Departure and reflections on Colombia

February 10.

On our final day, we eat breakfast in the lovely hotel courtyard and then take a short walk around the area with a view towards possibly doing a little last minute shopping, on quaint streets that house touristy shops and reveal the ubiquitous presence of KFC. We do not purchase anything, but return to the hotel and are picked up to go to the airport for our flight to Panama City, and then on to Chicago.

Big success at the Cartagena airport. I convince them to let me keep my belt on by telling them, in Spanish, that my pants will fall if I take it off. Four years of high school Spanish is worth something.

This was really an excellent trip. It’s worth reflecting on what made it so good.

First, Brian did a terrific job of putting together a diverse trip according to what he understood (correctly, as it turns out) would appeal to us.

Certain of the things we saw would probably be considered “must sees” for a trip to Colombia– the gold museum in Bogotá, the Botero Museum in Medellin and the fort in Cartagena. All of them were worth seeing, especially the Museo de Oro, which is quite spectacular. None of them, however, is what we will remember most about the trip.

The really outstanding memories are of all the people we met and the personal experiences that we had–the flower carrier (sillatero) in Medellin, the flower farm there, with the creative gardener who we initially underestimated, based solely on his looks, meeting Federico, the art dealer in Bogotá, and later having dinner with him in Cartagena, the day on the coffee plantation near Fredonia, the young people who gave us the tour in the barrios (Columa1) and especially the day at the music school and the evening dinner and concert in the botanical garden in Medellin at which we met the founder of the music school, Juan G. We enjoyed taking our hand at creating some ceramics at the ceramic factory in Carmen and at designing t-shirts or playing the bongo drum and making appetizers in Palenque. These are the memories that will live with us long after we unpack.

The young team that Brian has put together consisting of himself, Ana, Laura, Juan Camilo and Santi were all terrific and added to the flavor and our enjoyment of the trip. Just being able to interact with these energetic, enthusiastic young people was energizing for Carol and me. All of the places we stayed at were either good, or better than good, the best being the Casa Agustin in Cartagena. Seeing the lodge that Brian and his team put together at Cannúa was excellent. He justifiably takes great pride in what they have accomplished.

Though neither Carol nor I is a foodie, the dinner at Cielo in Medellin has got to rank as a highlight of the trip and perhaps the most outstanding and memorable meal we have had anywhere in the world. We had other good dinners as well, including last night’s dinner at Casa Agustin, the interesting dinner at Celele, the fusion Japanese, Peruvian and Colombian dinner in Bogotá and the meals that we had in Cannúa.

We are constantly reminded of the smallness of the world when we travel. Happening to be in Bogotá at the same time as our friends the Christies so that we could have an otherwise unmemorable dinner with them and see their son, Than. Connecting Federico, the art dealer in Bogotá to Albie Sachs, the former Constitutional Court Justice in Johannesburg South Africa, to explore the possibility of arranging for the sculptural pieces by Federico’s brother to wind up in the collection of the Constitutional Court. While this is by no means assured, the mere possibility and exploration of it is exciting.

Being able to see the connection between the development of the music school by Juan G. and the work that Carol and I are trying to help with at FreshLens in Chicago, and being able to discuss those similarities with Juan G and his daughter, Daniella, was a great treat. We were able talk with the musicians in Palenque about how their approach to playing very lively funeral music in their culture is quite similar to what we experienced in funeral processions in Ghana. We’re happy to introduce Jean, our friend, folk art enthusiast and travel agent in Santa Fe to Elizabeth’s stunning ceramic plates made in the small town of Carmen, Colombia.

Witnessing and participating in all of this is exhilarating. Forging new relationships and trying to connect folks in different corners of the globe is both a privilege and a joy.


February 9.

Breakfast outside in he courtyard at the hotel, then picked up by Santiago (Santi) our guide for the day and a close friend and business partner of Juan Comilo, our guide of yesterday. Santi proves to be a capable and very affable guide who we enjoy spending time with.We are driven to Palenque by Santi’s cousin, Felipe.

Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005, the small village of Palenque (an hour and a quarter drive from Cartagena) was founded by escaped slaves who sought refuge and fled on foot to the inland foothills in the 17th century. The existing 4,000 residents in the town are ancestors of these original slaves. Although Cartagena was Spain’s principle slave port, the town of Palenque became the first “free” town in the Americas and today is a haven for the local African creole language, dance, colorful clothing style, and social structures.

We drive down the town’s dirt roads and stop at a house, where we are told something about the town and its culture. Then we are treated to a drumming, singing and dancing recital. I try out the drumming, but unfortunately no photograph is available. Probably, the photograph would not be very clear, anyway, because my hands move so quickly as I pound out the rhythm.

We pass by a local cemetery.witness a hot dominos game.and we learn something about herbal medicine and the architecture of an old house being restored by an architect.We return to the house that we first visited, where we are given some instruction on how to prepare a traditional appetizer, and then are served a traditional Palenqueno lunch.. Our shopping in town is not successful, but Carol does make a friend of one of the shop owners.

After lunch, we are quite ready to head home in our air-conditioned car, as the heat does not make one anxious to be out very long. It has been an interesting day in which we’ve been shown and participated in town culture, rather than simply having it described to us.

We have a good long time to rest in our comfortable hotel suite and get ready for tomorrow’s trip home, before it is time for dinner.

We dine tonight at a restaurant located in our hotel, called Alma, joined by Federico Ruiz, the art dealer who we met in Bogotá. Lovely setting outside in the courtyard, with outstanding food and beautiful presentation. Federico is an interesting and engaging fellow, so the conversation and evening were excellent. It’s still possible that we’ll arrange for a purchase of his brother’s sculpture by the Constitutional Court in South Africa, or even add a piece to our collection, but nothing is set yet.


February 8.

Breakfast at the hotel before heading back toward the international airport with Ana (and her husband, Freddy) for a 40-minute flight to the Caribbean coast and our final destination, Cartagena.

 We are met at the airport by a Juan Camilo, who just graduated from college two years ago. We are staying at a beautiful, boutique hotel, Casa San Agustin, right in the heart of the “ciudad amurallada,” the old walled city of Cartagena. Here we encounter quaint streets and plazas lined with bright yellow and blue walls of buildings that define the colonial architecture of this 500-year-old city.

 After getting settled, we drive to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, one of the largest Spanish colonial fortresses ever built. For regulatory reasons, we are accompanied by a second guide, José, who adds nothing. Juan Camilo is energetic and fun, and entrepreneurial. He studied and speaks both English and French. As we walk part way up the walls of the fort we can understandwhy, despite several attempts by outside forces, the Castillo de San Felipe was never taken and always successfully defended. It is extremely hot out, so, mercifully, we are able to stop at an air conditioned room that has a quite interesting film about the construction and history of the fort.

Because of the heat, we decline to climb up farther on the fort walls. We drive back into the walled city and see more of its quaint, but touristy, town. Cartagena clearly has more hats for sale per capita than any city we’ve seen.Juan Camilo tells us rather more than we care to hear about the history of the area, and some of the spots we were to see were not open. We do stop at a nice coffee shop, which reportedly has won more prizes for its coffee than any other, then return to our hotel, ready to call it a day. We are shown to our suite, which is very lovely, superior by far to the presidential suite at the Park 10 in Medellin.

Have been emailing and What’s Apping all day with Federico Ruiz, the art dealer we spent a day with in Bogotá. He and his wife, Rochi, are on an island off of Cartagena and we are trying to arrange to have dinner together tomorrow.

After resting in our room, we drive to dinner at Celele’s, where Brian has arranged a table for us. This is a very unusual, funky place that Brian, as a big foodie, knew about. It’s description, in the menu, said,”Contemporary cuisine based on the gastronomic culture and biodiversity of the Colombian Caribbean territory. “. The food was interesting; some of it very good, some not so much. The place was buzzing; completely full and probably seven tables turned away, with a second seating yet to come. Servers were very cute.

All in all, this was the least interesting day we’ve spent in Colombia. History is just not as interesting as people. But still, not bad. Returned to the hotel to retire.



February 7.

Peaceful breakfast outside at the farm, overlooking coffee plantation and mountains, with birds chirping and small children walking by to go to school.

Brian drives us two hours to Medellín, through the central destination for representative street art in the rarely visited Comuna 1 located in the northeast of Medellin. The experience is created and led by the head of a youth collective of artists who are from and create art in these very neighborhoods, and the tour is exclusive to True Colombia Travel. True Graffiti is the next generation of Medellín cultural experiences.

 In Medellín, accompanied by our guide for the day, Laura, we take the city’s innovative and modern transit system up into one of the hillside favela-neighborhoods where the collective works and lives. The walk begins in the living Urban Museum of Memories, a giant mural display that tells the history of the creation of the neighborhood and both the ancestral and modern history of the inhabitants.

 From there we walk through the streets of the neighborhood hearing stories of what has happened in this impactful neighborhood over the last 50 years and how many of the dangerous “invisible borders” have been torn down.

 We observe how art has changed the lives of the members of the collective and how they are now training the barrio’s youth in these same art forms as a way to create sustainable change and avoid the same pitfalls of violence and PTSD that have affected many of their peers.

 We get a private explanation and are able to see performance art including singing, free-style hip hop and and break-dancing, all telling the story of violence, change, family, and love in the community. Carol and I guided by members of the cooperative design and create t-shirts for ourselves.

We take the cable car and tram back down and walk across to the botanic garden in which we had dinner to music night before last. We have a delicious lunch with Laura at the lovely botanic garden restaurant. Brian joins us at the end and drives us in the rain to our hotel, where he has already checked us in to our same presidential suite. Laura was totally delightful and engaging, living up to the standards we’d experienced with a Brian and Ana.

 Last time I was in Colombia, I had dinner at El Cielo, which is the most memorable meal I have ever had. I’ve been looking forward to going back there on this trip, and to showing it off to Carol, but with some sense of trepidation, because I did not know how it would fare on a repeat visit.. The set menus of “moments” are a playful and sumptuous take on Colombian food and fusion. The menu changes seasonally, concentrating on one region of the country while showing flashes of Colombia as a whole in every meal. We splurge and order the wine pairings. It as absolutely amazing. Neither Carol nor I is a foodie, but we both agreed that this was a dining experience unlike any other we’ve had, ending with the flaming rum drinks.


February 6.

In the morning we drive two hours for a special, private experience, arranged by Brian and his travel company, True Colombia Travel. In the past couple days, we have have moved from Medellin to Cannúa (Brian’s lodge) and Santa Elena, where we saw the flowers, and today to to Fredonia (which sounds to me as if it comes straight out of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta) in the Southwest.En route to our destination, we pass through some small towns.

Over 120 years ago, the very first commercial coffee cultivations in Colombia were planted in this beautiful finca (farm) in San Cayetano, which today produces some of the best traditional coffee in the country. San Cayetano is Rainforest Alliance certified for their conscienscious treatment of the earth and UTZ fair trade certified for fair treatment of their employees.

 Our personal tour highlights the best of Colombian cultivation on an expansive property that spans various elevations and cultivates both high-land and low-land coffee. We travel by jeep over an extremely bumpy road, driven by Felipe, vice president of San Cayetano, and accompanied by Brian. In the process, we are treated to breathtaking views of the central ridge of the Andes mountains and the Cauca River 3,000 feet below.

Along the route we encounter pickers who work on the farm, see how they live, and pass a school constructed on the farm specially for the children of families that work in the fields. Currently there are thirty pickers working, but in high season, October, there will be 250. Pickers are paid by the kilo. An average picker might pick 80 kilos in a day, but an expert may pick 250 or more kilos.

 We are able to see every step of the lengthy and difficult coffee process from seed to cup, and see ripe beans straight from the tree. A vente at Starbucks will never quite be the same again. We stop for a traditional farm lunch back at the house.

 After lunch, we visit the processing warehouse to see how they de-pulp, wash, and dry the beans in both traditional as well as specialty methods, promoted by a coffee initiative established by True Colombia Travel.

Back at the house, Brian prepares San Cayentano coffee for us using two different methods, and explains the reasons for each step of his preparation. If I was reading Carol’s body language correctly, she’s unlikely to be forsaking our coffee maker any time soon.

At the owner’s private mansion, we have the grounds to ourselves. We change into our swimsuits (after a nap, of course) and take a dip in the infinity pool. As the sun sets, we sit on the deck, reading and blogging.

We’re served wine as the sun disappears from view. Later, we move over to the fire place, fed by coffee wood, and relax as we are served our dinner.

After dinner, I spend some time in the jacuzzi. Hey, somebody’s gotta do it, right?

A very interesting day. Not as much fun as the music school, but definitely worthwhile and, in the late afternoon and evening, very relaxing.