Kids Who Don’t Know What Cookies Are
I watched as Emma pulled the cookies out of the package and held them out. The kids looked extremely perplexed, they had no idea what was being offered to them. They inched in to take a closer look but had no idea. Emma then gestured to her mouth and the kids took a bite. Smiles spread across their face and their eyes lit up – the universal kid expression. It was such a surreal moment.
We were in Punta de Gallina, the most remote northern tip of Colombia, where the desert meets the sea. This was such a different world compared to Medellin, Colombia where I was two weeks earlier. That was a big bustling modern city with all of the comforts of home – and now here I was and the contrast was shocking. What makes the moment even more interesting is that 3 hours down the road in Cabo de la Vela the children set up makeshift roadblocks and don’t let cars pass until they get some candy – those kids definitely know what cookies are, and they’ve met enough tourists to know they usually have something sweet in their bags.
As much as I hate booking tours on principle – I’m glad I booked a 3 day adventure through this area. The landscapes in this area were breathtaking, and at times it really felt like another world. Detours, including one through a salt factory, that I thought would be boring actually ended up being some of my favourite moments. It was also the first time I had to sleep in hammocks overnight – luckily I mastered the diagonal sleep position and was actually able to get a good night’s rest.
Paintballin’ at Pablo’s
I feel like I’m in a real-life version of Golden Eye. My heavy breathing is fogging up my face shield, the rifle in my hands is way heavier than I thought, and I’m turning the corner on the second floor of Pablo Escobar’s vacation home hoping to hell that I don’t get shot.
I’m in Guatape, Colombia, a picturesque little town 2 hours outside of Medellin. Like all other South American backpackers I had watched Narcos on Netflix and was completely fascinated by what Escobar was able to do – or should I say get away with. So when I heard that you could pay to play paintball in his home – I couldn’t resist.
To say Pablo is a controversial figure in Colombia is an understatement. During our walking tour the guide refused to say his name, instead referring to him as ‘that famous criminal from Medellin.’ He started doing this because when locals overheard him saying Pablo’s name to a group of tourists without understanding the context, they would get angry thinking the tour was glorifying Escobar. A majority of Colombians in this area have lost at least one friend or family member if not more to the violence caused by Escobar.
When the game is over, I take off my face mask, look around and remember that I’m standing in paradise. It is so beautiful, secluded and pristine here and then it sinks in – this was just one of hundreds of homes Escobar had. He had more money than just about anyone else on the planet and he nearly destroyed his own country with it. I think there’s a poetic justice in the fact that his home is now an empty shell that tourists shoot up with paintballs every day. No one is afraid of Escobar anymore.
Well Canada Did Something to Piss Colombia Off
Oh Canada! Filled with hockey players, maple syrup, and universally beloved around the world, right? Wrong! When I first entered Colombia, I patiently waited as everyone else I was with had their passports returned to them – the Germans, the Brits, the Aussies – and when it was my turn the girl behind the desk simply looked at me and said, “You can’t have your passport. Canadians have to pay.” What?!
So I sucked it up and paid about $70 Canadians for the “reciprocity fee” also known as, you make us pay, we make you pay. But no big deal, I shrugged it off and kept on traveling. When I returned to Colombia after my detour in Ecuador I arrived at the airport in Bogota and was surprised to find a separate line in customs with a large sign, CANADIANS. Once again, I felt this sense of shame for my Canadian-ness that I had never known before. I breezed up, thinking I wouldn’t have a problem since I already paid the fee – Wrong! Again! Canadians have to pay every single time they enter, it’s not even good for the usual 90 days.
Charge me once, shame on me. Charge me twice, shame on Canada! Come on Trudeau, you’ve got to be able to do something about this. Backpackers everywhere are silently crying while looking at their bank balances.
Dancing in Medellin
I can’t believe this is a Tuesday night. I feel like I’m in a sauna, surrounded by sweaty, dancing bodies, crammed into a space that can only be described as a hole in the wall, listening to a live salsa band absolutely killing it. I can feel the music in my chest and the energy in the room is electric. Colombians love to dance and it shows – everyone in this bar looks like a professional.
I’m admiring the show when I down my rum and cola and decide its my turn to try it out. Thankfully, being a woman you really only need to know how to follow a lead and you look like you know exactly what you’re doing. (Sorry guys, you definitely got the harder job here.) Once I start, the mood is infectious and before I know it I’m a sweaty dancing mess myself – and I couldn’t stop if you paid me. Hola Colombia!
Cocora Valley Wax Palms
Sometimes Mother Nature creates something so amazing you just have to shut up and stare at it for a while. That is the definition of the Cocora Valley. After hiking for several hours, our group reached the summit and looked out over hundreds of wax palms – the tallest palm trees on the planet. The palms were surrounded by the most vividly green rolling hills and mountains I’ve ever seen.
It was so beautiful I momentarily forget how sick I had been the week before, forgot how my muscles were barely able to get me here, and how I had left my DSLR in the hostel because I couldn’t carry the extra weight. And I had no idea at the time that another bout of food poisoning was waiting for me the next day. In that moment – it was pure joy and happiness. I get to be here and look at this. And I feel like the luckiest person I know.
Gay Pride Parade in Cartagena
I’m walking through a throng of people, a deep drum beat vibrating through the crowd, as everyone dances alongside the floats, cheering on the beautiful transgendered woman in her feathered headdress, shaking what her madre gave her.
I dropped my bags off at my hostel and rushed into the streets just in time to catch the parade. The streets are filled with people as the floats make their way down to the main clocktower. Everyone is covered in a layer of party foam like an adult bubble bath. The cans of foam are unavoidable – and make for a quick way to break the ice between locals and travellers. One mischievous look and a face full of foam later and you’re instantly best friends, buying shots and having a great time – language barrier be damned.
Bonus: The Papaya Rule
“Don’t offer anyone papaya. But if you do offer someone papaya – they must take the papaya,” said Hernan, a university professor turned tour guide who had all 20 of us captivated with his speaking voice. “But of course I am not speaking of an actual papaya, I am speaking of opportunity.”
Hernan continued to explain that ‘opportunity’ could mean leaving your wallet out on the table, or flashing your camera expensive camera around – basically, don’t give anyone the opportunity to take your stuff because if you do they must do it. It is the papaya rule after all.
In Spanish the papaya rule translates to, a papaya dada, papaya partida. And no one takes this to heart more than paisas, people from the province of Antioquia in Colombia. Hernan admits that paisas tend to think they’re better than other Colombians, and other Colombians tend to think paisas are good businessmen, but also good liars and bullshitters. Part of that business intuition is the sense of seizing any and all opportunities and protecting yourself from anyone getting the best of you. The most famous example of this being Pablo Escobar.
The Real City tour is ranked as the #1 thing to do in Medellin and for good reason. This isn’t a sugar-coated tour that just talks about how great Colombia is, it’s an honest look at the country’s violent past, and how despite it all Colombia still manages to rank as one of the happiest countries on Earth.