Los Gringos

So this should give you an idea of how cool we were in Colombia, at least in the eyes of kindergarteners. Every day (except Wednesdays and any unscheduled days off, making the average work-week about three days long) we were greeted by this wild pack of 5-year-olds who enthusiastically cheered us on as we walked the last part of the dirt road into the high school.

Our actual students — 10th graders who ranged in age from 14 to 18 — weren’t quite as happy to see us every day, but that’s probably because they’re too cool to chant “Los Grin-Gos!” Here they are on our last day of class (the giant in the middle is Dave, and yes, “Dios es amor”). Hopefully some of them will remember that adjectives come before nouns in English. It’s not underwear pink!

DSCN3255

Welcome to EcoHostel

Having completed Paola’s six-week volunteer program at EcoHostel Medellin, I’d like to offer a few tips for future participants.

What to bring for the volunteer program

Gardening Gloves
Bug Spray
Mosquito Net
Laundry Detergent
Head Lamps
Headphones
First Aid Kit
Hat, Long Pants
Pocket Knife

Where to get meat in Amaga

Despite Paola’s fabulous culinary skills, there were times when Dave and I were hungry enough to bring down one of the neighbor’s cows. Luckily, there are a few restaurants in town that do the killing for you, and for cheap.

Restaurant I. This one is run by Gildalgo (I really don’t know how to spell that), who is extremely nice and accommodating, even on weekends when his place is a madhouse. The trucha and bean soup are pretty good. His restaurant is in the bottom left corner of the square on the second floor above a fast-food chicken shop.

Restaurant II. Honestly this was our favorite one. They make fantastic tamales, mondogo and comidas rapidas like chicken wrapped in bacon on a skewer. The menu might not make any sense, but you can’t really go wrong ordering. This place is in the upper right corner of the square at the end of the block.

Day trips from Amaga

Café de la Cumbre. Great coffee plantation just outside of Ferdonia. The brother of a restaurant owner in Amaga runs the whole place in gives great tours. Plus a fabulous lunch is provided.

El Viaducto. Amaga’s shining tourist attraction. It’s about a four-hour walk to traverse the old 1920s traintracks and passes over some spectacular ravines.

Weekend trips from Amaga

Guatapé. Famous for La Piedra, a really big rock that tourists “climb” (there are stairs all the way up). But it also has hiking and biking trails, as well as water activities. El Encuentro is a bit removed from town, but still a great hostel, with bike rentals.

Jardin. Very picturesque and quiet. There are two metrocables that bring you up the mountainsides and offer great views of the whole town. The two are very different – especially in age – but both are worth the ~5 mil pesos.

Santa Fe. I can’t vouch for this one, but it’s rumored to have some original colonial architecture. Its historical claim to fame is that Santa Fe was the capital of the state of Antioquia from 1813-1826, according to Wikipedia.

Where to go in Medellin

El Poblado

Mango ladies. When you first get off at the metro station there are a variety of fruit stands that sell cups of really ripe mangoes. Definitely worth the 1,000 pesos.

German ice cream place, thanks Fabian! At 12th and 43D. You can measure an ice cream place based on how well they master vanilla, and these guys definitely passed. I really liked hazelnut and cappuccino, but their flavors rotate, so be sure to return for seconds.

3 Tipicos. If you want Colombian platos tipicos, here’s your place. It’s kind of hard to find, but it’s on the corner of 7th and TV Intermeditier. Of course there’s mondogo, but there are other similar soup-based dishes that come with their own variety of add-ons. My favorite was a corn chowder called Apiocata that came with capers, avocado, banana and rice.

Zorbas. In case you want some more vegetarian cuisine, Zorba’s is probably one of the only places that has meat-less dishes in Medellin. The Ensalada Zorba and all of their pizzas are delicious.

Estadio

Opera Pizza. If you’re craving fatty meat, which you probably are if you’re working at Paola’s, order the Opera. It comes with capers, salami, bacon and mushrooms. Not bad for 17 mil.

Hotel Egina. Dave and I got sick of paying between 60 and 80 mil pesos for crappy private rooms in hostels in El Poblado so instead we tried to find deals online for nicer hotels. Through booking.com we found a room in this hotel right next to the Estadio metro station for 100 mil. It’s clean, quiet, has free breakfast, hot showers and great wifi.

Santa Elana

If you can take the metrocable to Santa Elana on a Saturday you’ll be greeted by the local farmers’ market in the entrance of the park. Here vendors sell their local harvests such as uchuvas (goji berries), a type of blueberry that makes pretty tasty wine, arepas, fried pastries, and of course mushrooms! You can’t miss the mushroom dome that sells amazing grilled Portabellos, plus my favorite, mushroom ceviche. The only downside of going to this park on Saturdays is the bike loop is cut down to just about 6 kilometers due to weekend traffic. Though if you go any day from Wednesday to Friday you can bike a much larger portion of the park for free!

El Viaducto

Amaga isn’t exactly a tourist destination, but a poster in the small town’s library nicely showcases its sitios “turisticos” – but really that should be singular, as in there is only one site. The Viaducto is locally renowned, and a seemingly popular pastime for Amaganians. Other sitios turisticos that should be included on that poster, but aren’t, include the town’s several coal mines, the brick factory and maybe the Virgin Mary statue with an iPhone cover in her hand.

I didn’t know the Spanish word viaducto – and the English translation is essentially the same: viaduct – but the library’s poster depicted a train track traversing a steep and jungle-covered ravine. Seemed to fit with the working class vibe of Amaga. On Monday our group amassed itself after breakfast and managed to set out to the viaducto nice and early, trying to make some headway on our 4-hour walk before the sun picked up steam.

Essentially “going to the viducto” means you walk the length of an old railway path that was first constructed in the 1920s to haul coal from the mines hiding in Amaga’s backwoods. Flash forward about 100 years and that former railway is now a flat footpath that leads to strategically placed homes, abandoned train tunnels and an improbable-looking restaurant that sells the best fried pastry balls in all of Colombia. I think it’s actually someone’s house, but it happens to double as a restaurant. There’s one woman who runs the (or her) kitchen and she serves two items: mazamorra (cold milk with cornmeal and corn kernels) and aborrajados, which are fried banana bread balls stuffed with cheese and guava jam. They’re amazing. We ate four of them. Plus they’re the perfect mid-hike snack.

DSCN3151

Though I shouldn’t call it a “hike” because it was entirely flat, and we basically cut through neighborhoods that have sprung up around the trail. But the sight of the old tracks floating over several huge ravines was definitely a reminder of the viaducto’s former glory. Although crossing these gorges on the viducto’s vestiges was be a bit scary, though not so much for the locals.

DSCN3181

As our pack of gringos scuttled across the archeological remains of Amaga’s train system, hooting and hollering and oh-my-god-ing, women from the surrounding neighborhood impatiently waited for their chance to pass us. They hardly made a peep. I think I was too preoccupied taking selfies on the tracks to even notice other people actually use the path to walk places.

DSCN3184 DSCN3192

Funglus

As part of our field trip to Santa Elena, we stopped at Paola’s friend’s mushroom farm, aptly named Funglus because of its unique growing system. “Fung” because of its copious amounts of mushrooms, and “lus” because igloo in Spanish is iglú. This photo might make more sense:

DSCN2824

And, as a bonus, we were lucky enough to encounter one of these iglús this weekend in Parque Arvi. If you take the metro toward Santo Domingo the train actually comes to the end of the line and then you transfer (for free!) to a metrocable system called Line K. This will take you over the city and drop you in Santo Domingo where you have to transfer (and pay) if you want to continue riding up the mountain into Parque Avi. It’s 4,200 pesos per person ($2.10) and totally worth it. Not only do you get a spectacular view of Medellin on your way up, but the park itself is a great destination.

DSCN3090

On Saturdays there’s a farmers’ market of sorts where the metrocable drops you off, and here’s where we found more Funglus! On our visit to the farm we weren’t able to sample anything, so yesterday we chowed down. We ordered the marinated and grilled portobello, the stuffed shroom with ham and cheese and, la piece de resistance, the mushroom ceviche. While all three were scrumptious, the ceviche was the crowd favorite.

DSCN3053

And, because I snagged a brochure from Funglus last week, I have the delicious recipe. Here it is:

2 Cups white mushrooms
1/2 Cup red onion diced finely
1/4 Cup red and green peppers diced finely
1 Tablespoon cilantro chopped
1 1/4 Cup lime juice and zest
Salt and pepper

Let marinate for at least 10 minutes (though I think ours had been sitting for a while)

Eat with crackers

Jardin II

Once we finally made it to Jardin, it really was worthwhile. We ended up getting in the first car, van or bus that we were able to flag down. We staked ourselves out at a speed bump and luckily a van driver stopped after about 30 minutes. We headed to Bonobolo, where we caught an early 90s Renault 9 that took us to Andes. It was somewhat of a smooth ride — better than your average bus — but we broke down about 15 minutes in and the driver had to pull over and suck on the gas line to get started again. Once we were in Andes our driver dropped us off at the Sureste Parquedero where we actually bought a ticket for the last leg, to Jardin.

What’s nice about this town are the “hospifamilias,” which are essentially rooms for rent in residents’ houses. Within minutes of arriving in the town center a guy who runs a hospifamilia scooped up me and Dave and showed us to his house, two blocks away. For 20 mil per person per night, it was a pretty good deal — much better than the hostels in Medelliln.

To get acquainted with the small town there are two cable cars (think ski lifts) se llaman La Garrucha y Teleferico that bring you up to the top of both hills that surround the valley. One is very new and modern — fit for a Swiss mountainside, and the other reminds me of an outdoor shower stall strung on metal cables that floats you over Jardin’s river at about 300 feet in the air.

DSCN2934 DSCN2949

We also explored the town’s swimmin’ hole, which was shockingly frigid. During our 20-minute walk to the area where the river slows and pools between rocks, the sun managed to dip behind some clouds, making it extra chilly. But, that didn’t stop the high school boys from flipping off rocks into a no-diving zone.

DSCN2895 DSCN2885

And lastly there’s Jardin’s sweet factory se llama Dulces del Jardin that makes incredible mermeladas and chewy fruit candies called bocadillos. The figs were my favorite. Dave and I were a little unsure of how the process works, but essentially you walk in, are handed a menu, and are encouraged to request a taste of one of everything until you feel inclined to buy something. Totally works. And the shop is also just a cool place to visit. Whoever runs Dulces del Jardin has a thing for creative reuse and ball jars.

DSCN2931

Jardin

Dave and I headed to Jardin this weekend – or at least, we tried to go to Jardin. In theory you can get from Amaga to just about anywhere in Antioquia (the massive county that includes Medellin) by flagging down a passing bus. In reality, however, just because you want a bus to stop and pick you up, does not mean it’s going to happen.

On Friday we set out around the hottest part of the day in search of a big blue bus that was rumored to pass through Amaga on its way to Jardin. You couldn’t miss it. It said Jardin right on the front. We had heard tips from our fellow volunteers about taking alternative busses and vans, but we were set on snagging the bright blue one and wanted to settle in for a smooth two-and-a-half ride. But that’s not at all how it panned out.

We were hopeful at first, waiting next to a kiosko, which is essentially a roadside café that sells beer, and watching Jardin-bound busses whiz by us in the opposite direction. Surely that was a good sign. Yet all that came by were the occasional public taxi full of passengers, semi trucks and busses with different destinations.

After baking in the sun for half an hour Dave and I gave in and bought a beer from the kiosko. I thought maybe restaurant logic would apply, and if we moved from our spot for a second, the bus would come. It sort of worked; about 45 minutes later – long after we had finished our beer – that giant blue bus rounded our corner, trailing a sluggish semi. This was it! All we had to do was flag it down! Stifling the urge to frantically jump up and down and wave at the bus, Dave and I assumed the roadside Colombian stance of one arm out clouded in an air of ambivalence. Ready.

But just as we had our stance down, the blue bus started edging along the driver-side of the semi truck. Clearly it didn’t matter that this tiny straight-away was a no-passing zone. Our blue bus was on a mission, and this truck was slowing it down. And just like that, it slipped alongside the truck and disappeared for the few seconds when it passed us by. We never even had the chance to wave.

We didn’t give up here, though we probably should have. In the end we made it to Jardin – the following day – and spent another hour and a half spotting blue bus mirages and flagging down anything bigger than a car headed in that direction. Just as the sun started setting, we headed back into Amaga to indulge our defeat with a michelada.

Here’s what Jardin looks like…if you can get there.

DSCN2924

Field Trip

Our rag tag group gathered for a field trip yesterday and together we sauntered off to Medellin after work. Ages 20 to 65, we ambled on board and cheerily took our seats on a Tramtam bus that was headed out of Amaga. The infectious salsa music rippled from the driver’s speakers and we cha-cha-ed up the hills, higher and higher, then back down into the valley, into Medellin. But for the most part I couldn’t stay awake. The constant jostling over unfinished roads combined with noxious diesel fumes concocts quite a powerful sedative. Luckily we were in good hands. Just about every bus on these roads is equipped with at least one photo of Jesus, a rosary and a dangling picture of your favorite saint, usually cozied up next to a pair of rather dejected-looking fuzzy dice, all of which clearly ensure my safety. And this seemed to be the running theme of our overnight field trip: Fun on Colombian transportation.

DSCN2612

We were actually headed into the big city for two reasons: Alice, our resident Brazilian volunteer, is leaving for good this weekend, and secondly, Paola had a longtime friend from Miami coming down to Colombia for a visit. Celebrations all around.

Our first night in Medellin was pretty typical. And in fact, we went to a bar that could have easily been mistaken for that new restaurant in Colombia Heights. (Get it, Colombia Heights?!) The wait staff was funky; they wore tight jeans and glasses with chunky frames, and the place itself had walls of exposed brick and all sorts of repurposed lighting. It was a total hipster hangout.

Day two began the continuation of our transportation adventure. After hitching a ride on Medellin’s Metro Cable and walking through the large national park that overlooks the city, we picked up a lovely – empty – bus with cushy seats. Making our way to Santa Elena, we almuerzoed at a little café and then headed to a mushroom farm, run by a friend of Paola. After touring his place and fondling some button mushrooms we started walking down the road in the direction of Medellin’s south station – the large hub for busses. We successfully flagged down a bus from the same company that had graciously picked us up in the park, and naïvely thought we’d get the same 1,700 peso experience. Nope, every seat was taken on this one, and there were already two men standing in the aisle stubbornly claiming there was no more room to push back. Nonetheless, all 10 of us crammed inside and gripped obscure handholds as we made our hour-long descent. Dave, Alice and I were smushed into the front, sort of stradeling a man who was already sitting behind the gear shifter on the floor. He wasn’t too concerned though; he was more preoccupied with his girlfriend who had managed to snag the front seat, but was breathing into a plastic bag the driver hands out to people who can’t handle the mountain switchbacks and gravel patches.

DSCN2839

Our group was going strong for a while. Then the speeding, swaying motion began to settle into our stomachs like an aching knot. I imagine it’s how people in steerage felt going over choppy waters. You’re stuck in a small space, you can’t see your actual surroundings, but you’re quite aware of the motion. Luckily – and it’s probably because there was a giant Jesus on the side of this bus – one-by-one we were able to grab seats as the locals got off. And, turns out, no one needed those complimentary barf bags. Way to go JC.

New Management

It seems even the farm isn’t spared from personnel turnovers. Today was our first day with the new Andres. Maurico has effectively taken over as resident gardener and is now in charge of taking the farm in a direction of his choosing.

Maurico seems nice enough: He owns a farm down the road where he grows medicinal plants. (Speaking of medicinal, Paola says he also smokes a lot of weed.) Andres, similarly, lived about three hours from Amaga (which isn’t that shocking because getting anywhere takes at least an hour due to poor road conditions) and also owned his own farm of quinoa and goji berries.

But where Andres was bonkers for bokashi – a Japanese recipe for creating soil – plus carving terraces throughout the garden to create interconnected beds, Maurico has exhibited a slower approach, telling us to cover up the exposed soil that Andres hacked out. Maurico, not so much a bokashi believer, had us rake the bamboo forest floor today to fill bags with fallen dried leaves.

Both Andres and Maurico have stressed the importance of soil remediation because Paola’s land is almost completely composed of clay. Turns out Amaga is a great place for making bricks because of all the free clay just waiting to be dug up. But for gardening, the hard, acidic soil presents a challenge. Where Andres was going for organized beauty topped off with bokashi, I think Maurico is going to want several dozen more bags of leaves to cover up the garden wounds he’s inherited.

Guatapé

This weekend Dave and I headed to Guatapé – or as I like to call it, the Newport of Medellín. Essentially it’s a town built around a huge rock. The rock is the attraction, that is.

The rock separates Guatapé from its neighboring town, which hasn’t done nearly as well marketing itself to tourists, because I can’t remember the name. La Piedra also bears “GU” on one side, which was an effort of the Guatapé citizens to claim ownership over the giant rock, but the plan was halted once the neighboring town requested the national government declare the site a historic landmark. Either way, La Piedra certainly raked in its share of gawkers this weekend who scaled the 700-ish steps to summit the rock and see “La major mirador en el mundo.”

Our hostel, El Cuentro, although a 15-minute walk from the city center had a great view, and also had bike rentals! The thing to do is to take the mountain bikes on a dirt path that ends at the paved (thankfully) road up to La Piedra. I was happy to have shocks on my bike because it was pretty bumpy. Though the sometimes difficult ride is put in perspective when you pass 7-year-old boys careening down the same hill not even noticing the giant rocks.

DSCN2736DSCN2763

Guatapé is the second town to occupy the area, because the first one was flooded during the creation of a hydroelectric dam. What’s left is a calm body of water that snakes through a series of pointy islands, each decorated with their own set of Caribbean-colored houses.

DSCN2741

The only downside of our stay was that one night was a bit too short. We managed to gorge ourselves on Indian food and bike to La Piedra, but another day would have allowed us to hike through some of the hills surrounding the town.