Following a great first two weeks in Colombia, I flew south from the Caribbean city of Cartagena to Medellin, the metropolis nestled into the mountains (about 5,000 ft above sea level). After encountering some gridlock that makes I-5 look like the autobahn, I arrived at a wonderful hostel, complete with ping-pong table and microbrews, a rarity in South America. The ping-pong table led me to make some great friends from Alberta and D.C. with whom I hung out with for a couple of days, swapping travel stories and swigs of Aguardiente (alcoholic fire-water). Medellin is a city recovering from years of violence and living in fear as it was the headquarters of the Colombian drug trade and kingpin, Pablo Escobar, from the 1970s through the 90s. But what a recovery they have made! They now bolster some of the most progressive public works projects in the world including an incredibly efficient rail system that runs through the city. Perhaps most impressive are their cable cars that lead up the steep mountainsides to the poorer barrios, allowing those who previously did not have easy access to jobs in the city to now connect quickly and cost-effectively. I had the pleasure of riding both of these systems and was absolutely amazed. A stroll around a national park, botanical garden with huge iguanas, and some nights out on the town proved to me that Medellin is one of the more advanced and up-and-coming cities in South America. The "paisas" (Colombian inlanders) are a proud people, embracing the re-birth of their beautiful city.
I spent a couple of days in Guatape, a small town 2 hours from Medellin, on a man-made lake. While there, I climbed 720 steps to the top of a giant rock that overlooks the whole area, appearing similar to the San Juan Islands. I also embarked on a primitive bushwhacking hike to a local waterfall, laid in an inner-tube on the lake, and strolled through rolling cow pastures at sunset. It was a great contrast to the bustling city of Medellin. After Guatape, I traveled to Salento, an even smaller town in the coffee growing region of Colombia. There, I stayed at a farm hostel, complete with campfires, community dinners, and glowing sunsets. While in Salento, I hiked the Valle de Cocora, a hike winding through a splendid valley, crossing a river on rickety, handmade bridges several times, then opening up to the tallest palm trees in the world, up to 200 feet tall!! We got caught in a downpour and then I rode back to town, standing on the back of a WWII Jeep - a wild ride my mother would never approve of. I also took a tour of a coffee plantation and was able to sample the finest coffee bean this planet has to offer after learning of the entire complex yet enthralling process of coffee growing. ]
Finally, I learned a new game in Salento. It's the Colombian national game and it's called Tejo. Now, if you've heard of, or played, "Bags" (or sometimes more irreverently known as "Cornhole"), it's similar. You toss an incredibly heavy circular rock at a ramp made of clay, attempting to land closest to the circle in the middle. However, this metal circle in the clay is COVERED WITH PACKETS OF GUNPOWDER. If your stone hits one, the darn packet explodes and it sounds like a gunshot. And then you get 3 points. Try that at your next tailgate party.
John Bush is a 2009 Seattle University graduate who is currently trekking across Colombia.