Posted by: Sarah | January 20, 2007


And so the adventure began…


Medellín is magical and captivating, cosmopolitan and enthralling. It is hard to believe that a city as amazing as this one has had such a dark past. Paisas boast about their city, but they have earned the bragging rights. Each time that I return to the city of eternal spring, I find it harder to leave. Joana and I arrived Saturday afternoon, at which time we met up with about a dozen other trainees that had gathered from around Colombia to celebrate Christmas, and I did not depart for my next destination until a week later, several days later that I had intended to stay.

The trainee community around Colombia is something that I have treasured over the past several months. AXLDS reunions, groups of @ers working on PBOXs, and numerous LC-organized trainee weekends during ferias have lent themselves to strong bonds forming amongst the trainees across this country. Even though I started off with the intention of “traveling solo”, I found myself surrounded for 4 weeks by amazing people from all over the world who have also become enchanted with the magic of traveling around Colombia. If there is any way to escape the touristy-sight-seeing-travel-guide cliché of traveling, this is it. Having so many friends around you to go out every night is just an added bonus.

The first afternoon of the trip was spent with the Accion Social crew that the Alcance Social PBOX has been working with. We headed up the mountains via the fancy-schmancy MetroCable to some of the poorer barrios where an afternoon event had been organized for hundreds of kids who live in the area. Seeing the smiles on their faces as we finger painted, played twister, sang Christmas carols, covered the ground with sidewalk chalk art, played soccer, ate ice cream, and taught them simple phrases in English for hours was priceless. 



The MetroCable is an innovative addition to the already impressive metro system that exists in no other Colombian city and just one of many things that impressed me about the development of Medellín. Only a few years old, the ski-lift style tram has connected two opposite spectrums of a city and has somehow turned the slums into a tourist attraction. What was once a dangerous and hard to reach area high up in the mountains now sports paved, tree-lined sidewalks with street markets selling snacks and artisan crafts. Close by is a huge library that is being built, and posters show plans by the major and city council to continue to construct parks, schools, and a cultural center over the next few years. (Better yet, the current mayor of Medellin who is responsible for all of these amazing plans studied for a time at UW-Madison!! Gotta say it, once again, pretty proud of where I am from and everyone else who comes out of that school). While I was in Medellin, I was in the middle of reading “News of a Kidnapping” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (awful, but fascinating recount of 10 journalists kidnapped in the early 1990’s). It was strange to realize that the descriptions of such terrible events that occured a decade and a half ago during the time of Escobar took place in the same city where I now enjoyed sitting in cafes with friends and wandering through various neighborhoods, much the same as when I lived in Paris. I am constantly impressed by Colombia’s potential, now even more so by the genuine effort that this city seems to be making in investing in the people, in the parts of the community that are in the direst need. 


I spent Christmas Eve with Diana, one of the closest friends I had made at AXLDS last year, and her family. We spent hours running in and out of different grocery stores, in search of everything needed to cook an amazing feast that evening. We were determined to finish off the meal with a touch of American dessert…absolutely no apple pie could be found, so we eventually settled for a Sara Lee strawberry cheesecake. Following Christmas Eve mass, Diana, her younger sister and I slaved in their dad’s kitchen for hours (…there was plenty of Bailey’s and salsa music and fireworks off the balcony over the skyline of the city, so it wasn’t too bad! ) on our amazing dinner that lasted well past midnight. Her family welcomed me in so sincerely that I did not for a moment have a single regret about being “away from home” for the holidays.

I felt at home. There was no white Christmas, but there was also no lack of Christmas spirit in this city. I had heard tales of the Christmas lights in Medellín, which like so many things Antioquian, were claimed to be the ”best in Colombia”. One night, several friends and I headed down to the river to admire the display of lights which was an artwork unlike anything that I have ever seen before. This year’s theme was “Regions of Colombia”; the sidewalks lining the river were packed with people admiring the light sculptures in the shapes of the castle in Cartagena and monuments of Bogotá, all leading up the hill toward Pueblito Paisa. The entire display was beautiful. 

Cali, Pance, and Buga

I finally tore myself away from Medellín, but only in time to catch the very end of the Feria de Cali. I joined up with the rest of the group once again for a day of basketball in Pance and a night of impressive professional dance performances in one of the salsa capitals of the world. I ran into Patrycja and Torstan, two of my coworkers from Poland and Germany, randomly for the third time of the trip…at Parque Lleras in Medellin, the bus station in Cali, and now at the concert in Cali. I guess that my fellow foreigners and I really do stick out in a crowd of thousands 🙂

Every day in Colombia is a reason for a party, and holidays spent with Colombians are one more reason to go all out. For most of my time in the southwest of the country, including my New Years celebration, I opted toward Buga, a small town about an hour north of Cali. Xiomara, a friend who I had met in Madison, had invited me to spend the 31st with her family when she went back home to Colombia to visit over break.


Their finca atop the mountain was packed with relatives and more delicious food and shots of aguardiente than anyone could possibly manage to finish off. A muñeco, something resembling a scarecrow filled with firecrackers, stood in the yard and was set on fire at midnight. The tradition represents leaving behind anything negative from the past year. After this we lit a large hot-air balloon made of tissue paper, which is supposed to carry your wishes for the New Year up to the sky. We may have had a few problems actually getting it off the ground, and each failed attempt landed the balloon in a tree instead of flying over the edge of the mountain as we had hoped, but the idea seemed nice anyway!


I relaxed at the finca for a few more days, spending hours reading in the hammock or playing with Xiomara’s cousins, driving to the other side of the lake for ice cream, and jetskiing in January, which made me happier than anything else.


Zona Cafetera 

I had traveled to the far opposite corner of the country, much closer to the border of Ecuador than to the Caribbean. I left Buga for the coffee region of the country as I started the return trip toward the coast. The three states of Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío, which comprise this region, are the smallest and arguably the most beautiful that I have seen anywhere in Colombia in terms of scenery.


I spent time in several locations, but Manizales and Valle de Cocora were by far the highlights of this region. Colombia has more puentes (3 day weekends), ferias, and carnavals that anywhere else I know of…luckily for travelers, many of these fall between December and January.
The Manizales LC sponsered a Feria Trainee Weekend for which they would provide food, accomodation, AND reimburse our travel costs if we participated in their Global Village. Sweeeeet deal. We put together around 15 stands representing various countries, Arthur and I cooked up some Buffalo Wings (relatively mild by Brats standards, but set the Colombians’ mouths on fire), and crowds of people came by to enjoy the event. Being located in the middle of a park when several other events related to the feria were taking place was ideal, as we had people lined up outside the tents before we even got started. Better yet, when we closed down the tents for an hour over lunch and again at the end of the day and started to dance @roll calls, the crowds lined up, watching in awe as we busted out to Tunak Tunak and Bailar al Ritmo Vuelto. The day was exhausting, but never to the point that you don’t have a little extra energy to dance.


The rest of the weekend included a chiva, a bullfight, and hours of being lazy at Juan Valdez coffeeshop with the other trainees. Originally a way to transport agricultural products from one pueblo to another, chivas are now also used as party buses. Driving through the streets with a folkloric band on board, dancing and drinking and shouting to passersby, the chiva eventually drops rides off at a club or bar to continue the party.


Going to the bullfight was an … interesting … experience. I had never seen one before, and it was as gruesome and cruel as I had feared, yet I was glad that I saw it. One of the LC members came with us to explain the in’s and out’s of what was going on, why the sport is important to Latino culture, and the differences between bullfights in Manizales, Cali, and Bogota. I still cringed at every bull that was slaughtered and I think that our group of foreigners were amongst the few people in the stadium not cheering like crazy at the spectacle.


Valle de Cocora was simply breathtaking and proved once again why Colombia has been called the World’s Best Kept Secret. The National Park is characterized by the tallest palm trees in the world and the mountains eventually lead into Parque de los Nevados, which contains the tallest mountain peak in the country. I explored the park, hiking and horseback riding in silence, without seeing a single person for hours on end. I have said it before, but I will say it again…the diversity and natural beauty of Colombia is simply beyond words, and I do not mind for a second that it has not been overrun with tourists.


The last few days of my trip, including Armenia, Salento, and Cocora, were rough as I tried to ignore the nasty food poisoning that I had picked up at Global Village, ironically enough. I finally made it back home to the coast, pumped with antibiotics, to relax with Steve and Tiff, my visitors from Bogota, for a few days. It was good to be home….from the trip of a lifetime.




  1. I envy you!!!! jejeje but it’s great what you have traveled in Colombia!

  2. I’m so glad you had such a nice time traveling through Colombia and your comments make me feels even more proud of my country!!

    Keep enjoying Colombia,

  3. oh man sarah!!! I can’t wait for summer!!!!

    great post 🙂

    Miss you love

  4. duuude… you’ve definitely done it. you’ve travelled and explored!!!

  5. freaking cool man! we def have to catch up a to the sap.

    miss you!

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