A Travellerspoint blog

February 2015

Medellin's Many Faces

sunny 27 °C

In the 1980s Medellin was the epicentre of a multi-faceted war between a cadre of merciless drug kingpins, and the governments of both Colombia and the U.S., and was considered the most dangerous city in the world. However, this was long before Baghdad, Kabul, Aleppo and dozens of other middle-eastern cities re-defined the term, ‘dangerous.’
Since the extra-judicial ‘execution’ of the prime suspect Pablo Escobar in 1993, the city’s tree-lined boulevards have gradually been reclaimed by a collaboration of the armed forces and the good citizens…
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Medellin and its five satellite cities haven’t got a flat piece of land between them and while the original community may have been built alongside the river that meanders for many miles between steeply inclined mountains, as the city grew it had nowhere to go but up…
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And up, and up and up…
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Perhaps Medellin’s greatest achievement, (and an innovation that led to it being awarded the title, ‘Most Innovative City in the World’ in 2013), is its Metro system that links the whole city together with a combination of busses, skytrains and cable cars…
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While cable cars are most often used as tourist attractions or to access winter resorts, in Medellin they are simply part of the daily commute for the masses of workers whose meagre homes are precariously perched on the near vertical mountainsides….
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However, the Metro is bringing wealth to the most remote communities and at the summit of one of the cables there is a sparkling new community of highrises that gives a stunning view of the city more than a thousand feet below…
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Maybe the best thing about the integrated Metro in Medellin is the price – just $1 for any distance – although the 20 minute cable car ride in bad weather might be a little scary.

Medellin today is largely a very modern city with smart shopping malls, upmarket stores and innumerable good restaurants - if you enjoy Indian, French, Chinese, Thai, American, or, most frequently, Italian cuisine. Burger King, McDonald’s and pizza joints are everywhere in the city, though we were able to get some excellent local dishes including something that looked, smelled, and tasted, exactly like a true Cornish pasty…
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This ‘Empanada Argentina’ cost just over a dollar and was stuffed with beef, vegetables and gravy just like the real thing- it was delicious.
Most of Medellin today is as peaceful and safe as any large city but, although it is deservedly cherished by its citizens, we didn’t really get it; anymore than we didn’t really get the many statues by Medellin’s most beloved son, the artist Botero, (the guy with a fat fetish whose works seemingly fill every gallery in Colombia). This is one of his larger pieces that was blown up by terrorists in a city park…
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But, just as the city has been revived, so has the statue. Botero created another to go alongside the wrecked work to show that terrorists will not win…

Posted by Hawkson 13:16 Archived in Colombia Comments (3)

Salento Successes

sunny 28 °C

Last time on our Andean adventure we told you the sad story of the decimation of Colombia’s national plant – the wax palm – in the stunningly beautiful Cocora valley. These lofty palms are strictly protected today but no amount of legal cosseting can prevent their eventual disappearance from the valley, and this man explained why…
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This is Nicholas and he and his partner, Carlos, have spent the past ten years protecting and re-establishing a large area of natural jungle a few kilometres from Salento. (Web. kasaguaduanaturalreserve.org) Nicholas explained that the wax palm seeds can only germinate and grow under a dense forest canopy and for many years the plant grows at ground level until its enormous crown of leaves is fully mature. Only then does the giant stem begin to thrust the crown high above the canopy from where it can flower and produce offspring. The wax palms of the Cocora valley no longer have a jungle at their feet so they can never reproduce. The jungles of Colombia seem so vast that it is difficult to believe that they are under threat, but economic pressures have led to large areas being cleared for coffee, dairy and paper production. This is what the jungle should look like – one of the most biodiverse areas on earth with more than three thousand species of plants per square kilometre…
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And this is where Nicholas and his partner are making a real difference. By protecting their slice of jungle they are preserving wax palms for future generations, they are also educating tourists and the locals about the jungle and the need for its preservation. We learnt an amazing amount during a three hour tour of the Kasaguadua reserve. For example: the next time you are lost in a tropical jungle only eat fruit from spiky plants – poisonous plants don’t waste energy producing spikes. And when it comes to spikes there are few more wicked than blackberries…
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There are hardly any flowers in the dense forest undergrowth as few birds venture into this dark world, so most of the blooms are high in the canopy…
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Smaller plants that are unable to reach the lofty heights necessary to catch the sun and the attention of birds flourish by clinging onto the branches of trees and getting a lift, like these orchids…
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However, some of the leaves of the jungle plants are as beautiful as any flower. This is a huge leaf – not a feather…
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Nicholas is from London, England, but his heart is in the Colombian jungle and we wish him well in his lifetime’s quest to build a sustainable future for this region. Some other people who are making a difference are Henry and Belindo from Bogota with their sons Pedro and Johann…
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This incredibly hardworking and innovative family have created an excellent restaurant serving delicious local trout, (trucha), a five-a-side football pitch and a tejo alley all called BetaTown in Salento.(www.beta.com.co). Tejo is a national sport in Colombia and is played using explosives, (check it out on Wikipedia). And this week Henry and his family opened a perfectly beautiful small hotel in the town.
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Salento has become such a tourist draw that at holiday times the police have to block off access. Don’t be deterred. It’s a beautiful little place – and definitely stay at the Beta Hotel.

Posted by Hawkson 18:50 Archived in Colombia Comments (4)

The Palms of Cocora

sunny 27 °C

According to local legend the town of Salento on the western slopes of the Andes was so often up in the clouds that the inhabitants brightened up their dull streets with vibrant colours…
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Times have changed and Salento now basks in warm equatorial sunshine for most of the year, but the colourful paint has stuck and almost every street is a canvass for a work of art…
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Equally colourful, though in a natural way, is the nearby valley of Cocora and we reached it in one of the dozens of gaily painted Jeeps that operate as taxis on the steep mountain roads…
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The high-altitude Cocora valley is famous for its unique wax palms that pepper the verdant mountainsides and reach nearly 200 feet into the clear blue sky…

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But all is not well in this picturesque valley. Legend has it that these luxuriant pastures were once thickly forested with wax palms where the sun rarely broke through the perpetual mists and the canopy of fronds that was home to numerous species of birds and animals…
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However, it seems that deforestation occurred when the majestic trees were felled to satisfy the catholic churches’ demand for palm leaves for Palm Sunday, while many others were destroyed when the protective wax was stripped from their bark for candlemaking. But legends have a habit of becoming exaggerated over generations and we found it hard to believe that the weather had changed so completely as we climbed for two hours to reach the wooded peaks under a blazing sun…
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So when did all these catastrophic changes occur? When did the clouds and persistent mists evaporate under a scorching sun? When did the climate change? According to a local guide who grew up in Salento just 40 years ago, all this has happened in his lifetime. When he was a child he lived in the midst of a cloud forest where he was perpetually cold and damp. Global warming sceptics should be compelled to spend a week here to see the results – both good and bad – of mans’ impact on his surroundings, and to enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery before this becomes the very last wax palm still standing…
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However, all is not lost in this spectacularly beautiful part of the world and next time on our Andean adventure we will take you to visit some passionate people who are determined to make a difference.

Posted by Hawkson 14:23 Archived in Colombia Comments (3)

It's Coffee Time in Colombia

sunny 26 °C

We’ve left Bogota and the rain behind and dropped 4,000 feet to the lush valleys surrounding the eye-catching town of Salento in the department of Quindio. This is the land of coffee and we confidently expect to bump into Juan Valdez and his laden donkey around every corner. (P.S. In American T.V advertisements Juan is the man who delivers finest Colombian coffee to the supermarkets). This is our ‘Juan’…
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He doesn’t have a donkey, but he gave us an excellent tour of the coffee plantation where we picked some coffee cherries from the trees. The harvest doesn't begin for a few weeks so most of the beans are still green..large_Coffee_beans.jpg..
We managed to get a few ripe ones and took them through the whole process until we reached the enormous drying shed…
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Colombia is awash in coffee and is the third largest producer in the world. They claim the coffee is the world’s best – and they may be right. The climate and soil is perfect for coffee on the steep hillsides around the colourful town of Solento, but when it comes to colour it is difficult to upstage nature. The hedgerows, gardens and trees of these equatorial Andean highlands are ablaze with a variety and profusion of exotic plants not seen outside a botanical hothouse in most of the world. Here’s a small selection…
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Next time on our Andean Adventure we will show you the colours of Salento.

Posted by Hawkson 19:24 Archived in Colombia Comments (5)

Bogota – All That Glitters…

semi-overcast 19 °C

The city of Bogota, (originally named Santa-Fe when it was founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1538), was built with the gold and silver seized from the Chibcha indigenous peoples who had lived here for millennia. Most of the precious metals ended up in the pockets of the king of Spain - if it wasn’t stolen by British pirates en-route to the old world -, but luckily some survived and can be seen in the impressive Museum of Gold in Bogota’s historic Candelaria district. These are a couple of the beautiful objects used by the Chibcha for religious and ceremonial purposes…
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The extensive museum has a faultless display of artefacts, with excellent presentations and descriptions in Spanish and English, made all the better by its free entry on Sundays, (although it is never expensive).

Equally extensive and beautifully presented, (and equally free), are the museums and art galleries of the Casa de Moneda; previously the royal mint, where the nation’s gold was stamped into coins with giant presses made in Birmingham, England…
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While many of the art galleries in the Casa are dedicated to the Great Masters such as Renoir and Picasso, most of the works are by renowned Colombian artist Botero. All of Botero’s paintings, sketches and sculptures feature dietarily challenged people, grotesquely fat animals and chunky artefacts, and take a bit of getting used to. This is his view of the Mona Lisa…
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Despite its historic association with the alluring metal, the streets of Bogota are not paved with gold today and there are a number of areas where tourists are firmly advised not to go. However, in general the streets are safe and well maintained, (though it is clear that someone is doing dodgy business surreptitiously recycling metal manhole covers), and there is an excellent public transit system using triple length bendy buses on dedicated lanes…
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Bogota is clearly a wealthy city: rich in culture; rich in architecture and rich in heritage. The Colombian coffee is great and the food is excellent and inexpensive, (grilled chicken lunch with soup and bottomless juice for less than $4 Cdn. in a local restaurant), and we have enjoyed everything – except the rain.
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After a couple days dodging heavy downpours we began to lose hope of seeing the city from atop the nearby mountain of Monserrate, (10,000 feet above sea level), but then the skies began to clear and we could finally see the church that sits on the summit of the mountain…
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We raced for the cable car and by the time we reached the summit the sun was shining and we had a birdseye view of the city for 30 minutes before the sky darkened again…
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Bogotans are used to the rain – everyone seems to carry an umbrella. But without the frequent year round deluges their city would not be set midst a sea of green…
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Posted by Hawkson 05:46 Archived in Colombia Comments (3)

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