I've known Jake through instagram for a few years. We were both born in Tennessee, we have a crazy amount of close mutual friends, and I even crashed at his place once. The only problem was, Jake and I had never actually met in person. It was crazy to think, but as much as we both travel our paths had never crossed. Even when I stayed in his apartment, he was out of the country on a photography assignment. So, in January I came up with this crazy idea that we both go to Colombia with a few other photographers I knew in South and Central America. No I pitched the trip to was interested.
Months went by and I all but forgot about Colombia. I was working on edits from one of the busiest months of my career and trying to begin a new business in a new country. I began to feel my body breaking down. I needed a mental health escape. It was March now, and I got of some unexpected last minute bookings. I hit up Jake again and we started looking into tickets. It looked like our schedules would finally align. We found some crazy cheap prices to Colombia, and it was on!
Days before the flight, the unexpected occurred. I had been hospitalized with an Ulcerative Colitis flare up and over the course of my hospital stay the doctors found a rare parasite in my stomach. The stress from work and lack of sleep had caught up with me, and my gamble to always trust street food on my travels had finally caught up to me. There I was in a hospital bed in Guatemala days before my flight to one of the most dangerous countries in South America. I wasn't sure if I would make the trip and I hadn't heard from Jake since we booked tickets. Meanwhile, Jake was touring Asia and was beginning to get tired of traveling and shooting. Neither of us were feeling up for the trip, but the day before we decided to go through with it anyway. No plan, no accommodation booked, we jumped in headfirst and hoped for the best.
Flying into a new country at night is one of my favorite feelings. You get to wake up fresh in the morning with that new country feeling, well rested, ready to take on the day. During our first hours in the city Medellin felt like a dream. I don't remember being in a city this unique or clean anywhere in Latin America. People for the most part seemed very friendly and our Airbnb had a beautiful view of the El Poblado skyline from the 6th floor. The restaurants of this neighborhood had amazing food, and we spent hours just wondering the city. There were bamboo forests inserted into hip neighborhoods and a youth hostel on every corner. I couldn't decide if my favorite part of the food here was the mac n' cheese grilled cheese sandwich we had at Burdo or the incredible brunches we enjoyed every morning at Ganso & Castro. One thing was for sure, this neighborhood offered one of the best culinary experiences in South America.
Since we hadn't planned anything before arriving, we did all of our trip research at night from our rented flat and kept our options wide open. My friend had heard from other travelers that Cartegena was a great place to visit, and when we mentioned this to our Uber driver he told us that we had to check out Isla San Andres, which was a short flight from Cartegena. We had no clue whether or not to trust this stranger we had only known for a few minutes, but an island getaway sounded like the just the relief we were in search of. Still, we had much more of the city to explore. We had spent most of our time in one (fairly touristy) neighborhood, and had heard taking gondolas into the communes would offer a nice escape from the hip neighborhood we were staying in. My mind instantly filled with mental images of street photography. We had to get there.
The real medellin
I loaded a fresh roll of Tri-X into my 35mm, Jake threw a DSLR into his backpack, and we headed north via the closest subway station. After half an hour we got to the end of the line. From here we needed to take a "gondola" (cable car) to begin the hour long ascent up the mountain.
This had to be one of the coolest experiences of the entire trip. We could see the entire city from our glass-walled gondola and there seemed to be no limit to how far into the clouds we could climb. I had no idea how expansive and truly beautiful the city of Medellin was until I could see it from above. The ride lasted nearly an hour and once we arrived to the national park at the top of the mountain we were ready to stretch our legs. Our lungs filled with a crisp mountain breeze that offered relief from our poorly ventilated gondola. We walked around and sampled some of the local fair available, but decided to head back down the mountain early so that we could photograph the communes.
When our gondola arrived at the mid-way station, I noticed the shock on the faces of some of the station's employees as we elected to exit the station instead of taking our gondola down to the safety of the city. Once out of the station, I felt we had made the right choice and chose to forget the concerned expressions I had noticed moments before. This little mountain commune was brimming with prime opportunities for the street shots, and I had been hoping to have the opportunity to capture an honest representation of life in Medellin.
I roamed the streets with Jake documenting the lives of the people who lived in the communes of Medellin. Life in the communes stood in stark contrast to the cute cafes and youth hostels we had previously been exposed to. I could have stayed in that commune for weeks documenting daily life. However, 20 minutes into our photo walk a group of young men about our age started cat calling one of the girls. I’ve learned to ignore this type of sexist harassment in Latin America, even though I’m tempted to stand up for her every time. She’s confessed to me that growing up where she did prepared her for life as a foreign woman traveling through Central and South American countries, but I'm still bothered every time it happens. I've witnessed her undergo this type of harassment in Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Colombia, and every other country in Latin America we've traveled to. Still, I can’t help feeling my blood pressure rise every time as I fight the temptation to stand up for her. On wards we walked.
Another 10 minutes went by and out of the corner of my eye I noticed that two of the guys from the group we had passed earlier were trailing us. I had gotten separated from Jake in the make shift skatepark we found ourselves in. I saw him off to the side capturing a picturesque landscape view from a lookout. The two men were heading straight for him, eyeing his camera. It was time to leave. I signaled to Jake and the three of us mad a b-line for the station.
When we reached the city station, it appeared we had arrived at the beginning of rush hour in the subway. Lines stretch far outside of the station, and we elected to take a taxi back to the flat to save time. This would turn out to be our worst decision of the entire trip.
The ride back was sweltering. After the cool mountain breeze we had just experienced the hot interior of this run down cab felt like a sauna. When we pulled up to the neighborhood we were staying in, our cab driver elected to drop us off outside of the gate instead of pulling inside the neighborhood. Jake was asleep in the front seat, passed out from the heat and exhaustion from our morning adventure. With my camera by my side, I counted out the cash to pay our driver. That’s when I heard his voice: “Dame la camera.” My window had been rolled down because of the sweltering afternoon heat and lack of A/C. I looked to my side and realized in an instant what was happening. We had been followed from the commune. A man on a motor bike had stuck a revolver through the window of the taxi and was asking for my camera in a low voice so as not to draw attention of the security guards in the gate less than five meters away. I was at gunpoint, and no one knew but me.
I began shouting immediately for everyone to get out of the car, hoping to startle the would be thief into a retreat. Our stalker didn't seem keen on leaving empty handed. I dropped my wallet, clutched my camera. The only thing I could think about was keeping my travel partners safe and salvaging the only film shots I had from the commune. I ran for my life shouting to the nearby guards who were our only chance to live. As I was running, I looked back to a terrifying sight. Jake was just waking up in the front seat, unaware that we had been followed. The taxi driver was shouting at him and shoving him out of the car, which Jake at first mistook for an impatient driver eager to move on to his next fare. However, as he looked into the back seat to look for me, he saw the man on the moto pulling his revolver back through the window of the car. The cash I had left on the seat just out of reach, and the guards had charged the street with shotguns. None of us stopped running until we were through the gate and out of site of that hellish taxi.
I retrieved my wallet from the cab driver, accompanied by two armed guards, and had the police called. There was nothing that could be done though as none of the witnesses on that busy street saw his motorcycle tags. He had gotten away and our experience in Medellin had been irreparably marred.
We all agreed that this had been one of the most bizarre and dangerous moments in any of our travels. We, three professional travelers who had been around the world more than once with enough stories of our travels to keep listeners entertained for days, had never encountered something like this (aside from Jake, who ran for his life from authorities in Kenya, but I’ll let him tell that story). It was decided. We were leaving Medellin.
We packed our things, called an Uber, and headed to the airport—hoping that our next destination would be safer.
Click on any of the thumbnails below to see the full size image.
A Cartegena experience
Before our plane even took off, we got the full Cartegena experience. As we sat in our seats awaiting takeoff, five of the most voluptuous women I have ever seen boarded the plane. Girls, though, is a more fitting description. They were all around 16-20, in exaggerated heels, accompanied by very well-dressed man.
Prostitution is legal in Colombia in approved zones. These zones seem to be geographically targeted at tourists. Colombia is second only to Thailand in prostitution tourism in the world, and Cartegena seems to be the weekend destination of choice for sex workers in the country. These girls were like celebrities, and groups of young men could be seen and heard pointing and whispering in all languages. We had come to Cartegena for the culture of the walled city, though, in search of the rumors we had heard throughout our travels in Central America.
THe Walled City
Jake and I got up early the next morning and took a stroll along the beach looking for a descent place for breakfast with an ocean view. We were swarmed with vendors trying to sell us everything from rocks to massages. It was beyond annoying. As Jake and I sat there sharing travel stories and learning about each others lives we were harassed beyond measure. It felt awful.
As it turned out, Cartagena’s only redeeming quality is the culture to be found within the walled city. This early slave port was the first city in the Western Hemisphere to free African slaves. The streets of the walled city echoed this history. There is where we spent our time, hiding out from the overpopulated beaches run by prostitutes and souvenir vendors. The modern part of the city felt like a run-down Miami. I didn’t enjoy the time spent there, but perhaps I was still in shock from our last experience in Medellin. My expectations for Colombia didn't reflect our reality; this trip was starting to feel like a bust. Our small travel trio tried staying positive, but bottom line: Colombia sucked. And I mostly sulked on the flight to our next destination.
ISLA SAN ANDRES
Lost in paradise
Landing in San Andres felt like a movie. Our plane landed on a tiny landing strip; a small, two lane road and chainlink fence was all that separated it from the Caribbean waters. We deboarded the plane from a set of stairs directly onto the tarmac and walked into one of the smallest immigration offices I’ve ever been in. It was a 5 min walk from the airport to our Airbnb, which we happily made in order to save on an overpriced taxi.
Upon arrival we met Walter, a German born expat whose father had come to the island during the second world war. They were the proud owners of a deliciously smelling German bakery, famous on the island for their artisan breads. After dropping our luggage, Walter walked with us into town explaining the culture and history of the island of San Andres. Walter took us to his favorite soda (a small local restaurant) where we had the best chicken of our lives. We ate off of paper plates and sat in plastic chairs situated in the dirt. This was going to be a good week.
It’s hard to succinctly describe the time we spent on this little island. "Paradise" is the initial word that comes to mind. We enjoyed the incredible street food sold meters away from the beach. We lounged in cabanas meters away from crystal waters, where we read books and talked about life. We enjoyed clubs that looked out over the ocean and sang, danced, and drank in the homes of locals until the early hours of the morning. The island and it’s people were, for the most part, extremely welcoming and kind. This was the escape I had been searching for.
We spent a day lounging on the main beach, enjoying the bluest waters I've ever seen. We shared travel stories and our apparitions with one another. It was the perfect time to relax and recuperate from months of busy travel for work. Everything was extremely affordable and we enjoyed the laid back island vibes the locals projected throughout the island.
To get an idea of just how small this tiny island actually is, we rented a two-row 4x4 and dedicated a day to driving the perimeter of the island. This was undoubtedly my favorite part of our time together in Colombia. It takes only three hours to drive the entire perimeter at a slow pace and our rental cost us less than $100 for the entire day. We had free reign of the island. The small villages and local beaches we encountered made it worth every penny. At one stop we made, a group of children were jumping off of a damaged pier into the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. After photographing them from afar with my analog camera, I approached them with my digital camera and asked to take their portraits. They loved it! The children began posing for the camera and trying to show me their most impressive jumps into the sea. It was an incredible moment.
The next day we dedicated to boating around Johnny Cay and the other micro islands that surround Isla San Andres. We visited islands so small that you could lay down in the sand, stick your toes in the ocean on one side, and your fingertips in the ocean on the other side of the island. We walked across the ocean in chest deep water between islands. We ate the most delicious, freshly caught and grilled pescados enteros and enjoyed local rum mixed with fresh fruits. It was an unbelievable experience unlike any other. San Andres was the hidden gem in Colombia I had hoped to encounter.
The rest of our time on the island was spent walking the white sand beaches, watching the sunrise on one side of the island and the sunset on the other side in the same day. I don’t have the words to accurately convey the atmosphere of the island. When it came time to leave the island, I don’t think any of us truly wanted to leave.
The time had come to go home. Work emails were piling up and shoot dates were fast approaching for both Jake and I. As much as we loved the little island of San Andres, we had to get off of island time and back to the real world.
To read more stories from my travels, check the link below...