Saturday, March 03, 2018

Finland and Sweden - February 2018

Before heading straight back to the US from England, I decided to make a quick trip to Scandinavia in an attempt to see the Aurora Borealis in Northern Sweden. I didn't want to just fly to the north of Sweden for the Aurora so I decided to fly to Helsinki and then make my way north in Finland and then head to Kiruna in Sweden where I hopefully would see the lights before going down to Stockholm where I could get a cheap direct flight back to Oakland, California.

I put together my itinerary that included two flights, two overnight train trips, two bus trips and an Aurora Tour all occuring within a 4 day period. I was going to fly to Helsinki, catch an overnight train north to Kemi, catch a bus to the Swedish border at Haparanda, transfer to a bus to Kiruna, see the Aurora and then catch a train to Stockholm and my flight to the US. There was very little room for delays in the schedule so I was a bit apprehensive as to whether it would work as planned.
Helsinki Central Station
The first leg was fine - an uneventful flight from Gatwick to Helsinki where I arrived in the early afternoon. I then took the train from the airport into the main station in Helsinki to spend the afternoon and evening exploring before my late night train north. Helsinki station itself is quite a wonderful building, designed by Eliel Saarinen (father of Eero Saarinen who later designed the Gateway Arch in St Louis among other things) it has some nice touches both inside and outside. There is a skating rink outside the station and everyone is having a great time gliding around on the ice. The thermometer on one of the buildings says it is -5 C. That is pretty cold.
Helsinki Street, not too cold for accordion playing.
I wander off in what looks like the most interesting direction. I don’t have a guide so I can’t really tell where I am going or what I might see. One or two nice buildings and some big old department store. A government building looking very stern and official. A few statues of folks that I do not know. A modern concert hall with interesting sculpture outside causes me to look in. I find out there is a free concert that night. That provides me with something to do as it would be too cold to keep walking around.
Unknown Statue, Helsinki
Retracing my steps a little I find a nice old church and then a design museum with an exhibition on California design. I didn’t go in but I wonder what they had in their exhibit. I find a nice looking Konditorei and get a bite to eat and a chance to warm up.
I then make my way to the concert hall for the concert. It is a flamenco concert. There are a lot of people and I only just get in, and I have to sit on the floor. It was surprisingly good. The musical support of piano, cello, flute and percussion were quite jazzy. The dancing ladies were good too and the main singer herself was terrific. A short concert but a good one that opened my eyes to flamenco more than they had been before.
The night train north from Helsinki
It was now really cold so I go to a coffee shop to keep warm until my train arrives. At 11:30 I board the train. I have a compartment to myself and it is really quite comfortable. There is even WiFi onboard.
I get a reasonable nights sleep and I awake to a beautiful blue sky as we travel through a winter wonderland with lots of fir trees and lots of snow. We arrive in Kemi, my stop, about 9:50. Just enough time for me to walk up through town to the bus station and catch the 10:05 bus to Haparanda/Tornio. Like I said not much room for error.
Haparanda, Sweden
It is a short 40 minute ride to Haparanda/Tornio. There is not much sign of the border here - one minute you are in Finland (Tornio) and the next in Sweden (Haparanda) with no real physical sign of any transition that I saw (other than the one hour time change as you cross). This is the border that Lenin crossed over to Finland in 1917 on his way to stir up the Bolsheviks and start the Russian Revolution. Imagine if he were not allowed to cross. Not everyone wanted him to. The world might be a different place if that had not happened. Now in modern times Haparanda is famous for housing the most northerly IKEA store.
The most northerly IKEA, Haparanda, Sweden
I have time for a quick 30 minute walk around Haparanda and then I am on the bus again; this time for Kiruna. It is a 6 hr ride through the snow covered landscape. At first we headed north just west of the Torne River through the town of Pajala and up to Karesuvanto before dropping down towards Kiruna. 
En Route to Kiruna
The bus stops frequently along the way and we change drivers every couple of hours. Time passes quickly and just after sunset we arrive in Kiruna. I am staying at a hostel at a conference center and I walk the 15 or 20 minutes to my lodging. There’s a larger hotel next door with a restaurant and I have a lovely meal of reindeer steak, Very tender but a rich meat - with lingonberries too - just like the meatballs in IKEA.
I return to get kitted up for my late night Aurora Tour. It is going to be cold out there so I put on multiple layers of thermals, my down jacket and my boots. As expected right on 9:00 I am picked up by Stefan the owner/operator of the tour company. He is an expat German who has had a lot of experience in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic well as here in Sweden. There are a group of 4 Aussies in the van from Brisbane and Western Victoria - all nice folk.

We head south from Kiruna towards Nikkaluotka. Stefan claims it is much less traveled down there as opposed to the busy roads around Abisko to the north where most people go and he is right, after we get out of town, we do not see another vehicle all evening. For a good ways we don’t see any aurora activity either and then after an hour or so we see a faint glow. We stop and observe and as we do it becomes more well formed - faint wisps of bluish greenish white cloud like forms. A little further on it seems to be getting stronger and we stop again to take photos. It is a great surprise to me to see how the camera behaves - accumulating all that light for a 12+ second exposure, the resulting picture shows a very bright and colorful image. All those long exposure photos are all overly vivid and bright.
Aurora Borealis near Nikkaluotka
It is colder out of town and it becomes very difficult to operate the delicate controls of my little camera. I fumbled around in the cold and dark until my fingers were quite painful. I should have practiced more and memorized some of the settings. What seems to work best is an 800 ISO, f2.8, for 10 or 12 seconds with a manual focus on infinity and a 2 second shutter delay. Too many little adjustments to make with cold fingers.

We drive on in the middle of the icy road often with our lights out (apparently he has had many tickets for driving without lights). The lights out really help with keeping your eyes adjusted to the dark and for spotting the changes in the aurora - which are quite frequent. Sometimes it is almost non-existent and then sometimes it blossoms into ribbons and curtains of bluish green light across the northern sky.

We continue on until we reach Nikkaluotka some 75 km from Kiruna stopping every now and again to observe and photograph until we are too cold to bear it any more. Stefan reckons it is -38 Deg C. My feet start to feel the cold and I realize how dangerous it would be to be stuck out there with a breakdown or whatever. You wouldn’t last too long in that kind of cold. Strangely when I was in Alaska I didn’t seem to worry about such conditions but now in my maturity it is a different matter.

We turn around and make the return trip, again stopping every now and again to observe the lights. We take some coffee and biscuits but the coffee doesn’t stay warm long enough. We only saw one moose walking in the trees next to the road - he watched us, we watched him. We get back to Kiruna about 2:00 am after a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding trip. Well worth the 2100 kroner. 
Church in Kiruna
Next morning I am a little late getting moving but I have breakfast at the hostel and then leave my bags there while I walk around town. There is not a lot to see in Kiruna, a nice wooden church, a local government building, a Saami culture museum and that’s about it. Still with all the snow it is a pleasant enough town to walk in. I walk out to the railway station where I am supposed to catch the train in the evening. It isn’t much of a station - unmanned, just a little waiting room and a lot of tracks. The modern electrified line takes a lot of traffic from the iron ore mine over to the coast in Norway but apparently passenger traffic is not that frequent.

Back in town I sign up for the iron ore mine tour. The mine in Kiruna is the largest underground iron ore mine in the world and a tour is high on the list of things to do. I am waitlisted but they managed to squeeze me on the bus. It was a full size bus full of people and we drove off to the mine and then actually drove into the mine. There is a highway down into the mine and for several kilometers we drove down to the 500 m level. At this level there are old workings and a visitor area where we were given the spiel about the company, its history, the mine and the high grade magnetite that they produce. It was most interesting - it started in the early 20th century, it grew to the largest underground iron ore mine. They are now mining down towards the 1500m level and every night around 1:00 am they detonate the days drilling and apparently you can feel these detonations in Kiruna.
The LKAB Mine in Kiruna
Unfortunately they have removed so much material that the ground in Kiruna is collapsing and they have plans to move half the town of Kiruna to another more stable area in the next few years. A thoroughly interesting tour.

Hard Hats for everyone, LKAB Mine
I went back to pick up the bags and then out to the station. At the station there are quite a few buses and quite a few people. It is announced that our train is on time but then it never arrives and after 45 mins or so the train disappears from the station’s display. As I learned later the train was cancelled and one of the buses was supposed to take everyone to Bodum to catch another train. All the Swedes got texts about the change and no announcement was made in English in the waiting room. There was just myself and a Chinese couple from Hong Kong left waiting around in the unmanned station. What a disaster. We are both in the same boat with flights out of Stockholm the next day. Fortunately we have internet so we book tickets on the early morning SAS flight (expensive) book a hotel in town and call for a taxi back to town.

Not a very satisfactory end to the day and we are all furious with the train company. Still KK Pang and his wife, Cheri, both teachers from Honk Kong become fast friends.
KK and Cheri, en route to Stockholm from Kiruna
After a short stay in the hotel, we have a 4:30 taxi to the airport for the early flight to Stockholm. Everything else goes smoothly. In retrospect, if I had known about the bus to Bodum then I would have taken it, but the likely outcome would have been that it would take a long time and I would have been late arriving in Stockholm for my flight to the US. That would have been more of a disaster so it turned out well in the end.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Trail Runs in the Peak District - February 2018

I usually don’t write anything about my trips home to Staveley, but this time I made quite a few trips into the Peak District and I really enjoyed re-acquainting myself with the beautiful countryside there. This all started when I found a guidebook to trail running in the Peak District in a bookshop in Chesterfield. It was full of great ideas for runs and over the 3 weeks of my visit I made several frosty early morning outings.

Ringinglow to Surprise View
View towards Higgar Tor
The first trip was to Ringinglow for a run from Burbage Bridge over to Surprise View and back. I started from the parking lot by the Bridge and ran over the trail towards Higgar Tor - it was cold, icy cold and windy, not the best of running conditions. It was a pretty well defined trail for the first kilometer or so but after Higger Tor there was such a myriad of sheep trails that I struggled to find the right way. In fact I didn’t find the right way, I headed off too far to the west and ended up coming beneath the millstone edge above Hathersage and then up on to the road to Surprise View. 
Burbage Brook
On the way back which was also supposed to be a well defined and well groomed trail, I found myself slogging through boggy moorland again. I finally got on the correct trail for the last kilometer. It could have been a great run but I made it a lot of work. The weather was quite remarkable too; in the same 30 minutes it was windy, raining, snowing, and then glorious sunshine.

The Monsal Trail
The Monsal Trail
 The Monsal Trail is an old railway line that runs along the old Matlock to Manchester railway line from Miller’s Dale to Rowsley. I parked at the old Hassop station which is now a coffee shop and bike rental place and ran up towards Monsal Dale. After a couple of kilometers the trail enters the Headstone tunnel and then at the tunnel exit it crosses the Headstone viaduct over the River Wye. It was a beautiful run, slightly uphill but not too uphill, it had snowed and there was an inch or so of snow on the trail. Just wonderful running conditions.

View from top of Monsal Head
After the viaduct I headed off the main trail and headed up the hill to Monsal Head where there is a road and pub and a beautiful overlook of Monsal Dale. It was an easier run back downhill to Hassop where there was coffee and a cake waiting in the cafe. What a resource this trail is, though I bet it is packed with people on a summer weekend.

Curbar Edge
Towards Curbar Edge
View from Curbar Edge
This run was along the top of Curbar Edge. I started just below the Grouse Inn on the Baslow to Sheffield Road and wound upwards through the woods to the top of the moor on Curbar Edge. Again it was another windy and cold morning but the view was spectacular. The trail dips down to the Curbar parking lot where I turned around and ran back the same route. This was perhaps my favorite run. The millstone edges and moors make some beautiful and dramatic scenery.

Ladybower Reservoir

Ashopton Viaduct
 Another early morning run around one of the arms of the Ladybower Reservoir. It is a bit of a drive from the house but I made it to the Fairholmes trailhead by 9:00 am. Icy cold and windy as usual but still a beautiful run. The trail heads south following the shore of the reservoir until it reaches the A57 road between Sheffield and Manchester. The trail then crosses the reservoir over the Ashopton Viaduct and the heads along the other (east) side of the reservoir. There was a village that was submerged by the reservoir and at one point the trail passes two old stone gate posts - the entry to what must have been quite a home, one that probably still exists below the water. Halfway up the east side of the reservoir the trail turns into a road and passes a nice church and some old homes and farms.

Dam Wall of Derwent Dam
Above Ladybower Reservoir there is another dam and reservoir - Derwent Dam. The trail crosses back below the dam wall, a very impressive stone wall with water cascading down its face and impressive Neo Gothic towers at either end. A great run on a great trial.

Derwent Moor
View towards Ladybower from Whinstone Lee
Today’s trail was on Derwent Moor. The trailhead was on the A57 Snake Pass road at the Cutthroat Bridge (apparently the bridge's gruesome name is derived from gruesome event that took place a long time ago, and there was another gruesome event there as recent as 1995 - here are the details). The trail winds up to the top of the moor on a sometimes boggy sometimes rocky path. At the top of the rise there is a crossroad of trails at Whinstone Lee. At the top there is a wonderful view down to Ladybower Reservoir and over towards Derwent Edge. Following the trail up towards Derwent Edge there is another fork in the trail and I followed the downward path alongside a series of well manicured Grouse Butts. The Grouse Butts are stone structures with a camouflage top of moorland shrubbery that are used during the grouse hunting season. Fortunately this was not the season as there were lots of grouse flying around and popping up from the brush here and there.
Cutthroat Bridge
At the bottom of the hill, it was a short turn right over a few stiles through a very boggy area and down to the road by the Cutthroat Bridge.

I don’t know why I didn’t do this earlier. I will certainly do some more when I come again.  There are a few more photos here.

Colombia - Christmas 2017

For Christmas 2017, we (Nancy, her two daughters, her son in law and myself) decided to get out of town and go to Colombia.  So the week before Christmas we set off for Cartagena, Colombia by way of San Francisco and Panama City.  Cartagena is a lovely old Spanish Colonial City, perhaps one of the oldest in South America after Santa Marta which is just a short distance up the coast.  There is an old town and a new town and coming in from the airport you see the ultra modern tower blocks of the new town, then you enter the walls of the old town and you are then in a totally different world - old narrow streets, beautiful colonial buildings, churches, squares, parks, all very nice and you don’t even notice the more modern side of town.
Old Town Cartagena
We were staying at the Hotel Bantu, a nice old building just off the Parque Fernandez de Madrid.  After checking in we set off to explore the old town for the rest of the afternoon.  It certainly is a beautiful city though the large number of tourists like us do tend to spoil the atmosphere a little.  Cartagena allows cruise ships to dock in the harbor so for certain periods of the day there are way too many tourists in such a small area.

After exploring the old walled city on our first day, we strayed over to Getsemani, another old neighborhood, once derelict but now showing signs of gentrification.  From there we went on to visit the Castillo de San Felipe.  The Castillo is an immense Spanish fort built back in the 1500's.  It is a truly immense fortification and is quite impressive.  The entire complex is riddled with a maze of tunnels, many open to the public.
Castillo de San Felipe
On the way from the fort we found a really nice restaurant for lunch in Getsemani - La Casa de Socorro.  Great food, great price, and great local beer - Club Colombia and Aquila.  I had the Robalo, which turns out to be Sea Bass.  We made more explorations of the Centro Historico over the rest of the day.
Getsemani Region of Cartagena
The next day we left Cartagena for Santa Marta a four hour drive up the coast to the north-east.  There was a convenient van service that picked us up at the hotel and shuttled us to Santa Marta in a quite luxurious small minibus.  On the way to Santa Marta we passed through Barranquilla which, as we all know, is the birthplace of Shakira.

Santa Marta is an older Spanish town on the coast, the first one actually; it was superseded by Cartagena because Cartagena had a more sheltered harbor.  Santa Marta is also famous for being the town where Simon Bolivar, El Libertador, died in 1830.  We arrived there in the late afternoon and took a walk around.  It is not nearly as nice as Cartagena, being a working port, with a not too pleasant beach and a crowded old town.
The Beach in Santa Marta
The next morning, after a lovely breakfast on the rooftop of our hotel, the Casa de Leda, we set off to join our group for the Ciudad Perdida hike.  Ciudad Perdida is the so-called "lost city" discovered in the 1970's that has recently become popular as a destination for those wanting to hike in the jungle.  The trip is typically a 4 or 5 day hike, 2 days in and 2 to 3 days out.  All hikers have to go with guides and the 4 or 5 tour companies are all government licensed and they all charge the same amount - around $250.  We were signed up with a group called Magic Tours and we assembled at their office in Santa Marta on the Tuesday morning.  I had expected that we would be the only group going but in fact there were some 20 people on our trip.  We all piled into the back of a couple of Land Cruisers (a most common vehicle in Colombia) and off we went to the trailhead, about a 2 hour drive away.
Pre-Departure Photo
At the small village at the start of the trail we had a lovely lunch and then set off on our hike.  I was thinking that the hike would be pretty easy and straightforward but I soon found out that was not to be the case.  The first few miles were uphill, steeply uphill, and much of it was exposed to the afternoon sun, it was hot and it was very humid.  By the time we reached the first rest stop, I was drenched in sweat and seriously overheating.  The trail continued to be quite difficult - either uphill or downhill and in places quite steep.  I must admit that first day took its toll on me.  When we arrived in camp, all I could do was lie on my bunk trying to cool down and stop sweating.
In Camp
The camp was fairly primitive, a series of two tiered bunks, each with mosquito nets, some room for hammocks for those not lucky enough to get a bunk, a dining hall, and primitive shower and toilet facilities.  Even after the heat of the day a cold shower still came as a bit of a shock.  We were served a nice dinner and we all retired to our bunks absolutely exhausted.

The next morning it was a 5:00 wake up, for a 5:30 breakfast and then a 6:00 am start on the trail.  For some reason we were the last ones out of camp - quite typical.  The trail was still steep, uphill and downhill, but in the cool of the morning it was more bearable.  At lunchtime we stopped at a camp alongside a river and we all went in for a swim.  Quite refreshing.
Typical View on the Trail
After resting and having lunch we pushed on towards our destination at the base of the hill below Ciudad Perdida.  Every now and then we came across local Indians on the trail.  The locals are Kogui Indians and they appear to have a subsistence life in the jungle.  Typically they have white or light tunics and are either barefoot or wearing Wellington boots.  They do not appear to be too friendly, in that they rarely look you in the eye and typically pass you without a word, even if you offer a 'buenos dias' greeting (admittedly their native language is not Spanish).  The groups are also usually solitary males or groups of women with children, and they are often accompanied by dogs.
Kogui Village
Kogui Women on the Trail
Fortunately we were in the dry season, but there were signs of how muddy and treacherous the trail might be in the rainy season.  I imagine it would be a real quagmire in the rainy season.  Perhaps that’s why many of the natives wear Wellington boots.
Muddy Trail Conditions
Just before camp for the evening we had a river crossing that required a footwear change.  Most of the stream crossings to date had been just rock hopping but this was a little more significant and I exchanged the boots for Tevas to wade across.  This was quite a large and very crowded camp and we were lucky to get beds - perhaps they took pity on us old folk.  Again, I collapsed in bed totally exhausted.  I had a top bunk and with the complication of mosquito netting it was not an easy entry or exit.  Fortunately I was so dehydrated I didn’t need to visit the toilet in the night.
Steps up to Ciudad Perdida
The next morning we walked a short kilometer to the base of the hill where the Ciudad Perdida was located.  From there it was a steep uphill of some 1,400 stone steps.  We dragged ourselves up the steps and then gathered around the base of the complex for an explanation of the history of the place.

The settlement was quite large but in reality it was not that spectacular, it certainly is not Machu Pichu.  The structures were all round huts with mud walls and palm frond roofs built over a stone foundation.  After a few hundred years all that remains are the circular stone foundations - not overly impressive.  We spent a couple of hours at the site wandering around and then set off down the hill again to start our trek back.
View from top of Ciudad Perdida

Our Group on top of Ciudad Perdida
At the previous night’s camp we had lunch and picked up our gear for the trek out.  It was a long trek on this our third day on the trail.  It was just before dark when we all arrived back in camp (the same camp we had lunched and swam at on the second day).  This camp was perhaps the worst one - a bit cramped, a bit smelly, and not the best facilities.  However, I was so exhausted I didn’t care and the food was most welcome - mashed potatoes, beets and beef stew.
Breakfast at Camp
Friday was our fourth and final day on the trail.  We were up at 5:00 and on the trail by 6:00.  Nancy was not feeling well - stomach issues - so we brought up the rear.  The daughter of our guide Maria, Youranis, was assigned to stay back with us and she patiently walked with us and made sure we didn’t get lost.
Unsmiling Kogui Indian Child
It was a long hot walk out but we made it without the aid of a mule or a motorcycle (some of the trekkers took that way out but not us, we persevered).  At the rest stop at the top of the last downhill section (the same one where I had realized on the way in that this was not going to be a walk in the park) we celebrated with an ice cold Coke.  We finally reached the small village at the end of the trail in time for lunch and, as we entered the restaurant to applause from our fellow hikers, I heard someone say “I want to be like them”.  Not sure I appreciate that so much but at least it's better than being called Grandpa as one of the Dutch men called me in camp one night.

We rode back to Santa Marta in the back of a Land Cruiser feeling tired and thankful our jungle hike was over.  I’m not sure jungle hiking is what I want to do again.

In Santa Marta we picked up our bags that we had stored there and then got a ride back to Tayrona where we had a hotel for the next 2 nights.  The hotel was quite nice and our room even had a bit of an ocean view.  A refreshing dip in the pool and a meal at the hotel restaurant and then a well earned rest in a proper bed.
Beach at Tayrona National Park
The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and then we took a van down to the Tayrona National Park where there were supposed to be excellent beaches.  The coastline was nice and there were beaches, but it was a 2 hour hike to the first beach where we could swim (apparently there a serious rip tides and undertows on most of the beaches - people drown there).  A 2 hour walk was not exactly what we were expecting but it wasn’t so bad and the water was lovely once we got there.  We dined on the beach and then made the trek back to the entrance to the park and our ride back to the hotel.  Our hotel was a little remote so we again dined in the hotel that evening.
Nice Beach but Dangerous Surf
The next day, Sunday, was Christmas Eve.  We started with a swim in the sea nearby the hotel, or at least I did, Nancy, Erica and Arden seemed to take exception to my swimming in the surf.  I felt completely safe and it was most exhilarating, they thought it dangerous and that I was going to be swept out to sea.  We then got a van to take us back to Cartagena.  It was a 3 or 4 hour trip (including a stop to fix a flat tire) and we arrived in Cartagena in the mid afternoon.                                                          

We cleaned up and went out for our Christmas Eve celebrations.  Other than a nice cocktail and an appetizer, it didn’t turn out so good.  We opted for dinner in a nice looking Italian restaurant, which turned out to be simply the worst meal ever.  My shrimp ceviche was tough and the Bolognese sauce was quite inedible.  You win some, you lose some.

Early on Christmas morning, Joe and Erica departed to return to the USA while Arden, Nancy and I left a little later to fly to Medellin.  The benefit of flying on Christmas Day is that the flights are cheap and fairly empty.  We had a $50 flight on LATAM Airlines.  We took a taxi into Medellin (fortunately fixed price) and once again were saved by Google Maps as the taxi driver didn’t know where the hotel was.  We were in the Poblado district, one of the more upscale neighborhoods, in a very new Marriott.  We got a great deal on the room as the hotel had only just opened.

We took a cab to find a restaurant for lunch and ended up in a nice Colombian food place, Hato Viejo.  On the way back we found an upscale supermarket, Whole Foods type, with a great selection.  I bought raisin bread, the ladies bought Champagne.

In the evening we walked around the Poblado district.  The ladies found a church service to attend while I walked around the Christmas light decorated parks.  They make a big thing of Christmas here - the parks were resplendent with lights.  We couldn’t find a local restaurant close to the hotel that looked good so we dined in the hotel - it was surprisingly good.
Christmas Lights in Poblado
On the Tuesday, Boxing Day, we had signed up for a Graffiti Tour.  Some sections of Medellin are renowned for their graffiti.  We assembled in a coffee shop not too far from the hotel and set off to walk down to the metro station where we boarded the Metro to the San Javier station where we then boarded a bus to the Communa 13 neighborhood.  The Metro is quite wonderful - clean, efficient, affordable and it moves a huge number of people around this huge city.  The bus system worked well too - small buses using the same tickets as the Metro and a very frequent service.
Modern and Clean Metro System
Communa 13 was once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellin and for a while it had the reputation of being the most dangerous place in the world.  It was controlled by Pablo Escobar and after his death in 1993 it was fought over by various other drug cartels until the government stepped in to reestablish law and order.  It has since become a safe and thriving, though still poor, barrio visited by tourists like us who come to see the remarkable graffiti and street art.

Comuna 13
As well as Medellin being served by a Metro, there are also several Cable Car extensions to the Metro - an innovative method of moving people through an existing hilly neighborhood without disrupting too many residences.  Also there are a series of escalators moving up the hillsides.  They all seemed to be functioning and they must certainly make life easier for the residents.  On the way down, one section had a slide - great fun.

More Graffiti
And then there is the graffiti - it is everywhere and it is spectacular.  Apparently there was some sort of Graffiti Artists Convention in Medellin some years back and lots of significant graffiti artists added their work in the neighborhood.
After the tour finished we took a trip on one of the Cable Car extension to the Metro.  What an innovative addition to the city’s transportation.  We just rode up to the end of the cable car and stayed on for the trip down the hill.

Cable Car extension to the Subway

Cable Car out to the fringes of the city
Back in the Poblado area we walked around and dined at a large Colombian restaurant (Mondongo).  Very popular with the locals and I loved it, but for the life of me I can’t remember what I had.

In the late afternoon, I left the ladies who went shopping while I went back to ride on the Metro.  This time I went through the center of town to Santo Domingo and out on a cable car extension out to Arvi, a National Park.  It was too late for me to look around the park but I did float across the top of the forest in my cable car.

After the success of the Graffiti Tour we decided to take another tour the next day. This one to Guatape a town in the hills outside Medellin.  We loaded on a bus in the early morning and off we went.  A breakfast of arepas and coffee on the road and then a brief stop in Marinilla.   Not a very inspiring town.  Then we moved on to Piedra del Penol which is at the foot of this massive granite pillar of rock.   Some enterprising person built steps up the outside of this rock, some 700 of them, and now they have a steady stream of visitors paying a few dollars each to climb to the top.  It is still a family owned enterprise and they must be doing very, very well indeed.
Piedra del Penol
View from top of Piedra
We make the trek to the top from where there is a nice view of the surrounding area.  On top there were lots of tacky souvenir shops and far too many people so we headed down pretty quickly.  At the bottom we have a pretty basic lunch before boarding the bus and moving on to the town of Guatape.

Guatape is a colorful town that is not that old but it has become popular by promoting the creation of colorful relief decorations on its building called Zocalos.  They are indeed quite creative and very colorful but when you realize they are a recent addition it deflates any real interest.
Guatape Street Scene

The trip continued with a boat trip - a tedious jaunt from the dock in Guatape across the reservoir for an hour or so.  Not really what any of us wanted to do but we endured it.  Back on the bus we had a long drive back to Medellin and got caught up in the heavy traffic re-entering the city.  The surprising thing about the heavy traffic was that the most of the vehicles were buses.  There are a lot of people moving in and out of this city.

We had an early start in the morning to catch a plane back to Cartagena.  We flew Viva Colombia a new budget Colombian airline.  Back in Cartagena again we checked into our hotel in the old town, this time the Casa La Fe.  Arden was not feeling well and so we took it easy and had a leisurely walk around the old town.

In the afternoon we went to the Getsemani area again where we were enrolled in a cookery class at a restaurant called Ooh La La.  This was my first cookery class and it started well with instructions on how to make the perfect Mojito.  After the lime Mojito, I mastered the guava Mojito and then we moved on to proper food.  I am not sure quite what else we made now - lots of plantains, tapioca, chopping of vegetables, preparation of ceviche, etc.  We then sat down to eat what we had made.  Somehow it seemed to be quite different from our modest preparations.  I think they added a lot of finishing touches in the kitchen after we finished all our efforts.

The next day, Friday, 29th December, was our last day in Colombia.  Arden was still feeling ill, so we took it easy.  Breakfast at La Brioche, the coffee shop we had visited many times before.  Then a bit more shopping until the afternoon when we took a taxi to Castillo Grande, part of the newer part of Cartagena.  This section of town is very modern indeed - lots of new high rise apartments with views over the harbor and beach area.  The beach was not the best, but we found a spot to sit (paying for a sun shade and chairs) and we savored our last day in Colombia.  The water was not the best either but we took a dip and lounged under our sun shade watching the constant parade of beach vendors selling everything from ceviche, to ice cream to massages to temporary tattoos to balloons.
Beach Vendors at Castillo Grande

The Beach at Castillo Grande
Back at the hotel we relaxed by the pool and then set out for our last evening in Cartagena.  Somehow more shopping is required and then we go back to La Casa de Socorro in Getsemani and have our last meal of robalo (sea bass).

We were traveling back different ways, me early via Panama City and San Francisco, Arden and Nancy later via Panama City and Denver.