Colombia is probably the first trip I've done where I hadn't performed much research before hand. As I originally booked the trip to get some writing done, I was leaving my plans up to fate. Fate then put me in the hands of my mother, who ended up tagging along with me! I was thrilled to travel with her again, as she has definitely proven herself to be a great travel companion, and we rarely get to spend quality time together. The only down fall: mom was recently in a bad ass fight at work - she's a police officer - and had hit her knee quite hard, which has led her to walking with a cane for the past couple weeks while the doctors figure out exactly what she did to it. This didn't slow her down though. She was out with me everyday, walking probably more than the doctor would allow, and drinking the whole bar.
A lovely older gentleman stood outside the gate awaiting my arrival, with a "Jazzmine" sign in hand. As I approached him, I realized, this is the first time I had actually arranged an airport pick-up. So far, I was already feeling like a princess. The drive from Jose Maria Condova International Airport, settled up the mountain, is about a 30 - 45 minute drive along curvy, narrow roads, twisting around the landscape. My early arrival into Mexico City that morning, and late departure, had me feeling a little loopy and in need of sleep. I slowly started to doze off until out of the cracks of my eyes, I could see the lights of Medellin begin to appear. It was, it is, absolutely beautiful; nestled right into the valley of the mountains, the incredibly expansive city fills the skyline with thousands of twinkling lights and the distant sounds of Salsa, Reggaeton, and honking horns. Our hotel in El Poblado wasn't too far off the main highway into the city. As we began to turn down city streets, it was hard to believe it was after midnight and now Monday morning, with the city so alive. Youngsters crowded the streets, drinking in the park, dancing outside the bar smoking a cigarette. And the music - how are we NOT listening to this kind of music all over the world at all times? It's so sexy and sensual, filled with incredible instrumental harmonies and beautiful vocals.
We pulled up outside of our hotel for the evening, the beautiful Art Hotel. A modern, boutique hotel with an incredible display of local art pieces and a seriously delicious rooftop restaurant overlooking the entire city. The receptionist accompanied me up to our room where mom was patiently waiting in bed for my arrival. Our trip had officially started!
I awoke the next morning eager to explore, but with less than a few hours of sleep due to the noise outside our hotel. Mom mentioned there was a massive street fight between some dudes outside. I'm surprised I slept through it, but I'm sure at some point my body just gave up; it didn't care how loud it was, it needed rest. After dressing for our first day out in the city, we made our way to the rooftop restaurant for my first view of the city in the sunlight. Medellin is so diverse with high, mid and low rise buildings, crafting such a picturesque image as they continue up the mountains and behind the trees in the distance.
Our morning was spent mostly checking out El Poblado and its adorable markets and parks, before grabbing a cab to our Airbnb in Laureles, a quiet neighbourhood closer to the centre of the city. There we stayed with Margarita, the cutest little older lady. She didn't know a single word in English, but smiles and hugs were all we needed to communicate. She was thrilled to tell us how to get everywhere via our Google Translate app on mom's phone. We dropped our stuff and headed to the downtown core.
The historic centre was our first stop, which was quite underwhelming, other than the numerous big bummed statues, donated by Fernando Botero to various cities throughout Colombia including Medellin and Cartagena. We soon discovered it was a holiday when nothing appeared to be open, which would also make sense of the excessive partying on the Sunday evening prior. This proved to be an issue quite quickly as we soon realized all we had was American dollars. Luckily, after coming across a cute little strip of restaurants, we were able to exchange a few for some Colombian pesos at a small liquor shop. We sat on one of the patios of a colourful restaurant, sipping Aguila's, and planning out what our afternoon and the next day would look like. Our lunch consisted of empanadas and Caesar salads, as just about everything on the menu was filled with pork, pork rind, or beef. We decided a night out in El Poblado was definitely a go, after riding the Metrocable and indulging in a late afternoon nap back at Maragarita's. The Metrocable is the easiest form of transportation for the hilly city. We watched below as we passed gorgeous homes, then slums and community housing projects high in the mountains. The windy day definitely gave me a fright on the way up, but I quickly calmed and enjoyed the scenic views with my camera in hand.
Around 8pm, we dressed up and headed to El Poblato via taxi to enjoy dinner at a Cuban spot playing live music and serving up some sweet mojitos. After about 5 in, as well as a decently gross dinner that neither of us finished, we realized yet again, we had run out of money. We had used what we exchanged earlier to pay for lunch and our taxi. As we giggled away, with three new guests at our tables, mom trying to block the sight line of the creepy, older dude who literally swiveled his chair around so he could stare at me, we tried to dig up change from deep in our tight pockets. After a trip to the ATM, accompanied by our waiter, who also made a pass at me once mom was out of sigh (!!!), we were out of there. We sat for a laugh over at the park then headed back to Margarita's with an early morning ahead of us exploring El Penol and Guatape.
Waking up to the smell of coffee, we dressed and sat out at the kitchen table with Margarita. Jamie, our lovely driver, called up once he had arrived; we headed downstairs for one of the best days of our whole trip. Jamie is an adorable, and hilarious, 50-something man who absolutely LOVES to talk. We didn't mind though as he was full of silly and crazy stories, and incredible knowledge of the history of his home country.
The day started with a quick trip to one of the many Pablo Escobar hideouts, but this one where he was shot and killed at the end of his cartel reign. I'm sure you can all recall that final scene from season two of Narcos. After a quick history lesson of Escobar and his hooligans, we were off up the mountain towards El Penol. I was amazed by some of Jamie's experiences, but continued to drone in and out of sleep due to the small amount I had obtained so far in destination. One story included his experience driving to Cartagena with his daughter in the early 90s and being pulled over by the corrupt military, otherwise known as the FARC. During this time, and up until recently, the FARC was known to pull cars over into the jungles of Colombia and bring people to give up cash or disappear forever. After being pulled from his car with his young one in tow, he found a small escape route and was able to disappear towards the city without a trace. It pains me to hear such stories. The FARC and the country of Colombia only recently came to an agreement in the past couple of months, and celebrations of peace were common throughout our time there. Colombia definitely has one of the most violent histories I've ever known, from military corruption to the war on drugs - pff!
El Penol is a small town that slowly began to sink, and now rests underwater, with a cross overhead to remembers its place. What is now in the place of the Old City of El Penol is merely a replica, with a church looking a lot like a South American version of the Disney castle in Florida, U.S.A. El Penol, translating to The Stone, gets its name from the fact that there is a massive freaking rock sitting just outside the main part of town. This massive boulder is about 7,000 ft. above sea level. It was quite the journey to climb its 675 winding steps, mom with one leg, but we did it, and the view was well worth the effort.
Next was Guatape. The cutest little town I've ever seen in my life. The entire town sits on one road and is basically where every tourism photo for Colombia is taken, with walls painted bright, vibrant colours, decorated by outstanding art pieces chiseled right into the walls. As late afternoon was already upon us, we grabbed a lunch of fried fish smothered in garlic, fried plantain cake, and salad. Chased down with a Club Colombian of course - which I later discovered is best enjoyed with lemon juice and a salt rimmed glass. Our next adventure would be a boat trip around the small islands on the man made lake of Guatape, with an incredible view of El Penol, standing high in the clouds. The cold and windy ride was spent mostly chatting rather than observing. We finished off the day with a walk through Guatape, strolling under its infamous umbrella covered alley, and photographing its incredibly colourful streets and cobblestone roads. More money was spent on artisan jewelry. Dinner was spent at Art Hotel, where we enjoyed a smooth Chilean red wine, myself a fish curry and mom a mojito chicken dish.
The next morning was another early one as we caught a ride from Jamie to the airport to make our flight to Cartagena. The quick flight was spent colouring mandalas with the kids in our row. It was so relieving when we walked off the plane to be greeted by warm, humid air. I was instantly ready to run to the beach. We grabbed a taxi to our next Airbnb, Coccoloba, a two-month old hostel built by Miguel and Ana, an adorable couple from Bogota. When we walked in, mom was in shock. The last time she had stayed in a hostel had been over 20 years ago. The crowded place was filled with South American tourists and shoes everywhere. To avoid the chaos, we dropped our bags and headed to Bocagrande with a hilarious taxi driver by the name of Elvis. A large, loud and dark skinned guy who insisted on rolling down the windows and singing along to Biggie and Tupac while driving 20 kilometres per hour. In Bocagrande, the main tourist strip with all the big chain and all-inclusive hotels, we spent an hour or two under the shade of an umbrella sipping Coronas in the warm breeze on the beach. Lunch was spent at a cute little pizza spot called La Diva. The rest of the afternoon was spent on the beach, buying fruits for breakfast, and finding a bathroom for poor Jazzmine, as always. I did find a sweet pink futbol club of Colombia hat during the toilet search though!
When we returned to the hostel, we were shocked to find it completely empty and spotless, except for four Argentinian boys. Mom and I had our own private room with nine beds. She was in paradise. After our routine afternoon nap, we walked over to the Old City to explore the excitement that eludes from Cartagena. After getting lost and stopping to listen to some incredible Brazilian and Colombia musical groups, we found ourselves at a cute little table in the middle of the road drinking more Chilean red wine and nibbling on garlic bread.
The next morning was our last excursion together, up to El Volcan de Totuma, located in the Santa Catalina area. Instead of spewing out hot lava, the 60-metre volcano is filled with this thick, pudding-like mud that is said to have healing powers. We ascended the stairs and stood at its top watching a group of Colombian tourists enjoy their time in the mud. I was probably making the strangest face the entire time I observed. The whole thing just seemed so odd. Suddenly we were being pulled in by two Colombian guys, who then proceeded to lay us down in the mud. It was hard to stand up, the density of the mud causes you to float on its surface. The two guys began to cover us with the mud, face and hair too, then to massage us. It was so weird, I was giggling uncontrollably from my extreme discomfort. Thank goodness my mom was there, I would have felt so uneasy doing it alone. We sat/stood in the mud for a little while after, in disbelief and confusion of what the heck this mud was made of and where it came from. A volcano that released mud? After finally escaping, we walked down towards the lake to wash off. Older ladies stood by with buckets, offering showers for as low as 10K pesos (!!!), but I really didn't need to make the experience even more uncomfortable, so mom and I walked our muddy butts into the lake to wash off.
After a shower, and some help from one another to remove excess mud from ears and hairlines, we made our way to lunch in Plaza de San Diego, where I had my favourite meal yet: fried plantain chips, homemade guacamole, and a flavourful quinoa burger. As our first real meal of the day, we instantly became sleepy. Trying to drawn our fatigue, we sipped coffee and browsed some cute shops, where mom then found the Colombian emerald of her dreams. It's really the only thing she wanted to buy in her time there.
We made our way back for an afternoon nap - see the trend here? - before heading out to dinner and to watch some live music. I was amazed every night with the large selection of music happening within the Old City. We returned to the hostel quite late, around two in the morning, to be greeted and entertained by Miguel and two of the Argentinians.
Mom left the next day leaving me with a few days to focus on writing and getting some sun on my pale skin. In love with the quinoa burger I had had the previous day, I decided to revisit for dinner to enjoy another mojito and a delicious vegan salad. Not wanting to spend my last night in the hostel, I wandered the city and found myself outside its walls in a large square across from the community centre. There, in the square, was a massive crowd all dancing Salsa; the music so loud, the bass was shaking the sidewalk. One part of the group was actually performing a choreographed dance led by an older gentleman. Everyone had a drink in hand, a smile on their face, and dancing as if it was their profession. It's incredible how an entire country can be so talented when it comes to dance. I eventually found myself getting pulled into the crowd by two really nice guys, who then proceeded to teach me how to Salsa. It took a while for me to catch on, as every time they spun me, I would lose my footing and look like a clumsy tourist. I couldn't help but smile while dancing too. There is something - as cheesy as it sounds - so magical about a crowd of people enjoying each others presence accompanied by good tunes and beers. When the music came to an end, I found myself with stomach pain again, therefore leading me back to the hostel. As soon as I walked in, Miguel and the Argentinians were there to greet me and were not going to let me end my night so early. The four of us, as well as Ana and her friend Patty, ended up driving through the city, with a little too much tequila flowing, until we ended up dancing on the top of the Old City wall. It was an awesome way to end the trip, with a bedtime of 6am.
The next adventure? Stay tuned for the two-year writing project that I FINALLY finished on the trip!