I almost skipped visiting Medellin, and that would have been a major fail on my part, as it has actually been one of my favorite places! Not only is it a beautiful city, it has an incredibly rich and inspiring history.
Unfortunately, Medellin (and Colombia in general) is more commonly known internationally for parts of its tragic history when it was the home of the drug lord Pablo Escobar (romanticized by certain tv series) and was the most dangerous city in the world.
But today, part of the beauty of the city is that has transformed itself into a much safer city, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, with beautiful public spaces enjoyed by its citizens.
Medellin has a lot going for it – it has a beautifully warm climate (akin to southern California), is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and is a perfect climate for producing the cash crops of coffee, cocoa, and of course the other stimulant for which it became infamous, coca.)
It originally became a wealthy region for its railroad and illegal smuggling routes of cheap goods INTO the country. Those same smuggling routes later were used in the opposite direction to export coca by mafia-type groups that got richer and more powerful each year, fueled by the growing demand from North America. Add into the mix the armed extreme leftists and rights, and you have the molotov coctail for creating the most dangerous city in the world.
Through a complicated history that I will oversimplify by saying that through peace accords and urban revitalization, neighborhoods became safer and a beautiful culture began to emerge into public spaces. Once dangerous squares filled with drug addicts and homeless people, many parks are now filled with statues by the famous Paisa artist Botero and people strolling along enjoying the nice weather.
Services became available for those previously occupying those public spaces and the spaces themselves were transformed to be more hospitable. Buildings were transformed into libraries – designed as cool and interesting places to hang out, and they provided access social programs. And the metro was built, not only helping people get around, but as a symbol of pride for Paisas (people from the Medellin region).
The city is divided into large communities called Comunas, and Comuna 13 was a war zone between the different factions in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Our guide through Comuna 13 lived there through the violence. Her neighbors were armed members of the guerrilla groups, who used intimidation to get what they wanted. The area was notorious for drug trafficking and it was common to hear shots and helicopters passing above. One couldn’t freely leave and enter the neighborhood.
Then there was a hugely controversial government siege in 2002 to oust the guerrilla groups. For our guide, this marked a turning point, where within 2 years, the neighborhood started to turn itself around – it started to be safe to walk in the streets, and the beginnings of a transformation could be felt. (It was controversial because it also resulted in the disappearance and death of many people’s family members.)
Now, what were provisional shack/like houses have been transformed especially by the street art decorating their walls. As Lina guided us through the streets, she explained the meaning behind each work of graffiti, most of which depict this transformation – the suffering, the death, the injustice, the pain of a few decades ago, as well as the hope, the strength of the people, and the power of love to transform.
As a resident, Lina knew each artist and she explained that the neighborhood gets together to decide what areas will be painted and to assign areas to each of the artists that would like to do a piece.
Another big impact for the revitalization was the installation of outdoors, covered escalators in the neighborhood (sorry, I don’t have a photo). It may seem strange, but since the neighborhood is built on the side of a mountain, these escalators first helped people (especially the elderly) be able to get around better, and now are an added tourist attraction too.
For me, it was unbelievable that this sweet, humble, intelligent person standing before me had lived her young adulthood in the middle of a conflict zone, with neighbors as armed guerrilla members. For her, she said, it was unbelievable that she now not only walks freely in the streets, but that tourists from all over the world come to visit her neighborhood. It is something she never could have even imagined before; it is like a dream, she said.
Standing in the street corner, waiting for the bus to leave Comuna 13, a restaurant had the music loud (nothing unusual there for Colombia), and I noticed that 2 couples got up and started dancing salsa in the tiny space between tables on the sidewalk. Along with the break dancers and rappers we had passed earlier, I was moved by this casual, appreciation for life, a celebration of self-expression and the simple joy of being able to safely be out in the streets in their communities, something they didn’t enjoy a few decades ago here.
Sucre is a colorful city, full of signs of its colonial history and teeming with life. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the capital of Bolivia, and the seat of the judicial power*, to me it felt strangely like a big city with a small town feel.
People from Sucre call themselves Chuquisaqueños because Sucre used to be called Chuquisaca and is the capital of the department Chuquisaca. During colonial times, the Spanish called the city “la plata” and it was the center of the region of Spanish rule called Los Charcas.
It bears the nickname “ciudad blanca” because of the traditional Spanish style white houses (not to be confused with Arequipa, Peru which has the same nickname but for the white stone of the region used in construction there.)
I only barely scratched the surface of this little gem (multiple other tourists had told me they had planned to stay only 2 days and had ended up staying a week or more), but I was just there a couple of days.
The best way to bring the city to life is to visit the “casa de la libertad” in the main plaza de armas, which is one of the best museums I’ve been to, and where you can see the original Declaration of Independence and get an excellent primer on the colonial history of the city…actually of all of Bolivia – and most of South America!
The guided tour of the museum explained the history of Spanish colonial rule, from the robbery of precious metals and the brutal treatment of the natives and African slaves, to the fight for freedom from Spanish rule – a history that is shared by the majority of South American countries, with heroes such as Sucre, Simon Bolivar, and Juana Azurduy.
Later I wandered into an art museum that gave a modern history lesson, told through alasitas – miniatures of everything. One day every year in Bolivia, vendors in the street sell everything in miniature, and this miniature version of things are called alasitas. I know, I didn’t get it either. But it’s a real thing. One day a year you can buy a doll-house sized version of just about every normal thing you might buy (toilet paper, detergent, clothes, everything!)
This little exhibit in the museum had collected alasitas throughout the years and told the history of the 70s, 80s, and 90s in Bolivia (mostly La Paz) through alasitas.
To my surprise, everyone I talked to told me I had to visit the cemetery. Finally, a French friend I made convinced me, and I have to say it was quite an experience. Not a Halloween-type experience. More like visiting a huge, beautiful, sacred park.
The entrance was as grand as the entrance to a palace, and it opened up to a huge manicured park with walkways lined with trees. It was so expansive it would have literally taken hours to walk all the different walkways to see all the different graves and mausoleums.
The walkways were lined with trees, and the air was filled with the sound of birds chirping on top of a very peaceful silence, the smell of flowers and cypress, and a mix of warmth from the sun and cool air in the shade. Workers were tending the grounds and planting flowers, and a few visitors were trending to their loved ones’ graves. At one point, in the distance I heard a woman sobbing loudly (wailing, really), and I felt the sadness of her loss, reminding me of the solemnity of the place.
The main walkway was lined with massive family mausoleums, and the other paths led to walls and walls of graves with locker-sized boxes decorated with memorabilia.
Interspersed were a few grave plots, and a few more large family mausoleums. There were large buildings dedicated to specific groups like rural teachers, union workers or people who had constructed certain roads.
The differences between the family mausoleums and the walls of hundreds of graves was both artistically interesting and also a distinct reminder of the huge class, power, and wealth divisions put in place by Spanish colonialism. (Not to say that previous societies didn’t have class divisions, just saying that in this particular place those divisions created by colonial rule are what are evident.)
I couldn’t have visited Sucre without some kind of outdoors adventure, so I went looking for the “7 cascadas” that the military guy in the taxi had told me about. It was an hour bus ride leaving the city, and from there I asked the locals to point me in the right direction. “It’s straight ahead, just follow the path”, they all said. And that’s when I realized I’m not as outdoors-expert as I thought I was, even after living in a rural place for three years, because I kept losing what they claimed was a clear path. Some young teenage girls trending a flock of sheep helped me find my way (after first laughing at me).
But I did eventually find all 7 of the waterfalls and was rewarded with a delightful swim in a pool beneath a waterfall.
On the way back (after getting lost one or twice), I ran into a group of Spanish, Germans, and Argentines also coming back from the falls, and we made our way back together, just catching the last bus back to the city and then exploring one of the markets together. This is why traveling alone never really feels like traveling alone.
*La Paz holds the seat of the executive and legislative powers, which is why many call La Paz the capital, though Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia
**The hostel I stayed in, Villa Oropeza, had a lovely garden area, good WiFi, and a super friendly staff, definitely one of my favorites so far!
Today I woke up in Torotoro (the rural, mountainous, Jurassic Park of Bolivia) and I am going to sleep in Sucre – the bustling capital city of Bolivia that somehow also has a kind of small town feel.
By direct travel, Sucre would be just 3-4 hours from Torotoro, but there is not a developed direct route, so I had 10 hours of travel – going north to Cochabamba and then south again, to Sucre, passing Torotoro on the other side of the mountains.
On the way from Cochabamba to Sucre, the guy in the seat next to me kept falling asleep half on top of me (I’m used to that now after 3 years of colectivo rides in Peru), but he very kindly happened to wake up just when we passed a key landmark and he told me, “hey we’re about to pass the bridge and the famous road that Simon Bolivar took in the fight for independence for Bolivia!” Then he went back to sleep. (Unfortunately we passed it so quick I couldn’t snap a photo.)
Later, he woke up and we chatted and I found out he was in the military, from La Paz but living in Sucre, which he said he fell in love with because it is much “nicer, smaller, quieter, and safer than La Paz”*. In the military he travels most of the time, so only has short bouts of time with his family. He commented that his daughter likes to dress like “people like you” (I was in dry-fit, outdoorsy clothes), and that she loves learning English and wants to study in the US or England.
Since elections were coming up, we talked a while about it but I noticed he was trying to be very neutral, so I finally asked him directly if he wanted Evo Morales to win again. He said he hoped not because under Evo’s isolationist policies his daughter would likely not have the opportunities to study abroad and travel.
Evo Morales was re-elected in October and there were a lot of demonstrations in the country, many people claiming corruption in the election process and calling for a change of government. My super simplistic understanding based on the conversations I’ve had traveling through Bolivia is that Evo has done some good things for the country, including promoting recognition and rights of indigenous people and trying to keep benefits and profits from natural resources in the country, but his government is also know for corruption, and he changed the constitution to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely.
I paid extra to arrive in Sucre in one day and not have to sleep on a bus, and I was rewarded with the biggest fiesta of the city – the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe – which happened to be closing that night with a huge parade through the town – They said it had been going since 11am!
The best way to describe it would be “it’s not done till it’s overdone”.
Just when I thought I’d seen the craziest costumes and best music, something crazier came next.
By 10:30pm many of the people marching were so tired and/or drunk they could barely walk and hold their eyes open.
I found anticuchos and, for the first time in South America, street pizza made in a portable oven.
The bands played and as they came closer and got louder it became impossible to not dance and join the fun.
People from the crowd hopped into the middle of the parade to take selfies with the marchers. The marching band played a pop song and the crowd went wild. If the US marching band kids got to lead the town’s parties like this, they would be more popular than the football players.
(Shout out to Megan Eileen-this reminded me of your wedding, proof that you really did it right!)
The partying here is insane. It goes into the night and once you are tired the band just plays louder and they drink more and it just keeps going. Work hard play hard.
The best way to see a city is to do a run or bike ride through it, so in the morning I put on my running shoes (the only pair of shoes I brought this trip) to do a run through Sucre. The predominant style was houses with tiny balconies and hanging plants.
Between the paved main roads were cobblestone streets and lots of public green spaces. Having heard that Sucre was small, I found it much bigger than I had imagined, with many major thoroughfares throughout the city.
I ate lunch in the “Mercado Central” where there were about 20 food stations all serving the same options and each yelling the popular dishes they served trying to convince visitors to come to their restaurant (despite the fact they all were serving the same thing.)
I randomly chose one and say at a table with a young couple with a baby. We chatted and I asked if they attended the parade fiesta the previous night. Being from Sucre, they had attended the fiestas when they were younger but now they tried to avoid the crowds. They explained that students from different organizations in the universities from different parts of the country typically were the ones that dressed up and marched. Before leaving, they asked the server/cook/owner for an extra cup and then poured me a drink of their soda, generously leaving me with a parting gift.
The next day for lunch, I chose a different restaurant and sat at the table with an older, expressionless man that didn’t smile. I wondered if I should even try to talk to him… but of course I did. And after chatting a while he opened up and I learned that he has a daughter and a son in the US. In the end, he gave me a really sweet and very warm smile wishing me well as I left.
Next up, sight-seeing around Sucre…stay tuned!
*As my friend from the taxi said… “Sucre is incredibly safe. With the fiesta you have to be careful – it is less safe because of pick pockets taking advantage of crowds, like in any place, and also drunk people can do stupid things. But Sucre is generally a safe place, and while there is the possibility of pick-pocketing, you won’t be robbed, you won’t crime of force.”
One of the cool things about traveling is meeting other travelers. I have met people from so many different countries, each with their own itinerary, their own purpose of traveling, their own way of traveling, and their unique perspective on the people and places they are seeing.
Many people have some artistic and/or social goal as their vessel carrying them through their travels and guiding them along the way, like me and my blog-writing project.
Like Lucas, the photographer from Denver who was trying to capture photos of people who still maintain some practices from their indigenous ancestors and who hopes to be able to portray their culture in cool ways so that it is enticing to youth to learn and preserve their culture. (He was just the second other American I have met so far traveling!)
And like Noel from Switzerland who is traveling volunteering. She hasn’t seen all the tourist sites in Peru but rather has spent more than a month in two sites, volunteering and getting to know the place and the people on a deeper level. First she did a volunteer program in Trujillo that she paid quite a bit for but didn’t actually receive much help from the organization she paid, and finally towards the end of her 5-week stay she started to get a feel for how she could actually be of service to the community. Here in Iquitos she did a 19-day boat ride with 9th wave along the Napo river border with Ecuador where they stopped at communities along the way. There she connected with one community and decided to stay for about 5 weeks to teach English, now that she would be able to use what she learned from her first experience to make this one more impactful.
Then there are the parapenters. This couple from France worked on a farm in California to raise money to be able to travel and with that money has been traveling for about 8 months. They are traveling with an extra backpack that has their parapenting gear because everywhere they go, they look for spots to go paragliding. Since there’s a whole community of people who paraglide, It’s also a great way that they are able to meet locals in each place they go as well as meeting other travelers from around the world who paraglide.
And recently I met a 26-year-old Swiss woman who looked suspiciously Latina… and it turns out that she was born in Colombia and adopted by a Swiss family when she was 6 years old. She doesn’t remember her life before adoption, including didn’t remember any Spanish, so she had come to Colombia to attend a Spanish school in Cartegena. Having finished classes, I met her when she was speaking Spanish quite well! She is a nurse and had taken a month off to volunteer at a clinic in Peru and then travel a little around Colombia to know her homeland a little more.
These are only a few snapshots of some of the different people I have met along the way and the motives that drive them in their journeys.
Torotoro was an unplanned surprise adventure that I stumbled across in Bolivia and now I can’t imagine my journey without it.
I had never heard of Torotoro until I arrived in La Paz, where two different people recommend it to me within my first day there. My friend Gabriela said I HAD to see because, as a person that likes outdoors adventures, it was a must-see while in Bolivia.
I decided to do the 2-bus journey from La Paz in one day, leaving at 7am and arriving around midnight (due to some bad luck in my layover).*
Heading out of the densely-packed, busy La Paz towards Cochabamba**, the road soon turned into wide open spaces, with a mix of adobe and brick houses, often many kilometers apart. The landscapes were reminiscent of the Peruvian Andes highlands (sierra), from plains to red rock mountains, and then winding through the hills above a valley, with short little bushes dotting the yellow brown hills.
Torotoro is at an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,000 ft) with a rocky mountainous landscape, but also has a very unique look and feel. The colorful and pointy, oddly shaped hills and rock formations may remind an American of the Southwest, especially South Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and also parts of the Rocky Mountains. While the temperature is cool, the days were mostly sunny, and it is noticeably 1,000 meters lower than La Paz, giving one a relief from the cold and altitude of La Paz.
In the tiny town of Torotoro, most people wear the typical rural Bolivian dress- women in colorful skirts, and men in pants and a vest. Most people wear brimmed hats (sombreros), though there are different types between the men and women. But there are two unique things I see here that I haven’t seen in other parts of Bolivia (or Peru):
First, a good proportion of people have official work vests, signaling that many people are employed in the tourism industry, working either for the government or a tourism business.
The other, which I absolutely love, is that there are many guys (mostly older men) that wear the typical Andean “chullo” hat with ear flaps, but these chullos have a long pointy top, like an elf hat…and they wear the pointy part standing up! (Sorry, I don’t have photos of the local dress styles.)
Torotoro is such a tiny town, that even though the tourists stay in hotels around the middle of town, integrated with the houses of the locals, tourist activities feel very separate from local activities, and so it has a bit of a tourist town feel.
The locals have a kind of wary-ness towards me, surely from having had many a varying experience with tourists, and it takes a few minutes of conversation for them to relax and feel more comfortable conversing. I tried to chat with a street food vendor who was also serving some locals, and she was really hesitant to talk. Finally, remembering that I was in a Quechua-speaking region, I tried to speak with the little bit of Quechua I had learned in the northern Lake Titicaca island Amantani. “Soma pollo,” (delicious chicken), I told her. “Yosparasunki,” (thank you)! When she realized I was trying to speak Quechua she smiled (half laughing at me) and then taught me to say “Reposa” (bye).
Torotoro is also a national park, and due to the efforts to protect it, they have recently implemented a strict system for visiting the park, where you always have to go with a guide. (You pay 100 Bolivian Pesos for a park entry fee and then you pay separately for each guided tour.)
The system of contracting a guide is interesting because there is a set cost for each guide and you can have up to 6 people in a group with a guide. That means that most people come just before the office opens in the morning and afternoon to look for other people that want to do the same tour so they can form a group of six to split the cost. Sometimes it works out beautifully and sometimes no one shows up to do the tour you want to do. (But for the two most popular tours, even in low season, there were always people in the early morning looking to form a group. The afternoons had fewer people, though I did get lucky my first day and found a couple late in the afternoon to go see dinosaur tracks and the canyon.)
That’s right…dinosaur tracks! Who knew that in the middle of Bolivia, there are dinosaur tracks!???!?
The area used to be swampy area and over the millennia it dried up and turned to rock, preserving tracks of those massive herbivores and vicious carnivores that roamed the area thousands of years ago.
All in one tour (“El Vergal”), you pass dinosaur tracks and walk along an historic river with amazing geologic formations, leading to the majestic Chiflón canyon.
Just when we were about to leave the rim to begin our descent into the canyon, we caught sight of a graceful condor soaring above the canyon…and then another…and then another. They had emerged just in time to paint the already amazing landscape with their graceful flight paths.
We then climbed down into the canyon, passing a lemon-mint smell of the bodje tree, and later transversing the boulder-filled base for about a kilometer until we arrived at some beautiful waterfall cascades with green-blue pools below.
What a refreshing swim in that beautiful canyon pool!
The next day I successfully formed a group of 6 with my two French neighbors and a group of 3 other French tourists wanting to do a full day tour of the “Ciudad de Itas” and the Umajalanta Caverns.
We first took a 4×4 out to the grand rock formations of the City of Itas, and on the 40-minute drive climbing into the mountains, there were four different languages buzzing about in the vehicle – the guides speaking Quechua in the front, the three tourists in the back speaking French, my French neighbors and I speaking in Spanish in the middle, and the tourists in the back speaking to me in English.
The “Ciudad de Itas” was a hike through incredible rock formations and mountains.
Among many cool highlights were an almost completely dark cave-like space with just a tiny slot of light filtering through from above called “cueva del diablo”, and ancient drawings of llamas and the sun and earth goddess/god preserved in the rock in some cave-like spaces.
We were also led through a maze of rock to a secret hiding place that was a kind of hidden canyon between rocks where the natives would hide stolen cattle during the 18th and 19th centuries, before the land reform times. This was when the Spanish had taken over large swaths of land, and a wealthy, well-connected Spanish “patron” would run an agricultural businesses on “haciendas” (large farms), often practically enslaving the locals while making profits exporting products across the country or abroad. (Again I was grateful for having read Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits” to have a sense of the history around this time period.)
Another point of interest amidst the rocks was a large opening in a cave-live space in the rocks called the “cathedral” where the locals during Incan times held a gathering to celebrate the gods and goddesses of the earth (Pachamama) and the sun (Tatainti). They would have a type of pot-luck called “A’tapi”, and they would give an offering to Pachamama called “Tcha’lla”.
We also saw photo-luminescent bacteria that glows this green color from one angle but up close it just looks like brown slime on the rocks.
After having climbed to the highest part of the Torotoro area, we then descended below the surface of the earth, to explore the Umajalanta Caverns. While not the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen, it was definitely the most fun!
Hiking, climbing, repelling, crawling, and scootching through this cave was a fun adventure (and led by an experienced guide and plenty of ropes, it was not as hard or scary as it sounds.) Unfortunately, many of the beautiful formations had been damaged in the decades before it became a protected part of the national park, (due mostly to people not knowing that touching the formations would damage them but also due to some vandalism).
However, there were also signs of hope where the stalagmites and stalactites had started growing again since the cave has been protected for two decades now (since 1989).
I was so happy to have found this little gem in the middle of Bolivia, to explore such a beautiful place, and to support the protection of some natural areas.***
*While I arrived smoothly from La Paz to Cochabamba (other than a hot bus), I had bad luck catching a ride to Torotoro. The buses go “colectivo” style which means they wait until enough passengers come to fill them and then they leave. I waited 3 hours and then it was getting dark and no more passengers were coming so the company passed me off to another company that was supposedly leaving soon but still didn’t actually leave for another hour. I arrived at midnight in Torotoro and needed the next morning to recover from travels.
** Many people told me to “be careful” in Cochabamba. Luckily I had nothing but good experiences with the people there. When I asked at the terminal how to get to the vans for Torotoro, the woman didn’t know so asked a coworker who not only told me which car to take, he flagged down the car and ran the half block to where it stopped to explain to the driver where I was going and to ask him to let me know when we arrived!
***While I would definitely call this an “eco-tourism” experience, the jury is still out on whether it counts as “community-based tourism”. While on the surface it seems to bring some income to many locals, there were rumors that the government actually gets most of the proceeds and that there was a wealthy and foreign family somehow making most of the profits. I wasn’t there long enough to find out to what extent these were true, but even if the government was making profit, they were also employing quite a few people (remember all the vests?)
Side note: There were a few other short tours that I didn’t make it to (like a huge fossilized turtle), so while you can see the biggest attractions in 2 days, it is definitely a place one could stay 3-4 days, especially just to relax in a calm and quiet little village in a beautiful place with a great climate, (though there aren’t tourist attractions outside of the guided tours).