Casa de la Memoria: Tratando de Dar Sentido a un Legado de Violencia

Llegamos a la Casa de la Memoria– el museo en memoria de las víctimas de las guerras civiles colombianas- esperando respuestas. Pero cuando llegamos al final de la exposición tras poco más de una hora, mis amigos y yo nos mirábamos los unos a los otros confundidos.

¿No se suponía que esta exposición iba a darnos algún tipo de explicación sobre la extensa historia de los conflictos internos de Colombia, que ha dejado tantos muertos y a una nación entera traumatizada? Yo esperaba algo dentro de una línea de tiempo que pusiera los eventos en su contexto, el auge y el declive de los conflictos, y una explicación de cuándo y cómo las cosas empeoraron tanto. No había ninguna descripción de quiénes eran exactamente los buenos y los malos ni de lo que hicieron. Sólo había …. recuerdos.img_3267

Pero queríamos una explicación.

Confusos e insatisfechos, nos acercamos a uno de los guardias de la exhibición con nuestro dilema. “Disculpe,le dijimos. “Lo siento, pero estamos confundidos. ¿Qué es esto? Sentimos que nos falta una explicación de lo que sucedió en la guerra civil de Colombia. Vinimos aquí porque queríamos comprender y, simplemente no lo conseguimos.”

Él no tenía una explicación o una cronograma, pero su respuesta fue perfecta, y así, ese día salimos de la Casa de la Memoria muy satisfechos y con la sensación de que de alguna manera habíamos comprendido lo que es extremadamente difícil de comprender.

La exposición no da una imagen clara o explicación de la guerra porque no la hay. El conflicto interno de Colombia no es como otras guerras que conocemos, entre dos bandos, con una fecha de inicio y fin, y una clara secuencia de eventos que separe de una cosa a la otra. Lleva ocurriendo desde siempre, todavía está pasando. Lo único que se puede hacer es reconstruir los recuerdos y testimonios que se tienen de diferentes fuentes en los últimos años y llorar.

“Ni siquiera conocemos nuestra propia historia” nos explica el guardia, Sebastián. “Ustedes no creería cuántos colombianos vienen a visitar este museo y se sorprenden por lo que ven. Esto se debe a que los medios de comunicación controlan todo en este país y se esconde cosas de ellos. Lo que no ven en la televisión, no existe. “

“Si los colombianos saben tan poco sobre su propia historia, imagina lo poco que el resto del mundo entiende de lo que está pasando aquí.” Se plantea un debate muy bueno.

Estoy bastante segura de que el resto del mundo piensa que hay un culpable principal en el drama de Colombia: drogas. En realidad, esto es sólo una pieza del rompecabezas y el más reciente, aparece en la década de los 80 con el villano más notorio que lleva su batalla: Pablo Escobar. Pero el conflicto ha existido en Colombia desde los primeros colonizadores españoles que llegaron en 1543. Lo peor y con más larga duración ha sido entre el gobierno y los grupos políticos radicales: las fuerzas paramilitares radicales de extrema derecha y las guerrillas de extrema izquierda. Pero no es sólo una izquierda radical y una derecha radical, hay muchos de ellos que luchan los unos contra los otros. Cuando la cocaína y las guerras de la droga entraron en escena en los años 80, la batalla se puso aún más sangrienta. Recientemente ha surgido un nuevo jugador para complicar aún más el problema, las bandas criminales, que también están luchando por su parte de tierra, poder y dinero. Ahora, imaginemos que todo esto tiene lugar bajo un gobierno débil y corrupto. Todos estos grupos, más el gobierno, están trabajando con y uno contra el otro, y cambian de bando frecuentemente. Así que no estamos hablando de una guerra entre dos bandos. Estamos hablando de muchas guerras, entre muchos lados de muchos grupos diferentes rebeldes, en el transcurso de muchos años. La verdad se ha perdido en el fuego cruzado.

Y también lo han hecho millones de personas inocentes. Colombia todavía está traumatizada por los homicidios, desapariciones y desplazamientos de millones de civiles en los últimos años debido al conflicto. La escala del sufrimiento es inmenso y más allá de toda medida.

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Sebastián nos explica que, en su opinión, son los millones de desapariciones lo que más pesa sobre Colombia en la actualidad. Esta guerra se ha cobrado más desaparecidos y desplazados como víctimas que cadáveres físicos. El dolor infligido a las familias y seres queridos por los secuestrados es cruel e inusual. Ellos nunca tendrán respuestas. No llegarán a superar su duelo correctamente.

Cuando el gobierno inició conversaciones de paz con los grupos rebeldes y llegaron los primeros compromisos para la entrega de armas, muchos colombianos se sintieron indignados de ver que el gobierno estaba negociando con aquellos que destruyeron sus vidas, antes de hacer por ayudar a las víctimas reales de su guerra. En 2011, el gobierno de Colombia respondió a esta indignación con la Ley de Víctimas, para proteger a las víctimas de este legado de violencia. Parte de esta ley les daba un espacio para contar sus historias. La Casa de la Memoria es ese espacio. La que visitamos en Medellín es la primera de este tipo, pero se está construyendo otra en Bogotá, y hay más casas como ésta planificadas para las principales ciudades de todo Colombia. Cada ciudad ha sufrido su propia historia de la violencia y la guerra civil. No hay suficiente espacio en el mundo para la cantidad de dolor Colombia está sufriendo.

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Es increíble cómo la exposición que nos desconcertó tanto al principio, en realidad tenía una finalidad muy clara: hacernos entender al nivel más profundo de lo que trata el pasado violento de Colombia. Es confuso, está sin resolver, y realmente no tiene respuestas o explicaciones claras. Sólo los recuerdos dolorosos de un país que ha sido traumatizado por un legado de conflicto y derramamiento de sangre que trata de curarse a sí mismo.

Si bien Colombia ha recorrido un largo camino en los últimos años, Sebastián nos recuerda que el Medellín y la Colombia que experimentamos como turistas es sólo una cara de un país con muchas caras. Medellín se ha ganado un nombre como “ciudad innovadora”, pero hay un montón de problemas que aún se están tratando de resolver, las cuales que la mayoría de los turistas que van y vienen del país sin tener que darse cuenta. Entiendo a Sebastián, pero creo que el hecho de poder venir a Colombia ahora y tener ese tipo de experiencia es inestimable. Hace diez años no hubiéramos podido pisar la ciudad más peligrosa del mundo, y si nos hubiéramos atrevido a hacerlo, sin duda seríamos conscientes de que había un conflicto sucediendo a nuestro alrededor. Ahora es el numero dos en la lista de Lonely Planet de Mejores Viajes, adorado por una cantidad cada vez mayor de visitantes de todo el mundo cada año. Así, mientras yo le creo cuando dice que todavía están tratando con su parte justa de los problemas, simplemente no hay duda de que están haciendo algo muy bien, o si no miles de viajeros no estarían hoy aquí, felices y enamorados de este país.

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Carly’s Guidelines for South America (also applies to South East Asia)

South America is the adventure of a lifetime. I have completely fallen in love with the chaos and charisma of this continent. However, I think that in order to appreciate and enjoy them, there is a certain frame of mind you need to acquire when you’re traveling through places like this. You’re not in Europe. You’re not in US. You’re not in the first world, so you have to be prepared for the differences you’re going to experience and subsequent challenges they may present. So, upon returning, I have compiled this list of guidelines for traveling South America. This list would also apply to South East Asia and I’m sure many other third world countries accustomed to tourism.

#1: Listen to the Locals

I would say that I owe the fact that I traveled for five months through South America without anything bad happening to me to the locals, with the aid of my own common sense (it’s important to have that while traveling 😉 ). I found that people would usually inform me about which areas to avoid or warn me to say, watch my purse, without me even having to ask them. Years of traveling have shown me that people are generally good, and they want to help and protect you from the ones that aren’t so good if they can. I always felt like somebody had my back the whole time I down there, when common sense alone didn’t cut it.

#2: Have Change!hipstamaticphoto-514841781.589933

The photo above cracks me up every time I look at it. I was so delighted when I saw this to be able to snap a photo of a sign that captures this widespread dilemma that all of us travelers were facing throughout South America: nobody ever has change for you. The irony is that ATM machines will always disperse large bills, but not many people will be able to break them for you. It starts to get frustrating when pretty much anything larger than exact change is too big for a vendor to break, or he ends up having to run down the block to get change from his buddy for you and taking fifteen minutes to come back. So, the best advice I can give you is to change out those big bills in a big supermarket (the corporate, chain variety of supermarket that can handle larger amounts of money) as soon as you get them and just have change on you all the time. It will save you a lot of time and headaches as you travel and spend.

#3 Go directly to the agency to book your tour

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The only real negative experience that I have from my 5 month trip involves being conned by a “captador” or tout at a bus station upon arriving at Huaraz at six in the morning who ended up selling us a tour for double what it actually cost, lying to us about what we were getting in the tour, and disappearing into thin air once the money changed hands. It was a rookie mistake and I absolutely should have known better than to listen to this type of character with the experience I have traveling, but the point is they are preying on tired travelers who just got off of long uncomfortable overnight bus journeys or who don’t speak Spanish. In a weak moment, it’s easy to follow these people who promise to take care of it all for you. But they are not your friends and they are not trying to help you.

In any case, before you book any tour anywhere you should talk to people who have already done it and find out what the going rate is for the service. This is what we should have done BEFORE booking the Santa Cruz trek through the tout, instead of finding out during the trip that everyone else in our group paid half of what we did. The saddest part is that all that extra money went directly into this crook’s pocket, instead of to our guide, the donkey driver, the van driver, and the people who actually do the work for it but, end up getting paid very little. So, avoid people on the street trying to sell you tours and go directly to an agency to find out what you should be getting and what you should be paying while traveling.

Our guide and the donkey driver: they deserved the money!

#4 Don’t expect the tour that you were pitched (especially at a backpacker price)

We may have been the ones who got ripped off the worst monetarily of our group on the Santa Cruz trek, but every one had at least one thing to complain about that wasn’t as advertised when they booked the trip. I can say that this pretty much rings true for every single tour I booked in South America: Not once were things as advertised. They will always talk it up in the agency when you are booking but at the end of the day, if you are booking a cheap tour at backpacker price, you get what you get. Now, there does exist the option of paying more money to get a better, private service for people who can manage it. If I weren’t a long-term backpacker trying to make my money stretch as far as it could, I would certainly sign up for one of those and save myself the frustration of feeling lied to all the time. But I think whether or not you can do that, the best thing is to keep your expectations low and don’t ever assume that things should or will be the way that they were pitched to you when you were booking, because they will not be and you will only feel annoyed and disappointed.

#5 Check Trip Advisor reviews

Continuing on the same theme/rant/lesson learned from #3 and #4, before you book any tour anywhere- check Trip Advisor! For example, when we looked up the tour “agency” we booked the Santa Cruz trek with (“Jhonny Tours” they were called, by the way) afterwards, we read that they are touts and crooks and to avoid them at all costs like I am telling you to do now. If only we would have checked Trip Advisor first! The same thing happened for our Amazon experience: there were several problems with our lodging, and we found all of them discussed in the Trip Advisor reviews of travelers who went before us when we checked afterwards. So I’ve definitely learned my lesson now to always check Trip Advisor BEFORE booking anything, again to save yourself the frustration of feeling deceived and let down.

#6 Bargain for Everything

Anyone who has experienced traveling in third world countries knows that the first price you are quoted is not the price you are supposed to pay. If there isn’t a price tag on it- and even sometimes when there is- you are meant to haggle for the price of what you’re getting. Bargaining can actually be fun once you get the hang of it, while in contrast not knowing how to bargain can make your travel experience miserable. I like being able to bargain because it gives the buyer back some power, otherwise you are going to feel like you’re getting ripped off all the time. I don’t blame them- if you are living in poverty and you can get some clueless gringo to pay three times what they are supposed to for something, why wouldn’t you? Of course they have to try. And you don’t have to let them. You can assert your power as the buyer by entering into the beautiful exchange of bargaining.

The general rule of thumb is to start by offering them half of what they first quote you. They are going to start with an unreasonably high amount, you will counter them with a low amount, and then you will keep going back and forth until you finally reach a price that both the buyer and seller are happy with. I’m telling you, it can be fun!

BUT there is one important thing I really want to stress about bargaining: Do it respectfully. If you are in a country where this is practice, it is most likely a poor country, and the person you are bargaining with is much poorer than you are. A few extra cents or dollars to them is a lot more than it is to you, so keep this in mind and be considerate. Don’t insult them or their service by refusing to give them a fair amount, so that they can make some profit off of what they’re selling. Respect, respect in general: remember you are a guest in THEIR country, and also you are representing YOUR country- and you want to be a good ambassador, don’t you?

#7 Cash is King

One thing that I have learned from traveling is that having a credit card and being able to buy things with invisible money is an enormous privilege that most of the world can not afford. They deal with real, tangible money and they need it to survive. So don’t be surprised if you go days or weeks without finding a place that will take a credit card for anything. Be prepared and have cash to spend wherever you go. And be grateful that you are privileged enough to have access to such a thing as a credit card, which is not the norm on world-wide scale.

I have seen travelers let these these things get to them to the point that it interferes with them enjoying their trip. It’s happened to me. That’s why it’s important to relax and try to understand where you are. Put yourself in a certain frame of mind to be prepared for these types of frustrations. Let them go, laugh them off, and learn to appreciate the differences instead of resist them. After all, this is the reason why we travel: to experience something completely different. We can’t expect that all of the differences will be extraordinary and beautiful without carrying some downsides as well.

 

Crossing the Border Done Right

My first border crossing in South America was a delightful experience, minus the fact that it ultimately amounted to leaving my beloved Colombia behind me (for now), with that sweet and sad desire to be able to go back and do it all over again.

If you are coming from Cali or anywhere east, it’s going to take you a couple of days to make this crossing.  My advice is NOT to spend the night in Ipiales, the town from which you will cross the border, like many people do. There is a much more interesting way to do this.

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Colorful street food vendors in the University town of Popayan

From Cali, take a three and a half hour bus ride to Popayan and either spend the night there or the day before heading to Pasto to sleep at night. While it may not hold one’s interest for more than a day, I was  surprised and amused to find that the small colonial town of Popayan is actually well worth a visit. The whitewashed houses stirred up nostalgia in me for my beloved Andalucia and it’s Pueblos Blancos. For anyone who has been there, there’s no doubting that the settlement of Popayan was some Spanish handiwork.

A hike up to El Morro, the statue atop a hill with beautiful views and a very cool perspective of the whitewashed city, takes about an hour round trip and should definitely be included in your visit.

Next stop: Pasto. Now we are only 2 hours from Ecuador and 8 miles from one of Colombia’s’ most active volcanoes, the first in a string of many that extends into Ecuador. Pasto is well worth a stop just to check out the gorgeous Laguna de la Cocha and the surrounding mountain village. You can get a “collectivo” or shared ride up to the lake from Pasto, it takes about 45 minutes and costs a little over a dollar.

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Laguna de la Cocha is not on the tourist trail at all and, as it is also their winter right now, we were literally the only foreigners up there. As you can see the village itself is stunning, decorated sweetly with a cute and colorful alpine feel. Plan on having lunch here and taking a ride around the lake in one of these beautiful boats, which will cost you about ten dollars. The island in the middle of the lake is a national park with many bird species that can only be found in this area. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go hike around the island and view them because we needed to cross the border and get to Quito that night and were in a bit of a time crunch. I strongly suggest leaving enough time to do this hike, it was sad to have to skip it!

I heard upon arriving to Pasto that they have a local specialty called Cuy, which was described to me as a kind of rabbit. Never the one to miss out on a local specialty, I made sure to leave time to track down this Cuy before leaving town. It turns out this was the first of many Cuys I was going to be exposed to, as it is also a popular delicacy in Ecuador. It also turns out that it is not a rabbit, in fact, but a guinea pig. Well, I had to try it once. And it does taste like chicken. But the experience of seeing all of it’s little body parts as I ate it was quite off-putting and I could barely finish mine. Needless to say I won’t be trying any more Cuy in South America.

Now it’s time to get down to business: Border Crossing. Warning: Make sure you plan to do this part during the day. It MUST be done in daylight to be safe. You cross the border from Ipiales but there’s nothing to see or do there so take the hour and a half bus ride straight from Pasto which will leave you at the bus terminal of Ipiales. BUT there is still one more important thing to see before you leave Colombia: Santuario de Las Lajas, an odd and amazing spectacle en route that cannot be missed. You can’t take a bus straight across the border anyways so it is worth you while to do the following:

Grab a taxi from the front of the bus terminal. Tell the driver you want to go to the border but make a stop at Las Lajas. The price of the cab shouldn’t be more than 25,000 pesos- just under 10 dollars. He will drive you to the sanctuary and wait for a half of an hour while you walk down and see it, before taking you to the border crossing. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this:

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The stunning Sanctuary Las Lajas is a unique sight in the world and cannot be missed in your border crossing

Spend a half hour marveling at this and then your ready to cross! The taxi driver will drop you off at Colombian immigration, where you have to get your exit stamp. You may feel a sadness and the tears welling up when you realize that you are leaving dear Colombia and the best part of your trip behind you, but try to be strong, stay positive and look forward to what awaits you in Ecuador….

Nooooo is it really all over? Colombia, I cannot wait to see you again!

 

After you get your exit stamp for Colombia you will literally walk across the border with all of your stuff to Ecuadorian immigration, where you will be asked to leave your bags outside (another reason why you want to do this during the day, while security is around) and go inside to wait in line and get stamped. The process was way faster and more straightforward than I anticipated. No one even scanned my bags, it was literally just waiting in line to get the stamp and then you’re good to go.

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You will literally walk across the border from one Immigration to the next

And that’s that! Easy peasy… once you walk out of immigration there are taxis waiting to take you to Tulcan, the closest border city in Ecuador from which you can get the bus to Quito and beyond. It should cost you about $2.50 (we’re in a new currency now, remember,  and it just happens to be one I am familiar with… Ecuador uses American dollars!) Get ready for a whole new experience because Ecuador is certainly different from it’s neighbor, but we like to give every new place a fair chance- or so I keep telling myself when I’m missing Colombia. Stay tuned for new Ecuadorian adventures to follow!

CALI: My favorite city in Colombia

Cali, sweet Cali… how is it that we almost missed you?

Because we almost listened to the people that said to “watch out, Cali is dangerous” or because we were worried about the weather being bad, neither of which turned out to be an issue at all. As with the rest of Colombia in general, the message  rings loud and clear: Don’t believe everything you hear! If I had I wouldn’t have gotten to know my favorite city in all of Colombia, nor my favorite country that I have traveled thus far.

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“Cali is Cali and the rest is just a hill”. Pay attention to the cat, we will come back to him later

When we decided to go check it out anyways, it was initially just for a day or two to “test the waters” after the unsettling things we had heard. That easily turned into an entire week, and even then I longed to stay more. A piece of my heart is still back there in sweet, surprising, Cali.

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I left my heart in Cali, Colombia

I didn’t get to know any other city in Colombia the way that I got to know Cali. From the day that we got there we were immediately accepted and integrated into the lovely, low-key neighborhood that we called home for one week,  San Antonio. We nodded and smiled to the locals as we walked past them, wishing each other “muy buenas dias”. Before I knew it they were my neighbors and my friends, people recognized us and giggled as they tested out what little english they knew to ask us how we were and how we were liking Cali. It’s hard to say that any one place in Colombia had the friendliest people, but my experience here was extra special. We joked about having celebrity status as the answer to anything that we asked was an enthusiastic “si, claro!”.

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Rio Cali which runs through the center of the city

 

I have to say in this case, I was kind of glad that so many people listen to the bad stuff and opt to simply skip over Cali because it meant that we had the place to ourselves to discover and fall in love with. As far as the “danger” factor our neighbors and friends had our back. Caleños are quick to warn you where to avoid. We simply heeded their advice and avoided those places, and made it out of Cali with nothing but beautiful, happy memories. Such as the following:

Cali for… SALSA!

You may have thought it was Havana, but Cali, Colombia is actually the capital of Salsa music, something that they are very proud of and rightfully so. Like Medellin, Cali also has undergone a transformation in the last decade from a capital of drug trafficking to the capital of Salsa, and the heart of the entire city seems to be thumping to that upbeat, happy sound. Therefore, a visit to the Museum of Salsa is a must, where you can learn about the city’s rich heritage with this genre of music. Since we were the only ones there, we were treated to a private tour of this museum, and even got free CDs when we left.

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This giant trumpet monument in front of the Salsa Museum in Cali is also a giant music box! When you step under the horns you can hear the “Cali Pachanguero”, Cali’s theme song by their most famous group, Grupo Niche, who helped create and elaborate the salsa genre.

A lot of people come to Cali to learn to dance salsa, and this is what I would have done if I’d had more time there. Needless to say, you can find salsa music to listen and dance to any night of the week here.

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A whole city thumping to the Salsa beat

Cali for… Cake!

Alright, this is not normal. I’m standing at an intersection and three of the four corner shops are “pastelerias” or cake shops, and this has been a frequent occurrence since we got to Cali. Why is it that this is such a big city for pastries and cakes? “Maybe because we are so sweet” one Caleño joked. Good answer! But the real reason turns out to be that Cali is the capital of Valle de Cauca, the region where most of the country’s sugar cane is grown and produced, and they have mastered the art of all things sugar. Apparently there is even a sugar cane museum in Cali that we didn’t make it to, preferring to spend our time in the pastelerias indulging in these sweet little masterpieces than learning about their production. It was time well spent and a big part of the reason why I call Cali the sweetest city so far, both figuratively and literally, of course.

Cali for …. Food!

It doesn’t stop with the pastries. I would label Cali a culinary destination for sure, and the best food that I have eaten in Colombia was here. In fact, part of the reason why we kept extending our stay is because there was still more food to try! The popular street food tour that takes you sampling your way through Cali’s main market for only $7 is an absolute must. I had the best seafood dish of my life in one of the many restaurants in that area around the market for less than $10, and the interesting Colombian version of ceviche- a big bowl of shrimp mixed in a salsa rosa (a mixture of ketchup, mayonnaise, and spices) with saltine crackers. Pre-Cali I wasn’t too impressed with Colombian cuisine, but the food I tried here was the best I’ve had in South America. I won’t deny that our Cali experience revolved heavily around food and eating.

The best ribs and seafood I’ve ever had, the cazuela de mariscos- a creamy casserole chock full of every seafood you can think of

Frozen limonadas de coco and the Colombian version of Ceviche

Tasting our way through Cali’s central market on the Street Food Tour

Cali for… Street Art!

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Every city in Colombia has cool street art, and most offer walking “Graffiti Tours” which are absolutely worthwhile and recommendable, but I was particularly enthralled with Cali’s colorful and creative murals, which constitute a great majority of the pictures that I took there. You could spend a day just walking around marveling at this stuff- we certainly did.hipstamaticphoto-513024649.245340

Cali for…. Cats!

The “Gato del Rio” or “River Cat” was a donation to the city of Cali from famous Colombian artist and sculptor Hernando Tejado in 1996 as part of an effort to clean up the city’s riverbanks (the Cali river runs through the center of the city) but now it has become the city’s icon. Ten years later, in the same effort to continue keeping the river clean, fifteen Colombian artists were invited to create “Las Novias del Gato” or the girlfriends of the original River Cat. Now the river is lined with these fun and artistic cat sculptures. Apparently, the striking amount of actual cats we noticed all around Cali is just a coincidence.

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I’m not much of a cat person but I did have a blast posing for photos with the famous “Gato del Rio” and his many girlfriends.

Cali for… Vistas! 

There are two very worthwhile viewpoints to check out while in Cali: the three crosses, which involves an early morning hike up a little mountain (you must go in the early morning when the police are present along the trail, in the afternoon it can be dangerous as thieves take advantage of the lack of police presence later in the day) and the Statue of Christ (you have to take a taxi to get up to him). Both were erected to protect and look after the city of Cali. Apparently he is one of the tallest Christ statues in the world. Not only are these fun, active things to do while in Cali (to help burn off all those pastries!) but you have fantastic views of Colombia’s third largest city and the surrounding mountains ranges.

So to conclude, the experience I had in Cali was certainly a special one, and the perfect end to an amazing ten weeks in this enthralling country. For one week we belonged to that neighborhood, to that city. For ten weeks I belonged to this country. I never felt so warmly embraced by any place in the world, save Spain which was home to me for four years. I wouldn’t change it for anything; I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. To have such a welcoming experience in a place you are just passing through is something I will never take for granted and that will keep me coming back to Colombia (and Cali!) again and again.

Hostel recommendation:

Along with the pastries and the food, our fantastic experience at Kingbird Hostel in the neighborhood of San Antonio is a big part of the reason why we just could not part ways with Cali! The awesome staff were immediately our friends and we are forever grateful to them for all the laughs, the recommendations for where to eat, and making us feel right at home in our favorite city. Make this your spot in Cali!

 

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Medellin, City of Hope

It is called the “City of Eternal Spring” for it’s consistently pleasant year-round weather.

It is called the “City of Hope” for the the remarkable transformation it has made and continues to make today. Over the course of a decade, it went from the murder capital of the world to one of the most progressive cities in all of South America.

Unlike the other places I have been to in Colombia, it isn’t about what there is to see and do in Medellin but rather, understanding the place and the people who live there that make it such a worthwhile travel destination.

The first thing you must understand is that, wherever you are in Medellin, you probably could not have stood there as little as ten years ago. During the reign of Pablo Escobar, the city was a war zone, torn between radical left and right wing political groups, drug lords and criminals who were all fighting for control. There were international travel advisories issued not to visit and even residents were fleeing for their lives from what was at that time considered the most dangerous city in the world.img_2878

You wouldn’t know it today. The transformation that Medellin has made from that period until now is remarkable and has not gone unnoticed. In recent years Medellin is receiving international attention and awards for being an “Innovative City” and an inspiration to other troubled places in South America and beyond. The rest of the world is catching on and tourists and expats are flocking to Colombia’s second biggest city to get a piece of the action.

The Medellin Metro


I’d been hearing about the famous Metro of Medellin since I arrived to Colombia. Even when I was traveling along the coast, whenever Medellin came up,  it was inextricably linked with their transportation system. “Medellin has a metro” people from all parts of Colombia would proudly inform me. So what’s all the hype about? Isn’t normal for big cities to have a metro?

Well to begin with, it’s not normal in Colombia. This is the only city in the entire country with a metro. When we speak of Medellin as an “Innovative City”, that is for it’s advanced developments in social progress and infrastructure. The metro and Medellin’s public transformation system embodies both of those things. It has served to connect poor communities that were once isolated and left to suffer under the merciless control of whatever rebel force controlled them. Now thanks to the metro and the impressive, far-reaching cable car system which goes high up into the surrounding hills and is included in the small price of a metro ticket (less than $1) these communities can feel included and have access to their city.

Comuna 13

Comuna 13, also known as San Javier, is a prime example of one such a community. Comuna 13 used to be the most dangerous neighborhood in the most dangerous city in the world. It’s position next to the highway made it hot property for narcos and criminals trying to control the drugs, guns and money going in and out of the city. Today it stands out, a beacon of color in an otherwise drab skyline.Now Comuna 13 is connected to Medellin by metro cable car and a series of outdoor escalators (like you would see in a mall). These were built to improve accessibility for the residents of the community but have turned into a major tourist attraction. Now visitors flock to this neighborhood to snap photos of the colorful street art that decorates the houses, part of a social youth project initiated in the community. The government has made big efforts in recent years to remove the degenerates from Comuna 13 and reunite it with the city, and they have paid off, turning Comuna 13 into a symbol of the city’s rebirth.img_9517

Click here for more Comuna 13 Photos

Real Cities Walking Tour

I began by saying that the value of the Medellin experience lies in understanding the place, the people and the history. That’s why this walking tour on the list of “musts” for Medellin. Over the course of four hours walking around the downtown area you learn from a local guide about the history of the city and the people. The residents of this region of Colombia are called “Paisas”, and having a guide that is local is important to share their personal stories and experience of their plight and their perspective on the city’s change.

“For the Paisa people, it is a miracle that you are here”

Our guide warned us at the start of the tour that for the local people it is still a shock to see outsiders in their city, so it is not uncommon for them to try and listen in, out of curiosity. Indeed, in almost every length of the tour at least one or two Paisas joined us, often asking questions about where we from and what we were doing here. You would think that they would be accustomed to seeing foreigners by now, as tourism in Medellin has been booming for years and these tours go through the center twice daily. Slightly traumatized from what they have lived through in their city, the fact that things have improved to the point that masses of outsiders would want to come and visit is still inconceivable to them, no matter how many times a day they see it. “We thought you would never come” one Paisa said to me. Our guide confirmed “For the Paisa people, it is a miracle that you are here today”. We could feel the eyes of the locals on us as we followed our guide around the center, I could feel their disbelief. “Welcome to Medellin” they would say in passing. One man stopped and shook my hand: “Thank you for coming to Medellin.”

Walking tours are a common part of tourism in any big city anywhere in the world, but this experience was unparalleled in my life.

Casa de la Memoria

In the same category of importance as the walking tour I have ranked “Casa de La Memoria”, the memorial museum to victims of the war of violence in Medellin and Colombia. I had to write an entire, separate post for this museum it made such an impact on me that you can read by clicking here.

Parque Arvi

You don’t have to leave Medellin to get your nature escape. You can arrive by public transportation to Parque Arvi, a breath of fresh air in the mountaintops high above the city. Watching the scenery change from city to shanty neighborhoods to fog and mountain greenery over the course of one cable car ride was an incredibly unique Medellin experience.

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At the top, there are several trails you can walk, waterfalls, camping, picnic areas and stalls from local vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, home-cooked Paisa food, and local, handmade jewelry and crafts.

Pueblito Paisa

Pueblito Paisa makes more sense after you have been to some of the surrounding villages in Antioquia like Guatape or Jardin. It is supposed to be a small recreation of a typical village from this region like those, with their brightly painted, wooden country houses and restaurants serving typical, local specialties. The other draw of going up to Pueblito Paisa are the stunning 360 views of Medellin, a city whose impressive infrastructure goes sprawling all the way up the surrounding hills and mountains in every direction. Pueblito Paisa is in the perfect position to put it into perspective, right in the middle of it all.

Outstanding 360 views from Pueblito Paisa

 Author’s Note

Writing these posts about Medellin and Casa de la Memoria took me longer to write than anything else so far. It’s difficult because there are so many different opinions and it’s such a touchy subject for a lot of people. The more time I spend in Colombia the more complex the whole thing gets and I question how much I really do understand about what this country is going through. So I just want to make it clear that I am only transmitting here my impressions as I try to learn about and understand something that is extremely complicated and sensitive.

I am aware that us visitors are only seeing one side of Medellin and Colombia, and the Colombia I experience is going to be a far cry from what the local people have lived. Still, from my humble, outsider point of view I really think there’s no two ways about it: ten years ago we couldn’t be here, and today, not only are tourists coming by the masses, they are falling in love with the place and staying longer, even relocating here. This kind of transformation for the better in such a short amount of time is unheard of in the world. They are definitely doing something really right.

Colombia is amazing: it’s colors, it’s coffee, it’s Caribbean, beautiful people, scenery and culture; but it’s also these things that I’ve talked about in these articles. It wouldn’t be right to rave about how awesome traveling Colombia is and not address this part of it. There isn’t a country in the world without ghosts in their closets and problems that they have had to overcome and here is no different. That being said, learning about Colombia it is probably the most rewarding part about being here, and strengthens my adoration for this country and the people who have endured so much.

Guatapé Photo Gallery

Guatapé is a tiny town about an hour and a half north of Medellín and a must if you find yourself in the city. A lot of people go as a day trip but I recommend staying a night or two to chill out and really enjoy the place, which offers a refreshing break from the craziness of Medellín. There are also a few interesting things in the surrounding area to visit that make it worthwhile as a multi-day trip.

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Without a doubt the most colorful place I’ve stood in my life

Guatapé  is known as the “Village of Zocalos”, which are these hand-painted reliefs that decorate the facade of nearly every building in the town. Sometimes they have to do with the business or the family that resides in the building. Sometimes they’re just a pretty decoration. But they’re always cute and colorful.

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Even the stairs have Zocalos

From the town of Guatapé you can easily spot the other famous feature of this area, the rock of El Peñol.img_2690

It’s only a 10,000 peso ($3) cab ride from Guatapé, and 18,000 peso ($6) entry fee, and 740 steps to climb to the top of El Peñol, where you can see amazing views over Guatapé and the surrounding valley. hipstamaticphoto-510791193.327431

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Casa de la Memoria: Trying to make sense of a legacy of violence

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We came to Casa de la Memoria– the memorial museum for the victims of Colombia’s civil wars- expecting answers. But when we arrived at the end of the exhibit less than an hour later, my friends and I were looking to each other, confused.

Wasn’t this exhibit supposed to give us some kind of explanation for Colombia’s long history of internal conflicts that left so many people dead and an entire nation traumatized? I expected something with a timeline that put events into context, the rise and fall of conflict, and an explanation for when and how things got so bad. There was no description of who exactly the good guys and bad guys were and what they did. There were only…. memories.

But we wanted an explanation.

Confused and unsatisfied, we approached one of the exhibit guards with our dilemma. “Excuse me?” we asked “I’m sorry but we’re confused. What is this? We feel like we are missing the explanation for what happened in Colombia’s civil war. We came here because we want to understand and, we just don’t.”

He didn’t have an explanation or a timeline, but his answer was perfect, and we left the Casa de la Memoria that day very satisfied and feeling that we in some way grasped what is extremely difficult to comprehend.

The exhibit doesn’t give a clear picture or explanation of the war because there isn’t one. Colombia’s internal conflict isn’t like the other wars we know about, between two sides, with a start and finish date and a clear sequence of events that pointed from one thing to the other. It has been going on forever. It is still going on. All that they can do is piece together the memories and testimonies that they have from different sources over the years and grieve.

“We don’t even know our own story” the guard, Sebastian, explains to us. “You wouldn’t believe how many Colombians come to visit this museum and are surprised by what they see. That’s because the media controls everything in this country and hides things from them. Whatever they don’t see on television doesn’t exist.”

“If Colombians know so little about their own story, imagine how little the rest of the world understands about what is going on here.” He raises a very good point.

I’m pretty sure that the rest of the world thinks there is one main culprit in Colombia’s drama: money and drugs. In reality, that is only one piece of the puzzle and the more recent one, coming into the picture in the 1980’s with the most notorious villain leading their battle: Pablo Escobar. But there has been conflict in Colombia since the first Spanish colonists arrived in 1543. The worst and longest running has been between the government and radical political groups: the far right wing radical paramilitary forces and the far left wing guerrillas. But there isn’t just one radical left and one radical right: there are lots of them fighting against each other. When cocaine and the drug wars entered the picture in the 80’s the battle got even bloodier. Recently a new player has emerged to further complicate the problem, criminal bands, who are also fighting for their share of land, power, and money. Now, imagine that all of this is taking place under a weak and corrupt government. All of these groups, plus the government, are working both with and against each other, and changing sides all the time. So we aren’t talking about one war between two sides. We are talking about many wars, between many sides of many different rebel groups, over the course of many years. The truth has been lost in the crossfire.

And so have millions of innocent people. Colombia is still traumatized by the murders, disappearances and displacements of millions of civilians over the years because of the conflict. The scale of the suffering is immense and beyond measurement.

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ALIVE, FREE AND IN PEACE

Sebastian explains to us that in his opinion, it’s the millions of disappearances that weigh heaviest on the Colombian people today. This war has claimed more missing and displaced people as casualties than physical dead bodies. The pain inflicted on the families and loved ones of the abducted is cruel and unusual. They will never have answers. They won’t get to grieve properly.

When peace talks began and measures of compromise started being taken with the rebel groups to get them to lay down their arms, Colombians became outraged that the government was negotiating with the groups that destroyed their lives before they ever did anything to help the actual victims of their war. In 2011, the Colombian government responded to their indignation with the Victim’s Law, to protect the casualties of this legacy of violence. Part of this law was giving them a space to tell their stories. Casa de la Memoria is that space. The one that we visited in Medellin is the first of it’s kind but there is one being built in Bogota as well, and in the works for all the major cities around Colombia. Every city has suffered it’s own, distinct, history of violence and civil war. There isn’t enough space in all the world for the amount of grief Colombia is holding.

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That’s enough!

It was incredible how the exhibit which puzzled us so much in the beginning actually had a very clear agenda: to make us understand on the deepest level what we were dealing with when it comes to Colombia’s violent past. It is confusing, it’s unresolved, and there really aren’t clear answers or explanations. Only painful memories of a country that has been traumatized by a legacy of conflict and bloodshed and trying to heal itself.

While Colombia has come a long way in recent years, Sebastian reminds us that the Medellin and the Colombia that we experience as tourists is only one side of a country with many faces. Medellin has gained a name for itself as an “innovative city”, but there are plenty of problems still being dealt with that most tourists would come and go from the country without ever noticing. I believe him, but I  do think that the fact that we can come here now and have that kind of experience is huge. Ten years ago we couldn’t step foot in the most dangerous city in the entire world, and if we had dared to do it, we would certainly be aware of the fact that there was conflict going on all around us. Now it’s #2 on Lonely Planet’s list of Best in Travel, adored by an increasing amount of visitors from all around the globe every year. So, while I believe him when he says they are still dealing with their fair share of problems, there’s simply no denying that they are doing something really right, or else thousands of traveler’s wouldn’t be here today, feeling safe, happy, and smitten.