Week two at school & more of Medellin’s

Short, but sweet week after the bank holiday Monday in Guatape. We had a new teacher as we moved up to A1.2 level (spanish speaking only this time), an interesting visit to Comuna 13 (formerly the most dangerous part of town), hanging out in Colombia & Envigado district and the cable car to the top of the hills surrounding Medellin. 

Spanish classes: Week two of my Spanish education is already over and things are looking up. Our new teacher Lorena is a quite cheerful person and, more importantly, speaks 99% in Spanish. Really helps and I feel the progress is really good across the class (even though top marks on my weekly assessment didn’t materialise). Key issue for me grammatically is the lack of past/future tense (just makes it awkward to tell stories) though most challenging remains to understand spoken Spanish. It’s just so fast. Friday we went to Minorista food market and practiced our fruit & veggie pronunciation skills. I guess we ended up more chatting away, but it was fun.

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Comuna 13 – looking back at Medellin’s dark past: Before the rise of cocaine in the US in the 70’s & 80’s, this area of Medellin was not a bad place to live. However, once drug lords around the Medellin cartel took over this changed drastically. Worse still, was the period after the assassination of pablo escobar on 2 Dec 1993. With the head of the hydra removed, fierce power struggles made the place the most dangerous area in the city (with the city being the most dangerous globally). So going to Medellin included a free pass to hell back then.

This changed for the better after the government intervened with force on the 16 Oct 2002 with operation ‘Orion’. 1,500 police men supported by helicopters. It was pretty bloody, but eventually paved the way for a peaceful period lasting now some 15y. Crime hasn’t gone completely though, as the mafia still extorts protection money from local businesses. Yet, it’s perfectly safe to visit if you follow some simple rules. I went with zippi free walking tours. Naturally, loads of Germans including two ladies from Hamburg & Cologne who I had the pleasure of sharing the final bit of the tour. We even visited the guides house in the comuna. So good insights over all.

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Germany is never far away in Colombia …

Another step in the recovery was the installation of a 384m escalator route up the steep hills in 2011. This enables better access to the city and was welcome by all our walking tour participants. It’s certainly has become a landmark of the suburb and Medellin by now. I liked most the many graffiti’s you find in comuna 13 – be it those that were created over time or the ones added during a graffiti contest in recent years. Most of them reflect to a high degree the troubled past and the revival now.

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Metrocable: Right from San Javier station (where you stop for comuna 13 tours anyway) departs another means of transport that connects the city with poorer areas. There are two such cables in Medellin – I went up to La Aurora station to take in some great views of Medellin at sunset. Recommended. Safe. Cheap.

Mercado del Rio: Located in the district of colombia, it’s a great venue to go for an evening meal or drink. You have many stalls offering all varieties of food though come naturally a bit pricier than your standard colombian restaurant. Thanks Claudia.

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Envigado: This neighborhood is located some 6km from central poblado. I had heard about it from Uri, my Israeli fellow student, and wanted to see what its like. First up a visit to the park (where some Saint was honored that day) and, following Claudia’s advice, then off to calle 30 (calle buena mesa) for dinner. It’s a really great area and significantly more local than gringo-Poblado. Probably the area I like best so far.

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Rocket on the rock: Weekend in Guatape

When you live in Medellin you actually have plenty of options to spend your weekend other than going crazy in Lleras Park or any of the other nightlife venues the city offers during its busy weekends. Having spent half the weekend doing the latter, i opted to visit Guatape instead. What a great trip it would be!

The journey to Guatape usually takes about 2h with buses from Medellin’s north terminal (COP13,500) and depart every 15min. While heavy traffic slowed us down the journey went by quickly as I was joined by Claudia for the trip and we weren’t short of topics to talk about.

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Our first stop was El Penol well before the actual town of Guatape, as we stopped in to climb up the Guatape rock (well, right after a good paisa lunch with a view). The granite rock stands out in the scenery at 650ft and requires the visitor to climb some 700 stairs to reach the top. Takes a little effort, but is well worth it as the effort is rewarded with stunning views from the top across the reservior with its hilly landscape and my little islands.

How did this landscape come about? There wasn’t always a lake in Guatape/El Penol. Only in the late 1970’s a dam was built to store water for the summer month. the city of el Penol actually fell victim to this decision and was completely submerged. A model city has been build and a large white cross on the lake marks the locatiuon of the now flooded church.

By the time we climbed down from the rock the sun had set (sadly without a nice red colour as clouds were in the way), but the hotel (Hotel Zocalo Campestre) was thankfull right nearby. While some 2.5km outside Guatape town, the location is beautiful and boasts views of the rock as well as the lake. Great to wake up to in the morning and enjoy the view over a colombian breakfast.

Guatape city can be easily reached with one of the motos – essentially moped powered taxis for two guests. Fun gratis! We went to Luigi’s pizzeria (great pizza & fantastic athmosphere) before strolling about town. The place is pretty tranquile, the houses full of colours and it feels really safe everywhere. There was even a few openair movies shown by local artists with the main one being ‘Taxi‘. My Spanish, unfortunately, wasn’t quite up to the challenge yet though I definately got the gist of it (the fact that Claudia’s english is also very good made for little training). Next time!

On Monday we took it pretty slow and did a little more city exploring in daylight including the local mueseum. There was another performance on at the mini-amphitheatre – this time two musicians from Brasil that are touring south america. Great to listen to. After a well earned lunch, we got on one of the boat trips on the lake (COP15,000), which took some 1.5h return from memory.

You can take in the scenary a bit more close up and admire the villas of Colombia’s rich & famous such as football James Rodriguez. The main attraction on the tour though is a huge finca of the late Pablo Escobar. He built it for his daughter, visited it 3 times before it was bombed with 200kg of dynamite. Quite impressive construction that goes some way to show how much money the cocaine trade produced for him (estimates suggest USD60m+ per day for the Medellin cartel).

… and so quickly was the long weekend over… just a few more snacks from the street vendors … and back to Medellin!

¡Hola Medellin! School, gym & Paisa life

Time flies really. The first week at school is over and Medellin feels already somewhat familiar – at least the district I live in (Poblado). First city tour done. First Spanish test was ok-ish. Signed up for the local Muay Thai classes. First night out.

The name “Medellín” comes from Medellín, Spain, a small village in the Badajoz province of Extremadura. See here for a my travels in Extremadura.

Paisa people: Their ancestors are chiefly immigrants from Extremadura though also Andalusia, Basque region and some of jewish origin (not much of the Jewish reliegion remains, however). Their spanish is spoken fast & soft and distinct from rest of colombia (to the expert, niot me). Most importantly, they think very highly of the themselves in particular vs. other colombians (not to point only at Bogotans).

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12h overnight bus to Medellin from Neiva

Arguably I arrived pretty exhausted on Tuesday morning in the 12h overnight bus from Neiva. My sunburnt back also made sure that I didn’t get much sleep. Still i made it to my 6am appointment at my new gym ‘MMA Colombia’ for a Muay thai wake up session. My first decent work out in quite a while. Felt really welcome and signed up for a month. Should also least get me a little prepared for the Muay thai camp in Thailand next year.

Thankfully the check in to my airbnb in Poblado (the location of the cities origin) was flexible so to drop off my bags before school. Great place by the way. Large flat with many separate rooms/travellers. Very different to russia it dont need to tiptoe around the place. Was a little concerned about that if i am honest.

Noteworthy in Medellin: most dangerous city globally just 20y ago

  • Most gang related activity only happens on some outskirts of town (there remain no go zones). There is a huge police presence across town and additionally private security in many places.
  • Men are prohibited from riding as passengers on motorcycles between 8 a.m. and 12 midnight, a measure that the government says has cut targeted killings by motorcycle riders (the so called ‘sicarios’)
  • Uber drivers will ask you to sit in front seat so they are not spotted as taxi’s by regular taxi guys who have in the past turned aggressive & territorial

Back to school … little español on the agenda

School was fine. We are just six people in the group (vs 10 in Russia). Uri from Israel, Jack (UK), a dutch couple (Rukhia & Lukas) & Bilal (Germany). Our teacher is a young Colombian who also studies his masters in oxford.

The first day was tough. I lacked any sort of vocabulary really. But over the week it picked up. Amazing what 20h of language lessons (+ homework) can do. But then i guess this is the equivalent of say 10 week of your typical once a week language course. By Friday we were already out in poblado park speaking to people. Gladly we had the dutch couple as icebreakers ;o) the friday test was tough though. Partly because i hadn’t revised for it (making some irregular conjugations harder) and partly due to topics covered in the previous week (eg time). But i counted well above 50% right. Motivating.

Settling into the city

Outside school activities included a few things in my first week.

  • a salsa lesson (i think i made more progress in Spanish),
  • a 4h walking tour (free tour with real city tours, i thought it was ok but not brilliant, see here tripadvisor link for the “no1 tour”

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  • Colombian sweet tasting (love the SUPER TURRON SUPERCOCO!),
  • a Friday night MMA event with plenty of fighters from my gym (on balance on the winning side),
  • a solid day & night out in Poblado (Lleras Park etc)

Starstruck in Tatacoa dessert

I used to live to work, now i work to live. (Bernhard, Lille, France)

Today I had no hiking or other activities involving hills on my agenda, but a trip to Tatacoa dessert. From Neiva its an hours jeep ride to the closest village (Villaveija) and then another 20mins onwards (the former is COP7,000 while the latter COP8,000). On the trip i met a German & Dutch guy travelling together (both a little awquard) and a french girl (Justine) with her dad (Bernhard) from Lille. these two are great (although i have to admit i had mistaken them for a couple at first with a rather large age gap … never make hasty assumptions ;o).


Justine spends a year in colombia on a work & travel visa. She lived a month in Guatape near medellin, spent time with venezuelan refugees in medellin (and donated all her selfmade bracelets for them to sell & ultimately survive) and, partly together with dad bernhard, two month in the amazon region working with an organsartion looking after endangered monkeys. she abolutely adores the country and her dad thinks a year is nowhere near enough for her.

Bernhard, a trucker by trade, has its own story. job loss and separation have hit him in the past few years. but not to no avail … he changed his life too. he said “I used to live to work, now i work to live.  for my employer i am just a number. completely replaceable.”. I couldn’t agree more. with bernhard I had generally some great conversations about his reflections on colombia. how easy we have it in europe, how old people still have to  make a living here (but on the flipsiude don’t sit at home alone all the time like often in europe), how people sell single cigarettes or sweets just to get by and a lot more. 

Great people both of them. Real pleasure to meet and travel with a tiny bit. 


the three of us went straight into tatacoa and to the hostel le bleues had booked (‘noches de saturno’). great news – it had a pool. i mean, how many deserts offer that. no question, i was swimming right after i had put up my tent (not carrying the thing for nothing all through colombia!). with me in the pool was maria – the only other german in the camp. that means something, since germans are the largest group of travellers judging by my guts so far. she is from Mainz (east germans remain elusive so far) and interns at a travel company in bogota for six month. she came to tatacoa to get some warmer weather given relaltively cold temperatures in 2,600m high Bogota.

Tatacoa dessert: its not really a dessert by scientific definition, but rather a semi-arid zone of 330sqkm or in other words a dry troipcal forest.

she mentioned a short dessert circular walk nearby, which I hilked once the post lunch heat had settled down a bit. breathtaking sand and rock formations, supersized cactusses and all sorts of pastel, sand colours you can imagine. great walk round and best rounded off with a sunset and a cold lager in your hand, which i enjoyed with a polish & a colombian traveller. by then it got dark quickly (abouyt 5.50pm), but in tatacoa that doesn’t mean the end (or the sign to get changed for a hot salsa night out) …

Given its low light pollution, the dessert is used as an obersavortory and offers great views of the stars. We joined one of the (Spanish) presentations at the observatory (COP10,000 pP). I wished I had understood more of this seemingly entertaining presentation on the planets of our universe, zodiac signs, the relativity theory, how everything is created etc. Anyway, I got my first ever view of saturn, saw my own zodiac sign (saggitarious) and figured out that the blinking, bright star I have so often seen is vega. Bernhard invited me to a snack and a beer after, which i welcomed since I had run out of cash and card payments are a no go in this part of colombia (I literally just use it to get cash from the bank).

Off to my night in the tent. While it had cooled off a bit, i still didnt need much of a cover. Nite,  nite Tatacoa …

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San Agustin: Six thousand years of history meet downhill biking

The trip over from Popayan to San Agustin started with advertising, just like in cinema. A guy was standing next to the sliding door and argued the case for buying one of his magic cleaning creams, as demonstrated by removing some brown liquid from a white handkerchief. He did actually sell one or two before getting off at the first police check point with bag search for two of the male passengers. Pretty standard.

I tried to read meanwhile though it was difficult, to say the least, by the time we crossed Purace park on pretty poor roads and with limited light while in the dense forest. We were late as usual and as if this wasn’t enough we also had to replace a busted tyre.

After hopping on to a jeep (while the bus continued to Pitalito), I made to San Agustin by 3.30pm. Literally minutes before arriving i booked myself into hostal ‘musica y arte’ on booking.com … you gotta love this modern technology. the receptiuon in the hostel was warm and as the fella couldn’t locate the key for the shared room he gave me an upgrade to a single. the rooms were nothing special, but clean and the hostel had some good views over San Agustin from its two balconies. anyway, relaxed athosphere.

before heading out I had a quick chat with a german girl from munich. she finished her logistics studies and is now on her last half year of freedom. impressive travel CV she had to show with literally all of asia covered. she gave me a few insights into the north of the country, which especially around cartagena is very touristic. might have to revisit my 4day stay to learn kite surfing and find another spot. lets see.

after short city tour and improvised dinner at the hostel I was about to pass out. however, the host insisted we all head for the music and art festival to enjoy some traditional music and dance. i have to say here that the people in this region look very indigenous and akin to the people you imagin when you think of peru or ecudador (which arent far away) and the music too (pan flute etc). despite being tired i had a great time and got to sample the national drink too – aguardiente (literally firewater). its an anis based liqueur with c30% vol. the locals of the village put on some great performances in beautifully designed outfits. wonderful to maintain such traditions with good involvement of the young (different to many european countries).

next day started early for i had some 50km biking ahead of me to see the two main archeological sites and one of the waterfalls in the area. I got my bike from a barista cafe called bicicafe for COP35,000/day. You’ll really need to do the biking for the fun of it, as it wont be cheaper than taking a jeep (COP30,000 for a daytour).

Off I went to Parque Arqueologico about 3km (uphill) from the village. ther you can take a 1.5-2h round tour of the excavations and see the uncovered statues of the burtial site before closing the tour at the museum for a few more insights. (COP 25,000 for the pass that also gets you into Alto de los Idoles, COP10,000 for students). that was the easy bit and certainly interesting to see leftoverts from ancient civilations in the region.

Next up was a 20km+ journey to Alto de los Idoles. Once you pass the village the opposite end you are going some 5km steep downhill into the magdalena river valley. stunning views, really amazing. unfortunately, from there its 13km more or less uphill (or a bit more if you take a wrong turn as i did for an extra 5km or thereabout). the sun was pounding by now and as of the time of writing i still nurse the resulting sunburn on my back. imagine dark red ;o). half way, you get to a waterfall. i enjoyed a break with fresh, cold water and a beer. another hour or so later and i reached the second archeological site after a brief stop to talk with alex (poor fella twisted his ankle at school). less statues & no museum, but overall prettier i think with a fountain and a hill with some great views.

back home was gruelling. at first its really pleasant as you descent 13km back into the valley past coffee and sugar cane plantations and again stunning views. the steep climb back to san agustin was tough in the afternoon heat, but what doesnt kill you makes you stronger. i got back right on time at 4pm.

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now i needed to get out of here and towards neiva if i wanted to make the tatacoa dessert before heading to medellin. our hostel host kept saying that the route to neiva was blocked too by indigenous folks and his checks with friends (a protest whatsapp group) confirmed as much. the bus company claimed the opposite and i went with their view. at least i’d get closer to neiva. in the end all was fine and i got to neiva by mid-night. feels a bit like a dodgy place, but that didnt matter to me once i settled into my hostel for the night. long day, tired as hell … but the sunburn made for uneasy sleeping still …