One Woman’s Solo Travel in South America — 20: Medellin, Colombia
It was dark and drizzly and much cooler when my flight landed in Medellin after a six-hour layover in Bogota. In the luggage area, I approached a couple of young European tourists — one from England and the other from Denmark — carrying enormous backpacks and asked if they were going to El Poblado and if so, whether they would consider sharing a taxi. By then it was clear to me that Uber was never a workable solution for airport pickups.
There were too many restrictions by local governments under considerable pressure from official taxi companies. At first, the girls seemed surprised and cautious, until I informed them of the official cost of a separate ride, then they eagerly jumped on my offer. It turned out they were not traveling together and had just met in Ecuador. Luckily, all three of our destinations were within a few blocks of each other.
Colombian taxis are very small, so our first challenge was to fit all our luggage in the car and, the second, to make it safe and sound to our separate dwellings. Despite being distracted by our conversation, we couldn’t help our nervousness at our hair-raising, breakneck ride down the busy winding mountain road. Our driver, who looked like he had just barely turned eighteen, did not seem to notice his was a taxi full of passengers and not a race car, even as we repeatedly urged him to slow down. I was relieved to make it in one piece.
That evening, lying flat on my back still fully dressed on the bed, I reflected on the events of the past few months. As the days and weeks went by, the basic requirements for a successful travel experience were being keenly felt. Travel entailed a particular attitude and vision of life. Open-mindedness and going-with-the-flow were not just theoretical notions. It was important to resist the temptation to compare, judge and criticize and to maintain a degree of innocence and wonder.
It took me a great deal of personal discipline to accept the unexpected problems, stay the course, and seek the positive in every situation. My resolve was frequently being tested. And as soon as I became familiar and comfortable with a place, I moved on and started all over again. I had foreseen that routine would become a thing of the past but I couldn’t help missing it. I had chosen to step out of my comfort zone and travel abroad alone to places I had never been. I had sought to put my philosophy of life to the test, walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
It was all that and more. “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing,” wrote Hellen Keller. “Daring” being the operative word here, as without boldness little is ever accomplished. And I was well aware, this was only the beginning. I woke up in the middle of the night and found I had slept in my clothes. I got up took a shower, brushed my teeth and went back to bed, empty of all thoughts.
Bustling with life on yet another Monday Holiday in Colombia, Plaza Botero, Medellin’s main plaza, was the perfect spot for one of my favorite pastimes: people watching. I had just strolled around downtown and snacked on luscious fresh mango from a street cart. But after I finished visiting the Antioquia Museum from top to bottom, I settled on the terrace of a cozy restaurant tucked in the museum building itself and ordered a Cazuela Antioqueña, a local specialty made of beans, pork rind, sweet plátanos, avocado, sweet corn, shredded potatoes, white rice and a small arepa.
I sat there for a long time, sampling my casserole, my eyes lingering on one of Botero’s giant reclining bronzes in the foreground and the families and street vendors beyond. Most endearing was the love affair between the twenty-three massive Botero sculptures on the expansive square and the city residents. The children could not get enough of them as they climbed, photographed and horsed around them as if they were playground gear.
The adults rubbed their extremities for good luck. The scene was a study of “People and Art” and the miraculous revitalization of a once decaying urban plaza. Alejandro Botero, celebrated painter, sculptor, and Medellin wonder boy was well known for his generous art donations to his homeland. But his biggest gift had become a textbook example of how a well-planned square, with open green spaces and easily accessible artwork, had led to the renaissance of Medellin’s historic center.
Looking for Comfort
My first day in Medellin coincided with the Fourth of July in the United States, which meant I had been gone for sixteen weeks already. Mental and physical fatigue had begun to dull my senses. I was tired of moving around and I dreamed of a clean and cozy place to rest, write and do next to nothing for a while, except watch some tennis.
I am a big fan of the Grand Slams and Wimbledon was scheduled for the next two weeks. I figured that if I could manifest anything I wanted, then why not ask for it all? I imagined a wonderful home with a view and a private-bedroom-suite complete with a flat-screen TV and full access to international sports, at an unbeatable rental price.
I had booked my first Airbnb in Medellin for only two nights not sure how it would suit me. The bright contemporary multi-room apartment was a guesthouse full of young international people coming and going and sharing kitchen and bathrooms. It was nice but too chaotic for my taste and I wanted to find something else. I kept searching on Airbnb until I hit the jackpot and landed my dream place, at an unheard-of cost, in a modern condo nestled in the hills of Poblado.
Medellin is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its temperate, year-around spring-like weather and affordable living. Located in the best area of Poblado, the neighborhood favored by Expats and upper middle-class residents, my new dwelling was at walkable distances from both la Zona Rosa, a trendy bar and restaurant quarter, and la Milla de Oro (the Golden Mile), a high-rise commercial and business area.
As my host, a discreet British gentleman, was showing me his place, I kept marveling at the sleek comfort and incredible views. Call me a snob, if you must, I was in clover. For the next two weeks, I settled in a delectably idle routine. I got up when I pleased, fixed myself a nutritious breakfast in the well-equipped modern kitchen and watched hours of live tennis on ESPN South America before venturing out for some sightseeing followed by a good meal.
One of my friends in Southampton, who spends his winters in Medellin suggested a couple of places for a memorable dinner. Ocio Restaurante in la Zona Rosa was one of those very good, hip places where the dining experience stayed with you long after you had digested your food. Laura, the talented young Chef, practiced her skills in France, Italy, and Asia and her creations were both scrumptious and unforgettable.
My ‘Asado de Tira’ entrée was one of her signature dishes and it was succulent. The beef short ribs were braised for no less than twelve hours in a lemon and chili caramel sauce and the meat fell off the bone. I only wished I were with a few friends so I could sample some of the other mouth-watering dishes!
It was obvious a lot of care was put into the upkeep of el Poblado. Everywhere I went, I came across clean and shaded tree-lined streets, flowery parks with gurgling water streams, and outdoor public gym equipment. I also found nothing but hills, lots of hills, which car drivers felt in their straining engines and pedestrians in their aching leg muscles and accelerated heartbeats. I went on many healthy and exhausting walks throughout my travels but never were they as taxing as in Poblado.
The steepness and length of those uphill streets explained why there were so many cars and motorbikes and so few pedestrians. Nobody wanted to test the strenuous terrain on foot for long. A slow paced thirty to forty-minute walk felt like a power walk that sent your heart pumping, your body profusely sweating, and your leg muscles screaming for mercy. Add to this the shortage of sidewalks and crossings in some residential areas and the walks became perilous workouts.
By night, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, Poblado’s Zona Roza turned into a big nightlife hub with loud music spilling out onto the streets until the wee hours. Meanwhile, around the Golden Mile, the fancy hotels and casinos were a magnet for the big spenders. Luckily, I was just far enough for quiet and serene nights.
One Sunday, I visited a small castle in Medellin called El Castillo. Built in the 1930’s by a wealthy Medellin businessman with a “folie des grandeurs”, the Castillo was a mansion-turned-museum with beautiful gardens. Google Maps had indicated that it would be a thirty-minute walk from my place. What they did not say was that the hike included steep hills, deserted and precarious pedestrian sidewalks, and dangerous road-crossings.
The weather was perfect though and I did not regret not taking an Uber. After paying the entrance fee, I was greeted by very tall pine trees covered with Spanish moss all along the alley leading to the mansion. The trees looked like Halloween ghosts with long tangled hair drooping from their branches and were reminiscent of the bald cypress trees of the bayou of New Orleans, even though at the high altitude of Medellin, there is no trace of a swamp.
My attention was quickly drawn to the sound of a popular Shakira song blasting through huge speakers. It was not surprising to hear the world-famous Colombian native pop-singer, what I discovered was that the Castillo’s restaurant and terrace were an ideal wedding venue. The noisy celebration did not appear to inconvenience the many families and couples enjoying the sweeping views, gorgeous grounds and multiple fountains.
A paid guided visit of the interior revealed its Beaux-Arts style decoration with artwork and antique furniture from all over Europe. The eclectic architecture combined high balconies and terraces overlooking the exotic gardens and green hills of Medellin with interior Moorish-styled mosaic courtyards. It was well worth a visit despite the stimulating hike and I lingered till closing time before heading down toward the Golden Mile.
I stopped first at the glitzy Santa Fe Mall fully expecting this time to be won over by the soothing music and easy trappings of indulgent consumerism. Instead, I was greeted by the cascading laughter and joyful squealing of children.
Smack in the middle of the main floor, visible from multiple overlooking balconies lined with retail stores was a giant children playground. Not only had Colombians easily adapted to this symbol of Western capitalism, they also had given children their fair share of the space. I watched them play with their parents and other kids for a while and then went looking for the food court.
I took all the time in the world strolling back home at twilight along la Milla de Oro. The glass and steel buildings, dressed in their glittery attire, looked festive in the silky night air. Pedestrians seemed unhurried and even the people waiting at bus shelters looked serene.
At one street corner, I stumbled on a young performer balancing a ball and clubs while standing on a rope stretched between the traffic and street lights. He stopped when the light was about to turn green, ran hat in hand to the car drivers for donations, and did it all over again at the next red light. I couldn’t help bursting into laughter and contributed a little money for his act.
Later, I found a few more street performers and comic stuntmen, using not the large sidewalks and plazas, but instead the pedestrian crossings at red lights, in effect, taking advantage of a trapped audience. Still, not once did I notice those involuntary spectators showing any exasperation. I wondered how New Yorkers would react to something like that.
My lodging in Poblado had three en-suite bedrooms: a master occupied by the host plus two others for Airbnb guests. One morning, while preparing my breakfast, I met a young couple traveling by car from Bogota. During our chat, they expressed interest in visiting Guatapé with me, a small town on the outskirts of Medellín less than forty miles away. We decided to share the expense and go together on a full-day of exploration.
Guatapé borders a stunning man-made lake, sprinkled with countless islands. In reality, it was a huge six-thousand-hectare reservoir formed by the construction of a hydro-electric dam in the late sixties. The ride through the mountainous road took longer than its distance would indicate, and I was happy to learn more about my companions for the day.
They were barely in their twenties. She was German and he, Colombian. They had met in Germany where he was an exchange student for a few months. They fell in love and that’s when she decided to intern in Bogota for a year to be with him at the end of his stay. Their trip through Colombia was meant to show her his country as they began making plans for their future.
Our first stop was the ascent to the top of la Piedra de Guatapé (the rock of Guatapé) also called el Peñol, a granite erosion-resistant dome, with a staircase carved in the stone leading to the peak. It takes twenty to thirty minutes to climb the seven hundred narrow steps shared with people of all ages, including children, to get to the mirador at 7,000 feet (2135 m) for sweeping 360-degree views.
But as difficult as it was to make it to the top, the descent was even more taxing; my knees shook uncontrollably and felt like cotton and, more than once, I doubted they would carry me down safely to the ground. The weakness and trembling went on for quite a while afterwards.
We were all happy to continue on to the Pueblo of Guatapé, a picturesque town, which is the main marketplace for the regional “vegas” or small farms. The pueblo, with the vivid colors of its buildings and cheerful plaza, sat by the lakes and was surrounded by green mountains. Most of its houses featured tiles and paintings along their facades’ lower walls in rich shades and carved images. Many of the frescoes were related to either the products sold by the shops or the owners’ spiritual beliefs. Others were cultural images of the community’s farming heritage.
We ended our sightseeing with a leisurely lunch in one of the many lakeside restaurants. In the packed eatery, I noticed that most of the customers were Colombians and we were among the very few foreigners present, which I rather selfishly preferred. I had already noticed this in Bogota, Medellin and, to a lesser extent, Cartagena.
Colombia, despite its great beauty and low cost of living, was not yet a big tourist destination. This was easily understandable given its violent and unsafe history and only very recent armistice. An ongoing peace would no doubt accelerate the number of foreign visitors it will attract in the future.
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Note: This is the 20th installment of a personal travelogue to South America, a solo journey I took in 2017 to countries I had never been to put to the test the emotional growth and spiritual expansion I had been cultivating since the spring of 2008.