Thursday, February 7, 2019

Medellín - the city of eternal spring.

We have definitely saved the best for last. This city in Colombia called Medellín has been transformed into a thoroughly progressive city for all to enjoy. It has a population of almost 4 million which has grown significantly since the trouble began to subside on November, 2016. There are still issues that have to be solved but like life, anything is possible. The hope is that Colombia is moving forward and Medellín is the shining example to the rest of the country. The people here are so thankful and happy that tourism is on the rise and not a day has gone by that some someone hasn’t demonstrated to us their deep sense of appreciation. They have made us feel so much at home that we will definitely be returning here in the future. 

Getting around Medellin is a city planner's dream. This is a bike friendly place with ample bike lanes, above ground metro system, cable cars for getting up to the higher mountain locations and a large fleet of taxis always ready to take you anywhere you desire. I can’t say enough about this place and for those using the US dollars you can enjoy a very reasonable vacation. 

If one plans on coming here without being on a tour I feel you should have some command of Spanish. People are very happy to work with you but we must have patience with them as the Colombianos have with us. Also like any big city one must be careful when showing money or other valuables like cell phones. They have a saying here “no des papaya” which translates to "don’t give/show papaya or your valuables".

Susan will fill in the rest of the blanks on some things to do while traveling here in Medellin along with some pictures. Love from Ricardo.

Calle 40, 74-74
We arrived and checked out our neighborhood before settling into our two week AirBnb apartment in the Laureles area of Medellin. I chose well as this is a quiet neighborhood with loads of restaurants, coffee shops and stores for groceries. After 5 weeks of travel it was nice to "settle" down and just live our lives. We found a gym, yoga classes and our favorite spots very quickly. We did one big adventure/tourist activity each day. We were 20 minutes from the Estadio Metro Station which allowed us to use the system well and explored many different areas of the city via Metro. The people are very proud of their comprehensive public transportation system which costs under $1.00/trip and includes the Metro Cables which are cable cars that go high up the mountains to ensure that the poor as well as middle class have opportunities to connect daily with the city.

Big shopping center
For our memory, I will list all the places we explored along with photos. Two weeks was great but there are many places we still have not visited in the city and surrounding area so might indeed return, especially to the city of Medellin.

Our first night was special as we met with friends Francine and Louise who are sisters that we know from San Miguel de Allende. They were on their last day of Medellin as we were on the first. They gave us many good tips, including a good taxi driver Jamie who took us on a few trips when necessary. Thanks Francine and Louise.

Comuna 13. Walking up
to the escalators
As we often do, we took the Real City Free walking tour which is the best for us to get the general history and lay of the land in a new city. Medellin is very large - close to 4 million, and growing day by day. A few days later we took the Comuna 13 History and Graffiti tour to the neighborhood which was supposedly one of the most dangerous during the long difficult history of drugs, etc. Now it is a lively, thriving community of art, music, dance and pride to show the changes that have been made.

One of the many amazing
graffiti artists

Walking up to the
home of our guide.
To connect this large area there are 8 escalators riding in zig zag up the mountain. Our guide took us to her home where she and her 13 siblings grew up and many still live there. Of course, the views from anyplace above the city are incredible. We witnessed a lively energetic break dance event during our tour which added even more to the sensual experience of this neighborhood.

Raul and Martha
A big highlight was our reconnection with Raul and Martha, a Colombian couple who left Medellin 20 years ago and recently returned. They had been Richard's English students, along with their daughters when they first arrived to Carrboro, NC. Thanks to social networking, we have been able to reconnect and enjoyed a lovely Sunday afternoon at their home. They too are proud of their revitalized city and took us on a tour of the Envigado neighborhood where they live. We met up again in Poblado at a delicious vegan restaurant - Restaurante Justo and they showed us some of the interesting areas around Poblado - a large neighborhood that seems to be the favorite of the expats from all over the world.

La Piedra de Peñol 
A day trip outside the city took us to La Piedra de Peñol and the small city of Guatapé. Once again there was a physical challenge. I wasn't sure I was going to walk up the 750 steps to the top as it looked really difficult from below. I decided to start up and could always turn around. Amazingly, it was not as hard as it looked and the views of the lakes designed for hydroelectric power were beautiful from above. Next was the colorful town of Guatapé where each of the homes have relief paintings representing something about the family, the business or a design. It is mandatory for each of the historic buildings to continue this tradition and the creativity on each home was a delight to my eyes.

A driveway into the garage

And so we don't forget....we visited the Museo de Memorias, a museum to remember the long violent history and to make sure not to forget. There are interesting exhibits to help understand what the people of this country went through. A surprise visit along with the Barefoot Park (uneventful - a few shallow pools for walking through barefoot) was the Museo de Agua. Exhibits include the history of humanity and its involvement with water at every stage. Also are exhibits to show the importance of consciousness to water usage.

At park Arvi
We took the Metro Cable to Santo Domingo station and then 15 minutes more on another cable car to Parque Arvi, a large metropolitan park with many walking trails, a restaurant (with vegan bean soup), exhibits and more. We did a short walking tour with a guide about orchids and bromeliads.

Jardin Botanico
The Botanical Garden is a short walk from the University Metro station and a lovely spot to spend an afternoon in the beautiful shaded areas with many plants, trees and flowers including orchids. We came upon a large tortoise (Colombian slider) and an iguana as we walked around.

Back to "drawing a day"

To make a general summary of Medellin I would have to say that it is my favorite large city as there is so much to see and do and so easy to live without a vehicle using the public transportation system. We had 2 weeks so that was also a plus for getting a chance to learn the city. The people of Colombia are kind and generous in all ways, all of the time. They are a proud people and seem to be happy though I will admit we did not get to meet that many. Everytime I entered a metro someone graciously gave me their seat. I presume it has something to do with my age, but it was very kind anyway.

Now we are off to Bogota for our last few days and then back to Mexico for the next several months. Again, thanks for traveling with us.

Friday, January 25, 2019

To the beach !

Parque Nacional Tayrona
Our place in the jungle - Manigua Tayrona Hostel
The beach from the
 jungle -
Playa Los Angeles

I am not sure where I heard about this beach/jungle/National Park but I am sure glad that we decided to visit for several days. We stayed at Manigua Tayrona Hostel and once again living with many young backpackers and other travelers. I like finding hostels with private rooms as the "vibe" is different than a hotel. Right now there are 7 people all on their phones in the dining room - planning their next trip or ???  I've been talking to a woman who is traveling 5 months from Norway, and the others are German, English, Italian and Colombian. We have hardly met anyone from the US during our 5 day stay.

walking into our hostel over
a bridge
This is all in the National Park area though one has to walk in daily to avail of the park beaches. We walked about 5 miles into "El Cabo" and then out again. Along the way were several beautiful beaches and we spent time at La Piscina which was a very calm cove where swimming was great. Some of the beaches have dangerous waves and undertow and swimming is forbidden. It was another very long day of up and down rocks with sunny beach walking in between. We were both quite tired at the end and I decided that we would do nothing the following day, but we ended up going to Playa Los Angeles as I felt fully recovered.

The environment of this hostel, the people who worked there and the food were excellent and a pleasant place to spend a "vacation" during our vacation.


Leaving the Santa Marta area of Colombia we headed by bus to Cartagena in a small van of 11 people
for 4 1/2 hours which brought us right to our AirBnb in the center of the walled city. After a few days in this bustling city of African-Colombian people mixed with the Spanish-Colombian along the Caribbean Sea gives a feeling of "island" life. The city is very large, placed along the sea with high rise buildings in the newer part of town (we never went there). We spent most of our time in the walled city wandering the streets with beautiful, colorful buildings and interesting architecture. There are areas where no one ventured several years ago but now are revitalized with tourism growing moment by moment. There are large ships that dock in the harbor, evidenced by the large groups of tourists wandering around the city. We enjoyed, again, the free city tour which gave us a good background to the city.

Once again we came upon our favorite veg restaurants but also enjoyed having a kitchen of our own after weeks in hotels. As it is also very warm everyday, we are grateful to have an air conditioner in this apartment. We are happy that we came to Cartagena but it is our least favorite of the places we have visited so far in Colombia. I think that three days would been sufficient for our stay.

On our last day we decided to hire a taxi to take us to San Basilio de Palenque which is a small village a bit over one hour away. Below you will find the information I found on the web about this very unusual destination taking us back several hundred years.
Benkos Biohó

San Basilio de Palenque - the first free slave town in the Americas.  It is a small village nestled in the foothills of the Montes de Maria, a small mountain range to the south of Cartagena. It doesn’t appear in many guidebooks, and few tourists take the time to visit. However, this small settlement of some 4,000 people is one of the most important historical villages in the Americas and a UNESCO-declared ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ since 2005. 

Palenque was founded sometime in the 16th century by Benkos Biohó, a former African king from either the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola, who was sold into slavery and escaped the slave port of Cartagena in 1599. He fled his captors into the swamps and went on to form an army of escaped slaves who conquered the area.

Recording studio for local band
famous for Champeta
Biohó also created an intelligence network, which helped to facilitate more escapes. Eventually in 1605 the governor of Cartagena offered him a peace treaty. It was finalized with inhabitants of Palenque in 1612 before being violated by the Spanish in 1619, when they captured Biohó in Cartagena. He was executed by hanging in 1621 on the basis that his image was likely to inspire dangerous subversion among the slave population. Today he is immortalized in an evocative statue in the main square with his right arm reaching towards Africa, broken chains hanging from his wrists. 

The village of Palenque grew slowly in the early days when it was a small group of escaped slaves living secretly in the mountains. However, in 1691 the Spanish Crown issued a Royal Decree officially freeing the Africans in San Basilio de Palenque from slavery. This made them the first free Africans in the Americas and Palenque the first free settlement.

Famous Featherweight
world champion boxer born in
Palenque - Antonio Cervantes
aka Kid Pambelé
These former slaves maintained many of their African oral and musical traditions, including the only Spanish-Bantú spoken on earth, known as Palenquero. Influenced by the Kikongo language of Angola and Congo, it is only spoken today by roughly half of Palenque's residents but is recognized as the only Spanish-based Creole language that exists in the world.

We witnessed all of the above in person through a guide that spoke some combination of Spanish along with his native language. They are living so very simply in adobe or concrete one story houses with dirt roads. The government would provide paving but they choose as a community to keep the roads the way they were. They also have their own police system (similar to the indigenous communities around San Cris in Chiapas). I am happy I discovered this place to visit which gives a completely different view of a small part of Colombia. (Really different!) They are very proud people and well known for their particular style of music, their actors and boxing champion.

So, friends, we are leaving the beach and off to Medellin tomorrow for a nice long stay in an Airbnb. Thanks again for traveling with us.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Colombia....the first few weeks

A view from Montserrate
It is always exciting for us to visit a new country - here we are for our first two weeks in Colombia.  My first impressions are that the people are VERY friendly and aim to please. They are really happy to have tourists again visiting their beautiful country after many years of unrest. Things are better they say, though we are often warned to be careful of petty crime - as we would be warned in any place in the world. The people are very proud of their country and the varied terrain as well as variety of lifestyles from city to small villages, jungle and beaches. We will experience many of these during our travels.

We arrived and met a nice driver who was happy to share the important things to do in Bogotá, the capital. He recommended that we go off to get vaccinations before our trip to the Tayrona National Park along the beach/jungle in the north of the country and so he drove us early the next morning to the bus station where the vaccinations were to be given. We arrived to discover that we are too old for them - only given up to 59 years old. We were advised to take thiamine (Vit. B1) and lots of mosquito repellant which we will do. 

Some of the many graffiti walls
We spent our first day with a walking tour of the city including much of the history of the country. We always enjoy these free tours as the guides are enthusiastic and knowledgeable and work for the donations that each of the guests provide. The following day we did the Graffiti tour, mostly through the Candelaria neighborhood and found again how much we appreciate learning about this art culture. Bogotá supports this art form by donating buildings and space to artists to put up their work.

Botero Museum
"Free man"   Museo de Oro
A visit to this city is not complete without visiting some of the many museums and we went to the Botero Museum including much of his work as well as his large collection of impressionist and other paintings from every famous artist that we know. Another day was spent at the Museo del Oro.

poco o poco up the mountain
I think the main highlight of this part of the trip was our long walk up Montserrate - over 1500 steps to 10,340 ft from the city which is at 8,660 ft. We walked "lento pero seguro" (slow but steady) and were tired but happy at the end that we can still do physical challenges.

With Maritza
On our last day we connected with a friend, Maritza who lived in the same house with us for several weeks in San Cristobal de las Casas, MX  - we stayed in touch via Facebook and WhatsApp.

We enjoyed many vegan friendly restaurants and found the food to be very good. We have tried arepas (like a pancake made with corn - some with cheese, some with fillings and some just plain).

Villa de Leyva
A view from our hotel
We had a little idea about Villa de Leyva from friends Susan and Mayer in SMA who had rave reviews and recommended the beautiful Maria Bonita Hotel which was probably the best that we have stayed at during our many travels in the world. The town is equally beautiful and kind of like a Disney set - all white buildings with balconies with flowers and clay roofs. There were many lovely shops and restaurants and activities to keep us busy. Coming from the large city it was nice to be in a small, very walkable pueblo. We found an excellent restaurant with many options for us so enjoyed 3 meals in 3 days - happily eating only one meal/day (besides breakfast and maybe a snack of an arepa!). The restaurant was Savia and we would recommend it highly to vegetarian/vegans and carnivores alike. A very varied menu.
Javier - tour guide

The highlight of this few days was our tour with Javier from Sachica, a traditional village with connections to the indigenous Muisca people. From Javier we learned much of the history and culture of these people. Our walk of over 3 hours took us up a mountain to see the river valley below where we would walk down into a cave with drawings remaining of these people. Javier is an historian and had much to share with us. We ended the walk at the sulfur thermal waterfall. We are always thrilled when we find an adventure tour and usually, as this one, we are surprised along the way because the information given in advance is not always clear to us - partly language and partly because it is hard to envision these places we know nothing about.
Aguas termales

Walking the Camino Real
Now we are in the small village of Barichara, claimed to be "the prettiest village in Colombia". It is lovely but not sure it would stand as the prettiest of a whole country. It is smaller than Villa de Leyva and much more rustic. It is built high on a hill overlooking a deep canyon with several miradors. Once again there are good food options and we are in a lovely small hotel (Hotel Boutique Bocore) and in the low season which began after the new year, we are the only guests.
Ricardo's new friends

Again our adventure hike was the old indigenous Camino Real from Barichara to Guane - about 6 miles mostly downhill but carefully stepping as the whole route was large irregular stones. We walked one way and took a little bus back. We are now in a completely new climate zone with temperatures up into the 80's - my first day in a long time in short sleeves and we are headed to the coast where the temperatures will be warmer. Feels good after many cooler days. Of course we are remembering what it is like in the cold Northeast as we were there last year for the month of January. No complaining here!

Making paper from Fique (from agave plant)

drying the paper

Fique (from agave plant)
We spent our last day in Barichara walking up and down the streets and visiting the highlights - a paper making factory (Fundacion San Lorenzo de Barichara), the cemetery with interesting stones and markers, Parque de los Artistas (sculpture garden) and a Tuk Tuk ride around town to the various miradors, etc. Once again we found our very favorite restaurant - Shanti and we shall go back tonight. The owner after preparing and plating each dish says a short blessing before bringing each one to her guest. We felt the love!
Pineapple, ginger, mint at Shanti with
 uchuva fruit (small tart orange fruit)

All in all - very happy we chose this country to visit and we have another month of travels so will keep you posted as we make our way. Tomorrow we are off to the beach.

Thanks again for traveling with us.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Holidays in Ecuador


How lucky we are to be able to revisit favorite places in the world. We decided to go to Cuenca, Ecuador to spend the holidays with our Ecuadorean family - Yolanda, her parents and sister Marta. We had not been here for 5 years so it was time, especially as Papi is 95 and failing in health. It was good to see Mami doing well. It is a typical large family spread between Ecuador and the USA so there is always much to catch up on. It is a challenge but good for our comprehension as all speak only Spanish.
We arrived a few days before Christmas and had the chance to participate in the typical Cuenca holiday traditions which included this all day parade through the town - Pasada del niño viajero with families or groups dressed in their indigenous dress or other costumes. Many vehicles decorated and the end of the day has the baby Jesus coming into the main church in town, having traveled from church to church during the days before Christmas.

The holidays were spent with the family, going to Christmas eve mass and witnessing the blessing of each family's baby Jesus and then a late meal at home followed by a few gifts.
Tarabita over the river

Soon we were off to Baños de Ambato - a town that we visited twice before. We love it for its hot volcanic thermal waters. We spent our anniversary and left on New Years Eve back to Cuenca. During our time we did the various activities that are part of the very touristy town - la Ruta de las Cascades and La Casa de Arbol. Here I am putting many pictures rather than words for our memory. If you wonder why I write so much when we travel - it is for us. We just re-read our prior Ecuador trips to remind us of all the details that we experienced. Gives us a good idea of places we want to revisit.

Back in Cuenca for the new year. We could not leave the area, however, without visiting our favorite Parque Nacional Cajas - vistas, lakes, 12,000 ft altitude with various wonderful walks - we did the long walk around the Lago Toreadora.

Lago Toreadora, Cajas
We visited the town of Azogues, a mountain town with ruins of the pre-Incas - the Canaris (Cojitambo). We passed on the opportunity for a "limpiaza" or cleaning but Mami took this chance to clear out any negative energy.
Drawing with Erika and Diego

Mami's negative energy
is gone!

And for our last and very special day we spent it at Yolanda's little house in the country where all the food we ate was grown there - veggie soup, beans, corn and fruit. I had the great opportunity to draw with two of the young 11 year old neighbor kids. One, Erika, we had met early on during this trip and have decided to sponsor her for school each year. She is very talented and already motivated to do well. Her mother works for the family from time to time. We promised to come back to visit for her graduation from HS before she goes on to University. We will stay in touch as even the kids with very minimal means have cell phones (same in Mexico). It was a memorable day for all, for sure.
with Erika and Diego

Many thanks to Yolanda for the amazing hospitality and spirit of love that you bring to all around you. And to our friends and family, thanks again for traveling with us on this South American vacation. See you soon from Colombia.