Medellín

The reason I never took my flight on the 23rd May from Buenos Aires was because I wanted to go to Colombia. It was a place so many travelers had recommended, yet one very few sites or guides when I was researching for the trip and advised going to. I had wanted to spend about 2 weeks there, travelling up from Cali to Cartagena with a friend from the volunteering in Cusco, yet when my passport was stolen, I missed the Cali flight, and found I would have to spend some time sorting out a Visa for the United States. When I researched this, I found that to get finger and eye scans, I would have to be in Medellin, and to have the actual (3 minute) ‘interview’ I would have to be in Bogota. I could have done the whole process in Lima, and at points when travelling between Medellin and Bogota and back again I wondered why I hadn’t done this, but I was so desperate to leave Peru and get to Colombia that I thought it would be worth it. I therefore booked a flight to Medellin, said my goodbyes to my friends in Lima, and headed for the most dangerous city in the world (circa 1990s).

I won’t go into the details of getting my visa, but it was a hassle to say the least, costing money in flights, fees and hostels. By the time I finished it all up in Bogota I was pretty mentally exhausted, so felt I needed a break back in Medellin. Bogota is a great city, and is really interesting (I recommend the bike tour), but was endlessly grey and cloudy when I was there, so I thought I would head to the warmth and sun of Medellin.

Murals in Bogota. I like to think it represents the ways you can confront dark times. Either you can wallow in the misery, or accept and embrace it for what it is.

Mural for Jaime Garzón, comedian, satirist, lawyer and peace activist murdered by paramilitaries in 1999. It shocked the country.

Medellin used to be known to the outside world as the stronghold of the infamous druglord Pablo Escobar, where murders would happen daily, and corruption was rife. Today however, modern, vibrant, youthful and most importantly safe.

It is also known as the city of the eternal spring, due its endless pleasant warm weather, hot but not humid. It is one of two places in South America I could consider living in (Buenos Aires being the second). The first hostel I stayed in was actually a meditation hostel (Hostel Secret Buddha- 100% on Tripadvisor for a reason) high in the hills above the city, something I didn’t realize when I booked it. It turned out this was exactly what I needed, as it got my head right after all the previous stress and anguish, and the previous months of travelling, and got me ready for my final week.

After this I went down to a bit more of a party hostel in the El Poblado district of the city, effectively where around 10 hostels are situated, full of gringos, as well as some fancy restaurants, bars and clubs. I’d really recommend staying here. I went to Happy Buddha hostel, but there’s also a place called Casa Kiwi, and I’m sure many others. I had a great dorm in this hostel, with people I really hit it off with who had arrived at the same time as me, and so my positive experience at the hostel was probably due to this. Indeed that night, when we were messing about with other people in the common area, one girl asked me and the German guy from my room how many months we’d been travelling together. Sometimes you just completely click with another person to the extent you could have known them for 20 years and wouldn’t get on better.

But yeah, back to Medellin. The first day I was at this hostel, I went paragliding, which was a really awesome flight over some of the city from a one of the mountains that overlooks it (ask in your hostel. It cost about 35 pounds), and a lot more fun than the one in Lima. Before my afternoon activities, I managed to fit in a professional salsa lesson at Santo Baile Poblado, an excellent school that did an hour lesson for about $30. I did some basic steps and hip movements with a gorgeous Colombian woman, although I couldn’t look up as I was continually having to check my feet to keep time. So yeah, I did Colombia style salsa in Colombia! In the afternoon I took the city free walking tour, which was phenomenal. If there is one thing, just one, that you do in Medellin, do this. Pablo, the guy who takes each one (they’re about 4 hours, and there’s 2 a day) every day, is so passionate and knowledgeable about his city’s riveting and turmoil filled past that it’s impossible not to leave without the same passion for the city and it’s people. You see it with completely new eyes, and get an understanding about what its residents have been through over the past 20 years.

One of the best things about Medellin is its metro. Quite easily the best in South America (although doesn’t have much competition), it was built at the height of the violence in the city in 1995, and has therefore become a symbol of its past and future. Ultra modern, it rivals that of the best in the world, with both Spanish and English announcements, spacious carriages and regular service, and even little messages like ‘Smiling is good for the soul. We encourage you to smile. A smile is good for the metropolitan’, although that was a bit weird. It also never gets vandalized, because of its reverence among the paisas, or people of Medellin. You will never get mugged, will never see graffiti or broken windows, and won’t hear ‘youths’ playing loud music or shouting. There is a silent respect of the progress the city has taken since the metro was opened. It is almost like a reverse of the same symbolism as in the film Batman Begins, where the film starts with a young Bruce Wayne’s father explaining how the opening of the Gotham’s metro has made it a better place, and with his death, it, and the city, descend into darkness. A more recent addition to it are the cable cars, which run up the north of the city, and are treated the same by the residents. While we tourists all have our cameras out and are checking out the birds eye view you have over the people below, the paisas are listening to music, reading books or newspapers, and thinking about the day ahead.

The people of Medellin are known to be rather full of themselves, shall we say (there is a similar, if less incendiary, divide between Bogota and Medellin as Madrid to Barcelona). This sculpture shows the rise of the city’s wealth through gold mining.

A view over the city while paragliding

The Secret Buddha meditation hostel

Colombia is still mourning the death of Gabriel Garcia Marques, or ‘Gabo’, one of the great authors of the Spanish language.

Another thing Pablo explained to us on the Tour was why the paisas are so friendly to tourists. It is because they remember what the country was 10 years ago. How people used to live in fear, how 30 people used to die a day in Medellin, how there were 3 battling factions plus the drug trade all competing for power. Tourists aren’t merely gringos with cameras, they are symbols that things are starting to change, that the country is beginning to get back on its feet again after so much misery. That stamp on our passports is the most important one you can have, for Colombians, because it means you are contributing to this change, and are spreading the word that Colombia is safe to visit again. Pablo explained that if Colombians are happy, after all that, then we who haven’t had all this trauma can be too. It is so strange walking around Medellin, seeing laughing, happy people going about their day-to-day lives and knowing that many of these people have lost family and friends in the struggles over power and drugs, through bombs and bullets, and have seen their country and city at their lowest points.

This is why I am supporting the Colombian national team at the World Cup. The players in this team have never been to a World Cup before, and all of them grew up among the country’s dark times, but they play with such attacking verve, team spirit and passion that it’s hard not to get caught up in their optimism. They play with the same hope that their country is riding on at the moment, in the knowledge that while this is only the beginning, they’re in the right road to success.

The Colombian team do a traditional jig after star player James Rodriguez (centre) headed them into the lead against Ivory Coast. They won that match 2-1 in front of a stadium packed with Colombianos.

http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=11108004 – US

http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/27930177 – UK

Colombia’s next match is June 24th against Japan. Now England have been knocked out, please give your support to them.

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A return to Peru

After flying back from Argentina, I spent three days back in La Paz, Bolivia, not doing a whole lot, before getting a night bus back to Cusco, Peru. There I again stayed at the orphanage (or casa de mi padre) that I had been volunteering at for a little less than 2 months before I left to go travelling.

Cusco, and that place, will always have a special place in my heart. I had some amazing times there, and the work that is done on kids who were drug addicts, lived on the streets, were members of gangs and often were abused, is amazing. When I arrived back I was given a really warm welcome, and immediately asked where my tablet was. I didn’t see it for the next two days. Apart from going out to watch the Champions League Final at our old favorite hang-out, Paddy’s Pub, I mostly spent my two days in Cusco at the orphanage hanging out with the kids. It was strange because when I had left there were about 20 volunteers, a large tight-knit group of friends. When I arrived I was the only volunteer at the boys’ house, and there were just three (English) girls working at the girls’ house.

On the Saturday evening, it was a girl’s birthday, so everyone came to the boys’ house to have a party. I’d attended plenty of these in my previous stint, but this was nice because I was given an official ‘thank you’ by Jeremy, the founder, and a round of applause. We had cake, the kids did some (choreographed) dances and then I led a Macarena, not particularly well, but I still did it.

The next day, we did a World Cup sweepstake, where each boy took a piece of paper out of a hat that had the name of a team on it, and that would be their team for the World Cup. The one that had the winner would get a prize. Watching the most cocky of them, Steven, getting Japan (Japan won’t win it), and the quietest, Lucio, get Brazil, was pretty sweet.

In the evening we continued a Sunday tradition of going to a local pitch to play football, which was a great way to say goodbye. In La Paz, I had got them a sticker book and each boy a pack of Panini World Cup stickers each, so I gave them this, said my goodbyes, and headed for a bus to Ica.

My final post on Facebook about the orphanage: “My final day in Cusco with the boys of Elim, an organisation that takes in children from the street, broken homes, and orphans. It is hard to put into words the job that Jeremy and Nilda are doing, with the help of people like Yeicob, but the effect is evident as soon as you step through the door. These are some of the most happy, thoughtful, and inspiring children you can find, and it´s safe to say the effect they’ve had on me has been far greater than any material gift or entertainment I could bring to them in my 6 weeks. I would recommend anyone visiting Cusco to spend some time there if possible.”

While the bus from La Paz to Cusco wasn’t so bad for a Bolivian bus, it was a welcome return to be back with a good bus company in Cruz Del Sur, which effectively had the ‘cama’ treatment. Pretty much business class.

Map for reference. Ica is south of Lima

When I arrived in Ica I met my American friend Rick, who’d I’d actually met the last time I was in Cusco through two guys I met on my trek to Machu Picchu, and then had met again in La Paz. We took a 15 minute taxi to the town of Huacachina, effectively an ‘oasis’ build in some sand dunes just outside of Ica that has become a tourist trap. It’s a pretty cool place, but don’t stay there more than a day or two. Huacachina, being in a desert, has become the prime location for trying out sandboarding and dune-buggying in Peru. For about 35 soles, or around 15 pounds, you can have a 4 hour experience doing both these activities, although my hostel, Banana hostel (very nice), gave me a room and included activities for 55.

The dune buggy ride is seriously awesome. The buggy can do pretty much anything without flipping over, so the driver tests this principle to the limit, taking you up and down pretty tall and steep dunes at speed. Really fun.

You get about 6 or 7 tries at sandboarding, but after my first, shocking attempt, I decided to do what pretty much everyone else in my group was doing: stomach boarding. As the name suggests, this is where you lay on your stomach and rocket down the dunes until you fall off or come to a halt. Definitely do this if you can, although if you see other people bumping up and down near the bottom, you’re probably going to wake up with some bruises the next day, but it’s so worth it.

While I was in Huacachina I actually managed to meet up with one of my best friends from Utila, Honduras, the first place I did volunteering on this trip, which was cool.

That evening Rick (the American) and I boarded a bus to Nazca, the location of mysterious line patterns carved into the earth by ancient Peruvian people. I opted not to take a flight over the lines, as it was about $75, and gave my camera to Rick instead.

The day after this (don’t spend more than a day there if you wish to do it), we headed back up north to the town of Pisco, where you can get a taxi to nearby Paracas. Here is a national park and also, just off the coast, the islands that are named the ‘Little Galapagos’, due to similar geography, flora and fauna. I took the boat ride and saw a variety of sea birds, penguins, and sea lions, which was cool, although if you’re short on time you can skip this stop off.

While the hostel I stayed in was really cool (Kokopelli), I booked a flight for Cali in Colombia for two days from then, and decided to head back to Pisco and on to Lima to catch the flight. I said goodbye to Rick, and set off for Pisco.

There I decided to take a cheaper bus (National Peru or something), as it was only a 4 hour journey. This would be my downfall. I’d been on cheap buses before, but usually with friends, or at least other gringos on board. This bus had neither. About 15 minutes into the journey, with my bag next to me, I was beginning to drift off, listening to music, when a guy sat next to me, putting my bag in the overhead storage. I stood up and took it from him and put it between my legs, thinking that would quell his attempts to take it. It didn’t. While I was again looking out the window, he must have got his water bottle, uncapped it and soaked the bottom of my bag with it, as he suddenly tapped me, exclaiming “mojado!!!“, ‘wet’. Bewildered, I allowed him to pick it up and dry it off with a towel he’d produced. Watching him the whole time to prevent him from running off with it, he managed to remove both my passport bag and camera from inside and place them in his bag. About 5 minutes later he got off the bus, and that was the last I saw of him. I checked my bag, tried to run after him, and was blocked off by people trying to get on. Not knowing what to do, or if I could trust anyone (no one apart from the ticket inspector was making any kind of attempt to help, especially not the driver), I got him to take me to the nearest station, where I got off with my remaining things, left them at the ticket office (a risk in itself) and headed to the police station.

Using a bit of Google translate, I managed to explain what had happened and describe the guy who did it, but I was informed there was no hope. I was staying calm, but when I remembered that I hadn’t backed up all my recent stuff as my back-up USB had become corrupted, I began to grow more and more despondent. At last I got on a bus up to Lima, in which another man attempted to take my ticket for my larger bag in the bus’s lower hold, and arrived late at night. Much to my chagrin, the idiotic hostel worker who greeted me asked me for my passport after I had just told him it had been stolen, then claimed he couldn’t check me in without it, or my immigration proof. I gave him the photocopy and managed to convince him it would be enough.

A trip to the Embassy the next day revealed the fact that I would be missing my flight on that Saturday as my passport wouldn’t be ready, so I would be staying in Lima at least until the following Monday.