Medellin (photos) is now very near the top of our list of places that we would want to return to, possibly for an extended stay. It is a beautiful and enjoyable city. Is that surprising? Before starting this trip, most people were a little surprised when we told them that we would be visiting Colombia. The notion that Colombia is a dangerous place still lingers. And, to be sure, there are remote areas that are not recommended for travelers. However, this does not extend to most of the country and certainly not to Medellin. Pablo Escobar was the man responsible for the violence that made Medellin a dangerous city in the 1980’s. But he died in 1993 and today Medellin is one of the safest cities in South America.
Our guide-book says this about Santa Marta (photos): “The city’s glory days are long past, faded away under newer concrete buildings and a somewhat seedy reputation. That said, Santa Marta is not without its charms.” This town of 400,000 sits on the Caribbean coast near the border with Venezuela. It attracts Colombian families looking for a weekend beach escape. They come to Santa Marta and to El Rodadero just to the west. Santa Marta sits on a part of the coastline that juts out to the north giving it a west-facing beach.
What comes to mind when you think of Cartagena (photos)? Ok, admit it, some of you are thinking about “Romancing The Stone”. The movie introduced lots of us to this city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It’s a modern city of over 1 million people with high rises lining the harbor. Yet the heart of the city is the old town which dates back to Cartagena’s beginnings in the mid 1500’s, particularly the inner city which consists of the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego. Here you can wander the narrow cobbled streets and alleys among gems of colonial architecture with churches, monasteries, plazas and mansions with balconies draped in bougainvillea. The outer walled city of Getsemani is less impressive but has its charms and is worth exploring. Continue reading
You know those commercials for Corona beer, the ones with small tropical islands, deserted white sand beaches, waving palm trees, turquoise water gently lapping the shore. Everywhere you look in the San Blas islands (photos) is a Corona commercial. Many of the islands are uninhabited, others may have only 1 or 2 simple bamboo huts with thatched roofs. Some 360 islands that sit along the northern Caribbean shore of Panama, they are part of the Comarca de Kuna Yala. The Comarca also includes a narrow 226km strip of land along the mainland coast stretching to the Colombian border. This area is occupied by the Kuna, an autonomous indigenous group which operates with minimal interference from the Panamanian government. Land ownership throughout the Comarca is reserved solely for the Kuna. We were told that even the Prime Minister of Panama was rebuffed when he asked permission to purchase one of the islands.
You can’t help being a little awed by Panama City (photos). The skyline is a seemingly endless array of skyscrapers – and the building continues. Wikipedia lists the population at 880,000 with a metropolitan total of over 1.2 million. It is spread along a long stretch of Pacific coastline. The old colonial nucleus of the city, Casco Viejo occupies a point of land at the western extreme of the city across Balboa Bay from the entrance to the Panama Canal. The city becomes more modern as you move to the east with the recently expanded and renovated Tocumen International Airport on the eastern fringe of the city. Panama assumed complete control of the Panama Canal from the United States on January 1, 2000, and freely touts its operational accomplishments since and has begun a $5.25 billion expansion project expected to be completed in time for the canal’s 100th anniversary in August 2014. Panama seems very confident in its future.