Keeping up with the Colombians

27 Oct

Happy belated blogging everyone!

Colombia has become an increasingly popular travel destination (it’s gorgeous), and my LLF,  Patrick, had highly recommended it.  While there, I made a bilingual pun that, while isn’t good, I will immortalize in writing: Colobienbienbien.
This post is long. And plans to impart some travel knowledge to help you plan a trip to Colombia.  If you don’t want the knowledge then just skim through the subsequent text and pictures and it’ll practically be like you traveled there yourself (only in a way more cost effective way).

I visited Colombia in October. AKA the rainy season.  This is the very first country that I have ever been to where not having all of my vaccinations restricted where I could go. The very.first.one.  That blew my mind because here is a link to a list of all of the countries that I’ve been to  (spoiler: at the time of this writing there were over 50). And would you believe that not a single one required proof of vaccinations??!  So I was a bit surprised when, because I didn’t have my yellow fever vaccine, I wasn’t allowed to travel to certain regions in Colombia.  This ended up being (probably) for the best, since, as I mentioned, it was rainy season and, full disclosure, I also wasn’t taking malaria medication….

 

Tip numero uno…

  1. Get your yellow fever vaccination.

I got mine less than one week after returning home from said Colombia trip at the Allegheny Health Department (sick shout out! Not, like, literally sick though) and learned that the yellow fever vaccination is good for a lifetime.  I repeat, A LIFETIME.

I turned to my nurse and said “Whhhaaaat!  That’s so cool!  What other vaccinations do you guys do over here?!”  She said “Hep A, Hep B, Tdap, Typhoid”  I said “I’LL TAKE THEM ALL, PLEASE!  But not now.”  So, look out for updates on that in future blog posts.  For now, I received the yellow fever vaccination which, I’ll repeat, is good for a lifetime.

 

Without that vaccination, in Colombia, I wasn’t allowed to visit:

  • Crystal Canyon
  • Minca
  • Southern region of the Amazon

Those places are saved in my maps.me for the next Colombian excursion.  I was, however, able to go to other places in this gorgeous Spanish speaking country.  Here they are in the order that I visited:

  • Bogota
  • Pereira
  • Filandia
  • Salento
  • Cartagena
  • Medellin

A very full itinerary with three different in-country flights. 

One great thing about Colombia is that flying around, by US standards, is very reasonable and affordable. Most of my flights (domestically) were about $40 USD and purchased the night before departure.  
There were cheaper flights listed but to buy them online you needed 1. to buy them in advance (duh) or 2. to be using a local credit card or bank.  This last point was frustrating because 1. I wanted to spend less money and 2. I (still) kept trying to buy plane tickets from these websites and going through the entire process multiple times to buy a plane ticket from a website and then being told no takes awhile.
And yet, as always, my experience in these moments made me grateful that the money I make is in US currency and that our economy is so strong.   In Colombia, the monthly wages are equivalent to $246 USD.  It really matters what country and circumstances you’re born into and it can be (seemingly) impossible to get out of.
So, because of my circumstances (and limited time) I chose to buy $40 plane ticket (for a one hour flight) and not a $10 bus ride (for ten hours on a bus).  The flights themselves were mostly not full (it being rainy season and locals not being able to afford them), and I went back and forth to different airports multiple times.
Tip numero dos….

2.   Exchange your money at the airport.

We found it really complicated to exchange our money in Colombia, and credit cards are virtually not accepted.  That being said, I highly recommend exchanging your USD to Colombian pesos at the airport.  I found that to be the best deal.

Now, you’re probably like “Who is this we you’ve started throwing in?”  Let me introduce Dom, a French speaking Canadian.  The two of us met on CouchSurfing in Pittsburgh during PRIDE (see this post where his photo first appears).  We had gotten along well in June, kept in touch, and decided to travel together in October.  I picked the country.  Dom has quite an interesting travel style: He’s not a planner, he literally buys his international plane tickets the night before a trip (and yes, that does make the price more expensive).  He like to go with the flow and if it weren’t for me we wouldn’t have known where we were staying the first night we landed!  I’d never traveled with someone quite like this before, and I was super excited for the new experience.

 

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Repping Montreal and Pittsburgh — but switched.

It’s really fun to travel to a country where your own currency can go so far.  When we arrived in Bogota, which, mind you, is a HUGE city, a 35 minute Uber ride cost us $7.35 USD.  We dropped off our stuff that afternoon (at a great airbnb) and went out to try some street food…
Tip numero tres….

 

  1. Eat on the streets.

Again, the USD is incredibly strong in Colombia, so our money went a long way, especially when it came to street food.  There was a bunch of stuff– meats on sticks, liver, drinks called “aromatic”, fruits (ginips– YUM), and grilled food.  I’ll be honest — everything we ate on that first night was just okay.   So this is tip number three due to cost efficiency.  We weren’t really wowed. We ate rice-milk type things, homemade popsicles, and everything and anything we wanted.  For dessert, Dom wanted to keep to his travel tradition (which he does in every country) and go to McDonald’s. We ended up getting Mcflurries, which, in Colombia, was really just ice cream with m&m’s sprinkled on top — still good, but not a McFlurry. Who knows, maybe their “machine was broken,” an excuse that transcends borders. Funny thing is, our food from McDonald’s ended up being one of the most expensive meals we ate the entire time in Colombia at a whopping $8-13.

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Busy-city Bogota.

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Grilled corn on the cob.

 

It was Sunday, so by 8pm, everything was closing up. And quickly.  We noticed a lot of people–men, women, and children– sleeping on the streets, wrapping themselves and the stuff they were selling in blankets. As it got later (8:30pm), an alarming military and police presence was growing in the streets.  This scared me so I insisted we head back to our Airbnb. Dom wanted to stick around to see what it was all about, but I refused. I told him that he could go back out after he dropped me off, but by the time we got back to the Airbnb, his curiosity had subsided. During various encounters we had with locals later on in the trip, I asked what could’ve been going on that night. None of the students (they are so good at english) or locals we talked to knew, but the general consensus was that it was smart that we got away from them. We’ll call this tip number 3.5: Use caution and go with your gut.
The next day, we woke up early and went to “climb” up to the best view in Bogota (it was less of a hike and more of just stairs).  This staircase was hard. It was 2,350 meters up– great exercise, no doubt, but we rode the funicular down. After our “hike”, we had breakfast — eggs (yum), freshly squeezed orange juice, and something wrapped in a banana leaf that felt like I was opening up a present — and headed out on our graffiti tour.

 

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Birds-eye-view Bogota.

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It’s was very sunny.

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Our art-tour-guide.

I do think that the graffiti tour would’ve been a lot more special if either Dom or I had appreciated art but since there were more pressing matters at hand (i.e., we could barely understand anyone), we dipped out early to go to Claro and get a SIM card.  If you’ve never bought a SIM card in another country sometimes it is an absolute pleasure (I’m looking at you, Asia) and sometimes it is medium hard (Colombia) and sometimes it is darn near impossible (Isreal).  Luckily, Colombia wasn’t as bad as Israel, but it was a process.  Claro is a huge store with long lines and computers; they don’t take credit cards, and their cash-only payment system is very confusing and located on the opposite side of the store. But because we knew this might take some time, and because we were so determined to succeed, we had allotted half a day to do this and got our SIM cards pretty painlessly.  Then just like that, we had translators on our phones! Muy bien!!
Not many people (in my experience) in Colombia speak English (except, like I said, a few of the students). Not even basic things.  So I’m pretty sure my Spanish improved.  I mean it must have, right?! And I was really inspired while I was there to, if I ever come back, settle in one city for a month or 2 and take language classes. NOTE TO SELF: Medallion would be a great place to learn.

After getting the SIM cards, we went back to our airbnb and booked a ticket Dom-style (i.e., the day of) to Pereira. To be honest, it was pretty exciting to purchase a plane ticket the exact day I was going to use it– and I was lucky to be trying out this travel style in a country where the domestic flights weren’t very expensive (even the last-minute tickets). Dom consolidated his bags and gave our host some maple syrup he brought from Canada as a gift (Canadians are SO nice), and we were off.

 

  1. Get to Bogota Airport early

Bogota is a big and busy city, and there can be LOTS of traffic heading to the airport. I recommend leaving plenty of time to get there. If you get there too early, they have these INCREDIBLE ice cream cones hand-dipped in amazing chocolate, so I would just hang out and eat one (or three) of those.

At this point in my trip, it was clear that Colombians were SO nice and helpful.  When we landed, the taxi driver (a notoriously corrupt line of work) who drove us to our Airbnb in the middle of the night in Pereira was super nice, and our host met us out on the street to make sure we had made it ok. I was relieved to be out of Bogota and in a smaller city, which definitely was more in-line with the vibe I was looking for.

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The plane we booked last minute!

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Us in blue dot form.

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Morning, sunshine!

We woke up to a beautiful view in the morning and headed out to explore. Walking down the street, we were greeted by so many DELICIOUS smells — the freshest fruits with lots of variety and sweet, sweet coffee sold cheaply everywhere on the street in tiny quantities.  Like barely bigger than a shot glass.  Of course, I personally didn’t have many sips of that coffee but I did have lots of sniffs.
5. EAT THE FRUIT
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The soundtrack to our daytime stroll.

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SO. MUCH. FRUIT. Note my favorite — the mangostein

 

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What’s this??

Also note: Keeping my favorite, precious fruit on my lap.
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It’s called chirimoya and is sort of like a dragon fruit.

After exploring for a bit we took a taxi to the bus terminal and bought a ticket to Filandia  for lunch.  Money wise, the best value for lunch is called “the executive lunch’ and they always come with soup, a starch, a bit of “salad”, and a protein.
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Rolling hills in Filandia.

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So many COLORS.

6.  To save money, order the executive lunch.  
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Here’s an example of what one looks like…

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Dom ordering another meal probably called the Hungry Hombre

More food talk.
At some point, Dom was craving some Western-style food and I was craving some vegetables so we headed to a “Western” restaurant.  I got this crepe, which wasn’t that good but at least I got a leaf of lettuce (pre romaine trying to kill you).

 

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*some veggies.

After Filandia, we continued on to Salento, which ended up being my favorite town of the trip (where we got the veggies pictured above). It was rainy (probably because it was rainy season), and we stopped to get a view from the top of the town. Meanwhile, I ordered this delicious hot drink (that cost thats than $1USD) to keep me warm (ok, fine, I got it for the nutella).

 

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Nutella on the top.  Nutella on the BOTTOM.

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View from the highest point in town.

 

 

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Rainy streets didn’t keep us from exploring!

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We stayed in a private room at a hostel that was advertised on Airbnb and got great instructions from the owner as to how to go on a long (6 hour; 12km) hike the next day.  We were really excited to get an early start but woke up to the sound of rain literally POUNDING down on the zinc roof. We decided to get a few more hours of sleep until it sounded like the rain had lightened up.  When this happened, we headed to a Willy (jeep), which would drive us into the rain clouds to the beginning of the challenging 12km hike.

 

7. Ride on the back of a jeep.

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Free willy!! Just kidding, they weren’t free.

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Riding (safely) on the back of the jeep.

Once we were dropped off, our host had instructed us to look for a “puerto azul” (blue door) which was really a fence and after a 15 minute false start in the wrong direction Dom and I were on our way!
8. Take this hike past Salento and don’t walk past the blue fence!
We paid the small park entrance fee and crossed 9 wooden bridges (one person at a time because a few did seem…er…precarious).
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Dangerous bridge over running water pt.1

 

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Dangerous bridge over running water pt.2

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You get the jist…

We hiked for several hours before finally reaching Acaime, a hummingbird refuge.  We paid another small entrance fee there 7.5 the fee is worth the entrance and received a cup of hot coco (sans nutella) and saw a kuatis!
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Cutie kuati.

 

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Adorbs.

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Hummingbirds enjoying some sugar water while we were enjoying our sugar (chocolate) water.

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Preciousness.

Feeling refreshed from the cocoa and the adorable wildlife, we backtracked for a while (which was always the plan) and then climbed up more to get some great exercise before heading down for a final descent into the Valley de Cocora, the main event. And main event, it was. These trees are something straight out of The Lorax; they’re called wax palms and are the national tree of Colombia. They looked so surreal and gorgeous in this otherwise treeless landscape.

 

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When the Snapchat filter matches your real location.

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Luscious green landscapes.

 

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Bonafide tree-hugger.

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Quick survey: painting or real?

 

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Lorax Sammi, working up a sweat.

 

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Not all who wander are lost…thanks to direction sign posts.

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The kind of smile only nature can provide.

 

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From The Lorax to Alice in Wonderland.

The whole hike took us about 5.5 hours, and as you can imagine, when we finally got back to a Willy and into Salento, we. were. famished. So, seeing as though Salento is known for their trout, I rewarded myself with a trout dinner that only cost $7.25.

 

8. Eat Trout in Salento. 

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Next time you find yourself on a strenuous hike, don’t TROUT yourself– you can DO IT.

 

The next day, we headed back to Pereira. We were meant to go to the airport there, called Armenia, which is the actual name of the airport in Colombia! (Fairly confusing and potentially disastrous when searching SkyScanner for flights).

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Gorgeous town square.

When we got to Armenia — the one in Colombia — we got on a bus and then on another bus, past Pereira to some hot springs we had heard about where we then hopped on another Willy, and the scenery became STUNNING. We got to the natural hot springs (there were two options, but we sprung [hehe, get it?] to go to the farther one in San Vincente, which was incredible

 

9. Go to the hot springs in San Vincente.  

 

Along with the hot springs, there were waterfalls, and a literal hot river.  

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Oh the places you’ll go in Colombia.

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Forget the song; go chase waterfalls.

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Natures TLC.

The hot spring trip lasted about four hours. And it WASN’T ENOUGH TIME. But we had to keep up with our Colombian itinerary, and alas, we had another plane to catch. This time, we were off to Cartagena!

 


 

When we got to Cartagena, we did more exploring, making our way to the Old City, the Walled City, San Francisco, and beyond.

 

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10. Go to places this colorful.

 

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Flower market.

 

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I spy with my little eye something yellow.

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Dom didn’t raise that Canadian flag– it was already there.

 

The center of Cartagena was beautiful, and it was a nice change from where we had been.  It was less rainy, way more humid and much, much warmer, which made exploring the streets more muggy. We soaked in all of the bright colors of the buildings as best as we could. And, as we were walking, we found a tiny local bar, which I loved, because it was somewhere the locals actually went (and also liked). They had wifi and cold drinks — I ordered a CosteNita, which is a super tiny beer. So maybe I ordered another.

 

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Hangin’ with the locals.

 

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Fruit man instead of the ice cream man.

 

 

We walked all the way to the beach part of town and admired fisherman bringing in their hauls for the day.  Watching people buy fish directly from the fisherman not only made my stomach rumble but also inspired me to eat fish again in this part of the country.

 

 

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The daily catch.

 

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Definitely FISHING for compliments on this food photography.

 

While we hung around the beach area during lunch, we made friends with a group of students who were selling popsicles. We asked them why, and they told us that they were trying to raise enough money to travel around Colombia by bus. We OBVIOUSLY donated to the cause, excited to see young, adventurous travelers trying to find a way. Dom and I hung out with them for a while and took pictures at sunset.  

 

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Young Colombian travelers and friends ❤

 

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Photo credit DOM

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Cartagena at sunset.

 

 

Maybe it was the fact that it was getting hotter outside, or the spontaneous nature of Doms personality….. but as we passed a barbershop Dom decided it was a good time get his beard trimmed. I couldn’t have agreed more. In fact, that’s tip numero 11….

 

11.  Get your beard trimmed in Colombia.

It was a great experience– they did a really fabulous job, and I got to chill with a beer during the process.

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Definitely recommend this as an activity in Colombia… you know, if you have a beard

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12. Also recommended: chilling with a beer while your travel partner gets his beard cut.

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Cartagena loves color.

Dom and I stayed in Cartagena for the night. If we had gotten to stay longer in Colombia, we probably would have gone to an island or –if either of us had gotten our yellow fever vaccines beforehand, Minca (Oh Minca, so sad to have missed you). Since we didn’t though, Dom and I chose Medellin as our last and final Colombian city. We headed there the next day.

 

————-

During our stay in Medellin, Dom and I stayed with a local host family who was incredibly kind and didn’t speak any English. Which was actually great for my Spanish, and sidenote, as I said before, it would’ve been a GREAT place to do so.

Tip number 13

13.  If you have the time or are able stay for a month or two, take a Spanish class!

Anyway, we settled in at our hosts’ house, and for lunch, we found a modern, but traditional dish right across the street from our homestay.

 

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Delicioso.

After eating, we walked around the city, stumbled upon some live music in a park, danced, walked across a bridge, and found ourselves in (yet another) park with stunning city views.

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Anyone up for a game of checkers on this thing?

 

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🎶Dancin’ in the street! 🎶

 

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Beautiful rolling hills.

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Views on views.

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Crossing cultural bridges… or just regular bridges.  Pittsburgh, is that you?

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Birds as colourful as the houses.

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Neat-ure.

We ended up in the fancy (read: touristic) part of Medallian. It’s one of those places where it’s touristy for good reason because it was CHARMING!  

Dom and I picked a restaurant that had local vibes so as not to be too touristy, but still hang in the area, drink some ClubColombia El Dorada, and appreciate the good vibes.

 

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Local restaurant in a touristic area.

 

It was around Halloween and I decided to buy a shirt, dressing myself up as a Colombian futbal player.  

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Halloween costume.

 

Other people were dressed up too, and my favorite costumes were the life-sized uno cards (callback to Baltimore and my glimpses).

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Not pictured: My glimpses or anyone I know.

 

We enjoyed Medellin, seeing this city transform from day to night.  Dom had to leave first thing in the morning, but I had one more full day on my own, which I decided to use to practice more of my Spanish with my lovely hosts.

After Dom’s departure, I decided to take my new friend, Jose Luis, out to lunch. I told him to pick anywhere— his favorite place! He asked, “Anywhere?” And I was like, “Yup, your favorite restaurant.” So we started walking, and something must have gotten lost in translation because I was expecting a local place with some really great, traditional, fresh cuisine, but we ended up here:

 

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Eat fresh, I guess.

I stifled a laugh, but I had said anywhere. We ate Subway, and it was good, he was right. We even got a sandwich to go..  
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Jose Luis was pretty happy.

After lunch, Jose’s mother joined us. We walked around the city, went to some botanical gardens, and happened upon a small festival (not to be confused with a carnival) along the way.  Muy divertido!

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A family affair.

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My gracious hosts!

I enjoyed the day with them and had a really great time practicing my Spanish.  After we got back to *our apartment, I put my Halloween costume to good use and went to a futbol game– Medellin vs. Bucaramanga. I met up with a group of gringos outside the game waiting for it to start. There was no drinking inside the stadium (smart), but we had hours before the game to hang out, paint our faces, and talk before the game started. It was such a beautiful night!

When it was game time, we took our seats in the stadium — I was sitting right next to a sign that said “Always home field advantage!”  There was SO much energy in the stadium throughout the entire game, the spectators would randomly clap at different rhythms (and as someone with no rhythm, I really got into it).

 

 

 

Whistles were boooooos.  My one faux pas? Everyone in the entire stadium was wearing red, and my Halloween costume was yellow. Whoops.  The good news was that the opponents weren’t wearing yellow either…

 

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Ole, Ole Ole Ole!!

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Gringos y gringa.

 

We had such a great time!!  I was enjoying hanging out with these gringos, and we all seemed to get along well, except for a girl in the group who couldn’t be bothered (her name was Molly). As the game went on, there was an escalation of celebration — we were jumping, screaming, clapping — SO MUCH EXERCISE, we probably got as much cardio in as the futbol players. I LOVE IT.  Straight up burning calories. The whole stadium was shaking.  The game went into overtime, and luckily, Medellin ended up winning. It was DEFINITELY an experience of a lifetime to be at that game and by far the best sports game I’ve ever, ever experienced.

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Los gringos!!

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In a sea of red, be a yellow.

What a FANTASTIC last night in Medellin. I reflected on my time in Colombia as I headed back “home” in a (super cheap) Uber– Medellin at night was so lit up, it looked like a twinkling night sky. Gorgeous. The next day, I went to the airport with dreams of coming back, with a yellow fever vaccination.

 

At the airport, I took inventory of my funds.
Note: I’d spent about $33USD a day.  This included Airbnbs and domestic flights.  

 

 

Tip numero 14

14. JUST GO ALREADY!!!

Colombia is waiting.

Besos,
‘mi

One Response to “Keeping up with the Colombians”

  1. Paul Garcia May 21, 2019 at 1:06 am #

    Another country to add to the bucket list… China is tomorrow! (you’ve inspired me to try a bit of commentary). : ) Paul

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