A Study in Contrasts

We loved Medellin so much that we stayed for nine days, our longest stay that didn’t involve volunteering. Our hostel, the Palm Tree, was a magical, calm oasis in the middle of the bustling city–a perfect place to go back to after a busy day sightseeing. The staff was so kind and welcoming, and since most of them spoke very little English, we got to practice our Spanish with them all the time. On TripAdvisor, their reviews were mixed because some guests complained about their lack of English-speaking skills, because they apparently didn’t come to South America expecting to have to speak any Spanish at all. I have no words.

A Botero statue. The artist was renowned for his work, which used disproportionate sizing to emphasize his message.

It was also amazing fun to hang out with our old Colca Canyon friend Ahmed and hear his expanding theories about “freeing yourself from the tyranny of the mind!“, words that have become his catchphrase lately. It’s quite possible that Ahmed is becoming a hippie. He had also acquired a temporary girlfriend, Elizabeth, a very nice girl from Olympia, WA, who was studying Spanish and salsa dancing in Medellin. She had already been in the city for one and a half years, and I asked her once if she grew tired of the stares, as she was a tall, blonde, white girl. She answered that she had gotten used to it. I don’t know if I could, though. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but the stares just make me so uncomfortable.

Elizabeth, me, and Linda, a fellow hosteler (and Asian–a rare find in backpacker world, although more common in Colombia) from Australia. The screen on Linda’s camera was broken, so all of her pictures turned out a little askew…

One night, after a match in which Atlético Nacional, Medellin’s most popular football team, lost to a Paraguayan team, Ahmed, Elizabeth, Craig, and I wandered into a 24-hour bakery. It was a popular stop among the walking mariachi band members that play on a nearby street in the evenings. We ordered a flan to share and sat in the outdoor patio, finishing the beers that we had brought and taking in all the colorful costumes. There were also a lot of Nacional fans, and one particularly drunk one came stumbling up to our table, holding out his hand.

“Money,” he said in his heavily accented English. “For… go to… my house!” he finished, quite pleased with himself. We politely said no, and although he fist-bumped all of us, his last words were, “Estoy con Pablo Escobar,” which we weren’t sure how to take. Was it some kind of harmless threat? Just a reference to his personal affiliation with drugs? At any rate, this kind of in-your-face interaction fortunately wasn’t common, but the stares were, and they all contrived to make me feel out-of-place. The life of a traveler, I guess. You’d think I’d be used to it by now.

But for all the stares and aggressive panhandlers, there were many more friendly faces and paisas who went out of their way to ask us if we needed directions or help, were quick to say hi and shake our hands, and just made us feel welcome in general. I would gladly endure a few stares if that meant that all of our stays would be as fun and comfortable as it was in Medellin.

Ahmed teaching Craig how to salsa. Next year, you’ll see them on X-Factor.

Craig putting the moves on me. Not sure if it was the alcoholic haze or if Ahmed had done a great job in the five minutes of teaching, but we’re both amenable to learning more if we can find some cheap lessons.

Today, we took a short bus to Guatape, a quaint town about an hour and a half from Medellin. The central plaza reminds us a lot of Salento, with its colorfully painted buildings, but it’s also situated on the shore of a beautiful man-made lake (the dam provides power to 60% of Colombia, according to some fellow travelers). We expected a weekend that would be at least as calm and peaceful as our stay in Medellin, filled with scenic hikes and kayaking. So it was with some surprise and not a little displeasure that we arrived to our hostel to find it overrun with shirtless Australian volunteers blasting rap music in the living area, which all the rooms bordered.

Our room is spacious and our private bathroom (!!) is super clean and modern, but the noise just doesn’t stop. They’re currently watching a movie with an extraordinarily high gunshot rate, at maximum volume. Perhaps they’ve all gone deaf and can’t hear anything below a gazillion decibels anymore? It’s funny that in huge, busy Medellin, we were able to relax and find peace in our hostel, but here in tiny Guatape, our tranquil weekend eludes us. Ah well, if travel has taught us anything, it’s never to be surprised by anything, least of all a noisy hostel!

Fun times in Medellin. I miss it already. But we can’t stay there forever… onward and upwards to the Caribbean!

A visit to the first public outdoor escalator in Colombia

We wanted to go ride the other cable car yesterday, just as something to do. When we told Luz (the hostel cleaning lady and probably the sweetest person on the planet) our plans, she suggested that we grab a bus while we were in the area and check out the escaleras eléctricas. These outdoor escalators were installed in 2012 in a neighborhood called Las Independencias, which is part of the Community 13, one of the poorest areas in Medellín.

I have to say, I was at least a tiny bit nervous going on this excursion. I mean, if it’s one of the poorest places in the city, it could be dangerous, right? But Luz insisted that the people were super nice, and since she lived nearby, I wanted to trust her. I was also extremely interested to see them (the escalators), and of course, everything turned out fine. In fact, we had a really amazing experience. The neighborhood had the look and feel of Valparaíso, Chile, which was totally unexpected. Our bus driver dropped us off near the top of the escalators, and we admired the beautiful murals and colorful buildings while walking along a nice balcony (balcón in Spanish, which doesn’t feel as right in English) overlooking the city.

Escalators descend into the neighborhood

As we descended the series of escalators, we ran into a group of children and some volunteers looking after them. They had a space just next to the escalators which was dedicated to arts and crafts – kind of an after school activity center. I chatted away with Joao Bryan (a volunteer with a fantastic, if uncommon name) while Ahmed and Sheena fielded a barrage of questions from the kids. We learned that in this neighborhood there were Colombians from all over the country, not just paisa. I felt that our mixed-ethnic representation of the USA might be confusing here, but Joao pointed out kids from the Colombian Caribbean islands, the coast and other parts of the country, proudly stating that they too are a mixed-ethnic country.

The public spaces around the escalators created an environment where it was easy for the residents to mix and chat, and hang out – a successful urban design. There was an easy feel to the place, which we really enjoyed, especially since our presence was greeted with so much attention. On the way out we saw a sign that advertised crema con mango for $500 pesos. Having no idea what this could be, we wanted to try it. One of the kids started calling his neighbor by name to come down because we were interested. It was clear that this was a tight-knit community, and somehow we had infiltrated it, if only for 30 minutes.


A fine time in Medellin

Our time in Medellin started off fortuitously, as we were tipped off on our blog (a comment left by someone we had never met) that our friend Ahmed was in the city. We hadn’t seen him since leaving Cusco and had no idea that he was this far north already. He had found a simple and friendly hostel near the city center, so we happily checked in.

Medellin is in the province just north of Manizales and Salento, but people in both provinces are known as paisa. They are mostly decedents of Basque people and Spanish Jews who fled Europe to escape persecution. We learned on our city tour today that the paisa people believe themselves to be special, and actually superior to other Colombians. This is surely a generalization, but years of isolation in the mountains (before the railroad was built) is responsible for some believing this sentiment. Outside of this region, the paisa people have a reputation of being smooth-talkers. We have found them extremely welcoming and eager to interact with us. This is surely within their nature, but the global stigma that years of violence has brought likely has them extra motivated to change their image.

Form a giant chain and a local will run electricity through you – only a small fee required

Enjoying guarapo – a sugarcane and lime drink

It’s hard to believe that the metro system here is 20 years old because it is spotless. No trash, no graffiti, no stickers. The people are so proud of this system, the only one in Colombia. And proud they should be, because it’s an awesome transportation system. Rail lines connect seamlessly to bus-rapid transit and cable cars (which reach high into poorer hill-side neighborhoods). Modern electronic cards are used and service is frequent, which is great because this system is also very popular.

I need to ask why this building says Hollywood…

Even the locals get their pictures with the Botero statues

Medellin is a city that has completely transformed itself in the last 20 years, going from one of the most dangerous places in the world, to a modern, extremely pleasant city to experience. With a near-perfect climate, it’s pretty easy to see why everyone raves about this place. Someone who gets a lot of credit for this transformation is ex-Mayor (and current governor of Antioquia province) Sergio Farjardo, who initiated a lot of the “social urbanism” changes that make this place what it is today. Areas that were inundated with drugs and crime were turned into beautiful and safe public places. Enormous and “sexy” libraries were built in the poorest neighborhoods. Cable cars and outdoor escalators now bring people into the city center easily. Medellin is an example of possible change for many cities around the world (e.g. Detriot, Rio de Janeiro).

A sober reminder of the past, and a message of hope for the future (the statue in the background was destroyed by a bomb in the 90s)

In typical Wongenberg fashion, most of our time here has been spent just walking around, trying to soak up the vibe of this city. We really don’t do a lot in big cities, which seems to be the opposite of most other travelers we meet. I guess this is the luxury that we are afforded, since our timeline for traveling is much longer than anyone else’s (or at least our scope is smaller). It’s really what I enjoy the most about this trip – letting a planned 4 night stay drift to a week, or longer. As Ahmed says, there’s no need to get worked up about small things like schedules and being on time. We’re on vacation after all.