Medellín to the Ecuador Border

By Alex

We arrived in Argentina earlier this week – to a city in the very northwest of the country called Salta. We’re really liking these medium sized colonial cities on our travels. They are easy to walk around with beautiful squares and old colonial (hard not to use that word!) buildings. Plus there’s good options on places to eat and drink, not to mention the usual ‘backpacker go-to-places’ of ATMs, good hostels and lavandería (laundries).

Anyway, this blog post is looking back, or more catching up, on the final leg of our three weeks in Colombia in November. Yep, we haven’t been as good at updating the blog recently. We’re trying to make amends over the next week. John’s already got the Ecuador post nearly done. So there’ll be two in quick succession!

Our last Colombian post left off with us taking a flight from the northeast of the country from a place called Santa Marta along the Caribbean coast to Medellín in the southwest of the country. It was a quick one hour flight, but given it landed in Medellín at around 11pm there were no other options than taking a relatively expensive taxi ride to the city centre. But to our luck we bumped into two other backpackers who were in the same predicament.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

We shared a taxi with an Australian girl and an Swiss girl on the 45 minute journey downtown. After the heat and humidity of the north coast it was a nice change to get back to semi-Irish weather and the comforts of a nice taxi as it wound its way down the valley to Medellín. The road seemed brand new and it kept curving in hairpin bends with the poor Swiss girl just banging from side to side in middle back seat. Sure we were all friends by that stage. We did the usual backpacker chit-chat of comparing itineraries and giving tips to those going to places we had been to already. One interesting thing was that the two solo travellers had met on a Spanish language course in Costa Rica which they had done at the very start of their travels. One did the course for six weeks and the other for three weeks. We could see the benefits straight away as they were able to converse with the taxi driver and give basic directions. Even with our pigeon day to day Spanish getting a tiny bit better each day, it was something to remember for next time! What a good idea!

After being in Colombia for two weeks already, we had got over the ‘dangerous country’ stereotype and so we weren’t half as nervous arriving in the previously drug fuelled capital of Medellín. It’s now a major economic centre of Colombia (along with Bogota) and you could see it in the modern subway/overground metro system they have built. The only metro in Colombia. The area we were staying in was called El Poblado and it was just south of downtown but easy to get around from. No surprise that the girls were staying in the same area as us as it was backpacker central. Loads of hostels, themed bars and restaurants, and as we found out, it was one of the more affluent areas of Medellín. It was strange to see so many western brands like Dominos etc. around the area.

We did a quick Google search and of course there was an Irish themed bar around the corner from us – Patrick’s Irish bar! It was the day Ireland was playing Bosnia-Herzegovina in the European play-off decider so we headed down there to catch the match. Like all the bars around the area they are huge open planned sports bars that don’t really have walls. They are huts opening out on the street… all like a theme park of bars. For some unknown reason Patrick’s was closed that afternoon.. how typical! We gave up at that stage and grabbed some food beside it. John went for the traditional Colombian dish ‘Ajiaco’ of corn and chicken soup served with a rice cake patty and portion of avocado (as you do). I went for the other Colombian special of a mixture of different gristly meat bits mixed with beans. We really weren’t sure what we were ordering except the picture hints on the menu. They were grand – nothing to write home about but at least we tried some! While we were there sitting on the outside decking we saw two Irish people walking along the street and they asked another sports bar across the way to put the match on their screens. So there we were eating and watching the match from across the road. We headed over for the second half and never felt so patriotic when Ireland won even if nobody else cared!

I’ve found it really obvious to spot Europeans and North Americans on our travels so far… we just really stand out. But Irish people stand out even more to us. Not for the stereotype Irish look, but there’s an average Irish look and mannerisms you pick up straight away. Then you hear a whisper of their conversation and all is confirmed.

On our second full day we took the 10 minute overground metro ride and ventured around downtown Medellín. Compared to the shoving and pushing of the metro buses in Bogota, the people of Medellín were great metro travellers. No more hurling yourself through the crowd as the doors closed! Unfortunately there really isn’t a whole lot of charm to the city centre. But they had a whole street of older gentlemen at small street tables ready to fulfil all your document typewriting needs! There’s a few nice squares but otherwise the architecture is of thrown up old buildings. We had a walk around and went by the various churches and street sculptures in the main square. We also kept bumping into (or more they bumped into us) a free walking tour group. Always interesting to catch bits of info. Seemingly Medellín has become a popular place for North Americans to retire to, as it’s cheap, has a good climate and more importantly has a good public health service.

We walked the 30 mins up to the Botanic Gardens which were really beautiful to go around and munched on some sandwiches we picked up on the way. The takeaway sandwiches we got had apple, cheese and something mayo-like in them (which I wasn’t a fan of) but we munched away anyway looking over the small lake of ducks and tortoises on mud islands. Our Spanish is so hit and miss we just took a chance on one of the sandwich options thinking it had some ham (jamon) or something in it. That, or our pronunciation was so bad we ordered a different sandwich!

One thing I’m partial to are McFlurrys and lo and behold it seems South Americans are too. Well, more that they like sugary desserts. As soon as we landed in Bogota we saw that all the McDonald’s outlets had kiosks out-front selling their ice cream treats. Written above the kiosks was the word ‘Postres’. So in our self-learning-Spanish-mode we (or maybe just I) just assumed it meant ‘takeaway’. And sure there was a handy word to add to the other phrases we’d learned so far. We actually needed the phrase a good few times as we worked our way around Colombia, but everyone looked at us weirdly and we just assumed we couldn’t pronounce it properly like most other phrases we were learning. At the Medellín sandwich kiosk they didn’t realise we wanted to take them away so we did our usual ‘please put them in a takeaway bag’ arm gestures. We must have looked like we were miming ‘how to carry a cat in a cage transporter’ to them. All of this while also repeating the word ‘Postres’ to them. They were as mystified at our gestures and what we were saying as we were with Spanish for a good minute. Finally they somehow packed the sandwiches in paper bags and off we went. To our shock and laughter that evening we remembered to finally google translate what ‘Postres’ meant and up came ‘DESSERTS’!! What fools we had been for weeks in Colombia. Anyway it still gives us a good laugh everyday!

Thinking back on Medellín we didn’t do any of the Pablo Escobar attractions even after watching the Narcos series on Netflix. You can visit his grave and we also heard on a podcast Pablo’s brother seemingly gives tours of the city and invites you in for tea. One thing we did check out was the cable car system that connects downtown with the high altitude crammed houses that stretch up all sides of the Medellín valley slopes. They are basically modern ski-lifts to connect all the communities of the city. From the bits we’ve read it’s really improved the conditions for the poorer communities and so improved the city as a whole. It was a pretty rainy and misty day but we went up on one of the routes and it was an amazing experience. There were about eight of us comfortably seated in one of the cable cars and it just kept going higher and higher. It dipped over the top of the valley and down into another. Our fellow passengers got off at the various stops. The views down to the terracotta bricked houses and communities on the slopes gave a whole other perspective of the city compared to the El Poblado area we were staying in. We were being respectful so didn’t do the whole tourist thing and be snap happy with our cameras, but on the way down we had the cable car to ourselves to make up for it.

On our last day we went looking for some kind of Inca trail hiking boots for John and so we decided to check out a nearby shopping mall. It was in a really affluent area with armed security outside lots of places – especially the banks. We ventured in and it was like being in Dundrum shopping centre. There were over the top Christmas decorations everywhere and a large ice rink in the middle with happy kids skating around while holding onto penguin stabilisers. As we do, we headed straight for the food court and got a lovely pasta dish… but it was so American portion sized that we barely ate half of it. In the end we didn’t see any Inca boots, but we did see a whole other side to Medellín. It was like being on a different planet to our usual walks around the street markets. Where do these well off people usually hang out? Here obviously. This trend has repeated itself in every other shopping mall we’ve been too in South America. There is a growing middle class that we seem to miss in a lot of places. I guess soon the cable cars from the less well off areas will be connecting to the malls themselves.

The next morning we took a 4 hour bus journey south along the upper part of the Andes to a city called Manizales. The main reason being that it’s in the middle of their coffee country! We had arranged to join a tour of a coffee farm the next morning. We stayed in a South American B&B that are one class down from hostels. We were greeted by the woman of the house and with the help of google translate to break the language barrier we were checked in. We were her only guests in the place of 6 rooms. We thought she would put us in one of her better rooms… but the wooden window had huge gaps to the outside busy street. A bit of chewing gum would have done the trick nicely. But at least it was well aired. Manizales has a large student population so we hopped in a minivan and headed 15 mins to the other side of the city to see where the action was. We ended up in another mall and a food court. Notice a theme. We got a ‘Presto’ – their McD’s equivalent. I somehow managed to get across ‘sin salsas’ in my burger.. no mayo or ketchup please. And we got McFlurry postres on the way out. That night we just watched The Queen of Ireland movie on the ipad thanks to itunes.

Our coffee tour picked us up outside the wonderful Manizales cathedral at 8am and we were the last on the pick-up. We wound our way downhill to the coffee farm and it was wonderful getting out of the minivan among the coffee plants and sunshine. There were about eight of us on the tour. Two young Italian guys at the start of their travels north to Central America. A Swiss medic couple, about our age, on a four week Colombian adventure, two older French ladies, a Canadian guy, and an American guy in his 40s who had been posted to Iraq twice with the US Army but had finally got discharged and posted to Italy for his ‘last mission’.

Who knew coffee could be so interesting. We got a really informative two hour overview of coffee, it’s types, how it is grown and where it is grown around the world. We also got an insight into the supply chain from coffee farm to Starbucks coffee cup. Colombia has a great advantage as it has no set seasons, except a rainy season and a dry season. They get two harvests each year due to their position near the equator. The tour guide (whether you believe him of not) said Starbucks use good quality beans. But it’s less sharp tasting as they mix a range of different beans to maintain uniformity. The coffee we usually say are stand out and sharper (like in 3FE), are generally made with one type of bean and roasted exactly to precision. Less quantity and mixing of beans to give a more distinct taste. We had found it hard to get good espresso style coffee in Colombia and we found out why… they export most of it! The standard Nescafé stuff they sell comes more from the low quality beans. We walked around the coffee groves and saw where they wash and dry the beans. They sell a lot of this stock as is, with the buyers doing their own roasting. But the guide did show us how to roast beans and we had many test taste challenges!

The coffee farm was a half day visit and we got back to the bus station (via another cable car!) by 2.30. In ‘Amazing Race’ style we got tickets on the next bus south to the city of Cali five hours away. It was a comfortable non-descript journey but the bus was freezing! We had booked a new modern but cheap hotel in Cali called ‘Colors Hotel’ which was near the bus station. It was lashing and dark when we arrived and as with all hotels near bus stations they are never the best. The area was pretty desolate… almost industrial park like. The hotel had a metal cage on the outside to get in. It was grand, cheap n cheerful. Prompted by the tripadvisor reviews, we ordered delivery pizza with the help of one of the staff members.

Cali also has/had a drug reputation. We only had one day there and did our usual walking around. All the travel blog posts we read were right – there’s nothing must to see. We didn’t see any other backpackers around the city that day. After an hour seeing the main sites (one church and buzzing street markets) we got a bus 30 mins to the south part to a shopping mall. John had been keen to see ‘The Hunger Games’ film and by that stage I was too! We saw online that morning that most films have a few English language showings with Spanish subtitles. Perfect for us. The mall was another interesting middle class mecca. Streaming fountains and high end shops. We even checked out their local version of Starbucks ‘Juan Valdez’. Pretty much the same price with smaller sizes. The cinema experience was just like home, but with the added fun of watching something in English among the Spanish desert we were in. It was surprisingly busy with Colombians. We were guessing if their English is half-good it’s much better seeing the original English version than out of sync Spanish dubbing. If you’re going to see a Hollywood star, wouldn’t you want to hear their actual voice?

On the way back to our hotel we got speaking with this older man on the bus. He had pretty good English because as he explained he used to work at the airport. We had the usual chat that we’re from Ireland and most of the time the UK comes up. They either ask you directly if you’re from North or South Ireland or they sometimes think you’re part of the UK. John got out Google maps on his phone and we had a short geography lesson. The packed bus around us seemed to be picking up bits and smiling. When he heard where we were getting off he was a bit concerned. We were too at that stage but thankfully the stop was only a block from our hotel. All was fine.

Our second last day in Colombia, we took a very local bus from Cali to a smaller town called Popayan. Local buses involve a worse for wear Dublin IMP-like bus that stop at the mildest hand gesture anyone along the road makes. This continued for three hours till we reached our destination. Popayan is a lovely colonial town with whitewashed grid streets and typical picturesque public squares. Unfortunately we only had an evening there to stroll around.

Our hostel was right downtown and we only had to walk five minutes to find a good Italian restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide. There were only two tables full when we arrived, but soon enough it was packed. There was one waiter managing about ten tables and his wife who manned the bar and till – plus chefs behind the scene. An older English couple sat behind us and they seemed to be on a pricey bus tour. A group of their fellow travellers arrived shortly after and sat elsewhere. The gentleman waiter was overstretched and slow. This created a scene out of Fawlty Towers as the English guy kept complaining to his wife about the service and the food. It led to him continually going up to the counter himself to collect the food and drinks. They also felt they were continually having a good conversation with the waiter, except the only Spanish words they attempted were ‘señor’, ‘Señor’,’SEÑOR’!! We could only laugh with embarrassment for them. It was the best pizza and pasta we’ve had on our trip so far!!

It ended with an early night as we had a very early bus to catch the next morning to get across the border to Ecuador. John’s got that post ready to go…

This entry was posted in South America

One thought on “Medellín to the Ecuador Border

    Matt L February 5, 2016 at 8:19 pm Reply

    Lol at Pablo’s bro offering tours and tea at his house. How could you refuse. If there wasn’t a risk of death I’d be well up for it 😀

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