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

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?

Peru: Trujillo ~ Volunteering at Hilo Rojo

We’d been craving community and a sense of purpose. For months we’d been looking at volunteer opportunities on the website but hadn’t found a situation that we were excited about…. until we came across Hilo Rojo. It was time to roll up our sleeves, go to school and work with some Peruvian kids in Trujillo.

School Hilo Rojo ~ Red Thread of Fate

Public schools in Peru are free and compulsory. However, in Trujillo (and other cities as well), students are required to pay for uniforms, school supplies, snacks and special events, etc. From what we gathered there aren’t government programs to provide financial assistance. For many of the families living in total poverty, the cost is prohibitive.

Here’s where Hilo Rojo comes in.

The school was started three years ago by two passionate Peruvian educators living in Trujillo. The project was born out of witnessing the many inequalities and social conflicts in the neighborhood, such as low educational attainment and attendance, youth crime, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence. Hilo Rojo has two goals for each student. One is to prepare every student academically to be successful in a public school, and two, to help them earn a scholarship to afford public education.

What does Hilo Rojo mean?

According to Chinese legend, the gods tie an invisible red thread around the ankles of those that are destined to meet and help each other in a certain way. While over time the thread may stretch or tangle, it will never break as the connections are meant for eternity. We originally signed up to volunteer for one week, but we quickly felt the tug of the red threads around our ankles and ended up staying for two.

The basic school building was built six months ago. It has two rooms, one for the 30 preschoolers and another for the 25 older kids. Each room has one paid teacher who does her best to teach all of her students with very little resources and materials. They rely heavily on the assistance of volunteers.

Harry taught math and English to students ranging in ages from 10 – 21 with various levels of comprehension and learning abilities. He taught his classes mostly in Spanish which was really gratifying for him.

I taught English to four younger students, ages 6-12. Olivia, a volunteer from Colorado, co-taught with me which allowed us to have some one-on-one time with different students. Some of our kids could barely read and write Spanish, so teaching English was challenging — but also a lot of fun. We worked with the alphabet, colors, numbers, shapes and basic nouns.

I spent my first few days helping out in the preschool room, but the total chaos was hard for me to handle. The teacher was so sweet but there was little to no structure, which simply amounted to utter pandemonium most of the time. The kids were so cute and many just wanted to cuddle and play with my earrings, which I could have done all day. Instead I chose to spend most of my time with the older kids where I felt I was more effective.

Each day we helped out wherever we were needed. For example, one morning I led an art project for the older kids, and another day we were chaperones on a field trip to the movies. This was a special treat as many of the kids had never been to the mall or a movie theater before. Each day at recess we played soccer with the kids at a nearby park which was a ton of fun. The turf field was the nicest thing in the neighborhood.


Home Visits

The director of Hilo Rojo makes home visits a few times each week to connect with the families for a variety of reasons. As volunteers we were encouraged to accompany the director at least once to observe with our own eyes and hearts where the students live.

Most of the students live in the poor neighborhood built on the sand dune at the edge of town. Their homes are shanties with dirt floors. Some are built with mud brick walls and corrugated metal roofs while the poorest have walls made with hanging blue tarps and reed mats. There are some power lines and water pipes, but many of the families cannot afford to pay for such luxuries.


The experience was eye-opening and intense, and it shed a new light on the issues the families are facing each day. It also reinforced the concept that kids are resilient and capable. Through the tears in my eyes I could see clearly that Hilo Rojo is such a gift to the community.

Goodbye + Thank You 

Our last day was really special. We were given handmade signs and the little kids sang us a song. There were lots of tears and big hugs going around, and while we felt loved and appreciated, the true “thank yous” go right back to Hilo Rojo and the kids!


Team Hilo Rojo

A big part of what made our time so special was working, and living, alongside nine other volunteers for two weeks. We represented seven countries and a wide span of ages. I loved hearing all the languages, forever feeling like the inadequate American who can only converse in English.

We stayed on the second floor of a house that was a 10-minute bus ride away from school. We each paid approx $10 per day to volunteer, which included living in the house, getting three meals a day and having access to a washing machine. Leftover money went to support the school.

I was so happy that our meals were provided for us because we didn’t have to think about food for two whole weeks. Breakfast was always bread and jam, the same thing we’ve been eating for breakfast for the past six months. I’m pretty sure that’s what all South Americans eat for breakfast every day. Not exactly bacon and eggs.

Lunches and dinners were heartier. Both meals started out with a delicious soup — Peruvians love their soup! — and were followed with something like rice and chicken, or chicken and rice (see what I did there?). The meat eaters ate rice and chicken at least once a day, and usually twice a day. Our lovely cook (she really was lovely) prepared something like omelettes, quinoa, beans or fried plantains for me to eat with my rice.

We were also served fresh juice, like chicha morada (made from purple corn) and carambola (star fruit) twice a day. Such an indulgence! The crowd favorite was pineapple juice.

We all squeezed in around the big table and ate our three meals together, laughing and telling stories. At times we also held our heavy hearts together as we brought up certain kids and talked about their situations.

We also all shared ONE bathroom, so that was pretty fun. And there wasn’t any hot water in the shower [ever], but you know what? We all survived. In a way it was a stark reminder that even with some challenges we were still living like royalty compared to our students.

We were grateful for the time we spent in Trujillo. If you’re looking for a special place to volunteer for a few weeks I highly recommend that you consider the beautiful kids at Hilo Rojo.