Colombia! We went there and we loved it. There is no denying Colombia’s tumultuous past. The country has come a long way since it’s dangerous era and they are working hard at changing the perception of the country. There is investment in infrastructure, a growing economy and a feeling of pride in their country. And rightfully so.
The leg from Panama city to Cartagena ended up being one of our longest over water flights so far. The good part about it though was crossing the Darien gap in about 15 minutes! We started to see large container ships as we neared Cartagena. Always a good sight when crossing open water. Soon enough the airport came into view and we were cleared to land. Once on the ground however, the circus show began. Most of the big city airports are not really set up for general aviation and Cartagena ended up being one of the worst so far. You are essentially forced to use a handling company who can decide to charge you whatever they want. We always try to do the paperwork ourselves and we made this clear to them as we entered, to little avail!
Handlers essentially do all the “hard stuff” for you. They alert Customs and Immigration in advance of your arrival, and facilitate it once you are on the ground. They also ensure that all other required paperwork is completed. They are in place for people who are unwilling or too busy, or…who don’t know the systems…and they charge a pretty penny to do so.
After some back and forth, some Customs stuff and an agreement to go to town to finish other paperwork, we were in a taxi and headed into the old part of town.
Old Cartagena is beautiful. There is no mistaking the fact that there is a lot of history in the area and wandering around the old town is certainly worthwhile. Walking on top of the old Spanish wall that circles most of the the old part of town is a must. You get great views in all directions and the breeze feels good.
The wall was built beginning in the late 1600’s to keep pirates out, since Cartagena is where New World gold was stored prior to its journey back to Spain and the coffers of the king. The city’s old colonial buildings really emphasize the Spanish influence centuries ago. Narrow streets paved with cobbles and old churches round out the whole experience.
But, (there always seems to be a ‘but’), it’s pretty touristy. The street vendors heckle you and you can’t walk more than 10 feet without someone trying to sell you something. And, as anyone who has been there knows, its hot! So hot and humid that a room without air conditioning seems unfathomable. It takes some getting used to.
One thing we quickly noticed is how friendly the Colombian people are, and how lively life in Cartagena can be. The great thing about the area we were staying in was the night life on the streets. We stayed in a neighborhood called Getsemeni, that was full of simple restaurants, cool graffiti, old buildings, and corner shops. There was a small plaza just around the corner and every evening people were milling about, eating street food and drinking beer on the sidewalks. A group of street dancers entertained the crowds with crazy acrobatic displays that would make your head spin. We would just sit on the curb and watch the scene unfold. Clearly, an important part of life is lived in the public sphere, in the plazas. Food vendors, tourists, locals, street sweepers and a few police were all just hanging around in the humid evening air. It was fantastic.
We loved it, but a day or two is all you really need to enjoy Cartagena; the time had come for us to move on.
Destination? Medellin, about a 3 hour flight southwest of the Caribbean coastline and up into the mountains. Before we got into the mountains we flew over miles of swampy flat coastal plain that is fed by a couple of large rivers coming out of the northwestern Andes. In fact there was so much flooded terrain that an emergency landing would probably require the use of our life jackets!
There is one main river valley you need to find to get into Medellin. The terrain around the whole area is too unforgiving otherwise. We had an idea of where to find the entrance to the valley thanks to a combination of aviation charts and Google earth. The flying in Colombia can be a little tricky at times due to the weather, the terrain and also because you can’t just land at any airport you want. The permit only allows landings at specific airports and any unintended landing is going to bring out the guys with the large guns who ask very difficult questions.
So, we had to get this right. We found the valley and followed the river into Medellin. Since the city is quite big and it’s in a valley, the pollution started to increase as we got closer. This made spotting hazards way more difficult. Not only were we sharing airspace with other aircraft but large birds, helicopters and para gliders too. Coupled with a terrible tower controller, the arrival into the Medellin airport was sketchy to say the least.
One we had shut down it was clear that this airport would be much easier than the last one. We tied down, unloaded and shuttled over to the main building thanks to a helpful ramp guy with a truck.
We had heard good things about Medellin but had no idea that we would like it as much as we did. Usually we don’t love the city type environment but the European style amenities made Medellin very enjoyable. We settled into our Airbnb accommodations and began our exploration of the city.
One of the first things we tried out was the metro system. We walked down to the station closest to our accommodations in the Poblado neighborhood and headed into the city and up the valley.
Our mission for the day was Parque Arvi, high up on the south side of the valley wall. To get there you can use the metro line to connect with a gondola style cable car all on the same $2 ticket. Once on the cable line we were soon floating over the neighborhoods sprawling up the side of the valley. The views got better the higher we climbed and we heard music coming out of the houses below. The smell of food cooking wafted out of the kitchens as we floated by. As the neighborhoods thinned out, the houses were gradually replaced by banana fields and the odd plot of corn growing on the steep slopes.
At the top of the valley the vegetation changed completely and we were gliding through tall trees that just missed the sides of the cable car. As we walked around the park it was hard to believe that there was a city of 2 million people just over the hill. The peace and tranquility of the park forest was in absolute contrast to the city below. Colombia spends money on infrastructure and the metro cable is a great resource for the residents and tourists who visit the area.
It is symbolic as well. It’s construction began during some of the city’s worst years, when narco crime was so rampant that fear was always present, and people couldn’t leave their neighborhoods for work. People saw the Metro as a symbol that the city could be “normal” and provide for its citizens, and now that Medellin is past all that, the Metro remains a source of pride for locals. It has been credited with reducing unemployment and crime as well. Prior to its inception, the people living in the hillside shantytowns couldn’t easily get down into town for work. The resulting unemployment increased crime. Now, Unemployment is down, crime is down. The Metro is a good thing.
After a quick ride back down, we stopped at the botanical gardens for a bite to eat. Another nice resource for the city which is free for visitors too.
One plan we had during our stay in the city was to take a bus over to the mountain town of Guatapé so we stashed our big bags at the place we were staying, bought tickets for Guatapé and climbed out of the valley once again. 2 hours later via bus we were at about 7,000 feet and walking around looking for our hostel.
The temps were much cooler in Guatapé and we were wondering if we had brought enough warm clothing with us! The main attractions are the giant rock (El Peñol) which can be climbed via a staircase wedged into a crack in the rock (650 steps) and the man made lake which feeds a giant hydro electric dam in the area.
Also, the town is known for its quaint architecture, particularly the decoration of the houses with medallions depicting local life and scenery. These are not paintings but sculpted designs. Very cool!
Of course the best way to see the lake was from the top of the rock, so up we went. If you get an early start then you can beat the crowds which is exactly what we did. The views are incredible from the top, it’s a pity the other tourists were too busy playing with their selfie sticks to appreciate them!
Once in a while random ideas pop into my head and this time it was an idea to rent a scooter and ride around the Colombian countryside (!) We used the scooter to get to the rock and back, then we hatched a plan to ride down a different valley and visit the town of San Rafael, some 2,000 feet lower than Guatape. The last time we were on a motorcycle together was in Zanzibar some 16 years ago. We had to find our biking legs once again and figure out how to do up the helmet straps! So we jumped onto the scooter- called the ‘agility naked’ and made in China, and roared off (ok puttered) down the road. Down and down we went, the vegetation changing with every couple of hundred feet lost in elevation. It was like riding off a mountain and into a jungle valley. We zoomed past fincas (farms) with some colorful landscaping, past water seeping out of the hillside and across the road, reaching the bottom of the valley in about 40 minutes.
The town of San Rafael is not very big and like most towns, things center around the town plaza. We forgot that this was a Saturday morning; all hell was breaking loose! A few random lefts and rights promptly dumped us right onto the plaza and into a melee of people, cars, bikes, horses, donkey carts, kids running wild, you name it. A quick diversion towards the curb as we parked the bike and ducked into an ice cream shop to escape the masses. We soon found out that the Fiesta that day was part holy communion and part regular Saturday morning activities. Whatever it was, it was a huge party for sure! Too much mayhem for us- we fired up the scooter and headed across the river for some sight seeing. After a while it was time to head back and we were going to need every bit of horse power out of this scooter to get back up the pass. We should have grabbed a couple of those horses from the plaza to help the scooter out!
After much revving we were at the top and taking in some amazing views across the valley.
The scooter was returned, some food was found and some wandering was done around town that night.
The return to Medellin was as painless as the trip out to Guatape, a bus ride, a metro ride and a short walk and we were in the apartment once again.
We had heard from other travelers about a walking tour of the city which is free, just tip the guy as much or as little as you want at the end of the tour. A historical walking tour is a great way to see and learn about a city and the guide gave us a well balanced perspective. He talked equally about the good things and the bad things in Medellin. We walked and talked and stopped at various points along the way, taking in the sights and learning about the history behind them too. The places that we weren’t supposed to visit were on the list too! Nothing was hidden or covered up, we were shown the real Medellin with all it’s good sides and bad sides. We were constantly amazed at how friendly and genuine the people of Colombia can be.
A real highlight of our time in Medellin was a trip to the museum and the adjoining Botero Plaza.
Fernando Botero is a Medellin native and his art work needs no explaining. Giant, oversized, fat bronze sculptures and paintings dominate the plaza and museum, all donated to the city by the artist. The great thing about bronze sculptures is the accessibility of them to the general public. You can touch them, climb all over them, see them from different angles and really get a sense of perspective.
So here was a big city that we really ended up liking in a country that surprised us with it’s friendly people and beautiful countryside. Colombia seems to be adopting a progressive approach to healing it’s violent past. Money is being spent to try and make the quality of life for all people a little bit better. The easy going vibe is apparent and Colombians like to have a good time. It was sad to think of moving on but we had a date with the Galapagos that we couldn’t afford to miss. Another nice flight over some beautiful countryside and we landed at Cali for one night to clear out the next day. Little did we know that the whole process would take so long. 4 hours later we were finally airborne for the leg into Ecuador. The flying is the easiest part, the airport office dance is the hardest thing about this trip.
Like we said, “we don’t fly until the ink flies” !
But Colombia…….we’ll be back!
miles to date: 3680 NM