Pablo, Pirates and Ron - Colombia part 2


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South America » Colombia » Medellin
October 5th 2015
Published: October 26th 2015
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Bienvenido a MedellínBienvenido a MedellínBienvenido a Medellín

Welcome to the City of Eternal Spring! The sun shines over El Poblado and the Zona Rosa.
So I left you in the last blog with our arrival in the ‘City of Eternal Spring’, Medellín, arriving late and exhausted from a long day’s travel meant we were not quite in a fit state to deal with hectic and unexpected chaos of Saturday night in the Zona Rosa. After a good night’s sleep we were feeling a bit more equipped to deal with anything the city might throw at us.

After a hearty breakfast by the hotel pool it was time to brave Medellín. Ask most people outside Colombia what they know about Medellín, the majority of people will have the same answer ‘Drugs and Pablo Escobar’ and I confess that is pretty much all I knew about the city before I got there. The guide books suggest that it isn’t wise to mention the bad history of the last 30 years and I was certainly not going to go against such advice. Medellín wasn’t even high on my list when planning the trip but in the end it fitted in well with our plans so we decided to stop over for a few days.

And after the amazing drive down in to the valley the night
The sprawling cityThe sprawling cityThe sprawling city

Nestling in the Aburrá valley, in Antioquia in the Andes. The drive down into the valley at night is amazing.
before, I was already warming to the city. Our hotel was in the southern part of the Aburrá Valley, in the El Poblado district, one of the wealthiest parts of the city. This area was one of the first to be settled by the Spanish and is now home to the elite of Medellín and the location of the ‘Zona Rosa’ nightclub area, crazy…

After a turbulent few decades, the city is now emerging from the troubles and is fast becoming one of the go to places in South America for business and innovation. One of the great achievements in the city has been the construction of the ‘Metro de Medellín’ and is the only metro system in the entire country. So our first adventure was to find the local metro station and head north on Line A to Acevedo, why was this an adventure you ask? It is just getting on a train, but wait, when you change lines at Acevedo, you change onto a Cable Car! Now that is what I call a fun commute.

As well as the normal train lines, Medellín has three cable car lines (Metro Cable) and we were heading up Line
Taking the MetrocableTaking the MetrocableTaking the Metrocable

Line K up to Santo Domingo, the views are much nicer than the Northern Line from Balham!
K to Santa Domingo then changing to Line L up to Arví Park on the north eastern side of the city. As a keen skier it is always a bit of an adjustment to get on a cable car without all the ski paraphernalia but also quite a novelty. Medellín is the perfect city to have cable cars as the valley sides are quite steep and they give fantastic views as they climb up the valley sides, completely different to the views I’m used to from my normal cable car trips.

As we ascended the valley sides, the cars passed over many different ‘Barrios’ of the city, most were not quite so affluent as in the El Poblado district we were staying in and I am not quite sure I would have felt totally comfortable walking through them on foot. Reaching Santa Domingo half way up the valley we changed lines and soon the cable car passed over the final ramshackle houses and we were above Arví Park. The park is one of the largest attractions in the city and has many walking and cycling trails, a welcome break from the hectic city below. We stopped for some lunch
Changing onto Line LChanging onto Line LChanging onto Line L

Next stop Arví Park, it feels strange to not have skis on in a cable car...
at the top (tasty corn pasties) and then after a brief stroll, back into the cable car and headed back down into the city.

Our visit to Medellín happily coincided with the annual ‘Feria de las Flores’, the most important festival of the year in Medellín. The festival was started in 1957 in recognition of the thriving flower industry of the local ‘Antioquia’ state. From its humble origins the festival now is a 10 day extravaganza culminating in the ‘Desfile de las Flores’ (Flower Parade) where locals carry large floral arrangements through the streets on their backs. The people who carry these flower arrangements are known as ‘Silleteros’, the flowers are carried through the streets on wooden constructions known as ‘Silletas’, some can weigh up to 220 pounds. The origins of the silletas is not a pleasant one, the wooden frames were used in Colonial times by slaves to carry rich men and women up and down the mountains surrounding Medellín. Post-slavery farmers adapted the frames to carry their produce to market, including their flowers and now the industry is celebrated every year with the spectacular and colourful parade.

Of course with such an event, comes a rather
Ecotourism Park Arví Ecotourism Park Arví Ecotourism Park Arví

After the chaos of the city streets, the park on the top of the easten valley slopes is a welcome change
large amount of people and once we headed back into the city after the morning’s trip, it was evident that we were most certainly not alone. We had picked a bridge to go and stand on to view the passing Silleteros parade and being at least 2 hours before the parade was due to pass, we managed to get a not very good view on the bridge, it was better than nothing and we managed to see some of the parade. However, watching the gathering crowds was very amusing, it seems that both ponchos and Panama hats were the outfit du jour. Most people were wearing at least one or the other and the streets were crowded with hat salesmen. Spectators were all clambering to find the best viewing spots, most trees along the route had at least one person in their branches and there were plenty of dubious street performers to keep the masses amused. Finally the parade began and although it was a bit slow going, the flowers looked amazing and the crowds were enjoying a fun fiesta.

After a while it was time to take a stroll around the rest of the festival, there are only
A long way downA long way downA long way down

The valley is deep..
so many hours you can enjoy standing on a bridge… Just behind the parade route there were so many stalls selling tasty snacks, beer and of course the Panama hats. It was all a bit crazy but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, many of the squares were also decorated with flower sculptures and exhibitions and we took a walk around. Finally we ended up in the famous Botero Plaza in the heart of the city, so called for the 23 bronze sculptures dotted around the square by the famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero. He certainly has a unique style and I rather liked it, they are a lot of fun and after all the large amounts of Colombian stodge I’d been eating, standing next to some of them, didn’t make me feel to porky after all. After a long day’s walking we headed back to the Zona Rosa for some dinner, it was a bit calmer than the previous night but there were still a lot of drunken people in Panama hats wandering around, a very strange place…

The next morning we were up early to catch a day trip out of the city, leaving bright and early (or not so bright as we had been out in the Zona Rosa the night before) we caught our tour bus from El Pobledo Square and headed out to El Peñón de Guatapé (The Rock of Guatapé). As we left town, we’d got stuck sitting next to the driver on the bus which meant quite a good view of the scary roads out of the city, we passed through some areas of Medellín where I certainly would not wish to get stuck in and then we headed north out of the city and drove up the steep mountain sides out of the valley. Rising out of the city the first stop was for some breakfast of hot chocolate and an arepa, luckily there was an American on the trip who spoke English and helpfully translated a few key instructions of the day. The next stop was the pretty town of Pueblo De Marinilla, a typical Colonial town with church and square and lots of fantastic ‘Alcalde’ election posters, they do a good election poster in Colombia.

Back on the coach and we headed to Pueblo Del Peñól, a town built to replace the town flooded when the reservoir of
Feria de las FloresFeria de las FloresFeria de las Flores

The crowds gather in preparation of the Silleteros parade
Guatapé was created about 36 years ago, it had a rather ugly looking church which I think was meant to look like the Stone of Guatapé, but I am not quite sure it succeeded…

Finally the main event, the rock! And boy, what a rock, it was pretty cool as it rose out of the surrounding landscape. El Peñón (or La Piedra Del Peñól or just La Piedra) is a monolithic, 10 million ton rock 2 hours outside of Medellín. It looks like a smaller version of Rio’s Sugar Loaf Mountain and the top is reached by a very oddly designed zig-zagging set of concrete stairs. Of course, this being Colombia they also couldn’t resist adding a very ugly building on the top of it, just because they can. Unfortunately there wasn’t an English guide available (learn Spanish kids!) that day so a lot of the explanation and history was lost to us but you didn’t need to understand Spanish to know there were a lot of steps up (740 to be precise). One story not lost in translation was about the farmer who owned the land the rock was on, the government wanted to take the stone as
Can you see them?Can you see them?Can you see them?

We couldn't see a great deal, but you sort of got the idea. We only waited 2 hours for this view..
a national monument and so the clever farmer said, if they could move it, they could have it. Needless to say the stone stayed in his family.

The views from the summit were excellent, the reservoir is very pretty and is a popular weekend destination for the residents of Medellín and I could see why. The climb was quite tricky but we thought good practice for the upcoming hike up to the Lost City the following week. Once we’d conquered the rock it was time to head to the wonderfully colourful town of Guatapé. A most fantastic town painted in beautifully bright colours and the locals love their ‘Zócalos’ which are special panels on the sides of their homes deigned to represent one aspect of the occupants’ life. I’m not sure what I’d put on the side of my house but the planes I saw were definitely my favourite ones in the town. After a hearty lunch of the usual Colombian fare it was time for a nice boat trip on the reservoir then a rather hair raising trip back in to the city.

The following day was rather a special day, for it was my birthday, woo!
Just a few people thenJust a few people thenJust a few people then

Panama hats abound over the festival weekend and yes, I know they really originate from Ecuador..
And what better a way to spend a birthday than to be on a fantastic holiday and even better, I got to go on a plane that day as well, woo!!! However, before we headed out of Medellín we had the morning to kill and so took a trip to Cerro Nutibara in the centre of the city. It is one of the seven ‘guardian’ hill of Medellín and is on the west bank of the Medellín River. It is basically a big hill in the centre of town and gives a good 360 view of the city. On the hill there is also the ‘Pueblito Paisa’, a reproduction of the old towns of the region and a not very impressive museum and sculpture park. I think the best thing about it was watching the planes take off from the small city airport, but then I would like that. Post the most delicious lunch of stuffed arepas and Postobon it was time to head back up the valley and catch a plane to our next destination, Cartagena, happy birthday to me!

After another short but good flight with Avianca we landed on the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena, here
So that is what we are meant to be looking at!So that is what we are meant to be looking at!So that is what we are meant to be looking at!

Not sure if you can tell, but the locals are carrying large round displays of flowers on their backs, this is known as the “silleteros” (saddle-men) parade.
be pirates! As the plane doors opened it was clear we were no longer in the spring–like conditions of Medellín but in the sultry, tropical heat of the northern coast, arrh!

We arrived at our hotel in the Getsemani area, just inside the town walls and checked in. Thankfully I’d had the foresight to book somewhere with good A/C and a small pool and trust me, you need it there. First impressions of the city were a bit confused, I’d expected the old town but I hadn’t expected the Miami like district of Bocogrande on the other side of the bay. Thankfully we weren’t staying there, but it is the more popular choice for the Colombian tourists, they were welcome to it.

Once settled it was time for some birthday fun and we found a nice restaurant and our new friend, oh boy, what a friend, ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to introduce my new friend Ron. For those of you who don’t speak the lingo, Ron is the Spanish for ‘Rum’. I was convinced I didn’t actually like rum before the holiday, but I tried a magic Cubre Libre and was hooked, delicious in the heat
A few flores!A few flores!A few flores!

The city was in full flower festival mode
of Cartagena. We ended the evening with Ron in a bar on the ramparts of the city looking at the lights of Bocogrande, I’d highly recommend it for a birthday destination.

Of course when you spend the night out with Ron, the next morning you may find he’d been a bit cruel to you and you might not feel quite so spritely so the next day was taken at a more relaxing pace of just sitting by the pool and exploring the old town and a fabulous lunch at restaurant in Getsemani, amazing lemonade. The walled town is a maze of old colonial houses with cute balconies, painted in vibrant colours, you can imagine all sorts happened here during the days of the pirates. Getsemani isn’t quite as well kept as the more touristy old town but has plenty of character and comes to life in the evening with many small bars and restaurants serving delicious and cheap food.

After the lazy day, the next day we were up early for a boat trip to the Rosario Islands and Playa Blanca. We declined the hotel concierge’s offer of booking us a private trip and decided to chance doing
I like big butts and I cannot lie...I like big butts and I cannot lie...I like big butts and I cannot lie...

The Botero Plaza in downtown Medellín, it has 23 sculptures by Colombian artist Fernando Botero who liked his subjects big!
as the locals do and just head to the harbour in the morning to pick up a day trip, well we were practically fluent by now..

After a hectic and confusing half an hour of trying to figure out what on earth was going on we eventually boarded a speedboat and headed off who knows where. We seemed to be going in vaguely the same direction as all the other boats so we decided we’d probably be alright and settled in to enjoy the views of the city from the water. We almost got it wrong at the first stop which we later realised was Playa Blanca but worked out that we needed to stay on the boat just in time and then we even managed to work out ‘snorke’ means ‘snorkel’, smart eh? It all worked out in the end and we enjoyed a bit of snorkeling out on the reefs before lunch and a nice relaxing afternoon back on Playa Blanca, the sea was like a warm bath, bliss. The day was rounded off with a fantastic meal in a cerviche restaurant and the local street entertainers provided a great atmosphere, I even think I saw some
Bustling Botero PlazaBustling Botero PlazaBustling Botero Plaza

Located in an area of Medellín, Colombia known as the "Old Quarter".
pirates out that night. Wandering back through Getsemani we stumbled across ‘Café Havana’ which is apparently famous for its mojitos and hosting Hillary Clinton one night. Hillary wasn’t present that night and the mojitos were not very good, but once Ron joined the party really started.

It was a bit of a struggle the next morning but Colombia is full of amazing fruit juices to help cure the post-Ron blues and after some magic watermelon juice it was time for a bit more exploring of the city. We took a walk along the city walls where the children were flying many kites (well it was August and children fly kites in Colombia in August, I may have mentioned that previously..) then it was time to explore the rather impressive fortress that stands above the city. The fort is located on the hill of San Lazaro and was built by the colonial Spanish in 1536. It has a complex maze of tunnels which in the searing heat of the Cartagena day are a most welcome relief although I couldn’t imagine how horrible they would have been when the fort was fully functioning. I suspect some pirates where locked up there
Church? Tick! Square? Tick! Old men sitting in the sun with dogs? Tick!Church? Tick! Square? Tick! Old men sitting in the sun with dogs? Tick!Church? Tick! Square? Tick! Old men sitting in the sun with dogs? Tick!

Pueblo De Marinilla outside Medellín, a fine example of a typical colonial town.
at some point, arrhhh! Sadly our time in Cartagena was coming to an end and the evening was spent in the Café Del Mar, the place where the cool kids go to watch the sunset (and the not so cool tourists), thankfully Ron wasn’t out to play that night.

The next morning we needed to transfer to our next destination further north on the Caribbean coast, Santa Marta. We made the trip on a local bus service and enjoyed the drive north past the city of Barranquilla, over the widest part of the Magdalena river (remember I'd already seen the narrowest part) finally arriving in Santa Marta in the afternoon. We only had one reason to go to Santa Marta and that was to start our five day trek to the Lost City, however we thought we’d give it a couple of nights and try and fit in a day trip to Tayrona Park on the coast. On arrival at Santa Marta, it was clear that these should be the only reasons to visit Santa Marta. The drive into town was not particularly pretty and apart from a small area of colonial buildings in the centre of town it
Alcalde!Alcalde!Alcalde!

A good example of one of the many poses practiced by each candidate running or mayor, he gets my vote.
was not very appealing. Luckily our hotel was in the small part of town that was bearable and from the rooftop pool you got great views of the oil tankers leaving the port at sunset, picturesque!

We totally failed the next day to get ourselves to Tayrona park so took a bus to the beach at Tanganga for the day. Being on holiday one tends to forget what the day of the week is and we’d forgotten it was Sunday and it seemed like everyone from Santa Marta also had the same idea and had headed to the beach. On any other day I am sure it would have been lovely but throughout the day, every couple of minutes another boat would arrive and deposit more and more people, I don’t think I’ve ever been on such a busy beach. Eventually we gave up and headed back into Santa Marta for it was time to meet up with our trekking companions who had just arrived in town, Laurie and Carole. It is always fun when you meet your friends abroad and also a bit weird, but we had all decided that a five day trek to the 'Lost City'
The strange church of Pueblo Del PeñolThe strange church of Pueblo Del PeñolThe strange church of Pueblo Del Peñol

Pueblo Del Peñol is actually a replica of the town flooded to create the reservoir in the 1970s
was a very good idea.
What fools we were…..


Additional photos below
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La Piedra Del PeñolLa Piedra Del Peñol
La Piedra Del Peñol

The Rock of Guatapé
200m up200m up
200m up

And for the geeks among you the Monolith of Peñol is composed of quartz, feldspar and mica.
The lake districtThe lake district
The lake district

Embalse El Peñol – Guatapé, the lake was made in the 1970s after building of the Guatapé dam.


16th November 2015

Pleasant surprises
It is always fun when visiting a city changes the pre-conceived notions you had about a place. Sounds like a lively and complex city. Enjoyed your blog.

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