As someone who has been a parent for over 2 decades, I realized I had few chances to travel and explore on my own outside North America. I also needed ME time – time to reconnect with myself, remember my own identity and take some time to ponder the future and where I wanted to be in the next year. This March, despite some concern from friends, I set out for Medellín Colombia (pronounced Med eh dine or med eh jin) on my first solo journey to a non-English speaking City in Latin America. How did I choose Colombia as my destination? Well after weeks of looking at G Adventures tours in Costa Rica, Peru and other destinations, I came across a post from one of the G20 Young Entrepreneur Alliance summit delegates mentioned the Global Entrepreneurship Congress (#GECMedellin). If you know me, you know I love events, in particular entrepreneurial events! With the cost of my flight and AirBNB (the first picture below – which does not do the apartment justice!) being relatively the same as a 4 star resort somewhere warm, my destination was set!
For decades, Colombia was known as a dangerous place to go – kidnapping, drug cartels, conflict and so much more made Medellín a place where few travelers ventured willingly. However, in the last few decades Medellín , Colombia has transformed into an amazing city located in the valley of the Andes mountains. In 2013, Medellín was named the Innovative City of the Year. The first few days in Colombia were spent attending the summit, meeting former acquaintances from Australia and making new friends. Along the way I also managed to meet up with a few awesome people through mutual acquaintances. It is a wonderful feeling to travel to a foreign destination with plans to meet new people before you even arrive.
The new Metro system and Cable Cars have allowed Medellín and the surrounding Barrios to flourish. You would be hard-pressed to find a cleaner transit system anywhere in the world – the Medellín people are very proud of it. The innovative cable car system allows movement up the mountains into the barrios allowing people living in the poorest areas transportation into the metropolitan area as well as up and down the mountain side. And, the views from the cable cars – breathtaking!
The barrios (pictures to the side and below) consist of numerous buildings in various states of repair. Some buildings have little or no roof. Many are put together using whatever materials are available. Garbage, sewage and other sanitation issues are visibly troubled with garbage forming the earth below building, tossed in piles on the streets and even worse, being discarded in the river below.
These pictures are taken on our journey up the cable cars to Arvi Park at the top of the mountain.
It is heartbreaking to see the conditions of some homes and the filth that surrounds some of the areas. While most houses appeared well-kept for their location, sanitation is an obvious issue that likely affects economy and health. With all the resources we have in our world, how can we help communities like these resolve issues?
Our taxi driver advised us that the government is in the process of building apartments to move some of the residents in houses built on garbage or other unsafe building (landslide fears) to safer accommodations. (more below)
Medellín itself appears to have a good organics and recycling program based on buckets located in public areas and in my own accommodations. I hope that something similar can be expanded to the barrios to allow the area to be cleaned up. You can see (and smell!) the garbage floating in the contaminated river. Of course putting programs in place also depends on the citizens in the barrios being willing to make the change to handle waste and sanitation in a better manner.
From the cable car, we were also able to view beautiful graffiti drawings on the sides and roofs of many buildings.
Later in the week, I ventured outside the village to Guatapé, a lovely and picturesque community located about 1.5 hours from Medellín. The journey took us through farming communities – no big mechanical farming equipment here – farming on the hillside is done the old-fashioned way with manual equipment, animals and very hard work on uneven hillsides.
Near to Guatapé, we visited the mock village in honour of the village buried by water upon creation of the hydro dam. You can still see the church spire in the distance of the picture below. The villages flooded during creation of the dam were moved to higher grounds nearby. I would think it would be quite amazing to scuba dive around the underwater buildings. Next stop was Peñol Rock (La piedra del Peñol), a rock formation born 70 million years ago and only 2/3 above ground. A staircase of between 650 – 750 stairs has been built into the rock. After paragliding and walking Arvi Park, I made the decision to stop about 2/3rds of the way up at the observation point shown below. The journey down consisted of a much narrower staircase inside the crack of the rock. As you can see below, the views are stupendous!
As we entered Guatapé, the colours of this pretty vacation village on the shores of the man-made lake catch your attention! Vividly painted with flowers and other adornments, this village is picture-perfect! A quick meal at La Fogato filled our bellies with local cuisine to fuel the rest of the journey. I loved the sculptures of the surfer and in a nearby village, the Phoenix. A few more stops along the way top take pictures and visit a waterfall before returning to Medellín rounded out my week of tourism.
But, as some of you know, I also jumped off a cliff to go paragliding, explored the local neighbourhood and visited many parts of the city to ensure I truly experienced adventure on my trip.
I only felt one moment of fear my entire journey and that was St. Patrick’s day when my Uber was pulled over in a ride style check. My driver had to exit the vehicle and do a blow test (possibly due to my bar wear – a sparkly green hat sponsored by non-Irish company Heineken and a huge St. Patrick’s day necklace). Being left alone in a vehicle and not knowing whether this was a normal scenario, I was a little bit afraid. Seconds later my driver returned and all was well. In all, I felt safer using Uber all week than I felt in taxis, particularly when returning from another part of the city to my airBNB late at night alone.
The people of Colombia were warm and welcoming. My lack of Spanish was only a small impediment and caused a little bit of laughter as I tried to explain what I was trying to say. I still managed to go grocery shopping alone, buy shoes (including telling size), order food and find directions. Everyone was helpful.
The sidewalks of Colombia felt very safe. I noticed no outbursts, incorrigible behavour, fighting, swearing or yelling anywhere during my visit – something that I experience regularly in my own communities. The traffic and streets were a little crazy – the first few days I thought the drivers were all loco as they swerved in and out of traffic at rapid speeds. Lanes and traffic signals seemed to be suggestions. By the end of the week, it all seemed normal. Note to travelers – cars DO NOT STOP for pedestrians so be prepared to dodge traffic crossing the street. By the end of the week, I was a pro and crossing like a Colombian.
At the beginning of this post, I also mentioned this trip was a bit of a journey of self-discovery. I needed to refind myself. The truth is I stayed pretty busy my entire week away, perhaps too buy to really reflect on what I wanted from life. After a week of being at home, I have thought hard. I know I want to continue to travel to new areas, learn from others and explore. I am passionate about entrepreneurship and want to further the action I’m taking in the field, perhaps even finding work with an international organization like GEN. My passion and my purpose needs to match my career as when it does not, I feel out of alignment, I feel lost. I need to help others build their businesses and help put framework in place to help others, particularly those with a passion to improve the lives of others through social entrepreneurship.