Monday, December 23, 2013

Postcard from Colombia: City of Eternal Spring

MEDELLIN, Colombia – Just days into my family’s annual vacation in Colombia, I have seen butterflies with wings transparent as glass. Thousands of candles floating in the air above a rushing river, flanked by lit-up fairy tale homes. A park full of giant fat people, sculpted in bronze, in a city better known for beautiful slender women.
Blogging to you live from Medellin, the City of Eternal Spring, I can confirm that toilets do not in fact flush in the opposite direction south of the equator. But I’ve found the sort of spectacles I hoped for when I handed over the keys last week to friends housesitting our upstate New York home, and flew 3,000 miles south with my twelve-year old daughter and Colombian wife. Though we’ve visited my wife’s home country more than a dozen times, each visit we sift for something new, opening ourselves up to places and people we’d otherwise miss.
On a mirador overlooking the city of Medellin
On a mirador overlooking the city of Medellin
So far, this trip has not disappointed. After landing in Bogota last Wednesday, we flew, along with five members of my wife’s family, to Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city, known for its year-round spring-like climate. In a van on the winding road from the airport, we passed farms rising on green folds of land, ramshackle huts peddling everything from fruits to doghouses. Suddenly the city appeared in a valley, stuck between cloud-swaddled mountains, tall sleek buildings vying for attention with orange tiled roofs. It was morning; we’d been traveling by plane and vehicles since 4:30 a.m. We stopped at a mirador, or overlook, to check out the city below.

My wife, and a Botero sculpture
My wife, and a Botero sculpture
After settling in at the Medellin house of friends where we’re staying, we went downtown to check out a park filled with 23 bronze sculptures of fat characters created by Botero, the renowned Colombian artist and native of Medellin. The idea behind the permanent display was to rejuvenate the downtown, but there’s few signs of rebirth beyond the sculptures. The area is packed with unsavory characters, traffic, and thousands of small vendors selling everything from imported shoes to incense to drugs. We kept a sharp eye on our kids and wallets. Nevertheless, we enjoyed taking photos alongside the sculptures.
Soaring above Medellin's poor communities, where Pablo Escobar once hired henchmen
Soaring above Medellin’s poor communities, where Pablo Escobar once hired henchmen
On Sunday, we traveled on the Medellin Metro, Colombia’s only subway system, which in fact only travels above ground. Sometimes way, way above ground. Subway fare of 1,800 pesos, about a buck, includes a stunning ride on cable cars up a mountain crammed with poor neighborhoods known as comunes (in Brazil they’re called favelas). It was from here that Pablo Escobar once hired his henchmen. The eight of us squeezed into a cable car that slowly jerked us diagonally higher, soaring above tin roofs weighted with bricks to keep from blowing off, impossibly steep steps connecting unstable huts, and, implausibly, three cubic glass library buildings jutting out amid this mini-city of poor residences.
After a few miles up the mountain on the cable car the communes gave way to pine forest and we switched to another cable car section that took us to Parque Arvi, a nature preserve spread over hundreds of acres. It includes forest trails, a mariposario, or butterfly house, zip lines, and a small outdoor market of locally grown fruits, vegetables, and typical Colombian foods. It was inside the mariposario where we witnessed one of Colombia’s most striking butterflies – the crystal wing, with wings you can see right through.
Medellin is not shy about Christmas
Medellin is not shy about Christmas
After returning by cable car back down the mountain, we rested at the house of our hosts before returning with them by van that night to witness Medellin’s audacious display of Christmas lights. At 6 p.m. the lights come on around Rio Medellin, where candles suspended above the river glow between rows of illuminated houses. All told, some 27 million Christmas lights spanning 472 miles decorate the city, according to the Medellin public utilities company. According to my daughter, “They’re awesome.”
NEXT: We travel to the tropical city of Giradot, which has more swimming pools than Malibu
David Kalish is the author of the comedic novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March.

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