Dispatches

Missing Places – An Imaginary Walk Around Medellin

 I’m glad Colombia is still on my bucket list. It gives me something to look forward to.

“You can’t have it all,” is a common thing parents tell their children (admittedly, since becoming a dad, I’ve dropped that one more than a few times). And it’s true, but that doesn’t make the want any less.

When it comes to Colombia, I feel like stomping my feet and pouting that I still want more, that I still need to experience more places, like the Zona Cafetera (I picture myself running in the hills between the coffee trees and then finding a nice spot to sip a cup), the dramatic highlands of Los Nevados National Park, and one of the big turn-around stories of the last decade, the revitalization of Medellín.

In my mind, I take a walk through the city, the weather sunny and inviting (Medellín is also known as The City of Eternal Spring). I pass through Plaza Botero, where the work of the city’s most famous sculptor, Fernando Botero, is on display. I stop to admire the marshmallow-round figures: squat men in hats, rotund horses, and buxom women.

Perhaps, after striking up a conversation with some Paisas (as locals are known) at the plaza, I’ll head over to the Parque de los Deseos, the Park of Desires, in Medellin’s northern zone, a modern and welcoming meeting place with cool buildings and lots of space for socializing. Friday nights belong to the university students, who take over to celebrate the end of the school week, while on Sunday evenings, children arrive in droves. If I’m not tired of parks, I can visit the Parque de los Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Park), which features green spaces, sand, and water fountains before moving on to the 14-hectacre botanical garden bursting with flora.

Even in my imagination, I’m tired from all the walking, so I find myself a nice outdoor café to enjoy a double espresso, watch the people pass, and write down my impressions of a colonial city that has reinvented itself yet respected its historical and architectural roots (Medellín was voted the Most Innovative City of the Year in 2012).

If I decide that I’ve had enough of the city then I can head a short distance out of town to the hills to hike, mountain bike, or just sit and admire the views.

I’m not there yet, of course, but in a strange way I’m glad Colombia is still on my bucket list. It gives me something to look forward to.

Esperame, Colombia. Esperame (wait for me, Colombia, wait for me).

Text by Robert J. Brodey

March 12, 2015, 2:39 p.m.

Three Things I Didn’t Know Before Going to Colombia

To travel is to stir the pot of curiosity.

To travel is to stir the pot of curiosity. Put another way, travel swings open the door to new experiences that can challenge and broaden our understanding of the world.

In Colombia, there are countless things about the country I didn’t know (and probably so many more I still don’t know I don’t know). And, during my time here, I’ve also learned a thing or two about myself.

For starters...

When people think of the Amazon (myself included), they usually picture mighty rivers, verdant rainforests, and diverse wildlife. Of course, the Amazon is all of those things, but its waters actually begin to flow from the high Andes. In fact, Mount Yerupajá, the soaring 6,635 metre (21,768 ft) summit, is the highest point in the Amazon River watershed. From there, the waters drain east, gathering runoff from the Guiana Highlands to the north and the Brazilian Highlands to the south–all the way to the Atlantic. Feel free to share that factoid at your next cocktail party (people will be impressed).

What have I learned about myself while travelling with team opxColombia? In truth, I’m half lone-wolf, craving the solitude of writing and trail running.

But as much as I cherish my alone time, I really like working with a team, especially one as experienced and fun as these blokes.

Team travel requires, well, teamwork, which adds another layer to the travel experience—whether it’s negotiating personalities and communication styles or sharing duties on a white water adventure. It’s all fodder for learning!

History is a complex thing: who writes it, who guards it, who transmits it. Colombia, of course, is no exception. During my research I came to learn that with the unexpected arrival of the Spanish, another presence soon appeared on Colombia’s shores. The Inquisition.

In 1610, the Catholic Monarchs set up the Inquisition Holy Office Court in Cartagena (issued by King Philip II). It was one of three seats of the Inquisition in the Americas, along with Mexico and Lima, Peru. The sole purpose of the inquisition was to hunt down those deemed to be witches and heretics. That uphappy chapter finally came to an end in 1821 when Colombia achieved independence from Spain.

But that’s a whole other story.

Text and Photo by Robert J. Brodey

March 5, 2015, 12:53 p.m.

Snack Excursions in Colombia

As someone who is fond of snacks, I’ve been quite pleased with what’s on offer in Colombia.

I’ll admit it. I’d be happy to snack all day and skip big sit down meals most of the time (Confession #2: I like to eat standing up. What scandal!).

As we zigzag our way through the country, we get to sample a bounty of tasty treats. And it seems every time we sit down for coffee, some kind of delicious snack appears before us, whether it’s a savoury empanada or a cheesy buñuelo (a fried cheese fritter). If you do have an appetite for cheese, there is also the Pandebono, a traditional cheese bread (often made from yucca flour and cornmeal). As Scott Wilson astutely notes of Colombians to our guide: “You like your cheese, don’t you.”

While horseback riding outside the colonial town of Villa de Leyva (north of Bogotá), we stop off at a food stand, where we indulge ourselves in oblea (wafer) con arequipe (dulce de leche), dulce de mora, crema de leche—basically, everything that is fat, sweet, and yummy (I’ll take two, por favor!). Of course, there is cheese in it, too.

One of my favourite snacks of all time (without cheese), which can be found in many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, is fried plantains.

Did I forget to mention that cacao regularly makes its appearance in the Colombian diet? A pretty common treat around Bogotá is cheese dropped into hot chocolate. After a minute or two, fish it out with a spoon and gobble away. If you are a chocolate and cheese lover like me, then you’ll likely find this a winning combo.

If you want to upscale your snack, try the ceviche de camarones (shrimp), which can be found in restaurant/bars, particularly along the coast.

So no matter whether you are in the north, south, east, or west of Colombia—or whether you are standing up or sitting down—you will never be far away from some seriously tasty snacks.

Text by Robert J. Brodey / Photo by Peter Angritt

Feb. 26, 2015, 2:13 p.m.

Frozen in Time at El Fósil Museum

Not all museums the world over are flashy multi-million dollar venues.

Exhibit A: The fossil museum (“El Fósil”) that we arrive at on horseback 5 kilometres outside Villa de Leyva (north of Bogotá).

The museum is a nondescript building facing the village square and was erected around the spot where the remains of a dinosaur were found. But this wasn’t just any old fossil. We’re talking about a 110 million-year-old kronosaurus boyacensis. There are only two locations in the world where they’ve ever been found: Colombia and Australia. At 7 metres (without its tail), this baby kronosaurus boyacensis takes up most of the main room of El Fósil. The adults were thought to be 12+ metres.

Gulp.

It was purely by chance that a Colombian campesino back in 1977 stumbled over it while tilling the land. Fortunately, this remarkably well preserved skeleton fell into the right hands and was granted a permanent home for all visiting homo sapiens to appreciate. 

With just 2 rooms jammed full of fossils, this is the kind of museum that doesn’t require days to explore (think the Louvre or Smithsonian).

Scott and I leisurely peruse the museum’s collection in about half an hour (a dinosaur enthusiast could certainly find many reasons to stay longer).

What these fossils remind me of is that the planet is forever changing. Outside the museum, for instance, are dry hills and pastureland. But 100 million years ago this baby kronosaurus was cruising the waters of a shallow inland sea, probably snacking on turtles and plesiosaurs (at least that’s what his/her Australian cousins were eating).

You’d probably recognize this marine mammal in a police lineup: It had an elongated head, a short neck, and four flippers. The carnivorous kronosaurus had many sharp conical teeth that ranged from 7 centimetres up to 30 centimetres long. This is important to note, because those teeth coupled with the kronosauruses’ natural gifts as powerful swimmers would make it quite a challenge to outpace, if you happened to get caught in a time vortex and were sent back tens of millions of years into the past.

There, you’ve been warned.

Text by Robert J. Brodey / Photo by Edward M Johnson

Feb. 19, 2015, 12:12 p.m.

Amazonas Dreamin’

Travelling with people you don’t know can be somewhat of a gamble.

For team opxColombia, Scott Wilson and Ryan Edwardson have known each other for eons, while I had worked previously with videographer Andrew Sheppard on opxMalaysia.

I didn’t even get the chance to meet Scott, co-creator and host of the award winning series Departures until we got to the airport in Toronto, when I was bleary-eyed and desperately in need of coffee.

For most of the trip I share a room with Andrew, and we settle into a rhythm of sharing space and, I may say, great company.

During the day, over meals and on great adventures, I get to know Ryan and Scott. Doc Ryan—he has a PhD—is a total blast to work and travel with. He is also the in-house cynic, which makes the inevitable hiccups that arise on trips infinitely more amusing.

Scott quickly reveals himself to be a laid back travel companion, a team player, and a great listener, so I’m optimistic we’ll have a blast when we hike off alone into the darkness to a treehouse in the Amazon forest on the outskirts of Leticia.

We climb the steps up to our accommodation, a rustic affair twenty feet off the ground and built around a tree. There is no electricity or potable water, so we move around with headlamps, organizing ourselves and treating the water so we can brush our teeth without ingesting stomach-churning microbes.

As we settle in, I bring out my audio recorder to capture some of the sounds of the forest. It doesn’t take long to figure out that jungle during the day and at night have totally different personalities. After dark, the sounds are deafening (I suspect the insects are far louder than any mammal prowling the forest). Eventually, Scott plays “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns n’ Roses on his laptop, and we rock out and have a laugh. That is until a giant fuzzy spider makes his/her/its appearance on my pillow. There is a shudder but no shrieking on my part. Immediately, we come together to trap the hairy beast with a piece of paper and a cup.

For the rest of the evening, we talk about anything and everything as we work—from his near death experience as a passenger on an ultra-light (and the catalyst for getting his pilot’s license) to our favourite tracks from the 80s pop music scene. Then, with the memory of the spider chilling on my pillow still fresh, I tumble into an uneasy slumber—with one eye open—until daybreak. 

Text by Robert Brodey / Photo by Ryan Edwardson

Feb. 12, 2015, 3:09 p.m.

Fires Burn Bright on the Day of Little Candles

Día de las Velitas or en inglés, Little Candles Day.

When I see the giant fire burning by the side of the highway at night, I actually think someone’s house is on fire. I try to suppress the panic in my voice and ask our guide, Andrés, a big ¿Qué pasa?

He tells me: Día de las Velitas or en inglés, Little Candles Day.

The bonfire lit along the highway is definitely not a “little candle,” but I have to trust Andrés, because he is right about so many things.

We pass more massive bonfires, until we pull over by the side of the road to watch fireworks light up the sky above the colonial town of Villa de Leyva.

There are dozens and dozens of cars lining the road, as hundreds of people take in the pyrotechnic display. It’s a social event, and some kids have gathered around some little candles and are trying to light them. From their wide eyes and big grins, it seems Día de las Velitas is a wild success.

For Colombians, Little Candles Day is serious business. It’s a public holiday and the unofficial start of the Christmas season (December 7). From what I understand, the celebration is in honour of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception and dates back to the mid-19th century, when Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary as dogma in his constitution. Supporters of the dogma lit candles and a tradition was born.

Of course, with holidays comes traffic—no matter where you are in the world—and we are stuck in Manhattan-style gridlock leading into Villa de Leyva, which normally has a population of 12,000 but has temporarily ballooned.

We wisely decide to walk the last few hundred metres to our hotel.

The party runs deep into the night, and we only glimpse the aftermath the next morning, when we wander past exhausted looking souls dragging themselves out of tents or bracing themselves against walls. 

We are definitely getting a taste of “authentic” Colombia. ¡Que bacano! How cool!

Text by Robert Brodey

Feb. 5, 2015, 12:28 p.m.

Going Underground: Zipaquirá’s Salt Cathedral

The chamber is 75 metres long with 18 metre high ceilings carved from earth’s solid mass.

From our hilltop perch, dark clouds sit heavily over the 17th-century town of Zipaquirá in the valley below. The day is growing long, so we start the subterranean walk 600 feet down through dark tunnels into a salt mine. But this is no ordinary salt mine. It’s the Salt Cathedral, at once a religious destination, an architectural marvel, and just a really cool place to spend a few hours poking around.  

First off, the salt deposits are old. 250 million years old. The Muisca culture were mining these hills 50 kilometres north of Bogotá something like 2500 years ago. Like the world over, salt was a prized resource that was not only used locally but also traded across vast territories. With the arrival of the Europeans, the salt deposits continued to be mined. 

As we walk down the corridor into the belly of the earth, we pass the first of 14 small chapels carved into the rock salt. These, I’m told, represent the Stations of the Cross, which tell the story of the last journey of Jesus. Each station is hewn from the rock and glows in a purple light, which transitions to green then red. For me, the great mystery lies beyond the light, where shadows drop into total darkness. These are ancient salt mines, after all. So that black empty space could be a giant mine shaft miles deep or just a shallow chamber. 

The Salt Cathedral we are exploring was built in the 1990s and replaced another underground cathedral that opened in the 1950s, which was shut down for safety reasons. But the first inspiration for all this grandeur was actually a modest sanctuary the miners had carved long before, where they prayed for protection from the dangers of their underground profession.  

We arrive at the upper balcony and catch our first glimpse of the main cathedral. And it’s impressive. The chamber is 75 metres long with 18 metre high ceilings carved from earth’s solid mass.  On top of that, a giant cross of phosphorescent light glows brightly at the very front of the sanctuary. There is, of course, a symbolic meaning to every element of the Salt Cathedral’s design, but I’ll leave it to you to do your homework before coming down way down—for a visit.

Text by Robert Brodey, Photo by Ryan Edwardson

Jan. 29, 2015, 12:41 p.m.

Prized Cartagena

Why was Cartagena so prized, you ask?

We arrive in Cartagena after dark, drop our bags, and soon find ourselves wandering the cobblestone streets inside the old city centre (known as centro). 

The world beyond the impressive colonial walls is concealed from view, and it isn’t until morning that we stroll along the top of the fortified walls to take in the sights. From here, we survey the port leading out to the Caribbean Sea, as well as the hilltop Convento de la Popa, which was founded in 1607 by Augustine fathers.  Below the convent stands the imposing Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which guarded the prized city from invaders.

Why was Cartagena so prized, you ask? It may have begun modestly enough in 1533, but its trade in precious metals and (tragically) African slaves made it a beacon for wealth and marauding pirates. To fend off invaders, the Spanish spent vast sums and took something like 200 years to complete the fortifications that still stand.

The original fort of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas was built in the 17th and took twenty years to construct.  The following century, the castillo was made even more robust and was designed in such a way that if part of the castle was overrun by the enemy, the rest could still stand and defend. Oh, and the food stores ensured the Spanish could withstand a long siege. We take a walk around the looming exterior of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, where kids happily play soccer on the field below. By the way, all attempts to storm the fortification failed, which makes it a prime hideout if there was ever a zombie invasion.

Wandering colonial Cartagena is an experience of the senses—with its magnificent churches and squares, the warm tropical breeze, and even the occasional downpour. But for those interested in digging into history, one could happily excavate for a lifetime and still not reach the bottom of this fascinating and storied city.

Text and Photo by Robert Brodey 

Jan. 22, 2015, 2:55 p.m.

Andrés Carne de Res: Where Meat and the Surreal Meet

Team opxColombia quickly realizes this isn’t just a quick dining experience. This is a half day affair.

I know we are in for something big when we get to the parking lot of the restaurant Andrés Carne de Res. It’s a giant field jammed with cars and 4x4s on the outskirts of Chia, 45 minutes north of Bogotá. Actually, its reputation precedes our arrival. So how can a restaurant become a cultural icon, a place where so many Colombians dream of going one day? 

Passing through the entrance and navigating our way through room after room of the restaurant to our table, a clearer picture begins to emerge. There are tables celebrating engagements and sweet sixteens and every other kind of milestone you can imagine. Just to get a sense of scale, the restaurant covers seven square kilometres with eleven dining areas. And check this: 115 people work in its five kitchens to feed something like 3000 customers a day. 

But it’s not just the size. Andrés Carne de Res is decorated with tons of found objects: flashing signs, old mannequins, and even a bike seat with handle bars framed like a bull’s head and horns on the wall. It reminds me of surreal master Salvador Dali’s house in Porto Lligat, Spain.

Team opxColombia quickly realizes this isn’t just a quick dining experience. This is a half day affair, minimum. Even the menu is 63 pages—in a tiny font, no less. Daunted by the prospect of wading through the entire menu, we let our waiter order for us. Then comes the band, which drapes a sash across my shoulders and places a shiny golden (cardboard) crown on my head (oh, I’m flattered!). The comic entertainment follows, and we are peppered with rapid-fire Spanish (yes, food wordplay). Finally, the platters of delectable Argentine and Uruguayan meat arrive, along with yucca, Andean potatoes, and some empanadas.

Four hours later, we stumble out satiated and somewhat dazed in the late-afternoon light. We are told the party is here tonight. With two dance floors and thousands more visitors yet to come, I have no doubt Andrés Carne de Res will be the place to be. 

Text by Robert Brodey / Photo by Ryan Edwardson

Jan. 15, 2015, 2:21 p.m.

Good Eats

Good Eats, Colombian Style

Colombia is home to a hodgepodge of incredible delicacies and flavours that will undoubtedly satisfy every palate. From the Bogotan breakfast staple of hot chocolate and cheese to Aji picante, a spicy, cilantro-based sauce used as a condiment for many dishes and sides, each region you visit expresses a unique flavour based on its flora and fauna.

And coffee, of course, has it's own Colombian style. While many of the coffee beans consumed around the world come from Colombia and are ground and used for drip machines, in Colombia they prefer it a tinto.

What's a tinto?

Well usually it means black with sugar or panela on the side, or con leche, which is a preparation of half coffee and half heated milk.

Regardless of how wide and varied your palate may have become over the years you are undoubtedly going to find a collection of new and incredible flavours in Colombia.

Jan. 8, 2015, 4:20 p.m.
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