Popayan was a pleasant surprise, due to its Spanish colonial beauty. In the Southern Colombian department of Cauca, Popayan is this region’s white-washed capital, and a distinguished university town. Arriving by bus into the outskirts of the older center, we had no idea what a visual treat we were in for. A short taxi ride later and we entered the “white city” with its many elaborate churches, cathedrals, shady plazas, pedestrian lanes, and historical museums. On our first evening, we discovered a perfect little Italian restaurant, with fresh pesto sauce and unctuously crisp and chewy pizza crust that twice fulfilled our pasta & pie longings. We also sampled more Colombian coffee and street food, including papas rellenas, which are balls of mashed potatoes filled with a variety of savory ingredients, like meat, eggs, and cheese, then deep-fried and served for breakfast with a spicy aji sauce.
If you have heard of Cali, then you know that it is famed for its salsa music and dancing clubs. I won’t be able to tell you anything about either of these aspects. You may have even seen Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” show on Colombia, and learned about tejo, the sport of throwing a metal puck at an exploding target encased in clay, within a protective frame 20 meters away. I can’t tell you anything about this activity either. This is an example of how ‘traveling with kids’ can prevent you from experiencing certain parts of a culture. Thankfully, we were not coming to Cali to partake in the above adventures (I lie to myself), but rather to visit some American friends and meet their brand new baby boy.
Once again, I am drawn to the art museums, which represent a study in the culture and relevant topics of a country. In Colombia, much of the art we see is colorful and playful. There are definite influences from Spanish colonialism, but art is also firmly rooted in the political and societal present, as interpreted by the artist. The slide show below only represents my personal favorites – those artworks that captured my interest. These paintings and sculptures were viewed in two museums: Museo de Antioquia in Medellin, which predominantly features the artwork of native painters, Fernando Botero and Pedro Nel Gomez, and La Tertulia Museum of Modern Art in Cali, which consists of three buildings, one housing a gallery of over 300 native and international works. Here we watched a contemporary artist, Jose Horacio Martinez, actually paint on canvas, in an ongoing installation, adding detailed layers to works in progress, including the walls of the museum. I really enjoyed his bright, abstract art and use of color, which featured both loose & fluid and intricate brush strokes (his work is found in the last seven images in this slide show). Notable in Botero’s work, which depict voluminously, large figures, are paintings of Pablo Escobar’s death. Disfruta!
Zona Cafetera was my most favorite region in Colombia, and that is a difficult thing to declare, as so many other departments are close seconds in this race. It ultimately boils down to my love of the roasted bean and infatuation with the cowboy farmers that saunter through the open plazas sipping hot coffee or chugging aguardiente. Each colorful plaza filled with the lilting sounds of Latin love songs, and the staccato stomps of a well-worn boot heel on cobble-stones, reverberates like a wave through my solar plexus. High mountains and intensely emerald-green jungles encroach on the barely defined borders of each small village and hard-earned plantation. I am heady with the scents of wet, nutrient-rich, Pachamama earth and all of the appetizing aromas man cooks with her gifts – simmering chicken stock wafting from a sidewalk cafe, coffee grounds and cinnamon-vanilla baked goods. I could easily while away a day indulging my taste buds, spying on young love and old flirtation, and widening my appreciation of the wackiest color combinations for building exteriors.
Midway through our stay in Medellin, we took a side trip to Guatape, a small Antioquian town about two hours away. Many travelers visit this municipality as a day trip, but we opted to spend a night and sight-see at a slightly leisurely pace. Our first goal was to climb the Penol Rock, a monolithic stone formation that soars over 200 meters into the sky. In order to reach the uppermost viewing platform, we had to summit 740 painful steps, built steeply up the cliff-face, in great humidity, with swarms of strange insects flying into our eyes and mouths (gag!). Passing Virgin Mary statues, I saw fellow climbers crossing themselves, probably praying that their hearts wouldn’t stop. As hoped for, the views at the top did make the workout worth it, providing a 360 degree view of the surrounding manmade finger lakes (a reservoir built for hydro-electricity).
Medellin, more than any other Colombian city, represents the changing face of this country. It is a large metropolis of approximately 3.7 million people, that was once renown for being the most violent city in the world, and the dominion of the ill-famed Medellin Cartel, run by drug lord, Pablo Escobar. Since his assassination, and the ensuing opportunities for change, recent mayors have made significant improvements to the quality of life of this Antioquia capital. Poverty has been reduced by 66%, and the homicide rate has dropped by 95%! Part of this change in outlook has been a strategic outreach to the poor communities clinging to the steep hillsides of Medellin. The city developed an advanced transportation system of metros and telefericos (cable cars) that integrated the poorer neighborhoods into the heart of the city, increasing access to jobs, commerce, education, and health services.