A Weekend of Art and Culture in Medellin, Colombia

 

This post was originally written for and published on Colombia Eco Travel

Travelers rave about Medellín, and for good reason; there’s plenty to do in the city on a budget. Medellín is also one of the most progressive cities in Colombia, and it ‘s filled with enough art and culture to keep your urban exploration itinerary full and your spirit inspired.

My boyfriend and I took a bus to Medellín from Manizales, which took around 5 hours after getting caught in some accident-related traffic. Once w arrived, we headed to the Happy Buddha Hostel; it was hip and clean, but it was definitely a party scene – and not one I wanted to be associated with. It became clear that Medellín had become a mecca to backpackers who seek drugs and women. Unfortunately, this completely plays into the stereotypes most Colombians are working hard to break, as explained by the article “What the Netflix Series Narcos Doesn’t Tell you About Colombia” by Sarah Duncan. We quickly ditched the hostel and found a small, Italian restaurant in El Poblado, the upscale neighborhood most tourists stay in.

Botero Plaza

Botero Plaza

Botero Plaza

Botero Plaza

The next morning, we woke up early to explore the neighborhood and find breakfast. After we ate, we jumped on the Metro to head to Botero Plaza.  Fernando Botero is a local to Medellín, and his art has become an integral part of the city. His abstract perception of proportion and volume is best explained in his own words, “A painted landscape is always more beautiful than a real one, because there’s more there. Everything is more sensual, and one takes refuge in its beauty.” After strolling through the Sculpture Park, dodging tourists, we entered the quiet sanctuary of the Museum of Antioquia. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the MDE15 Exhibit: Local Histories in the Global Context. I found pieces inspired by resilience, contradiction, memory, resistance and possibilities, themes all deeply woven into Medellín’s identity. 

MDE15

MDE15

Museo de Antioquia

Museo de Antioquia

That evening we wandered up into Envigado searching for a restaurant with amazing views; we didn’t find the exact one we were looking for, but we did find the traditional and bright La Mayoria Restaurante. It was packed, but they found us the last table. There was a sultry live music performance and a horse show mid-meal. During dessert, we jumped in the Conga line and did as the Colombians did.

La Mayoria Restaurante

La Mayoria Restaurante

La Mayoria Restaurante

La Mayoria Restaurante

On our last day in Medellín, we headed out to see the inspiring street art in Comuna 13. In 2014, walking tours started of La Comuna 13. The tours of this "once most dangerous neighborhood in the country" have grown immensely popular in the past 2 years due to its eclectic and bright street art and socially progressive escalator installation. I highly recommend Toucan Cafe, because part of the proceeds for this company directly supports local education initiatives, and Toucan Cafe's tour is led by the group of artists who are responsible for over 90% of the graffiti art you'll see in the neighborhood. Unfortunately the Toucan Cafe tours were booked when we were visiting, but we didn't let that stop us. If you're interested in the formal tour, make sure to book ahead. If you're interested in visiting independently, you can find a detailed guide with directions and tips here. We walked past a high school soccer game and men carving meat with machetes in the street. Kids ran up to us wanting to practice English, and I felt warmly welcomed in the neighborhood. It was my favorite afternoon of the trip. 

Comuna 13 Escalators

Comuna 13 Escalators

Comuna 13 Graffiti 

Comuna 13 Graffiti 

Soccer Game in Comuna 13

Soccer Game in Comuna 13

Finally, we returned to the bus stop where we began. As the buildings faded into the hills, it was easy to understand why Medellín so easily captures travelers' hearts.

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

How NOT to Visit Tayrona National Park

 

This post was originally written for and published on Colombia Eco Travel

Tayrona National Park is at the top of almost every visitor to Colombia’s bucket list. The idyllic photos grace the covers of almost every guidebook, and the locals rave about it. It’s also incredibly eco-conscious; the park limits the amount of people let in per day, educates people about the environment before they’re let in, and even bans plastic bags. There’s usually just one catch in all those guidebook descriptions: don’t go during high season – a warning I brushed off in all my travel wisdom.

As an expat with a full-time job in Colombia, my windows for travel are the same as most other Colombians (around Christmas and Easter). It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t going to stop me from exploring my new country whenever I could. So I booked a flight to Santa Marta without looking back and thought I had outsmarted the system by booking a cabana right outside Tayrona National Park months in advance, figuring at the very least I wouldn’t stay there during high season. I still don’t know what the best decision would have been, but here is how mine turned out.

My hostel advised I wake up early and get in line as soon as possible; being in vacation mode, I interpreted this to mean 8 AM. This was supposed to mean 6 AM. By the time I arrived, the line was stretched out down the highway by at least a couple of kilometers. Semi-trucks drove past us (dangerously close, but you couldn’t help but be glad for the manmade breeze), and the drivers were taking photos of the line with their cell phones. Because external tourism is increasing exponentially in Colombia, Tayrona set new records in 2015. I waited on the asphalt in blistering heat for 4 hours. My not-so-brilliant plan to visit the park as a day trip (also frowned upon in guidebooks) was going to mean entering the park, hiking the two hours to the beach, looking at it, and promptly turning around. But there were rumors that they were selling tickets for tomorrow, and this would allow me to enter the park promptly upon opening the next day - totally redeeming the day trip plan. So I wiped the sweat away from my brow and hoped for the best.

When I finally arrived at the ticket booth, I was told they couldn’t sell tickets for tomorrow until all the tickets for today were sold. So I waited for another hour. When it was finally in my hands, it felt as precious as the golden ticket in Charlie Brown and the Chocolate Factory. I then noticed some people who had just shown up managed to get tickets for the next day without waiting in line for five hours. My happy-go-lucky travel attitude waned when I realized this, but I did my best to brush it off; there was no going back now. 

The next morning, I arrived again at 8 AM and was ushered right in like a VIP. But even so, I was still stuck on the trail behind families weighed down with a week’s worth of camping gear.  I maneuvered around as much as I dared but ultimately still spent a lot of time waiting as slower hikers took their time. I arrived at Cabo San Juan (the main hub of the Park) and figured I better grab some lunch for spending the next few hours exploring. After waiting for food in the restaurant for over an hour, (why didn’t I bring food again?), I set off to finally find those perfect beaches.

Unfortunately, the only two beaches that were safe for swimming were completely crowded; you couldn’t even swim at the nudist beach due to the strong current, so not even skinny-dipping could get you away from the masses. My boyfriend spent some time at Cabo San Juan snorkeling, but every few minutes, you could hear an obnoxious whistle reminding people not to get too close to the rocks. It wasn’t exactly relaxing, but it was undeniably beautiful, and there was some great people watching. Our time in the Park passed quickly, and finally it was time to head out before it got dark. I hoped to see some wildlife on the walk out, but I wasn’t so lucky; it was probably too hustling and bustling of a week for any of the monkeys or sloths to venture too close to the path.

The next day, I regretted almost every decision I made regarding my visit to Tayrona*. I wished I hadn’t gone in high season; I wished I hadn’t waited in line the day before for 5 hours, and I wished I had packed a lunch. So there you have it – a complete guide on how NOT to visit Tayrona National Park.

 *A friend visited Tayrona right before and on Christmas and had a totally different experience than me. When you go can make all the difference; plan accordingly.

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The Science of What We See

Who lives sees much. Who travels sees more.
— Mark Twain
 
A wall found in Manizales, Colombia

A wall found in Manizales, Colombia

An alley in Cartagena's Walled City

An alley in Cartagena's Walled City

Learning to dance in Zambia

Learning to dance in Zambia

Why travel? There are a million answers on the internet written in clever listography and a million more answers from the world's greatest poets and philosophers. But what the hell? I'm going to narcissistically give an answer of my own: we travel to see. But let me explain in a way that seems less painfully obvious. 

When I was four years old, I woke up in the middle of the night and felt my way to my mom's bed crying out, "I can't open my eyes!" My mom responded that my eyes were open. It's one of my earliest memories. After that, I remember being in the hospital, and I remember going home. I remember getting a shot every day, which I later learned was a steroid. The shots made me nauseous, therefore I also remember throwing up during the pledge of allegiance in Kindergarten (expat foreshadowing?). I don't remember all of a sudden being able to see again, but I do remember standing in the yard with my grandma as she asked me how many fingers she was holding up and telling her the right answer - not understanding why it made her so happy. But now when I take in the sight of a colorful new city, I understand. 

Porto Venere, Italy 

Porto Venere, Italy 

I've always sought out bright destinations; when I went to Italy two years ago, the number one thing on my to-do list was "colorful houses on the coast," and in Colombia (most recently, Guatapé), my to-do list was just as hopeless. I think this is because the two places I remember living as a child were a tall, beige apartment complex and a rancher in the suburbs painted a complementary neutral color chosen from a list of approved hues. Like many others in the U.S., this was a housing development that made its residents sign strict agreements as to what they could and could not do to the outside of their house. Even in neighborhoods free of contractual obligations, the unwritten rule still lives: blend in ( and if you don't, prepare for the consequences - and your revenge, like these houses). The monotony of my childhood neighborhood can be comforting, but I've always been inspired by the contrast of the bright and vivid. 

Bicycles in Gutapé, Colombia

Bicycles in Gutapé, Colombia

One of the brightfly colored homes in Gutap É, Colombia

One of the brightfly colored homes in GutapÉ, Colombia

Salvation Mountain in Niland, California (photo back when filters were really cool...apparently)

Salvation Mountain in Niland, California (photo back when filters were really cool...apparently)

When I was in college, I would sift through trinkets at Goodwill, find some kitschy statue of Jesus or a bird, bring it home, and spray paint it bright turquoise. The suddenly uninspiring and outdated Jesus with his arms outstretched? Suddenly modern, shiny, and a clever representation of the evolution of interpretation! My dear grandpa once even drove me 4 hours to the middle of the desert in Southern California, so I could see Leonard Knight's bright and recycled Salvation Mountain. It's true that I would easily hit up any of the 24 most colorful cities in the world and spend hours wandering with my camera taking pictures of walls, and yes, I admit that sounds pretty ridiculous. But there is science behind the way we see color that fascinates me. 

One of my favorite optical illusions, via brainden.com

One of my favorite optical illusions, via brainden.com

Leo Tolstoy once said, "Everything I know, I know because of love." In 2015, everything I know is because of Google. So I started googling how the brain and vision worked, which was a complicated matter for a Literature major because all I really wanted to do was make more Tolstoy jokes (see above). Nevertheless I eventually discovered the magical reality behind these topics. BBC's documentary Do You See What I See? explains, "Your eye doesn’t simply see color — your brain creates it by drawing on knowledge of what things should look like.” Basically, we see based on memory, and so everything is first filtered through our own memories. Similarly, Beau Lotto's TED Talk, "Optical Illusions Show How We See" demonstrates, "The brain didn't evolve to see the world the way it is - we can't. Instead the brain evolved to see the world the way it was useful to see it in the past." Optical illusions confirm this; just think about a time when you saw what you thought you were supposed to see instead of what was really there. Different color preferences in different cultures also help exemplify the idea. However and thankfully, we're not trapped into seeing as we've always seen. 

Every time we travel, we make new visual memories. We see new colors and sights, and our sight is changed forever. Every day after is a little brighter and wider. Do You See What I See concludes, "None of us sees the world as it is. In this sense we are all delusional, what each of us sees is a meaning derived from our shared and individual histories. This awareness, possibly more than anything else, provides an irrefutable argument for celebrating diversity, rather than fear in conformity. Which is liberating, since knowing this gives you the freedom (and responsibility) to take ownership of your future perceptions of yourself and others." 

What we choose to see and where we choose to travel will inform not only what we see, but also the way we see. So wander the colorful streets of Cartagena and take photos of walls. Visit Cinque Terre for no other reason except that it's different from your own neighborhood. Learn one of the Eskimos' "17 different words for white to describe different snow conditions" ("An Essay on Color"). Drink on the brightly colored bus, and place an alpaca applique on a pink building just for the fun of it. Document the always changing street art in Bogota and Medellin. Make a mountain out of trash in the desert, and paint it bright. 

From the top of La Piedra del Pe ñ ol

From the top of La Piedra del Peñol

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
— Mark Twain
 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Travel Reflections: Comuna 13 of Medellin

 

1 of the 6 escalators in La Comuna 13. 

1 of the 6 escalators in La Comuna 13. 

Certainly there is joy in life and teaching, but sometimes we may look at the insistence sorrow of the world, at its complex causes, and then at our students and feel a bit like Sisyphus, that character in Greek mythology. His task is to push a heavy rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down, but he always descends and begins pushing again. French writer Albert Camus retells the Sisyphus myth. At the end of the tale, Camus sees Sisyphus once again at the foot of his mountain, ready to shoulder his burden, dedicated to a ‘higher fidelity.’ The story concludes: ‘The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
— Van Anderson

Note: If you’re interested in visiting La Comuna 13 in Medellin, please read my detailed travel guide including maps and safety precautions here.

It was the first of many lockdown drills with my students in the two years I taught at a middle school in Spokane, Washington’s West Central neighborhood also known as “Felony Flats.” It was the sort of neighborhood I would never walk alone in at night even though it was where most of my students lived. My students and I were huddled under the desks, and despite their knowledge that these drills took place several times a year, I could see the fear in their almost teenage eyes.

One girl, who was always first to tell the boys to shut up if they were disrupting the lesson, asked me why there were so many school shootings. It was a question I hated that she had to ask and I struggled to answer; I didn’t know how to explain the brokenness of the world to a 12-year old. I still don’t. I remember saying something vague about mental illnesses and bullying even though it felt like a hollow excuse more than an actual reason.

Another boy, who prided himself in being a slacker and wore the same black hoodie every day did a little Justin Bieber hair flip and grilled me, “Do you know if this is a drill or not? Why are we under our desks? What good would that do?” He was right, but there was nowhere else to go. I answered candidly, “It’s just a drill, and I don’t know why we’re under our desks; I agree it seems stupid,” I continued with conviction now, “If it was real, I would do everything I could to make sure nothing happens to any of you.”

I’ve had a savior complex since I was in middle school when I stood up during Home Ec. and shouted at a girl to shut up because she was picking on someone with a learning disability (for the record, I was the one who got detention). If we ever did have a real lockdown, I knew it would take a lot more sacrifice than shouting at a mean popular girl, but that’s the kind of thing I promised as a first-year, part-time English teacher who was only 25-years old. It’s the kind of promise other teachers have died to keep in the United States, and for some reason most teachers silently accept and prepare for

I’ve been questioned and confronted many times about why on earth I would want to be a teacher these days, let alone one in a troubled neighborhood. It comes down to a belief that there is hope for these kids and neighborhoods. It’s easier to write than to remember in the midst of fights, theft, lockdowns, shootings, poverty, homelessness, and abuse. I don’t know why there is so much evil in the world, but I know there is good beyond my understanding too. So everyday, I woke up, repeated that to myself, and tried to inspire my students to build a better world than the one we have now while trying to do the same. I spent a lot of energy pushing aside the helplessness when I heard the realities behind some of my students’ lives. I even occasionally sobbed to my mentor on the phone about how I felt one of my students was going to end up in jail and there was nothing I could do about it while in the Arbys drive-thru line. My hope to make a difference sometimes felt like a naïve fantasy.

So when I heard the story behind La Comuna 13 in Medellin, I knew I had to see it for myself (despite the travel warnings). La Comuna 13 is tangible proof that everything I hoped for neighborhood renewal, community projects, and the power of education and art was true. And that says a lot since this was a community that was beyond any brokenness I had seen. During Pablo Escobar’s war against the Colombian government in the 90s, Medellin’s murder rate was “at 381 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, it was 40 times higher than the UN marker of ‘epidemic’ rate of 10 per 100,000” (Brookings Institution). Five years ago, the neighborhood was notoriously dangerous; 243 of the city’s 2,019 murders took place in La Comuna 13. Almost 1,500 residents were displaced the same year due to gang violence fighting to control the area and nearby highway (and therefore the import/exports of drugs, guns, and money). Extortion was a daily occurrence; bus drivers refused routes there, and police officers were murdered (InsightCrime.org). In 2011, two high school students were shot doing their homework (ColombiaReports.com). In 2012, local hip-hop artist, El Duke, was murdered, along with several other hip-hop artists, for daring to speak out against the gang violence (ColombiaReports.com).

But Colombians have fought back and have been for almost 25 years. In 1991, a new constitutional assembly dreamed and designed a better future. The new constitution was “citizen-rights oriented, strengthened provisions for participation, decentralization, access to justice, and other important issues” (CitiScope.org). Soon after the city built the country’s first metro line and cable cars. Cultural centers, libraries, and a complete overhaul of the city’s education agenda also contributed to the rebirth of not only Medellin, but also its poorest neighborhoods like La Comuna 13. Most recently, Medellin finished installing a series of escalators in Comuna 13 in order to connect its residents with the rest of the city and provide safer, more efficient public transportation. While the escalators were being built (2011-2014), there were still dozens of senseless deaths, including that of an innocent bystander: a 9-year old boy. However, since the completing of the escalators, violence has practically vanished in this area due to the “electric escalators” ceasefire between gangs in the area (CitiScope.org).

The view from the top of the escalators in La Comuna 13.

The view from the top of the escalators in La Comuna 13.

The renaissance of this neighborhood didn’t happen over night, in a year, or even in a decade, but it is happening. In 2014, Medellin was named the world’s most innovative city, and the honor was largely in part due to the infrastructure implemented in La Comuna 13. There are even tour groups that visit the area to admire the neighborhood’s street art. As an outsider, I can’t say if this neighborhood is healed; I don’t want to paint too pretty of a picture because income inequality is still a huge problem (CitiScope.org). I only spent an afternoon there, but here’s what I saw: teenagers playing soccer while adults cheered them on, kids in Colombia soccer jerseys coming up to us asking to practice the English they learned in school, community pride, kids happily playing, friendly smiles, warm welcomes, and some truly spectacular graffiti. I felt safe, seeing several members of the surveillance team that patrol the escalators in their matching red jackets, and it was my favorite day in Medellin. I walked back to the metro with a deep gratitude for the opportunity to experience this story and take home some proof that there’s always a way up.

 
2 Comments

Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Hike Manizales

 
Fresh juice served right before the trailhead at El Ciclista. 

Fresh juice served right before the trailhead at El Ciclista. 

To the many miles to come...

To the many miles to come...

A map showing Via al Cerro de Oro. 

A map showing Via al Cerro de Oro. 

If you head outside of Manizales past the neighborhood of Milan and continue along Via el Cerro de Oro, you'll find a small rural area called Buenavista (translation: Good View - and for good reason). You can take a taxi all the way to Buenavista to  maximize your time on the trail, but expect to pay an additional fee for driving out of the city. Once you hit the end of Via al Cerro de Oro right outside of Buenavista, a hiking and mountain biking trail begins, just past the BMX park. When you walk past a small outdoor cafe called El Ciclista, you're very close. The trail is not terribly difficult nor terribly easy; it's not perfectly maintained, but if you can make it to the top, you'll be glad you did.

My first time up this trail, I was the last one up - huffing, puffing, sweating, and struggling to keep up. Can I blame the high altitude? Can I blame the fact that no matter how fit I seem or how many workouts I do in a week, I just positively suck at hiking? Can I blame the humidity? Can I blame the deadlifts the day before? Probably, but I'd be missing the point. 

Hiking is brutally honest, and there's no deceiving it; the trail knows if you haven't been on it in a year. No matter how many How to Hike articles you read, the only way to hike well is to hike often. It's a challenge in dedication, like so much in life. And isn't that the worst sometimes? Having to work hard to get good at something, particularly when it appears to come so naturally to others? Some days, it can be painful to embrace growth. It can hurt to stray from what is easy and natural. Hiking teaches me this; traveling teaches me this; living abroad teaches me this, and learning another language definitely teaches me this. And so, when I returned to tackle this trail again - with a pack on and in the rain - it actually felt easier; turns out, the pain was worth the buena vista.

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451