This morning was spent doing an excellent ‘free’ walking tour (we could tip as much as we liked and a guideline was given), run by Pablo, the owner of Real City tours. Seven of us were collected from the hostel and travelled on the metro to Alpujarro, where a few others joined us and we began the tour proper.
Pablo had grown up during the worst period of the drug wars, when Medellin was the most dangerous city on earth, and he gave us a very honest insight into this time, as well as the history and culture of Medellin and Colombia, as a whole.
We started at the Old Railway station, which had been built during the Industrial Revolution to provide transport for gold. We then moved on to the Centro Administrativo Alpujarra (Administrative Centre), which is a large pedestrian area with a lot of fairly ugly, concrete buildings of the 1960’s and 1970’s era. There is also an enormous sculpture depicting the history of Medellin, in which there is a small box containing the ashes of the architect, whose name I have forgotten.
Next stop was at the Parque de las Luces or Square of Lights. This used to be the most dangerous place in the whole of Medellin where you were guaranteed to get robbed, raped or killed. There were also a couple of buildings that had been derelict and that had provided homes for prostitutes and drug dealers. Pablo had to pass through here every day on his way to school and, in his home area, there was the constant threat of grenades and shootings.
Nowadays, the Square of Lights has been transformed into a park where people are happy to sit and watch the world go by. There are fountains, stands of bamboo and scores of pillars, which, apparently, are lit up at night. This area represents hope to the people of Medellin, ‘light’ also meaning ‘hope’. The derelict buildings have been restored and now house the Ministry of Education and a school for manual and technical skills.
We walked through a very busy and bustling shopping street and into the previous National Palace, which is a beautiful building inside. It now houses a multitude of small clothing shops. However, it used to be renowned for people attempting suicide by jumping from the balcony on the top floor, which, unfortunately (or fortunately) for them, wasn’t so high that death was guaranteed.
We had a brief stop to refuel outside the Veracruz church, where there were a number of places to buy snack food. I tried the traditional Colombian cheese bread, which is basically a deep fried dough ball with cheese in it. All traditional Colombian food seems to be deep fried! This area also accommodates the prostitutes, who locate themselves inside the telephone booths that are directly outside the church and next to the police station. As Pablo was quick to point out, anything goes here!
Botero Plaza was next on the agenda. This is a large square, housing a number of disproportioned statues, created by the Colombian architect, Botero. There is also a church the building of which was begun by a European architect and completed by the Colombians. They thought they could do it better and cheaper but soon discovered they couldn’t! Consequently, the building that was supposed to be all black and white, is not, and there is one very European like dome on the one side and some quite boring concrete with very mismatched windows on the other.
We stopped under the metro whilst Pablo explained the murals and also about the metro. The latter was built during the most violent period 20 years ago and, at that time, gave hope to the people of Medellin. As a result, they are extremely proud of it and never deface it or leave rubbish. I had already noted how surprisingly clean it was earlier.
According to Pablo, no drug money has been used to reform the city. There is absolutely no doubt that the drugs are still here, but the area of conflict has shifted to the jungles, particularly along the Brazilian border. (According to Pablo, submarines had been discovered in the jungle. These had been built there with the specific intention of using them for transportation of the goods.) The operation of the drug business is now spread between a greater number of smaller cartels rather than being controlled by the drug lords of the big five cartels that existed a few years ago.
Our tour then took us through some bustling streets (Pablo had warned us to be very careful of our bags here), in which very explicit porn DVDs were openly being sold next to the church. The Parque Bolivar and the Metropolitan Cathedral area was an ‘interesting’ one in which a strong smell of cannabis prevailed, even though the police station was on the edge of the plaza. There were also quite a lot of odd looking people around. It would have been fascinating to sit and people watch but we had to keep moving!
Our last stop was at Parque San Antonio, a large paved area that had been built specifically for staging concerts. There are two of Botero’s sculptures here. One of these was just the remains of the original, which had been blown up by a bomb during a live concert in 1998, and had been left to serve as a reminder to the population, and the other, a replica of the original that represents hope and new beginnings.
Colombians, generally, I have been told several times, deal with the bad things of life by laughing at them. Pablo tells us that the people of Medellin have wiped their memories of the bad times and this is why they are so happy. They maybe happy because times have changed so radically, but I find it hard to believe they have forgotten those times when hundreds of thousands of people were violently killed.
By the time the tour had finished, it was pouring with rain and, naturally, I had no jacket or umbrella. Maddie, Nick and I decided to try a restaurant, recommended by Pablo, and the very traditional local dish, whose name I have forgotten, which basically comprised of beans, avocado, sausages and egg, most of which was deep fried! Luckily Maddie and I had decided to share a plate as it was enormous and I would never have been able to eat it all by myself. The restaurant was somewhat kitsch but the sausages were very tasty!
We caught the metro back to the hostel (which, incidentally, is Kiwi owned and operated), and then paid a visit to the travel agency in the supermarket to book flights to Cartagena. The distance is vast between Medellin and this Caribbean city and, whilst it can be done, would take many hours on rough roads in a bus. That done, we wandered the supermarket and Maddie and I treated ourselves to cakes on the way out (custard square in my case!). These were wrapped up in some very dinky little boxes for us to carry home and very tasty it was too (the cake not the box).
Today was a fantastic day. On the spur of the moment, I had signed up to do a trip, arranged by the hostel, to go to Guatape, a small town and large rock about one and a half hours away, if you go directly, which we didn’t. To say today’s tour was unconventional is probably a slight understatement!
Rafael picked eight of us up in his old blue Bedford van at 9am. There were supposed to be only 7 of us (the number of seats in the van) but there was a mix up with one of the girl’s bookings, so she ended up in a nest like arrangement, comprising a sleeping bag and pillow or two, in the very back of the van. When we arrived at Rafael’s hostel for breakfast, she was upgraded to a white plastic garden chair, which was carefully lodged in the back.
To start off with, we wound our way up the very steep hills surrounding Medellin. It was difficult to see very much of the city though as, firstly, it was covered in smog and, later, we were above the clouds. However, once at the top, the skies cleared and we headed off on the main road towards Santa Elena, where we stopped briefly at a flower farm. This was not in production but just had a few (now very dry) arrangements left over from last August. Apparently, there is a big flower festival at that time, in Medellin, and the flower growers produce massive arrangements for this. The countryside was beautiful though, even if the flowers weren’t exactly spectacular!
From there, we drove to Rafael’s village, turning off the tar sealed road and onto a rutted, unsealed track that became steeper, as we progressed. This set the tone for the rest of the day. Here, we were provided with a wonderful breakfast (or rather, brunch, as it was now nearly 11.30am) of eggs with spinach or tomato, fruit and some delicious bread.
On the way back out of the village, the road proved too steep for the van with all of us in it, so we had to get out and walk whilst Rafael drove up the hill. We then continued on along a country road until we joined up with the main Medellin to Bogota road, which wasn’t exactly a four lane highway. No wonder it takes 10 hours to do the 400km!
We continued along the road, stopping for Rafael to purchase tomatoes in one town, which was very busy with buses and collectivos, and arrived at the replica of El Penol town, which had been flooded to create the lake. We stopped for a while and admired the view as well as the town, before heading off again.
Very quickly, Rafael veered off the road once again and down another rutted track, which ended in a highly precarious suspension bridge. Apparently, we were off for a swim! The bridge would most definitely not have met any safety standards anywhere I know, as it had broken slats, holes in the slats and the safety rails had bits missing, but we all made it across without mishap. Most of us went for a swim in the lake, which, surprisingly, wasn’t particularly cold, although it was very, very deep and looked a little murky. One or two of the boys had come without their togs (swimming costume), so swam in their underwear, so when we set off again, we had various articles of clothing, flapping from the windows!
It wasn’t then far to go to get to the Rock, which is huge and made of granite. It towers over the landscape and has had a staircase built into a fissure, which resembles a giant zip. There are 755 steps (approximately) to the top of the tower, which, for some strange reason, has been built on the top of this rock. All of us ascended, some more quickly than others, and marvelled at the view, which was quite fantastic.
It was very busy at the top, primarily with Colombians, who seem to enjoy venturing out at the weekend. There were also some very nice houses, and a lot of boats on the lake, so I assume that it is a very attractive destination for some of the more wealthy people from Medellin.
Having made the effort to go up and down hundreds of steps, it was time for lunch, it now being 3pm! Rafael had brought everything with him and we had an extremely enjoyable picnic next to the van in the car park, overlooking the lake.
We finally arrived in Guatape at about 4.30pm and were given half an hour for a wander. This was most definitely not enough as the town was enchanting, with all the houses painted in bright colours and all of them having some type of fresco under the windows. I would have loved to have stayed there. However, I had a quick walk around the town and along the waterfront, where there was a market in progress and the ziplining seemed to be popular. Then it was back to the van to start our trip back to Medellin.
There was more in store though! Rafael had only allowed us half an hour in Guatape, so that we could stop in another town (I have no idea where), for dessert. On the way, he stopped at a roadside stall and bought something like falafels, which were extremely tasty. We were certainly not being starved today. We then wiggled our way around yet more back streets and stopped in a very bustling town. It was now dark, and we all piled out of the van in a dubious looking area, and walked up to the plaza, where the dessert shop was located. Here, there was a horseshoe shaped table upon which glass dishes were set out containing, what appeared to be, homemade desserts. We each paid and then selected the type we wanted. They were delicious!
After this, we thought we were on our way back to the hostel, but next up was a bar. Not just any bar though. This one had horses and a rink outside and inside was definitely cowboy-ish, for want of a better description. Unfortunately, we were the only patrons, so there wasn’t much atmosphere. It was probably too early in the evening for the Colombians to be out, as it was only 7pm at this stage.
Our final stop was at the lookout over the city, where the air was now clear. There were hundreds of cars packed into a small space and hundreds of people loitering around. It was obviously a very popular place for a Saturday evening!
We finally arrived back at the hostel at about 9pm. I, for one, was exhausted, but it was such a good day, it didn’t matter. Rafael really made the trip, as he was always cheerful and willing. He made us all laugh, when he called out to people, as he was driving through the city and seemed to enjoy honking the horn. The group also got on well and I had quite a bit of Aussie/NZ banter with a chap from Tasmania, which I’m sure, must have bemused the rest of the group.
After the very long day yesterday, I was still quite tired this morning, so spent some time pottering about the hostel, chatting to people, and also in my room, sorting my photos. In the late morning, I caught the metro through the city and then the cable car going up to Alvi.
The metro only costs the equivalent of $1 US and this enables you to travel from one end of the city to the other on one ticket. This also includes two cable cars that rise up the steep hillsides that surround Medellin. The intention behind this system was to enable the people from the poorer barrios/flavelas on the hillsides to be able to get to work cheaply and easily anywhere in the city. Prior to the construction of the cable cars, it was extremely difficult, given the nature of the terrain. Consequently, in the past, these areas were riddled with crime and drugs.
Over the last few years, a huge effort has been put into improving conditions, with not only the cable cars being built, but also libraries. Unlike other parts of the world, where Councils seem intent on reducing services like this, in Medellin, three new very large and very modern libraries have been built in the hillside barrios, in order to encourage education. The one at Santa Domingo has been built in black slate and has the appearance of a big black box but, apparently, the libraries have been extremely successful and are well used as community centres.
The metrocable is very well organised, with orderly queueing at the bottom and staff counting the number of people through the barrier each time a car came around. There are two cable cars climbing up the hillside on this side of the valley, one going as far as Santa Domingo and another continuing on to Alvi for an extra fee.
Originally, I thought that I would only go on the first one, but whilst I was going up, I thought I might as well do the second one as well. I was so glad I did! We climbed up and up, over some extremely poor areas, where we could hear and see young people playing soccer and children playing hopscotch. There was music blasting and lots of people in a public swimming pool. After that, we ascended out of sight of the city and glided, almost silently, (apart from the chatter from the Colombians in the car!), over tree tops for a total of 1.8km until we reached the park at the top at Alvi. It was quite magical.
Once there, I had a wander down the road and had a look at the stalls in the small market. It is obviously a popular destination for the ‘paisas’ (locals) on a Sunday afternoon as there were quite a number of them ambling around and buying food from the stalls.
After an hour or so, I caught the cable car back down again and returned to the hostel, via the supermarket. I just had time to write up my diary from yesterday and Skype a friend before going to the barbecue that the hostel owner was cooking tonight. This was extremely well attended and I think I ate more meat in the one meal than I have done all year. It was a true Kiwi barbie!
After breakfast and packing up, I caught the metro to Cisnero station, where I was to join an Exotic Fruits tour in the market place. I arrived early and met the two guides, one of whom was in training, and then waited and waited for the three other people who had booked. After half an hour, they decided that I should go on ahead with Maria, whilst Hernando (I think that was his name!) waited for the others.
The market was about 10 minutes walk away and, as we walked, we chatted about Medellin and Colombia. Maria is only 20 and had not known the violent period so had a different perspective to Pablo on the City tour. The others eventually caught up with us, and we were first taken to a couple of big buildings which contained small shops selling second hand goods of everything imaginable, including computers, car parts, animals and birds (not second hand!), fridges, toilets and clothing. Apparently, this is the main place for people from Medellin to come if they are looking for a spare part.
After that, we strolled around the large indoor fruit and vegetable market, whilst the two guides purchased fruit for us to try. We found a quiet area above the bustle of the stalls and sampled 17 ‘exotic’ fruits. I think they were a bit disappointed when I told them that I had grown feijoas, tree tomatoes (or tamarillos), and passionfruit in the garden at home! Whilst we were eating, the life of the market place continued around us. We had an extremely strong smell of mangos wafting up, as well as a man throwing boxes down to stall holders below and, astonishingly, someone washing the rubbish bins next to us.
Once we had tried everything and I was starting to feel a little over fruit, we migrated to a juice bar. Colombians love juice, which they drink either with water or milk. Everyone, it seems, owns a blender. I had one made from chontaduro with milk, which was interesting but I can’t say I would rush back for another one!
Once the tour had finished, we walked back to the metro and then on to the hostel, where I had to collect my pack and make my way to the airport. I was intending to get a taxi to the bus station and then a bus, but when I asked Kelvin, the owner, to call me a taxi, he said that he had just called one for another girl and asked if I would like to share. This resulted in a relatively luxury taxi ride all the way to the airport for not much extra cost than the bus would have been. Excellent!
As I had allowed plenty of time for the bus, I then had plenty of time at the airport as the taxi, of course, was much quicker. As luck would have it, the plane was also late, so I sat and read whilst I was waiting, which was certainly no hardship.
The flight was very short and we arrived in Cartagena at about 6.30pm. The temperature was just right when we arrived, although I had been warned that it gets extremely hot. I got a taxi to my hotel, which is very nice, with a roof garden, from which I could see the dome of the Cathedral all lit up, as well as a stretch of water and what looked like a castle. However, the area itself looks a little dodgy, so I don’t think I will be walking around by myself at night.
Today was very mixed with a wonderful morning and an extremely disappointing afternoon. After breakfast, admiring the view from the hotel roof top and booking a Chivas tour for the afternoon, I took off to explore the old city of Cartagena.
The city is about 15 minutes walk from the hotel, through the more local side of town rather than the tourist area, so was fascinating in itself.
The old city was absolutely beautiful with something to admire on virtually every street corner. It is a 16th century walled town, built by the Spaniards to protect themselves from the very many Caribbean pirates, and, currently, there appears to be a lot of renovation underway.
It was a wonderful place for wandering, which is exactly what I did, stopping first to buy some much needed sunglasses to replace the ones I had lost along with my bag. I walked right around the very thick walls, sat in the Cathedral, where there was a service in progress, went into, what was, the main library and had a coffee in the (very) Green Cafe. I loved it all!
After stopping at the supermarket, where they must reward their checkout operators by how slowly they can scan items, I walked back to the hotel for half an hour in the air conditioning before being picked up for the tour. Whilst waiting, one of the hotel staff was very pleased to introduce me to a Polish Canadian from Montreal, who was also travelling on her own and who was also going on the tour.
We were picked up by taxi and taken to the Clock Tower, which is the main entrance to the Old City and a local landmark. Here, there was some discussion about payment, which we had already given to the hotel (in cash).
We then boarded the Chivas bus and waited, and waited, whilst very slowly more people boarded and all the other buses left. We finally started, with music blaring, and drove to Bocagrande, one of the beach areas of Cartagena, where we acquired more people. The commentary then commenced. In Spanish. As the tour was not cheap, (I found out afterwards that other people had paid less), and I had asked specifically if it was in English, I was not overly happy.
At the first stop for photography, where we were swamped by vendors, I asked the guide if he spoke English, which he said he did. Seemingly, he had asked if there were any English speakers aboard, but strangely, none of the four of us present heard this, so maybe he asked in Spanish? From then on, we had to listen to about 10 minutes of Spanish for 2 sentences of English, so, to say none of us were very happy would be an understatement, and all of us left the tour early.
Our next stop was at a monument that was two large shoes. I have absolutely no idea of the significance or what the monument was dedicated to, as it wasn’t explained clearly in English. The English speakers (the rest were all Canadian) loitered, whilst the South Americans took pictures of themselves in and around the shoes and bought items from the ubiquitous and persistent street vendors.
After this, we wound our way up the hillside, through the slums, to the Convent at La Popa, which is the highest point of Cartagena. This was originally built by Dominican monks, had fallen into disrepair and had recently been restored. Pope John Paul had visited, much to the delight of the Polish Canadian, and there is a lot of gold on the altar.
The fort, or Castile de San Felipe, was next on the agenda. There was, apparently, only one way into the fort and this was through tunnels that led right up to the main part. People could be seen coming up, but the visitors couldn’t see the soldiers waiting for them, so the inhabitants in the fort were never taken by suprise. The Spanish had apparently tried to persuade the local Indians to be their slaves, but the latter were not very keen on the idea, so took off into the distance. Consequently, slaves were brought from Africa and these did some of the manual work of building the fort before they, too, escaped. There were beautiful views over the city and outer area from both La Popa and the castle.
We continued back down to the old city, where we stopped for 15 minutes at an arcade of ‘handicraft’ stalls where we were pointed in the direction of a particular one. (Guide’s grandson’s apparently.) By this time, the guide realised we weren’t very happy and encouraged us to stay until we had walked to the Clock Tower. One Canadian had already departed but the rest of us continued on. We were given little information, but as neither of the other Canadians had set foot in the city, they were quite impressed.
Once at the Clock Tower, the Canadian that was staying in my hotel and I went in search of something to eat. I suggested we start walking back and finding something along the way. She had decided she wanted fish, and picked on a hotel restaurant that she considered not too expensive and that I normally wouldn’t have gone near. There was nobody in it and, when a waiter was eventually found by the Reception, he suggested we ate on the roof. This was the best part as it overlooked the plaza in front of the Clock Tower, which was very busy, unlike the restaurant.
The fish, when it arrived, was extremely average and didn’t warrant the price. The Canadian thought it was very good and then tried to haggle for a discount for cash. Strangely, at this point, the waiter, who had been managing English up until then, lost his comprehension!
By the time we arrived back at the hotel, I was desperate for the rum I had bought from the supermarket earlier. The rest of the evening was spent trying to import and upload, a large number of photos into my very ailing ipad that I am trying to nurture along, and which really didn’t want to play the game! Thank goodness for rum!
This morning I felt obliged to walk in and around the city with the Canadian, who had not travelled on her own before and was apprehensive about walking on her own. It quite quickly became apparent, to me at least, that we had different interests. She seemed keen to look at shops, whilst I just wanted to wander and take photos.
We walked along the waterfront and into the town where we visited the Cathedral and then the small Gold Museum, which was reasonably interesting.
All the other museums had charges and we we were lured into a couple of places that called themselves museums but which were, in fact, shops, so I’m not sure how that works! I also wanted to go into the Santa Domingo church but the only way to get in before 5.30pm was to pay to go to the attached museum, which then entitled you to visit the church.
By this time it was midday and extremely hot. I decided to use the heat as an excuse to escape back to the hotel. The Canadian decided to continue wandering on her own and I had a blissful afternoon reading in my room with the air con on.
I was expecting a message from Nick and Maddie, as I had arranged to go out to dinner with them tonight. However, when it didn’t arrive, I assumed that they might have stayed at the beach, so went for another walk into town.
It was a bit cooler by then (although only a bit!) and the light on the coloured walls was beautiful. I had a look in the Santa Domingo church, which was now open, wandered around some streets I hadn’t visited yesterday, called in at the supermarket, where the length of time spent at the checkout was excruciating, and then came back to the hotel as it was getting dark.
To round off the day, I had a rum and coke on the rooftop, where I could watch the locals sitting and chatting down below.