Day 49-52: Medellín, Colombia
Our day started early in the morning in Quito as we had to leave the hostel at 6am to take the hour long ride to the airport (having airports an hour plus ride away from the city center seems to be a recurring theme in South America). Today was a travel day to begin our adventure in Colombia, the final leg of South America.
It was a relatively uneventful trip that included the typical two hour airport delay and lots of people watching. That is until we were boarding our plane after our layover in Bogota and saw crowds of people taking photos with guys in green. It was our first celebrity spotting on the trip—Alexis Henríquez and Reinaldo Rueda, who are apparently the center back and coach for the Atlético Nacional futbol club. Most of the team was on our flight to play a game that Sunday.
Upon departing the plane in Medellin, we were greeted by a throng of reporters, including ESPN, interviewing Rueda. It was quite the scene.
Medellín is an amazing city tucked into the Aburrá Valley in central Colombia. Most notoriously known internationally for Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel, the city has transformed over the past couple decades to be a culturally diverse, technologically advanced, and extremely friendly city. Once considered to be the most dangerous city in the world, that reputation is certainly something of the past.
We stayed in the Poblado neighborhood, which is an upper-middle class area known to be the center of Medellín nightlife. We were greeted at our hostel by a bubbly person named Lady, who might be our favorite hostel employee yet. She promptly led us to the roof that overlooked most of the city to join the hostel for an amazing group dinner. Not a bad way to start our first night.
After making new friends over dinner, we all headed out to see what the Medellín nightlife was all about. While most of Poblado is residential, there is a concentration of about 30 bars/restaurants around Parque Lleras. The area was crowded with tourists and locals, and provided us the means to show off our gringo dance moves to a mixture of Latin songs we didn’t understand.
The following day we took the metro to a downtown stop in search of an artesenal market we had been told about. The city seemed alive upon arriving in the main square as groups of locals sat drinking coffee, men pushed carts full of fruit through the street, and people rushed by on their way through town. This scene brought us back to the hustle and bustle that accompanied many major cities in Vietnam and Thailand.
One of the highlights of our time in Medellín was going to the futbol game between Atletico Nacional and Cali. It is unlike any sporting event we have been to in the US. Half of the stadium is filled with flag waving fans that jump and sing the entire game. While the game itself ended in a 0-0 tie, the atmosphere is something that we will never forget.
One great thing about traveling is the people you meet, and where you run into them. While waiting in line to get into the stadium, we ran into a guy that was on our Peru Hop bus. Random encounters like this make traveling that much more fun.
Day 53: Guatapé, Colombia
After a bustling weekend in Medellín, we took a local bus a few hours east to the vacation destination of Guatapé. The area is extremely beautiful as lagoons and waterways surround the colorful, sleepy town. The area is most famous for the Peñol de Guatapé, a giant rock sticking out of the ground dating back 70 million years.
Our hostel here turned out to be one of the best of our trip. The owner, an energetic man named Willy, did everything he could to make everyone have the time of their lives. From sponsoring two travelers to cook a dinner for everyone, to being the DJ with music videos, to having free beer all night, it was a special experience. Plus there were two tiny kittens that we couldn’t get enough of.
The next day was our only full day before going back to Medellín, and we certainly made the most of it. After breakfast we climbed the 750 stairs to the top of Peñol de Guatapé. The 360 degree views from the top are absolutely stunning.
After taking in the views for about an hour, we joined two new Canadian friends and headed towards a water park that we hoped would provide a bit of adventure.
While the water park was a bit of a disappointment (it was generally geared towards younger kids) the highlight of our time in the water was jumping off the bridge on the way there.
The town of Guatapé itself is a vacation destination for Colombians. The buildings are an array of colors, each one with a painted mural or picture along the side.
We spent a few hours walking around, stopping at a local cafe to enjoy some fresh fruit juice. The scene was fun to witness as decorated tuk tuks wound around the streets and locals hung out drinking beer and playing games.
Day 54: Medellín (again)
We could have easily spent more time in Guatapé, but more adventures in Medellín were calling our names. We took the local bus back to the city that evening with anticipation building of one last attraction: the metro cable.
The metro cable was built as part of the public transportation system to help locals get to the town center and facilitate growth. Our purpose was a bit different—take in the best aerial view of the city.
The ride takes about 10 minutes, and glides over some of the roughest neighborhoods of Medellín.
At the top, we took a few minutes to walk the neighborhood of Santo Domingo, which truly felt like a local experience. We stopped in a restaurant by the station to enjoy some food and the view. Here we made our biggest mistake of the day: ordering ceviche in a land locked city in a valley. The ceviche turned out to just be shrimp cocktail, but the view was still worth it.
Despite the ceviche experience, the food in Medellín was actually very good. The Menu Del Día (very inexpensive traditional lunch) consisted of the traditional Paisa food of a meat, soup, rice, “salad” and plantains. It usually costs between $2-3 and was the best traditional food we’ve had so far.
But still, like the rest of South America, 90% of meals are some form of starch and carbs, with limited or no vegetables. Like our super healthy breakfast…
At least reading the menu is always entertaining. Gotta love their translations…
Overall we loved Medellín. It is a city that we barely scratched the surface of and definitely plan to return to in the future.
Day 55-57: Montería, Colombia
We found a $75/person flight to Montería and quickly determined it was worth paying an extra $40/person to avoid the 8.5 hour bumpy bus ride from Medellín.
After a short 30 minutes in the air, we stepped out onto the tarmac into a steamy field with a heat index of 110°.
Montería is a nondescript town surrounded by flat cow pastures, completely off the tourist circuit. Many Colombians have never even heard of it, and the ones that have were confused by the fact that we were choosing to go there.
Back in Vietnam I had met Chelsie, a midwestern girl who was also traveling solo. We ended up sticking together for over a month, sharing some amazing and unforgettable adventures. She was also by my side when I met Lucas, and witnessed the beginning of our relationship.
We’ve kept in touch and when I found out she had moved to Colombia with her boyfriend to teach English, Lucas and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit. Friendships and stories like this are why we travel.
Because Montería is not on any tourists radar, many locals have never seen a gringo in person. Chelsie’s boyfriend, Kon, is originally from Zambia which makes it even more interesting.
The stares, whistles and honks as we walked around town were entertaining to say the least. Waiters would run to the back, point us out to his friends and they’d all look at us and giggle. Very few people speak any English, and their Spanish is so fast and heavily accented that we could barely understand a word—thankfully we had our local friends.
On our first day we took a stroll around the park, made friends with a giant iguana and hopped on a floating barge across the river. We grabbed a beer from a sidewalk shack and wandered around a sleepy neighborhood, passing stray animals and an endless parade of stares and yells from passing motorbikes.
A group of neighborhood kids were playing futbol in the street, and we challenged them to a friendly game—USA vs Colombia.
Like most of Colombia, Montería feels quite safe—this is even moreso the case in local areas that have no tourists to take advantage of. No one tries to pickpocket or rip you off. It was so nice to bring our camera and phones everywhere without thinking twice, and to be able to walk around empty streets at night simply enjoying the weather.
Our favorite experience during our stay here was visiting a volcanic mud bath an hour outside of the city. A local had told us about this location which is even more off the beaten path than Montería.
The four of us squeezed into a cab as our driver swerved around fruit stands, kids on donkeys and herds of cows crossing the street, we caught a glimpse of the Caribbean before being dropped off in an empty dirt lot with signs pointing to the volcano.
With just a few locals hanging around, we nearly had the place to ourselves and slowly entered the foreign substance, not knowing what to expect.
The mud is extremely buoyant and moving around is the oddest and most interesting feeling—it’s as if gravity is gone and you’re suspended in space. For under $2 each we were able to enjoy a unique experience with almost no one else there.
After scrubbing the mud off our bodies, we followed a trail along the coast to the nearest town. There were abandoned resorts, boats, horses and stray animals to greet us.
We grabbed a fish menú del dia lunch before heading back to Montería. It was the type of day we couldn’t have experienced without knowing someone local, and I’m so grateful for the friendships and connections that you gain through traveling.
Chelsie and Kon recently started their own travel blog at tatteredpassports.com, where they share about their experience teaching English and living abroad—definitely worth reading to learn more about this country and gain an interesting perspective.
From their recommendation, we left Montería on Sunday and headed to a tiny local fishing village on the Caribbean coast. As of now, we’re swinging in hammocks with our feet in the sand, planning out the remaining ten days of our travels in Colombia. Stay tuned for Part 2 of Colombia, catch up on our travel videos or find me on instagram/facebook/snapchat for our daily life in between. More stories to come!