BEST TIP: If you want an English speaking driver that will do anything from airport pickup/drop off, shuttle you around town, or take you on a day trip, call or send a what’s app message to John Fredy Cardona +57 301 501 4382!!
DAY 1: The Worldteacher meets the Worldschoolers!
When I have the time to travel (which means I don’t have any live classes to teach), I don’t waste it! Spring break ended at 2:45pm. I was on a plane to Colombia at 10:22pm. There wasn’t an earlier flight. 😊 This trip was a lot different than my recent trips. No cushy housesitting gig lined up where I would explore some new place solo. This time, I was going to meet friends. And not just any friends- friends I’ve never met in person! As you may know, I am a homeschool teacher and own an online school. That means I teach children from all over the world, and many of those children are Worldschoolers. What’s a Worldschooler?? Um, in my opinion the absolutely most AMAZING form of education you can give your child, and if I had it to do over again, it’s what I would have done with my own kids. Basically, families are traveling the world, teaching their children so much more than could ever be learned by sitting in some classroom day after day with a textbook and a test. And many of those families also incorporate more of a “standard” type education along with their worldschooling. And this is how I met Allison and her wonderful girls Haley and Zoe! Allison is an administrator on the Worldschoolers facebook page that I belong to, and her girls started taking classes with me when I opened my school in 2016. I am just SO impressed with how Allison and her husband Dan incorporate education into their travels (and I deal with a lot of homeschool families, so to be “SO impressed” is no easy feat!!). Her girls are so bright and come up with such fun and creative projects. It’s just been a pleasure getting to know all of them….online. We kind of seemed to be following each other around the globe for a while, both going to Malaysia, South Africa, Italy, etc… and giving each other tips. But it was time to quit “just missing” each other during our travels and make it official. So I booked a ticket to Medellin, Colombia (their current home base) for one of my two weeks of spring break! The other week would be spent in El Salvador with Brian.
I agreed to be Allison’s mule, and bring her some things from the states. Packages started arriving, and by the time I took inventory, I took it as a challenge to get all of her stuff and my stuff into one carry on. I HATE to check bags!! And somehow, I managed to do it! Got on my flight and settled in for the red eye to Bogota. I downed 2 Nyquils and inflated my trusty travel pillow (that I swear I will get around to reviewing at some point, but for now, just know that I give it 6 out of 5 stars!). I woke up a lot and changed position, but was able to go right back to sleep each time. Then all of a sudden I hear some loud noise and the plane is shaking!!! I jerk my head up and look out the window and WE’RE ON THE GROUND!! There I was, seat back reclined and this huge pillow in my lap, and not a single flight attendant said a word! Welcome to Colombia….FAA? FNoSe! Oh, who cares…HELLO, CONTINENT NUMBER 5!!!
I had an hour and a half layover before my flight to Medellin. Went through immigration and customs, no problem. Found my gate, boarded my flight. We were supposed to leave at 9am, but it was 9:15 and we hadn’t left the gate yet. The pilot announces something in Spanish, and then says in English that there is a technical problem with the plane and we would have a 20 minute delay. That would be the last English I heard on this flight…. We finally started taxiing out to the runway- in super slow motion. I was messaging Allison and updating her as to what was happening (and feeling awful because she was already at the airport!). We go a ways, and then stop. And sit. And sit. Then something was said in Spanish that caused a groan on the plane and we started moving again. Apparently the technical problem wasn’t fixed and we had to go back to the gate. Got off the plane, and I just followed the herd. Sat in the waiting area with no information for about half an hour. I was starving, but didn’t want to leave the gate for fear I’d miss some important information (of course, unless they said it in English, I’d miss it even if I was sitting right there!) Then, the sign flashed and said we were supposed to depart at 11am! Woo-hoo! At 10:50, they started letting us back on. I don’t know if we had a different plane or what- we boarded one gate over from where we departed. Soon, we were in the air, and I had a new flight experience under my belt- turning around from the runway!
Landed and saw Allison through the glass doors as I came down the escalators in Medellin. We waved to each other and were soon hugging and saying “Nice to meet you!” Allison has a FABULOUS driver named John Freddy who lived in the US for 14 years and speaks perfect English. And he’s super nice to boot! We stopped for food along the way (I hadn’t eaten in about 18 hours!!), and had an awesome traditional Colombian meal. I don’t know what all of this stuff was exactly, but it was goooood. And the plantain was AMAZING!! God, I’ve missed those!
Continued on the Medellin, up and over some mountains. When we got to the city I couldn’t believe how “stacked” the houses were on top of each other and from the base of the mountains practically all the way up. We arrived at Allison’s and relaxed for a bit before we headed off again- this time to pick the girls up from school! It was so wonderful to see them!! I know them through their homework projects, so it was so cool to finally meet them and give them a big hug. 😊 Zoe greeted me with a candy bar and a little welcome note. Seriously, how thoughful is that?! And they were so excited to show me their school. Haley’s friend, Manuela, joined us on the tour. We saw their biology lab, that had a lot of cool preserved specimens- including human fetuses which I thought was kind of shocking! They showed me the cafeteria, where Manuela bought me a delicious little Colombian style empanada (how sweet is she!). I stunned and amazed everyone with my ability to read the daily menu in Spanish (Well, l managed to muddle through it pretty well and was quite pleased with myself at least. ). I saw their classrooms and the gymnasium. It really was fun! I swear that if the kids there spoke English (Haley and Zoe are bilingual) and they weren’t all going on spring break, that I would volunteer to teach a science class for a day!
After that we walked back to Allison’s, then we came to check into my AirBnb that isn’t too far from them. It would be easy walking distance if it wasn’t uphill the whole way to their apartment! We then went and met Dan for dinner at a burger place that was really, really good. I was pretty exhausted by this time, so came back to the room and crashed. That is until 1:30am when the other guests in this apartment (it has a large common area and 3 or 4 private rooms that are rented out) came home, turned on loud music, and proceeded to talk loudly and bang dishes for about an hour and a half. Ugh. Oh well, it’s like $20 a night, so I can’t complain too much! Plus, I’m in Colombia, so I can’t complain at all!
DAY 2: Guatape
Lucky for me, Allison is a planner. Because this semester has kicked my butt with work and I haven’t been able to think about anything but school. So I literally was in charge of getting myself a plane ticket and a room. Everything else was on her! And after today, I can see that I’m in more than capable hands! Our awesome driver, John Freddy, picked me up at 7:30ish, and then we headed over to pick up Allison. Today was going to be an all day adventure to a place called Guatape- about 2 hours from Medellin. As we drove into the mountainous countryside, the clouds were thick. We kept hoping for it to clear up- need good light for good pics!! And the only thing Allison said I was in charge of today was pics, so I couldn’t disappoint!
We stopped in a little town called Marinilla for breakfast. I had already eaten (went grocery shopping yesterday which I forgot to say in the Day 1 blog- bought bread, ham, cheese, crackers, and COCONUT COOKIES!!). But John insisted that I have a hot chocolate, Colombian style. Now, I will say, hot chocolate tends to not be hot chocolate in other countries. I almost died trying to gag down hot chocolate at Versailles Palace (yeah, I know, poor me, boo-hoo). And Central American hot chocolate tends to just be too “dark chocolate” tasting too me- bitterish. So when they brought me this cup of really dark liquid, I was leery. But it was actually really good- and smooooooooth! Allison and I are kindred spirits when it comes to “see a bano, use a bano”, so we headed in that direction before we got back into the car. There was a really neat little map of Marinilla on the wall- showing all of the theatres and public open spaces. You can tell that this little town is really trying to do it right! We stopped on the side of the road at a fruit stand. Colombia is known for a huge variety of fruits, and this one little stand had several things I’d never seen or heard of! Allison got some things for the girls. I’ll admit, I was a little shy and afraid of what was what and what it would taste like, and trying to deal with my cash, so I left empty handed like an idiot. 🙁
Back in the car and through gorgeous, lush green hills. Everywhere you look is so steep. Even the farms plant their crops in terraces up the hillsides! It’s really quite beautiful. Eagle Eye Allison spotted a bridge over the river, and John kindly pulled over so we could get a pic. I couldn’t really get into a good position to see it from the road, so John asked the guy that was working in a nearby shed if we could come on the other side of the fence to see the bridge. We could, and not just that, but we could hike through their houses to go down to it! Woo-hoo, off the beaten path adventure! Of course, the bridge turned out to be shaky, rickety, and high (my 3 LEAST favorite characteristics of bridges). I managed to go about half way before my fear kicked in and beckoned me to turn around! I love knowing that very few gringos have access to this sweet little spot!
Off we went again, toward our first planned adventure of the day. Guatape Rock. AKA El Penon de Guatape. AKA La Piedra. AKA El Penol. First, we drove through the city of El Penol. The rock is between there and the town of Guatape. From what Allison has researched, they both claim the rock. Guatape started staking their claim by painting their name on it. They managed to get the G finished and the first line of the U before El Penol said, “Um, we don’t think so!” and stopped that business fast. So who cares about who owns some dumb old rock? Both of these towns! Because this, my friends, is no ordinary rock! I present you with photographic evidence of this fact!
Ok, here’s all I knew about this rock. It was HIGH. 650 steps high. Which is almost 3 times Batu Caves high (One thing I love about Allison is that I can say, “This is 3 Batu Caves high!” and she knows EXACTLY what I’m talking about!! #travelers ). Let’s see….what do I hate more than shaky, high, rickety bridges? Climbing ANYTHING high. Especially things involving lots of stairs high. I honestly did not know if I was going to be able to do it. Both because of fear and a creaky knee that sometimes puts me in my place (a place that is NOT on stairs). And when I saw this thing for the first time, I about died. John declared that his knees are too bad to climb, so he’d wait for us. We paid our entry fee, and headed up. Had Allison not been there, I’m not sure I would have done this on my own. In fact, I declared her “lead horse”. Hey, if I can be her mule, she can be my lead horse! I felt more comfortable following her steps. Every 25 steps have how many steps you’ve gone painted on them. Our first goal was that platform you can see halfway up. I was determined to make it to that at least, then decide if I should turn around or not.
100, 200, 300…We stopped on the end of most of the zig zags to catch our breath and take in the views, and my but they were SPECTACULAR!! In 1970, this entire area was flooded to create a hydroelectric dam- even covering a town called Penol. Just the tops of the hills are visible now- islands in a massive lake. We made it to the platform and I was actually doing way better than I thought I would! I hadn’t cried or sat down and refused to budge in either direction once! Views from the platform were stunning. And there was Mary, praying for my knees and acrophobia. Or my heathen atheist soul. Or maybe all 3. I don’t know, but we took some pics and continued up, up, up, never ending up….
It’s amazing to think that all of these stairs were constructed inside of a huge crack in the rock. I can not even imagine being the person doing construction on this! A bit of a backstory- the rock itself is igneous, having been created by an intrusion of magma (when magma pushes up from inside of the earth, but never reaches the surface) about 70 million years ago- during the same time period that the surrounding mountain range was being created. It was uplifted during that process, and there the monolith still stands today- having been worshipped by the indigenous people, and now ascended by thousands of tourists from all over the world. And here I was, on step 500. About 150 to go…
And before I knew it, we were at the top! There were little souvenir stands and places to get food. And CHAIRS! Allison and I immediately claimed two and stared over the edge at the seemingly never-ending views. Like Allison said, the camera is not nearly as complicated as your eye. Here are the pictures, but I guarantee you the in person view is far more magnificent.
Takes your breath away, doesn’t it? We wandered around the top for a bit and saw another very interesting view….directly into the men’s bano!! What the heck?!
It was time to descend, and as we were heading for the stairs, there was a man hauling a 40+ lb bag of onions up on his back!! OMG, I can not even imagine. I was just kind of standing there in awe, because it dawned on me that everything that was up here (huge coolers for drinks, all of those drinks, ice cream carts, tables, umbrellas, etc….) had to be hauled up 650 stairs by hand!! While I was deep in contemplation about the logistics of such a feat, Allison is saying “Get a picture! If you’re going to take a picture of the men’s bathroom, you have to get a picture of this!”. Thank goodness one of us is sensible and lacks the mentality of a 4th grade boy…
What comes up, must go down. And the “down” in this case was rather interesting! Instead of descending the same steps you came up on, there is a separate set of stairs on the inside of the crack that begin just a short way down from the top. Frankly, a brilliant idea, because Allison said that the last time she was here it was PACKED with people. I can’t imagine trying to navigate up or down with a steady flow of people approaching from the opposite direction. #anxietyattack
I will say, going down was a lot more scary for me than going up. The passage was narrower, the stairs seemed smaller. Just eek! But with lead horse leading the way confidently, I fell into line and managed pretty well. Talking non-stop helped keep my mind off of the number of ways I could possibly die (which is approximately equal to the number of steps here!). Every once in a while there would be a window to the outside, showing another glimpse of the gorgeous views…
I survived El Penon de Guatape! John was waiting for us at the bottom, and we jumped in his car and headed for the town of Guatape for the second part of the day’s adventure! First stop in town was LUNCH! I had some kind of beef that was really good, and Allison and I got “Michelada de Allison”- Michelada salt and limed rim but with fizzy water instead of beer. Quite refreshing! We ate at a restaurant overlooking the reservoir. And we noticed something quite odd….
The water level was definitely low, but the way this boat was sitting just seemed odd. Why wouldn’t someone keep it in the water as the levels went down? Did it crash there? Well, I researched and found an interesting tale- all of which had to be translated from Spanish. The El Almirante was a pleasure boat that would take tourists on trips up and down the reservoir. On June 25, 2017, it sank in about 60 feet of water with 167 tourists on board. 7 died. 2 were missing. I could never find any information on if the other 2 were ever found. Apparently, a very loud noise was heard, and then the ship began to sink immediately. From what I can determine, the hull cracked. There were not enough life jackets on board for the amount of people, but fortunately it happened just a few minutes after it set sail, so there were a lot of boats in the area that could help rescue people. The Colombian Navy put air bags under the boat and floated it to its current location, but apparently since then the water level has gone down so much that it’s completely land locked. Reports indicate that the boat had had serious problems before that were “fixed”. Such a sad story, and with it sitting there in the open like that, a constant reminder to the people of Guatape.
After lunch, we walked through the very colorful and quaint town of Guatape! I was really feeling the vibe here! Guatape is famous for its zocalos- little facade images on the lower outside walls of homes and businesses that are colorfully painted, adding a very unique charm to this little town!
There was also a really beautiful church. The police were outside announcing something, but John said he couldn’t figure out what was going on. We went in. It was Jesusy. There was a cool fish stained glass window. 🙂
It was time to leave the colorful little town with the cool vibe behind and head back to the city! We made a couple of stops along the way (which is why I LOVE having a private driver!). One was a little roadside stand that had a ton of tilapia crammed into tanks. I took pics, but honestly, it was super sad so I’m going to leave them out. Conditions were rough… The next stop was another roadside stand that had some beautiful wood carvings out front. And the artist himself was there, carving out a wooden picture. John talked to him and he said it takes about a month to do one. Wow. Such talent. And such a nice man as well.
Headed down the road a bit more to another little town called San Antonio de Pereira. This was a town known for it’s desserts! I informed Allison and John that I am known for eating desserts, so it’s a good fit! We parked and started walking down the street. There was some weird thing in a big pot that a street vendor was selling. It looked kind of like weird, old, kinda dried out onion rings or something, except all in a big roll like a super tasty curly fry from Jack in the Box. (How’s that for a description?!) John informed us it was chicken intestines. Um, I’ll take a pass on that….which way to the dessert stand? He then took us to the world famous (or at least Antioquia famous- that’s the state of Colombia I’m in) Dulce Contigo. I have no idea what possessed me, but I didn’t get a single picture!!!!!!!!!! GRRRRRRRRRR! There were all of this glass cake pans (the 9×13 kind) lined up in cases with flavors like Brownie, Chocolate, Weird Unknown Fruit Things, Lemon, etc… I’m not sure how to describe them- kind of like those refrigerator cheesecakes you can make maybe? I got Brownie, it was tasty. Allison got Lemon and it was really good! We finished our desert and went for MORE desert out on the street that John insisted we must try. I can’t remember what it was called, but it had layers of strawberries, cream, and meringue that had the coolest “crunchy but melt in your mouth” texture. But by that time I was so stuffed, I could only take a few bites! Back in the car and off to Medellin to end a lovely day!!
Now those of you who know me know that I LOVE taking pictures of wildlife. This part of Colombia is not proving to be very prolific in that regard. So here, I present to you the day’s wildlife.
DAY 3: Botero y Parque Arvi
There was a soccer game last night. Colombia vs. France. Colombia won. My room is on a street with a lot of restaurants. That’s all I’ll say about how I slept…
From the plaza, we went into the Museo de Antioquia so I could see Botero’s paintings as well. Here are some of my favorites!
After the museum, it was time to hop back on the metro and continue our adventure. We got off of the train at the Acevedo stop, where we would take a completely different type of metro transport- a cable car!! Medellin is surrounded by mountains. And it has a population of 2.5 million people (but that’s from a 2015 census, and current thoughts are over 4 million!!), and the valley really isn’t that big. That means people are stacked on top of people almost all the way up the mountains on all sides of the valley! Brick is the preferred building material, and you just see red brick multi-storied buildings completely surrounding the city. Then you have to think- how do people GET to these houses?! The sides of the mountain are steep. I can’t imagine walking from the bottom of the valley where the main city is to the top of the mountain where your home might be! Wow. Just wow. These upper neighborhoods are called favelas (shanty towns). And the people who live here were basically stranded and isolated from the city below for years due to the lack of transportation other than by foot (and believe me, NO ONE wants to do that!). That led to increased unemployment, poverty, crime, and all of those things that come with such conditions. But in 2006 and 2008, the city added cable cars to its metro system, providing easy, fast, and inexpensive transportation to the favelas! It was truly a game changer for these people- changing their lives and the favelas for the better.
I’m scared of heights, but I wasn’t even a tiny bit nervous in the cable cars! Maybe because I was just so fascinated by the scenery. We went up, up, up, and UP! Over what seemed like thousands of 2-4 story brick buildings. All the way up to where you can see the favelas end and the forest begins. And we went up and over that as well! Traveling over lush, basically uninhabited forest for I don’t even know how long. It was seriously quite a while and we kept looking to see if we could see the station in the distance! The trip ended at our destination for the day- Parque Arvi. The following pics are through a dirty, scratched cable car glass, so please forgive the poor quality. In person, much more stunning!
Parque Arvi…Allison had never been. In fact, she had never been on the metro by herself. So we were all having new experiences today! Here’s what I know about it after the fact…it’s about 40,000 acres with over 50 miles of hiking trails! We honestly had no idea what to do once we got here, and information was kinda sparse. So we just kinda started wandering- a grand kind of adventure! We wandered through a large covered area where several people were decorating crosses with flowers for the upcoming Semana Santa (Good Friday/Easter) week. Beautiful!
Then we wandered down a path that looked like it might be going toward food. A man stopped us and said we could go into his shop and get tea- for FREE! Who can turn down free? And boy, were we surprised to learn that this wasn’t just any tea…this was tea made from the leaves of the Coca plant. People, I ain’t talking chocolate. That is Cocoa. We’re talking Colombian white gold- COCAINE! #thefirstcupisalwaysfree Of course, the kids got a kick out of that idea! He brought us a glass and we all drank from it. Damn, but it was gooooooooooooood!!! Like some of the best tea I’ve tasted in a long time! He proceeded to show us all kinds of things made with coco and marijuana plants- many with different medicinal properties. Haley got her friend a marijuana chap stick. 🙂
We wandered down the road and found a restaurant. Allison and I shared a chicken meal with rice, plantain (rhymes with cocaine, but better!!), and beans. Super tasty, and more than enough for us both. It was like $6.50. We then weren’t really sure exactly what to do. We walked back up the road we came down, hoping for some little hiking trails. We found one that was around some archaeological ruins. This area has a pre-Colombian history ruins (meaning before that idiot Colombus ruined the place for the indigenous people). Some of the ruins are over 1,500 years old. Nothing magnificent like the ancient civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs, or Incas, but not everyone lived in some huge civilization! There was another hiking trail off of this area, so we took it down for a bit, until we realized it was going to dead end on us in about another mile, so we turned around. Along the way, we saw some cool things, though!
After our impromptu hike, we again weren’t sure what to do. We went back toward the visitor center and asked about any short hikes in the area (we did NOT want to miss the last cable car back down!). They said there was a guided hike leaving in 10 minutes. I forget how much it was, but it was cheap. We signed up and got super lucky for two reasons: 1) It was just us 4!! 2) Our guide was super nice and spoke very slow, clear Spanish! I literally understood about 40% of what he said, which is quite a lot. If I was super confused, Allison would translate. I even asked some questions in Spanish that he understood! #mustbethecocaine We headed off down the Vital trail together! Our guide told us all about this place. The indigenous people mined gold up here! Of course, when the Spaniards found out about that they said, “Oh, wonderful indigenous people, let us help you mine your gold, and maybe we can take a small portion of it for our troubles. We’ll work together!”. Oh, wait. No, they just took it and make the indigenous people mine it as slaves. The way they mined for the gold has literally ruined the mountain and made it impossible for the natural fauna to grow. So the United States and Canada have been sending in conifers (evergreens like pines) that will grow in this area. Of course, that doesn’t provide food for the animals that live here, so there are basically zero animals in this part of the park- only in the more natural areas. He did show us a hole in a low embankment where parrots nest and a hole in the ground where meat bees live. Allison and I made a total inside joke of #meatbees. You’ve been warned if you see us use it! We’re probably making fun of you. 😉 He showed us a lot of orchids, and very cool mosses (the girls and Allison were so surprised to see how much water mosses can hold!), awesome lichens- it was pretty lush back here. Think cloud forest lush- cool and misty. I was SO. FREAKING. IN. TO. THIS. HIKE!!!!!! I only wished there were more animals. If there had been, I might not have left! I was really bummed when it was over about 40 minutes later.
It was after 4 and time for us to head back down. Before we left, we saw two really cool things. First, a little gnome forest built on a trail about 50 feet down from the visitor center. You couldn’t access it, and you could barely see the things in it- you really had to look! Super cute! And….a sign that made Allison and I giggle #mustbethecocaine
We got on the cable car and flew over the tree tops of the practically untouched forest. Soon, we reached the edge of the mountain and began our descent back into Medellin- over tin roofs laid over red brick buildings. Sometimes, someone painted theirs- an art gallery just for cable car riders. The windows in this car were better than the last one, and I got some better shots of the city. These once isolated favelas are vibrant- both with color and with life. And I’m so happy that the people now have better access via cable car to more opportunity for themselves and their children!
As we got off of the cable car, the kids noticed something floating in the river. I literally had seconds to get a shot before it whizzed by! How I pulled this off, I’ll never know!
DAY 4: Parque Explora
By day 4, the ramifications of 650 stairs up two days earlier, not getting sleep for a 3rd night in a row, and a sore throat were all hitting me at once. But no time to be in pain, agony, and misery!! There are adventures to be had with the Shermanos esta dia!! We met at Starbucks, where I met 3 other worldschoolers. Scott (the husband of Jamie, who is another moderator on the Worldschooler board and moved in directly across the hall from Allison last month!), and their two kids Courtney and Cameron. Starbucks is a short walk from both of our places, and is right on Avienda Poblado- a main street in this area that is closed on Sundays for Cyclovia. On Sundays, you can take a relaxing stroll, bike ride, or run down the avenue along with hundreds of other people out enjoying the weather of Medellin. And this is where I will pause to talk about the weather. It is literally perfect. There’s hardly any humidity (which shocked me when I got off the plane!), and the temperature runs in the mid-high 70’s, getting a bit warmer in the afternoons. There’s been a rainstorm (with INSANE thunder) every late afternoon, and our timing of finishing adventures has perfectly coincided with this! And the really weird thing is that even though Allison lives like a mile away, I’ll facebook message her and say “It’s POURING!!” and she’ll reply that nothing is happening over there. But we do commiserate clap-by-clap about the insane thunder together! Anyway, so we all (minus Haley, she would join us later) started walking down the avenue, trying to not get run over by bicycles. There were so many people out walking dogs! Zoe and Brian would get along famously, because neither have ever seen a dog they could resist petting! It was so cute to see Zoe walk up to people and ask them in Spanish if she could pet their dogs. 🙂
After our walk, Scott and Cameron went off on their own adventures, and Zoe, Courtney, Allison and I went back to meet Haley at Starbucks. A 16 year girl old that is alone and right on time?? AMAZING!! 🙂 We then walked down to the Metro to meet her friend Manuela (from Day 1 at the school), and we all headed off for our adventures. Now, let me tell you about this Metro system in Medellin. I am in LOVE! I’ve done metros in Los Angeles, New York, Singapore, France, Italy, Germany, and England. While Singapore wins for cleanliness and politeness of people, I am loving how the Metro here isn’t a subway- it’s elevated train. You can see the scenery as you whisk between stations! And the metros are cheap and clean with good signage and a lot of staff to help out if you get mixed up. 5 stars Medellin Metro! While we were waiting for the metro, a girl strikes up a conversation with me- in Spanish. I swear, it was totally that first chapter of my 11th grade Spanish textbook! She said “Me llama Maria”, I replied with “Me llama Mary!”. She said “Soy de Venezula”. I said “Soy de Los Estados Unidos!”. C’mon, ask me what color shirt my cat is wearing- I am so ready!! 🙂 But instead of that, she broke out into a bunch of words I didn’t know which included “policia”. I really tried and tried to understand, but couldn’t. So I invited Zoe over to translate for me. Apparently she’s from Venezuela and the police had taken all of her things and she was trying to get home. I thought she wanted cash, and had Zoe explain that all I had was a credit card (I NEVER give anyone cash), but apparently she just wanted to use my Metro card to get on the train. Ok, that I can do. I went through, handed Maria my card, and she followed. Who knows what the story is there, but I wish her the best.
We got off at Universidad to go to Parque Explora. Where the main highlight would be an aquarium!! I am ALWAYS up for a foreign acquario! And this would be a special aquarium trip, because Haley and Zoe both took a full year of Marine Zoology online with me. From that experience, Haley became fascinated with sharks and does a lot of her own research on them even now that the class is over. I was really excited to get into an aquarium with someone who was a) excited to be there and b) excited to hear me excitedly yap about all kinds of things I know a lot about! The aquarium itself is pretty small, and mainly focused on freshwater (which makes sense because the Amazon, duh!). In fact, it has the largest freshwater aquarium in all of Colombia. Fortunately, I’m not only a marine goddess, but a freshwater one as well from my days of working in and owning a pet store (30 years ago? Seriously??!!). Haley asked SO. MANY. QUESTIONS. And they were all GREAT questions! And I knew the answers to most of them as was thrilled to death to transfer some of that knowledge! OMG, I’ve never been in an aquarium with someone who cared so much about what I had to say (and I have a lot to say in an aquarium!). Seriously, we became one and everyone else just kind of faded away- literally. We lost Zoe, Courtney, and Manuela to much more (in their minds!) interesting endeavors! Who knew some people didn’t like to stand at every single display for 5 minutes talking about fish?! Well, we may have lost three of our party, but we gained a new one. One of the staff members. He spoke English, and overheard me talking, and then started following us around from tank to tank listening and learning! #worldteacher
After the aquarium, we found the other members of our party in the hands on science exploration center. I’m telling you, this Parque Explora is a science teacher’s DREAM! Hands on physics experiments everywhere, mathematics in biology exhibits, the aquarium….seriously, I could film an awesome class here! In fact, Allison has volunteered to travel and film for me, but Haley said she’ll be better. As soon as I find out who works cheapest, I’m hiring one of them. 😉
People, I have to tell you. By this point, I was one hurting unit. My legs were killing me. My throat hurt really bad. And I knew I had to go back to the room and work until I went to bed. I was a wreck. But I was a hungry wreck. So we strolled down a little sidewalk thing lined with food vendors and got some kind of pork on a stick with a couple of potatoes. Those were GOOD. That little piece of bread. Eh.
We took the Metro back. Manuela and I got a cab together so she could make sure I actually got to where I was going. I came up to the room and worked non-stop until I went to bed that night. I was seriously completely exhausted mentally and physically and whined to poor Brian about my sad sorry state. It sucks to not be 100% when you’re traveling, especially when you have to work on top of it. 🙁 But even with my wrecked self, it was still a great day! I’ll never forget bonding with Haley over fishes in the aquarium! I need to get that girl to a place that has sharks!! 🙂
DAY 5: Communa 13
Today, I woke up a brand new human being!! First of all, I slept for the first time. I took two Nyquils, shoved my ear plugs in, and fortunately Sunday nights are quiet in the restaurants downstairs. I first realized I was a new human being when I got out of bed. Wait! What? I’m not hunched over like a 90 year old, hobbling to the bathroom? Legs are working and pain free!! Woo-hoo!! Then I swallowed. No sore throat!! I’ll attribute that to the vast amounts of Airborne I had been sucking down the last 2 days and a good night’s sleep. Ok world, I’m ready for you! And thank goodness, because Allison had planned a wonderful trip to a local neighborhood called Communa 13, where we were going to do a walking tour. We met at the park and walked to the metro. We work that metro like we own it now! Went to the San Antonio station and transferred to the B line to San Javier. Our free walking tour with Zippy Tour met there.
Our guide for the day was Laura, a woman who was born and raised in Communa 13. I’m sure you’re saying, “What is Communa 13?”. So glad you asked! 🙂 It was once the most dangerous neighborhood in all of Medellin- at a point in time when Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. In other words, not a vacation destination! Why so dangerous? Well, I mentioned Pablo Escobar in an earlier entry, and I mentioned that I don’t know much about him. The short version is that Escobar was THE drug lord in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. As in supplying the US with over 80% its cocaine (70-80 TONS per month!!). As in the richest criminal in the WORLD (worth almost $60 BILLION US dollars in 2018 terms). Those stats alone are mind boggling. For christ’s sake, I can’t even get a damn can of Diet Dr. Pepper from London into the US and this yahoo is getting that much coke into the country??? Anyway, when you’re that powerful, it’s for a reason. You are controlling EVERYTHING around you. And everything around him was the city of Medellin, his hometown and base of operations. Anything that wasn’t falling into Escobar’s line, was eliminated. That included the police, politicians, rival cartel members, anyone that posed any kind of a potential threat to Escobar’s empire. Of course, Escobar wasn’t out there doing all of this dirty work himself. No, he hired hitmen. And many of them came from Communa 13. Why here? Several reasons. Remember how I mentioned in the Day 3 blog that the favelas had been cut off from all opportunities because there was no easy access to the city from the steep, steep hills? This was the situation in Communa 13 as well. There were lots of young people looking for money and opportunity- things Escobar would provide them with in return for “favors”. Another reason Communa 13 was so important was its strategic location- on the main highway out of Medellin to the north. All those drugs were passing right through here, and they needed protection. Control the highway, control the flow of goods.
In 1993, Escobar was killed. So you would think things would improve for Medellin and Communa 13 at that point. Not by a long shot. It got even worse. Rival cartels and their gangs fought for who would be the new cocaine empire. Gangs, guerillas, paramilitary all ran rampant- destroying anyone who got in their way. It was utter chaos of the most dangerous kind. Even small children, who were least expected to be dangerous criminals, were paid to kill the police. By the late 1990s, Medellin had become the most dangerous city in the WORLD, and Communa 13 was its most dangerous neighborhood. What can good people do in the face of all of this violence? Nothing. Too poor to escape. Tortured or killed if you try to report any crimes. I can’t even imagine.
The government initiated two different operations to gain control over Communa 13. The first one, Operation Mariscal in May of 2002, failed. The second was Operation Orion, conducted on October 16, 2002 (yes, that short of a time ago). The goal was to defeat all of the different rebel factions in the area. The military stormed in with over 1500 soldiers and Blackhawk helicopters. The fight on the streets lasted for 4 days. Innocent people couldn’t dare leave their homes, but even their homes weren’t safe from the rain of bullets. This wasn’t so much of an operation as a war- in the middle of a densely populated neighborhood. Of the hundreds who were killed or injured, they lay where they fell- there was no hope of getting any medical attention. The citizens had had enough. Any white cloth they had- bedsheets, towels, shirts- they began waving them, in a plea for the violence to stop. Many people completely disappeared- Laura told us it is believed that their bodies were dismembered and thrown into the landfill area on the mountain, La Escombrera, easily seen from the Communa. In fact, it’s thought to be the largest urban mass grave in the world. Victims are still trying to get answers to where their loved ones are. Women have united into one of the most vocal groups for justice- called Women Walking for Truth.
After Operation Orion, things were still not peaceful in Communa 13. New factions began to take hold. But after the siege of their community, the ordinary citizens started to take matters into their own hands to change their community and futures. Communa 13 isn’t perfect, no place is, but it has undergone a STUNNING transformation!! In fact, Medellin was named the most innovative city in the WORLD in 2013!! Imagine that, going from the most dangerous city to the most innovative in less than two decades. That says a lot about the people there! There are three things that have been the crucial factors for this change in Communa 13:
1. Street Art: A vibrant reminder of the Communa’s past, present, and optimistic future. And what’s amazing about it is that you do NOT see graffti on the pieces of well known street art by the major local artists. It is respected by all.
2. Escalators: 47 houses had to be removed to build this vital piece of infrastructure- a 384 meter series of escalators- that would finally allow the residents of Communa 13 easy access to the city, and its opportunities, below. What used to be the equivalent of climbing a 28 story building is now a quick 6 minute trip! These aren’t just transportation, they’re an equalizer.
3. Community solidarity: The people of Communa 13 are strong and proud. It’s evident everywhere you look. Together they strive to control their own destinies, and never again allow the criminal element (while it is still very much present, don’t doubt that) to control their lives.
I think I’d add a 4th. Tourism. Once a place where outsiders, even those from Medellin, would never have thought to venture, now there is a constant flow of tour groups (and their money) into this once isolated place.
And that is the ridiculously simplistic story of an extremely complicated neighborhood and it’s people. A neighborhood with as many layers of history as layers of houses. Laura guided us through the streets, showing us the art, giving us time to shop at local stores and galleries, to watch local entertainers, and even took us to her home (yes, she still lives there!). What a fantastic, interesting, and unique tour- I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone visiting Medellin! It didn’t have that same “human zoo” quality that Langa Township had in South Africa, which I appreciated. Here now, are the pictures. 🙂
First, the art…these were taken from all over the neighborhood.
The escalators! Such a game changer! And such a unique solution to a difficult problem! They were very clean, and there was a strong police presence.
And the art wasn’t just of the street variety! There was a breakdancing crew at the top of the escalators that was just so much fun. I couldn’t take my eyes off that little boy! He was sooooo cute, and man he had the MOVES!
While taking some pictures of the neighborhood, I spotted some more art high above me on a balcony in the distance…
And just to prove that I wasn’t just taking pictures of cute boys on balconies, but really WAS taking pictures of the neighborhood, here you go…
This is Laura, telling us all about Operation Orion. This was on the rooftop of her house, where she lived during Operation Orion- seeing people being shot in the street outside of her window, and where she still lives today. We had to walk quite a ways from the escalator, up a hill and up and down steep, narrow stairs to get to Laura’s house. Allison and I tried to imagine what life would be like if you were old or had a broken leg. You just wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. 🙁
About halfway through the tour, we stopped for a break. There was an ice cream shop on one side and a coffee shop on the other. I headed straight for the ice cream! And it wasn’t really ice cream. It was HEAVEN. Oh my god. I got a coconut one and it was frozen coconut pieces and maybe coconut milk all together in this amazing concoction! Best thing I had in Medellin, no lie! And after we left Laura’s house, we bought tiny potatoes from a street vendor- roasted to perfection! An income and an opportunity for a man that would not be there without the escalators and a neighborhood that has become peaceful enough to allow for tourism.
Allison and I left the tour a little early to walk back down on our own. It had seemed so EASY, our mile and a half walk up with Laura. We should have left a trail of arepa crumbs, because finding our way back was not as simple as we originally thought! And as soon as google maps sensed our uncertainty, it pounced. It saw its chance to try do the thing it does to me in EVERY country- lead me completely astray in an attempt that I am convinced is to kill me. (Case in point: making me walk into the middle of a freeway in Malaysia!). As we wandered further off the main road, I could see Allison’s face get a little nervous. We (by we, I mean Allison!) asked a guy where the metro station was. He gave us directions. Google maps laughed at his attempt to save us and turned us down yet another off the beaten path street. When it was basically trying to send us down a creepy darkish sidewalk thing between two buildings with a lot of men walking around, Allison and I gave the middle finger to Google maps and turned our white gringa asses right around. We then saw two other younger gringas up ahead and decided to follow them. Well, apparently they were using Google maps as well, as we kept going down the same not-so-tourist-friendly looking streets together. They were dressed a little (lot) more scantily than us, so we figured they would get kidnapped first at least! Allison was so uncomfortable. I just saw it as another grand adventure! I also don’t have children to take care of! We eventually made it back to the main road and Allison’s relief was palpable! I don’t think she’s used to such things! Hopefully she can chalk it up to a grand adventure now in hindsight! 🙂
Took the metro back to Poblado, and went to a store called Exito- a lot like Super Target where they have EVERYTHING you could ever possibly want. Allison had to pick up a few things, and I wanted to look for Dr. Pepper. Apparently Exito has everything you could possibly want EXCEPT Dr. Pepper. 🙁 Got a cab back to the room and worked my fingers to the bone until bedtime again. I have 4 new classes starting WHILE I AM IN EL SALVADOR (didn’t know I was going to be here when I scheduled that nightmare), plus grading, and a lesson plan, and emails…Oy. But I got most of it done and went to bed, knowing my last Medellin adventure would be tomorrow.
Today’s wildlife…Colombia, your wildlife game is WEAK SAUCE.
DAY 6: The Trail to Santa Fe
Another good night of sleep and waking up to feeling like a real human being. I’m cured! I woke up at 5:30am, and went to the kitchen. No cleaning lady! I was seriously starting to feel like she was being held hostage here, because no matter when I’m in the common areas, there she is, working away. I was supposed to take my laundry to Allison’s and do it there, but since the cleaning lady had escaped, I figured I might as well make use of the washer! Took me a few tries to figure out the right combination of Spanish buttons to make it work. I came back to the room to blog for an hour, then hung all of my clothes up neatly in the window to dry.
Today was another trip out of the city. The last adventure. 🙁 John picked up Allison and Haley at 8, and then was at my place a few minutes later. I told them, “Hoy hablamos todas espanol porque necesito practicar para El Salvador!”. We spoke in Spanish for about 10 minutes before English took over again. 🙂 We drove out of the city into the hills again, which soon turned into very large mountains. Going AROUND mountains takes a lot of time. So what do Colombians do? Go THROUGH mountains! The Occidente Tunnel was completed in 2006 and is the longest tunnel in South America! The tunnel is almost 3 miles long, and cut a little over 1 hour off the prior 2.5 hour trip from Medellin to Santa Fe. Honestly, that seems like a LOT of work and money to shave off 1.5 hours of driving time when my foreign eyes see a lot of other things that money could be spent on to improve people’s lives, but hey- welcome to the world. Happens everywhere.
After the tunnel, we stopped for 2nd breakfast (we have kind of been eating like hobbits on this trip!). Haley wanted a chicken empanada thing, but explained to me that if they have beef inside, they are an empanada, but if they have chicken inside, they’re called “chicken cake”! Ha ha (Ja ja!). I let her order one for each of us. They were HUGE! I finished half of mine, and it was very, VERY good!
We continued through really beautiful country with VERY high mountains all around- not like the hills on the way to Guatape. Along the way, John was telling us about this bridge we had to cross to get into Santa Fe, and basically making it sound like it was ready to fall into the drink at any moment. After researching the El Almirante, I didn’t doubt that that was a distinct possibility! I joked with him that he should call his business “We Might Die Tours”! Honestly, I was building it up in my mind to be MUCH worse than what it was. It was kind of like a “Golden Gate Bridge”- yellow and similar in structure, and looked really strong to me. We made it over alive, so apparently it’s at least “strong enough”! I wanted to get pictures of it, so we pulled over and walked through an empty vacant lot (another stop on the We Might Die itinerary!) to get down to the river. John asked a guy if it was ok for us to go down and he said yes. There’s a quarry on this side of the bridge, and there were a lot of big trucks coming and going. The river is the Rio Cauca, and it’s a big, muddy thing. Not particularly attractive. Haley has a rock hunting hobby, which for someone who travels so much and having to keep bag weights to a minimum seems a little counterproductive! She looked for rocks, I snapped a few pics, and we headed back to the taxi.
We didn’t go into the town immediately. We went to the right of town down a very pretty narrow road that wound through some beautiful trees. At the end, there was another bridge. And oh boy, but was this a bridge! This is the Puente de Occidente (Western Bridge) and it has quite a history. It’s a wooden suspension bridge that was built in 1887, and at the time was one of the 7th longest suspension bridges in the entire world (way out here in basically the middle of no where over 130 years late!) at almost 1000 feet long! Currently, it’s the 8th longest in the world. Not bad! And it’s up for potential UNESCO listing, which is cool. It spans the same Rio Cauca that the other bridge does. It has three parts to it. A middle part that cars can drive over (none of us thought that was a good idea in the least!), and on either side is a walkway for pedestrians (I wasn’t so sure that was a good idea either!). Here I am again, on a high- VERY high bridge. Oy. I couldn’t see through the wooden slats though, and it didn’t shake at all, so I could deal with it by focusing carefully on each step and not looking down. We walked all the way across and all the way back and I did way better than I thought I would! Allison did notice that I held on the to the sides while I was taking a picture though!
And now, we come to the part in our story where Mary reaches her height limit… The guards said we should climb up to see the statue of Mary. “Climb” translated into Maryese was “Hey! Why don’t you take your life in your own hands and walk up those uneven, small cement steps we’ve placed into the side of a super steep hill with nothing to hang on to so you can easily topple down the cliff to your death!” I got to the top of the first set of stairs, realized the error of my ways, told the rest of the crew to go on ahead while I sat down and took a rest to take in the view (translation: sat down because I my legs were shaking so bad I couldn’t stand, and butt scoot my way back down while trying not to flash the guards below all my goodies since I was wearing a dress!). I made it back down and waited for the rest of the crew. Allison informed me that it got really sketchy higher up and I made the right decision.
Next we went into the town of Santa Fe. It’s hot here. Like about 20 degrees hotter than Medellin’s perpetual 75ish and humid (which Medellin is not). This town was founded in 1541 (as in a mere 50 years after Colombus declared this side of the world the EAST Indies, as in South/Southeast ASIA.). Why did the Spaniards like it here. Gold, duh. It used to be the capitol of Antioquia (remember, that’s the state in Colombia I’m in) until the capitol was moved to Medellin in 1826. So what’s so cool about Santa Fe (since it isn’t the weather?). The fact that the city has preserved its colonial history by putting strict guidelines into place that maintain the historic nature of the center of town’s buildings. White walls, huge wooden doors, cobblestone streets- it’s like going back in time and is so completely different from Guatape!
We first headed to the Santa Barbara Church, which dates back to 1728. Inside, they were preparing for Semana Santa (Saint’s Week- basically Good Friday/Passover).
Next up, the religious museum, where for like $1 we got a guide who toured us around (in Spanish, but I hung in there enough to get the general idea). Most of the art here was from the 1700’s!
Had a delicious lunch, then walked around some more. It was really hot with all of the sun reflecting off the white buildings. We visited a couple of more churches, one of which was also preparing for Semana Santa, and a beautiful town square with a gorgeous fountain and a really peaceful, chilled vibe. We were all getting overheated though, and decided we had seen enough churches (I think there are 7 here and we saw 4 of them!). So back in the taxi for a rainy ride through the mountains, back to Medellin.
It was pouring by the time we got to Medellin. I jumped out and headed up to my room, where I found that the cleaning lady had taken all of my clothes off the window and put them on a drying rack in the room so they wouldn’t get wet. HOW NICE! I had a couple of hours to work before I was to meet up with the Shermano crew (and the Cate crew minus Jamie) for our last supper (see my play on Semana Santa? Aren’t I a clever girl?!). By the time it was dinner time, the rain had stopped. I walked to Crepes y Waffles, which is actually a Colombian owned chain, to meet everyone. I was there first. Uh oh. I asked if the hostess spoke English. Nope. Ok. I can do this. I had to put my hand on a table to remember the word, then busted out with “Necesito una mesa para ocho personas, por favor”. And BAM! She and another lady set it up! I was quite proud of myself when the other 7 wandered in to a prepared table for 8! We all talked over a FANTASTIC dinner (I had chicken, mushrooms, and asparagus in a bread bowl and it was to die for!). All too soon it was time to leave my friends for the first last time, because as Allison said, this is just the first of more adventures! We will meet up somewhere in the world again as soon as we can! In fact, Haley might join me in my solo travels one day! I had an unbelievably fantastic visit with Allison and the girls, and am so glad I took the leap of faith to head off to Colombia to meet people I had only known online previously. I’m proud to now call all of them my “real life” friends (a moniker few attain).