Salento (and a stop in Cali)

I thought I would start by talking about the bus rides in Colombia since we’ve had to take many of them here. The bus rides in Colombia are quite an experience. The roads are windy and the drivers have no problem passing people at any point and at any speed. I try to fall asleep on the bus rides as much as possible as to avoid the craziness that is considered Colombian driving. Taking buses has probably been the scariest part of Colombia even more so than the crime. Not only is the bus driving crazy, but the locals use the buses to get a few sales for the day. They hop on, usually while in traffic, to sell various food and products then get off and hop on a bus going the other direction to get back to where they started. It is quite  hysterical but seeing as how they do make a few sale, I guess their system works.

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We caught a bus at 6:25 am to a little place called La Felicia, then transferred to another bus to Armenia, where we would catch yet another bus to Salento. It was a long day of bus traveling, something we have gotten used to here in Colombia. We checked in to our hostel La Serrena, which was surrounded by incredible views of the Cocora Mountains and valleys. Farima and I took a stroll through the town and signed up for dinner at the hostel. They served burgers, but it was actually a quite nice set up. All the tables were set like a big family dinner, something I have come to miss while away from home. We sat around a bonfire after dinner, with fellow hostel goers and admired the stars while listening to someone play the guitar. It was a perfect peaceful night.

The next morning, we woke up to go on a trek in Valle de Cocora with a few people from the same hostel (Matt, Erik, Brandon, and Garreth). The Valle de Cocora is full of wax palms, Colombia’s national plant, palm trees that are as high as 60m. It was a 5 hour hike through the picturesque forest, crossing make shift bridges along the way, and partly alongside a gorgeous river. One part was fairly steep uphill and I was struggling a bit (I better get used to this altitude!). After our hike, we went into town for a well-deserved lunch and coffee.

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We took a coffee tour the next day as Salento is the heart of the coffee country. Don Elias was a family-owned coffee plantation and although small, the income from the production of coffee beans is enough to support the family. The tour was given to us by the 21 year old grandson of the owner of the plantation. Coffee beans look very similar to berries. They also grow plantains, pineapple, and lulo, although not for production, but to shade the coffee beans and help retain water in the ground. After the collection of the beans, they are taken out of the shell and let to ferment for the night. The beans are harvested twice a year for 3 months each time. They are then cleaned with water, all the coffee beans that float are considered the bad beans and sold to coffee chains around the world including Starbucks. So unfortunately, while we pay big bucks for Starbucks thinking it is good coffee, in actuality we are getting the bad end of the stick. Coffee from Colombia is exported all over the world, except for Italy — because we all know how the Italians think their coffee is of course, superior to that of the rest of the world. After the coffee beans are cleaned, they are set in the sun to dry and are then roasted, which gives them their dark brown color. Another interesting fact we learned was that the top consumer of coffee is Finland, with US falling as the 6th in the world. Colombia also happens to be the 5th top producer of coffee. After the tour was over, we were given a cup of coffee made from the same beans that were picked at the plantation. I will admit… it was quite delicious.

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On the go again.. we boarded another bus, this time around 4 hours to Cali, the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world. A big group of us from the hostel headed out for a night of salsa, or at least in my case trying to salsa!

The food in Colombia is nothing to write home about. It’s quite bland and everything is fried!  It is mostly rice and beans, chicken, steak, or pork, and some type of bread (usually an arepa, which has no real flavor, it just taste like dough). Empanadas and panaderias (bakeries that mostly serve cheese breads) are on every street corner in Colombia, which make it easy for a quick snack but not always satisfying on the taste buds.

Up next…Ecuador!

Jardin, the land of green!

We boarded yet another bus to a smaller city, unknown to many tourists, named Jardin. We arrived around 7 pm and checked into Hotel Jardin, where our friend Rubin whom we met in Bogota was waiting for us. The three of us grabbed dinner and hit the sack for an adventurous day ahead! The next morning we awoke to gorgeous views of the surrounding coffee and banana plantations, along with the Andes in the distance. We set out with a tour guide on horseback up into the mountains where we would eventually reach a waterfall. The horseback ride both to the waterfall and back was absolutely spectacular, with views of the plantations all around us. It started out  as a cloudy day but cleared up just in time for our ride back to town.

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The 20 minute hike to the waterfall was a sight in itself. For most of you that know me, I’m in my element when I am in nature and this was one of those times. When we reached the waterfall it was shooting through a hole that had been formed in the stone by the pure pressure of the water constantly hitting it. You could immediately tell how powerful the water was and it was stunning.

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On our way back up to where we left our horses, we were able to walk up through the flowing stream of water, which was fun but a bit slippery as well! After returning from our jaunt in the wilderness, I wandered around town. The square in Jardin was full of brightly colored tables and chairs each corresponding to a bar, restaurant, or hotel. And of course, as in most of the squares I’ve seen in Colombia, there was a beautiful church in the center.  Rubin and I drank some Colombian coffee made from the beans harvested in Jardin. I made my way to Dulces del Jardin, a famous sweet shop in town and of course had to buy chocolate covered coffee beans. Farima met up with us  a bit later and we all went to dinner. Although we would have liked to hang with Rubin a while longer, Farmia and I called it an early night for our  5:00 am wake-up call to catch another bus to our next destination, Solento.

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Medellin, Colombia…It’s not all about the drugs

Medellin… from the various blog posts and research done online about traveling by bus in Colombia, we were expecting the worst, but the ride was actually quite enjoyable. After arriving in Medellin and checking into the Happy Buddha hostel, we decided to tag along with two Canadian girls we overheard speaking English on the streets and join them for some sightseeing.

The city of Medellin (besides what it’s famous for to the rest of the world… which I’ll touch on later) has the best metro system in all of Columbia. The metro makes it easier for the citizens to access the entire city efficiently and at a cheap cost. This is something the people of Medellin pride themselves on; as they should as it was by far the cleanest and nicest metro I have ridden in my life. Since the girls were in a bit of a rush and just wanted to visit the famous Medellin Library (Biblioteca Espana) located in the slums, we parted ways and took another cable car up to Parque Arvi, an ecological nature reserve and archeological site.

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The 30 minute cable car ride up overlooked the entire city and the mountain range, which gave us some great views of the city in its entirety, the metropolitan as well as the natural side of it. We took a guided tour around the park for about 2 hours. I wouldn’t say it was much of a tour since we were given no real descriptions about anything, but we were followed by two horse cops, which again I assumed was for our own protection. After wandering around the park, we headed back to the hostel to shower and get ready for the night. My friend from college, Brieanna Harvey, was also traveling around Colombia and we finally got to cross paths in Medellin. We cooked dinner together that night at the hostel and then headed out for a night on the town.

Since we missed the free walking tour around Medellin and were not going to make it to another before we had to leave the city, Brie generously offered to give us the tour herself. Walking through the streets of Medellin, we learned that the people of Medellin have a mentality to not think about the past and intentionally put behind and forget any sort of bad history associated with the community and the city. Considering all the bombings and deaths that have occurred in the history of the city, there is only one memorial dedicated to any such deaths and it is that of the bird of peace created by Fernando Botero that was bombed in 1996 by the guerrillas. Although the Medellin community wanted to remove the destroyed sculpture, Botero called in the Mayor himself requesting the bird to be left in its place. This was to remind the citizens not to entirely forget the history of the city, but rather accept what it was and how it had influenced the people and the community. The destroyed sculpture was left there to represent what the city once was and what it had suffered but mainly to represent its past. Botero then created a replica of this bird that was placed next to the original one, the new untouched one representing Medellin’s future and all its potential. More of Fernando Botero’s sculptures – disproportionate figures, a small headed woman with a big figure and really small breasts as an example, which represented his views and perspective of the society and the disproportionment of wealth within the world – can be found all around the Plaza Botero.

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Another interesting sight in Medelline was a square called Cisneros Square, or the Square of Lights in downtown Medellin. As this area was once considered one of the most dangerous of Medellin, the Mayor had the city construct numerous tall standing lights which lit up at night as a reminder that the city was once again safe for its citizens and it was acceptable to take a stroll through the plaza at nighttime.

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We walked around Medellin for about 6 hours with our own personalized tour guide (thanks again Brie!) and decided to head back after to rest and reenergize. That night, we cooked dinner in the hostel again and somehow were convinced to go in search of a “mansion party” that apparently took place only twice a year. So we got into cabs and headed to this rare party in what seemed like middle of nowhere Colombia. After searching for the address for about 15 minutes through the scary neighborhoods of Medellin, we were disappointed to find the party was not at all what we expected. The “mansion” was a bigger house, half empty and required a cover. Since we had taken the long journey to the party, we decided to stay for a beer, some quick dance sessions and a couple “red carpet style” photos. It was definitely an interesting experience but I am glad to know that the money we paid for the cover went to support a children’s fundraiser.

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The next morning, Farima and I, along with Kat and Jaime (two friends we met at our hostel) headed to Guatape for a quick trip. After a two and half hour bus ride from Medellin, we arrived in Guatape. Upon arrival and as all the hostels seemed to be full, we realized it was a holiday weekend and so the square was busier than usual, packed with visitors from nearby towns. After settling into our overpriced hostel, we made our way to the Piedra del Penol “the rock”, where we climbed 740 steps to the stones peak. The peak had admirable 360 degree views of the Embalse del Penol, an artificial lake spotted with islands, which were said to be created by a volcanic eruption some time ago. We ended up staying atop the rock to watch the sunset and absorb more of the scenery that put us all in awe.

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We had dinner at the hostel and decided to call it a night shortly after. The next morning we went in search of a hike we had heard of in the area with a beautiful waterfall.  Unfortunately so, we were unsuccessful after walking for about an hour and realizing we had a couple more hours to go (one way) before even getting to the waterfall. As we had already purchased tickets to head back to Medellin for the night, we threw in the towel in search of the waterfall and headed back into town. All in all, it seemed to work out for us as we opted for a lake cruise around the islands instead with astounding views of all the islands and some Colombian tunes aboard the boat. We also had enough time to walk around the small village, admiring the beautifully colored colonial homes and buildings, which provided us with more insight into the daily lives and culture of the people of Guatape.

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Back in Medellin and as our fascination with the history of the city was continually growing, we decided to take the Pablo Escobar tour and learn more about what we at the time only knew as one of the biggest drug lords of our time.

We learned that during Pablo Escobar’s reign, there were two big cartels in Colombia: the Medellin Cartel and the Cali Cartel. During this time, the cartels were in constant battle with each other over power and territory. The tragedy of this “civil war” being the lives of all the innocent bystanders and citizens who had little or no association with the cartels or the drug world themselves; their lives were a mere collateral damage to the cartels and the drug lords. The tour and the history seemed very personal to our two tour guides who were born and raised in Medellin and during the reign of Pablo Escobar and who lived during a time when it was unsafe to step out of your apartment in fear of an explosion or getting unintentionally caught in the cross fire of young cartel gangs. It was a very informational and emotional tour for me as well, as our main tour guide was so brutally honest about her experiences and her thoughts on the Colombian government in general. Although the people of the city and the government have invested a lot of money and wealth into improving the city’s image and making it considerably safer for its citizen, drug trafficking in Colombia is only growing due to the high demand of such drugs that are being exported to the US and all EU countries (US alone importing 157 tons of cocaine per year). It’s interesting because the sale of cocaine in a country that mass produces this drug, is so much cheaper within the country than it is when exported. For example, we learned that if you wanted to buy cocaine in Colombia (don’t worry mom and dad, we didn’t) it would cost about 250% less of getting the same quality drugs overseas. The production and distribution of cocaine itself brings in very little money from outside buyers, accounting for only about 2% of the country’s total GDP which strengthens the belief that it is the export and distribution of such drugs worldwide that continues to increase its drug trafficking and use. The use of drug mules adds to danger of this export, with people swallowing drugs to make a quick buck and smuggling the product to other parts of the world. Once again, these people are nothing but collateral damage to those in charge of producing and supplying the product. As long as there is a high demand for this drug, there will always be corruption and greed related to its profit. For that reason and so much more, I am honored and proud to say that I have never tried or taken any hard drugs and have thereby never contributed to the problems that exist as a result of its high desire and demand.

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The tour I found, as with the city that has become infamous for its drug production and overall association, has a lot more to it than what it is known for among many societies today. It is true, Colombia did undergo a very dangerous period that made it unsafe for its citizens to freely roam about the city and avoid any and all conflict with the drug associated world, but that shouldn’t necessarily represent how we view this country and its ever so generous and hospitable residents. Colombia is a country full of beauty and natural resources that is made available to its citizens and offered to other citizens around the world, including but not limited to coffee, minerals, gold (ergo the Spanish invasion many years ago), silver, bananas, sugar canes, corn, and not to mention the 5th freshest water source in the entire world. The people of Colombia themselves are among the most generous, kind and content that I have met in my life which would be so unexpected of a group of people who have seen and experienced such tragic moments in their lifetime. It really is sad and unfortunate the misconstrued views and perspectives I have heard about Colombians and the country itself throughout my lifetime and from other people and so I am glad to say I have a newfound respect and appreciation for the country of Colombia, its history and its ever so unforgettable people.

Edited by Farima M.