The ride in the collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was just shy of two hours. As you might expect, the views were fantastic. We were driving across a high plateau of rolling hills, tucked in among the snowcapped peaks of the Andes. It is agricultural land, so there were endless fields of wheat, potatoes, quinoa, and other crops.
The high farmlands
A dusty existence
The road to Ollantaytambo
Peeking down on one of the towns along the way
The van ride had Mila miserable with motion sickness; I know she was greatly relieved when we rolled into the main square of Ollantaytambo and piled out of the van.
Unloading in the main square
The main square in Ollantaytambo
Jette in the main square
A good portion of the town is made of of stone buildings connected by a network of narrow cobblestone streets too narrow for cars. The town and many of the buildings in it date back to Inca times. Over the years, much of it has been reconstructed and reconfigured, but there are many elements that are original. Here’s how wikipedia describes the layout of the town:
The main settlement at Ollantaytambo has an orthogonal layout with four longitudinal streets crossed by seven parallel streets. At the center of this grid, the Incas built a large plaza that may have been up to four blocks large; it was open to the east and surrounded by halls and other town blocks on its other three sides. All blocks on the southern half of the town were built to the same design; each comprised two kancha, walled compounds with four one-room buildings around a central courtyard. Buildings in the northern half are more varied in design; however, most are in such a bad condition that their original plan is hard to establish.
Ollantaytambo dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. Its layout and buildings have been altered to different degrees by later constructions, for instance, on the southern edge of the town an Inca esplanade with the original entrance to the town was rebuilt as a Plaza de Armas surrounded by colonial and republican buildings. The plaza at the center of the town also disappeared as several buildings were built over it in colonial times.
Typical buildings and street in Ollantaytambo
The street leading to our guesthouse
From the main square, we started the short walk uphill along the cobblestone streets with our luggage. Mila was moving slowly, a bit wobbly from the residual motion sickness, which a nice local man happened to notice. He offered to carry one of our bags for us, declining to accept payment, but we insisted and he finally accepted a nice tip.
Casa de Wow
View from the kitchen window
The guesthouse was on the edge of the old Inca settlement and faced the Inca terraces and structures carved into the adjacent mountainside. The views were fantastic.
The view from in front of our guesthouse
Mila decided to stay at the hostel to recuperate, while Jette and I went out to find some food.
A nice lunch of soup
One of the really cool things in Ollantaytambo is the elaborate and robust water system that runs through both the town and the ruins on the mountainside above. Even after hundreds of years it is still functional.
Mila tried to take it easy by resting and going to bed early. Thankfully, she woke up early the next morning feeling like herself. We were all up early as this was the day we were headed to Machu Picchu.
Boarding the morning train to Aguas Calientes
Most visitors to Machu Picchu take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes there are busses that shuttle people up and down the mountain. The train trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is a very short 24 miles. The shuttle busses up the mountain to the entrance of Machu Picchu take about a 35 minutes on slow, winding roads. The transportation is monopolized and very expensive. The short train ride, the shuttle bus, and admission to Machu Picchu cost more than $600 USD for the three of us! Visiting Machu Picchu was by far the most expensive one-day sight we’ve seen in our months of travels.
Many people go to Aguas Calientes the day before they visit Machu Picchu so that they can be at Machu Picchu for sunrise. We opted not to do this for two reasons. First, we figured most people would do this and that morning would be the most crowded time to be there. Second, the mornings had been foggy and we assumed our day at Machu Picchu would be no exception. No point in being there for sunrise if you can’t see anything! Our plan was to leave Ollantaytambo early in the morning, spend the day at Machu Picchu and return to Ollantaytambo that same evening. That’s what we did and it worked out very well.
Morning fog and clouds as we arrive in Aguas Calientes
Statue of Pachacutec in Aguas Calientes
We walked from the train station to the shuttle bus stop
Aguas Calientes is a tourist dive. It is just a bunch of simple hotels, restaurants and shops catering to the 2,500 tourists that visit Machu Picchu each day. We’re really glad we just passed quickly through and didn’t spend the night. From the train station we walked to the shuttle bus stop and got in line. Before long, one of the shuttle busses took us up the mountain and into the clouds.
Foggy, rainy entrance to Machu Picchu
Everything was shrouded in foggy clouds and a misty rain was falling. We entered Machu Picchu and made our way up the foggy paths to the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is thought to have been the main entrance to Machu Picchu in Inca times and would have served as a gate and checkpoint. It is a good bit above the main Machu Picchu complex and though some guides suggest that the hike up and back takes 3-4 hours, we did it comfortably in about two.
A foggy path
Cloudy with a chance of llamaballs
Up the Sun Gate trail
Exploring some nooks and crannies along the trail
Pretty flowers at the trail’s edge
At a bend in the trail
At the Sun Gate
Sun Gate – note the classic Inca building techniques of small stones stacked with mortar.
Sun Gate handstand
Clouds obscure Machu Picchu
When we got to the Sun Gate, clouds still obscured everything below and the Machu Picchu complex was not visible. The clouds were moving quickly though, and after only a few minutes there was a brief moment when the clouds broke and we had a good view of the main Machu Picchu complex. The wide angle camera on my phone didn’t capture much. To the eye, we could see the main complex peeking out of the clouds below.
The clouds part long enough for a quick photo
We relaxed at the top for a bit, then headed back down the trail to the main complex. It was a pretty quick hike down the trail, and as we descended, the clouds really began to clear.
Terraces along the trail
As we got down close to the main complex, the fog and clouds had cleared and visibility was good.
Approaching the main complex – again note the classic Inca construction technique of walls built with small stones and filled with mortar.
While there were a only a handful of people who had hiked up to the Sun Gate, the main complex area was full of tourists. As we got closer, we got the classic view of Machu Picchu that gives a sense of how, amazingly, it is perched on a mountain top. To me,this placement is the thing that makes it so incredible.
Carved out of a mountain top
A llama lover at Machu Picchu
Tourists snapping photos with Machu Picchu in the background
Another view as we get closer
A nice man took three photos of us, all of them with his finger over the lens. Maybe we need a selfie-stick!
Making our way down into the main complex
Machu Picchu inspired Jette to do the splits
Must be the thin mountain air
Integrating a massive stone outcropping. Note the mortar filled walls.
Mila and Jette with terraces in the background
Standing in front of the amazing terraces
Jette and me at Machu Picchu
The whole area is full of rock and boulders – lots of building material
As we explored Machu Picchu, one of the most striking things was the different building techniques used. The most common technique used small stones stacked into walls using mortar. Often these walls appear to have been built hollow, and filled with mortar too. A second technique used large stones, roughly cut, and stacked dry, without mortar. Smaller stones were used to fill in gaps, as in the photo above. The most impressive technique used large or very large stones, precisely shaped, and stacked with great precision, using no mortar, as in the photo below.
Look at the size of these stones and the precision of assembly.
Huge, precisely shaped stones, perfectly joined without mortar.
Even the edges are beveled.
Only a few of the structures in Machu Picchu use this technique and show this level of precision. Most of the structures are built with small, roughly shaped stones and mortar:
Typical structures at Machu Picchu, using small stones set with mortar.
The difference in building techniques is striking and incongruent. It seems difficult to imagine that all of these structures were built by the same people, at the same time. As we mentioned in a previous post, one alternative theory is that the large, precise structures were built by an unknown culture long before the Inca arrived on the scene, and that, years later, the Inca discovered these and built around them. I don’t know enough to accept or reject this hypothesis, but I can see how common sense might lead to this conclusion. The construction techniques and craftsmanship are strikingly different, and suggest the use of very different technologies.
Consider the fact that the Inca had only Bronze-Age technology. They had no wheeled vehicles, and had only stone, wood, copper and bronze tools, all of which are softer than the stone used in construction. How in the world could they have quarried these huge stones, moved them to the building sites, cut them so precisely, and lifted them into place? There seems to be much speculation, disagreement, and debate about this.
Above and below. Were these built by the same people at the same time?
Another example of contrasting building techniques.
Here’s a video that gives you a view of the central buildings built with the large, precisely cut and placed stones, as well as the more common buildings built with the small stones and mortar.
Some of the most amazing structures at Machu Picchu are almost invisible. Apparently, the Inca engineered excellent foundations and drainage systems, which are hidden below the ground. NOVA has an interview with an engineer who investigated this.
Jette the animal lover had lots of fun with the llamas and alpacas at the site. Most of them were pretty tame and if you held up a tuft of grass, they would eat from your hand. Towards the end of the day we took a break on the porch of one of the reconstructed structures while Jette joined the llama herd.
Llamas (and alpacas?) grazing on the terraces
Hanging out with new friends
After 7 or 8 hours of exploring Machu Picchu, we took the shuttle bus back down to Aguas Calientes. We were hungry, and we had some time to kill before the train back to Ollantaytambo, so we had dinner at one of the many tourist dives in town.
Back in Aguas Calientes
OMG! I love roodles! They’re totally my favorite!
Some interesting choices
I was really tempted by “Guinea Pig the furnace” but in the end settled for some chips and guacamole.
We often try to avoid really touristy places and given the costs and hassles associated with Machu Picchu, we seriously considered skipping it. In the end we were glad that we went. The setting in the mountains is truly spectacular. The ruins are too, but if they were plopped down in the middle of a big, flat field somewhere they would be much less so. As they are, it is a magical place.
06/05/2106 EDIT – Just found these photos and wanted to share them:
The flight from Lima to Cusco was quick – only about an hour – but the views were amazing. Even with an aisle seat I caught some amazing glimpses of the snow capped Andes. Beautiful! Cusco is so high in the Andes that when we landed it seemed like we barely had to descend.
On the ground in Cusco
Cusco sits in the mountains at more than 11,000 feet above sea level. Altitude sickness is an issue for many people above 8,000 feet, and it can be quite serious. From the moment the plane depressurized Mila and I could “feel” the altitude. For me the sensation was that of pressure in my head, especially behind my eyes, and a slight sense of being short of breath. I constantly felt like I needed to take a deep breath. The symptoms weren’t too bad, but definitely noticeable. Mila said that it felt like her head was in a vice, getting squeezed at the temples. Jette didn’t feel it at all. Ah, to be young!
We caught a taxi from the airport to our hotel in the old, touristy part of the city. The hotel was a quirky little place, but fine for our needs and we met some nice fellow travellers there each day at breakfast.
A slightly creepy welcome
We only come alive at night!
We were welcomed with cups of hot coca tea, a popular local drink which they say is good for relieving the symptoms of altitude sickness. It tasted like a smokey green tea, and was pleasant enough, though for me at least, it seemed to have no effect on my symptoms.
Coca tea is made by steeping the leaves of the coca plant in hot water. Coca tea is not to be confused with cocoa tea, also popular in Peru. Cocoa tea is made from the shell or husk of the cocoa bean – the same bean from which chocolate is made!
Speaking of coca, here’s a little bit of trivia. The original recipe for Coca-Cola included cocaine, a drug made from the chemical processing of coca leaves.
What most people don’t know is that Coca-Cola is still made with coca leaves. In fact, in 1922 when cocaine was outlawed in the United States and the import of coca leaves outlawed, the Coca-Cola Corporation was given a special exemption, allowing them and only them to legally import coca! Currently, this is done through their partner, the Stepan company. Wikipedia describes their coca operations:
The plant is the only commercial entity in the USA authorized by the Drug Enforcement Administration to import coca leaves, which come primarily from Peru. Approximately 100 metric tons of dried coca leaf are imported each year. The cocaine-free leaves are sold to The Coca Cola Company, while the cocaine is sold to Mallinckrodt, a pharmaceutical firm, for medicinal purposes.
Aside from tea, there are many coca products – from ointments to snacks – that are popular in Peru.
With our tea cups empty and our bags safely stashed in our room, we ventured out to explore Cusco and find some dinner. In the old part of the city there are lots of narrow cobblestone streets.
Narrow sidewalks and endless traffic in Cusco.
Walking down some of them was really unpleasant as some of the sidewalks were so narrow that when you encountered someone coming the opposite direction there was not enough room to pass each other without stepping off the sidewalk or ducking into a doorway. Normally such narrow streets and sidewalks are cute and quaint. But in this instance there was so much traffic, so many cars, that it was was very unpleasant. Drivers whizzed by, often driving way too fast for the conditions. Every taxi that passed blasted its horn, hoping for a fare. It was loud and, as we would discover, dangerous.
As we were walking down one very narrow street, a driver came so close to the curb that his side mirror came into the sidewalk area, and smashed into me. Luckily it was a newer car with “folding” mirrors, so it simply bruised me a bit as the impact flipped his mirror back. Of course the driver didn’t even slow down. Welcome to Peru.
In the end, we found a nice dinner at quiet little restaurant.
Lomo Saltado – a popular Peruvian beef dish. There are more than 2,000 varieties of potatoes in Peru, so you never know what color your french fries might be!
Cusco was the political and religious capital of the Inca Empire. For a very short period from about 1400 to 1534 the Incas assembled a massive kingdom that stretched along the West coast of S. America from Colombia to Chile. At that time, it was the largest empire in the world. It was short-lived because the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the 1520’s and over the next 30 years decimated the population with fighting, enslavement and disease. In some parts of the Inca Empire only about 1 in 60 people survived. Very difficult times for the indigenous people.
After fishing and mining, tourism is the third largest industry in Peru, and modern day Cusco is a very touristy city. It gets about 2 million visitors each year. In the old part of the city it seems as if there is nothing but shops, hotels, touts and street vendors catering to tourists. We’d heard so many people rave about Cusco that we were expecting something, well, different. We wanted to like Cusco, but we just couldn’t. In fact it may have been one of the only places we’ve been that made us downright grumpy. Despite the fact that Cusco didn’t win our hearts, we still found lots of things to like. The setting is beautiful, there is lots of charming architecture, and the town is obviously rich with history.
Standing in front of Iglesia San Pedro, near the San Pedro Market in Cusco
Picarones near the market in Cusco
Bucket o’ dough (happens to include pumpkin and sweet potato puree)
Cusco had Jette climbing the walls!
Schoolgirls walking past the mercado
Old colonial architecture
Much to Jette’s dismay, guinea pig was on almost every menu.
When the Spanish arrived, they demolished many Inca buildings and used the stones to build churches and other colonial structures of their own. In Cusco you can see both old Inca structures and Spanish ones. One of the amazing things about many of the older Inca structures is the stonework. There are some truly massive stones assembled with amazingly precise joinery and without the use of mortar. Like the pyramids of Egypt, one really has to wonder how they were able to do it with the tools and technology of the time.
While mainstream archaeology attributes much of this work to the Incas, there are a number of people well outside the mainstream who theorize that many of these walls and structures were built as long as 15,000 years ago by an unidentified, pre-Inca culture using “lost ancient high technology.”
With this we are entering the realm of “aliens built the pyramids” – very alternative theories – but kind of fun! We watched a few of these videos and read a bit about this. While we can’t say that we fully embrace the theories, they did provide a really fun framework for looking at the structures we visited. And we saw a lot of old structures in Peru! After hours, days, and weeks of looking at site after site it can be very easy to glaze over and see them all as just another pile of Incan stones! Adding a little dash of “conspiracy theory” and approaching it like an archeological mystery to be solved made it more fun and engaging.
What if the mainstream archeologists are wrong? Could there have been a culture of megalithic builders here long before the Inca? What evidence can we find? What techniques were used in the construction of this?
These kinds of questions had us analyzing building techniques, gathering evidence, and testing theories rather than just wandering through and saying, “Hey look, another Inca stone wall…”
Late one afternoon, we took a taxi to Saqsaywaman, the Incan ruins in the hills above the city. The price of admission was much higher than we expected. We had read that the admission was about $3 USD each, but the cheapest option for foreigners turned out to be $74 USD for the three of us. For foreigners, prices are much higher and instead of being able to buy a ticket to enter the site, you can only purchase the expensive “Boleto Turistico” a one day pass to a handful of different sites, or the “Boleto General” an even more expensive ten-day pass to 16 sites. We weren’t planning to visit many of the sites on the list, so we debated whether it was worth it for that price. Ultimately we decided that we were here, so we might as well do it. As it turned out, we didn’t have enough cash on hand and they didn’t take credit cards!
So, unable to enter, decided to walk along the adjacent road and peek at the ruins through the fence and hedge they have planted to block the view. As we walked, we spotted a footpath that led up an adjacent hill. Up we went and were rewarded with a very nice view of the ruins. We could only see them from a distance, but the view was good and the vantage point gave us a very good sense of the overall layout of the site. We were content.
The site of Saqsaywaman above Cusco
The massive stones of Saqsaywaman.
After taking things in from our hillside viewpoint, we walked back down to Cusco. Along the way a local dog adopted Jette. It walked with us for about an hour, all the way down the mountain and back into town.
Jette’s new friend
Looking across the valley at Cusco.
Buddies on their way into town.
We stopped at a shop to buy the dog a treat, but while we were inside she left! Jette got to feed the other dogs we met on our way back to the hotel.
The collectivo to Ollantaytambo.
The next day, we caught a collectivo to the old Inca town of Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo would be our base for exploring Machu Picchu and the surrounding area. But that’s the next blog post!
Another flashback to about a month ago, where we pick up the tale of our travels. We had arrived in Cali, Colombia where a new credit card was awaiting us. We picked it up, spent one night in Cali, the hopped on the plane to Lima, Peru…
On arrival, we checked into our awesome Airbnb apartment. While we typically skip a lot of the really touristy things in the cities we visit, we decided that a open-top bus tour of Lima would be fun and a good way to begin to get a sense of the city and how it is laid out. So, we took an Uber to Larcomar, a beautiful, upscale shopping center built into a cliff on the edge of the Miraflores neighborhood. In addition to being a beautiful spot with great shopping and dining, this is where you can catch the tour bus. Here’s a video that sets the general scene. The round glass towers on the right side at the end of the video are part of Larcomar. You can’t see most of it as it is built into the cliffs below.
Did you know that Lima had beaches and surfing? I didn’t!
Anyway, the bus tour was pretty good. At least it gave us a peek at the old, downtown neighborhoods of Lima, and a very good taste of the crazy Lima traffic. We stopped and had short walking tours of a couple historic plazas, popular neighborhoods, and some creepy catacombs.
Bus tour of Lima
Giant ant sculpture in Barranco park
Going through downtown Lima
Tour group in the plaza
Grand colonial architecture
Policeman boots us from the plaza in anticipation of protests.
Cartwheel above the catacombs
Mila snuck a photo in the catacombs. Naughty! They estimate that there are 30,000 people buried in the catacombs. Talk about creepy…
The bus sat in traffic for about an hour and made it back to Larcomar about the time the sun was going down.
View from Larcomar
Like Bogota and Medellin, the climate in Lima is near perfect. You don’t need air conditioning or heat. The sun is warm and intense, but it is cool in the shade. The average daily highs and lows vary only about 10 degrees and rarely get below 60 or above 80 any time of year. Amazing.
Oddly, it is a desert, in the mountains, on the ocean. This makes for a very distinctive climate. In addition to the perfect temperatures, it is very dry in terms of precipitation, but fog is common. In fact the city has been blanketed with fog almost every morning we’ve been here.
The negative is the air quality. The air pollution is horrible. This is a city of 10 million people and what seems like 100 million cars, trucks and busses belching smoke. Yuck. Fog and smog, smog, smog.
Culture in LIma, and Peru in general, was very different than Colombia. People were friendly, but less so than in Colombia. People were not nearly as polite. In Colombia when you said, “Gracias” people would always respond, “Con gusto!” with a smile. That didn’t happen much at all in Peru. Little things like how place settings were laid out in restaurants, even simple restaurants, made Colombia feel more refined.
Simple things like walking down the sidewalk or trying to cross the street in Peru were hilariously maddening. Clearly the Peruvian sense of personal space, courtesy, and right-of-way are very different than our own.
Walking on a sidewalk or in a shopping mall, you can fully expect that other people will walk right into you or shove their way between you if you are walking with someone. As you are walking, people will step out of doorways right into you. Groups will spread out across the whole sidewalk and force you into the street. Sidewalks and staircases were constantly blocked by groups of people chatting, looking at their phones, or simply taking up space. People would congregate at the top and bottom of escalators. On a couple of occasions, adults physically shoved Jette aside or cut in front of her in lines at shops and in Cusco a man pushed her off the sidewalk and into the street. He’s very, very lucky that I didn’t see this and only learned about it from Jette after the fact.
On an airplane, we had a woman shove her way between Jette and me as we were exiting the plane. She shoved me multiple times, and tried to push past me. Impossible in the narrow, crowded aisle. When she couldn’t push past me, she began to push up against me continuously, as if she was trying to push me and everyone in front of me off the plane! I turned around and told her in no uncertain terms, “DO NOT TOUCH ME!” It had little effect, and ultimately the point of my umbrella sent the message effectively and she backed off.
Drivers in Peru are among the worst we’ve seen anywhere in the world. In many countries, road “rules” are taken as mere suggestions. This is certainly true in Peru. Lane markings, traffic signals, and stop signs mean nothing. The design of the traffic infrastructure is almost identical to the US. The road look the same. Same lane markings, same crosswalks, same everything. It is just the behavior that is different. There is absolutely no accommodation made or right-of-way given for pedestrians. Most drivers will not yield for pedestrians crossing the street in a marked crosswalk. I did a Google search for “pedestrians in peru” and of the first results was an abstract from a medical journal:
Reducing pedestrian deaths and injuries due to road traffic injuries in Peru: interventions that can work
Pedestrians in Peru are the victims of the greatest proportion of road traffic fatalities in the world. In 2009, pedestrians were involved in 27% of road traffic incidents in Peru. This is a significant public health problem in Peru and it has important economic effects as well…
Beyond the massive numbers of pedestrians maimed and killed by negligent drivers, the traffic congestion is horrible. In Lima major intersections were blocked with huge jams of honking drivers, all ignoring any notions of lanes or right-of-way. Roundabouts that would function smoothly anywhere else in the world were constantly jammed in Lima. I’d say it was worse than Indonesia or India. It was almost like watching America’s Funniest Home Videos – you could just see the consequences of bad decisions happening everywhere you looked.
Traffic police. This has to be one of the biggest jokes in Peru. There are traffic police everywhere. They are standing at every major intersection dressed in their fancy costumes, often with white patent leather holsters and goofy little helmets. Sometimes they have little orange wands which they wiggle back and forth, regardless of what traffic is doing. On the highways in Lima, there is typically one of these guys/gals standing on the side of the road at every exit and overpass. They don’t ever seem to do anything other than stand next to their motorcycles and look at their phones. On one occasion we passed a disabled vehicle. On another, a crash scene. In both cases there were traffic police just standing at their posts by the highway exit or overpass, not helping in any way, just surfing facebook on their phones and collecting a salary. The Peruvian National Police force employs 140,000 and is notoriously corrupt (second only to the judicial system). Many of the traffic police are now women, because there is a popular notion that women are less likely to be corrupt.
Car alarms. The car alarm is the Peruvian national anthem. It is played at all hours of the day and night, everywhere you go. You would think that Peruvians are very patriotic since it is played 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but they always seem to ignore it.
All of these gripes aside, we enjoyed Lima. Jette enjoyed cooking in the apartment kitchen, but we also enjoyed so great meals out. The apartment was close to Pasteleria San Antonio, a very popular bakery and cafe where we enjoyed some delicious salads. We made multiple trips to La Lucha, a super yummy sandwich shop with great sandwiches, frites, and chocolate shakes.
Salads make me smile
Yummy La Lucha
Classic combo of chicharron, camote, and salsa criolla.
Sorry Philly, you lose to these guys.
The bread they use is really good.
Jette was excited to find bubble tea.
Lunch in old downtown Lima
Beyond the delicious lunches, we had fun exploring Lima. We went down to the beach, caught a nighttime fountain show, and generally just enjoyed slowing down and being in one place for a while.
Mila getting her shoes fixed
JFK Park is full of cats.
Miraflores park on the top of the cliff.
The path down to the beach
The cliff from which the paragliders take off.
Classic surf van. Lots of old VWs here.
Handstand on the rocky beach.
Ready for the show.
In terms of her studies, Jette finished her last math workbook. Yay!
She’s almost finished with the second of the three Story of the World books. Each book is designed to provide material for a full school year, but Jette’s goal is to finish all three this year. We’ve sent the physical workbooks home, so she is no longer doing the map work. She’s reading, writing a complete summary of each chapter, and we’re discussing it. She’s doing fantastic.
After a week or so enjoying Lima, we boarded a flight to the mountain town of Cusco, the jumping off point for Machu Picchu…
Throughout our time in Bogota we heard virtually everyone rave about Medellin. Other travellers sang its praises, as did Bogotanos. Bogotanos always said its climate was great and it had a Metro. That’s a big deal in Colombia, and as we would learn, the Medellin Metro has great symbolic value for Colombians and especially Paisas (The dominant cultural group found in the state or Department of Antiquia).
We got up at 3:30 on Saturday morning and headed for the airport. We had a 5:30 flight to Medellin and we just made it. It was a short flight. An hour after takeoff we were on the ground in Medellin. From the airport, which was smaller and quieter than we expected, we caught an Uber to our hotel.
The drive from the airport into town was on winding, mountain roads with spectacular scenery. There was a haze or fog or smog hanging over everything, so the distant hill tops were often obscured, but from what we could see, the landscape was beautiful. There were tons of cyclists out for a Saturday morning ride in the mountains. I bet we passed 150 or more, riding alone and in groups, outfitted in spandex and many on expensive bikes. Here’s some not very good cellphone video to show you what it looked like coming into Medellin:
El Poblado is one of the most popular neighborhoods for tourists and wealthy people in Medellin. It’s a sprawling neighborhood of mid and high-rise apartments, shopping, and nightlife. I think the nightlife in Medellin (and Colombia in general) is a big draw for many visitors. Obviously it’s not something we care about at all or have experienced. Anyway, I was surprised when Mila said the hotel she booked was in a neighborhood called Prado and not in El Poblado. Prado is in Central Medellin, which like Bogota, is on the grittier side. In fact when I googled it, one website put it right in the middle of Medellin’s “no-go” areas for visitors and described the neighborhood like this:
Prado, located downtown on the northern side of 10th district, is the old residential neighborhood for the city’s wealthy. The neighborhood has been deemed cultural heritage because of its spectacular architecture.
However, the neighborhood is also a hotspot for crack cocaine dealings and child prostitution. The area around it, known as La Candelaria or El Centro, has the highest homicide rate in Medellin.
During the day, El Centro is also filled with bankers and business people hard at work in office buildings, but between 6PM and 8PM all commuters and cops go home and the downtown area becomes one of the most desolate districts of the city. Prado even more so.
In fact it was one of the hotels with the best reviews, and while most reviews acknowledged the neighborhood, they also indicated that the hotel was secure and a great place to stay. We decided to go to the hotel and check it out. We would simply find another hotel if we were not comfortable. As it turned out, the neighborhood wasdefinitely on the grittier side, but the hotel was nice and secure. We decided to stay and it turned out to be a good spot. It was one of the more social hotels we’ve stayed in lately, and we met a number of other travellers in the hotel courtyard and restaurant.
Checking in to 61Prado.
The street the hotel is on.
After checking in and getting cleaned up, we caught another Uber and headed to the Centro Comercial Santa Fe, a big luxury mall in the El Poblado neighborhood. We were curious about El Poblado and Jette needed a new pair of sandals, so that seemed like a good place to start in Medellin.
Trying on sandals
Jette didn’t find sandals that fit, but we had a good afternoon. In the center of the mall on the lower level, where there might normally be a skating rink, there was a dog park. Obviously this was right up Jette’s alley!
The dog park at the Santa Fe mall in Medellin.
Watching the dogs play at the dog park in the mall.
We had a late lunch in the food court on the upper level which featured a huge balcony overlooking the city and the mountains. Like many buildings in Medellin, it was totally open air. The climate is such that many buildings are open to elements, even big, modern shopping malls.
The food court balcony.
Jette ate KFC for the second and probably last time in her life! Fried chicken is very popular in Colombia.
In the photo above it was so smoggy it is difficult to see the mountains in the background. It turns out that on the days that we were in Medellin the local government made most public transportation free and banned most private cars from the road in an attempt to fight the horrible air pollution.
We were home by dark (again by Uber), had a light dinner at the hotel, and were in bed before too late. The next morning we took another Uber to El Pablado, to a restaurant that had good reviews online for breakfast. It was closed. The streets and sidewalks were empty and everything seemed closed. We walked a few blocks and down a cute street lined with (closed) bars and nightclubs. We don’t care about nightlife, but I suspect this is a main draw for many of Medellin’s visitors. We walked some more, through a cute park, and finally found an open restaurant. We had a very mediocre breakfast of rice and beans, arepas and eggs with sliced up hot dogs. The choices were limited and the quality not so great. The restaurant was on the corner and open air. Imagine open garage doors instead of walls on two sides.
As we were finishing our meal, a rough looking guy – young, dirty and disheveled – stopped on the sidewalk next to our table (we were “inside” but there was no wall separating us from the sidewalk, only a column). He sat and stared right at us for some time, making Jette extremely uncomfortable as she felt like he was staring at her. He was positioned in such a way that the column blocked my view of him. When it was obvious that we were talking about him, and when I leaned around the column to make eye contact with him, he came over and asked for the leftover food on our plates. I shook my head yes and he retreated a bit. I ordered another full meal to go and as we were leaving, gave him the freshly prepared meal instead of the few scraps on our plates. Probably a futile gesture, but at least that was a meal that he didn’t have to get through thievery.
By this time the neighborhood was getting more active and there were lots of people out and about. Jette wanted to go back to the park we had walked through earlier because they had some exercise equipment that looked like fun. We walked back and were surprised to see how many people were wearing their exercise outfits and “working out” on the machines. I don’t think anyone was working hard enough to break a sweat! For many of the yoga-pants-tank-top-possee it seemed more a social activity than exercise.
Busy exercise area.
At the edge of the park in El Poblado.
After some time exercising, we wandered around the neighborhood a bit more, stopped for a tea, then walked to a famous soup restaurant called Ajiaco y Mondongos for lunch.
Ajiacos y Mondongos
Look at all these orders to go!
We ordered two soups to share. Ajiaco is a pulled chicken and corn soup. Cazuela de Frijoles is a hearty bean stew. They were both super delicious. Yummy! The Monongo in the restaurant name is a tripe soup. We haven’t tried that one yet.
Cazuela de frijoles
Once again we were back at our hotel before dark, had a light dinner at the hotel, and an early bedtime after doing some work.
On the hotel roof.
Nighttime view from our hotel roof. Still smoggy.
The next morning we were up early for a walking tour of downtown Medellin. It was a very good tour. Our guide Juan gave us some excellent insights into Colombian history, culture, and of course, Medellin. The tour covered a section of Central Medellin, not far from our hotel. It is an area that is often labeled a “no-go” area for tourists. From city hall and the main municipal buildings to busy markets, we saw quite a bit in the four hour tour.
Starting the tour.
Juan did a good job of explaining Paisa history and culture. In a nutshell, descendents of Basque Spaniards, Jews and the native people lived in relative isolation in the mountainous areas of Medellin and Antiquia. They are the Paisas. The climate and geography was excellent for coffee and other produce, which they grew, but the mountains kept them relatively isolated and limited their ability to trade and profit. In the 20th century they built the first railroad in Colombia, linking them to the outside world and creating an explosion in trade and industrialization for the region. Paisas developed a reputation as industrious, hard working, good business people.
This sculpture is a timeline of Paisa history and sits in the main goverment plaza of Medellin.
He also gave us a brief history of the Colombian Conflict, which began in 1948 with a decade long period of conflict known as “La Violencia” and continues in a limited form today. Juan grew up in the 1990’s. He said he had 8 close friends. 6 of them were killed. Given a 50+ year history of conflict, corruption, crime and the high levels of poverty it seems fantastic that Colombia is ranked yet-again as The Happiest Country in the World (Washington Post: Here’s what we can learn from Colombia – the happiest nation in the world).
I didn’t take many photos on the tour. In fact we haven’t been carrying a camera or other valuables when we are out and about in Colombia. I’ve been carrying a cheap phone I bought in Kuala Lumpur, which is one of the reasons our recent photos and videos have been few in number and low in quality!
The Colombians have an expression, “No dar papaya” which translates as, “Don’t give papaya”. What does this mean? It means don’t give anyone the opportunity to take advantage of you. If you leave your house, lock the door. Don’t flaunt wealth in public. Count your change. Don’t be a sucker. Don’t be an easy mark. Don’t carry anything you don’t want to lose (like a camera!). On the one hand, I understand it. On the other hand it seems a bit “blame the victim” and I wonder if this cultural belief isn’t fueling the relatively high crime rates and the general acceptance of them. In my mind, there is no excuse for theft and certainly none for armed robbery. In a society that won’t tolerate it, there will be little. In one that does, much. It is over simplistic, but am I wrong?
Anyway, on the tour, we had “Papaya Levels” to indicate levels of alertness as we moved through areas that were known for pickpocketing and such. We had no issues at all. Everyone was friendly. In fact, every time we stopped as a group to talk, we had odd characters in various states of sobriety join us out of curiosity and in the spirit of brotherhood/sisterhood. You can see a couple in the video below. (The intoxicated woman on the left and the nice older man who chimes in at the end). Our tour guide knew most of them by name and knew that they were harmless:
Another interesting thing that we learned on the tour regarding crime is that in Colombia, areas of crime and “sin” are often right next to churches. It is quite convenient as once the “sinners” commit their crimes, they can then walk immediately into church, pray, and be instantly cleansed of their sins. Juan likened it to a convenient bottle of hand soap that never runs out.
Medellin is full of sculptures by Botero. His trademark style is “chubby” or disproportioned figures.
The tour was not all crime and violence. I seem to be having a hard time talking about Colombia without making it sound scary, and while it is sometimes, mostly it’s not. We learned a lot about Colombian culture, street life, markets, politics, the symbolic importance of the Metro, and more. Jette and Mila even got to eat some ice cream along the way! We saw some excellent shopping streets, with a variety of street performers, and full of people from a wide swath of humanity. To the eye most of Medellin seems less gritty, less impoverished, and generally “nicer” than many of the Asian cities we’ve visited. Bogota and Medellin are fantastic cities with vibrant street life and friendly people. It is simply it’s well-earned reputation for violence that gives one pause.
Look at the HUGE scoops the happy ice cream lady gave Jette!
After the walking tour we walked to a nice restaurant on one of the main shopping streets and had lunch. I had a delicious lentil soup and Jette had a whole, fried fish.
Jette and her whole fish.
Fried foods like fried chicken and fried fish are popular in Colombia and are often served with a set of plastic gloves so you can eat them with your hands and not get your fingers greasy. Jette joked that she felt like a “lunch lady” but I told her she was missing her hair net!
All in all our visit to Medellin was good. We certainly didn’t see it all, but we felt like we at least got a sense of it. The thing we can’t figure out is why people seem to like it so much more than Bogota. We liked Bogota more. We liked the weather and we liked the city, we like the people. Maybe it’s the nightlife in Medellin that people like? We just don’t get it. Medellin is interesting and it has some attractive features, but if we had to choose, we’d choose Bogota. To each their own, I suppose. We certainly enjoyed our time in Medellin.
We’re currently in Galle, a city on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Last night I got an email from our friend Anita in Dallas. She’s an educator and a science nerd of the highest caliber.
Here’s what she said, “7.9 earthquake Sumatra. I think you are a fair distance but keep watch for tsunami if you are near coast.”
I immediately went to Google News and searched for “earthquake sumatra”.
Yikes! Of course Anita was right, and her warning was timed with the earliest of news stories about the quake. It sure is nice to have and early warning network of smart friends. Thanks Anita. This is the kind of email that could have potentially saved our lives.
As you may know, in 2004 there was a similar but larger earthquake in the same area off the coast of Sumatra. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake occurred at 00:58:53 UTC on 26 December with the epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The shock had a moment magnitude of 9.1–9.3 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of IX (Violent). The undersea megathrust earthquake was caused when the Indian Plate was subducted by the Burma Plate and triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, killing 230,000 people in 14 countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 30 metres (100 ft) high. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Indonesia was the hardest-hit country, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.
It is the third-largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph and had the longest duration of faulting ever observed, between 8.3 and 10 minutes. It caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 1 centimetre (0.4 inches) and triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska. Its epicentre was between Simeulue and mainland Indonesia.
We’re staying a family-run guesthouse in one of the highest areas of Galle, away from the sea, so I think we would be safe from all but the very largest tsunamis. In the 2004 tsunami, the water did not reach this area, and in fact in the lower area of the fort, the walls of the Galle Fort protected it from the waves. Nonetheless, I found our host and told her about the earthquake and suggested that she call and alert any family or friends that lived on the water or in areas that might be at risk. We were on high alert.
This earthquake really hit home for us as we have spent the past month or so in Sumatra and Sri Lanka, in areas that were massively affected by the 2004 tsunami. Just day-before-yesterday we were at the Tsunami Photo Museum in the beach town of Hikkaduwa/Telwatta. It is a small museum put together by one of the survivors. It sits across the road from the ocean, in the location where her home used to be, before the tsunami washed it away.
Tsunami Photo Musuem
The owner of the musuem telling us about the tsunami.
She told us harrowing tales of how the day unfolded. She said that there was no warning and that most people had no idea what was happening. There was quite suddenly a large wave that hit the town, washing over the beach and well onto land in many areas. It was a big wave, but not too devastating.
The first wave
After the wave hit, the waters retreated to well beyond the normal shore line, exposing ground that was normally underwater. What used to be water was now land and the sea was calm in the distance. People had never seen such a thing, and many came down to the water to look, to check the damage, and to assist others. Some people fled inland, looking for higher ground. There was a train stopped on the tracks and many villagers sought refuge on the train, or put their children on the train, thinking it to be a safe place.
For the next 20 or 30 minutes, the waters of the sea were eerily calm in the distance, and then suddenly, a giant, much larger wave came roaring in. This brought massive devastation and death. More than 30,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka. Thousands are still “missing.”
The second wave hits people who had walked out to to the beach to investigate
The train was not a safe refuge. As many as 1,500 people were killed when the second wave hit the train.
Here are more photos of the museum:
This is what the owners home looked like after the second wave. Everything was destroyed. The museum was built on the site where the home used to be.
This is the tent the owner lived in for 6 months after the tsunami.
Thankfully, the earthquake last night did not result in a tsunami, but it was still a powerful experience for us and a reminder as to how quickly life can change. In our recent travels, we’ve climbed a volcano where we smelled the sulfurous steam, seen hot lava flows, and felt the burning heat of the active Earth. We visited villages that sit at the base of volcanoes and that one day, will likely be destroyed in an eruption. We’ve seen first hand the devastating power of earthquakes and tsunamis. We’ve seen tragic human impact and loss as well as human strength and resilience in the face of adversity.
Have fun, but be careful out there.
POP QUIZ: How do scientists measure the strength of earthquakes?
Seismologists use equipment called seismographs to measure movements in the earth. These movements or forces are expressed in numbers using the Moment of Magnitude Scale. In the past they used the Richter Scale. For more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moment_magnitude_scale