Thursday, March 27, 2008

Pereira and back to Medellin

From the park we drove the opposite direction from Montenegro to Armenia. This is a modern city of a half a million people built around a river valley and very attractive. The road from there to Pereia followed this lovely river with levels of mountains marching off into the distance in paler shades of blue. Farms with grazing horses and cows made us think of Vermont. Pereira is the capital of Risaralda, 1400 meters and also home to about half a million people and 8 universities. This drive took about one and a half hours, arriving at sun down again.
We drove through the streets looking for a hotel amid throngs of people. The first hotel was full but thoughtfully called and found us the Soratama Hotel on the Plaza de Bolivar. The streets were packed for a huge parade for Easter Thursday. The music and parade lasted for four hours; lots of bands, religious groups, military and retinues with their statues on platforms carried by penitents. Several groups gave us quite a scare with full Klu Klux Klan outfits of white or black, but as they were carrying big wooden crosses, we hope it didn’t have any of the same significance here. I'm sorry that these photos, taken necessarily from a distance and in the dark are not very clear. They do look better if you double click on them and enlarge them. The third picture shows the "Roman" soldiers in full regalia.
This 3 star hotel cost $80 each with a big breakfast buffet (more local foods than in Medellin - how about meat soup for breakfast!).
Our rooms unfortunately varied wildly. We had a two room huge suite (with a exercise bicycle no less) and Sue & Roy had a small room with twin beds. One really nice thing was that valet service for the car was included. We were really glad to turn it over to someone else to park! After checking in at the hotel we watched the parade from a second floor restaurant across the plaza in a very nice shopping center. Again a Columbian gentleman who worked in Westchester, NY came over to visit with us for awhile.
We were up early and walked around the Plaza, amazingly clean after the thousands who were there the night before. That's our hotel behind the statue above right and the cathedral above left. A huge earthquake devestated this area in 1999 and the top half of the church is being rebuilt in wood.
We left at 7:45AM that morning and found the driving much easier and still very beautiful, following a huge fast moving river with occasional standing waves. Later we joined our original route and went back over the steep mountain and into Medellin. There are plenty of places along the road both directions to have a nice lunch.
On the way down we had a terrific fish soup followed by fish or chicken dinner (huge boneless chicken breast or an entire trout) with all the trimmings and drinks for $5 each. On the way back we waited until we were less than 1 kilometer from the airport and then stopped at a big restaurant on the right with a BBQ that served big portions of local type dishes and meat. They had a salad bar too. We got to the airport at in plenty of time for our 6:10 PM direct flight back to Medellin (an hour and a half flight).

The Parque Nacional de Cafe, Columbia

The next day we spent at the Parque Nacional de Café. This is a big somewhat Disney World type park, but very scenic. It was built on the side of a hill on a coffee plantation. We bought a ticket at our Finca which didn’t include the amusement park section/ rides. It did include entrance, the coffee exhibits, Coffee Show, Orchid Show, the gondola and the train ride. This was perfect and took us most of the day.
At the entrance was a tower from which we got a lovely view of the countryside and the whole park. In the picture here you can see the sculptures which illustrate the farmers and their wives planting, harvesting and processing the coffee as they did for generations.
As we walked down the hill this process is demonstrated and an English speaking young woman was our guide. She was charming and we really enjoyed her company, and that of the many other Columbians that stopped us to talk. Everyone was so delighted to see foreign tourists visiting their country! Children, studying english in school asked if they could help us in any way.

We waited in line for the Coffee show for 45 minutes but talked to people the whole time. It was really a party. One family in particular were so nice. The oldest son had spent time studying in the states and their daughter, although at first shy, had a great time practicing her english.
The show was terrific, basically a variety show: traditional dances and songs by a talented group of incredibly energetic young men and women. The orchid show however, unless we had our grandchildren with us (wish we did) was a little boring (animatronics orchids singing and speaking in Spanish).

We enjoyed the train ride around the park. Two comedians put on a fun performance as we waited at the station. They recruited Scott into the act - a good choice as he eats this stuff up! Then three funny and riotous musicans played while we chugged along. The day went by quickly and after a lovely gondola ride back up the hill we were back on the road heading through the city of Armenia to Pereira for the night. (continued in the next entry)

The Coffee Road to Armenia (Columbia)

The road out of Medellin was a large modern highway but soon changed to a two lanes, one each direction. Route signs on the road were generally good, although in a few places difficult to see. We didn’t get a map of the country so we had to use our Columbian guidebook, over eight years old. We managed, only missing two turns during the three days. People were very nice when you asked for directions. The roads were good with only a few sections with pot holes. There was road construction going on all the time but very well organized with one way periods alternating.

Soldiers are everywhere and we were stopped every hour or so for a quick check. They were always very nice. We felt very safe everywhere. This was rarely a highway by American standards. It was only occasionally a divided road. It took us 9 hours to drive to the Parque Nacional de Café in Armenia.
There were toll booths every 45 minutes or so. The rates were from $2.50 to $4. We probably paid around $30 total round trip (around 600 kilometers total distance).
It was spectacular. We took the mountain route avoiding the cities on the way down and the faster route through them on the way back. It still took 7+ hours for the same trip back. Those times of course included breaks and lunch.
The views are marvelous!

We could only occasionally pull over to take pictures as the road was narrow, winding and went staight down one or both sides.
Finca Hotels are the place to stay down in coffee country. Fincas are the traditional coffee plantation homes and a number of them have been converted to inns – some modern versions.
We didn’t make reservations and it was almost dark now for us. We left too late from Cartagena. We followed a series of signs for 7 kilometers into the countryside for Hotel El Bosque del Saman, hoping they'd find us a room. We had some tense moments waiting for confirmation but we got the last two rooms. !!!
It is in a beautiful location among the coffee fields and a real family resort with lots to do right there. They have a major rope course, horses, cows to milk etc. There’s a pretty main house and a pool overlooking the view. Breakfast and dinner were included and rather basic but adequate. We wish we could have stayed for several days here. There are many attractions around this area but we only had time for the Nacional Parque de Cafe the next day.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Medellin, Columbia

Sue and Roy Potter on “Vindomar”, not long after our meeting, joined forces with us to spend five days in the interior of Columbia together. This was too short a time for our itinerery. We should have allowed at least a week or ten days. We flew Avianca round trip for $150 each. There are numerous flights to Medellin and this was the cheapest fare. We flew through Bogata, which is at least 3000 feet higher than Medellin, and was really quite cool hurrying from one gate to another, I could feel the thinner air. Medellin is at 1500 meters and very comfortable. The temperature was 80 degrees at mid day and cool enough later or early in the morning to need a light jacket.

There are two airports in Medellin – the regional one Herrera, almost in town and the International Cordovada Rionegro, which is 50 kilometers away from Medellin. A taxi costs 48,000 pesos and takes about 45 minutes depending on traffic. You can take a bus for 6,000 pesos (right outside the arrivals) and then a local taxi to your hotel. The local taxis are on meters and generally very inexpensive.
We made a reservation over the internet at the Poblado Plaza Hotel (part of the Estelar group, Carrera 43A No. 4 Sur – 75, Tel 268-5555 Fax 268-6949 email ), a four star hotel in the Poblado district (the original settlement location in the 1600s and now the fancier neighborhood) and paid 206,000 pesos a night per room (this was listed as a holiday special with the normal price being twice that). The rooms were very attractive with elegant linens, the buffet breakfast was enormous (and included) and the staff very helpful. Someone always spoke English at the front desk. There is a pretty rooftop exercise room/hot tub/sauna/reading room – no pool. There were a lot of hotels in Poblado and also downtown at all ranges so checking online or in a guide book should give you a big choice.
There is a great subway system in Medellin with 25 stations, Line A has 22 kilometers of track and Line B has 8. Subway is a misnomer as it is above ground but the modern attractive stations feel very safe. We walked down to the nearest station and took it downtown (one way 1,400 pesos) and walked around for the afternoon. We really enjoyed the Parque de Berrio with its charming statues by Fernando Botero (two examples are shown above, that's Roy with me at one). Botero is an internationally known sculptor and painter and he has given a big selection of his work to Medellin. Around 20 sculptures are set around the pretty park and much more can be seen in the Museum de Antioquia which faces it.
Also on the parque is the Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Urib (shown behind the statue at the top), a baroque fantastic building, once the home of the government offices and now housing a variety of cultural events. We enjoyed a show by a young modern artist there. Medellin spends more money on art and culture than most cities and sponsors its’ young artists shows. Public art is everywhere - and sometimes quite amusing as you can see from the group of unusual manniquins posed on a balconey downtown! Next was the Antiguo Palacio Nacional, once a government building and now a big shopping center but with fun architecture both inside and out. (that's a shot of the interior on the right)
Also nearby are several old churches, the Iglesia de la Veracruz (the oldest church still in use) and the Basilica de Nuesta Senora
del la Candelaria, a colonial style church built in 1781. We had a big lunch at one of the Pollo restaurants that abound in Columbia. A huge plate of roasted chicken, potatoes, cole slaw, rice and arepas with drinks was about 10,000 pesos. Later we sat in a café overlooking the square and drank a beer while watching the incredibly busy scene. Everyone seems to be in a hurry in Medellin, at least during the work day. A comparison with NYC would not be out of place. Recycling is easy here as well as you can see from the photo of the three trash options here.

The next morning, after a huge breakfast, we took a taxi to the Cerro Nutibana. This is a small mountain right in the center of town with a miniature typical village on top and some good views of the city and the surrounding mountains. We walked around the park as well then took a taxi to the nearest subway stop. Our goal was the Fundacion Jardin Botanico Joaquim Antonio Uribe (what a mouthful), a really beautiful park at the University stop on the subway and the subject of my next entry.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Medellin, Columbia (continued)

The Fundacion Jardin Botanico Joaquim Antonio Uribe (what a mouthful), is a really beautiful park at the University stop on the subway. There was an exhibit of orchids under the wonderful designed wooden lattice “trees” at the entrance. We spent several hours walking around the park and met the first of many Columbians who came up to us to introduce themselves and ask if they could be of service.

These conversations were delightful – both older men and women, and children did this during our five days there. We did not find this to be true as much here in Cartagena. English speaking tourists are very rare in the interior and everyone was so happy to see us! The lovely lagoon had a pair of friendly turtles as well. Across from the park near the subway stop is a very attractive Science and Children’s Discovery museum.
The modern architecture in Medellin is marvelous. Their support for the arts extends to this medium for sure! We didn’t go inside but the outdoor activities looked really fun (that's Scott cooling off in the spray fountains outside with the museum behind.)
We splurged on a Steak House restaurant at 43B and 16th street in Poblado for a very late lunch. The outdoor porch was cool and the service attentive. We ate a plate with three big pieces of filet mignon with three different sauces, served with potatoes and arepas. They gave us a complimentary plate of meat balls as an appetizer. We were amazed though that no vegetable or salad made even a token appearance. This was $12 each. There was a nice salad bar but we had no room. We were carnivores for sure at that moment.
We spent quite a bit of time with the hotel desk manager and the concierge trying to plan a tour of the coffee road. (that's our hotel breakfast buffet on the left below)Finally it turned out there wasn’t a group tour available (that would have been $200 for three nights and four days in a bus, including as below with more sights, but no English speaking guide) and the individual one they put together was too expensive for us, $450 each. This would have included a private car with an English speaking guide, two nights in a Finca hotel with breakfast and dinner and three full days of touring. If you would like the cheaper tour (and would prefer not to drive yourself) our recommendation would be to find out from a tour guide or your hotel when the group tour is available and book it along with the hotel. Friends on “Tothill” went to Medellin and did some day trips around the city using Juan Carlos Mesa (310-462-1993) as a coordinator. He arranged English speaking guides/drivers.

The hotel helped us make reservations for a car at Hertz for $78 a day a day (incl. insurance) for the next three days. It was a comfortable 4 door car and the personnel couldn’t have been nicer there. One person spoke English and we were treated royally (comparatively to the states) – coffee served as you waited yet! We picked up the car at 8:30AM Wednesday morning just a few blocks from the hotel and returned it Friday night at 4PM at the airport. We could have made all the arrangements ourselves – do bargain however if you do. We got a cheaper rate by getting a “mechanico” gear shift instead of automatic. (continued in the next entry)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A surprise trip to Medellin, Columbia

This week we've been saying goodbye to several friends. Natalia and Luis (below left) are leaving Saturday for the San Blas, but they'll only be there for a few weeks before packing up to fly back to New Zealand. They are rejoining the Canadian owners/friends they left there after sailing from Cartagena to New Zealand last year with them. For six months a year for the next three years they will continue to circumnavigate. They had us over for a wonderful dinner on Vagamundo. Our friends Don (below, far right) and his grandaughter Jessica (right) are leaving for a cruise up the east coast of Latin America and back to Florida.

We had a dinner for them with neighbors Jennifer (below, in the middle)and Dickie from England and Jessica's mother Linda, visiting from the States. We have been working hard to finish up our boat repairs and sail off to Panama but our generator has been stubbornly refusing to cooperate.
This 400 pound bemouth, a Westerbeake 3 cyclinder red machine, has been hauled up and down inside the boat and once removed entirely. A line through the hatch, a winch and two very strong men are needed for this job. The engine portion worked when returned but the electrical system was damaged somehow. Up the generator went again to remove this portion to be rewound again (we had it done twice in St. Lucia).

Our dodger is now behind schedule as well but it was the sudden discovery of Easter week starting Monday that clinched our plans to leave. Nothing gets done here the whole week! We thought outside the box for a minute and decided this was the perfect time to see some of the interior of Columbia. One long afternoon on the computer and help from Luis and Natalia and we had plane tickets and hotel reservations - to Medellin!
"City of Eternal Spring" or "City of Flowers", Medellin is located in a valley between 12,000 foot mountains. The first Spaniards arrived on the coast of the present day department Antioquia, of which Medellin is the capital, in 1501 to find various Carib tribes living there. They wiped out most of them pretty quickly. But Medellin itself was founded in 1616 by Jewish settlers (paisas) fleeing persecution in Europe. They were farmers not conquerers and divided the land up into small farms they worked themselves with no slaves. They lived in isolation, afraid of renewed persecution. Of course other settlers followed and the city was named Nuesta Senora de la Candelaria de Medellin in 1675.
In the 1950s terrorized populations from the countryside fled the ravages of the Civil War and put up shacks in barrios around the city. During the 70s and 80s drug traffickers recruited from these areas and there was a lot of violence. In 1983 the government began an all out war which ended with the capture of Pablo Escabar in 1993. Today Medellin is a peaceful and thriving city and almost 100% of the city has electricity, water and sewage facilities. Today the drug trade is run mostly out of Cali. We will be flying on Columbia's Avianca Airlines through Bogata on the way there and direct back. It's only an +- an hour for each flight. We will have five days/four nights.
Well happily before leaving our mechanics reinstalled the generator and hoorah! it works. Then the canvas makers came by with the new dodger and it looks great. And to top it off our dinghy motor came home after a thorough cleaning. Life is great - and we're off to Medellin on Monday

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cartagena's a lot of fun!

We are going to be very sorry to leave Cartagena and we'll be back for sure. We take a walk every morning and often again later in the day. At this point of course, after several months here (Scott Free has of course been here longer), we know it well and to know it, is to love it. The scenery is beautiful overall but there are millions of little details that surprise you every day.
Inside a simple doorway you can glimpse a beautiful courtyard. A door is decorated with a lizard and fountains spray water high in the squares. The people here are very nice and we have never felt the slightest concern for our safety. The weather is hot of course, but really only in the middle of the day. Even then if you stay out of the sun, it's fine. The food is great and inexpensive for the quality. We've eaten in some restaurants the equal of those in NYC and for half the price! That's Scott eating a selection of desserts from the Sunday buffet at the Sant Clara Hotel on the left.
We take spanish lessons five days a week and we've learned a lot. Scott can chatter away in Spanish and I at least can manage a conversation now. We expect we'll improve in Peru when we'll be forced to converse more often. Here we hang out with the cruising community a lot and haven't made too many local friends. And those want to practice their english!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Back to "Scott Free" in Cartagena, Columbia

We flew from Boston to Panama City and were supposed to stay there two nights and see some of the area. Unfortunately a snow storm canceled our flight and we left the next day. Our hotel was too far out of the city centre so we just spent the night and flew on to Cartagena the next day. "Scott Free" was waiting for us at Club Nautico Marina. We had installed the winter canvas cover over the

entire top so it was a job getting that off and folding it up. The decks were a mess, covered with dirt blown in under the edges, but it was surprisingly clean down below. Of course we had as usual four huge bags stuffed with things so unpacking was a long chore. This time two of the bags were repacked with all the clothes and gear for our two months in Peru and put in the V-berth until we leave May 1.
Club Nautico is a bit run down in places but they keep it brightly painted. Here's a shot of the front and another of some painters working on a mural on the side.
The 58th Annual Cartagena Film Festival is this week and it's a big event. Hundreds of films are being shown and seminars on every film subject are scheduled throughout the city. We went down to the office to get schedules and see what's playing.
This year their special guest nation is France and many current French movies are being shown, along with a retrospective of Francois Truffaut.
Cruiser friends of ours on Panacea, Rick and Sue, had met some of the organizers of the festival and they invited us to several events. One night they came over for drinks and then we watched movies on a screen in Plaza Trinidad. Every night during the festival they showed films under the stars in four different plazas throughout the city. We saw a very clever cartoon that needed no translations first. An old women tries to buy cat food for a reasonable price at a frightening futuristic super supermarket.
She gets thrown in jail and manages to escape using some great lock picks. Next was a short atmospheric film featuring nuns, archeologists and we think, vampires. Last was a surprise - John Sayles 1984 film "A Brother from Another Planet"! Afterwards we had dinner at a good Columbian restaurant "Cuchina del Soccorro" until the private party at Club Havana opened. We were one of the chosen few let in and the place was rocking. The cuban band was excellent and the free mojitos flowing. A guest performer from Hawaii, Tony, performed with the band. We don't stay up past midnight very often, but this was worth it!

Two nights later Rick and Sue gave a party for Tony on board their Cheoy Lee 48anchored in the harbor. Columbian friends George, Luna and Mimi came, along with a Italian journalist living in California, Alfredo. Two other cruiser couples came - Natalia and Luis on "Vagamunco" and Alan and Fiona on "Seabisket". There was a lovely spread of food and Tony gave us a concert. What a terrific time.
That's Rick, Sue and Tony at the top with a shot of Tony performing. Then Natalia and Luis next, followed by myself and Fiona. Lastly are Alan & Fiona and Luna & Mimi.