We were up at dawn on Sunday morning. I gorged myself on a big buffet breakfast while Jay went to Sunday mass. We had agreed to meet Germán at 8:30 for the big tour and he showed up right on time.
Here is the breakfast buffet:
First stop was the house where the final battle occurred when Pablo and his driver were killed in a hail of gunfire. I had seen photos of the house on the internet so when we drove up we recognized it immediately. I had to have my picture taken in front of it! This is now a quiet neighborhood and many people were on the streets walking to church while I am having my picture taken in front of the house. I am sure they thought “crazy tourists”. Germán described the battle in detail and it pretty well matched up with what I had read. It was unbelievable, just having finished the book, and now I am standing in front of the very house! It was like living the story.
Next, it was off to the cemetery to see the tomb of Pablo. Again, as soon as we walked onto the cemetery grounds I recognized the tomb after seeing pictures of it on the internet. Quite an impressive little plot of dirt! Several family members are buried right there next to him. Germán told us that Pablo was considered the “Robin Hood” of Colombia and that people still bring flowers to his grave every day.
Here German is giving Jay a little history of the events surrounding the burial of Pablo:
For the next 4 hours Germán drove us around Medellin visiting various sites which were major points of interest including many of the buildings that Pablo used to own and some of the apartments where he lived. We finally got our fill of Pablo.
One more thing I wanted us to do was to ride the cable car that is an extension of the metro system in Medellin. The cable car is part of a transit system that serves a rather large, lower socio-economic neighborhood that is built up into the hills. It is the main system of transportation for this neighborhood and connects with the metro for travel throughout the city. It is a series of 3 different cable car stations; each one located a little higher up the hill than the other–similar to a ski lift. We jumped on a car and rode it through all 3 stations and back while Germán waited on the street for us.
It was quite interesting to go over the top of the neighborhoods and see how people are living below you. Each car held about 6 people. The other passengers were all very friendly so we chatted with them a little in Spanish.
As you can see, it is an interesting way to travel through your neighborhood:
(click on the photos to enlarge them)
By this time it was 12 noon and we still needed to call Dr. Olga. Germán dropped us off in the park where we had dinner the night before. We used a pay phone to call Olga. Olga wasn’t there but her sister answered and said she was aware we might come by the farm. She said Olga would return in an hour and suggested we call back then. We used the hour to have lunch at an outdoor restaurant. Great cheeseburgers!
When we returned to the hotel we called Olga again and this time she answered. She suggested we get Germán to drive us to the little town of Retiro which she said was on the way to the airport (sort of). She told us to have him drop us off in the town square and she and her sister would pick us up at 2:30. So, on a wing and a prayer we told Germán…”It’s Retiro for us, Amigo”!
Next-Retiro and meeting the family of Dr.Olga
When we arrived in Medellin, our driver was waiting with a sign. He was a friendly chap. His name was Germán. He knew a few words in English and seemed to welcome the chance to practice with us even though his vocabulary was quite limited.
The drive from the airport to our hotel was about 45 minutes so we had plenty of time to talk with Germán about our plans for the next day in Medellin. We needed to maximize our time in the city because our flight would leave for Cartagena at 6 p.m. the next day.
You probably know that Medellin was previously the drug capital of the world when Pablo Escobar was alive and ran the famous Medellin drug cartel. Before we had left OKC on our trip, Jay and I had both just finished reading the book “Killing Pablo” by Mark Bowden. It is a riveting story about the life of Pablo Escobar and how they finally tracked him down and killed him. Colombia has a violent history, and reading certain parts of the book made cold chills run up my spine. But, it also made me want to learn more about this fascinating story. As luck would have it, guess who had met Pablo, knew his story well, and also knew many of the places that Pablo had lived? You guessed it……our very own driver…..Germán!! At that instant, Germán became our designated driver for the next day in Medellin. He agreed that he would not only take us on a tour of Medellin but would take us on the Pablo Escobar tour of Medellin!! What a stroke of luck! We were elated.
It was already 8 p.m. when we checked into the Park 10 hotel in the El Poblado area which is supposedly the best area in which to stay. The weekend rate is $100 per night and includes a buffet breakfast. As you can see from the photos it is a very nice hotel.
By now, it was dinner time so we got directions to a popular restaurant area in a park near the hotel. We walked about 8 blocks through some fairly dark streets, but never felt unsafe because there were a few other people out on the streets. Around the park were tons of open air restaurants and bars. We found a table on the sidewalk and just sat there and watched the people. It was Saturday night in Medellin!!
To celebrate surviving Bogotá we decided to splurge on the food. We both had steak and dessert. The steak was about $18. After dinner we walked back to the hotel in the dark in a light rain. We had a big day ahead of us. The excitement was building.
Next-Medellin, the Pablo Escobar tour.
In the Bogotá airport there are 2 terminals which serve Avianca Airlines. The larger one is for international flights and the smaller one for domestic. You need to make sure you arrive at the right one otherwise it is a hassle to change terminals. Fortunately, we had done our homework and checked in at the smaller one for our Medellin flight.
The small terminal is much older and very basic. Check in was much easier than we had anticipated so we had plenty of extra time to visit a number of shops in the airport. I bought some post cards and then tried to find a t-shirt that said “Bogotá” on it. Huh uhh…no t-shirts that said Bogotá. Can you believe it? Our Avianca flight to Medellin was a continuation of one from Cali, but it was late so we now had another hour to wait in the airport. However, our wait turned out to be fortuitous.
While waiting for our flight, we met a woman who spoke almost perfect English. Her name was Olga and she was one of a family of Colombian doctors that had all previously lived in the U.S. for a short period of time. She was traveling to Medellin where she lived. She seemed intrigued by our travels through Colombia and told us her family had a weekend getaway that she called a “farm” located outside of Medellin. She asked us if we would like to come out to visit her and her family and see Colombia from a different perspective. Now, my last promise to Carol when she dropped me off at the airport in OKC was, “I promise I will heed the warnings of my Colombian friends and not travel out into the countryside”. But, my memory was fading fast when offered yet another opportunity to travel off the beaten path. Remember…..”it’s all about the journey”.
Olga gave us her cell phone number and asked us to call her the next day when we were leaving Medellin. She said we could come by their country home on the way to the airport and have coffee with them. We said we would call her. Jay and I agreed it was something we should talk about before just venturing into the countryside to spend time with a strange woman and her family. You will get more of this story in a later post.
After the delay our flight finally departed Bogotá. I was a little concerned because the hotel in Medellin was sending a driver for us and I knew he would be waiting for our flight that was late.
Next-Medellin, our driver agrees to help us enter the world of Pablo Escobar
Getting the hotel reservations nailed down was the easy part. The trip from OKC to Bogotá was tough. It was a grueling 14 hour trip through DFW with a connection in Mexico City where we changed airlines from American to Avianca for the final leg. The Mexico City airport always seems to be in a state of chaos, but for some reason I like chaotic airports, and this one fills the bill. What I had not counted on was that in order to change to Avianca, we both had to clear immigration and customs in Mexico City, and then had to stand in line for 2 hours at the Avianca counter just to be told the only seats left were the “dreaded” middle seats. What started out as a comfortable 3.5 hour layover in Mexico City turned into a race for the gate to make our flight.
Once on the plane, I was ready to start practicing my Spanish, so I introduced myself to my seatmates. Seated on my left was Marino, a lace salesman from Bogotá whose biggest client was Victoria’s Secret and no, I did not ask him any personal questions about his work!! Marino spoke very little English, but he did help me modify our Bogotá itinerary by giving suggestions on how to maximize the 23 hours that Jay and I planned to spend there. My other seat mate was Samantha, a beautiful girl from Peru who spent the better part of the 4 hr. 20 min. trip trying to convince me that she was not guilty of the visa fraud that she had been charged with by the U.S. govt . She had apparently been living in Miami and left the U.S. briefly to return to Peru to finalize her divorce and was told by U.S. officials that she was suspected of visa fraud and could not return to the U.S. She blamed it all on her ex-husband. Her story seemed pretty flaky, but since she was a “knockout”, I decided to believe her. My wife says it was very shallow thinking on my part.
We landed in Bogotá in a heavy rain. The Avianca pilot bounced the 757 on the runway 3 times before he finally came to a stop. By the third bounce I was wondering what the headlines might say about the crash of Avianca flight #73 from Mexico City!!!!
We had been advised by the language school in Cartagena that we should take advantage of the hotel’s private car service in Bogotá for security purposes. Since we didn’t know the city, and it would be our first time to visit, we thought the private car was a good idea. The rain and chaos of the Bogotá airport made for a real mess so we were very glad that we had a driver there to meet us.
Our driver, named Vladamir, was a law student who spoke fluent English (thank goodness). He was able to give us a quick summary of the city without us having to labor through Spanish that we probably would not have been able to translate correctly, especially since we aren’t real fluent.
Vladamir took us on one of the fastest, wildest rides that I have ever been on. He almost hit two guys that were standing in the middle of the road trying to flag us down. Finally I asked him why in the world he was driving so fast. He said because we were in a dangerous area, and he was afraid of being stopped by anyone like the two guys we had just seen standing in the middle of the road, so he was driving fast to get through the area. We weren’t sure that we believed him, but it made for a fun adventure.
Have to admit, when we finally drove up to our hotel in the dark, the area looked a little dodgy. A lot of security on the streets. Vladimir told us there was so much security because the Presidential palace was nearby. The Hotel de la Opera was beautiful and very Latin. Small, 24 rooms. The hotel employees were extremely nice to us and very protective. They advised us about what security precautions to take when on the streets. Their suggestions incuded: not flashing cash or expensive watches and to be sure to leave our original passports in the room safe. They also said they would call taxis for us. Nice touch!
Here is a pic of the front entrance of the Hotel de la Opera. Nice, huh?
For dinner we took a taxi from the hotel to the Gato Negro (black cat) restaurant in Parque 93 on the recommendation of Marino my seatmate on the Avianca flight. Bogotá seemed very much alive as we took the 25 minute taxi ride through the city to the restaurant. When we arrived it was raining, but two big bouncer-looking types in suits and wired with security earpieces came out to the taxi with umbrellas to keep us out of the rain. For a minute we were wondering what we were getting into.
Once inside it was obvious why Marino recommended it. This joint was jumping!! The restaurant walls were vibrating from the sound of the Colombian band that was entertaining the diners.
The beat from the band was electrifying. Every now and then, a couple would just jump up from their table and start dancing to the Latin rhythm right in the middle of the restaurant, while the rest of the crowd sat in their seats swaying to the music. Holy cow!! 24 hours earlier we were packing our suitcases in Oklahoma City and now we were in the middle of the Latin beat on a Friday Night in Bogotá, Colombia!!
It was a great restaurant with white tablecloths and extremely polite waiters moving around at a quick pace. Jay ordered a fried cheese plate, and based on the waiter”s recommendation, I had the seafood special.
When it came time to leave, the restaurant insisted on calling a taxi for us as opposed to letting us hail one on the streets. Seems to be a little bit of a security issue.
We finally returned to the hotel around 12:30 a.m. Bogotá was still jumping but we weren’t. We were done.
Next time—Bogotá, the city—it’s what we came to see, but how do we do it in 10 daylight hours?
I am not a professional writer, but I do like to travel, and I like to put my thoughts down on paper. My writing style is not formal, but it is just a simple reflection of what I experience and feel in my journeys off the beaten path So, for the purpose of this website, I will take a stab at some travel writing and let you try to experience what I see through my eyes and the soles of my shoes. I will be interested in what you think.
I will start out by sharing a little of my most recent journey to Colombia. Here goes:
A couple of months ago, my friend Jay and I were eating lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant, when I looked up from my food and said “Jay, I’m going to Colombia—I hear its still undiscovered as a tourist destination and I think now is the time to go”. Jay just looked at me and said, “Are you crazy? It’s too dangerous!” 3 weeks later he was signed on to go with me.
“There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown. A pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.”
So began the plans of a trip I had been dreaming about for a long time–Colombia!! Have to admit, it was a struggle to get it off the ground because my wife, Carol, and the rest of the family didn’t want me to go. Carol was concerned about safety issues. I had been trying to convince her for over a year that Colombia would be a fantastic place to visit.
Since I had been studying Spanish for a couple of years, I thought it sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea to do a language immersion program at the Nueva Lengua School in Cartagena and live with a non-English speaking Colombian family that the school would arrange. Carol finally gave in, but said she wanted no part of the trip even after I showed her a travel magazine story and a report from a friend who visited last year that said, “Cartagena on the northern coast is a great place to visit”. Knowing that I sometimes like to wander off the beaten path, Carol stipulated that as long as I went STRAIGHT to Cartagena and BACK, with NO traveling around the country, she MIGHT be OK with the idea of me going. Keeping the promise would prove to be easier said than done.
The next night, while I was planning the trip and looking at fares on the internet, I discovered an obscure fare combining American Airlines with Avianca (the Colombian airline) routing us through Mexico City and returning through Miami. As I began to read the small print on the booking restrictions (I know, no one ever does that), I noticed that it allowed unlimited stopovers in Colombia as long as the stopovers were 24 hours or less. I experimented by adding stopovers in dream cities (Bogotá and Medellin) and the fare remained exactly the same. Too good to be true!! I could fly to Bogotá-spend 23 hours, then on to Medellin for another 23-hour stopover, then on to Cartagena for 5 days in the language immersion program.
I couldn’t book the fare on-line so I called AA just to test price the routing and see if they could ticket it all the way through for me. The AA res agent was skeptical she could make it work, but after 40 minutes on the phone with her, she finally got it to price correctly! I booked it at that instant! Unfortunately I had been so caught up in the excitement with the success of booking the ticket that I forgot the promise to Carol that I would ONLY go STRAIGHT to Cartagena and back with NO DETOURS! I had lots of selling to do but finally convinced her I would be extra careful and stay in a very nice, SAFE hotel (4-5 stars) in a very nice area in both cities (Bogotá and Medellin). Plus, Jay was going with me.
As I researched hotels in the chic, upscale, and safe Zona Rosa area of Bogotá, I saw plenty of the standard top-notch names such as The Intercontinental, El Presidente, etc, etc that would all fulfill my promise to Carol. But, I felt I was betraying myself by taking the more comfortable way out. After all, this would probably be my only chance to get to Bogotá, and I wanted the “real” Bogotá! Why would I sell my travel soul by staying at some “brass and glass” place when the “real” Bogotá awaits me?
I bought a map and tour book (hard to find) and discovered an area called “Old Bogotá” and a neighborhood called “La Candelaria” 6-7 miles south of the Zona Rosa in the oldest part of the city referred to as the “heart and soul of Bogotá”. I knew instantly this was the neighborhood for us! To make Carol feel better, I searched for the nicest hotel in La Candelaria and came across the Hotel de la Opera in the center of the neighborhood. From there it would be easy walking to the many sites of interest even though it is not advisable to walk the narrow streets of this neighborhood at night.
So as not to bore you, I will stop here and pick up the story in a few days—stay awake, it gets better.