Warm and inviting

by: HOLLY M. GILL - Botero Plaza, in Medellin, Colombia, named for the artist Fernando Botero, is home to a couple dozen of his sculptures, as well as an art museum.From the moment we touched down in Medellin, Colombia, it was clear that our trip would be among the most interesting of our lives.

My husband, Bob, daughter, Kelsey, and I stood out like sore thumbs as we traveled to South America for the wedding of our middle son, Carter, who waited for us at the airport — his head visible well above the crowd.

As my soon-to-be daughter-in-law explained the next day, Colombians don't see a lot of "gringos" — as they call all foreigners — especially North Americans. Consequently, they stared so much that I thought we might cause an accident as we walked around the city. People would stop and turn to watch us walk by.

by: HOLLY M. GILL - The town of Guatape, Colombia, has narrow streets lined with shops.Even without distractions, drivers were ridiculously reckless, driving full speed on narrow, winding roads, with pedestrians and dogs everywhere. It was definitely up to the pedestrians and dogs to watch out for cars and the ubiquitous motorcycles.

We had only one full day to see the city before leaving for the wedding venue, so the five of us walked from the apartment we were renting down the steep city streets to Botero Plaza, which celebrates the sculptures of artist Fernando Botero, a native of the city. The square, which features enormous bronze sculptures, is a popular spot for tourists and entrepreneurs hawking a wide variety of goods.

In a country known for its high quality coffee beans, it was surprisingly difficult to find American-style or sized coffees. Juan Valdez Cafés, a chain of coffee shops based in Colombia, are as popular as Starbucks, but most coffees sold on the street were not as strong and only about 4 ounces — much smaller and weaker than those Americans typically drink.

Medellin, the "City of Eternal Spring," is situated in the Aburrá Valley in the Central Andes, at an elevation of about one mile. Although the climate type is considered a tropical rain forest, temperatures are extremely moderate, ranging from average daily highs in the low 80s down to average lows of about 62 degrees, year-round.

The highest temperature ever in the city was just over 92 degrees, and the lowest recorded temperature was 46 degrees.

While we were perspiring as we walked around, I noticed locals dressed in sweaters, jackets and boots, who seemed perfectly comfortable in winter clothing.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - The author, Holly Gill, poses with her family, husband, Bob, daughter Kelsey, son, Carter, and new daughter-in-law Andrea, on the viewing platform at the top of La Piedra del Penol in Guatape, Colombia.The country has rainy seasons from April to June and August to November, but January and February, the driest months of the year, still get 2-3 inches of precipitation, which sometimes means that it rains a little every day, according to Carter, who has lived there for most of the past year.

Because it's just north of the equator, the sun rises at about 6 a.m. and sets at about 6 p.m. year-round, which was a little disconcerting. In Madras, when the temperatures are as warm as in Medellin, it's likely that the sun is setting at least a couple hours later, so it always seemed as if it were later in the evening than it actually was.

After walking around the plaza area, we rode the Metro and then the Metrocable — a gondola lift which transports about 30,000 people every day to and from the city from the barrios on the steep, surrounding hills. Looking down, we could see some of the shocking poverty not visible in the city.

Once known as the most violent city in the world because of the turf wars of competing drug cartels, Medellin and its suburbs in the Aburrá Valley are now relatively safe, although some of the barrios can be dangerous.

By not wearing flashy jewelry or expensive accessories in the city, by holding our purses and wallets close, and by walking around in groups, we never felt threatened. In fact, people seemed eager to practice their English on "gringos."

by: HOLLY M. GILL - La Piedra del Penol, a massive stone formation in the town of Guatape, about 53 miles northeast of Medellin, Colombia, is just over 7,000 feet at the top. The national monument has 659 steps to the top of the granite stone, and another 61 up a viewing tower on top of the rock.At the top of the line, we got off to visit Arví Park, a huge nature reserve on the mountain slopes to the east of the city, with an elevation of up to about 8,500 feet. We took a quick look around before heading back down to the city, where we made our way to an unusual little vegetarian restaurant, connected to a health food store for lunch.

The food there, as elsewhere in the city, was excellent, with a seemingly endless parade of new fruits and vegetables. My favorite was the lulo fruit, which looked somewhat like an orange, with an interior and taste that reminded me a little of a tart kiwi.

Whole grain bread, a staple at home, was hard to come by. Instead, arepas, small, white cornmeal and flour flatbreads are fried and served with butter for breakfast, or cheese and other toppings for lunch and dinner. Potatoes, beans, plantain and bananas were also served fried, which made me wonder how most of the city's 3.6 million people remain so slim.

Over the next week, we took part in our son's wedding, met dozens of relatives of our new daughter-in-law, learned more Spanish, and traveled in a three-car caravan (with 12 people) to our final stop: an old country house with a gorgeous view of a famous rock, La Piedra del Peñol.

The cultural differences that seemed so dramatic at first faded as we watched and laughed at silly American movies, including "Due Date" and "Just Go With It," rode a zipline, explored a pueblo and climbed the 720 steps to the top of the rock.

By the time we flew home last Wednesday, we genuinely felt that we belonged to our new, extended family.

Next week: Marriage, Colombian style.

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