For years, Colombia has had a reputation as a country where you will almost certainly be kidnapped and held hostage for ransom by drug lords or revolutionaries upon setting foot across its borders. That reputation is still reality in the minds of some. In the minds of those who have actually gone there, Colombia is a land of prosperity, hard-working, confident, friendly people, modern cities and transportation networks, and thousands of absolutely stunning women walking the streets (those of you who are female might think the men are attractive—don't know).
My first stop in Colombia was Cali, Salsa capital. Unfortunately, I was there only during the first half of the week while not much dancing was going on. I should mention my first taste of Salsa in Colombia. The bus that I caught from the southern border to Cali played Salsa for the first several hours of the trip until it was late and everyone went to sleep. Similarly ubiquitous in Cali, I could walk down the street in the evening and be within earshot of three restaurants from which Salsa was floating over the air. I'm not just talking about three specific restaurants, either. I could walk farther, and hear another several restaurants playing Salsa. I'll have to wait until my next visit to Cali to see if they actually know how to dance Salsa—I'll explain that statement briefly.
A few other interesting things that stood out to me in my first Colombian city were the clothing of the motorcyclists and the street-naming convention.
Cali was the first city I've ever visited or heard of where the streets don't have conventional street names. In Latin American, that would mean streets named after famous Spanish Generals or a famous local leader who killed a famous Spanish General. In Colombia, the streets are named simply:
Each of these street types is followed by a number. For example, Cl. 36, or Av.5. There are a couple others, but I don't remember what they are. Not creative, but simple and consistent. Go to Google Maps to see examples.
The striking thing about motorcyclists isn't that they're always splitting lanes or that they consistently filter up to the front of the line at traffic lights, but that they wear safety vests. Each vest has that motorcycle's license plate number on it in reflective material. Apparently, in times past, it wasn't uncommon for a guy on a motorcycle to go zipping by a motorcade, assassinating some important person, a la Clear and Present Danger. Supposedly that's the reason for the vests, and also for the law that two men cannot be on a motorcycle together.
Cali is like most large Latin American cities, in that much of it is modern—not that different than many cities in the States—but it also has an older part of town where you'll find lovely older churches, plazas, and houses. A walk of several hours got me to the old part of town, to some plazas, to the river that runs through the center of the city, and to a small joint where I had some of the best chicken I've ever had in my life. You never know what you'll bump into.
I saw a bit of the raw flavor that I like to see as I travel in Latin America in an old, colorfully painted bus packed with people and without any windows. The top was loaded with a variety of cargo. The bus stopped and some guys who were riding on the outside of the bus loaded some big bags—probably 100 pounds—of wheat, or some such product, onto the roof. The people in the bus grinned and laughed as I took pictures of their ride. Typically-friendly Colombianos.
There was also an interesting city block in this part of town. Picture a small, green, square, metal building, about 12 feet on a side, with a sloping, metal roof. There were probably ten of these in a small, cozy, area near the street. All of these buildings sold books. Different and nice.
Want a nice view of the city? It's not cheap, but you can take a taxi up to Cali's Cristo. Who knows how many places in Latin America have a statue of Christ on top of a mountain, but Cali is among them (others I've seen were in Rio de Janeiro and also in a small town near Salta, Argentina). You'll also find other large statues on top of mountains. There's one of the Virgin Mary in Quito and one of Saint Peter in a smaller Ecuadorian town (Alausí?). Anyhoo, from this hill in Cali, you've got a really great panoramic view of almost the entire city.
From Cali, I took an overnight bus to Medellín. I was planning on going to Bogotá, but when I looked at a map more closely, I saw that Bogotá would be out of the way, and I had a schedule to keep. Medellín was more directly in line with Cali and Cartagena, so that's where I went.
Among other things, Medellín was the headquarters for Pablo Escobar's drug organization (he was the 7th richest man in the world in 1989), it's the 2nd largest city in Colombia (2.4 million people), Juanes was born there (he's a world-famous singer, extremely popular among listeners of Spanish music), and it's got universities and loads of commerce and industries.
One of the things that I will always remember about Medellín is its Salsa. Although Cali is the Salsa capital, I assumed you couldn't go anywhere in Colombia without there being loads of joints you could go to to dance Salsa. I asked the hostel owner where I could go and he told me about a part of town where there were several places. He said I just needed to ask a taxi driver to take me to something like Avenida 70. That's what I did and that's where I went. I paid the driver and got out. He told me the best joint was on the far corner, so I walked one block to that particular restaurant. These weren't clubs, per se. They were all just restaurants where there was dancing. They were all open air—no enclosing front wall, just a half-wall. I walked to the "best" place and just leaned up against the half-wall separating the restaurant from the sidewalk. I wanted to scope things out from a distance before taking the plunge. After observing for a few minutes, I thought to myself that this couldn't be right. There were quite a few couples dancing. They were holding each other close and shuffling their feet back and forth a little bit, but they weren't dancing Salsa. This is strange, I thought. So, I took a stroll down the block and looked into some other restaurants from whence was emanating Salsa music. Hardly anyone was dancing in those places, so I began to head back towards the first place to make sure I hadn't been hallucinating.
There was a group of girls who had just arrived to this block. They were standing in the street apparently trying to decide where to go for dinner and dancing. I asked them what the best place around here was for dancing Salsa. They pointed to the same place. I said they weren't dancing Salsa there. They were just shuffling their feet a bit. I asked if there was a place where people really danced Salsa here in Medellín. Anywhere at all in the entire city? Where they do turns and dance figures and patterns? You know, Salsa? Nope. That's it. So, no Salsa in Medellín. Made me wonder what kind of Salsa they dance in Cali? I hope to find out some day.
There are apparently a couple cable cars—called teléfericos in Latin America—in Medellín. I took one to the top—there are a few places you can get off on the way up—to try to get some good shots of the city and to visit a library containing books donated by Spain. In the car with me was a middle-aged man, a very pretty woman with her child, and a young guy named Omel. Omel was friendly and seemed anxious to be my guide up on his hill. He was headed home from work, but had time to show me around and buy me a Coke. We walked to the library together and perused its several floors. Its most notable features, I decided, were its view and its interesting architecture. The book collection wasn't noteworthy. There were many students from local schools there studying and using the computers. Omel and I walked around a bit more, then made our way back to the teleférico. I thought it was odd when I noticed a beautiful woman—or two or three—walk by and noted their beauty, when Omel shrugged his shoulders and expressed wonder at my admiration of said females. He later grudgingly admitted his proclivity towards homo sapiens of the same sex.
Another notable, albeit less awkward, moment came when a girl said hi to me in the subway and began speaking to me in English. Donia is a very smart, young, Colombiana, who is very proud of her city. She's a 20-year-old math teacher. She asked me what I had seen so far while in Medellín. As she kept listing notable spots, I kept answering in the negative. She was aghast at the myriad attractions I had missed. As my bus was leaving later that night, I didn't have loads of time. What little time I did have, however, I spent with Donia dragging me around the city, showing me some new things. She bought me a natural juice drink and was going to pay for multiple taxis, but I wouldn't allow that. She was very generous with her time and money. We visited Plaza Cisneros, Pueblito Paisa, and Plaza Mayor. We could've kept going—and she was crazy enough about her city to continue all night—but I had a bus to catch, so she sent me on my way and headed home.
After a wonderful evening, I boarded the bus for a long ride to the northern tip (almost) of the country and the continent. I had heard Cartagena was a beautiful city with some lovely old architecture and I knew it was a port city so there might be some beautiful beaches, but my main goal upon reaching the city was to arrange a ride in a sailboat to Central America. I had to get to Panama and wanted to avoid taking any planes in my journey north.
I didn't know when I'd be able to catch a boat, so I had to find one that would leaving within the near future, as I didn't want to spend ages in Cartagena. The ideal boat would be one leaving in a few days. That would give me a chance to see the city, but get me on my way soon. As it turned out, there was a boat leaving three days later. Mark, captain and owner of Melody, a 44-foot, steel-hull sailboat, came over that night and discussed the details with me. I paid him on the spot—$350 to Panama, everything included for 5 days.
Backing up a few hours to mid-afternoon, I learned that I had arrived in the middle of a big celebration in Cartagena—Fiestas de Independencia de Cartagena de Indias—a multi-week ordeal with multiple parades and other goings on, a la Carnaval. Combined with the fiestas was a competition called Velada de Eleccion y Cornacion de la Reina de la Independencia 2008-2009, a Colombian beauty pageant. Quite unfortunately, the boat was leaving before that, so I'll have to wait until next year to shoot that. I spent several hours shooting a parade near the hostel and managed to get barely any foam, water, or paint on me. I think some people gave me a little more respect because of the big camera. Didn't wanna ruin the photo gear, I guess.
The next day, while bumming around old town, I ran into a vendor from whom I bought some fake Cuban cigars (I didn't know they were fake at the time). He informed me of another parade that wasn't mentioned in the paper. I was glad to hear about it. Unfortunately, I spent most of my day trying to get cash, so I arrived after the parade was over. I did, however, still end up getting some nice people shots. Then, of course, I got the fistful of paint in my eye by some nice, young lady. That ended my photo tour prematurely. I went to the hospital, got my eye rinsed, and got some antibiotic drops.
On the way to the hostel from the bus station when I first arrived in Cartagena, I passed lots of interesting things I would have liked to have photographed—neighborhoods, markets, and people, of course. Maybe next time. The sailboat schedule took precedence.
Other than getting paint in my eye and being ripped off by a money changer in the street and by a vendor selling fake Cuban cigars, I enjoyed my brief stay in Cartagena. I plan on returning there one day.
Planning on visiting Latin America? South America? Colombia should be on your short list. I barely scratched the surface during my brief visit, but really enjoyed it.