Medellin from a cable car

Medellin (pronounced more like medejean in this area) is a large city of about 2.5 million people. It has a lot to offer culturally and is now considered a safe city. It is also very smoggy and Dan and I both had respiratory problems there. That said, we spent 10 fun days there with our friends Lesia and Jim Thompson, the owners of Vista Grande in Boquete Panama.

A few years ago, Medellin was rated one of the 10 best places is the world for Christmas lights. It is still very nice with something like 70,000 tourists visiting during the 4 weeks or so that the lights are up.

Every park that we went to had fairly elaborate displays of lights. We only went to 3 large ones and a couple of smaller ones. There were many more that we could have seen but our understanding is that we saw the best of them.

I had expected cars moving slowly through areas like Wind Crest when we grew up in San Antonio where individual houses were decorated. Here, houses are sometimes decorated but they concentrate on their parks. (I understand that the electric company “donates” the power for these lights.) People use public transit (trains and buses) or walk to these parks. I’m sure some drive as well but once they are at the park (large or small), it is by foot.

It is hard to really capture the lights but this gallery is our best attempt at that. Enjoy!


Lake in Guatapé

Guatapé is a wonderful small town (5000 people in 2009). It is high enough (about 6300 feet) for the temperatures to be slightly cool in the evening and in the 70’s or very low 80’s during the daytime.

There are two main attractions in Guatapé. First, the majority of the houses have a fresco type design on the lower part of the front of their houses/buildings. The designs are seldom repeated on different buildings (except sheep seem to be repeated more than most other designs). The town is clean and safe.

The other thing is climbing the big rock called El Peñón de Guatapé. El Peñón is 657 feet high. A huge monolith that overlooks the area that was partially flooded to build a dam. Two sets of stairs were added along a huge crack in one side of the rock (one up and one down). We did fine, all 740 steps, albeit slowly, going up and down the rock. If we did that 2-3 times a week we would be in awesome shape!


Doradal and Hacienda Napoles

We decided to go to Doradal because it was the closest town to Villa de Leyva in the direction of Medellin that had some interesting things to do. When I chose the town, I didn’t think about the altitude…an oversight on my part. The town is very busy, not too big, but very noisy, and very hot.

The thing about towns in the mountains is that the altitude can vary greatly within just a few miles.  Lower altitudes definitely mean hotter weather. And it seems that deep valleys may a bit warmer than more shallow ones that may have better windflow. That’s Dan’s theory anyway.

We went to the Hacienda Napoles which is now a nice theme park/zoo but was previously owned by Pablo Escobar. After his death, the government took over the property which lay vacant for a number of years. Now the government rents the land to the theme park who has done a nice job of exhibiting animals that Escobar had brought in (often illegally). For example, hippopotamus is not native to South America but he brought 4 into the country. There are now about 40 in the park and 20 or so still in the wild.

I liked the whimsical statues scattered within the park which is about 7.7 square miles in size. There are some examples in the gallery below. I also liked the way that safety improvements often looked “natural”. For example, the bridges look like they have ropes holding poles together but they are actually pipes and poles made to look more rustic. Or edging that looks like bamboo stalks but are really just pipes.

We didn’t go to the water park section because we were just too hot. I know that doesn’t make sense but in the morning when we bought tickets we were thinking about costs and later we were so hot we weren’t really thinking well.

The people in Doradal were very nice but there was loud music playing until after midnight every night and the room, while air conditioned, just wasn’t that comfortable so we only stayed 2 nights and then headed to Guatapé before going to Medellin to meet up with our friends from Boquete, Lesia and Jim Thompson. If we got near that area again, we’d like to go to Rio Claro (Clear River)…if we ever go to this area again that is.


Terracotta House

Something quite unique in the Villa de Leyva is the “Terracotta House”. This is just what it seems, a house that is built using terracotta. You can get details about the house here or just look at the images.

Exterior view Terracotta House

Villa de Leyva

There are mountains and everything is very green on the way to Villa de Leyva

The bus ride from Bogotá to Villa De Leyva was beautiful! There are at least 2 bus stations in Bogotá and we got the bus at the north station. The 18 passenger van was full except for the two passenger seats next to the driver when we got on so we had a wonderful view of the mountains for the 2 ½ hour trip.

View of the plaza

Founded in 1572, Villa de Leyva is a town of about 9500 people. It has the second largest plaza in the Americas (the largest is in Mexico), 120 meters on each side, which was paved hundreds of years ago with “cobble stones”. You and I would just call them rocks so it is uneven walking in the plaza and some of the streets. They have done a wonderful job of building lots of brick sidewalks in many areas and some of the newer roads are brick as well. The area is known for its colonial buildings.

We went on a wonderful horse back ride one day with 5 other tourists. You may remember we did a few lessons in Costa Rica. We wanted to see how we would do and besides it was less than $60 for the two of us for a 4 hour tour.

We did great! We even trotted a lot of the time. (Did you know that different horses have different gaits so some are more comfortable than others to ride? These were very comfortable!) The horses were whistle trained and the leader would whistle to tell them to go faster or to stop or move to the side. It was amazing to experience.

On the ride we went to an area called the Observatorio Astronómico Muisca or also called Observatorio Sol. The Muisca were the indigenous people of the area and they created a way to keep the calendar using stones, akin to Stonehenge but much smaller stones.

We also went to a fossil museum that while quite small, it has the most complete Kronosaurus, a Cretaceous-period relative of the crocodile ever found (this mountainous area was once under the ocean). There were many other fossils as well.

The last stop was at a small, turquoise colored lake called Pozos Azules (Blue Wells). The color of the water comes from the minerals in the surrounding rocks.

Stone laying on ground at Observatory

Around Bogotá

Monserrate Monastery (image from Wikipedia)

As far as sight seeing, we went to Monserrate Monastery and church which is high up on the mountain. You take a tram type vehicle called a funicular which goes up at about a 45 degree angle. The views are beautiful. The altitude is about 10,341 feet.

View from the funicular.

We also went to the Botanical Gardens which is in the Simón Bolívar Metropolitan Park. This park is bigger than Central Park in New York City!

We went to the Botero Museum one day. Fernando Botero is a well known artist from Colombia. His works typically are of oversized people and animals . At the museum we saw his paintings and some statues as well as work by other artists including Balthus, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Sonia Delaunay, Claude Monet and Henri Matisse. I believe that Botero donated all of the artwork in the museum.

Typical looking Botero characters.

We walked a lot, even from the apartment to a mall, about 1 ½ hours one way (took a cab back…LOL). Surprisingly the place we went to the most was that mall, almost every other day to pick up some things or just eat. We both got good vests to wear since our cold weather clothing is pretty limited.

We had Thanksgiving Dinner in the mall. Instead of a regular food court, they have Restaurante de Andres which had various stations for meats, poultry, drinks, desserts, etc. The food was made to order and was reasonably priced and very good. Our Thanksgiving Dinner was chicken, potatoes, salad, and a baked plantain with cheese for dessert.

We enjoyed our time in the city even if we aren’t big city people. Here are a few pictures we took while we were there.

Buses are ridden a lot; bus stops are often in the middle of the highway with bridges to cross over either way


The town has crept up the sides of the mountain. Here you can see a section of condos or apartments which are brightly painted.

Bogotá is the largest city in Colombia with over 8 million people. Traffic is a problem as is typical in most large cities although they have an extensive bus system and lanes just for bus/taxi/ and maybe carpools. 10 lanes of traffic can creep along or move quickly depending on the time of day. Personal vehicles are restricted to the days which they can be used in the city (just as is done in San Jose Costa Rica).

Left to right: Andres, Gina, Lindie, Dan, Esperanza, Alvarita. Front Pureza and 2 of the 3 cats. Note view in the background.

We stayed with a lovely family with two professional parents and an adult son who is in year 5 of medical school. There were also one pit bull and 3 cats. The apartment was on the top floor (17th) of an apartment building and it had 2 levels: a total of 4 bedrooms and 3 baths. It was interesting that this apartment was the penthouse although it didn’t have an oven, only gas burners. Not fancy but beautiful views. The cost to them is $600 per month, including fees for the security, grounds keeping, parking, etc.

They were wonderful, taking us to a place to get my laptop looked at, a store to buy a Bluetooth keyboard since they couldn’t fix the malfunctioning keys on my laptop (Bogotá has an entire mall devoted to electronics!!!), and fed us several times.

Center top apartment is where we stayed.

I had some breathing trouble with the cats so I stayed in our bedroom more than I would have liked. We enjoyed talking in Spanish with the family who had limited English.

Since we left, the son moved with his girlfriend Gina (also a medical student) to begin his residency in another town. They took his dog and her hers and left her cat so there are no dogs and 4 cats in the house now. That’s way too many cats for me so we won’t go back there if we are in Bogotá again.

Pureza and 2 of the 3 cats waiting for the adults to come home from work/school.

We felt safe in the places we were in Bogotá although we did have an issue with a taxi claiming it could only take a debit card. Long story and hopefully my dispute of the charges which showed up on my bank account will be removed within a few days of posting this entry.

Being in the mountains,, the weather in Bogotá was drastically different from Cartagena. The city is at 8,661 feet and was delightfully cool.

Living in Bogotá and Colombia in general is cheap. I could walk to the local produce store and get a heavy bag of fruits and veggies for $3. I paid $0.50 for a head of hydroponic lettuce. Cabs are cheap too (except for that one I mentioned above), usually running $2-4 per trip.

Stuck in the Elevator

View of our 17th floor apartment

Have you ever imagined being stuck in an elevator? Not much fun but at least we weren’t alone. On the way  down from the 17th floor, Dan, Alvarito, and I suddenly felt a very, very strong jolt and a loud noise!

OH NO! We were stuck between floors, about 5 stories high.

You have to imagine this elevator. It is very tiny even though it says it holds a maximum of 9 people, that would be packing them almost like sardines. It is a little over 4′ wide and less than 4′ deep.

My first thought is that we have enough air. I don’t like small spAaces so I was nervous. Alvarito was able to open the doors but we were between floors, 3-4′ above the floor of the 5th level. Being able to look out helped me relax. I wanted to climb out but they both felt it was too dangerous if we slipped we’d fall down the shaft.

Alvarito pressed the alarm and called the office. In less than 30 minutes we were out. They had to manually lower the car in the shaft. My neck hurt for the rest of the day but was fine in the morning. I thought about getting it checked but because they didn’t check me when we got out of the elevator, they wouldn’t have taken responsibility. Besides, they would have restricted who I could see and I felt that at most I would need a chiropractic adjustment.

By the time we returned later that day, the elevator was working fine but we never took that one again. The building has 2 elevators, one for even numbered floors and one for odd numbered floors. From then on, we went to the 16th floor and walked up a flight of stairs or if we were in the apartment, we walked down one flight and got the elevator.

South America, Here We Come

Main entrance to Old Town Cartagena at night.

First stop, Cartagena Colombia!

We can’t tell you much about Cartagena because it was so hot/humid we didn’t spend much time outside. We arrived on the first day of a 4 day holiday commemorating the independence of Cartagena from Spain.

Dan and Lindie out on the street during festivities.

This is a big, no make that a huge, deal in this town. Partying in the streets, and you wouldn’t believe all of the firecrackers that people threw. It didn’t seem safe because they were thrown around people and under cars but I didn’t hear/see any actual problems. We spent a short time when we met up with our former shipmates the first evening around the crowds but spent the rest of the time either in our air conditioned room or away from the crowds.

Cartagena is a good sized city of around one million people. It boasts an historic old town. We didn’t see much of it although it would have been nice to if the heat/humidity hadn’t made us hermits.  We felt safe where we were (except for the firecrackers) but I wouldn’t advise you to use the street money changers, Dan had one pull a slight of hand on him which cost us about a hundred dollars.

Dan, Lindie, and the Capitan.

Nearby is Santa Marta, also on the ocean, which is supposed to be a destination place that we missed as well. Doubt we will get back this way again but if we do, we will see both the old town and |Santa Marta.

We had originally planned to go by bus to Bogota but it was going to be so long that we flew. It was a little under $100 per person, including checking two bags and taking the rest onto the plane. The plane was a jet and very comfortable; it was a short ride of about 90 minutes. We ran into some of our shipmates at the airport but that is the last we have seen any of them.

Selfie on the airplane


On the boat I had an extensive talk with one of the passengers about her smoking. Susie is a medical doctor in England in her mid twenties. She is a delightful, intelligent, and insightful woman. She has a fear of dementia and feels that dying from the effects of smoking is a better way to go then to live longer with dementia.

Hmm, I’d never thought about it from that perspective. I tried to understand what she gets out of smoking and I know that you current and former smokers can understand the way the nicotine relaxes you and relieves stress far better than I will ever be able to.

After that discussion I felt very self-conscious when anything related to being the oldest person on the boat (other than Dan and I, the oldest person, including the captain was 31) came up (slow/more cautious than others moving about, trouble getting in or out of the dingy, climbing into the boat, etc.). I know she wasn’t referring directly to getting older but her concern about losing the ability mentally but it did make me more aware of the impact of aging on my body. And I am sure that the reason that I usually only pick up the last word in a sentence of fast Spanish is because my mind is a bit slower to process what I hear.

I don’t like that I can see myself slowing down but I do accept it. I do what I can to minimize that by staying active. I’m glad we are traveling now because I can see that it would be harder in a few years. Even now, if I stand too long or walk too far without breaks that my right leg complains quite loudly. I have decided to use a wheelchair when available when we are in places with a lot of standing like a museum. I did that at the Botera Museum in Bogotá. Didn’t like being in the chair and it was hard on my hands so Dan pushed me but it did allow me to view the exhibits without bothering my leg.

Like they say, aging beats the alternative (dying) so I’m glad to have that option.