Colombia II

Colombia - Part II

Medellin, Ipiales, Bogotá

Jan 4th - 10th, 2023

Medellin, which is also known as the City of Eternal Spring due to its year round pleasant temperatures, is the second-largest city in Colombia and the capital of the Antioquia department. The city was established in the 16th century, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived. During the colonial period Medellin's economy was primarily based on agriculture and cattle ranching, but in the 20th century Medellin became a major industrial center and one of the most important economic engines in Colombia. During the late 20th century the city also became notorious for drug trafficking, gang violence and political turmoil, and Medellin's reputation was marred by its most famous citizen, Pablo Escobar. However, in the last 20 years Medellin has made significant strides in urban development and social programs, and has become somewhat of a model for other cities in the developing world. Medellin has managed to transform itself from drug capital to one of the safest cities in Latin America and a major tourist destination.

I had five nights in Medellin and stayed in the Marriott Hotel, which is as most international hotels located in the high-end Poblado district. The best way to get around the city is either by Uber or using the very modern and efficient Metro. A great place to start a city sightseeing tour are the Metro Cable lines, which take you up the hills on both sides and give you amazing views over the wide valley this huge city is nestled in. The Metro Cable system is part of the public transport net and provides quick and easy access to the city for the people living in the poorer communities high up on the mountain sides.

The Medellin cathedral is one of the largest brick buildings in the world. Unfortunately it was not open to see the inside.

One of Medellin's most famous sons (other than Pablo Escobar) is Fernando Botero, who was born here in 1932. Botero Plaza is a large city square filled with numerous Botero sculptures.

A few years ago Botero donated a large number of some of his most important artworks to his home town. These now fill an entire floor of the Museum of Antioquia.

Similar to Rio de Janerio, Medellin had large illegal settlements, or Favelas, growing up the mountain sides starting in the 1960s and 70s driven by the migration of people from even poorer rural areas. Comuna 13 was the most notorious among them, and by the 1980s it was probably one of the most dangerous and violent places on earth, run by gangs and drug cartels. Following a brutal military crackdown in 2002, these Favelas have been transformed completely, and are now safe and vibrant (though still poor) neighborhoods.

Comuna 13 has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Medellin, largely due to its beautiful graffiti. Almost all of them were created by local resident artists, but some involved collaborations with established artists from all over the world. I did a guided graffiti and street food tour in Comuna 13 with a local artist, which was very interesting. We learned all about the history and inspiring transformation of the community, and he explained some of the complicated symbolism expressed in many of the graffiti works.

All these communities are fully electrified now, which becomes very clear when the hillsides light up at night like this:

One interesting place to visit in the Poblado district is the Museo El Castillo, which is a medieval style castle surrounded by beautiful gardens. The structure was built in the 1930s by a rich Medellin business man as his residence, but has now been converted into a museum. Apparently the design was inspired by the castles of the Loire in France.

If you spend any time in Medellin, an absolute must-do daytrip is the Peñol de Guatapé. Located about two hours to the east of the city, el Peñol is a 200 meter high granite monolith, which sticks out of the landscape like an alien spaceship. The rock is one of the most iconic landmarks in Colombia and a major tourist attraction.

50 years ago this was a fairly unknown rock in a rural area. However in the 1970s a hydroelectric dam was constructed nearby, which caused the surrounding landscape to be flooded by an enormous reservoir. The reservoir turned the previously hilly and agricultural landscape into a beautiful lake area full of little islands. Realizing the tourist potential of this, the private owners of the rock built a staircase into the monolith providing visitors with stunning panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.

Ascending the near vertical staircase of 700 steps definitely gets your heart pumping, but the views from above make it more than worth it. The huge lake with its numerous islands is absolutely stunning.

The nearby village of Guatapé with its colorful houses is considered to be one of the most picturesque villages in the country.

Guatapé is particularly famous for its "zócalos". These are brightly colored and often elaborate reliefs found on the lower parts of the facades of most buildings. They are usually made of ceramic tiles or carved cement and feature a wide variety of depictions of people, animals or abstract patterns.

They are not particularly historic, since the tradition of decorating houses this way only dates back to the early 20th century, when local artisans began to use these designs to beautify the town's buildings. Zocalos often signify what kind of business or shop is inside.

We spent about an hour walking through the narrow lanes of Guatapé, and finished the day in a local coffee shop, before driving back to Medellin.

Ipiales and the Santuario de Las Lajas
After five lovely days in Medellin, my next flight took me from Medellin to Pasto, which is a small town in the very south of Colombia. Not too many tourists visit this part of the country, and it is lacking some tourist facilities, thus my trip became a bit more adventurous here. Pasto is the capital of the department of Nariño, and is located on a high plateau at over 2,500 meters altitude. Landing at Pasto airport is quite a spectacular experience, as the plane flies very close to the mountains and then literally through a canyon right before touching down on the runway.

I had not planned to spend any time in Pasto, since my actual destination was the even smaller town of Ipiales, located 100 kilometers further south. Although Ipiales does have an airport, it is very small and has only a handful of flights per week. Thus I somehow had to find a way to get from Pasto airport to Ipiales, but I had no idea how, since none of the platforms I usually use, like, offered any services in this part of Colombia. But I decided to take my chances in Pasto, and try to find either a bus or a taxi to take me to Ipiales. To get from the airport into the center of Pasto, I followed a wildly gesticulating taxi driver, who bundled me into a shared taxi with 3 other people, before I could say anything where I wanted to go. I told the driver to just drop me off at the main square in the city. There I was hoping to persuade one of the taxi drivers to take my money and drive me 1.5 hours to Ipiales. But then I decided to first try the Uber app, and to my great surprise I got a car within 5 minutes. The young driver seemed very happy to take me on the long drive to Ipiales for the equivalent of 45 US Dollars, which seemed very cheap to me, but is actually quite a lot of money in a country where the minimum monthly wage is 300 Dollars. On the way out of Pasto I noticed incredibly long lines in front of the gas stations, and I mean literally lines of more than a kilometer. I asked the driver about that, and he explained that there was currently a severe shortage of gasoline in this area, due to a landslide that had blocked the only road which fuel trucks can use. So, I realized that I was doubly fortunate to not only find an Uber, but finding one who still had half a tank of gas.

The 1.5 hour drive to Ipiales took us through a mountainous area along a winding, but very new and totally empty four lane highway. On arrival the driver asked me to cancel the Uber ride in the app and pay him cash instead. It seems that is a common strategy here to avoid giving Uber their cut. After checking into the Harmony Hotel, which is a fairly basic but nice and clean hotel at the edge of town, I went on a walk through Ipiales.

Other than the beautiful red building of the Catredral de San Pedró Martír, there is not much to see in Ipiales itself, and the town is not the reason I came here. There is in fact really only one, but one very good reason to travel to Ipiales, and that is the incredible Santuario de Las Lajas, located about a 20 minute taxi ride outside of Ipiales. When I first saw a picture of Las Lajas a few years earlier, I thought this must be a scene from a fantasy video game or from one of the Lord of the Rings movies. It turned out this stunning place was real, and so I knew I had to come here to see it with my own eyes.

Built inside the deep canyon of the Guáitara River on top of a bridge spanning the river gorge, the Santuario de Las Lajas is one of the most stunning and unique religious structures anywhere in the world. Constructed between 1916 and 1949 the church marks the spot of an 18th century apparition of the Virgin Mary.

What makes this place so stunning is not just the church building itself, but also the surrounding landscape. It is a fairytale scene with the narrow canyon and waterfalls dropping off the near vertical walls. Las Lajas has been an important pilgrimage destination since the 18th century, and a number of smaller churches had stood here before. The current structure is a true architectural marvel with its intricate details, huge stone arches and elegant grey and white neo-gothic design. The 33 year long construction project was entirely financed by donations from local churchgoers. The interior space of the basilica gleams entirely in white with thin gold lines and is enhanced by beautiful stained glass windows. The back wall behind the main altar is just the natural rock wall of the canyon.

I had seen some pictures of the sanctuary being lit in bright colors at night, so I decided to hang around and stay till after sunset. And at exactly 8:00 pm they turned on this spectacular light show.

Although the constantly changing colors made it look a bit gaudy and reminded my more of Vegas than a religious shrine, it still looked incredible and I could have sat there for hours being mesmerized by it.

I returned the next morning to get more pictures from different angles and in different light conditions.

I also walked all the way down to the canyon floor for a very different but equally spectacular perspective from below.

There is a cable car behind the sanctuary that takes you up to the rim of the canyon. It is still about an hour walk from the top cable car station into town, but it is well worth for the view of the sanctuary from the other side, where you can see the small waterfall in the background, which makes it look even more like a scene created by a fantasy game designer.

Although the sanctuary attracts thousands of local tourists and pilgrims each year, it does not see many foreign tourists, due to its remote location and the difficulty of getting here. I was very happy to be one of the few foreign tourists to see this very special place, which to me was probably the highlight of my whole Colombia trip.

On my way back into town, I stopped at a local restaurant to sample the specialty of this region. The sculpture in front of the restaurant leaves little doubt about what type of meat they serve there. It is of course guinea pig. It may not be to everyone's taste, and seeing these little animals on sticks being grilled over an open coal fire, may ruin some people's appetite, but I thought "do as the locals do" and decided to give it a try. It tasted quite nice, although the meat was a bit stringy, and the tiny bones have a habit to get stuck between your teeth.

Leaving Ipiales the next morning turned out to be another interesting experience. I had managed to book a flight to Bogotá on Satena Air leaving from the very small Ipiales San Luis airport. To say that this airport is not a major transportation hub, would be a slight understatement. On this Friday there was a total of 1 (yes, one!) flight scheduled for departure from Ipiales Airport. My habit of arriving early at airports turned out to be unnecessary here, as the airport was still closed when I got there. But I felt encouraged by the fact that there were four other passengers waiting. Somewhat less encouraging were the facts, that there was not a single plane at this airport, and, for some reasons unknown to me, this tiny airport was surrounded and tightly guarded by a lot of soldiers with heavy military equipment, including several tanks.

I don’t think they see a lot of foreigners flying out from Ipiales airport. My German passport (with the combination of a Hong Kong address) seemed to create quite a bit of confusion. One of the officials took photos of my passport with his phone, and then wrote down lots of stuff on a plain piece of paper. The security check was one of the most thorough I had ever experienced. The security guy opened everything in my carry-on, including the umbrella. But it was all very friendly, and I almost got the impression the search was more due to his curiosity about what a foreigner carries in his bags, rather than any security concerns. There still was no plane at the airport by 10:00 am, which was the scheduled departure for my flight. There were also no announcements about delays, but there were other passengers waiting in the small departure area, so I figured that there would be a plane arriving here eventually. And about two hours later it did. It was a medium sized prop plane that ended up taking me safely to Bogotá with a stop over in Puerto Asis.

My last stop on my trip was the capital of Colombia, the huge metropolis of Bogotá. Initially named Santa Fe, the city was founded in 1538 by Spanish conquistadors and became the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada, which included the areas of today's Colombia, most of Venezuela and parts of Panama. Bogotá has played an important role in the history of South America since then. The city became the capital of the independent nation of Gran Colombia after the decisive Battle of Boyacá in 1819.

The modern city of Bogotá has a population of 8 million, which makes it South America's third largest city (behind only Sao Paulo and Lima). Located on a high plateau in the Andes at an altitude of over 2,600 meters, Bogotá is also the world's third highest capital (after Quito and La Paz). The view from the nearby Cerro Monserrate gives a good sense of the enormous extent of this city.

While Bogotá is overall a safe and welcoming place, the city is probably a little more dangerous for visitors than most other places in Colombia. Most travel guides warn you to never flag a taxi on the street, since there have been cases of tourists being robbed by taxi drivers. You should always ask the hotel to call you taxi. Otherwise Uber is a safer and more convenient option. I never felt unsafe in any way in Bogotá, but I also didn't spend any time after dark in the less safe areas, where pickpocketing apparently is quite common.

Most of the higher end hotels are located in Zona G and Zona Rosa, which are the wealthier and safer areas of the city. Most of the sights are located in La Candelaria, which is the historical center. Many of the museums and government buildings are also located in this area. The Plaza de Bolivar is the central plaza in La Candelaria. The neoclassical Primatial Cathedral of Bogotá, was built in the early 19th century.

On the other side of the huge Bolivar square is the Colombian National Parliament Building.

The area just behind the cathedral consists of narrow cobblestone streets and colonial-style architecture.

This is the Santuario Nuestra Señora del Carmen with its very unusual red-striped facade.

On Sunday I decided to hike up to the Cerro Montserrate, which is a 400 meter high hill right next to the city with a church on top and apparently an amazing view over the city.

It turned out, however, that Sunday is not the day to do this. It seemed about half of the city's 8 million people had the same plan. The entire hike, which took a little over an hour was like this:

But I actually didn't mind the crowds at all. It was a really fun local experience seeing all of the people, young and old, enjoying themselves in this beautiful weather. There were also lots of vendors along the trail selling all sort of interesting looking local foods and sweets, like this gooey (and very sweet) pudding like concoction, which has to be churned on a stick constantly to stay fluffy.

The amazing views of the city below and of the Santuario Virgen de Guadalupe on the hill next to it, made the hike even among the crowds on a Sunday absolutely worth it.

No visit to Bogotá is complete without visiting some of its world class museums. The prime jewel among them is the Museo del Oro, the gold museum, which has an extraordinary collection of pre-Colombian gold artifacts.

Bogotá also has a Botero museum, which contains some of his most famous works, including his Mona Lisa.

This is the inner court yard of the Botero Museum with the Cerro de Monserrate in the background.

One absolute must-do day trip from Bogotá is a visit to the Catedral de Sal. A one hour drive to the north of city, it is one of the most unusual churches in the world. La Catedral de Sal in Zipaquirá is a Cathedral built 200 meters underground inside the huge chambers of a former salt mine.

The way the salt mine was excavated left huge and high chambers on either side of the main path down. These were used for several side chapels and to represent the stages of the cross.

What was a bit of a surprise and what the guide books don't tell you, is how touristy and commercial this place is down here 200 meters underground. Not only are there souvenir and jewelry shops, as well as restaurants and cafes, but also a cinema and a spa, right next to the cathedral.

The town of Zipaquira is also worth seeing. We had short stop on the main town square overlooked by the cathedral. The pyramidal shaped mountain in the background is the salt mountain.

The Catedral the Sal was an amazing last sight on my incredible three week journey through this huge and diverse country. Even though I saw quite a lot during my time here, I also learned how much more there is to do and see, so that I certainly have to come back and explore other parts of Colombia. The next morning I flew back to New York on a direct flight on United from Bogotá to Newark.

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