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Published: February 11th 2020
Our final stop in Colombia was none other than the now infamous Medellin...Pablo Escobar’s bloodshed territory made even more famous thanks to the Netflix series Narcos. After 5 weeks in Colombia we were ready for this city...and it did not disappoint - we just wished we had more time to soak it all up.
We arrived in the evening and the first thing that struck me was all the million little lights that adorned the surrounding hills that made each vista look like a sparkling Christmas tree. It was extra pretty and I wondered what these homes would look like in daylight. We grabbed an Uber and feeling like locals now, Marco sat in the front and me in the back. (It turned out that Colombia wasn’t the only country with this “is Uber legal or illegal” question and in most places it operates with a lot of controversy). I had booked us a small but stylish studio apartment in the quiet part of El Poblado which is where all tourists stay when visiting Medellin. It’s safe, leafy, and has great places to eat and drink. Our studio was very stylish too with all the mod-cons
like Netflix inbuilt into the huge TV (and no we didn’t have time to watch Narcos), Spotify and Alexa (“Alexa, play Cumbia”). It was a bit of luxury after 5 weeks on the road and I was grateful. We showered and headed straight out to El Poblado to meet our friends Angela and Sergio whose stay in Medellin coincided with ours, and we were delighted. As our next stop was Peru, we ended up going to a Peruvian fusion restaurant to drink Pisco sours and eat ceviche. I (or rather my stomach) was having a bit of a hard time digesting the Colombian bandeja paisana, and once again, I was grateful for the dining experience we had. El Poblado was cool, very much like Zona T in Bogota but much much classier, quieter and had a more New York East Village feel. We enjoyed some drinks in a bar nearby and the chance to experience the Medellin night life. There was a really good vibe and ambiance and we got the impression that the people of Medellin were proud of their city and heritage. I must add that it felt very safe despite the fact that that same morning Angela
and Sergio had seen a guy pull out his gun and point it against another guy’s head just outside their hotel.
The next morning we saw Medellin in all its glory. It’s known as the city of eternal Spring, it really did feel like a gorgeous Spring morning; sunshine and a fresh wind with a delicious temperature of 23 degrees. All Colombian places we visited seem to have their own unique microclimates and Medellin’s was no exception. It’s also a very green city and much more laid back than Bogota...suffice to say if I had to choose it would be Medellin all the way. Another unique element of this city is its metro cable system that gives it charm and colour. This was a government funded initiative that proved really popular and many other cities have followed suit in having a metro cable system called a Teleferica, like La Paz in Bolivia. As the city continued to grow into the steep hills surrounding it, it became critical to create a system to allow locals to easily travel up and down, and in and out of the city. One of the unexpected outcomes is that the cable cars
are now Medellin’s number 1 tourist attraction, giving people a view of the sprawling barrios of Medellin. The most popular of these barrios is the Comuna 13. We met Angela and Sergio to do a walking tour of the neighbourhood to get up close to life in the barrio. When we arrived to the meeting point we were surprised at how many tourists there were hoping to join a tour. We missed out on two walking tours as they were all full but this was for the best as we were approached by a young guy in his twenties with “Medellin 1994” tattooed on his arm asking us if we were interested in a “real” tour of Comuna 13. He was legitimate as he had his own company but he tried to offer something a bit different than the other, more commercial tours. We liked him and so set off on a 3-hour tour of his barrio where he seemed to be a bit of a celebrity, high fiving all the locals and having their inside jokes. He told us that up until 8/9 years ago you would not dare to step foot in Comuna 13 unless you wanted to
get killed. A taxi driver later confirmed that you couldn’t be seen hanging out on the streets or you’d be shot by gangs within minutes. Our alternative guide also told us that his brother was killed a few years back for stealing motorbikes. Looking at Comuna 13 today, you’d never think it had such a dark past. Nowadays it’s buzzing with tourists, covered wall to wall with colourful graffiti and street art depicting Colombia’s wildlife, women and pachamama, and even has escalators to take you up to the top of the hill! We found that part totally mad. It was like being in a shopping mall going up the escalator to get to the food hall! He said that the government implemented these to allow access to disabled or elderly locals but we didn’t see any. I think maybe it’s to allow more tourists to visit this tiny but built up cross-section of a typical barrio. There were coffee shops and art galleries along the way, and loads of tourist memorabilia with “Comuna 13” plastered over t-shirts and caps (I got one and I love it). I liked the barrio but it was tourist-heavy which removed some of its authenticity.
What the guide explained was that Comuna 13 was only one tiny part of a much wider barrio comprised on 50 or even 60 Comunas in Medellin that weren’t open to the general public and that C13 essentially offered the visitor an opportunity to see a slice of it through the looking glass. He explained that locals are extremely grateful for this slice of tourism and that a tourist will never have any hassle in Comuna 13. Never will they be robbed or pick-pocketed because they rely too much on this redevelopment in the barrio that has been possible as a result of increased tourism. Comuna 13 has also had its fair share of famous people including Bill Clinton and Colombia’s heart throb Maluma!
As well as taking us through his friends’ galleries to try to get us to buy some very unattractive art, our guide (and sadly I don’t remember his name) introduced us to Chota, the primary street artist of Comuna 13 who was at that moment in time, spraying a huge door as part of a new piece he was working on. Chota is a bit of a legend in the area as he
Manuel’s drawings of guns
And Marco writing his name in graffiti lettering
actually lives there so is well respected. Marco who loves graffiti got chatting to Chota and before I knew it, Chota had invited him to leave a graff on the wall of his house! Marco was well happy so we headed down the escalators to get some sprays and back up the escalator to Chota’s wall. While Marco was leaving his art piece, I got chatting to a little boy called Miguel who was hanging around watching the graffiti take its shape. He was probably around 7 and inspired by Marco’s work, decided to show me his notebook full of his scribbles, doodles and drawings. I didn’t have time to say anything when he said “I know they are a bit violent...I want to get better at drawing ‘mitralletas’ (machine guns); I was expelled from school for being in a bad gang and hitting / hurting other kids.” I was quite shocked as Miguel had a face like a sweet little angel and he was telling me this with a sweet little smile as though we were talking about his favourite ice cream. His wall was the one opposite Chota’s and it made me realise that while Comuna 13 is
super touristy and a bit fake, the people who continue to live there have a real chance of ending up behind bars or worse if they don’t have the right support networks. I really hope that Miguel won’t end up being one of those people. When Marco finished his piece he also drew a graffiti in Miguel’s notebook hoping that maybe he might get interested in other types of drawings instead of guns and machine guns.
We had a long day and with it being our final night in Colombia, we debated going out, but instead opted to enjoy our lovely little studio, cook some yummy pasta, watch Frida on Netflix and get an early night ready for our next viaje to Lima, Peru.
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