As my shuttle drove through the streets of Cartagena I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, tall white towers lined an almost grey ocean. No different to any resort town anywhere else in the world. Then the shuttle pulled into the walled city. Clearly all you need to make me like a town is beautifully restored Spanish Colonial buildings and quaint public spaces. The walled city of Cartagena is all that and more, and my hostel was right in the heart of it. Walls and fortresses were built around the original city to protect from pirates and all within the walled city today remains true to it’s Colonial past.
I made friends with an Aussie girl named Steph on my first night in Cartagena and we decided to go to town with some Dutch guys. I didn’t last very long (still being on Ciudad Perdida time) and when the others were walking me home we got stopped by the police. After searching the two guys let us go only to be stopped a few minutes later by the same cops (and two more) who this time went straight for Steph. They found her carrying something she shouldn’t have been, pulled out the handcuffs and insisted we pay them or the were taking her to the station. Obviously both parties were in the wrong, but it does make me miss non-corrupt NZ (one of the policemen did tell me my Spanish was good though). In the end we only ended up paying around $40, but there were stories at the hostel of people being taken to the ATM and made to pay $500 (1 million pesos).
The following day I relaxed at the hostel, went out for lunch with Steph and one of the Dutch guys and walked along the wall. The wall doesn’t go the whole way around and when I tried to get back to the hostel I ended up getting hopelessly lost.
The hostel was definitely one of the hardest to sleep in, it was a mixture of long term travelers and groups of South American and American people on 3-4 week summer holidays. These groups don’t tend to follow what is known as hostel etiquette (not turning on the light when people are sleeping, not chatting in the room when people are sleeping etc.) so you would have a group come into the hostel turning on the lights at 3 in the morning and another couple at 4 and then some more getting up at 6 and coming in and out of the room until 7.30.
My second day I ended up going on a sailing trip to an island in the harbour. One of the Dutch guys was also on the trip along with Steph’s ex-boyfriend who she had planned to travel Colombia with but then had broken up (long-distance) with a month earlier (and then accidentally ended up in the same hostel as – bit awkward!). The sailing trip was really nice. We motored to the island and relaxed for a few hours and had lunch. In the afternoon we sailed around the harbour and the crew had us helping to tack and steer. We sailed back into Cartagena to a beautiful sunset.
On the way back to the hostel our taxi was slowed in traffic and we saw two woman start to fight, they were going crazy and it was pretty intense. People were trying to stop it but getting caught in the crossfire, and then one of the ladies picked up a knife off her fruit stand. Finally the taxi was able to move and we waved down a nearby policeman to go help.
When I got back to the hostel I found my friend Elly from Santa Marta was there! We went out for a Mojito that night and then spent the following day exploring the city, window shopping, watching the sunset from the wall ,and getting amazing street food burgers – a great end to my last day in Cartagena.
My next stop was the City of Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city. As much as I was disappointed by Bogota, Medellin exceeded my expectations. It is a vibrant, interesting and truly awesome city – a far cry from the World’s Most Violent City, a title it held only 15 or so years ago.
The Metro is a great source of pride amongst the people of Medellin, and indeed it is like no other Metro I’ve been on. It is shockingly clean, both the stations and the trains themselves – not a piece of litter, a scratch or mark of graffiti or even a cigarette but to be seen. In 2013 Medellin won an award for being the most innovative city in the world. Not through some great new invention, but rather from using conventional ideas in a non-conventional way. An example of this is the Metro itself, which alongside the traditional trains, also links onto two lines of cable cars which go into the hilly suburbs. They also identified at risk-suburbs, underprivileged neighbourhoods with high crime rates and built libraries there and created many beautiful public spaces. And all the projects link back to the Metro system.
Part of the metro
Another one of the innovations of Medellin is a series of escalators used as a means of public transport up a steep hill in a poor neighbourhood. Someone told me how cool this neighbourhood was with colourful houses and street art surrounding the escalators, so one afternoon I went and checked it out. It was possibly a little bit sketchy, most of the people were really lovely and friendly but there were a few characters I wasn’t quite sure about. The neighbourhood was really cool though, so colourful and funky.
One of the first things I did in Medellin was go on the free walking tour that everyone I’d met earlier in Colombia had told me to do. This was truly a one of a kind tour. Our guide, Pablo, was incredible. He didn’t sugar coat it, he showed you the good and bad sides to Medellin and did so using an extremely effective and interesting method of storytelling. He kept us captivated for the entire four hour tour.
Our guide in action!
We saw all the touristy areas, but also the areas Colombians don’t want you to see, my favourites were a pedestrian street full of street vendors that still had traffic lights – the street vendors had slowly taken over the street until the government gave up and let them have it; and a park in which everything from homemade roulette to guinea pig races took place.
Fernando Botero is a big deal in Medellin. He is from there and has donated a significant number of sculptures and paintings to the city of both his own and other artist’s work. His work plays with volume, horses with tiny heads and overly voluptuous women. He donated a whole lot of sculptures (each worth around 2 million each) to the city, which are proudly displayed in a plaza.
One of these sculptures was the final point of the walking tour. This one was of a bird and a bomb had been placed under it in 1995 during a festival killing 20 innocent people. It was Botero’s idea that the statue should stay. He built a new one to be displayed beside it, as a symbol of hope, as a symbol of the new Colombia. Pablo told us that we were part of this new Colombia. That 15 years ago we would not have been there. That the very presence of tourists in the city shows just how far Medellin and Colombia have come. Colombia definitely still has its problems, with guirillas and paramilitaries still in action against each other and the government, but there is no doubting that is a beautiful and special country.
The old and new statues
Medellin is known best internationally not for the massive changes it has made, or for Botero, but sadly for the criminal who ruled, and traumatized the city for 20 years – Pablo Escobar.. Escobar was the head of the infamous Medellin Cartel when it was at its height of power. During his rule he was virtually untouchable, killing all who got in his way and taking out innocent civilians in the process. More innocent people were killed in the war between the Medellin and Cali Cartels. Escobar even got elected into congress at one point to avoid being extradited to the States. It was all this that made Medellin the most dangerous city in the world for a long time, wit people too afraid to leave their houses. I was a bit hesitant about going on a Pablo Escobar tour, a lot of the travelers you meet almost glorify him, telling stories of the time he got his planes to take a party full of people to circle the city so that his wife wouldn’t find out when she got home, or how when he was denied membership to a country club built his mansion opposite it. They often seem to forget the horrific and despicable things he did and I didn’t want to take part in something that would gloss over the horrendous acts of his past. I definitely chose the right tour – my guide was almost too biased in the other direction and was quite cynical in describing the good things Escobar had done (he was very popular with the poor, known as the Colombian Robin Hood he built several low income housing projects). The tour itself reminded me a bit of a Homes of the Stars tour – here we have the house he used to live in, here we have where he was shot, here we have his grave. But it was really informative and the tour guide really passionate.She ended with an interesting point – that the drug war is an international problem, with the users having just as much a part. Colombia just gets stuck with the very worst part.
The house Escobar was killed at – apparently the realtor didn’t tell the current owners what had happened here until after the deal ad closed.
Botero’s – the death of Pablo Escobar (from the Botero exhibit I went to)
My final day in Medellin started of great. I went on possibly the most unusual sounding tour I had come across, but also one of those things you can’t believe someone hadn’t thought of earlier – an exotic fruits tour. Colombia is home to many weird and wonderful fruits, and despite spying them on the supermarket shelves or hearing their names called by street sellers I hadn’t been brave enough to try many yet. The group of us and our guide went to a local market and she selected a wide variety of fruits for us to try. I was quite surprised how many I had actually tried before (or indeed how many are actually grown by someone in my family). The fruits I had tasted before included
Tomate de Arbol (Tree Tomato/Tamarillo – don’t like them in NZ don’t like them in Colombia),
Cherimoya (Custard Apple – very sweet, but nice – did we try these at Grandma’s?
Uchuva (Cape Gooseberry – actually pretty good, I don’t normally eat them when we had them at home.
Curuba (Banana Passion fruit – my second favourite passion fruit)
Gulupa (Passion fruit – still as delicious in Colombia)
Feijoa (Guavasteen in English apparently – I just can’t see this as an exotic fruit, it’ll always be a delicious kiwi staple)
Of the fruits that I hadn’t tried before (and some not even heard of before)
Chontaduro (Peach Palm – kind of like potato and pretty good with a bit of salt!)
Lulo (Little Orange – Yum and sour and delicious in juice form)
Guayaba (Guava – different to the guava tree we had as kids but equally delicious)
Maracuya (Yellow Passion Fruit – not as good as regular passion fruit but amazing in
Granadilla (another type of passion fruit, but not to my liking)
Pitahaya (Dragon Fruit, not super flavourful, but nice)
Tamarindo (Tamarind – I think Tamarindo juice in Honduras may have put me off these)
Algarroba (West Indian Locust – hard to get past the smell of dirty socks and the weird texture)
Nisporo (Loquat – nothing like ones at home, I can’t remember tasting this one at all…just that it was one of my least favourites)
Mangostino (Mangosteen – slimy and delicious!)
The market was really busy and we were constantly in people’s way, but everyone was friendly and welcoming and it really was a fantastic idea for a tour.
Leaving the market was pretty much when the day started to go wrong. I’d had my heart set on going to Parque Arvi since my first day in Medellin, but hadn’t managed to fit it in. My last chance was to go after the exotic fruit tour and when this finished almost an hour and a half later than I’d anticipated I thought I might still be able to fit it in. To get to Parque Arvi you take the metro, and then a cable car, and then another cable car – I thought I’d be able to make it, look around for 15 minutes or so, and get back to the hostel in time to catch my flight (maybe 10 minutes or so later than planned). It was about 5 minutes into the last cable car ride that I realised my mistake – instead of taking 5 minutes or so like the other ones, this one showed no signs of stopping anytime soon. Infact, it took 20 minutes to get to the other end. Knowing I was seriously running out of time, I didn’t even get off at the other end, just road the 20 minutes back down. It was a really beautiful ride, canopy level through a forest for half of it and views of the city for the other half, but I was too stressed to enjoy it properly. I finally got off that cable car at 2.25 – I’d planned on being back at 2.30. I then had to take the next cable car which now seemed painfully slow and stressed me out some more. The metro too seemed to take so much longer than usual and when it came time to swap lines I found I’d just missed a train. Instead of waiting the few minutes for the next one to come I decided to get a Taxi. Big mistake. There was so much traffic the combination of walking and the Metro would’ve been much faster. I finally got back to the hostel around 3.40, thankfully the guy I was supposed to share a taxi with was still waiting for me and my stress levels dropped during the taxi ride. The taxi driver was really chatty and told us that he used to work for Pablo Escobar in the labs. He said that while he made a lot of money, he didn’t think it was worth it due to all the violence and fear. We made it to the airport with more than enough time to spare. However, while the guy I was with was upgraded to Premium Economy I was told that the flight to Guayaquil was overbooked and I would have to catch a later flight with Avianca via Bogota. I was already arriving late in Guayaquill so I wasn’t very keen to have even less sleep at the hostel but as there was no other option I had to agree. I was waiting patiently at the gate for my flight, which should’ve been boarding any moment when “Cancelado” came up on the screen. The flight was cancelled, apparently due to “bad weather” – although a Viva Colombia flight left for Bogota not long after our one was supposed to. Noone was really telling us what was going on, and not knowing what was going on, whether I was going to make my connecting flight and having no one speaking English was incredibly stressful. Eventually we got a flight at 10.40, which I think was a combination of 2 or 3 flights and surprisingly no one had doubled up seats using our original passes so I think that was the real reason it was cancelled. My connecting flight was at 11 though, so there was no way I was going to make it. Which also meant I would miss the following mornings flight, the only one that actually mattered. Arriving in Bogota I went straight to the Avianca counter to see if anything could be done. They couldn’t do anything but said they would put me in a hotel for the night (although I think I annoyed the lady because she took over half an hour to process this while about 4 other people had similar arrangements made by the lady next to her). By the time I got to the hotel there was 5 hours until I had to leave for my next flight. I would’ve loved to luxuriate in the pleasure of having my own, non-bunk bed for the night but I was so exhausted. I waited for room service (because I was going to get as much as I could from Avianca), consumed the most amount of meat I’ve had in a very long time, and collapsed into bed. Today I got my flight with no hassles and managed to change the TAME flight I’d missed this morning to tomorrow with the first truly helpful person I’d met since I arrived at the Medellin Airport. But, I can’t dwell on it, for though my trip will be one day shorter, tomorrow I GO TO THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS!!
Butterfly in the Botanic Gardens.
sorry the formatting keeps screwing round, ill try fix it tomorrow