A Travellerspoint blog

Cartagena and Medellin

22nd April to 25th April 2014


We woke up early in Minca to allow enough time to get to Cartagena, as it was a bit of a journey and we wanted to arrive before nightfall. The first stage of the journey involved the trek back up the hilly path with all of our luggage, which was worse than the way down. We got into the centre of the village in good time and had some breakfast before heading off to Santa Marta station. Luckily there was a bus leaving for Cartagena quite quickly, so we were off and away within half an hour. We arrived into the bus station in Cartagena in the mid-afternoon, which was unfortunately nearly an hour away from the town centre made worse by the horrendous traffic. Cartagena is renowned for its beautiful old historic centre, with lovely colonial buildings of all manner of colours and cobbled streets. However, outside the old city walls the rest of the city is a different story – it was busy, dirty, loud and clearly very poor which was quite sad to see given the look of the old centre and how expensive everything is there. Eventually we arrived to an area close to the old city walls and found an alright hotel recommended in Lonely Planet to lay our heads down. We were advised that the old town was nice and safe to walk around at night, so we headed out in the early evening to get some food and then looked around the centre. We wandered around the lovely, quaint streets and took in the great atmosphere of the place. It was clearly really touristy, particularly with the near-to-European prices in the historic centre, but it was really nice to meander around getting lost in the streets and stumbling across cute little plazas and parks. We were glad to see that there were plenty of locals milling around, so it wasn’t completely dominated by tourists. We stumbled across an ice cream place called Paradiso and we swear that they had the best caramel ice cream we have ever tasted in our lives, plus all manner of other flavours which were also stunning (at least the ones we tried). After being blown away by the delicious ice cream, Matt had a beer in one of the bars that had chairs and tables out on the plaza where there was also a really funny mime artist performing. He was imitating people that walked past, while they were not noticing him and holding their hands. He also jumped on the back of the horse carts and just pretended to engage in conversations. His funniest trick was stopping taxis, ducking in front of the car and quietly crawling away while the driver of the car was still thinking he was in front on the floor, causing a traffic jam. He also pretended to pull cars by an invisible rope. He was just incredibly funny and we had to sneak away, so that he did not try to imitate us walking.

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In the morning we bought a croissant breakfast and ate it in one of the plazas in the old town. Then we spent the rest of the day milling around the town again, but this time in the daylight popping into churches and little alleys. We also couldn’t help going to the ice cream place again – twice, just to have the caramel ice cream!! We were also lucky enough to stumble across what we thought was a church, but was in fact a high-end restaurant that had loads of free tasters in a kind of market atmosphere!! Susanne was in picky heaven and Matt thought was ways we could go back into and try the food again… After lunch and the third ice cream experience, we caught a bus back to the main terminal where we got the overnight bus to Medellin. Unfortunately, there were only two bus companies that went to Medellin and so the prices were quite high (£30 each). However, the company we went with (Rapido Ochoa) had the best bus service we have ever been on anywhere in the world. The seats were massive and comfy, there was loads of leg room (far more than on a plane), personal TV sets, charging points and free wifi. All that was missing was a drinks service!! So we sat back and watched the new Leonardo Dicaprio film (The Wolf of Wall Street), which is really good if anyone hasn’t seen it! Susanne was now in Leo heaven… We also managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep despite the air conditioning being at an arctic temperature.

We arrived into Medellin at about 9.30am and then tried to work out our onward travel, as we had arranged to stay with Angela one of the people that we met on the lost city trek who kindly offered us a room to stay in. We worked out where to go and hopped onto Medellin’s fancy and modern metro system. However, we got off at the wrong stop and so after an hour’s walk with our backpacks, we arrived at her apartment in a massive apartment block, with full security and a swimming pool. When we arrived she was still at work, but her nanny (Beatrice) was there looking after her 6 year old son Simón and the 15 year old son Sebastian was there as well. Because Simón likes staying in his Mum’s bed, we were able to stay in his room which was really kind of them. At around half 12, Angela came back and we had lunch together and were treated to a dance show from Simón who adores Michael Jackson. So he promptly dressed up in a gold jacket and hat, switched on a live Jackson video and then copied the dance moves pretty much spot on – it was really cute! We felt quite at home and very privileged to experience a Colombian home. Afterwards, we headed off on the metro to the botanical gardens as Angela had to go back to work, which were really nice and then we wandered back into the really busy centre that reminded us of an Asian city! There were some lovely church buildings and a great plaza with sculptures from Fernando Botero who is famed for his disproportionate artwork and statues of large, naked ladies and men (with small bits). After some dinner and a wander around the centre, we headed back to Angela’s house for an early night as we were knackered after the night bus.

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The next morning Angela had made a lovely Colombian breakfast of arepa (like maize pancakes), eggs and cheese before we headed off to do a bit of sightseeing around the centre. Because she was running late for work we got a taxi in and wandered around near where she worked in the commercial and governmental district. We were really impressed by the modern architecture and green spaces, and it really reminded us of Bristol in some places – it is a fantastic city and made us miss our Bristol and friends. Then at 10am we met with Angela and her boyfriend Carlos who was also on the lost city trek, and they both wanted to take us on a tour of some of the projects they work on. They both work for a governmental development agency called Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano (Company of Urban Development) that implements various projects across the city aimed at providing services for the poorer and more dangerous neighbourhoods, building access routes to the centre as many of the poorer areas are high up on the sides of the valley and so on. To put this into context, Medellin used to be considered the most dangerous city on the planet primarily because it was the drug capital of Colombia and was mostly controlled by the drug lord Pablo Escobar who was shot in 1993 by the government. However, even after his death it still remained plagued by gang warfare, murders, muggings, raping and kidnappings. In 2002, a hardline politician named Uribe took power and started a massive security programme across the country with Medellin going through a massive transformation that turned it into the safe, modern and fantastic city that it is today. It really is amazing to see the transformation that has taken place given the city’s dramatic and tragic history.

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The projects that Angela and Carlos work on are part of this social transformation. However, they are unlike anything we have seen in any other country and they are even unique in Colombia. Each project involves a team of architects, engineers, social workers, sociologists, psychologists etc so that communities are dragged out of poverty, drugs and crime. We were lucky enough that they took us to see two of the projects. One was in a neighbourhood that used to be extremely dangerous and because it is so high up in the valley the only access to services was via over 500 very steep steps. Part of the transformation in this neighbourhood (apart from building schools, transport links, libraries and other social projects) was the creation of the biggest set of open-air electric stairs in the world (a set of 6) which go from the bottom to the top of the area – it was quite amazing to see and a great achievement. In this barrio and others like it, they have also built schools, sports fields, other transport connections and libraries that are super modern to attract teenagers. There are huge amounts of money being pumped in from the local government. The thing is, these projects are party inspired by suggestions and consultations with the communities and the projects actually work and make a difference! The second one that Carlos in particular was working on was part of wider plans to extend the green belt area around the city and involves the construction of a large park area with a path that connects two communities that previously had a lot of animosity between them. Everyone working on the site (apart from members of the EDU) was contracted from the community. Beyond the park, they are hoping to open up hikes into the nearby mountains. This would provide an opportunity for local people as the government wants to encourage tourism in this area and so local people can work as guides. They are also building cable cars and not just for tourists – these will have a far more important social function because they will provide transport for local communities who live in the hills and who find it very difficult to get into the centre of town. These are just two examples of some of the fantastic projects that are going on in this city, and they really are a model for other cities to follow around the world. We have never seen such innovative projects that create genuine social transformation, especially for a place that has such a troubled history.

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After the tour with Angela and Carlos, we treated them to lunch in a restaurant they suggested which was rammed with locals. We then went off for our second tour which was a city tour led by a young chap who was aptly named Pablo. He took us on a four and a half hour tour of the city centre, taking in all the important sites. As this was a ‘real city tour’ as the company he works for is called, he took us to some of the sites that other people might say are too dangerous or not worth it (all during the day of course!). The great thing about the tour was that he gave us really insightful historical accounts of the city and how it has changed. At 26 years old, he remembers living in Medellin when the city was ‘the most dangerous city in the world’. In particular, he took us to the plaza de las luces (Square of the Lights) which he said around 12 years ago if he went he would have been robbed, raped, mugged or worse, killed. Nowadays it is full of modern architecture including massive light pillars, a library and the building of the secretary of education that was previously a headquarters for drugs and prostitution. The transformation is astonishing (called democratic architecture, taking this square and turning it into something positive through architecture, “square of crime” to the “square of hope”) and he showed us a number of similar sites that had gone through big changes. He also tried to destabilise many of the stereotypes that still plague Colombia particularly regarding drugs. To illustrate these stereotypes, he mentioned a rather funny but awful scenario at the border control when he visited certain countries. On one occasion, he arrived at border control and when the passport controller saw that he had a Colombian passport he started looking him up and down asking what he had in his bag. Then he opened the passport and saw that his name was Pablo and that he lived in Medellin, which made him even more suspicious – the passport controller took Pablo aside and he was checked over by security forces. (Incidentally a friend of a guy on the lost city trek had exactly the same problem and he missed his plane because he was kept at security for four hours on a transferring flight on the way to a human rights conference in the States – how ironic....). Another funny aspect of the tour was the number of contradictions that you find in Colombia. We went to a square with the most beautiful and iconic church in the city , which also happens to be the square where all the prostitutes of all ages and sizes hang out with a number of hotels that rent by the hour and that don't happen to be in Lonely Planet (wonder why...). We also visited a small street next to another church that was full of vendors selling hardcore pornography! The last contradiction was another square where children could take a ride in small cars and drug users could get their next fix (and alcoholics who mix alcoholic hand sanatiser with soft drinks!). The tour ended in a plaza where there were two statues of a bird by sculpted by Botero – one that was blown to pieces and a new one next to it. The story behind this was that a bomb was put inside the sculpture that killed 25 people during a free open air concert. The town council were going to remove the statute but the mayor received a phone call from the artist saying that it had to remain. He built the new one as a symbol of hope and the future for a new Medellin. The tour was so inspirational and the guy delivered it with an incredible passion, as well as having a great ability to condense really complex social and historical stories making them easier to understand without ignoring the complexities. The tour handily ended in at the place we were due to meet Angela and Carlos, so we went off to a university area where there were loads of bars and a book fair. We browsed the fair (with some horrendously overpriced books – we’re talking up to £10 for a second hand book), ate some street food and had a couple of beers before heading back to Angela’s. Tomorrow it’s off to Pereira to meet with Juan from the lost city trek. Medellin has been amazing and inspirational, so it’ll be sad to leave! Thank you again to Angela and Carlos to make the city the most memorable city on our journey!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 11:27 Archived in Colombia

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Hi Matt Susanne
You. Have had lots of entertainment on this journey.bus service sounded great with its up to date film wolf st.only recently released here.as Susanne eating lots of ice cream is your tummy upset better. The city certainly looks transformed after its troubled history. The friends you are meeting have been very good to offer you accommodation. It looked very grand.xxxxmum

by Dawn L Machin

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