Medellin and Bogota: The Giants of Colombia

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I was seething with excitement at being reunited with my good friend Anthony in Colombia as we had made plans to travel together through South America for the next three and a half months. Many moons ago, we hatched plans to meet in South America when were were both back in Yellowknife working for the City. Our friendship blossomed over endless talks of travel and alas we decided on meeting in Colombia in May.

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I had to hop on a flight from Guatemala City – wait out a 17 hour layover in Fort Lauderdale- and then press on to Medellin, Colombia where Anthony was waiting for me. I took my leave of Central America with a mix of reluctance and anticipation; it was time for a new adventure, a new continent, but it was hard to say goodbye to the beautiful place where I spent my last three months. As the plane lowered through the cumulous clusters of clouds covering Florida State and the city of Fort Lauderdale appeared below, I was struck by the impeccable neatness of the city. After spending three months in central America, a land full of countries that all fall under the label “3rd world”, America was a shock to my system. In Central America the big cities were sprawling masses comprised of scattered small skyscrapers, surrounded mostly by old, crumbling neighborhoods enveloped by shanty towns-where everything looks old, poor and ramshackled. Nothing matches and there is no order- as if houses and buildings were simply added on top of each other and the city expanded outward, a throbbing mass of confusion.

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And then there is America. Everything is so manicured here, so perfect. The downtown towers peak together like a perfect apex proclaiming the unmistakable city center. The surrounding neighborhoods are aligned with impeccable symmetry; little boxes filled with straight lines of streets with matching shaped houses and yards. Each neighborhood meets with the next in a flawless connection marking the next box. Even the lakes here are manicured to be the perfect shape. The west cannot even let nature alone, we must shape, mold and modify so that she is appealing to the eye, confirming to societies demand of linear aesthetics: the houses with their matching roofs, drive ways and yards, and the streets with their pleasing curves and immaculate lines. All I can think of is the song “Little Boxes”.

The contrast between what I saw over the last three months and what I see flying over Fort Lauderdale is shocking. It’s almost inconceivable how the distance between two lands of just a little water in the ocean can create two totally different worlds. I am truly seeing the visual and physical difference between what 1st world and 3rd world really means from a broader, arial perspective.

I walk down the corridor in the airport immediately after deboarding, heading towards customs. The hallways are glass and I can see into the gates where people are awaiting their call to board. A man zooms in on his smart phone on a picture of two girls from his facebook. Three children and their father crowd around the screen of a laptop to watch a movie. A young man is curled up on three chairs, headphones on, trying to sleep before his flight. A small pink fuzzy toy dog is laying on it’s side, legs mechanically twitching in a mockery of walking. A near empty bottle of milk lays next to it. The toddler who has left these to the mercy of the airport floor waddles between the aisles of two chairs waving a napkin around wildly. The mother sits on the chair, watching uninterestedly. I go to get a bottle of water and an iced green tea and it costs me $7 Canadian dollars…. Welcome to ‘Murica.

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I decided I wasn’t going to waste nearly $100 on one night in a hotel since I’m on a strict backpackers budget, so I wandered from one terminal to the next of this massive airport and looked for a decent place to rest my head for the evening and somewhere to buy some food. I ate, read my book, and settled in for the night. As I lay down, headphones in with my “Zzz” playlist going, eye patch on my forehead, and silk sleep sheet wrapped around me, I watched as a young girl of about 8 ran around in front of her mother and two brothers, clearly desperate for their attention. But alas, all three of them were glued to their smart phone screens and she was invisible. It broke my heart to see this young soul so eager for human attention, only to be denied, to be told by their actions that she was less important than what was on the screen. How glued we are to our electronics these days, our tapped in to the internet our minds have become that we neglect our fellow humans. I sighed, pulled down my eye patch and let the music take me away, hoping the night would pass quickly so I could get back on my adventures.

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As I flew into Medellin the next morning, face plastered to the window as always, I felt that old excitement bubble up inside me- Colombia exposed herself beneath me in all her green glory. Anthony had helped me figure out how to get downtown – I simply grabbed my bags, got through customs (dear Canadian’s- be prepared to pay a hefty $75 american dollar fee upon entry!) and headed outside to look for the green buses. In my rusty Spanish, I asked the driver if this bus went to Hotel Nutibar and he confirmed. I hopped in, turned on my Maps Me app so I could follow our route, and and off we went. I was elated as the scenery passed me by. Surely the others in the bus were giggling at the gringo girl who had a huge smile splashed across her face, forhead against the window, practically drooling. How beautiful Colombia was! She was so lush, so green, and so tame compared to the wildness of Central America. Clearly the land here was much more cultivated, and the country richer. The rolling valleys with their manicured farms stretched out and crawled up the surrounding mountainsides. I knew instantly that I would love Colombia.

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Anthony met me downtown and we wandered off to a nearby café for lunch as I was starving. We ate and then made our way by transit back to his Aunty’s place in the suburb of Envigado. She lived in a gorgeous little gated complex of rich rust coloured brick townhouses. The grounds were lush with pruned vegetation, the grounds keeping immaculate, yet still wild looking with the abundance. I was given a warm welcome by Maria’s bursting hospitality and shown to my own room- my own private room!!!! I was not used to such posh accommodations! We settled in and made plans to head out tomorrow to do some exploring. Anthony had made a friend with a local Colombian and so we were lucky enough to get the royal treatment and hang out and see some of the incredible city through a locals eyes. We took to downtown with rigor after a good nights rest. Medellin was not at all what I expected. The city is thriving and vibrant, an energetic expanse of busy and happy people. There were endless skyscrapers and a massive metro station, street stalls galore and mini markets set up in the streets. Stores poured out of every edifice and food vendors hawked their goods on rolling carts, the smells streaming behind them. The people- the people! There were so many of them! and my god, what style they had! I felt like a frumpy mess next to the people in Medellin. Half of them were in suits, the other wearing high heels, delectably tight jeans or dresses and perfect hair (oh my god, the HAIR! Ladies, you’ll never experience hair envy the way you will in Colombia!). Not only did I stand out because of my blonde hair and pale skin now, but my awful backpacker fashion choices made me stick out even worse!

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Prime example of poor backpacker fashion choices here.


 We wandered around, taking in the sights of the bustling downtown core and made our way over to the Botero plaza. There were incredible bronzed Botero statues all over the square that the artist had donated. Fernando Botero is a local legend in the art world, the pride of Medellin, his home town. He is renowned for his figurative art, placing emphasis on exaggerated, corpulent portrayals of often humans, but animals too.

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Rafael Uribe Uribe Palacio de Cultura

The statues were incredible! Some many of them had small lighter coloured patches from where the paint faded off the statues from where people would place a hand to get a photo. One of the most infamous- the Roman Soldier- stood tall and proud with the tip of his tiny penis discoloured from and endless stream of hands insisting on cupping a feel. The square was looked down upon by the marvelous Rafael Uribe Uribe Palacio de Cultura, a stunning gothic looking checkered building that demands your attention. We grabbed a bite to eat and then headed home to shower up before hitting the town that night in the el Poblado sector of town, a hot spot with the tourists and locals for the nightlife. We danced our booties off in a club and finally made it to our beds around 4am.

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After a sleep in, we decided to venture out the next day to ride the metro cable gondola and search for the massive escalator. As we left the house I found myself feeling strangely weak and utterly exhausted. Each step took so much energy I could hardly lift my feet off the ground. We took the bumpy bus and I felt my stomach lurching around, feeling slightly car sick. We got on the metro line and each second I was feeling worse and worse with the heat of the day. Anthony could tell something was off and kept checking in. I tried to brush it off and enjoy the cable car ride – and actually did- I think it took my mind off how I was feeling and I savoured the sights of the city as it grew beneath me. Medellin is a really progressive city and the fact that they have a gondola as part of their cheap metro system for public transportation- linking the high up steep neighbourhoods to the rest of the city center- is proof of that. We rode the cable car all the way to the top and then back down again sharing our car with some locals, enjoying the panoramic view of the city it offered us.

Back at the main train station, we were looking to catch a bus to take us to find the escalators- an installment rising 28 stories in a very dangerous, steep neighbourhood, that linked the community and turned it into a safe space. However, I was feeling worse and worse and Anthony made the executive call that we should head home. Reluctantly, but thankfully, I agreed and we trudged our way back. I was sick. Really sick. I barely made it into bed before passing out from the exhaustion. A short while later my bowels rudely awoke me and I bolted for the bathroom. I spent the next 48 hours running from bathroom to bed, collapsing exhausted and in agony. My guts were constantly cramping, I was feverish, chilled, nauseous and my joints ached like I’ve never felt before. I couldn’t seem to keep any fluids in my body. Finally, after 48 hours I was able to leave the house without thinking I needed a diaper and made it to a doctors office. It was wretchedly exhausting and all in vain as we couldn’t get in to the doctor. I was popping advil constantly to keep the fever and pains at bay, something I would normally never do at home, as I’m not much a fan of pain killers, but I promised myself when I went traveling I wouldn’t mess around and would take drugs as needed.

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Anthony had been sick the day I arrived, and was sick a few days before, but was on the mend, so we think I caught whatever he had, as the symptoms were the same. Being the darling that he is, he took care of me, bringing me fluids and drugs and ensuring I was alright. His aunt made me home made chicken soup (what a darling!) and I was happy to finally get some food in me, though it didn’t stay in me long. While not better, I was at least able to get out of bed and walk around after a few days, and I couldn’t stand being bed ridden any longer so I booked a flight up to Santa Marta on the Caribbean to do a little exploring. I left the next morning and, still feeling sick, decided to shack up at the hostel for two days in Santa Marta. Read about my adventures up on the Caribbean coast here!

After Santa Marta I flew back down to meet Anthony in Bogota where he had moved on to. Bogota is a massive sprawling metropolis. The population in total is over 13 million people-  staggering for this small town girl. Flying in you see hundreds and hundreds of massive greenhouses and endless expanses of trimmed farmland, lush and bountiful. Then the city creeps up and spread out like an oil spill- endless it seems. Bogota is cold. Okay, not by Canadian standards, but after Central America and the stifling Caribbean, +13C feels awful frigid! I was prepared however and was wearing my pants and jacket. I hopped in a cab and made it to La Pinta hostel where Anthony was. We were both still sick and a little miserable for it, so we splurged and got a lovely private room. We stayed 3 days, playing Nintendo, venturing into the bustling shopping areas and then finally deciding we needed to see a doctor. We found a clinic, and were able to get in that day. The doctor didn’t really speak English but Anthony and I were able to get across all of our symptoms together and we had a brief physical examination. He declared that we both had an intestinal infection likely caused by bad water. He prescribed antibiotics and we were on our way, happy to at last have some medicine and some answers. We picked up the drugs and headed back. We had planned to head out into the Tatacoa Desest with some girls we met at the hostel, but after waking up to a bad bout of our illness keeping us in the bathroom again, we decided a doctor, some rest and medicine was the better route for us. We shacked up for one more day and the the moved hostels across town to La Candelaria, the more touristy, old colonial part of the city which I loved much more than the other area.

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We dropped our bags and wandered into the streets to check out the area. We wandered down into the main plaza square where every day there is a burst of activity- llamas dressed in fluffy pink tassle and tiaras, or draped with the Colombian flag parade around with saddles, led on ropes by their owners as they try to entice parents to let their children hop on for a ride. Vendors sell corn seeds to feed the pigeons, and bubbles for the kids to blow. A pony obediently trots with a little girl astride its saddle,her face looking slightly apprehensive. Old men play chess along the street side. Children run around screaming, blowing bubbles and chasing the hundreds of pigeons. Parents hold kids on their lap, their hands outstretched with seed to hand feed the pigeons while the kids squeal with delight. It’s the perfect place to take your kids for an afternoon of fun.

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The square is surrounded on all sides by impressive buildings- a huge cathedral on the east, the old National Parliament government buildings to the north, and the new  Municipal government buildings to the west and South. You didn’t get to see this kind of life in the new part of Bogota- it was all business suits and Coco Chanel shops. We wandered a while longer and walked a few more streets before heading back to out hostels with some groceries of simple foods for our bus adventure.

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In the end, the one thing that sticks out the most about Bogota is the graffiti. In 2011, a local graffiti artist was shot and killed while painting under a bridge. It sparked an outrage in the community and the Mayor decided to try and turn things around by allowing artists many large public spaces to practice their art on. Thus a massive explosion of graffiti ensued and the entire city of Bogota is now completely covered. One could spend years wandering the streets of Bogota and never see even half of the art that covers the city. Some of it is absolutely incredible and some of it is just a mess on the walls. But it definitely makes Bogota unique, and keeps your eyes darting about as you wander the streets.

Tomorrow we would set off on a 24 hour bus ride from Bogota to Ipiales, a little border town between Colombia and Ecuador. From there we would overnight, and then catch another bus the next day from Ipiales to Quito, another 7 hour journey. It was time to say goodbye to Colombia and our short (sick) time spent here.

I wish I could say that Colombia was amazing and memorable, but unfortunately I spent my entire time in the country, nearly 3 weeks, sick as a dog. I didn’t get to try much of the local food, nor see much of the contry other than the two large cities and a touch of the Caribbean coast. The highlight of my time was hands down in Tayrona and Minca, as I’m not much of a city lover. The bright side is I know Colombia is a remarkable country and I know have a reason to return to see it properly some day. Until then, adios Colombia!

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Photo essay on the Giants, coming soon!

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