Friday, August 1, 2014


July 27, 2014

Casa Nativa
I spent a pleasant morning aboard Micamale, waiting for the agent to return my passport, which Rico and Rose brought me about 11:30.  I waited until nearly 2:00 for Andrea and ChiChi to come back so that I could say goodbye, but they were waiting for Ophelia and Anthony somewhere and I finally had to give up on them.  I grabbed a taxi in front of the marina and for 6,000 pesos (about $3.50) I got a ride to the El Viajero Hostel in the old city.  Unfortunately, El Viajero did not have room for me.  They referred me to another hostel called Casa Nativa around the corner.  Casa Nativa was almost empty.  I could see why, since they had no private rooms and charged almost as much for a dorm bed as El Viajero charged for a room.  It worked out fine, however, because I was the only person in a four bed dorm, so it was almost like having a private room, anyway.  The best part was that the room was air conditioned because Cartagena was very hot.  All I wanted to do, after six days at sea, was to charge my electronic devices.  Unfortunately, the power in the entire old city was out.  The proffered air conditioning wasn’t working and I couldn’t charge my phone.

My Street in Cartagena
I was hungry, so went out in search of food.  Many restaurants were closed due to the power outage, but I finally found an open café in the Plaza de Santo Domingo.  I ate a ridiculously expensive pizza and drank an overpriced beer.  Just as I was finishing, Kieran, Bec, Hannah and Matt passed by.  They were going for a beer with a Columbian acquaintance around the corner.  I paid my check and joined them.  The price of beer varies tremendously in Cartagena.  I had paid 7,000 pesos at the café (about $4.) Beers were 4,000 pesos at the bar where we went ($2.25) and cost about 2500 pesos ($1.50) in reasonable places, probably much less at the grocery store.  I had a beer with the gang, but left them before they continued on to the next party spot because I didn’t feel like a night of drinking and their companion was clearly a drug dealer and gave me the creeps.  Cocaine and marijuana had been freely available since the San Blas Islands.  Freely available did not mean legal, however, and I heard of multiple instances (including Kieran) of tourists being stopped and searched for drugs and/or weapons by the police.

The Flag of Cartagena
After leaving the gang, I went for a walk along the city walls back to my hostel.  Cartagena was a major port for Spanish gold and was heavily fortified.  Due to its importance, Cartagena was a tempting target for pirates but, unlike many other Spanish ports, was not repeatedly leveled because the city paid ransoms to avoid being sacked.  As a result, Cartagena was the best preserved colonial city I had seen on my trip.  The admirable state of preservation, combined with the relative affluence of the city, made Cartagena’s historical center a very pleasant place to visit.  One could stroll and enjoy good shops and restaurants without worrying about falling into uncovered man holes or being hit by collapsing balconies.  Once the power came back on about 5:00, I headed back to the hostel to use the internet for a couple of hours.  

Just after dark, I went for a walk to the restaurant recommended by the hostel.  It was still closed, so I continued walking and ended up eating quiche Lorraine at a café off the Plaza San Pedro Claver, across from the cathedral.  After dinner, I grabbed an artisanal popsicle (chocolate and caramel) and then returned to the hostel to catch up on my blog post regarding my San Blas experience.  The air conditioning was thankfully on, but I had to sit on the tile floor because there wasn’t enough room to sit up on the lower bunk I had chosen and the upper bunk was too close to the rather low ceiling.

July 28, 2014

La India Catalina
The first thing that strikes a traveler upon arriving in South America for the first time is just how big the place is.  The distances are tremendous and flights between cities are very expensive.  Early on, I realized that I would save nothing by continuing on to Peru or Ecuador from Colombia because I could fly there just as cheaply from the USA.  I wanted to see as much of Colombia as possible, but that was going to require quite a bit of travel time.  Having booked a ticket home on August 12th, I couldn’t linger in Cartagena.  The bus trip to Medellin, my next stop, would require 13 hours, so I decided to spend the day exploring Cartagena and then take an overnight bus to Medellin. 

Street Corner Paralegals
After eating a nice hot breakfast provided by Casa Nativa, I left my laundry to be washed and luggage in storage, checked out, and set off to see the remaining sights in Cartagena’s historical center.  I first headed away from town to visit the statue of the India Catalina, a Carib woman who served as an interpreter upon the arrival of the Spaniards, and serves as a monument to the Carib people who inhabited Cartagena before the conquest.  The statue is situated in an open park next to a lake at the entrance to the old city.  From there, I strolled down Avenida Venezuela, the main artery through the old city.  Avenida Venezuela is lined with modern buildings and businesses and leads to the convention center and commercial marina.  At one point I passed a large group of men sitting at small tables sporting typewriters, offering to prepare all kinds of legal documents.  People were also offering the use of cell phones for a per minute charge.  

I walked down the avenue to where a couple of tall ships were tied to the sea wall and then crossed the road and passed through the wall into the Plaza de la Aduana (Customs Plaza) where goods (primarily slaves) were once valued and taxed before entering the city.  The former customs house was flying the colorful bandera quadrilinea, the flag of Cartagena, which was the symbol of the movement for independence from Spain.

The Customs Plaza
Naval Museum
I took a wrong turn on my way to the Museum of                                                                                     the Inquisition and ended up at the Naval Museum, which suited me just as well, since I had intended to go there, also.  Unlike other naval museums I have visited, this one had almost nothing about ships in it.  What it did have were detailed dioramas explaining each event in the course of the major attacks upon Cartagena.  The exhibits were very interesting, although time consuming to read as all the explanations were in Spanish.  The museum was housed in a grand colonial building with an immense hall that was once a hospital.  By the time I had worked my way through the museum, I was hungry and ready for a rest.  I ate a tasty, but expensive, lunch of chicken breast in a tomato butter sauce over rice at a cool café near the Plaza Bolivar.  Eating in Cartagena’s historical center was expensive, although my lunch did include a delicious cream of yucca soup and a lovely green salad that I was unable to eat because it was dressed with mustard, something that makes me gag.

Plaza Bolivar
Museum of the Inquisition
Interior of the Museum of the Inquisition
                                                                                                                        After lunch, I crossed the Plaza Bolivar (a pretty, shady park) and visited the Museum of the Inquisition, housed in the original Palace of the Inquisition, which has been lovingly restored in recent years.  The Spanish Inquisition found it difficult to deal with all the heretics in the new world from just Lima and Mexico City, so they opened a branch office in Cartagena that operated for 201 years until the inquisition was abolished when Colombia declared independence from Spain.  The museum displays some horrific instruments of torture, although not all of them were actually used by the inquisition in Cartagena.  The exhibits pointed out that torture was also commonly used in secular investigations at the time.  There were only five autos-da-fe in Cartagena during those years.  Only five heretics were burned at the stake, although more died during questioning and were then burned in effigy.  There were also lesser punishments such as fines, public humiliation, and whippings.  Only unrepentant sinners were put to death.  Crimes investigated by the inquisition included witchcraft, blasphemy, and heresy (including Judaism.)  The inquisition was a tool used by the Spanish to impose religious and social conformity across its empire.  Jews fled south into the mountains, establishing what would later become the city of Medellin.  The second floor of the museum displayed interesting exhibits concerning the history of Cartagena and Colombia’s struggle for independence from Spain.  Many of these exhibits included English translations. 

Museums inevitably make me extremely sleepy.  I could barely remain on my feet by the time I worked my way through the last of the exhibits.  I stopped at the grocery store for snacks for my bus ride and returned to the hostel to rest and use the internet until it was time to head to the bus station.  I had intended to take a bus to the terminal and had carried my heavy pack through the heat to the road outside the walls where the buses run, but I was unable to decipher which buses went to the terminal.  It was rush hour and all the buses were far too full for me with my pack.  I finally capitulated and paid about $12 for a 45 minute taxi ride to the terminal.  My taxi driver was quite concerned that I was traveling alone and thought that I ought to pick up a (preferably younger) traveling companion.  I think he was angling for the job.  He couldn’t understand that I was quite content without masculine company.  He did, however, recommend a good bus line for my trip to Medellin and deposited me right in front of the ticket counter.
Cartagena Bus Terminal

The Cartagena bus terminal is quite a distance outside the center of the city.  To get there, we had to pass through neighborhoods where I was advised to lock my doors.  The terminal itself was large and modern.  There were lots of shops and food stalls and decent Wi-Fi.  I bought a ticket to Medellin for 105,000 pesos (about $58.)  I only had to wait for about an hour before the bus left.  The bus was comfortable and, fortunately because we only stopped once in 13 hours, featured a restroom.  Unfortunately, it was air conditioned to the point of refrigeration.  I had brought a sweater, but spent the night shivering with my frozen feet stuffed in my day pack and a bandana spread over my bare knees.  I didn’t sleep a wink all night between the cold and the bumpy roads. 

July 29, 2014

First Sight of the Andes
The trip from Cartagena to Medellin was the equivalent of driving from San Francisco to San Diego at 40 miles per hour.  It was dark for the first ten hours, so I couldn’t see much.  We headed south across the coastal plain on a two lane toll road lined with houses and businesses and then climbed up into the Andes.  Dawn found us at the top of a huge range.  We looked down on both the rising sun and a lightning storm.  When we stopped for breakfast at 6:00 am, high on the wind swept side of an Andean peak, it was still warmer outside than it was on the bus.  My hands were numb.  I had been nibbling cookies all night in an attempt to keep warm, so I passed on breakfast, but was delighted to wrap my frozen fingers around a hot cup of coffee.  The mountains were very tall and very steep.  They were also very inhabited.  Homes and businesses lined the road and farms dotted the steep slopes.  There was some cloud forest, but the mountains were mostly cloaked in green grass.  The narrow road switchbacked up and over the mountain range and then down into the bottom of a great valley where, after descending for nearly three hours, we finally intersected a decent freeway that took us to Medellin.

Medellin is a city of three million people squashed into a narrow valley between two vast mountain ranges.  Textile manufacturing and the export of cut flowers are its main industries.  Hundreds of red brick high rises fill the skyline and the poorer neighborhoods straggle up the steep sides of the mountains.  Medellin is well served by an excellent Metro system, which includes gondolas that climb up into the higher neighborhoods.  Medellin seems entirely modern, with the exception of Gothic church spires poking up here and there.  I found it overwhelmingly urban after so much time spent away from modern life.  Medellin was a provincial backwater until the 20th century when a boom in the coffee industry brought investment and the railroad to the region, which explains why it seems so new. Once the violent center of Pablo Escobar’s cocaine business, conditions improved after his death in 1993 and Medellin is now one of the safest cities in Colombia.

The Black Sheep Hostel
I arrived at the northern bus terminal about 9:30 in the morning.  Not wanting to deal with my pack on the subway during morning traffic, I hailed a cab.  Actually, I hailed several until I found one that was willing to take me to El Poblado.  Medellin’s cabs actually have meters.  The ride cost me 13,000 pesos ($7.50) and was a fair distance through nasty traffic.  My driver was an amiable older man who was very relieved that I spoke Spanish and, unlike most taxi drivers I have encountered, was able to read my map and took me directly to the hostel.  The Black Sheep Hostel was a large, modern building located on a residential street near the Metro station in the El Poblado neighborhood of Medellin.  I couldn’t determine why, but El Poblado was the center of what tourism there was in Medellin.  I waited for a couple of hours, but was eventually rewarded with an airy private room on the third floor.  The room cost me 60,000 pesos ($33), but had a private bathroom with hot water, a window that opened, a fan, a television and even a desk.  I was exhausted and went straight to sleep, unable to lift my head from the pillow until nearly 4:00.

Metrocable to Santo Domingo
With only a day and a half to explore Medellin, I was determined to see something of the city before it got dark.  I got up, revived myself with a shower, and walked to the Poblado Metro station.  I took the Metro to the Acevedo station, glimpsing central Medellin on the way, and then took a ride up the mountain on a gondola to admire the view of the city.  Medellin seemed huge from up there.  A second gondola heads even farther up the mountain to Park Arvi.  Rides on the Metro cost 1400 pesos (78 cents.)  Since I never left the station, I traveled up and back on one ticket.  Returning to El Poblado around dinnertime, I walked up Calle 10 towards Avenida El Poblado and stopped at a taqueria on the way.  Food in Medellin was refreshingly cheap.  I had purchased a ham and cheese croissant for breakfast at a bakery down the street from the hostel for just over a buck and got dinner and a beer for about five bucks.  The food was authentic Mexican with yummy mango salsa and I was happy.  I got a cup of ice cream with caramel sauce a few doors up the hill for about 60 cents.  I continued up the steep hill until I arrived at the main drag and then strolled past shops and banks for five blocks before winding my way back down the hill through a maze of unmarked streets to the hostel.
Medellin from Above
July 30, 2014

I started my day in Medellin with a walking tour of the downtown area.  Our guide, Juliana, was half Colombian and half American, but had grown up in Colombia.  Juliana picked us up at the Black Sheep Hostel and then we took the Metro to the Alpujarra station.  Our first stop was the former train station.  Medellin is famous for cocaine, but that is not where the money came from.  In fact, the cocaine trade only served to stunt the economy of Medellin because it discouraged other investment.  Medellin is the most modern and prosperous city in Colombia.  When coffee became popular in the 19th century, the area around Medellin became a major producer.  To bring their product to market over the high mountains, they invested in a railroad.  That set off an industrial revolution in Medellin and the city became a center of the textile industry, as well.  Despite its pivotal role in the development of Medellin, the railroad was abandoned during the 1980s due to an increasing use of trucks and poor management.  (They bankrupted themselves by investing in fancy new engines that turned out to be the wrong gauge for the tracks.)

Monument to Paisa History
From the railroad station, we went to the administrative center where the city hall and government offices were located.  There was a large monument to the people of the region (called Paisas.)    According to our guide, Paisas believe that they are different (and better) than everyone else in Colombia.  There is at least some truth to the different part, since they are descended from Jews and Basques who fled over the mountains to escape persecution from the Spanish Inquisition.  Surprisingly, there is almost no Jewish presence in Medellin.  I found it interesting, however, that the stereotype of a Paisa is someone who is a shrewd businessman and good liar, characteristics that are often ascribed to Jews as well.  Paisas also wear scarves that look suspiciously like prayer shawls.  Paisas are justified in being proud of the prosperity and modernity of their region.  Medellin has the only Metro in Colombia and it is a wonderful, modern system.

Pillars in Plaza Cisneros
  After the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993, Medellin set about to recover from the stigma of being the headquarters of a famous drug cartel.  They elected a mayor who was a former mathematics professor and he embarked on a policy with two pillars.  The first was democratic architecture.  He transformed former blighted areas into parks people could admire.  We visited one of these sites, the Plaza Cisneros, which today is a forest of concrete posts (representing hope in the form of growing trees) that are outlined by strings of lights at night.  The second pillar was education.  All around the city, especially in poor areas, he built libraries that offer free classes.  Children can participate in programs at these centers and learn useful skills instead of turning to lives of crime.

Library in Barrio Santo Domingo
Bombed Botero Sculpture
Replacement Botero Sculpture
                                                                                                                                      We visited the former Palace of Justice, which is now a shop-ping mall, and then continued to the Iglesia de la Veracruz (Veracruz Church) which is famous for prostitutes soliciting outside its doors.  Juliana told us that some Colombians use religion like soap.  They believe they can sin and then go to church, repent, and be cleansed, a belief that was dangerous when people were shooting each other in the streets.  From there, we went to Botero Square.  Botero was a famous Colombian artist whose specialty was misproportioned figures.  While at first glance they merely appear to be fat, closer inspection reveals that some body parts that are usually large in a fat person are small in his work.  Sometimes the heads are small or large.  Even his animals are misproportioned.  One of his sculptures of a bird was blown up during a concert at Parque San Antonio, killing and injuring many people.  When the mayor tried to remove the remnants, Botero berated him, saying that no one should ever forget what had happened.  Today, the blasted sculpture sits next to a new version donated by the artist, risen phoenixlike, just as Medellin has risen from the violence of the 20th century. 

Drug violence was not the beginning of Colombia’s problems.  Indeed, Colombia’s history could serve as a cautionary tale for the United States.  Colombia’s problems began when the liberals and conservatives became so polarized that they started killing each other.  Each side raised their own illegal army (guerillas – left, paramilitaries – right) for protection.  Things really got out of hand when the drug dealers started hiring both sides to protect their coca plants, pumping lots of money into the conflict.  More money meant more destructive weapons.  Conflicts that originated in the countryside were carried to the urban areas like Medellin.  Things only started to improve after the death of Pablo Escobar when a strong president cracked down on both sides of the conflict.  Today, it is safe to travel on the roads in much of Colombia, where there is a large military presence.  The conflict has been pushed back into the remote areas of the country, where travel is still inadvisable, much like it is inadvisable to travel in remote areas of Northern California where marijuana is farmed in secret.  Colombia still produces cocaine, but no one tried to sell me any in Medellin.

Parque Bolivar & Cathedral Metropolitana
We walked through Parque Berrio where musicians competed with food vendors and illegal gambling and then continued on to Parque Bolivar where drunks and crack addicts shared park benches with old men enjoying the sun.  As we sat on the steps of the Cathedral, the largest church in the world (made of baked brick), one of the drunks parodied our guide’s speech behind her back.  One of our party was a Buddhist monk from South Korea dressed in traditional costume. The Colombians were fascinated by him and many asked me his nationality.  I could hear people whispering, "Chino," everywhere we went.  We ended our tour at the San Antonio station.

Cable Car to Parque Arvi
Barrio Santo Domingo
I met a woman named Stephanie, from New York, on the tour.  She and I took the cable car all the way up to Parque Arvi after the tour.  We took the Metrocable to the Santo Domingo Station and then paid an additional 4600 pesos to take a second, and much longer, cable car ride up over the mountain to the park.  The park wasn’t very impressive, but the ride up was spectacular.  It was chilly up there.  Medellin sits at 1500 meters and the park was at 2800 meters.  The cable cars passed above cloud forest and farms on the upper reaches of the slopes.  Stephanie wasn’t much of a walker and I wasn’t too impressed with the area after having seen so many great parks elsewhere, so we didn’t stay long.  Instead, we elected to get off at the Santo Domingo Station and walk down the hill to the Popular Station.  The hill was so steep that most of the walk was down stairs, although we took some streets that were equally steep.  I wouldn’t have wanted to walk through the neighborhood at night, but no one threatened us.  One guy offered to marry Stephanie.  Mostly people just looked at us strangely, since I doubt many foreigners go walking through the poor part of Medellin.  It wasn’t exactly a shantytown, but there were some strange building materials in evidence. 

Stephanie and I went our separate ways once we got back down to the Metro.  I went back to El Poblado, hiked up to the main drag and searched for a bank that would take my ATM card.  I had to try several because my card does not have a chip in it and some of the Colombian banks require cards with chips.  I found it odd that the Bank of America should be lagging behind Colombia in technology.  Stephanie and I had grazed on various savory pastries offered by street vendors in Santo Domingo, so I wasn’t hungry, even though it was dinnertime.  I walked back to my hostel and wrote for a few hours before scurrying out to the local market for snacks about 9:00.  For some reason, I couldn’t sleep.  Despite the need to rise early the next day, I lay awake until 2:00 am.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi, Would you mind if I ask where you bought a ticket to go to Medellin? It is around $80 now, which I think it's unrealistic to go up that much high within less than a year.

  3. I bought the ticket at the bus station in Cartagena. I'm sorry, but I don't remember which bus line I used.