Christmas in Colombia

Typical nativity scene with a village; crèche is in upper left of photo; most of the sheep have real wool on them

I’m not sure what a traditional Christmas is in Colombia. Certainly the lights in the parks (especially Medellin) and decorations on some houses and lots of nativity scenes in public spaces and homes.

Nativity scenes aren’t just a crèche with the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph. They were almost always very elaborate, even having sheep skin on the small plastic sheep in the scenes. The nativity scene in the church in Jardin is about 50’ long…I couldn’t even get the entire scene in a photo in panorama mode! Scenes show an entire village with houses, animals, sometimes people, and of course the Wise Men and the crèche scene.

The family we are living with for 12 days is probably lower middle class. The almost 3 year old boy is really intelligent and well mannered. They have a small artificial tree with decorations and lights and lights around the door and window outside but no gifts under it.

While Santa Claus is discussed in passing, there was no attempt that I could see/understand that he would bring gifts. The little boy fell asleep earlier than usual and slept through the firecrackers, drums, etc. in the street.

This morning he received a gift or two, no wrapping paper. We gave him a set of 6 small plastic construction trucks (cost less than $4 total) which he seemed to enjoy. He also received a remote controlled car and a scooter and a plastic truck. Again, no wrapping paper.

There were people in and out all day which is not much different from usual but maybe a few more people than usual. The family left a couple of times for an hour or so. I had understood someone was barbecuing a pig but I never saw any evidence of it and they ate a modest meal here.

We also gave the parents a small box of local chocolate and $100,000 pesos (about $33) to help towards a new pair of glasses for the mom (her frames are broken and the lenses seem to be delaminating or something odd so she gets headaches wearing them).

Dan and I don’t normally exchange gifts so we didn’t this year. We did go for a walk for about an hour through an area with coffee, plantain, and bananas and amazingly ended up at a place where we knew that had a homemade cable car between the town and the mountain. l will be doing a blog on that soon.

Mostly catching up on blogging. Internet is just slow enough that uploading images is an ordeal and very slow but I am making progress, am now writing and about to post early December!

All in all, it was a nice quiet day. I was surprised that many stores and restaurants were open, something about a “store day” and everything will be closed on Wednesday. The mom also said that everything in Medellin is closed today and people come here to shop.

Since I had no expectations, it was a nice day. Much quieter than yours although the boy did get rowdy from time to time.

Mary’s tree in Marizales

The place we stayed with in Marizales after we left Jardin still had the house decorated with a 6-7′ artificial tree with ornaments and ribbons and other decorations on the walls. My guess is that they had a Christmas more like what you would see in the USA.


Jardin plaza dominated by church made mid 20th century using hand carved stones

By the time we left Medellin, we were ready for small laid back towns. We’d heard good things about Jardin and they were true. Primarily an agriculture area, there is some tourism. Very few expats live here, about 30-40 according to our guide. Compare that to Boquete which is about the same size and has 1000-2000 expats! We got lots of chances to practice our Spanish, especially since we staying in an Airbnb home of a young couple and an almost 3 year old who spoke very, very little English.

We spent 12 days in Jardin, a small town with a population of under 10,000  and during that time we did a lot of walking, a horse back ride, rode the Gurracha and saw the Cock of the Rock birds.

Jardin is a very vibrant town with a good sized plaza and a large church built early in the 20th century. It doesn’t seem to matter what day or the time of day, there are almost always tons of people in the plaza…sitting, walking, talking, drinking. We quite enjoyed just walking around the town. There is a very laid back feeling of times long gone in most US cities and towns; people standing outside chatting in the evenings. Very community oriented.

Horse waiting for its rider

The altitude of Jardin is about one mile above sea level. This town has a very busy plaza, no stop signs/stop lights, and it is not uncommon to see horses walking or being led down the street.

The horse back ride in the mountains was amazing and very scary for me. The horses were well trained and it was just Dan, myself, and the guide. But the trail was sometimes muddy up to the horses’ knees, uneven, and often along the very edge of the mountain which dropped off at about 160 degree angle.

The views were amazing! Coffee and bananas and plantains are grown on these steep mountains and everything is green, green, green. And we saw a lot of butterflies, even more than we saw when we went to butterfly exhibits in different towns!

Our ride, 100,000 pesos each ($33 each) included a lunch. We had opted for the vegetarian lunch which was carried in the saddlebags. It was rice, avocado, fried plantain, and a hard boiled egg, all wrapped in a fresh plantain leaf, and tied with string. It was very tasty and I am sure that the leaves were composted or fed to some animal that night.

Dan walked through a cave and behind a waterfall but I opted to rest instead. While we were sitting for lunch, there was a cow that was VERY friendly. We kept shooing her away but she wanted to be with us. Maybe she was lonely.

It was about a 3-4 hour ride plus transportation to and from the town to the place up the mountain with the horses. We got our money’s worth for sure!

The Garrucha is a hand made cart that goes from one end of town up the mountain via a cable. Built in 1995, the round trip is just over $2 per person and you can spend as much time on the mountain as you want. The views from the mountain are incredible although you can’t see a lot through the slots as you go up or down in the Garrucha. It is obvious that the person translating or printing the signs is not an English speaker. Check out the views and signs here.

The Andean Cock-of-the-Rock or Tunki is an impressive, odd looking bird, widely considered the national bird of Peru. It has a rounded crest on the head of the male and is bright red on the upper part of the body with grey and black on the lower half. We went to a private reserve where we saw at least 3 males (no females) who were very territorial and loud. Here are some pictures of the Tunki as well as some other birds we saw at the reserve. There is also a short video so you can hear them.

We did another tour in Jardin, this one by car where we went to various places near Jardin. It was a laid back tour with just us and the guide.

Buses in the Andes

Road from Bogata to Villa de Leyva

The Andes Mountains are spectacular. Higher than much of the Rockies and deeper valleys. But they are so much greener; green top to bottom with a wide variety of plants and trees.

Bus rides are beautiful but scary. The bus drivers are very aggressive, passing where mere mortals wouldn’t even think about passing. No passing signs and double yellow stripes are apparently not something that they pay attention to.

So far the roads that we have been on have been fairly good. Our friends the Thompsons took one trip from Jardin to Riosucio (Dirty River and apparently  the town is as exciting as it sounds; they only stayed a couple of hours even though they had paid for one night in a “hotel”). Riosucio is 50 KM away (about 31 miles) and the trip is 3 hours long. They had quite the adventure because part way through the trip they came on an area that had had a landslide. It was being cleared but they had to get off the bus, take their luggage across the landslide and board a different bus to go the rest of the way!

I know this sounds really scary but we have to trust that we will be safe in our travels. There isn’t an alternative unless we just left the area and even then, how would we get out of the area? There are few airports around here.

And speaking of bus rides, when we bought our tickets from Jardin to Riosucio (we got a bus to Manizales from there) and I asked if the road was open, the clerk said, “Maybe it is open, maybe it is closed. Maybe it will be a bus, maybe it will be a Chiva.” A Chiva is basically a flat bed truck that has had (usually) wooden bench seats (luckily ours were padded since we took the chiva the entire way) and a tarp or roof added to the seating area. It was better than I expected since it has to go so slow on the pot holed road at an average of about 10 mph.

So just keep us in your prayers as we travel from place to place.

More Medellin

Jeans on sale in downtown Medellin market

We took the train almost everywhere we didn’t walk to in Medellin. Taxis are cheap and we used them occasionally but mostly the train since the closest station was only about 10 minutes away. These electric trains are used a lot in this area. They could be very crowded and we kept our backpacks on our fronts instead of our backs in the crowds. Often a young person would offer me (and sometimes Lesia) their seat. I appreciated that since standing a long time can be an issue for me. The trains were clean and everyone was polite on them.

There are also a couple of cable cars as part of the train system and one set of 6 outdoor escalators in Comuna 13, more on that in another blog.

One cable car route takes you to Arvi Park. It is delightfully cool up there and literally a breath of fresh air in this smoggy city. The park is mostly untouched with a couple of buildings and some vendors for things like bathrooms, shelter, etc. The 4 of us spent several hours walking around there and Dan went back on his own another day.

Comuna 13 used to be a very dangerous, not well accessed area but over the years, that has changed dramatically. Built on the side of a mountain, the streets are steep and the houses very basic. The escalators were added in 2011 and is now a model for other cities around the world.

We took the free tour (donations at the end) with a woman who grew up in Comuna 13. As a child she was embarrassed to say she was from this area of town. Now with the violence and drugs under fairly good control, she is proud to say this is her home. You can see a very nice story about the area and the escalators here.

Our guide explained some of the beautiful graffiti art (art as opposed to “gang tags”), took us through a quick tour of her house in Comuna 13, and even provided entertainment compliments of some young students (school holiday) doing some break dancing and another man doing a rap song. The students were moderately skilled but I really liked that they were putting their energy into learning to dance rather than other less savory efforts.

Pueblito Paisa (Little Town) is located on the top of Nutibarra Hill (Cerro Nutibarra) in Medellin. It is a replica of a typical turn of the century Antioquia town with a traditional stone fountain in the middle of the town square, a church and other buildings. The view of the city and surrounding mountains and valleys is lovely and there is a small museum with old photos that is interesting.

I found the most interesting part was information on silleteros. These are hand made art that is carried on the person’s back during a parade. The art is very intricate floral designs, done the night before the parade. The work that goes into the designs is amazing. Like a parade float, much of it is last minute. Unlike a parade float, it is carried on the person’s back! Would have loved to actually see a parade. You can get a sense of one here and here.


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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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