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Where We’ve Been: June 2016 Road Trip Driving Route in Peru & Chile

With nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) driven, June was our biggest driving month in years. It was also one of the most dramatic with two tire blowouts, a missed border crossing, an Incan rope bridge re-building festival, a traditional vicuña round-up and miles and miles of gorgeous coastal, Andean, and Altiplano scenery. It’s all captured in our drive-lapse road trip travel footage shot with our Brinno time-lapse dash cam at the end of this post.

Making a run for the border

The primarily reason we drove so much in June was because we had to make a border run to renew our Peruvian vehicle importation permit which requires that we exit the country and re-enter. This called for an 800 miles (1,300 km) drive south into Chile. We expected it would take us two long days of driving to reach the border from Lima. What we didn’t account for was a pair of blowouts that left us stuck on the side of the highway for more than seven hours struggling to get over-tightened lug nuts off due to some careless work that was done on our truck in Lima.

This caused us to arrive at the border a day late. Did we mention that in Peru if you overstay your permit they have the right to confiscate your vehicle? Many tense hours, a day of waiting and lots of paperwork and explanations later we finally got special permission to cross the border with our truck and re-enter Peru with a fresh permit.

Incan festivals galore

Then we made a 450 mile (725 km) bee-line from the coastal border to a village high in the Andes to catch the Q’eswachaki Bridge festival which is the annual rebuilding of the last traditional Incan rope bridge in Peru. The drive from Tacna to Monquegua to Puno to Juliaca and then to the bridge took us up and over the high Andean Altiplano where we spent four hours driving between 13,500 to 15,500 feet (4,115 to 4,725 meters), not an easy task when you aren’t acclimatized to the high altitude. Luckily the road was spectacular, the pavement was good, the views were epic and there was almost no traffic. Just the way we like it.

Following the bridge festival we carried on to Cusco, then drove to Abancay and then to Puquio which we used as a base to attend an annual vicuña roundup and shearing festival called a chaccu that takes place near the Pampa Galeras National Reserve. This all happened at around 13,000 feet (2,200 meters) so once the chaccu was over we decided to warm up in Nazca (at a mere 1,700 feet (520 meters) where we finished up the month of June by visiting area archaeological sites and the famous Nazca Lines.

Check out all of the gorgeous scenery in one month of driving in Peru and Chile in our drive-lapse road trip travel video shot with our Brinno time-lapse dash cam.

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Stay a Little Longer – Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Villa de Leyva, about 100 miles (160 km) from Bogotá, is a charming mountain town full of Colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and a pleasing mix of locals and visitors. That’s why it’s one of the most famous and popular members of Colombia’s elite group of Pueblos Patrimonios. The sights and attractions around Villa de Leyva – including, Colombia’s best winery (and it isn’t bad), a phallic archaeological site and a house made entirely of terracotta – are just as interesting as the town itself. Many travelers come to Villa de Leyva for just one day but we bet we can convince you to stay a little longer with our travel guide to Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva plaza panorama

The main plaza in Villa de Leyva is the largest in Colombia and one of the largest cobblestone plazas in all of South America. (click to see a larger version of this panorama)

Exploring Villa de Leyva

Founded in 1572, the town sits at just over 7,000 feet (2,100 meters), so pack your layers. Even when flooded with swanky weekenders from the capital, Villa de Leyva retains an antique air. The town’s impressive Plaza Mayor is the biggest plaza in Colombia at 150,694 square feet (14,000 square meters) and some say it’s the largest cobblestone plaza in all of South America.

Villa de Layva Colombia Pueblo Patrimonio

The church that anchors the main plaza in Villa de Leyva, Colombia.

Museums in Villa de Leyva

In a town so historic it’s no surprise there are so many museums to visit. Here are a few we liked.

Colombian history: The Casa Museo Antonio Nariño (free) is devoted to the life and times of aristocrat, early indepenence leader and one time Presidential candidate Antonio Nariño. Displays about his many achievements are arranged throughout his former home. Frankly, the architecture was as interesting as the materials inside.

Streets colonial Villa de Leyva Colombia

An atmospheric street in Villa de Leyva, one of Colombia’s most popular Pueblos Patrimonios.

Geological history: Many dinosaur bones have been found in and around Villa de Leyva and the Paleontological Museum (3,000 COP/about US$1.00), which is run by a local university, is a good place to get an overview of the weird things that lie in the dirt around here. display cases overflow with fossilized sea creatures, ammonites and dug up skeletons of long-dead species.

music Villa de Leyva Colombia

People watching in Villa de Leyva.

Religious history: The Museo del Carmen (3,000 COP/about US$1.00) is located in a church that dates back to 1845. It has five different rooms that house hundreds of pieces of religious art and books, some of which date back to the 1600s. It’s considered one of the best religious art museums in Colombia.

Something weirdly modern:  The Fundacion Casa Museo Luis Alberto Acuña (4,000 COP/about US$1.50) offers a breath of fresh air with rooms filled with modern art. Named for Colombian artist Alberto Acuña, the museum has a lot of his work plus rotating installations of work from other modern artists.

Day trips from Villa de Leyva

Marquese de Villa de Leyva winery

Colombia doesn’t have a lot of wineries, but you an visit one near Villa de Leyva.

Colombia’s best winery: There are at least three wineries in Colombia. We have been to two of them. Marquese de Villa de Leyva winery just outside of town is, by far, the best. They have winery tours, tastings in a lovely tasting room with snacks and everything and you can buy bottles direct from the winery. Learn more in our story about the best winery in Colombia for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Villa de Leyva terracotta house

This house just outside Villa de Leyva is made entirely out of terracotta (inside and out) and is said to be the largest piece of pottery in the world.

The world’s largest piece of pottery: In 1998 a Colombian architect began work on a project on his property outside Villa de Leyva. His goal was to create a home using only materials found on his land. The result is a massive home-made entirely out of terracotta (baked earthen mud). The structure is terracotta. The furniture, counter tops, lamp fixtures, sinks and other details are terracotta. He calls it the largest piece of pottery in the world and for a few bucks you can tour the house and see for yourself. Learn more in our story about the terracotta house for AtlasObscura.com.

El Infiernito archaeological site Villa de Leyva

Welcome to Dickhenge…

Dickhenge: The El Infiernito archaeological site (aka the Muisca Observatory, 4,000 COP/about $US1.25), just outside of town, gives you the chance to check out an outdoor area that the Muisca people used as an astrological observatory. You will, no doubt, notice the more than 30 carved stone objects rammed into the ground. You will also notice that every single one of them is phallic. We do not know what huge stone penises have to do with astrological observation.

We don’t really know what this is: Just down the road from the observatory is the weird Parque 1900. There’s a restored old cars at the entrance. We could see rudimentary amusement park rides and hear piped in music. We did not go in.

Sutamarchán suasages Villa de Leyva

Lunch Sutamarchán style, near Villa de Leyva.

Sausage for everyone: The nearby town of Sutamarchán, about 15 miles (25 km) from Villa de Leyva, is famous for its longonizas (sausages). Especially on the weekend, the main drag through town is lined with restaurants that have huge grills out front on which they are cooking up piles of longanizas, morcillo (rice-filled blood sausage), chorizo, grilled pork morsels, potatoes, corn and more which are served on a heaping plate called a picada which is meant to be shared.

Fossil of Monquira

This giant prehistoric crocodile was found in the ground near Villa de Leyva and this museum was built around the find.

Lotsa fossils: The Fossil of Monquira museum (8,000 COP/about US$2.50) is about 10 minutes by car from Villa de Leyva in the town of Monquira. The museum is home to an impressive collection of fossils that bear witness to the fact that this area was once under a big salt water bay. The most impressive installation is the fossilized remains of a 23 foot (7 meter) long prehistoric alligator type of thing which was discovered on site by a local in 1977. The museum as actually built around it. The creature is so massive and out of context that it feels fake, but it’s not.

Raquira Colombia pottery

The town of Ráquira is famous for its pottery and not shy about it.

Potteryland: Ráquira, about a half hour from Villa de Leyva, is a town that’s famous for its pottery. Even if you’re not in the market for a garden donkey or a rustic set of coffee mugs, it’s worth a drive through just to marvel at the center of town, whose name means “city of pots”. It’s like a kitchy Disneyland for pottery lovers.

Christmas in Villa de Leyva

Every Christmas Villa de Leyva pulls out all the stops and hosts a massive fireworks display. The town’s huge main plaza is turned into a viewing area for the dramatic show that explodes over the Colonial rooftops of the town.

They’ve been doing it for the past 30 years and town gets packed for the annual event. We paid 7,000 COP (about US$2.50) at the local tourism office just off the main plaza for access to the “VIP” viewing area in main plaza where rows of plastic chairs were set up. We were told the money goes to buy Christmas gifts for kids.

The fireworks finally started around 10:30 after the crowds waited through hours of live music performance (made more excruciating by a terrible sound system) and some dance performance. At one point impatient locals started chanting “Luces! Luces!”.

The fireworks display lasted for about 40 minutes and it was worth the wait. Check out the show in our Christmas fireworks in Villa de Leyva video, below:

 

Hotels in Villa de Leyva

Obviously, tourism is a big deal in Villa de Leyva and the town has hotels to suit every type of traveler. We were looking for history, so we stayed at Hosteria Molino del Mesopotamia, one of the oldest buildings in Villa de Leyva. Built in the mid 1500s as a flour mill (molino means mill in Spanish), the original buildings of the hotel actually existed before Villa de Leyva officially did. The property was purchased by a family in 1960 and ultimately converted into a hotel.

New buildings and rooms were added in a sprawling garden over the years but you can still stay in the original building which is nearly 450 years old. Yes, that means rooms have quirks (sloping floors, gaps in window jams, drafts) and the decor can best be described as an antiques hodge-podge, but the ambiance is nice.

Canelazo Hosteria Molino del Mesopotamia Villa de Leyva

We enjoyed our very first canelazo in the small bar at the Hosteria Molina de Mesopotamia hotel in Villa de Leyva.

You can still see the massive mill stone in the hotel’s restaurant and the cozy hotel bar has a fireplace made from what used to be an earthen bread oven. That’s where we had our very first canelazo. Learn more about this beloved Andean hot toddy in our piece about canelazo for TheLatinKitchen.com. Recipe included.

Restaurants in Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva is also bursting with restaurants from basic eateries where you get a set meal for a few bucks to well-designed restaurants and bars headed up by creative chefs and bar tenders.

Mercado Municipal Restaurant Villa de Leyva Colombia

Good things come out of that wood burning oven at Mercado Municipal restaurant in Villa de Leyva.

Mercado Municipal restaurant was a stand out for us. Chef/owners Laura Jaramillo and Mario Martinez, who trained at a culinary school in New York City and the Culinary Institute of America, respectively, have created a casually elegant, bistro-style restaurant with a welcoming back garden. They serve up fantastic food for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Many vegetables come from their own organic kitchen. They have a wood-fired oven for pizza and other dishes. They also have an in-ground oven they use to slow-cook succulent meat. The international wine list is impressive and you can expect to hear Amy Winehouse and Pearl Jam on the sound system.

The sister restaurant to Mercado Municipal is called La Bonita and it gets good reviews for its Mexican food, but we didn’t eat there so we can’t say for sure. We did enjoy a great michelada at Big Sky Lounge and Grill. Big Sky also serves a wide range of Colombian microbrews, including their own.

Like most things in Villa de Leyva, restaurants can get packed on weekends.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of other things to do and see around Villa de Leyva like an ostrich farm and some hot springs and a weird desert. Even we didn’t have time for it all. If you’ve done something fantastic in or near Villa de Leyva that’s not in this post, tell us about it in the comments section, below.

 

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Colombia’s Cosmopolitan Capital – Bogotá, Colombia

Every time we travel to Bogotá we invariably hit a stand-still traffic jam the second we reach the “Welcome to Bogotá” sign at the edge of the city. The traffic in this town of nearly eight million people (and seemingly as many cars) is epic. Also, the 8,600 foot (2,640 meter) altitude demands to be heard (bring a sweater and walk slowly) and the general pace and sprawl of the place can boggle city novices. Despite all of that, we braved Bogotá on three separate occasions for a total of nearly two months in the city. We drove away loving Colombia’s cosmopolitan capital (but still cursing the traffic).

Bogota traffic

Traffic grinds to a halt with spectacular regularity at this “Welcome to Bogotá” sign marking the northern entrance to the city. The city center itself is still miles away.

The New York City of Colombia

In many ways Bogotá reminds us of our last known permanent address: New York City. It’s full of chic people (no matter how you define “chic”) as well as fringey, arty folks and a contagious energy. It’s also full of distinct neighborhoods, just like NYC.

Bogota street performer

A street busker working his intersection in Bogotá, Colombia.

Chapinero Alto is an exciting mix of bohemians and high-rise apartment buildings. The Candelaria neighborhood has an edgy, student vibe. The Zona G area is where many of the best restaurants are clustered (don’t make a reservation until you read our epic list of the best restaurants in Bogotá) then there’s Usaquen, which was a separate town but has been incorporated into the sprawl of Bogotá. Then there’s Parque 93 and, well, the list goes on and on.

Rainbow over Bogota

Bogotá under a rainbow from the Galerias neighborhood of the city.

While not quite on the level of New York City, there is an incredible (and growing) restaurant scene throughout Bogotá which we will be covering in our next post and you can use Uber and Uber X in Bogotá which we often found to be cheaper than taxis plus we liked the added security of having the Uber record of booking rather than just flagging down a random taxi on the street. Colombia is much, much safer than it’s been in decades, but it’s still smart to use your common sense.

Congresso de la Republica - Plaza Bolivar Candelaria Bogota

Plaza Bolivar in the Candelaria neighborhood is where the main governmental buildings are located, including the National Congress building pictured here.

We never did figure out Bogotá’s much ballyhooed Transmillenio bus system and after getting bad advice which led to getting really lost on the system during our first visit to the city we gave up. Because…Uber X.

Things to do in Bogota

Besides just soaking up the big city vibe, we recommend that you take some time to enjoy the following:

The Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá is one of the best museums we’ve visited (3,000 COP/about US$1.25, free for all on Sunday, tours available in English). The exhibits are fantastic with descriptions in Spanish and English, the collection is breathtaking and the guides (some tours are available in English) are passionate and knowledgeable. Check out 15 hand picked favorite items in our photos essay from Bogotá’s Gold Museum. An interactive, rotating display on the third floor called “The Offering” brings the importance of these gold objects to life with an audio track of shamans chanting and a mesmerizing video display. The museum also has a very classy gift shop so get your souvenirs and presents here.

Bogota Gold Museum

One of the thousands and thousands of treasures in the excellent Gold Museum in Bogotá.

The Swedish-built cable car system (called a teleferico in Colombia) that travels from the city up to Cerro de Monserrate whisks riders up to 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) in less than five minutes. You can also take a funicular (look it up), but that only runs in the morning. Up on top of Monserrate you can visit a church that was built in 1657, enjoy the views, get a snack or even eat a decent meal at a decent French restaurant. Tickets for the cable car or the funicular cost 17,000COP/about US$5.80 round trip or 10,000COP/about US$3.50 on Sundays. Or you can walk up.

Cable car ascending Monserrate Bogota

Heading up, up, up on the teleferico cable car to the top of Monserrate hill in Bogotá.

Panorama of Bogota from Monserrate

Click here to see a larger version of this panoramic image from the top of Monserrate.

Colombian artist Fernando Botero was born near Medellin, so it’s no surprise that the Museo de Antioquia on Medellin has a more impressive collection of art by their native son, including 23 of his signature bronze sculptures installed in front of the museum in Botero Plaza. However, the Botero Museum in Bogotá is worth a visit. Located in a renovated building, the museum includes galleries filled with work by modern masters (Miro, Calder, Klimt, Picasso) donated from Botero’s private collection along with works by Botero himself. Admission is free.

Botero Museum Bogota

A painting depicting ‘Colombian artist Fernando Botero painting a Botero from the Botero Museum in Bogotá.

We are not guided tour people, but when we heard about 5Bogota tours we were intrigued. The owners goal is to present Bogotá through the five sense (sound, touch, taste, smell, hearing). You can embark on a tour that includes all 5 senses, or choose just the senses/activities that most interest you. We chose taste and sight and that’s how we ended up learning how to make empanadas and got our first glimpse of Bogotá’s vibrant street art and graffiti scene (more on graffiti in Bogotá in an upcoming post). The 5Bogota website is in English and is really fun to use as a tour planning tool and we had great guides and a lot of fun.

Making empanadas with 5Bogota

Karen learning to make empanadas during a 5Bogota tour of the city.

Graffiti tour with Bogota street artist Kochino

Graffiti artist Kochino in front of one of his own works as he lead us through a tour of street art in Bogotá.

The Museum of Modern Art Bogotá (aka MAMBO, 4,000COP/about US$1.40) offers two floors of exhibits which rotate regularly to showcase all types of modern art. It’s a small but very hip museum. On the other end of the spectrum is the sprawling Colombian National Museum (free admission). Located in an imposing stone building that used to be a prison, this place has a bit of everything.

It’s hard to believe, but there’s a fantastic hiking trail right in the heart of Bogotá. The Quebrada la Vieja (Old Creek) trail starts amidst swanky high rise apartment buildings on the edge of the city (free to enter, open from 5:30 am to 10:00 am) and winds through lush forest, past babbling brooks and over challenging trail with steep inclines, water crossings, slippery slopes and rocks. We spent two hours round trip on the trail which is just shy of two miles (3.2 km) each way from the trail head gaining 1,000 feet (300 meters) before reaching a fairy tale pine forest then a monument to the Virgin Mary and sweeping views of Bogota below. More than 1,000 people entered the area the Saturday morning we hiked there but the trail is much less crowded on weekday mornings.

Quebrada de la Vieja trail Bogota

Karen on the fantastic Quebrade de Vieja hiking trail which starts right from the city of Bogotá.

Museo Iglesia Santa Clara in the Candelaria neighborhood across from the Presidential Palace presents a small but jam-packed collection of religious art inside a church which itself is a work of art. Built in the early 1600s, the church it’s one of the oldest in Bogotá though it’s no longer used for worship. The opulent nave is filled with paintings, sculptures and religious artifacts. There’s gold leaf everywhere. In contrast to all that antiquity, a high-tech touch-screen system delivers information about each piece (Spanish and English, 3,000COP/about US$1 to enter).

Museum Iglesia Santa Clara Church Bogota

The Santa Clara church was turned into a museum and its opulent nave is now crammed with religious art.

We regret that somehow we never visited the Center of Peace and Reconciliation in Bogotá where the government and artists have collaborated to recreate he city’s Central Cemetery. Opened in 2012 after thousands of bodies were exhumed and moved, the idea behind the project was to create a space where the violence and loss of the past could be recognized and honored in a way that allowed everyone to move closer to peace.

Artists created installations incorporating now-vacant mausoleums. New strikingly modern buildings were constructed (the project was overseen by Colombian architect Juan Pablo Ortiz). Thousands of test tubes of earth from massacre sites around Colombia were installed. The location itself is powerful even without those enhancements because the Central Cemetery is where victims of the revolt of June 9, 1948, regarded as the beginning of decades of violence in Colombia, were taken. This excellent article from Architectural Review will tell you more.

Centro-de-Memoria-paz-reconciliation-bogota

Part of the innovative and moving Center for Peace and Reconciliation.

Bogotá hosts many annual events as well. Every December the many parks and plazas in the city get dressed up in Christmas finery creating a city-wide spectacle they call the Ruta de la Navidad. The annual Bogota Wine & Food Festival (which will be held in early April in 2016) brings out local chefs and attracts talent from around the world. And there are many arts and theater festivals in the city too.

Hotels in Bogotá

There’s something for everyone in Bogotá, from party hostels to a handful of boutique hotels and not one but two Four Seasons hotels.

At 170,000COP/about US$60 for a small room with a double bed for two including breakfast, Casa Platypus is far from the cheapest option in the city, but this stylish, serene place fills a mid-range void and the Candelaria neighborhood location is great. Parking and all-day coffee are also available and the owner and his staff are great sources of information. There’s also a spotless kitchen that guests can use, but you won’t want to. Did we mention the fabulous food scene in Bogotá?

Hotel B.O.G. is the city’s most luxurious boutique hotel. There’s a rooftop pool and bar, rooms feature the best showers in the city and the hotel restaurant unveiled a new restaurant called FROM Ramon Freiza helmed by Spanish chef Ramon Freixa. Find out more in our feature about the B.O.G. Hotel for Luxe Beat Magazine.

bar BOG hotel Bogota

The lobby of the B.O.G. Hotel in Bogotá.

84DC Hotel would be a standard mid-range business class hotel except for it’s energetic design and apartment-like feel. It’s got a great location too near Zona T, Parque 93 and Rosales but with a gentler price tag than many hotels in that area (from $150 double including breakfast).

Bogotá has many international chain hotels (Four Seasons, JW Marriott, Hilton, Sofitel, etc) but the most interesting is the W Hotel Bogota in the Usaquen neighborhood. The hotel manages to be part of a huge international chain but also give a sense of place and it’s a great base for exploring the city and, in particular, getting to know the reinvigorated Usaquen neighborhood. Read more in our review of the W Hotel Bogota for LuxuryLatinAmerica.com.

W Hotel Bogota

Our room at the W Hotel in Bogotá. The pillow on the bed says “Gold Digger.”

The hippest hotel in Bogotá is the Click Clack Hotel where rooms come in XS, S, M, L or XL, room service is delivered in picnic baskets and the innovative owners are always looking for new ways to undo the hotel rules. They plan to open a second Click Clack in Cartagena in 2017.

Bogotá is bursting with hostels too. The only one we stayed at was La Pinta Hostel in the Chapinero neighborhood. It was funky, clean, laid back and quiet. The bilingual staff were helpful and they’ve got a sister hostel in Cali (La Pinta Boogaloo which has a pool) and an apartment rental in Cartagena and in Santa Marta.

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Yeehaw – Medellin, Colombia

Travel to Antioquia province and you will soon see that it is the Texas of Colombia: sprawling, gritty, uncouth, proud and generally bigger, badder and better than the rest of the country (in its own not-to-humble opinion). Medellin, the capital of Antioquia, is all of those things times 10. Yeehaw!

View of Medellin Colombia

The city of Medellin, Colombia fills the Aburra Valley in Antioquia province.

How Antioquia and Medellin got that way

Like Texas, the people of Antioquia excel at raising cattle and crops and they’re savvy businessmen as well. One theory that we heard repeatedly says that you can blame the Spanish Inquisition for that.

During the Inquisition, Jews in the Spanish world (including Latin America) were faced with an unacceptable choice: convert or die. Jews in Colombia headed for the hills and many of them ended up in the (then) nearly inaccessible valleys of Antioquia where their business acumen (yes, it’s a stereotype) mingled with the agricultural skills of local campesinos.

Today the inhabitants of Antioquia and Medellin call themselves Paisas. You’ve all seen a Paisa. His name is Juan Valdez and even though Señor Valdez is a stereotypical fictional character created to sell Colombian coffee, you see dudes who look just like him in Medellin and all around Antioquia all the time.

Piasa Don Aristedes Medellin Santa Ana

Paisa Don Aristedes.

Colombians who live in the big, cosmopolitan capital of Bogota tend to deride Paisas as hicks (though they envy and sort of fear their business acumen). Us? We think Paisas give Medellin the feel of a country town that’s grown huge but is still just a country town at heart. You really do get the sense that if the modern amenities of Medellin disappeared tomorrow and the place reverted to its campesino roots few locals would mind and some would consider it an improvement. And we love that.

Leave your Medellin misconceptions at home

Yes, yes, yes. Not so long ago Medellin held the dubious honor of being the “murder capital of the world” (a distinction now held by San Pedro Sula, Honduras) thanks to narco terrorists like Pablo Escobar (who was killed in 1993) and other jokers including guerillas and paramilitary groups whose calling cards were random acts of violence which nearly crippled the country.

Grave of Pablo Escobar Medellin

Pablo Escobar’s grave in a cemetery in Medellin.

Over the past decade or so, violence across Colombia has been consistently falling including in Medellin where murder rates in the city dropped 34% in the first quarter of 2014. According to Insight Crime, a non-profit which monitors the threat of organized crime activity to citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombia is on track to have its least violent year in three decades.

The US State Department continues to warn about violence in Colombia and, like all cities, Medellin still has a crime problem. For example, while murder rates continue to drop, robbery is proving harder reduce. When he arrived in Medellin to shoot scenes for yet another Escobar-related movie (a film called “Mena”) actor Tom Cruise reportedly arrived with 12 body guards.

However, we’ve spent more than 16 months in Colombia – more than six months of that in Medellin – and we’ve only had one brush with crime or violence and that did not occur in Medellin but in a far-flung area near a known red zone (areas which the Colombian government concedes are under the control of FARC or other guerilla groups) where we were caught in the middle of a skirmish between FARC rebels and Colombian soldiers (more on that later).

So, pack your common sense but leave your misconceptions about Medellin at home.

Medellin vendor selling Chontaduro palm fruit

Vendor selling chontaduro palm fruit in central Medellin.

Modern Medellin

We’re not buying all the blind cheer leading by city officials who keep going on and on and on about things like the city’s 2013 ranking as “City of the Year” by the Wall Street Journal. Instead, we put our stock in our own experiences in the city. Here are a few illuminating observations.

Medellin (pronounced Med-uh-jheen) is the second largest city in Colombia with a population of nearly four million all living in the center of the large Aburra valley in the Central Andes which is about 35 miles (60 km) long 6 miles (10 km) wide at its widest. This means the city has the crowds and traffic, noise and pollution that comes with a population that big. There’s also a noticeable population of homeless people, stray dogs and other big city scourges that feel normal to New Yorkers like us.

On a more charming note, Medellin is teeming with vintage Renault Masters and we’re sort of loving their tiny, boxy, indestructible utilitarianism.

Medellin has an amazingly clean, cheap and efficient metro system. City officials spent months training locals about how to ride and respect the system before it was unveiled in 1995 and its cleanliness and civility put the New York City subway system to shame (admittedly, it carries a fraction of the passengers each day, but still).

Medellin Meto Linea B

Medellin’s Metro System is a point of pride and a clean, safe, efficient and cheap way to get around the city.

At one point we saw metro cars plastered with public service posters warning women to check out their doctor’s credentials before getting plastic surgery, which is a huge business in Medellin including boob and butt augmentations that some women seek out to get what’s been called the “Narco Beauty”.

Medellin Metrocable linea J

Medellin’s Metrocable serves the thousands of people who live in under-developed comunas on the hillsides around Medellin.

Medellin is located in a steep-walled valley with the city occupying the valley floor and the foothills and impoverished comunas creeping up and up and up the hillsides. Those poor neighborhoods have not necessarily benefited from city improvements like the metro system (which only operates in the valley) and that whole “City of the Year” thing, but the government has instituted some programs designed to improve life for comuna dwellers including an aerial tram system called the Metrocable that makes it much easier to get to and from the city and a library program that has built modern, book-filled structures in various comunas.

Biblioteca Espana Metrocable Medellin

Those ominous looking dark building is the Biblioteca Espana, one of a dozen or so libraries built in under-developed comunas that cover the hillsides around Medellin.

They call Medellin the city of eternal spring and that is one hyperbolic claim we can agree with. The city sits at an altitude of about  5,000 feet (1,525 meters) and the mountains that surrounded it rise to more than 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). This creates weather so temperate and predictable (basically a high of 80 and a low of 65 every single day) that very, very few homes have heating or air-conditioning or even fans. It’s simply not needed.

At least half of the city’s sidewalks have special ridged strips down the center leading to nubbed concrete at the corners. These are guides for the blind. They are also awesome.

There’s not much to do in Medellin, but come anyway

Medellin isn’t brimming with tourist attractions. There are no mind-blowing hotels (thought there are plenty of hostels, mid range guesthouses like 61Prado and a few hotels that manage boutique or business class status and the hotel game might be upped now that Donald Trump has spent almost US$90 million for a hotel in Medellin). We can count the truly memorable Medellin restaurants on one hand (looking at you Carmen, Humo BBQ & Grill, Bonuar and El Cielo). However, we love the city and we think you will too.

Here’s a short list of some things to do and see in Medellin including craft beer, flower parades, interactive science, art and extreme eating. And don’t miss our post about FREE things to do in Medellin.

By far the city’s biggest claim to fame is its annual Flower Festival which happens around August every year and celebrates Antioquia’s flower growing heritage, proud Paisa culture and general love of a good party. We’ve been in Medellin for two consecutive Flower Festivals and you can check out the flowers, tradition, parades and controversies in this series of Flower Festival posts.

Medellin Flower Parade

Part of the splendor of the annual Flower Festival in Medellin.

Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero was born in Medellin and his art still flavors the city though the artist hasn’t lived full-time in Colombia in years. Botero donated hundreds of works of art from his personal collection, including pieces by modern masters as well as his own sculptures and paintings, to the excellent Museo de Antioquia in central Medellin (10,000 COP or about US$3.50).

Botero paintings Museum of Antioquia Medellin

Paintings by Medellin native Fernando Botero in the excellent Museo de Antioquia.

In front of the museum is Botero Plaza which is filled with the artist’s enormous, proportionately exaggerated bronze sculptures. The plaza is a free public space and the museum is well worth the entry fee both for the art collection and the chance to check out the building itself.

Plaza Botero Sculptures Medellin

Botero bronze sculptures fill Botero Plaza in front of the Museo de Antioquia.

Parque Explora (15,000 COP or about US$5) opened in 2007 and is a massive interactive science center particularly interesting to kids and geeks of all ages. There’s an aquarium (the largest in Latin America), principles of science exhibits that demonstrate ideas like gravity and perspective and rotating special exhibits with themes like “Water”.

Parque Explorer Medellin illusion

Us taking part in one of the interactive science exhibits at Parque Explora in Medellin.

If you really want to piss off the locals, go on one of the many Pablo Escobar tours of the city that take in attractions like his grave, the building where he was killed on the roof in 1992, etc. Before you book anything, learn more about the thorny issue of Escobar tourism in this award-winning piece we did for RoadsAndKingdoms.com.

ApostleBrewery tour Medellin

Craft beer at Apostle Brewery in Medellin, just one of a growing number of local microbreweries.

In recent years Medellin has seen a surge in craft brew making and craft brew drinking. Three local breweries also offer brewery tours and a variety of special party nights. Get the details about the craft brew scene in Medellin in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.

For the less fancy, there’s this option: Drinking beers in front of small tiendas which double as neighborhood bars, is a commonplace throughout Colombia. However, Medellin seems to do it best with interesting places to sit among locals and enjoy a cheap Pilsner or Aguilla beer every few blocks in the city.We found some of these spots, generally with large TVs, to be some of the best places to hang out and watch beloved local futbol teams Atlético Nacional (which just turned down a buyout offer from Donald Trump) and Independiente Medellín on game days (Wednesdays and Sundays).

Independiente Medellin Madonna mosaic Estadio Metro

Medellin’s passion for futbol (aka soccer) runs deep. This mosaic, found at the Estadio (Stadium) Metro stop depicts Madonna dressed in the colors of one of the two rival teams in the city. She’s even holding a soccer ball.

Medellin has an active nightlife scene with bars and clubs centered in several areas of the city, most famously around Parque Lleras. If you wander La Setenta (Calle 70th between the Estadio and Laureles neighborhoods) on a Saturday night you’re in for some great people watching as the city gears up to party and Paisas from all walks of life spill into the streets from a wide array of clubs, bars and restaurants.

We do not recommend that you partake in the seedy, sketchy side of the nightlife scene in Medellin. Prostitution is legal in Colombia but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t incarnations of it that are downright reprehensible.

Just like in Texas, Paisas love their meat and you really shouldn’t leave Medellin without trying the local dish. Called Bandeja Paisa, it’s a vegetarian’s nightmare and a heart surgeon’s dream. Check it out in this previous post we did, all about our first Bandeja Paisa.

Bandeja Paisa Medellin dish

Yes, this is ONE serving of Bandeja Paisa featuring beans, chicharon (fried meaty pork skin) morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo, a fried egg, an arepa and a slice of avacado.

Bandeja Paisa is best washed down with a shot or two of Aguardiente Antioqueño, the local version of Colombia’s beloved aguardiente which is a distilled cane spirit spiked with anise. Every region of the country has their own version of the stuff. Here’s what happened the first time we tried aguardiente.

 

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Cartagena Travel Guide: 13 Top Things To Do in Colombia’s Sexiest City – Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 4 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

The the main thing to do in Cartagena is simply gawk at the city’s beauty. We’ve visited plenty of lovingly restored Colonial towns in Latin America, but Cartagena is even more beautiful than stunners like Antigua, Guatemala or the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Cartagena not only expects to be stared at, it deserves it with a languid Caribbean vibe, intense history and gorgeous restored Colonial architecture in the city’s historic center (which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984). After more than a month in Cartagena, here are our 13 top things to do besides wander the Colonial streets (and one thing to avoid).

Torre del Reloj Cartagena, Colombia

El Torre del Reloj, or the Clock Tower, marks a major entrance into the walled city of Cartagena, Colombia.

Things to do in Cartagena

The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (San Felipe de Barajas Fort), in the nearby Getsemani neighborhood, is the most robust fort the Spanish ever built and it still looks impenetrable. Construction began in 1536 and it was expanded in the mid 1600s. It’s been impressively restored and its stony bulk still dominates San Lázaro hill. Bring a flashlight since visitors are allowed into some of the interior corridors and tunnels which can be dark. There’s little shade so try to arrive when the fort opens at 8 am to beat the heat and avoid weekends if you can. That’s when Colombians can enter the fort for free and the place gets packed.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas - Cartagena, Colombia

The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (San Felipe de Barajas Fort) in Cartagena.

Cartagena’s Museum of Modern Art, on Plaza de San Pedro Claver, is small and we honestly weren’t expecting much. However, the two-story facility turned out to be home to a nice collection mostly by Colombian artists including Enrique Grau.

Church San Pedro Claver Plaza Cartagena

Lovely San Pedro Claver Plaza in Cartagena.

If you’re into torture devices, visit the Palacio de la Inquisición (Inquisition Palace) just off Plaza Bolivar is where you can see art, artifacts and bona fide torture devices used during the Spanish Inquisition. The building also has a small window from which inquisitors would shout out death sentences for those who didn’t pass their religious scrutiny.

Palacio de la Inquisición Museum torture Cartagena

Just a few of the bona fide torture devices used by Spanish inquisitors, on display in the Palace of the Inquisition Museum in Cartagana.

Colombia’s only Nobel prize winner, writer Gabriel García Márquez, was inspired by Cartagena and lived in the city off and on until his death in 2014. Many of the author’s most famous works, including Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in His Labyrinth, and Love and Other Demons, were set in the city.Those who want to get a bit more Gabo, as the author was called, can book the self-guided Gabo’s Cartagena audio walking tour (US$17 including an audio guide in five languages, including English, and a printed route map). True García Márquez fans will want to take part in the three-hour guided Route of Garcia Marquez tour which takes in 37 sites in historic central Cartagena, all of which are directly linked to scenes and characters from the author’s work and life (US$145 for one person, US$20 per person after that; participants must have read the books mentioned above).

sculpture Cartagena, Colombia

A local relaxes with some playful outdoor sculpture in the historic center of Cartagena.

We happily spent four days wandering the streets of Getsemani on our own, soaking in the bohemian vibe and the street art. However, there are a number of innovative and illuminating tours of the neighborhood available like the three-hour Explore Getsemani Tour (US$35 per person including bilingual guides) which includes lots of neighborhood history, drop-ins with locals, visits to shops and art studios, cocktails on Plaza Trinidad and a donation to a local charity built into your tour fee.

wedding Plaza Trinidad Getsemani Cartagena

The church in Plaza Trinidad in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena is a popular spot for wedding and for wedding photography.

Even non-photographers will be tempted to grab a camera in photogenic Cartagena. Perfect those travel snaps on the four-hour Foto Tour (US$80 per person for groups of 2-6 people) during which Colombian professional photographer Joaquín Sarmiento (he’s shot for Reuters, the New York Times and Colombia’s El Tiempo, Semana and El Espectador publications) leads participants through the city dispensing technical photography tips and practical advice.

From the Cartagena Music Festival to the star-studded International Film Festival to the Hay Festival which celebrates all forms of creativity, Cartagena plays host to a nearly year-round calendar of annual festivals.

Carribean cartagena Colombia

You’ll have to buy some fruit before the costumed street vendors in Cartagena will let you take their picture.

Best on a budget

Though soccer is the undisputed sporting king in Latin America, Colombians on the Caribbean coast also love baseball and every Sunday Avenida El Pedregal in the Getsemani neighborhood is closed to traffic and transformed into a makeshift diamond for women’s softball teams. Find a perch on the centuries-old Spanish-built wall that runs along this street and you’ve got the best seat in the stadium.

Womens softball league Cartagena Colombia

Sunday softball in the streets of the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena.

The Zenú Gold Museum on Plaza Bolivar is home to a collection of more than 500 pieces of exquisitely crafted gold jewelry and iconography made by the Zenú people who flourished in Colombia from the 16th century. Amazingly, the museum is free.

 Zenu Gold Museum, Plaza Bolivar Cartagena

Hundreds of intricate gold artifacts are on display in the (free) Zenú Gold Museum in Cartagena.

Normally visitors have to pay a fee if they want to go inside the massive Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. However, during noon time mass the doors are open and all are welcomed in for free. Inside, there’s a gilded altar and massive carved doors and it’s certainly worth a visit.

interior  Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria cartagena

Inside the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Cartagena.

To protect the city from pirates and other attackers, the Spanish built massive walls around Cartagena. Developed and expanded over 200 years, the city was eventually completely enclosed by more than six miles (11 km) of walls and fortresses. Much of these walls still exist, particularly along the side of the city that fronts the Caribbean. There are access points that let you climb to the top of the walls and walk along their wide expanse, which is particularly pleasant near sunset when the temperature starts to cool and the sky is spectacular.

City walls Cartagena Colombia

Walking the Spanish-built walls that encircle Cartagena.

Worthy Splurge

The beaches around Cartagena on mainland Colombia are nothing to write home about but there are plenty of options for day trips to nearby islands where the beaches are spectacular. Colombia Direct offers day trips in speed boats or yachts with catered lunches (from sandwiches to more gourmet fare) that get you to the protected Rosario Islands archipelago, about 60 miles (100 km) off the mainland, and back in style. Island picnics start at about US$35 per person plus the cost of the fully staffed and equipped boat of your choice.

View of historic Cartagena from city walls

A view of historic Cartagena from on top of the Spanish built walls that surround the city.

Avoid

Though conditions for the horses that pull carriages through the historic center of Cartagena have improved in recent years following accusations of widespread neglect, there’s still little regulation. You’ll see more of the city on foot anyway and also have the freedom to duck into a chic shop or grab a cocktail or a paletta as you ramble.

For clued-in, up-to-the-minute information about hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and events in Cartagena, check out Ti Cartagena.

To get the full Cartagena Travel Guide, check out our top hotels in Cartagena and our top places to eat and drink in Cartagena.

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Hot New Year’s Eve Traditions in the Amazon – Ecuador

Way back when we were still living in New York City, one of the world’s top Year’s Eve celebration locations, we usually stayed home on December 31 leaving the streets to the yahoo tourists in town to watch the ball drop through beer goggles mashed in with thousands of strangers. But this year we took part in New Year’s Eve traditions with new friends at their awesome Anaconda Lodge on an island in the Napo River in the Amazon where we toasted with champagne, watched fireworks on the horizon and burned the Ecuadorean President (sort of).

It’s not New Year’s Eve without a burning effigy

They may drop a big glittery ball in New York City every December 31 at midnight but in much of Latin American the night is illuminated by the burning of tens of thousands of monigotes which are effigies that represent the año viejo (old year) and are burned in homage or in disdain to make way for the año nuevo (new year).

Selling New years Eve effigies Quito Ecuador

A woman works on effigies at her temporary road side stand in Quito, Ecuador in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve.

Other hot new year’s eve tradition involves underwear. Women may choose to wear yellow underwear to attract money in the new year or red underwear to attract love. It seems like clever women would hedge their bets by wearing a read bra and yellow panties (or vice versa).

Yellow underwear Ecuador New Years

Yellow underwear for money and red underwear for love…just one of the many New Year’s Eve traditions in Ecuador and around Latin America.

If it’s more travel you want in the new year just run around the block carrying an empty suitcase. You can also register a wish for each month by thinking of what you desire while eating one grape for each month. If you haven’t had too much champagne, you can jump over the effigy fire 12 times registering a wish for each month as you leap. Many people also write down something that they hope to leave behind with the old year and jam the paper into the effigy to be burned along with it.

The tradition of burning away the worst of the old year may date back to the late 1800s when a yellow fever epidemic swept through Guayaquil, Ecuador prompting many to burn things in order to eradicate the contagion. To this day Guayaquil is home to the most elaborate monigotes in the country which can be more than 30 feet (9 meters) tall and are paraded through the streets before being burned.

Torching Rafael Correa

Before we left Quito and headed for the Amazon we picked up a less than life-size version of Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, from one of many roadside effigy stalls that pop up this time of year.

Ecuador President Corea effigy

Karen and Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, before heading to the Amazon.

Our Correa was wearing cast off pin-striped pants and a jaunty lavender striped business shirt with a (formerly) white-collar. The old clothes had been stuffed with balled up paper to fill out the shape of a body, including a bit of a spare tire around the President’s mid section. We covered his head with a mask which exaggerated the President’s devilishly arched eyebrows, vast under-eye bags and general menacing pallor.

Burning effigies Ecuador New Years Eve

Our New Year’s Eve effigy of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on the banks of the Napo River in the Amazon before and after ignition.

Burning President Correa in the Amazon was fitting since many fear his policies disproportionately favor the interests of international companies that want to extract oil and other valuable resources from the region over the interests of the indigenous communities (and the flora and fauna) that call the Amazon home.

It was also fitting that we burned our effigy at Anaconda Lodge since owners Francisco and Silvia are passionate about sharing the beauty of the Amazon and the challenges its flora, fauna and unique human cultures face.

The prez, for his part, went up like a champ, but he left a big mess of ash behind.

Amazon effigy aftermath

The messy morning after remains of our New Year’s Eve effigy in the Amazon.

Not-so-hot cross-dressing New Year’s Eve widows

Burning effigies and wish-granting underwear are not the only New Year’s Eve traditions in Ecuador (and in many other Latin American countries). Oh, no. The New Year is also marked by a less hot tradition: young men dressed as women representing the widows of the old year or the widows of the burned effigies.

We got caught up in that madness last year when we were driving near Quito and found ourselves stopped in traffic by a posse of positively dreadful versions of women (mostly just young guys flouncing around in their mothers’ cast off clothes). They humped car hoods, flashed fake cleavage and generally carried on in ways no self-respecting actual woman ever would. The winch on the front of our truck attracted special attention. Ick.

New Years Eve trannies Ecuador

A new year “widow” assaults the front bumper of our truck.

Drivers, laughing nervously and desperate to get the heck out of the hussie huddle, deposited loose change in the palms of very masculine hands as the “widows” solicited their way through the traffic jam they created. Eventually we were all allowed to pass (good thing too since we’d run out of change) and the widows, no doubt, headed to nearby shops for some cold beer. Flouncing is sweaty work.

This year we were spared the widows since the Quichua people who live in this part of the Amazon, quite sensibly, don’t go in for that particular tradition.

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