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Culture, South America

Three Days (and a night) in Medellín

December 27, 2015 • By

On my first night in Medellín, I supported a travel timeout and ventured to Cine Colombia for an English showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Here I found myself in a supposed horrific city watching a just released sold out performance of a movie that people in the United States bought tickets months in advance to see. Let’s call it a fortunate turn of events that the theater sold popcorn and assigned seats. The audience a bit chatty for my liking settled once the plot thickened and the new Darth Vader appeared. I welcomed a relaxing first night.

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The deluxe movie theater serving Colombianos

Rested and ready to absorb what the city offered, I struck out early on the Metro for day two of my time in Medellín. It’s best to take the Metro to the center and walk from there. I would advise some caution with valuables but I felt perfectly safe even when I detoured into a casino for a bathroom break and a woman ushered me aside and uttered in rapid Spanish something about making haste with lots of waving fingers. I didn’t heed her warning but since I really needed to find a toilet I hurried along to Museo de Antioquia, a required stop in Plaza Botero. I especially liked Plaza Botero and Parque Bolivar but for different reasons. Plaza Botero is lively with locals hawking hats and mini Botero replicas and tourists wandering and snapping photos of Fernando Botero’s bronze sculptures. It’s crowded and noisy but it accurately depicts the pulse of the local people.

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Here comes the bride and the flower girl at the Catedral Metropolitana, the world’s largest church completed in 1931

Parque Bolivar is more expansive but quiet and quaint with families grabbing a bite to eat and relaxing in the glow of the sun or the shade of the lush and numerous trees. The Cathedral Metropolitana is the focal point of Parque Bolivar. I stumbled upon a drone and followed it until it zeroed in on a bride and a flower girl. It occurred to me that maybe I was intruding on a private occasion but since I’m always a bridesmaid anyway I thought why not participate in another wedding. I watched the bride greet her father and they sauntered together toward the center of the church where the groom awaited. The classic tune, Here Comes the Bride played on the organ and the anxious guests smiled looking on the couple with love and admiration. Time to go!

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Botanical Gardens Medellín

I moved on foot from the center of the city to the north and tackled the Botanic Gardens, a spot reserved for families relaxing with picnic lunches and couples holding hands and stealing alone time. It’s also the main spot for the Flower Festival in August and apparently not to be missed.

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A fried cornbread type of muffin with cheese inside

Back on the Metro, I worked my way to the Metrocable stop where I joined locals and tourists traveling to Santo Domingo, our final destination. When we disembarked, two paths greeted me: A hike further up the mountain or a market with local crafts and freshly prepared food. It was lunchtime and everything looked delicious and since I’m a supporter of all things local it was an easy choice. I first sampled the crema de leche (Chantilly) with passion fruit and topped with caramel, then I decided to be healthy and grabbed a cup of berries topped with vanilla cream and with room still to grow I finished with a torta de choco, a type of corn bread muffin filled with cheese. I basked in the sunshine letting my food digest before I made my way back to my hotel.

A Saturday night in Medellín brings chaos, music, crowds, laughter and dancing (which also means eating and drinking). I greeted Parque Lleras with trepidation but once I summoned up the courage to seize the moment I found a delightful spot with Club Colombia beer and a sizable portion of bandeja paisa. It’s truly a mystery. I seriously can’t figure out why the clothes I arrived in no longer fit.  Parque Lleras invites serious foodies and partygoers. I recommend venturing out for dinner and live music.

 

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The Puente Colgante de Occidente a suspension bridge dating from 1887, a national monument in Colombia

There are a few side trips tourists can take from Medellín with tour groups or private guides. On day two, I hired a private English-speaking guide and we headed to Santa Fé de Antioquia, a former colonial capital. It’s about an hour away from Medellín by car and a place where level 5 and 6 wealthy locals head for warmer temperatures and weekends away. It’s hot and humid. There are churches. It’s interesting and well preserved but I wasn’t sure if I somehow traveled back into time or stumbled onto the set of a Wild West feature. With a population of about 23,000 people, locals rely heavily on tourism and agriculture growing crops of coffee, maize and beans. If history is an important part of your travel, then Santa Fé is worth a visit and don’t miss a walk or drive over Latin America’s oldest suspension bridge. Be sure to bring a hat, sunblock and a hearty supply of water. You will need it.

I had such a positive experience with my guide Santi in Santa Fé (mainly because he spoke English) that he easily persuaded me to hire him separately from the hotel and devise a tour more suitable to my desires to see Guatapé and San Antonio de Pereira on the same day – my last day. To be clear, I only wanted to see Guatapé after I met other tourists who raved about a large rock near Medellín.   My actual knowledge of the general location of the rock was muddled by the use of basic Spanish skills. They say (someone says) a picture is worth a thousand words. The entry ticket my fellow tourists flashed before me proclaimed “Guatapé” and the photo depicted pure natural beauty. I was hooked.

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Climbing a 650 step winding staircase is not for the out of shape at Guatapé

Santi concocted a plan to meet me at a nearby restaurant at 9:00 AM. I would roll my suitcase down a hill and cross my fingers he would be there. Santi promised to rent a car and whisk me away to Guatapé, followed by San Antonio for desserts and then to the airport. It sounded good to me.  Santi arrived on time but to my surprise with a university friend Simon and his car. I reacted to the news quickly taking a picture of the license plate when we dumped my luggage in the trunk.  Once in the car, I turned on data roaming and promptly texted Megan and Danielle on What’s App giving them an update on my latest travails and informed them f they didn’t hear from me by 7:00 PM to “maybe do something.”

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At the top of El Peñol, 656 foot granite rock and the village of Guatapé

About an hour later, Santi, Simon and I arrived at El Peñol, a 656-foot high granite rock surrounded by rolling hills, emerald patches of trees and blue green lakes connected by islands. The area is in part a man made gift created by the construction of a dam that provides 1/3 of the country’s electricity. Coffee plantations, farms, mansions and luxury hotels enhance the landscape.

The boys, my guides, left me to climb to the top of the rock solo. I huffed and puffed my way up 650 steps pausing every few steps to consider whether or not they would take off with my luggage. I also paused to avert a heart attack, drink water and take pictures to provide proof of this wretched activity. Note to self: Don’t take advice from 18 and 20 year old girls. The climb is that bad. Once at the top, I inhaled the warmth of the sun, admired the view reaching far beyond the horizon and prayed I would not die on the way down the stairs. The punishment was worth the reward as I finished with shaking calves and aching quadriceps (I suffered from sore calves for 3 more days). My guides greeted me right where I left them and I sighed in relief.

On the way to our next stop, Simon and I chatted in Spanish with Santi translating to English when needed. I learned about his brother and sister-in-law and about Simon’s new tattoo. Simon is 20-years-old and Santi 26-years-old. Santi studied engineering prior to his courses in international business and therefore requires three more years to finish. Simon wants to learn English and is just beginning his studies. They are students at the local university. Santi needs to work for extra money but his mother helps for now. Simon’s parents are generous.

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The quaint colonial town of Guatapé near the famous rock

Sometimes I am most grateful for the drives to and from places to quietly appreciate the scenery and to talk and learn from my guides. When it was time to explore Guatapé, a short distance from “the rock,” I wanted Santi and Simon nearby to experience the colonial town through my eyes not a place they visited many times. I pointed out the colorful depictions along the buildings and told them it reminded me of a comic strip. They laughed. We walked around Guatapé and the boardwalk before the boys beckoned a lunch break. Simon ordered a typical Colombian drink, which he motioned for me to try. It tasted like lukewarm corn and water and nibbling on the provided bites of guava only left my taste buds yearning for more.  We each ate the bandeja paisa, Simon opted for pork, Santi and I chose beef.

What could possibly top fried plantains, avocado, beans, a slab of delicately spiced beef and salad? Easy answer—–Postres!

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A very sweet dessert consisting of tres leches cake and caramel in San Antonio de Pereira

I merely mentioned once or twice to Santi on our trip to Santa Fé that I prefer dessert. He delighted in telling me about a town full of many sweet things. I couldn’t imagine such a place and I prepared to be disappointed because nothing really compares to the three cakes I devoured in Cartagena or the dessert counter at Whole Foods. As we drove to Río Negro and inched closer to San Antonio de Pereira, colorful buildings came into focus. Signs on doors announced, “POSTRES” (the Spanish word for dessert) and several temporary tents lined the main square offering ice cream and cakes. We parked the car and I bolted into the first spot.  I demanded evidence of my good fortune in pictures and Santi snapped a few. A young woman enclosed by a rectangle of 8-foot tables filled with creamy desserts greeted us. She allowed me to sample a few flavors and then I made a decision. I wanted a large piece of tres leches con arequipe (three milk cake with caramel sauce). Simon and the lady tried very hard to convince me my selection would be too sweet and the cake typically partnered better with a milder topping. I persisted. I won. It was yummy.  My heart sang.

Next, we stopped at Dulces y Postres. They possessed a slightly smaller selection but served noteworthy flavors like Nutella and Oreo. When I asked for a recommendation, the young lady pushed the flan with arequipe. She could tell I was not super excited and steered me toward the Oreo. With one bite, I was sold. Round two proved to put my stomach in turmoil and my blood sugar on lock down. I motioned for the boys to cut me off and we halted our postre extravaganza with just two desserts. Santi was right. I loved San Antonio de Pereira. It’s all he said it would be and more. The town is also known for its nightlife and serves as a fun trip for families to make on a Sunday from Medellín. Simon and Santi took desserts for their mom’s to go. I knew they were good souls.

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Colombian friends Santi & Simon

My trip was complete. My new friends dropped me at the airport in Medellín and I waited for my flight to Bogotá. When I travel, I try not to make a habit of putting myself in compromising situations but sometimes it happens. I chose to trust Santi, and I had to follow my gut and feel confident in my decision. It helps to question myself every now and again but my journey was truly enhanced by spending the day with two young men who represent the future of Colombia.

 

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Culture, South America

A two-day sprint through Botogá Part 1

December 14, 2015 • By

If planning a trip to Bogota, you really must reserve four to five days in order to appreciate the city’s cultural institutions, as well as its many diverse neighborhoods. I crammed a little bit of eating, drinking and walking into my three days in Bogota.

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Museo de Oro, the Gold Museum

My first day admittedly was a flop, which meant I needed to make the most of my time on day two and three. I started the day early arriving at Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) when it opened at 9AM. It’s worth an hour or two to explore the beautiful pre-Colombian gold collection and to learn how gold, emeralds and macaw feathers play into the history of what is now South America. The craftsmanship is quite impressive.

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Plaza de Bolivar, traditional Spanish square and the center of historic Bogotá

Back on Carrera 7 (the main thoroughfare), I navigated the National Geographic Traveler Walk Through La Candelaria. It covers most of the historical district and sheds a light on colonial times with an eye on the present. The obvious start to the walk is Plaza de Bolívar named after Simón Bolívar, known to Colombians (and many South Americans) as El Liberator. His name graces public parks everywhere and statues and sculptures of him proudly occupy squares throughout Bogotá.

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The Presidential Palace in Bogotá, Case de Nariño

Making my way toward the Presidential Palace, Casa de Nariño, a police officer shooed me away from the gates as I set off some sort of invisible alarm. I moved undeterred because a picture without security bars is essential to portraying the beauty of the building but when I went to exit the area two officers wanted to rummage through my bag a second time in case I was planning some sort of assault. It seemed like a good idea not to upset the officers so I wandered down an alternative route until a gentleman asked me where I was going. When I replied, “I don’t really know” in English. He politely said, “If you don’t know, then it is better for you to go another way” and he pointed me back to Plaza de Bolívar. Point taken and I returned though the security gates to tourist land. It is possible to spend an entire afternoon tackling the sights of Plaza de Bolívar but bring tuppence for the birds or an umbrella for cover. The pigeons are ripe for the taking.

With limited time I moved briskly through Museo de la Independencia (you must have an English guide unless you speak Spanish) and Museo Botero. I’ve never been a huge fan of modern art but I really enjoyed Fernando Botero’s work. Botero is a figurative artist and sculptor originally from Colombia. He transforms plump into sexy appealing, and chic. It’s a free museum and houses 85 other artists like Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso. I highly recommend.

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Antigua Santafe in La Candelaria

I finished my walk at Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo, where Bogotá was founded in 1538 and then rewarded myself with a tamale and rice pudding from Antigua SantaFe. After consulting with my waiter, I settled for something less filling but when the 8-inch corn stuffed tamale arrived with a chicken leg fixed atop I negotiated I would not eat the arepa and only half of the tamale. When my waiter presented me with dessert choices, I completely caved and powered through a rice pudding topped with raisins, a local favorite.

The most important thing I learned in Bogotá is how to follow directions. Why is this necessary? The avenues or carreras move east to west and the streets or calles move south to north. Otherwise, I walked in circles not completely understanding why I passed 1 and then was back at 11. It’s very confusing and necessary to grasp quickly. As you move south, the neighborhoods change drastically and the discrimination in social classes becomes visible. It’s best to keep to the center or the north in the city. The northern neighborhoods of Zone Rosa, Chicó, Parque 93, Usaquén remind me more of fancy suburbs in Los Angles or New York City complete with modern shops and the likes of Jimmy Choo and Dolce & Gabana. I am convinced the drug industry is funding but my guides informed me there is money to be made in Colombia.

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Santa Veracruz Plaza Santander in La Candelaria

I wrapped up my sightseeing with a Spanish speaking mass at Santa Veracruz in Plaza Santander off Carrera 7. My Catholic guilt got the best of me after I visited approximately 15 churches and prayed that I would not get mugged at every one of them. There was a big crowd for a Saturday 6PM mass maybe 100 people. Crying babies drowned the choir, women pushing strollers down the aisle and in front of the alter provided a distraction and men holding up their hands as if they were surrendering (maybe to God) provided more entertainment than a Broadway show. Adding to the chaos, Malonga (tango) music blasted outside the church the entire mass but the priest preached unfazed for 33 minutes. When mass ended, I admired the furnishings and the beautiful design and then giggled for a few minutes. At the very least, my parents and Godparents will be proud.

 

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