The Unchanged Cabo Sunsets

Ringing in the new year where the desert meets the sea.

At 23:35, we retrieved the bubbles, a couple of red solo cups and rushed for the beach.

The local kids were already sitting on the sand, lit by their parked car’s beam lights, looking like a 1980s MTV video. 

Live music from the nearby clubs disrupted an almost spiritual vibe: the beachgoers looked into the sky with anticipation—like someone who waits for the passing of a comet.

We realized we’d forgotten the grapes. I felt liberated. The last couple of years taught us how naive end-of-year wishes could be.

Still, I felt cautious joy when the countdown began: 3, 2…1! All the fireworks in the world shot into the sky, and suddenly it was daytime on Palmilla Bay.

We’d arrived four days earlier, after a gelid New York City Christmas. The JFK-San Jose del Cabo flight took us from -10F to 80F in just over six hours, and it felt like a miracle.

Feeling the sand between our toes, sipping that glorious first margarita, hiking to the Big Cross: Cabo’s always been about holiday traditions for over a decade.

And, during that time, we’ve also seen the town change.

Lola, who came thirty years ago, has witnessed an even more profound transformation. Back then, there were only two shacky hotels and a landing strip. Lola loved it so much that she never returned to her native Yucatan. 

To those who came before her, she was that annoying newcomer. A decade ago, it was her turn to frown upon us. It goes on and on.

Lola worries about reckless drivers along The Corridor, the same road where the many resorts built in recent years have progressively blocked the sea view. 

We loved admiring the water back when we drove to and from San Jose’s Art Thursdays to check out works from local artists and sip free gallery wine. 

Those days you still could see Steven Spielberg speeding down the road in a golf cart, Enrique Iglesias donning a poncho in 80-degree weather, and Leonardo DiCaprio denying he was Leonardo DiCaprio in Agua Bar.

That was well before COVID, which feels like a lifetime ago. Once American politics spilled onto the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, it was not rare to spot drunken, sunburnt tourists decrying “plandemic” and “stolen election.”

There goes the neighborhood.

Luckily, Cabo’s natural beauty remains as mesmerizing as the first time Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed past El Arco and spotted whales and dolphins in the open ocean.

I felt the same exhilaration on New Year’s Day as that first boat ride from about eight years ago. This time, we anchored in Chileno Bay and jumped into the crystal-clear waters for a swim.

The captain tossed us snorkeling goggles, so we could see the colorful fish blissfully swimming amongst us. On the way back, the crew made us fajitas, which we wolfed down with some deliciously cold Pacificos

A massive seal, unbothered by the many vessels, including a couple of titanic cruise ships, goofily swam by as we approached the marina.

We reached the hotel in time to experience the first sunset of the year. The timeless yellow and orange hues colored the Sea of Cortez like thousands of years hadn’t passed, and the Spanish conquistador—the first annoying newcomer of them all—didn’t dare to rename it. 

WeWork All Over Medellin

Digital nomads, Venezuelan migrants and politically polarized Colombians share this soccer-obsessed sprawling tropical metropolis.

Richard Jones, who used to bounce between Brooklyn and Pasadena as an entrepreneur, found a new tech hub.

From his latest venture, he smiles alongside his wife and their toddler as an Instagram-perfect family ready to help you become your own boss—from a tropical paradise.

The Joneses are part of a growing contingent that, since COVID made remote work mainstream, is taking advantage of favorable exchange rates, new visas and good weather overseas.

They set up shop in places like Costa Rica, Portugal and—more recently—Colombia, where the proliferation of coworking spaces suggests the trend is also taking hold in South America.

WeWork El Poblado

I contemplate one of the Medellin WeWork buildings from a bus stuck in traffic.

Avenida El Poblado—which connects the city with its suburbs since a time the population was a tenth of today’s—is being retrofitted for metroplús.

The bus rapid transit system, along with the sleek Metro and its affiliated float of trolley and cable cars, is the first-rate public transportation network the Joneses appreciate.

Medellin Metro

Instead, my cousin makes me ride the traditional public bus, which blasts “agricultural music” while a Brad Pitt-esque Jesus stares from the driver’s plexiglass cabin.

The man next to us streams a soccer match on his smartphone. Behind, a lady argues with someone via WhatsApp voice note.

One of the world’s most innovative cities is also a place of contrasts where past and present intersect on every corner.

Universal tactile paving and accessible outdoor gyms co-exist with hugely-breasted mannequins that promote body dysmorphia outside clothing stores.

No pressure, girls

Pueblito Paisa, a cobblestoned and colorful fake village located on a hilltop in the middle of the valley, replicates the traditional Colombian town, like a Gabriel García Marquez-themed Disney park.

It affords a 360-degree view of the surrounding sprawling metropolis: There’s the old airport. Look at El Poblado with all those tall buildings.

Pueblito Paisa

Over there, there’s El Centro de Medellin, where some Venezuelan immigrants work as law clerks and others wipe cars’ windshields during a traffic jam caused by yet another anti-government protest.

They join many more street vendors who swarm imposing churches, Art Deco office buildings, plazas with larger-than-life Botero sculptures and coffee haciendas-turned-shopping centers.

All peddle lottery tickets, knock-out jeans and—at lunchtime—corrientazos (affordable homecooked-style meals targeted to hungry tourists and busy office workers).

Coltejer Building

The nearby 1970s needle-shaped Coltejer building is a testament to the city’s supremacy in the textile industry.

Today, media companies and retail brands share the skyscraper. La Tienda Verde (The Green Store) is, by far, the most popular.

The official outlet of Atletico Nacional, one of the most-followed local soccer teams, La Tienda’s windows display a shrine to the club’s Golden Era stars, including Andrés Escobar.

The late defender, murdered after scoring a self-goal that eliminated the Colombian national team from the 1994 FIFA World Cup, sits in the middle like an unofficial patron saint.

La Tienda Verde

Not related to the infamous drug lord—Pablo—Andrés is a reminder of how far this city has come from its heyday of narco-violence.

And so it’s Comuna 13, the former San Javier slum on the western edge of Medellin is now one of the city’s most vibrant communities, as evidenced by its latest project: a women’s prison-turned-university.

Guides like David tell stories about how the house where he grew up and still lives was on the invisible borders between rival gangs and how this affected his school commute as recently as the mid-1990s.

Comuna 13

All while rappers interact with tourists through creative improvisations, break dancers entertain the crowd with gravity-defying movements and colorful graffiti and muralist art inspire in the background.

Refreshingly, a predominantly young and urban community doesn’t vibe to the globally ubiquitous and commercialized reggaeton but old-school breakbeats and boleros, which charming guitar-clad abuelos still play on the corners.

Comuna 13

Albeiro, our polite cab driver, was another pleasant surprise as he insulated us from Medellin’s perennial rush hour traffic by playing Bach instead of Bad Bunny.

He took us to ecological park El Salado, a natural sanctuary and refuge in the municipality of Envigado, high above the overpopulated and touristed city chaos, and where nearby fincas manifest themselves in men riding donkeys alongside motorcycles on the narrow road. 

A green and lush loop trail surrounds a crystal-clear and refreshing stream where it is a delight to submerge your bare feet for a real connection with nature.

El Salado

The sound of the water is hypnotizing; the closer you’ll get to nirvana in this formerly rural and sleepy coffee enclave which non-stop development will soon turn into a megalopolis.

At this rate, the Joneses will have to climb farther up the mountain to relax in these natural oases.

It’s Colombia, Not Columbia (Part II)

We found El Dorado in Bogotá.

Part I

We had found El Dorado.

The legend of a hidden golden city that drove Conquistadores to madness lives on in Bogotá.

First, in El Dorado International Airport. The world-class hub processes the most cargo and the third number of passengers in the entire Latin American continent.

That was the first clue that we were in a Big Apple.

Amazingly, this town of almost 8 million souls sits at 8,660 feet above sea level, making it the third-highest capital in South America and the world, after Quito and La Paz.

Restaurant Castanyoles at Four Seasons Hotel Casa Medina

We stayed at the Hotel Casa Medina in Chapinero. The building, dating from 1946, has lovely beamed ceilings, hand-carved antique wooden furnishings and columns rescued from a Colonial Spanish convent.

It also houses the Spanish Mediterranean-style restaurant Castanyoles with its signature greenhouse atrium and lovely tapas.

Bogotá, Colombia

After the food, it was time for sightseeing. Plaza de Bolívar, or Bolívar Square. Bogotá’s central plaza, where the Palace of Justice and other historical buildings are located, was only a 25-minute walk from the hotel. 

We endeavored the journey earnestly without accounting for the town’s altitude, which after 10 minutes or so, resulted in sudden light-headedness and dehydration due to a decrease in oxygen levels.

This megalopolis lacks a metro or subway, although they have a bus rapid transit system (TransMilenio). Taxis are cheap but hard to come by. When we finally hopped on one, we experienced Bogotá’s infamous heavy traffic.

Primary Cathedral of Bogotá at Plaza de Bolívar

Plaza de Bolívar has been the historical site of many political and social demonstrations, including the 1948 destruction of the adjacent Palace of Justice during the infamous social unrest known as El Bogotazo

In 1985, it was under siege by the guerrilla group M-19, which stormed the building and took 300 hostages demanding a trial against President Belisario Betancur.

Palace of Justice, Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá

The battered building sits on the north side of the plaza. To the west: Palacio Liévano (City Hall). To the south: the Capitolio Nacional.

They surround a statue of Simón Bolívar, made by Italian architect Pietro Tenerani and installed in 1847.

Filled with artisans, street vendors and performers, Plaza de Bolívar is also where I saw a llama for the first time.

Llama at Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá

We stopped by El Chato, a contemporary bistro that offers the best local dishes skillfully crafted by chef Álvaro Clavijo with techniques he learned in New York, Paris and Copenhagen. 

The gourmet-style grandma’s consomé, gambas and ceviche curado were most memorable.

Museo Nacional, Bogotá

Another unmissable spot: El Museo Nacional. The biggest and oldest museum in Colombia served as a prison until 1946.

And it shows: its fortress-type structure, built in stone and brick, includes a wall facade, arches, domes and columns.

Museo Nacional, Bogotá

Restored in 1975, the 100+ former prison cells held many political prisoners.

They now exhibit over 20 thousand art pieces, from archeology samples to colonial iconography to 20th-century indigenous and Afro-Colombian art.

Quinta de Bolívar, Bogotá

On the skirts of mount Monserrate rests the Quinta de Bolívar, a colonial house where the Libertador lived briefly after the war of independence.

Initially built in the 17th century as the country home of Spanish merchant Antonio Portocarreño, the house fell in hard times after the owner’s death. The newly independent government bought it and restored it in the 1820s.

Since then, it’s been a brewery, tannery, and girls’ school. In 1919, the Colombian Historical Society bought it.

Today, it exhibits various artifacts that belonged to El Libertador—including the bed he used shortly before his 1830 death in the Colombian coastal town of Santa Marta.

“Muisca Golden Raft,” Museo del Oro, Bogotá

And finally, the myth of El Dorado materialized in front of our eyes at Museo del Oro.

Averaging half a million visitors a year, the museum displays a collection of over 50 thousand pre-Columbian gold artifacts and other precious metals.

The main piece, the famous Muisca golden raft, depicts the ceremony of inauguration of the Muisca chief, who covered his body with gold dust and jumped into the lake along with gold and emeralds as an offering to the gods.

It is believed to be the basis of the famous myth.

Museo del Oro, Bogotá

In pre-Columbian America, gold was seen as spiritual instead of merely a material signifier of wealth. 

The sacred material was a means of ongoing connection with the mystical world (particularly the sun), as demonstrated by the appreciation of its reflective properties and the ancient custom of leaving objects outside to “recharge” their generative power. 

So, El Dorado might mean different things to different people. For me, it meant digging deeper into my parents’ land and learning about its long road to peace and redemption.

I also realize that history isn’t linear and that the pockets of progress and stability are fragile and prone to be disrupted by the next gold rush.

It’s Colombia, Not Columbia (Part I)

The second most biodiverse country in the world has come a long way since the days of Pablo Escobar.

What an “Encanto,” indeed.

Historically overlooked following the 1960s-1990s violence, Colombia has become a bonafide global destination because of its biodiversity, rich cultural heritage, and increasing development.

Medellin skyline

Also known as “The City of the Eternal Spring,” Medellin it’s Colombia’s second-largest town after its capital Bogotá.

Sitting in the Aburrá Valley, 151 miles north of the Coffee Axis, the city has won numerous accolades as one of the world’s most innovative and sustainable by organizations like the Urban Land Institute, the World Urban Forum and Harvard University.

“Pablo Escobar Dead” by Fernando Botero at Museo de Antionquia

Paisas, who suffered the drug cartel’s car-bombings of the 80s and 90s, are proud of this turnaround.

It is most evident at Museo de Antioquia, in the Old Quarter located in the center of Medellin on the Botero Plaza.

First established in 1881, its current incarnation began when world-renowned figurative painter and sculptor Fernando Botero made the first donations of his works to his hometown museum.

“Caballo” by Fernando Botero at The Botero Square, outside of the Museo de Antioquia

Botero continued donating his works through the late 20th century. In 2004, he gifted 23 of his large-scale bronze sculptures, previously housed in New York, Madrid and Paris museums.

The project is consistent with “Museo 360,” the institution’s mission of “recognizing the reality of the city, instead of hiding it.”

Works like “Pablo Escobar Dead” by Botero and one of my favorites, “Escopetarra” by César Lopez, are evidence of this new philosophy.

This AK 47-turned-guitar nicely sums up Colombians’ ongoing commitment to fostering peace through cultural expressions like music.

It doesn’t escape me that the artwork in question would also be apt for the United States of America.

“Escopetarra” by César Lopez and Luthier Alberto Paredes

Comuna 13 is another testament to Medellín’s positive change.

Considered the epicenter of the Pablo Escobar’s narco-violence, this sizeable urban enclave was a former stronghold for guerrillas and gangs.

It also served as a traffic route, and its youth were used as sicarios by the Cartel de Medellín.

You wouldn’t dare come anywhere near it.

Comuna 13

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Comuna 13 is one of the city’s main touristic attractions. 

Locals serve as free guides (tipping is strongly encouraged) and tell you the neighborhood’s remarkable story of redemption. 

They also entertain you with street art, live music and dance performances and delicious authentic food cooked in their homes.

As they’ll tell you, the miracle had a controversial start when, in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe launched Operation Orion.

The raid resulted in arbitrary detentions and disappearances where innocents were killed and wounded. 

The military offensive was followed by a robust redeveloping program, identified by the outdoor escaleras eléctricas, which connected the priorly isolated neighborhood to the city below and ushered in an era of community and cultural improvements.

Although change has been dramatic, and this and many other parts of the city are safer than they used to be, I still advise common sense and caution when visiting.

Piedra del Peñol, Guatapé, Antioquia

I highly recommend setting aside a day to visit the town of Guatapé, 49 miles north of Medellin. La Piedra del Peñol, the Peñol Guatapé Reservoir and the iconic zócalos are its most popular attractions.

Standing 676 feet, the 65 million-year-old granitic Rock is climbable through 708 steps that form a staircase built on the side.

At the summit, and after a shrine to the Virgin Mary located halfway, there’s a three-story viewpoint tower complete with a seating area and a convenience store. 

Storytime: The bordering towns of Guatapé and El Peñol had long disputed ownership of The Rock. The rivalry led residents of Guatapé to try to paint the town’s name on the rock in giant letters. When the other team noticed, they gathered to stop it. The unfinished graffiti is still visible as the large letters “G” and “U” on the western side.

The view from the summit includes the man-made Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir, a popular water-sports center among kayakers and water skiers.

View from the Piedra del Peñol summit

The most surprising fact about Guatapé is that it replaces what once was the agricultural town purposely flooded in the 1970s to create the reservoir that generates 30% of Colombia’s power.

In that sense, Calle del Recuerdo is a nostalgic replica of the underwater town (the iconic church cross rising out of the water is all that remains visible from the old city). 

The street is famous for the zocalos (painted panels on the houses). These decorations identify the type of building (a store, a shop) or its inhabitants’ beliefs. 

Street coffee vendor by one of the businesses and its zocalos

You may be wondering whether we ate at all on this trip. The answer is yes, in the world’s best restaurant: mom’s kitchen.

My folks were two of millions of Colombians who emigrated to neighboring Venezuela to escape violence and seek the best opportunities to start and raise a family.

Culturally similar (they were the same country back in the 1800s: La Gran Colombia), Venezuela and Colombia have always had a bit of an opposed dynamic.

About seven years ago, when once-promising Venezuela’s fortunes diminished, my family returned to their country of origin for a kind of enforced retirement.

Mom’s arepa. Is it Colombian or Venezuelan?

Time to bid Medellin farewell (for now). Bogota, here we come!

Part II

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