Faces of Colombia

I am now back in the USA following my winter travels through Panama and Colombia.

Following are the faces of some people of Colombia who crossed my path.

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Medellin – A Photo Essay

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The Day They Tore the Old Colonial Wall Down – and the Bells were Ringing

I couldn’t believe my eyes that Sunday morning when the shovel of a large backhoe plowed into the last remaining wall of what must have been a large, beautiful colonial building.  Undoubtedly it had been a significant anchor for over 300 years in the old square in San Jeronimo, a colonial town about an hour outside of Medellin.

As if to welcome the action of the backhoe, at that moment the bells of the old cathedral which stood opposite started ringing. Many people stood nearby watching the action attentively, almost motionless.  I wondered how they felt as the face of their charming square was being altered forever in front of their eyes; they were certainly not protesting.  I think *Joan Baez would have had something to say about this if she had been there.

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But wait…all is not lost…the nearby lovely colonial town of Santa Fe de Antioquia, which was founded in 1541, has managed to be unscathed by the wrecking ball.

There is nothing like being awakened at the crack of dawn by roosters crowing, church bells clanging, and a cold shower.  Such was my experience during the few days I stayed overnight in quaint hotels in mountain towns near Medellin, one of which was Santa Fe de Antioquia.

In Santa Fe de Antioquia I met up with two travel friends whom I had met during my Mexico travels some years ago, Holly and Mike from Chicago (see photo). We stayed a lovely inn on Plaza Mayor, the town’s main square, which was once home to the local gentry.  It was opposite the first church built in the region, often called Cathedral Madre.  Just outside my second- floor room hammocks swayed in the light breeze that passed through the open spaces which overlooked an attractive courtyard full of tropical plants.  A large  outdoor pool overlooked the surrounding countryside.  The price for my room with private bath was about US$25.  We explored the town together, often in the blistering heat, which included three tree-studded, well preserved, colonial squares,

Santa Fe de Antioquia, the region’s oldest settlement, looks much like it did in the19th century with its narrow streets lined with white-washed houses, many with lovely courtyards.  Traditional elaborately-carved woodwork is found on doors and around windows   We visited historic museum houses and leather shops which specialized in the needs of local campesinos (peasants) and their horses.  One of the vendors in Plaza Mayor demonstrated his artistic skills in his paintings of village scenes on wood and gourds.
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Visiting these two towns revealed a striking contrast in historical preservation.  I was most grateful for the opportunity given to me in Santa Fe de Antioquia to experience, first hand, a piece of Colombia’s rich colonial heritage.  Hopefully this town will never succumb to the wrecking ball.

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*Joan Baez is an American folk singer, songwriter, musician and a prominent activist in the fields of human rights, peace and environmental justice.  One of her biggest hits in the ‘70’s was a heartfelt song about the last days of the American Civil War and the suffering of the South.   The song started with the following lyrics: “The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing”

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Day Tripping to Guatape

It’s the weekend and it’s party time in the picturesque, colonial town of Guatape!  The town, which was founded in 1811, is situated on the banks of an island-studded reservoir in the mountainous region outside of Medellin.

The reservoir was created by the Colombian government for a Hydro-electric dam in the 1960‘s, making the area a prime target for guerrilla activity. Guatape was off limits to Medellin visitors in recent history until 2006 when guerrilla activity ended.  The piasas (people from the department of Antioquia, of which Medellin is the capitol) are making the most of their new-found freedom by invading it on weekends with friends and family.

Guatape has two distinctive areas – the malecon (waterfront promenade) where the tourists frolic, and the historic section where mostly locals live and socialize.

During my weekend visit colorful triple-decker tourists boats lined the waterfront.  Vendors were selling sweets, local fast food and souvenirs.  Fresh local trusha (trout) was the order of the day in the inviting outdoor restaurants along the waterfront.

As I cruised around the water on a tourist boat, we passed lush, green islands.  Private motorboats and sailing vessels crossed our path. The breeze created by the ride was a most welcome respite from the heat of the day. Lively salsa music got a group of women dancing on the top deck.

When the sun started to set I strolled the cobble-stoned streets of the colonial town.  Brightly-painted bas relief depictions of people, animals and shapes were attached to many of the front walls of houses. 3-wheeled taxis cruised the streets, each one artistically hand-painted.  Bells of the colonial church in the main square pealed, calling the faithful to prayer.

The mood in the vicinity of the town square changed dramatically when night fell.  Gone was the laughter of frolicking children.  Enter thumping discos with packs of teenagers gathered outside of them.

As I left town on Sunday I watched as carload after carload of paisa day-trippers unloaded from their fancy cars onto the waterfront.   A crowd gathered by the zip line station to watch people fly along the malecon.   Food stalls and restaurants were bustling.  Tourists boats were filling up fast.

It’s a new day in Colombia – a time when city-dwellers can flock to their beloved countryside after many years of feeling like prisoners in their own cities.

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Medellin – Riding the Metrocable

It was a lovely, sunny day in Medellin, the City of Eternal Spring, as I rode a cable car up the hillside giving me close-up, rooftop views of Medellin’s slums below.  This unique transportation system, which is called metrocable, enables the poor people who live in these hillside slums to have good transportation to commute to and from the city.

Medellin  sprawled out along the expansive valley. The landscape gradually turned from urban to rural to forests as we glided over the mountains to our final destination of Parque Avri, a new nature reserve.  Birds soared around us gracefully.

As we climbed the hillside in the cable car, I could see women hanging clothes to dry on rooftops, children playing in a schoolyard, and 3-wheeled taxis and donkeys slowly moving up and down the narrow, steep roads.

My *Servas host Fernando, whom I stayed with for the past couple of days, explained that the people who live in these hillside barios are mostly people who were displaced from the countryside as a result of recent violence there.  He told me that before the cable cars were built, these people used to come down to the city spilling out of the back of trucks.  “It was undignified and dangerous,” he said.

Once at Parque Avri I took a three-hour guided hike with a few other tourists, most of whom were foreigners.  The air was fresh and cool.  Along the way we sampled some “dulce” (locally made sweets) from a man making it, walked along part of the old cobblestone Camino Real (Spanish for “Royal Road“), passed bikers using the free mountain bikes offered to park guests, and visited the fort where the police keep and train their horses.

On the arial tram ride back to the city, I stopped at metrocable station Santo Domingo.  After buying a cup of freshly-cut  mangos from a street vendor, I found a discrete concrete bench to sit and do some people-watching.  Down a staircase behind me boys played football (soccer) on a concrete slab.  Children played on swings and rode in colorful pushcarts in the small park adjacent to me.  Down the street vendors served up local food to eager customers.  All this was taking place under the constant movement and squeaking of the cable cars overhead, which seemed to go unnoticed.
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The development of Medellin’s new metro system with three cable cars, trains, buses and planned open spaces around the metro stops, is a significant part of a city-wide multi-tasking program called La Transformation.  The metrocable system is unique to South America.   La Transformation, which was implemented six years ago, is transforming the city from the early 90’s, when the Cartel of Medellin terrorized the place, into a modern, sustainable city.

One word that continues to jump out at me on billboards, signs, graffiti, and even book covers as I explore greater Medellin, is “Esperanza” (hope).  The future of Medellin is indeed looking hopeful, especially for the poor who live on Medellin‘s hillsides.  A forth metrocable line which will run up another hillside is in the works.
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*Servas is a non profit peace organization of hosts and travelers.  For more information visit http://www.USServas.org

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The Road to Medellin

A few days ago I left San Gil high in the Andean Mountains and made my way by bus to Medellin via Bucaramanga, Colombia’s second largest city.  Buca, as the city is called locally, is a popular jumping off point (literally) for international travelers hooked on paragliding and for others heading north to Cartagena from Colombia’s central highlands.  But for me Boca was the town near San Gil where I could get a direct 8-hour bus ride southwest to Medellin.  

My planned overnight stop in Buca turned into two-day adventure.  During this time I visited an acclaimed paragliding station to watch some guests in my hostel sail off a cliff.  Year-round, steady winds attract world-class flyers I was told.  I took another day to prowl around an extensive 4-story, covered market and surrounding pedestrian streets which were clogged with people and merchandise.  I searched out the juice and fruit section of the market to get my daily fix of a fresh fruit dish smothered in shredded coconut.

The crowning jewel of my road trip to Medellin was the bus ride from Buca which took me over two of Colombia’s three Andean chains – Cordillera Central and Cordillera Occidental – which run roughly parallel north-south across most of the country.  Swift streams and waterfalls among verdant valleys turned into raging rivers as we descended from Cordillera Central into the valley below.  This view reversed itself as we ascended Cordillera Occidental on the other side of the valley.

We passed children frolicking in picturesque swimming holes.  Cows grazed on lush green hillsides among whitewashed farmhouses.  Small villages seemed to cascade into hidden valleys.  Occasional banana leaves from towering trees swept against my window as we careened around the narrow winding roads.  Sometimes the pavement vanished into a bumpy dirt road, only to reappear a few minutes later.

When we made a lunch stop at a dusty pueblo at one of the lowest points we reached in the valley, I felt like I had just entered the Wild West.  I descended from the air-conditioned bus into the searing heat.  Donkeys were being loaded nearby.  A mule-drawn cart which was piled high crossed in front of me.  Rustic shacks piled with fresh fruit beconed me to buy.  Street vendors were selling traditional woven hats.  I was the only gringo there.  Lucky I know some Spanish or I would starve here, I thought.  I proceeded to order something from a nearby restaurant.  The waiter asked if I was from the USA.  I chuckled to myself realizing my Spanish accent must need some serious work.  

I arrived in Medellin just before sunset at the city‘s sparkling-clean bus station.  I caught the Metro (Medellin has the only one in Colombia) and made my way to a hostel that had been recommended to me.  Once there I climbed to the roof deck. The city lights twinkled on the surrounding hills.  A rushing stream competed for my attention against the noise of motorbikes and cars below; I chose to listen to the stream.  I took a deep breath of the cool mountain air.  

Colombia, and Medellin specifically, had been on my list of places to visit for a long time.  I had been stopped by a civil war that had plagued this country for years.  No more.  It’s time to explore!

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Market Days in the Colombian Highlands

It’s market day in the charming colonial village of Villa de Leyva.  A two hour bus ride from  Bogota through beautiful mountainous territory brought me into this historic town. The added warmth brought on by an altitude drop of 1500 meters was most welcome.

I traveled here with two new acquaintances whom I met at the hostel where I was staying in in Bogota, a lady from Australia and a man from Arizona.  We found a room in a charming hotel on Plaza Mayor, one of the largest colonial squares in Colombia.  Each morning I sat on the church steps opposite my hotel and watched the pedestrian-friendly town square come alive.  Drinks were supplied to waiting customers in the outdoor cafes.  A steady stream of people visited the bank which occupies one side of the square.

On a bright, sunny Saturday morning I traversed Villa de Leyva’s cobblestone streets and headed for the weekly market on the side of a hill behind the church.  I passed random construction sites; hammers were banging   The aroma of freshly-baked bread came out of bakeries along the way.  At the market I observed some different faces than those I had become accustomed to in town – that of the campesinos, or rural dwellers, who had come down from the surrounding hills for the market.

The market sprawled over a lot that was usually empty.  I climbed up a hill to get a good view of it.  Steam poured out of large pots of what I later learned contained “typical” Colombian food.  Mounds of colorful fruit and vegetables peaked out from beneath colorful tarps – some on tables, others and on ground mats.  On the perimeter various goods were being sold out of the back of trucks.  Stacks of potatoes stood in neat piles ready for sale.

My knowledge of Spanish was put to good use when I bought my day’s supply of fruit at the market that day.
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Several days later…

Enter the Colonial town of San Gil, the outdoor capitol of Colombia and a commercial hub.   This 300-year-old mountain town on the banks of the Rio Fonce, is a day’s bus ride from Villa de Leyva – and world‘s apart.  Here the backpackers of the world enjoy paragliding, rafting, and mountain biking.  At night they mix with the locals in the busy town square.

In contrast to Villa de Leyva’s weekly outdoor market, every day is market day in San Gil.  The long buildings that house the busy marketplace parallel the town’s riverfront.  Each morning I visited the market, getting lost in its labyrinth of stalls and eateries while enjoying hot tamales and fresh fruit drinks. On a Sunday visit the periodic clanging of church bells added to the excitement and confusion that came from the marketplace.

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Bogota – Colonial Candelaria

After a wonderful week in steamy-hot, Cartagena, I returned to Colombia’s capitol city of Bogota high in the mountains. I plan to use Bogota as my base for the next few weeks as I explore the mountainous regions of Colombia.

I am staying in the colonial barrio of Candelaria in a delightful hostel located in a rambling old colonial house full of gardens and courtyards. A few block away is Plaza de Bolivar, the bario’s main plaza. Candeliaria’s narrow streets are filled with hidden plazas and courtyards. Restored artistry has turned many of the colonial-era buildings into charming houses, restaurants, cafes and shops.  (See unique details of the enclosed balcony in the photo above)

Plaza de Bolivar is flanked on one side by a large neo-classical cathedral and baroque chapel, another side by a massive Palacio de Justicia which is serving as the seat of the Supreme Court, another by a French-style building which is home to the mayor, and on the fourth side by the neoclassical Capitolio Nacional, the seat of Congress. People of all ethnic backgrounds, including indigenous and mestizo (persons of mixed European-indigenous blood), relax on the platform around the statue of “El Liberator,” Simon Bolivar, which stands proudly in the middle of the square. Children squeal in delight as they run among the pigeons and watch them scatter. Vendors hawk balloons, ice cream and minutos (minutes on cell phones). Billowy clouds seem to dance around the nearby mountains.

 Three times a week at the presidential palace, Casa de Narino, which is just behind the Plaza de Bolivar, the Martial band delights a crowd of onlookers with a dramatic performance of the changing of the presidential guard. It is full of pomp and circumstance. During one such event, a large military band marched by us on the way to the palace followed by sword-wielding soldiers displaying their prowess.

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Staying in a hostel dormitory in Candelaria feels a bit like camping, albeit with a few more ammenities such as free WIFI. I woke up this morning in a room with hand-hewn wooden beams and white-washed plaster walls to the pounding of rain on the roof. Shortly after I walked out of my dormitory into a lush open courtyard of blooming flowers and a gurgling pond. The sun had broken through the dark clouds. The air was fresh and cool. A light breakfast awaited me and all other hostel guests in the cozy common room which was heated by a wooden stove.  The cost of this one-night adventure?  US$15

The bario of Candelaria is a unique gem of it’s own, inviting its guests to explore and discover.

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Cartagena – The Crown Jewel of Colombia

The Colonial walled city of Cartagena was founded by the Spaniards in 1533. Located strategically on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its fortifications, the most extensive in South America.

I often enjoyed watching the sun set from a café which sits on one of the ramparts of the thick salt-deteriorated stone walls that stretch 11kilometers around the old city. The new city with its glistening skyscrapers rose majestically in the distance. (The photo is from the fortress of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas., constructed in mid 1600’s with African slave labor. It is just outside the main gate of Colonial Cartagena).

In the old city it was easy to loose myself in the labyrinth of narrow streets with their overhanging balconies, only to find myself in an enticing plaza. At night they were a most pleasant retreat as the searing tropical heat of the day gave way to cool night breezes.

The plazas were a feast to the senses by day and night. They were full of restaurants and outdoor cafes, musical performers, street vendors and tourists.. The rhythmic sounds of salsa music drifted out of open doors, The smells of fresh-baked breads and spicy traditional foods filled the air. In the evenings drums often rolled as a vibrant African dance group moved from square to square capturing the attention of passers by.

In the main square of Plaza Santo Domingo one evening, a four-piece roving band, similar to the Mariachi bands that roam the colonial squares of Mexico, serenaded customers in the outdoor cafes. Young entrepreneurs, many with their hair in dreadlocks, displayed their hand-made jewelry and trinkets. A group of men on leave from a United States Frigate, which was in port for a couple of days, filled up several tables. African dancers vied for their attention.

In another square that day traditionally-dressed African ladies from Mali moved gracefully among the crowds, a tray of fruit piled on their heads.

Horse-drawn carriages with the sounds of horse hoofs and tinkling bells, always contribute to the magical atmosphere of this Colonial city – day and night.

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Colombia – The Streets of Bogota

In Colombia’s capital city of Bogota which is located on the eastern portion of an Andean plateau, I awakened each morning to blue skies dotted with white billowy clouds and temperature in the 70‘s. Tree-covered mountains rose dramatically above the city streets – a stark contrast to the flat landscape of Panama where I spent the past couple of weeks.

On Sunday mornings the main street that runs through the city is turned into a bike thoroughfare. One Sunday morning I became a part of the life along the bikeway, walking along it for a couple of miles. I shared the lanes with bikers, joggers, skateboarders and walkers of all ages.  Fresh fruit stands and bike repair stands dotted the bikeway.

Other morning walks brought me into contact with street vendors selling such things as full American breakfasts complete with fried eggs, fresh fruit, and cell phone use (people without cell phones can buy phone time using vendor’s cell phones).  University students sat casually perched along street curbs outside of university entrances.

One afternoon I took a stroll in Zona T, the pedestrian street area in the center of Bogota’s uptown nightlife district. It bustled with well-healed people strolling the streets and enjoying their leisure time in many of the numerous outdoor cafes.

The diversity of cosmopolitan life in Bogota is a feast for the senses.

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