On the Way to Medellin
Our trip back from Parque Nacional EL Cocuy to the historic towns of Tunja and Villa de Leyva. Then on the way to Medellin some of Uncle Pablo’s rather childish heritages at the shores of Rio Magdalena. Finally, the big city of Medellin – formerly out of any bucket list, today a tourist destination – at least for certain tourists.
El Cocuy 2 Medellin
Tunja, 19th March
Enough of huge mountains, tiny mountain villages, and cold mountain weather. We’re on the way to the lowlands of Rio Magdalena to finally reach Medellin.
To start with, we drive back to the village of Susacón. Of course, not the same road we used a few days ago. We need some change on an alternative 1. On the way a last view of the Glaciers of Parque Nacional el Cocuy.
Then we just follow our GPS. Of course, Garmin is convinced that Prado needs a little extra challenge. Well, the road is doable. Just Prado has to shrink a few times, and it’s so steep we beg for no need to return. Still, after some time we reach the main road.
After 3h we’ve already reached Susacón. No reason to spend another night here. Thus, we’re on our way to Tunja. A pretty large town not often visited by tourists, but said to have some fine colonial architecture.
Still, we have to climb another highland. At 3600m a pass. And a valley with a lot of Frailejones.
Late afternoon we finally reach Tunja. A stroll to Plaza de Bolivar. True, there are some nice old buildings. But it’s a mix with quite a lot of new, extremely ugly constructions. Definitely not an old town with an intact colonial charm.
And pretty strangely, the whole Plaza is infested by heavily armed army guys. No idea what’s going on. But nobody seems to care about it.
The next morning some sightseeing. To start with la Parroquia San Francisco.
Then back to Plaza de Bolivar. By now, no more signs of a civil war being prepared. Well, it’s a Sunday. Thus, probably the day off for the army.
A visit to the Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suárez Rendón. 1 of the most famous buildings of the early colonial period. Nowadays carefully restored and a local patrimony.
On to the famous Parroquia de Santo Domingo. Probably the most eccentric church in town. Mexicans should visit it to learn from the Tunjies.
And finally, Parroquia Santa Bárbara. Pretty different from the previous 1s.
That’s it. Enough of historic stones’n’buildings.
We leave Tunja. A little bit with a mixed feeling. On 1 side a number of outstanding buildings, on the other side all these outstanding ugly buildings between them. A real mix of the best colonial architectures and the worst 3rd world has in its offer.
Villa de Leyva, 21st March
In the afternoon we’re on the way to Villa de Leyva. Probably the most famous and the most visited colonial village in Colombia. Thus, quite different from the sleepy old town of Tunja.
Just some 40km to drive. But incredibly lot of traffic. Mainly visitors to’n’from Villa de Leyva. And us – getting more’n’more afraid of what may expect us in this village. Especially because there’s a long weekend, and it looks like everybody in Colombia plans to visit the very same place.
Entering Villa de Leyva we immediately recognize what’s going on. In each’n’every cobblestoned alley is a traffic jam. There must be thousands of cars trying to get into town, out of town, searching for parking, or simply searching for their beloved mother-in-law lost in the jungle of visitors.
Whatever. we find our sleepery right in the middle of town. Fortunately, they have their own parking. Now we’re ready for the largest square in Latin America – La Plaza Mayor de Villa de Leyva.
Then we have to take advantage of the huge tourism industry in this village. To enjoy a really good IPA of the BBC Brewery. Fortunately, they sell it by the jug.
Of course, the 1st thing to visit the next morning is again Plaza Mayor.
As usual, in very touristic places there are a road or 2 where all these folks have fun. And there are all these other places, not any worse but pretty deserted. Albeit, without souvenir shops, coffee houses, or chocolate factories attracting all these visitors.
Of course, you cannot leave Villa de Leyva without a visit to the famous Casa Terracotta. The house called the largest pottery in the world has been constructed by Octavio Mendoza to prove the functionality of using alternative building materials. As it took him 20 years to complete the house, thus the approach remained somehow at its experimental stage.
Guatapé, 24th March
Next morning. The extended weekend is over. Everybody is back to salary slavery. And Villa de Leyva is deserted. Well, it’s even a bit boring.
We’re on our way to Guatapé, a few km east of Medellin. Roughly 400km to drive. at least 10h to reach it.
After long inquiries with Google, we think the small town of Doradal might be the place for a break. Still, some 7h to drive.
So, we’re on our way to Magdalena River. No more big mountains, rather hills. Even if they reach up to 2500m altitude.
The road: pretty good, partly infested by extremely slow trucks. As usual in Colombia.
On the top of the hills quite some fog.
Finally, we descend to the hot’n’humid Valle de Rio Magdalena.
A 100km southwards, along the river, then over the bridge to finally reach Doradal.
The area of Doradal occupies a pretty special place in Colombia’s recent history. Not too many years ago it was strictly out of limits to anybody not addicted to the FARC.
Still, before FARC took over, Uncle Pablo really seemed to like this area. For his amusement and the entertainment of his brave collaborators – mainly local farmers preferring him to the FARC – he built a kind of zoo with all kinds of animals from Africa; the Hacienda Nápoles. After his death in 1993, the whole park became overgrown and forgotten until a clever businesswoman in 2014 converted it into a kind of Jurassic Park – African themed.
At that time, Uncle Pablo also needed a distinguished place to accommodate his esteemed guests and business partners. That’s the origin of the rumor that he also financed one of Colombia’s weirdest places: Santorini in Colombia. The place we decide to stay.
Santorini in Colombia is just a part of the town of Doradal. Nevertheless, a pretty special 1. It all looks like a slightly rundown and downsized copy of some houses in Santorini, Greece.
We find a sleepery at the main square. Of course, not the state of the art of any of today’s accommodations. Rather the standard everybody appreciated some 40 years ago. But who cares in Santorini. A few local tourists, as us on sightseeing in Santorini’s few alleys.
The next day we’re on our 2nd leg to Guatapé. Normally less than 2h over the chain of the Cordillera Occidental. Just, it’s 1 of the main roads connecting Bogota with Medellin. Thus, a few trucks on the way with us.
Finally, it nearly takes 5h to reach Guatapé. Definitely a road for truck-addicted drivers.
Arriving in Guatapé we’re immediately confronted with a problem. Nowhere safe parking for Prado. Normally in Colombia, there are everywhere parqueaderos 24h for cars like Prado. Not so in Guatapé. Parking just along the roads, or some open fields accessible by everybody. We ask around, no result. Finally, we discover a well-secured place. Normally renting out on a monthly basis. But after chatting a bit we can use a space on a daily base.
The main reason to visit the area is not Guatapé itself, but La Piedra de El Peñón. A monolithic rock just a few km outside the village. Some 200m, or 650 steps to climb on stairs they built for the numerous tourists.
After a short while, we’re on the top. All 650 steps. Time to discover if it has been worth the effort.
What a view.
Still, probably more important to have your pic shown on Instagram as soon as possible to get everybody incredibly jealous.
The top of La Piedra de El Peñón: of course, not just a marvelous viewpoint, but as well a center for the bustling souvenir industry. Who the hell – except us – could resist buying 1 of these sweet mini-Peñónes?
Then we’re already on our way down and soon later we drive back to Guatapé. To visit the village.
Some years ago, Guatapé was definitely as ugly as any other village in Colombia were quickly built and affordable accommodation was an absolute priority. With the construction of the dam and the village’s new location at the shores of the lake, this changed quickly. A chaotic settlement with unplastered, ugly houses, dark streets and rubbish on every corner could hardly attract any tourists.
So, they just converted the village into a proper and colorful center for tourists to ensure that they feel very comfortable spending a lot of money.
Nowadays everything looks neat’n’well organized. The rubbish has disappeared, the houses are decorated with relief paintings, and the bad girls in the streets have been sent to Venezuela, Afghanistan, or Somalia.
Of course, the process takes a few days to finish, Still, you can see them improving some facades with reliefs.
Visiting Guatapé doesn’t mean seeing a village with its historical roots. Their colorful houses are not really part of the local culture. It’s more a clever business idea. But who cares. Just discover the best reliefs on all these houses: scenes showing hard life in rural Colombia, important professions, or local celebrities e.g. Jesú, or Freddy Mercury. And not to forget, all kinds of transport.
Sneaking thru Guatapé you quickly realize these reliefs do not reflect phantasy only. In real Guatapi life the motor rickshaws look even more colorful.
Medellin, 27th March
We’ve experienced Guatapé. Now we’re on our way to Medellin. Just some 50 km to the west.
A really astonishing trip. Not because of an outstanding landscape, nor a special encounter with 1 of Colombia’s famous trucks. No, it’s simply about the way you approach Medellin. Being a town with 2,5 to 4,5 Mio. inhabitants you definitely expect hours in chaotic traffic jams, nerve-racking motorcycles, minibuses forcing their way where there’s none, and you in the middle patiently waiting for your turn.
Not so in Medellin. You drive thru a pretty long tunnel, and you’re on a highway well above town – don’t expect to see too much. Visibility in Medellin is constantly pretty low due to the pollution. Then you just drive down until you enter the area of El Poblado – and that’s the place you should anyway look for a sleepery.
Yeah, there’s a reason to be based in El Poblado. There’s probably the largest concentration of restaurants, bars’n’clubs in this area – all in the vicinity of Calle 8 and Carrera 35. So, what reason could you have to avoid this area.
Of course, if you prefer Domino’s Pizza or KFC, you can sneak thru all the roads in El Poblado to find these gourmet temples. Probably somewhere you’ll find your all-beloved microwaved fast-food eatery. Just consider, there’s not too much else to see in this area.
To discover Medellin, you definitely need to visit other areas. And that’s pretty easy as the town has its modern metro and its famous cable cars. You just buy your rechargeable Tarjeta Civica for a buck or 2 and load it with a few rides at a standard fare. And you’re on your way to discover it all.
Just 20 years ago, Colombia’s former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez started operation Orion. A heavy military attack to pacify 1 of the most dangerous and murderous areas in 1 of the most dangerous towns in the world. La Comuna 13 in Medellin. At that time, the area was fully in the hands of FARC and ELN. A mix of urban guerillas and narcos misusing the inhabitants of Comuna 13 for their business and their political ambitions.
Operation Orion was definitely a success to expel the guerillas. But it also led to numerous unjustified civil victims and disappeared persons. Incidents that are still not cleared up to today.
These military interventions did not bring peace to its inhabitants. The guerillas’n’narcos were simply replaced by local gangs. Only some 10 years ago the improvement of the infrastructure, especially roads, a cable car, and escalators empowered the inhabitants to escape the circles of violence and to connect themselves to economic opportunities within Medellin.
Nowadays Comuna 13 develops into Medellin’s major tourist sight. Of course, not the whole area. But a kind of well-defined corridor that is famous for its murals.
We had no idea where to go in Comuna 13. And google was not any more knowledgeable. Finally, we book a tour. Even if we would highly appreciate avoiding that.
So just for those preferring to have enough time to visit here a few indications:
Take the metro to San Javier Station. Change to the cable car to reach Juan XXIII. Remain in the station. There’s a fine viewpoint for an overview. Then just return to San Javier. As you don’t leave any metro station, this is all in the validity of 1 ticket. Outside San Javier departs the green-colored bus to Las Escaleras (ticket with the Tarjeta Civil), or take an Uber. A few minutes later you’re at the escalators, where you just follow the steady stream of tourists. You definitely can’t get lost. Easy, isn’t it.
When visiting Comuna 13 don’t expect too much to be a lonely explorer on an expedition entering a former guerilla area. Nowadays you can’t expect to experience all the dangers you could easily do some 10 or 20 years ago.
You rather haggle thru all kinds of souvenir shops, bump into numerous other tourists, and you’ll have to wait forever until the most beautiful girl in the world has taken its ultimate selfie in front of the mural you absolutely need to publish on Instagram. Whatever, when visiting be patient, ignore certain issues and enjoy the rest.
Esteemed reader, should you belong to the souvenir addicted category of tourists, please bear in mind not everything on offer is really appreciated by the locals.
Despite the fact, that many visitors to Medellin just visit Comuna 13, there may be a few other places worth a look.
We decided to drive to Arvi. A popular weekend destination for smog-ridden locals. A forest area high above the town. You reach it by cable car. Arriving there you’ll quickly realize that they decided to charge poor tourists up to 40 times the prize locals pay for a few walks in the vicinity.
We finally consider this an unfriendly act against foreigners and leave Arvi as quickly as possible.
Maybe to add. It’s not a really interesting place for people traveling around. It’s just another forest.
After this rather disillusioning experience in Arvi, we just want to give a chance to Medellin CBD. Thus, the metro drives us to Parque Berrio.
It’s a square right in the center of town, unfortunately nearly disappearing below the concrete constructions of the metro.
Sneaking thru the adjacent streets. Remains the impression of a rather grim area. High-rising buildings showing their age, no signs of newly established shops, or restaurants. Reminds us a little of South Africa’s deserted CBDs.
A look at the Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe and on to Plaza Botero. The place with the famous sculptures of Fernando Botero. A place with quite some visitors – mainly to take selfies.
That’s it for Medellin. A town a few years ago having had the reputation of being 1 of the most dangerous places in the world. Nowadays many areas still look pretty grim and not inviting. A town still with huge social discrepancies. Just considering the posh establishments in El Poblado just opposite the slums on the hills. In many places, you may still expect Pablo’s Sicarios at work or FARC to fight whatever they’re fighting for. Still, in most areas security doesn’t seem to be a big issue anymore – but who really knows.
Dear’n’jealous readers, that’s it for this post.
Don’t worry there will be another 1. Not about city life. But rural Colombia.