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last days in Colombia/South America

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Back in Medellin, we took a day trip to Guatapé.  2 hours there on the bus, through the mountains and by lots of farms.  The area around Guatapé was controlled by rebels until 2006 and the govt still has security checkpoints on the roads in and out of the area.  3 soldiers searched the bus (for weapons) and most of the people on it along with their bags, strangely not me though.  After that 15 minute formality we arrived at the piedra de penol, a massive monolithic rock with a 360 degree view of the lake (reservoir) near the town.  649 steps to the lookout point for the view.

view from la piedra

la piedra

After climbing up, and down again, we walked the 3km along the non existent shoulder on the highway to the town (described in my guidebook as a pleasant lake side pathway).  The town itself was charming, small and full of colorful buildings and a nice laid back central plaza.  Every building in town seemed to have the Colombia vs Ecuador football game on, with everyone in town watching it.  A nice laid back atmosphere strangely, with the most subdued celebrations of the 2-0 win later on that night in Medellin.  Very un-latin American.

church on the main plaza

the town of guatape

Last day in Medellin, meant the last day before my return to America.  Low key day, bought a bunch of weird tropical fruit and ate it all, stuff I’m gonna miss soon enough and had a few beers at the local beer house that’s become our local hangout. That and the formality of figuring out how to pack for the next couple weeks.

Almost one year now since I flew from San Francisco to Japan to begin the intercontinental part of my trip.  I’ll be back in SF one year to the day I was there last year.  Tomorrow morning, early, I’m flying to Miami where I’ll be on my own again (my Uncle’s going home) for my last few weeks of the trip.  Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles.  My travel pace will be picking up a bit once I hit US soil.

I’m not too sad to re enter the US at this point, though I wish I could’ve explored Colombia a bit more and not be running out of cash.  Just have to make sure it’s not that long before I’m crossing international borders again.  I’ve already got ideas for my next trip(s).  It’s just really strange to think that in a couple days I’ll be in Chicago in totally familiar places.  Though after that it’s on to California to scout it out some more.

Signing off from the rest of the world, this year has been great beyond belief.  I’ll be back out here as soon as I can.

Zona Café

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Last day in Manizales I took a day trip to a nearby coffee farm, since this is the centre of the “zona café” in Colombia.  The 1/2 an hour buses to get to the farm had great views of the coffee and banana plants covering the mountains in this area.  After the bus let me off on the side of the road I walked up the gravel track up to the farm, surrounded by coffee fields and lined with palm trees.

coffee fields

road to the farm

I joined the tour (en espanol) that had just started and was taken all over the farm, seeing the plants close up and the beans at every stage of production right up to the cup of coffee freshly ground and made in front of me at the end of the tour.  Since I’m not a coffee maniac, I usually only occasionally drink a coffee beverage (normally cappuccino) I didn’t know too much about it.  I learned a lot about coffee production which pleased me doubly since it meant I’ve progressed in my spanish comprehension in the last couple months.

coffee plant

rip coffee beans

ripe coffee beancoffee beans in a agave sack

A really cool thing about the farm, is that it’s not just coffee plants.  Sure they dominate the land use %, but there’s bamboo groves, lots of plátano and banana trees (including purple ones that are apparently hallucinogenic…), various other tropical fruit trees and even the odd cacao or macadamia tree.  Most of which I’d never seen the plants of before.

coffee and bamboo

red bananasplatano

Also a fair few cool, large, jungle flowers.

jungle flowerIMG_6262

After the tour of the fields and processing machines we walked up to a lookout viewing the whole area.  Even saw a snake climbing bamboo on the way…

coffee farm

snake in the bamboo

Once I’d had the cup of coffee and the complementary fresh fruit salad it was back to the bus stop and a bus to Manizales where I finished the day off with a dinner of Patacon.  Keeping with my one-a-day regiment of those I have prescribed myself.  Tomorrow it’s back to Medellin, where I’ll spend my last 3 days in Colombia.


Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

The area the hostel is located in Manizales does not resemble South America in the slightest, modern housing right near the main restaurant and nightlife zone on the main street lined with modern apt and office buildings.  Clean (except for the street level air pollution), orderly and modern all over.  When you walk to the neighboring hill a couple km away where to the city centre however, this changes quite a bit with much older buildings resembling other cities in South America I’ve been in.  A lot of the buildings in the centre remind me of the ones in the old town section of Montevideo, except less run down here.

central city

city centre

looking towards the mountains

The market here has more fruits than I think I’ve ever seen in one place.



We ventured in to one of the small jungle reserves just outside the city in the hills here, didn’t see anything in the way of the advertised bird life but still plenty of weird jungle plants.  We also did the 180meter zipline through part of the reserve, cool stuff.

me on zipline

jungle flowers

jungle flowers

jungle flowers

I think between taxi drivers, the people at the reserve and restaurants, plus most of the hostel staff (not English speaking) I’ve been conversing in more spanish the last couple days than at any time on the trip.  More work but I haven’t had any major problems trying to do or get anything I’ve wanted so far, pretty pleased about that, I’m also using a lot less hand signals to converse than I was when I arrived on this continent.

For dinner we tried patacóns, a plátano base with cheese, mushrooms and chicken.  Absolutely delicious, despite the strange thought of bananas being the base for a ‘pizza’ of sorts.  I’m going to eat as many of these as I can the rest of my time here.  For lunch the next day we had one of the almuerzos (set menu lunchs), one kind of meat dish,(pork tenderloin in this case) several sides and a great starter of the ajiaco soup.  The food here is miles ahead of Peruvian cuisine, with the lone exception of Ceviche.

Our 2nd day in Manizales we attempted to go to the large jungle park near town, home to hundreds of bird and butterfly species, but after taking a taxi across town to the office where we needed a permission slip to enter the park the (very friendly) guy told us that the park was inaccessible for several days due to some kind of work being carried out.  Bummer, especially since it was already afternoon and there wasn’t much else we could do for the rest of the day other than walk around town, not too interesting.  We did visit a great juice bar near the hostel for some mid afternoon refreshments, I’m going to miss fresh tropical juice for less than a dollar when I leave here.

Medellín, Colombian food and reputations

Monday, August 31st, 2009

We stayed in Medellín for 4 nights, relaxing, enjoying the fact that it’s not a touristy place and the summer weather every day.  The area around the hostel is so modern it doesn’t feel like South America in the slightest, like Santiago but more interesting.  The 2nd full day here we went downtown, walked around amongst the throngs of locals, I don’t think I’d ever seen this amount of people just out and about, not due to any event.  There’s several pedestrian streets in the centre, lined with shops and cafes and plenty of street vendors selling everything under the sun.  Architecturally the city is mainly uninteresting with standard brick high rise apt buildings, there are a few more interesting churches or govt buildings in the centre though.

central Medellin


Next day we were particularly lazy, just venturing out on the (clean, orderly, modern) metro to one of the cable cars taking you high up on the hill side for a view overlooking the whole valley Medellín is in.  Amazingly, the cable car is part of the metro system and included in a single ticket (0.75 usd).

the metro

cable car/metro station


view of the city from the top of the cable car route

view of the city from the top of the cable car route

The view at the top is good, however strangely enough there is absolutely nothing at the top cable car station, just a road and bus stop, no shops or restaurants or anything.  So we went back down the cable car to the base station which is in the middle of a quiet residential area with one main road full of cafes, grabbed some empanadas for lunch (they are made with corn pastry here) and chilled out with some exotic fresh tropical juice at one of the cafes.  Fresh fruit juice is available everywhere here, with fruits that don’t even have English names coming from the jungle.  I wont pay more than $1usd for a large glass, and that’s not a challenge.

Moving on from the juice to la comida tipico, Colombian food is good, filling and heavy on beans, rice (which has a little more flavour than the Peruvian stuff) and meat.  Fried or baked plátano (plantain or banana) is with almost every main dish and there’s about 4 varieties of plátano at the supermarket.  People have banana trees in their front gardens here.  Arepas are a good corn pancake, available at street venders, cafeterias and at supermarkets, best con queso.  We tried cazuelas one night, this is a hot pot with various kinds of meat and other ingredients, mine had beef, pork, beans and plátano and was delicious.

me eating cazuela

At the lowest key, least social hostel bbq I have attended on the trip (food was good though) I discovered that Argentinean box wine is actually drinkable and does not cause hangovers like the Australian ‘goon’.  Even if you consume a large quantity of it.  Strangely, the hostel here is full of mainly Americans, Aussies and British, lowest European contingent I can think of anywhere I’ve stayed.

I know everyone reading this is likely wondering how terrifyingly dangerous Colombia is, due to it’s reputation especially Medellín.  After 4 days here I haven’t felt unsafe once, including walking around the city centre upon arrival after dark when I didn’t know where I was on a map.  The city is generally affluent and moving forward well, modern and as far as I can tell and have heard, safe.  We’ve wandered around randomly in several sections of the city, not run in to any bad areas.  The people here are great too, everyone we have contact with is ranging from friendly to tripping over themselves friendly to getting the owner or someone who speaks English to help us.  I haven’t had locals this helpful and friendly since Japan.  Nice way to end the trip, just like it was a nice start in Japan.

We’re now in Manizales, built on the side of a mountain with mountains, jungle and coffee farms surrounding it.  Plenty to do here for the next few days.  The 4 hour minibus ride on the paved but windy mountain ride was the most harrowing bus drive on the trip.  The road is fine, the problem is all the large trucks and buses on it going very slowly up the steep grades.  This results in the minibus’s and cars overtaking on near blind curves and a fair bit of jerking around.  Overall it wasn’t too bad though, only had one moment that could’ve been particularly dangerous with oncoming trucks but they slow down for you here, the trucks let people pass them and get back in the lane quickly, it’s pretty civilized in that manor.  The scenery through the jungle and mountains was great the whole way and the bus was new and comfortable so there isn’t really too much to complain about overall for the bus ride.

Next Monday I fly to Miami, I’m into my last 7 days before returning to America now.  54 weeks on the road so far.

arrival in Colombia

Friday, August 28th, 2009

Getting to Colombia was a long travel day, we left the hostel in Lima in a taxi at 10am and got to the hostel in Medellin at 8pm.  The flight stopped in Quito, Ecuador on the way giving us some great views of the mountains near there.  Met by very friendly people at the information desk at Medellin airport, then on a bus for an hour to get to the city.  The ride was nice, everything is green here and everything we saw on the bus ride and walking around the city in the evening to find the hostel looks nice.  Much nicer than in Peru and didn’t look or feel dangerous at all.

We went out for dinner finally around 9:00, prices here are higher than Peru but the quality of the food was far higher.  Just had sandwiches at a nice restaurant, western food of the same good taste, quality and just as good service as most western countries but for less money.  I kept thinking throughout the night, this is the nicest bathroom I’ve seen since Chile or, this is the best restaurant service I’ve had since Chile.  etc etc.

After dinner we walked across the street to the Medellin beer hall, that had good locally brewed beer on tap, surprised the hell out of me and some of the friendliest service (because we were gringos) that I’ve received anywhere.  It was also full of waitresses wearing German costumes.  I’ve been in Medellin less than 24 hours and I can already say the girls here, most attractive of any part of South America I’ve been in.  Hands down.  Been hearing that for ages, and it is indeed true.

The weather is also better, I don’t need blankets at night and I can wear shorts and t-shirts in the day.  Sunshine and 29 degrees, summer, ahhhhh….