Expectations were high for my next city stop but regardless I couldn’t have been more delighted to disembark from the sea-sick inducing 10 hour bus through the mountains from Bogotá. If you can fly this cheap, short distance, do it! My arrival was also rather momentous as I had what now felt like a long lost friend waiting for me at the terminal, ready to help me navigate Medellin’s streets and lug my overweight bag around town. 😊
Paisas are very proud of Medellin and it’s not hard to see why. The only city in the country with a subway, it boasts all the amenities and progression you’d expect from an emerging capital. With their friendly welcomes, eagerness to share and raw determination to turn their home town around, the locals gave us a lot more to talk about than any dramatised memory of Pablo Escobar could have done.
Given he was from here, I cannot write this post without mentioning him. Therefore, just this paragraph will cover the headlines of what we learned about ‘he who must not be named’! The damage and destruction he left behind is such that a pseudonym was used by our tour guides to prevent members of the public mistakenly thinking that we were discussing him positively. Locals with a business eye and thick skin have capitalised on his story, turning his mansion into a paintballing opportunity (…!) and charging a large sum for an Escobar tour. Narcos clearly hasn’t sat well with many locals either – sensationalising his part in history…and played by a Brazillian actor. Finally, if you ever meet a Colombian, I highly recommend you don’t suggest they all carry you know what on them. It’s unlikely to stir any positive feelings towards you given the deaths, disappearances and political disruption they’ve been through, the majority of which have been at the hands of drug lords and gangs. Aaaanyway…
As one inspirational tour guide said: ‘if you’re given an olive branch, you hold onto it in the hope that it will pull you out of the shit.’ One of these branches is what the metro has been to Medellin. The metro is treated with the utmost respect – no eating or drinking is allowed on the carriages, it is a clean place, a beacon of hope and a signal to the rest of the world that they are transforming and moving on from their past. I too fell in love with the metro as it opened Medellin up to us, allowing us to tuck into all its delights which can be found sprawled across valleys and hidden in mountainous parks.
Whilst we tried to do it as best we could ourselves, there’s no avoiding the benefits to a decent city tour and Medellin has some of the finest. The two we did were The Real City Walking Tour (absolute must and reserve online the day before) and the Commnua 13.
As fantastic as it is however, Medellin is not exempt from Colombian rainy season conditions. It’s to his credit therefore that our Real City guide Juan, kept the 18 of us foreigners captivated for three hours whilst surrounded by the most epic and thunderous storm I have ever witnessed. Taking us by the hand, Juan was passionate about opening our eyes to the locals’ behaviour and sharing unexplored areas of level 3 papaya danger (a great metaphor to identify how safe an area is or isn’t on a papaya scale of 1-5 with the idea being that papaya is synonymous with ‘opportunity’ to a thief). And of course, we were treated to some of the city’s main attractions like Plaza Botero, Palacio Nacional, Iglesia de la Candelaria and some delicious cafecitos with empanadas to keep energy levels high. Juan was also incredibly open about the emotional journey he had been through as a result of growing up during Escobar’s reign. His personal recollections about his uncle’s abduction and loss of his best friends in a guerrilla gun raid made for an all the more sobering 10km of facts, history and culture.
Similarly, Communa 13 Grafiti Tour, was another heart-felt delivered few hours, lead by a 19 year old from the area. It was a humbling experience to walk the streets where grenades had been thrown and children had carried their mothers to hospital amid gunfire. For me, this district embodied Medellin’s transformation; large tourist groups walking around, phones held out, bags left open thoughtlessly and children playing, all in a place where no one used to dare go. Again, as with the metro, it’s the transportation of people that has hugely helped with this turnaround. Outdoor escalators dotted amongst this mountain-side town seem strangely out of place but a completely logical addition to facilitate the exhausting hike between office, home and neighbour. As we slurped up our homemade, mango and lime ice-lollies in the afternoon heat, it was really something to take in the scenery and recognise what Communa 13 had been through.
Heights seemed to be a theme in Medellin for our time here. We caught the cable car over the city one afternoon from San Javier, letting all three stops pass by and rising over one mountain for a heart-stopping second, only to descend into another valley. It was majestic and even the locals seemed to share in our excitement as endless panoramic photos were attempted through the safety glass. Not content with this breathtaking journey above the city, a group of us headed out to attempt paragliding. A painfully long three hour wait later (the wind had changed) and I was running off cliffs into Medellin’s open arms. Nestled between the instructors legs and finally starting to relax, I drank in the view, breathlessly trying to recognise parts of this city of which I’d already become so fond.
All good things have to come to an end however and so we bid our farewells to Kenny, Mark, Amir and the others, hopeful to catch them in the next 4/6 months. Recanting the shared memories, it was clear Medellin had been unforgettable and so it was a fairly subdued bag pack as we left our large backpacks behind and headed off with just our day sacks to the quaint and colourful Guatape.
Seconds to make count
Gunther at Sugar Cane Hostel makes a kick ass BBQ every Sunday complete with more salad than you can throw a stick at, it is not to be missed!
Take a picture of the metro\bus map so you know what stops to expect next as the maps only seem to be at stops and not on carriages..
Salsa dancing is FREE in Medellin – you can go alone too, everyone is so nice and encouraging and you learn a lot more!
You likely need a full day (and a guide!?) to fully explore Parque Arvi
Buy a bulk load of metro journeys to save you queuing every time you travel
Research the gigs and djs that are on if you’re into that so you don’t get dragged around empty tourist bars
Restaurants seem to shut earlier than expected so plan ahead if you want dinner!
Hostel: Palm Tree Hostel, Duration: 1 night
Hostel: Sugar Cane, Duration: 6 nights