A Travellerspoint blog

Cartagena de Indias and the Rosario Islands


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We flew on Avianca into Cartagena from Medellín and stepped off the plane to the familiar blast of hot, humid Caribbean air. I think there's nothing like it in the world (at least that we've found yet) and each time we arrive back to it we feel a sense of "aahhhh". Arriving at night was unfortunate as we didn't get to see the ride in from the airport and upon landing in the old city on the deserted shopping street our small hotel was on we wondered if we had made a mistake. We wandered out to have a cocktail and felt like we were in a pretty sketchy area. But we found a cute place not too far away with a roof deck and good Gin+Tonics and all was right with the world. The next day, we realized it was a perfectly fine area just on the edge of the tourist zone and so very quiet at night.

OLD CITY CARTAGENA

The Walls
The old city is walled by huge fortress walls the likes of which I haven't seen since Spain. They are tall and extremely thick. If you've seen the forts in St. Augustine or Puerto Rico you know what I'm talking about but these go around the entire old city. The tops of the walls are filled with restaurants, plazas, and the corners have fortress structures and old cannons.
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This is a view through one of the entryways at street level that shows you how thick they are!
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This is the famous clock tower, the main entrance to the old city.
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They're where everyone goes to watch the sunset. It felt a lot like sunset pier in Key west.
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The Streets
The best part of Cartagena is walking the streets of the old city and the quarter just next door, Getsemani. The colors of the buildings, the decorations, and the fruit vendors combine into a kaleidoscope.
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There are tons of small square with cafes and some shade to enjoy a cocktail or something to eat.
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The best concoction here is the Coco Limonada (coconut limeade). Truly delicious!
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The Beaches
The beaches in Cartagena aren't very nice. The sand is dark and silty and in the afternoon the winds get so strong they pelt you with it covering you in a fine grit. It also makes the water murky and not that nice Caribbean blue. But we checked it out, got some chairs and an umbrella, a cooler of beer, and had a nice day. The views of the newer parts of the city filled with skyscrapers reminded us of Panama City or Miami.
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ROSARIO ISLANDS

It's easy to see Cartagena in a couple of days and we had eight days so we decided to head over to the Rosario islands off Cartagena for a few days. The rap on them is they have the better white sand beaches and blue waters. Sounded good to us. You get to them by "speed boat". Yes they do have two large engines and they are boats that go fast but they are seriously just wood boats with wood plank seats and a little padding. But we got there. And...we have to admit to being underwhelmed.

And here I have to digress and discuss the hazards of relying on Instagram and Travel Blogs for information to travel. I'm increasingly realizing that these aren't great sources of information other than for the "how to get there" and "how to get around" sections. Here's the thing...no one wants to admit something was "underwhelming". If you went by IG and blogs, you would think the Rosario Islands are paradise when, in fact, they are pretty grungy and run down. There are more derelict properties than running ones. If this area ever had a heyday it is certainly passed.

Alas, what were we to do when stuck on an island in the Caribbean for two nights? Make coco limonada from the limes! Truly, the place kind of grew on us in a "well this is fun(ky)" kind of way. The staff went out of their way to get us what we wanted within their abilities. As an island where everything is brought by boat, not everything is always available and selection is very limited. But they cooked us three meals a day, brought us a cooler of beer to the dock, and arranged what we needed in the way of transport. After walking the island a little bit, finding a "store" to buy a bottle of rum, seeing lots of pigs and chickens, and feeling a bit intrusive on the islands very poor residents, we decided the best place was our dock. We plopped there for the next 36 hours until it was time to leave.
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The water was blue and warm, the sun was shining, and from there it does look like a beautiful place.
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Then we all crammed back into the boat for a WILD ride back to Cartagena. In the afternoon the winds kick up the waves (see pic above) and we got soaked as we crashed through four foot swells all the way back. It takes about an hour and a half. We've rarely been so glad to be off the water!
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MORROS BEACH

After that, we decided to stay out of the old city for the rest of our stay in Cartagena and booked a one bedroom AirBnB in a high-rise on Morros Beach, complete with pool. Cost=$50 USD/night! I think we'll recover nicely here as we await our departure.
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We sail on the Amande for a six night trip to the San Bas Islands and on to Panama on Friday.
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Keep up with us on Instagram (for the isn't everything perfect view of our travels haha!) @arrradventures and stay tuned here for the San Blas Islands and the real take on our adventures.

Posted by mrb430 04:30 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Observations on Travel in Colombia


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We are leaving Medellín for Cartagena today and we're excited to get to the coast and to a new city. Before we leave though, here are a few last pics and places and a few observations from our travels so far in Colombia.

Yesterday Scott indulged me in a few of my bucket list items. we visited the Museo de Antioquia where there are numerous Botero sculptures and paintings. I really love this guy. It's funny, one of my other favorites is Amedeo Modigliani. So I guess I like distortion. I did always get a kick out of the funny mirrors at the circus!
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A portrait of Cezanne.
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These last two are depictions of the dying and dead Pool Escobar.
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One last look at the main square, Parque Berrio...
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And then it was back to Parque Lerras in Poblado for a lazy afternoon.

Finally, on the way home, we got back to the Plaza de Las Luces (Plaza of Lights), which you may remember is the central square that underwent a total transformation. At night, all of the poles light up and it's really magical.
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Money

The exchange rate is approximately 3100 COP (Colombian Peso) to 1 USD. At first it seems this will be awful to calculate on the fly. Divide by 3 and move the decimal place three places left. However, the COP denominations pretty much move the decimal place for you by ignoring the extra zeros and just saying "Mil" (1000). So, you just have to divide by three which makes it only slightly more difficult than Mexico (divide by 2 move the decimal place 1).
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Bathrooms

Bathrooms, as a rule, are very clean. There are public toilets at most Metro stations and variously throughout town. You pay the attendant between 600-800 COP (50-60 cents) with an uncharge of 200 COP if you want toilet paper. WHY DOESN'T THE U.S. DO THIS! It makes so much sense and means you have clean toilets with toilet paper without having to sneak into a restaurant. As in most Central/South American countries, TP goes into the basket not the toilet. Hand washing stations are shared and outside the restroom area usually.

Transportation

I've talked about the Metro. It is so popular, there are sometimes HUGE lines to get into the stations. This was the Poblado station on our way home last night. (We took a taxi!)
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In addition, the city has bike lanes designated everywhere and many people use them. Buses are prevalent, taxis are very cheap and everywhere. Perhaps the absolutely most popular form of transportation is the motorcycle however. They come in all shapes and sizes but most are very small, single-cylinder, 150- cc. There are also tons of scooters. And people carry everything on them. We have seen the passenger carrying lumber, furniture, a bicycle (this is especially funny because the bike wheels stick out either side), and all other manner of things.

On that point, the other day we saw people getting off of a long-distance public bus, they have storage in the back and underneath, with an entire bed frame they were transporting.

Check out this short video of a typical traffic start after a light change. The motos all collect at the front and zoom off first. Then the taxis, they get up in front of the buses and trucks during the spaces in between lights, then come the buses and bicycles. It is total chaos but it works.

Right of way

As in Costa Rica, pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way. When you arrive in Panama, there are large signs warning travelers of this in the airport. Not so in Colombia. But still, you cross a street at your own risk.

Language

Yes they speak Spanish in Colombia but it's not the Spanish you learned in school. They use totally different words. Pare instated of Alto for stop and on and on. If you want to practice your Spanish, go to Mexico! I mean, you will be able to communicate better than someone without any but you'll still feel dumb.

[Note: once in Cartagena it went back to "normal". I guess the isolation of Medellín for so long allowed them to develop a different dialect.]

Economics

There is a huge disparity still between the rich and poor of Medellín. The hillside barrios are very poor and Poblado and Laureles are very rich. Of course, as with any city, it's not that black and white. Economic classes are pretty mixed throughout the city, except maybe in the hillside barrios. Segregation is based on economics not outright prejudice as far as I can tell. That being said, there has clearly been A LOT of investment in public infrastructure. The parks, transportation options, and roads (surprisingly good!) all testify to this. But so do the many small exercise parks in the hillside barrios, the abundance of soccer fields everywhere, and the cleanliness.
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You can tell people are proud of their city. Where in poorer neighborhoods in the US, this type of infrastructure would be destroyed and graffitied, speaking from first-hand experience in DC, here it is used and respected. Medellín has a long way to go but it is amazing how far it has come. Easy to see why it won this prestigious award. Check out the link if you're interested in more info on Medellín's transformation. https://www.leekuanyewworldcityprize.com.sg/media/feature-articles/medellin-transformed.

Food

As I've mentioned, we're not fans of Colombian food. It's all fried, very heavy on meat, and generally very bland. One funny thing, every table in every restaurant has salt on it but not pepper. I literally have no idea how the Colombians are not as obese as the Mexicans in Baja. They do however eat a ton of fruit, raw, in smoothies, etc. and it is delivered to the neighborhoods by vendors walking the streets.
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Delivery
Colombians must order take-out constantly. There is a take-out service here that will go to any restaurant and deliver anything. They use bike messengers and motos and they are everywhere, all day and night!

Street Food
There are a ton of street food vendors in Centro but elsewhere in the "Gringo areas" (Poblado and Laureles) it's only where there are pockets of diversity that result in a demand for it. aka, in my observation wealthy residents don't partake except maybe outside the Metro stations for a snack on the way home.

Militarization

It took us awhile to get used to all of the police/military presence in Baja. There are tons of different forces and they are all present and all heavily armed all the time. In Colombia, you see very little of this. I don't think I've seen a machine gun since I got here. You see very few police, at least in the neighborhoods we are in, and the only military we've seen is when four generals came to dinner to the restaurant we were at with a full escort. It's refreshing, if a little puzzling, and one of the things I would love to discuss with a local if only they spoke the same Spanish I do!

So stay tuned for updates from Cartagena and follow us on Instagram @arrradventures for frequent updates.

Posted by mrb430 10:09 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

(Re) Learning to Travel SLOW in Medellín


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It's a day off here in Medellín - a day off from all day adventure anyway. After dropping off our laundry around the corner, we stopped in to hang out at Cafe Revolución with a bunch of other digital nomads. Colombian coffee is soooooo good. They serve it many ways but the cold brew is especially good.

THE TRAINING WHEELS ARE OFF

The change is pretty dramatic from not even two weeks ago when we still had Ruby, understood the language (Spanish in Mexico was much easier), had reliable internet...as Scott said "it's like going from training wheels to riding a Moto GP bike (for the non-motor sports fanatic they're the Formula 1's of motorcycles)."

"Our rhythm is to take the mornings to ourselves and get going out and about between 11:00 am and noon. We get lunch out most days, spend the afternoon sightseeing or driving, and then head back to home for an early evening with Cadeau...An outcome of this is that I've had to scale back on what I can plan for us to see in any given day. Yes, this Virgo has had to accept that we just won't see it all or get it all done. And, you know, I'm getting okay with that. This is our life, not just a permanent vacation."

I wrote this back in early May 2018 in Memphis at the beginning of our travels in North America. It's so interesting to look back at our old posts because my inner Virgo has definitely resurfaced here in Colombia. Something about being on the move again and feeling like I HAVE TO HAVE A PLAN! In other words, we have to see all the sights! We might miss something! I really didn't expect this and it's taken us both by surprise. We had a long talk about it last night with Scott reminding me of our goals (slow travel, getting to know places, finding favorite places, just enjoying where we are). This morning I was talking to another American traveling with her boyfriend and asked where they were going next. She replied, "we're not very good at planning, we just do whatever each day". That's more like it, I thought to myself. I need to get my chill back on, my tranquilo, my here and now.

Don't get me wrong, we don't want to just veg out and drink coffee all day. We have maintained a "day on-day off" kind of schedule and have gotten out to see sights. It's more about letting go a little and not worrying about the future so much but really just enjoying today. I'll keep you posted on how I do with it. And if your worried about Scott, don't be. He's as chill as ever (other than having to put up with my crazy!). Yesterday he said to me his favorite part of being retired is just waking up naturally, sometimes just waiting a few minutes to get up, sometimes longer, and sometimes rolling over and going back to sleep. Yesterday we were up early for our day trip, today we got up at 9:30! Can't quit this section without a huge shout out to him for his patience and understanding. What a lucky girl I am to have a travel partner like him.

COLORFUL GUATAPÉ...was not our thing

Yesterday was an "on" day and we got up early to head to the bus station for a day trip to Guatapé. It's a pueblo about two hours from Medellín. The bus ride was interesting as the Pueblo is up in the hills outside the city and the road is a twisty-turny up and down through the countryside.
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Guatapé itself is set in a valley in which a dam on the river Nare created a large lake similar to Lake of the Ozarks with hundreds of small fingers sticking into valleys. In the second photo below you can see the river.
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The highlight, other than the town, is a giant rock called variously El Peñol/El Peñón/La Piedra. It is composed of approximately 66 million tons of granite, quartz, and feldspar and resembles an oblong Devil's Tower covers in ferns, moss, and bromeliads. You can see it across the valley as you approach it.
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There is a walkway to the base and then a set of steps up the side of it. As it was an overcast day with limited views, I opted for just taking photos from the base. It had nothing to do with not wanting to climb the 1,000+ stairs!
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On to the town of Guatapé, we found a very vibrant town filled with tourists, mainly Colombian. As it was Sunday, it was really crowded, all of the vendors were out, and people pushing boat tours and restaurants were everywhere. As advertised, it really is a colorful town - every surface painted a different color.
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And their big claim to fame, other than La Piedra, is the colorful raised zocalos (plinths) that decorate every building and tell the story of the town. These were my favorite part!
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Many line up with what the building houses, such as a pool hall or bar.
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Ok so you may be thinking great day, right? Well...here's the thing. Visiting pueblos like this feels like visiting any tourist trap anywhere. It's not really very tranquil to have a coffee and get pestered every couple of minutes by someone selling something. Also, the only real thing to do other than the canned stuff is shop. We don't shop. We've learned you can stop into one store and see virtually everything that will be on offer in all of the others. We learned this when visiting similar towns in Baja and I suppose should have known better. It is interesting to see the local crafts but really it takes about 15 minutes. So now you've had a coffee, walked around the town, stopped in a shop or two and it's taken about an hour. You now have four more to kill before your bus back...Ugh.

It was a milestone for me though, to say "Ya' know, that wasn't so great". Living in the world of Instagram and travel blogging where everything ia always perfect, I can get caught up in not wanting to admit something didn't live up to expectations. But you know, I realized, we are going to do things and go places that miss the mark for us and that's ok. It's a part of our learning and as Scott says, gives us something to compare to so we know when we hit it big!

SIGHTS OF MEDELLÍN

Ending on a positive note, we are still really enjoying Medellín and the sights here. We even dropped the other day trip we had planned (see all of the reasoning above) to just stay in the city and enjoy it.

The other day we stopped in at the Jardín Botánico. It's a beautiful space with a very nice restaurant overlooking the gardens. It was a nice respite from the heat of the city.
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Iguanas have the run of the place, the jardín not Medellín!
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Riding the Metro, which is elevated most of the way through the city is a great way to get a quick look at the city. There are many, many large cathedrals in Medellín; here is one we saw from the Metro.
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Nighttime is rocking in Medellín. We miss most of it as the salsa clubs don't really get going until midnight but as soon as it gets dark the party buses come out and all of the clubs put on their lights and put out their balloons. Yes, balloons. It's a thing here.
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I can't really recommend Colombian food but Medellín has lots of good international restaurants and mixologists to match any in the US. Last night I had a perfect infused Gin + Tonic and Scott had a Old Fashioned.

So to sum up, let me borrow from the sign above the door of Cafe Revolución...
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Stay tuned for more from Medellín and more of our learning. And remember to follow us on Instagram @arrradventures for more frequent updates.

Posted by mrb430 11:01 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

First Impressions of Medellín, Colombia


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REFLECTIONS ON THE CITY

Medellín is set in a valley with hills all around it and two actually in it. It is a sprawling city of 2.5 million people. The housing rises up every hillside, in some places all the way to the top. Like Denver, LA, or Phoenix, unfortunately the hills also trap the pollution and emissions laws seem to be non-existent here. The haze in these photos is unfortunate but a real part of the view here. Yesterday we took the metro to one of three high-speed gondolas that the transportation system has built so far to provide better access to and from the hillside barrios. They are literally part of the system and riders just seamlessly transfer to them. Of course they are also a tourist favorite. The ride up is amazing and provides interesting views of the barrios and the expanse of the city.
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We then connected to a second gondola that is ticketed separately and solely for tourists, local and foreign alike, that are going up to Parque Arví. It crests the summit of the hills and crosses over a dense tropical forest that reminded me of cloud forest with bromeliads, moss, and tree ferms until it reaches the park information area.
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THE NEIGHBORHOODS
There are three main barrios (neighborhoods) that tourists visit: Laureles, where we are staying, Centro (downtown), which is only really safe during the day, and Poblado, the rich neighborhood where I am sitting in a cafe writing this while Scott is working on taxes.
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Laureles is a very quiet, largely residential neighborhood with restaurants and stores on the main boulevards. It is very green with flowering trees everywhere (I actually saw a Poinsettia tree this morning!), very pretty, and there are not many foreigners there. Few people speak English. We love it!

Poblado is the wealthy area with high-rise hotels and apartment buildings. It is up the hill from the valley on the south side of the city. It is also one of the prime night spots with bars and clubs. Parque Lleras is the center of this action. It is a really pretty park surrounded by restaurants and shops. Many people speak English here, there are many more foreigners, and consequently it is more expensive to eat and drink but still cheap by US standards. And there are chains...
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If you know Scott, you know he took this picture!

Centro is the economic heart, the business, shopping, and commerce district. We toured it on a RealCity walking tour and learned a lot about the city and it's people, called Paisas. First off, Medellín is not a colonial city so most of the buildings date from the early 1900's at the earliest. The Spanish did come here but since no gold was found, moved on. It wasn't until the early 1900's that people figured out is was a perfect climate for growing coffee and with that the area took off. Train lines were built and that was pretty much it until that other product with a "C"started being produced and all of the chaos of the narco and political wars and in the 70-90's ravaged the city.

But Medellín takes its recovery from that time very seriously and have intentionally addressed it in many ways. The city is now much more safe, for everyone, it is clean as the result of cleaning crews out everywhere sweeping and cleaning, and scary places like the abandoned market in the middle of the city have been remade into a beautiful public plaza.
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Here are some other images of Centro.
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METRO
Medellín is the only Colombian city with a metro system and to say they are proud of it is a huge understatement. It is amazingly clean and really easy to use.
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We've been taking it daily.
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In many areas downtown the space underneath it is reserved as pedestrian walkways. In fact, there are pedestrian walkways all over, which is so nice.
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PAISAS
The people of Colombia look very different from Mexico. For one thing, they are a lot better looking and a lot thinner! Exercise is a huge part of their lifestyle as is fresh fruit. They do fry just about everything but that somehow doesn't seem to affect them. As explained to us by our young tour guide who is from Medellín, they find little things to be happy about even in the face of their past and their still difficult present. They have a lot of pride in their city and its recent accomplishments. And they see foreigners as an oddity still; tourism is relatively new here and outside of Poblado there aren't many. They tend to stare. If you catch them and smile, they smile back with a look of wonderment. They often call out to us "Good Morning" in English. For whatever reason many locals know this phrase. And as I mentioned in my last post they are patient and try very hard to be helpful. They also really appreciate those who are polite to them. Some even reward it!
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This picture of our tour guide in front of two sculptures by their famous home town boy Fernando Botero Angulo. (Note: the sculptures of disproportionate people above are also Boteros.) The one on the left was destroyed by a bomb during a concert and killed many people. This occurred during the narco wars. When the city was going to remove it, the sculptor asked that they keep it there and he made another one that stands on the right. It is both a reminder of history and a symbol of the transformation and rebirth of the city.
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Planning some day trips in the upcoming days so stay tuned! And don't forge to follow us on Instagram @arrradventures for real-time updates.

Posted by mrb430 11:40 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Made it "Home" to Medellín


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The trip from LA to Medellín was a nightmare and a great introduction to what we will experience going forward. We were delayed an hour out of LA so we knew we would miss our connection to Medellin in Fort Lauderdale. They gave us a choice to stay in LA or press on and we opted to just get going. So we left LA at 10 pm PST and got into Fort Lauderdale at 3 am PST, 6 am EST. In LA they told us there wasn't a way to get to Medellin in the same day - everything was solid out. But not being one to be deterred by bad news, I asked again in Fort Lauderdale and lo and behold they figured it out. The flew us to Bogota and then put us on Avianca, a Colombian carrier to do a domestic flight into Medellín. Of course, in Bogota it couldn't go too smoothly and we had to visit three different counters to get it straightened out but we got here. We got up at 6:30 am PST yesterday to get everything done and Scott hasn't slept since. 39 hours later he is finally in a comfortable bed in a wonderful little hotel in a fabulous neighborhood in Medellín. I slept a bit so here I am putting it all to paper.

Yesterday was a whirlwind. We started out the day with me doing laundry and Scott shipping off our final possessions to my mom and the girls. Then we regrouped and packed our backpacks. Over and over and over again until it all fit. I gave away so much stuff to the staff of the Embassy Suites it was hysterical! Everything from coolers and beach chairs to shoes and clothes to bottles of Tequila and shaving cream. I just do really hate to throw things away! Then it was off to CarMax to sell Ruby. I thought we would be more affected by that but 23,008 miles later...
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...we both just walked away. There was too much to do to stop and think about it. Everything we now own is with us in two backpacks and two day packs. Wish us luck!
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Finally we had to Uber to the post office to finish last business and then to the airport where the above ordeal began.

And I'm so glad we made it. I honestly feel like we're home again. My Spanish isn't good enough but as usual the locals are friendly and willing to be patient. The girl at the hotel just realized she had to speak very slowly and then she complemented me on my Spanish! I told her I can understand a lot more than I can speak as long as she talks "mas despues" (more slowly). The guy at the bar I asked about how to take the bus and Metro to our walking tour tomorrow decided it would be easier just to get the guy from the barber across the street that speaks English. It's just how it works down here. And especially here where we might have seen six other non-Colombians all night. I don't get the feeling they get many "gringos" here and that makes us an oddity and, in a way, I think they feel a bit proprietary over us and look out for us. Don't get me wrong. We had some fun in LA (check out our Instagram and Facebook posts from the last week) but every time we spent $50 on lunch or $175 on a hotel it just irritated us.

And then we got "home". Here, we went to the ATM when we got here and got out 300,000 Colombian pesos, about 95 USD. We proceeded to buy our Sim cards (6 USD), get data plans (20 USD), have lunch (5 USD), take a 45 minute taxi ride from the airport (25 USD), have a few beers (8 USD), and have a pizza with a beer and two glasses of wine (17 USD with tip) and we have about 15 USD left over. We spent 125 USD in one night the first night we got to LA for four drinks, two salads, and bruschetta! Our early retirement budget just does not include the US and truthfully I'm glad. There is so much to see out here in this big world and Medellín is going to be a great starting place. It is beautiful, clean, green, friendly, city and we can't wait to explore it.

I suppose I may have more of these ramblings in with the typical here's what we did and here's what we saw posts going forward. We're back on the road and I want to be able to look back someday and not only remember where we were but what we felt. Hope you enjoy the ride, dear readers.

Posted by mrb430 18:18 Archived in Colombia Comments (2)

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