Into the Andes…

No longer alarmed by men with machine guns, local military patrolled Boca de la Caimanera, where the Caribbean waters lacked the vibrant hues we hoped for, but were nonetheless quite nice.  The FARC, Para-military and Colombian Military all wear similar uniforms, the difference being the opacitiy of the uniforms, which only a very trained eye can detect and the type of boots they wear- leather boots, seen below, are the sign of “good guys.”  Golashes + military uniforms are a bad sign…

Colette’s joyful babbling seemed to serve as a sounding call for all local kiddos who emerged from their houses with curious excitement.   Climbing over, under and into the van, we showed the workings of our camp chairs and pop-top tent, they showed how high they could jump.  On this stretch of the Pan-Am was a verdant valley running parallel to a river, featuring many car-washes and showers from the fresh water.  At the dramatic bridge we crossed over the chocolate waters of Rio Cauca at Puerto Valdivia.

Below, a few kids floated downstream precariously on rough-hewn boards.  On the other side, we spotted a clear tributary, and as the sun was setting it was time to set up camp for the night.  We asked the local brick-factory set at the point of the river under the bridge if it was safe to camp, and he replied with open arms “Of course!  Any where you like is great.”

The fresh water had a swimming hole, which was also the local bath of choice.  As we cooked dinner many families walked by saying hello and curiously checking out the van.  Later on, a gaggle of giggling red-eyed teenagers came by and started chatting.   They had come down to wash their giant pot, which they had made arroz con leche in, seemingly to satisfy some late night munchies they had.  A small tuk-tuk ferried them across the shallowest part of the river to a small island where we watched them light a bon-fire which illuminated the canyon in a warm glow.
Morning came late as the high peaks hid the sun, and as we hiked up the tributary to the local swim spot, we felt the first rays beating down with a sweltering intensity.  “Ahhhh!” Colette said with a big smile as she splashed in the cool water.   We took turns floating down the lazy river, and hiked upstream exploring the lush canyon.
Back on the Pan-Am, the beginnings to the majestic Andes mountain chain sent us climbing higher and higher.  
Houses changed from wood or brick to black plastic wrapped structures as access to a money market diminished – most were farmers living by subsistence farming.

We descended into a verdant valley where the bustling metropolis of Medellin was nestled.   The color wheel opposites red and green predominated the city with a patchwork of brick facades and verdant growth.
15 years ago kidnappings were a regular occurrence for anyone living in Medellin… one family relocated to Toronto, Canada for a number of years.  There was only two malls in town at the time, and they were just overflowing with people stuffed in there on the weekends.  Most wealthy families have weekend houses in the surrounding hills, but it was not safe to leave town.  Thankfully, Medellin has been ‘safe’ for a number of years now. We camped street side in the El Poblado neighborhood.  As we were closing down the pop-top from our nights rest, a passerby came up to us.  Emily & Jorge conversed in Spanish for a moment before he switched to the most eloquent English.  He was walking his pug and said “As you are traveling, I am sure you would enjoy a shower.  After I walk Blanquita, would you like to come up to bathe and I will make you breakfast?”   Heck yes we do!  Jorge had lived in New York working at an art gallery for 25 years, and had returned to Medellin 8 years prior, where he has a lovely shop specializing in 50’s and 60’s furniture and home furnishings.  He was so excited that we had come to visit Colombia, and felt it was his national obligation to be as gracious as possible, showcasing the hospitality of all Colombians to offset the negative reputation the world sees.  The next day, as we were washing dishes in the van, a boisterous voice rang “Hello Adam, Emily & Colette!  I checked out your website on the back of your van, so I know who you are!”   Victoria, half American and half Colombian, lived downstairs from Jorge with her husband and 6 week old baby Graciella.  “Why don’t you come inside for breakfast and let the maid finish your dishes.”  Inside her home, we spent the afternoon chatting, while Colette fawned over baby “Cerella.”  That night, her lovely live-in help watched Colette as we went for some cocktails at her bar, Eco Bar.  Wow- an adults night out was SUCH a treat!  From Jorge’s lovely garden balcony, Medellin sparkles.
Medellin hosts the cleanest metro system we have ever seen.  In the train tracks, not a piece of trash is to be found, and the train interiors are free of the normal grit, which plagues most city transit. In the station we asked a gentleman where the transfer for the cable was, and he ushered us to follow him, where he scanned his pass for the metro paying for our tickets, then stood by us on the train until we reached the station.  Such kindness!  We took the metrocable up into the ghetto Santo Domingo, which the government installed just 6 years ago which gives access to the people of this least developed part of the city.  Prior to the cables installation, many residents had to commute 2.5+ hours to work each way.  Spain gifted a beautiful library, which is perched on the steeps of the barrio adjacent to the cable.
From there we transferred to the next metro cable L line, which took us up, up, up into the stunning Parque Arvi.  The drizzle turned into a downpour as we enjoyed the 15 minute panoramic ride over the beautiful forest.

We disembarked into the misty forest, ahead was a lovely organic vegetarian café, which of course we had to visit.We departed Medellin with full hearts, awed by the kindness and generosity of all the people we met there.  Colombia is famous for cocaine and coffee, and we headed to the Zona Cafetera to explore the caffeine fueled highlands.
Salento is a highland community nestled in the lush green Andean peaks.  In the brisk evening, we took a long walk from the farm and explored the town.    La Serrana, on the outskirts of town, was an eco-farm hostel that enchanted us.  We parked on the lawn overlooking the rolling hills and could have easily stayed much longer than 2 nights.  Breakfast included milk fresh from the cows.

Unfortunately, we did not fire up the pizza oven.  Kicking ourselves that we didn’t have Pizzanista! fedex a pie down!
While here Adam made some small works on paper; to view more check out the Gallery section.This one’s for you guys GoWesty!On our third day, we set our sights on Valle de Cocora, where the wax palms- Colombia’s national tree grows to soaring heights.  The sun broke through the clouds in sparkling bursts as we set off on the 5 hour loop trail.  Colette, amazed us with her dexterity on the rough trail, hiking happily along Mama & Papa, then again alternated to riding in style on Papa’s back.
The narrow valley was flanked by dramatic emerald peaks and cattle lazily grazed in the pastures that lined the trail.
Marigold colored moss, cardinal red leaves and electric purple blossoms dotted the landscape of soft grey and greens. The trail smelled of wet earth, horse manure and fresh fallen rain, a clean grounding scent that made our deep breaths feel wholesome in this magical land.We crossed the river several times, each bridge another rickety-trickety trip over the cold mountain water.  These contraptions would never pass “code” back home.
The babbling river spoke to the birds that responded with operettas sweet and clear. Both elevation and the steep incline had our heart rates pumping as we ascended the tallest ridge. The simply named mountain farm, Finca La Montana, was a lush vivero, nursery, that commanded the hilltop. The owners kindly invited us to shake the wet off in the stables, where we enjoyed a simple lunch and indulgent views.  We watched the gardeners load up their trusty steeds, balancing the blooming varieties of saplings that grew in industrial black plastic bags into wooden boxes draped over both sides of the donkey and horse.
As we descended into the Valle de Cocora, the rain fell harder, but our smiles never diminished. The wax palms, lithe supermodels of the palm tree world, rose magnificently into the misty sky.
Like fashion accessories, the bromilead clusters clung to the towering trunks, each tree having its own personality and attitude. Returning to the van damp, tired and speechlessly happy at dusk, we found our parking spot was also a perfect campsite.
Off the main plaza in Salento we enjoyed breakfast at a small café.  Sipping our perfectly brewed café pinto with freshly fried bunuelos, a cripple crawled laboriously towards the bathroom.  We looked at each other, as this small man was shaking the ground… a lot… then everybody was up and running out the front door into the open central square- earthquake!  A crowd gathered watching the signs sway from second story balconies.  The side-to-side shaking continued as locals remarked how long the earthquake was, and we indeed agreed.  Eventually the shaking ceased, we waited a few more minutes, thankful that all seemed well, and returned to our table, our coffees still hot.  A woman announced 7.0 – after checking the news from her phone.
The time had come to peace out of our highland dreams…