MindStormPhoto Blog and Gallery

Travel and Photography by Burt and Evelyn Johnson

Carnaval Orquídea Parade

Orchidea Carnaval Parade Cuenca Ecuador - workers

Today was the 2nd annual Orquídea parade in Cuenca, which officially kicks off Carnaval.  Last year was the first Cuenca Carnaval parade, but we were in Ambato for Carnaval and missed that one (see here for our post on the Ambato parade last year).  When we first approached the parade starting area, we immediately saw numerous vendors selling spray foam and silly string aerosol cans, so it was pretty obvious how the day would unfold. Though almost nobody works during Carnaval (it's even hard to find an open restaurant), we were surprised to see two workmen putting finishing touches on a building (upper-left above).

Orchidea Carnaval Parade Cuenca Ecuador - audience

The streets started lining up early with families, waiting for the parade to start.  Some were already armed with their spray cans, eager to start attacking anyone within range.

Orchidea Carnaval Parade Cuenca Ecuador - music

Music is always a big part of any parade in Cuenca.  These musicians kept playing, with big smiles on their faces, as they were sprayed with foam from the audience.

Orchidea Carnaval Parade Cuenca Ecuador - floats

There were a few floats in the parade, though most floats in Cuenca are not very elaborate (center-right above being the fanciest one today).  Lately, every parade has one or more drones taking aerial photography (lower-right above).  So far I have resisted the temptation for one more toy... er, I mean tool for my photography, so I am not flying one up there myself.

Orchidea Carnaval Parade Cuenca Ecuador - dance

This parade had a higher percentage of dancing groups than most parades we have seen here.  There was even a young couple doing pretty fancy dance steps on stilts (lower-left above).

Carnaval is largely an adult's celebration, and they were more center-stage here than in most other parades in Cuenca.

Orchidea Carnaval Parade Cuenca Ecuador - kids

That didn't mean kids weren't involved though, and they all seemed to love spraying and being sprayed.

Orchidea Carnaval Parade Cuenca Ecuador - foam

The first photo set showed enough foam vendors that you knew it was going to be a wet and soapy experience.  Within minutes of the parade starting, the foam started flying.  The parade participants shot the audience, and the audience shot back.

Orchidea Carnaval Parade Cuenca Ecuador - gringa attack

Expats are rare at these parades.  We only account for roughly 1% of the local population, and many expats stay home, afraid of getting soaked, and thus missing out on most of the fun.  One expat woman got in the thick of it today though, shooting everyone in sight.  A free-for-all followed, leaving everyone within range covered in soapy foam.  I have never quite figured out how that other expat in the fray managed to take that photo (lower-right above) when both his camera and eyes were totally covered!?


Godfather of Foam

Godfather Fiesta, Cuenca, Ecuador - Fun

Tonight was the 3rd annual Godfather's Fiesta at Park Calderon (see our report from the 1st fiesta here).  Basically, it is an excuse to buy cans of spray foam or silly string and spray everyone in sight.  Don't go near the park without taking your sense of childish delight with you on this night.  That sense of fun seemed to be in ready supply, as smiles and laughs filled the park all night.

Godfather Fiesta, Cuenca, Ecuador - vendors

Vendors of spray silliness abounded, costing $1 for a small can or $2 for a larger one.  Of course, where you have a lot of kids, you have a balloon vendor too.  There was also a gastronomic school handing out free pastries and promoting their classes.  And, surprisingly, only one brave newscaster (center top) trying to give a live report from the scene, while getting sprayed.

Godfather Fiesta, Cuenca, Ecuador - attack

Pretty much everyone had at least one can of spray fun, and every attack was met with a vicious counter-attack, until everyone was covered in foam and smiles.

Godfather Fiesta, Cuenca, Ecuador - kids

Kids were having at least as much fun as their parents.  Some of the younger ones had the advantage of a higher plane of attack, as they rode their father's backs.  All had plenty of ammunition though.  The kid lower-right above thought he had an advantage with a monster super-soaker, but learned later in the night that a water squirt gun was no match for cans of foam...

Godfather Fiesta, Cuenca, Ecuador - posed

Wherever our cameras were brought out, groups would instantly pose for their photographs.  That didn't protect us from getting foamed though, and we both spent much time using a shammy cloth to wipe off the cameras and keep them working!

Godfather Fiesta, Cuenca, Ecuador - castles

Castles are an Ecuadorian platform for fireworks, and frequently are part of celebrations such as this.  They are bamboo structures 12 feet or more tall, loaded with fireworks, and are typically fired off just a few feet from the audience.

Godfather Fiesta, Cuenca, Ecuador - Burt and Evelyn

And yes, we were as foam covered as anyone in the crowd!  Note lower-left above as Evelyn instigates an attack though.  Her above-right image was taken just moments later...

I lost my prior pocket camera over the New Year's weekend at Salinas, so had to replace it.  My new Sony RX 100 MK 4 arrived the day before this festival , and has a cool new feature of being able to do super slow motion video.  I haven't tested out the limits of the slo-mo yet, but I did shoot this video at 8X slow down.  Expect to see more in the future!


New Year’s Eve 2015 – Monigotes

New Year's Eve 2015 - Salinas - Monigotes 1

This year we decided to check out Salinas, on the coast of Ecuador, for New Year's Eve.  You can read our first blog, covering the actual NYE event here.  This is an addendum post about the huge variety of monigotes or años viejos  that we saw in town. These doll-like figures are made from paper-maché and old clothes, sometimes filled with straw, sawdust, newspaper and firecrackers, and these puppets represent the past year. Burning the monigote at midnight on December 31st is a ritual purification to ward off the despair and bad luck of the year ending.

We have spent the prior three New Year's Eves in Cuenca, which is where we first saw monigotes around town, and in bonfires at midnight.  We have heard of large monigote markets in Cuenca, but since we do not have a car, we rarely get to where they supposedly exist.  As such, we have only seen small sales displays of a few dozen monigotes here and there in Cuenca.

Salinas was a whole different ballgame. We passed three massive shopping areas selling monigotes enroute to Salinas. Each covered several blocks of nonstop vendors.  Some of these vendors had more monigotes themselves than we saw for sale in all of Cuenca in past years.  Many were small enough to carry under your arm, as seen above.  Some vendors would have dozens of monigotes, with each one different, while others would concentrate on one or two styles, and then have multiple copies.

New Year's Eve 2015 - Salinas - Monigotes 2 huge

Other monigotes were massive giants, sometimes 10 to 20 feet tall.  Those tended to be the more elaborately produced models, and it almost seemed a shame to burn them at midnight.  We did see a few of these giants go into the beach bonfire though.

New Year's Eve 2015 - Salinas - Monigotes 4 Special

I spent the last seven years before retirement writing software for educational toys at LeapFrog, in California.  The frog above was the first monigote we saw in Salinas.  I wanted to get him, as a reminder of LeapFrog.  Since we had not seen any others though, we thought it better to wait and see if there were better frogs later.  Nope. A lesson learned decades ago had to be repeated -- if you see something you like, buy it then because you might not see another.  This was the only "good frog" we saw in town.  As it happened though, we later came across an airplane that I liked, and that became our NYE monigote instead (see yesterday's post for photos of its life from purchase to bonfire).

New Year's Eve 2015 - Salinas - Monigotes 4 special 2

The variety of monigotes was mind boggling.  A few themes kept repeating though, some of which are represented above.  Simpsons are always a bit hit, and this year Minion joined the Most Popular List (that I just now made up...). Batman, Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, and others were seen repeatedly in various forms and sizes.


New Year’s Eve 2015 – Salinas

2015 New Year's Eve - Salinas Ecuador

After greeting the New Year for the past three years (2013, 2014, 2015) in Cuenca, we decided to see what Salinas had to offer, on the coast of Ecuador.  As always, in our trips around Ecuador and the rest of South America, the results were both what we expected, and full of surprises.  The monigotes (effigies) were one of the surprises, and we ended up making a second blog post just relating to those.  Check out tomorrow's post for info on those.

2015 New Year's Eve - Salinas Ecuador - Fireworks Sales

In Salinas, fireworks were sold everywhere.  They can be bought in Cuenca, but Salinas has them beat by an order of magnitude. There was a single block where I counted more than 20 vendors, and we saw three separate similar areas. Even as midnight approached, and fireworks filled the sky, these vendors were walking among the falling debris, selling whatever was left of their stock.  The big boxes with 25 large, elaborate fireworks had an asking price of $25.  I never stopped to dicker and see how low they could go, but it was interesting to see people setting off several of those in quick succession at midnight.

2015 New Year's Eve - Salinas Ecuador -people

At any event like this, people watching is half the enjoyment.  Those watching the show ranged from infants in strollers, to great-grandparents in wheelchairs, helped by their adult children.  A firetruck sat in the middle of it all, prepared to handle any fire that got out of control, and to wash out any live fires remaining at 3:00AM on the beach.

2015 New Year's Eve - Salinas Ecuador - The Krafts

Have you yet tasted the true Carolina style bacon, or English muffins, or ham, (or continuously growing list of items) from Carolina Smokehouse (or on Facebook here)?  If not, get yourself over to their tienda on Honorato Vasquez y Hermano Miguel in Cuenca Centro and try some.  Sure puts to shame anything you can buy at the mercados or SuperMaxi!

If you have bought from them, you will recognize David and Sandy in the montage above. They joined us for the weekend in Salinas, where they bought a menagerie of monigotes (aka effigies), some of which never made it past midnight, going up in flames. Others now decorate their tienda.

2015 New Year's Eve - Salinas Ecuador - fireworks

Fireworks started even before dark on New Year's Eve, but once it became fully dark, they were continuous.  We saw six separate major bonfire locations on the beach to the north of our hotel and another 7-8 on the south side, and there were scattered ones throughout the city that we could also see from our rented condo. There were two  major launching points for the fireworks, which were going off non-stop all night, as well as individuals were firing off their own sets that they had purchased from the numerous vendors in the streets earlier that day.  You can see the carcasses of some of them in the lower right above.  Fireworks were still being fired every few minutes at 3AM, when I went to bed.

2015 New Year's Eve - Salinas Ecuador - gogo fire lantern

Cuenca used to allow gobos, also known as "sky candles" or "wish lanterns," until some landed on church roofs in El Centro in 2013.  They resulted in major fire damage to both churches, so they are no longer allowed here.  They are still allowed in Salinas though, and we saw a dozen or so families gathering to send theirs off into the night.  The wind pattern is such that the lanterns fly out over the ocean, so Salinas does not have as much fire risk from this tradition.

2015 New Year's Eve - Salinas Ecuador - people photographing people and fireworks

Of course cameras were everywhere.  Obviously we had our own, which captured these scenes... After overdosing on photographing the fireworks and bonfires, I turned my camera to the other people with their cameras, for a specialized version of people watching.

2015 New Year's Eve - Salinas Ecuador - airplane effigy manogote burned

A tradition in Ecuador is to write anything you want to leave behind in the old year, on a monigote, or effigy.  You then burn it at midnight, symbolically leaving the problems of the old year behind.  I was not planning on buying one, as 2015 was an excellent year and I had nothing I could think of to write (and we were told that to burn the monigote without such text is bad luck for the new year).  However, Sandy and David found this monigote shaped in the form of an airplane.  Remembering some of our flying stories from the 1980's when we roamed North America in our own plane, they showed it to me.  I couldn't resist.  The seller tied it to the roof of our rented car, where it flew with us back to our condo, where it almost lost its propeller after hitting the garage roof.  One surprise was how quickly the large bonfires came to be at midnight. It seemed that nothing was going on, then with a can of gasoline, the entire beach caught on fire with dozens of large "hot" fires. Evelyn even caught on fire, but that's another story. That night, our airplane and its menagerie of monigotes, were loaded onto the bonfire, where they held on valiantly, but finally was totally engulfed and lost in a burst of glory.

Oh yeah, what did I write on the plane?  I finally remembered that &^%$ elevator that was such a headache for months.  All thoughts of that failing elevator have now been burned away, so this year it will work perfectly. Right?  Right?  Please tell me I'm right...

Since we had rented a car from CuencaCarShare, we had the mobility to check out the local coast, and drove around both Friday and Saturday. On New Year's Day, we discovered "the other Salinas", the one that tourists do not frequent, and it was delightful with lots of families playing on the beach. On Saturday, we drove north toward Puerto Lopez.  First stop was Ayangue, a small fishing village which is also considered a well-kept secret well off the main road, where we stopped for breakfast. It had a sheltered bay with great seafood restaurants dotting the beach. We ate fresh langostino and shrimp. The vendor had to run next door to fetch the beer, and the service was impeccable.  Mantanita, a hippie haven was the next stop and was massively crowded and noisy.  As with much of Ecuador, everyone turns their music to full volume, regardless if the speakers can handle it.  This was even worse than elsewhere though, as we drove slowly (no choice, due to traffic...), there was a cacophony of competing speakers.  No thanks, so we left without ever stopping...

We next drove up to Olon, which was a far more pleasant town to visit.  It was definitely a calmer environment, with a surfing school.  We decided to return for dinner, however the beach restaurants were packed, and the service was absolutely terrible.  After waiting for more than an hour and never even seeing our waiter again in that time, we just walked away and left town.☹

Our real destination was Puerto Lopez. We had enjoyed that town when we stayed there for a few days in 2012. We had heard that the malecon was being rebuilt and almost done, the main street repaved, etc.  Unfortunately, what we saw looked more like an abandoned construction site than any active work.  There were piles of construction rubble everywhere, and the street paving had gone no more than about one block, then also abandoned.  The charm of the 2012 town was lost, as the old beach tiendas were bulldozed by the city.


Niño Viajero 2015, Part 2

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, angels wisemen

The annual Christmas Eve parade happened yesterday in Cuenca.  See here for the first part of this blog post, covering the pre-parade activity.  This part 2 shows some of what the actual parade was like. The parade was led by an angel on horseback.  Mary and Joseph carrying a baby Jesus doll were common, as were other angels and wise men.

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, babies

This parade is mostly centered around the kids, and even infants are dressed up in various costumes.  Most derive from Christian themes, but there is also the occasional clown (upper right) too.

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, barrier

Some parade groups attempted to keep the street clear for their dancing by having kids hold up moving barriers that followed them.  As soon as the barrier advanced and was gone, the audience piled into the street creating the chaos common in prior years.

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, kids

Kids were everywhere, both in the parade and in the audience -- the latter often on the shoulders of their father.

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, music

Along the parade were periodic marching bands, some composed of kids, and others of older men.  Though girls were in the kid bands, there were no women in any of the adult bands...?

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, costume

There were scattered groups in exotic costumes. I don't pretend to even know what most of them were supposed to represent though...

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, dancers

There were also many dancing groups.  Some would dance down the street, while others would stop and then dance in one place for a minute or so, before moving along half a block and repeating their routines.

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, women

Though kids dominated the parade, there were plenty of young adult women too.  Though there were some men in this age group, they were hugely outnumbered by the women, who were also usually more ornately dressed.

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, old women

Older women enjoyed the parade too, though most of them were in the audience.  I imagine many of these women were in the parade in decades past.


Niño Viajero 2015, Part 1

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, Mayor

Christmas Eve has a massive parade in Cuenca every year.  You can see our blog and photos from prior years here -- 2012, 2013, and 2014. In past years, we have photographed the preparations of the floats and participants.  This year we decided to instead go to where the baby Jesus statue was being kept, and watch it proceed to the head of the parade, half a dozen blocks away.  The mayor of Cuenca was there, giving interviews and taking the chance for a photo op.  He then became the first bearer of the statue as it left the church.

2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, police

The Ecuadorian National Police were the honor guard for the statue procession.  They stood outside the Carmen de la Asunción church (beside the flower market in Centro), waiting for the service to complete.  They then formed a nearly impenetrable barrier around the statue bearers, walking with locked arms ahead and behind, while each side was lined with officers whose arms were locked into the belt of the officer ahead of them.2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, statue baby jesus

Each bearer carried the statue for one block.  It was then handed off to the next intended bearer, until it finally reached its position of honor, on a pedestal in front of Iglesia San Sebastián (center image above), where the parade began.2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, military band horseback music

While the statue was being walked to its pedestal, the National Police Mounted Band (not really sure of their proper name) marched on horseback behind the statue, playing their music while on the move.2015 Paseo Del Nińo, Cuenca Ecuador, news reporter helicopter drone

Every news organization was represented along the parade route, several doing live interviews and descriptions, like you would see when watching the Rose Bowl parade on TV in the States.  There was even a news helicopter and a drone doing aerial video of the parade.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where we cover the parade itself.


Dead Tree Art

Cuenca Ecuador Dead Tree Art Wood Sculptures

You never want to go out your front door without a camera in Cuenca, since you never know what you will trip across.  For the next month or so, there will be many random pop-up parades and festivities, if past years are a guide. Today I crossed Parque de la Madre, enroute to our local grocery store, and came across massive amounts of sawdust on the ground and trees being chopped up -- for art.  Sitting by one of the sculptures is the sign in the upper left, which translates as "The sculptures are on dead trees."

Apparently, some trees died in the park, and rather than dig them up, they decided to bring in artists to create totems.  Since this is a city full of wall mural art, I guess it is not much of a surprise that they took this approach.  A rather nice gift to the city to start the new year with.

I'll be interested to see how these all look when complete, and how they weather in coming years.  Thought you might like to see them while still under construction though.


Cartagena

Cartagena Colombia - Walled City

Today marks the end of our Colombia travels, after spending the last five days in Cartagena. This city is the closest we have visited in Colombia to Cuenca in many ways. The total city population is roughly 900,000 compared to Cuenca's 550,000, so a bit larger.  The walled city, where we stayed, is known as the Historic Centro, which is the same name of the area we live in Cuenca.  As with Cuenca, the Centro district is largely self-contained and totally walkable. There is one important difference though -- while I sometimes say Cuenca is a couple degrees cooler than I prefer, Cartagena is a Caribbean coastal city, and the heat and humidity are killers! We were told that the temperature ranges from 80 to 90 (F) year-round, and always 90% humidity.  The days we were there surely had that humidity, but the temperature was in the high 90's too.  We would wander outside a few hours in the morning, then retreat to the hotel's air conditioned room until about 8PM, when it was tolerable to go outside again.  I have no idea how anyone survived in this city before the invention of air conditioning... Also, while the tap water is safe to drink in Cuenca, here we had to rely on bottled water -- and there is a mountain of plastic being generated from all those water bottles as a result.

Cartagena definitely had the best food we found in Colombia, and some of the best we have ever had, period. We celebrated our 43rd anniversary our second night in the city, with an absolutely fabulous dinner at Alma's, just a block from the hotel.

The walls around the city were first erected in the late 17th and early 18th century, to ward off English sea attacks. 80% of the wall is still intact, and the walled portion was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. I found it interesting how short parts of the wall are. You can see a man running on a section (upper left above), and note that the wall is less than 10 feet high here. Left Center above shows how the buildings (prior to 1984) have massively outgrown the wall and reach right up to within a few yards of the wall. Turn left a little (lower left) and you can see how the wall is a bit higher, and modern high rise buildings in the distance (also middle right).  Look closely and you can see construction cranes too, as new buildings are going up constantly outside the walled Centro. The cannon placements are still there, but now overlook a towering landscape. Interestingly, it required between 10 and 15 minutes between each canon fire, because of the heat generated by the explosion.  Hard to imagine a battle at that pace.

One interesting vignette was a protest outside the Judicial Center (lower right). There were 9 protesters chanting and yelling, including one priest.  Everyone else just walked by, sometimes after taking a photograph, but otherwise ignoring them.  My Spanish is not good enough to tell what they were chanting, but apparently they don't have much traction among the locals.

Cartagena Colombia - Fruit Vendors

In a city as hot as Cartagena, fruit vendors were everywhere to sell a cool plate of food. Many of the women were dressed in colorful Caribbean dresses, and a purchase of a small plate was rewarded by them also modeling for our cameras.

Cartagena Colombia - Fishermen

Just across the highway from the wall was a small area where fishermen would bring in their catch, and sell it directly to anyone wanting fresh fish. All the fish that were caught were quite small, with most being no more than 6 or 8 inches long.  Hardly looked like big enough to eat, but they worked diligently to clean and filet them. There were also a dozen or so herons and pelicans hanging around for discarded entrails, as well as a few kids playing in the surf to keep cool.

Cartagena Colombia - Walking Tour and Graduation

We have started taking "free walking tours" (funded by tips at the end) in most cities we visit, and we did that here too.  Unfortunately, this was not one of the better tours, and I am not sure I would recommend it here. A few times we saw a student in full graduation regalia walking the streets, surrounded by their family. We saw enough of them that it appears to be a tradition for the family to show off their graduating child. At dinner that night, the table next to us filled up with about 20 family and friends, and we discovered (lower right) that it was a university graduation being celebrated.

We were told by our guide that the government here is very corrupt. As one example, they let in 3000 students into the university each year.  However, there are only 80 seats for the final graduation exam.  Most students must bribe the professor to get a passing grade without actually taking the exam.

Cartagena Colombia - Door Knockers

Many of the doors in the walled city had elaborate door knockers on them.

Cartagena Colombia - Wall Murals

As with every city in Colombia, wall murals were quite common.

Cartagena Colombia - Art and Sculptures

There was also public art throughout the walled city.

Cartagena Colombia - Sunset and KGB Bar

When we asked at our hotel where we could go for a good Pińa Colada, we were told to go to the KGB.  Sure enough, a Russian bar, dedicated to all things Soviet, and they did indeed make excellent drinks.  As we walked in, the music system was playing "Every Breath You Take" by Sting, with the phrase "I'll be watching you" as we entered.  Seemed all so appropriate for a KGB bar...

We then headed over to a restaurant on the Western wall, to watch the sunset, on the night of our anniversary. We came across an engagement photo session on the wall too (upper right above).  The sunset was a bit of a disappointment (not much color or drama that night), but it had a cool breeze off the ocean, making it a nice way to stay outdoors and not melt in the process.


San Andres

 

San Andres Colombia - Beach

We decided that a few days on the beach would be a nice way to relax, so we went to San Adres. Oddly, this island is 470 miles North of Colombia, yet only 140 miles East of Nicaragua. Looking on the map, you would think this would be a Nicaraguan island, but you would be wrong.  Officially, there are three languages spoken on the island -- Spanish, English and Creole.  In practice though, we met very few people that spoke any English. The Spanish was heavily influenced by Creole, meaning it was largely incomprehensible to us. Our Spanish was mostly understood though, so we could explain what we wanted, even if we rarely understood the words in response.

Colombia is making a very strong effort to eliminate illegal drugs. That was nowhere as obvious as trying to get to the island.  After a long line to pay 49,900 pesos entrance tax -- about $15USD (could not pay in advance, required pesos, and payment was so inefficient that the flight was delayed), we made it to the normal X-Ray machine.  Then a second X-Ray machine.  Then two drug sniffing dogs wandered through the line for 15 minutes.  Then a pat-down (men on the left, and women on the right).  We were then finally let on the plane.  When we arrived... yep, you guessed it... another X-Ray machine and another drug sniffing dog.  I'm pretty sure no illegal drugs are arriving by commercial flight!

Once we arrived on San Andres, it took nearly an hour for our luggage to arrive on the baggage carousel.  At one point, a Colombian woman and her adult daughter asked me which carousel our bags would come out on.  I told her what I had heard.  She did not speak a word of English, and we spent the next half hour in a halting and laughing conversation entirely in Spanish  -- SUCCESS!

San Andres, Colombia - Misc

There were a few nice murals in town (upper left above), but nothing like in other Colombian cities. One interesting vendor we saw several times was for "minuto celular" (lower left above).  At first I thought they were selling minutes to recharge your phone.  Then I saw people buying -- the vendor would hand over a phone, the customer would talk for short time, then hand the phone back with the price.  Turns out they were selling cell phone time for those without a cell phone.  The few transactions I saw were all with obvious tourists, so this appears a decent way to make a call without having to get a Colombian SIM card for your own phone.

We went on a snorkeling trip around the island one day.  I had bought an underwater case for my camera before we moved to Ecuador, exactly for trips like this.  And, of course, I forgot the case at home in Cuenca.  As such, we have almost no photos of that portion of the trip.  Heading out was a nice calm motor trip (middle right), but coming back, the motors were set to full speed as the waters got rougher, and I had to hold on for dear life! (lower right... )

We snorkeled over the corals, but it was disheartening to see them in such poor condition.  Corals are dying the world over, so this is not unique to here, but we still remember the vibrant, live corals we first saw when diving in the 1970's in Hawaii, Mexico, Grand Caymen and elsewhere.  They are now overgrown with algae, with many parts bleached white and dead.

On our third stop, the boat captain told us to hold on to a rope behind the boat. We were then towed over a region in which there were several statues that had been sunken. There is an "underwater museum" in Cancun, Mexico that San Andres wanted to replicate here.  It was interesting, and felt like being towed on a "banana boat" but without the banana (since we were snorkeling).

San Andres, Colombia - Bottles

Food on the island was mostly disappointing, which surprised us. We went to several seafood restaurants (an island? gotta eat fish!), and only the one we went to on the very last day (Peru Wok) was very good.  The others weren't terrible, but simply not up to the standards we had come to expect from Bogota and Medellin.  One restaurant did have an interesting use for their wine bottles, using them as sculptures lining their walk.  Above is only a tiny fraction of those bottles.


Medellin 3 – Guatapé and Centro

Yesterday we hired a driver to take us to Guatapé, a small town outside Medellin that we had heard was quaint. Along the way, we visited other towns --Marinilla and Peñol,  In short it was a LONG tour with 6 hours of driving, 1 hour of exploring the town. Though Evelyn liked the tour, I did not think it was a good use of a day, and do not recommend it to others.

En route the smog was overwhelming.  Like Bogotá, Medellin limits cars to driving on odd/even days matching the last number of their license plate.  In Bogotá, most middle-income or higher people have purchased two cars to get around the limit, thus defeating the intent.  In Medellin, the limit is only for 2 hours per day, so drivers simply delay their trip, as our driver did this day, picking us up half an hour later than otherwise planned.  However, most of the visible smog was being generated by a heavy flow of diesel trucks spewing thick black clouds, and an overwhelming number of two stroke motorcycles doing the same.

As we drove through the lush countryside, our driver told us that it was barren a mere 5 years ago.  Guerrillas had terrorized the countryside so badly that most farms were abandoned.  Only in the last few years have people come back -- often not the same people that left -- and returned the fields back to lush farms.

Guatapé has two claims to fame. The first is its unique facades.  All are created by a single family in town, and some are 3D, being constructed of concrete. Each home has them along the base of their walls, most measuring roughly 3 feet high by the width of their home or store.  The home owners commission the artist, and can give direction on the desired subject matter, usually depicting their livelihood or history.

Three members of the artist's family were busy in town when we were there. One was refreshing an existing mural (upper and middle right above), while two others were creating new concrete reliefs.

The second claim to fame of the city is the Peñol Rock -- a huge basalt rock on the edge of town. You can climb the 770 steps to the top, for a reportedly stupendous view of the lagoons, though we have to take others' word for it...

In the last 1960's, the Colombian government decided to build a reservoir for generating power (which now accounts for 40% of the country's electric generation), that would flood part of the city, including the main church.  The government offered to rebuild the church as it was, but the local people chose to pay more to build a new church -- and created the one in center above, which is supposed to be a rock similar to the Peñol Rock outside town.

Today we took a walking tour of Medellin Centro.  The guide was entertaining and informative, but frankly Centro Medellin is not as interesting as many other cities we have walked.  Hernán (our guide) tried to give the history of the city, while downplaying the violence of the recent past.  Given that the city was considered the most dangerous in the world just 15 years ago, that made his history lessons difficult.

One interesting point that Hernán made is that Colombians use religion as a soap to wash off the guilt.  A hit man will go into the church to pray before a murder, asking Jesus to forgive him and to decide whether the hit will succeed or not. It is then Jesus's decision if the murder will take place or not, not the person pulling the trigger.  The churches in Medellin are the centers around which prostitution exists, and form the hub of streets for selling porn and cheap fake goods.

The Colombian government has been fighting an undeclared civil war for the past 70 years, only 20 of which were related to the drug trade.  Drug money basically took the ongoing civil war and provided more guns and training, turning anti-government farmers into a paramilitary. With bounties offered on both sides (government paid for every rebel killed, and drug lords paid for every politician killed), the city was more dangerous than Beirut.  In 2002, Álvaro Uribe was elected on a platform promising to quell the violence. He was known -- both affectionately by supporters and derisively by others -- as the "iron fist president." Though controversial, he did manage to follow through on his main promise, and Colombia finally started on its road toward recovery and peace.

Hernán pointed out that drug money does not provide infrastructure, and Medellin's current prosperity came from 100 years of gold mining and 30 years of being a financial center. He claimed that at its peak, drug money only accounted for 6% of Colombian GDP.

There have been peace negotiations with FARC, the largest anti-government paramilitary group, for the past three years.  Of 75 negotiating points, 74 have been settled.  The last point, who would serve prison time and for how long, is rumored to have now also reached an agreement.  The treaty is expected to be signed by March 1, 2016, and hopes are high that the long civil war will finally be only a portion of the history books.

As with Cuenca, parades seem to spring up out of nowhere.  However, while the parades tend to be religious in origin in Cuenca, they are more circus oriented in Medellin.  This was the third such parade we saw start up in town, in as many days.  We never did find out why...

Of the 21 participants on the walking tour shown above, only one other person besides ourselves were from the USA.  The rest were from Netherlands, Croatia, Australia, and other countries outside North America.  English was the common language though.  Look at the image (with us near far-image-right) and note how tall everyone is.  We felt like midgets in that crowd, with many of the men -- and even a couple women -- towering over me!


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