Colombia was not even on my itinerary when I left the United States but I’ve met so many travelers coming north from there and raving about it that I figure I should give it a chance. Plus it’s pretty much on the way to Ecuador and Peru… so from Panama City I fly into Bogotá.
As soon as I start to wander the streets I feel something. I like this place. I can’t explain it, can’t put my finger on it, but there is something I really jive with. Maybe it’s the mild temps, the cool breeze of that mountain city perched up at 2500 meters, maybe it’s the smell of empanadas, maybe it’s the Spanish influence evident in the architecture, the food, the people -seeping out of every corner - I don’t know, but I instantly like the place. Costa Rica and Panama were nice, I enjoyed both, but Colombia has something special.
At my hostel I make friends with one of my roommates, Jiyan - a doctor from the UK. In the morning we just wander around La Candelaria, the historic district of Bogotá. When I step into Plaza Bolivar, it’s like I’m right back in Spain, in one of the many Plazas in the old country. The wide open gathering space flanked on four sides by giant Spanish facades transports me back to my time in Madrid. It’s comforting in a way.
That afternoon we take the cable car up to Monserrate, the mountain peak that overlooks the city. Man, what a view. The city sprawls out before you. I never get tired of vantage points like this.
The next day we visit the Police History museum. It’s free so we figure what the heck. It’s a short tour, but interesting. A lot about Pablo Escobar, of course, and a lot of firearms. We also visit the Gold Museum. We hit it on Sunday when there is no entrance fee. It’s very educational, documenting the rich history of gold in this country, and I snap a great, creepy shot of a mummy (Yes, I’m still obsessed with the morbid after all this time).
Every Sunday the city blocks off Avenue 7 to all motor vehicles and bicyclists take over. We rent bikes and hit the street. It stretches forever. We ride for quite a while north and see a good chunk of the city.
Monday, Jiyan, myself and Mohammed (another doctor from the UK, strangely enough), head outside of the city to a little town called Zipaquira where there is an old salt mine that has been turned into an underground cathedral. I’ve never really seen anything quite like it, but honestly I am underwhelmed… Maybe I’m just over cathedrals in general??
I came to Bogotá thinking it would just be a quick jump off point to other places, but turns out I’ve been here a week… wow. It’s been great but it’s time to move on though. I’m on a plane to Medellín. I opt to fly as opposed to the bus because domestic flights with VivaColombia are so damn cheap. A one hour flight versus a ten hour bus ride - practically the same price.
Soon I find myself in a city that until about 12 years ago held the title of “Murder Capital of the World”. Amazing what a decade can do. Granted there are still parts of the city where violence happens, but that is any city in the world. Medellín is a very cool city.
I do a walking tour my first full day in the city. I find this to be a good way to get the feel for a city. It usually gives me an idea of things to do later on my own.
Back at my hostel I hear about a tour that they offer to a town called Guatapé about 2 hours outside Medellín. There’s one going the next day. I’m hesitant to sign up, being that it’s an organized tour and I’m usually opposed to that type of travel, but I finally acquiesce. Ostensibly the tour is to see this giant rock - The Piedra del Peñol - where after climbing 740 steps you are afforded “The World’s Greatest View”. But the trip is so much more than that.
Raffa, our guide, picks us up from the hostel at 9:30am. Eleven of us pile in his van and he drives us about an hour out on some windy mountain roads. We end up at a little housewhere a giant breakfast spread is laid out for us. After a delightful meal of omelettes, fresh fruit, arepas, and toast, we are back in the van and on our way again.
Eventually we stop at a river. We exit the van and walk across a little suspension bridge. Raffa leads us down to the water where he immediately jumps in and starts swimming. Some of us join him, others just lounge on the bank. The weather is perfect and I snap some pictures of the surrounding valley. I never thought Colombia would look like this. Though I have yet to visit Italy, the vista before me is what I imagine Italy to be like.
We had heard talk of people diving into the water from the bridge. One daring soul of our tribe decides to do it. Rachael, a woman from Australia, takes the 20 meter plunge into the river. Kudos to her. No one else was brave enough.
After a leisurely hour or so at the river, we head on to La Piedra - the Rock. Raffa pulls the van into the parking lot and tells us to meet back at 5pm, when he’ll have lunch ready for us.
We head up the 740 steps to the top. It’s quite a workout, but worth it. I have to say I agree with the sign down below that boasts “The Best View in the World”. It’s spectacular. A 360 degree view of mountains, hills, valleys, lakes, snaking rivers, houses, as far as the eye can see.
Back down from the rock we find Raffa has once again set out an amazing spread for us. A choice of stir-fries with beef, pork, or chicken, rice, fried rice, salad, some spicy lentils, roasted potatoes, and a dish of mango with green peppers that blew my mind. All this and some fresh mango juice to wash it down with.
After finishing dinner we hop in the van and are on our way back to Medellín. Around 8pm we are coming down the mountain and the city all lit up shows itself. Raffa pulls over at a lookout point. We jump out and admire the brilliant and sprawling view of Medellín before us. I’ve seen many cities at night from up on high, but Medellín tops them all, no doubt.
Hard to believe I almost didn’t do the tour. It turned out to be one of the best days of my trip. There are more adventures in Medellín to come…