Hummingbird Farms, Grass Pyramids and Botero Plaza – RTW Week #19
Medellin, Colombia – This past week, the 19th into my RTW trip, began in the Zen surroundings of a hummingbird and butterfly farm in the mountains outside of Quito and ended at Botero Plaza in the loud and busy heart of central Medellin. In between, I spent about 37 hours in transit, snapped 949 photos, and added the fruit juices of Colombia to my list of fetishes. And speaking of which –lists, not fetishes– Colombia earned the distinction of becoming No. 50 (!) on my Countries-Visited List.
Tuesday, May 28 – Quito and Mindo, Ecuador
I make a day trip to Mindo –about two hours one-way from Quito– where I spend the late morning and early afternoon with hundreds of hummingbirds and butterflies, taste organic chocolate, and enjoy my first experience with the addicting sweetness of stevia, now my new favorite plant. Laura, my travel partner for the day, agrees.
During a brief hike through the jungle, I see a toucan in the wild for the first time. He even perches still long enough for me to switch lenses and snap a photo, albeit not a very good one.
Wednesday, May 29 – Quito, Ecuador
It’s a lazy day. I wake up listless, not for the first time in recent weeks. I wonder if burn out is setting in and decide to seriously revisit the topic in 10 days.
Twice I interrupt long rounds of reading on the bed in my windowless room, both times for aimless walks around the centro historico to snap some photos. The highlight of the first stroll is watching a couple argue in the large square in front of the Church and Convent of San Francisco. The woman, speaking forcefully and with conviction, shoves and slaps the man in the face a few times. He responds by blowing smoke in her face.
It’s raining steadily when I venture out again, shortly after six. When it turns into a downpour, I duck into the small café where I had breakfast the morning I arrived. There are seven customers: two are dining, four are watching a Newell’s-Boca Juniors Argentine Cup football match, and I’m watching all of them. I had typically bad instant coffee and a very good pineapple pastry but don’t stay for the end of the game which Newell’s won after a marathon 13-round penalty shootout.
Thursday, May 30 – Quito, Ecuador
I wake up energized so decide that visits to two museums won’t be one too many on my last day in Ecuador.
I spend part of the morning and afternoon acquainting myself with the work of the country’s best known painters and sculptors, Oswaldo Guayasamin, at his home and studio-turned museum in the hills at the eastern edge of Quito. His is described as a “Pan-American” style, his most notable works focusing on the social inequities in Latin America. I enjoy his work so much that I break my No. 1 RTW Travel Rule and buy a big and somewhat heavy book. He was a serious collector, too, with dozens of works from various eras gracing his walls. The standouts? A series of 18 prints by Goya and a playful piece by Chagall of a man squeezing a mermaid’s breast.
Next up is the Museo Nacional to feed, with one last dose, my growing interest in pre-Columbian Ecuador. I’ve become fascinated by the Valdivia culture, one of the oldest recorded cultures in the Americas, which dates back to 3500 BC, and the Jama-Coaque, which dates back some 2,500 years. I want one last look at them, and at the Giants of Bahia, insanely cool meter-tall sculptures created about two millennia ago.
I’m in a good mood so I skip the Conquest portion of the museum, choosing a return trip to the Basilica instead so I can shoot a quick pre-sunset time lapse. I get there about thirty minutes before closing, quickly make my way up to the belfry and shoot for about twenty minutes. On my way out I have a quick cappuccino in the third level coffee shop; I choose to descend via the stairway instead of the elevator. That decision nearly forces me to spend the night in the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas.
It turns out that closing time is strictly enforced. The stairways on both back ends of the basilica end at the fronts of doors chained with large medieval padlocks. I return to the center of the wide balcony where for a moment I stand transfixed, admiring how the sun brilliantly illuminates the church interior through stained glass. I break through the spell and start yelling down for help, pleas that are rendered silent as they sail through the vast church. I feel like a frustrated howler monkey, my yells growing louder as they remain ignored. I consider prayer. I finally capture someone’s attention. About forty minutes later the keeper of the key returns and I’m saved from the rafters.
I meet Laura for dinner at the Café Dios no Muere, a small restaurant located on three narrow floors of the Santa Catalina convent southeastern corner. It’s run by Mathieu, a New Orleans native who tells me that our visit coincides with the first batch of crawfish –river crabs to the locals– that he’s ever prepared on the premises. The name, God Doesn’t Die, is taken from the last words attributed to Ecuadorian president Gabriel Garcia Moreno who was assassinated in 1875. After he was taken down in a machete and revolver attack, Dominican nuns hid his body in the convent.
My bus is scheduled to leave at 10pm. I arrive at the station at about 9:20, ten minutes before being told that there would be a two-hour delay. We didn’t pull out until just before 1.
Friday, May 31 – Quito, Ecuador to Popayán, Colombia
We arrive at the border at Rumichaca, a bridge over the Carchi River that dates back to the Incas, at 7am. Formalities on both sides only take about thirty minutes, but for some reason we didn’t move on until 9. I’m told that Popayán is another eight hours away. But the road is slow and I ignore that ETA. Long winding ascents precede long twisting descents. Patches of road work, mainly to clean up landslides damage, are common. But the scenery is stunning – mountainous, lush, misty, dramatic. I try counting the shades of green before briefly dozing off.
We stop for a 45-minute lunch at about 1pm (we were back on the road about 90 minutes later). I have a vegetable, beef and potato soup, a plate piled high with rice, beans, plantain and a piece of beef, washed down with a tall glass of maracuya, or passion fruit juice. It’s a deal at 6,000 pesos, a bit over three dollars. The official exchange on Thursday was 1,900 pesos to the US dollar. I’m given 1,700 at the restaurant where I’m not really in a position to negotiate. Nor do I feel it’s necessary.
The lunch stop is located in a small settlement that includes a gas station, the restaurant, another tienda across the street, a pool hall and about a dozen houses, most of them with posters advertising pre-paid mobile phone cards. The light rain returns as we pull out, and steadily increases as the journey progresses. It’s nearly a downpour by seven when the countryside turns completely dark.
I’m the only passenger whose journey ends in Popayán, so the driver deems it appropriate to drop me off at a gas station/convenience store/bakery at the edge of town. “It’s safe here,” I’m told by the steward who plops my bag into a small muddy puddle.
It’s a few minutes after 7:30 but even the darkness and limited vision through the heavy condensation on the taxi’s window can’t conspire to mask how obviously attractive the center of this city is. As we speed along the wet straight roads that make up the center’s perfect grid layout, my taxi driver Miguel gives me a quick rundown on what I need to see and where I don’t need to go after dark. I reach my hotel at 8, nineteen hours after leaving Quito.
Saturday, June 1 – Popayán, Colombia
I wake to find bright blue cloudless skies that make the whitewash of the town almost blinding. Clouds would eventually begin to roll in, covering the landscape with immense puffy clouds. After three it began to rain hard, a storm that wouldn’t let up until late into the evening.
It’s a short five-minute climb to the top of El Morro de Tulcán, a grass-covered burial pyramid built at least 2,500 years ago. Since 1937 it’s been topped by a statue of the city’s Spanish founder, Sebastián de Belalcázar, who poses triumphantly on horse back. I find the location of a memorial to a conquistador atop an ancient burial ground gravely insulting.
I buy my onward ticket for Medellin, a 12-hour journey scheduled to leave Sunday night at 7:45pm. As I fork over 65,000 pesos (USD 34.31 / EUR 26.26), I’m confident that it won’t last more than 13. When returning from the bus station I drive by two dwarfs engaged in an animated discussion. One is carrying a sword that was longer than he was tall.
I’m well on the way to becoming a major fan of the Juices of Colombia. The third of the day, bought from a street vendor, is guanava/Guanabana, my favorite thus far. It’s a green, prickly papaya-shaped fruit, with a citrusy strawberry-pineapple taste and creamy texture. In English it’s called soursop and is related to the pawpaw.
Sunday, June 2 – Popayán, Colombia
It’s Sunday, which means that I hear and listen to lots of singing coming from the open doors of churches I walk by at various times of the morning and early afternoon. I buy some pineapple and sit by the central square and watch some small children dance awkwardly and shyly in front of an appreciative crowd. I later spend some time photographing statues of the nine Greek muses that stand atop the Teatro Municipal de Valencia. Terpsichore is my favorite.
In the afternoon I want to check out the modern art collection at the Casa Museo Negret but it’s closed for renovation so instead I visit the Museo Guillermo Leon Valencia across the street, the home of a former President of Colombia. There are pictures showing him as a pensive hunter, a devout catholic, and in audience with John F. Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle and Spanish dictator Federico Franco.
I arrive at the bus station early where I buy some sweet bread and crackers. I’m surprised and annoyed that in a country so rich in both quantity and diversity of fruit that none is available for purchase at the bus terminal on a Sunday evening.
The bus, scheduled to leave at 7:45, pulls out at 8:10. Less than two hours later I’m lulled to sleep by a poorly-dubbed version of the Hugh Jackman film, Real Steel.
Monday, June 3 – Medellin, Colombia
A firm tug at my arm wakes me at a few minutes after three. “Caballero, pasaporte por favor,” I hear coming from behind a bright flashlight mounted to a large man’s small head. He’s a policeman who also frisks me and searches my bags. He does the same with most of the rest of the male passengers.
We arrive at the Medellin Sur bus terminal at about 6:30, an hour ahead of schedule. My hotel is about a 10-minute taxi ride away – despite my early arrival, I’m given a room immediately. I flick on the fan, lay down and barely move until noon.
I head out to get my bearings. As a big fan of Fernando Botero’s work, the only item on my Medellin must-see list is a visit to his eponymous plaza. Located in the heart of the city center, it’s the city’s only open air museum and home to 23 sculptures donated by the city’s favorite son. I spend the next four hours in the area, one where seemingly everyone feels welcome and at home. Young mothers, drunks and cigarette and lime juice vendors freely intermingle with musicians, beggars, bankers and artists. I decide that it’s among my favorite plazas in the world.