The first thing I noticed about Medellin, before I even arrived in the city, on the descent in el avion was how green it is. Mountains surround the city and the jagged lines of the lush, green peaks made me giddy with excitement. I thanked my lucky stars for my last minute decision to pack hiking shoes and vowed that I would spend some time in these vast acres of trees in my free time.
Within a few days of being here I was already craving a trip to the great outdoors, to the trees and cool moist air of the mountains, away from the noise and pollution and bustle of the city. I joined a Medellin hiking group on Facebook and introduced myself to the members. I got two responses instantly. One member, Jack—from the states as well, but living in Medellin—commented with a link to Kinkaju Hikes Medellin. Clicking brought me to a separate Facebook page for this hiking group which had a list of upcoming events. One, for the following weekend, was hiking and paragliding (parapente) in Cocorná.
I’m not a big fan of heights. At first read this sounded a bit terrifying to me. But it also sounded exciting. And why the F not? So à la Shonda Rhimes Year of Yes, I messaged Jack, the administrator, within minutes. I signed on to go, and just like that I had an adventure planned for my first weekend in Medellin.
The morning of the hike I had to get up at the crackle of dawn. I was to meet the group at el Terminal de Transportes del Norte. North Station. (Boston—you’re not the only one!) From here we would take a bus the hour and a half south-east of the city to Cocorná, where our adventure would officially begin.
Having been in the city less than a week, I still had yet to take the metro at this time. So, in true princess form, I Ubered my way to the station to meet the others. Now, having taken it plenty of times, knowing how easy and reliable it is—and faster than sitting in city traffic—I quite enjoy taking the metro. But for a Sunday morning at 7am, the private car was nice and allowed me to sleep an extra hour.
I found the gang, only Jack and two other people due to last minute cancellations, waiting by ticket booth 15. We made our introductions, I tried not to be too nervous or awkward, and we found our bus. Nothing like the city buses that run in Boston—dirty, hard plastic seats—these were more like coaches you take for longer distances—a Greyhound, or a Logan express, for example. The bus was clean, the seats were comfy, and we had the whole thing to ourselves. I took my own row, thinking “why not utilize the space?” Jack warned me that we’d be picking people up along the way and all seats would likely end up being filled. Boy, oh boy, was he right. After the first stop it became apparent the bus would be full of people, so I took a seat next to Jack for the remainder of the trip.
Gang's all here!
Jack was living in the DC area, working as a teacher before he came to Colombia. His story was similar to a lot of the expats I’ve met here. They come, they fall in love—with the city or one of its inhabitants—and they stay. He told me he’s hoping to get to a point of being able to be here full time.
Coming here with US dollars is a treat. Things are cheap; money stretches for weeks where it would only putter along for days at home. But living here while earning Colombian pesos is an entirely different story. The cost of living skyrockets as the value of your wage decreases. And as it turns out Medellin is quite expensive.
At the moment my new friend Jack is trying to make it work with his tourism business, Kinkaju Hikes. He and his colleagues do all the planning for these hikes and day trips. They are knowledgeable about the area and take newbies like me, or other residents who like the idea of hiking in a group, and are paid only in the tips given at the end of the day. To supplement his income Jack spends a few months a year working outside of Colombia. He is traveling to Costa Rica in a few months to teach English for a while, to earn and save and then head back here to Medellin to continue hiking and touring and living amongst the Paisas.
After a very interesting bus ride, people getting on and off, children, old-timers, people trying to sell snacks and strawberries, we arrived in Cocorná. Well, we arrived on the side of the road on the way to Cocorná. The pueblo of Cocorná, where the bus route would end, is in a valley, just like Medellin. We stopped at a higher altitude, near to the parapente businesses and the start of our waterfall hike.
Sad to say I do not know the name of the waterfall we hiked to, but it was tall and grand and I’ve lots of pictures to remember it by. The hike started in what seemed like a random spot on the side of the main road, just short of the parapente locations and before a bridge traversing the river. It was about a 40 minute hike, muddy but easy, and we finished at a perch of rocks at the halfway point of the falls to enjoy the view and some snacks. Along the way, I talked with Jack, with Elena from Medellin, and another very nice guy from Brazil, now living in Medellin, whose name escapes me. I got to practice a bit of español, but I was so new to the language at that time that I didn’t have much to say. I did learn the words for insects and taxes, and we talked about living in Medellin, learning Spanish, and about different group hikes around the city.
from a distance
and exploring close up
After our lovely hike, it was time to do the scary and jump off the side of the mountain. The other girl on our trip did not want to parapente, Jack had been before and didn’t think he would do it, and the other guy from Brazil was also debating. I did a heavy dose of peer-pressuring, and both Jack and Mr. Brazil ended up deciding to do it.
The company we used was Parapente Cocorna, and they were great!
The three of us suited up and got ready to fly. I had wondered beforehand whether I could bring my phone for photos or not. In the very likely chance that I’d never go paragliding again, I wanted to have some photos from the air. (Insta or it didn’t happen!) But the thought of my phone falling from the sky to the ground did not sit well with me. My life traveling with T-Mobile has been so incredible, and I really didn’t want to have to break the bank for a new phone while here and not working for a month and a half. I bought a selfie stick for the occasion not knowing if I’d be able to use it. But these guys are pros, and they had a whole system.
I tentatively pulled out my selfie stick, asking the guy for whom I’d just signed a waiver in case I fell from the sky and died, if I could bring it. He took the selfie stick and my phone from me, pulled out a long piece of sturdy twine-like string and began wrapping the two together. When he was finished there was no way my phone would be separating from that selfie stick, or it from my arm. He provided a selfie stick and twine for the Brazilian guy, who was even more concerned about his phone than I was.
Getting suited up...
Selfie stick and all!
Out of the three pilots, I was given the one who spoke the most English, which was not very much at all. I stood there in my gear, while my pilot hooked us together and to the parachute, and watched as both of my two adventure companions made their way, one after the other, running until the edge of the steep drop-off and jumping. Soaring off away from me. I wished I could have gone first or second because waiting to do something new or scary can make you anxious. Oddly, by this point I wasn’t all that scared. I had so resigned myself to the idea of doing it that I kind of just wanted to get started. When it was our turn, an assistant held on to the straps holding me in my gear and said “Run!” He ran alongside us, as he had with the other two, breaking a sweat, until we reached the end and there was no running left to do. I was surprised at how difficult it was to run, but once the parachute fills with air it becomes a struggle. Alas, the reason for the running assistant.
Once we lifted off the ground, and were soaring through the air, any fear I had was completely melted away. Sure, I was high up, but it was a slow, easy ride. I got to sit back (once I’d finally figured out how to inch myself all the way back in my harness) and relax. Enjoy the scenery below. The valley sprawled under me, rolling green hills, small farm houses, and beyond that a cluster of civilization that turned out the be the pueblo of Cocorná. There were mountains on all sides and above all, what I could see was green. Everywhere. The river, Rio Claro, winding it’s way down the center. What I felt, instead of fear, was awe; Joy. How incredibly happy I was that I’d gone with my gut and signed on for this scary experience. I could have floated above that valley for hours and been perfectly content.
But at the end of fifteen minutes it was time to put my feet, well, my butt, back on the ground. We came in hot to the landing spot in the little village, scaring the dickens out of three wild horses that had been peacefully grazing. I was instructed to lift my feet and legs, and we landed with a thud that hurt less than I expected. I met up with Mr. Brazil at the landing site, and both of us were thrilled we’d done the parapente. We laughed at the terror of the caballos, and he told me he’d landed just a few feet ahead of where I had—on a concrete slab. Unfortunate, but there were no injuries sustained.
After our pilots rolled up our equipment, we all hopped in a beat up old car and made our way back up to the launch site. Though it was a hot day, and hotter in the close quarters of the full car, with the windows down, the fresh mountain air and views of the valley and the river, I found it to be a lovely ride. We got to see the little pueblo of Cocorná and people swimming in the Rio Clara. The hills above us and the valley, sinking deeper below as we headed for higher ground.
My three new hiking buddies and I had lunch together in the restaurant next to the launch site. The food was fine, the views breathtaking. We could see the waterfall we’d hiked to, and the valley we’d soared above. We watched the colorful fabrics floating through the sky as other people took their turns paragliding and traded stories of our own flights. Jack’s was by far the best story because it involved vomiting after landing. He recovered, not to worry! We had a nice lunch, and afterward we sipped hot mochas and sat in hammock chairs, discussing Colombia, it’s social issues, and the various governments that control the places we all call home.
The day was long and good, and on the bus ride home all of us managed, intentionally or not, to have a siesta. With my new friends by my side, I took my first spin on the Medellin metro back to El Poblado and to my house.
It was such a fun day! A day that I never would have had the chance to experience if I’d listened to the stupid inner voice of mine that’s afraid of heights, of meeting new people, of not speaking enough of the local language, of any number of things. If you’re staying in Medellin for a while I highly recommend getting the F out of the city (although I love it immensely) and doing some hiking with this group or another. I’ve included links to Kinkaju’s website and facebook below, and be sure to tip your guide if you’re happy with the day (as I know you will be!) I’ve also linked to the more general Medellin Hiking Group FB page, where locals, expats and visitors go to ask or share advice on hikes in the area or meet up with others looking to get out of the city. As a woman traveling alone and a lover of the outdoors, this is the perfect way to do what you want to safely and make new friends at the same time!
I haven’t had an adventure quite this big for the rest of my time in Medellin, but I’ve done a couple little hikes and have seen some vistas that will blow your freaking mind. This city is made for Instagram. I’ll post more about some city hikes that are great for getting in a workout or spending some quiet time in the trees.