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)

Hola Colombia!

HOLA COLOMBIA!

November has never been a favourite period for me in London. Thats the one time when the city truly lives up to its wet and foggy image. Instead I’ll be headed to the southern hemisphere where summer is approaching and spend my next seven weeks in Colombia – a country I only heard good things about despite its violent past.

See and believe, and in order not to make a mistake, touch.

(Colombian proverb)

Planning a trip in Colombia isn’t straightforward chiefly due to transportation (no trains, just bus/plane, road conditions?) and language barriers as well as residual security concerns in some areas. Not to forget some slack your plans want to have for hot tips you pick up from travellers you meet in Colombia.

1) South Colombia: i’ll be meeting up with Cathrin – the german girl from cologne who i briefly studied Spanish with in london and who has been travelling in central & south america for a few weeks now. Lets see what Cali holds, Popayan, Tierradentro and Neiva. Transport down here is really not great.

2) Medellin: Three weeks of language course are waiting … so back to school for me. I have also located a close-by Muay Thai gym (lets see if I get a few more classes done than in Russia) as well as a cool outdoor tour provider. The language school itself offers loads of trips in and around Medellin. So it won’t get boring in the city of Pablo Escobar.

3) Northern Colombia: Plenty to do here. I plan to visit the lost city near Santa Marta, the Guajira Peninsula near Venezuela and beautiful Cartagena & its Caribbean beaches. Kite surfing sounds interesting too! Let’s see.

4) East Colombia / Andes: One of the most scenic national parks in Colombia is El Cocuy with several 5000m peaks. Sounds great to me! Afterwards I should also have a little time to see Bogota – the capital.

Most likely I will skip the West coast, chiefly due to its isolation. The time spent to get there I prefer to keep for other things. But who knows, maybe someone changes my mind.