As you may be aware, Medellin’s annualFeria de las Flores is 10 day or so celebration of the region’s flower industry. Each August , travelers the world over flock to the land of “eternal spring” to take in the pageantry and celebration of one of Latin America’s most festive events.
Perhaps it’s because the event coincides with vacation season in North America; or perhaps it’s because Colombia is finally shaking it’s outdated image as a scary, violent destination; or perhaps it’s because the event is so damned beautiful and fun, (it’s probably all 3) but each August it seems your seeing more and more foreign travelers.
As a result, in August at least and in certain areas of the upscale Poblado neighborhood you’ll have no problems if you don’t speak a word of Spanish as there is almost always someone around who speaks some English.
But if you speak even some, primitive Spanish, you’ll have a much easier time moving around the more interesting (and yes, still relatively safe) areas of Medellin and enjoying the spectacle that is the Feria de las Flores while interacting with some of the friendliest people on the planet… Paisas (residents of the state of Antioquia and other surrounding areas).
If you do go for Feria and want a good vantage point for the parades then you may want to invest in tickets that guarantee you good seating in the grandstands. They are relatively cheap and I hear you can pick some up at the major hotels and shopping malls.
But if you’re like me and not a great “planner aheader” then not to worry. You can usually find a decent vantage point if your willing to get there early & climb a tree (if you can find one empty).
But the fact that Feria de las Flores 2011 is in the history books shouldn’t make you hesitate one bit about visiting Medellin or Colombia any other time of year. Paisas are, deservedly so, very proud of their city’s turnaround during the past decade and in general, you’ll find them very hospitable, friendly and welcoming to travelers no matter the time of year.
For more information on what Colombia and Medellin specifically have to offer the adventurous and the not so adventurous traveler be sure and visit Medellin Info and the Medellin Convention & Visitors Bureau sites. In my opinion, Colombia really is an amazing, hidden gem of a country and Medellin is one of the best cities in all of Latin America. So get there and enjoy already!
Each and every August, Medellin gets filled with tourists from all over Colombia and indeed the world as people make their way to the famousFeria de las Flores (Flower Festival).
It’s a 10 day or so festive celebration of Medellin’s large and important flower industry that includes parades (desfiles), concerts, flower displays, contests and parties nearly every day of the festival, culminating with the incredibly colorful and grand Desfile de las Flores (Flower Parade) the last day of the festival.
Last Saturday, things got kicked off with the Desfile de Caballos (Horse Parade). Now I know that horses are very important to Paisa (people from the Antioquia region of Colombia) culture but I had no idea they were so prevalent.
Everything from packs of mules to incredible specimens of well trained horse flesh were marching down the parade route. At times you almost got the feeling there were as many folks in the parade as watching it.
There had to be thousands upon thousands of horses and their riders making their way down the blocked off “autopista” (freeway) while thousands and thousands of spectators partied and took in the spectacle.
And not just horses, the Colombian military showed off their impressive might as well to an appreciative crowd. While I know that not everyone feels this way, most of the people that I observed at least, seemed genuinely thankful for their military’s role in the marked reduction on violence the past decade or so in Colombia.
The parade lasted from 2 or so in the afternoon until well after sundown and the energy was entirely positive. Aside from a few well meaning folks warning me to be careful with my camera (already knew that), there were no issues other than the music was really, really loud and it was a little tough to converse without screaming your head off.
Those that could handle the rowdiness and partying a bit longer made their way over to nearby Parque Poblado and Parque Lleras which were as packed with revelers as I’ve ever seen.
Now I can only assume there were most likely jam packed until the wee hours the next morning because as for me, well, I need my beauty sleep these days and I wanted to save my strength because the Feria celebrations were just getting started.
I’ve posted a few photos here for your enjoyment but if you’d like to see them all be sure and check out the set on our FLIKR PAGE.
Stay tuned, this weekend there are even more parades so more photos and coverage to follow.
In case you don’t know them, World Vision (or Vision Mundial as it is known in Latin America) is one of the world’s premiere charitable organizations. They work closely with kids and families in the U.S. and in almost 100 impoverished and developing countries to help them break the devastating and tragic cycle of poverty.
Back in December, when we were shooting our first episode of Raw Travel for Colombia, I had the pleasure of touring their Bogota office and interviewing Edgar Florez, National Director of World Vision Colombia.
More recently, I had the honor and privilege of witnessing World Vision in action. Their dedicated army of staff and volunteers registered kids and families in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Medellin, Colombia, Comuna Ocho (Community 8). My cameraman for the day, Raul, a U.S. born Colombian-American now living in Medellin picked me up at 6:30AM (evidently volunteering requires getting up early), to meet with Myriam, World Vision’s Regional Coordinator for Medellin.
We were joined by Edgar (not Edgar Florez), a U.S. educated Colombian and extremely experienced translator who regularly volunteers his services for World Vision. Though Raul speaks fluent Spanish and English and Myriam could understand English, it was a great comfort not to have to rely on my cave man Spanish the entire day.
After a short meeting at their offices, we had a delicious, typical Colombian breakfast and headed over by taxi to Comuna 8. Comuna 8 is on the outskirts of Medellin, way up in top of the mountains. The view is absolutely incredible and airplanes from the airport were actually flying below us!
Unfortunately the incredible views, views that in the U.S. would be reserved for the wealthiest, were offset by the fact that Comuna 8 is controlled by Gangs (there are still over 250 currently active in Medellin)and crippling poverty.
What does this mean for the citizens and visitors of Comuna 8? Well for us, as visitors, it meant we’d have to wear World Vision Shirts in plain view and our taxi driver would have to obtain permission for us to visit and prominently display a “Volunteer” tag on his windshield.
For people doing business in Comuna 8 (bus companies, food and beverage suppliers, etc.) it means they have to pay “fees” to each gang that happens to control the particular area they work in. But it’s the residents that pay the heaviest price, they pay weekly “protection” fees to their respective gang “landlord” and have restricted movement during certain hours.
While we were there, there was little evidence of this oppression or even evidence of gangs, other than we were told when and where we could safely pull out the camera to shoot. Also someone pointed out graffiti that marked a particular gang’s territory. We learned that we’d need to leave before 4PM because even the residents risk personal safety if they venture outside of their block after 4pm.
Someone also pointed out to me the infamous “borrachero” tree that grows wild all over Colombia and creates scopolamine, the “zombie” drug, sometimes used by criminals to rob or rape unsuspecting victims. They assured me the flowers from the tree itself were perfectly safe and naturally occurring all over Colombia. I must point out that while this drug is a real threat and no urban myth, I have never, ever had any personal safety issues when visiting Colombia. Common sense goes a long way all over the world it seems.
During our tour, every time I saw a young boy of 9, 10 or 11 (some smoking cigarettes) , I couldn’t help but wonder if they were destined for a life in the gang or could an organization like World Vision have an impact on this kid’s life? I was told later that the gangs often use young kids around this age as mules to hide their drugs and guns, correctly believing they’d be less suspicious to any authorities when the crackdowns and raids in these barrios occur.
World Vision works in partnership with the community, enlisting many volunteers who live there locally. Without this partnership it would be impossible to operate effectively and help the children and their families.
Myriam recruited one of World Vision’s local volunteers who lived in the neighborhood to show us around and tour the barrio, thus ensuring our safety and ability to shoot our cameras uninhibited.
We shot a lot of great footage as many families invited us into their homes to see how they lived. One family had just delivered days old twin babies. When I walked in the father was giving one a bath while the mother was drying the other off and the adorable sister not so shyly watched us.
I was moved by the tenderness of the father. Myriam informed me she considered him a model father. I later decided I wanted to become a “Sponsor” for these twins (less than $20 a month each). They clearly had the love, now they just need a little money. I think it’s going to be a pleasure to see them grow up and develop the next 15-20 years of our respective lives.
I can’t wait to visit them as they get older and help them in any way I can, but I can’t help wondering about all the other kids without sponsors. Is it right that some win “the lottery” and others don’t? I’ve learned a lot about effectively helping impoverished people, especially after reading a great book called “The Life You Can Save” by Peter Singer. We simply cannot wait for the perfect opportunity to save everyone or nothing will ever happen.
But if those who can (i.e. most people who will read this) will simply try to save someone, then the worst poverty on the planet can actually be eradicated in a matter of years, not centuries. Wow, think about a world without poverty? What are the possibilities for us all then?
Thanks to Billionaires like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and millions of other “regular folks” things are changing. But everyday that we wait, tens of thousands of children die of easily treatable and preventable disease. While the U.S. does contribute greatly to charities, the vast majority of donations go to philanthropic organizations right here in the U.S. (often to local art organizations like the local symphony or museum, certainly not to actual starving people).
Our foreign aid tax dollars don’t go to the poorest countries on the planet either. They go to our allies in the war on terror and to places like Iraq and Afghanistan for political purposes, even though this gets lumped in and counted as humanitarian aid.
In other words, while the U.S., on the surface, seems to be a generous nation when you really analyze it, we are quite selfish. We spend a tiny, tiny percentage of our income and most of that ends up where it is needed least, in the U.S.
We have to ask ourselves “are U.S. lives worth more than others”? What is the cost of saving a U.S. life (estimates are in the millions) versus someone in the worlds’ poorest countries (in the thousands or even hundreds)? Even less expensive is bettering the lives of those in the poorest nations. For example, just $50 can give someone in a developing country cataract surgery and a new life where they can work for themselves, rather than simply beg for spare change.
We need to change our view of the world and understand that “THEIR” problems are “OUR” problems, not just from a humanitarian point of view but from an economic and security point of view.
I firmly believe that the affluence the U.S. has enjoyed the last few decades cannot continue to exist securely and safely for the long term as long as the majority of the people on the planet (many just miles from our own borders) are forced to try and live on less than $2 per day and make heartbreaking decisions like which child will go to school and which will have to work to help the family survive.
I saw in person that organizations like World Vision are truly making a difference. Myriam knew many of the parents and children in the community personally and after registering the families, each family received a gift “bowl” of goodies, like flour, cooking supplies, and little things that we take for granted but mean so much to a family living on the fringes of society and the edge of survival.
One lady had received help with fixing her house and a new bed after the rains had destroyed her old one. She proudly toured our cameras around while singing the praises of World Vision.
Medellin’s local government is to be applauded as well. They have a new and modern health clinic that offers medical treatment at greatly reduced cost to families in the Comuna 8 (in the meantime my health insurance premiums in arguably the most affluent society in the world climb 15% annually for less and less coverage).
They are building an Eco Park that will draw tourists from all over the city and possibly the country and help bring local tourism revenue as well. This strategy has proven effective in other at risk barrios in Medellin like Santo Domingo, where a new library and metro cable station was built and now is one of the more visited sites in the city.
A good economy is probably the surest way to break the power the gangs have over the Comuna 8 and the combination of World Vision, brave volunteers from the community and an enlightened government in Medellin could be just the powerful combination necessary to break the decades old cycle of poverty and gang control.
If you’d like to find out more how organizations like World Vision help so many children and families on our planet whose lives are sometimes (and sometimes all the time) at risk or at best can be described as a living hell, then please visit their website at www.visionmundial.org or www.worldvision.org . Also check out www.thelifeyoucansave.org for other practical ways for helping others.
You can view more photos from our tour of Comuna 8 HERE.
Today it was time to leave our cabaña and take the 2 hour boat ride back to Leticia, Colombia and civilization or what passes for it in these neck of the woods. After 3 days of muddy, sweaty togetherness sharing a small and now thoroughly filthy cabaña with 2 other bunk mates, it’s not a moment too soon (no maid service in our Amazon adventure).
The only thing I could think of was how luxurious the non air conditioned private room I’d have at the hotel in Leticia that night. This was the same hotel that on the way in just a few days earlier I thought was a dump and the worst of the trip so far. Nothing like a few days in the Amazon to change your perspective on the little comforts of life.
I’d gotten up early to grab breakfast. Eggs and bread.. again. But this time they had coffee so I was in heaven.
We returned back to the cabaña to pack and say good bye to the now very smelly lean place that served as our shower and bathroom and the clammy sheets and mosquito netting on the bunk beds. A little less enthusiastically I bid goodbye to our new animal friends; the guard dog Sasha, the parrot, the duck, the two constantly masturbating monkeys and most fondly, the baby owl, Babbah Boohey.
Bidding goodbye to our guide, Witman, was equally bitter sweet. Witman was a real trooper, never failing in his duty and always looking out for us without smothering us or pestering us for a tip or to spend money or anything.
In fact, the first thing I noticed about the people of the Amazon is their lack of assertiveness when it comes to money. It just doesn’t seem that important to them. Rarely if ever did they try to sell us anything and if we chose to buy something we had to ask the price and make the first move. After Cartagena that was a refreshing change.
The people of the Amazon were sweet and humble and while some lived hard lives they seemed not the least bit hardened by their experience. Instead, they happily went about their business in a friendly but much understated manner.
The kids are the ones I’m mostly going to miss… the shy but beaming kids. Little guys and girls of various ages, living in paradise and not realizing it. A plastic grocery bag on a string for a kite? Fun for hours. An empty plastic bottle to kick? Just as good as a soccer ball. Kids are simple and these kids were simply happy to be alive it seemed.
I hope that when they grow up they can continue the tradition of their ancestors, but I’d be selfish and hypocritical if I didn’t also wish for them some degree of comforts of the modern age. Air conditioning, a more diverse diet, a movie every now and then, decent web access, nothing culture killing mind you, just some creature comforts because I’m telling you life in the Amazon can be really hard.
When we arrived to the port of Leticia I felt like we’d reached Manhattan. Cars and motorcycles! I had forgotten what they looked and sounded like, and of course that wasn’t such a bad thing but I’d be lying if I pretended I wasn’t glad to be back to a decent sized town where I could somewhat choose my food and finally check my email.
It was Monday night and we’d vainly searched for Monday Night Football to see the Giants play anywhere in town. We finally gave up and ventured over to the Brazilian side of the border to Tabatinga. The vibe was decidedly more gritty, and maybe just a wee less safe. When we crossed the border to Brasil (no passport required) almost as on cue, the lights to the city went out.
As I said it was Monday night and there wasn’t much happening on either the Colombian or Brazilian side of the border so we headed back to the Colombian side and called it an early night. I had no problems sleeping and looked forward to being in a major city (Bogota) tomorrow, to finish up the shoot and look at some dailies with the guys.
And while I was glad to be back in “civilization”, there is a slight pang of regret when I think that I may never see my friend Babbah Boohey or my other new Amazonian friends again.
It started raining about 1am and kept going all morning. There was nothing else to do so we did laundry, Amazon style, which in itself was a small adventure.
Rain or no we had to eat so we headed into town with our ponchos. Despite all the rain we had encountered this was our first real opportunity to use our ponchos since we’d bought them (at a premium) in Cartagena.
Lunch was fish or chicken with soup to start with. I was beginning to sense a pattern here.
The thing I noticed on the way over to town was the port was loaded with fisherman, many counting their haul already. Turns out after two days of sun followed by a big rain, the fish come to the top making themselves an easy target for fisherman. I guess everyone doesn’t hate the rain.
While at lunch it stopped raining and we were joyous because I just couldn’t envision a day in the cabaña just twiddling my thumbs. The U.S. was still too much in my blood for that. I didn’t even have a book to read and electricity was only on in certain hours of the day.
We decided to take the 1 & ½ hour boat ride down to the village of Macedonia where, it being a Sunday, we could buy some souvenirs and take in some authentic traditional dancing.
When we pulled into the town’s little dock, a representative came down to welcome us. The townspeople were all gathered with the men playing some kind of board game with dice and little boys playing a spinning top game called Trompo.
I tried Trompo but sucked at it so bad that I felt bad interrupting their game so I ambled back with the crew to take in some traditional dancing from 3 of the elder ladies in traditional costume along an adorable 10 year old girl named Esmeralda. They invited us to participate and I did.
It was much easier to follow along than something like salsa. It had a slow, simple rhythm with the ladies chanting something in their native language over and over. At the end of their dance they placed a small pot in the middle of the dirt floor, a not so subtle request for donations.
I gave them a nice propina (tip) because this was really the kind of experience I was expecting in yesterday in San Martin after the 3 hour hike. Had I known this was only a boat ride away, would we have taken the hell hike? Not sure.
I looked around at a few of the local crafts, asking questions of the artisans on camera and doing my best to be humorous and entertaining. I’m not sure I succeeded but I did unintentionally break a miniature bow and arrow on camera and the crew loved it. Breaking stuff is good TV evidently.
The lady in charge of this particular batch of crafts just laughed and I truly don’t think she was going to charge me. She kept looking at the broken toy like she was figuring out “how am I going to fix what this clumsy Gringo just busted?” but of course I paid for it. I bought a few other things, some that I didn’t even break first, and some food including a wonderful coconut cookie that helped fill my post lunch craving.
I also got a temporary tattoo of an anaconda on my chest. The tattoo is a religious purifying experience that draws out all the bad stuff within you over an 8 day period. After 8 days the tattoo then begins to fade as you become clean. I’m beginning to notice a trend where the indigenous folks keep wanting to cleanse me? Must be some dirty aura I’m putting off or do they just assume all westernized Gringos need this? We may never know but my spirit should be spic and span clean after this trip.
We jumped back into the boat and headed back to Puerto Nariño after saying hearty and appreciative goodbyes to the townspeople. The folks of Macedonia truly seemed glad to see us come by and even though we did pump a little (very little) money into their local economy, I got the distinct feeling it was more genuine than just our small economic impact.
They never once pushed anything on us and were not aggressive salespeople at all (such a nice beak from the aggressive rudeness in Cartagena), they just seemed like really nice and humble people.
This has always been my experience with the indigenous people I’ve encountered over the years. Even in touristy spots like Machu Pichu, Peru, they exhibit an awareness of themselves that so exceeds day to day things like making money and acquiring things.
Its true, most of them do seem to live hard lives but that just adds to my amazement at their self awareness. They didn’t show any outward emotion or joy at being paid for their artwork or dancing They would only ,matter of fact, discuss the price if you asked them. But if you did not buy they didn’t show the least bit of disappointment or negative emotion. They seemed happy that we had visited them regardless.
On the way back we could tell the sunset was going to be incredible so we rushed back to the cabañas for a sunset shot at dusk. We then had one final shoot with all the animals from the Alto Aguila (High Eagle) Cabañas, the dog, parakeet, duck, the baby owl (Babahboohey), and two monkeys… all on camera for one final closing shot. I felt like Dr. Doolittle.
Having grown up on a farm, I sort of took animals for granted but in the Amazon they are a bit more exotic and really do add to an already amazing experience. Nature of course is outstanding, but it’s the people I’ll remember the most. They are nothing short of incredible. I’m eager to get back to the comforts of civilization but I’m really going to miss this place, the animals and especially the people. It’s a truly magical experience.
Today we woke up early to prepare for a hell hike of 3 hours to the isolated, indigenous pueblo of San Martin. We hoofed it over to Porto Nariño from our Cabañas, about a 15 minute hike compared to a 3 or 4 minute boat ride. All 3 of use were dressed a little ridiculously and stereotypically for safari with cargo pants, long sleeved safari shirts and safari hats. I’m sure we looked like we’re headed to an expedition in the outer, unexplored regions of Africa.
Our guide showed up in tank top, shorts and mud boots and you can feel the locals stare as we passed by…Turistas!!
We were toting camera gear so I’d worked up a sweat and was exhausted already by the time we hit town.
At breakfast I saw a man, looks like a local, being toted in a stretcher to the infirmary. He’s not moving and his hand is over his head in what looks like severe pain. “The last person who hiked the trail” I joke. No one laughed.
After breakfast we stocked up on water and to our dismay, no food. There is not a sandwich to be bought anywhere in town to take for the 6 hour round trip journey so we buy raw fruit and bread, hoping that will get us through the brutal hike and back.
Starting off it was cool, lots of foot traffic along the path as it gradually gives way from a concrete sidewalk to dirt path. I noticed everyone on the path, be they young kids or old grandmothers are toting machetes. Luckily our guide, Witman had his own machete in hand.
We were carrying camera gear and though we tried to lighten our loads as much as possible, I realized too late that my trusty laptop was secured in the camera bag, so we’re carrying around needless 3 or 4 additional pounds, and risking a computer in the Amazon. Agghhh!
The hike was pretty uneventful at first; we met a volunteer machete road crew clearing the path around the road. They offered us some kind of alcoholic refreshment from a 2 litter coke bottle and I am the only one who decided to brave a swig. It was tart, not too bad though. They ask for a donation and I threw them one before we all head on again.
We encountered a small, poisonous snake, a couple of frogs, a tarantula, a few lizards and hosts of wild ass sounding birds along the way. About half way to San Martin we encounter a beautiful clearing where a small finca had been built and some people were gathering water and going about their daily lives.
After that, things got much more intense. The trail began to disappear before our very eyes and we are balancing ourselves as we crossed creeks and ditches on top of felled trees. This might work fine if your barefoot but if you are wearing work boots with equipment strapped to your back, the algae acts like a lubricant and we came very, very close to dumping ourselves as well as some valuable equipment (including this computer) into swamps and creeks along the way.
The final hour of the hike was absolute hell. Renzo, still recovering from back to back illnesses was bringing up the rear. We were going through water like crazy (15 bottles among 4 people) and yet no one has to relieve themselves. We were soaking wet top and bottom so we were sweating out fluids as soon as we put them in.
One hassle that could have made life worse that didn’t were hordes of mosquitoes. Thankfully, the combo of our external repellents and the oral repellent seemed to be doing the trick.
FINALLY we come to a large clearing and a steep bank overlooking a creek with kids swimming and homemade wooden canoes docked on the side. It was San Martin! We were so tired we didn’t really feel like celebrating… instead I’m sure we were all thinking “there is no way I’m making that hike back” (I know I was).
It was 12 noon and we would have to start hiking back by 1pm if we were to beat the darkness and no one, especially our guide, wanted to be out on that path in the middle of the Amazon in anything approaching darkness. There was no way that would be an option.
Hiking back in less than an hour seemed like a horrifying idea. We went ahead and shot some video diary footage overlooking the river and then one little girl of 6 or 7 paddled a canoe over for us to use. The kids were all swimming and soaking wet. They were shy but eager to pose for the camera. They were incredibly cute, with one little boy completely naked and his hair bleached blond by the constant exposure to the sun.
As we crossed over I noticed a boat with an outboard motor docked. I ask our guide if there is any chance we could take a boat back instead of hike. He seemed to think that was a realistic idea and said he’d ask the owner.
The owner was a solar panel installer who had made the trip to San Martin to replace the town’s solar panels, which need replacing every 15 years or so!
Turns out San Martin was not exactly what we expected. We expected indigenous people, some in traditional garb and living in huts. Instead everyone was dressed in t-shirts, jeans, shorts or work pants and either barefoot, boots or chancletas. There was a school, electricity, a church and even a store that sold soda (but no water, they use rainwater).
We toured the city, pick up b-roll with our cameras and do a few stand-ups though I can barely think straight and I’m pretty sure I look like hell, but I was so tired, I just didn’t care. We ate our fruit and bread, polished off our last bit of water and to our collective delight were told we could catch a 40 minute ride in the boat for just 40,000 pesos (about $20).
Let’s see a 3 hour hell hike back with no water, no food and darkness approaching or a 40 minute boat ride back for $20?! Yep, I am not ashamed to say we took the boat ride. Luckily for us we hit San Martin on the one day in 15 years that solar panels were being replaced I guess!
We made it back to Puerto Nariño in time to have a very late lunch. Incredible. The cold shower at the cabaña never felt so good and we all drifted off for naps before a big rainstorm hit and we waited it out before heading to Puerto Nariño for dinner. There would be no night out on the town this night. Just the sleep of the dead.
We arrived by plane to the small Amazon gateway port town of Leticia, Colombia. The airport is really small and was full of mostly tourists heading to the Amazon.
We just missed the boat to Puerto Nariño, which was fine with me because they don’t have ATMs in Puerto Nariño and I was pretty sure we didn’t have enough money on us to last the next 5 days anyway.
It was really hot and humid and almost everyone was on a motorcycle or moped. There were very few cars. Internet was painfully slow and the food choices not that diverse. But we made the best of it, checking into a cheap hotel (the Hotel Anaconda was full with a professor’s convention) and hunting down the ATM to garner more cash. No credit cards in Puerto Nariño either!
We try to sample the nightlife of Leticia but either we’re too early or there is just not much going on. Just as well, we have another early day tomorrow to catch the boat to Puerto Nariño.
DAY 2 –
Up really early, too early!
We piled into the rapido (speed boat) in the port at Leticia to take the 2 hour boat ride up the Amazon River to Puerto Nariño. The muddy bank leading to the boat launch is set at 45 degree angle and is a slippery mess after all the rain. I see one lady with stilettos digging into the mud. She’s not some unprepared Gringa, she’s a native.
My first impression of the Amazon river was that it was huge, muddy, amazing and powerful. There are occasional houses hugging the river and I got the sense that it is everything to the economy in the Amazon.
After about an hour the boat started to make stops along the way dropping off people and supplies or picking something up to take a little further upriver. The river is the Amazon’s interstate highway and where goods and people can most efficiently move.
We took a right fork to Puerto Nariño and I instantly fell in love with the town. It’s a peaceful, beautiful little hamlet built on the banks of a small gulf of the Amazon river. Kids were swimming to stave off the heat and fisherman were casting their nets . There are no cars or motorized vehicles in Puerto Nariño, and other than the motorized canoes, the only sounds were the buzz of insects and the hum of daily life as the villagers went about their normal routines.
The crew and I were met by representatives of our Cabañas, the Alto Aguila (High Eagle), and we piled into a small canoe with an outboard engine to take the 5 minute trip upstream to our cabaña.
The walk up the muddy, grassy steep hill to our cabaña is hell with our gear. It’s a slippery mess though they’ve done all they can to make it not so, building natural wooden stairs and walkways but for me, this is already challenging. I’m a runner and work out almost daily, but I was huffing and puffing and a big sweaty mess when we finally arrived up the hill at our cabaña backpacks and gear in tow.
The cabaña consisted of four bunk beds and not much else. Oh and a baby owl screeching at us menacingly that instantly popped on my backpack (while it was still on my back I might add!).
Our guide, Witman, assured us in Spanish the owl was harmless and we find out as he gently removed him from my back and the owl perched on his hand.
I put my hand out and the owl gently nibbled it. Perhaps when he’s older these bites will hurt but for now, they just tickled and this bird, cute as hell, was our instant mascot.
We proceeded to think of names for our new friend and Moses settled on BabaBoohey which stuck. BabaBoohey would be our companion the next few days and keep our cabaña free of nasty little critters in the wild, amazing Amazon.
We unpacked and quickly got ready to hit the lake just upriver for some Piranha fishing. On the way, we spotted some freshwater pink dolphins surfacing. These dolphins are nearly blind but are extremely intelligent.
I took a swim in the Amazon, being assured by Witman,that it was completely safe and that the Piranha wouldn’t attack unless I was bleeding or wounded. To my knowledge, I was not, so I dove in, heartened by the sight of all the young kids swimming in the river I had witnessed on the way up.
After a swim, we fished for Piranha but the closest we came to catching anything was watching Witman pull them in one after another. Still, watching them attack the meat on the end of my hook was pretty cool.
Later that night, we went to town for dinner and witnessed a local soccer game. On the way back, a sardine jumped into the boat, so we ended up catching a fish after all. I’ve done a lot of fishing in my life, but never had a fish actually jump in the boat with me.
That night, as we crawled underneath our mosquito netting and the fan stopped running (the electricity cuts off every night at 11PM until 5 AM the next morning) all I could hear were the wild sounds of the amazon mixing in with my roommates’ snores and pretty soon, exhausted, I was joining in.
I felt like we’re preparing for a week long trip instead of a day trip to San Basilio Palenque. But not a lot of tourists do this trip, and it’s a little tough to get there in normal situations much less when it’s been raining for days no end.
After an early call time, we stopped back at the market in Cartagena to gather food for the Sancocho that Luis Towers’ (who is originally from Palenque) family was to make for us. While Luis and Renzo shopped for food, Moses and I stayed with the taxi driver in some skinny shade in the withering heat. We were so bored we started to shoot some more b-roll of the market.
We shot me risking death and injury crossing the busy street, we shot the fish hung up, the rooster tied to the top of a crate, young kids waving at the camera… you name it.
Finally Luis and Renzo made their way over with a couple of young kids enlisted to help them carry the food. We loaded it into the trunk of the little taxi. Renzo and Luis are big, tall guys. Moses and I are average size and the taxi driver is pretty small, but you add it all up, we have 5 people in a tiny, yellow economy taxi and I’m sitting “bitch” (middle) in the back with a sack of food on my lap.
We determine we’d never make the 1 ½ taxi ride to Palenque this way so we decide it’s best if Luis goes by bus and meets us there. My cramped legs thanked him for his sacrifice.
We were all in heaven again with our own seat when Luis unloads onto the bus. At first since I’ve been in Colombia, we got stopped a lot by the military at different checkpoints along the way. Luckily our taxi driver’s papers were all in order so each delay is not entirely brutal.
When we finally arrive at the turn off for Palenque, Luis has already arrived (the bus beat the taxi, unbelievable), and there is a big 4 wheel driver cargo truck that will take us the rest of the way to Palenque as the roads are still a muddy, rutty mess from the rains.
We all, taxi driver included, climbed into the truck and made the slow, bumpy, muddy and slippery journey into town. Palenque is what I expected thanks to Renzo’s vivid descriptions of the place. It was founded well by escaped slaves from Cartagena.
The people who live there today are all direct descendants of this brave group of runaway slaves. There is electricity but I understand that it goes out a lot.
Luis’ family’s house is one of the nicer ones in town and it is where we set up camp to shoot and unload the food so the ladies could start preparing the Sancocho in the wood stove in the back yard. It’s hot and humid but I enjoyed getting to know the people from town.
There are lots of young boys and girls who were curious and came over to see what all the fuss is about. I was able to get to know a few of them as we shot.
I spent a little time with an expert on the Palenque language which is a unique dialect that combines elements of all the African languages represented in the village with Spanish. He taught me a few words, but considering I’m still having difficulty with Spanish, you can probably guess that my lesson was slow and painful.
I had even less success in learning the African drum, which is called the Alegre (a Spanish word for “happy”). I had more success eating the Sancocho whose delicious smells wafting through the house kept me motivated.
After lunch we headed over to the ball field where Renzo had brought some old bats, gloves and balls to give to the kids. They loved it! We played a few innings of baseball with palm leaves serving as our bases. The kids seemed unimpressed when I chased down a ball and helped get an out but these guys are hardcore baseball and soccer players.
When it was time to head back, Renzo decided to stay overnight and catch a bus back in the morning. So Moses, the taxi driver and I were loaded back into the big Cargo truck who took us back to our taxi parked at a friend’s farm. The cargo truck charged us $15 U.S. for the round trip, which is pretty expensive but the only other options would have been to hitch a ride on the back of a motorcycle trying to balance expensive camera equipment over really rough terrain. I think we made the right choice.
We were sort of in a hurry to get back, to be honest, but we shouldn’t have bothered. After we got into the taxi we were not on the road for half an hour before traffic suddenly stopped and we find ourselves in the middle of a traffic jam on a bridge in the middle of nowhere.
There had been a trailer truck overturned in the marsh earlier that day and they had decided to pick that evening to get it out. Just our luck. We’d sit on that bridge with hundreds of other cars, buses and trailer trucks for 2 hours before we could start heading back to Cartagena. As hard as it was for us, I can’t imagine what it was like for all those people crammed on the hot buses.
I walked past a couple and heard screaming babies and it reminded me of being stranded on a plane for hours on end, except no climate control, no bathroom or beverage service and mosquitoes attacking you relentlessly. And while maybe the passengers could disembark on a bus, I didn’t see any do it. They say patiently, screaming babies, mosquitoes and all, for 2 hours.
Traveling in Latin America can really take some getting used to but seeing San Basilio de Palenque was worth it. The Afro-Latino culture is really unique in Colombia and they have their own unique history and culture that is worthy of exploring for the curious traveler. If you’re ever down in Cartagena, think about taking a day to go see the village of San Basilio Palenque. The roads will most likely be better and I think you’ll find the people very friendly and hospitable and the culture very worth exploring.
Check out more pics from our trip to San Basilio de Palenque HERE
Today we visited thefood market which is primarily Afro-Latino. It’s a muddy, unhygienic mess because of the horrible rain and flooding. I’ve been to markets like this before in Brazil and other countries and it takes some getting used to seeing the raw meat just laid out bare on tables, without refrigeration and crawling with flies.
The one thing I always seem to notice is how everything gets used, we’re not just talking pig’s feet here, we’re talking pig brains, bull nuts, you name it they got it at the market.
And that is why the locals come here. It’s a cheap place to buy meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, but not just food, you can also buy toiletries, toys and you can get a haircut or buy some music, recharge your cell phone (or buy a cell phone).. it’s like a mall, not as nice by a long shot but way, way cheaper and full of mini entrepreneurs selling their wares and wheeling and dealing to make their living.
We get a decent amount of footage shot with Luis Towers providing the guidance, but once again just as we’re getting rolling, the rain sets in and dampens the rest of our shooting schedule.
Moe and I head out at night to a new part of the city, Boca Grande, and eat Mexican (a nice change of pace from the typical Colombian food we’ve been having) and get some footage of the Chivas, Colombian party buses. Boca Grande is not as charming as the old city but it’s a nice change of pace from the constant touts and vendors hounding you to buy buy, buy!
The Next day, we shot some more in the old city during the day. We find an English speaking tour guide Rolando, who agreed to be on camera with me and gave me the lowdown on a couple of historic spots in the old city including the famous Plaza Santo Domingo, where back in the day, slaves were bought and sold but today feature touristy restaurants with outdoor eating with live entertainment like traditional Afro-Latino dancing troupes, etc.
We get a few more establishing shots in before rain once again interrupts our plans.
We chilled for a bit at the hotel and then headed to a cool little restaurant owned by my friend Flavia called “Bazurto Social Club” on the edge of Getsmani for dinner. We were in luck because that night they were featuring live Champeta music, which was perfect to get us in the mood for our trip to San Basilio Palenque the next day. Tomorrow was to be a long day, so we hit the hay early, but not before doing some damage on the dance floor. While Moe and Renzo were dancing for fun, I was doing my “please no more rain” dance. I hope it works.
The weather the next day wipes out the planned trip to the beaches of Isla Rosario and we instead opt to shoot in the old city in between downpours.
If you’ve never been, the old city of Cartagena is gorgeous with lots of history. The city is walled in and protected by forts, streets are cobblestone and some architecture dates from as far back as the 1500s.
It has a tragic history as one of the centers for the slave trade in South America and still has a very strong Afro-Colombian influence.
It’s a good romantic spot too, very international with cruise ships docking for the day throughout the week, guaranteeing a steady stream of tourists for the locals to hit up. Unfortunately, this is the only downside to visiting Cartagena, you WILL get badgered to buy, buy and buy some more.
Just put on your game face and be prepared to say “no, gracias” a lot or you’ll be broke before you know it.
But on the flip side there are some great local artists, from painters to performance artists to jewelry makers and most things are not that expensive so do plan on getting some cool stuff for friends and family back home (or maybe yourself!).
We ended up getting some decent shots during the day while the rain held off. Without the cover of constant clouds, Cartagena became it’s hot and humid self, but after days and days of soaking rains we were glad for it.
Renzo, still sick, battled valiantly but had to call it a day after lunch so Moe, Luis and I continued shooting. We took advantage of our “freedom” from our Supervising Producer to try different techniques, he, he. But we’ll see how many actually make it to air and how many make it on the cutting room floor!
Luis shows us the major sites around town, but he couldn’t walk two feet without someone stopping him or yelling “Luis Towers” from a passing car. Dude is famous around these parts for sure.
We wound up the day right with a perfect sunset watching some African dancing and drums. Not a bad day at all.
Check some video of Afro-Colombian dancing below and to see more pics from our trip to Cartagena go HERE!