Week Three: Colombia

I’m in South America. Coaching, playing, watching and writing about football. And seeing some other stuff, of course.
Every week, I’ll provide an update on what I’ve been doing, where I’ve gone and various other things. I’ve been writing online since I was 13, but still hate using personal pronouns like ‘I’, so this a bit of a new experience for me.

Hola a todos,

These first words are being noted down at an altitude of 3425m, though I’m not a plane. Instead, I’m en route towards recovering from food poisoning in my only day in Peru.

By the time the final words of this post are written, I’ll be even higher above sea level in Bolivia.

I left Colombia at the start of this week after 21 of the most action-packed days of my life. I visited eight cities as well as two small towns and, in doing so, saw and enjoyed beaches, high-rise buildings, sprawling metropolises, cable cars, jungles, the Caribbean, thunderstorms and baking sun.

My time in Colombia, a country which lived up to all possible dreams I had of it, came to end in slightly difficult circumstances. But these last couple of days have been my first ‘bad’ days of the trip so far, and so I can be grateful for that.

Without a job or work to do, it is amazing what can be fit into a single week. So here’s what I’ve done over the last week. Five cities in seven days.

Barranquilla

Barranquilla is Colombia’s fourth-largest city but one typically avoided by tourists because it has a dearth of things to do.

But, there was a football match, so I took an afternoon bus from Santa Marta last Tuesday to arrive in Barranquilla.

As expected, I couldn’t find a great deal to do. I tried to visit a newly-renovated cathedral lauded for its interior and lambasted for its exterior. And such is luck that it was closed, and so all I could see was its ugly facade.

After two weeks of street food, I cooked for myself in a quiet, near-empty hostel in Barranquilla after attempting to work my way around a slightly jumbled supermarket. It was nice to have a very simple pasta dish again. In fact, it was refreshing to have a meal that didn’t consist of rice, potatoes, meat and fried bread.

On Wednesday, I killed time with my failed Cathedral visit before traipsing to the outskirts of the city to find Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez where Junior de Barranquilla (the league leaders in Colombia) hosted their main rivals on the Caribbean coast, Union de Magdalena (the biggest team in Santa Marta).I’ve rarely seen a city so obsessed with one single football club than Barranquilla.

It being derby day, I couldn’t walk down a single street, no matter how quiet, without seeing at least two or three shirts of Junior.

The atmosphere was huge at the game, with the two ends behind the goal filled by separate groups of ‘ultras’ who jumped, bounced and sang throughout the 90 minutes, and a good portion of half-time. After my first game in Colombia had been at a small stadium in Bogotá with only 500 people in attendance, this was finally a taste of the country’s true football culture.

After a 1-1 draw between Junior and Union, I jumped in a taxi, picked up my bags from my hostel and boarded a bus to Cartagena, the jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Cartagena

Arriving very late on Wednesday night, I found a hostel in Cartagena and slept while the beat of some nearby salsa reverberated around the city.I spent Thursday morning walking round the old city of Cartagena, which you enter through Torre de Reloj (clock gate). It being so touristy, there is an endless stream of street sellers with sunglasses, hats, water, beer (no matter what time in the morning) and other things. I finally bought a pair of sunglasses after two weeks of squinting, though managed to lose them within three days.

In the afternoon, I took an hour bus to Playa Blanca, the kind of beach that is used to advertise a Caribbean holiday or be a computer desktop. White sand, turquoise water which is warmer than the evening air, and beautiful sunsets. I spent the afternoon at the beach with two friendly Argentinians who I met on the bus. After returning, I had a taste of the Cartagena nightlife which lived up to expectations.

Waking up unsurprisingly late the next morning, I saw Cartagena once again, but a slightly different side to the old colonial town. I walked about 40 minutes into the more modern residential Cartagena, found a great viewpoint at an old monastery and then went for lunch at a sprawling market where I was the only white person/foreigner attempting to navigate its labyrinthian layout.

Had I been invisible, my camera roll would have filled up with photos capturing the sheer scale of the market, but also the little stalls each with a story. There were sections of fresh fish, of course, but also fruit, meat, a collection of opticians, various book stores, restaurants, vendors of all types of machines. The market had everything, and for everything it had, it also had someone fixing it or cooking it into a delicious lunch.

So, after finding somewhere where I wasn’t stared at constantly, I sat down to a cheap and delicious Caribbean lunch. When I left el mercado de Bazurto, I realised I hadn’t really seen the sky for over an hour.

With no energy left, I walked an hour back to my hostel, took a brief break before leaving to see the sun set over the Caribbean from Cartagena’s old city wall. On the way there, I stopped in Parque Centenario, a small park just outside the old city. Four monkeys were sitting on the tree, while a large iguana was weighing down a branch nearby, too.

I left that evening to make my way to Medellin on a 15-hour coach which was only improved by the amazing views on show in the last two hours.

Medellin

Just like Bogotá (the capital), Medellin is a sprawling city that rapidly races up the surrounding mountains to create stunning views from its cable car system, the only one of its kind in Colombia. It also has a fantastic metro system and is far more modern than any other place I’d seen in Colombia. Bogotá, as a city, have attempted to emulate the metro system in the past, but have a corrupt mayor who benefits from keeping buses as the main method of transport.

Medellin has a bad reputation for obvious reasons and the people refuse to mention the name of Pablo Escobar (one tour guide only referred to him as ‘the infamous criminal’) as well as cocaine. Many are desperate to forget the horror years of the late 20th-century, but there are also monuments in certain places, including a great museum called Casa de la Memoria (The House of Memory).

I had less time than I wanted in Medellin because I’d chosen to watch the football in Barranquilla, but I managed to fit in enough. As soon as I arrived, I dumped by bags at the Black Sheep Hostel (where I enjoyed a first hot shower in weeks) and took the metro to Comuna 13.

This is the ‘commune’ (or area) of Medellin that suffered the most during both the Escobar era but also many of the years that followed. In total, 37,000 people were killed in 10 years at Escobar’s height. One of the guides who took me round the city on a different day had been shot twice in the leg while playing football. His four best friends were killed.

Comuna 13 has been rejuvenated by various graffiti artists which have encouraged tourists to come to the area, but also by the government funded escalator that runs up the mountainside and allows the people at the top of the steep hill to reach the bottom and vice versa. Tourists now crowd the narrow streets of Comuna 13 and add some much needed money to the local economy.

After seeing some graffiti and riding some outdoor escalators where no one seemed to be in a rush quite on the same level as London, I found a local shop, bought a fake football shirt and made my way across town to the city’s only major stadium where Atletico Nacional play.

On my way, with the sun setting, I realised I was close to a cable car and so quickly boarded one and tried to race the sun as we were hauled up and over a mountain and into a different valley. I’ve noticed while riding cable cars that I often forget to look at the big view because I keep focusing on finding as many football pitches as possible. They are everywhere.

I managed to reach the top before the Sun could dip to the bottom and it was a great view. So too was the sight of 10,000 Nacional fans jumping in unison about an hour later.

Atletico Nacional are arguably Colombia’s ‘biggest’ club but they were beaten 1-0 at home. I managed to get a picture with the ‘ultras’ behind me, taking a similar stance to that of Gunnersaurus when he’s about to let a small child score a pathetic penalty against him at the Emirates.

I returned to my hostel quite late on Saturday evening, but it was Saturday, so I quickly changed and tasted the nightlife of Medellin, which included diving into a ball pit and being pelted by random other tourists. It was fun, I promise.

The next day was quite relaxed, but I spent the afternoon at a museum before going up the city’s other cable car. Once you reach the top, you can go even further into an enormous park. I went up slightly too late (a consequence of the night before) and so didn’t get to go far in the park, but it’s amazing how suddenly such an enormous metropolis can become a tranquil forest.

The cable car taking me back into the city from the mountainside stopped working so I spent an hour wandering the streets of a very non-touristy area while the lights began to twinkle below. It was a nice view, but after an hour of waiting for the Teleférico to be fixed, I conceded defeat and boarded a bus which seemed far too big for the streets it navigated.

On Monday, I took another walking tour, this time in the downtown area of Medellin with a great guide. Unfortunately, he then recommended me a restaurant to try Bandeja Paisa, the local dish of Medellin (the people are known as the paisas). It’s basically a dish full of fried objects, and a lot of them. Chicken, chorizo, potato, rice, plantain, pork belly, some fish and more that I can’t remember. This would be the cause of a painful couple of days.

I left Medellin that evening for a flight back to Bogotá. As I stepped out of the hostel, a thunderstorm greeted me. Every item that I carried or had on me was drenched, and would be for some time.

The flight to Bogotá came and went without great consequence and then I set about finding a good sleeping spot in Bogotá airport since I arrived at 10PM and had a flight to Cusco, Peru at 6AM.

I managed to find a set of chairs without sleep-preventing armrests and slept okay until my body began to reject the Bandeja Paisa from earlier. It was 3AM by this point, so I checked in my luggage while struggling to stand up in front of the airline representative.

Cusco

My one day in Peru was one filled by the frustrations of food poisoning combined with an altitude of 3425m. I landed in Cusco and took a taxi to my hostel, although the driver actually dropped me a 20-minute walk away from my hostel in the rain and overcharged me.

I spent the rest of the day sleeping, feeling frustrated by the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s honeymoon period as Manchester United manager, and eating nothing. After a 12-hour sleep that night, I woke up feeling better, if not 100% and returned to the airport for a flight to La Paz, Bolivia, having failed to see anything of note in Peru other than a supermarket.

La Paz

Now, I’m at 3600m and enjoying a fantastic city in La Paz. More on that next week, by which time I’ll probably be in the Amazon rainforest in the north of Bolivia.
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