Auckland – January 28th

Landed around 9am, breezed through immigration (fancy electronic passport scanning meant I didn’t get a stamp, though!), and through customs (my declared snacks and hiking boots were fortunately acceptable). A quick stop at an ATM, then to Vodafone to pick up a local SIM card, and over to catch the (prebooked) Skybus into town. My hotel was conveniently just across the street from a stop, but of course my room wasn’t ready at 10:20am! No problem, just a quick re-organization of bags and I’d be off. What time is check-in? 2pm, okay. Oh, and how late can I check in? Reception is only open until 4pm? Argh…well that puts some constraints on my day! Ah, well, off to get some coffee while I consider an appropriate order of operations.

Swung back by the hotel afterwards and although my room still wasn’t ready, another one was. Glad I asked! Lovely shower and fresh clothes and an entire day ahead of me.

Since it was a beautiful day, I decided to take a ferry out to Waiheke island, where I then got a day pass for the public buses rather than the 4x-priced hop on/hop off bus.

I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to see, so I enjoyed the views from the bus for awhile, and then realized I’d really need to get more water before venturing far on foot, as it was getting quite hot. Used my phone to figure out where there was a grocery store, got off there, and picked up an enormous bottle of water. Asked around about food options, and called a couple of wineries before deciding to go to Stonyridge Vineyard.

After waiting a while, a bus finally came by and I made it to the vineyard, only to find out that the “snack menu” that had been described to me on the phone was really designed to be shared and that they couldn’t make any smaller portions. A meat and cheese plate to accompany some wine sounded fantastic, but $65 NZ just seemed absurd. I was quite “hangry” by this point, but managed to keep the temper tantrum inside my head, and “settled” for some fancy toast with pancetta and goat cheese. The waitress helped me find a great place to sit, on a big cushion under a shade tree, looking out at the vineyards.

Refreshed and in better spirits, I walked back to the road. I had been trying to decide whether to start heading back toward the ferry, or continue on to the other side of the island. A bus pulled up right as I was getting close to the road, and since there were a lot of people waiting to get on, I was able to make it, in time. So, back towards the ferry I went.

As we passed through town, I saw a mass of people lined up at an ice cream shop, so when the bus stopped just a block past it, I hopped off. They had some great flavors, including mandarin chocolate coconut, and roast strawberry nougatine with pomegranate jelly. A good stop! Then, another long wait for a bus back the rest of the way to the ferry.

Back in the city, I walked over to the Sky Tower, and found out that if I went to The Sugar Club (one of the bar/restaurants at the top), I didn’t need to pay the $29 fee to ride up — I just had to spend at least that much, up there. So, I ordered my “free” fancy cocktail and appetizer while enjoying the view in a comfy seat. As sunset was approaching, I rode to the observation deck and on up to the topmost viewing area.

I didn’t do even half of the things on my list of ideas, but I enjoyed my leisurely day in a nice city.


Homeward bound – January 1 (+2), 2018

The airport taxi driver was there right on time (a relief, given that finding a cab on New Year’s Eve/New Years Day morning might’ve been tough!) Having even less traffic than when I arrived, this driver took the opportunity to take the airport highway as though it were a racecourse. He picked a winning line. Lane markers were irrelevant, and curves were meant to be straightened. I’m just glad there weren’t any surprises around any of the corners!

My early morning flight from Medellin to Bogota was slightly delayed, making my connection (including immigration & security) a bit tight. So of course it was one thing after another – our flight didn’t have a normal gate, so we all had to pile (slowly) onto a bus to the terminal, then walk from the domestic to the international departures, then at immigration some Aussies tried to cut ahead of the line (but I was a jerk and didn’t let them past me because “I also have a tight connection…” and the line was moving, anyway). At security, they decided my Sonicare toothbrush (which I’ve traveled with for years) warranted a closer look. Good grief! Karma for not letting the Aussies go by me? Finally made it to the gate, and they hadn’t actually started boarding yet (whew! They’re running a little behind! I have time to buy a bottle of water, yay!)

Then boarding, but with some additional security questions and random bag checks. After we were finally all on the plane, I happened to check the United app, which was showing an estimated 10:30am departure for our 8:30am flight. Huh? And that’s when things started to really go sideways. Apparently the plane’s potable water had an issue, so no coffee or water to wash hands (they had some wipes available in the lavatories). An initial comment by someone on the crew suggested that legally they could fly with the plane like that, but apparently United wanted maintenance to look at it. Long story short(ish): they kept us on the plane for 2 hours, then allowed us off and gave us food vouchers (only good at one fast food restaurant, on the other side of the terminal), then had us come back for updates every 45-90 minutes (occasionally with promising sounding information like “they’re testing it now”)…but at 4pm they finally cancelled the flight entirely. By that time, there were no good options left for getting home. I wound up on a red eye to Mexico City, connecting to Houston, and finally on to Denver. I spent a lot of time walking and sitting in airports. So much for Colombia being less travel time from Denver!

Anyway, I’m happy to be back home for a little while.

Medellin – Comuna 13, Metrocable, Plaza Botero – December 31

The other day at the coffee shop, in addition to arranging to do the coffee/horseback tour, I had found a free graffiti walking tour of the Comuna 13 neighborhood, and had signed up to do it. So, at a little before 10am, I met our blue shirted tour guides (and fellow tourists) and we headed out. Laura gave us some history of the neighborhood (she grew up there), along with information about the symbolism in some of the key paintings that indicate hope and opportunities. Up until just a few years ago, this was not a safe area, so it’s pretty remarkable that now it’s such a welcoming place for tourists. And the escalators provide a great way for residents to commute up and down the hillside (and are reminiscent of the ones I saw in Hong Kong, though it appears that the escalators in Comuna 13 run both directions, all day). In certain areas, there were groups of kids dancing for tips.

Toward the end of our tour, the English and Spanish groups converged, and the Spanish guide gave everyone some salsa dance lessons. The kids who’d been dancing for us, earlier, had their turn to watch (and giggle).

After the tour, I grabbed a quick bite (cheese bread) and then hopped on the metrocable to check it out. I just rode it around (not getting off at the top) and enjoyed the views, before taking the train back toward my hotel.

I felt like I was coming down with a cold, so I thought it would be a great time to try a drink that I’d missed in Bogota. Lonely planet had suggested that visitors “grab a hot cup of canelazo (made with aguardiente, sugarcane, cinnamon and lime) in a cafe in La Candelaria”

The hotel staff didn’t know of anywhere nearby that served it, but a bit of google searching suggested a coffee shop near the university made it. So, I walked over that direction and found a very nice neighborhood with cute restaurants and cafes (in addition to some US chains). Unfortunately, the place I was looking for was closed. I asked at a couple of other places, but got the distinct impression that although aguardiente is popular here, canelazo is maybe just “a Bogota thing” and not something widely available/well known in Medellin. So instead I just had a beer and arepa at another place before hailing an Uber to check out Plaza Botero.

The neighborhood around Plaza Botero was the roughest I’d seen, and as it was starting to get dark, I decided not to stay long.

Hoping to get some good late-sunset views, I headed over to ride a different metrocable on the opposite side of town from the one I rode in the morning. I had to take a tram to that metrocable, though, so it was dark by the time I got there. I again just rode in a loop and headed right back down. On the way back, I had the car to myself, and if I stayed still enough, the motion sensitive lights would go out. I tried to do this so I could get some decent photos/videos, because the Christmas lights on the houses below were a crazy blinking scene to behold, but I’m afraid photos don’t do it justice.

Back to the metro, and somehow, I managed to get on the wrong train at one of the transfers, which added a bit of travel time.

Finally back in my neighborhood, I found very few restaurants open, and just a few nightclubs. I went back to a place I’d eaten a couple nights prior and ordered churrasco which came with a melon-sized slice of avocado. A good last meal of 2017!

Then, back to my hotel for a shower & nap before catching the 3:30am taxi the hotel had arranged for me to get to the airport.

Overall impressions of Medellin: a cool city. Lots of different and interesting neighborhoods, a great metro system (aside from some confusing signage), and the metrocables are a brilliant (and quiet) solution for adding public transportation to dense & mountainous areas. I’d like to spend more time exploring more or the city. Perhaps staying in a quieter hotel/neighborhood though.

Coffee & horseback – December 30

The coffee tour folks showed up right on time, and since I was staying on the north side of the Medellin, I was the last person they picked up. Our van needed new shocks, and we bottomed out a couple of times going over some bumps, but we made it up and over the hill. In the van were a group of Mexican/El Salvadorian-American guys from Las Vegas and a couple of girls from Germany, and they were fun. One bought one of every type of snack that a guy walking in the stop-and-go traffic was selling, and shared the haul, so we all got to try a bunch of things.

The coffee tour itself was an interesting experience. I’m not sure how long they’ve been doing it, but it seems like they need to work out some of the kinks, still. I later chatted with the girl doing the English translations and learned that this was only her second day doing this tour (which explained why she was not confident in her coffee explanations nor in horseback riding!) The main guy leading the tour (in Spanish) was great, though, and his English was pretty good. The Las Vegas guys helped explain some of the things to those who didn’t understand Spanish (or the rough tour-provided translations). Anyway, they told us a bit about the history of coffee growing in the area, as well as a bit about the picking & processing. We all got to pick a few beans by hand, and also check out the “almonds” inside. In addition to having the chance to taste the pulpy coating and the beans themselves, we were given some “mucilex” which was like a thick, sweet juice made from the pulp of the beans. We also got to see how they process the beans, and tried some coffee grown there.

After lunch (a “paisa” packet of rice, meats, and egg) we headed out for our horseback ride. They had a few horses, but mostly had mules for folks to ride. Many people had never been on a horse before, and even though I had, I found it pretty intense since the very first thing we did was to ride up a narrow, steep, slippery/muddy path, and the horses slipped a lot. Just ahead of me, a couple of horses/mules slipped, one of the riders fell off, one horse slipped into another, and it was pretty scary. A couple of people decided they weren’t interested in continuing (and frankly they probably made the smart choice) but the rest of us continued and there were no further incidents. I made sure to leave some space between my trusty mule and the one in front of me whenever we were dealing with steep terrain (it was tricky, though, since they wanted to be close together!)

We stopped by a river for a little break, and a couple of people took a dip in the water. Then it was back to the coffee place, back into the van, and back (very slowly, in heavy traffic) into town.

Medellin – December 28-29

Late night arrival, and I took an airport taxi into town. The twisty mountain roads and motivated driver made it feel like a slalom race. Hold on!

My hotel room seemed nice enough, but had paper thin walls and single pane windows, so it was a good thing I was tired enough to be able to fall asleep through the near-constant din of music, horns, and people talking, laughing, and whistling.

I allowed myself a lazy morning, but when I eventually got moving, I asked at the front desk about any areas of town I should avoid walking in (and got confirmation that the route I intended to go should be fine). Along my way, I stopped for lunch at a place where I saw a bunch of people eating on the patio, and everyone had very similar things (a set lunch) so I joined them. 2 men who were probably 15 years older than me sat down nearby. One wanted to keep me company and show me around the city, and he insisted on sharing half of his (completely round and perfectly ripe) avocado with me. He cut it open with my butter knife. Very nice, and I felt bad for assuming they had annoying intentions and telling them that I preferred to be alone (which they eventually respected). Also: BYO Avocado is brilliant.

After lunch, more walking, and on into the shopping/dining area near El Poblando & La Florida. Latte and almond croissant at a place LP had recommended (good coffee, yes, but full of nothing but tourists). No power outlets, and bathrooms were “closed for cleaning” so I didn’t stay long.

I walked some more, and a sign for a place called Cafe-Bar-1977 caught my eye. At street level, it was just a door with stairwell leading upstairs. With just 2 people working, good music playing, and an upstairs balcony for peaceful people watching, I made it my home for a couple of hours. Also: on the balcony there were power outlets for charging my phone while I hung out. And very good cafe con leche. I wound up chatting a bit with the guy there – an Argentinian by way of Fort Lauderdale, Leo had just moved to Medellin and opened the place about a month ago (Google maps didn’t even have it, yet), and he picked the name because both he and the girl(friend/wife?) were born that year. Hey, it was a good year!

Since I liked their coffee, I asked him if he knew of any good coffee plantations to visit. He said he knew a girl who knew something about that and gave me her number (to contact on WhatsApp). She wound up being affiliated with a tour company, and they had a horseback coffee tour going the next day (with room for me to join), and I got a bit of a discount off the web price, due to the referral.

A bit more walking, then an Uber back to “my” neighborhood, dinner at one of the restaurants near the hotel, and another night of trying to sleep through the city & hotel noises. The walls were so thin that when the neighbors lowered their blinds, it sounded like it was in MY room. Add to that the outside noises and it was a lot.

Cartagena – December 27 & 28

Slept past hotel breakfast, so went to a bistro the front desk girl recommended. Then just wandering. Cartagena reminds me of New Orleans. Colorful, quaint, hot & humid, lots of flowers (& tourists).

After walking for a bit, I wound up literally on top of Las Bovedas – this former dungeon is now a tourist trap (full of souvenir shops). Since the doors were open, I got out of there as quickly as possible. Figuring out how to get outside the city wall took me a bit longer.

But, eventually (and after asking directions in my broken Spanish) I figured out how to get over/under/through the wall, and over to the Casa Rafael Nunez. The 2nd floor was nice – cool (breezy) & quiet. I chatted briefly with the 2 other people there (from Boston). And although I didn’t have time to go there on this trip, they recommended the bird sanctuary, so maybe another time.

Then, I walked back into center of town, and found the place LP mentioned with good coconut lemonade (yum, indeed). The couple next to me (from Texas) said to skip the City Tour. I hadn’t planned on taking it, anyway!

Wandered some more, and eventually wound up at a place serving ceviche in a garden courtyard that looked cute and quiet (set back off the street a bit). It filled up with more tourists after I got there. It was just okay.

Dinner at a place near the hotel that had some pretty good seafood. I had asked what was popular and the waiter pointed out a half dozen different things, but I wound up going with a seafood stew of some kind. The coconut rice that came with it was quite sweet (and tasty!)

Day 2-

Breakfast at hotel, where I chatted briefly with some girls from SF (Alecia & Jess), and then with a couple originally from Wisconsin (Rich & Lisa?) who now live on their sailboat. They were planning on going through the Panama Canal in a few weeks.

After breakfast, I walked to Bocagrande. It was hot, so I made a few stops (the mall, which had a great beach view from the food court, and then looking in a few shops). I had lunch at a place on a little side street that caught my eye because of the sign for a set lunch, combined with seeing a big group wearing matching business colors who had the waiter take a photo of them (perhaps celebrating something?) It turned out to be a Arabic restaurant that also served typical Colombian food, and it was pretty good. While I was eating, several other people came in, and I overheard a blonde guy (speaking Spanish) talking about Colorado. We were all finished at the same time, so as we were waiting to pay, I asked him about that — turns out he lives in Longmont and was down for work for a couple of weeks (he was having lunch with some web developers he works with in Cartagena).

After lunch, more walking. I went as far as I could go on Castillogrande (a pretty uninteresting area with lots of tall apartment buildings, but no cafes or restaurants). The very tip is not open to the public, and appeared to be some kind of navy facility. (Bad joke redacted)

I walked much of the way back to Cartagena, but wasn’t up for walking the last stretch, which I knew was unshaded, so I stopped in a grocery store to cool off and hailed an Uber. 30 minutes later, it finally showed up (I could’ve walked in that time!)

Back near the hotel, I splurged on a fancy coffee drink (vanilla ice cream + espresso), & chatted with a girl from Seattle who works for Amazon / Good Reads. Afterwards, I wandered around the corner to a pizza joint with sidewalk seating facing a cute little triangular “square.” I chatted a little with a girl from Nashville (now doing peace corps work teaching English in a small town in Colombia). Her mother had come back with her for a post-Christmas visit. Then, it was back to the hotel for happy hour on the roof (where I met the SF girls from breakfast, as well as a couple from D.C.). Our bartender was really nice and patient with our Spanish. Also a really big fan of Levi’s jeans.

Then it was time for me to head to the airport for my flight to Medellin.

Overall impressions of Cartagena: Charming, yes, and a lot of nice public spaces and art, but absolutely teeming with tourists. If I go back again, I’ll make time to do a beach/snorkeling day, but I’m not going to make a special trip to Cartagena just to do that.