City of Pablo Escobar: Medellin, COL

July 25, 2017, Trip: Colombia
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July 25th

We made our way to the Rio Claro Nature Reserve and camped at a private home on the river that has a snack bar and offers camping at the riverside. The reason there is a snack bar here is that the rafting trips on the Rio Claro end here so they cater to the two or three groups that come here every day.

It is definitely hot here again as we have come down to 200M/600’ but there is a nice breeze off the river. We spent the afternoon sitting on the shore with our feet in the water while reading.

The nature reserve is not a national one but is privately owned and operated. They offers a cave tour, zip lines and rafting. The man that arrived to pick up the rafters that afternoon approached us about taking a tour or two and Doug rode back with him to the activity centre to arrange something for the next day.

As the campsite offered electricity we decided to try our AC that night; it worked for about an hour and then we lost power; at first we thought maybe we’d blown their fuse but the next and final night, the same thing happened around 11pm so I guess they shut the power off for the snack bar where we were plugged in….. who knows? So we spent both nights using just fans which meant not great sleeps but could have been worse.

The next morning we walked four miles back down the gravel road to get to the activity centre in the reserve. (We didn’t want to drive because as mentioned above, the rafting trip ends at our campsite anyway and this way we got our steps.) It took about 1.25 hours to walk and the cave tour was first. We wanted to take this tour to see the nocturnal oil birds that live in these caves and to enjoy a different hike.

The tour was about three hours on length. First we walked about 15 minutes on a nicely made trail, then about 45 in the jungle climbing up and then down before reaching the entrance to the cave. There is water in the cave at varying depths and at times you have to slide down into a pool to move along and three times we had to jump.

It was a fun tour and although we encountered three different flocks of these birds, we were told not to shine our flashlights on them or take flash photography, so no pics taken by us we’re afraid. We could see their eyes shining above us.

However below is a video (mostly audio of the sounds these birds made as we invaded their home):

Facts:  Oil Birds are the only nocturnal flying fruit-eating birds in the world. They forage at night with specially adapted eyesight for palm fruit. However they navigate like bats by echolocation and are one of the few kinds of birds known to do so. They produce a high-pitched clicking sound that is audible to humans.  Oilbirds nest in large colonies on high, rocky cave ledges, often a good distance into the cave. The female lays two to four eggs at a time, which hatch in about 33 days. The naked young are fed on rich, oily fruits and become grotesquely fat, reaching twice the adult weight at their maximum size. They lose this “baby fat” when their feathers begin to grow in. In the past, baby oilbirds were captured, and their fat boiled down for torch oil, hence their name.  They grow to 13″ long and have a wing span of about three feet.

Pics we “borrowed” from the web of the birds:

To get out of the cave there is a rope ladder of sorts and then you hold a rope to get yourself across the strong current to the “beach” on the other side.

We now had about an hour to have some lunch before our rafting expedition in the afternoon. Normally we wouldn’t have done rafting as the river is low but it was so cheap ($8 a person!) and it was nice way to stay cool.

We met a Colombian man and his nephew and began chatting with them. They are from Medellin and Jorge invited us to come visit him when we get there. He and Simone had just come out here for an overnight escape from the city on their motorbikes. We invited them to have lunch with us and chatted some more.

Sidebar: We have encountered many tolls on the highways in Colombia and learned that motorcycles do NOT pay these tolls which make travelling on them even cheaper!

Before boarding our raft, we met an American family from Detroit, Carl and Sandy with their 18 year old son, Michael. This trip to Colombia was part of his high school graduation present. We ended up on the same boat and enjoyed a pleasant two hour mostly float down the river. There were a few sections of barely Class One rapids but the scenery was pretty. There was one stop enroute where we docked the boat on the “beach” and went for a swim and another where we went under a cold waterfall before completing the journey to our campsite.

We said goodbye to our new friends and the guide and spent a quiet night at the river after showering before dinner.

Thursday, we heard from Joe & Josée that they were in the town of Guatapé (which is enroute to Medellin) with their grandkids in a rented house so we drove there (very slowly as the road was windy and there were many, many trucks on this two lane major highway) and they invited us to stay parked in the driveway for the night. It was nice to catch up and meet their three grandchildren, Eva, Noah and Vivienne as well as their daughter in law, Marianna, who is actually Colombian.

The big draw in this town is the large “rock” that is shaped like the Sugar Loaf one in Rio. Our guide book said there are 649 steps to get to the top and get a 360 view of the lake (reservoir) and surrounding area so we definitely wanted to check this out.  So Friday morning, while it was still reasonably cool after breakfast we walked 2km to the “entrance” of El Peñol Rock. This was a staircase that was in addition to the steps to actually climb the rock!. At first they were nice concrete steps, then a few bricked landings but then it reduced to dirt steps and just sloped dirt until you hit a dirt road that led to the parking lot which you would enter if driving, from the other side of the hill. Here you find shops and eateries and finally the ticket booth. After purchasing tickets we began the climb a couple of landings at a time.

The information board here advises there are actually 659 steps but we discovered that is not accurate as 659 steps gets you to the main area but you can go 81 steps to the tippy, tippy top which, of course, we did.

On the climb up we met a nice young Argentinian man named Diego who is a teacher and was on vacation here in Colombia.

 

Going down was easier time wise but thankfully Fran brought her walking stick and it made the stairs easier on her knees.

Upon returning to Tigger, we chatted a bit with Josée & Joe before leaving. We then stopped in the nearby towns to do some shopping (both El Peñol and Rio Negro) and then made our way to an overlander favourite: Al Bosque Hostel and Glamping outside Medellin. Many of our friends have stayed here and some for as much as a month! We thought we’d make this our base until we fly home in mid-August. Here we can regroup, cull, clean and prepare for the trip home.

David and Daniel, (brothers) the owners, welcomed us and on our arrival, there was one other overlander here, Barna, a Hungarian Canadian from Calgary who was squatting here while his wife returned to Montreal to visit their daughter.

We have power, wifi and nice bathrooms with super hot showers. The home that David & Daniel live in with their father and four dogs, also has a roof top chilling area for guest with amazing eastern views and you can actually see the rock we climbed in Guatapé!

The “glamping” part of this place is that they offer a tent like structure on a platform to rent (looked kinda like what you’d see in an African safari camp).  The hostel itself offers dorm and private rooms.

You can reach Medellin either by bus or bus and cable car and we plan to do that a few times while we’re here not only to see the city of Pablo Escobar but to try and renew our visa and TIP for Tigger (both of which expire while we’re away).

We are up at 2600m/8500′ again and actually 1000m above the city of Medellin so it warms up nicely to a comfortable temp during the day with cool nights for sleeping. The hostel actually has a campfire most nights near the main building and they actually build a fire inside in the common room. Views from campground:

There is a washing machine for guests use at a cost of about $3.30 a load so we took advantage and not only did our clothes as  needed but washed up blankets and the like that don’t get done often. There are several clothes line to air dry things.

Over the course of the week we were joined by many overlanders; Josée and Joe returned, an Argentinian couple in a VW, Roberto and Pilar (they only stayed two nights), then Mike and Xenia from Germany in a retro VW van, Gabriel and Taisa whom we met in San Gil arrived along with their Swiss friend, Simon in his own VW. So with us and Barna, we were six occupied overlander vehicles!

The huge flower festival began last weekend and runs about ten days till August 7th. The little village near us, Tres Puertas, had some festivities last weekend and again this weekend.  We called our new friend, Jorge, about meeting up in the city, but he is leaving for Chile this weekend so we’ll not be able to meet him.

So we went into Medellin on Saturday with Josée and Joe; we took a half hour bus ride to the Metro Cable car (gondola) that took us to another cable car, then the Metro train. Medellin is known as the City of Eternal Spring due to its climate and  and was the first city in the country to get a metro system (which we were pretty impressed with).  It is situated at about 1500M and that combine with its proximity to the equator, the climate is spring-like all year round.

Sidebar: Medellin was once dubbed the most dangerous city in the world due, of course, to it being the home of the notorious Pablo Escobar and all the drug trafficking and violence that took place in the 80’s/90’s. In 1975 and with a personal net worth of more than $25 billion, Pablo Escobar was the 7th-richest man in the world. His successful drug operation had allowed him to own luxurious residences, expensive cars and even airplanes. Although Escobar was held on charges such as murder, bombing, drug smuggling and money laundering, he was depicted in his home city, as a modern-day Robin Hood hero. He spent millions of dollars building schools, hospitals and churches in Western Colombia, giving back to the poorer communities in Medellin. On December 2nd, 1993, he was shot and killed by Colombian special forces. If you haven’t already watched it, check out “Narcos” on Netflix.  

We had planned to go into the city the day before but the weather did not cooperate and we were very lucky today; mostly sunny all day and the temps down in the city were warm; we could feel we were 1000m lower. We first visited a plaza where some of the flower silleteros were on display and we enjoyed lunch at some food trucks.

Then we caught a cab to visit two squares in el Centro – one worth it the other not. Plaza Botero had almost two dozen statues by the Colombian artist, Botero and lots of some people mingling around. There was a beautiful old building that is now a cultural centre and a museum with more of Botero’s art.

 

Sidebar:  Fernando Botero (born in 1932) is a Colombian figurative artist and sculptor. He was born in Medellin and his signature style is known as “Boterismo” which depicts people and figures in large, exaggerated size. He is considered the most recognized artist from Latin America and his art can be found in highly visible places around the world, like Park Avenue and the Champs-Elysees. 

It was now after three so we stopped (after much confusion locating it) at a large grocery store to pick up a few things before walking less than a kilometre to the bus stop back to Al Bosque. The bus was standing room only but a kind woman offered to hold two of Fran’s bags and we stood the whole ride; however, Josée was not feeling about 3/4 of the way back well so we got off and caught an “illegal” type cab back the rest of the way.

Sunday it was sunny and again and there were hundreds of people around the roads celebrating. We walked into the nearby village with Josée and Joe and wandered through booths selling food, drinks, trinkets, clothing and many, many hats! Joe bought the local Colombia liquor called Aguardiente (a licorice flavoured alcohol that comes in a tetra pack!) and was given a short stack of little plastic shot glasses.

We watched some people making silleteros and Doug and Joe each took a turn carrying one for a photo op.

We had a round and then Joe and Doug indulged more than us ladies. We had some beer, bought some souvenirs and J&J enjoyed a bbq late/dinner. There was live music and we danced a bit until they took a break. Everyone was in good spirits, sharing aguardiente and laughter and it was a fun afternoon. (Doug and Joe did suffer that night and the next morning some though!)

Monday was the actual holiday when the big parade in Medellin occurs but in order to view it you need to buy a bleacher seat located along the main drag in the city and these are not cheap and we understood from the hostel owners, that they always oversell so it gets super crowded. We opted to miss this and spent the day in the campground. It was another sunny day so it was not a hardship. That evening, the german couple showed all us overlanders how to make bread on a stick (!); they whipped up the dough and you take a long stick (like when roasting marshmallows) on which you wind the dough and bake it over a fire. It was pretty darn good! Apparently they had trouble finding yeast to make this but just asked at the bakery next to the grocery store nearby and he gave him a small bag – that’s how Colombians roll!

When you enter Colombia, you are given a 90 day visa stamp in your passport and as usual, the vehicle permit (TIP) ends up matching those dates more or less.  Since both our visas and TIP expire while we are away, we want to get these both extended prior to leaving (you are actually not allowed to leave your vehicle in the country if you leave but many have done it and we are working out how to get this done).  It is now possible to apply for your visa extension online so last Monday afternoon we applied to do so.  After doing it, we realized we should have only done Doug’s as it is his name that the TIP is in but it’s done.  Tuesday afternoon we received confirmation that it was processed and payment was needed either online or in person but they did not disclose the terms of the extension.  We have been lead to believe they just add the other 90 days to the existing visa but it was not mentioned in the email. Doug went to immigration on Thursday and paid the fee for his visa only and learned that he will get an additional 90 days which was good news.  (As we will get stamped back into Colombia when we fly back in September, we did not renew Fran’s visa.)

It’s now the following Tuesday and we still await the visa paperwork; Latin time!

Weather continues to be ever changing; mostly sunny during the day but rainy sometime during the night most nights.

Joe and Josée left today heading back to Bogota as their family is spending the end of their vacay there – we hope to catch up with them upon our return from North America.

Thursday, we still had no email from Immigration with the new visa, so Doug decided to take matters into his own hands and went back to Immigration. We only have a week till we fly home and we heard getting a TIP extension can also take a few days. He also wanted to go to the podiatry clinic at the Dr. Scholl’s store. The latter turned out to be a bust as the doctor called in sick that day. However, the former was a success (after a bit of a wait). He did bring in cookies for the office and after a wait for the “jefe” (Boss), he received the piece of paper that extends his visa to December 1st. Yeah!

Next was purchasing more vehicle insurance before head to the DIAN (customs) to apply for the vehicle permit extension. Now this gets a bit tricky, as mentioned above you are “legally” not allowed to leave your vehicle behind when you yourself leave the country, so the angle is to just ask for an extension without saying anything about that. After again presenting cookies, he was never verbally asked why he wanted the extension but on the paperwork he had to put a reason so he filled it in saying “wanting to visit eastern Colombia and other parts” (Eastern Colombia has to customs office).

The woman accepted the application and all the paperwork that goes with it (copy of passport, copy of original entry stamp, copy of the visa extension, copy of new insurance, copy of original TIP and copy of vehicle registration). She explained that the TIP would take at least a day to process and he should call tomorrow morning to see if it’s ready Friday or Monday. Yahoo! A big hurdle overcome (for the most part – still a chance someone at the border may notice when we exit the country, but we’ll deal with that IF and when they do).

On Friday, Doug called at 11:30 as advised but the TIP was not ready; “come in around two” she said.  As he was unable to get help at the foot clinic the day before, he again went into town and headed there first where the doctor did an exam and took an x-ray confirming that he did in fact have a bone spur aka plantar fasciitis.  He was given some pills to take and a roll on lotion to apply and told to come back in five days.

At the DIAN the TIP was still not “ready” so it’s back he must go on Monday.  Today though he was able to find a taxi that would take him back to the hostel for a reasonable price and faster and more comfortably than the bus.

Monday we awoke to heavy fog but we had a major success:  extended TIP in hand and we are good to December 1st!  Still may have an issue when actually physically exiting the country but one hurdle at a time, right?  Today everyone had left the campground except us and Barna but Tuesday we were joined by another Argentinian couple in a VW camper and then a converted yellow school bus with California plates pulled in carrying five young Frenchmen.  This place really attracts the overlanders!

Wednesday yet another Swiss couple in a Land Rover arrived and the place is pretty much full (since the school bus takes so much room!).  Then Thursday a German couple arrived also in a Land Rover. David & Daniel’s place is doing a thriving overland business! Good for them.

We spent the remainder of the week, getting ready for our trip home, relaxing and chillin’.  The weather was on and off but luckily the day we did all our laundry using the campground washer (no dryer), the sun was out all day which meant everything dried pretty quickly.  We are trying to finish off all perishables and eating weird meals but no biggie.

Friday morning Daniel drove us to the airport and we flew to Cartagena via Bogotá and after checking into what turned out to be a rather crappy hotel, we caught a cab to el centro and did some shopping for gifts to take home.  It was hot and humid as this city can be but we did enjoyed being here for this brief visit.

Now we are super excited for our trip home and hope to see many of you that reside in Canada over the course of the next month. Ciao!

 

 

 

 

 

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