I couldn't believe it when Deb booked her ticket to join me here for two weeks. I felt lucky having family fly halfway around the world to join me on my adventure. Especially at Christmas time.
With only two weeks together we had organised a tight itinerary, starting with a flight from Bogota to Medellin literally six hours after she arrived from her 31 hour journey from Perth.
Christmas is a beautiful time to visit Medellin. From the beginning of December the city is lit up by some 27 million Christmas lights stretching 750 kilometres long. This $10 million dollar annual project attracts thousands of visitors and on our first night Deb and I went to the river to view the lights. The whole river was covered in candles and on both sides there were illuminated houses. What a sight! There were also plenty of food vendors so our eyes weren't the only thing feasting as we tried a bit of everything, including chocolate covered apples which weren't worth the effort we took finding them. Luckily we were at the river early enough to avoid the crowds and rain which started as we were heading home. They say Medellin is the City of Eternal Spring, but I didn't realise they meant a Melbourne spring. Four seasons in one day.
Medellin is probably Colombia's most famous city due to one name. Pablo Escobar. In 1993, the year Escobar was killed, the homicide rate in Colombia was the highest in the world at 420 people per 100,000. In Medellin it was double that. Escobar was a cocaine trafficker, a drug lord. At the height of his power he was smuggling fifteen tons of cocaine a day into the States. That's half a billion dollars worth. This man, one of the worlds richest, was powerful. And dangerous.
Twenty years later Colombia, and the people of Medellin, the proud Paisas as they call themselves, are still rebuilding their city, trying to clean up the chaos Escobar created.
Deb and I were lucky enough to do a walking tour with a local called Pablo, and from him we learnt about the history of Medellin, about how the city didn't become rich from the drugs, but from gold and the railroad before hand. We also learnt that, through progressive policies and a famous transport system, this city is now considered one of the most innovative in the world.
As we walked through a concrete square bizarrely covered in huge giant poles, our Pablo told us about how Medellin is changing through architecture. In dangerous parts of the city, beautiful buildings or monuments are being built, giving new meaning to the area. This square used to be one of the most dangerous areas in the centre, an area where Pablo wouldn't even step foot in during the day. Now, through architecture, and building these LED poles, the place lights up at night and is a beautiful feature in the city. The same goes for the slums in the hills. Cable cars were built, giving the population access to other areas of the cities, so they could escape the violence of their own combos, or suburb gangs. In one slum at the top of the cable car, Spain donated money to build a modern, beautifully designed library, giving the people access to education as well as something to be proud of. As our Pablo said, these people feel proud that they have something to show to the outside world, to tourists.
We heard countless stories about the Paisas and their fierce loyalty to their city. They have one of the best public transport systems in the world and I even teared up when Pablo spoke about Medellin's feelings about this. Trains, for god sakes. He spoke beautifully though, and we did notice heading home that night, that Pablo was right. The Paisas, the proudest people, love their public transport system so much that there wasn't a dot of graffiti anywhere. Not a drop of rubbish to be seen.
Two nights in Medellin is not really enough time in the city but with miserable weather, a tight schedule and Christmas Day sneaking up, that was enough for us. We caught a flight to Santa Marta on Colombia's Caribbean coast and taxied straight to Taganga which is a tiny fishing village over the hill from the small city.
Taganga draws in hoards of backpackers due to cheap diving and the village has a reputation for a good party (and a lot of muggings). We only used our stay in Taganga as a stopover to Tayrona National Park. Since we wanted to head to the park on Christmas Day our Christmas Eve afternoon was spent on Skype to New Zealand, Australia and Dad in the States and it was great seeing everyone's faces and wishing them a Merry Christmas. Am sure NZ probably didn't appreciate their Christmas starting with a panicked call from Colombia though, as Deb had left her credit card in the ATM at the Santa Marta airport. No drama in the end fortunately as it was cancelled pretty promptly. Thank god for the internet.
I am pretty spoilt when it comes to beaches so when I say Tayrona National Park is paradise, that's a big call. The park covers 150 square kilometres and from the beach you can look back and see the mountains. Sierra Nevada reaches an altitude of 5,700 metres above sea level and just 42 kilometres from the coast makes it the worlds highest coastal range. We took at bus leaving Taganga at 8am on Christmas morning and had packed for two nights away. It's a couple of hours hike from the park entrance into Cabo San Juan, the beach we wanted to camp at. There are other camp sites at Arrifices but currents are too dangerous here so you can't swim. Cabo San Juan is perfect for swimming so we checked into the camping ground and were given a couple of hammocks.
The next two days were spent lazing on the beach reading and sunbathing, exploring other beaches, taking a lot of star jump photos and drinking and eating plenty of coconuts. Heaven. On our last day we also did the two hour hike to Pueblito (little town) where a small population of indigenous people still live. They are wrong when they say the hike is mid level. It was tough even for Deb and I and sometimes it felt like we were rock climbing rather than hiking.
For me Tayrona is one of my must do recommendations for Colombia. Even with the Christmas crowds, it was perfect.
After the park we stayed another night in Taganga, doing laundry and scrubbing away three days of salt, sweat, sunblock and insect repellant. We then booked a bus to Cartagena where we wanted to see in the new year.
Cartagena is Colombia's Jewel of the Caribbean. It is a stunning city, similar more to Havana, Cuba, than it's fellow countrymen Bogota and Medellin. Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in 1533 and was the main South American port, playing a key role in the expansion of the empire. The old town is surrounded by a wall built to keep out pirates who had heard of the treasures the Spanish were stealing from the indigenous people. The new town, or Bocagrande, to me seems like a poor mans Rio, with skyscraper apartments lining the grubby and packed beach.
One afteroon we signed up to visit the El Totumo mud volcano which was a bizarre but fun experience. The volcano looks kind of man made but local folk lore says a local priest turned the fire and lava pit into mud, believing it was the work of the devil. How did he do this? Holy water of course. We climbed down the stairs into the thick mud. Even after firmly saying no to the men offering massages for $2 I was told "tranquillo" and made to lie flat on my back before being subjected to a very strange and not so tranquil massage. Although it was impossible to sink in the mud it was hard to stay upright and we had fun squirming around. A lot of hands and legs were going everywhere so it was sometimes a little awkward. To get the mud off we had to go down to the lake where local ladies took off our bikinis before scrubbing us as we hid under the muddy water.
On New Year's Eve and Debbie's last full day with me we headed a 50 minute boat ride out of Cartagena to Playa Blanca, on Isla Baru. This is a beautiful island with the clearest blue water. And hundreds of tourists. We managed to find a spot in the morning that was quite isolated but then joined the masses later in the afternoon as were a little confused about how and when we would head back to the city. No real minor hiccups getting back. Except our boat ran out of petrol five minutes from the harbour.... Oh, South America!
It took me a couple of days of missing my travel twin to finally get used to being on my own again. Of course I did this the best way a girl knows how: by eating away my sadness.
It's my last night in Cartagena tonight. My last night in Colombia. My last night in this beautiful continent South America. And all I can think about is whether or not to have one of the Plaza Trinidad burgers tonight. One more time. I hope my stomach is with me on this.