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Published: November 23rd 2022
Plans often change as many of us have realized throughout our travels. The plan looks good and appeared to be manageable….but then….the universe strikes. For us it was our route to Medellín. As we were driving from the airport in Pereira on our way to coffee country, our guide mentioned that the route to Medellín could take up to 20 hours.What?.... how can that be? We were to be driven there in a few days. It would normally take about six hours, but apparently some truck drivers are quite upset about increases in fuel costs by the government and have taken to blocking the main highway to Medellín. The thought of spending 20 hours in a car wasn’t a pleasant one, so we contacted our fixer and they put us on a one-hour flight from Pereira to Medellin. Problem solved courtesy of an airline aptly named Easy Fly.
The flight on a twin prop plane took us over the mountains and into the city. Medellín from the air looked magical as it is located in a valley and built up on either side of the Aburrá
Valley to the top of some pretty tall hills, as the city itself is
A very colorful tourist town
almost 5000 feet above sea level to begin with. With a population of over two and a half million people, this is no small city and is spread out. From there, a short ride to the hotel and we were safely ensconced in a city that to most Americans and others formerly held the title of one of the world’s dangerous cities. A bit on that later….
Our first night in Medellín included a chance to re-connect with a fellow TravelBlogger, Johnny, who has lived here for almost three years. Seems he discovered we were in town and we got to spend a very pleasant evening getting caught up as we hadn’t seen him since Paris, almost six years ago! He met us at the hotel where we took a nice stroll through this modern slice of the city, which is known as Zona Rosa and has quite the vibrant night life. The air was filled with the sounds of pulsating music and the younger crowd was just starting to begin their night on the town. Communa 13
Medellín has many different boroughs as it is spread out so wide. Our first day of exploring took us
up to Communa 13, which has a rather dark and checkered past, but now is safe and home to many street artists. The area is heavily populated and back in the day was a center for paramilitary, guerilla and gang activity. The crime and murder rate was exceptionally high at one time.
The wall art is impressive and the area has embraced tourism as a means of economic support for its citizens. We are told the bars and restaurants come alive around 4pm and go past midnight. The views of the city below showed just how much elevation change there was from this borough down to the city center. Many areas of town are poor but this one in particular stood out as it was difficult to walk to other parts of town due to the steep hills. One of the goals of local leaders was to create a way for people rather far away and up in these elevated boroughs to get to the center of the city, where more opportunities for work existed. A series of escalators were installed and these proved to be most useful as the ascent to this particular borough is quite arduous for
most as well as time consuming. The people of this section are no longer isolated and can get better paying jobs in the center of the city. The City and Sex Tourism
We made our way down to tour the city square where we saw many Botero bronze statues and unfortunately, prostitutes. Sex tourism is a major problem in Colombia and sex trafficking is a big challenge for the government. We saw many very young girls who were scantily clad and smiling at anyone who would look their way. Overall, Colombia is a poor nation and being a sex worker can be more financially rewarding than many of the jobs available. The minimum wage in Colombia pays about $200 a month.
Next up was a ride on the metro, which Medellín is quite proud of. Seems they got one and Bogata still has not….they like to brag on this. We were crammed in like sardines and our guide mentioned that it was not even rush hour. We put our masks on and rode six or seven stops, where we got off and hopped on a tram that took us up the side of the city and provided
us with expansive views. Back down we went and took the metro back into the city for a very nice lunch. We’ve noted that the food in Colombia is not particularly well-spiced and can be bland overall, but the soups can be quite good. Climbing El Peñol, Pablo Escobar and drug trafficking
A day trip was in the offing the next day and we set out to visit Embalse Peñol-Guatapé where a large reservoir was created by the construction of a hydroelectric dam that provides almost one-third of the electricity in Colombia. A boat ride enabled us to see the top of a church spire in the water, which was formerly located in the middle of the town. People were relocated several miles away by this project and this must have caused some consternation among the locals at the time.
The reservoir is also home to one of the vacation homes or party palace of the infamous Pablo Escobar. How infamous you may ask? He was the sole head of the Medellín Cartel of the 1970s and 80s. At the time of his death, he was reportedly worth $30 billion. It is estimated that his cartel was
bringing in over 70 tons of cocaine monthly into the United States using a network of smuggling routes from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, through Colombia that led eventually to the United States. We were told that about 40% of the eastern side of Colombia is jungle so there is no was to track what goes on. In 1991 he surrendered to authorities and was sentenced to only five years in a prison of his self-built prison La Catedral and also dodged extradition to the United States as well. He escaped after the government wanted to transfer him to a more standard prison and was hunted down and killed by the Colombian National Police.
Despite his brutal history, he also was very philanthropic, building houses for low-income people among other projects like power lines, soccer fields and the like. To some, he was known as "Robin Hood Paisa." He was even an alternate in the Colombian Assembly. All this time, there were massacres on the streets of Medellin and other towns, including police officers, judges and the like, making Medellin the “murder capital of the world.” That said….he was one bad man.
But back to the more sedate and
beautiful sites….we also climbed the 700 plus stairs at El Peñol, which is also known as “La Piedra” (The Stone). This is a 200 meter-high rock which provides some stunning views of the surrounding lake. Quite a climb, but we made it! When we were half way up our climb of El Peñol we noticed a medic. We asked our guide to find out if anyone ever had cardiac arrest and he had to provide CPR. We were told about two each day and up to six or seven on weekends. We said that must be medical attention not CPR. He emphatically said CPR. We still think something was lost in translation and those number reflected the need for oxygen or medical assistance. We will take photos of the climb to our doc to prove we do not need a stress test!
After this feat, we traveled a short distance to the nearby town of Guatapé, which was a charming village. As we wandered about, we stopped at an artist's studio as we saw a painting outside which caught our eye. We chatted with the artist for a while and talked price and shipping. After a wonderful lunch at
an Indian restaurant, we returned to the studio and bought the painting. On our way back to the hotel in Medellín, we also stopped on a hill which provided yet another nice view of the city and a thunderstorm that was nearby, but apparently not too threatening. A dark past
On our last morning in Medelíin, we visited the Casa de Memoria, which is a history of the violence in Medellín from the early 1960’s until peace was forged early in this century. Free to all, it is yet another sobering reminder of how violent people can be. FARC was responsible for over 200,000 deaths, but there were also paramilitary groups which were formed originally for protection for the wealthy which became notorious in later years.
Colombia is a very complex country with a dark past. Not until we came to Medellín did we have a true understanding of the multi-layered crime, greed, murder and corruption that has plagued this country. In the past there have been many government officials who were corrupt and they fought with and against the military, the guerrillas and the para-military. The para-military alone is believed to kill nearly 250,000
Goldfinch I think
He joined us for breakfast.
people. Before 2002, when things in this country calmed down people would disappear frequently and no one was certain which group was responsible. The para-military were often hired by the wealthy families for protection as they didn't think the other groups were serving their interest. In Colombia, there is a stark contrast between the people who have money and the extreme poverty in the other sections of town. On one hand Medellin is modern and exciting ... on the other hand it is raw, gritty and poor. The current President used to be a guerrilla fighter, but now is representing a more leftist agenda, which is a change in the political leadership in Colombia.
As we traveled around the country we met several ex-pats. This is a very affordable country to live in and the price for housing, Colombia is offering a digital nomad visa, which is encouraging more foreigners to live and work here. This is most likely going to be more common in more countries around the world as the digital age is most certainly upon us. Where we stayed:
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