Colombia Pt 1 Living the Dream

Explora Love
Explora Museum. Love.
In Medellin, even park benches are stylish!
Downtown in Botero Park
Street Art (everywhere!)
High above Medellin
Cable car ride


Outside Botero Museum
Botero Museum
Medellin’s famous father
Indigenas at First Communion
Guatape Street
Guatape Street
I climbed 700 steps up this mountain
View from the top of ^ that mountain



Outside Medellin
It’s that feeling when you first meet a new lover… and it seems so right. You hold your breath, conserve your movements, and speak in hushed tones so as not to disturb the precious moment for fear it might vanish or somehow change irreparably. That was Medellin for me.
I had been dreaming of traveling to Colombia for years, since I was in graduate school in 2009 and wanted to do my fieldwork there. The country’s very brief wartime calm was broken just before I was to finalize my thesis choice, and I was advised it might be too dangerous with Aiden in tow. I chose instead to head to Cambodia where the immediate violence had ended three decades earlier. But my heart never quite forgave me, and Colombia spoke to me, reminding me of its call, ever since.
I nearly skipped it this time around as well. Too many months and some disappointments, coupled with naysayers reminding me of the expense and unknown nature of it all, almost had me spooked. Luckily, I persevered, and in a world filled with decisions that might be considered not well thought out or foolhardy, this was one of my best.
Colombia is Extraordinary. It is young and exciting, exceptionally beautiful and varied. It has every ecosystem and a… vitality, for lack of a better word, that I haven’t felt anywhere else. I am head over heels in love.
We landed in Medellin after a flight from Quito and a night layover in Panama. (One glance at a map should show you how seriously difficult it is to get anywhere to or from Ecuador to anywhere else in the world, including a hop upland to Colombia. It’s the main reason I will Never live in Ecuador – along with a few other items, noted in an earlier blog). We took a taxi directly to the Poblado district, where the majority of tourists congregate. It is stylish and relatively pricey, trendy and oh-so-cool. It’s where expats go to party, and the streets are safe enough to walk late into the night. High-end fashion stores dot the streets, alongside street cafes and overflowing bars.
What stole my heart in Medellin – a large and crowded city situated in a valley surrounded by high mountains – were the trees. Trees are everywhere, along small paths and dotting large highways, alongside streets with highrise hotels and surrounding towering apartment buildings, and throughout quaint neighborhoods. I tend toward small towns generally, but in Medellin there were parks and a river flowing through, and a sense that this town was organized and intelligent. The transport system – a metro and cable system — is the cleanest and most efficient I’ve seen, bar none. Riding over the dense metropolis was a positively lovely experience. Speakers not only noted the metro stop, but told you some of the attractions you might find at this given location. Then it told you which stop was coming up next. Any intimidation I might have felt evaporated. I could ride the metro all day. The cable system isn’t for tourists, per say. It was designed for the poorer neighborhoods which are built up the mountainsides, and which previously had little easy access into the city. It was a quality of life issue and Medellin, at least in this instance, did not leave out the poorer areas. But tourists do ride the sky cables, and get an incredible view over neighborhoods they so far have been advised not to venture into.
And the people. Colombians are warm and helpful, beautiful and very, very proud. Many are excited that visitors are coming, though little do they know just how many are on their way! They want to know how I like their country. “What do you think of Colombia?” I’m asked time and again. “Amazing,” I say. And I mean it. When I tell them where I’m from, they say, “Breaking Bad?” One street vendor – I kid you not – said, “Roswell! Aliens!” Yes, yes indeed.
With a seed now firmly planted that I could change my life and move to Medellin, I needed to convince Aiden; so we spent time visiting some kid-friendly sites, of which there are many. Aside from lovely parks, there’s a top-notch Explora museum, with more high tech gadgetry and displays than I’d seen anywhere in New Mexico. Dozens of young tour guides were available to explain each exhibit, whether it be on neuroplasticity or how light travels. Five hours in and the museum closed on us, leaving no time for the nearby planetarium or Botanical garden. Barefoot Park was also a hit, including a silent walking tour among towering bamboo trees (barefoot, of course, though it’s not a requirement), then in sand and among blocks through which one is to navigate, eyes closed and hands behind one’s back, using only soft touch of the foot. The tour ended with a jacuzzi-like pool to refresh your feet and awaken your senses. So civilized. Nearby is a Museum of Water, again far superior and interactive than any I’ve seen. I was and am immensely impressed. Sadly, Aiden remains unconvinced. “But there are no 10-year-old kids here! We see only babies and teenagers, there’s no one my age.” He is correct in his assessment only in that we have not spent enough time. It was only as we were leaving that I began getting a flood of responses to a post I left on a FB page for expat families.  Want a playdate? But it was too late. With only a month for this country we had already moved on.
We left Medellin far too soon, as far as I was concerned, but a week was all we had planned before heading further north toward the coast and the ever-popular backpacker destination, Casa Elemento, placed high on a mountain edge.
The hostel is located 40 minutes up a rugged dirt road, which intensifies after the season’s daily rainstorms. Hoards of backpackers wearing strappy shirts and sandals, now covered in mud and shivering from the chill and rain, convene at the reception squealing about their ride up the treacherous hill on the back of a moto. “I fell off three times! How many times did you fall!?” and the requisite (mostly from Brits) “Fock-n-A!!” repeated in a kind of loop.
We found out about this place through some backpackers in Banos, Ecuador. I mentioned our upcoming stay in Santa Marta and they conveyed a story of armed bandits storming random hostels and robbing all guests, which may or may not have been true. But in Aiden’s mind, Santa Marta became the definition of a firey Hades, crawling with thugs out to get you. He was literally traumatized. This same couple told us about Casa Elemento, high in the mountains above the town of Minca, about two hours from Santa Marta. So we changed our plans.
Despite its lack of hot water or even cabana doors, it turned out to be the most expensive place we’ve stayed during our 8 months traveling! We could have chosen the hammock deck and paid half the price, but with a reputation for partying backpackers and a bountiful drug supply, I decided a private cabana would be worth my peace of mind. And it was.
The London-born owner has a goldmine on his hands, and he works hard as hell to make it great. Five top chefs supply breakfast, lunch and dinner, with limited snacks (tho a heavenly 5pm brownie option), and lots of cheap beer. There is a small pool, but it’s the giant hammocks, including one that swings, overlooking the immense valley below – with a view of Santa Marta and the ocean on clear days – that gets the most attention. Jeeploads of tourists arrive for the day, which during our stay, happened to be hoards of loud, garbage-tossing Israelis. The Israeli invasion, as some called it, come to take advantage of the photo opps and jungle tours, including a zipline, climbing wall and canopy staircase. But mostly they come for the hammocks.
Aiden was in heaven. I think he would be happy staying only here for the rest of our stay. This was clear one day as I emerged from the cabana to see Aiden, sprawled on the hammock giving a lesson on Greek mythology to a pile of young gals from Australia and Canada. “You should be on the Ellen show,” one told him. To which he replied, “You just need to read Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes AND Greek mythology.” Happy and pumped, he told me later, “I made a bunch of friends today, mom!”
This was good news in one way, as Aiden was still convinced there were no children his age living in Colombia; and in Medellin it was true we saw few families with kids his age. But the exposure to a backpacking culture – all much older than he — is not exactly the kind of interaction I aspire to for my impressionable son. For example, learning to play Cards Against Humanity isn’t exactly what I had in mind for new, cultural experiences. But feeling safe, knowing Aiden is comfortable enough to explore and be independent, and finally having him shut up already about all the things he’s going to do the very day and week we get back to Santa Fe was sweet relief indeed. Plus, the owner and staff were so good to us it was hard not to fall in love with the place.
It was during this time I did a typical, crazy and completely impractical Zélie thing and I, uh, bought a VW van. Yep, right here in Colombia, via the internet, sight unseen. In fact, I still haven’t seen it as I’m having it delivered to a friend in Cuenca, Ecuador while I figured out the next move. I couldn’t help myself, and I had a serious pusher who kept telling me what a deal it was, and how I needed to think about this brief time with my son that would soon pass and he may never speak to me again, etc. etc. Unless, perhaps, I bought this van. So I was weak and thrilled at the same time, logistics be damned. Plus, for anyone who knows me, it’s been a dream of mine for about my entire life. A real live VW van with two beds and room for dogs. I was in heaven. Now I just have to be in the same country with said van. And with said dogs. Oh my. If it were up to me, I’d stay on in Colombia for the summer exploring more of the country, and maybe heading further south. But Aiden has been promised a summer in Santa Fe, and I already have some serious money paid for summer camps back in the land of enchantment. I’ve never been known for choosing the easiest path on anything or any place, and this one is certainly no exception. But oh, the thrill of living your dreams can’t be beat. Buy the van and the rest will come, I say. Make it so. Please.

p.s. Any suggestions on this car/location predicament and what to do next are more than welcome. The Darian Gap is keeping me awake at night.
Moving north toward – and above – the coast. Case Elemento, above Minca, Colombia.


They knew I was coming




Aiden in the Jungle

2 thoughts on “Colombia Pt 1 Living the Dream

  1. Go Zelie!! My mom drove me and my sister from our house in CO all over Mexico in a VW van in 1981. Best childhood adventure ever! Amma and I biked from CA to Acapulco and we met cyclists that were doing the whole pan American. I don't have any great advice but take it a day or two at a time. You'll figure it out, and have a fabulous time!!!


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