Yawn, stretch: if it's Tuesday, this must be Medellín! After about six hours' sleep in Hotel San Lorenzo de Aná, it was time to get moving and see some of Colombia. We'd been combing over our Viventura itinerary for so long, it was hard to believe we were now about to live it. Our hotel was small, basic, clean, had TVs in the rooms, and a pretty garden. The boys were fascinated by the garden's birds, bugs, and rocks. Though Medellín is not coastal, and sits at elevation 1,495 meters/4,905 feet, it is nevertheless lush, green, and tropical.
At our post-midnight check-in, my pal Lorri and her son Ryan (who'd been there a day, and had stayed up to welcome us), let us know we'd need to leave with our guide Stephanie at 8:30 sharp . We enjoyed our arepas, eggs, and excellent coffee. Lorri and Ryan had had a great time exploring the city the day before, and Lorri was anxious to see more of Parque Jjeras down the hill. We liked our little hotel, though Lorri's shower knob was broken or touchy or both, and she'd had a hard time dialing in the right temperature. (Later in the trip, we'd find ourselves grateful for any semblance of hot water, but we were blissfully ignorant of this as yet.)
Our guide Stephanie arrived and told us we'd be going to the bus station, then a drive up and over the mountains surrounding Medellín to the towns of Peñol and Guatapé. A tiny car met us in the driveway for the short ride to the bus station, so we put Stephanie up front, stuffed the four of us in the back, and were on our way.
The Terminale del Norte bus station was busy but not packed. I could tell the boys were impressed by the place, mainly because there were no shortage of opportunities to buy candy and sweets. There were enough open seats on the bus for Tyler and Ryan to sit together, and for Lorri and I to sit behind them. The boys were both equipped with app-laden iPads for the long drive and were itching to plunge into them. Though I'd rather my son appreciate the view more than on-the-road electronics permit, you've got to pick your battles and I enjoy peaceful rides as much as I presumed our fellow passengers did.
As we followed the Río Medellín out of town, Stephanie told us about the elaborate Christmas displays we were passing, and the huge farmer's market, the Central Mayorista. She was German, but had been living in the city for five years, and was knowledgeable, friendly, and sweet. Once out of Medellín, the bus stopped every 15 or 20 minutes to let people on and off. At these stops, and also especially at toll plazas, Extreme Food Vendors would board in front and traverse the length of the bus. They had mostly sweet snacks wrapped in paper or plastic and dangling from sticks. Once they'd satisfied everyone's craving for chocolate or coconut filled bread, they'd step lightly out the rear exit — and the fact the bus by then was doing 10-20 MPH didn't phase them a bit.
The drive was fascinating. There were farms with skinny horses, nurseries, places you could buy pre-fabricated homes, tons of small roadside cafés. Many of the buildings were made of or used bamboo, and Stephanie told us how a plentiful local species is often used in housing. The roads were in excellent shape except where they weren't — mudslides are commonplace in the lush, densely vegetated mountains. (I kept an eye out for Kathleen Turner in her newly macheted flats.) We had excellent cell signal throughout, so I was able to pull up Peñol and Guatapé in Stuck On Earth and give Lorri a preview of our destination.
We reached El Peñón de Guatapé, a black monolith rising out of the landscape between two small towns about 55 miles NE of Medellín, at about 11:00 a.m. A brick stairway switchbacks its way to the 7,000 ft/2,000 km summit. We opted for a quickie cab ride from the main road to the base, during which the boys asked Stephanie, who translated and asked the cabbie, what the rock is made of. He didn't know, but said many locals think it's a meteorite — which the boys found very cool. Before tackling the steps to the top we made a restroom stop. This is where I learned the Colombian rule of toilet paper: you either bring it with you, pay for it, or marvel that you didn't have to bring it with you or pay for it. Having been in the country already a day, Lorri performed TP management and brought me up to speed.
The walk up looked more daunting than it was. The stairs dip in and out of sunlight and shadow, and the view across the adjacent valley and reservoir improves with each turning. Bromiliads spring from the rock's sheer sides, and the shrine to Mary halfway up makes a nice resting spot and view point.
The top rewarded us for our efforts. There was ice cream, a little rain, and spectacular vistas. The boys ran around and took pictures of us, each other, the view. We chatted with Stephanie about the hydroelectric dam that had formed the reservoir in the 1960's, and the farms, buildings, and churches that are now under water.
On the way back down, Tyler doggedly counted every step. He got 606, but that didn't include the ones to the topmost observation tower at the summit.
With El Peñón under our belts, it was time to think about lunch so we grabbed a quick cab into Guatapé. We dined on the lakeside patio of La Fogata, and had yummy trucha (trout) and other local fare. We were happy we arrived when we did, because about five minutes after we got settled at a prime lakeside table, a tour bus full of Colombians on holiday arrived and took every other seat in the place. The woman at the table next to us did an impromptu, operatic duet with the musicians serenading the diners. For dessert, we snagged ice cream from the spot next door for the boys and successfully got them to take their malaria pills (which we were taking in anticipation of the jungle portions of the trip) by burying them inside. This was to become a daily challenge: how to transform adult malaria pills into something kids would actually ingest.
We spent the balance of the afternoon touring the Guatapé Reservoir in a tiny boat. Remarkably, the reservoir and its gorgeous, glassy water were devoid of water sports lovers. There were only small boats such ours and one or two larger tour boats. The shores were forested, green, and dotted with fincas (vacation home estates). There was also an eerie artifact of Colombia's Pablo Escobar days. His former, once luxurious finca, still juts into the reservoir on a commanding piece of property, but today it's a charred and graffitied shell. Stephanie told us there are several of Escobar's erstwhile homes in similar condition throughout the country, left this way as a cautionary tale and reminder of his ill-fated end.
We stopped nearby at Puerto de la Cruz, once the colonial-style home of a doctor, now a café and museum. Photos and exhibits tell how people nearby were relocated to Guatapé when the dam was built and the reservoir flooded their land. We took our time there, enjoying some cervezas. cappucino, hot cocoa, and spectacular views.
Too soon, it was time to get back to Guatapé and catch the bus back to Medellín. We enjoyed the boat ride back and more strolilng through the picturesque town of Guatapé. Guatapé is full of dazzlingly colored buildings, many of which include bas-relief artwork between the sidewalk and about hip level. The town has a beautiful church, packed for mass on a Tuesday afternoon, and a conveniently located wine bar where we provisioned up for the ride home. It also has a wild-looking canopy ride over the lake. We were tempted, but our kids were a bit young for that particular adventure (I think the minimum age for riders was 15).
After a long and crowded bus ride back, we had a few minutes to freshen up and go meet our Viventura host Matt Dickhaus for dinner. Tex-Mex in Medellín? Yep, at T-Bar Restaurante. I think you can find just about every cuisine imaginable around Parque Lleras. Over our first shot of aguardiente (the national drink; a little like ouzo), we discussed the rest of our trip. We had a flight the next morning to Nuquí for 3 nights on the Pacific Coast. Then, back to Medellín with time, we hoped, for sightseeing and shopping, and off again to the Caribbean coast, this time with Matt coming along for the ride. Lorri and I were a little nervous about the Nuquí leg of the trip, where, during the transit portion, we'd be left to our own devices without a guide. But someone from the lodge was to meet us at the airport, so we weren't too worried.
We talked too about the Hotel Charlee across from where we were dining. It looked like the local equivalent of the Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas. Lorri and Ryan had taken the full tour before we arrived. The art ("naked people!") and rooftop club/lounge/pool had made quite an impression.
All in all, a great end to an exhausting but fun day.
Next time: I'd take private transportation to Guatapé and Peñol. The bus was efficient and a good window into the culture, but long and crowded. I'd also make sure to save enough time for the Canopy ride, and probably spend a night or two in Guatapé.
Next up: Flying to Nuquí, and on by boat to the El Cantil Ecolodge.
Please see: the disclosures at the end of this earlier post.