What to Do in Medellin: A City of Innovation and Renovation

The City of Eternal Spring

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One of the places I’ve most frequently visited while being here in Colombia is Medellin, the city of eternal spring. Rightly named, it’s a warm city – warm weather, and warm people! I absolutely love it.

Before learning some ideas of what to do in Medellin, here’s a short backstory.

A tough past…

You may know Medellin for its dark history – particularly the Medellín Cartel founded by Pablo Escobar which was active primarily throughout the eighties. You may have heard that as a result, Medellin was even considered the most dangerous city in the world for a time.

The history doesn’t lie. It was awful time in the history of Colombia. But that doesn’t mean that that’s today’s reality. The country has moved forward a lot in many ways. Of course there are still many things to improve upon, but it really has come very far since those days.

…but a Bright Future!

Here’s a bit of information about the modern reality of Medellin, one that’s bright and bustling.

To start: It’s the second biggest city in Colombia after Bogotá, located in the department of Antioquia, with a population of roughly 2.5 million. It’s modern, vibrant, and as I mentioned, warm – some of the many reasons that I keep heading back there!

It’s the only city in Colombia that has a metro system; not even Bogota, the capital city, has one! And the citizens take excellent care of it. It’s wide and spacious, clean, and covers an expansive part of the city with trains, trams, and cable cars.

Not only is Medellin well-connected, it also has a ton of things to do. Since I’ve only ever gone on weekend or long weekend trips, I still haven’t even done the half of it.

See for Yourself! What to Do in Medellin:

Here are some highlights of the places I have visited and the activities I have done. If you’re heading there soon, I encourage you to check them out – you’ll find a city far-removed from the one depicted on Narcos. 

Plaza Botero

This plaza is located downtown Medellin and is named for the famous Colombian artist of plump characters – Fernando Botero. Many of his sculptures are on display around the plaza, so it’s fun to go around looking at them and taking pictures with them.

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Perfect selfie zone!

You can also find the Museo de Antioquia – a beautiful art museum largely featuring Botero’s work, but also the work of other Antioquian artists, traditional art and modern art alike.

It’s a beautiful space in the day, but take caution at night – downtown Medellin is a generally poor area of the city so it is best to avoid heading there unnecessarily.

El Hueco

El Hueco (“The Hole” in English) is another area of downtown that I find pretty fun – it’s busy and energetic, and has the cheapest shopping in the city. You can find anything and everything there. Don’t hesitate to haggle down the prices!

It can be confusing to navigate, but you can follow it along the metro line to avoid getting lost. Get off at Cisneros or San Antonio stations and you’ll be in the heart of the area.

But again, remember that this is downtown – better to avoid this zone at night.

Pueblito Paisa

Pueblito Paisa is an awesome place to visit. It features a replica central square of small towns in the surrounding region of Antioquia. It’s located on the top of a hill as well, so there’s an amazing view.

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I went both during the day and at night, and must say that both are incredible in their own ways. During the day, you can see the spread of the city and the surrounding mountains. At night, the city lights twinkle all around you in a way that’s pretty magical.

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It’s also the site where a pair of my sunglasses died. They fell off my head and took a plunge after a huge moth flew in my face and I freaked out. Please say a small prayer for them when visiting. Thank you in advance.

Poblado

Poblado is one of the richest areas in Medellin. Most tourists tend to flock there – it’s a trendy and fun area with lots of restaurants and bars, but at tourist prices.

Parque Lleras within Poblado is the perfect place to spend a Friday or Saturday night – the nightlife is awesome. It’s a relatively short walk from the metro station “Poblado.”

Estadio

The area around Estadio is also a pretty affluent area. All along Carrera 70 and other streets nearby (reached from metro station Estadio), there are lots of bars and restaurants like in Poblado, but with slightly lower prices. It attracts more Colombians than tourists, although there is still no shortage of the latter.

Flower Festival

A definite highlight of my Medellin visits was the annual Feria de las Flores, the Flower Festival. It’s happened every year in early August since 1957. That means this year was the 60 year anniversary celebration!

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A GIANT flower peacock in the mall!

There were a lot of things going on during the festival, such as flower sculptures displayed around the city, an antique bike parade, an antique car parade, shows and events, and just general flower fun.

The main event of the festival, though, is the ‘silleteros’ parade. Silleteros are locals from the nearby town of Santa Elena who carry ‘silletas.’ These were originally boxes carried on the farmers’ backs filled with flowers to sell in Medellin.

They’ve evolved to be large round arrangements of flowers with intricate designs – definitely very heavy! The paraders have to take frequent breaks to rest their back from the weight. It’s incredible to watch.

I’ll be sure to write another blog post specifically about the festival, along with some tips.

Paragliding

Not too far from Medellin is a town in the mountains called San Felix. Multiple paragliding companies operate out from here, and the views are spectacular.

I took my first tandem flight with the company Paragliding Medellin and it was amazing. My guide was very professional and fun, so I had a great 20 minutes flying high above the Aburrá valley where Medellin sits. I could take in the city, the mountains, and some lovely waterfalls all from above.

If you have the time to spare, I highly recommend it! You can get to San Felix by catching a bus from the Terminal del Norte. Buy your tickets from ticket booth #11, Expreso Belmira, and ask the driver to let you off at “el Estadero el Voladero.”

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First time paragliding, first time using a selfie stick… #worthit

Comuna 13

This was another highlight on one of my visits to Medellin.

It’s a neighbourhood that was devastated by violence due to gang, paramilitary, and guerilla activity in the area, but today, it’s an example of the positive changes happening in Medellin.

Numerous art projects have brightened the neighbourhood – the homes that bountifully pepper the hillside are colourful and many parts are covered in beautiful street art.

One of the most notable additions though? The orange electric escalators going up and down the hill. Their addition has better-connected many residents of the neighbourhood to the city as they no longer have to walk up and down the steep hillside to catch a bus.

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It is, of course, a work in progress – not all residents can benefit from these escalators and some crime still continues in the area. However, when we visited, I never felt in danger even though we went without a guide. Rather, we found that the locals were eager to talk about their experiences in the comuna – the good and the bad.

Still a bit wary? There are a few tours that can take you to the comuna. One popular one is the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour.

But if you’d rather venture it solo, you can take the metro to San Javier station and from there, catch a bus to the “Escaleras Electricas” – just ask the drivers outside the station and they’ll point you to the correct bus!

Cable Car & Parque Arví

Parque Arví is a nature reserve that sits high up on the mountain quite far away from Medellin. To get there, you can take the cable car system. Just take the metro to “Acevedo” station. From there you can catch a cable car to “Santo Domingo,” and then change (and pay an additional fare) to the cable car that goes up to Arví.

The ride alone is worth the trip. You go from the busy city to a completely silent and untouched natural area in a relatively short amount of time, enjoying all the while from above.

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Gliding above the trees!

In the park, there is a lot to do depending on your interests. It’s free to enter, and there are hiking trails, ecological areas, as well as a farmer’s market. There are also attractions like ziplining at the nearby Comfama and Comfenalco Parks, for an admission fee.

Parque de los Pies Descalzos

Translated, this literally means “Barefoot Park,” and that’s exactly what it is! This is an awesome park where the whole point is to take off your shoes and relax.

It’s a peaceful and modern-looking area in the middle of the city, offering visitors a mini escape from urban life. You can walk in the sand, put your feet in the little pools, and just generally get your zen on.

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Guatapé and Piedra del Peñol

If you are in Medellin for a while and want to get out of the city, you should definitely check out the small town of Guatapé, about two hours away.

It’s amazingly colourful and cute, and set along a pretty lake where you can do boat tours or rent your own boat.

There’s also the nearby Piedra del Peñol, a huge rock surrounded by picturesque lakes and islands. You can climb the 740 stairs built into a crack in the rock to get to the top. There you’ll be rewarded for your effort with an incredible view!

Symbolic Remembering

And that’s nearly all for now! But there’s one more site that you may consider visiting. That’s San Antonio Park.

 It’s important to be cautious in this area, as we went with a free walking tour and they were insistent on us watching our belongings. That said, I think it’s still worth a daytime visit, as it’s the home of an incredibly symbolic pair of identical Botero sculptures. 

Both sculptures are doves in his characteristically chubby style, but there is a difference between them. One dove has a hole through it and is very mangled – the result of a 1995 bomb that was placed by the sculpture and which exploded during a huge music festival in the square. The attack killed 23 people and injured over 200, many of them children and teenagers, and it’s attributed to violence related to the narco-trafficking trade.

The government planned to remove the mangled sculpture after the attack, but its artist, Botero, insisted it stay, calling it “a monument to imbecility.” Not only that, but he created a new identical replica. It today stands beside the first bird, and is a monument to peace.

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As our walking tour guide told us, the sculptures are very representative of Medellin as a whole. From an incredibly dangerous and crime-riddled city, to a place of renovation, innovation, and hope. A city that continues to move forward, while not forgetting its history.

It’s even an idea that can be expanded to represent Colombia – a country in the process of peace and reparation.

Now, go have fun in Medellin!

I hope you enjoyed this post about what to do in Medellin, and found the ideas and information useful. If you have any more ideas that you think need to be on this list, please comment! And, of course, have an amazing time in the city of Eternal spring. 🙂

-L

 

 

Only Three Months Left!? A Teaching English in Colombia Update

I’m Sorry, what month is it!?

Class last week left me in a state of shock after writing the date on the board each day “September…” What!? September!? I had NOT realized August was coming to an end so quickly.

It’s crazy to realize that I’ve already been in Colombia for 11 months! That’s the longest I’ve ever been away from home. Plus, to think that I’ve been in my new position teaching English in Manizales for seven months? Whoa!

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I suppose my surprise is just evidence that I’ve been enjoying my time here a lot. I’ve gotten to know my awesome students, other teachers, the city, the region, and beautiful Colombia in general! Not to mention working daily on improving my Spanish.

I’ll be back, Colombia, I’ll be back.

The longer time I spend here though, the more I feel that staying until November is not enough time. There’s so much to see! So much to do! Even the idea of leaving my students makes me sad – many of them have come so far with their confidence and abilities in English and it sucks to think I may never see them again!

That’s why even though I already have my trip planned back home in December (yay!), I’m really hoping to extend into next year and come back! Things work a bit slowly in Colombia, plus with some administrative changes coming up, I’m not expecting to know anytime soon whether I’ll be able to continue or not.

But, hey, I’m a glass-half-full type of girl so as of right now, my heart is set on being here next year, one way or another!

Are you thinking of coming here, too?

Are you debating coming to teach in Colombia next year or sometime soon?

Well I have three words for you – Go for it!

My experience has been really amazing here. I’ve learned so much about myself, about my interests and my passions, what I’m good at, what I’m not so good at.

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For example, hiking! Continuing to explore this passion has taken me to some beautiful places. Being out in nature on weekends revives me like nothing else!

Going outside my comfort zone has been tremendously rewarding and I encourage any who are willing and/or capable to do the same to GO. FOR. IT.

From exploring my placement city of Manizales, to exploring the school (I didn’t know there was a cafeteria hidden in the enormous building until the third month…), there’s always something new to discover.

Plus, Colombia is beautiful.

There are lots of amazing opportunities for teaching English abroad all over the world.

This has been my first experience in the field, so granted, I can’t compare it to any other countries for you… but I can say that Colombia is an incredible country with helpful people, great dancing, good food, and incredibly diverse landscapes.

Who knows, maybe I’m biased for my half-Colombian heritage, but speaking as objectively as possible, I really do think there’s something for everyone here.

The Experience 

What’s life here like? What are schools like? Accommodations? Here are a few quick facts about different aspects of life here as an English Teaching Fellow. Of course, each fellow has a unique experience depending on their placement city, their school, their Fellow community, etc., but you can use it as an example of what life may be like for you.

School
My school is an Escuela Normal. That means it’s a regular public school, but with an additional program focused on the formation of teachers. From sixth grade onward, students take Pedagogy classes, and upon graduation they have the choice of continuing in the “Complementary Training Program” that after two years will have them certified as primary teachers. Due to this, the quality of teaching in Normal schools is generally quite high.

Number of classes I teach: 8
Grades: Nine and Ten
Number of students I teach: 300 (I’m still struggling trying to remember all the names!!)
Number of co-teachers: 2 (but only 3 hours with one)
Students’ Level of English: Varied, but mostly low.
Class Hours per week: 24
Teacher hours per week: 1
Extra English club hours per week: 1
Daily schedule: depends on the day; 7am-1pm; 10am-4pm; or one day a week 7am-4pm
Volunteer Stipend: 1,500,000 Pesos per month ($511 USD)

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One of my tenth grade groups and my co-teacher, at a recent Internationalization Fair here in Manizales.

Home
I live on the sixth floor of a nice centrally-located apartment  in the city. There’s no balcony, but the view from my spacious room is incredible!

Distance from my school: 4-5 minutes walking 🙂
Number of roommates: 2 (University medicine students)
Roommates’ English knowledge: None (Lots of Spanish practice for me!)
Number of pets: 0*
Monthly rent costs: 300,000 COP (+ roughly 110,000 for servicios like water, gas, and internet)

* Those who have followed along on the blogs know that I lived with my roommate’s cat, Polo, for a while. Unfortunately, he left to live in Mocoa with her family :'( I miss him lots but apparently he’s doing well. He even has a girlfriend and will likely be a papa cat soon!

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An early picture of my room before I decorated, got a bedframe, a new mirror (since Polo broke this one) etc. etc. – nice and spacious! 🙂

Manizales
There are lots of amazing cities in Colombia, but I’ve gotta say I especially love my small city of Manizales! At 2100m elevation, it is high enough for amazing views over the surrounding mountains, but not so high that it’s as cold as Bogota. It gets pretty cold sometimes but is generally a comfortable warm. It’s also very culturally developed and has lots of theatre, film, literature and art festivals year-round.

Population: 400,000 (2017)
Average Temperature: 16.4°C.
Number of English teaching Fellows: 20
Number of hills: A HUNDRED BILLION*

*Not proven but my calves assure that it’s about right.

Community Engagement

Another special thing about Manizales is the high level of community engagement. We have some amazing regional coordinators that encourage us fellows to get involved with not just our schools, but our community and really promote English as a pathway to more opportunities both within Colombia and abroad. We organized a city-wide English Immersion Day back in May, and recently participated in an Internationalization Fair at the Autonoma University of Manizales, with some of our students in attendance.

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A group of my grade nines and tens setting up a tent as part of my Canada station at the English Immersion Day back in May.

Additionally, when disaster struck Manizales back in April with heavy rains leading to landslides, our coordinators responded with a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the many affected and displaced people.

It’s made me realize that no matter where you are teaching abroad, getting involved in the community is such an important part of the experience. I’d encourage any current/future/hopeful participants of this program, or any other in the world, to really make the most of their time abroad trying to engage as much as possible, even if it’s something simple!

Until Next Post…

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this update on my experience teaching English in Colombia if you’ve been following along, or else I hope it provided you with some useful information if you’re considering coming to teach here.

And don’t forget, you can subscribe to my blog to receive updates whenever I post!

See you soon,

L

If you want to get involved in the change happening in Colombia, or check out other similar programs, find all the info you need here: heartforchange.org, and greenhearttravel.org.

Filandia: A Salento Alternative

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As you may have read in my last post, I really love Salento. I rave about it on a regular basis for its cuteness as a town and for how close it is to the amazing Cocora Valley.

However, there’s a lesser-known town nearby that is very similar to Salento, but with less tourists and more of an authentic feel! That place is Filandia.

Twin towns

You can think of Salento and Filandia as twin sisters. They look a lot alike: both towns are surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, both have a main square with a park in the middle, and both have similar colourful houses lining the streets. Additionally, they’re only 20km apart and both are part of the department Quindio.

But if we talk of their personality, Salento is the outgoing, social sister while Filandia is the more introverted, laidback, hippie sister. Both are awesome to get to know in their own way but each one offers something just a bit different.

My Visit

I visited Filandia with my mom as part of our weekend trip through the Coffee region. We stayed in a cute little place on the outskirts of town called Hostal Campestre El Santuario – but here’s where I should mention that Filandia is small. We were on the outskirts, but that meant just a 5-minute walk to the main square.

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One of the rooms at our lovely guesthouse

For that reason alone, I highly recommend Filandia as a day-trip or weekend trip. It’s quaint and comfortable, plus easy to navigate!

We weren’t there very long, just one evening and one morning, but that was enough time to realize how laidback it was, with a really calm, positive energy.

Argentinian Food & Acoustic Despacito

In the evening, we went to a little Argentinian restaurant/bar with awesome live music and great food. We had intended to visit the restaurant across the street from it (Helena Adentro) after reading great reviews on the internet, but the music coming from this place, Nata Lu, drew us in.

We didn’t regret it – the musicians played really well, and even played Despacito on acoustic guitar and a bongo-type drum (I evidently don’t know much about instruments). The waitress even had me and some others up and dancing at one point. All the staff were really sweet, and the food (Colombian-Argentinian fusion) was delicious. 

Coffee and Views and Sheep, oh my!

The following morning, after a tasty breakfast in the main square, we were picked up by our guide for a tour at Finca El Miradora beautiful coffee farm in the surrounding countryside.

The coffee tour was a highlight for both my mom and me – how could it not be when it was personalized just for us! I organized the tour by phone a few days in advance, and it all worked more than perfectly. Like I said, our guide picked us up (and dropped us off after), and opened the farm just for us.

Even the tour was just us three; she showed us all around and we learned a lot about the process of coffee and how to distinguish between good and bad quality brews. Here’s an abridged version of the (very long) process:

Besides learning lots about coffee, the place was simply stunning. It was a hot, sunny day, and with a name like El Mirador (The Viewpoint), you can just imagine how beautiful it was. But a picture speaks a thousand words so…

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My favourite part though, being the animal lover I am, was meeting the sheep that lives on the farm. Her name is Coffee, she’s super friendly, and yes she eats coffee!

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I even managed to get her to play with me! Putting my hands out over the fence, she jumped up so her fluffy head would bump my hand. It was toooooo cute.

OK Cool, but how do I get there without a car?

Getting to both Salento and Filandia is easy by bus. You can catch buses to both towns from Armenia and Pereira. And if you want to travel between the two? That’s easy as well!

From Filandia to Salento, catch a bus going towards Armenia, ask to get off at the road to Salento, cross the highway, and wait for a bus there that has a sign saying it’s going to Salento.

From Salento to Filandia, catch a bus going to Pereira, ask to get off at the road to Filandia, cross the highway, and wait for a bus there that that has a sign saying it’s headed to Filandia.

Of course, if there’s any confusion, just ask! Colombians are generally very happy to help with any concern you have.

Colourful architecture of FIlandia; similar buildings can be found in Salento!
Colourful architecture of Filandia; similar buildings can also be found in Salento.

So, Salento or Filandia?

Ultimately, it depends what you’re looking for!

In general, I’d recommend Salento simply because of its close access to the Cocora Valley. But, if you’re looking more for the town feel of each place, remember the ‘personalities’.

Salento is outgoing: go there if you want to go out at night, try lots of food, and be surrounded by lots of people. Filandia is relaxed: go there if you want a calm getaway, a less touristy atmosphere, and very short walking distances!

 All in all, though, both are great places to visit, so hey, if you have time for both, go for it!

Happy travels!

L

Coffee Region Paradise: Salento and The Cocora Valley  

 

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In my last post I wrote about hiking in Los Nevados National Park – a chilly but absolutely beautiful park here in Colombia’s coffee region.

At the end of the hike, we arrived in the Cocora Valley, or Valle de Cocora en español. The valley is stunning – as you may remember reading, it’s home to some of the largest palm trees in the world! We walked through the valley for just over half an hour before arriving at the main public area and from there, we promptly caught a jeep into the town.

Hiking through the valley looking up at these giants
Hiking through the valley looking up at these giants

Arriving in Salento was exciting, I’d heard so much about it – it’s one of the most visited places in Colombia! And sure enough, I could quickly see what all the hype was about – the colourful houses were bright and bold and the whole town is surrounded by lush green mountains.

My cousin and my friend and I had booked a hostel for the night to explore the town a bit the following day, so the jeep took us straight there. Where we stayed is called Luciérnaga Food Drinks Music Hostel and I definitely recommend it if you’re planning on visiting!

It’s really modern with big spacious rooms, hot showers, and amazing balcony views. And as the name suggests, it has food, drinks, and music in a modern American-style restaurant below the hostel.

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View from the hostel balcony!

One warning though – extreme caution with the bedside lamps!! My arm was burned pretty nastily by the lightbulb as I was attempting to scramble down from my top bunk. It was probably bad luck on my part and doesn’t change my good opinion of the place but it gave me a good laugh (and scar).

I’d survived the tough four-day hike at high altitudes with no injuries or incidents, but once safe and sound in a modern hostel, voila! Perhaps it’s the universe telling me that I should just stay outdoors… hmm… that wouldn’t be so bad!  🙂

That night we wandered into town and as it was the Saturday night before Easter, there were hordes and hordes of people. We also got to witness a pretty funky Easter night celebration.

It involved someone in the upper church window sending down balls of fire on a string that led into a bonfire… these lit it up and people had come prepared with candles that they brought forward to be lit from the giant flames. I don’t know where people come up with these things but it was definitely amusing to watch.

Oh, there was also a Jesus truck.

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This is the moment where I should mention that I also visited Salento and the Cocora Valley a second time, about a month later, when my mom came to visit!

We did a little tour around the coffee region (more details in a future post!) and Salento was one of our stops. After the first trip I knew I had to take her to see it, it’s too beautiful to miss!

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Beautiful and typical Salento houses

Of course, even after two trips, I am no Salento expert. BUT, here’s a list of some of the things I did and places I visited that I recommend if you’re planning on making the trip:

  1. Cocora Valley
    You may have gotten the idea already that I really love the Cocora Valley. You absolutely can’t miss it if you’re in Salento. To get there, you can take a jeep (or a “Willy”) from the centre square. A bunch of them leave about every hour and will the ride will cost you just under 4000COP per person. The trip lasts about half an hour. In the valley itself, there’s camping and various accommodations so you could even stay a night if you wanted. Otherwise, you can do a variety of things like hiking, horseback riding, or just enjoying the sights.20170528_175307
    Hiking is definitely one of the most popular activities. You can do a short walk through the palms, or do the well-known loop trail (I haven’t done it – will write about it if and when I do!). You can even do a multi-day trek, using it as the starting point into Los Nevados the way that it was the endpoint on our own hike.There’s also a trout farm that I visited with my mom upon the pressing insistence of a man who’d caught the jeep with us. People go there to fish for trout, or visitors can pay a small entry fee to get a bag of fish food to give to the fish.You’re essentially paying to fatten up their fish which is a little messed up, but oh well, it was cool to see all the baby trout and adult trout swimming through the water and charging for the food.
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    The last scheduled jeeps back to Salento leave around 6:30, although you’re not completely stuck if you end up staying later. Workers there can call jeeps to come when needed, just be prepared to possibly pay a bit more.
  2. Main Plaza
    The main plaza in Salento is very cute with a pretty park in the centre and the church watching cooly over the square. There are also lots of restaurants and food/drink stands around so head there if you’re hungry or thirsty.unnamed-4-copy
  3. Empanadas de Trucha
    Also in the main plaza, you can find a stand that sells trout empanadas. Time to eat fried dough stuffed with potatoes and the fish that you helped fatten up at the trucha farm!!! Yikes.But anyways, they’re really unique and tasty. Look for the “Centro Artesanal” on the right hand side when facing the church and it’s right beside it.
  4. Centro Artesanal
    After enjoying your empanada de trucha, you can go into the centro artesanal. There, you’ll walk down a corridor with lots of little businesses along the sides.If I had more money and more luggage space, I would have bought so much here – there are really cute handcrafts, clothing, art, and plants, all at very reasonable prices.I ended up buying a cute pair of colourful handmade shoes (partly out of necessity – my flip flops were killing me – but also because they were cute!) If you’re looking for a souvenir to take home, this could be your place.
  5. Walk the Main Street
    The Main street starts in the square, and both times I visited it was buzzing with activity. Didn’t find anything in the Centro Artesanal? Maybe you’ll find something here – the street is lined with cute shops, cafes, and restaurants (psst – some even give out free samples).On my first trip there, we also happened upon two gentlemen singing and playing some amazing guitar music. We took a stop on our stroll and enjoyed for a while!20170410_062719There are also lots of friendly street dogs if all you really want in life is a furry friend!

    All I really want is life is a furry friend, personally.
    All I really want in life is a furry friend, personally.
  6. Check out the Viewpoint
    If you continue down the main street walking away from the square, you’ll eventually arrive at a large set of stairs. Climb these, and you’ll be rewarded with a great view of the town and the surrounding landscapes.There are a few vendors up there too in case you want an ice cream or a beer. Plus, there’s a (dodgy-looking) swing set. YES! Unleash the inner child!20170410_061116
  7. Enjoy Western-style food
    I personally love Colombian food and could eat it all day e’rryday, but I know a lot of visitors here find most of it to be too bland. Salento is your chance, dear visitor who doesn’t fancy Colombian food, to eat what you’ve been missing.Check out Brunch de Salento or Luciérnaga (mentioned above) to kill that craving.
  8. Postres!
    Postre is one of my favourite Spanish words. It means dessert! You can’t go wrong with the postres in Salento, they’re all crazy good. One of the tastiest I had was an oblea filled with arequipe (basically caramel sauce) and cream.Also, there’s a great café near the main square called Jesús Martín. The cakes we had there were amazing and the place’s aesthetic is super creative and colourful. They specialize in coffee as well, leading to my final tip…

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    Jesús Martín cafe
  9. Coffee
    Salento is a prime coffee region town. There are lots of coffee farms around if you’re interested in taking a tour. I’ve heard in particular of the fincas, El Ocaso and Don Eduardo.I personally took a tour a bit farther away in the nearby town of Filandia at Finca El Mirador. It was amazing and they have even have a sheep named Coffee (!) in case you’re interested in visiting a smaller, less busy but equally cute version of Salento.

    My mama and I at Finca El Mirador in Filandia.
    My mama and I at Finca El Mirador in Filandia.

Conclusion: If you’re able to make the time to visit Salento on your travels in Colombia, don’t let it go – the town is adorable but even the Cocora Valley alone makes it worth the while! Happy travels!

Til next post,

L

 

Hiking in Colombia’s Los Nevados National Park

About a month ago, I went hiking with a group of friends and my cousin, Carlos, in Los Nevados National Park. It was Semana Santa (Holy Week) so we had a week off teaching to relax and travel! We thus decided to do a four-day trek through the nearby national park.

Where is Los Nevados?

Los Nevados is located in the Central Mountain Range of the Colombian Andes (the highest range out of 3 branches of the Andes). It is pretty close to Manizales, where I’m living, and as you may have read in previous posts, I can usually see it from my bedroom window, like here:

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Volcanoes!!

 The park features many volcanoes, mostly dormant, and three of which still have their glaciers: the Ruiz, the Santa Isabel, and the Tolima. The highest one, the Ruiz, is closest to Manizales and is still active– Manizaleños can often see it smoking on a clear day.

A relatively recent eruption in 1985 caused Colombia’s worst-ever natural disaster. The lahar (residue/debris that races down a volcano) erased a small town called Armero in its path – leaving only a quarter of its 28,700 residents alive.

The Ruiz, then, is a truly sublime force – it’s beautiful to look at it, but it also inspires fear and reverence at the powerful force of nature.

Not just that, but it also serves as evidence of the incredible diversity on this planet. May I remind you that I am currently in Colombia – a country very close to the equator known for its hot temperatures and beautiful beaches and jungles in many parts of the country. But somehow in spite of all this, there is a park with glaciers in it!? That’s right. Colombia is AWESOME.

OK – let’s hike this thing.

Our decision to go on the trek was ultimately pretty last-minute. We managed to get enough people on board just in time so the night before the trek, we all met at Juan Valdez (basically the Starbucks of Colombia) to discuss logistics and the game plan for the next day.

At 5AM the next morning, the final group of eight of us met our jeep driver with all our gear and giddily hopped into the jeep to start our journey.

Here’s a rough outline of our itinerary:

Day One: Hiking up to the Santa Isabel Glacier. 6km. Night at Potosí Finca
Day Two: Potosí Finca to Berlín Finca. ~17km. Highlights: Laguna del Otún, forests of frailéjones in the paramo.
Day Three: Berlín Finca to Primavera Finca. ~14km Highlights: more paramo, marshlands.
Day Four: Primavera Finca to Cocora Valley, and a jeep to Salento! ~15 km  Highlights: slipping and sliding in the mud all day; getting to our final destination!

Day One: Reaching High Altitudes on the Santa Isabel Glacier

After our jeep picked us up in Manizales, we had a ride of about 2 hours ahead of us to get to the park. We had a few stops on the way though to start acclimatizing. The first was in the neighbouring town of Villamaria to pick up some of our equipment and to grab a quick coffee or coca tea.

We then stopped for breakfast at a beautiful countryside finca – hot chocolate with bread, arepas, and eggs. This was roughly the same breakfast we would eat every morning of the hike.

Our last stop before arriving at the park was a quick stop to admire this incredible waterfall: 20170412_073828

The whole ride was breathtaking, really. Getting to the park entrance (below), we looked up at the heavy cloud cover, hoping it wouldn’t start to rain. Also feeling the cold nip at our skin when we got out of the jeep, I started hoping my cheap dollar store gloves would be enough to get me through the next four days! 

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Soon after arriving and doing a quick assessment of what we needed to bring up to the peak with us, we started on our way. The ‘paramo’ (a high-altitude tropical tundra climate) was amazing to see.

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Nearing the top, a bit of altitude sickness started to hit. My head started to pound and my breathing was shallow. But step by step, we kept moving forward.

I was grateful for the numbers of layers I had brought up! Sweating one minute while the sun was out, and then shivering for the wind, they were definitely necessary.
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Before we knew it, we had made it!

The glacier was incredible – rocky and barren, no more paramo plants in sight. We could also walk on it up to a certain point, but not too far for risk of falling through without the proper gear. It was especially cool to see where there were some cracks in the ice; you could look through to amazing crystal water. My cousin and I took advantage of the ice to make some ‘ice’ angels…. *brrr*

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What’s sad is that the glacier probably won’t last much longer – ten years at most, according to scientists. It’s been receding rapidly over the past few years. There’s even a marker on a rock that says “2003,” marking where the glacier went up to 14 years ago, and it’s shockingly far back from where  the glacier starts now.

It was awesome, though, to be able to take in this sight knowing that it won’t be like this much longer. Oh the ephemerality of it all!

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The hike, though pretty short at just 6km total, drained us completely. Once we got to the finca, the owners gave us some agua de panela and lunch, and then we went straight to bed – at about 3 p.m!

Despite our sleeping bags and the cozy blankets that the owners gave us, many of us were freezing. I tried to stay absolutely still because moving just a bit made me feel cold. Around 7, they called us for dinner, but I could hardly muster the energy to get up and eat. Only the idea of a warm soup finally lured me out from under the covers.

It was crazy to see how the day’s climb and the altitude had exhausted us so much physically and mentally. While some didn’t seem too affected by it, most of us had headaches, or felt nauseous, or were just really tired. It felt like nature’s hangover. Only one thing to do – sleep it off. We went to bed super early to be fresh for the next day.

Day Two: We have to walk up THAT?

Day two was a LONG day. We started bright and early after having a quick and yummy breakfast at the finca. The Nevado del Ruiz was amazingly clear that morning, and we were able to see it smoking impressively as we started on our way.

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It was then roughly a 7km gradual uphill walk to get to the Laguna del Otun – a big beautiful lake in the middle of the park. We were fortunate to have the sun peeking out of the clouds just in time when we got there. My cousin and I couldn’t resist the perfect moment for a photo.


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We then descended into a green and pretty canyon, where we caught our first glimpses of frailejón forests in this well-maintained one called “Bosque de Eden” (Forest of Eden). The mountains in the distance made for a beautiful backdrop.

Around this time, I also successfully miscalculated the depth of a mud puddle and got one leg well stuck. Thankfully my cousin was nearby and was able to help pull me out!
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Shortly after, it started to hail a bit, and there was thunder and lightning. Still far off from our destination, we all picked up the pace to try and avoid getting stuck in a storm.

As soon as we made it to a finca where we were going to have a break, it started to rain really hard. Just in time! We warmed up with some agua de panela, played with some baby chicks (aww) and then headed back out on our way – a few more kilometres to go.

The sun came out and we were able to take off our layers as we walked through the lush countryside. I said hola to every cow and every horse, of course. 
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Our guide then casually mentioned that we had to then climb up the mountain that was directly in front of us. I’m sorry, what!? Totally unexpected, this was going to be a challenge after already walking about 15km that day!

We started the climb, stopping frequently for a breather, and admiring the countryside view which got smaller and smaller as we climbed.
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Alexis and I started invoking the name of inspirational women to get us through. For Oprah! For Emma Watson! For Ellen DeGeneres!

In the end, we all made it. Exhausted but in awe of the beautiful view.

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There was then just about a kilometre more until we arrived at Berlín Finca, our home for the night. As there were no rooms available, we had to camp that night outside the house.

We set up our tents as soon as we arrived and then went to huddle around the stove in the kitchen where we stayed chatting and relaxing as the owner made us agua de panela, and then dinner. We were starving and ate as if we hadn’t eaten in ten days and soon after got into our tents to pass out.

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Day Three: Wet and Wonderful 

Day three was wet. Very wet. It started raining while we were taking down our tents and continued raining on and off the whole day. Those crappy dollar store gloves I mentioned earlier? Yeah, they weren’t much help this day. We got absolutely soaked.

But – the day was also wonderful! We passed through amazing dense paramo forests, filled with frailéjones.

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Not just that, though. We also passed through an incredible marshy area that in Spanish is called a “pantano.” It’s basically a swamp with very strong, spongy green plants that you can step on. Trying to jump from one to the other and making sure to only step on the truly strong ones felt like a video game. It was so fun!
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I was not always successful, though.

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And, despite the rain, we were able to catch a foggy glimpse of the Paramillo of Quindío sitting near the marsh. (“Paramillo” is the term used for the volcanoes that no longer have their glaciers) Wonderful!

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At Primavera finca that night, we strung out some rope all over our dorm room and hung everything on it with the naive hope that it would dry a bit. But, with the cold? No such luck. We had to suck it up and put on our wet boots and some wet clothes the next day, yum!

Day Four: Slipping and sliding down to the Cocora Valley

Our final day woke up beautiful, with a bright sun and a view of the Nevado of Tolima in the distance. It didn’t stay that way long though. As we started the last day’s hike, it got foggy and gloomy once more.

Luckily there was no rain, but the ground was still very wet from the downpour the day before. Nearly the whole day consisted of trudging in the mud on our descent into the Cocora Valley.

Most of us fell at least a few times. It was tricky but very, very amusing. Check out all that mud!
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After a bit of walking, we got to an extremely windy ridge. The guide explained that it was where two winds from separate mountain chains meet, making it a perpetual windy crossroads.

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At the top, we stopped to take pictures and revel in the wind! My hands started going numb… those damn gloves were still too wet to be any use. We didn’t stay up there too long, anyway. It was time to descend down into the valley!

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Getting into the valley, it warmed up a lot, and we were greeted by beautiful rolling hills all around us.

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After a lot of walking and trying not to fall that day, we reached a section of the path with lots of river crossings. The majority of the bridges were pretty dodgy, some missing parts or looking pretty worn out, but hey we survived!

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Soon after, we arrived at our destination: Cocora Valley! The sun was shining bright and hot, so all the lush green hills around looked incredible. The tall waxy palm trees soon came into sight as well – they are some of the tallest in the world!


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It was an amazing end to an amazing hike.


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From the valley, we took a jeep into the nearby town of Salento. There were more of us than could fit sitting so I and three others hung onto the back! It was such a cool feeling to have the wind blow in our hair and to be driving after having walked so long.

Some in our group headed back to Manizales right away but Carlos, Alexis, and I stayed in Salento for the night. It’s a beautiful, colourful town and since we were there during Easter, it was packed! That’s for another post though! Keep your eyes out for it. 🙂

Til then,

L

10 Lessons You’ll Learn Teaching English in Colombia

It’s now been over two months since I arrived in Manizales and started teaching English. Incidentally it’s also been over a month since I’ve written a post – oops! The life of an ESL teacher is apparently a busy one. 🙂

These past months have been and continue to be a huge learning experience – I am not professionally trained as a teacher nor have I taught in a classroom before. But, using what I learned as a swimming and aquatic leadership teacher back home, I’ve (thankfully) managed to get into the swing of things pretty quickly.

Of course there are tough days when students don’t listen or when I feel exhausted after so many early wake-ups, but my overall impression has been incredibly positive and I find the work really rewarding.

Maybe you are thinking about teaching English abroad as well, or perhaps you’re just curious as to what it’s like? Well, you’re in luck! Reflecting on my time here so far, I’ve compiled a list of what you can expect and learn as an English teacher in Colombia. 

1. Class sizes are LARGE.

My smallest class has 32 students and my biggest has 43. At times this can lead to a bit of chaos in the classroom, so you need to establish a routine early-on to have the students behaving well and not disrupting the class. My co-teacher is quite strict with the students (in a good way), so that luckily makes my job easier. When I’m teaching and all 40 students start talking at once, I normally can just stare at them with an unamused look until they’re quiet. It’s worked pretty well so far!

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Lots of students in one class!

2. Students’ English levels can be very varied.

I have a few students with whom I can have a full, fluid conversation about nearly anything, while there are others that stare at me wide-eyed when I ask them “How are you?” The majority, though, are in between the two extremes. It’s important to take into account the wide variations while thinking up lessons – ensuring it’s interesting enough content to keep the strong students interested, but explained in a way that is easy enough for the weaker students to understand.

3. You will learn to become a master charader. 

When students don’t understand something and I don’t know how to explain it to them in English nor Spanish, I resort to exaggerated hand gestures and acting that often end up being pretty entertaining. Leaping across the classroom in heels to demonstrate what “long jump” is was just one example. I’m definitely at the top of my game for charades now!

4. B.Y.O.M. – Bring Your Own Materials 

This makes sense to some extent, but was also a surprise for me. Most schools back home have a supply of markers, pens, papers, etc. that teachers can use. Here, you should buy and bring anything you need for the classroom yourself, as they are not provided. This includes whiteboard markers – one day I forgot my entire pencil case at home so I had to borrow markers from students during my English Club. Not the ideal situation!

5. Also, B.Y.O.T.P. 

Bring your own toilet paper! My first few days at school, I didn’t know this was a rule and thought the toilet paper had just run out in the bathroom. After a few times too many doing the “shaky shaky shaky” I finally learned that you had to come with your own…. don’t be like me, be prepared from day one!

6. Get Used to Paper-Free Lessons

In high school, I remember getting countless hand-outs in nearly every class. This is not the case here – each handout either comes out of your pocket or out of the pockets of students. There is no photocopier at the school so all photocopies need to be taken outside class. My co-teacher then normally asks the students to pay for the cost of their individual photocopy of a worksheet or quiz. Of course it’s not very expensive, only 50 pesos (<2 cents USD) per page, but it can add up after a while! I’ve therefore learned more environmentally friendly ways (yay!) to have lessons in class such as writing out things on the board or using powerpoint slides or pictures, that the students can then copy into their notebooks.

7. Being Adaptable is Key

You may have an amazing activity planned for, let’s say, Tuesday afternoon. You stayed up late preparing it, only to find out that that class has been cancelled due to an important national soccer match. Classes cancelled for soccer? Yeah, it happens in Colombia.

It’s easy to feel annoyed but hey – you get time off too! So being adaptable to changes is very, very important. Just today at my school, we were supposed to have class only from 7am – 10am (instead of 4), due to a strike that had been planned because the teachers hadn’t received their pay. They finally did receive their pay after planning the strike, and so it ended up being a normal schedule in the end. It resulted in a bit of chaos – many students had arranged transport for 10am so they had to try to call and change it back to normal. Some just had to go home early anyways because it couldn’t be changed.

Many classes have also been cancelled or disrupted for other things like school-wide events, strikes, professional development days, mass, or presentations by other students or teachers. But hey, it happens, just enjoy! Here’s a photo of a bunch of students dancing salsa during a fun school-wide concert:
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8. Get ready for all of the affection 

Students and other teachers hugging and kissing you on the cheek is totally normal. To say hi or to say bye, it’s very common in Colombia to give a kiss on the cheek with a quick hug. It’s a bit strange at first in a professional setting, but you get used to it and it becomes endearing. 🙂

9. You learn how to wake up really f***ing early 

I’ve never been a morning person. In university, I avoided 9 a.m. classes like the plague. Getting up at 7am just doesn’t work for me. But here, I’ve had to make it work for me; school starts at 7, so that means I wake up between 5:30 and 6! It’s usually still dark out at that time so it’s a struggle to get myself out of bed. On the plus side, I am in the coffee region… coffee is never hard to come by!

I’ve also recently had significant help from Polo, my roommate’s cat, who comes and attacks my pillow or sits on my chest until I get up. Three alarms and a cat have thus helped make it *slightly* easier, but I definitely still have a lot of progress to make on that front!

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You won’t see me smiling this big in the morning, but Polo helps!

10. You learn how to dance your troubles away!

While in Peru last December, my cousins overheard a drunk backpacker raving about Colombia because “people are just dancing all the time!” And well, he wasn’t wrong. Even though Manizales is not one of the most popular cities for dancing in Colombia, students and teachers alike can be seen dancing regularly inside and outside class. It’s awesome!

 

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Teachers spontaneously dancing during a break 🙂

So there you have it – ten things I’ve learned while teaching English in Colombia! I’m excited to keep working and to share what other fun things I learn throughout the year. And of course, if you have any questions about teaching English abroad or about anything really, feel free to leave a comment or send me a message!

Til next post,

L

Ten Things I Love About Living in Manizales

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A month or two before I started my position here in Colombia, I learned from a handful of people that my new placement, Manizales, had a bit of a reputation. It could be described by what’s called the 3 F’s – frio (cold), feo (ugly), and faldudo (hilly).

Considering that I had (somewhat randomly) requested to be placed in Manizales, I was naturally a bit alarmed. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a fan of the cold. Good thing I had packed lots of sweaters I suppose. As for ugly, was it? I had heard it was pretty! I quickly re-googled images to see if it was true – but I just saw the same images of rolling green hills populated by neighbourhoods with a brilliant snow-capped mountain (well, volcano) in the distance. I’d have to see, I thought. And for ‘faldudo’, well that one I had expected. I consider it a positive though as it would make even just a casual walk outside into a bit of a workout.

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One of the more gradual hills… faldudo indeed.

Well I’m now a month into my program and I’ve got to say that I do not agree with either feo or frio – while there are ugly parts, the surrounding views more than make up for it. And same for cold – while there have been cold days, it’s generally warm enough to walk around in a tshirt or with a light cardigan. And hilly, yes it is! Even my quick walk to school has me trudge up a bit of a hill so that’s always a good wake-up call at 6:50 in the morning if I haven’t managed to have a coffee yet.

Besides these things, I continue to fall in love with Manizales more and more each day – it’s a small place but it’s packed with charm and surprises. Reflecting on my past month here, I’ve come up with a list of ten things I love about Manizales (so far). Here goes!

1. Manizales is a small city but it doesn’t really feel like one.
There’s still a lot to do in and around the city, so there’s no time to get bored. I tend to be a victim of the paradox of choice– if there’s too much to do, I just won’t do anything. That’s what makes this the perfect environment for me! There’s just the right amount of choice.

2. Transportation. Leaving the house to get somewhere is always a mini-adventure.

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Buses: like in most of Colombia, there are no specific set bus routes. Rather, there are a number of buses that run throughout the city that have cards saying which main areas they’re heading to on the front window. As long as you’ve made sure you’re on the right side of the road for the direction you want to go, you just look for the cards on the buses until one you need comes along. You flag it down to stop, hop on, push yourself through a turnstile, and give the driver your change. He counts out your change as he whips around curves and other cars.

The buses that go up and down the hilly neighbourhoods are the best – it’s like getting a ride on a very cheap roller coaster! And, when getting off, the doors usually open as it’s still in motion. To be safe, it’s best to wait til it stops completely, but hey, if you’re a thrill seeker or in need of some duck and roll practice, this is your chance.

Cable Car: you can take a cable car to get around! The highest station is near the downtown core, and there are two more stations that it goes down to – one being the bus station, and then there’s one more in a suburb called Villamaria that can be reached after the cable car crosses over a pretty ravine below. Views are amazing the whole time.

Walking: walking isn’t necessarily that exciting, but what is nice is that you can walk to most places if you want. Another perk of a small city!

3. Hot Springs!
Just a short bus-ride out of the city will bring you to a string of thermal baths. I initially went one day when plans for a hike outside the city were ruined by rain, and it was awesome! It’s the perfect rainy day or evening plan. Better not on a hot day, though, as the water is already pretty hot. The one we visited is called Termales del Otoño. There are two sections: one fancy and expensive one, and one that’s less fancy and cheaper. We went to the second one and had trouble picturing what the nicer one would be like because it was nice as it was!

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4. FREE activities.

Just as those of you who know me well know I don’t like cold, you also know I love free things. You can therefore picture me blissfully trotting along the sidewalks of Manizales with no cash in my pockets as I head to the free events here. Last Friday night, a group of us headed to a free musical performance featuring an orchestra and a fourteen-year old American piano prodigy. Plus, apparently these shows happen about every two weeks!

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Some free dance classes happen here – in the beautiful park, Bosque Popular. It’s also just nice to hang out in!

Similarly, I’ve just recently found out about free zumba/fitness classes every Tuesday and Sunday, as well as more free cultural events and movie nights at a building right by my house called Confamiliares. Check their calendar out here if you want to know more about it.

Plus, on Sunday mornings until noon there’s also a Ciclovia here just like in Bogota – the main street is closed to cars to allow for biking, jogging and walking throughout the city.

5. Hiking.
Ever since graduating, I’ve realized how much I love hiking. It was fun to do it near home in Algonquin Park, in Hawaii, in British Columbia, and in Peru, but is hiking a thing in Colombia? I wasn’t sure. Turns out, yes! There are some awesome treks throughout the country that I definitely want to do eventually, but for now, I’m excited because there’s a local Manizales hiking group that goes out every weekend to do various routes.

I’ve only gone once so far, but it was awesome. I was picturing more of a leisurely stroll throughout the countryside, but it was actually pretty physically demanding and went through some really beautiful sections. There was one part that made it feel as if we were in the middle of the jungle – so cool! If you’re interested in joining the groups, you can find a link here to their facebook page.

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6. Centro.
The centre of Manizales is an interesting place. Some may call it ugly and dangerous, but I prefer to think of it as a magical treasure trove much like Ariel’s undersea collection – “it’s got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, it’s got whoozits and whatzits galore.”

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Literally every store vendor in Centro. 

 

There are various sections where you can find sets of stores selling roughly the same things. For example, I got my mattress in the main furniture area, and my duvet and pillow in the duvet & pillow area. Not kidding.

It also isn’t even that ugly – many of the buildings are built in an older style giving it a bit of a grungy European look. Plus the cathedral is really beautiful!

 

7. El Cable.
El Cable is probably my favourite area of town. It’s the main area to go out at night to bars or clubs, but also has nice cafés and restaurants and also a big mall with a movie theatre. Plus, an incredible empanada place can be found here, called San Juanitas. Find it here. The general vibe of El Cable is always fun and bustling.

8. Climbing Gym.
I was excited to learn that there was a nice bouldering gym here in Manizales. It’s not very big, but it has a lot of routes and variety so it’s an awesome place to improve on skills even for those with a low level like me. In addition to monthly memberships, they also offer a training program with cross-fit and technical practice at a reasonable price. I can’t wait to get started on it to finally see some good improvement in my climbing skills! You can find out more about the gym on their facebook page here.

9. Location, location, location.
Manizales is ideally located in the country as well for day- or weekend-trips to other towns and cities nearby. Three of the country’s main cities, Bogota, Medellin, and Cali, are all a reasonably long bus ride away, between 4 and 7 hours each. I know I’ll be heading back to Bogota soon to visit family, but I’m looking forward to escaping to Medellin and Cali soon during some long weekends. There are also smaller cities and towns that are, like Manizales, part of the coffee region. Some examples are Pereira, Armenia, Salento, and Santa Rosa de Cabal. It’s easy to just head to the bus terminal, buy a ticket, and be on your way!

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10. Views.
Views in Manizales are incredible. On a clear, sunny day you can see the surrounding mountains and hills clearly, and sometimes even the Nevado del Ruiz and other snow-capped mountains nearby, like I wrote about in my last post. There was even one very foggy day (one of many to come, I’m sure) which led to there being no views at all, which is also kind of cool to see. My school is quite high up in the city so when sitting in the teacher’s room, looking out the window, it can sometimes feel like we’re in the middle of the sky. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of admiring the city’s views.

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Just look at that view outside one of my classrooms! 🙂

So there you have it! Ten amazing things about Manizales and therefore ten good reasons you should come visit me over here, or at least visit the city if you’re in Colombia. You won’t regret it! 🙂

Will be trying to post more frequently in coming days now that I’ve gotten into more of a routine here!

Til then,

L

Made it to Manizales!

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On Tuesday morning last week, all of the new volunteers staying at the Bogota hostel got up bright and early to pile into buses and go to the airport. We split off according to our city, some heading to Cali or Armenia, others to Medellin, Pereira, and Pasto, just to name a few. My particular group was, of course, headed to Manizales.

The seven of us groggily got off the bus and got to the check-in desk at the airport. Since we were so early, the airline workers asked if we wanted to get on an earlier flight – yes please! We then had just a small wait time before getting on our plane.

I had heard all sorts of bad things about the Manizales airport – particularly that oftentimes, it can’t land due to heavy cloud and fog. This means that planes often need to either reroute to nearby Pereira, or go back to Bogota. One group member’s fiancée had texted him that the day looked beautiful in Manizales so we had high hopes that everything would be fine. And there was sun all the way! At least, until we got to Manizales.

The clouds were super thick, and we could no longer admire the lush green scenery below us. When it was time to land, the plane started to descend and we could hear the wheels coming out of the wings. Even after descending and descending, the clouds didn’t seem to have an end. All of a sudden, the plane lurched forward with a boost of power and started to rise again. No luck this time.

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In the never-ending clouds….

We circled the air for about fifteen minutes, the pilot waiting to see if there would be an opening in the clouds. We then started descending once again, but again, after going down and down, we had no luck and launched upwards. Landing was impossible. Off to Pereira we went!

Landing there, there was bright sunshine and beautiful green rolling hills. The heat hit us hard when we got out of the plane, but it felt amazing! It was amusing to see the Pereira fellows show up shortly after us, their friendly greetings quickly turning to confused shoulder shrugs as to what we were doing there.

After grabbing our bags, we got on a courtesy bus that took us to Manizales. About an hour-long trip, I was excited to see the scenery of the coffee region that I’d heard so much about. So much for that though, I could hardly keep my eyes open. I woke up briefly about halfway, thought “wow, this is so beautiful!” and then promptly fell back asleep again until we were entering Manizales.

Taking a taxi with three other fellows to our hostel, we quickly realized there was no exaggeration involved when people had told us that the hills were steep in the city. The taxi pushed up and up the mountain, curving through the streets until arriving at Mountain Hostel, where we’ve been since.

We had that first day to relax and explore, and some of us went out walking pretty far, even to where some of our schools are.

I found out my school was on the main street on the city, across from a beautiful little park and about halfway in between where I’m staying now and the downtown core.

The next day here, we had more free time. I went to pick up my Cedula – my Colombian identification card, and started the search for an apartment.

The hunt technically continues, but I’m pretty sure I’ve found a place. I just need to finalize some things and then we’ll see what happens. If it works out, I’ll be just about a four-minute walk from work. Can’t beat that!

House-hunting has definitely been an adventure, especially since I’ve never had to do it before. I used some leads that were provided by my coordinator and other fellows, but also just walked around calling numbers listed on “For Rent” signs around town. It was great practice for my Spanish, although I’m still struggling a bit with the fast speakers now, since the accent here is a bit different.

It also allowed me to get to know the regional “Paisa” hospitality that everyone told me about. Nearly everyone I met was eager to go out of their way to help out the foreign girl walking around looking for a place to live. Even a taxi driver offered to drive me around so I could write down numbers to call. I definitely think I’m going to like it here!

Another exciting thing that has happened since I’ve got here is that I’ve gotten to know my school! After an event with the Secretary of Education where the fellows got to meet some of our principals, mentors, and/or co-teachers, most of us headed off to go to our schools for the first time.

I met one grade ten class that I’ll be having, and even ended up playing some English games with them when my co-teacher was called to a meeting. I was thankful for the recent orientation, as I had some quick ideas up my sleeve!

Friday was my first full day there. School starts at 7:00AM so I left the hostel at 6:15 for the half hour walk to get there. I got to meet a lot more teachers in the staff room, as well as two more groups of students that I’ll be with for the year. One, a group of grade nines – mostly boys, and one, a group of grade tens – mostly girls.

They were really sweet and a lot of them were eager to ask questions and to participate in the class. The levels of English are quite varied, with some students knowing quite a bit, with others knowing very little. This will definitely be a challenge to overcome, but I’m eager to take it on. I can’t wait to meet the rest of the students next week!

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Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora del Rosario (not my photo)

For now, it’s been nice enjoying a carefree weekend. With nothing to do really, the other fellows and I slept in, had the delicious hostel breakfast, and then headed out to the centre to explore it for the first time. There’s a massive and beautiful cathedral in the main square, so we went there first. On its second floor, there’s a nice café where we had milkshakes and cake with another fellow who came to meet us.

After exploring a bit more of the centre and checking out an apartment that had rooms available, we decided to head to the cable car to take in the city sights from the air. What’s awesome is that it’s not a touristic attraction – it’s a veritable form of transportation to get from the top of the city to the bottom and vice versa. Of course, the best part is that the whole time you get an amazing view! Here are some pictures:

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Tomorrow, there’ll be more of the same relaxation, plus hopefully I’ll get the apartment business sorted. Exciting times, exciting times!

I’m hoping to post more often once I’m settled in my new home. I’ll be sure to share lots more about Manizales and the surrounding areas.

Til then,

L 🙂

 

What The Heck Am I (Still) Doing in Colombia  

 

Sitting on top of Bogota at Monserrate... yup I'm still here!
Sitting on top of Bogota at Monserrate… yup I’m still here!

It’s been over three months now that I’ve been in Colombia. I’ve visited family, done a bit of travelling in the country (and outside, to Peru), and I’ve worked on my writing, starting this blog.

Talking with friends back home, I’ve realized that quite a few thought I was on more of a vacation, and they’re wondering when I’m coming home. But in reality, I don’t know, I don’t even have a return flight! (Yet, anyways – don’t worry Mum 🙂 )

In fact, I am now a proud owner of a Colombian visa, allowing me to stay here until the end of November this year.

Why? you may ask:

Well, I’m moving on to the next phase of my stay here, the one that initiated my arrival in Colombia in the first place.

Starting soon, I’ll be working with a Colombian volunteer organization called Heart for Change, teaching English in public school classrooms for the year. It’s a program sponsored by the Colombian Ministry of Education, as part of its plan to make Colombia bilingual by 2025.

I applied without knowing much about the program besides that basic description, but have slowly learned more and more about it and am getting increasingly excited at the opportunity I’ve landed myself in!

I found out about the program through an external organization called Greenheart Travel, one of many agencies that recruits English-speaking university graduates from around the world to come teach for the program. You can find more about them here if this sounds like your type of program. They have opportunities all around the globe! 

Yesterday was the first day of orientation here. It’s a 10-day affair that goes over living in Colombia and teaching, as well as logistical stuff like visas, identification cards, bank accounts, and phones.

For these ten days, we’re staying in a really nice hotel in Bogota called Estelar La Fontana. It’s been a while since I’ve stayed somewhere so fancy! I’m definitely enjoying the luxury before the relative homelessness I’ll have before finding a place to live in my placement city. (Perhaps I’m being a touch dramatic?)

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Photo taken from the hotel website. I’m not accustomed to this level of fanciness…

The first day of orientation was a long one. It started at 5:45 for me when my alarm rang, because I had to get in a taxi with a few other fellows to go to the visa and cedula (national identification card) office. We were special cases, as we had applied before the program started and needed to get the process done within a 15 days limit. It was a long morning spent mostly in lines, but in the end, everything is complete and I now feel officially legal!

Today was an even earlier wake-up, as breakfast started at 5:00. By 6:00, we were boarding buses to go across the city for an event with the Ministry of Education. We were all sporting our new “Colombia Bilingüe” (“Bilingual Colombia”)  t-shirts and bright green Ministry vests looking super fashionable, of course.

We watched some videos about Colombia, and about the program, as well as some music videos by Colombian artists. Even though it was super early, it got most of us pretty pumped up for the program. Some people even started dancing! It was still a bit too early for that for me though. 🙂

Near the end, we had a presentation from the Minister of Education. She also chatted with some of the fellows, and it was all really inspiring. I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed with happiness and excitement for the country!

In this important time of newfound peace, Colombia is now able to focus on how to further improve itself. Education is of course a big part of that, and English education especially. Better English opens doors for students to better education and employment opportunities, in effect contributing to an improvement in Colombia’s international relations in the future.

I’m really passionate about the program and its goals and can’t wait to start teaching!

For the rest of orientation, I’m not totally sure what to expect, although I know we’ll be getting 40 hours of teaching instruction meant to prepare us for our classes (for me, and many others, it will be the first time teaching in a classroom). Then we’ll all be getting on our planes and heading off to our destinations. Many will head off to big cities like Medellin or Cali, and others will fly to smaller cities or even more rural towns.

I’ll be flying to a small city called Manizales. It’s nestled in the coffee region, and is ideally located right in between three main cities: Bogota, Medellin, and Cali. It’s a city built into the mountains, and apparently the streets are super steep! It’s surrounded by other small cities and towns that I can’t wait to explore, and is even close to a big active volcano called the Nevado del Ruiz.

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A photo of Manizales I found on the internet – looks amazing doesn’t it!?

I’ve never been to Manizales before but have heard amazing things about it so can’t wait to get there and see it for myself! I’ll be sure to write lots about it.

Once I get there, I’ll have about a one-week orientation in the city, and then straight into the classroom I go!

The teaching program is really cool because it’s not only about benefitting the students, but about the teachers as well. We’ll be working as co-teachers in English classes, offering both students and the teacher exposure to a more immersive English experience.

The hope is that after a few years of the program (this is the third year it’s being run on such a large scale), the English teachers will feel more confident with the language, and therefore the overall quality of English education will improve.

It’s all part of the Bilingual Colombia initiative in the country, which aims to have more and more students graduate with at least an average B1 level of English (in listening, speaking, reading, and writing). Currently, English education in private schools is generally quite good, but it’s lacking in the public school system. This program is therefore helping to combat that discrepancy.

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It’s also meant to inspire these students, many of whom will be at schools in unprivileged communities, to dream big and think outside of their neighbourhood and rather, on a more global scale.

I’m still full of questions about where I’m going to live, what my school is going to be like, and how many classes I’m going to have, but I’m excited and optimistic. I can’t wait to share more about my experience with you!

For now, dinner time.

Thanks for reading!

L

Costeño Beach Guide

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A few days ago my cousin and I headed off on a vacation within our vacation to Costeño Beach. Costeño is a hostel on an amazing beach close to the famous Tayrona National Park. It’s located on what used to be a coconut farm, and now serves as an eco-lodge and surf camp, owned by two Canadians (woot!). We enjoyed a relaxing stay of two days there, enjoying a wide variety of activities that are offered. Here is a brief guide on the hostel, our stay, and what there is to do there.

Getting There

We first hopped on a van from Cartagena to Santa Marta, a four-hour journey. In Santa Marta, we walked over to the main market, and caught a bus heading to Palomino. The Costeño Beach stop is about an hour away, just 7-10 minutes after the stop for Tayrona National Park.

You can then get a ride from the awaiting motorcyclists for 3000 COP, or you can walk about twenty minutes to get there. Make sure to turn right once you get to the big palm tree forest. We opted to walk but were fortunate to have someone who was headed there in a car offer us a ride.

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Looking at the plantain trees along the road to the hostel.
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The palm tree forest, as seen from the beach.

Sleeping

There are a variety of sleeping options for every type of traveller. You can book various types of private rooms, located in pretty huts/cabins right on the beach. There are also large dorm-rooms, some with hammocks, and some with regular bunk beds. All beds and private rooms come with mosquito netting – a very useful addition considering the quantity of mosquitos there! We booked pretty last-minute so only had the option for beds, but we were happy with it.

There are lockers available for you to use, and a power outlet and little light within each one. Shared bathrooms are also close-by, and there are lots of spots to dry wet clothes and towels.

Food & Drinks

The food at Costeño Beach is delicious. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all offered during specific time slots – breakfast 7:00-10:00, lunch 12:00-2:00, and dinner 7:00-8:00. Upon check-in, you’re given a bracelet with your account number, so if you want to eat their meals, you just tell the bartender your number and the meal will be charged to your bill.

All meals are quite affordable – all under $8 USD – but they are also optional if you’d rather eat your own food or go elsewhere. We saw some guests eating cans of tuna, for example. Plus, about a twenty-minute walk down the beach will lead to a row of mini-restaurants. We ate an amazing arepa de huevo (arepa with egg) at one of them, along with a coconut drink.

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Enjoying the fresh coco!

At the bar, you can also buy snacks throughout the day if you’re feeling peckish – brownies, banana cake, and olives are some of the options we had. Drinks are well-priced. A bottle of beer will cost you between 4000 and 6000 COP, and a cocktail is between 10000 and 12000 COP. Juices and sodas are under 5000 COP.

Activities

There’s lots to do at Costeño Beach. For included activities, there is a fitness area and a slackline right in the main hostel area. I learned to slackline just this past summer so I was excited to find a large one sitting there, between two palm trees. It took a while to get into the motion but I quickly got back into it, slowly making more and more steps forward.

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Elena, and the slackline behind!

If you’re willing to pay a bit more, there are fitness and yoga classes on offer. My cousin and I took a refreshing 8 a.m. yoga class one morning, and were impressed with its quality. It was just 15000 COP ($5 USD) for each of us, and we left feeling stretched out and rejuvenated.

You can also pay to have a massage for half an hour, or one hour. We definitely considered it – how tempting to get a massage right by the ocean (!) but in the end we didn’t do it. Relaxing in the many beachside hammocks was enough for us.

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Comfy hammock along the beach.

On one of the nights, someone had started a bonfire as well that we enjoyed before dinner. A few hours later, it had faded significantly but we revived it and took refuge from the mosquitos beside it for a while. If only we had had some marshmallows to roast!

 

Surfing

Costeño is also first and foremost a surf spot. You can take a 2 hour, 30 minute surfing class for about 60000 COP ($20USD), or you can rent a board for two hours, half a day, or a full day. I rented one for two hours and it only cost me 20000 COP ($6-7USD).

I had taken a surf class back in late August in Tofino, Canada, and was eager to try it out again. It was way harder this time around. The waves were different from the ones I’d learned on, and just entering and exiting the water for me was a challenge! I got thrown around pretty impressively; as it turned out, I definitely could have used another lesson. Beginners beware! 🙂

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Smiling because I made it out in one piece!

Monkeys!!!

Additionally, while I was waiting to rent my board, I saw a family of about ten large monkeys swinging by in the trees. It was way too cool to feel like reality! Make sure to look for them in the palms.

Nearby

Close to Costeño, there are also lots of cool places to go. My cousin and I went to a nearby river, called Mendiguaca, just about twenty minutes away walking. It’s just a bit beyond the restaurants, if you walk to your left along the ocean from Costeño Beach.

It’s a popular local spot, where there were families swimming and hanging out in the sun. You can rent a tent or some chairs to have a shady place to sit. We even saw some people getting on and off boats so I imagine you can take a ride down the river as well.

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Elena taking a dip in the Mendiguaca River.

Tayrona National Park is also just 5km away – a must-visit in Colombia. We didn’t have time to go this time, but it’s definitely in my plans for later this year. There, you can take a day hike, or do more adventurous multi-day journeys like the Lost City trek.

Farther away, you can visit Buritaca River and the town of Palomino, as well as the city of Santa Marta.

Just go!

Costeño Beach was overall an awesome mini-vacation. Whether you just go for a bit, like us, to enjoy the location, or whether you go for longer to use it as a base for nearby places, it’s definitely worth the visit. To learn more or book your stay, you can visit the website here: http://costenobeach.com/en/.

And for more inspiration, Costeño Beach is featured in this music video by the Colombian group, Bomba Estereo. Check it out; it’s a beautiful video, plus a great song!

If you’re still debating, just go! You’ll have a great time. 🙂

Til next post,

L