We bought our tickets for Colombia last summer, long before the word Zika entered the daily headlines. By last winter, when it became clear that Colombia had the second-greatest number of cases (after Brazil), I began joking about our upcoming trip to Zikalandia. I don’t think any of us seriously considered not going — but we did get serious about trying to avoid exposure. We bought large bottles of permethrin at REI and sprayed several sets of clothing with it.
We stocked up on various forms of bug repellant, plus Steve and I got anti-malarial medication to help protect us from that danger during our stay in the jungle.
I was more consistent than I’ve ever been about spraying myself with picaridin or smearing on DEET (or both). And when I saw the mosquito netting over our bedroom in the cabana at Rio Claro, it gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling.
And yet…we were aware of very few mosquitoes — indeed few bugs of any kind — anywhere during the trip, even in Cartagena and the river valley. None of us ever heard that creepy high-pitched whine, and none acquired any itchy welts. I noted a few tiny suspicious bumps, and Steve had one obvious red splotchy spot that looked like a bite. But from what? A spider? A mite? Something else?
Now that we’re home, we have 4 more nights of the anti-malarial medication to down. I guess it will take a few weeks to see if any final souvenirs of our travels in Zikalandia develop.
When it comes to partaking in Colombian night life, I’d give us an A for effort, but a C- for accomplishment. This is sad. The streets of Cartagena and Medellin throb with the sound of salsa, and guidebooks rhapsodize about how you can dance till dawn. Our friend Howard reported witnessing hours of dance action when he was here last spring. Given that Michael and Stephanie met through salsa (and are polished dancers), enjoying a true Colombian salsa club seemed imperative.
We tried first in Cartagena at the Habana Club, the venerable Cuban institution. The interior is cool and retro, and I enjoyed my Cuba Libre, but we learned that the band wouldn’t begin to play until sometime after 10:30 – too late for Steve and me that night. Although Michael and Stephanie stayed later, they reported the next morning that there had been so little room for dancing (in between the bar and the tables) they weren’t tempted to join in for long.
In Medellin, we tried again. This time our destination was a club where Howard’s young fellow travelers had danced long after midnight. Travel writers rave about this place, and reports of a 9-piece live band on Thursday and Saturday nights further encouraged us. (This was last Thursday night.) After dinner, Michael, Stephanie, Steve, and I grabbed a taxi, arriving at the club around 9:30. The presence of a bouncer at the front door who extracted a 10,000-peso (about $3.50) cover charge from each of us seemed promising. Recorded salsa, cranked up to a deafening volume, filled the dim interior. But inside we found only one other couple, huddled over a bottle of agua ardiente. We ordered drinks and waited. This time we learned that the band wouldn’t arrive until 11, and none of us had the fortitude to hunker down and wait.
Michael and Stephanie flew home from Medellin early Saturday. But Steve and I had one more night in the big city, and I knew how I wanted to spend it — enjoying tango. Although Buenos Aires is the obvious Mecca for that, Howard had told us about his visit to a Medellin tango bar, Salon Malaga, and before the trip, I had confirmed a local enthusiasm for tango when I learned online that an international tango festival was scheduled to unfold (sadly, just days after our departure.) I checked Salon Malaga’s website and read about the weekly “tango show” they hosted every Saturday at 5:30 pm. When we were in Buenos Aires, Steve and I had enjoyed a superb tango performance at a local cultural center; in the hope of seeing something similar, I called and made a reservation for us.
Once AGAIN, after we arrived and settled in at a table, no sign of any show was evident. Still, the scene at the Malaga was pretty entertaining.Almost every inch of wall and pillar space held photos, records, newspaper articles, plaques and awards, and more. At the table next to us, a very tall man in a black suit and fedora nursed a whiskey on the rocks. His shirt collar was white but the rest of it was covered with tangerine stripes that perfectly matched his tie. He fixed me with a penetrating stare. His tablemate had clearly tossed back so many shots of agua ardiente that his speech was slurred, and I couldn’t understand much of it, but what I picked up was that Black Fedora was a great tango artist from Argentina. This seemed credible (he certainly looked the part).
What I couldn’t believe was that no food was to be had at the Malaga. Every other institution in Colombia seems to offer food for sale, including the ubiquitous street vendors. To meet the requisite minimum expenditure, it seemed our best choice was a bottle of Argentine malbec. Drinking that on our empty stomachs would probably only improve our tango-dancing prowess, we reasoned.
Sometime long after 6, a guitarist and a keyboard guy did arrive and played tango classics as well as one can without most of the classic tango instruments. The club owner (manager? Impresario?) sang several songs and then yielded the floor to a grand dame of tango who belted out several numbers with great style. But neither of they (nor his tipsy companion) could persuade Black Fedora to take the stage. He did deign to join in with the Dama at one point, and his tango-singing ability was truly impressive.
Throughout all of this, no one was dancing! Thiswould have been unimaginable in Buenos Aires. If not splendid, the Malaga’s music certainly was danceable. But I noticed that almost none of the women were wearing anything resembling dance shoes; I saw flats and even sneakers.
About this point, I also remembered that the video clip Howard sent me, taken during his visit here, showed the club jammed with people dancing what looked suspicously like …salsa. Having polished off our bottle of wine and getting hungrier by the minute, Steve and I finally gave up…
Why the tango club and tango festival if people don’t actually dance tango? I have no idea. Maybe like their salsa-dancing counterparts (and the tango-dancing ones in Buenos Aires), Medellin’s tangueros don’t go out until much, much later. As for us, we returned to the excellent Italian joint where we ate the first night, across from our hotel. We were lucky to get a table. It was the final game for Colombia in the first round of the Copa America, and every restaurant in El Poblado was jammed. Fans spilled out of the restaurants and into the streets. They screamed ecstatically, when Colombia scored a second point against the 3 racked up by Costa Rica. But the rally never turned into a rout. Everyone looked a bit deflated, and I could relate to the frustration of getting close — but not close enough — to achieving something that would have felt so good.
In the course of our travels, Steve and I have met many people, usually young but not always, who’ve embarked on big adventures, traveling for months. These folks typically have general itineraries, but they don’t book every hotel or figure out how to get from one point to another in advance. Because they have lots of time, they can play it by ear. We’ve never done that; I try to squeeze the most into the limited time we have by being super-organized. But on this trip, we finally had an opportunity to wing it.
When I was planning the trip, it made the most sense for us to fly home from Bogota, rather than Medellin (as Michael and Stephanie did). We also had a few more days, and I read about what sounded like would be a great place to visit en route back to the capital: an ecological reserve set within a deep marble canyon carved by the Rio Claro, a tributary of Colombia’s great Magdalena River. A two-night stay there would enable Steve and me to experience another of Colombia’s major biospheres: tropical rainforest.
Lonely Planet said countless buses traveled daily between Medellin and Bogota, and most would drop us off in front of the reserve. Sunday morning, after checking out of our hotel in El Poblado, we caught a taxi to the north bus terminal, hoping the guidebook’s advice was accurate. I talked to the guy in the information booth, and he said there were many, many choices. Within minutes, we had bought seats on a shiny Swedish-made Flota Magdalena directo (48,000 pesos — about $16 — for the two of us). Our printed tickets said “Rio Claro,” and with the assistant bus driver, we confirmed that the bus indeed would get us to Rio Claro in about 3 hours (mas o menos).
We took off a bit late and made a couple of unscheduled stops so that the cute girl passenger could take her Chihuahua out to pee. But I got Google maps to work on my phone, and it too confirmed our progress toward the big river. We also were sitting in the first seats behind the driver’s compartment, so I felt confident that he and his assistant wouldn’t forget about letting us off at our destination. Roughly 20 minutes after we would have arrived (had the bus been operating on schedule) we stopped in a town named Doradal to let off two other passengers. I took the opportunity to ask the driver how much longer it would be to Rio Claro,
“What?” he shot back irritably. “We already passed it. You didn’t tell me you wanted to get off there!’
Some squawking ensued (mostly issuing from me), but we got ourselves and our bags off the bus and learned that a taxi could take us back. This cost an extra $12 or so for a 25-minute ride in a South American style tuk-tuk.
A little before 2, we walked into the reserve’s reception hall, where I was happy to hear that our reservation was in order. (Making the reservation had been another complicated exercise.) Our adventure in improvisional transit didn’t quite end there. We had to haul our rolling bags down a half-mile-long dirt and stone path that took us deeper and deeper into the sweltering jungle.
We got the key to our room from the Reserve’s activity center, then we had to lug all our stuff another half-mile along the river to a flight of steps mostly paved with rough marble stones.
We hauled our bags up the 104 steep stairs that led to our private cabana (roughly $60 a night, all meals included). As soon as we opened the door, it all seemed worth it.
Despite the climb, despite all the sweat which at times literally streamed from us, the reserve was a magical place. We learned that it is privately owned by a local cattleman-cum-conservationist. It includes more than 1000 hectares (almost 2500 acres), much of which at least appears to be virgin forest. The river may not be crystal clear (claro), but after seeing far murkier looking Colombian rivers, we could understand the choice of the name.
The vegetative landscape is almost indescribable. You could spend a week staring at it and not count all the types of trees and shrubs and ferns and bromeliads and other riotous plants that compose it. Although the river’s rapids range from only Level 1 to Level 3 (depending on the water level), the rushing water sounded loud even from our cabana so far above it. Over the millennia, the force of the water has carved a magnificant network of caves into the marble.
In addition to gaping at the staggering beauty of the place, a number of more structured activities are offered to visitors, several of which Steve and I took advantage of. On Monday, we hiked for more than an hour on the riverside trail, and then I enjoyed my first experience with zip-lining. (Steve declined, claiming he needed to be able to get me to the hospital).
That turned out to be unnecessary, so in the afternoon we took part in a three-hour rafting excursion that had us paddling through the gentle rapids but also swimming in the river, hanging out in a huge cave, being drenched by a bankside waterfall.
Technologically, the reserve was pretty austere — no wi-fi and very little cell-phone service. That’s why I couldn’t post anything for several days. We left the reserve Tuesday morning (via taxi to Doradal and then bus on to Bogota), and on that final leg of our Colombian exploration, the bus didn’t break nor did we miss our stop. We went home, but that’s nothing to blog about.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with any place that instantly conjures up images of drug-fueled violence. I’ve liked most of the South American cities I’ve visited: Buenos Aires, Cartagena, Montevideo, Arequipa, Bogota, Cuzco — even dreary Lima had its charms. But I’ve never fantasized about moving to any of them, as I did in Medellin. That’s my test of when a place has really hooked me.
Let me count some of the hooks.
First, the setting is strikingly beautiful. Medellin developed along the banks of a river that rushes through a valley. Lushly forested mountains rise almost 4000 feet above the valley floor. Although poor settlements have crept up some of the vertiginous hillsides, they look like glittering tapestries embroidered on the green fabric, rather than blight. Frequent rain washes the air clean, but we had at least partial sun and temperatures in the 70s and low 80s every day of our stay. Medelliners boast that they live in the City of Eternal Spring.
The energy of the Paisas (as the folks in this region are known) is palpable. Streets and plazas crackle with all manner of activity. At times I mused that it reminded me of New York. But New Yorkers are tenser, more harried. The folks in Medellin have a relaxed sensuality, expressed in part in the way women dress — Haute Slut, Steve and I came to think of it. Females from 14 to 70-plus pour themselves into skin-tight jeans, often shredded strategically to reveal more skin. They wear lots of jewelry and carry flashy purses. Necklines plunge to show off cleavage that’s often enhanced with silicone. (Plastic surgeons thrive here.)
The men clearly are appreciative. We enjoyed the interplay that developed between our walking-tour participants and some local lime-juice vendors. The juice salesmen flirted, cajoled, implored us to buy some of their tasty drinks. They sold some to a couple of the pretty European young women on the tour. Finally, they peeled off, with one of the guys calling out, “Adios mi amor!”
“Which one are you talking to?” our guide shouted after him.
“She knows,” the juice-vendor shot back, slyly.
Some of the blatant sex is sleazy: tables of hard-core DVD porn in the pedestrian streets (right next to other tables filled with animated kid fare and shoes and jewelry and t-shirts and a hundred other types of wares. We were fascinated to learn the most common place to find flesh-and-blood sex for sale. Prostitutes lean against the walls of big churches in the centro, or strut through the ecclesiatical plazas. Apparently Colombian men appreciate the convenience of being able to dash into the church and ask forgiveness after a quick coupling in a nearby cheap hotel room.
The prostitution is legal, according to our guide. In contrast, violent crime seems to have disappeared from large parts of the cityscape. Pockets still exist where muggers roam, and you wouldn’t want to venture there at night. But we felt safe catching taxis in the street and walking in a wide variety of neighborhoods. In a broad sense, Medellin feels like a city that has come back from the dead.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, it was THE most dangerous city on the planet. Hernan, our marvelous walking tour guide, said it was even more dangerous than Beirut, then in the grip of a civil war. Medellin’s besieged inhabitants were dealing with the consequences of many internal struggles. It was a city of not just muggers and pickpockets but one where men threw grenades and set off bombs in public spaces; where warring drug lords launched the most bloodthirsty attacks against their rivals and their rivals’ allies. The 50-year-old political and military war between Colombia’s Communist revolutionaries and their fascistic counterparts on the right added poisonous fuel to the fires.
Today residents boast that the city ranks among the safest in South America. Multiple factors have contributed to this, and I won’t even try to explain them. (I understand them better now but still by no means completely.) One is that a heavy-handed strong man (former president Alvaro Uribe) worked hard in the early 2000s to establish what he called a “security platform.” Lots of rights got trampled on during that process, but the overt violence was quelled. At the same time, access to education was expanded dramatically. Six years ago, the government opened negotiations with the left-wing rebels who have fomented so much shocking violence and kidnappings over the years. Hernan, the guide, said another important component was the Medellin government’s embrace of something locals refer to as “democratic architecture.”
What that jargon translates to is investing tax dollars to transform decaying, crime-ridden sites into spaces that foster community. We visited two of the most prominent examples of this, and both dazzled me.
In a couple of neighborhoods, the city has built a cable-car system to carry folks up the tortuous grade. So mostly it’s middle-class and poor folks whose lives have been significantly improved. Still, for tourists like us, it provides a fascinating aerial view of all the life unfolding below: dogs barking on balconies, orange-suited workers sweeping the streets, children walking next to their mothers.
The cable car line we took up (free to Metro riders) connects with a second cable route that continued on past the barrios to skim us for five minutes? ten? over wild forest, finally terminating at a huge nature preserve and park.
Yesterday, after Mike and Stephanie departed for their trip home, Steve and I took the metro to another neighborhood to see the series of six escalators that have been built there. They too are free to ride, and they make it easier to survive in this densely vertical community where there are no roads for cars. Along with fantastic murals, large signs have been posted thanking visitors for coming. I lost count of the number of locals who greeted us with warmth and obvious pride.
On Medellin’s metro, which we rode many times, I saw other evidence of bountiful courtesy. The system is not very extensive. It runs on elevated track, and mainly along the riverbed, but we learned that it was easy to connect from it to inexpensive (and ubiquitous) taxis.
Metro rides only cost about 75 cents, and the cars come along often. Although the system is now 20 years old, no part of it has been defaced or graffitied; everything looks spotless and gleaming. Several times I witnessed young men or women rise to offer their seats to mothers carrying small children, or once, to an elderly nun.
Hernan said this is because the metro was built during the city’s darkest days, when Medellin was a hellish place. The creation of the metro gave people hope. It helped carry Medellin’s residents into a time of rebirth. That’s why they’re proud of it; why they cherish it.
Remind me never to say that any bus is the nicest bus I’ve ever been on — not until it reaches its destination. I wrote and posted those words yesterday an hour or so before our “Emperor Elite” double-decker ground to a halt on a remote country road somewhere between Pereira and Medellin. We waited, engine running, for five minutes…ten…fifteen… When the bus steward finally made a pass through our section, I asked him what was the problem. He replied that there were many, many protesters in the road. We had to be patient, he said, but he seemed to reassure me that we would be moving again soon.
Indeed we did, and in a minute or two we were passing not protesters but evidence of an obviously recent landslide that had reduced traffic on the road to a single lane. Another 5-10 kilometers down the road, we did crawl by hundreds of campesinos clogging the road. Some were carrying signs, but Steve and I were neither fast enough to read nor photograph them. Steve did capture an image of the throng:
Past the demonstration,We barreled along again. I’m not sure how long it was before the real trouble began. The bus stopped, and this time, the engine went silent. We sat and sat. The temperature began to climb, even in our lower-level first-class compartment.
The steward finally opened the door to the outside world, and as soon as one or two of the other passengers disembarked, I followed them. My experiences in other places around the world have taught me that when your bus breaks down and the locals start disembarking, it’s wise to join them, the better to sniff out what’s going on.
After a long time, another (single-decker) Occidental bus to Medellin pulled up, and there seemed to be general agreement that the folks with babies and children should have first priority to get on it. After them, other passengers engaged in a Darwinian struggle to get their suitcases off the disabled bus and onto the rescue bus.
Sadly, Steve and I were not among the fittest at this enterprise. But we soon chatted up a savvy French-Canadian, now resident in Colombia, who seemed to know the score. The driver, he told us, had become alarmed at the way the transmission was sounding and decided it was unsafe to continue on. A replacement bus was being sent from a town only 20 minutes away, so everyone should be on their way again soon.
That’s more or less what happened. The rescue bus arrived, we all transferred our luggage, and we continued northward.
The rest our journey to Medellin still required patience. We were traveling on the two-lane country roads because the main ones are apparently under construction and fraught with delays. However, you do it, the journey twists through vertiginous country the likes of which I have only seen in the Himalayas. It was breathtaking but stunningly slow. (One of the features of the rescue bus was an electronic display of our speed that was so depressingly slow I could barely stand to look at it.)
We finally pulled into the southern bus terminal in Medellin at 6:30 pm, a full three hours after we were supposed to arrive. Getting a taxi was another trial. The vast majority of the taxis in Medellin are too small to accommodate the four of us and our (modest) suitcases. There was no orderly line-up to wait for the rare larger vehicles. Still, 20 minutes or so fanned our latent aggressiveness sufficiently that we managed to snag one. We arrived at our hotel tense, tired, and hungry.
But I can tell you this: everything that’s happened since then has convinced me it was worth it to come here. Medellin has enchanted me. It may take me a few days to find the time to explain why. But if you’re patient, that ride will come along.
There’s a tree in the central Andes of Colombia and Peru (and almost nowhere else) that grows higher than any other palm on earth — up to almost 200 feet. The national tree of Colombia, it’s known as the wax palm because a waxy substance covers its trunk. People used to cut the trees down to make candles. Stripping off its leaves for Palm Sunday services also killed a lot of them, and the fact that it takes 80 years for wax palms to reach a reproductive age hasn’t exactly enhanced their survival. In the Cocora Valley, however, not far from the hacienda where we stayed, the palms are protected, and they make the already glorious landscape even more beautiful.
We devoted much of yesterday to a pilgrimage there, hiring the same driver who picked us up at the airport Sunday. Because Stephanie unfortunately had tweaked her back, she opted against a hike into the valley. Instead she and Michael enjoyed it briefly and then were driven to the picturesque nearby town of Salento, while Steve and I struck off on a two-hour hike.
I felt inordinately happy. It wasn’t raining (once again contradicting forecasts), and the air temperature was perfect. The path cut through private farms that mostly seemed to grow happy cows.
For most of the hike, we saw no one, though several groups of horseback riders and/or local horse wranglers passed us.
The path ascended and descended at times, but the only real challenge was edging our way around the streams and mud holes that blocked our way a number of times. Once again I felt like kissing the portable walking sticks we bought last summer in preparation for our trip to the Himalayas. (They collapse to a size small enough to fit inconspicuously in a carry-on and cost only $20-$40 apiece on Amazon.)
I could have happily gone on to do a longer loop, and the hiking possibilities all around this place are bountiful. But the two-hour excursion was satisfying (and Steve still is battling some minor tumult in his guts.) So Orlando, our driver, picked us up and drove us back to Salento, where the five us of us (Steve, Mike, Stephanie, Orlando, and I) enjoyed more homey Colombian cooking.
Any account of this day would be incomplete without adding a few words about Orlando. A compact bundle of energy and unquenchable curiosity, he spoke almost no English, but I could understand most of his slow, clear Spanish, and he was extravagant in his praise of my command of the language. I’m happiest in this sort of linguistic situation, conversing with someone who has no choice but to rely on my imperfect Spanish and flatters me about its serviceability. So I gamely babbled away in response to Orlando’s constant comments and questions. The latter ranged widely. What kind of cars did we drive? (and which brand was better: Fords or Chevrolets?) What did we normally eat for lunch? How much did meat cost in America? (staggeringly more, we learned, than it costs in the Colombia’s coffee country, which also happens to be cattle country. Orlando said a kilo of excellent beef typically retails for about $2). Was it true that it cost SeaWorld a ton of money to maintain its orcas? What religions were we? And why? At a certain point, in answer to queries from Orlando, I found myself struggling to explain in Spanish the teachings of Buddhism! I felt like my brain was melting and dribbling out my ears, but a good night’s sleep was restorative, and the irresistible Orlando was in a great help this morning in getting us to the transportation terminal in Armenia and packed onto the non-stop bus to Medellin.
I’m now writing this post from the first class lower level of the Occidental Fleet’s double-decker “Emperor Elite.” It should theoretically pull into Medellin around 3:30 pm. Steve and I can’t ever remember being on a nicer long-distance bus. For less than $20 a person, we’ve got free wifi, head phones, blankets, electrical charging stations, games, movies, and hot lunch (that’s an extra $2.25.) And, oh yeah, fantastic views of the Andes out the windows.
Ironically, Steve and I spent all morning soaking up Colombian coffee culture, and part of the afternoon… napping. In Steve’s case, he’s feeling a tiny bit under the weather. I don’t have that excuse; I just got sleepy after lunch, and if there’s anyplace in the world better suited to a postprandial siesta, I haven’t seen it. We’re staying on a 36-hectare working coffee farm, in the 133-year-old hacienda built by the family that still runs the farm (after four generations).
Coffee is the dominant component of the local economy, but tourism has come on strong in recent years, and this morning we had an outing that splendidly illustrated how much fun it can be to stroll up and down the hills see what grows here, and how.
This was not the first coffee tour Steve and I have taken. We’ve visited growing operations in Kona (Hawaii) and in central Africa (Tanzania and Rwanda). Nonetheless, I found these Colombian highlands to be the most beautiful. The Andes rise darkly in the distance, and closer at hand, the undulating hillsides are densely green with not only Arabica but also plantains, bamboo, coffee walnut, and a headspinning variety of fruit trees.
Our charming 24-year-old guide, Andres, led us through 10 stages of coffee instruction that included a long stop at a tasting bar in which we took turns guessing at some of the 36 fragrances commonly found in coffee, sniffing grounds, and slurping spoonfuls of the hot brew.
We walked for 90 minutes, learning about the soil and water and nutritional needs of coffee and it’s harvest. (During the peak picking seasons, the workers in these parts can collect some 200 kilos of beans per person per day — for which they’re paid about 15 cents a kilo.) We picked ripe beans ourselves and tasted them, surprised to find they they’re pleasantly sweet.
Andres told us that he often sees Lukas, the resident hound, sniffing them out and munching on them. (“He gets all hyper!”) Finally, we drank in the vista at a beautiful outdoor lounge where Andres brewed us some of the freshest coffee imaginable.
Sadly, those cups were in stark contrast to most of the coffee we’ve consumed on this trip. Almost all the good stuff gets exported, while Colombians drink the (literal) dregs. Our experiences with Colombian food have been happier, though Although my guidebook warns that “Colombia is not a safe haven for gourmands,” and wryly points out that you don’t see many Colombian restaurants outside the country, we’ve had a number of memorable meals.
Despite all the hysteria about Zika earlier this year, I haven’t seen a single mosquito, not even in swampy, hot Cartagena. We know they’re around, though, so we’ve been applying liberal amounts of bug repellant. After today, Mike and Stephanie will only have to fend off predatory insects for four more days. (Steve and I will stay on for four days after they depart.)