Small Town Argentina

In the morning, the sun was shining brightly and Argentina cumbia was coming from the radio. I prepared my breakfast and went outside to sit and chat with the 87-year-old man, “Carlos viejo” who lived there. (His son was also Carlos so in jest he said he was “old Carlos” and the other was “young Carlos”.)

While the sun was strong and made you feel like you were being toasted and all the water sucked out of your body, under the shade it was quite cool and there was a nice breeze. We sat under a “natural roof” created by a vine-like tree that created a roof out of thick layer of foliage that wrapped itself along a wire matrix.

From the moment I met him, I realized that Carlos Viejo was a kind, friendly, and witty man, even if he moved slowly and was a little hard of hearing. He had lived in the town his whole life and had served in the town’s police force for 27 years. Now he had arthritis in his hip and knee and spent his days sitting on the front porch, reading the paper, greeting people who passed by and chatting with his son and the woman who comes to cook and help take care of the house – and today with me. There was probably an equal measure of conversation and comfortable silence – a slow, easy rhythm that seemed to be characteristic of this small town in Argentina. (I’m so glad I learned how to adapt to this slow rhythm, to practice the “art of sitting”, in my Peace Corps service – something that would have been impossible for me four years ago.)

The caretaker came back from running errands and said, “here’s your change,” placing five little candies on the table. She continued by saying that since the 5 mil peso bill doesn’t have value anymore, the store is giving candies instead of bills. At first I thought it was a joke referring to the inflation in Argentina, which has accelerated in the last year (not nearly as bad as Venezuela, but still a marked devaluation.) Later, when Carlos Viejo passed me the newspaper he had finished reading, I learned they were discontinuing circulation of the 5 mil peso bill, and since many people don’t have the 5 mil coin yet, the stores were offering candies as change instead.

Later, Carlos invited me to eat lunch with them – a delicious fish empanada, a second course of chicken soup, and fruits (peaches, grapes, apples) for dessert. In Peru, lunch is usually served with soup first and then a main dish (segundo), but here they served the main dish first and later the soup.

I looked over at the television and realized that the program airing was the Argentina version of “The Price is Right” – El Precio Justo. Given the inflation in Argentina, I thought it was a kind of ironic show to have, painfully reminding everyone how much prices have increased in such a short time. The show is really similar to the American Price is Right – I recognized the same games and rules, and even the big wheel to spin! The host is a trans woman with a sense of humor, and the show seemed to be quite inclusive given the diversity of the participants.

While this small town (Chumbicha) is not on the typical tourist route, it does receive visitors from Buenos Aires, Uruguay, and Brasil. Many passing through for work or traveling through Argentina on motorcycle to see the country. I had arrived in this small town last night, by pure chance. (And a unique sense of adventure I have developed in the last few weeks.)

I had been on a bus to Catamarca – a city that was a few hours out of the way to where I wanted to go (but it had been the best bus option available from the small town where I had been previously.)

Then the bus had suddenly stopped for a few minutes because the copilot was sick. I looked at the map and saw that we were at a small town, and we happened to be at a spot on the highway just before it headed off out of the way from where I wanted to go. The bus wasn’t going to arrive to Catamarca until around 10:30 or 11pm, and I was still going to have to look for a place to stay, so I decided it would be more convenient, safer, and cheaper to stay in this small town if it seemed safe.

I got off the bus and asked a local about the town and asked if there were hospedajes (inns). I got a really good vibe and she called a friend and said he had room in his inn and could even pick me up to take me there. So I said “chau” to the bus driver and headed off to explore a small town in the middle of Argentina, slightly off the beaten path – exactly what I really wanted to do during my journey.

And that’s how arrived in Chumbicha, home of the mandarin and the annual Mandarin Festival in May. The town that all the locals described as “tranquilo…too tranquilo”, or safe and quiet…to the point of being boring.

I arrived that first night at the inn, it was an older house with extra rooms that they rented out. It reminded me of the old country house where my great uncle had lived in south Texas. It had all that you needed, but basic, older models with a feel of about 40 years ago. And it was the same house that Carlos Viejo had grown up in – and was still living in now.

As soon as I arrived, I asked about the town and a friendly young man –  working there (Gonzalo) pointed me to the center of town (3 blocks over) where I could find convenience stores and restaurants and the plaza. An older man sitting on the porch (Carlos Viejo) asked me if I wanted to sit and chat, and I promised I would when I returned (which I did), and I headed out to explore the little town and buy some food for dinner and breakfast.

A few blocks into town I heard what sounded like a sporting event and found women playing volleyball. I started chatting with a woman who was watching and she explained that it was a tournament and this was the championship game. She explained that she wasn’t playing because she played soccer. However, there weren’t many women around the area that played soccer so she trained with the men in the town and played on a regional travel team (someone I could relate to!)

Women’s volleyball tournament

It was 10:30pm, and the stores were just starting to close so I ran across the street to buy some fruits. Even in small towns like this, things stay open late, and it is not uncommon to stay up late into the night chatting. But during the day, from 1pm to 5pm everything closes for siesta, when people go home to eat lunch and often take a nap. It gets extremely hot during the day here, so it makes a lot of sense to have that break. The the work day continues from 5pm to 9pm usually.

In the evenings after 7-8pm when it finally cools off, you see families sitting on their porch drinking mate (loose leaf tea that is drunk through a metal straw), walking, biking, or rollerblading through the street, or hanging out in the park in the middle of town. When you greet them, they often respond “chau” or “adios” instead of the “hola” or “buenas tardes” that I’m used to.**

Later that night I was getting ready for bed, and Gonzalo* said that someone was outside asking for me. I went outside and there was the soccer woman I had met earlier and two other women on motorcycles. They had come to tell me about the times that they buses come through, and we ended up chatting for more than an hour out front. I had only been there for 3 hours and I already felt like I had friends!

The next night, my new friends invited me out for a drink. They were bummed that the one club (“boliche”) in town had just a fire a few days ago so they couldn’t take me there. Instead, they put a lot of effort into finding friends that could come out to hang out with us to show me a good time in Chumbicha. They were also trying  to find out something about “the game” (I was clueless what was going on). We ended up at an ice cream shop and shared a drink (soda) while we played “the game” – a giant version of Jenga!

Later (at around 1:30pm), they gave me a tour of the city on their motorcycles, and I showed them some constellations in the night sky (after a few minutes of convincing them that it wasn’t scary to find a dark spot without lights so we could see the stars, and another few minutes trying to find a dark spot because the town is really well lit and every street has street lights.) Like we were 15 years old, they taught me all the bad words and taboo expressions in Argentina Spanish, and I felt a sense of innocence in them, even though they were my age. (Small town sheltered life?)

One thing everyone agreed on was that the town was full of good people, there was no crime (though there was drug use), everybody helped each other out, and everyone knew everyone else’s business. I definitely felt a great vibe, I felt like everyone I met was a good person that wanted to help out and there was a sense of trust among everyone. Even if it was “too tranquilo” to the point of being boring, I loved it! And it was just what I was looking for – a safe and quiet spot, with Giant Jenga and buena gente (good peeps).

 

Famous Footnotes

*Chatting with Gonzalo later, I learned that he was from the capital (Buenos Aires) and had come to Chumbicha a few years ago. He said he had been kind of immature and “lost”, and working with the Carloses, they had taught him to do things like house maintenance and taking care of the old man, and they had also made him realize that he needed to be more responsible and be a better father for his little kid.

**In the small town in El Salvador where I worked they had used the same greetings of “chau” and “adios” when someone was passing by, which at first was strange to me since they are typically reserved for “good by”/”see you later” in most parts.

Jujuy & Carnaval – First Impressions of Argentina

After a long (9-hour) drive, I arrived in Jujuy, Argentina, without local currency nor a local phone chip (so unable to contact the person I would be staying with). While I wasn’t too worried – (I’m getting used to navigating without those basic things we take for granted like money and cell phone service – for a short amount of time) – those moments are still somewhat humbling and uncertain.

Yet I felt like I was greeted in Jujuy by a welcoming committee!

First was David from the grocery store. I asked him about phone cards, money exchange, wifi, how to get around the city, and not only was he super friendly and helpful, he made me feel really welcome and we ended up chatting for 15-20 minutes about life in general.

My first experience in Argentina was a warm welcome from David from the grocery store

Then there was Pablo from the internet store. He lent me wifi for free, told me about his favorite things to do in the city and we exchanged travel stories and ended up chatting for nearly an hour!

A serendipitous trip to the internet store led me to another welcoming and fun soul who made me feel right at home (and gave me free wifi). (Don’t judge my appearance – I had been traveling through the desert for 9 hours!)

Then I arrived at the house where I was couchsurfing, and my host invited me to the dinner he had cooked, introduced me to his cat, the washing machine (it’s a real treat to have access to a washing machine when traveling!), and made me feel right at home. Over the course of my stay there, we ended up becoming friends – he even invited me to a birthday party where I made friends with his friends, and even vacationed later with some of his friends! (Unfortunately, we forgot to take a photo together.)

I crossed this beautiful city park to arrive at the house where I would stay.

Given the friendliness of everyone I met, I was surprised to hear that a famous tv personality from Buenos Aires visited Jujuy and noted that the locals complained a lot. A friend I met from Jujuy agreed that it was a fair stereotype. (As a traveler passing through, I didn’t experience any complaining while I was there, and actually had nothing but wonderful experiences with all the locals I met!) To be fair, “Porteños” from Buenos Aires also have a reputation among other Argentines to be snobby and less friendly, and so the stereotyping across regions continues, just like we do for east-coasters and west-coasters, New Yorkers, and southerners in the US.

To be clear, I am in San Salvador de Jujuy – the capital of the province of Jujuy. For those who live in other parts of the province, the city is usually called “San Salvador” to distinguish it from the rest of the province, whereas by outsiders, it is often referred to as Jujuy.

San Salvador de Jujuy is a pretty big small city, with wide roads and a fair share of traffic. It is clean and seems well organized, with nice parks, good infrastructure, good public transportation, and I was surprised how many people had personal vehicles.

My first impression was that Argentina is a bit more well-off than Bolivia and Peru, especially because a local informed me that the province of Jujuy is one of the poorer provinces of Argentina. To me it seemed a bit more put-together than similar cities in other parts of South America, though it also has a clear wealth gap, with neighborhoods of what seem like makeshift houses, where people are just making ends meet, according to one local.

Argentina has a history of an economy that fluctuates drastically, and they are in a period of inflation, with the currency devaluing monthly. At the bank, I learn that it’s very difficult if a foreigner wants to sell Argentine pesos, and they only permit it one day per month.

One friend I met is earning half of what he earned three years ago, but the cost of living hasn’t changed. For him, he can still get by, but he points out that there are a lot of people who struggle to get by because of it. Throughout his life the economy has been in drastic fluctuation – growing at insane rates, like 8%, with everyone doing really well economically, then inflation getting out of hand and things falling like they are now. While it’s not ideal, he kind of casually said. “We just have to wait a few years for the economy to improve again. And the cycle continues.”*

I was planning to run some errands in the early afternoon, and luckily my friend stopped me. Siesta is a thing here,** and most places close at 1pm and don’t open again until 5 or 6 pm. Restaurants typically don’t open again until 7:30 or 8. When things do open again, downtown “el centro” is a bustling place, people hurrying from one shop to another, people passing out flyers, reading your blood pressure for a small donation to the Red Cross, and even a huge protest with a marching band (protesting a raise in some type of tax) passed by when I was walking around downtown.

Most of the locals and transplants (the majority of people I met were actually transplants) agreed that the best thing about Jujuy was the outdoors. The city is surrounded by forested hills, has some great parks, and it’s fairly easy to go out and immerse yourself in beautiful nature for a day trip, for the weekend, or anytime.

There are a ton of great hikes and also many sites to see in the towns outside of the city, the most famous being Purmamarca, Tilcara, and Quebrada de Humahuaca. In addition to being home to great hikes and outdoors activities, these towns are also the heart of Carnaval.

I just so happened to arrive in Jujuy during its annual Carnaval, which is similar to Louisiana’s Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnaval, but with its own unique flavor. It was both a blessing and a curse to be there at this time; on one hand, I had the opportunity to get a taste of Carnaval, but on the other hand I wasn’t able to take advantage of the beautiful hikes and outdoors activities because of traffic and logistics.

I was told that the best places to experience Carnaval are “in the north”, in Tilcara or Quebrada de Humahuaca, (though Pumamarca, and many other small towns throughout the province of Jujuy and nearby provinces have insane celebrations too)…BUT, then I heard horror stories of the traffic and that there wouldn’t be a place to stay.*** In the end, I opted to participate in a celebration in the city put on by the local government, which I would call “Carnaval Light”, though it did have a live performance by the regionally famous Carnaval band “Los Tekis”.

While each town does it a little differently, the main aspects of Carnaval are the “desentierro” and “entierro” of “el diablo”. That’s the unearthing of the devil to kick off the festival, and the burying of the devil to end the festival a few days later. The idea is that after unearthing the devil, people are free to do whatever they want that would normally be considered immoral (what happens in carnaval stays in carnaval), and then once the devil is buried again at the end of carnaval, life goes back to normal.

Each town has their own unique way to exhume the devil, but it usually involves a bunch of people dressed in devil costumes appearing from some special spot. This “desentierro” is the main event and that is why traffic is so bad as crowds of people try to arrive to witness the desentierro.

Before, after, and during the desentierro, people drink (especially box wine, often mixed with any number of other drinks – soda or alcoholic), people paint themselves and throw paint on everyone else, people throw powder and flour on each other, and spray cans of foam at anyone passing by.

Luckily, my friend had warned me not to wear any nice clothes. If you enter clean, you don’t stay clean for long. Random strangers do you the favor of painting you or spraying you with foam, like a little sibling trying to annoy an older sibling. (It would normally be a situation that would lead to a fist fight, but it’s expected at Carnaval and people who don’t like to be randomly attacked by foam in the face or paint thrown at them don’t go.)

All the while, the music is playing and people dance and drink and party all day and all night long, some for multiple days. I enjoyed Carnaval “light” for a few hours Saturday night, and when I arrived in a small town in the south (Amaicha) two days later their celebrations were still in full swing.)

Soon after arriving (still clean), with the Basil of Carnaval
About an hour after arriving (still very mild paint and foam coverage – and no flour still)

The atmosphere in Jujuy in general and also during Carnaval was super friendly. I met multiple people who offered to help me in one way or another – a group of women my age invited me into their group to dance and hang out at the event, a group of older women offered me basil to put behind my ear, which is supposedly a thing you do during carnaval (right ear if you’re married, left ear if you’re single), and a family of three offered me a place to stay in their home if I ever visited Santiago de Estero in the next province over.

Carnaval friends
They hooked me up with basil so I could be legit
I gifted my hat to the woman and she invited me to stay at her house if I ever visited her city.

My first impressions of northern Argentina have been highlighted by the friendliness and generosity of the people; I don’t think I’ve ever been in an environment where I felt such generosity everywhere I went!

 

Famous Footnotes
*Just one perspective on the economy from one person of upper middle class.

**Siesta is not unique to Jujuy, as it seems to be the norm for all the places I’ve been in northern Argentina so far. It is so hot at mid-day in some places, that it makes a lot of sense to be at home resting.

***For future reference: If you want a place to stay in one of the towns in “the north” during Carnaval, you either need to know someone that lives there or reserve a year to 6 months in advance.

Another option is to arrive early the morning of the desentierro and then not sleep the night – just party all through the night and catch a car early in the morning back to Jujuy (I shared a car south to Salta the next day with some people who had done this.)
You would need to leave the city before noon, otherwise you might not make it before the “desentierro.” The normally 2-hour drive often takes up to 6-8 hours the days of Carnaval desentierro.

Colombian Things

I fell in love with Colombia – with the warm, friendly people, the neat and colorful little towns, and with the diversity of landscapes, climates and cultures. Across the country, in every place I stayed, I quickly felt at home.

(Podrías leer este publicación en español haciendo click aquí.)

The friendly and hospitable people and incredible diversity of landscapes wasn’t exactly new for me, because I have found it in abundance in every country in South America.

But each country has something special and its own unique flavor. Each country has those unique things that make it different from its neighbors, like an accent, certain words or phrases, customs, or trends. Colombia has its fair share, and I’m sure I only picked up on not even 10% of them, but here I’ll share a few that I noticed that made Colombia unique from the other South American countries I’ve visited. With these, you can start practicing so you can blend in as if you were from there!

In the streets…

Being a cyclist, I was fascinated by the number of people that ride bikes – both for daily commute and for exercise! I loved that in three of the cities that I visited, they opened “ciclovia” on Sunday mornings, where they closed of major streets to vehicle traffic, for cyclists, runners, or families that wanted to enjoy the morning walking in the fresh air.

Another two-wheeled novelty… I found that I could get around easily thanks to motorcycle taxis! I’m not talking about moto-taxis or “tuk-tuks” where they put a type of carriage for you to sit on the back of a motorcycle. Rather, you can flag down a motorcycle, just like you would a taxi, hop on the back, and get where you were going quickly and easily. (A few even insisted they had no problem taking me and my huge hiking backpack – and they really did carry me and my backpack just fine. Though I only rode with my big backpack in smaller cities at lower speeds!)

They even have an app like Uber or Lyft, called “Picap” where you can call the motorcycle taxi to come get you. (Everyone uses these apps (Uber, Beat, Picap), even though they are technically illegal.)

You can also see Chiva buses in many cities in Colombia. You’ll recognize them when you’re walking down the street and you suddenly hear the party coming down the road towards you. That’s right, they’re party buses that either go through the street picking people up (you can just hop on!) or some are contracted and you can rent the whole bus for your party.

I loved that there were a ton of outdoor parks, green spaces, and public parks throughout the cities I visited. There was usually outdoor exercise equipment, basketball and football (soccer) courts, playgrounds, and trails to walk or run. Especially in a big city like Bogota, it made it a lot more welcoming and livable, in my opinion.

I noticed graffiti art adding color to most cities, mostly with clear neighborhood or political themes (though also a few instances of gang-like tagging.)

Finally, I loved that there were water fountains in the airport, a sign that the country had advanced in providing potable water to taps for people. It turned out to be true that most of the places I visited did have potable water delivered to their taps!

There were also many different phrases, words and expressions that I noticed were different from the other countries I visited. One example was that after saying “thank you” for something, the common response not the “no problem” that I was used to, but rather “with pleasure”, which made one feel much more welcome. For more examples, read the Spanish version of this blog entry.

Finally, I was lucky enough to be in Colombia on December 7th when they celebrate “la noche de las velitas” or the night of candles. This is when families gather on their front porch or in the street outside their house to light candles. Each candle represents good wishes for a special person in their life. In Bogotá, many families or groups of friends gathered in public parks to sit in a circle and light their candles. It was a really lovely atmosphere where one felt a sense of community with others from the neighborhood, while enjoying a special moment with friends and family closest to you.

 

Trocitos Colombianos

(You can read this in English here.)

Me enamoré de Colombia, con su gente cálida, sus pueblos coloridos y ordenados y su diversidad de paisajes, climas y culturas. En varios lugares a través del país me sentí en casa y me acostumbré rápido al sitio nuevo y su gente.

En muchos sentidos, la gente acogedor y amable y la increíble diversidad geográfica no me fue nuevo, ya que son placeres que una encuentra en todos los países de Sudamérica. Cada país tiene su encanto y su sazón único.

Además, cada país tiene sus características únicas que lo distingue de los otros, que sea un dejo, palabras únicas, costumbres o tendencias. Colombia tiene suyos y seguro que yo solo capté ni siquiera un 10 por ciento de ellos, pero aquí te dejo un trocito de observaciones y diferencias que me sobresalieron de Colombia. Con esto, puedes comenzar a asimilarte al idioma y costumbres colombianos para que parezcas de allí al llegar.

Empezando en la calle…

Siendo una ciclista, me fasciné con la cantidad de gente que vi andando en bicicleta a diario. Además, en tres de las ciudades que conocí hacen “ciclovia” los domingos en la mañana (y posiblemente lo hacen en otras ciudades también). Tuve la suerte de estar en Bogotá, Medellín y Manizales cuando cerraron varias calles principales para los ciclistas, corredores, patinadores y familias que salen para caminar juntos para divertirse en el aire libre.

Otra novedad de dos llantas, es que en todos lados pude movilizarme fácilmente con taxi de moto linear. (No hablo de la moto taxi que tiene asiento con techo atrás del conductor, sino la motocicleta linear sola. Mi mochila grande de mochilera no los intimidó y con ella también nos llevaron varias motos lineares taxistas! Incluso, igual como se usa Uber o Beat para un taxi de auto, se puede contractar una moto linear taxista con el aplicativo “Picap” en varias ciudades. (Se usan los aplicativos de taxi a pesar de que son ilegales en Colombia.)

En todos lados también verás los Chiva Bus. Los reconocerás cuando escuchas la fiesta pasando por tu lado en la calle. Son buses que tocan la música, sirven bebidas alcohólicas y pasan por las calles de la ciudad. Hay unos en que podrías abordar en cualquier momento y otros podrías contractar para realizar tu fiesta con familia y amigos mientras que vayan pasando por la ciudad.

En varias ciudades vi una cantidad de parques, espacios verdes y espacios públicos en el aire libre, con equipos para hacer ejercicios, con canchas de futbol y básquet, pistas para caminar y correr y columpios para niños.

En todas partes observé el arte de grafiti que suele ser arte público con temas comunitarios, históricos o políticos (aunque también había instancias de lo que parecía de pertenecer a pandillas).

Además me impresionó que había bebederos – fuentes de agua potable – en el aeropuerto. Varias ciudades han logrado de abastecer agua potable a sus poblaciones y yo podía tomar agua del caño (“del grifo”, “de la llave”) sin preocupación.

 

Hablando de diferentes palabras y expresiones, me encontré con unas pequeñas diferencias del castellano peruano con que ya tengo costumbre.

Dos de mis favoritas son unas frases cotidianas que tienen un poquito más de calidez y que me hizo sentir bienvenida. Cuando dije “gracias!”, no solo fue “de nada” que alguien me sirvió o me ayudó, sino “con mucho gusto”! No solo se me despidieron con “chau,” sino “que este bien!”

Al contrario a la calidez que me sentí por escuchar siempre que me ayudaban “con gusto” y me deseaban “que este bien”, me sentí rara al escuchar “que pena” cuando alguien se me chocó conmigo en la calle o cuando algo se cayó de mis manos sin querer. En estas situaciones, tengo costumbre de escuchar “lo siento”, “disculpa”, o “perdón”. En mi experiencia previa, “qué pena” se usa para expresar sarcasmo, para darme la culpa a mi o cuando una persona culpable no acepta culpabilidad. Pero no suele ser así in Colombia, sino es costumbre decir “que pena” en lugar de “lo siento” cuando algo mal pasa sin querer, aunque sea una falla pequeña de alguien. Mi ejemplo favorito es cuando mis amigos pidieron unas bebidas en el restaurante y el mesero se equivocó. Al explicarlo que no eran las bebidas que habían pedido, les respondió, “que pena”.

Asimismo, en Colombia no solo te piden que “te colabores” con el sorteo del colegio, la pollada o para ayudar a la persona en la calle. También te piden que “colabores” cuando quieren que sigas las normativas de la empresa o las normas sociales. En una lancha en el rio amazonas nos regó el capitán, “Colabórenme y pónganse el chaleco de seguridad, por favor”.

En la mayoría de los países Latinoamérica que conozco, “tomamos fotitos” y “llegamos en un ratito”, pero en Colombia y Venezuela, “tomamos foticos” y “llegamos en un ratico”.

En Colombia, se dice a su amigo o conocido “marica”… “Oye marica! Vienes? Vamos a la playa! Salimos en un ratico!”

Una frase que es útil en el negocio, desde el principio hasta al final, es el clásico: “A la orden”. “A la orden!” te gritan los vendedores para llamar atención a sus productos. Incluso al cerrar la venta, les dices “gracias” y te responden “a la orden,” (siempre están a tu servicio).

Tengo que clarificar tambien, que hay unas palabras y frases que se usa en Colombia y Venezuela y unas que se usa en Venezuela que han llegado a Colombia debido a la llegado de muchos inmigrantes refugiados. La verdad es que a veces yo no me fije en cuales son de Venezuela originalmente; sigo aprendiendo.

Me hace recordar de las arepas, que encuentras en Colombia y en Venezuela, pero son diferentes en cada país. A mi me gustó mucho la version Venezolana.  Mi amiga venezolana en Bogotá me enseño que se puede preparar arepas con casi cualquiera combinación de comida (si lo sabes bien).

De comida colombiana, me gustó mucho la sopa “ajiaco” y el postre “obleas”.

Al final, les cuento que tuve la suerte de estar en Colombia el 7 de diciembre cuando celebran “la noche de las velitas” (o “el día de las velitas”). En la tarde, con toda la familia prenden velas en la barrera o patio fuera de la casa. Cada vela representa buenos deseos para una persona querida.

En Bogotá, familias y amigos se reunieron en parques y espacios públicos para prender las velas con sus queridos, en compañía de vecinos de la zona. Fue un ambiente muy bonito en donde uno siente en comunidad y rodeada por la buena vibra de los buenos deseos.

Ciudad Perdida

If there was one thing I wanted to see in Colombia, (besides my good friends Adam and Adrienne), it was la Ciudad Perdida (“the lost city”). To describe the impact and significance of this archaeological site, many call it the Machu Picchu of Colombia. But unlike Machu Picchu, the only way to arrive to la Ciudad Perdida is a multi-day (4-7 days) hike through the hot, humid jungle of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia.

Translated as “The Lost City”, it was found overgrown by the jungle and being looted for precious stones (like most archeological sites in the world). In the 1970s, the Colombian government and archeologists were able to protect it and begin “recovering” it, (cutting the jungle back). This revealed the historic city – neighborhoods (terraces where houses once stood and walking paths that connected the at least 500 houses of the city) and ceremonial areas overlooking the surrounding mountainside.

In the 1980’s it was opened for visitors, and now you can access this unique site by trekking through the jungle with one of the 7 authorized tour companies. (And you can ONLY access it by trekking with one of these authorized companies). During the trek, you pass through two national park reserves (parques nacionales naturales), which are protected areas.

Since all the companies by law have to charge the same price, I chose to go with Wiwa Tours, which hires guides from the four native communities whose ancestors founded Ciudad Perdida and who still live there and in the surrounding lands, still practicing many of their traditional customs.

Our guide, Juan Daza, in Ciudad Perdida, explains a traditional process of making pots

Our guide explained that the site of Ciudad Perdida was home to the Tayrona (also “Tairuna” or “Teyuna”) culture, the ancestral culture of the four present-day, distinct but connected communities of the Sierra Nevada – the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. Each has their own language, customs and leaders, but they share this sacred site.

Ciudad Perdida was as interesting and mystical as Machu Picchu was for me, though in different ways. One of the most fascinating aspects was its connection to the present – the “mamo” and “saga”, or male and female community leaders from one of the four communities still lives on the grounds of Ciudad Perdida.

Mamo’s or Saga’s house in Ciudad Perdida

The communities still live in and around the surrounding lands and are involved in management of the tourism that comes through, receiving some of the financial benefits from it.* Each September, the four communities still gather at the sacred site of Ciudad Perdida to perform ceremonies (and clean the site of any bad juju that tourists might have brought to the sacred site in their visit). (Yes, I said “juju”. Don’t hate.)

The vistas are also breath-taking. The site is on a high point in the hills, surrounded by 180 degrees of beautiful green mountains and valleys, and even a waterfall cascading down a mountain in the distance.

To arrive at this amazing site, we hiked for about a day and a half up and down through the hills of the jungle, crossing streams and the river. The jungle humidity kept me drenched in sweat the entire day, every day of hiking, and we got rained on twice – which was actually quiet refreshing! (Having done my research I knew to prepare my bag as light as possible and to water-proof it to be able to hike in the rain and cross rivers, and still have dry clothes to wear in the night and the next days.)**

I was surprised to find that these tours and their accommodations are actually a pretty well-functioning machine – they get hundreds of tourists to and from Ciudad Perdida every day of the year! First, the accommodations were surprising. There were well-equipped camp sites along the way, prepared to accommodate multiple groups at a time, some seeming to accommodate up to a hundred through-hikers each day. They had bunk beds with mosquito nets, showers, and flush toilets in every camp where we stayed. There was also a huge kitchen area where the different guide companies prepared meals for their groups – and the meals were delicious and nutritious! Since they provided all the lodging and meals, we only had to carry clothes and a few basic personal items.**

I was impressed by how they’ve scaled up a multi-day trek through the jungle, making it accessible for a wide range of ages and fitness types (there was an 80-year-old man in one of the groups) and also making it accessible for a lot of people at once. On the other hand, I might have been slightly disappointed that the crowds and accommodations did make it less exotic, mystical, and hard-core. But I was also happy to have a shower and delicious meal each night and to meet people from all over the world.

Our group had 19 people from Europe, Colombia, Chile and me, two tour guides (one Wiwa, one Kogui), and an English translator (Venezuelan).

This was actually one of the first guided hikes that I’ve done in South America where there was a good percentage of locals on the tour – nearly half of the group were Colombians, with a group of 3 Chilean women (a few years older than me), and the rest Europeans.

Almost as if to prove our worthiness, the morning of the third day we had to cross a rushing river and then climb a few hundred meters to arrive at the Ciudad Perdida.

There, we learned about some of the current and ancient customs of the Tayrona culture and the current-day communities. Interestingly, there is still disagreement between some archeologists and the current-day communities about the meaning of some of the ruins and artifacts.

One of my favorites of the artifacts were the maps etched in stone – always with the 2 snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a reference. (These two peaks of the Sierra Nevada are very important in the culture and show up in many artifacts, artwork, and architecture of the Tayrona culture.)

“You are here”

While a little more “touristy” and expensive than I typically go for, I wouldn’t have missed this grand adventure. An incredible mix of history, culture, adventure, nature, and incredible landscapes, it embodied what I am seeking in my travels – an opportunity to invest in cultural and natural conservation, while learning and experiencing a great adventure!

 

Bonus Content

A peek into some traditions of the modern-day indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada:

Throughout the 4-day hike, our guides constantly chewed coca leaves and carried a gourd-like thing, always “painting” it with a stick.

Note the bulge in the cheek where he chews his coca leaf, and the gourd and stick he is always wielding.

Finally, after arriving to the Ciudad Perdida, our guides (one Wiwa and one Kogui) explained that gourd for them was a kind of journal or a work of art. They chew the coca leaf and then spit it into the gourd “popora” where they mix it with crushed seashells. They then paint the outside of the popora with this mixture of calcium, coca leaf, and saliva, building up layers of a coating on the outside of the gourd. This coating carries all their thoughts, hopes and ponderings, and so functions as a kind of journal for them.

A tradition that probably dates back centuries before the Spanish arrived (according to archeological evidence of poporas), when men become of age, they go through a ceremony to become official members of the community, and this includes receiving their first “poporo”. When it reaches a certain size, they take it to the mamo (leader) for consultation and then receive another to start on.

The women have a similar tradition in which they weave circular bags using the fibers of the fique plant. (The fique plant is the same plant used to make the coffee sacks I mentioned in a previous blog about a coffee farm in Salento.) The bag contains all of their thoughts and stories and ponderings while making the bag, so that when the gift the bag to someone, they are also gifting them all of their thoughts during the creation of the bag. The circular design is to keep the positive energy in the bag because the energy “runs into the corners and escapes”. This circular style of bag is typically referred to as a “mochila”, or backpack, and is actually fashionable all through Colombia, used by men and women alike throughout the country.

The coca leaf is, and has been, an important part of the indigenous cultures of South America for centuries. One of the most interesting uses I saw was in the greeting. When one person (male) of the Tayrona culture greets another person, each offers the other a handful of coca leaves.

Exchanging coca leaves

Footnotes

*A person that grows up in an indigenous community in the “modern age” inevitably experiences an identity conflict. The person has to reconcile adapting to the modern world without losing key aspects of their cultural identity. That means defining what parts of each world define them – which customs from each culture (traditional and modern) they will adhere to and maintain in their daily life. With the “modern” culture dominating in cultural and economic power, many traditional customs are abandoned in order to be able to survive or to gain more opportunities in the modern world. In my opinion, the “cultural tourism” aspect of visiting Ciudad Perdida was a way to invest in promoting cultural conservation of these traditions. By sharing their traditions with us, the guides were able to keep their cultural memories alive, and they could be inspired to do so both by the interest we have in learning as well as the financial incentive – the fact that they can earn a living through keeping their culture alive.

**Packing for Ciudad Perdida, I recommend: quick-dry towel, flip flops for the evenings, newspapers to stuff in shoes so they will dry at night, carabiners to hang things from your backpack to dry during the day, water-proof backpack cover, multiple plastic bags to store everything you want to keep dry and to line the inside of your backpack, a ziplock to keep your phone dry, just enough shampoo and soap, 1L water bottle, money to buy gatorade or snacks along the way.

 

 

 

 

San Agustín – Ancient History and Home Away from Home

At about the same time that the Greeks were building the Parthenon, here in hills of present-day Colombia (where all 5 of the country’s major rivers begin), the San Agustín culture emerged, evolved, developed over the centuries, and then disappeared. While we have hardly any evidence of the inner workings of their societies, hundreds of statues, some basic metal works, and tombs have been discovered and give us a tiny peek into their culture, leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Artwork in a museum in the nearby town of Obando where the oldest tombs (from 1000 BC) are found. Depicts the artists interpretation of some key elements from the San Agustin culture.

Some of the personified animals and figures depicted in their statues are similar to aspects of the cultures of many of the indigenous communities that still maintain their traditions today in Colombia. As such, many of the depictions are interpreted through the lens of the modern day indigenous communities’ beliefs and traditions.

In my opinion, these statues are signs that the Agustinians played baseball.

Many of these statues were found next to tombs, suggesting that just like we put gravestones at burial sites today, statues marked or guarded these burial sites, or maybe guided the deceased into the next life.

Some statues were painted with sap from trees, seeds, bark, and plants.

Seeing signs of creativity and human works from so long ago made me feel tiny and at the same time great – as I peeked into tombs from 1,100 BC and marveled at statues carved 2000 years ago (around 9-20 AD)., I could feel a tiny connection a with this far away past, with our American ancestors, little talked about in history class.

These archeological sites are located in and around a small, rural farming town of about 11,000 people, called San Agustin. People come from all over the world to see the statues, which are located in many different sites dispersed throughout the region. You can see many statues and archaeological sites in the archaeological park just outside the city center, but many more sites are farther from the urban center, and are more commonly accessed by rides in van, jeep, or on horseback.

When I was there, the majority of tourists were actually Colombians, (a change in the norm due to the holiday season when people have vacations). It was especially cool to hear so many different people excited to learn about the history and geography of their country. (And I was really impressed with the couple from Cúcuta,* who were there with their three year-old, doing the day tour to see the statues, tombs, and waterfalls.)

El Estrecho del Rio Magdelena is a channel where this major river of Colombia passes through a space only 2.2 meters wide between rock formations.

For me, San Agustín was a magical place. (I was even hesitant to write this blog because I don’t think I can convey in words how special of a place it was for me.) I fell in love with it, not only for its connection with its ancient past, but also because of its current vibe – the friendly and down-to-earth people and the familiar rural Latin American small-town feel.

It resembles my Peace Corps Peru home of Oxapampa in many ways. It has a temperate climate and is surrounded by beautiful green hills, rivers, and waterfalls. A town of agriculture (mostly sugar cane, coffee, bananas) and tourism, the conversations between strangers in the car ride there were about the going prices of different crops and gossip about people they knew in common. The guy who took me to my hospedaje (lodging) just happened to be cousins with the owner and helped me negotiate a price within my budget for a very nice room.

I happened to arrive just when the family was preparing to host the novena that night. And that is how I learned what a novena was.

I arrived at the same time that  extended family members were arriving and gathering on the patio outside the kitchen. While cooking my dinner, I listened as they took turns reading passages and later singing along to (religious) Christmas songs from the stereo while adding some spice with maracas and shakers. After the extended family left, they invited me to eat my dinner at the table with them, and I learned that they celebrate novenas for the nine days leading up to Christmas, alternating houses that host it each night.

Over the few days that I was there, the family became like my Colombian family. They invited me to one of the novenas, let me help milk a cow, and drove me around town to see the Christmas lights and the town’s annual nativity scene. (San Agustin boasts to have the largest pesibre, or nativity scene, in all of Colombia. (They say it used to be the biggest in the world.) It includes 20-50 different outdoor “rooms”, each with different scenes made of life-size mannequins. Some are a depiction of a part of the Christmas story from the bible, while others depict historic life in San Agustin, but most are a mixture of the two, sponsored by a local business promoting its products or services.)

This was one of those really special places where I felt a real connection with the place and the people, so much so that it was kind of hard to leave. I had similar feelings about my experience in Amantaní, the island on Lake Titicaca, and coincidentally I had a similar mystical “despedida” (farewell) with nature. My last morning in Amantaní, a hummingbird came and hovered close my face looking at me for a few seconds, while here in San Agustin, just before I left, a butterfly landed on my face and remained for nearly a minute, giving me a goodbye hug and kiss.

 

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Cuceta is a border town with Venezuela, located on the other side of country. This family of three (a lawyer and an engineer) had literally traveled across the country to visit San Agustin.

**Fun fact: In San Agustin, I saw many guys sporting Mohawk-like haircuts- something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my South American travels so far.

New Year in Ecuador

Sometimes it helps to close the door on the past so that we can start fresh and fully immerse ourselves in the future. Or at least that’s the idea behind the New Years Eve (NYE) tradition in Ecuador (and many other Latin American countries).

Welcoming the new year is done by first burning the “año viejo” or old year – a symbol of burning away all the bad that happened in the previous year, and also scaring away the bad so it won’t come in the new year.

“Año viejo” is often represented by life-size dolls or dummies, often dressed in old clothes or adorned with symbols of bad things from the year before.

“Año Viejo” being sold on Dec. 31 in the streets of Cuenca, Ecuador

In some cases, “año viejo” is dressed as people, political figures, or even family members, in an attempt to burn the bad they caused the previous year.

The president of Ecuador and various figures representing major events that took place in Ecuador during the past year

It is a moment to combine art and self expression with hopes for better future. Some people go to great lengths and create entire displays. For example, this one depicts the 12-day strikes (“huelgas”) and protests that occurred in Ecuador in October of 2019, spurred by the government’s announcement that they would eliminate fuel subsidies.

In most cases, people create their own smaller, personal dolls or creations with items of personal significance and burn them bonfire-style in the street outside their house just before midnight. Sometimes a creative person will create a humorous testament, recounting things that happened to their friends or family members before lighting “año viejo” on fire.

From the “año viejo” tradition, grew the “viuda” (widow) tradition, which explained why I saw a bunch of guys dressed in drag when I crossed the border into Ecuador.

One of the first things I saw crossing the border into Ecuador, Dec. 30

As a humorous take on the tradition, some men dress as widows mourning the loss of their husband/boyfriend (themselves) who would be “burned” as part of the “año viejo” tradition.* They dress in drag and often ask for coins in the streets, usually while goofing off and having a good time.

Dancing with the “viudas”

Walking through the street after midnight, all the neighbors had fires smoldering in the streets, many playing music and celebrating with family members. I joined a couple of people dancing outside and made some new friends – an extended family that owned the restaurant where they were dancing, and lived in the same building.

I am happy to have started my new year off dancing and meeting new people, leaving behind fears, inhibitions, and self-consciousness smoldering in the past.

Famous Footnotes:

*If you didn’t follow the “viuda” tradition it’s because it is kind of confusing and takes some imagination. The men are assuming their partner will burn a figure of them (because they were the cause of problems during the previous year), so the men, pretending that they are actually dead from this symbolic burning and have therefore left their partners widowed, then dress as their partners and beg for coins in the streets.

**One source said the “año viejo” tradition came from the colonial times when many people died from yellow fever and their clothes would be burned at the end of the year for sanitary and spiritual purposes, to ward off the disease.

**https://culturacolectiva.com/historia/tradiciones-de-ano-nuevo-en-ecuador

Coffee Tour in the Eje Cafetero

Besides the Cocora Valley, the thing to do in Salento is a Coffee tour. There are all kinds of coffee tours, including where you help harvest the coffee and/or you can stay in a guesthouse on some coffee “fincas” (farms). I just chose to do a quick tour during the day, and I happened upon one of the few coffee fincas trying to promote biodiversity and move away from the pure “monoculture” model.

The owner of the finca “The Recuerdo”, Carlos, grew up in the city of Armenia (the other major city in the “eje cefetero”, nearest to Salento). He got his bachelor’s degree in agriculture, and worked with a coffee company for years. He then went back to school to get a post-graduate degree in environmental studies, where he decided that merging some of the practices of his ancestors with modern technology was the way of the future, stressing the importance of thinking about environmental sustainability along with economic sustainability, and social impacts.*

The result of these ideas was the coffee finca (farm) in Salento where I was standing 24 years later: an agro-forest, or coffee plantation mixed in with native and endangered species of trees and bushes. The leaves of the trees provide natural compost to the soil. Thanks to the plant biodiversity (over 1000 different species including weeds), the animal biodiversity also much higher than in a monoculture setting. The trees provide homes for natural predators to pests, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.

We specifically saw a woodpecker, (other birds whose names I don’t remember), two humming bird nests, and many bumble bees buzzing around.

Our guide was a biology student at the university in the nearby city of Armenia (the southernmost major city in the eje cafetero). He had grown up working on his parents’ coffee farm and really enjoyed the chance to unite his childhood experiences with his current studies.**

We learned that the variety of coffee produced in Colombia originated from Ethiopia and came to South America with the Spanish colonists. It has evolved over time, and hybrid, fungus-resistant plants are now commonly used, especially as a key strategy in reducing chemical use. (The plant used on this farm is a hybrid with a Sri Lankan plant.)

The guide showed us some native plants and birds, including the coca plant, which has a really bad reputation in Colombia and in the world because of its use in making cocaine, but as he pointed out, the plant itself before being processed, does not have the drug-like effects and has been used for centuries for multiple purposes (including preventing altitude sickness).

The finca bags the coffee using bags made of fique, which is the fiber of a plant common throughout Colombia, used for centuries by the land’s inhabitants. The guide explained that it has been scientifically proven that bags made from fique have a natural insecticide property that helps preserve the coffee without the addition of synthetic chemicals.

The finca I visited is not a fully organic operation but it is also not the conventional monoculture that requires more synthetic chemical inputs, like the majority of coffee produced in Colombia and in the world. I was really happy to have a peek into the steps people in Colombia are taking towards more sustainable land management!

Bonus Content:

After leaving the coffee finca, I headed off on my bike to explore the valley. And I got rained on. While taking cover under a porch, another cyclist pulled up and we chatted while the rain died down. I have seen quite a few cyclists in Colombia, and as a cyclist, it warms my heart to see so many  fellow bicycle-lovers. This guy was in his late 40s and was training to do a bike trip with a group of 5 friends (4 men and 1 woman), to bike from Armenia to Quito!

This was actually the second time that day that I found myself scurrying to a porch to wait for rain to pass. The first time, I was waiting on a porch and a man on a motorcycle pulled up and began to put on rain suit while we chatted. Before he left, I said I hoped it wouldn’t rain again, and he responded saying that he didn’t think it would keep raining (as he finished putting on his rain suit and climbing back on his motorcycle!)

I have met many Latin Americans who have said to me that “they don’t think “x” (something bad) will happen”, and it turns out that it was their way of saying that they really hope it won’t happen. This is a cultural translation that I’ve taken a while to learn. By saying they don’t think it will happen, it is as if they are willing it not to happen by thinking positively. While sometimes frustrating for a foreigner who wants a real assessment of the probability that something will/will not happen, it is actually meant to be a nice gesture that they wish from the bottom of their heart that things will turn out well for you!

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Without using the term “triple bottom line”, Carlos explained his adoption of the model.

**Our guide noted that while he grew up helping on his family’s coffee farm, he didn’t still work on the farm when he visited because now they hired people to work on the farm.

 

Barichara – “The Cutest Town in Colombia”

Turns out that Colombia is full of tiny adorable towns, and I might have to revise my statement from my previous blog that Guatapé is the cutest small town, especially because it turns out that BARICHARA is popularly known as the cutest town in Colombia (“el pueblo más lindo de Colombia”). (Also it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.)

Upon hearing that, I revised my travel plans and went to investigate.

I would have to say that Barichara certainly deserves the title, though I would not change my statement about Guatapé, which is cute in a different (colorful) kind of way.

I am so glad I had the pleasure of visiting the small town of Barichara and neighboring Guane, where, with the natural landscapes, tranquility, and friendliness of the people, you feel relaxed from just breathing in the air of the countryside. It’s no surprise that so many city-dwellers come here for vacations to decompress and take a break from the noise and rush of city life.

Heading north from Bogota in a bus, I watched the city landscapes transform into rolling green hills. My seat-mate lives in bogota but does construction projects in a rural area a couple hours outside of the city, so he takes on the role of tour guide and points out all the interesting things along the way.

As I see more and more cows grazing, he points out milking stations and informs me that we are in dairy country. We pass a town statue indicating that we are in the self-proclaimed milk capital of Colombia where you can get fresh dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt.

In between the cute, small, rural towns were grazing pastures, houses of brick or adobe, kilns with tall chimneys for making bricks, and I was completely surprised when we passed a series of coal mines.

About 7 hours later, when I arrived in San Gil, the air was filled with that familiar smell of burning wood or vegetation that I encountered when stepping off the airplane in El Salvador and in Cairo. From the busy little city of San Gil, I hopped on another bus that takes me to the small, quiet town of Barichara in about 30 minutes.

With its cobblestone streets, adobe buildings and colonial Spanish style balconies and flower pots, it almost seems like the town hasn’t changed much since it was a Spanish colonial hub in the 18th century.

And the views! Located in the hills above a river valley, there are multiple overlook points where you feel tiny as you stand in awe looking out over the the Suarez river far below and the mountain backdrop in the far distnce.

The town is connected to the nearby tiny town of Guane by “the Camino Real”, a stone path through the countryside that takes about 1.5-2 hours to hike. It used to be an Inca trail and more recently was a rehabilitated by a German engineer in the mid 1900s.

The hike to Guane was divine. The sun shone down, birds and insects were singing and chirping, there was a cool breeze, and while it was extremely hot in the sun, it was cool in the shade (and the path was mostly shaded by trees).

This is going to sound weird, but it was kind of welcoming to arrive to the village and be greeted by the light smell of smoke in the air and cow or horse poop. I guess those smells of rural areas grow on you after a while. 😂

Guane was a kind of magical place for me.

The mirador provided an incredible view of the river valley with the river rushing through, and I spent some time there taking it all in, and later chatting with a Venezuelan artisan.

In the middle of Colombia, in this tiny little town of Guane, there is a hidden gem – a fascinating little museum that recounts the site’s history from millions of years ago to the present. (I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside, sorry!)

There are incredible fossils of fish and shells and plants from when the site was under the ocean. There are artifacts, some writing in pictographs, and even a mummy from the pre-Colombian Guane (the town is named after a group of indigenous people that lived in the region).

There are paintings from Spain that had been brought over during the colonial times. And there were coins – from the original “patacones”, (imperfectly round, made of silver from the colonial mines), to the perfectly formed colonial coins fabricated after mints were built, to the current coins in circulation in Colombia.

Unfortunately, the artifacts from the Guane people are pretty much all that remain because they were forced to stop speaking their language and practicing their customs many generations back. In fact, present-day Guane is where those indigenous Guanes that survived the epidemics were sent to be forced to forget their language and culture and be educated in the Spanish colonial language and culture in the 1700s.

Ironically, this incredible museum exists largely thanks to a dedicated priest who worked tirelessly to compile the fossils and artifacts in the late 1900s.

Barichara and Guane are located in the department (state) of Santander, which has its own little sub culture, for which it is very proud. In addition to beautiful landscapes and fascinating history, I got a taste of the Santandereana food and music (specifically “bambuco”), and I felt very welcome thanks to the incredibly friendly Santandereanos.

In a very embarrassing moment in Guane I found I didn’t have enough cash to pay for my lunch. Thinking quickly I asked if I could leave the rest of the payment with someone in Barichara and without flinching the woman said it was not a problem and gave me the name of a store where I could leave it. I was much more worried about the situation than she was.

Finally, I have to note that the hotel where I stayed (“Quédate Aquí”) is run by the nicest woman EVER. She made me feel so at home, cooked delicious food, and emanated a really loving and caring spirit.

I wish I could have stayed a few more days here, but I was intrigued to check out a theme park nearby…which I’ll tell you about next!

Medellín – a symbol of transformation

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.

Our guide, standing below the house she lived in for decades.

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.

A statue destroyed by a bomb remains to remind Paisas of the history, but stands next to a new and in-tact statue symbolizing a new era for Medellín.