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A library complex was built as a social center; it includes instructive daycare, classes, and, of course books. Medellin streets that were once blocked off and separated, and housed rival gangs, were connected by a bridge. People started to mix and mingle. Small local businesses began to open. Crime dropped dramatically. As we exited the cable car and walked through the streets, we talked to locals (both kids and adults) about how much their lives had changed.
Today Medellin is known for different things: fashion, poetry, art, tango, friendliness to the gay community, native son Fernando Botero's monumental statues, and luxurious offerings for visitors.
Our hotel was the two-year-old Charlee, situated right in the middle of the Zona Rosa, which has so many clubs, restaurants, and bars that I gave up counting. For health conscious travelers, the Charlee has a gym that sprawls over three floors; I actually think it is larger and has more machines than my gym back home. The young, restless, and athletic of Bogota converge in the gym, and watching them is part of the pleasure. The other part is using the elliptical trainer or treadmill while gazing out at the city through vast picture windows. It's especially appealing after dark, when the city lights glimmer and twinkle in the distance.
I can still taste the delights of the Italian restaurant in the Charlee: grilled octopus with tomato, pepper, black-eyed peas and red onions; grilled salmon with Portobello mushrooms. I can say without hesitation that the international food scene in Medellin rivals any major city in the world, and the selection of eateries by Adventure Associates was perfect. I can recall the details of vegetarian antipasto, tortellini with ricotta and spinach and a robalo fish with lemon sauce at Tramezzini's; artichoke hearts stuffed with ricotta cheese and served in a basil sauce, and roasted guinea hen stuffed with spicy rice and a sherry sauce at La Provincia (where the ex-President of Colombia and Bill Clinton dined). At Herbario it was poultry mille feuille with red pepper confit and yucca soufflé octopus ceviche with corn, chorizo, black olives, pepper and a Balsamic reduction followed by duck magret. Or suckling pig with berries at the "auteur?" restaurant Mystique; the green curry fish with toasted coconut at Naan; the sumptuous mezze and chicken kabob at Tabun.
Flowers Get the Chair Ride
Our guide Carlos was very excited when he heard we were interested in the culture of the Antioquia region. Our driver took us to the top of a mountain to experience the silletas tradition of Saint Helena. During Colonial times, Carlos explained, natives strapped wooden chairs to their backs and transported tired Spanish colonizers up the hills, because the roads were too difficult for horses to pass. The prevailing attitude was that it was far better to exhaust a native than a horse.
Today, the locals still strap chairs to their backs, but they carry huge, intricate flower displays that can weigh several hundred pounds and are greatly admired during a silletas parade that caps a much-attended festival that takes place in late July and early August. We visited one of the mountaintop families and saw the flowers they grow, the silletas they make, and the prizes they have won at the festival. The son, Felipe, hoisted me up on his back, and then Paul carried a heavy silleta on his back. It was delightful cultural immersion and neither Felipe nor Paul seemed the worse for it.
Back in Medellin, we went on a Pablo Escobar tour, where we visited the haunts of the drug lord who tyrannized, terrorized and controlled much of the city. He had officials, police, a soccer team and almost everyone else in his deep pockets. We stared at the rooftop where he was finally cornered and gunned down in 1993. According to our guide Jhon, it took Escobar's life and death to shock officials into a recognition of what had happened to their city, and start in earnest to institute reforms that would turn it around.
On our last day, we drove about an hour and a half to the lakeside Colonial town of Guatape. En route, we stopped at the weekly market in El Penol, and our cameras bounced out quickly at the site of arrieros — the Colombian equivalent of cowboys or mule drivers — carrying their leather bags, with machetes hanging from their belts and ponchos draped over their shoulders.
We climbed up La Piedra del Penol, a rock that is 220 meters high. When we stopped puffing and panting, we looked out at the glorious landscape of lake, greenery, and islands below. Underneath the lake, alas, is a town that was buried and flooded in order to build a dam that would power much of Colombia.
The architectural pride of Guatape are the painted and designed baseboards on most of the shops and houses. The tradition started in l919, and today the brightly-colored wooden and plaster images depict horses, ships, beach scenes, birds, flowers, country life, and anything else the imaginative artists conjured and created.
For our last night in Medellin, Carlos took us to three salsa clubs. In one of them, which he called a salsa ghetto, I had the extreme pleasure of dancing with three local, hip–gyrating, handsome young men. Paul didn't do too badly either with the salsa dancing women. "Don't you think the place smells of pheromones?" Carlos asked.
Pheromones, food, culture, and warm, welcoming people. As trips go, it was one of our best!
If you go
Adventure Associates runs a variety of scheduled tours in Colombia and can also set up custom itineraries for special interests. For more on travel in Colombia, see the official Colombia Tourism site.
Story by Judith Fein, photos by Paul Ross.