Sunday, February 17, 2019

Walking Tour of Medellin

I've heard it time and again ... take a guided walking tour as soon as you arrive in a new city in order to get a better idea of the history, culture, and sights that await you. I guess we are slow learners, as it took us four weeks to figure out that this is true for Medellin also. Now, admittedly, we have been busy with Spanish lessons and just getting settled into the routine of life in a new country. But we are glad that a visit with our new friends, Margaret and Dan, prompted us to expand our knowledge of Medellin as we took the Real City Walking Tour with them. We gained a new respect for all the struggles the people of Medellin (the Paises) have gone through and admire how they are rebuilding Medellin to be a city of happiness and hope!

Real City Walking Tours is a free tour, however, we needed to register online a day in advance in order to keep the group at a manageable size. We took Medellin's beloved Metro train north during the morning rush hour to the Alpujarra Station where our English speaking guide, Juan met us. With no charge for the tour, Juan's "salary" is dependent on the tips that he receives. These tips were pretty much guaranteed by his enthusiastic personality and stories that engaged us right from the start. Juan is proud of his Paisa heritage and his hometown of Medellin. For the next three and a half hours, he would hold us spell-bound with his stories as he safely guided our group through the crowds of a busy "El Centro" Medellin.

To understand how the city got to where it is today, Juan filled us in on the struggles and conflicts that the people had to face and overcome over the years. Medellin's beginnings are tied closely to the indigenous people who made the Aburra Valley their home for thousands of years. In the early 1600s, the conquistadors arrived looking for gold. Because they did not find any, the Aburra Valley remained a tiny village for 300 years. In the early 1900s, the village started to grow as the railroad made its way into town and began to transport the coffee and other agricultural products that grew abundantly on the hillsides as a result of the nearly perfect climate of Medellin.

Starting in the 1950s  and continuing through the 1970s, an increased demand for tobacco, alcohol, and the "white powder" that was also grown in the area brought new problems to Medellin. People around the world have heard of the tragedy of 1983-1993 when the "infamous criminal who shall remain unnamed" held Medellin hostage as he operated one of the largest drug cartels in the world. Anyone in Medellin who is 30 years or older remembers the shootings, kidnappings, and violence that made Medellin the most dangerous city in the world. But as Juan pointed out, and as we have seen during our first month in Medellin ...

Following the death of the "one who shall remain unnamed" in 1993, Medellin slowly but steadily emerged from the conflicts as Paises worked together to transform their city into a safe and successful metropolitan area that now welcomes over six million visitors a year. Some of the images of the transformation that we enjoyed during our tour included:

... peaceful fountains in front
of democratic government buildings

... bustling shopping centers
in the midst of beautifully
preserved historical buildings

... Parque de la Luces welcoming
visitors to a brighter, cleaner El Centro

... and the ultimate transformation,
Plaza Botero featuring 23 "larger than life"
sculptures donated by the beloved
Colombian artist, Fernando Botero.

Medellin's downtown "El Centro" area is bursting with color and activity. I do have to admit that I was a bit nervous to walk among the masses of people, especially when Juan advised us to stay close together and hang on tight to our belongings. Had it been just a few of us, we would have blended right in. But our large group of about 25 "gringo tourists"  made us stand out even in this crowd. And as Juan informed us, many of the local people have rarely seen foreigners, so we were a curious sight to see.

As is typical throughout the city, small food stands line the sidewalks offering everything from fruit to empanadas to "authentic" Colombian clothing ... I think Doug needs a sombrero like the one that gentleman is selling! There are also a fair share of people asking for money in return for a piece of candy. It is hard for me to see so many of these beggars. I wish I could give something to each of them, especially to the ones with small children. But today a "Dios te bendiga" (God bless you) greeting was all I could offer them, as I kept my eyes on our group leader.

Our tour ended in Parque San Antonio, a large and fairly empty area that at one time hosted many concerts and gatherings. In one area of this park, there are a few more of Botero's sculptures. As Juan pointed out, a closer look at the sculptures tells the story of Medellin's violent past and its hope for a brighter future.

In 1995, a bomb was placed in this Botero bird sculpture during a crowded concert in the square. The subsequent explosion that killed 23 and wounded hundreds was linked to one of the drug cartels active at the time. When the city tried to remove the damaged sculpture, Fernando Botero himself insisted that it remain as homage to the lives lost and as a reminder of the hard times that Medellin had been through. He created an identical sculpture that sits beside the damaged one as a sign of hope for a brighter future for Medellin and its proud Paisa population.

Proud Paisas are continuing to work to improve their city and their lives. Like this real life "Juan Valdez" who served up a wonderful cup of Colombian coffee along with a smile after our tour, the Paises of Medellin are working to bring happiness and hope back to their city.

Until next time ... walk on the happy side of life ... and enjoy the adventures in your life!

We enjoyed a reminder of our beloved
(and slightly overweight also)
Koko the cat that is displayed in Plaza Botero!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Becoming Tourists in Medellin: Riding the Metro

A friend of a friend is visiting Medellin this week. We not only had the pleasure of meeting Margaret and Dan, but we also were able to become "tourists" with them for a few days as we showed them some of the Medellin sights.

We met up at a cute outdoor cafe, and over a cup of cappuccino we discussed what they wanted to see and do during their three days in Medellin. From what they had researched and with a few suggestions from us, we formed a plan to make the most of their time in Medellin. Because of our Spanish class schedule, we really haven't done much touring outside of our neighborhood since our arrival in Medellin four weeks ago. I was happy that we were able to expand our horizons and become tourists along with them for a few days!

First order of business was to introduce them to Medellin's crown jewel, the Metro. Built by the city of Medellin in 1995, the Metro serves to connect the city from north to south along the Medellin River with extensions into the eastern and western hillsides of the Aburra Valley. Because of the positive economic, social and cultural impact of the Metro, the local citizens or "paisas" are very proud of their Metro system. It is an inexpensive, quick, and safe way to travel around the city any time of day or night. But we also found out that the tickets lines can be long and somewhat confusing to first time riders, so we helped our new friends buy their first pass. A four ride pass costs about 10,000 Colombian pesos ($3.30 usd), so each ride is a bargain at about 80 cents. But four rides is the maximum that you can get on a card at a time, so for frequent riders, obtaining a rechargeable Civica Card is a better option.

When we got to Medellin, we knew that we would be using the Metro quite often. The rechargeable Civica Metro card allows us to put more money on our card, and each trip is only about 65 cents (usd) versus 80 cents. We were surprised, however, by how big of a process it was to initially obtain the card. We had to find one of the only four Civica offices that distribute the cards along the Metro route. When we got to the Itigui station office, there was line of about 25 people waiting ... and that line inched forward sloooowly. When we finally made it into the office an hour later, we found out the reason for the wait. They needed our IDs (drivers license or passport), entered a lot of information into their computer data base, presented us with a long list of rules and regulations (in Spanish ... we just agreed), obtained a finger-print of each of us, and finally gave us our Civica card which we had to take to another line in order to get some money put on it.

But this past Sunday, we all quickly had tickets in hand, so we decided to cross one "must see" off Margaret and Dan's list ... Arvi Parque. Located on top of the mountains overlooking eastern Medellin, this city park is accessible by riding the Metro train to Acevedo station and transferring to the Metrocable car (think "gondola") that transports us about 1000 feet up the mountainside.

Riding in the cable cars brought back fond memories of taking gondolas up snow-covered mountains during our skiing days of past. Only this time, we are floating over small houses in need of repair ... but at the same time, we are floating over neighborhoods that are bursting with new hope. This new hope is a result of the much revered "Metrocable". The three Metro stations along the mountainside give the people living high on the hills above downtown Medellin new access to education, jobs ... and a brighter future.

At the San Domingo Station, we paid an additional fair of about $2 usd to transfer onto the final cable cars that took us over lush forests to the popular recreational area on the top of the mountains known as Arvi Parque. This nature preserve is popular for hiking, biking, and water sports. And judging from the large groups of picnickers, it is also a beloved place to escape the chaos of the big city and enjoy "family time".

Near the Metrocable exit is an outdoor food and craft market and some exhibits explaining the archaeological and natural history of the area. There are free buses taking the visitors to other parts of the park, but of course, we found that out after we paid a driver who had the talent of spotting confused groups of "gringos" like us. He drove us to what we thought was the beautiful lake preserve. Nope ... wrong direction ... need better Spanish skills! Thanks to the magic of "google maps" we were able to find a beautifully shaded trail and make our way back to our starting point through a lush forest of bamboos, pines, and flowering trees.

Back at where we began, we managed to hop on one of the free buses that took us to Piedras Blancas Hotel y Restaurante where we enjoyed lunch on their deck overlooking the park. (Here is the link to more information on Piedras Blancas from one of our new favorite bloggers, The Medellin Guru.) Margaret and Dan got to try the typical food dish of the area, the Bandeja Paisa. This large plate consists of beef, sausage, pork rinds, rice, beans, egg, plantains, arepa, and some avocado just to make you feel like you are eating "healthy". 

(Google photo)

The hard-working "Paisas" (what the people of this region call themselves) no doubt needed that amount of food and calories to get them through the day, but we knew that we would need to do a little more hiking in order to work it off. So, we ventured down to the lake reservoir.

Here is some of the beauty that we saw ... for those of you who need a "taste" of Spring.

As we rode the Metrocable back down at the end of the day, we shared a cable car with a young family who had enjoyed as we did, the chance to get away from the city and relax in the beauty of Medellin's countryside. Because the Metro serves as such an important link connecting so many parts of this large city, it is is no wonder that the Metro system is the "shining star" of Medellin.

The Metro serves as the beacon of hope that connects people in all parts of the city with the chance to work, learn, and live the "paisa" life to the fullest.

Until next time ... savor all the beautiful views along the way ... and enjoy the adventures in your life!

Coming up ... more "tourist" adventures with our new friends as we explore downtown Medellin and the colorful countryside town of Guatape.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Spanish Lessons: I Study, and Doug Learns

I have a new admiration for our Colombian friend, Luis, who was Doug's college roommate. Just three months before starting classes at Michigan Tech University, he took intensive training to learn English. Not only did he have to master a new language while pursing an engineering degree, but he had to hang out with a roommate who in Luis' words, "seemed to learn things by osmosis ... there was no studying involved". During the past two weeks we have begun our formal Spanish lessons, and I too, have come to the conclusion that ...

I Study, and Doug Learns!

I have read through a few "Spanish For Dummies"  books, taken lengthy notes, and religiously completed at least three Duolingo lessons a day for the past three years in the hopes of at least being able get through the basics here in Colombia. Doug's best "study" mode is depicted in the picture below.  The Colombian music video channel is giving him the listening practice that he needs.

Our goal for this extended stay in Colombia is to become more proficient at listening to and speaking Spanish. While our Spanish is bound to improve just by doing some of the usual "tourist" activities, we are putting a emphasis on taking classes while we are in Medellin. We tried out two educational methods ... formal classes and a private tutor ... during the last two weeks to see what would be the best fit for us. Here is our review of both methods.

Formal Classes at Toucan Spanish School

Toucan Spanish School claims to be Colombia's leader in immersive Spanish lessons. "You Can At Toucan" is their motto. They offer daily four hour classes from beginner to advanced levels as well as private tutor sessions. In addition to the classes, they offer cultural activities to help students practice their Spanish skills. Activities such as a welcome luncheon with traditional Colombian food, salsa dance lessons, cultural talks, and language exchanges help students practice what they have learned while meeting new friends.

The welcome luncheon featured a variation of "Bandeja Paisa",
a traditional Medellin dish. This one consisted of chicken, rice, beans,
plantains, and an arepa (Colombian bread that is all the rage here).

The Toucan staff determines your placement level based on a computer test. On the first day of classes, we found ourselves in separate classrooms. No problem until I discovered that my ability to read Spanish (and make good guesses) had put me in a level that was way over my head. At Toucan, as with most Spanish programs, classes are conducted totally in Spanish ... No. English. Allowed. I quickly figured out that my ability to understand and speak Spanish was not going to allow me to get past the polite introductions. It was a loooong first hour, but I was able to get into a more appropriate level during the class break time.

This change took me from the level 7 class into Doug's level 4 class. I quickly knew that our instructor, Vanessa possessed the right amount of clarity, patience, and enthusiasm to get her point across. Her organized sentence structures when teaching us about direct and indirect objects reminded me of my favorite eighth grade English teacher. Our class consisted of four students, but because of some more shifting around, we ended up with just Doug and me on the last day of class.

Toucan also hosts a language exchange three evenings a week from 6 to 8 pm in their coffee house. During this time we rotate between speaking Spanish and English with whomever may be sitting at our table. We dropped in a couple of times and found ourselves "conversing" with a mix of native Spanish speakers as well as visitors from around the world. It surprised me how many Medellin "locals" come regularly to the language exchange in order to practice their English with visitors to their town.

Our group one evening represented
Colombia, England, Poland, and the United States!

Private Spanish Lessons

Some friends that we met here in Medellin talked highly about the private Spanish tutors that they were working with through Easy Spanish. We decided to give that program a try the following week. 

Even though he has done about half the studying that I had done over the past few years, Doug and I are pretty much at the same Spanish level. The "couples" lessons with our tutor, Lucas, worked well for us. He met us at our apartment for two hours a day and went through the lesson plans that were sent to us via email. Once again, total Spanish was spoken during the session, but with our Google Translate apps, we could figure out new words and phrases when we had questions.

One of the days we had a "conversational" lesson in which we just talked about everyday happenings ... in Spanish. From the picture card shown above (somehow I know we were at an "elementary" level in our lessons), we talked about waking up (me despierto), taking a shower (me ducho) and making coffee (Doug hace el cafe ... and oh, what wonderful Colombian coffee it is). We talked about simple but important stuff ... like ordering food in a restaurant ... and learned about some of the local nuances that we may experience while eating out.

Two weeks of lessons ... Two different styles
The Pros and Cons

While it was evident that ...
I study,

... and Doug learns,

... we decided that each program had its pros and cons, and we would like to share our thoughts with you.

Toucan Spanish School:


  • A well-defined program and course progression
  • Many opportunities to meet other people
  • More time to cover more material with the four hour classes
  • A more traditional classroom setting with worksheets, homework, and oral exercises


  • Less flexibility with class times
  • Work at the pace that is set by the whole class
  • Four hours of listening, speaking, and learning Spanish can be very taxing on these old brains of ours

Private Lessons


  • More time to practice conversational topics of interest to us
  • Flexible scheduling
  • Lessons can be directed to address skills that we want to work on
  • The "conversation" lesson seemed very helpful and gave us more confidence to get out and explore our surroundings


  • Less defined program and natural progression
  • The power-points didn't seem to explain topics as clearly as the classroom handouts and lectures at Toucan
  • The class was just us, so we don't get the opportunity to meet new people

And then there is one of the most important considerations ...

The Cost of the Classes

Toucan Spanish School's weekly tuition is 575,000 Colombian pesos a week for 20 hours of instruction which translates to $182 USD or $9.10/hour per person or $18.20/hour for the two of us. The 20 hours has to be done over a week ... Monday - Friday

Private Lesson prices can vary, but ours came out to be 525,000 Colombian pesos for 10 hours of instruction (the "couples" rate) which translates to $166 USD or $16.60/hour for the two of us. The 10 hours can be used in a week or spread out over a period of time of your choosing.

About the same amount of money ...
Decisions, decisions

While sitting at a lovely cafe overlooking the quaint town square of Sabaneta, we discussed our Spanish lesson experiences. It was helpful to experience both methods of learning over the past two weeks. Over a glass of Club Colombia Negra (my new favorite Colombian craft beer), we discussed and formulated a plan would provide the best learning opportunities for us while still giving us some flexibility to explore this beautiful area around us.

We have decided to take classes at Toucan every other week in order to really solidify the "basics" of Spanish. During our "off" week, we will have a couple of private "conversational" lessons with our Easy Spanish private tutor in order to improve on our listening and speaking skills while exploring some of Medellin's parks, restaurants, and museums.

 We enjoyed our tour last week of
El Castillo Museo y Jardines, but understanding what
the guide was saying in Spanish ... not so good!

I will continue to study ... and we both will continue to learn about all the beauty that surrounds us in the language and the culture of Medellin.

Until next time ... study just a little and always learn a lot ... while you enjoy the adventures in your life!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Our Colombian Adventures: First Impressions

This fragrant white gardenia (thanks to my friend, Mary who helped me identify it) greeted us from our patio garden as we arrived at our apartment in Medellin, Colombia last week. The "City of Eternal Spring" will be our home for the next four months as we work to improve our Spanish while getting comfortable spending time in a foreign country. With twelve hours of sunlight year round and an average daily high temp of 80 degrees, Medellin is a pretty comfortable place to hang out for the winter. We spent our first week learning the basics of our surroundings. Our first impressions reassure us that while we have a lot to learn, Medellin is going to be a great place to figure it out!

We rented a small apartment through Airbnb in one of the nicest areas of Medellin, the commune of El Poblado. With tall apartment complexes everywhere we look, it appears to us that this is the way that the locals live. Our secure complex has a pool, sauna, and exercise room. It is walking distance to a grocery store, two major shopping malls, many restaurants, and the Metro station that can get us easily to most other parts of the city. Our apartment is not much bigger than the Wildebeest was, but it has all the comforts of "home".

I have to admit that I was just a little bit apprehensive when we arrived here week and a half ago.

I had (and still have) plenty of "What if" and "How do we" questions. 

What if our minimal Spanish isn't enough to get us by?
How do we learn the basic things that we need to know in order live and get around in a foreign country?
What if we really don't like this new and different lifestyle?

Successfully finding, ordering, and paying for dinner the evening that we arrived and finding a comforting cup of Colombian coffee the following morning provided the initial reassurance that I needed. And Doug's constant reassurance that "we can do this" helps also! While I am sure that we will have lots to learn, here are some of our first impressions that reassure me that ... at this moment ... we have made the right decision.

We were welcomed by the neighborhood "dog-squad" as they
patiently waited for their hired human "walker" to take them out.

The neighborhood "art" promotes an active
lifestyle and provides a daily reminder
of our skate-board loving sons!

A trip to the market provided the fresh ingredients to
create a delicious chicken salad complete
with locally grown avocado, mango, papaya, and greens.

Our new healthier "snacks" ...
platano, papaya, granadilla, mango, mangostino and murrapo.
All this for under $5!

The Medellin Metro system ...
We can get just about anywhere once Doug figures out how to get
the Metro Civica passes that will help us avoid long ticket lines.

Many great "people watching" opportunities
at the Malls. We loved the excitement of the 
children playing in the Colombian "snow"!

Lunch at an outdoor cafe along with Doug's favorite
guanabana juice came to only $23 including tip.
Restaurants are very reasonably priced, so eating out
is becoming the norm as we try all the local specialties.

During our first Sunday Mass at the local church we 
realized that Colombians speak very fast.
It's going to take some practice to understand the priest's sermon,
but not surprisingly, Mass only lasted 40 minutes.

Embracing "Ciclovia" as we walk amongst the joggers and bicyclists
on one of the main roads, Avenido Poblado which is
closed to vehicular traffic every Sunday from 7 am to 1 pm.

It was good to try to figure out our new hometown by ourselves
for the first few days. But we are always happy to meet up with
friends, Luis and Piedad when they are in town. They introduced
us to local shops, restaurants, and brews this past weekend.

After some initial apprehension, we have experienced great first impressions of our new home for the next four months. Medellin is a large city that offers an engaging environment in which we can improve our Spanish while immersing ourselves in the local culture. Yes, we have a lot to learn ... and we are in a beautiful locale for the lessons to begin. Thanks for following along. As always, we look forward to your comments.

Until next time ... Be impressed by all the beauty that surrounds you ... and enjoy the adventures in your life!

Next up: Formal Spanish lessons begin! Why didn't I pay better attention during Spanish class in high school??!!