend in Tyrona in the small town of Salento in beautiful coffee country. But first, Medellin!
We did not know what to expect from Medellin. All we knew was that it's a big city and used to be the most dangerous city in the whole world. From what we'd read, the city experienced a major turn-around once Pablo Escobar was killed - crime dropped, drugs went away, and the people took pride in restoring the city to an honorable, safe, and welcoming place to live. And boy have they succeeded - Medellin is SO great...
Except for the taxi driver who tried to scam us by not resetting the meter and thus trying to overcharge us. Listen buddy, we've been to Vietnam, we know the scam! Don't worry, we ended up paying the fair rate.
Thankfully, that was the only negative experience we had during our time there! Something we were really surprised by is the fact that we never once felt unsafe. Of course, like any big city anywhere, Medellin does still have some rougher neighborhoods, and walking around by yourself at night is not encouraged. But our neighborhood, Laureles, was family friendly, tree lined, pretty, and safe. It actually reminded me of living in Brentwood (near Santa Monica), with the way the busy streets had tons of apartment buildings mixed in with local business and restaurants I could walk to. And, bonus, our Airbnb apartment was located above a popular bakery, Astor, where we tried a local favorite, torta negra, a dense cake that is soaked in sweet wine for two weeks. It was delicious!
The apartment we had was great! We rented one room in a three bedroom unit, and the other two rooms were also rented out to Airbnb guests. What's even better is we had the place to ourselves for a few nights! The owner, Lina, really understands hospitality, and was so knowledgeable and helpful - we barely needed to research how to get around town or what to do! With her warm and welcoming attitude and great care that she gives her apartment, it's no wonder that she has earned the "Superhost" award from Airbnb. Lina is originally from Medellin and lived in New York for about 15 years, so she speaks perfect English (complete with sarcasm!). Now she and her daughter are back in Medellin. She wanted her daughter to go to the US for university, but her daughter fell in love with a boy and is now attending university in Medellin. Ah young love! Lina does like this boy though, so everyone is happy.
Considering Medellin used to be a city full of murder and crime, we're happy to report that never once did we see hints of this past. We had read blog posts and watched TV hosts state that, since Escobar was killed, the citizens of the city came together to turn the city around. Their progress is a great source of pride, and they are eager to show off their home to tourists. In fact, many locals went out of their way to take care of tourists - they ask if you need directions, say "Welcome" on the streets, help you figure out the metro system. They know that taking care of tourists and making it a place that people want to visit is in the best interest of the town. And I'd say it's working - here we are telling you how wonderful the city is and how nice everyone is, and hopefully we'll inspire you to add it to your list of destinations to visit. Something else that stood out to us, no one offered to sell us drugs on the street, unlike touristy Cartagena.
At night, we walked a few blocks to the loud bar street, Calle 33, to see if we could find a bar to enjoy a few beers in. Lina, our host, had mentioned that each bar is a little different; some play rock, some play electronica, some play pop, some have sports on TVs, some have poles in the back (…). There was something for everyone! So before picking a spot to post up and hopefully chat with some locals (as we typically love to do, which I'm learning is a telltale sign that we're American), we walked up and down both sides of the street, taking inventory of our options. The conclusion - we're too old and it was too early! Every bar was SO LOUD!! There was no way we were going to be able to talk to anyone, let alone each other, in these places. (Does the music really have to be that loud? Geez we're old.) And they were all empty, since people in South American really don't get their nights started until midnight at the earliest. So our hopes of striking up a convo with some locals were dashed and we went to bed. Oh well.
While we didn't eat a lot of typical Colombian food while in Medellin (the restaurants around us had a lot international cuisine), we did indulge in some "gourmet" arepas for dinner at J&C Delicias. Arepas are like a 1/4 inch thick corn tortilla topped with all kinds of things. For dinner, we split one with mushrooms and sauce, and one with chicharron, chorizo, beans, and guacamole. Still hungry, we ordered a third for dessert! The waitress looked at us like we were crazy people, asking for another arepa instead of sweets! And we made it a big one, too - topped with shrimp, calamari, chicken, pork, in a cream sauce with garlic and onions. YUM!
There are so many excursions to take and things to do around Medellin, and instead of doing them all and rushing through the town, we chose two to take part in - a day trip to Guatape and the free walking tour with Real City Tours. Usually Jake and I stay away from group tours, the kind where you get on the charter bus, listen to the guide, stop in tourist traps for bad food, and just get shuttled round all day. But we'd heard that this tour was actually pretty good, it was supposed to be much easier than getting to Guatape via public transportation, and didn't cost all that much more than the public transportation option anyway. So we went for it even though the guide only spoke Spanish. And, even though we could only understand about a third of the information that our really nice guide told the group, we thought it was a great day!
Guatape is a about a three hour drive from Medellin, so it really takes all day to go there and back. But we didn't just drive - on the way out to Guatape (which, by the way, is the largest single rock in the world, that’s why we're going to see it), we stopped for a quick and easy breakfast of hot chocolate and arepas with queso fresco, and two cute towns to see the architecture and use the bathroom. When we arrived in Guatape, an area that was a river and is now a snakelike reservoir, we could see the giant rock from miles away. On one side, the starting letters of one of the two towns who fought over ownership of the rock. The town thought that, by tagging the rock, it could claim it. Unfortunately for them, they only got a few letters on it.
The place was already very busy when we arrived - tour buses and cars filled the giant dirt parking lot. We had about an hour to explore the area and make the climb up the 700 steps to the top of the rock. And what a view it was from up there! We took our time taking in the different colors below, the bright blue water with lush green islands, before getting back on the bus for our last stop, the town of Guatape, where we had lunch and a boat cruise. For lunch, we enjoyed bandeja paisa, the traditional plate of the province - chorizo, fried egg, beans, rice, avocado, chicharron, plantains…you know, the low calorie dish. We ate with three super nice people, Rufeal from Spain, Sandra, and her brother John from Mexico. Thank goodness for Rufeal, who could speak English very well, because he translated for us with John and Sandra, who spoke about as much English and Jake and I spoke Spanish! After lunch, the group wandered around the adorable, albeit touristy, town, taking picture after picture of all of the bright colors on the walls, steps, benches, and bicycles. In the afternoon, as our giant boat glided across the water and the sun started to turn the hillsides a golden, burnt orange, Rufeal said to us, "I will never forget this day!"
The three hour drive home turned into four hours, thanks to terrible traffic. No bother, though, we slept just about the whole time! When we arrived back in Central Medellin, we needed to grab a cab back to Laureles. Luckily, another couple who had been on our tour was also heading that way, so the four of us shared the taxi. Even more luckily, these two turned out to be super awesome! In the short time it took to drive from one end of the city to the other, our new besties Arturo and Melissa decided to join us for dinner! They are from Mexico and on vacation celebrating Melissa's 24th birthday and Arturo's success in his architecture program (which he has now finished! Woo!) We chatted for another couple hours over pizza and beer in an Italian restaurant near our apartment. And, we even talked them into heading to our next destination, Salento, so that we might get to hang out again!
Like I mentioned before, the other cultural activity we did in Medellin was the free walking tour with Real City Tours. Just like all of its Trip Advisor reviews claim, the tour was incredible, the best one we've done on our trip! Hernan, our guide, used to be a university professor. One day he assessed his happiness with his career and decided to trade it all in for a career in tourism, and has been working for Real City Tours providing free walking tours ever since. His story definitely resonated with us! Thanks to his teaching background, he was such a lively, animated, and theatrical speaker. As he lead the group through the former most dangerous part of town in the former most dangerous city in the world, he had every person in the group fully engaged, eagerly listening to his stories and the history of the city. He told us how there had always been money in Medellin, it was just due to the drug trade of Escobar - the railroad is actually what made industry boom in Medellin back in the day. Any time he did speak of Pablo Escobar, he did not use his name. Instead, he would say "that famous guy" because most people in Medellin, especially downtown, do not speak English, and if they heard Hernan say Escobar's name, they might think that Hernan is praising him, and that would be very not good. So, to keep the peace, Hernan refrains from using his name. Similarly, he pointed out the immoral things that happen around the churches of the area, and in doing so, used the term "love providers" instead of prostitutes, because the word is the same in Spanish and he does not want to offend anyone. What kind of immoral stuff am I talking about? All kinds of things! People sold porn right next to the churches, prostitutes would solicit men and then take them into the church to negotiate, other smaller offenses like selling knockoff movies and clothes would happen next to the churches too. Hernan said that all this took place where it did because it was convenient for sinners - the buyers and sellers could go into the church, confess their sins, and carry on with their buying and selling of illicit material. Good businessmen, I suppose!
He told us about the very sad and tumultuous history of the city, and of the Paisa's (people of Medellin) unwavering optimism and desire to turn their city around. Hernan told us one sad story: "a grenade went off in the middle of downtown and people barely remember. How is that possible? Because when things are so bad, so often, it's just another thing. And the Paisas want to move on, to look forward, to forget the past and create a positive future."
One stop of the tour was a beautiful park with giant trees and lots of people hanging out. This park is one of the places most locals would tell tourists to stay away from. This park is where the crack addicts and alcoholics spend their time. This is the underbelly of Medellin. But guess what? The crack addicts were some of the nicest and most welcoming people we met! Sure, I don't want to hang out there on my own all day, but I'm glad we went through to hear them yelling jovially, "Welcome to Colombia! Welcome to my home!", and "Hola Mona! Welcome to Medellin." Mona actually means "monkey" in English, but it's also a slang term the Colombians use for "blonde". We smiled, waved, and said "hola" in reply. The tour covered so much more, there are so many stories I could share, but instead I'll just tell you to go and do it yourself.
While in Medellin, a movie we'd been waiting all summer for was finally in theaters, "Mission Rescate", or as we would know it, "The Martian" starring Matt Damon. Jake and I both read, and loved, the book, and we were really eager to see the movie. So we found a theater that showed in in English with Spanish subtitles and made a date! We hopped in a cab to head to the ritzy neighborhood of Poblado to the mall where the movie was playing. It was a packed night, and the line for tickets was LONG. We finally made it up to the counter about 10 minutes after the movie was supposed to start. We decided to go for it anyway. "Two tickets please!" The girl gave us our tickets and told us where to go when we suddenly realized we forgot to double check the language of the movie, "This is in English, right?" "No, Spanish," she replied. Aw crap! So now we're late and it's in Spanish?? "But the theater across the street is showing it in English. It starts in 20 minutes!" The nice girl gave us a refund and we ran across the street to another mall to wait in another really long line. This time, by the time we got to the counter the movie was sold out. Arg!! So, we bought tickets for another showing later that week, in English. We almost missed that start of that showing, too, thanks to traffic. Who knew it would be so stressful to see a movie! Anyway, we saw, and we loved it!
Medellin is really amazing - the people are incredibly nice (every cabbie would help us practice Spanish by chatting with us and correcting us where necessary) and eager to help us. They seemed genuinely happy that we were visiting their country and we could really feel how proud they are of the turnaround the city has made. There's so much more to see- the cable cars, the botanical gardens, various day trips. We will definitely be back to this fascinating city!