March 29, 2017
Jacqueline went to Colombia last year to visit her two brothers who live there, and I was so impressed by the photos she took that I decided to follow suit. My original plan was to spend two days at the Rio Claro Nature Reserve, which is about two and a half hours east of Medellin, and then spend two days in Medellin, where her brothers live. The problem was trying to get reliable transportation directly from the airport to Rio Claro while also getting my money changed, and I just couldn't solve the dilemma. It's nearly an hour's drive from the airport to the city, where the bus terminal is located, and I would have had to waste another hour each way, without being sure about changing my dollars into Colombian pesos. (For some reason, currency exchanges are hard to find in Colombia.) So, I ended up spending all four days in and around Medellin. Fortunately, as it turned out, there was plenty to see in that metropolitan area, and I made the most of my time there.
My brother-in-law Ernesto ("Toño") picked me up at the Medellin airport mid-afternoon on March 1, which happened to be Ash Wednesday. It was difficult in a moving vehicle, but I managed to take a few photos on the way down into the city -- wa-a-a-ay down! I had studied up on the geography of the region, and I had a rough idea of the route we were taking, but I wasn't mentally prepared for the drastic changes in altitude in that mountainous country. The views were incredible, and the lush, green landscape was quite a contrast to the deserts of coastal Peru! With an elevation of over 4,000 feet, Medellin -- known as the "City of Eternal Spring" -- can be compared in many ways to Denver, Colorado. With a population of nearly 4 million people, Medellin is the second-largest city in Colombia. (The capital Bogota is the biggest city, of course.) But contrary to the outdated impression held by many Americans, Medellin is no longer plagued by violence, as the drug lords and guerrilla movements have largely been subdued. It is, instead, a rapidly modernizing city full of hope for the future.
After spending the rest of that first afternoon relaxing and conversing, I got started with some serious tourism the next morning. Both brothers-in-law (Toño and Oscar) live within a mile or so of downtown, so I did a lot of walking over the next three days, exploring the local sights. Toño and I had breakfast downtown at a mega-store called Éxito (meaning "success"), in a cafeteria with many choices. We then went on a ride on Medellin's superb Metro rail, which began operations in 1996 and is a proud showcase in mass transit for the rest of the continent. We got off at a station roughly two miles north of downtown, and transfered to the Metrocable system, which is like a giant "ski-lift." The first Metrocable line began operations in 2004, and other lines have been built since then. It was designed to reach poor neighborhoods located in steep areas where buses and trains are impractical. Each gondola seats four passengers, and they move along at about 10-15 MPH. (See metrodemedellin.gov.co.) One nice thing that American tourists might notice: Most of the signs in the Metro system are in both Spanish and English!
The views from the Metrocable were unbelievable, marred only by the overcast skies. It was also hard getting good photos through the glare of the windows. We must have climbed the better part of a mile in altitude before we reached a relatively level, rolling area. I didn't even know what the destination was until we arrived at the station, and boy, was I delighted to see the signs for Parque Arvi (Arvi Park)! It is a natural paradise in a cool cloud-forest environment, with many gardens, shops, a visitors center, etc. I was astonished that they don't even charge for admission! Toño and I went hiking for nearly a mile downhill, and then returning back uphill again along the same trail. (More details about that visit were in my blog post on Saturday.)
The next day Toño and I went downtown, and I saw the famous rotund metal sculptures of Fernando Botero for the first time. Then we took the Metro train to the Medellin Botanical Gardens, about two miles north of downtown. Once again, I was amazed by how much effort and expense had been put into maintaining a natural area. The Colombian people should be saluted for being so conscious of wildlife conservation. It was overcast for most of the day, and after it started to rain and I put on my windbraker, Toño laughed at me. Apparently, people in Medellin are so accustomed to occasional brief showers that they don't even bother to cover themselves or use an umbrella when it rains! The seasons in Colombia vary according to rainfall, not temperature. When I was there, the typical weather alternated between sun and rain.
After leaving the Botanical Gardens, we returned downtown and visited San Antonio Plaza, the site of a horrific terrorist bombing that took place 22 years ago. Toño told me he was with his family not far away when that bomb went off, and described the panic and confusion that followed. Colombians are greatly relieved that the history of violence seems to be behind them once and for all.
Oscar enjoys taking long walks at night through the streets of Medellin, and frankly I wasn't entirely comfortable with that. I know the city is not nearly as violence-prone as in the past, but I would have preferred exploring new neighborhoods in the light of day. On Friday night, I asked if we could stop at a night club where live music was being played, and after looking at several places, we finally found just what I was looking for: a solo guitarist playing folk-pop tunes. It was very enjoyable. Oscar told me that he met Colombian guitarist Carlos Vives a few years ago, and I was very impressed! (I play his song "La Gota Fria.")
On my final full day in Medellin, March 4, Oscar and I walked downtown, and then took a taxi to summit of Cerro Nutibara, a hilltop park about a mile to the south. The sun was out all day, which was great for taking photos, but for the first time it actually felt hot in Medellin. We walked around the "Pueblito Paisa" antique village, which reminds me of the Frontier Culture Museum here in Staunton.
While atop Cerro Nutibara, Oscar and I spent a lot of time surveying the surrounding citiscape. We had an almost 360-degree view of the urbanized valley. He enjoyed being able to see his apartment building (about a mile and a half to the northeast) through my binoculars. Nowadays most middle-class people in Medellin live in high-rise buildings, of which there must be over a hundred across the city. I was dumbfounded not just by the modern urban infrastructure, but also by the density of the population. The city planners must know what they are doing.
Finally, we walked down the big hill (pausing to photograph the many birds, of course), and then walked a few blocks to the Industriales Metro station on the other side of the Medellin River. Oscar wanted to introduce me to some relatives who live on the north side of the city. While in that neighborhood, I photographed the Biblioteca Española (Spanish Library), a big cultural project that had to be closed last year after it was discovered that the foundations of the two buildings are too weak. Temporary straps (like "girdles") keep the buildings stable, but whether they can be repaired is yet unknown. It's a big scandal.
To see the complete set of 60+ photos I took in Colombia, including some panoramic shots, please visit the Chronological Photos (2017) page.
The weather changed again the next morning (Sunday, March 5) as I prepared to leave; It was dreary and rainy during most of our ride up to the Medellin airport. I was surprised to see quite a few bicyclists pedaling their way up the steep mountain highway, in spite of the wet conditions. Even in my heyday as a bicyclist, I was never that fanatic! It's a good indication of how popular bicycling as a serious sport has become in Colombia. My Avianca flight took me to Miami, and south Florida will be the subject of my next and final "chapter" in this "travel-blog" trilogy.
As a reference during my travels, I used the 13th and latest edition (Oct. 2016) of Lonely Planet's South America on a Shoestring book. It's very good and comprehensive, but it's much more "mainstream" of a tourist guide than the 2nd edition (May 1983) which I used for my earlier travels to that continent. (Lonely Planet used to cater to budget-conscious backpackers.) My one complaint is that it lacked a map of the Medellin metropolitan area, so I often had my bearings mixed up. I should have looked for a city map to buy while I was there.
Colombia is the eighth country in Latin America that I have visited, out of 20 altogether. That does not include my visit to Belize (1989), which is not Latin, or the brief airport layovers I had in Panama (1997?) and El Salvador (2017). I would hope to visit Cuba and Ecuador in the next couple years, and perhaps Venezuela once the situation there stabilizes. I had a wonderful time during the four days I spent in Colombia, and there's no question about whether I will go back. In fact, the sooner the better!