We apologize for the interruption in the regularly scheduled programming of adventures from Latin America. Instead, we’ll bring you up to speed on our current wanderlust-fueled mission. After our trip had ended (yes, we are not currently in Colombia, just really far behind on creating, writing, and publishing this travel blog) we slipped back into the real world and took on work obligations in Boston. Unsatisfied by all that comes with the chronic grind and pressures towards feeling successful in America, we realized that as much as we got to know and understand the countries we have already traveled through we didn’t really know much of America. In Spanish there are 2 verbs that mean “to know”: saber and conocer. The difference between the two, is that saber means to know information about something, while conocer is used to know something by actually being there and visiting. So Elissa and I decided that we wanted to know America. Entonces, vamos a conocer America mucho mas.
Elissa found out that Amtrak has a system set up that could allow you to ride the rails from the one side of the country to the other for a set price. Very similar to the EuroRail Pass, you can choose 3 different options that will get you around at your convenience and whatever pace you decide to use. There is a 15 day/8 segment option, a 30 day/12 segment option, and a 45 day/18 segment option to choose from. The idea of getting up close and personal with places and scenery that would normally be viewed from the little round window 30,000 feet above acted like a magnet to our traveling souls. And after spending up to 18 hours on cramped buses that had shocks and struts 10 years past their expiration dates, a train feels like an affordable luxury that we are eager to sink our teeth into. Not only do you get to observe the a myriad of landscapes whizzing past your eyes like a timeless silent movie, you get to travel in one of the greenest forms of mass public transportation our planet has to offer at the moment. +1 for our earth.
Our alarm went off at 4:45AM today, and we are parting with Boston, our home, our work, our vehicles, and every other modern day complication to set forth on another adventure of experiencing America on one of the foundations it built itself upon. We need to saddle up at the bar and enjoy a tall glass of wanderlust ale before more time marches on. The American Railway gives you tons of options to cover a lot of ground with a trusty backpack and miles of steel beams zippered to the earth. So for now there might be a brief pause in our Colombian adventures, but there will be more to come.
Writing about the Zona Cafetera will always fall short capturing of the experience having your feet on the lush, terraced slopes that have the amazing capability to transcend adjectives. We can try to conjure up the quintessential elements of an experience using reflective descriptions of our sensory observations, but just like the old cliche goes, it’s easier said then done. That is what separates great writers from the rest; the ability to hone in on those details that tap into the soul of the subject they are immortalizing in written word. Writing gives us all the chance to relive something again, which is why the practice gives us something that maybe only photographs can really touch upon. Writing gives me the chance to share, but also has some roots of selfishness at the same time. With writing about these experiences I get to skip the line, grab the ticket, and take the ride once again, free of charge. And I hope that you believe me when I write about this part of Colombia, because it was is something worth revisiting again.
Our frantic experience in Medellin had us frazzled to find a more peaceful experience. Our bus dropped us off on the side of a 2 lane highway with the instructions from the driver to wait under a makeshift bus stop facing the other direction across 4 lanes of highway. Since this was Latin America, and we had been immersed in her loving but raw arms for about 7 months at this point, we didn’t even think twice about the fact that this was the way. It revealed itself time and time again that there should be no reservations about the process or the way; no matter what obstacles come up you always seem to make it there in the end. We waited under the bus stop for a good 20 or so minutes before a big blue box with a “Salento” sign pulled up. A beautiful, 1 hour bus ride through the sloping roads of the Zona Cafetera treated us to perfectly planted coffee fields, mysterious hilly slopes beyond the horizon lines, a fresh palate of earth and trees covered by endless cloudy skies. Salento appeared and instantly had mountain vibes leeching out of the cobblestone streets and red tiled roofs. Cozy calles were kept warm with houses and little tiendas offering baked goods and all the essentials. Old cars way past their normal life expectancy sat idly outside their owners homes and not many people were in sight. We were dropped off in the central plaza, which was also strangely deserted during that late afternoon. Our first hostel inquiry shed light on how the town was experiencing a severe drought, as we were offered beds but no running water. A local elderly man heard us talking and led us to his humble abode with the promise of a shower. He was super friendly, but our room wound up being literally in the middle of his house. At night he would watch TV, which was stationed right outside of our bedroom door a mere 3 feet from the edge of our 20 year old mattress. Having met others who traveled through here and with prior knowledge that there was a more scenic option just outside of town, we made plans to vacate the following morning. Our host was very vocal over the phone just outside of our door about how we were going to be putting our money in a bad place by switching accommodations, which made everything a little more awkward. I understood where he was coming from, but ultimately you are paying for an experience, and we were not enjoying the experience there, so on we went.
We hitched a ride to La Serrana in the morning by grabbing a jeep from the plaza in the morning. A few hundred yards outside of the town showcased the purely unspoiled and meticulously scenic lay of the land. Fertile, green mountains stood tall under a long, billowy blanket of clouds. Cows grazed in the foggy fields beyond the barbed wide fences on either side of the gravel road our 4×4 was humming down. Stoic 90 foot tall pine trees stood like soldiers on the ridge, peacefully cowering over us as we kept getting further from town. La Serrana sat planted on the top of a hill overlooking pastures flowing down into the valley below. It was truly a perfect place to build a farmhouse, surrounded with almost 360 degrees of wanderlust as far as our eyes would allow. It attracted a certain breed of people; explorers, adventure enthusiasts, those searching their souls for answers, and travelers who got a lucky tip from a friend along the road. We happened to hear from 3 different backpackers in Colombia all about the hostel’s serene setting, community atmosphere, and comfortable vibes. If you are ever in the area, La Serrana is worth a visit.
We came to hike up into the hills of the Cocora Valley, as most Colombians and travelers do. After getting our gear into our bunks we set back off for Salento, walking back to the central plaza. Once enough travelers were rounded up to fill our 4×4 we set off. Our group consisted of a German girl traveling by herself and 6 Americans. We rode up into the hilly terrain for about 30 minutes or so until we came to the end of the road. The trail head was a footpath that lead into a field a few hundred yards from where we were dropped off. The flat path then turned into a miniature canyon of mud, cut through layers and layers of the lumpy lush terrain, and fenced off to keep the cows in their surreal pastures. Hills rose behind the flat pastures and stretched up to the sky, dotted with noticeably tall palm trees in the far distance with the soundtrack of a brook swishing over smooth cobbles churning by our side. Handmade bridges appeared over areas where the stream was too deep to cross safely on foot. We entered into a jungle-like forest and came across swing bridges, like the kind you might find in an Indiana Jones flick. Huge, leafy plants, moss covered trees, and crystal clear waters set the pace for the scene. We crossed each bridge 1 x 1, with each step giving a gentle swing to the entire structure. As we hiked further into the forest it became very apparent that it was going to rain really, really hard. Drops started falling out of the sky one by one until I damned my existence without my trusty poncho. For some reason beyond my wildest imagination I came unprepared for rain, which is a consideration that is usually at the forefront of my planning. Shortly after the rain started we came to the fork in the path that would lead us to shelter and the rumors of Colombian mountain snacks. A family lived way up in those hills, so far away from anyone else, and the only forms transportation to and from town was foot or horseback. As promised, they took us in from the rain and fed us hot chocolate with cheese while the rain mockingly applauded all our efforts to spend the day outdoors. We passed the time watching the broad assortment of wild hummingbirds that lived within the forest surrounding the house. They ranged from tiny to sparrow sized statures and some had tails almost a foot long. Domesticated by human presence, they allowed us to get in really close and snap a few portraits before we eventually left. A group vote decided that the rain wasn’t letting up, and we had to press on.
We hiked up and up on a path through the woods. Dense fog crept in while the rain progressively thinned out to fat drops every second or two. The tall, solid pines stretched into the hazy abyss just below their tallest branches. The forest stopped at the foot of a terraced hill with a small house on top. It turned out to be the highest elevation point of our hike, and was prepared for weary hikers by providing long benches to rest on and take in the view. The clouds were chasing each other vertically up from the valley and began to dissolve in front of our eyes. Tree tops started appearing as the filtered light began to grow in it’s intensity. Everyone took of their rain coats and relished in the warm air. We were walking downhill now, and the fenced off field to our left started clearing up to show us the magical views below. A stunning valley cut through the land, with us standing near the top of it looking down and around at nothing but pure forests and farmland. Ominous dark clouds at the bottom of the valley added even more character to the hillsides plastered with gigantic, 150 foot tall wax palm trees. They stuck out of the landscape like magnified toothpicks topped with umbrellas, grouped in clusters along ridges, hanging over the tree tops of the forests, and also alone in the lower hills. It felt like we had the world to ourselves, enjoying the nurturing air and fresh foreign views without a soul in sight. There was no promise that we would even see a car coming up this road, which is a beautiful thought to let linger in your mind. Cows and horses seemed to be on their own out here, grazing alongside the palms, with foggy mountains rising behind them. We couldn’t wait to get up close and personal with the trees, and put ourselves into the lucid scene that seemed to be just out of reach. As we walked further down into the valley we eventually found a place where we could get right underneath them to size them up from a personal perspective. It was one of the most vivid moments of my life, walking around the valley that day. Every step in this weird world was rewarding and every breath of air felt clean and pure. We snapped quite a few images of this unique setting before making our way back to hire a jeep to town.
The farm at La Serrana offered gorgeous mountain views that were best enjoyed sipping freshly brewed Colombian coffee and munching on delicious local fruits the land gives it’s lucky visitors. We heard from other travelers who visited the area that a visit to an organic coffee farm named Sachamama was an absolute must . To get to Sachamama we had to memorize vague instructions involving holes in fences, landmarks, paths, bridges, and horse roads. We left with a small group of some other tourists that wanted to check out the farm and began walking down the gravel road away from town. We cut through terraced farm lands, down steep hills, past the occasional house, and into a pristine, almost silent valley with green forests on either side of the blue stream cutting through the middle. Fresh fruit fell from trees along the way, which I never pass up, and sweetened the path to the farm.
Buried deep off the beaten path (literally off beaten paths), Sachamama is a family run eco-farm that is nurtured by a biologist turned conservationist named Pedro. He, along with his wife Maryori and their two children, planted themselves here within the jungle like terrain of natural hills, rivers, and forests with the idea that coffee and other plants grow in harmony with each other instead of the commercial crop farming method. Pedro welcomed us with a hearty smile and immediately brought us upstairs to enjoy the view from his family’s den overlooking the land while the daily morning rainfall diminished. He was expecting a few more travelers who showed up shortly thereafter. He explained his idea and the purpose of the farm, along with the importance of coffee and how it’s grown. Fresh cups of the freshest form were given to every soul that wanted one. It was hard to pay attention to his story with each sip of the most delicious coffee I’ve ever had. The deliciously soothing cup of Joe needed absolutely nothing to enhance the flavor and felt completely natural at it’s core. After the intro and story, Pedro took us outside for a walk through his creation. Instead of sectioning off areas for specific plants, Pedro advocates letting the forest live in harmony with itself. He pointed out the benefits each plant has with each other, which is the basic idea behind permaculture. Each plant adds their own nutrients to the soil while they feed on other nutrients present from the plant and animal live that interacts with it. Pedro’s coffee plants were nearly 30 years in age, which is part of the secret of his flavorful roast. He claimed that coffee plants that are allowed to mature to an age like this will produce a better quality fruit. He explained that the average lifespan of commercially farmed coffee plants hover around the 5 year mark until their yield doesn’t match the farm’s needs and the fields need to be replanted. He let us hand harvest the coffee fruit, as he and his family does daily, and demonstrated how they extract the bean using a hand cranked press. Beans are then set out to dry in a large box for a few weeks prior to roasting. Pedro’s roasting production shack was a 10 minute walk up the road on the top of a hill overlooking more pristine farmland. He brought some beans that were ready to be roasted and let us into his little factory for a finished product demonstration. We fired up two little roasters fed by a small camping propane tank and coals. After coals were hot enough we measured out beans and put them in the oven, hand cranking the tumbler to get an even roast. The aroma coming from these little ovens was unreal. After the beans were roasted to perfection we bagged them up and sealed them in his own branded bags. We were educated from start to finish on the coffee roasting process in the most natural setting, which is a perfect memory to keep.
Salento offers a great community of activities on the weekend for locals and travelers alike. The town comes to life on Fridays and Saturdays, with live music, tons of restaurants offering local treats like fresh ice cream, trout on top of a huge pancake shaped deep fried plantain, and of course Aguila cervezas within spitting distance anywhere you looked. A peek through the swinging doors of one of the many saloons would grace your curiosity with Colombian cowboys shooting pool or playing cards. We also played Tejo for the first time in Salento, which is Colombians’ treasured game of throwing weighted disks at packages of gunpowder (think horse shoes with explosions). It was a shockingly natural game for me because my first time playing I made 4 hits, each of which scared the hell out of me. The explosions, which resembled the sound of the starting pistol at a race, would thrust small pieces of non-threatening shrapnel that could hit both your opponents and yourself in the face. Good times, good times.
Traveling thrives on moments like these, feeding that inner soul of ours with the positive reinforcement that you are doing exactly what you should be doing in life at that moment. That feeling only comes around when you discover something for the very first time, and is impossible to recreate on your own devices. These experiences are those that we get to hang onto forever, which is something worth more than it’s weight in gold but can not actually be purchased with it.
This weekly challenge is on an aspect of photography that is very near and dear to me. Horizon lines are something that I find myself focusing on with without even fully processing thoughts of why I’m drawn to produce the image I am creating in the first place. They fascinate me. I love observing landscapes and the scene that unfolds within them. Landscapes are often canvases that you leave untouched, unspoiled, and undisturbed when you line up your shot. This allows the vision of what is in front of your eyes tell the storyline, perform the silent dialogue, and provoke the feelings out of your soul and into your heart. They can begin at the tips of your toes and follow a long, winding path miles from your vantage point. Horizons provoke an insatiable desire within myself to follow them until they blend in with the edge of the world; down the slopes of a mountain, along the tops of breaking ocean waves, along the frame of barns of a farm on the crest of a hill, across tops of endless dunes in the desert, and endless flat snowy fields of my hometown in Upstate New York. Horizon lines play a great role in how I frame my images, and how my mind chooses to view the world.
This week’s challenge brings me to share an image that will be featured in an upcoming post about my travels through the mountains of the lush valley of Corcora in Colombia. The horizon is comprised of several different layers with different focal points, which gives the image a sense of still motion. I love observing the lines from the hill in the foreground on the farm where I stood to capture the image, and the rolling mountains catching the last rays of the sunset coated with small pockets of fog rising in the valleys. There are several horizon lines crossing each other at different dips and angles, and all of them seem to disappear in the world in their own style. I hope you all enjoy this image as much as I liked taking it.
We couldn’t stop hearing enough about Medellin. It was on the top of the list of places in Colombia from every traveler we met when probing for “must see” destinations. It was a coin toss situation for us at the bus station once again. Heads for Salento, tails for Medellin. We were going to the zona cafetera one way or another, but tails decided that wouldn’t happen for at least a few days. Medellin sounded like a perfect blend of oven roasted artistry and innovative development aimed at improving the lives and conditions for residents of all classes. We read that the city was making progress in a positive light by encouraging outdoor art and mandating development of green and public spaces in conjunction with urban planning and new construction projects. A large river cut through Medellin, which city planners of yesteryear canalized with hopes that the city would be able to live harmoniously with the fresh water that fed the metropolois (this idea was stopped with the massive population explosion during and after the industrial revolution stages in Colombia: currently the river appeared to be in a state that I wouldn’t recommend a swim in unless you were conducting research on health risks of public waterways). Medellin’s population expansion came in waves for several reasons, with one being a large influx of Colombian farmers fleeing their rural roots to Medellin and other cities during the violent periods of political unrest. This, along with the opportunities created during the industrial revolution, expanded Medellin’s boundaries into the slopes of the valleys that surround it. The swelling population naturally created poorer slums, most of which didn’t have much access to the municipality’s basic amenities such as water services, transportation, and electricity. A large unemployment pool was a by product of the rapid increase in inhabitants, which in turn caused increased violence and unrest, and a sense of helplessness for the lack of a viable public transport system that could service the entire city.
Medellin is a poster child for innovation in our modern world, in my humble opinion. The city’s metro system connects a large portion of it’s limits in an efficient, easy to use train that helps transport up to 500,000 people daily. City planners added a massive escalator for safe travel on the steep slopes Communa 13, one of the poorest neighborhoods, to provide access to the metro at the bottom. Medellin also introduced projects to help bring attention to the neighborhoods on the outskirts of town, helping create a sense of community to areas that would be otherwise easy to ignore. A modern library was built in one of the isolated hill neighborhoods and was connected to the city via a gondola from a metro station. A quick ride on the ski resort style mechanism will bring you over the tin roof tops of barrios that tourists would never find themselves roaming around, and kind of give a “looking glass” view of life in one of the poorer sections. Rust colored squares created a patchwork quilt of abodes planted on the hillside of a city that was acknowledging the need for connectivity and addressing a basic need while trying to oust the social exclusion that a lack of transportation fosters.
Our hostel was located on the outskirts of El Poblado, which fees almost Californian in it’s energy. Coffee shops, clean public parks, a vibrant nightlife, and upper-middle class condos were plentiful. We wanted to digest Medellin at it’s roots and didn’t really want to spend much time in the arms this modern part of town. We rode the metro into el centro and were stopped by police guarding the metal gates at the exit of the station. Without a word as to what was going on, officers strapped with guns and vests sat in front of the gates while people on the outside waited to get in and we waited to exit. Nobody seemed to be asking questions, and an eery silence hung in the air for about 5 minutes before they raised the gates without any explanation. We exited the stairway and walked into oddly empty plaza, with rubbish bouncing around like tumbleweeds across the streets. Most storefronts had their metal security gates closed and locked down, and there were very few Colombians in sight. Naturally we gravitated towards an open bakery (Latin baked goods make me weak in the knees) that had signs of life and delicious scents wafting from it’s open doors. I remember gazing at all the options from the sidewalk, which is a polite way to avoid the friendly but aggressive Latin American sales pitches, when we felt a sense of urgency in the air. This was quickly followed by screaming, and blurry figures racing from the corner of my field of vision. The owner of the bakery grabbed us by our shoulders and threw us inside the shop while simultaneously slamming down the metal security doors and locking them in one swift motion.
With our hearts pounding, we listened to the loud noises just outside our doughy safe house grow more and more chaotic. The owner peered his head outside of the doorway while everyone inside the shop just sat there waiting for something to happen. After a few minutes, the noises quieted down, and we decided it was time to make our escape for the subway. We stepped out into the streets, seeing Colombians scurrying around the deserted streets. I remember hearing a loud explosion very close before we saw something that is now seared in the “holy shit” part of my brain. After the small “bomb” went off we looked left down a street just in time to witness a huge black military vehicle turn the corner. It still to this day feels like a scene from a film, like something I was safely observing from behind a screen and not in person. A massive, 10 wheeled machine appeared from the golden, dusty afternoon light with a mounted turret aimed directly our way with only about 100 feet of distance between it and our shoes. It was at that moment that running felt both socially acceptable and necessary. Without looking back, we sprinted for the subway entrance. We made it inside just before police threw down the gates once again, locking out the general public one more time. We scurried up the stairs and watched the scene from the safety of the subway platform a good 50 feet off the ground. Everyone was staring down at the scene below wondering what was going on. When the train came we piled in and sat down, embraced by the silence of sealed doors. At the next stop the doors opened and let in the orchestra of urban chaos, as if opening a sound proof window in front of a riot. Bottles and glass smashing, sirens sounding off, screaming, and the sound of objects thrown into metal doors echoed in the car for 10 seconds. The doors then shut, and off we were back towards El Poblado.
It turns out that our timing for Medellin was the opposite of impeccable (flawed, imperfect, or blemished for better choice of words). Tensions had been oscillating between the common street vendors that are a vital staple of the Latin American economy and politicians. It was believed that the street vendors were going to lose their rights to set up carts on the calles, selling whatever treat, object, or drink they have been selling forever, or be restricted to only specific areas. A failed meeting (I’m told a political figure was running very late) caused a flare up that turned into a protest taking to the streets. As protests often do, youth got involved for the adrenaline rush and began causing a mess. Our hostel owner assured us that this was very rare in Medellin and very out of character, and almost begged us to try again the next day to see the real Medellin. We heard another story from a traveler who witnessed a tourist getting mugged during all the confusion. We were a bit apprehensive, but believed in giving it another go the next day.
We gave Medellin a get out of jail free card and made tracks for the Biblioteca Espana the following morning. This modern library sits on the slopes of the mountain in the neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio and was built as part of an effort to connect the poorer slums of Medellin with the inner workings of the city. As a public works project, it is a grandiose library offering the tools for success in a neighborhood miles from town that would otherwise just be for people living there. From 100 feet up we were spectators looking down at a scene that resembled the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. These streets wouldn’t be a nice walk for someone who didn’t live there, and there was a heightened sense of security gazing at the life below from the unreachable vantage point of our glass and metal pod. By the time we had reached the top, we had somehow lost interest in seeing the library. We realized that as pretty as a modern library can be, we weren’t going to take out any books or do anything but look around so we took off. We decided to go back and see the botanical gardens instead.
The botanical gardens of Medellin were exactly what we were hoping they would be. It truly feel like we were in the middle of Colombia’s 2nd largest city and it helped relax our minds from the jitters of the riots. The entrance was lined with historic readings about Medellin and it’s rich history from all angles, which is a balanced approach I would love to see media take more often (mixing the good with the bad). Long, meandering wooden bridge paths brought us through a Colombian jungle complete with trees and plants that boasted placards stating their names and significance. There was a butterfly garden where you could and get up close and personal with the fluttering beauties while they fed on tropical fruit. We even stumbled across a tree planting ceremony complete with a live band commemorating it’s arrival. To say the least, the gardens offered a blissful retreat to the bustle that was outside of it’s concrete exterior walls.
After getting our fill of green we made our way to Plaza Botero to see the larger-than-life sculptures the artist donated to public. With some standing well over 15 feet tall, the statues featured the classic, plump figures the Botero was known for. Parts of the sculptures that were within reachable distance to pedestrians were rubbed into a golden color that brass turns when touched thousands of times over. The building itself was an awesome combination of bold, castle-like architecture with a very prominent green and white block pattern accenting the facade. As we were enjoying the plaza and it’s scene, the hairs my neck suddenly perked up again. The chaotic energy was felt before the sounds and sights came into view, and instinctively we were on high alert. We heard screams and saw a huge crowd begin to run through the plaza. We ran before we could see exactly what was chasing them and quickly wound up back at the subway station. If you’ve never had the pleasure of being in the middle of a riot before then you wouldn’t be familiar of the deciding moment when instincts tell you to get out. We threw in the towel for Medellin, the city of eternal Spring, regardless of the pleas from our hostel owner about the unusual circumstances. It didn’t feel right, so we moved along. *after we left there was 1 more day of public unrest and rioting, and the issue was public issue apparently came to a resolve*
We decided to make a layover in Manizales to seek out some R&R with the thermal springs it was known for. Manizales is another interesting working-class city perched in an unlikely location: directly on a valley ridge. It’s position geographically makes for a very interesting grid layout. The bus terminal is connected to one of the main streets by Gondola, and gives you a sense of the scope of the city. Walking from the gondola terminal to our hostel was a 15 minute excursion uphill with 40 lb packs. I remember the theme on that day was “sweat”. On either side of the main street the roads went downhill, following the contours of the ridge of the mountain Manizales is perched on. The city felt very much like a middle class town, lacking high end metropolitan shopping and restaurants from the little we saw of it. This was a big plus for me, because there is nothing I like better than cheap, delicious Colombian food and shops that didn’t foster like high end prices.
After finding a hostel in a busier part of town, we asked our hostel hostess to phone a locals-style thermal bath just outside town. They cut us a bargain price over the phone (prices are typically negotiable for just about anything outside of a store) and gave us some basic directions involving buses. On our way to find the bus we came across natural yogurt stands and delicious Colombian style diners before getting thoroughly confused about where the bus would actually show up. Eventually (after a few tries of “donde vas?”) we boarded our ride and bounced around for about 40 minutes, arriving at what appeared to be a family owned outdoor pool. A large hose delivered thermally heated water from the slope via a large hose plopped into the larger of the 2 pools, which spilled into the smaller of the two. This was a clever way of choosing your desired temperature. We brought a box of Chilean red wine and soaked away our sore muscles, relaxed our tired minds, and recharged our souls. I could have stayed in the welcoming waters of that tub for a year. I felt like gumby when we left the springs, and slept very hard that night in our little room.
There wasn’t a lot to do and to see for tourists in Manizales besides adventure sports and thermal spas. I woke up early to get a good feel for the city and to round up some grub prior to our departure. The church plazas and small authentic Colombian coffee shops were magnificent for people watching. I remember seeing lots of men walking around in cowboy hats, which has a warm place in my heart. Everyone meshed around with me with different places to go, different lives to lead, paying no head to the man with the camera sitting contently on the stairs. We departed Manizales the same way we came in; we rode the gondola back down to the bus depot with directions to get to the Zona Cafetera, the heart of coffee country, which was another place our wandering palates were craving throughout out journey in that amazing country.
For this week’s photo challenge, I’m highlighting some photography from a recent post about my visit to Bogota, Colombia. The city is vibrant, expressive, interactive, and full of graffiti. Graffiti in Bogota has become a platform for expression, political movements, and just plain art. Walls are covered throughout the city with everyone’s interpretation of the way they see the world. For more about Bogota, please visit the link below! Go to Colombia and see it for yourself! Hope you enjoy!
Having been through so many big cities in Latin America, we actually were convinced we should skip Bogota and move along. Large cities have their pros and cons, but for us traveling was more about getting away from the chaos that modernized capitals tend to have and striving to find the culture that is found away from the concrete and steel. We eventually chose to visit Bogota with a fair bit of warning of the chronic petty theft scene that tourists attract. Like any modern city, the wealth gap between the rich and the poor is prevalent, and the poorer parts of society sometimes have a Robinhood-like view on taking visitor’s things for money. We had heard several versions surrounding the art of pick-pocketing on the transmilenial, armed robbers fashioning metal objects (guns sometimes too), and drug addicts trying to finance their next ride shaking down easy targets. Robberies are not unique to urban environments in the developing world (crime is in every city), but it seemed like we heard a lot of stories about Bogota and kept that in mind prior to arrival.
Bogota is enormous. The ride from the outskirts of the city limits to the bus station took around 40 minutes. It was pouring rain when we arrived, so we watched with curious eyes through the wet windows of our bus. Gloomy, grey clouds hung over countless gloomy, grey buildings as urban sprawl was defined in front of our eyes. At the bus station quickly found the taxi line, which whittled itself down at a snails pace. Our ride to La Candelaria brought us whizzing through the belly of the beast. Areas became distinguishable with blocks businesses all offering the same products. There were 3 blocks of dentists in succession, 2 blocks of high density optician outlets, 3 blocks of stores that sold nothing but shoes, 4 blocks of stores retailing electronics, and a decaying strip consisting of housewares, textiles, and clothing. The trend in Latin America seemed to be that stores offering the same goods seemed to cluster amongst each other, creating a competitive market place with very little distinguishing one from the other. The metropolis felt especially enormous compared with the villages we had just come from, and Bogota seemed to have that big city intensity that warps time into fast paced races with the sun. Cities operate on a different rhythm, and tend to skew time to cover their own insecurities with their interaction with nature, in my opinion. They are breeding grounds that spawn competition amongst ourselves. The image you find in the mirror when you get caught up in city life can be a very different one than what you see in the reflection of mountain lake high up in the Andes. You can find yourself filling your day with intangible accomplishments, goals, and comparisons about what you have versus others around you. This is one thing that cities have in common amongst each other no matter where you are in the world, and is another reason why we didn’t find ourselves spending lots of time in them on our travels. But cities are also common space for creative thinking, artistic expression, and societal evolution. Millions of people interacting with the walls they’ve built and the markets they’ve made are what keeps us coming back to them. And there we were at 8,600 feet in the mountains seeing Bogota for the first time.
We settled into a popular hostel option that offered a kitchen and a somewhat reasonable price in La Candelaria. It was another expat business that was taking off; it catered to the growing demand for “high class” budget traveling, offering tours, wifi, a connected gourmet restaurant, and heaps of people. Determined to find other lodging options, we decided to take a stroll around Bogota that night and see what the city had to offer. A chance meeting with a travel buddy we had spent some time up in the mountains with got us into a new hostel that hadn’t made a name for itself yet, and offered better accommodations at a better rate. Score! We explored our immediate surroundings of shops and restaurants, which appeared to cater towards tourists and college students. Delectable dishes, trendy bars, and public performances were just a short walk away in just about every direction. Local treats like Chicha (corn based drink fermented with spit originally from Peru) and hot chocolate with cheese could be procured at a moments notice as well. It didn’t take long for us to locate the local mercado to fulfill our insatiable appetite for Colombia’s set lunches.
For those that have ever walked along the streets of Bogota outside of La Candelaria at night, you probably can relate to feeling of constantly looking over your shoulder. After breaching the invisible barriers of the historic part of town, we noticed that operational street lamps became sparsely present. Streets appeared to be completely abandoned after the sun went down, with dark alcoves and dimly lit intersections in large dosages. We heard about a movie theater within a 15 minute walk from our hostel, and every person we asked directions for sent us a little further out with no theater in sight. It felt like a game, and a serious one at that. Police officers with enormous Rottweilers, probably the biggest I’ve ever seen, would appear out of nowhere garnished with large guns swinging from their shoulders. The occasional glance was often met by a look as if asking “are you two lost”? The occasional drunk and drug addict would shift our sidewalk positions to the other side of the street while we hunted for the theater. Eventually we discovered it only to find out that all interesting movies were in french with Spanish subtitles. Instead of an hour and a half of playing “What did he just say” we went back towards the main streets and scored the best sidewalk pizza a dollar could buy. We drifted back through La Candelaria, admiring the graffiti covered walls at night and the crowds of inebriated college students swallowing stairs in public squares.
While graffiti isn’t technically legal, it’s a form of expression that has overtaken the entire city of Bogota. A lot of the works are politically driven, and some are solely based around beautiful art from the mind of their creators. Large public walls are interactive billboards in this urban landscape, and these walls go through cycles of change as artists paint over older works and give their version of expressive interpretation. La Candelaria is a breeding ground for colorful canvases, but artists’ messages and images are also found throughout the entire city. In order to understand how graffiti became such an omnipresent part of Bogota, we booked a free Graffiti walking tour by an expat street artist from Australia named Christian (http://bogotagraffiti.com/). To our surprise, it happened to be the same day a local Bogota news station was filming a story about the tour. Christian educated us on why Graffiti was so prevalent and important to Bogota, and went through the historical relevance of early works by crews and the significance of the works that we had been walking past every day. Christian was very knowledgeable and very much involved in the scene, showing some of his own works amongst legends in the street art world. He explained how the unspoken rules worked (kind of) and gave examples of young kids who didn’t realize the work they were defaming, as some pieces are meant to stay untouched forever and some are “open game” for anyone to play with. The TV crews joined up with us about halfway through the tour, and asked for shots of us walking in front of the pieces, around Candelaria, and down dusty streets. Somewhere out there, we are tourists walking in front of painted walls in internet land.
As any form of public expressionism, a lot of political unrest birthed the outpouring of murals and color splashed scenes depicting anger and frustration with the government. Bogota has had a very violent past, and a walk through Plaza de Bolivar will take you directly into a living scene of public outcry. Paintball splashes cover architectural treasures such as churches, statues, and the courthouse, where members of the M-19 army held the court hostage and executed over 20 supreme court justices (and rumored to have destroyed evidence against the infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar). Physical damages are preserved and can still be seen on the exterior of the building to date. During El Bogotazo in 1948 3000-5000 Colombians died, thousands were injured, and much of downtown destroyed in the chaos after the assassination of a presidential candidate. Bogota has a history of anti-government opinion, and with many reasons backing those thoughts from the frustrated citizens.
Our friends Brook and Jason, who joined us during the first leg of our Colombia explorations, highly recommended a bike tour of Bogota through Mike of Bogota Bike Tours (http://www.bogotabiketours.com/). It wasn’t hard to find his shop, and we signed up for a late morning ride the following day. We met Mike at his shop with another excited tourist not knowing what kind of operation would ensue. We had been observing the chaotic traffic for a few days now and wondered how this was going to shake out. It turned out to be a game of follow the leader through Colombian city traffic, which might not be for the faint of heart. Cars whizzing by us at city speeds without bike lanes felt like second nature for me having biked the streets of Boston for years, but could probably be slightly unnerving for casual riders. Several times we were separated from our fearless leader by stoplights, but everything turned out well in the end. Mike moved to Bogota to pursue journalism, which he still does, but his bike tours are his bread and butter now. In a few short hours Mike brought us to parts of the city we would have never known. He brought us into the Bogota’s controversial bull ring, a sign of the past in a city of the present, where bull fighting is still preserved and practiced. We had a sneak peak at a training session, complete with loud grunts and groans of perfecting poses from both the trainer and the trainee. A visit to the black market for Colombian green emeralds led us to encounters with throngs of Colombians trying to sell rough emeralds (and fake emeralds to unsuspecting tourists) curbside. A spin up into the hills brought us to a beautiful park with warnings from Mike about being aware (he’s been on tours before where people were knocked off their bikes and robbed, both of belongings and bikes: Jason and Brook’s tour was interrupted by a Colombian welding an ice pick and demanding cash) that we are in Bogota and Bogota-like things can happen even in pretty parks. The tour brought us to the National University of Colombia where public art is allowed on most buildings, and most buildings are covered by it. Our visit happened to be during an art exhibit, so there were groups of students painting the outside of the art building, which is something I’ve never personally witnessed at a school (allowing students to cover a building with art). Mike also brought us into the Red-Light district, where prostitution is very legal and very present. This is not recommended by me unless you are with a group of bikers, but was very interesting to see in broad daylight within a city. A quick trip to a coffee shop showcasing Colombia’s finest legal export wrapped up the tour before heading back to his shop. I highly recommend using Mike’s tour if you want to get a real look at Bogota.
Finding charm in Bogota’s city limits is very easy if you look in the right places. We found an inspiring couple inside that hostel that had been traveling together on a motorcycle from Kentucky. Bob and Rebecca spoke about their journey and we connected instantly. Thousands of miles traveling whatever route they chose, pulling over whenever they felt it was needed, stayed as long as they wanted, and experienced completely independent freedom at it’s purest form. It’s refreshing to meet travelers who are experiencing something bigger than just checking another destination off the list or just partying in a different place for kicks. We all shared our Latin American travel experiences and all truly understood exactly what everyone was talking about. If you have a minute, check out their journey at www.becandthebeast.com. We made some plans to meet up in a week down the road and hoped that it would come to fruition. Elissa and I also found out that we happened to be living directly across from a hookah lounge that offered comfort food, wine, and big comfortable floor pillows in cozy candle-lit rooms. Small restaurants were scattered throughout the safer parts of the neighborhood for nighttime entertainment. Public story telling is a tradition, and crowds gather outside of a church where you can enjoy stories if your Spanish is up to par. Sundays offer a wide array of flea markets and traditional goods shopping, as well as street food options everywhere. Bogota has amazing museum options, with a wide array of free public galleries to chose from. We got up close and personal with Botero and his masterpieces, observed the history and of gold and the role it has played in early to present civilization at the Museo del Oro, and walked along the walls of another free museum that is escaping my memory at the moment. We wound up staying in Bogota for almost a week, despite our attempted aversion of the concrete jungle. Our next stop appeared to be yet another city that we couldn’t stop hearing enough about that was an overnight bus ride away. Before long we said adios to Bogota and woke up in Medellin.
This past week this blog has surpassed 5,000 WordPress followers. Five thousand is a massive number to wrap my mind around. 5,000 people are connected to my stories, thoughts, opinions, and the viewfinder of my camera. From a digital standpoint in today’s world it’s really not that large of a number. There are endless amounts of personal websites, blogs, instagram accounts, and everything else that can allow a personal notification whenever someone posts, tweets, or uploads a video that have hundreds of thousands of people connected to their handle. But 5,000 people from a visual perspective is an enormous capacity for me to imagine. If everyone of these 5,000 followers were all in the same place at the same time it would fill a medium-sized concert venue. Not only that, in the center of the stage is me at the keyboard of my laptop. That’s an unnerving thought, and one that casually enters my brain right as my finger is reaching for the “publish” button.
A big reason I began writing this blog was to bring along friends and family on a trip that I knew I could never in a million years get them to be there with me in person. I wanted to carry them through the adventure of going for something that you wanted but thought you couldn’t have. Before we took off, Elissa and I had full time jobs that had benefits, insurance, and stability of a steady stream of income bi-weekly. It can be hard to walk away from a situation like that. Life can easily present you with 5,000 reasons to not take a step into the unknown. I wanted to show everyone out there that if you really want to you can find a reason that will hold more water than all of the 5,000 potential problems put together. It could be anything: I want to see the sun rise on a beach in Honduras, or ride a slow cargo ship through the amazon basin, or work on an organic farm in the hills of Colombia, or read a book a week for 6 months somewhere other than here. The point is, perspective is all relative to the angle that you are looking at it. You have to actually go for it. Heck, I would by lying if I said that it wasn’t hard for me to do. In fact, if it weren’t for Elissa I’m positive that the story wouldn’t have ever developed. It wouldn’t even have left the cutting room floor. But the journey did take place, and if you’re reading this then I’m sure you’ve joined along for a destination or two some where along the road. And, speaking from my heart, that is an amazing idea for me to ponder on. And I want to personally thank all of you for that… in person… in Mexico. See you there in 2 weeks?
I want to say thank you to all of those who have inspired me to keep the story going until it’s inevitable last page. That day will be bittersweet, both a celebration and a feeling of loss, like pages in a book that will never get filled. Luckily there’s still much more ground to cover for now, and I’m certain that there will be more adventures to come, both in travel and life in general. Some of the best parts of my days are going back to these places in my mind. Reliving this journey has been a treat that I love to savor, and I think that can be seen within the words that come forth from my fingertips. I often find myself smiling when I write.
Writing on this blog has challenged me in ways that are hard to pinpoint in words at this time. Some obvious side effects are discipline, perseverance, and development of my style of writing. I want to thank each and every one of you readers personally for taking the time to read my thoughts and ignoring most of my grammatical errors. The comments left behind tell me that some of you are actually reading what comes out of my head, and enjoying it. That means more to me than you’ll ever know.