As we said goodbye to Bogotá, the trip continued with a very short plane hop to Armenia, the capital of the Quindío Department, and one of the hubs of the Colombian coffee growing industry. After a short bus ride to the small town of Salento, the first modern settlement in Quindío, we experienced a much different lifestyle than we’d experienced in Bogotá. Because Salento became rather isolated when the route to Bogotá had been diverted from there, it retained more of its traditional colorful colonial architecture than most other towns in the efe cafetero (the Colombian coffee growing axis). The town is small, the streets dotted with multi-colored buildings as well as a friendly, relaxed lifestyle, and of course a large church rising over the main town square.
Weather in Quindío seemed consistent—brilliant sunshine in the mornings and warm drizzle or rain off and on in the afternoons and evenings. Despite Salento’s small size, the tourist trade ensured that the many little restaurants and bars were rocking with some great music in the evening. We had some time to walk around on our own when we arrived, but the next day we were scheduled to be transported by Jeep over rutty, bumpy roads to a national park, where we would climb in the Central Andes, and then to visit a working coffee plantation.
Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados is located in the Cordillera Central of the Colombian Andes. Before we started our climb, we watched arrieros (muleteers) on horseback (Colombian cowboys!) driving their mules, laden down with all kinds of supplies, along the unpaved roads. When our local guide Anjelica said we would be climbing a rocky trail up to the summit at 2,400 meters (8,000 feet), Andrés raised his eyebrows and declared she was trying to kill us all. (I said a secret muchas gracias to the gym where I work out five times a week!) Some of the group decided not to attempt it. Others went part way and then returned to the bottom. The rest of us made it to “Mirador 2” before Andrés decided we should call it a day! We saw many wax palms, beautiful bromeliads growing out of the side of the mountain, and hundreds of beautiful birds, including a condor on the wing, on our way up the side of the mountain. And as the park surrounds a northern volcanic complex, we had a view of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano. It was an amazing and beautiful experience!
After our descent from the heights, we climbed back onto the jeeps and traveled to a large coffee plantation, where we got to pick coffee beans (they were red!) and were shown the entire coffee making process. I’d had no idea that the ideal growing environment for coffee is higher than 4,000 feet. So much of Colombia is mountainous, it makes sense now that the country produces such wonderful coffee. The experience was fascinating, and now every morning as I drink my Colombian coffee, I can’t help thinking about how much those little innocent beans have to go through before they sit in my coffee maker.
The next morning, we piled onto a bus and drove northwest 120 miles to the Antioquia Department and the beautiful pueblo of Jardín, another small town where the main plaza, El Parque Libertador (named in honor of Simón Bolivar), features rose gardens, a large central fountain, and the Neo-Gothic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception with an impressive bell tower. Not only did Jardín offer splendid views of the Central Andes, but the town itself had colorful colonial style buildings as far as the eye could see. Our beautiful little rustic motel was short on hot showers but awash in gorgeous plants and the most beautiful birds, including hummingbirds, tanagers, kiskadees, and many other birds whose names I don’t know. (I learned that Colombia is home to more native birds than any other country in the world!)
Jardín was a feast for the senses no matter where you looked, and again, at night the locals and the tourists burst out of the many little bars and clubs around the main plaza, enjoying their food and drink and music. The next day we boarded our bus again and headed for Medellin. Because of a rock slide that closed the main road, our bus ride was much longer than had been planned, because we had to make our way through local towns and small roads, where the bus driver actually got lost! I had to laugh when I offered my iPhone’s Google Maps app to help him find his way.
Our local guide Luis took advantage of the hours on the bus to tell us about the jaded recent history of Medellin and one of its most infamous past residents, Pablo Escobar. During the 1980s, Escobar virtually took over Medellin as the center of his cocaine enterprise, but he also used his vast wealth to build housing developments, schools, sports fields, and parks for poor residents, and provide social services for them, which enabled him to be recognized as a kind of Robin Hood type savior for the poor and bought him the support of many residents of Medellin. During Escobar’s reign as king of cocaine, Medellin also became the murder capital of Colombia. The city was rife with gun violence, and even the police were afraid to take any action, because street gangs and guerrilla and paramilitary groups fought for control of the city, taking thousands of innocent lives as they fought their turf wars. During the 1990s, paramilitaries patrolled the rooftops in the poorest neighborhoods, shooting people who refused to honor their imposed curfew or for whatever reason they wanted.
In the early 1990s, Luis and his mother had fled to the United States, seeking asylum, after Luis’s father was murdered. Ending up in New York City with no English at all, Luis attended middle school and high school in the Bronx. But after he graduated, his mother was refused asylum status, and rather than take the chance of living undocumented in the U.S., they moved back to Medellin. Luis now has a son of his own and is incredibly proud of the renaissance his native city has experienced over the last twenty years.
One of the most extraordinary developments in Medellin has been the construction of a Metro system that opened its first line in 1995. The Medellin Metro is an above-ground, rail-based system with two lines (the only such system in Colombia), as well as a cable car system that comprises four lines. We rode on both, and they are kept immaculately clean and efficiently run, a shining example of Medillin’s development and the pride of its people in the city’s new image. We took a tour of Comuna 13, an overpopulated, low income neighborhood that had been Medellin’s most notoriously violent neighborhood during the reign of Escobar, but has begun to climb out of the ashes of its past.
In 2002, the Colombian military carried out Operation Orión, a strike intended to overthrow all rebel groups posted in Comuna 13. More than 1,000 police, soldiers, and helicopter crews attacked the area of 100,000 inhabitants, killing nine people (including three children) and injuring hundreds. The wounded couldn’t seek medical attention because of the siege, so they took to the streets waving white rags around until the fighting stopped. Post-2002, the residents voiced their anger at the violence through street art and community events. The incredibly affecting graffiti all over Comuna 13 gives a pictorial history of the terrible violence. Not only has the Metro enabled Comuna 13 residents to be connected to the rest of the city, but also the city spent $5 million to construct an elaborate outdoor escalator system, which enables residents to travel what used to be a 35-minute hike up the hill in six minutes. I felt there was a great deal of defensiveness among the people I met in Medellin, and also felt a little embarrassed to be walking around Comuna 13 staring at the still dilapidated houses and obviously poor people as if we were at the zoo. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of pride among the people who live there, despite the sadness at the lives lost and the terrible, decades-long violence that went on there.
But there is much more to Medellin than just the terrible history of violence. Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, was born in Medellin. He is well known for his depiction of voluptuous people and animals in painting and in sculpture. He donated twenty-three incredible sculptures to the city of Medellin, and they are displayed in the center of the city on the Plaza Botero, which also houses the Museo de Antioquia and is located quite close to a Metro station, Estación Parque Berrío, which makes it highly accessible. Also, we had one of our best meals in Colombia at Oci.Mde, Carrera 33 in Medellin. Although Oci.Mde. was a bit out of the way, our guide Andrés said that every time he was in Medellin he looked forward to eating at this amazing restaurant. If you ever visit Medellin, don’t miss this place! Not only was the food incredible, but I broke down and ordered the national drink of Colombia, Aguardiente, there. A very enjoyable experience!!
The trip to Medellin was incredibly rich with history, art, music, smells, tastes, and experiences I will never forget.
Our visit to Medellin over, we were ready to fly to our final destination, Cartagena, where not only was I looking forward to seeing that city, but also I was thrilled to have the experience of visiting San Basilio de Palenque, a town about an hour away from Cartagena and the oldest freed-slave town in the Western Hemisphere. Stay tuned for the third in the Colombia trilogy—Cartagena and Palenque.