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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Biking the Tour de Cartagena

You might not know this about me but I used to be in a quasi-bike gang back in Miami. Me, my friend Celia, and a group of wily fixie guys (guys who ride ‘fixie’ bikes and wear tight shorts and cycling caps) terrorized the streets of Miami (meaning we met up late on Tuesday nights and stopped at a grocery to pick up beers and sometimes ice cream on our way to a chosen park where we hung out for a while). So, when my friend and co-English teaching assistant, Fiona from Scotland, invited me to join her on a “recorrido,” or bike tour around the city, I happily jumped at the chance. Norbert had just put together a bike for me from various parts and I hadn’t yet given it a proper spin.

I left my hotel/home and immediately ran into a group of bikers heading towards the clock tower in the walled city, the starting place of the bike ride. Joining them, I figured it was a good omen to make bike friends right outside my place of residence.

At the clock tower, I immediately lost my new friends and meandered around the plaza looking for Fiona. The plaza was buzzing with bikers, and I realized with a sinking heart that most of them were men, and most of them were wearing spandex. Never a good sign. They looked like they meant business.

When I finally caught up with Fiona, she was getting her tire pumped. Shockingly, the group left at 8 o’clock on the dot, meaning we were left to scramble behind the peloton, trying desperately to catch up (which we never really did). At a red light just a few blocks from my house, we caught up with a group of male bikers who repeatedly asked us if we were sure we wanted to do this. “It’s dangerous where we’re headed,” one of them said. “You should never be alone on the road.” We heard mutterings about 60 kilometers and rateros, a slang name given to people that live in shacks on the side of the main highway heading north towards Barranquilla, likened to rats because of the gutter-like location of their abodes. Fiona and I shared a look, shrugged our shoulders, and decided to go for it. We could always turn back, right?

When the light turned green, though, these guys were off like bullets, leaving Fiona and I to scramble once again to keep up with their disappearing tail lights. I watched as they wove in and out traffic without an ounce of fear about sharing the road with this city’s crazy drivers. Meanwhile, I was quaking in my shoes. We passed in front of my hotel/home, and I considered ducking out of the ride before it even really started. But something pushed me to soldier on…

Well, my friends, what we thought was going to be a “bike tour around the city” turned out to be an intense, adrenaline-inducing obstacle course through the dark outskirts of Cartagena.

One by one, more and more bikers zoomed past me without a glance in my direction. The first maneuver we made was to cross 5 lanes of traffic to enter a tunnel. Thankfully, it was very well-lit. But still, a TUNNEL for god’s sake! From there, we hit one construction site after another, meaning unpaved road, mud puddles, closed lanes, traffic jams, and general mayhem. Once that was over, there was a huge bridge, which I huffed and puffed over, flying down with a smile. I breathed a sigh of relief to be on a paved road with little car circulation, but quickly realized that this was the dangerous stretch they had warned us about. I’d lost Fiona by then and was flying solo, as they had specifically warned us not to do. Mind you, it’s nighttime and I have no front light, so deciphering where the road ends and the gutter begins was quite difficult. (Good thing Norbert had bought me a helmet a few hours before the ride started!) There was supposed to be a truck following the bikers with water and first aid, but I think I was too slow for them, too. I considered turning around and heading back towards Cartagena, but I figured I’d be even more alone going in the opposite direction as all the bikers, so I pedaled on. Before long, a man rode up alongside me and, instead of zooming past me, he slowed down.

“You’re doing this ride on that bike?” he asked with a laugh.

I kept huffing and puffing down the road, trying my hardest to focus on pedaling as fast as possible, although there was zero chance of catching up with the rest of the bikers. At this point, I couldn’t even see their tail lights in the distance.

“I’m actually surprised you made it this far without any gears!”

Now it was my turn to laugh.

“Seriously,” he went on, “you deserve a big kudos. You’re doing great.”

And so, we continued onward together. He was a regular on the bike ride, so he knew exactly how far we had left to go. When he told me we’d only gone halfway to the first stopping point, I nearly fell off my bike! But I’m extremely lucky that Jaime stuck around with me down this dark road, keeping me company and riding in front of me to “break the wind,” which was a sweet gesture but it did little to ease the pain all over my body.

Finally, we made it to Barcelona, a town 18km outside of Cartagena. From here, most of the bikers continued east for a long time before making another right turn to return to Cartagena.

“Who do I have to pay to get me home?” I joked with Jaime. I was willing to pay whatever price to get my bike and my sore butt on a bus or taxi, but luckily, there was a group of riders cutting the ride short and heading back to Cartagena the way we came. I thanked Jaime for his kindness and rode across the street to join the other slackers like me. Although, once again, I was congratulated for having made it this far on my beach cruiser.

“I thought this was a city tour!” I told them, making them all crack up. "This certainly is no simple paseo!" I’d even brought my nice, big camera to take nighttime shots of the city. I told my new friends about my bike gang back in Miami, and how we were nowhere near as hardcore as this crew. This was off-roading and mountain-biking combined, with an obstacle course thrown in for fun. I told them about Critical Mass, a monthly ride in Miami where people decorate their bikes with lights and are in it for the fun of the ride, not for putting 60km on their odometer! (But obviously, this sort of torture is fun for some people?!)

They told me stories about motorcyclists and rateros that I won’t repeat here because I know my mom’s reading this. The important thing is, I survived! Although it did get dicey there for a while, I ended up having a great time. And I did end up seeing a whole other side of Cartagena.

As we rode back towards the city, I got excited as we neared the airport, knowing I was nearly home. When we passed my hotel/home, I broke away from the group and waved goodnight.

“See you Thursday!” they called out; I had to laugh. These Cartageneros are crazy!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Me Voy Para Medellín a la Feria de las Flores (PHOTO FRENZY!)

Last weekend, Norbert and I had the opportunity to attend Medellin’s largest festival, La Feria de las Flores. We’d heard so many good things about Medellin so we were excited to check it out—and the city did not disappoint! 

Flying over the Andes

Antioquia below

We got there around mid-afternoon on Friday and found our way easily to our AirBnB via the city’s excellent Metrorail system. Can I just say that their public transport system easily puts most American cities to shame? It’s efficient, clean, and extensive. It got us everywhere we needed to go!

After meeting our delightful AirBnB hosts, a family full of Paisa hospitality (Paisa is what they call the culture in the province of Antioquia, where Medellin is), we headed out to explore the city on foot. Without meaning to, we covered about 10 kilometers that afternoon/evening. We found our way to the top of a mini mountain in the middle of the city where they have El Pueblito Paisa, a re-creation of an old Paisa village, complete with cathedral in the center of a town square. We wasted no time trying the region’s specialty, la bandeja Paisa, essentially a tray filled with rice, beans, ground meat, scrambled egg, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), avocado, patacones (fried plantains), arepa, and pork belly. Yeah, they don’t leave anything out.

After dinner, we came across a fairground full of people celebrating la Feria de las Flores. There was live music, dancing, and tents showcasing some of the silletos, or flower arrangements, that are at the center of this historical event. There was also an expo of all the nearby towns such as Santa Elena and Campo Alegre with typical foods and products for sale. 

It’s the villagers from these villages that have been growing the famous flowers for generations and making the trek down the mountain to the valley of Medellin to sell their blossoms, oftentimes leaving at 1 in the morning to make it in time to the morning market. It’s this trek that is honored in the Feria de las Flores, and although villagers no longer carry and sell flowers like they used to, once a year they honor the tradition by building enormous flower arrangements and carrying them on their back like their ancestors did, this time in a parade through the city. But that wouldn’t be for a few more days. For now, the party continues!

We headed over to El Poblado, a super hip and happening neighborhood, to meet up with some Fulbright folks for a drink. Tourists and locals alike were out in full force and reggaetón was blaring from every bar and restaurant. After ending up in a giant ball pit in the basement of a bar, we decided we could call it a night.

Saturday morning was another beautiful Andean day. After a typical Paisa breakfast of arepa and huevos with our hosts, Norbert and I headed out to the botanical garden to check out a special expo of orchids, flower arrangements, and artisanal products, another event in honor of La Feria! Once again, we were amazed by the intricate floral designs.

lots of awesome street performers!

From there, we took the metro north to make the connection to one of Medellin’s 3 “metrocables”, cable car lines that travel up the steep mountain side where families live on incredible steep streets. 

 Once at the top, we were able to hop on yet another cable car that travels over the mountain into a national reserve called Parque Arvi. (The cable car was actually closed to tourists but thanks to a call made by our host to his nephew who works security at the park, we were able to get onboard! That’s what I call hospitality!) At Parque Arvi, we tried another local delicacy, giant grilled mushrooms, and then joined a guided nature tour with a great group of Colombian and French tourists. It was much colder at the top than it had been down in the city, but we kept warm on our hike and the guide did a great job telling us about the local flora and fauna. Plus, the Colombian ladies had us laughing the whole time.

From Parque Arvi, we took the metrocable out of the nature reserve. From there, we decided to walk down rather than jump on the metrocable line down to the valley. Life on the slope of the mountain was just as busy and bustling as the city below. Although the narrow roads were nearly at 90-degree angles, that didn’t stop buses from rushing or motorcyclists from speeding all over the place. The weekend was in full swing; vendors hawked their wares, kids flew kites, music blared, cervezas were consumed, and kids rode rides and played games on a town square overlooking the valley. 

being pragmatic about power ;)

Further down the mountain, children stopped us to take their picture, just as enchanted to meet faraway visitors on their own street as we were to meet them!

Norbert showing the girls where the US & Germany are on the map! 

a salsa bar under a highway

Medellin & the full moon

Inside the metro

Our bustling metro stop, Estadio
That night, we went home with every intention of showering and leaving again to go dancing, but a short nap turned into 12 hours of sleep, which was probably necessary after the exciting day we’d had.

Since we awoke fresh-faced and bushy-tailed from our epic night of sleep, we headed out first thing in the morning to catch an early tour to Santa Elena, one of the most important villages during La Feria de las Flores. After a steep and winding climb out of the valley, the tour stopped at a hacienda or typical mountain lodge for a breakfast “de montaña”: arepa, sausage, hot chocolate and queso freso. 

From there, we continued to the center of Santa Elena where they were having a fair in honor of la Feria (do you see a trend??) and then to the main event: a visit to a finca de flores, a flower farm! The family farm had been converted into a museum with great exhibits on how mountain life used to be for los silleteros. We also learned more about the flower arrangements themselves; there are several categories, and some only use flowers native to their village itself while other categories allow imported flowers to be used in the arrangements. Learning all about this got us excited for the desfile or parade that was going to happen the next day. Originally, we had planned on leaving that evening (Sunday) because we weren’t aware that Monday was a holiday. But given how special the desfile de los silleteros was, we felt it couldn’t be missed. So we skipped our flight and bought bus tickets back to Cartagena for Monday evening instead.

Monday morning, we woke up bright and early to make our way downtown to the parade route. Even though the parade didn’t start until 2, we’d heard that some people staked out their spots the night before. Securing the best viewing spot for the parade was clearly serious business. It was possible to buy tickets to sit in bleachers, but we decided to risk it and see what we could find on the street. Luckily, we found a spot on a sidewalk with a sweet family. The father was a complete joker and had everyone around us cracking up for hours as we waited for the parade to begin. Once it began, he and his daughters whistled at all the passing parade people, urging them to give a “Vuelta” or a turn—even the city workers picking up garbage. The parade didn’t only feature the silleteros, or villagers carrying flowers on their back. It also featured dance troops, live bands, clowns, military on horseback & police with their dogs, city workers, etc. It was clear how much the people from Medellin love their city and their heritage. I especially love how much everyone cheered when the city’s recycling team walked down the parade route holding bouquets of flowers fashioned from plastic bottles.

Waiting for the parade to start

The beloved recycling team

hiding from the sun

But the true heroes were the silleteros, the men, women, and children carrying enormous floral arrangements on their backs—some up to 200 kilos! Some of the silletos had elaborate designs made from flowers with environmental and cultural messages. It was the 60th anniversary of the Feria de las Flores so los silleteros went all out! They loved showing off their hard work, and the crowd responded in turn with whistles, screams, and chants of “Se lucio Santa Elena, se lucio!” (Shine on, Santa Elena!) and “Cuando pasa un silletero es Antioquia la que pasa” (When a silletero passes by, it’s Antioquia that passes!)

Los pioneros silleteros - the pioneer silleteros

The amazing pioneer!

El ganador absoluto - The overall winner!!

Here are some more pictures, but most of them can be viewed in this digital photo album.

It was a very moving experience and I’m glad we decided not to miss it. The parade was the crown jewel on an already glorious weekend exploring a great city. We loved everything Paisa: the food, the flowers, and best of all – the people! Antioquia—we’ll be back!

More videos can be found HERE!