Colombia: Medellin + Guatapé

We left the coffee region of Salento with Liz and Alex and took a bus seven hours north to Medellin. We spent a few more fun days together and then said goodbye to each other, knowing that we’d be reunited again in a week’s time in northern Colombia.

Medellin: City of Eternal Spring

One of the first things we did in Medellin was to go on a Free Walking Tour. This has become a habit of ours because we’ve found the tours to be quite informative, and this one didn’t disappoint. We spent four hours with our guide who passionately painted a picture of Medellin over the past 30 years.

The first question our guide asked us was, “How many of your parents are nervous because you decided to travel around Medellin and Colombia?” There was a lot of laughter as practically everyone nodded their heads yes.

In reality, great strides have been taken in all of Colombia during the past 10 years to increase safety. Rest assured, Medellin is no longer Pablo Escobar’s Medellin. Ten years ago the violence-weary people of Medellin voted in a new mayor, Sergio Fajardo, whose platform was called “social urbanism”. Action accompanied his words and he immediately began improving security, education and public infrastructure. His efforts supported and built on initiatives that were already underway in the city.

In recent years the homicide rate has plunged. Libraries, parks and schools have been built to improve lower income neighborhoods. A cable car connecting the poor neighborhoods on the hill with the city center is intended as a gateway for opportunity and equality. City parks were created in places where violence once dominated. Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, donated 23 of his over-sized sculptures for a renovated plaza in downtown Medellin, Botero’s hometown.

The world took notice.

In 2012, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy recognized Medellín’s efforts with the “Sustainable Transportation Award.”

In 2013 the Wall Street Journal crowned Medellin “Innovative City of the Year”.

Medellin continues to grow and flourish; it’s a city full of promise. While you still need to be on the lookout for pick-pocketers, for the most part designated areas of the city are safe. We walked around quite a bit and I’ve never seen so many curious stares. Locals love having visitors come to their city, a place that was unsafe for so many years.


Let’s talk about all of the beautiful people living in Medellin. I mentioned in my last post “It’s Colombia, Not Columbia” how cosmetic surgery is popular in this country, and no more so than in Medellin. ‘Paisas’ (people from Medellin) are known around the country to be very vain, and we saw it in both women and men. Both genders are fashion-forward and well-groomed with perfect hair and nails. And yes, the women have noticeable curves in all the right places. For the first time in South America we saw women with blond highlights in their long, dark hair. We found the Paisas beautiful enough to rival the ‘Porteños’ (people from Buenos Aires). But don’t worry — Harry and I fit right in with our daily uniform of quick-dry travel pants, faded tee shirts, baseball cap and pony tail.

Medellin: Futbol!

I was so excited when the owner of our hostel invited us to a soccer game with him! Medellin has two professional teams, known as “Medellin” and “Nationals”. Harry and I went with Andreas to watch Medellin play against a team from northern Colombia. It was such a treat because he drove us to the stadium in his car — no crowded buses to navigate!

You might remember that I also went to a professional game in Buenos Aires. My two experiences were so much fun! They were also very similar for three reasons: 1) The fans were really loud and passionate, singing and chanting the entire game. The energy was high and the crowds were intense. 2) In my opinion, the soccer wasn’t that impressive (shhh, don’t tell anyone I said that) because all of the really talented players end up playing professionally in Europe or in the US. 3) The government didn’t allow fans of the opposing team into the stadium, so the cheering was all one-sided…. which is a very, very odd thing to experience.

It was a tournament game, and Medellin ended up losing in penalty kicks. You could have heard a pin drop since there wasn’t anyone there to cheer for the other team. Medellin fans quietly grabbed their things and walked out the gate. It was eerily quiet.

Regardless of the loss, we still had a blast and going to the game will always be an awesome memory.


El Peñon de Guatapé: A Really Big Rock 

Harry, Alex, Liz and I ventured to a cute little town called Guatapé, only two hours by bus outside Medellin. En route we stopped to walk up a Really Big Rock. A National Monument, this monolithic formation is 650 feet tall and somehow supports a staircase built into a crack in its side, looking similar to a zipper.

In the 1970’s the area was dammed for hydro-electric power, creating a beautiful landscape consisting of finger lakes and islands. Unfortunately the water was really low, a reminder of how dry Colombia is right now.

Seven hundred and forty (740!) steps later we reached the top and were granted views of the dramatic scenery below.

A RockIMG_4107IMG_4099IMG_4086The Rock With 4IMG_4088

Guatapé: Color Capital of Colombia

Guatape is the sweetest little town that you ever did see. Every building is covered in vibrant wall art known as ‘zócalos’, a tradition unique to Guatapé. Each zócalo is distinct and reflects the interests and personality of the owner. Walking up and down the cobblestone streets was a feast for the eyes.


This brightly colored moto-taxi was total awesomeness. The fact that it was really bumpy and incredibly loud made it that much better. I felt like a Colombian Rainbow Princess. Shazam!


Hey look, it’s Adrian! We’ve spent chunks of time with this fun Australian in both Peru and Ecuador so it was only fitting that we’d run into him in Colombia as well. We have a special connection with this guy because we volunteered for two weeks together at the Hilo Rojo School.

We shared some big hugs and laughs and invited him to join the four of us up north for a week of beaches, deserts and four-wheel drives. It was our mission to travel to the northern most point in South American, and we wanted Adrian to be along on the adventure.


Up Next: Cartagena, the Caribbean and the northern-most point in South America

Colombia: Popayan, Salento + Valle de Cocora

For months we’d been hearing from other travelers about how much Colombia has to offer. We took notes, did some research, and were eager to explore this lesser-traveled destination in South America because guess what? Colombia ain’t what it used to be!

Las Lajas Sanctuary 

Most towns located at a border crossing leave much to be desired and are simply locations one strives to move through as quickly as possible. However, Colombia boasts one the the most exquisite churches I’ve ever seen just a handful of miles across the border from Ecuador.

Las Lajas Sanctuary was built in Gothic Revival style between 1916 – 1949. The church was inspired by a miracle said to have taken place in the canyon 150 years earlier. It rises 330 feet high from the bottom of the canyon and is connected to the opposite side of the canyon by a 160 foot tall bridge. The rock face that the church is connected to is also the wall inside the sanctuary. It’s truly extraordinary! This iconic church brings visitors from near and far. If you’re ever in the area you simply must visit Las Lajas.


This picture really shows off the extraordinary engineering and design. Can you see the river running down below? Exceptional!

Stock Photo.1

Popayan: The White City

When we said goodbye to Liz and Alex at the Llulu Llama Hostel in Isinlivi, Ecuador, we knew we’d meet up with them a few days later in Popayan, Colombia. It was fun reuniting with them and we spent a few days exploring the “white city” together.

One of the first things we noticed in Colombia was how nice the people were. Everyday, common exchanges with vendors or restaurant staff suddenly turned into a delightfully effusive verbal dance with multiple pleasantries exchanged. We quickly learned that it’s actually bad manners to just say a solitary “hello”.  A more extensive flowery greeting is appropriate and actually expected.

While we’ve indulged in many cups of sweet, juicy mangoes sold on street corners throughout South America, it was the vendors in Popayan who added a twist to this delicious fruit: they squeezed fresh lime juice and sprinkled salt over the mangoes, making this natural snack a really zippy treat. Yum!


Salento: Coffee Region

Embarking on a seven hour bus journey with friends sitting next to you is definitely the way to go! Everyone was on their best behavior, no one got (really) grouchy despite being crammed into the back of the bus, and there were plenty of snacks and stories to go around.


The coffee region of Colombia is simply beautiful. Green rolling hills, windy country roads and lush vegetation make this a visually pleasing and relaxing location. Salento is an adorable colonial town with brightly painted buildings set against a hilly green backdrop. Horses and their riders amble down the cobblestone streets, gentlemen walk around wearing sombreros and ponchos, and fresh coffee can be had on every corner.


Don Elias Coffee Plantation

One hot afternoon we walked for 45 minutes down a very long and dusty road to visit Don Elias, a small, family-run, organic coffee plantation. Don Elias’s grandson gave us a tour and he shared the inside scoop on his grandfather. Apparently, Don Elias used to drink up to 20 cups of coffee every day, but once his doctor intervened he dropped it down to “only” seven cups a day. Can you imagine?

We learned quite a bit that day. They use companion cropping to deter pests and encourage pollination. For example, banana trees and pineapple plants are interwoven among the coffee plants. The harvesting is very labor intensive as it’s all done by hand. We observed how they process the beans on old-school machinery. The tour ended with a strong cup of piping hot black coffee, just the way Harry likes it. We also got to meet the rugged Don Elias who, in his white sombrero, sure looked like a coffee cowboy to me.

Instead of walking back into town, we scrunched our hot-and-sweaty bodies into the back of an old U.S. army jeep and bounced our way on the dirt road back to the hostel. Always an adventure!


Valle de Cocora: Home of the Wax Palms

One day we hiked in the Valle de Cocora, a protected area not far from Salento. We started the trek in a lush valley, walking through pastures where happy cows lazily grazed. We crossed a river several times using rickety bridges that caused us to cheer each time we all made it to the other side.

As we hiked up and out of the cloud forest we finally saw what we were looking for: the Wax Palm, Colombia’s national tree. Its long and slender trunk can grow up to almost 200 feet. The palms created a dramatic sight against the blue sky. We spent time laying on our backs, staring up at the pretty fronds outlined by the bright sun.


When we finished hiking we grabbed a ride back on one of Salento’s unique “Willys MB” jeeps. Originally used in the U.S. Army, a bunch of jeeps were brought to Colombia after WWII. They are well-maintained and serve as the perfect vehicle to navigate some of the unpaved roads in the region. As there were only a handful of seats, Liz, Alex and I stood up on the back bumper and hung on for the 30 minute ride back to Salento. Yahoo!


Tejo: A Game With Explosives

While futbol is the most popular sport in Colombia (duh!), its most traditional sport is called Tejo. This highly unusual game involves launching heavy, rock-like projectiles at a target surrounded by explosives. We had a great time playing this crazy game while we were in Salento. To see what tejo is all about, check out Anthony Bourdain’s short video. I think I know the perfect family-friendly activity to play at our next annual July 4th shindig in Michigan….


Coming up next: Medellin and Guatapé

It’s Colombia (Not Columbia!)

It’s no secret how much we loved our six weeks in Colombia. Here are a few facts, observations and rumors about this fantastic country that make it such a special place.

  • While many people still think that Colombia is too dangerous to visit, the truth is that remarkable strides have been made over the past 10 years to reduce crime and increase security. As a result, growth in tourism has been on the fast track. By some estimates, tourism is growing 12% per year, and it’s predicted that by 2023 Colombia is expected to receive 15 million tourists. Join the movement, buy your ticket today and prepare to fall in love with Colombia!


  • Yes, it’s true. Despite being “discovered” by Christoper Columbus, the country of Colombia spells its name differently than the magnificent Columbia River, Columbia Sportswear and all things “Columbia” that you’ll find across the United States. The fine citizens of Colombia have had enough with everyone misspelling their name, so a year ago a digital-media executive helped create the “It’s Colombia, not Columbia” marketing campaign. The campaign has picked up speed and now tens of thousands of Colombians are alert and ready to correct anyone on social media who gets it wrong. #itscolombianotcolumbia

Colombia keep calm red

  • We have found Colombians to be incredibly friendly. Along with Argentinians, they rank among the nicest people we’ve come across in South America. Colombians are lively and full of laughter. They love loud music and dancing. According to the Barometer of Happiness and Hope report, Colombia was the happiest country in the world in 2013 and 2014 (source: Colombia Reports). The culture of happiness here is remarkable given their violent and contentious not-so distant past.

Cartagena Fruit Woman

  • Colombia has been at war with itself for 50 years, one of the longest running civil wars in the world. There are several main players, including the drug cartels, right-winged paramilitaries, leftist paramilitary groups like FARC, and the government army. Over five million people, mostly from the countryside, have been displaced. Recent peace talks in Havana have led to a tentative treaty that will be voted on by the people in March. As you can imagine, this is a very complicated and emotional issue for Colombians. (photo credit:

Colombia peace talk

  • On a lighter note, Colombians like to drink their coffee “tinto” (dark) and they buy it from vendors on the street corners, no frills attached. The Juan Valdez coffee shops that can be found in big cities cater to all the gringos looking for a Starbucks experience while in South America.


  • We’ve noticed more people of all ages, grandmas included, wearing national team futbol jerseys in Colombia than in any other country that we’ve visited in South America. Colombia qualified for the 2014 World Cup for the first time in 16 years and they surprised the world by making it to the quarterfinals. They eventually lost to Brazil, the host country, but they returned home heroes. The yellow, blue and red jerseys can be seen far and wide and represent the passion and pride Colombians feel for their country.

Colombia soccer team

  • With mountains, jungles, coffee and cacao farms, deserts, modern cities and small pueblos, Colombia has it all. Sitting on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the country boasts over 300 beaches. Colombia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world with 340 different types of ecosystems. There are 58 National Parks here, which is the same number as the US.

Colombia, not Columbia2

  • There are only two seasons in Colombia: winter (the rainy season), and summer (the dry season). With that said, weather patterns are predictable and you can basically choose which climate you want to live in, year-round. Imagine having the same weather, month after month. Love the intense heat, relentless humidity and beautiful beaches? You should live in and around Cartagena on the Caribbean. Would you rather live in the mountains at 8,000 feet and wear a jacket as soon as the sun goes down at 6:00 every day? Move to Bogota. Or how about Medellin, where the days are warm and the nights cool. You pick.


  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize winner, was from Colombia. I felt so lucky when I came across a used copy of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” at my hostel. I had the absolute pleasure of reading it while spending time in northern Colombia, the setting of this wonderful book.

100 Years of Solitude

  • There are motorbikes all over the crowded streets of Colombia, from big cities to little villages. It’s common to see drivers carrying an extra helmet in the crook of their arm because more often than not, they will pick up someone and serve as their taxi. In northern Colombia the only taxis available were motorbikes. When my friends and I wanted to go somewhere, a flock of drivers would show up, one for each of us. We’d put our backpacks on the handlebars and jump on behind the young driver (always a young driver!). This was my favorite mode of transportation in all of South America.



  • Colombia is ranked number six in world (behind the USA, Brazil, Mexico, Germany and Spain) for cosmetic surgery. Social pressures coupled with family support and affordable procedures make surgeries extremely popular here. Rumor has it that in Medellin there is even a free cosmetic surgery program in the city’s poorest neighborhood. How about that? The medical students practice their skills while the people “benefit” from getting bigger boobs and butts. Going shopping? Don’t forget to buy your padded undies to make your bootie bigger!

Big Butts

  • While futbol is the most popular sport in Colombia (duh!), its most traditional sport is called Tejo. This highly unusual game involves launching heavy, rock-like projectiles at a target surrounded by explosives. We had a great time playing this crazy game with our friends Liz and Alex while we were in Solento. To see what tejo is all about, check out Anthony Bourdain’s short video. I think I know the perfect family-friendly activity to play at our next annual July 4th shindig in Michigan….


Well, have I convinced you? When are YOU coming to visit?