Return to Colombia

Our first two weeks on the road have been a marathon of sorts. 

Considering our successes and failures, we’ve got a bit of reflecting to do and more discovery ahead. But first and foremost, we’ve had a helluva time. I feel like myself again. The feeling is good, albeit different from last time. Whereas every step of my previous journey felt like an advance in self-discovery, I’m oddly at rest in that department right now. Perhaps I should say I’m at peace. I’m confident and thrilled to be alive. I’m at home.

I’ve fallen in love with Colombia on my second visit. I was in a different place last year, more in a rush to see sights and keep ahead of schedule than to discover the place I was in. More than ever I can attest that Colombia is not what most Westerners think it is. It is not a dangerous land defined by crime and corruption. It is a gorgeous and amorous land with more to discover than we could ever have squeezed into 14 days. It’s rough around some edges, but only where it makes it more exciting than the exceedingly controlled societies of the U.S. and Europe. As we heard over and over, “En Colombia, Todo Es Posible!,” and we learned how very true that is.

One my greater successes so far has been my advancement in Spanish. 

In a matter of days I felt I’d returned to the level I had reached on my last trip. Thanks to Josh’s aptitude and loquacious enthusiasm to practice, I’ve never been so confident use a language other than my native tongue. I am probably in dire need of some formal classwork to polish my grammar, vocabulary and conjugations, but I impress myself every day in my ability to comprehend and converse with Spanish speakers. It’s an incredibly empowering feeling as a traveler and as a fellow human, opening up the possibility to talk to and learn from the 400+ million native Spanish speakers in the world. Make no mistake, I have a long, long way to go, but with some commitment such an achievement seems more palpable than ever.

As a result of this newfound level of speaking, we’ve met countless Colombians. We’ve conversed with locals, we’ve partied with locals, we’ve shared meals with locals. And far from being reckless, I’ve never felt so safe with this level of entré. People, on both sides of the cultural divide, fear, abuse, and misunderstand what they don’t understand. When you make acquaintance with a local, they feel an obligation to take care of you. The Colombians are some of the most friendly and passionate folks I’ve come to know. If any fault can be found, they like to have too good of time.

That leads into our own critique of our journey thus far. 

Colombia was a party, a really excellent party, but we didn’t come on this trip to drink rum until the sun comes up – we’re already quite good at that back home. Looking forward, looking north, Josh and I hope to scale back our self-indulgent behavior and focus on healthier, more substantial pursuits. This should have a positive effect on our health and our budget alike. Without regrets, we are ready for something different. We’re hoping that the more nature-focused attractions of Central America will make this commitment easier. (As this is belatedly being written, we’re on the right track.) Of course partying will still be part of the experience – it’s a damn good way to connect with the nightlife obsessed Latin Americans – but we plan on mixing things up from here. As one of my more longstanding mantras goes, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

Without further ado, here are the highlights of our time in Colombia:

Bogota

We arrived in Bogota, guns loaded. Having not seen our good friend Jaime since December, when she left for her year-long teaching job in Colombia, we were swept up in a monsoon of alcohol-fueled reunion festivities. It was a treat for me, and perhaps a relief for Joshua, to begin our adventure in a familiar city. Even more than my first experience in Bogota I earned an appreciation for the massive metropolis and all it has to offer. Thanks to Jaime’s expertise we were able to get around efficiently and survey the various barrios, as well as meet some of her Colombian amigos.

Though the evenings were admittedly debaucherous (as they tend to be when the three of us get together), we made similarly spirited efforts to appreciate the city’s cultural offerings. We revisited my beloved Museo de Fernando Botero, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and twice scaled the towering hill of Monserrate (10,341 ft.), first by aerial tramway with Jaime, and later on foot. Having skipped this attraction last trip, I was able to appreciate the size of this sprawling city of 10.7 million residents. Save for a few larger commutes, most of our movement was on foot, allowing us to see the endless displays of masterful street art that the city allows and often commissions.

City-seeing with two former baristas has its perks for the coffee nerd. On one of our days we visited two very prestigious Bogota coffee shops. One might expect that in Colombia, the world’s third largest coffee exporter, a quality cup of coffee ought to be an easy thing to come by. In reality, a cafe serving a single origin roast, let alone anything that doesn’t come in powdered or crystalized form, is a very rare sight indeed. Thanks to Jaime’s searching, these shops were true diamonds in the rough. We sampled Chemex brews at Cafe Pop, then took a long, confused walk to find Amor Perfecto, home of the Barista Champion of Colombia. We dorked out, with Jaime getting a photo with the champ himself, and ordered a series of pour-overs and espressos, flexing our connoisseur pallets. The champ was so flattered with our praise and appreciation that he paid for our espressos.

Of course there is no shortage of nightlife in Bogota, and Jaime gave us a proper tour over several nights, which breaks away from the normal tourist district of Candelaria. Neighborhoods included Zona Rosa and Chapinero, both of which display young Bogotans dressed at their finest. With our limited backpacker wardrobe we were not even dressed well enough to get into many establishments.

Though much of our drinking has been of rum, largely on financial grounds, the signature alcohol of Colombia is called Aguardiente (‘firewater’), a clear liquor made from sugarcane. Flavored with anise, the taste resembles that of aquavit, but at 29% it is notably milder in flavor and strength. Unlike the States, it is neither unusual nor terribly expensive to buy a bottle for the table, which is also accompanied by plastic shot glasses, a bottle of water, and as many limes as you need. After a group has downed a bottle or two and some beers, they usually hit the dance floor. The primary functions of all bars and clubs, even a place titled Colombian Pub, are to serve alcohol and allow people to dance. Not much of a dancer myself, I wasn’t exactly in my element. But the Aguardiente didn’t hurt.

The food in Bogota didn’t exactly blow our minds, including the vegetarian restaurant I’d enjoyed on my previous trip. One exception was a restaurant we stumbled upon called B&L Piano Pub. Not traditional in any sense, it was recently opened by a young Colombian named Pablo. The funky blues/jazz pub served up amazing and original renditions of ribs, wings and burgers, paired with excellent imported beers and a live jazz duo. Though I still regard myself as a casual vegetarian back home, I’ve resolved not to cheat myself of a good meal when there is no decent alternative. Jaime called it the best meal she’s had in the city, and I would have to agree.

It was a bummer for Jaime to see us leave, but with plans to meet again in less than a week, the goodbye was not too hard.

Salento

Six hours north of Bogota lies the tiny town of Salento. A perfect reprieve from the big city, I would have loved to stay there for a long time if it hadn’t been for our plans to meet Jaime up north. Green hills in every direction, Salento is a perfect showcase for Colombia’s incredible natural beauty. After arriving wickedly early and restless from the night bus, we caught a couple hours rest and proceeded to attack the town with the limited time we had.

I woke up before Josh and made acquaintance with some nice guys who were going on a mountain bike ride. Always stoked for some cycling, I signed us up not realizing Josh isn’t much of a biker. Five minutes into the ride we stopped at a hostel. One member of our group had heard that hallucinogenic mushrooms grew in a field behind the building, and sure enough they were there by the bucket load. Even if Josh and I were interested, ingesting wild mushrooms in one of the most drug-strict countries in the world seemed like an unwise decision. Nonetheless we got a laugh out of wandering the field, picking fungi as if we were searching for Easter eggs. We ran into the boys later that night, wide-eyed and giggly.

Back on the bikes we began a long, fantastic decent down a steep dirt road. At the mushroom hostel we made friends with a street dog that would latch onto the group for the remainder of our time in Salento. Apparently this is normal in the town, where the markedly clean street dogs become your personal companion, following you wherever you go. This dog was a real athlete, running full speed with us as we biked. It took a solid half hour of constant downhilling before we reached the bottom of the valley. The giant hills of Colombia are seemingly endless and we would later pay for such a thrill upon our return.

First though, we toured a local coffee farm owned by an old geezer named Don Elias. The proprietor was not home when we arrived, but we still had an excellent tour by his teenage grandson. After touring the modest farm, which also grows fruit trees that symbiotically provide shade for the coffee plants, we were shown the arduous series of processes required to turn the plant’s fruit into a ready-to-grind bean. Finally we were served the finished product and got to meet the Don himself.

The ride up was a tough one for the group. Thanks to the biking trip I took with my folks the weekend before leaving, I was in excellent shape and having a blast taking laps up and down the hill while the others huffed and puffed. Joshua struggled the most, and though I meant to keep him company by swinging back to check on him, it only served to annoy him.

That night we made friends with a couple Americans – a sweet young lady from Connecticut named Amber and a gordo Texan named Roger. Our activity was to play the Colombian national sport of Tejo. Tejo is a magnificent sport, not unlike horseshoes. From a distance the player tosses a heavy, round stone toward a pitched slab of fresh clay. In the center is a metal ring where four small taps of gunpowder have been placed. When the well-aimed stone strikes the gunpowder, there is a deafening explosion, which is a pretty epic feeling. An explosion earns you 3 points, sticking the stone in the center of the ring gets you 6, and doing both earns you 9. When none of the above occurs, a single point is awarded to the stone nearest to the ring. Reaching 21 wins the game. Josh and I played as a team against Roger and Amber, and after a few rounds (and a few beers) we were discharging more gunpowder than anyone in the tejo hall.

Tejo was of course only the beginning. We made fast friends with a group of locals, in part because one of them, Juan, had spent much of his life living in New York City and was anxious to hang out with a group of Americans. At some point Juan found a small scorpion and by someone’s suggestion we agreed to put the poor creature in a glass of rum and drink from it. The Colombians were all talk up front, but when it came time to take their sips they were a bunch of babies. Some complained their mouths felt a little numb afterward, but they were just being dramatic. It was more of a psychological game than anything.

After passing around the scorpion we were all amigos, and spent the rest of the night drinking Aguardiente (their Aguardiente). When the tejo hall closed at midnight we moved to the empty streets of Salento. The drunkest guy in the group, a fat guy who looked like Hugo Chavez, drove his friend, the off-duty police officer, to his home, even though it was only a block away. He quickly returned and played music from the car’s stereo, moving the party a block or two at a time so as annoy the neighborhood equally. At some point Hugo have me a salsa lesson, to the hysterical amusement of the group. A pair of police officers pulled up on a scooter – friends of our amigos of course – and kindly asked us to move the party another block because their grandmother lived above us. I love small town communities. We had a grand time, joking around, speaking Spanish and English until the early hours of the morning. After eating some late night street food and playing with our respective street dogs we said our goodbyes and parted.

We dedicated the next day to hiking nearby Valle de Cocora. The expansive forest is breathtakingly gorgeous, allegedly home to the tallest palm trees in the world. Along with Amber (Roger didn’t make it out), we were joined by Juan, who had the day off and simply wanted to hang out with us a bit more. Because we missed the 9:30 departure of jeeps, we had to find some more people to fill one up before leaving. We found a trio of Germans as well as a complaining Swiss girl from our hostel. It was a lovely way to spend the day, and Juan was an excellent tour guide. Midway through the hike we stopped at a remote refugio that served us refreshments as we watched a stunning variety of hummingbirds feed on sugar water in front of us. Compared to the two or three varieties we find in Colorado, these birds varied drastically in color and size. Though the hike could be done in four hours, we took our time and made many stops, so the whole thing took a solid seven hours.

Upon our return we had just enough time to catch dinner, shower, and catch the last bus out of town.

Medellin

If our whirlwind stay in Salento was short, our visit to Medellin was even shorter. Brief as it was, there was no way we could miss stopping over in this city, regarded as the cultural capitol of Colombia

Twenty years ago a gringo couldn’t even go to Medellin. The former capitol of Pablo Escobar’s drug empire, and former murder capitol of the world, Medellin is a stark contrast today. Thanks to Escobar’s incredible affluence the town is more developed than big brother Bogota, including Colombia’s only metro. Arriving bright and early, and with a mere 36 hours in town, we spent the whole day walking the city on foot. As nice as Medellin is, we found ourselves somewhat underwhelmed by the sights we visited, including the botanic gardens (more like a park with a few nice flowers) and the museum of famous local artist Pedro Nel Gomez (he ain’t no Botero). We also had some strange interactions from people on the street, feeling much less welcome than our previous destinations. The real highlight of the afternoon was finding the most delicious arepas we would have the entire stay in Colombia. We returned to the hostel in the early evening for some down time, before heading out to see the city’s hippest area, El Poblado.

As soon as we walked out the door it became readily apparent, Medellin doesn’t come alive until it gets dark. The quiet, empty streets we’d seen during the day transformed into bustling centers for activity at night. El Poblado is at the center of this activity. Once the gnarliest barrio in town, it’s now the most posh neighborhood we saw. Expensive bars and restaurants fill every street, each packed with enthusiastic and well-dressed patrons. True to what a friend in Bogota claimed, Colombians are some of the most attractive people in the world, and Medellin has the most attractive people in Colombia.

On our budget we were not willing to pay $20 for a meal or $10 for a drink, so we mostly drank beers from kiosks and walked the streets. Just off the beaten path we found amazing empanadas for $0.50 a piece. Wanting to experience at least one fancy bar, we found a place advertising a two-for-one special, which turned out to specialize in alcoholic slushies. A couple of Colombians we sat down next to talked us into ordering ‘The Orgy,’ which blends seven or eight different liquors. It tastes like purple-flavored but crack, but at least it was cold. Just when El Poblado was really filling up we caught the last metro back to our own neighborhood and proceeded to tour the bars there before calling it a night. We never set out to do more partying, but it seems that the party is where you can truly channel the spirit of Colombia.

Before noon the next day we were on a plane to meet Jaime in Cartagena. It is a shame to only spend a night in a place, not to mention exhausting. We purposely bought one-way tickets so we wouldn’t have to move any faster than we wanted, but meeting our friend was worth the compromise and this should be the last time we are be forced to move faster than we feel.

Cartagena

Our Colombian marathon was rounded out with a 5-day stay in Cartagena.

For centuries the colonial port town acted as the main point of commerce between South America and Europe. The historical center, where we stayed, is gorgeously preserved with its old-world charm. After so much movement, it was a real treat to camp out for a while. Our hostel wasn’t especially great in most measurements, but they turned on the air-con at night and we had our own 3-bed dorm room all to ourselves. We loved that room. We did few tourist activities but we lived rich (if not somewhat sinful) lives in lovely Cartagena.

Reunited once again, the Three Musketeers of indulgence were in exceptional form. Having made it to the Caribbean, we did our best to blend in by drinking a lot of rum and smoking a lot of Cuban cigars. We cooked many of our meals and kept it cheap the rest of the time with some excellent street food. As it goes in Colombia, we lived mostly at night, when the town comes alive and the weather is bearable. We made countless friends with locals and travelers alike. By the time we left we couldn’t walk down the street without running into people we knew. We weren’t always proud of ourselves but we left our mark on that town, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

The specific events of each day blend together, but the amalgamation of it all adds up to a concept or state we could only describe as Tim. Tim is many things. Tim started out as a joke between Jaime and I, describing a fictional pet guinea pig who was unexceptional in every way. Tim was ours, so we loved him, but he was neither cute nor of any respectable pedigree. That’s why his name is Tim. Among other things Tim would come to stand for our own lackluster performance as tourists in Cartagena, but first and foremost Tim was the name of the beach we came to call home.

On our second night, in a much-delayed struggle to find a beach to watch the sunset from, we found Tim. Not much more than a patch of sand flanked by rock retaining walls, located just behind a bus stop and a billboard, Tim was the best we could find without missing the sunset. When we found him we rushed across the 6-lane highway to a gas station. By some cosmic fate, that simple gas station was filled with American food products, including my beloved Sneider’s pretzels. We called it America Mart. We bought snacks, as well as some rum and coconut water, and hustled over to Tim with enough time to mix our drinks, light our cigars, and put on some music before the sun went down.

We could have searched out a better beach the next day, but felt strangely at home on Tim. The experience became a nightly tradition, and we would remain on Tim for hours after it got dark. In that time and place, we were at our best. Conversation automatically gravitated to our ‘deep beach talks,’ and when that ran its course we’d run into the ocean for a swim. Funny as we make it sound, it was a truly special thing for the three of us.

We formed other habits in Cartagena as well. We tried to play cards on more than one occasion, but inevitably ended up playing King’s Cup, a drinking game where each card commands a certain action or activity. Our favorite cards were fives (make a rule) or ten (categories). Rules included requirements to speak in a foreign accent or include profanity in every sentence. We were perpetually in a grand, silly mood. We may have distanced a few folks with our antics, but there was rarely a moment when we weren’t laughing out loud.

We also became extremely attached to a particular street food stand. Late into most nights we felt the craving for these very special  burgers. I’ve never been obsessed with a burger in my life, but these were something quite different. The stand was grey and unmarked, and behind it stood two giant women in hair nets. As big as whales, the rarely spoke and never showed a flicker or emotion, but in spite of their lack of humanity they constructed the most intricate and fantastic burgers that ever existed. I don’t even know half off what those secretive sorceresses slipped between the buns to give such a complex experience of textures and flavors, but I don’t believe those burgers will ever be equalled. God knows what effect they would have on my health if could have them all the time, but I miss them every day.

Like a shooting star, some of the most magnificent times in life are the most temporary. Toward the end of our stay our bodies caught up with us and we could sense the magic fading. Our time in Cartagena will live on in my heart for the rest of my days but such an intense way of living is not a sustainable lifestyle, and not one I hope to repeat anytime soon. For the same reasons that the three of us put together have such a special chemistry for attacking life with a ruthless sense of romantic fury, we incapacitate each other from being productive members of society or responsible caretakers of our own lives. All great things must come to an end before their greatness is lost.

We said goodbye to Jaime knowing we wouldn’t see her for at least nine months, and bid an indefinite farewell to Cartagena and Colombia shortly thereafter. Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.

Photo credits above to Jaime Dyna La Mondain (Cafe Amor, Cigar, Bromance) & Josh Berntsen (Scorpion)



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