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Delighted in Colombia



We were really looking forward to our trip in Colombia. Alex had lived in Bogota in the early 90’s and, despite the famous and infamous violence that marked the country, the warmth, energy and loyalty of the friendships he had developed back then were maintained alive and intact during the following 30 years. In fact one of them, Luciano, had led together with Luis Eduardo in Panama the LU&LU ground support team that followed us every mile along this trip.


Our first stop in Colombia was Medellin, a city that was all but forbidden back in the 80/ 90’s as it was the seat of the Pablo Escobar narco empire. It wasn’t just PE by the way, it was a time in which bombs and attacks could happen any day and anywhere, by the guerilla, the FARC, the ELN, the M19, drug-cartels or paramilitary. Alex worked for a global company then which had a strict protocol to protect their employees from being kidnapped. He was equipped with a radio and had to call security when he left his house and when he arrived at the office, and on top of that he was required to change his route every day. If you have seen Narcos on Netflix, you know what I am talking about. After the demise of the Cartel de Medellin, the city and its people, the Paisas, had pushed through a titanic transformation that placed it among one of the most innovative cities in the world and in the top three of the best cities in the world to go to (Time Out 2022). We were looking forward to finally getting to know it.


Medellin lies at about 5000 feet (1500 meters) altitude in a bowl-shaped valley between mountains and has two airports. We wanted to go to the old Olaya Herrera (SKMD), the one sitting close to the city center but as happens in this kind of location, the clouds often linger in the valley, obscuring both the mountains around and the runway. This means you always need an alternate airport and a strict decision-making rule, eg. “if at point X I can’t see the mountain tops on the other side, I divert to the alternate airport”.


Fortunately, LU&LU had helped us get a meticulous briefing from a local Captain which helped Alex prepare the approach step by step via a web-meeting at Luis Eduardo’s apartment in Panama the night before. Our alternative airport was Rio Negro (SKRG), the main airport, which is situated at 2100 feet (640 m) above the city, on the edge of the “bowl”, a similar situation (although at half the altitude) as El Alto airport in La Paz where I had been with Carmen a few years back to visit Sophie while she was doing an internship in a local hospital. But Rio Negro was one of those big and complicated airports with Boeings etc… that we prefer to avoid, and it was much further away from the center; so we really hoped the weather would cooperate.

On the morning of our departure from Panama City Marcos Gelabert airport, the weather forecast looked good so we were hopeful. We proceeded to the usual checks of the aircraft under Luis Eduardo’s watchful eye and then went through customs, as is required for a cross-border flight. After being towed by a truck (vs our usual pushing and pulling of the airplane by hand...), we took off promptly and could take another good look at the city-skyline and overfly the magnificent Canal from its onset at the Pacific all the way to the Caribbean before we took our route heading South-east to the border and Medellin.


Oil

Checking fuel for water or debris

Panama customs

Luxury towing

Last look at the city

and the Canaaaal...in the distance


After two hours, we were close to our destination and the mountain tops appeared clear of clouds! It was looking like we would be able to go direct to the city-center. We entered the valley through the indicated waypoints that led us through a densely populated area, a green park (in fact a golf course) and straight to the reassuring airport and runway.



We landed safely in Olaya Herrera which was quite a relief because this airport is where Carlos Gardel died in an airplane crash in 1935, making it quite infamous for Argentines.


We were greeted by a diligent handler and local agents for migration but, also by two young representatives of the brand-new Cirrus facility at the airport. We were probably the first Cirrus to visit since they had opened, so they offered us a spot in their hangar for free. It was such a beautiful space that we thought our LV-GQF would never want to leave again. And the Cirrus representatives were so friendly that they drove us to our hotel in the city. We were off to a very good start. Thank you Cirrus Medellin!


LV-GQF inside the luxury Medellin hangar

Homage to Carlos Gardel inside the airport




Were very curious to find out more about Medellin’s history and transformation, so we immediately booked one of those free city tours for the next morning. Our guide Julio explained the four periods of the city: the origins (there was not much there in the beginning), the growth (industrialization, railways and the coffee boom), the tragedy (Pablo Escobar, the guerilla etc…) and the resurrection, i.e. present times. The city and its inhabitants have invested a lot in social infrastructure, community buildings etc… to revive places that had become too dangerous to go to, such as the Parque de las Luces and the Comuna 13 neighborhood. Julio highly recommended a Comuna 13 tour, so we booked one for the next day. He also recommended against taking one of the “Pedro Escobar” tours which are a point of disgust for many locals who do not think that this drug lord, who killed thousands of people, needs to be posthumously glamorized or become a cash-cow for former family and gang members.


Parque de las Luces

Plaza Botero (with 23 sculptures in total donated by the artist who was born in Medellin)



Basilica of our Lady of Candelaria (next to Botero square)

Inside the Centro Comercial Palacio Nacional

The birds of peace in the San Antonio park: one of them was blown to pieces in 1995 when a terrorist group placed a bomb under it which exploded during a music festival and killed 23 people. The second was donated by the artist as a gift of peace. He insisted the first one stay in place to commemorate the violent event.


The Comuna 13 tour (by Zippy tours) took us through a neighborhood that was previously crime-ridden and has been transformed in large part by the efforts of its inhabitants. From the late 80’s and beginning of 90’s Paramilitary, FARC and ELN were disputing control of the area since it is strategically located on the best “road” to take out cocaine and take in weapons. The expansion of these illegal armies got out of control and became a national problem since the wars among all of them were leaving many casualties every day, it was literally a battlefield for more than a year, the second most dangerous area in the world, which prompted the government to intervene with their own armed interventions bringing even more violence and death. The real story is much more complicated, tragic and frustrating, but the violence eventually lessened and since the 2000’s, the government has invested considerably in the neglected area building a “metro-cable” line connecting and integrating the Comuna with the rest of the city as well as mechanical escalators to make it easier to climb the steep streets.


It is now a vibrant neighborhood with several large public buildings, lots of murals, shops and street performers.


High school

Community center

Inside the community center







Hip hop show on top of the escalators


Back down via the blue slide in the Parque infantil Sergio Cespedes Serna created in honor of a child who was the victim of the violence of that place, thus transforming this sad event into happy moments for others.



After the tour we further explored the area by ourselves by riding the “metro-cable” which reminded me of the Mi Teleferico cable car rides with Carmen in La Paz. It was beautiful to witness the city from above and we got the chance to taste a small local lunch-spot that only offered one basic menu: a Bandeja Paisa, a Medellin classic.






Lunchtime

Bandeja Paisa, rice, beans, slice of plantain, arepa, fried egg and meat

We had another version somewhere else also :)


The meal came with natural fruit juice but we also asked for water which, to our surprise, was not available so the server suggested we buy it ourselves in the kiosk next-door. This seemed peculiar to us and we would understand the reason during our “Exotic Fruit tour” the next day. I had found this tour when browsing travel articles about Medellin. It was held in a large market and seemed like a very unique and local thing to do. Alex and I took the metro to go to the meeting point where we would find our guide Diana. After exiting the metro, we blindly followed Google maps as it led us through a disorderly filthy street full of secondhand car parts and furniture shops and people lying on the sidewalks. Not really the kind of street you would want to pass through in the dark, and hardly a place to be during the day. When we mentioned our impressions to Diana, she was a little shocked: had we not read the instructions under the address of the meeting point, where it was clearly stated that we should NOT walk through that area?? Well…we had not seen the warning at all, however, we had never felt threatened: we were together (or rather: I was with Alex), it was daylight, we knew where we were going so did not look too much like lost tourists, and of course we did not take one single picture. Anyway, the Fruit Tour was totally worth it! Diana armed us with spoons while she kept a knife, and professionally walked us through the market, picking various kinds of fruits from the stalls and cutting them up so we could taste them with our spoons. The order of the fruit tasting was carefully prepared based on the strength of their taste and, for each variety, Diana explained its properties and how people used them. We learned that Colombians produce so much fruit that it is cheaper than many manufactured products, which is why they drink natural fruit juices vs bottled drinks with all meals, and why street restaurants don’t offer water. Drinking water for them is like being in prison since it has no taste.





The tour ended with a complimentary natural fruit juice for which we could choose the ingredients ourselves, so we immediately used our new knowledge to order what we thought would taste best. The next morning at the hotel, we expertly sampled all the juices available: green, papaya and mandarin. I’d love to go back someday to taste ALL the fruits again (except maybe the algarroba which smells a little like sweaty feet...).


In the same way as you will find the answer to a problem by asking eight people (or less) for help, you can find people in every city through acquaintances. In Medellin for example, we briefly met with the parents of Eliana, our sister in law’s nephew’s wife who lives in Buenos Aires. Eli was in part responsible for our presence in Medellin because every time we met her in Buenos Aires, she would talk about the city and make us want to visit even more.

Medellin by night


Our next stop was Bogota where Alex’ great friends and former colleagues Sofia, Julieta, Clarita, Maria Claudia, Mauricio, Juan and Luciano lived and again Alex was well prepared thanks to a full aeronautical briefing. The support we were getting in Colombia was wonderful! Our destination was Guaymaral airport (SKGY) in Bogota which was going to be the highest landing of the whole trip: 8390 feet (2557 m). The previous record was Bryce Canyon in the USA with “only” 7586 feet (2312 m), as described in my post of April 20th, 2021. Bogota lies in a similar “bowl-valley” as Medellin, but higher, and this time our alternative was Girardot (SKGI) where we would go if the visibility in the Bogota valley was not good enough. But first we had to leave Medellin and these valley airports are not only hard to get in, they are also hard to get out of: one low cloud and you’re stuck! The weather forecast for the next morning was OK but mountain weather is notoriously unpredictable and that evening it suddenly started to rain tropically around dinner time. Instead of going out, we decided to use our hotel room’s kitchenette and quickly crossed the road to buy pasta and what we thought was tomato sauce. The latter ended up being a sort of ketchup… and we had the worst meal of the whole trip because there were no salt or pepper or olive oil or anything to improve the disaster. Needless to say, it became a very light meal so we were up early and fit the next day, ready for the challenging high altitude arrival in Bogota.


The weather had improved enough during the night for us to take off from Olaya Herrera airport, but it was still very cloudy between the mountains. Our friends had highly recommended overflying the Guatape Dam with its famous upright rock called Peñon. We headed there straight away but it was sooo overcast that we needed to fly very low under the clouds to stay in visual conditions and the plane kept warning “terrain, pull up, terrain, pull up”. It was a hold-your-breath kind of situation but we made it over the bowl rim, saw the dam and as soon as we had taken one picture of the Peñon, we got out of there, climbing in circles till we were above both mountains and the clouds. It reminded us a lot of our attempt to see Devil’s rock in Wyoming, where Alex dove down through a hole in the clouds so fast that the controller called to ask “LV-GQF what are you doing?”. (Our brave video of Devil’s tower is featured in my post of May 11, 2021)


The Peñon


Bogota is about 3500 feet (1000m) higher than Medellin so basically the ground kept coming closer and closer during the flight which was a funny sensation: we did not descent to land, the terrain climbed up to receive us!


Flying at 11500 feet and all of a sudden the mountains scratch our belly


Alex carefully approached the airport trying to identify the many ground references that he got from the detailed briefing the night before. But the references ended up being so many and so close to each other that at some point we missed one on the chain and got lost! Oops! Fortunately we were already talking to Guaymaral radio who very gently guided us to our final waypoint and saved us from a bigger embarrassment. After landing, we requested to go to the Bogota Aeroclub where our friends were expecting us. We were directed to taxi through the public airport towards a dead end closed by a large gate which slid to the side for a very welcoming passageway to the Aeroclub de Bogota. As soon as we were across, we heard loud music: Sofia, Luciano and Julieta had organized an amazing reception with a real papayera (a Caribbean band), making us want to dance as soon as we stepped out of the plane, also because we were quite relieved to have made it to another one of Colombia’s notoriously tricky airports. Hence, after the worst meal of the whole trip in Medellin, we experienced the best reception ever in Bogota. The whole group of friends was in very high spirits: they had not met in-person since the beginning of the pandemic and our visit had been the trigger of a great reunion which we all enjoyed. We hugged, danced and lunched in the aeroclub and we were invited to give a short presentation of our trip so far. We had given presentations before but we noticed this one was longer, first because we got many questions but also because we were almost at the end of our trip, almost back in Buenos Aires!


Bogota welcome committee

Soooo happy to be back!


Celebration with Papayera!

We were even rewarded after our presentation!


Enjoying another lunch the next day

While the plane was with its own friends all along


The only destination left on our initial wish-list was the Atacama desert in Chile, some 3300 kilometers to the South. To get there we had to fly over the south of Colombia and the whole of Ecuador and Peru and stop for fuel at least twice. We had chosen not to linger much on the way, we had been in Ecuador shortly before and we were already very familiar with Peru thanks to previous travel (among others to visit Nina who spent 4 years there). In addition, we had found out that Peru is not very general-aviation-friendly. Airspace and stops are expensive, Avgas scarce and bureaucracy complicated, requiring a professional handler. As an illustration, we had chosen Trujillo for a fuel stop and were told that the plane would not be able to stay there overnight, so we would have to continue to Chile on the same day which would amount to more than ten hours in the air. They also would not let us fly close to the famous Nasca lines ☹ In order to make the Peru crossing as short as possible, and because we had such great support in Colombia, we decided to make one of the two fuel stops there before continuing South. We headed down to Cali (SKCL), the southernmost Port of Entry before leaving Colombian airspace. We had a typical tropical flight to Cali, weaving around clouds and thunderstorms, avoiding rain and terrain but we were able to stay in visual conditions at all times. We landed right after a passing storm and were welcomed as VIP’s by the local Aeroclub del Pacifico, thanks to our Bogota friends’ previous diplomatic preparations. We even got presents and they hosted us in their flight school’s corporate apartment for the night! The generosity kept pouring in.


Cali after the storm

The welcome committee at Aeroclub del Pacifico - Thank you!


We left Cali on November 17th, thrilled with our Colombian experience and determined to go back some day. In anticipation of the two looong flights through Peruvian airspace to reach Chile, we had stocked up on Colombian bread and pastry in the bakery under the aeroclub apartment and had prepared a thermos full of hot water. Atacama Desert: here we come !


But first : one last coffee in Cali




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