In August 2013, Tina and I went back to Colombia for a couple of weeks. The last time I was there was in 2010. It was nice to see some old friends again and make some new ones as well. Our first stop was of course Bogota, where we got to see Arieta and her boyfriend Will, who is originally from San Francisco. He had opened an excellent Italian restaurant in La Candelaria which we very much enjoyed. They also took us on a tour of the huge Paloquemao Market which I had not seen before. I took Tina to visit the La Merced neighborhood in La Macarena area, but sadly noticed that the El Cafecito hostel where I stayed before was no longer operational.
We then flew to Cartagena, where we were able to walk around the old city wall and watch the beautiful sunset. We had a long conversation at the hostel with an Australian exchange student, and a Doctor/Nurse couple from Michigan who were about to move to Alaska. They had lived in Duluth, MN for a while and shared several fascinating stories about working in the hospital. The next day we walked over to the huge Castillo de San Felipe (a giant Spanish fort). It was fun exploring the tunnels. We also passed through a surprisingly clean and fancy mall nearby. At lunch we met a local guy named Getty who talked with us for 2 hours about his career as an architect, the local politics, and his friends and family. The fish stew was amazing but I can’t remember if the hole-in-the-wall place even had a name it was so small.
Next, we took the bus to Taganga. I was re-living my memories of long family road trips when I was a kid by playing pokemon on my phone and Tina took a nap. In Taganga, we walked along the shore to the beach. It was way more crowded than I remembered, and full of noisy people, trash, chickens, and stray dogs. However, we found a good cove to swim in, and it was comforting to see many police stationed along the cliff trail. In the hostel there were many colorful characters, such as a sketchy older Argentinian man who was lounging around shirtless and watching Robert de Niro movies. He insisted that I look up some obscure jazz composer that he liked. A friendly Spanish guy was trying to access some gay websites on the computer, but then a crowd of kids ran through the room shoving and looking for a kitten that was hiding under the couch. The next day we rested and went to Santa Marta for some souvenir shopping and met two friendly ladies from a local church who helped us find our way. The following day, we hiked to Parque Tayrona. There was a plethora of other foreigners at Playa Cabo San Juan so we had to camp in a tent instead of staying in the hammocks over the rocks like I had before. We had dinner with a nice couple from Bogota- a tango instructor and a lady who was involved in some kind of herbal supplement pyramid scheme. At night, we kept waking up because the tent leaked and we had to put a big sheet of plastic over it. Of course, under the plastic we would start sweating due to the lack of ventilation and end up just taking it off and letting ourselves get wet anyway. We awoke at 5:30 am to see a beautiful sunrise. We went swimming in the cove and after breakfast hiked back out to the road. We rested at a hostel in Santa Marta and ate a lot of fish and drank delicious guava, pineapple, blackberry, tomate de Arbol, and passion fruit juices. There were many mosquitoes and not many people in the hostel, and “Home Alone” was playing on the TV.
We flew to Medellin. The long bus ride from the airport had beautiful scenery of the mountains. A nice local guy helped us get on the subway system, which was very clean and convenient. We stayed at the Palm Tree Hostel where we shared dinner with a friendly Dutch couple named Rody and Carliene and an older British couple who were vegetarians. A very knowledgeable and enthusiastic Colombian-American guy named Orlando gave everyone travel tips and shared a lot of interesting historical and biological information. The next morning we explored the center of the city where we saw many Botero sculptures. There was a long line of people outside a bank waiting for government checks. We then went up the cable car and chatted with an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter who were from New Mexico. They were in town for the Pan-American Games. Their son was a javelin thrower from the Naval Academy. At the top of the mountain, we enjoyed exploring with bikes and even got lost on a short hike before luckily finding a guided group who showed us the way back. We bought tons of vegetables and an enormous guanabana at the Exito grocery store (like a Colombian version of Costco or Walmart). We made a big stir-fry and shared it with our new friends at the hostel, some of whom seemed to not know what ginger root was (!). To my surprise, no one liked the guanabana because it was too sour. Orlando told everyone about an interesting, sweet fruit called borojo which we had not tried before. Later, a Canadian girl and a Taiwanese girl arrived and told us they had been separately robbed and stalked in Cartagena. I definitely got the feeling Cartagena had gone downhill somewhat since I was there last. On the other hand, Medellin was as pleasant as ever.
Around this time, there were a lot of agricultural and student protests going on all over Colombia. This made us nervous about trying to get to Santa Rosa de Cabal by road, but we decided to chance it anyway. The road was a classic South American mountain highway- viciously curvy and clogged with slow trucks, which the bus driver never hesitated to try to zoom past in the lane with the opposing traffic. We passed Manizales and got off at the outskirts of Santa Rosa. To our surprise, our host family pulled up almost immediately and boisterously hugged us and took us back to their new house, which was larger than the one I stayed in before. Also, last time they didn’t have a car. I was glad to see they were doing well and able to have some conveniences. Their younger son had really grown up a lot since last time, and they also had a new dog, “Midas”, who loved to bark at skateboarders as they would pass by in the street. I noticed that many of the young people we saw all over the country now had iphones, ipads, and other technological gadgets, whereas before, folks were using the older flip-phones. I think this may have been facilitated by the recent US-Colombia trade agreement, which seems to have been a bittersweet deal in that it also may have contributed to the Colombian farmers’ difficulties in paying for fuel and fertilizer while having to sell crops at lower prices due to increased competition. At least, that’s the sentiment I felt from talking to local people.
After spending a few relaxing days in Salento and Valle Corcora, which was just as lovely as ever, but a bit more touristy, we flew from Armenia back to Bogota. Since we wanted to visit the downtown area, we stayed in La Candelaria, something I had not done before. After visiting the fascinating Gold Museum, we headed to the northern part of the city to explore a bit during the day, especially enjoying a large flower market. On the way back, we were physically unable to cram into the overcrowded transmilenio buses due to failing to anticipate the rush hour. So, after walking about 40 blocks, we finally hailed a taxi cab. The driver almost kicked us out when he heard where we wanted to go, claiming that due to the massive crowd of protesters that had converged on the Plaza Bolivar near our hostel, he was afraid to go anywhere within 10 blocks because “anarchists would throw rocks and burn his cab”. We gave him double fare and he let us out in the outskirts of the frightening scene. We heard distant shouts and popping noises. We carefully skirted the back streets and with a sigh of relief dashed inside the hostel. During the night, the drifting clouds of tear gas would come in through the open courtyard and everyone’s eyes would start burning. We were riveted to the television, and everything seemed surreal. Thankfully, we were able to get out of the city unscathed the next morning and catch our flight home. I don’t know if there is any lesson or moral to the story, but it was an experience I won’t soon forget.
While our last couple of days in Colombia were somewhat more “exciting” than we had hoped, it hasn’t changed my opinion of the country as one of the most beautiful and friendly I have ever visited. I only hope that the people there will continue to prosper and can hopefully find ways to resolve any future conflicts in a peaceful manner. On another note, I will never forget how brave and resilient Tina was during the whole unpredictable trip. I feel truly fortunate that she later agreed to be my wife!