What, A Real Vacation?

Cynthia and I haven’t been on a real vacation since before June 2010 when we started this marathon house project. So it was with lot of excited anticipation that we waited a few months until it was time to travel to Medellin, Colombia. It was a quick hour-and-a-half flight and Medellin didn’t disappoint. Here is the requisite photo at Tocumen Airport in Panama:

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I’d look good as a blonde, don’t you think? A friendly Colombian woman took our photo.

I won’t bore you with all 175 photos that we took, but I do feel the need to account for our time away so that you won’t expect a progress report on the house!

The city of Medellin and its three-million inhabitants dwell in a mile-high valley in the Andes mountains. The weather is lovely, Spring-like year round. From the first apartment we stayed in (15th-floor), there is a view of the city and of the mountain sweeping up and out of the valley:

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An overcast day. We were delighted to see how nearly every area of the city was green, green, green.

One of the first things that struck us was the large amount of public art throughout the city. It seems that when a new project is built, the developers must install a piece of art. Here are a few:

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The Delivery Man

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Most of the cut flowers that are sold in the States are grown in Colombia. Each year there is a week-long flower festival. Growers arrange flowers on sillas (chairs) and parade from the surrounding pueblos into Medellin. This statue is a representation of one of the people who carry the heavy displays.

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Mother and Child

Another thing that struck us was how clean the city is. There is virtually no litter as you can see in the next photo. And see that strip of raised dashes down the center of the sidewalks (and nearly every sidewalk in the city)? It took me a while to realize that these were to assist blind people. At intersections, the dashes change to dots to alert people to the location of crosswalks:

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An overnight wind had blown leaves onto the sidewalk. Soon, the brooms will be out, making the sidewalk spotless.

Quality of life and physical fitness seems to be a focus in Medellin. One time I joked to Cynthia that I went out to find a doughnut but the only thing I could find was fitness clubs.

The city fathers take fitness seriously too; for example, every Sunday and on fiesta days from 7:30 a.m. until 1:00 p.m., the city closes one side of Ave. Poblado, a major avenue that runs several kilometers north to south and nearly the entire length of the city. Joggers, strollers, bicycles, roller-bladers, families, people with dogs, teenagers in groups, you name it, they are all out enjoying the tree-lined street that is normally filled with cars, taxis, buses, and trucks. We ate breakfast at an open air restaurant and people watched, then took a brief stroll back to the apartment ourselves:

P1010597One of  Cynthia’s must-dos on the trip was to visit the Aquarium at Parque Explora. This is a world-class, three-story exhibit of the ocean, lakes, streams, and rivers of Colombia. Here is an Angel fish exhibit:P1010619Also at Parque Explora we had fun with a satellite photo of Medellin that is blown up quite large and affixed to the sidewalk. You can walk on it, and from the second floor the effect can be interesting. As I interpret the next photo, this is how God mops the clouds away after a rainstorm:P1010624I call this next one, Godzilla CynZilla Invades Medellin:

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Cynthia is standing in the neighborhood of Laureles, named for the Laurel trees that line the streets. We liked the area so much that after a week at our first apartment in Envigado, we moved to an apartment in Laureles. The area was designed by a Colombian engineer in the circular style of Paris, France. Cyn’s left big toe points to our apartment. The large area at the bottom right of the photo is a major university which adds a vibrancy to the area.

Across the street from Parque Explora is the Planetarium. We enjoyed an hour-long movie called Astronaut, projected on the large dome. Very enjoyable and educational.

Another of Cynthia’s must-dos was to visit Plaza Botero. Fernando Botero is a local artist who must love his city very much. Over time, he has donated many hundreds of his works, most of which now reside in Plaza Botero and the adjoining Museo de Antioquia (Antioquia is the department, or state, that Medellin and the surrounding area are located in). In much of his work, Botero explored what he called the voluminous nature of form. Here is Cynthia with Gato (Cat):

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Dozens of huge bronze sculptures fill the plaza.

Another favorite, Caballo:P1010648Adjacent to the plaza is the former Medellin administration building that was converted to a museum because Botero donated such a huge volume of his art. Here is an interior courtyard; you can see an Art Deco influence on the transoms over the doorways:P1010683Botero began his career as a painter; one of Cyn’s favorites is this cheeky painting:P1010670Other artists are featured in the museum, too. This next work represents the enormous effort that Medellin has made to transform the drug cartel domination of the city into a city of the arts:P1010686

On my hit list of things to do was to go to Parque Arvi, a several-hundred hectare park just up and out of Medellin. You can drive there, as well as take a bus; is is about an hour’s travel. I chose to use the Medellin Metro system. From our apartment, we took a short taxi ride ($2) to the Metro line. We paid our approximately ninety-cents each and boarded the train on the Linea B (the B line). With the same ticket, we transferred to Linea A and travelled many stops through the north of the city. At the appropriate stop, and with the same ticket, we transferred to a gondola cable car that took us up the mountainside of the city.

(The cable car is used by tourists, but its main purpose is to transport people to the poorer areas of the city. This cable car, along with a system of free-to-use escalators that climb the mountain, have been a huge advantage to the poor who used to have to walk for hours to go to the city below. Now it is easier for people to get to work and school and has been a significant tool in the development of culture and the reduction of cartel domination of the area. Investing in infrastructure to raise people out of poverty was a wise choice for Medellin in the transition from violence to a vibrant, artistic, educated populace.)

At the end of the cable car line, we transferred to yet another cable car (an additional fee) that took us up and over the mountain to Parque Arvi. In this cable car we rode with a couple from Bogotá. We got talking and decided to spend the day together in the park. Come to find out, the woman has had two open heart surgeries as has Cynthia, so we all had something in common even if our language communication in Spanish wasn’t perfect. Here is Cynthia in the gondola, smiling but not too keen with the side-to-side swaying of the gondola…:P1010695 A view of Medellin far below:P1010693And our new friends:P1010696We took a colorful chiva (Spanish word for goat so says Google) to the butterfly house, then had lunch together:

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P1010699There is so, so much more to see at the park, but until Cynthia gets her hip fixed, walking isn’t that much fun for her. Here we are in the gondola going back down to Medellin:P1010697Back in Medellin, we were walking by the new Santa Fe Mall in Poblado and decided to take a look. At four stories, I think that I read that it is the largest mall in South America. There is much more mall behind us, plus another ring of stores on the outside of the structure:P1010588And while walking around the Laureles neighborhood, we couldn’t help but oogle this vacant Art Deco fixer:P1010601

In between all the walking, we took frequent breaks at some of the many sidewalk cafes. Cynthia liked the Colombia-grown Juan Valdez coffees and I found hot-chocolates made from Colombian-grown cocoa beans. Yum.

And finally, we noticed a huge presence of street-art graffiti. It turns out that art-graffiti is allowed in many public spaces (as opposed to illegal tagging and spraying of private property). A taxi driver told us that not only is it allowed, but if need be, the police will put orange cones around the area to protect the artists. We spotted many paintings that were true art. The next photo is the only one I photographed; not bad, but it is not one of the better ones in my opinion. I wish that I had taken a photo of the painting of the birds on a bridge abutment — stunning:

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I think that this painting speaks to the culture of drugs and the freeing of the spirit at the end of the seige of the cartels. But you decide.

Overall we had a wonderful two weeks but just scratched the surface. We found Medellin to be safe, clean, and filled with art. The weather was perfect and the people are truly friendly, cheerfully helping us every time we asked directions to a restaurant, even after dark for example. Our hosts at the apartments that we stayed in (we used AirBnB) were awesome in their friendliness and helpfulness. We can’t wait to go back.

That’s all for now, it’s back to work for us. Thanks for stopping by.

8 thoughts on “What, A Real Vacation?

    • Hi Scott,

      Yes, that Art Deco fixer holds a lot of allure. Life is an adventure — we never know what the future will bring. But right now, I have tile to lay, walls to paint, bathrooms to build, and the kitchen to finish. Nose to the stone.

      The thing that I alluded to in my post, Medellin’s transformation from The Murder Capital Of The World to winning a global competition for Innovative City Of The Year, is what struck me the most. Seeing the stark division in, and the lack of ability of the United States to accomplish much these days (the two houses of the Do Nothing Congress for example), the contrast with Medellin is stunning. And the people exude the pride that they have so justly earned. Medellin has a fervered drive to improve and seems to have the A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats attitude. We are intrigued. Thanks for your comment. Fred

        • Hi Alex,

          Yes, a huge change. Our friend and neighbor here was a vice-council at the American Embassy back when. She tells of having to close the Medellin embassy and evacuate the area. She was under armed police escort.

          On our trip, yes we did see large homeless encampments along the river in the El Centro area of the city. But everywhere else that we went in the vast majority of the city we felt safe at all times. Ordinary citizens were out and about everywhere, seemingly without concern for their safety. And they are damn proud of their accomplishment although they don’t like to talk about that part of their history. Odd, there are Pablo Escobar tours for tourists, but to be in good favor with the locals, never mention that you took the tour–I think that they would rather have us know the city and their culture as it is now. We didn’t take the tour by the way.

  1. Hi Fred,

    Ximena and I have been to Cartagena and Bogota but have always wanted to visit Medellin… we read recently that it was voted the most improved city in the world… or something like that… and from the looks of your photos and comments, rightfully so!

    I am curious, I assume you hired a house sitter while you guys were away? I know that would certainly be necessary here in Chile.

    Saludos from Chile,

    John, Ximena, Sarah Emily, and little Emma

    • Hi John Y Familia,

      Medellin is well worth putting on your travel wish list. There is so much to Google in preparation; I think I read everything and saw every YouTube video three times before we went. So much more to see and do…

      As to the house sitter — Remember Ramiro the welder? He stayed here every night and took care of Jabo and Bob (we don’t see much of cat Bob in my photos, he makes himself scarce…). Armando was here most days, the place looked like a manicured park when we returned. He even brought in some new plants for us. And an expat friend looked in on everything from time to time. We were well covered, just as you need to be in Chili.

      We arrived home at 9:00 p.m. Tuesday night. At 10:30 Jabo spotted a man coming over our back fence (yet again…). Cynthia saw him scrambling to get back over the fence as Jabo gave chase and Cyn yelled at the guy so much (muy brava) that she lost her voice for two days. The crime here isn’t violent, just petty theft if you give the opportunity. Today Armando and I strung razor wire on the two most-vulnerable fence lines. I’ll post it next time.

      And as always, I enjoy looking at all of your artful photos on your site. Thanks for your comment. Fred

  2. What a wonderful adventure for you ever-expanding global explorers! Medellin’s artful environment looks awfully inviting. Enjoyed so much all of your narrative and photos, Fred.

    • Hi Maria and Evan,

      Next time we go, Cynthia wants to try the hang-gliding adventure. The air currents are ideal for the sport. And we didn’t get to see the botanical garden, huge and right in the middle of the city. And the museum of modern art. Oh, and the museum of contemporary art. Christmas is very special in Medellin; the river (runs the entire length of the valley that Medellin sits in) is aglow with Christmas lights for several kilometers. You can get a taste of the lights in videos (search YouTube for christmas medellin colombia).

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