Friday, June 19, 2009

Nearly Endless Summer Kick-off: A Weekend Trip in Medellin

I love summer. I’m a Leo and very much ruled by the run. On top that, I grew up in mostly tropical and sub-tropical climates. Yeah, I love summer. And this year I get to have summer for pretty much half the year since we’ll be leaving sunny LA just after Labor Day, and we’ll be arriving in Australia for what will be their spring/summer.

Such an extraordinary summer deserves a kick ass celebration to hail its beginning. I think G and I did a pretty good job of honoring it with our short but incredibly sweet trip to Medellin over Memorial Day weekend. Yes, Medellin, Colombia. Escobar’s seat for many years. The subject of an entire season of Entourage. The butt of countless jokes about cocaine on every corner. Believe me I’ve heard them all . . . G and I were married there last year and we spent an entire year convincing people that really it’s ok for Americans to go there. (G was actually the superstar salesman – he ultimately convinced 80 people to fly from the US)

It’s really not just ok; it’s WONDERFUL. I have been there 5 times now and I can tell you that this is a city emerging from its dark past and charging full speed ahead. It still has a ways to go before it’s fully equipped for international tourism, but it’s well on its way. The scenery is spectacular. The city is nestled in a valley surrounded by lush, green mountains. G compares it to the Alps, but greener. They have beautiful museums, parks, and other cultural attractions. Parque Lleras is pretty much a one-stop shop for nightlife. This section of town is abounding with outdoor cafes, restaurants, and bars. The city also has lots of crazy clubs that are like nothing you’ll see in the States. On the outskirts of the city there are many quaint little towns to be explored.
I’ll admit, the city seems like it would be hard to navigate on one’s own (I haven’t attempted it), but cabs will get you anywhere you want to go. Like any big city, it certainly has some sketchy sections of town, but just use a little common sense as you would anywhere else. As well, most people only speak Spanish, so it probably is easier to go with someone who speaks the language. That said, most people that came to our wedding didn’t speak Spanish and while we arranged several events and tours, they also managed to have all kinds of great adventures with no help from us. A couple of friends were able to find a guide to take them on eco tours by doing a little internet research. Others did really well with tips from guidebooks or from the concierge (at the Hotel, this was the lovely Lauren) and other typical travel info sources.

So full disclosure, I’m not at all partial. My dad is GM of a gorgeous hotel in the city -- the InterContinental Medellin – which is where we got married. Sure I’m the boss’ daughter, but every person in that place went above and beyond to make our wedding more amazing than I could have ever dreamed.
Conga Line Brazilian DancersGiant Brazilian Head
(These pics of the party courtesy of Marc)

But that is how the people are there. They just are incredibly warm and kind. They are really excited when foreigners come to visit, and they really want people to love their city. And I have to say, I haven’t fallen in love with every place my dad has worked; but it’s hard to be impartial when everyone makes you feel like family.

(some of the key players in our wedding team - Freddy, Alba, and El Chef)

All of this said, G and I hadn’t had a chance to have a true vacation here since our very first visit. We ended up with travel vouchers from Copa Airlines because we got bumped from a full flight on the way back from our honeymoon last year . . . Ok, we didn’t get bumped, we voluntarily stayed in exchange for the vouchers and a paid night’s stay in Panama. The point is that we had travel vouchers on the verge of expiring and they needed to get used. What more could be more prefect than to use them to visit my parents and the city where we got married? And yes, I’ll admit, that the economic advantages of staying with parents did enter into the equation. In any case, we were really excited – G had been swamped with school and me with work, and a vacation was REALLY welcome.

It was short, but we really packed it in. Thanks Mom, for being a superstar planner. We got in a good mix of relaxing and pampering, mixed in with a couple of more active adventures, and lots and LOTS of eating. (This part I’ll be writing up soon for Cooking Off Book).

The first couple of days of our tip were dedicated to pampering and culture.
The Friday night of our arrival, my mom’s friend and teacher, Libe Diaz Diaz, was holding an art opening at the gallery she’s opening in her beautiful, historic home.

(G and I, with Libe and her husband Fernando, and my mom)

I wish we’d had our cameras on that evening, so that I could share pictures of her house and the gallery. Sadly, we were still weary from the trip and did not think to bring them with us. However, my very talented mother’s art was displayed amongst the paintings (And there was some great stuff there! If only we had more $$$, we could have definitely done some art-buying damage) so I will use this space to shamelessly plug my mom’s work:

The next day began with a full morning of beautification. Because we’d been working so hard at home, we were in the need of a little maintenance. As with many developing countries, imported goods are expensive here, but services are cheap. Even at the hotel, which wouldn’t be the cheapest place in town, services are pretty reasonable by American standards. So G had his do cleaned up, and I had my hands, feet, and eyebrows done, got waxed, and had my hair colored, cut, and blown out. Hey I can’t afford this stuff here; I live it up when I’m there. This is my stylist there, Alyrio. He did my make-up and hair for the wedding. He can also dance up a storm!

Newly spruced up, we ventured out of the hotel and headed to the Museo de Antioquia. (Anitoquia is the name of the state in which Medellin is located). I had been trying to get to this damn museum since my first trip, so I’m happy to have finally made it. Leading up to the museum is Plaza Botero, a square displaying many sculptures by the artist. Botero is one of Colombia’s most famous artists, and his work dominates a large part of the museum. I actually forget to call the museum by its real name and tend to refer to it as the Botero Museum.

From here, we tried to make it over to the Botanical Gardens, but unfortunately didn’t make it before closing. Oh well, next trip. Rodrigo – the hotel’s driver, and pretty much part of the family at this point -- drove us around showing us some parts of the city we hadn’t seen. My mom and I then stopped off at the San Diego Mall to get in just a little shopping, while G and my dad headed home. Saturday was capped of by an EXTRAVEGANT dinner at La Cava wine bar. Stuffed and happy.

Sunday found me standing over a ledge . . . literally. I was standing on a platform atop a very narrow spiral staircase waiting for some guy to push me. It turns out I wouldn’t be pushed; I had to jump. Me and my fear of heights actually had to jump off platform so that I could go flying across a lake (maybe it was a river, I’m actually not sure). G plays it off like it was no big deal, but zip-lining was a challenge for me. Of course, once you’re actually flying it’s a ton fun! All too quickly you find yourself crashing into the landing pad on the other side. This was my first experience zip-lining and it was quite exhilarating. My mom loved it! She’s fearless and could have taken a dozen more trips. My dad and Rodrigo watched from the landing pad area looking at us like we were crazy, but indulged us enough to take pictures. (Not sure how, but somehow Rodrigo somehow managed to avoid being in any pictures all day)

This zip-lining adventure took place at Piedras Blancas, a national park and natural preserve outside Medellin. Earlier that morning my parents, G, and I piled into the car with far too many snacks on hand, and Rodrigo drove us up the long, winding, but beautiful road while telling us stories of his days in the army, his youth, and previous crazier excursions up this route. Meanwhile, my dad –who is far more afraid of heights than I am— sat clutching the passenger side handgrip white- knuckled the entire time.

This park was set up beautifully for public’s enjoyment. You are charged a small fee to go in, for which you can use the picnic grounds and hiking trails. For an additional charge, you can also zip-line, rent boat, or see their Entomology museum. The place seemed really well planned out and organized. There were also campgrounds nearby, and an amazing number of bikers riding up and down the mountain roads outside the park. If you want to stay the weekend in the area, there is a Piedras Blancas Hotel in the park. We only saw the lobby when we went in to purchase tickets for the zip-line, but the place had a very cool, modern vibe.

We had a packed day plan, so after zip-lining we only had time to take a quick walk around and check out the bug museum, before it was time for Rodrigo to whisk us all away for out next stop.

We drove for quite a while – this might have otherwise been kind of tedious, but the countryside is spectacular. It also gave me time to squeeze in a short nap. We stopped at a roadside restaurant with a jaw-dropping view for an amazing meal and beers.

(This was the unfortunate view from the incredibly ill-situated restaurant, and my parents taking it all in.)

Our next stop was La Piedra Del Peñol, an absolutely towering rock formation. At the base you’ll find all kinds of little tourist shops and vendors.
(Even from the base, the view was AMAZING!)

Feeling brave from my earlier triumph over my vertigo, I was kind of excited to see how far up the rock I could go; it was a holiday weekend there as well, though, and it was very crowded, so we opted not to go up this time. But we’ll be back!

(We didn't get to climb the rock, so climbed this rock pile instead)

From here we made our way back down the mountain to la Represa de Guatape. The town of Guatape boarders a reservoir, and it has a long waterfront recreational area, like you might find at a boardwalk. There are vendors of all kinds selling all manner of food and treats. All the requisite water attractions are here as well. There’s a swimming area, jet skis, and cruise tours. There’s also another zip-line, much longer than the one we took, that sends you flying across the reservoir. We started out to make the line for this flight too, but opted out because line was too long and would have taken the rest of the day. We decided on paddleboats instead.


G, my mom, and I paddled around the lake for an hour – the allotted time. My dad commented afterwards that all the other paddleboaters would go out and be back within 20 to 30 min. The guys renting the boats obviously make extra on each rental this way, because no one uses the boats for the whole time. That clearly wasn’t going to work with me. The strength of my legs and my desire to get my money’s worth are not to be underestimated. When G got tired of paddling, I had him switch places with my mom. It was a gorgeous afternoon and we took a long leisurely paddle around the reservoir. We nearly got run over by one of the cruisers . . . twice . . . but otherwise it was a long leisurely ride. G was a good captain, even playing slalom with the bases of a bridge. It’s a good thing because apparently neither my mom nor I can steer. Every time we tried, we ended up going the wrong direction. When the hour was up, we made our way back in.

(We avoided 2 assaults from this mini-cruise boat thanks to G's navigation skills)

Back on shore we found my dad and got some ice-cream bars. We eventually found Rodrigo, who had scored himself a pair of sunglasses by randomly taking up the cause of a sunglass vendor and helping him sell shades. Rodrigo is awesome.

Back at the hotel, we capped off another day with another huge meal, this time at the Fogón de Piedra. Meats abound, but there’s always a surprise or two, and I always come away feeling happily stuffed.

Monday was our day to chill by the pool. Amazingly, in 4 previous trips, G and I had never managed to take advantage of this. Look, it’s gorgeous:

After brunch, we head down and splashed around for a couple of hours. Later that afternoon, we indulged in more pampering and each got a massage. Ahhhhhhhhhh! Not too shabby. And time for another great dinner.

Tuesday, the time to wrap things up had sadly come around. We stuffed our bags with everything we’d come with, plus a few new purchases, and quite a few of the wedding gifts we’d been unable to bring back last time. (A final round is yet to come) Explaining the mixture of glasses, a bronze statue, and other assorted items to custom agents is definitely an interesting ordeal.

However, before we headed off to face the endless customs line (and believe me they are thorough here), there was still time for a little more fun. I had a chance to catch a great yoga class with my mom, did another quick round of shopping (although mostly for G this time), and of course we made time for one more fantastic meal before we head back up to the states.

Thanks Parents, for a great time. You Rock!

(This has nothing much to do specifically with Medellin, but Chrissy's frilly, fuzzy face is one of the things I most look forward to seeing when I go to visit my parents)

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