2D89ADFD-6FC0-4297-A7AD-5FDBB47C633E_1_201_a-1024x770 2020 Retrospective: Where to Begin? Colombia The Expat Life
Bird’s-eye view of El Retiro, our new highland home in the Northern Andes

Happy New Year! And how is it possible that it’s already January 11??

At the end of every year, we like to look back on our travels and new experiences over the past 12 months. Here’s last year’s entry, focusing on our most popular posts in 2019. And it was also fun to revisit this post from Dec. 2019, our reflections after our first year of living in Colombia.

But 2020? How do we even start?

We’ve tried to get this post airborne a few times over the last couple of weeks. Our go-to excuse, logistically speaking, is that we moved from Medellín to an outlying town, El Retiro, on Dec. 28 (see more about that below!) and only Friday got up and running with functional internet. But if we’re being really honest, trying to capture the turmoil and anxiety, the highs and lows, the outright craziness of 2020 has been like nailing jello to a wall.

At this point, looking ahead seems a lot more appropriate (and empowering) than looking back. But we can’t let the last extraordinary year go without a little reflection, and before January dissolves into February.

You know what they say about hindsight . . .  so here we go with the Latitude Adjustment 2020 Retrospective!

JANUARY-MARCH: The “Old Normal”

We had big hopes and dreams for 2020, and lots of travel plans on the books.
In January, we kicked off our blogging year with one of the most popular posts we’ve ever written. We documented our tour of Moravia, a barrio that has transformed from violent trash heap to one of the city’s’ most vibrant and optimistic neighborhoods. It’s a truly inspiring story and emblematic of Medellín’s phoenix-like rise over the past two decades.

A Barrio Transformation in Medellin

In February, we journeyed to Barranquilla for Colombia’s world-renowned Carnival. As we stood squashed up against scores of other parade attendees and sat amidst hundreds of other sweaty folks in the stands, we hadn’t a clue how much the entire world was about to change.

Colombia’s Carnival!

Also in late February, we were treated to a visit by my (Susan’s) mom, Mary Lea Baker, all the way from Austin, Texas. We had been hearing about the virus that was spreading from Asia to other parts of the world. Nonetheless, we had a wonderful and carefree two weeks visiting some of our favorite places in and near Medellín. Here’s our post about our visit to a flower farm that plays a key role in Medellín’s renowned Feria de las Flores.

A Visit to a Colombian Flower Finca

In early March, we rented a car, loaded up our dogs, and took what would become our last out-of-town trip for many months – to the quaint and scenic Colombian towns of San Rafael and San Carlos.

Two Pleasant Colombian Towns: San Rafael and San Carlos

MARCH-SEPTEMBER: Locked Down

Pandemic reality began to sink in and we started canceling trip after planned trip (including a three-week journey to Spain and Portugal – that one really hurt). In mid-March, the entire country of Colombia went into a national lockdown with varying degrees of restrictions that lasted until September, when international air travel resumed and jump-starting of the economy began in earnest.

We felt a need to document the extraordinary times in which we we found ourselves and record our experience as U.S. expats living through a global pandemic.  So we launched a new blog series: Colombia Expats in a COVID-19 World. We kept it going through June, when it finally became clear that the world would be in this crisis for a very long haul.

Looking back on that series now, it’s a little ironic to see how naive we all were about how long the crisis would last, and how and when we’d be able to get back to our “normal” lives. Here’s the very first entry:

Colombia Expats in a COVID-19 World: And So It Begins

As the pandemic and our restricted lives dragged on, we became riveted by the news back in the U.S. The police murder of George Floyd, the incredibly callous response by the so-called leadership in our home country, and the subsequent global Black Lives Matter movement pushed us to write this post:

We Are All George Floyd

SEPTEMBER-NOVEMBER: Some Freedom Returns

On Sept. 1, the Colombian government lifted the national quarantine and strict travel restrictions that had kept us home for more than five months. Needless to say, we travel addicts were getting pretty antsy! So we finally took the plunge and bought a car, something we’d resisted for almost two years as Colombian expats. Since it was abundantly clear we wouldn’t be traveling internationally for a while, we decided to change our focus to Colombia and the wealth of sights and experiences within its borders.

First on the list was Barbosa, a scenic village that’s just a short drive north of Medellín at the top of the Aburrá Valley.

A Quaint Colombian Town: Barbosa, Antioquia

Next, we spent a morning exploring another nearby town, El Carmen de Viboral – known for its ceramics workshops.

El Carmen de Viboral: A Tradition of Ceramic Artisans

By November, virus cases in Colombia had started to wane (temporarily, as it turned out – we’re now experiencing another huge surge). Feeling a little more adventurous, we decided to take our first overnight trip since the pandemic began. We chose the beautiful colonial town of Jericó and really enjoyed our long weekend there.

Jericó, Colombia Turns on the Charm

In late November, after canceling yet another trip to the states, we went instead to Cartagena over the long Thanksgiving weekend. This was our first air trip since the pandemic began (and will likely be our last for a while). Our strategy was to stay outside as much as possible and avoid people, which turned out to be easy – Cartagena was practically a ghost town. It was a rare opportunity and an interesting time to visit this normally tourist-saturated city.

Cartagena, Colombia Out in the Open

DECEMBER: A Change of Scene

From mid-March through the end of April, the Colombian economy was almost completely shut down. With so many people unable to make a living and feed their families, there were few silver linings during that period. But one of them was the QUIET. We could hear ourselves think. The air cleared, and amazing bird life flew into the city. The streets were almost empty of traffic for our twice-daily (allowed) dog walks. It was bliss.

As things opened back up, we noticed a change in our Medellín neighborhood. Instead of one or two fruit vendors a day, there were at least 10, many bellowing over megaphones (AGUACATE, AGUACATE!). People were selling everything from “bolsas, bolsas!” (plastic trash bags) to “trapeadores y escobas!” (mops and brooms) to cell phone accessories. With their normal gigs (bars and nightclubs) still shut, suddenly there were herds of street musicians, including full mariachi bands and singers with varying degrees of talent (some of them excellent and entertaining). We certainly don’t blame any of them; people suffered terribly during the shutdown and now they were desperate to feed their families any way they could. But, combined with the return of the usual hordes of motos, diesel-smoke-belching trucks, and construction noise from across the street, the din was incredible. By December, we’d had enough.

We set our sights on moving out of Medellín to one of the small neighboring pueblos to the east, an area known as “El Oriente.” After ruling out the towns of Rionegro and San Antonio de Pereira, we lucked into a beautiful rental duplex in historic and scenic El Retiro, about a 45-minute drive from the city and only 30 minutes from the international airport.

There’s so much else we want to say about this lovely place and its rich history, and we’ll do it in an upcoming post. For now, we’re basking in the cool, clean highland air (at 7,000 feet), the incredible greens of the surrounding mountains, and some of the bluest skies we’ve seen in a while. And the PEACE AND QUIET? It’s paradise.

Now What?

So far, 2021 doesn’t feel very auspicious. COVID-19 is still raging out of control in the U.S. and many other parts of the world, and Colombia is grappling with surging cases after the excesses and partying of the holidays. And it’s been difficult to watch the ongoing chaos in the U.S. as the current administration comes to an ignominious close. Like so many Americans, we’re still reeling from the horrific events just a few days ago, when a violent mob overwhelmed and desecrated the U.S. Capitol. What’s going to happen between now and inauguration day on the 20th?

But eternal and cockeyed optimists that we are, we know that better days are around the corner. With the Biden-Harris administration taking over in a few days, the U.S. can begin the long process of damage repair, healing, and reconciliation. Now that effective vaccines have been approved and are being distributed in countries around the world, there’s growing light at the end of the COVID tunnel. Colombia has an orderly plan for vaccination in place, with the first shots to begin in February. We’re hopeful (maybe confident is too strong a word) that we’ll be able to resume international travel by the second half of the year.

Wait – I feel a song coming on!

Thanks for reading our 2020 Retrospective. We wish everyone a New Year filled with hope, health, healing, and a return to some sense of normal!

52 Comments

  1. Tough to be a cockeyed optimist just now, but what choice do we have, ya know? Thanks for the ‘optimistic’ post, and enjoy your new digs. It looks edenic. (See you Thursday, I hope!)

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Yes, we’ll be there Thursday! Send the link when you can 🙂 Looking forward to seeing your faces!

  2. What a year! Enjoyable read, Susan and John. Wishing you a new year filled with hope, happiness and good health.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you so much, Jane! Wishing all the same back to you 🙂

  3. Cries for “Bolsa’ reminds me of being on a bus through the mountains in Colombia! The locals seem to get car sick easily.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh, gosh, a bolsa might come in handy for one of those bus rides 🙂 Thanks for your comment and Happy New Year!

  4. I love your blogs! Thank you for being so intelligent about what you write and how you express yourselves. Yes, we look forward to a president who isn’t a narcissistic sociopath and some semblance of an orderly transition.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Jofannie! Good to hear from you. And thanks for your comments. Let’s hope the transition is somewhat orderly – I think we’re in for some rocky days. But we’ll try to keep our cockeyed optimism 🙂

      Hope you’re staying safe and healthy and haven’t given up on your dream to come to Colombia. COVID won’t last forever.

      Cheers,
      Susan

  5. What an enjoyable, and optimistic look back at the crazy year we have just experienced. I’m so happy I was able to get a never to be forgotten trip of a lifetime in before everything shut down. You two rolled out the red carpet for me!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We LOVED your visit! It was the highlight of our year (really). Can’t wait to get you back down here one of these days! Hugs 🙂

  6. Excellent writing Susan, as usual, and we wish you happiness in your new Retiro duplex!🌹

  7. Despite all the turmoil, you managed to have a pretty busy year and got to see some lovely sights. Small mercies, I guess. And a new home! Now that is the definition of turmoil!! Enjoy it all, Mel

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Mel! And you’re absolutely right. We have a lot to be grateful for; in fact, I should have worked that into the post somehow. Hope all is well with you and yours, and Happy New Year!

  8. I can relate to “where to start”. Good for you—excellent retrospective. So nice that your mom snuck in a visit before all hell broke loose. I share your cautious optimism about possible international travel in the second half of the year. Until then, I look forward to reading more about your life/travels in Columbia.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Caroline! So much to see and do right in our own backyard. Hope you had a lovely holiday and Happy New Year!

  9. Great photos! Glad to make your acquaintance this weekend online. Once we’re all vaccinated, would you like to go to Chile? My husband and I lived there a year and its a wonderful country.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Rebecca! We’re really glad we’re connected 🙂 Absolutely, Chile is high on our list. In fact, we had big plans to make a car camper trip down through Patagonian Chile and Argentine, before the COVID sky fell. Someday . . .

      I’ll check out your blog to find out more about your Chilean expat experience.

      Cheers and Happy New Year!

  10. Great retrospective, John and Susan. I’m glad you found a new place in El Retiro. The building and neighbourhood look very nice. Wishing you a healthy and happy 2021!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Natalie! Happy New Year right back atcha 🙂

  11. New car, new home, new administration! Sounds like it’s setting up to be a better year! Loved reading this, with the posts inside a post. Great idea! Happy New Year to you and may all of us gain back some peace and stability in our lives after the past four years of daily disruption and tyranny. Cheers and stay healthy!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, right?! Lots to be thankful for and optimistic about. I discovered that “post within a post” thing by accident – I really like the way WordPress does that (or maybe it’s my theme). Happy New Year back to you, Kelly – I think it’s going to be a better one for all. Hope you and yours are staying healthy.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Donna! I couldn’t resist 🙂 The song is a little corny but South Pacific is one of my faves – with so many themes that ring true today. Hope you had a lovely holiday and a nice, peaceful New Year.

  12. What a year indeed and its effects are lingering into 2021. On a positive note, I am SO jealous that you have Andean Motmots living in your backyard! I love them! Enjoy your new home and all that El Retiro has to offer. Hopefully, at some point in 2021, live concerts at the arts complex there will be able to resume.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Henry! So far, we’re really enjoying our new life as Oriente residents. We did a walk-around at the arts complex the other day and we’re looking forward to programs there – hopefully soon. Hope you weathered the long quarantine weekend and you’re hanging in there!

  13. You know what, we’ve been trying to post a 2020 review but like you found too many barriers and instead reverted to the series of historic photos which we’ve been posting. The UK is now back in full lockdown so we are just biding our time at home and trying to be patient as we wait for our next travel opportunity. Carry on enjoying your Colombian exile guys – and keep the informative posts coming, you continue to keep placing Colombia higher on our wish list!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Sounds like we’re in the same boat – biding our time 🙂 So much hinges on vaccination for travel addicts like ourselves. But it seems things are going pretty well in the UK in terms of getting vaccine out (?). We hope you two can get back on the trail soon. Thanks for your comment – hope to see you in Colombia one of these days!

  14. Even with all the restrictions and pandemic issues you seemed to have a fairly busy year and got around on a few trips. Not as many as you’d hoped obviously but you are still safe and well and hopefully 2021 will prove to be a better year.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Jonno – yes, we had a good year! A lot to be grateful for. Hope you guys are doing OK hunkered down there in the UK, and that things get better for you soon. I think 2021 is going to be a much better year for all!

  15. As many have already commented, 2020 saw you both safe and healthy, despite the chaos. I can’t imagine enduring the noise you described from the street vendors! Your move sounds amazing and at 7000 ft elevation, almost heaven! It’s remarkable to look back at early 2020 and see how so much changed. Time will tell in this new year. A great retrospective to read!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Terri! Indeed, we have a lot to be grateful for. When we first moved to Medellin, the vendors were more charming than annoying, but that’s when there were only one or two a day 🙂 But it says so much, doesn’t it, about how privileged we are that we were able to pick up and move to a quieter place. It’s made me reflect lately on the hardships so many people face, and not just during COVID. Thinking a lot about how we can make more of a difference this year. Ha, you caught me in a pensive mood! Anyway, we hope you have a lovely and peaceful holiday season, and 2021 will bring lots of great things your way.

  16. What a year it’s been – so much change and chaos everywhere.
    Your move sounds like a great (and totally understandable choice). I look forward to your posts about your new location.
    I’ve been following events in the US since the day of the election. I never follow the news, let alone politics, but I knew this one was important for all of us. I’m so sorry for what’s happening there. 🙁
    I too hope for better times ahead.
    Wishing you all the best for 2021. May it be better!
    Alison

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      It’s funny – when we became expats in 2015, we thought we would be less connected to happenings back home. But little did we know we’d soon be entering the Trump era, and now we’re more glued to news than ever before. Our options here are a bit limited – BBC World News, CNN International, and Fox (ugh) are all we get in English. Even these international outlets have been wall-to-wall US news lately, given the current events. It does go to show how much influence US politics have on the rest of the world, for better or for worse.

      Anyway, we’re all holding our breath that something terrible doesn’t happen on inauguration day. If we can just get past that, better days are ahead. There I go again, the cockeyed optimist!

      All the best of the New Year to you and Don. It WILL be better!

      Cheers,
      Susan

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Muriel. Onward and upward! And all the best of the New Year to you 🙂

  17. Happy New Year! I enjoyed the pictures and travels you were able to do in Colombia. Praying for a better year 2021!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Liz! It can only get better, right?? Wishing you and your family all the best for the New Year!

  18. I remember most of these posts. Such an eventful year, in which Covid dealt the cards. Buying a car was a fantastic move, so you could keep exploring, but closer to home. I was wondering why you moved out of Medellin and am looking forward to learning what made you decide on El Retiro.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Liesbet! I’m realizing I never replied to your comment 🙂 As soon as I get my act together (It’s been a busy few weeks with my job) I’ll get that El Retiro post up. All will soon be revealed!
      – Susan

  19. I’m curious about why you ruled out Rionegro and San Antonio de Pereria? The weather in those two places looks absolutely dreamy. Did owning a car help make that decision?

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi – thanks for visiting our blog! We took a good look at Rionegro, Llanogrande and San Antonio also. That area is really booming – lots more traffic and lots and lots of big housing developments going up. It wasn’t quite the “chill” atmosphere we were looking for. But there’s plenty of great restaurants and shopping over there, and it’s only about half an hour from El Retiro. Here we get the best of all worlds!

  20. Great read! It’s strange to think I was traveling in Colombia in January 2020 just before the pandemic. Your new home looks really lovely! I’m living in France now and I’ve been wanting to get back to the states to see my family as well…let’s hope for a better 2021.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks for reading! Let’s hope you can see your family soon and we’ll be getting back to some sort of “normal.” Onward and upward 🙂

  21. John and Susan, I really enjoyed this recap of your year. And what a year it has been for all of us, at times it almost feels like it is just “science fiction” and not real life…but then you realise that it is actually happening.
    Congratulations on moving to El Retiro, it sounds like a very relaxing and beautiful place. I will be looking forward to hearing more about your new chosen home town. Also such a great idea to buy a car, it can really give you so much more freedom for exploring Colombia and maybe even other countries in SA? Keep well guys 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Gilda! We really admire how you two made the most of the year with your car-camping trip through Italy. I think it’s all about working with what we have at the moment and hoping for more of a sense of “normal” soon, right? Are you back home in England and have you had your jabs yet? As for seeing more of SA in our car, it’s possible – but there are still lots of travel restrictions everywhere. Poco a poco, I guess! And keep well, both you. 🙂

  22. I’m glad both of you remained safe and healthy throughout 2020. What a crazy year it was! I must say I’m a little bit more optimistic for 2021, but it all depends on the effectiveness of the vaccines and the speed of which people are vaccinated. Hope all is well!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Bama – same for you and yours, glad you’ve stayed safe and healthy. I think the world is in a holding pattern at the moment, waiting for vaccination to be widespread and also to see what these variants are going to do. But we are also optimistic. Take care!

  23. I can see why summing up 2020 proved challenging. Just living it was challenging. Your new location sounds blissful. Here’s hoping the year ahead brings much better and freer days.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Sue! Same to you and Dave, and I hope 2021 has gotten off to a good start for you both and you’re staying warm!! (BRR, it’s cold up there.)

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