Medellín: The City of Eternal Spring
Welcome to Medellín! Nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring for its moderate temperatures and pleasant climate. I’d have to agree. The weather was perfect nearly every day, full of sunny skies and cool calm evenings.
My journey to Colombia began in Cartagena just a few days prior. And after Medellín my plan was to explore Salento and Quito, Ecuador with day trips to Mindo and Otavalo. I had purchased one way tickets, both into Colombia and out of Ecuador with plans to visit as many cities as possible along the way spending three to four days in each.
The flight from Cartegena to Medellín lasted an hour and is not to be taken lightly. As I flew in, the views of the city from above are mesmerizing. The hills, mountains and valleys were every shade of green, thick and lush. I was shocked to learn that nearly two and a half million people live in the nooks and crannies of such steep mountains.
And as I later learned, flights within Colombia are super cheap and easy to come by but don't plan on flying out of Colombia to a nearby country such as Ecuador. The prices are ten times the amount. You'll be stuck traveling over land which is great scenery-wise but takes a tremendous amount of time and is not for those with a weak stomach.
That evening, I checked into Sugar Cane Hostel and booked a day trip for the following morning. The owner recommended El Peñol in Guatapé, about a two hour drive. I’ve learned there's no time to waste on planning. Ask your hostel what's best to do the moment you arrive so you don't miss out as activities tend to book quickly.
For a much needed meal I walked over to El Poblado and chose a really cute place named Shanti Cocina Vital. Everything from the service to music to lighting and design was perfect. I tried the ceviche and beef and octopus carpaccio. It was wonderful. As Colombians would say, es muy rica (tasty, rich, delicious).
Day 1: Morning | Experience Live Music, Breakfast at a Local’s Home & Jump Off a Bridge
At 9 a.m. the following morning, Rafa and his counterpart arrived at the hostel in their Scooby Doo van and we were off. Rafa operates private tours with Van por Colombia around Medellín for a bit above average price-wise but it's worth every penny (I even tipped $20 US at the day’s end). Honestly, I can say I've never had so much fun on a tour.
Typical tours bus 30-40 people around touristy spots and regurgitate facts and figures as needed. On the other hand, Rafa's group is smaller and more intimate (maybe a dozen) and is packed full of surprises and real authentic Colombian experiences along the way.
We zoomed around El Poblado picking up a dozen others, a Canadian, Argentinian, Dutch, American, Irish and began the climb up and out of the valley. Rafa let us know we would be taking a longer route in order to see and learn more. I'm in!
Almost immediately a young boy jumped in from the side of the road and began a live performance. I have to admit there are moments during my travels that I stop and think, "Damn, how'd I get so lucky?" This was surely one of those moments.
Next up, we stopped by Rafa's home for a delicious spread of eggs with tomatoes and sauce, toast, guacamole, fruits, tea and coffee. It was such a special experience to be in a foreign country in a local’s home eating a meal together with other travelers.
As breakfast wound down Rafa told us to jump on top of his van so we could take a photo. Hesitantly, we all piled up there one by one, and I'm so glad we did. It's one of my favorite photos from this crazy adventure.
Next thing we know Rafa got into the van and began driving. Everyone held on for dear life shouting about their backpacks and sunglasses left behind. He slowly moved over the bumpy roads for a mile or so, whipping us in the face with trees and shrubs as we went.
The scenery from the top of the van was insane. As far as the eye could see everything was green and full of life. Huge puffy clouds brought dark shadows over the landscape but passed quickly letting the sunlight peak through.
The van made a quick stop for some fruit which I thought was a new kind but turned out to be a type of passion fruit (granadilla in Spanish). Be sure to grab a bunch, they’re delicious.
The van made it’s way to a local bridge where some of the group jumped off into the lake while others relaxed in the sun with a beer, courtesy of Rafa.
As we moved on, our van got stuck because of a dump truck filling with dirt. They were using a pulley system to carry the dirt across the river from a boat below. We waited until the truck was full of dirt and pulled away to squeeze through.
On our way to Gautapé we noticed the lake water was unusually green. Rafa told us the chemicals from boats spur algae but I'm not so sure I buy that story.
Day 1: Afternoon | Climb El Peñol & Explore the Town of Gautapé
Finally, we arrived at El Peñol. Just the sight of the rock was unbelievable. I was shocked to learn that we were going to climb over 700 steps to the top. The climb was a real struggle even though I had been working out nearly six days a week at home. Altitude is a bitch. Cost $2 US.
The views from the top were out of this world. Story has it the little islands were formed by purposefully flooding the area but I'm not sure there's any truth to that story either. In any case, the colors were gorgeous shades of blue and green.
After an exhausting hike up and back down El Peñol our group met up with Rafa for a delicious meal prepared in the back of his van (talk about husband material). Rafa cooked pork, chicken and beef dishes, along with salad, lentils, rice, potatoes, olives, pickles, star fruit, broccoli and radishes.
With full bellies we were off to the quaint little town of Guatapé. Everything in the town was bright and colorful. Each house was painted with icons representing their personal family traditions. It was definitely interesting to see the diversity.
Our group wandered the town in search of souvenirs. A few of us ordered coffee or tea and relaxed in the square where I bought a real fancy poncho. To remember such an exciting day we took a group photo.
After such an eventful day you'd think everyone would pass out on the way home but think again. Our two hour ride was full of partying in the Scooby Doo van (imagine loud Colombian music, high speeds and numerous beer stops). It was such an amazing time. The group, guide, food, sites, music, everything was perfect. Just before our arrival back into Medellín, one last stop to view the city lights from a vantage point. Simply magical.
Day 2 | Paraglide Over the City
The following day I jumped on board with a few others at the hostel going paragliding (a steep $75 US but totally worth it). The tour arranged for our transportation up into the hills and we were off. The taxi zoomed back and forth through the busy streets and by the time we reached the high altitude for our jumping destination I was nauseous.
One by one, we were strapped in with an instructor attached and told to run off the edge of the cliff. Talk about insane. Once up in the air the views of the entire valley were extraordinary. The instructor spent a few minutes recording with his GoPro and taking photos and then began to climb up and up and up, going slowly in circles.
After about ten minutes, we began our descent. In total, we spent 20 minutes up in the air and honestly I was completely shocked I didn't barf all over everyone circling below. Perhaps, motion pills would have helped some. Also, be sure to check your SD card if you purchase the video and photos. My files were never able to open due to an error.
Off to a new city just as soon as I enjoy a nice breakfast and a cup of café con leche at a super cute spot near my hostel called Al Alma Café.
With that I was off to the bus station. I purchased a ticket to Salento costing 45,000 COP (Colombian Peso) or about $15 US. The ride was to begin at 11 a.m. and arrive at 6 p.m. in a medium-sized bus of 18 other passengers. The drive was beautiful but jarring. Our driver went as fast as humanly possible, weaving in and out of traffic, speeding over cliffs and around sharp corners. I was stuck in the very back without any air in 90 degree heat and so happy to arrive in Salento, surprised we made it alive.
Sugar Cane Hostel offers a cozy home-like atmosphere about a ten minute walk from the craziness of the Poblado area (think Cancun senior spring break). Each morning is a serve yourself breakfast on the rooftop where you can use basic ingredients to whip up coffee, eggs and toast.
Rooms are simple but provide everything one needs. There are lockers to store more valuable items in the hallways and single bathrooms which are great. It was super clean and the staff was incredible. They were very helpful and knowledgeable about the local area (other than coffee shops which I found on my own). Try Al Alma Cafe just down the street. The food and coffee are both amazing and it's an adorable little spot.
If I had one complaint it would be the noise level. Although it's really nice to have someone at the door 24 hours a day the only way to enter was a loud buzzer (and I'm talking LOUD). I jumped out of bed a few times throughout the night. The owner did say he was working on changing the system to a quieter one.