Festive Days in Medellín

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, December 9, 2006

Yes, we finally made it to the hot springs! This particular 'balneario' was recommended by Sara and Oliva and was beautifully set in a natural amphitheatre with a cascading waterfall for a backdrop. A very soothing place to spend a few hours, and we relished every minute - until we emerged wrinkled as prunes and dizzy with the heat.

We spent a further couple of days exploring the busy market town of Santa Rosa de Cabal and catching up on our chores, then bid farewell to the Vasquez family and headed off north towards Manizales. We were now back on good asphalt roads, but paid the price at the most frequent and priciest toll booths that we have encountered in all of South America. However, the cost on the road this particular day was offset when we found a very well-appointed campsite for the night and the owners were so excited about our trip that they waived the rather stiff fee.  Everywhere we go we find that Colombians are eager to talk to us and find out about our trip, and are especially keen to know what we think about their country. We have seen no other foreign vehicles so far in our six weeks here in Colombia, and it appears that overseas travellers are still something of a rarity. The international press has painted such a grim picture of the situation in Colombia that it is not exactly top of the list in tourist destinations. However, the security situation has certainly been improving in the last few years and the people we talk to are invariably extremely proud of their country and cautiously optimistic for the future. As you may have gathered, we have been very impressed with Colombia and Colombians on our travels so far.

The road winding through the River Cauca valley drops down to La Pintada at 1,650 ft and then starts the stiff climb up over the 8,400 ft Paso Alto de Minas. After a swift and precipitous descent of 3,500 ft we found ourselves arriving in Medellín - a city of three million - late on a busy Saturday afternoon. We were faced with almost grid-locked traffic and the streets were jam-packed with throngs of Christmas shoppers. It only took us an hour or so to realize that there was little chance of any reasonably priced accommodation - and no camping, of course - so we made the decision that a quick exit was our best strategy. Another steep ascent to the east over the Via Las Palmas and we were soon on the highly-touted Ciruito de Oriente. Of course, it's presumably best to enjoy the lush and productive countryside and the traditional paisa towns of the Antioquia Department in the daytime - but here we were trying to find our way in the dark. No sooner had we pulled off the road to consult our map than a young Colombian had stopped his car, risked his life crossing four lanes of traffic, just to enquire if we needed some help! Yet another example of the amazing friendliness and helpfulness towards complete strangers.

After a night in a rather grungy hotel in Rionegro (with such an abundance of restaurants on this tourist circuit, we couldn't understand why there was an almost total lack of accommodation - maybe it's for day trippers only) we decided to check out the Zona de Camping marked on our map at the Embalse de Peñol. The trip meant some delicate negotiating of recent mud and rock slides, but the intense horticultural production in the rich black soils made it a very interesting trip for us (still farmers at heart!). The reservoir was formed about thirty years ago and has resulted in a lovely area of convoluted peninsulas and islands dotting the water.  We were able to camp right at the lake's edge and soon had a visit from Carlos and his family and friends who were curious about our van. A quick guided tour - it doesn't take long - and the inevitable question about where we kept the television! Blanca's son Juan Camilo was so enthralled that he decided to join us for supper, even eventually deciding that he liked broccoli.

Next day we made the obligatory visit to La Piedra de Peñol - a huge granite rock some 600 ft high sitting in isolated magnificence beside the lake. Seven hundred and twenty nine steps later we were at the top admiring the panoramic views across the region. Despite the mess of restaurant stalls at the bottom, and the ugly snack bar and craft shop built at the top, it is definitely worth a visit - as long as you make it before the hordes of noisy local tourists arrive by the bus load and totally destroy the tranquil atmosphere at the summit.

Eventually we had to brave another visit to Medellín, but this time it was early in the week and things were a little quieter. You may wonder why we needed to re-visit the city, but yes, unfortunately yet another visit to a workshop was in order. The repair job on the fuel injector in Ibagué had lasted about 500 km but was definitely giving us problems again, especially on the steep mountainous climbs. While DC3 spent her time in the Bosch Garage, we took the opportunity to get better acquainted with this fascinating metropolis. Although it continues to have a reputation abroad as the dangerous domain of the drug cartels, in reality it has transformed itself in recent years into one of the most pleasant and safest cities in Latin America.

Over the past few days we've taken in a stunning performance of Handel's Messiah at the Teatro Metropolitano (the W.A.Mozart version has been performed by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Medellín under the baton of Alberto Correa every year since 1974 - no wonder the maestro doesn't need to bother with a score!); a Nativity Choral Festival with wonderful presentations by the 'Tonos Humanos' and 'Arcadia' Choirs directed by Cecilia Espinosa; 'Expo Heliconias' at the Botanical Gardens with yet more Christmas choir music; and finally we were lucky enough to be here for the opening of the spectacular Christmas lights display over the river - an extravaganza of over twelve and a half million bulbs. Medellín definitely goes overboard for Christmas, and it looks as though the whole city will be in a festive partying mood for the next few weeks.

Back at the garage the Bosch mechanics could do nothing to ease DC3's difficulties, so it looks as though we're going to have to manage with a rough-running engine and lack of power until we can acquire the right replacement fuel injector - maybe in Panama, or maybe another assignment for Frank and Fedex. Meanwhile, we'll have to press on to Cartagena (downhill most of the way once we get over the mountainous rim surrounding Medellín) as DC3 has a boat to catch!
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