Just like Colombia, Medellin has a lot of history...unfortunately a lot of it bad. At one point it was named the most dangerous place in the world. A stigma very hard to shake.
Despite its history (again, just like Colombia) however, the people here are some of the most positive and friendliest people we've ever met. Which is probably the reason we've managed to stay in one country for so long. Medellin is a huge modern city with many boroughs stretching on for miles, surrounded by beautiful green mountains. It's a very friendly, clean and welcoming city that's not too fast paced.
Most people not familiar with Colombia will probably have heard of either Bogotá (the capital) or Medellin (home to one of the richest & ruthless criminals to date:Pablo Escobar). Medellin is more than just Pablo Escobar and the well known drug as we began to find out. In fact most people here (especially those born before the 90's) remember exactly what it was like living in fear during the time of bombings and shootings being a daily occurrence. Most people detest the damage and image this has had on the city and refuse to support it in
any way. Even our guide also called Pablo, during our walking tour had to 'have a word' with a passerby he had overheard badmouthing the tour. The problem is some locals assume the tour group are promoting and painting a "sex'd-up" image of Pablo Escobar to gringos who have came to the city for the sole purpose of one person.
Walking through the bustling markets with what seemed like a never ending row of various clothes stalls, we did notice books about Pablo Escobar as well as jumpers with his face on. Although, during our whole time in Medellin, not once did we see anyone wearing one.
The walking tour is the complete opposite to what some of the locals think though. The tour only touches briefly on that period and focuses on other historic moments of Medellin and its positive transformation. Our guide also expressed to us his dislike of the drug cartels in the city and how they continue to thrive. What concerned us during our stay in Medellin was not the amount of cocaine that was available to buy from the local dealers in parks but at how many international travellers bought and used the
drug regularly. Pablo (our guide) and our Spanish teacher Violeta both asked "why do travellers do this? Do they not know the effect it has on our country?"
One of the 'effects' they speak about is corruption. Drugs are a big business and the more being sold, the more some members of the police and politicians become greedier for easy cash. We'd heard many stories from travellers themselves of being 'shaken down' for money. One set of police found drugs on someone, threatened them with jail, charged them COP100,000 and gave them their drugs back!!
Shamefully (from our point of view) it seems as though it is only travellers buying it. Many travellers go Medellin for that reason alone - to try the cocaine. Don't get us wrong, Medellin does have its own drug addicts although they generally seem to be on the harder/cheaper stuff.
During our 'free' walking tour, Pablo spoke on the pride of the people of Medellin, who call themselves Paisa's. Over a 300 year period in (almost) complete isolation from other influences within the large valley; the melting pot of Spaniards, Spanish minorities and the indigenous people of the area of Medellin eventually
became the Paisa. The pride can be mostly seen in the impressive pieces of artwork telling the history of the Paisa people throughout the city.
The city was just how the many people we spoke to on our travels here described it. What was once a no go area for outsiders is now a vast sprawling modern city with the only metro line in the country, with a breathtaking backdrop within the valley. The surrounding hills are home to some of poorer residents of the city, with brick houses looking like they have been stacked upon one another reaching higher up the hills. The metro station is clean and safe. This is another thing Paisa's are proud of. You wont find a scratch or even a pen mark on the metro trains or stations. The metro came about during a turbulent time in Medellin's history during the civil war and it was a miracle that it was actually built. It's like a beacon of hope for the people of Medellin - despite all of the destruction surrounding it, it still stood the test of time. The exact same can also be said about the people of Medellin (and Colombia
tbh) - Thankful to be alive, optimistic and wont let ANYTHING get them down. Plus the metro is really cheap too.
As we walked around the city we took in the busy vibe of its centre. It was christmas in a few days (it didn't feel like it at all despite the trees and decorations) so the shopping area was filled with locals shopping for family/loved ones. Clothes stalls lined the shopping street; some selling ladies clothes, some only hats, some just selling belts. We had to literally squeeze between stalls in close proximity to each other as the vendors constantly yelled "a la orden" as we passed.
One shocking thing our guide pointed out was a small white church in the middle of this busy shopping area. It wasn't the church that was unusual it was the stalls right beside it selling hardcore porn dvds with very graphic images on the front. All out in the open. What's worse was that area was also known for prostitutes - you couldn't miss them. Two huge contrasts: church and sin, side by side. But here its somehow accepted as normal. Pablo explained it as, the 'clients' would utilise the
services of said prostitutes and then return to the church for forgiveness. A perpetual cycle of sin and forgiveness.
Like we mentioned, christmas was drawing near so we decided we would stay in Medellin until after then. Whilst here we also managed to find ourselves a great spanish teacher to provide us with some 1-1 spanish lessons. Colombians in general are really friendly and we found we were missing out on more indepth/cultural interactions by not being able to speak the language. Some travellers (mainly from English speaking countries) we met were perfectly happy with their next to non existent spanish whilst others seen the benefit of learning or could speak it well.
We stayed in the Poblado area, which is a few stops on the metro from the centre but near where most of the nightlife is. We were surprised at how many bars there were here, block after block. Bars and restaurants all playing a mix of salsa, reggaeton and electronic filled with partying Colombians and a few international tourists. One bar we'd passed had a huge queue stretching around the the block. What we found interesting was the varying ages within the queue, from scantily
clad 18+ year olds to conservatively dressed 55+, all ready for a night of dancing. Back home you wouldn't really find that mix of people going into a club.
We'd heard that this area was like 'gringo land' but we seen far more locals here than tourists. On one night we met a really nice Colombian couple at a bar who even treated us to drinks. It was a real challenge for us as we communicated in spanish using our limited vocabulary and grammar as well as attempting to decipher the sentences they were saying. Some say this is the best way to learn although maybe not in a bar with loud music whilst drinking.
In the centre of this bar area is the popular park - Parque Lleras. A very social area with several seating areas where people come to drink their own alcohol, listen to the music of nearby clubs/bars and get to know new friends. We came here on christmas eve with a group of people from our hostel where we got merry and brought in Christmas Day sharing travel experiences and tales.
As we'd witnessed in Cartagena, the locals drank and passed around
the national alcoholic beverage - Aguardiente, from small plastic shot cups. Its quite similar to the Greek drinks 'Uzo' or 'Sambuca' with an aniseed taste. There's only so much you can drink before you get sick of the sight of it. As we both learnt. So how was our christmas you ask??
Very relaxing - P chilled by the pool at our hostel whilst Chris chatted with other travellers and played snooker. A few days before Christmas day, our hostel told us they were going to do a christmas dinner, but on christmas day told us there wasn't going to be one! It was every man for himself in that small kitchen with no oven that evening.
After a quick stop at the supermarket (on xmas day) we purchased some veg and beef steak (for chris) and cooked ourselves a delicious meal of mashed potato, carrots, parsnips, potato, coleslaw and gravy. We even cooked some for Alex (who we initially met in Salento) and one of the staff members. During the day the hostel guests also wanted to hear a few xmas songs to make the scorching hot day feel a bit more 'christmassy'. The hostel 'dj'
Tasty healthy goodness..
with a little cream and candy sprinkles
for some reason believed that playing electronic music all day really loudly would induce the christmas spirit. P even collected a list of names from guests who wanted to hear anything else but loud electronic music but still he wouldn't change the music. We never let it ruin our day though.
Whilst in Medellin we took the time for some sight seeing. We visited the sombre Memorial museum which had exhibits (some interactive) highlighting the long violent history of Colombia including the civil war, the drug cartels and the guerrilla armies fighting for communism. It was very moving as we read story after story of attempts of peace blighted by assassinations and corruption.
During our walking tour we also visited a square which had 2 large bronze birds next to each other. These had been designed by the famous artist Fernando Botero, who creates amusing images with disproportionate figures. These two birds were the same but noticeably different however. One was new; a replacement for the ruined one next to it which was badly damaged in an intentional explosion which killed 30 people in 1995. The damaged one was left there as a reminder and in memory of
those who lost there life that day. Pablo, our guide said because of all the violence and bombings that has happened, many people tend to forget certain incidents, it almost became the norm. That is why they kept the damaged bird in the square and for the same reason built the memorial museum.
On boxing day we ventured out taking the metro and a cable car to the huge and popular Parque Arvi. The cable car was probably the best bit as we could see the whole city for miles sat within the valley. We expected an even better viewpoint from parque arvi itself but due to the angle of the hills, views of the city were obscured by the dense forest. After getting off the cable car we took a quick stroll through the farmers market at the entrance, treating ourselves to a tasty fruit bowl with chocolate sauce, condensed milk and sprinkles on. Delish.
Parque Arvi is a large national park in Medellin filled with forests, lakes and wildlife. It's also home to a number of scenic hiking trails. We chose a short walking trail that would take us to a waterfall.
We walked for
around for 20 minutes along a paved road with the forest set back behind a fence. When we finally reached the waterfall we were slightly underwhelmed by it. We were pretty sure it was the right one. It wasn't one of those 16ft drop waterfalls, it was more like a stream going over a slight bump.
The Colombian tourists seemed to enjoy relaxing and taking pictures by it though. We're not sure if there were any larger ones, as the park is huge, but as Chris hadn't been feeling too well and the sun had disappeared, we opted to return back to our hostel early than planned.
We didn't get to feel 'at one' with nature in parque Arvi, mainly because the path we walked was basically a road that shuttle buses used. However, we did see a few tents near the stream and unfenced off forested areas where Colombian families either enjoyed a big lunch, played outdoor family games or collected fire wood.
A lot of transformation has taken place in Medellin over the years, from planting bamboo trees in the city centre and installing interesting light columns where drug dealers and prostitutes once hung about.
Views from Comuna 13
The orange and black ramp looking thing is the escalator
There's even a set of escalators in a poor neighbourhood on a hill. Yes a set of escalators...up a hill. The exact same type you would find in a mall/shopping centre. It's the result of a forward thinking politician who provided the escalators to the impoverished area so that the poorer people of the city could commute to the city centre offering better jobs and education. Apparently some employers still turned away job applicants if they said they were from Comuna 13. We hope that has now changed.
Catching a metro, a cable car and a bus, we (including Alex) found ourselves at the foot of a hill surrounded by colourful houses. The houses all side by side and stacked on top of each other, stretched up from the base to the top of the hill. Walls were sprayed in graffiti and people stared as we walked around looking for these escalators. One thing to note was the graffiti; some of them were amazing images whereas others were simple slogans with a positive message.
Both Chris and Alex felt a little nervous and were reluctant to take pictures, but P not wanting to miss/forget anything, felt comfortable
enough with camera in hand and began snapping away. Turns out Comuna 13 is completely safe now! This area, was once again a very dangerous place 20 years ago but has now been completely 'pacified'. Finding the the right road we hopped on the first escalator. It felt so weird being on one outside, in a barrio (neighbourhood). Our brains couldn't comprehend that we were not in a shopping centre.
It took a few flights to get to the top but when we got there, we were treated to some amazing views of the stacks and stacks of colourful brick homes on the hill. Looking out at the neighbourhood it was like a maze, it reminded us in some way of one of those Escher drawings with the stairways that confuse you on what level they lead to. We wondered on whether the postman got confused when doing his rounds.
Whilst at the top admiring some of the amazing graffiti up there we briefly chatted with a young boy who lived there and also got speaking to a family cooking homemade arequipe (a bit like caramel made with milk and sometimes coconut) outside in a large pot on
an open fire. The family even offered us a dollop of the very thick custard-like stuff to share between us. "Feliz Navidad" they said as they shared out plates to family members. Neither of us were big fans of arequipe but ate the blob between us and enjoyed the company.
As we keep saying and will probably continue to say, Colombians are some of the most hospitable people we've ever met.
Transport: Salento to Medellin 82,000COP
Accommodation: Pit Stop hostel
Spanish lessons: Violeta Bernal
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