“A La Orden.” They shout it from behind their empanada carts, wheelbarrows of fruit and anything else that can be turned into a shop. It’s ingrained in my brain already. I speak it in my sleep. Its literal translation is “At your order,” or “At your command.” I suppose you could compare it to “Can I help you?” Seeing as they use it at the beginning and end of any transaction, it could even mean, “Thank you,” or “You’re welcome.” It is Colombia’s trademark, if you will — and boy, does it deliver.
Ever wanted to hike, swim, sunbathe, party, roam the city streets, ride a metro, take a cable car up a mountain, paraglide over a valley, meet new people, ride local busses, learn Spanish, eat street food, spend less money, ride a horse, drink fire water, go to a discoteca, relax for days in the middle of nowhere, climb a 200 meter stone, white water raft down a river, repel up and down a waterfall, trek through a jungle or simply just be a part of a booming and evolving part of the world? Awesome. Then go to Colombia right now. Seriously. Do it. We have been in Colombia for over 3 weeks now and I am just now sitting down to write my first blog entry. We have been on the move quite a bit lately, and as usual, the days just get away from me. Although I like it that way, it certainly feels good to slow down for a minute to reflect and write. We decided to head up to the mountains for a night to get out of the hustle and bustle of Santa Marta, allowing me some time to focus on the blog. My office view isn’t too shabby, eh?
Top deck of a fantastic little hostel in Minca (Casa Loma Minca). It’s a small mountain town with loads of fincas and coffee farms. It made for a good “slow down and do nothing” spot.
Oy, where do I begin? We have covered so much of this incredible country in three weeks, so bare with me on my hazy memory and this lengthy post. We arrived on March 13th, via the dreaded Spirit Airlines flight. Our flight was to depart at 6:30AM from ATL and included a quick layover in Fort Lauderdale before arriving in Medellin, Colombia around 1PM local time. Well, guess what? ALL of that happened…..and all of it happened ON time! We paid about $150 USD (each) for one way tickets, bags included. It was a bargain but we knew Spirit came with a risk (i.e., not arriving on time, or not even arriving at all). We were willing to take the risk and are so glad we did. As you may know, I am the result of 2 parents who worked at Delta for 30 + years each, making me a bit of an airline snob (by default). Before this trip, I had flown 2 non-Delta airplanes in my entire life. Crazy, I know. Needless to say, I had my reservations about Spirit, timeliness and safety being two of them. Let me just say this about the overall experience and then I’ll get to Colombia. It was one of the nicest, quietest planes I’ve ever flown. They were on time down to the second and the staff were just as helpful as any other major airline. No one harassed us about our baggage size and we did not encounter any additional charges. In fact, Spirit saved me about $300. When we arrived at the checkin counter in ATL, the Spirit agent informed us that you must have a return ticket in order to get into Colombia, effective January 2013. This had nothing to do with Spirit and she immediately saw how shocked and unprepared I was. I told her I would be flying back via Delta Standby, therefore I don’t have a “purchased onward ticket,” per se. I acknowledged that I obviously had no choice but to book the cheapest return day they offered, then just forgo the ticket once the time came (assuming it did not fit my desired leave date). Then came the unexpected. The kind Spirit rep advised me to purchase the ticket with her at the counter, then as soon as I arrive in Medellin, refund it. She said I had 24 hours to get a full refund and it should take just a few moments at the Medellin airport to make this happen. She did not (and probably should not) have told me this, but she did. So, say what you will about Spirit, but we had an amazing experience and will absolutely be flying them again. We have also been hearing great stuff about them from fellow backpackers recently, leading me to believe they are changing their ways. It’s wishful thinking, but hey…..maybe it is the case.
A tired and almost sleepless me looking out onto the tracks at the Atlanta airport at about 5AM. Thank you to Dani for taking us to the airport at that ridiculous hour of the morning. Well, thanks for that and SO much more.
We arrived in Medellin around 1 PM on a Wednesday afternoon. It was hot & sunny, just as we hoped. First thing was first – exchange our US dollars for Colombian Pesos. As if switching into Spanish mode isn’t enough of a transition, the Colombian Peso (COP) exchanges at a rate of about $1800 to $1 USD. And you thought the Euro made life hard. We were quickly millionaires. No, really. We were! We exchanged about $930 USD and received about $1.6 Million COP. Yew! We were rich! Well, we were for a minute anyways. With a latte costing you about $4000 COP and a night at a hostel putting you back about $20,000 or more, you can see how quickly a few hundred thousand pesos will fly out of your wallet. It’s certainly still cheap in comparison to the states, Europe, Australia, etc., but it’s also significantly more expensive than backpack life in Central America. It is Colombia, after all.
First shot in Colombia. Train stop in downtown, Medellin. This ain’t no MARTA, folks. It’s far better. Surprise.
After exchanging money, we took our overpacked luggage and $1.6 million COP and headed for the city. We snagged a bus for a few dollars that took us to a massive metro station. From there, we took the amazing, fast and advanced metro rail to our stop, then caught a cab to our hostel. We were purposely flying into Medellin because a few of our Utila family members would be there at the same time. I was determined to cross paths. We were way too excited about this and could not wait for the reunion. They had been traveling in Colombia for months and were staying put in Medellin at the time of our visit. Thanks to them, we already had our first night reserved at the “it” hostel in town, Casa Kiwi. The cab dropped us off right in front and we headed straight for the reception desk. Before we could even put our bags down, we heard a few squeals and footsteps coming at us. Much to our surprise, our friends were awaiting us in the lobby. I think I screamed out loud. We definitely caused a scene — and definitely did not care. It had been 5 months since we’d last seen them and we were so happy to cross paths again. We put our bags in the room and headed straight back down to the bar to have beers with Maartje, Choppy and Zac. Life was way too amazing that day. We were on the road again and reunited. Colombia was already treating us well.
This is the only group shot, but I feel like it sums up our time together. Actually, it definitely does. No, I don’t have a clue as to what anyone is doing here.
We ended up spending about 7 or 8 days in Medellin. It is an incredible city with views for miles and some of the best people watching around. It’s constantly alive and moving. Its base sits down in a massive valley and slowly moves up the sides of the mountains. It is just beautiful. The people are friendly, the transport is abundant, the weather is perfect, the cafes are everywhere, the nightlife is killer…….I just cannot say enough about Medellin. We actually might go back. It didn’t hurt that we were staying in Casa Kiwi either. It’s located in a district called Parque Lleras, an affluent and hip area loaded with bars, cafes, fancy restaurants and swanky hotels. Nightlife thrives in this area. The hostel is complete with a rooftop pool and hangout area, a great patio and bar area on the main level, little waterfalls built into the walls, a fantastic little kitchen, a pool table and the best of the best backpackers. We met some great people during our stay, many of whom we’ve already run into again. We were also lucky enough to spend St. Patrick’s Day there. Yikes, that was a fun one. Ginski, the girls and I ended up rallying the whole hostel that Sunday night for a big one. We pre-gamed at Casa Kiwi, then talked everyone into going out to the massive Irish pub in the park. We danced like morons to Irish tunes while drinking green beer. Oh, and I didn’t take my green Braves singlet off for a day or two. It was an epic St. Paddy’s day in Colombia! Check out some of our shots from Medellin, below.
Our balcony view at Casa Kiwi the first night. We only had a private room for one night, as that’s all they had available. The next day, we moved back into reality, better known as dorm life. Ahh, it was nice for a night though (and super expensive).
Another street food win in Medellin! If my memory serves me correctly, this is an empanada from our favorite joint in town.
Aside from the nightlife, Medellin has so much to offer. With a population of 3.5 million and size of 147 square miles, you can wander around that city for days. We did exactly that. We stumbled upon some of the most amazing and cheapest street food to date. Every time we get to a new town, we go out on a “who has the best value street food” hunt. This time was no different and Medellin killed it! One sunny day, we took the famous cable cars up the mountain to get some great photos and see some of the Escobar-era barrios (slums). It was probably our favorite day there. The views were out of this world and the people were fantastic. They were happy, busy and kind. This part (and so many others) of Colombia couldn’t say that ten years ago, so it was quite a unique scene to witness. We even felt safe there, which would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. As a huge bonus, we found a local man making Guarapo, a sugar cane and lime concoction that is taste-bud-blowing. Pretty certain it changed my life. He handmade the beverage, using a simple wheel or two and his hand as the power. This was the best $0.80 I’ve spent in my entire life. If there was a way I could package it and send it to each of you, I would. It was the perfect ending to a perfect little adventurous day. We got rained on a bit on the way back, but even then, we enjoyed every second. Medellin kind of works that way. There’s never a dull moment, rain or shine. It’s no wonder it was voted one of the most innovative cities in the world last year. It’s certainly one of my favorite cites ever.
View from one of the busiest stops in town, Parque Berrio. This is where the rain started, so we did not get to wander too far. From the little wet walk we attempted though — it was awesome and incredibly packed. People watching for days….
For me, our time in Medellin was particularly special because of the girls. We got to spend a lot of time together, providing us all with insane amounts of laughter. It was brilliant and memory-filled. We had dinner together and crazy nights out, which were worth every bit of the hangover. Like I’ve said before, the friends you make while traveling are a different type. This reunion simply reinforced that for me. Five months away was nothing and I have absolutely no doubt that we will all be seeing each other again soon. We had to say goodbye to Maartje first, as she was headed to the Galapagos for a while. It wasn’t so bad this time, knowing that we’ll catch up somewhere else in the world soon enough. We were just thrilled to be able to spend time with them again in another country. Thank you for rocking our time in Medellin, you crazy blondies!
Choppy (Stix), Maartje and myself. No idea why we look so put together here. I can assure you, that was not the case.
After a week in the hustle and bustle of Medellin, it was time to get a little dirty and burn some calories. Just 2 hours outside of the city is a town called Guatape, famous for it’s massive, climbable stone. We were all over it. We packed our bags and headed for the cooler temps and slower life for a couple of days. We stayed in a cute, lakeside hostel just outside of the small town center. It was cozy, had a kitchen and was abundant with views of the stone we had come for, La Piedra del Peñol. We had an early night in, cooked our signature dinner and got a good night’s sleep for our hike the next day.
Our favorite salad. Simply lettuce, tomato and avocado. The avo here is so rich that it serves as a dressing itself (for Ginski). If there’s some community balsamic sitting around, I like to add a bit. It’s expensive here though, so it doesn’t quite make the shopping list cut.
Our standard and amazing dinner: A small bit of pasta, combined with heaps of veggies. Tomatoes, mushrooms (we have to search for them though), zucchini (also have to search for it), heaps of garlic and onion. It costs us about $4 USD to make this and it serves 3-4, easily.
The hike to the rock was stellar. The weather was just right and given the low season, we had it all to ourselves. The actual walk to the rock is about 5K’s, which we were (obviously) willing to tackle. Unfortunately, half way through our walk, the rain came. Since Ginski was carrying all of his camera equipment, we thought we’d haul ass back to town- literally. We ran back for cover and waited at a restaurant in town until it passed. About 2 hours later, we were ready to give it another go. We lost a bit of time though and needed to get there before it rained again, so we opted for the public bus which costs next to nothing. It dropped us off on the side of the road and the rest of the walk was up to us. For about 20 minutes, you just walk up a steep set of hills to the entrance of the rock’s staircase. There, you pay about $5 USD to enter before climbing all 650 stairs. Yes, they’re numbered. The lady at the front told us it takes about 20 minutes to climb up. Naturally, we looked at each other and rolled our eyes, as we wanted to do it in 15 or less. We were successful, but I won’t lie to you. That was not the easiest 10 or 15 minutes of my life. It’s steep and sketchy, but the view gets better which each stair. I was panting when I got to the top, but it was more than worth it. The view was clear (for the first few minutes) and the beers were cold. I’ll leave the rest to the photos.
Guatape is a sleepy little lake town that goes nuts during our fall season. You only need a night or two there but it is certainly worth the visit. The hostel was great and you can walk everywhere. Everything is cheap and we found the absolute best street food in Colombia. A little lady was just standing outside a tienda (convenience store in most of Latin America) with a tiny grill and a small table. She was hand making small empanandas for $200 COP. That’s about $0.11 USD. They were the best tasting fried amazingness I’ve ever had. We found them after our hike, ensuring we left Guatape on a high note. This place is just another win for Colombia.
So, there’s our first 10 or so days in Colombia — in a giant nutshell. I have already started on the next post, which will include Cartagena, Playa Blanca, Taganga, Parque Tayrona and Santa Marta. Saying we have done a lot so far is a massive understatement. I don’t want to put too much into a single post, as details get lost. Those are often the best part. We have done an amazing job of documenting this trip, so the pictures and videos are endless. Yew! I think you will all really enjoy the next few posts, as we get more into the nitty gritty of it all. Motorcycles, hammocks, tents, hikes, beach towns, local busses, etc. — it’s all happening in Colombia. Until then, Colombian love and hugs, amigos! Thanks for stopping by, once again. XO