Monday, April 14, 2008

Vicky Baker Reports From Medellin

Vicky Baker is travelling around Central and South America guided by the local people she meets on social networking websites. This week she is in Medellín and Cartagena, Colombia

* Vicky Baker
* The Guardian,
* Saturday April 12 2008

My Colombian host, Raul, is half-dressed when he opens the door and invites me into his Medellín apartment. Behind him all is pitch black, the only light coming from the flashing Bluetooth device attached to his ear. This is the first "What on earth am I doing?" moment of my trip.

I've been meeting locals through travel networking sites for some time now, for nights out, for day trips, or just to hang out and experience their day-to-day life. But I haven't stayed at the house of a virtual stranger (or "virtual friend", if you prefer). Until now.

So, why Raul? For weeks, I have been corresponding with Angelica, another Medellín couchsurfer, but she isn't going to be around when I am due to arrive and has recommended Raul as a last-minute alternative.

A 27-year-old salesman, he ticks the most important safety boxes: "vouched for" by another member, lots of good references. He even has the prestigious title of "couchsurfing city ambassador", meaning he is the point of contact for all other Medellín hosts.

I drop him a line apologising for the lack of notice and asking if he might be able to host me for a couple of nights. "No problema," he replies instantly, followed by his address. It's as simple as that.

So here I am, standing in his apartment. Raul leaves me to freshen up and, while stumbling in the dark, I happen upon a sleeping Austrian, a fellow couchsurfer called Philipp. It all feels quite strange.

An hour later, the three of us are in a raucous bar, Sombrero Vueltiao, in the university neighbourhood of Belén. Philipp, a non-drinker, and myself, exhausted after a cross-country bus trip, are no doubt a bit of a disappointment to party-loving Raul, but he doesn't let it slow him down, ordering shots of aguardiente, a nationally loved spirit flavoured with aniseed, and insisting on ending the night at a nearby pub, Parche Pilsen, with "una jirafa", a long thin vessel holding three litres of beer.

He's not quite so lively the next day though. He takes us out for a cheap lunch (£1 for two courses at a local diner, Sabor de Los Alpes), but his hangover gets the better of him, forcing him back to bed and leaving Philipp and me to explore central Medellín.

Colombia's second city may still be trying to shed the reputation it gained when it was ruled by the drug baron Pablo Escobar, but Colombians know it more for its year-round spring climate and lively nightlife, from the stylish lounge bars of Calle 33 to the terraces of la Zona Rosa.

Paisas - as Medellín residents are called - prove to be warm and welcoming. We chat at length with a young father selling coffee from a Thermos on the street and get taken under the wing of a family riding the cable car that serves commuters from the hillside barrios. We even get an impromptu city tour from an off-duty soldier. All of which proves what we know: that you don't need the internet to meet locals.

But back to the intriguing world of online networking and, with Raul revived by the evening, we are off to meet two other local hosts, Sirley and Natalia, for dinner and dancing in la Zona Rosa. The site seems to have created its own community in Medellín. Hosts are usually brought together either by the city ambassador, Raul, or by travellers, such as Philipp.

Raul, who seemed so nonchalant on my arrival, turns out to be a couchsurfer extraordinaire, with unsurpassable generosity. When we go it alone in town, he gives us an old mobile phone so we can meet other hosts and a key so we can let ourselves back in when we want.

This isn't the first time my preconceptions have been subverted on this trip, and my next stop, Cartagena, on the country's Caribbean coast, shows it's not the last.

Cristobal is 32, wants to become an English teacher, and signed up to to practise his English with native speakers. Is that all he wants, I find myself wondering when I call to arrange our meet. "The city's beautiful," I tell him. "Not as beautiful as you, I imagine," he replies.

However, when we meet in the palm-filled courtyard of the Santa Clara hotel, Cristobal instantly defies my scepticism. He is flirtatious, but in an entirely non-threatening, gentlemanly way. Since joining, he has racked up a string of online penpals and, although I'm the only one he's met in person, he naturally falls into the role of city guide. We walk around the ancient ramparts and lunch in one of the many cafe-lined plazas; I help him decipher his English homework and he not only acts as my translator at the bank but also helps me negotiate a cheap bus ticket, bypassing inflated tourist rates.

I promise to keep in touch with Cristobal, but future English lessons will have to be by email as I'm already Venezuela-bound. In Caracas I've arranged to meet Pierre-Charles, a travel networker who rebelled against to set up his own site, He has strong ideas on the future of online hospitality and I'm keen to hear them.

Raul's tip: Medellín

Piedra Peñol is a giant monolith 75km outside the city and is well worth a day trip. Scaling the 700 steps to the summit offers dramatic views of a water world of lakes below. It's $7,000 pesos (about £1.90) for a bus from the northern terminal and $5,000 pesos for the entrance. Be prepared for cooler temperatures. See for more info, including abseiling opportunities.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Apartment Boutique Opens Its Second Location in La Strada in Medellín

The grand opening of the Apartment in Medellin

The Apartment is a premium brand inspired by latin culture. The brand was created and developed by a Colombian born in Vancouver, Canada.

After selling the products to wholesalers in Canada and distributing them in stores in the United States, Japan, Greece, Italy, among other countries, the Apartment opened its first store this past December in Colombia, located in the middle of Park 93 in Bogota, and this month it opened a second store in La Strada in Medellin.

The Apartment is an urban outfitters apparel center for those looking to celebrate latin culture. There are many interesting products available for purchase, including many inspirational t-shirts designed by latin american artists.

Colombian sweethearts in Medellin

Young Colombiano's ready for the club

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Dodging Cows, Not Bullets in Colombia

A herd of cattle blocks the road toward the rural village of Corinto in Colombia.

CORINTO, Colombia - It was easy for the kids at the rural school to see I had arrived.

Even if they didn't see the van carrying myself and Microsoft executive Orlando Ayala, it was hard to miss the 20 or so soldiers that accompanied us in a convoy.

The military envoy was not just a sign of the respect that Ayala is held in--though the Colombian native is something of a favorite son here--but rather an indicator of the danger that remains in the area in an around Corinto, Colombia. Though its just 30-some miles from Cali, the area is not far from rebel strongholds.

At one point on our way there, the road was blocked by a herd of rather skinny cattle. Though on its face amusing (and definitely a Kodak moment), their presence was unsettling to even some of the Colombians in the van. Such incidents can be a diversion to initiate a kidnapping. Thankfully the cows were just cows.

Though the trip into the countryside had some risk, it feels important to write about people that are trying to move forward, even as the conflict remains close to their homes. The visit was particularly powerful for me, having known someone in high school, Terry Freitas, who was later kidnapped and killed near the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

In Corinto, I saw students thrilled by the opportunity to use decade-old technology and a mayor and principal pleading for the more modern computers that could make an even greater impact. I was also struck by the teacher who helped the students with the computers--a zoologist who moved back to Corinto to help improve the education in the town where she grew up.

I also had a chance to tour the factory where workers painstakingly refurbish the computers that end up in places like Corinto. The program, Computadores para Educar (Computers for Education) refurbishes more than 20,000 computers a year. Although the machines are typically a few years old (the minimum specs are machines with Pentium II processors and 128MB of memory), a government study found that the computers the program refurbishes have roughly the same time before failing as new PCs, in part because of its rigorous process of cleaning and testing.

However, that painstaking process is costly, and the program often has to supplement donated computers with new parts. As a result, some say the $160 it costs to refurbish a computer may not be the best use of funds, when new machines, capable of running the latest software, can be had for around $280. It's a fascinating debate, and I plan to describe the program and its challenges more in a post that will go up in the next day or so.

I also doubt I will forget the torrential rain that came out of nowhere as we visited the peace park in Medellin, started by well-known Latin singer Juanes, who is also from Colombia. The rain was probably the hardest I have seen in my life, but lasted just five minutes or so. A few minutes later, the kids taking tennis lessons at the park were back outside playing around.

A Colombian boy plays in a heavy rain at Juanes de la Paz park in Medellin. The downpour lasted about five minutes.

Posted by Ina Fried at CNET

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Optimistic Colombia Works To Put Its Troubled Past Behind It

Colombia is fast becoming one of South Americas greatest travel destinations for experienced travelers. This is a country bestowed with picturesque landscapes, tropical rainforest, snowcapped Andean peaks that tower over countless valleys. Its beautiful Caribbean and Pacific coasts with plenty of warm beaches are a travelers dream.

Colombia is a big place with a truly unbelievably geography. The Atlantic coastline is typical Caribbean. The Pacific coast is still wild and untamed. Central Colombia encompasses 3 major mountain ranges with some of the most spectacular scenery you will see anywhere in the world, while the southern part of the country holds the largest portion of the vast Amazon Basin outside of Brazil.

Colombia has two oceans with more than 1,000 miles of both Caribbean and Pacific coast line. Being located at such a geographical crossroads has left Colombia with a fabulous history, with the culture of colonial Spain still evident in its architecture, language, customs and religion. The region continues to produce and export some of the finest gems in the world, particularly emeralds.

Colombians are very proud of their long-standing cultural and intellectual tradition. Not only has Colombia developed and exported Shakira and Juanes, both great musical talents, but it has also produced noted writer Gabriel García Márquez whose books have been translated into multiply languages for readers around the world. Medellin native, Fernando Botero is probably one of Latin Americas most popular living artist today, respected in art communities in every country. Colombia offers a variety of native musical styles representing a population that is ethnically unique and diverse.

Colombia offers a variety of opportunities for travelers; modern cities such as Medellin, which has been transformed into one of Colombia’s most talked about destinations. Boasting Colombia’s only Metro system, along with the worlds only cable cars developed as affordable transportation for the locals, know as Paisas (pie suhs). The mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, has been busy overseeing the development of many of Medellin’s urban projects aimed at improving the lifes of those who live in the poorer communities.

Bogota, the capital of Colombia has long been regarded as the business hub of Colombia. But today tourists have discovered that Bogota has much more to offer visitors. There are more than 800 restaurants, where you will find every type of cuisine from around the globe. It has a vibrant nightlife where parties are known to last until the early morning hours. Health tourism in Bogota has fast become a great option for those seeking all types of medical health care at affordable prices. Shopping is also one of Bogota’s biggest attractions with travelers spending it has contributed to Colombia's economy and more importantly, it has improved the overall economy for the locals.

Change has come to Colombia, it is unlike anything you have seen in the media and does not resemble anything you have seen in any Hollywood movie. It is working to change its reputation around the world, seeking a place among the greatest developing countries in this new century.

The popular President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, with the help of the United States has accomplished what many thought was impossible – peace in Colombia. It has become a modern country with a bustling and vibrant economy. Its economy continues to boom as new construction and development continues around Colombia at an incredible pace.

Even during Colombia’s most turbulent times, the core strength of this nation has endured, that is to say the Colombian people have always remained optimistic about its future and have dedicated themselves to working at developing a peaceful Colombia for years to come.

Colombians are a very friendly bunch who and very helpful at assisting wherever there is a need. Although English is not commonly spoken, they are very curious about tourists. Traveling to Colombia feels like discovering paradise where locals are always ready to greet you with a warm smile.

Colombia’s history has turned a page toward the future.