Adventures at Altitude

After leaving Medellín I headed south to the region known as the “coffee triangle”, for this is where all of the famous Colombian coffee is grown. In addition to coffee, in recent years the area has taken on growing flowers for export (a huge business), plantains, bananas, asparagus, and adventure tourism. There is also a lot of bamboo around (beautiful!) – I think some is for harvest and some is just naturally growing. The triangle is formed by the three cities of Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia. I headed first to Manizales.

Manizales has the most number of universities per capita in Colombia. Fully 1/4 of the residents are students, with females outnumbering males 3 to 1. All this youth around gives a nice vibrancy to the place, but it also makes me feel old! The city has “abrupt topography”, meaning lots of steep hills and great views. The main avenue is at the top of a saddle, and the neighborhoods fall sharply down away from it. The city is building a network of cable cars (aerial trams) similar to Medellín’s, which is nicely progressive and forward-looking. It’s also a bit higher elevation than Medellín, so I’m back to chilly nights and daily rain showers. My hotel is a few blocks from the public market which is fascinating to wander around. A sea of chaos.. dozens upon dozens of vendors shouting their wares (“3 avocados for 1,000 pesos!” ad infinitum), mystery meat entrails dangling from hooks, street children and mangy dogs running around, piles of unidentifiable exotic fruits.

Mom asked me what I do on a daily basis.. good question. Well, I start at 5am with calisthenics, followed by an hour of meditation, then an hour of studying Spanish. Oh wait, that’s what I SHOULD be doing… what I actually do is wake up around 8, go find some breakfast (more on this later, but I’m getting really tired of the same food over and over.. it’s impossible to find variety). I usually catch up on the news over breakfast by reading articles I’ve downloaded to the iPhone – The New York Times, BBC News, and Huffington Post all have good iPhone apps. It’s ironic that I’ve become more informed about U.S. politics since leaving the States. Then I’ll spend anywhere from a few hours to most of the day just walking.. exploring the town, finding sights or neighborhoods I’ve read about.
During all of this walking I’m listening to podcasts, which cheers me up and keeps me connected to the world I left behind. Some of my favorites: A Prairie Home CompanionThe Rachel Maddow Show; Countdown with Keith Olbermann; PRI’s America Abroad, Science and Creativity, and Studio 360; The World’s How We Got Here; Real Time with Bill Maher; TED Talks; This Week in Tech (actually, almost all of the shows on the TWiT network are excellent); The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Sharpling; Seven Second Delay; and assorted yoga and Spanish language lessons.
I usually pop into a net cafe or find WiFi to check my mail and blog a bit. Then it’s evening, the time when it’s most difficult being alone. When I’m feeling self-confident, I’ll find the Zona Rosa and maybe wander into a couple of bars or clubs. But I don’t usually stay for long, since I don’t have that kind of extroverted personality that can just walk up to random strangers and strike up a conversation.. particularly with the language gap. So I might watch a movie instead or just chill in my hotel room.

I have to say honestly that the charm of being in a foreign country has worn off. I’m finding myself more and more annoyed by things rather than enchanted by them. But perhaps all I need is a change of country. I only have a bit left to see in Colombia (Cali, mainly) before crossing over to Ecuador, which I’m looking forward to. Although I will only have three weeks in Ecuador, because I’m aiming to meet some friends in northern Peru the last week of June. Not sure if I mentioned before – my friends Jessica and James Chance, whom I met at Spanish school in Guatemala and then traveled around with for a bit, have been hired by a group of Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries to shoot their 10 day mission trip way up in the mountains in Peru. Jessica wrote to ask if I would like to meet them and provide a bit of atheist foil after all the piety they’ll be immersed in. Of course! So I’ll breeze through Ecuador faster than I probably would if I didn’t have this date, but it will be worth it to see those guys.

Anyway, back to describing the past week.. continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

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Spring in Medellín

Actually, it’s always Spring here. In fact, Medellín (pronounced Med a JEAN) is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” because of it’s mild climate, being only six degrees North of the equator and not at high elevation. Lately we’ve been having spring showers, but at least it’s warm. It completely changes my relation to a city when I can just walk out the door without having to carry clothes for all kinds of weather, as one does in Bogotá. Although there are no bodies of water, Medellín does have hills and mountains that offer great vistas – one of my other requirements for a livable city.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s Medellín (Colombia’s second-largest city) was incredibly dangerous, with an enormous amount of murders and kidnappings. But since Escobar and his cartel were disbanded, the city has completely turned around. It’s now a safe, modern, vibrant city. In many ways it’s more advanced than the capital of Bogotá. For example, there is a modern, efficient, super clean above-ground metro system / light rail. In the outlying areas the metro connects to cable cars which provide transport to the poorer communities built up on the hillsides. It’s a brilliant mode of transport – much cheaper than laying tracks or roads, and far less impactful – the gondolas silently glide right over the buildings, providing fantastic views.

I’m really impressed with the infrastructure of the city and it’s commitment to even the poorest neighborhoods. Even in barrios where the residents can only afford to build tin shacks, the city has built modern gleaming libraries and schools, nicely paved roads and sidewalks, and efficient and clean public transport.
The city is also known for it’s public art, typically sculptures. In the 80’s there was a law mandating that 5% of the budget for any new construction had to go towards art for that project (and I thought Seattle’s 1% for art was generous). Botero is from here, and there is a plaza with dozens of his works scattered about. Aside from his pieces, I generally don’t like most of the sculpture around town – they’re generally imposing, dark pieces that look like they’re from the 70’s, even though they’re not. The equivalent in sculptural terms as the cheap monolithic concrete block architecture from that era.

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Pretty Villa de Leyva

Only three hours from Bogotá, but a world away from the bustle of the big city, lies the picturesque town of Villa de Leyva. Founded in 1572, the town has preserved it’s beautiful Spanish architecture along with one of the largest main squares in the hemisphere. I wonder what they needed all that space for.
The town is also known for the 150 million year old fossils discovered near by, including 25-foot long marine animals. Crazy. Wineries also operate nearby, producing a young Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Waterfalls, abseiling, horseback riding, kiting, and dune buggies are other offered activities, but we chose to take it easy.

Eloisa and I were looking for a quiet place near nature to spend a relaxing weekend, which is how we arrived at this town. As it turns out, there is an area a few km outside of town known for it’s magic mushrooms. Bonus! We hitched a ride in the back of a pickup part of the way and walked the rest on pretty old dirt roads. The weather was lovely this day, although it rained the other day. On our way back to town, Josh proposed one of his famous “shortcuts”, which always leads to adventure. Amazingly, on this day, it actually did serve as a shortcut – besides providing us with adventure tromping through deep mud across fields and farms. As Hobbes (of Calvin and Hobbes) used to say, “you know you’ve had a good day when you end up with grass stains on your pants.”

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Written by in: Colombia | Tags: , ,

Steam Train to Salt Cathedral

A few weekends ago Maria, Elo and I had a fun adventure. We took a 1940’s-era narrow-gauge coal-fired steam train which now runs only on weekends from Bogotá to Zipaquirá. This is a cute town with an odd attraction – an enormous cathedral 650 feet underground, carved into a salt mine.

The train trip was fantastic. It’s hard to believe that only the force of steam could pull all that weight. Although it only averages 25km/hr, it was about the journey, not the transport. Vendors came down the aisles selling delicious food and drinks, three (!) bands came strolling through the carriages, each one playing a completely different style of traditional music. We usually had right-of-way, which was wonderful – stopping traffic on modern highways with our anachronistic mode of transport. Everywhere we went, heads turned. People stopped and waved, especially in the small towns through the countryside.

After three hours on the train we arrived at the small town of Zipaquirá. A short walk through the plaza and we entered the salt mines. I’m not exactly sure why, but in 1950 the workers decided to carve out a cathedral way down there. Certainly one of the most unusual places in the world to put a cathedral. The original one became unsafe, so in the early 1990’s a new one was dug out, another 60m further underground. It felt pretty wild descending that far beneath the earth. Along the way to the big room you pass by the 14 stations of the cross. Honestly, these looked more like scenes out of a Mel Brooks film, or perhaps Spinal Tap. Too bad I didn’t get any photos of these, you’d see what I mean. But considered as an art installation, it was all nicely done and well lit with hidden LED’s. The actual chapel is quite large and impressive – 250 feet long by 80 feet tall, with a 60-foot tall cross at the back carved into the salt rock.

The walk back to terra firma was through an incredibly long tunnel that used to be used to haul the salt out of the mines. What a crazy job. That fresh air and sunlight sure felt good. After a pleasant lunch we got back on the train for the return journey.

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