Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Colombia: Why You Shouldn't Believe Everything You Hear on the News

When In Rome, we do as the Romans do. When on vacation, we don't. Once in a while it's a good thing to get out of Italy and experience some of the other amazing places in the world.

A farmhouse Gazebo overlooking the mountains of Antioquia

If we only paid attention to what we hear on the news, the closest most of would ever get to experiencing Colombia is having a cup of Colombian blend at the local coffee shop. The reality of Colombia is that most of the country is perfectly safe for travel, and the few regions that are not can be easily avoided.

Getting There
While most Romans leave for the summer, my holiday comes during the off season when temperatures in Rome are dismal and summer is in full swing in South America. The best deal I found for Colombia was on Spirit Airlines for about 350 dollars (one way). Their flights for Medellin leave from Ft. Lauderdale and connecting flights can be found all over the U.S. For European and most other origins, Iberia or Air France are good options too. 

Home Base 
Most of this trip was spent in a small town north of Medellin called Don Matias. This town was founded in 1814 and has just about 20,000 inhabitants. Its center is a tiny square with colonial looking balconies, coffee and liquor kiosks galore, and last but not least a massive Catholic Church which dominates the square. 

Don Matias raises more than 220,000 pigs per year, placing it first in all of Colombia. Milk production is also a major industry here, with 186,000 liters of milk produced per day. According to El Mundo, though Don Matias has only 20,000 residents, as many as 10,000 people from this town have up and left over the past decades in search of greener (and surely colder) pastures in Boston, Ma. This is evident almost everywhere you go in this tiny town, where there are nearly as many men sporting Red Sox hats as there are traditional Colombian Sombreros. Even the town mayor spent several years living and working in Chelsea, MA, and the local Discoteque is called (you guessed) BOSTON. 

 Scallions grow so large that they look like leeks. Boston Discoteque in background

Local pastimes include drinking (coffee by day, aguardiente or rum by night), gossip, horseback riding (sometimes combined with drinking and gossiping), and on occasion watching and betting on cock fights.

The town is situated at about 2,000 meters above sea level, which makes for sunny and warm days but cold nights. A 45 minute drive down the harrowing stretch of mountains known by locals as the loma de matasanos (climb that kills even the healthy) takes you to the major city of the Antioquia region: Medellin. 

The Colombian version of hitchhiking
Medellin is a sprawling city that stretches across a valley of mountains in the North of Colombia. It is home to 2 million residents plus thousands of others from nearby towns who come to do business on a daily basis. Once a violent and dangerous city, modern Medellin is one of the most beautiful and enjoyable cities in South America. Seasonal festivals that make Medellin especially worth visiting are the Feria de los Flores flower festival which is held each August, and the amazing character and lights displays across the city and its rivers during the month of December. 

Medellin has a consistently warm climate, and is sunny and hot all year round. People looking to get some relief from the heat need look no further than the parque de los pies descalzos (barefoot park). 

Parque de los pies descalzos, Medellin 
Children and adults alike have a blast jumping in and out of the fountains, while others spread out blankets in the shade and observe the fun.
Medellin is a bustling city, and everyone in it is a salesman. From bra straps (you would not believe the variety of colors, fabrics, sizes and shapes that one can find bra straps in this city) to mangoes, lottery tickets, chiclets, and popsicles, it is a sensory overload of product peddling.

Medellin is not a city without it's problems. Petty crime is an every day reality, and many of its residents live in situations of extreme poverty in neighborhoods that resemble shanty towns like this one.

Poor neighborhood in Medellin
Still, for every poor neighborhood there is a neighborhood of middle to upper class residents such as the chic El Poblado with it's massive shopping malls and great restaurants.

Panorama of Medellin
Other attractions in Medellin include the Pueblito Paisa, a small recreation of an old fashioned paisa town, and the Museo de Antioquia, where local artist Fernando Botero houses dozens of his famous paintings and sculptures of "los gorditos", his typical plus size subjects.

EAT as the Colombians Do

Colombian food has not exactly made its mark as one of the leading global cuisines. Still, there are some great dishes to be found here. Colombians normally eat three meals per day, all of them savory. Yes, that means that for breakfast you could be looking at something like this.

A Bandeja Paisa comes with rice, beans, beef, pork (chicharron), fried plantains, fried egg, salad, and avocado. 
A few of my other favorites are the arepa de choclo, made from fresh corn kernels that are hand picked from the cob, liquefied, and then pan fried into a heavenly little cake onto which one spreads butter and cheese (yum)

Empanadas are the perfect snack food (they go well with beer)

Sancocho is a wonderful soup made with chicken or beef and local vegetables

Buñuelos have to be my all time favorite. Little balls of cheese and flour that are rolled into a ball and fried. Most Colombians eat them with natilla, a jello-esque food that I have not yet embraced. I love these with a hot cup of cafe con leche.

A great resource for planning travel to Colombia is PaisaTours.com.  Paisa Tours is not an actual tour operator but has loads of essential info on planning travel to Colombia. I'll be using their guide in my next leg of this journey to the Amazon region for a few last days of peace and quiet before heading back to Rome and launching the new 2010 tour products.


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