Colombia: Medellin & Cartagena

Community Highlights Central / South America & The Caribbean Colombia: Medellin & Cartagena

JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2019

From Popayan to Medellin required two flights as we transferred through Bogota. Around lunchtime we left our Popayan hotel and eventually arrived at our apartment in Medellin at about 20:30. Medellin airport is about 40km from the city centre and on the other side of a mountain. Therefore the drive provided a great view of the city at night as we descended into it.
The plan was to spend nine nights and eight days in Medellin and the local area. This would include a three-night side trip to Guatape. However, because of the seriousness of Anne’s throat infection, it made more sense to stay in Medellin for the whole period to aid her recovery. This decision was made easier, by the fact that both of our apartments in Medellin were very comfortable. This plan also allowed us to explore the city at a pace that complimented Anne’s recovery program.

For the first few days, we stayed in the downtown area, Anne rested and I did some local exploration and generally relaxed. This seemed to do the trick, as Anne began to recover and we were gradually able to do a bit more each day.
Exploring a city is not just about visiting the main tourist attractions, but also, if you have time, to observe how it functions. Our extended stay in Medellin allowed us to do just that.
Medellin is set in an attractive location, nestled in an Andean valley with mountains all around. From our 12th story downtown apartment we were able to get a good view of the city lay out, central old town in the middle, getting more modern as you move out from centre and then there are the “Barrios” (urban area’s) on the hill side.

View over Medellin from our first apartment

View over Medellin from our first apartment

Medellin by night

Medellin by night

My observations during the first few days concluded that the city has two periods; the hustle and bustle of the working week, which extends in to Saturday, and the calm of Sunday. Sunday is the time for leisure, friends and family. People are out cycling, along the many cycle paths, jogging, eating and drinking coffee in one of the many bars, café’s and restaurants, even joining in the communal fitness workouts orchestrated in the local shopping mails. But that calm only lasts until nightfall, then the parties start, and that’s the same for every night of the week, or maybe we were staying in a particularly lively part of town.

Sunday work out at the Mall

Sunday work out at the Mall

When you are out shopping and walking, and observing life going on around you, you can’t help but wonder what life was like 30 years ago? Then, before the city’s transformation (see Personal Observations & Interesting Facts), there were on average two murders a day, the majority drive-by shootings, and people lived in fear. It seems unbelievable when you witness life today, and realise what an incredible job the people of Medellin have done to make this transformation.

By the time Anne was fit enough to really get out and explore, it was time for us to move to our second city location. On day five we moved to another very nice apartment in the more upmarket El Poblado district, about 6 kilometres south of centre. El Poblado is at the foot of the southern mountain slopes and is very leafy, quite a change from our previous location.

View of El Poblado, our 2nd apartment in Medellin

View of El Poblado, our 2nd apartment in Medellin

Our city exploration now really started, and first on our list was the historic centre. A taxi ride and a short walk got us to the start of a self-guide tour, the Catedral Basillica Metropolitana. Positioned at one end of a plaza, this is a massive church. It is said to be the world’s largest brick built church, using 1.2 million bricks in its construction, and you can well believe it.

Cathedral in Medellin

Cathedral in Medellin

Shoe shiner in Medellin

Shoe shiner in Medellin

Fruit sellers

Fruit sellers

From there it was just a short walk to Plaza Botero. Flanked on either side by the impressive buildings of Museo de Antioque and Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe, Plaza Botero is a celebration of Medellin’s famous painter and sculptor. Botero has been an influential campaigner for all that is good about Medellin today and the plaza acts as an open-air exhibition of many of his best works. There are 23 Botero bronze sculptures on display, tastefully positioned between trees and pathways. Also, the backdrop of the 1925 neogothic Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe makes an impressive sight with its checkerboard facade and Iron dome.

Palacio de Cultura and Metro line in Medellin

Palacio de Cultura and Metro line in Medellin

Plaza Botero in Medellin

Plaza Botero in Medellin

Botero Plaza, Medellin

Botero Plaza, Medellin

Tucked away amongst modern shops and only a couple hundred meters away from Plaza Botero is the oldest church in Medellin, Ermita de la Veracruz. Built in the early 18th century, but then fell into ruins, before being rebuilt in 1803. This was our next stop on the tour.

Iglesia de la Veracruz, oldest church in Medellin

Iglesia de la Veracruz, oldest church in Medellin

Our route then took us along pedestrian streets, where the mixed smell of diesel, cooked food and street garbage was quite noticeable. What was also noticeable was the products on sell. It seems that each section of the street specialised in a specific product, for example, there would be rows of shops and stalls all selling shoes then the same all selling tee shirts. We thought this can’t be good business practice, but it seemed to work.
Finally we arrived at the final stop on our tour, Plaza San Antonio. Split either side of a main road, the northern section is mostly paved with a few more Botero sculptures on display, whilst the southern section is full of trees and shade covered benches to sit on. It was on the north side that on 10 June 1995, 29 adults and children lost their lives and a further 220 were injured. The cause of the disaster was a bomb, and the government blamed the warring drug cartels for the attack. The bomb, 10 kilos of dynamite, had been placed by the Botero sculpture “El Pajaro”, which it partially destroyed in the blast. Although Botero sculptured another “El Pajaro” for the plaza, the damaged original remains in place as a memorial to those who lost their lives.

Nude Torso by Fernando Botero

Nude Torso by Fernando Botero

El Pajaro remains after being bombed

El Pajaro remains after being bombed

Botero wanted the destroyed statue to remain as a memorial and build a new one alongside it titled Pajaro de Paz (Bird of Peace)

Botero wanted the destroyed statue to remain as a memorial and build a new one alongside it titled Pajaro de Paz (Bird of Peace)

The transformation of the city (see Personal Observations and Interesting Facts) is most noticeable in the Barrios. The Barrios are the unplanned urban development that spreads up the mountain slops on each side of the city. Home to the poorer communities, and at one time, lacking many services, suffering from high levels of unemployment and a high crime rate. But the city transformation program has improved this situation considerably. So we thought we would spend a day investigating those improvements for ourselves. It was also a day to sample all the modes of transport Medellin had to offer.
So after a walk down the hill from our apartment we took two metros to San Javier (also known as Comuna 13) located on the western mountain of Medellín. This neighbourhood was once considered the most dangerous in the world, based off murder rates, but fortunately the transformation program has changed this.

Medellin Metro

Medellin Metro

From the metro carriage window, we could see those changes as we approached San Javier station. New sports facilities provided an alternative leisure activity instead of crime, new illuminated pathways made it safer to move around at night, lots of new growth greenery for the greater wellbeing and new schools to provide easier access to education. This view continued as we rode our second mode of transport, the cable car from San Javier to La Aurora, crossing two mountain peaks and a highway on route. As we got further from the city you could see that there was more work to be done, but we marvelled at what had already been achieved.

Metrocable Line J from St Javier to Aurora, Medellin

Metrocable Line J from St Javier to Aurora, Medellin

View from the metro cable

View from the metro cable

Back in San Javier, it was time for our third mode of transport, the local bus. With room for about 16 people seated and a further 8 standing, these little buses transport locals, and a few tourists, from the metro station, around the steep hillside, to different parts of the local community.

St Javier bus station

St Javier bus station

Inside local bus in St Javier

Inside local bus in St Javier

Our destination was the outdoor escalators; just a few minutes ride away. The bus dropped us near, but not at the escalators, so it required a short walk to reach them. The walk up to them was steep and highlighted how necessary the escalators were to aid getting around this area. The escalators are outdoors, covered and replace the steep steps that once provided access to these areas, they were also our forth mode of transport. The escalators are in sections, linked by short pathways and zigzag up the hillside. We sampled each of the sections going both up and down, stopping occasional to purchase items from local traders who lined the route.

Newish escalator next to old stairs in Comuna 13

Newish escalator next to old stairs in Comuna 13

View of the escalators (orange framed structure) in Comuna 13

View of the escalators (orange framed structure) in Comuna 13

Top of La Comuna 13

Top of La Comuna 13

Comuna 13

Comuna 13

It was also in this part of town that we witnessed the skill of the graffiti artists, admiring their work on many of the walls and seeing how they brighten up the place.

Steep street of Comuna 13

Steep street of Comuna 13

Street Art in Comuna 13

Street Art in Comuna 13

Painted stairs in Comuna 13

Painted stairs in Comuna 13

Comuna 13 Grafitti

Comuna 13 Grafitti

Street dancing in Comuna 13

Street dancing in Comuna 13

We had now witnessed one of the city’s biggest transformation projects, the improvement of the public transport system. At one time there was no easy access to work in the city, hence the high unemployment rate, but now the escalators, cable car, bus and metro links have changed all that. And that change has had a very positive impact for these mountainside communities.
It was now time to retrace our steps, so a bus from the escalators, then the metro from San Javier back to our local station at El Poblada. Finally our fifth mode of transport for the day, our sixth if you count walking, a taxi back to the apartment. We had just experienced a very convenient, efficient and affordable transport system that has transformed the city and the lives of the people who live in it.

Our last day in Medellin was one of those admin days that need to be taken every so often. A bit of online banking, photo processing, blog preparation and post card writing and posting.

The following day we flew from Medellin to Cartagena. Cartagena is in the far north of the country, on the Caribbean coast, and is famed for its well-preserved historic old town (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The old town is still surrounded by its original massive walled fortifications, whilst modern Cartagena has grown out all around it. The contrast between the old town, and the ultramodern skyscrapers of the Boca Grande district couldn’t be more striking.
We were staying within the walled old town, close to the many historic attractions, in a two-bedroom apartment. Shops were close to hand and we didn’t have to walk far to sample what the town had to offer.

Painted cutleries on a wall

Painted cutleries on a wall

Back street of old Cartagena

Back street of old Cartagena

First on our list was to check out the wall. Still surrounding most of the town, you are able to walk on top of it for its complete length. The walls were built over a two-century period between the 16th and 18th, are up to 15 feet (5 meters) thick in places and provide a great view of the old town and the new town beyond. Locals and tourists alike stroll and socialise on them, usually late in the day when it is cooler and a refreshing sea breeze blows. Gazing out into the Caribbean Sea you can well imagine pirate galleons attacking the town, and the cannons, that still line the ramparts, being fired back in defence.

Fortification of old Cartagena

Fortification of old Cartagena

Kite surfing in Cartagena Bay

Kite surfing in Cartagena Bay

Having seen the old town from the wall it was now time to explore its labyrinth of streets. A good place to start our self-guided tour was the main gate. This leads into Plaza de los Coches, with its statue of the town founder Pedro de Heredia in the middle, and infamous for its slave trading activities.

Gates to the old walled town

Gates to the old walled town

Plaza Los Coches

Plaza Los Coches

Heading south you next reach the largest of the town’s plaza’s, Plaza de la Aduana, once a parade ground but now more of a tour meeting point next to the statue of Christopher Columbus. Then just around the corner you find yourself in Plaza San Pedro Claver, with its massive convent overlooking it. In one corner stands a statue of San Pedro and a slave, one of the many he cared for during the 17th Century. And dotted all around the rest of the plaza are small metal sculptures created by the artist Eduardo Carmona.

San Pedro Convent

San Pedro Convent

San Pedro Jesuit Monk (slave to the slaves) and a Slave

San Pedro Jesuit Monk (slave to the slaves) and a Slave

Fruit sellers in Caribbean outfit

Fruit sellers in Caribbean outfit

Our route then took us down a number of small side streets, all adorned with amazing wooden doors and balconies, together with very colourful floral displays. To arrive in the centre of the old town, at Parque de Bolivar, where large trees shade the park and provide an escape from the heat for tourists and locals alike. In its centre is a statue of Simon Bolivar (the liberator of South America) on horseback, with impressive buildings all around its perimeter. We admired the Inquisition Museum from the outside (with the aim to visit it on another occasion) and had a quick look into the Cathedral opposite, before moving on again.

Outside the Cathedral in Cartagena

Outside the Cathedral in Cartagena

Now heading back towards our apartment, and to escape the heat of mid-day, our route took us down more attractive side streets, before arriving in Plaza San Domingo. As is a common theme in the old town, the 1579 church, the oldest in Cartagena, towers over the small plaza. In fact you would barely notice the plaza at all if it weren’t for the bronze Botero sculpture positioned on it, as most of the surface was covered in restaurant tables and chairs.

Shoe shiner

Shoe shiner

Sombreros for sale in the street of Cartagena

Sombreros for sale in the street of Cartagena

Managing narrow street with a long ladder in old Cartagena

Managing narrow street with a long ladder in old Cartagena

Street in the Old Town of Cartagena

Street in the Old Town of Cartagena

Arhuacan traders in Cartagena selling traditional Mochilas

Arhuacan traders in Cartagena selling traditional Mochilas

It was then back into the apartment for lunch and a well earned rest.

With the two main attraction of the old town done and dusted, our exploration took us further afield. And what better location than one that gives you a perfect view over the city you reside in. To achieve this we had two options, the Convento de la Popa, a large white building perched on a hill about five kilometres outside of town, or Castello San Felipe de Barajas, a historic hilltop castle now surrounded by modern day Cartagena. We chose the castle and grabbed a taxi for the short car ride to the castle car park and ticket office.
Castello San Felipe de Barajas sits on top of Lazaro Hill; therefore a steep climb is required from the ticket office to reach the castle fortifications. Once in the castle and on the battlements, you have a great view of the city, the old walled town, the new town and the high rises of Boca Grande in the distance. Of course, when the castle was built there was no new town and this vantage point was an ideal location to defend the old town and surroundings from foreign attacks. Between the 16th and 18th Century this Spanish stronghold suffered many attacks, mostly from the British and French, but although the old town and surrounding area was often occupied the castle was never breached. The ramparts we walked along today aren’t the original, but the result of two centuries worth of ever increasing fortification to meet a growing threat. Today there isn’t much left other than the massive brick structure with a few tunnels to explore, plus some old cannons still in situ. But from this it easy to imagine the historic events that took place between three and five hundred years ago.

The Fort

The Fort

View from the Fort

View from the Fort

Outside the bay of Cartagena and a few kilometres out into the Caribbean Sea, lies the Isla del Rosario archipelago, a cluster of coral islands left high and dry hundreds of thousand of years ago when sea levels fell. Rich in marine life, they are now a National Park and also our base for the next three days.
Picked up from our apartment in the old town, then whisked off out to sea, we were at the Coralina Island Resort on Marina Island in not much more than an hour. This was a bit of luxury that we splash out on every so often, to make a change from our usual self-catering apartments.
A beautiful setting, just seven secluded units, a restaurant, bar and dinning area, plus loungers on decks looking out into the clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. This meant plenty of relaxations over the next few days.

View from our deck on Carolina Island

View from our deck on Carolina Island

Coralina Island lodge

Coralina Island lodge

However, it wasn’t a total chill out, we were active some of the time.
Anne did two dives, something she had wanted to do for a good few years now. And she found that she wasn’t too rusty after all this time either, and enjoyed them both immensely.

Reef Fish

Reef Fish

Diver

Diver

Tree coral? fish were hiding in it

Tree coral? fish were hiding in it

Sea bed scenery

Sea bed scenery

Colourful coral

Colourful coral

Some big mouth coral

Some big mouth coral

We swam and snorkelled in the waters around the resort. And took a private boat tour of the archipelago, which included a visit to “Bird Island”, an excellent reef snorkel, a swim from a secluded sandy beach and visited the remains of a Pablo Escobar mansion with one of his planes wrecked on the sea bed opposite.

Private Caribbean residence

Private Caribbean residence

Magnificent Frigate bird in the sky

Magnificent Frigate bird in the sky

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Male Magnificent Frigate bird

Male Magnificent Frigate bird

Mermaid on holiday from Copenhagen

Mermaid on holiday from Copenhagen

Pablo Escobar Mansion

Pablo Escobar Mansion

Ruined interior of Pablo Escobar mansion (it is said that the bathroom fittings were made of gold)

Ruined interior of Pablo Escobar mansion (it is said that the bathroom fittings were made of gold)

Pablo's Pool

Pablo's Pool

Pablo Escobar Mansion

Pablo Escobar Mansion

Cockpit of sunken plane

Cockpit of sunken plane

Pablo Escovar sunken Plane

Pablo Escovar sunken Plane

However, all good things must come to an end, and we left the island for one night in Cartagena before flying back to Bogota. Transport back to the mainland was by speedboat, and not via the bay as it had been on the way out. This meant more time in open water, which was fine to begin with, but then we encountered some big waves. The journey became part skimming across the water and part flying off the waves. Fun to begin with, then less so as we got more and more wet and suffered body jarring crashes each time the boat landed back on the water. Finally, one hour later we arrived back to the relative calm of Cartagena harbour, wet, rattled but generally in one piece.

The two days back in Bogota were spent doing a bit of admin, laundry, etc. Whilst enjoying our spacious 17th floor apartment with great views across the city.

View of Bogota from our apartment

View of Bogota from our apartment

Bogota by night

Bogota by night

It was then back to Santiago de Chile for a day, before completing our South American trip with a flight back to London Heathrow.


Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Medellin
Medellin is Colombia’s second biggest city, after its capital Bogota. It has a population of around 2.5million and sits in an Andean valley at an elevation of 1495meters. It is known as, amongst other things, the “City of Eternal Spring”, because of its very pleasant year round climate.
It was first established in 1616 by a Spanish explorer and gradually grew in size during Spanish rule. However, it was the discovery of coal in the late 19th century that really put the city on the map, together with the railway connection in 1875. Its resources and a growing textile industry allowed the city to flourish well into the 20th century. Things then took a turn for the worse in the late 1940’s, as the country became more instable. People moved from the countryside and settled on the mountains surrounding the city, todays “Barrios”. The population exploded, and although the textile industry provided some employment, general unemployment rose sharply. Many of the unemployed then turned to a new growing industry in the city, the cocaine trade (see Cocaine below).
By 1970, Medellin had established itself as the world capital for the Cocaine trade, run by the Medellin Cartel and headed by Pablo Escobar (see Pablo Escobar Gaviria below). Gang related drug warfare also made it the most dangerous and violent city in the world.
Since then things have improved dramatically. Starting in 2000, by Major Luis Perez and continued by his successors, the city has been transformed. A lot of money has been spent on a regeneration project of social inclusion. Massive improvements have been made to the Public Transport system, Education, Parks, Libraries, Health and Employment, creating what is known today as New Medellin. A book titled “Our New Medellin – city for life” records all the city’s achievement and is accompanied by statistics. Almost every statistic is impressive, but one that stands out is the number of homicides, reduced from 6,349 in 1991 to a couple of hundred in 2018.
It is an incredible success story, and one that is being used as a template for other troubled cities around the world.

Cocaine
The indigenous groups of Colombia have used the Coca plant and its leaf for thousands of years, chewing it provides a stimulant. In the late 19th century a German physician thought he had found a medical use for the plant, but this was soon dismissed as dangerous. However, between the 1920’s and 1970’s the product he had produced soon became popular amongst the rich as a party drug. The chemical released from the Coca leaf, plus Hydrochloride, created a water-soluble salt, and is the powder we know as Cocaine today.
This product had a huge market in the USA and a growing one in Western Europe. Demand was high, but supply was higher, so by the early 1980’s the market overheated and the price fell. With the falling price, supplier’s profits nose-dived as well. To compensate for this a new product was required. That new product was the old one minus the Hydrochloride plus some baking soda, and went by the name “Crack Cocaine”. Because “Crack” is fast acting, short-lived and almost instantly addictive, it kick-started the Cocaine trade all over again.
Although Colombia is still a major producer of the various Cocaine products, its No.1 status has shifted to Mexico, where the problems once experienced in Colombia are being replicated.

Pablo Escobar Gaviria
Pablo Escobar had both a great and negative impact on the city of Medellin. He was the high school drop out who became the most famous Cocaine Baron the world has known. He got into the drug trade in the boom years of the 1970’s, and was well established to take advantage of the second boom, of “Crack Cocaine”, in the 1980’s. In the 1980’s, 70-80 tons per month were being shipped to USA and the Escobar Medellin Cartel controlled around 80% of that.
In 1982 he was elected to congress, backed by the peoples vote. He had done a lot for the poor of Medellin, funded by drug money. The position in congress gave him diplomatic immunity and enhanced his power. Once in power, anyone who stood in his way was offered two choices, plata or plomo (silver or lead), bribe money or death. His cartel had enforcers, mostly young men on motorbikes, who would shot anyone Escobar wanted. By the late 80’s and early 90’s the violence had escalated between those supporting Escobar and those against.
Eventually, Escobar was brought to justice, when he surrendered to authorities. He gave him self up in return for a guaranteed non-extradition to USA and his own private luxury jail. However, when this arrangement was rescinded he escaped, finally being fatally shot on a roof in a Medellin suburb.

Colombian Post
Wherever we travel, we send postcards to our friends and family. Normally this is a straightforward exercise, select and buy the postcards, write them and post at the post office. But this was not the case in Colombia. Firstly, finding the postcards was more of a challenge than normal, it seems that very few shops sell them and then only in the cities. Still, we were persistent and eventually found some. Secondly, the writing, well that was simple enough. Then came the major hurdle, where to purchase stamps and where to post the cards. Colombia doesn’t have a national postal service, so there are no post offices. Postal services are operated by a number of private companies, each with their own stamps. Fortunately for our first batch, we located one of these private operators, bought their stamps, stuck them on the cards, handed them over and hoped for the best. However, the second batch proved impossible, we bought the cards and stamps from a retailer, then moved cities and couldn’t find anywhere to post them. There aren’t any post-boxes, and even if there were we wouldn’t know whose stamps we had acquired. In the end we brought them home, stuck them in envelopes and sent them from the UK.

This featured blog entry was written by MAd4travel from the blog MAd4Travel.
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By MAd4travel

Posted Fri, Feb 08, 2019 | Colombia | Comments