We are SO going to hate Macau

Yep, we can’t imagine anything we will like about this place.

We both hate meat jerky, so the fact that nearly every other store sells 15 different types of meat jerky is going to be a real downer for us.  I’m betting we are going to just hate the boar jerky we bought this afternoon.

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Robert hates meat on a stick, so he is going to hate trying all of these treats.

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In fact, you can see from his face just how much he hated the bacon wrapped sausage.  He especially hated the fact that the bacon was dipped in sugar.  I hated the fact that other than a tiny nibble he didn’t share his bacon.

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And, he is convinced he is going to hate this giant squid tomorrow when he has room in his belly to try it.

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And the egg tarts, don’t get me started on how much Robert hated these things found in nearly every shop.

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And I really hated the homemade coconut ice cream.  Don’t I look miserable?  Yep, won’t be having any more of that.

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And the bakeries just have to go.  Seriously, every single baked good is available for sampling.  And, most of them are made with nuts and/or coconut.  Yeah, we hated that.

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Four days in Hong Kong

If I’m entirely honest, we didn’t care for Hong Kong at first.  We were jet-lagged and grumpy and fighting like cats and dogs and it seemed like just another big city.

And, most importantly, our first three meals were terrible.  I know, I know, we were probably stupid to have Vietnamese as our first meal.  But, one of us was going to kill the other one if we didn’t eat soon (I will leave it to your imagination to guess who was going to kill who…) and Vietnamese was the first thing we found.  But you can’t blame us for our second choice.  We went to a Michelin starred restaurant for dim sum.  We ordered what everyone said was “the” dish — buns with barbecued pork — plus a variety of other items.  And left highly disappointed.  (Note: don’t believe the hype about Tim Ho Wan….It is cheap but I’m pretty sure you can get better dim sum in Chicago….).  So, for our third choice we went with our old standby — pizza.  Which was (1) outrageously expensive and (2) unbelievably bad.  And, the waitstaff were completely nonplussed when the biggest roach I have ever seen crawled out from the bottom of the table and walked across my arm.  In fact, their only response was “oh, we haven’t seen one that big in awhile.”

We were about ready to write off Hong Kong…

But then something happened to make us fall in love with Hong Kong.  What kind of miracle could possibly do that?  Two words:  soup dumplings.  Yep, you heard it here first.  Soup dumplings made Hong Kong for us.  We had read that Paradise Dynasty had one of the top 5 soup dumplings in all of Hong Kong.  Some people even claimed they were better than Din Tai Fung.  (You may remember us raving about Din Tai Fung when we were in Singapore.  Robert thinks Din Tai Fung’s dumplings were better, but I think Paradise Dynasty’s dumplings were better — the primary difference was the thickness of the wrapper).  We started with the sampler platter.

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Don’t they look delicious?  The flavors were original, ginseng, foie gras, black truffle, cheesy, crab roe, garlic and Szechuan.  Robert got all of these except the garlic — I never pass up garlic.  Not to fear, we also ordered a basket of the original and I got my fair share of those (read that as I got all of those…).  And we also ordered pan fried pork dumplings, garlic marinated Japanese cucumber, and hand-pulled noodles in pork broth with chicken.  And we finished every last bit of it.  It was like the sun had come out for the first time in years and the sky was full of rainbows and unicorns.  Yes, it truly was that good.

In fact, it was so good we went right back the next day and ordered more soup dumplings (garlic and original this time), more pan fried pork dumplings, more cucumber, and more hand-pulled noodles but this time in dan dan sauce (a peanut and sesame sauce).  But, this time, just for good measure, we also ordered fried chicken with chilis, fried green beans with pork and fried pork in black bean sauce.  And we nearly finished everything.

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So, what else did we do in Hong Kong besides eat soup dumplings?

Well, Robert ate squid on a stick from a street food vendor.

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I ate egg waffles from a street food vendor.  I think they have that name because of the shape — they didn’t taste any more egg-like than regular waffles.

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We both ate real French macaroons.  Yum….

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We wandered around Hong Kong park where we saw pretty views.

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And an art project.  These guys are all over the city.  Mainly on the roofs of buildings.  Apparently, some people have mistaken them for jumpers….

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And butterflies.

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We wandered through the aviary where we saw lots of cool birds.

We saw this guy just hanging out in Hong Kong park.

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We strolled down goldfish street, where vendors sell a ton of different fish and aquarium supplies.  The fish are all packaged up in plastic bags.  We felt kind of bad for them.

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We walked down bird street, where all kinds of birds are for sale.  (But we didn’t get any good photos).

We strolled down flower street where we saw amazing orchids.  Some of the orchids were on sale for as little as $5.

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We wandered through the zoological and botanical gardens.  The zoological gardens were quite sad, as the animals were in small enclosures and looked bored to tears.  But we saw some amazing orchids in the botanical gardens.  How cool is this guy?

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We rode a ding ding (a trolley).

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And we rode the ferry.  It was a shame it wasn’t a clearer day.

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Robert geeked out at a Star Wars exhibit.

And we (ok, ok, fine, I) enjoyed the Christmas decorations.

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In short, we decided that we actually do like Hong Kong.

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Final thoughts on Colombia

Tomorrow morning, bright and early, we head on a multi-day trip to Hong Kong, involving layovers in both Chicago and San Francisco.  So…you know what that means…it is time for final thoughts on Colombia:

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Chilling in Cartagena

  • We LOVE this country.  We were worried before arriving that our approximately one month stay in Colombia would be too long.  It wasn’t.  We would love to have more time to explore this country.  We would love to visit some of the small towns and get out into the countryside.  Colombia is, by far, our favorite country outside of Asia and we can honestly see ourselves living here someday.  I would say everyone should visit Colombia, but I want to keep the beauty of Colombia a secret….
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Street sculpture in Cartagena

  • Everyone in Colombia was so nice to us.  People would just randomly walk up to us and say “welcome to Colombia” and give us a big smile.  Nearly everyone let us completely butcher Spanish in our attempts (ok, ok, Robert’s attempts) to learn the language.  Locals who spoke English would sometimes turn and help us when we couldn’t understand the wait staff or the wait staff couldn’t understand us.  We didn’t have a single bad experience with the people of Colombia.
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Robert in Bogota

  • We loved the friendly and happy dogs.  There were dogs everywhere in Bogota.  And they almost universally seemed happy and well-fed.  Even the bomb-sniffing dogs looked friendly.  We have been to so many countries where the plight of the street dogs is just heartbreaking.  Here, that isn’t the case.  I have no idea why.  I don’t know if they cull the street dogs or if people feed the street dogs or what.  (I do know they feed the street cats because we saw a feeder in Cartagena).  But I do know that the dogs here seem happier and healthier than in most other countries.
  • We loved that nobody, except the taxi drivers in Bogota (who, as I understand it, try to screw everyone), tried to screw us.  (And even the Bogota taxi drivers did so in the most friendly way possible).  In Asia (particularly in Thailand), we were constantly on guard because there are so many ways to scam the tourists.  No so here. (We were warned about counterfeit currency and people who would claim a bill was counterfeit even when it wasn’t.  Thankfully, we didn’t experience that first hand).
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Colorful windows outside of Medellin

  • Colombian food is really, really good.  Don’t get me wrong.  It is heavy on starches and it doesn’t have the flavor profile of Asian food.  But, compared to the food in Central America, Colombian food was heavenly.  The Colombians know how to cook a mean grilled meat that has been properly seasoned.  Their chicken soup is out of this world.  Some of the pastries are nearly, but not quite, as good as those in Paris.  The gelato is as good as the gelato in Italy.  And don’t even get me started on the joy that is limonada de coco (which consists of lime juice, sugar, crushed ice and coconut cream)….Nonetheless, we still ate far too much Italian in Colombia….
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Beautiful scenery outside of Medellin

  • Oh, and did I mention the popsicles?  How can you not fall in love with a country that has popsicle stores???  Or a country where there are a ton of popsicle flavors, including some made with water, some made with cream, and (yuck) some made with yogurt??  There were even popsicles made of fruits we had never even heard of before.  (Although, oddly, there were no banana popsicles — go figure because there are bananas everywhere here).  And some shops would put chocolate or caramel or other stuff on top of your popsicle.  I also love that we saw far more adults eating popsicles than children eating popsicles.
  • And did I mention the arequipe?  How can you not love a country that seems to love caramel.  There are arequipe donuts and arequipe popsicles and arequipe olbeas.  And, when we splurged on a Sunday buffet brunch today, there was a big bowl of arequipe and people were taking spoonfuls of it to smear on bread.  (I managed to eat two big spoonfuls….).  Yum.

 

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Christmas decorations in Bogota

  • On the other hand, boy, do they love their Subway sandwiches here.  I have never seen so many Subway sandwich shops.  Seriously?  That is the U.S. export you are going to fall in love with?  I just don’t get it….
  • Also on the other hand, given it is the end of November, I’m pretty sure the grossest food award will be awarded to Colombia — our first day in Bogota we walked by a ton of vendors selling something that looked like marshmallow taffy.  I have no idea what it is called, but I tried it.  Big mistake.  Turns out it is made with the hoof of a cow.  I might be able to get past that, but the flavor was disgusting — sickly sweet.  Yuck.  Both of us would so rather eat grilled rat or mouse back in Asia before ever eating another spoonful of this stuff…(Don’t, just don’t, talk to me about Jello.  I refuse to think about what is in my Jello….).
  • One of the strange things about Colombia (and a few other countries) is that nobody busses their own table.  You know how in the U.S. at fast food places everyone is expected to carry their tray to the trash bins and dispose of their trash?  Not so here.  They employ people to bus the tables, even at shopping mall food courts.
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Street sculpture in Medellin

  • Another strange thing about Colombia was opening times.  There was an Irish pub in Cartagena that didn’t even open until 8 pm.  I’m sorry, but you really can’t call yourself an Irish pub if you don’t open until 8 pm — Irish pubs should open at 8 am….Yes, I know, we should have just dealt with it and stayed out until 3 or 4 in the morning like the Colombians apparently do, but we just don’t have that in us anymore….
  • Colombians sure do like to side sit…
  • The one thing we didn’t like about Colombia was how frequently restaurants were out of things.  I can’t even count the number of times a restaurant was out of white wine — it even happened once at a place that advertised itself as a wine bar.  We also found that some places had things that weren’t on the menu.  For example, we once ordered a watermelon mojito at a bar that was out of white wine.  Doesn’t that sound good?  We will never know because the restaurant was out of watermelon.  (I have no idea how that is even possible, as there is watermelon everywhere around here….).  On the other hand, they did offer to make us a strawberry mojito instead.  (We passed on that one).
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Bogota street art

  • If you do visit Colombia, make sure the hotel refunds your tax.  Foreigners staying less than a certain amount of days (I think it is 60 but check first) do not have to pay hotel tax.  Given that the tax is 16%, it really adds up if you are here for a few weeks…
  • We can’t wait to come back to Colombia.  Really.  It is that good.
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Our first full day in Bogota

 

Driving into Bogota yesterday, we were both a tad bit worried.  How shall I say this?  Compared to the other places we have been, Bogota looked a bit grim.  The city looked run down, the city felt dirty, and, at first glance, nothing was going on.  Plus, we are pretty sure our cabbie screwed us out of a few pesos.  (OK, we know he did, the question is how many, as the cab system here is really crazy with additional fees for airport pick-ups, Sundays, and who knows what else).

But we shouldn’t have worried.  Twenty-four hours later and I was asking Robert if we could hire an auctioneer to sell everything in our storage unit so we could move to Colombia.  He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no either….

So, what turned Bogota around for us?

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Bicycles everywhere!

Well, for one thing, the dogs.  There are dogs everywhere here.  Big dogs, little dogs, young dogs, old dogs, dogs walking, and dogs being carried. And plenty of the dogs are wearing cute outfits.  People seem to really love their dogs here.

For another thing, the ciclovia.  Every Sunday and on public holidays, over 120 km of the streets in Bogota are closed to cars.  We aren’t talking side streets — they close major streets.  The streets are open to bikes, roller skaters, street performers, vendors, etc.  We got lucky because yesterday was a Sunday, today is a holiday, and the street right outside of our hotel is one of the streets that close. So, we stumbled upon the ciclovia as soon as we left our hotel room.

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Yummy goodness, but talk about a sugar high!

And the streets closed for the ciclovia are full of food, glorious food.  Tons of sausages, juices of all different varieties, arepas, cotton candy and a variety of other things.  But you have to try the obleas.  The vendor schmears yummy goodness all over one wafer (kind of like what wafer ice cream cones are made of but really thin) and puts another wafer on top.  In my case, I had caramel and nuts schmeared all over my wafers.  So good.  I will be looking for these guys every day we have remaining in Bogota… (What I won’t be looking for are the guys selling something that resembles taffy — it is absolutely disgusting and is apparently made by boiling the feet of cows and using the gelatin that rises to the top.  Wish I had known that before I tried it…).

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Waiting for their turn to make someone some money

You know what else is on the street during the ciclovia?  Guinea pigs!  Yep, guinea pigs.  No, not the kind you eat.  The kind you bet on.  Yep, some guy puts a bunch of bowls in the street, people put money on top of the bowls, the guinea pig is released, and whoever put money on the bowl the guinea pig hides under wins.  We didn’t bet, but we did watch one round.  It was entertaining for a few minutes and the local kids seemed to be having a blast.  I’m not so sure the guinea pigs were enjoying it…

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Art on the streets — nearly museum quality

The streets are also full of street art.  I think we will take a street art tour later this week, but we were able to see a bit of the street art today just walking around on our free walking tour.  Unfortunately, there is a ton of just plain graffiti on the walls as well.  Apparently, many property owners have been paying decent artists to put up big murals rather than have their property covered with the tags of not very good artists.

 

We also like Bogota because the museums are dirt cheap or even free.  For example, they have an amazing Botero museum here and it is completely free.  Botero donated a bunch of his own art, plus his personal collection of art.  Botero owned art by Picasso, Monet, Calder, Miro, Ernst, Renoir, Dali, and a variety of other famous artists.The museum is small, but first class.

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Robert and a money press

We also visited the free money museum where they show the history of Colombian money.  I was bored, but Robert seemed to like it.

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So good, but impossible to finish.

We also love the restaurant food in Bogota.  Right next to our hotel is an Asian restaurant.  Ordering Thai and Vietnamese food in Spanish was an interesting experiment.  Let’s just say Thai and Vietnamese is not pronounced the same way here as it is in Thailand and Vietnam…but we managed to get some pretty decent khao soi and banh xeo nonetheless.

I know, I know, you are thinking “why are they eating Asian food in Colombia?”  We wondered the same thing (especially since we are headed back to Asia in a little over a week) and today we stuck to Colombian food.  We knew before arriving that we had to try the ajiaco.  So, try it we did.  And it is delicious!  Ajiaco is a soup made with three kinds of potatoes, chicken, corn on the cob, and some local herb.  It is served with avocado, capers and cream (don’t worry, you can leave them out, I did) as well as rice.  We will be having more ajiaco before we leave.  In fact, I’m pretty sure it is my new favorite comfort food (and it would go amazingly well with a fried peanut butter sandwich on the side…).

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Coffee break time

And we also love the numerous bakeries/cafeterias/pastelerias.  Nothing like stopping for a nice cup of coffee (for Robert) and a macaroon or a cookie (for me)!

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Chicha — it looks far less appetizing than it tastes

Finally, we like that they have crazy things we would have never tried if we hadn’t come here.  Today’s novelty was chicha, a fermented drink made with corn.  According to our walking tour guide, the “traditional” way of making chicha is for someone to chew the corn up in their mouth to get it soft, spit it out, and then let it brew for a few days.  Thankfully, it is now made in a much less “traditional” and much more sanitary manner…It kind of tastes like a sweet beer.  Surprisingly, not that bad.

We are looking forward to our remaining time here (and, especially, the Colombia v. Argentina match tomorrow).

 

 

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Peace and quiet in Medellin

Medellin is a huge city, but it isn’t that crazy of a city.  That said, everyone can use some peace and quiet sometimes.  Medellin has you covered.  Just go to the botanical gardens.  They are right on the metro, but you feel like you are out in the country.

There is a lagoon:

Robert and Lisa by the lagoon

Robert and Lisa by the lagoon

With turtles basking in the sun:

Turtles in the sun

Turtles in the sun

And ducks full of interesting colors:

A colorful duck

A colorful duck

And birds that look prehistoric:

A bird

A bird

And lizards (that we saw on the ground, in the water, and scampering up the trees) that have to be prehistoric (pretty sure these guys are largely herbivores as we saw them eating the lily pads):

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And a fun statue:

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And a bamboo garden:

Robert in the bamboo

Robert in the bamboo

And beautiful flowers:

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And a butterfly house:

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When you are done, you can go to the food court on the other side of the metro and eat chicken the Colombian way — with your hands while wearing disposable plastic gloves!

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When, oh when, will we learn?

The lake

The lake

Robert and I booked a group bus tour yesterday.  I have no idea why.  We tend to seriously dislike group tours, especially those that require us to get on a bus.  We could have done a very similar tour on our own using public transportation.  But no…we decided to do things the easy way and book an organized tour.  Stupid, stupid, stupid… we should have saved money and aggravation by doing this on our own…

(OK, ok, this post is going to be pretty negative.  I know that.  We were really disappointed in the tour and feel like we wasted a ton of money and didn’t even learn anything.  Plus, we have spent the last couple of hours comparing health insurance policies for next year so our grumpiness factor is higher than it has been at any other time in 2015….  But, we saw some interesting things and made the best of our day…even if we could have done it entirely on our own…).

We started the day with a 2 hour bus ride.  Big fun.

Robert near Escobar's home

Robert near Escobar’s home

Then, we got to a town (I don’t know which one, as the guide couldn’t be bothered to tell us where we were) and crammed into the back of two pick up trucks.  Seriously, we were jammed in so tight we couldn’t move.  We certainly didn’t have room to take photos of the beautiful scenery we were passing by.  More big fun…

Finally, we arrived at one of Pablo Escobar’s old summer homes on a lake.  Where the guide disappeared for at least 20 minutes.  Seriously, she just disappeared without a word.  And left us all standing around wondering what was going on.  Pretty much everyone but us started slamming down beers; perhaps we should have joined in…it might have helped improve our moods at this point….

Escobar's abandoned home

Escobar’s abandoned home

Eventually, the guide showed up and we toured the abandoned and destroyed house.  The guide tried to give us some information, and some of it was new to me, but Robert already knew everything she told us.  (Did you know Colombia currently has a problem with wild hippos because Escobar’s hippos escaped and started breeding after his death?  I didn’t, but Robert did).

The house must have been pretty impressive at one point.  There was the main house, the guest house, room for staff, a huge swimming pool, and a bar.  Crazy.  And, apparently, Escobar probably only visited the place a few times before he died.

Turns out the house is now used as a paintball event site.  How sad is that???

Robert on the "private island"

Robert on the “private island”

Then, it was time for lunch.  So…keep in mind we were in a lake district and the specialty is trout.  Indeed, as I understand it, pretty much every single restaurant in the area serves trout.  Except the restaurant at Escobar’s house.  Just chicken, beef or pork.  (Robert tells me the pork was inedible, but the chicken was ok).

Then, it was time for a boat ride.  See, the lake is man-made and an entire town was submerged when they made the lake.  When the water is clear, you can still see the roofs of the houses under the water.  And you can still see a tower jutting out of the water from the roof of the old church.  Sounds fun, right? (Note, this is the sum extent of the information the guide gave us here).

Lisa in Guatape

Lisa in Guatape

Except there were far too many people for the boat.  Seriously, the boat was barely above water, we were crammed in on every available seating space, and I got soaked on the ride.  And, when we got to where the old town was, it was 100% impossible to take photos of the tower jutting out of the water because (1) the boat was too jam-packed to move and (2) the boat made no effort to ensure both sides of the boat could even see the tower.  Can you tell we were beyond annoyed at this point????

Then, it was time for a swim break on a “private island.”  Why this was included in the tour I have no idea.  The “private island” is a piece of land that is only above water because the level of the water is low while they build a beach elsewhere.  And there are no facilities at all — no changing rooms, no chairs, no shade, no nothing.  Ugh.

Guatape

Guatape

Once we escaped that hell, it was time to hit the town of Guatape.  Guatape is a really cute little town right on the lake.  Very colorful.  Very cute.  Very boring after the first 30 minutes… (Although we understand it is a huge party town on the weekends).

Then it was on to, at least for us, the main attraction.  A rock.  Yes, a rock.  Apparently, this rock was puked up by a volcano millions of years ago.  Back in the 50’s, some idiots decided to climb it.  It took them five days.  But, once they saw how incredible the view was, they decided to build steps up the rock so others could climb it.  There are now over 750 steps up to the very top.  (Note that every single web site lists a different number of steps.  I saw 750 painted near the top so am confident that “over 750” is an accurate enough number).

The rock

The rock

So, we started climbing.  Up and up and up and up.  At one point, I thought this was going to be the time I was going to have to cry uncle.  (I’m guessing my bout with a stomach bug the day before, resulting in me eating nothing but saltines, had something to do with it).  But, we made it.  And the views were so worth it!

After hanging up there for awhile, we decided to head back down.  Keep in mind, our guide did not come up the rock with us and did not tell us when to be back.  But, she was fuming that some people returned later than she would have liked.  Hmmmm….you think giving your tour group a deadline to return might have helped with that??

We finally made it back to town, where we were able to combine two of my favorite activities.  Watching football (Chile v. Argentina) and sitting in an Irish pub.  It was so much fun — every single bar and restaurant had the game on, people were milling about everywhere, and it was a blast.  Can’t wait for the Colombia v. Argentina match on Tuesday!

The view from the top of the rock

The view from the top of the rock

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Touring Communa 13

Communa 13 as seen from a cable car stop

Communa 13 as seen from the escalator

Communa 13 is a neighborhood in Medellin.  It is on a steep hill and is densely populated.  The road going to the coast travels through the neighborhood and, as you can imagine, everyone shipping anything illegal wants to be in control of that road and therefore in control of the illegal trade.

Robert in Communa 13

Robert in Communa 13

In the early 2000’s the neighborhood was under the control of left-wing guerrilla groups.  The neighborhood used to be (and, maybe, still is) filled with gangsters, drug traffickers and prostitutes.   Kids could get “rich” (1 million pesos or about $350) by killing a cop for the gangs.  And, the neighborhood used to be cut off from the rest of the city, with no available public transport and with cabs refusing to take passengers there.  As a result, it was one of the most dangerous parts of an already very dangerous city.  In fact, our guide said that, each weekend, over 100 people would be shot and killed.  (That stat positively makes Chicago look safe…).

Robert and Lisa at the top of the escalator

Robert and Lisa at the top of the escalator

Eventually, the government had had enough and launched Operation Orion in October 2002.  According to our guide, the military came in one week and killed tons of people (anyone with any connection to left-wing guerrillas), trying to get control of the community.

Communa 13 art

Communa 13 art

It sounds like it was pure chaos, with one person just pointing at a house and the military then killing every single person in that house.  Nobody knows for sure how many people were killed by the government or how many people were “disappeared.”  But from the hills of Communa 13 you can still see a mass grave and they have recently started some excavation efforts to determine how many people were buried there and who they are.

And, to top it off, it sounds like after Operation Orion the area then became controlled by paramilitary groups (who did their own indiscriminate killing and disappearing).

Lisa and Communa 13 art

Lisa and Communa 13 art

But, today, Communa 13 is a different place (or at least so everyone wants us to believe).  The government has made numerous efforts to improve the lives of the individuals living in Communa 13.  For example, a cable car now connects the area to the metro station.  In late 2011, the government installed an escalator on the hills of Communa 13.  It is 1260 feet long and it replaced something like 350 steps, making it easier for residents to come and go.  Additionally, the government built a public library in 2006 (complete with park space, free internet access and a place where kids can play).  And, residents started speaking out — apparently, the hip hop community was very vocal about stopping the violence (which, go figure, resulted in numerous hip hop artists being killed by the gangs).

Communa 13 street art

Communa 13 street art

I have no idea whether the improvements in the community were the result of government efforts or community efforts or a combination of the two, but the situation in the neighborhood is said to be much improved today.  Street art fills the area and the residents seemed genuinely happy to see us visiting — they even called us over at one point to let us know that a store had some sort of special mango ice (we didn’t try it, but others in our group liked it).

Sadly though, there is still serious room for improvement.  The tour we took used to include lunch at a local restaurant, but the restaurant had to close because the gangs that are still present demanded protection money from the woman who ran the restaurant….

View of Communa 13 from the cable car stop

View of Communa 13 from the cable car stop

Although the tour we took was far too expensive, a visit to the neighborhood (including a ride on the cable car and escalator) is well-worth some of your time if you are in Medellin.  And, I think the money was well-spent to ensure we had a guide who knew which areas of the community are safe.

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