A Month in Antioquia and Exploring the Carribean Coast
Back on the road 11/28
The plane touched down at 11:00 pm, and I walked into the Medellin airport filled with white dripping Christmas lights reflecting off the white floor. The customs agent asked how long I would be staying, and with a smile I responded as long as you give me. The hardest question for me to answer while travelling is when I will leave. Who knows what I’ll find? The agent smiled back, gave me 90 days, and I walked to find a cab to Poblado, Medellin. All public transportation was stopped due to the time, so I was left with a single option. The cab driver was of course a character, and we discussed the current and past happenings in Medellin. The 45 minute drive from outside the city was along a dark four lane highway that curved around the mountains before descending into the heart of Medellin.
When we arrived in Poblado, the driver, like many vendors in Medellin, finished our conversation by offering me anything I wanted...I respectfully declined. Poblado is a posh area of Medellin where a lot of hostels, hotels, and foreigners reside. Before leaving Medellin to return back to the States, I worked out a deal with a hostel named Macondo Guesthouse to leave a bag and stay when I returned. The newly built hostel was great, and my dorm room only had one guy from Germany. As I laid down to go to sleep, a couple of thoughts ran through my mind; however, besides missing my family the one that kept repeating was that my adventure was resuming.
I woke up late my first day in Medellin and didn’t plan much. The mother of the family who ran the hostel and I talked all morning as I sipped the free coffee and brewed cups of my own for us to enjoy. We bonded while laughing at my Spanish which needed refreshing after being away. She gave me a lay of the land around the hostel, which I immediately dismissed, and asked where she did her shopping and eating when not at the hostel. While I hadn’t made many plans for Medellin, I did a fair bit of reading about the city. I asked the mother if she went to plazeoleta mayorista or menorista (large or small style plazas with numerous stalls and groceries) to do her grocery shopping. Shocked, she said she couldn’t believe I wanted to shop with the locals and gave me directions on the metro. Wanting to get up close and personal with Medellin, I skipped the metro and hit the street towards Plaza Mayorista.
Walking south from the Poblado neighborhood, Medellin was beautiful, clean, sunny, and had a complex network of intersecting roads and metros. After a 30 minute walk, and several turnarounds when roads turned to bridges headed the wrong direction, I came to the massive multi-block plaza filled with food. It was a unique layout that I hadn’t previously seen in my travels. It was like a central market intertwined with many grocery stores. Groceries check, I headed back to the hostel, and right as I began to walk the warm sunny weather turned and it began to rain. Luckily, I was next to the metro, figured out the hostel direction and boarded a train. These were no New York Subways. The trains were meticulously clean, cared for, and people were respectful and quiet. This was something that caught my attention, and during a future walking tour I would find out this observation was justified.
It rained the rest of the afternoon, and I passed the time reacclimating to the travel lifestyle and writing. Night one in Medellin was relaxing, the opposite experience most travelers I spoke with shared with me. My German roommate and I bonded, and I booked The Real City Walking Tours tour for us in the morning.
After a hearty breakfast and a good night’s rest, we walked 3~ miles to the meeting point for the four hour walking tour (had to work off the Thanksgiving stuffing). The tour went all over the city and discussed everything from its origins of Bask and Jewish settlers (definitely a surprise to me), Pablo Escobar and violence, to the modernism seen today. It was very interesting how the Paisas, or people from Medellin, spoke about Escobar. An easy analogy would be to Voldermort from Harry Potter. When his name was spoken, if he was not just referred to as “him,” people’s voices would soften and the name would be muttered. The previous violence that overtook the city was currently absent, but remnants remained and were referred to consistently as places where terrible things happened. As mentioned earlier, the metro is a great source of pride for the city, and was a beacon of hope when the city was in tatters from drug violence. It is the only Colombian city with a metro, and the pride still remains. I knew most of the food we tried along the tour which included empanadas and bonelos, and passed on eating as Thanksgiving food was too close to the front of my mind to eat more fried food.
A trip to Medellin wouldn’t be complete without seeing the legendary nightlife, and after a long day of touring I geared up for what I knew would be a longer night. A Spanish couple staying at the hostel, and currently living in Medellin while working remotely for the winter, invited me out to a bar crawl with them. A plan to leave for a city called Guatape at 6:30am and a bar crawl did not mix well. After a night of dancing and partying, I found myself having a political talk with the hostel receptionist at 5:30am before deciding it was time for bed.
Of course the 6:30am bus did not happen, but I was up by 8:00am and had a Canadian friend, Rebecca from San Agustín, to meet up with. After putting together a plan, I ran 5 miles around the city to see more of daily Medellin life before heading over to her hostel. We spent the day being tourists and rode amazing cable cars through the communas (slums which became infamous during Escobar) up to Parque Arví. This was one of my favorite tourist activities I’ve done in a city. We hiked through the park for hours barefoot as it started to rain. Just outside the city, the air was fresh, forest dense, and the ground was made of a bright orange clay. Another great day in Medellin would not be followed by another night out, and after another goodbye, I went to sleep early in preparation for the morning journey to Guatape.
The two hour bus ride to Guatape was quick even though my new German friend and I were split apart on the bus. I sat up front with the driver, and we ate peanuts and laughed as he drove through the mountains stopping periodically to let locals board the bus. After dropping my stuff at Lakeview hostel, which no surprise had a great view of the lake, we headed to the area's biggest attraction: Piedra de Penol (Penol’s rock). The rock stuck out like a thumb over the finger lakes and surrounding terrain. About 15 minutes outside of Guatape, we hopped in a motor taxi and began the 700 stair climb up to the top. A concrete staircase wrapped up the side of the rock and people gasped for air as they climbed. There were platforms at the top of the rock for viewing and snacks, and an additional climb up to a castle at the top. The terrain looked fake with all the inlets, trees, islands, and homes. After reaching the top, I tried a Mango Michelada which was a beer mixed with mangos to cool down.
The town of Guatape was very charming with music playing everywhere, and the colorful houses depicted stories of life in pictures. Although a nice hostel, I didn’t really like the vibe at Lake View and decided to change to another one the following day: Casa Kayam. As usual, I was ready for a nature adventure. Back on my own, I asked around town about waterfall hikes. Like most Colombian directions, I was mainly told straight ahead up the mountain. As I hiked I passed mines, palm trees and forest, farms, trails dug into the side of rocks, and rivers; however, no waterfalls. A few hours in, I found a cattle farmer and asked where I could find a waterfall. He said “walk up one of the rivers as far as you can and you’ll find a waterfall.” After some thought, I decided that the statement should probably be a proverb and started walking.
As I squeezed through a barbed wire fence, a pit bull came sprinting towards me, and unlike many of my stories with dogs in South America she was thrilled to see me with a wagging tail. After a few pats she wouldn’t leave my side, and with my new friend the waterfall search continued. We passed a trout farm that was covered in Israeli flags, Hebrew, and Spanish. The number of Israeli’s I have come across has continued to amaze me. The path follwoing the farm wasn’t easy, and I took off my shoes to follow the farmers directions up the river. Thirty minutes later I ran into a group of French travelers, and the group of us continued up river until finding a stunning set of waterfalls. The water was ice cold, but refreshing after hiking for hours. While the humans swam, my dog sat on a rock watching diligently with concern.
Our hike back was a little harder as we had to scale rocks down. At one point, my new dog laid down and whimpered. I picked her up under one arm while holding a rope in the other hand and climbed the rocks to the bottom. Finally back in town, I picked up my stuff and changed to Casa Kayam where I would camp the next few days. After that second day, my day trip to Guatape ended up turning into a week. Casa Kayam was an art hostel where people played instruments nightly and were very laid back. A Chilean couple led a singing guitar session that first night, and I slept outside like a baby. In exchange, I took them to the waterfall the next day.
The next week in Guatape was filled with meeting interesting people including a couple retired Americans who were putting a band together, my new guitar teacher who was on sabbatical from the Bogota Conservatory of Music, and several great Germans, Canadians, and English. I would listen to the street musicians daily at the plaza, including my guitar teacher, and had a great time listening to the band of multi-country musicians play American Rock. After a week of music and nature in Guatape, the Caribbean Coast began to call my name, and I decided it was time to move on.
The walk out of Guatape was fitting as another stray ran up and kept me company on the 30 minute walk to the bus station. She laid down at the bus steps and ducked her head while looking at me board the bus. There was more than a moment taken trying to figure out how I could bring her with. Like most of the people I come across, I bid the dog adeiu and the “10 hour” bus ride to Cartagena commenced. As predicted, 19 hours later I pulled into the dark bus station which was a 40 minute cab ride outside the walled city.
The streets were dark and quiet as I stood outside the hostel at 4:00am. Waiting for someone to open the wooden colonial door, I hit the buzzer several times before a voice shouted down. As soon as I hit the bed I was out. Up early and ready to see the Caribbean, my favorite Calleña (woman from Cali) Sara, flew up to Cartagena, and we set up a morning meet up. By 8:00 AM I was out running down the colonial streets. Every minute I ran the sun turned up the heat. It was amazing through the walled city out to the ocean. The warm and salty Caribbean breeze blew in my face as I ran the 19 hour bus ride out of my legs. Every now and then that fresh breeze was replaced by stale fish and garbage, but how could there be any complaints while running along the ocean? All of the sudden, my perfect ambiance was broken as I ran through a giant pile of dog crap. Okay, everything isn’t perfect, but after cleaning I couldn’t help but laugh.
I spotted Sara in the distance as I ran, and we worked out on the beach before taking a quick swim. Of course, I then read how dirty the water was and made it to the shower quicker than my run out. After cleaning up, we walked all over Cartagena taking pictures and exploring. The afternoon rains came in as we were standing on top of the wall surrounding downtown looking out at the ocean. Drenched, we headed back to the hostel and decided to head up the coast to cleaner waters. Our destination was set: a city named Taganga. After a quick pre-van snack of a chicken and cheese empanada, we caught the last van out of Cartagena. The four hour bus to Santa Marta, the bigger city next to Taganga, went quickly as we watched Chef. Sara got motion sick from watching and riding the curving roads; meanwhile, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Cuban Sandwiches from the movie. By the time we arrived in Santa Marta, it was late and we shared a cab with a couple from the van to Taganga.
Our stay was at a hospedaje (home stay) named Chez Boaz that belonged to a friend of Sara’s in the dirt road town. I woke up in the morning to perfect weather and the sun shining. A woman of many interesting hobbies, Sara was also a free diver and was friends with the Colombian champion. Of course, I wasn’t too hard to convince to try, and we headed out for the morning. As we walked to the dive shop, the sun uncovered an immaculate bay with fishing boats that was hidden in darkness the night before.
At the dive shop, we put on wetsuits, grabbed our masks, flippers, and weight belts and began the walk out to the boat. The water was warm as I stepped in before jumping up the side of the speedboat. 20 minutes later with cliffs to our right the boat slowed and the captain rang out “ALRIGHT, FREE DIVERS ARE GOING DEEPEST! GRAB YOUR GEAR AND GET OUT!” I was excited until this point, and with those words my mindset changed to “what the hell have I gotten into?¨
It was explained that I needed the weight belt to sink and not float. An obvious, but concerning thought to me. Of course, I couldn’t get the thing on as the full boat of scuba divers waited for me. Finally, with some help, I put on the belt, put on my mask and flippers, and jumped off the boat. Talk about diving into the deep end of the pool; I jumped into the deep end of the ocean with a weight belt on. Carlos, my instructor, stayed by my side the whole time and explained the process while our group of five held onto a buoy. The others began to dive down, and pulled themselves along a white rope under the buoy that went into the abyss. The rope was marked every five meters (16.5 feet), and my goal for the day was to get to 20 meters (66 feet). Step one was to relax every muscle in the body and control my breathing. I cleared my head of fears and relaxed for several minutes before taking the deepest breath of my life. With that I inverted, climbed down the rope to five meters while equalizing my ears, and flipped back over to look around at the bluest blue. Calmer than I thought, this was already the deepest I ever dove. Next was 10 meters (33 feet), then 10 meters again, then 15 meters (49.5 feet), then 15 meters again, and finally 20 meters (66 feet).
The silence, pressure, and bright blue was consuming. The farther down I went the more often I had to equilibrate the pressure. The goal for the day was 20m, and I reached it before lunch and our second series of diving. After our lunch break, I tried a few more dives but was very tired and had a headache starting. I decided to call it a day after a garbage stream came into the beautiful cove we were diving in. The garbage was the last straw, and after a half hour on the boat we picked up the scuba and other free divers to head back. Free diving was cool, but I pushed it hard and made the decision to retire early in my career. After diving, we went with two other free divers from Ireland and Spain to have a local menu that was great. It could be predicted, but the fish in Taganga was fresh and abundant. Unfortunately, the locals would take their fresh seafood and deep fry it to a point beyond repair. I couldn’t bear this crime to the daily catch and always ordered grilled with a side of coconut rice and vegetables.
Taganga was a paradise on the Caribbean, and I spent the next several days relaxing, swimming, hiking, and enjoying perfect sunsets. Before heading back to Cartagena to pick up my friend Kyle, who would spend the next week traveling with Sara and me, the hospedaje husky named Bell and I went on a little adventure. Bell had tons of energy and I thought, who better to keep me company? With that, I talked to the woman of the house, put on Bell’s pink harness and hit the streets. Our destination was a series of more remote beaches about an hour hiking through the hills. The white guy walking a purebred husky drew all sorts of attention as we walked through town, over the next crowded beach, and finally through the hills to our swimming cove. Bell pulled me the whole way, and when we arrived I pulled her close and said “Ready, GO!” I snapped off the leash and she went sprinting and jumping into the water. The few groups of people there watched and laughed as I went running after her. We swam away from shore and were both having a great time. When I’d swim away from her, she would come chasing after me. After a few hours of swimming, and Bell playing with the other dogs on the beach it was time to head back. As we walked, I snapped pictures for the conclusion of another great day in Taganga.
Cartagena for a night
After a salty morning swim, I headed back to Cartagena by bus to pick up Kyle. The last few months I have learned to get around South America cheaply and safely. Without that experience, I decided to meet Kyle before taking him on a coastal adventure.
Of course, the estimated four hour ride took seven hours. Kyle and I spent his first evening finding all sorts of fun. Envision a Caribbean city filled with Christmas lights, much of the country visiting on vacation, lots of white clothing, beers and cheese arepas on the street, rooftop parties, and a salsa bar named Cafe Havana where a band was flown in from Cuba. In that list there was one thing left out: a 4am post salsa party street gathering to eat arepa sandwiches. These were special and cooked on a grill by a guy who kept the coals hot with a hair dryer. I’ll leave the rest up to imagination.
The afternoon Kyle and I departed for Taganga, we spent the morning roaming the city and visiting the Bazurto Market: a must see on my list. Bazurto was a great market introduction experience for Kyle and a view outside the cultivated tourist area within Cartagena’s walls. Bazurto was a series of makeshift stalls and stands under tarps glued together. It was filled with everything: meat, vegetables, electronics, clothing, and anything you could think of. In addition to the goods, the afternoon sun heated everything so that a stench blew through our noses causing every hair to raise. With a shared look we agreed that moving forward we would be mouth breathing. With a brief look into a big city it was time to get back to my favorite kind of travelling: nature exploring.
Back to Taganga
Sara, Kyle, and I would spend the next week exploring and having fun together. First up following Cartagena was a return to Taganga. Taganga is known for its scuba diving, but with free diving still fresh in my mind it took some convincing. In the end, I have always wanted to scuba and knew I would regret not doing it. Kyle and I enrolled in a PADI open water certification course which included three days of skills, five dives, and an abundant amount of laughs. The first day of scuba went well as we walked into the bay and practiced things like losing an oxygen tank, cleaning your mask, cramping and much more. Okay, the skills were as fun as they sounded: not very. Kyle and I jokingly considered dropping, but we were in for the full three days. Following our morning scuba session, Sara was off on an advanced certification. Kyle and I went to lunch at a tiki hut on the water called Rey Marino. We split a massive fish cooked in a tomato and onion salsa. The fish as requested was not fried, juicy, and came with coconut rice, and plantains. With an arrival time of 7:00AM the next day at the Reef Shepherd (where we were doing our certification), we spent the evening at Alchemist Hostel. Before heading to bed we enjoyed a local specialty called a limonada de coco (a frozen mix of lemonade, coconut, and heaps of sugar).
Scuba day two is where the laughs really began. After cutting up a breakfast of fresh red papaya and juicy sweet pineapple, we headed to the school. Today we would be going to a depth of 12m (40ft) to practice our skills. The first dive was a ton of fun and we stayed under nearly 40 minutes. As we adjusted to learning buoyancy and practiced our skills, the cool blue water became more and more comfortable. Over the loud sounds of my respiration I calmly observed the Caribbean fish, corral, eels, and the vast surroundings of ocean. Upon surfacing, we headed to shore for lunch, a ham sandwich and juice, and relaxed before heading out for our second dive. With my mask, tank, and flippers on I flipped backwards off the side of the boat back into the ocean. The second dive unfortunately wasn’t nearly as fun as the first. My mask filled with water several times and my eyes and contacts were burning from the salt. Practicing the skills and swimming was much less enjoyable, and to my relief, another guy who was part of our group vomited and we all were forced surfaced. Scuba day two in the books. Not exactly smooth but we had one day to go. After relaxing and contemplating why we were scuba diving, Kyle and I went out and ate a bunch of street food before bed. Happier with the cheap local specialties we motivated each other that we were almost done.
The last day of scuba! Today we would be doing afternoon dives to give our bodies a chance to recover from the previous morning. We counted down the minutes to 1:20pm and reported to school. Tank ready, regulator ready, vest ready, pressure check, boots, wetsuit, mask, weight belt, and fins: time to scuba. All hesitation turned to excitement again as we boated out, and with a flip off the side I was ready to go again. As I released the air from my vest, I began to submerge with Kyle shortly in tail. We were designated partners and consistently checked in on each other as we made it to 21m (66ft) today. This was one meter lower than I had made it the week before without air. Going forward I think I'll stick with scuba. Today’s dives were beautiful and we saw lionfish, rays, sea snakes, and corral. However, something that did stick out was the amount of dead corral. After reading about it and seeing it with my own eyes it was more than a bit depressing. Just as we were finishing our last few minutes, I gave Kyle a thumbs up and we had our last slow ascent out of the Caribbean depths.
Our final night in Taganga, we made a decision to head away from the coast for a couple days and go hiking up in the mountains of Minca.
After a late wake up and breakfast on the water, we took an interesting cab ride through Santa Marta up into Minca. On the ride, the driver stopped to pick up food, and dropped it off at his house. People on the coast truly move at a different speed, and life moves at a pace that would make a snail lose its patience.
The 45 minute cab ride that took over two hours didn’t detract from the beautiful Minca. Our hostel, Sylvia’s House, left something to be desired, but we wouldn’t be spending much time there. After a quick menu del día and Kyle's first Tamale, we began a hike to a destination known as the Pozo Azules. The path we took was beautiful, unmarked, and passed through forest, farms, and a bird sanctuary. However, as part of any good adventure the straight marked path we were told of was filled with turns and getting lost. Arriving at the Pozo’s a bit later than expected, we descended a rock path to the river. The Pozos were spots on the river where pools formed at the bottom of waterfalls. The ice cold water in the forest, sounds of a running river, multiple waterfalls, and tranquility was my heaven. Unfortunately, the sun was setting quickly and after swimming we had to make our way back in the dark.
Day two in Minca had one goal: go on a long hiking adventure. We did just that and of course had some surprises thrown in. Fresh on the trail following some bread stuffed with chocolate, yes out of character but it was good, we stopped an hour in at a “hidden waterfall.” After a couple more hours hiking, and a quick lunch, we made it to Marinka. It was everything I hoped. There were two sections of the waterfall reaching nearly 100m (330 ft) into the sky, and without hesitation I jumped in and swam for the bottom falls. After Kyle and Sara followed suit, we visited the top section, which was a hike up, and were alone with the crashing sound of water. The pressure underneath this one was immense, but gratifying as a smile came across my face.
Before leaving that day, I did a bit of reading about a hostel high in the mountains about a four hour walk from town. The hostel, Casa Elemento, had the largest hammocks in Colombia. After the waterfall we unanimously voted to keep walking. Already into the afternoon we continued to climb in the harsh sun and ascended in circles up the mountain. The walk was worth it, and Casa Elemento was one of the coolest places I have seen. With a pool, bar, GIANT hammocks everywhere, Caribbean electronic music playing, views for miles of the mountains, ocean, and Santa Marta it felt like we had truly walked up a mountain to reach paradise. We spent hours there and by the time we left the sun was going down. Always prepared I had my head lamp, and after an incredible sunset we made our way back down the mountain to Minca in the dark.
Tayrona National Park
With no time to spare, and so much to show Kyle in his short week, we arrived back to Minca at night and quickly found a ride to Santa Marta. Tayrona Park is a large National Park on the Caribbean famous for having significant changes in elevation from mountain to sea. After, the ride to Santa Marta and a local bus to a hostel near the park entrance, we were ready to undertake the following mornings hike to see what all the rage was about. That night we all went to bed quickly, and the sounds that rang through the hostel reminded me of being back in the Amazon.
Up early and excited, we hiked into the town where the parks entrance was: Calabazos. We had a typical breakfast with a view before leaving on what I knew would be another adventure filled day. We hiked through dense forest, heard howling monkeys grunting in the background, and discussed world politics while making our way towards the ocean. Between the three of us, we all hold strong opinions and it made for a rather unique hike. After several hours and going on a howler monkey search, the breeze picked up and we heard the crashing of waves through the trees. The white sand beaches were amazing with jungle and mountains at our back. From beach to beach we hiked until reaching the famous Cabo San Juan where many people were swimming and relaxing. As with most of the long days while Kyle was visiting, we had an arepa on the beach and began to hike back late in the afternoon. Right as we got back darkness fell and we took a couple of mototaxis back to our hostel.
Kyle’s flight was the next afternoon, and due to the late hike we missed all the busses to Cartagena. That combined with our low funds due to no ATMs, we were in a bit of a jam. I hope Kyle wasn’t expecting anything too relaxing on his vacation, I made sure everything was an adventure. With a bit of finagling, a bus driver agreed to take us to a neighboring town, and we would try and find transport to Cartagena from there. The bus ride went quickly, and as the clock struck 10:00pm we pulled into Barranquilla. With no busses in sight, I knew there was one option and I found a shared van packed with people to take us the rest of the way. The two hours in back with my legs up to my chest were not pleasant, but I knew we’d make it.
Third time back to Cartagena
We pulled into Cartagena late at night and were dropped next to the massive wall at the center of the City. After checking in at One Day Hostel, where I would stay through Christmas, we had an interesting last meal of street meat and French fries before collapsing to bed. With Kyle and Sara gone, I was back to travelling alone. Christmas was in a couple of days, and I knew getting around would be difficult. I decided to stay put and lived life as a Costeño (person from the coast) in Cartagena during Christmas looking at lights, listening to carols, and of course going with my heritage and finding Chinese food. On my last day in Cartagena, I did all of my favorites: ran the city streets, went to the water, watched the sunset, ate my $3 lunch at my favorite restaurant where the owner now hugged me, and had my favorite coastal fried foods (empanadas, papa rellena, and arepa with an egg). I set my alarm for 5:00am and planned to catch an early bus to a couple of towns on the border of Panama.
Back to Medellin
The alarm rang as planned, I checked out of the hostel before the sun rose, and took a cab to the bus station. My plan was to go to a city called Capurgana, on the coast of Panama, but with most plans there were a few curve balls thrown my way. In order to reach the city, I took an eight hour bus to a town called Necocli, and needed to take a two hour boat to the remote town of Capurgana. Upon arriving in Necocli, there were no more boats in the afternoon, and I was forced to stay the night. Finding a place to stay was a challenge to put it lightly. I ended up staying in a house with a piece of cardboard out front that said Caribbean drem (a intentionally omitted) written in red marker. It wasn't the dream I had in mind, but it worked. The boat the next morning turned nightmarish as they tried to overcharge me, so I grabbed my things, went to the market, drank a guanábana juice, and went to the bus station.
At the station, I met a nice German man named Max and we ended up spending a couple hours together on the beach in Necocli before buying bus tickets to Medellin. Another 10 hour bus ride later, we arrived and walked to a hostel in the Poblado neighborhood where I previously stayed. I was itching to get back in the mountains of Colombia, but the weather forecast was showing rain and snow in the mountains every day for the next week. With another holiday in a few days, New Years, and bad weather in the mountains, going alone didn't seem like an intelligent move so I stayed put Medellín.
Medellin is a great city, and I repeated many of the activities I previously explored more in depth. Between taking the cable cars to Parque Arvi, walking through the center of the city, seeing the markets, and visiting museums life in Medellin was filled with action. Two nights before New Years Eve, Max and I walked through the heart of Medellin and decided to visit one of the cities oldest bars: Salon Malaga. Salon Malaga looked like a throwback to the 50’s with a wrap around wood bar, four tops splitting the bar from live salsa music, swinging saloon style bathroom doors, and plenty of good times. Max and I grabbed a table with some strangers and struck up a conversation. A few drinks in, we started talking to our neighbors who happened to be three generations of a family: grandmother, aunt, and niece. We ended up combining tables, drinking the local speciality aguardiente (same as ouzo), conversing, and most importantly dancing for hours.
A new part of the family, I would spend the next couple days with the daughter and received an invite to spend New Years with the family. I spent 2018 New Years counting down the minutes to midnight with a Colombian family in a Medellin apartment. It was calm, fun, and most importantly I brought the New Year in speaking Spanish. To my surprise, the New Years kiss is not universal and in Colombia a few different traditions are followed: wearing yellow underwear, eating 12 grapes, running with a suitcase over your head, and burning idols. We did all of them.
As with all things travelling, my time and the daughter and grandmothers, were coming to an end. I spent New Year’s Day walking through one of the biggest Christmas Light installations in the world, and watched a light show put on next to the exhibit. It was a great last night. The next morning, travel was insane in Colombia as the entire country was on the move following the holidays. My next idea was to get to Ecuador and I battled at the bus station and found a ticket to a city near by the border: Pasto. The bus wouldn’t leave until 6:00pm, so I spent one final day in Medellin with my friend Max and another US traveler. Before I knew it, it was time to go, and my last moments in Colombia were whipping by.
Crossing the border
16 hours and a bumpy nights rest on the bus later I arrived in Pasto. I should have done more research, but there were carnavales in Pasto that weekend and I couldn’t find a room. With no options I took another bus to a city closer to the border, Ipiales, where there was a stunning sanctuary I read about. The sanctuary lived up to expectations, and it felt like walking through the old world. The church was built into a canyon with a river running below, bridges on both sides, and a cobble stoned city and market above. The feel of the town was different from the rest of Colombia and closer to Peruvian. Cuy (guinea pig) was roasted and on display through the streets and the look of the people was more indigenous. I hiked with all my things into the canyon, snapped some pictures, hiked back up, and took a shared a taxi to the border crossing in Rumichaca.
Before crossing the border into Ecuador, I needed to get an exit stamp from Colombia. What I thought was going to be easy ended up being over three hours standing in line outside into the evening. Finally, around 9:00pm I received my stamp, walked under the welcome to Ecuador sign, and found a surprise on the other side. The immigration line into Ecuador was longer than into Colombia. The line wrapped outside the building, and while standing in line I saw everything from fights to dogs mating. While in the dark freezing line I made friends with some other Americans, and we spent the next eight hours together waiting to enter into Ecuador. I joined in their plans, and after a taxi ride to the nearest town in Ecuador (Tulcan) we took a bus to Quito Ecuador. Two nights in a row sleeping on busses I was a bit tired, but happy to have company.
Another month travelling, another country explored, and more new friends, memories, skills, and adventures. Colombia was an incredible experience and I get goosebumps writing about it. Thank you to all the Colombians and travelers that made the experience. Now, on to Ecuador!