Friday, June 6, 2008

My Top 10 Highlights in Colombia

Fat people. That was the first thing I noticed when I returned to the United States yesterday. Riding late at night to my mom’s house in a limo, I then noticed how clean the roads are. This is the thing about anywhere I travel; I can always find the bad and the good, kind of like people.

Before I unpack my bags and get settled, I want to take a moment to look back on my time in Colombia, which will no doubt give me fond memories. I have to admit there are some things I’m going to miss. I’m going to miss being called Gringo, or my doorman calling me “mister” because it’s one of the few English words he knows. I’m going to take with me the different perspective of living in a country with few foreigners and hardly any Americans. I’m going to remember the people of Ciudad Bolívar and how they taught me to play Rana and Tejo. I’m going remember the feeling of a bird when I went paragliding near Cartago. The beautiful clouds and scenery at Monserrate, Valle de Cocora, La Candelaria, and the Colpatria Tower will be hard to forget, along with the friendly mamacitas I met along the way. I could use a few of them when the cold winter begins. Then there are the less expected encounters, such as my time with the boxers, flower workers, and bullfighting crowd. Yes, I’ll miss the fresh pastries at the panaderías on my way to work.

Then there are always things that you would have liked to have done, but I think I experienced a good share. Maybe when I return I can see the Gold Museum (closed for remodeling until September 2008) or visit the town of Villa de Leiba. As odd or obvious as they may seem, below are my top 10 highlights in Colombia (in alphabetical order).

1) Christmas Time in Medellín Medellín is the home of beautiful and powerful people, from supermodel Ana Sofía Henao to President Álvaro Uribe to the deceased drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. It is the place with year-round spring weather and the most elaborate Christmas decorations I’ve ever seen. Río Medellín runs through the center of the city and about two miles of it was decorated with strings of lights that changed colors in random sequences. There were hundreds of Christmas trees, decorations, and performers along the sides of the river. Each year they have a different theme for the decorations and lights. It takes two months to setup and two months to take down all the decorations. On a hill near Río Medellín is a small colonial village called Pueblito Paisa, with a ton of decorations as well. For a very image-conscious city, Christmas is the time to visit Medellín.

2) Coffee Farms Visiting the Colombian coffee farms in Eje Cafetero was something I had wanted to do since I arrived in Bogotá. My trip in March exceeded my expectations. Besides enjoying the warmth of the sun and the Paisa people, I learned a lot. I had no idea that coffee was best grown on steep, partially shaded hillsides at a certain high altitude. I also learned that only the female coffee plants are used for harvest. And when I finished my tour I got to drink a fresh cup that had so much flavor, sugar wasn’t needed. I believe it’s only a matter of time before this area is a hot spot for international tourism. I’m glad I got to see it the same way it’s been farmed for centuries.

3) Colombia beats Argentina I’m not a soccer fan, but I was high-fiving the fans around me when Colombia beat Argentina. Before the game, Argentina was unbeaten in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and ranked as the best in the world by FIFA. I think playing at the high elevation at El Campín in Bogotá tired the Argentians more quickly. Arriving four hours early for a second-row seat only to sit through a good two hours of pouring rain wasn’t exactly fun. But witnessing the 2-1 victory, the soccer fanatics that filled the stadium, and the constant profanities made it a super South American spectacle.

4) Natural Juice I could have written aguardiente here, but that wasn’t something I drank every day. Referred to as jugo natural, natural juice is not something you see on a can only to gulp down lots of artificial preservatives as is common in the United States. In Colombia, natural juice is the real thing, and served almost everywhere. It is mixed with water or milk, depending on one’s preference. Many street vendors have machines for squeezing the various types of fruits and vegetables. Some of my favorites were guanábana (soursop), guayaba (guava), lulo (naranjilla), mango, maracuyá (passion fruit), mora (blackberry), piña (pineapple), and tomate de árbol (tree tomato).

5) Nevado del Ruiz This was the highest place I’ve been on Earth. I left Manizales to take an all-day trip to this active, snow-capped volcano of more than 17,000 feet. After driving most of the way, I hiked a few hundred feet shy of its peak (you needed special climbing equipment to reach the summit). Although the best time to go is in December or January, our group had great weather as we trekked through the snow, sucking in as much oxygen as we could. When we had reached our highest point and everyone began climbing down, I took a nice whiz in the snow.

6) Salento This was my favorite town in Colombia; it is one of the smallest and oldest in Eje Cafetero. It felt like going into a time warp, for not much has changed over the centuries. With the slow pace of life, relaxing atmosphere, and breathtaking scenery, no wonder everyone was so friendly. Calle Real, or Carrera 6, was the most beautiful street I’ve seen in Colombia, and perhaps anywhere. Its buildings (mostly selling handicrafts) have bright, vibrant colors, and at one end is the main plaza. At the other is a 250-step climb up a steep hill to a spectacular view overlooking Salento and the Valle de Cocora with its seemingly endless supply of trout. Fresh trout is served in virtually every restaurant and is usually baked or fried. A short walk from town, at a lower altitude, coffee farmers live on the various haciendas.

7) Speaking Spanish If you want to learn or practice Spanish with locals, Bogotá is probably the best place in the world. The locals, or Rolos, speak slowly and without an accent. They also use very few slang words. The language is as close to proper Castilian (castellano) Spanish, or “pure” Spanish, as you will find in Latin America. I am definitely glad I speak like the people from Bogotá than, say, those from Cartagena.

8) The Salt Cathedral This is truly one of the wonders of the modern world, and an obvious must for anyone staying in Bogotá. Built in a salt mine nearly 200 meters underground, this cathedral is so large you might get lost. Near the front, there are 14 chambers, each illuminating a large cross with white or black lights. There are pews and an altar where mass takes place every Sunday at 1 p.m. Like most great tourist places, words cannot quite do the Salt Cathedral justice.

9) Teaching English Whatever you teach you will do better yourself. There is something about teaching that makes you reevaluate and clarify what you are trying to help someone learn. Maybe I still talk and write the same, but I definitely have a better understanding of the English language. Studying Spanish, no doubt, helped. A quick example of the language difference is the way you move your mouth. In English, you need to use the back of your throat while moving your jaw and lips. In Spanish, you speak with the front of your mouth and don’t need to use your face and jaw as much. Nevertheless, language reminds me of sports; the more proficient you are at it, the more you enjoy doing it.

10) Trip to Tobia About 90 minutes northwest of Bogotá is the small town of Tobia. Surrounding this town are many adventure activities. I visited it in September with my fellow English teachers and friends, and went rafting, hiking, and sliding down a smooth rock cliff into a pool of water. It was a great way to have fun while enjoying Colombia’s warm weather and wilderness. It was one of my first lessons that Colombia’s countryside is safe and its people friendly.


Steve said...

welcome home. I will miss reading about Colombia. Luckily, I will be staying in Bogota for 4-6 weeks as part of an adoption soon. I will send you my blog address when we get there. My photography won't be quite as nice as yours however.

Orlando said...

It was very interesting to read your blog about my city, and country. It really made me happy that you enjoyed your stay here and to see how the things that i found normal were different for you. Good Luck

DianaCats said...

Oh, you're back to the US already!! I'm glad you had enjoyed your time in Colombia. Are you coming back soon or are you staying there?

Brett Garamella said...

Thank you everyone for checking out my blog. It's a little weird being home without the tall mountains and the honking horns. I'm going to stay in Chicago for a while so I can save up some money and work on some photography projects. But I'm sure I'll be back to Colombia at some point. Until then send me your blogs and photos so I can stay in the know... ¡Qué chévere!

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