Medellin – Proof you can teach an old dog new tricks
Medellin Take One. Our walking tour guide gave us a mission after a particularly poignant moment in which we examined a reconstructed Botero sculpture that had killed many when it had been exploded by a bomb some years before: “Your parents are freaking out right now because Medellin has some majorly bad associations. You are among the first wave of tourists: please let the world know that Medellin has changed, that it is clean, safe and in need of people to visit and see it for the fantastic place it is.”
Medellin Take Two. One fly in my personal ointment, a bugbear: cocaine is offered everywhere in Medellin by people (sometimes children) on the streets whispering “a la orden” (at your service), but nobody offered me anything…nada. Alison was offered it, friends we were hanging out with were offered it, everyone was offered it, even while I was standing there. But in all of 9 days, I wasn’t once approached to buy cocaine in one of the places in the world where it’s most prevalent! Of course I wouldn’t have actually wanted any, but I do feel rejected somehow. I want my imaginary money back.
So, Medellin: a place of contradictions, slowly but surely resolving themselves.
Medellin, the town of eternal spring, now one of the world’s fastest growing and most innovative cities; and moving quickly down the list of the top 50 most dangerous places. Formerly the stomping ground of Pablo Escobar and one of the most dangerous cities on earth, Medellin was actually built on 200 years of industry and rail freight and has a long history prior to its becoming infamous in the 80’s and 90’s for its part in Colombia’s drug trade. Having cleaned up its act (mostly), people are very proud of its rehabilitation. For example, you’ll find one of the cleanest, most progressive Metro systems in the world here. Zero litter…I mean zero. Why mention the Metro? Because it is a symbol to the people of the change that has taken place in the last 10-15 years. Nowadays you’re more likely to bump into a budding entrepreneur than a drug kingpin. It has become one of the go-to places in Colombia and South America.
Arriving by air, the main airport is 45 mins outside of the city on a plateau. The scenery flying in is amazing and the drive into town from the airport is through lush countryside and approaches the city from on high, giving a panoramic view of the place. The city is big (over two million people), with lots of tall modern red-and-white apartment blocks and a city that stretches into the distance along a valley in the mountains. Here the well-off live in the valley and the poor live in barrios of red brick and corrugated roofs creeping up the hillsides.
We arrived with thoughts to stay a few days in a hostel and then perhaps rent an apartment for a month, to truly experience living in a Colombian city.
It took us a while to find our hostel in the up-market El Poblado area of town, run by a super-friendly, chain-smoking lady called Luz. She basically runs the place like a very cool aunt. The hostel was founded because her sister bought a TV that was too big for her house….somehow this led to a discussion and a week or two later the hostel opened with said TV in place and Luz as live-in proprietor. So, established in a nice place we were pretty content.
Somehow we stayed nine days in Medellin without doing much at all, even now I am not sure where it all went (although I did get my first bout of something nasty that stole a day and a night from me). Part way through we moved to an Airbnb penthouse flat owned by an American expat named Nick, who seemed to be responsible for producing some ahem … interesting websites. His apartment is in Envigado, an even posher area than El Poblado, and we subsequently learned that armed gangs had recently been raiding the hostels in the area where we had been! Strangely, Luz never mentioned that.
We didn’t stay the month. I am not sure we’re cut out for big-city living and it just didn’t grab us like other places have. Whilst a great place: modern, lots to do etc. etc. it’s not a walk-able place, it’s built for cars. The Metro and buses solve that to some extent. Maybe it was just too many self-similar tower blocks.
Now to address the infamous side: Medellin is renowned for Cocaine and Pablo Escobar. A lot of people take the Pablo Escobar tour, even meeting his brother Roberto. Tourists love the stories, and some end up seeing Pablo as a modern-day Robin Hood; he built houses for people after all. But, once you actually talk to people in Medellin, you learn a few things:
- Medellin was close to being the most dangerous city on the planet.
- Almost everyone was affected by the violence. Somebody we met was present as a bomb exploded at the bullring, killing 15 and injuring 125. Her memory is of stepping over dismembered bodies in utter panic whilst fleeing.
- The kids of the people he built houses for typically became drug runners or assassins with a greatly lowered life expectancy.
- People lived in fear, genuinely afraid to even leave their houses.
- People were killed for simple reasons. If some dude wanted to “talk” to or “get to know” your girlfriend in a nightclub, he did and if you objected…adios.
- People in Medellin do not like to hear his name. Tourist guides refer to him as “that guy” since locals get upset if they think the guides are promoting his history. In fact most are not at all. They are de-glamorising him and helping us outsiders understand what really happened.
So no, we didn’t do the Pablo Escobar tour. The thought of putting money back into his clan was too unsavoury for us. Medellin has moved on in a big and impressive way and I’d much rather recognise that! Still, next time, some bugger better offer me some coke.
Luz put us onto this, she puts everyone onto it and I imagine few are disappointed. It was the best walking tour we’ve done. Okay it’s the only one we’ve ever done but frankly it was bloody brilliant. Theoretically it is free but of course you tip at the end and the guide tells you what they charge for private tours (35,000 Cop or $17.50). You all meet up at El Poblado metro station and from there head into downtown. Downtown is the cholesterol-clogged beating heart of Medellin and it’s nuts, which means it’s also great fun, although you better be out before darkness falls. The metro runs north-south in one main line with a few spurs and it’s best for green gringos to make sure they’re past Industriales in the direction of El Poblado after 6pm.
Hernan was our guide, a super stylish guy in his mid-thirties: immaculate goatee sans moustache and a rakishly-cocked trilby. A biological scientist re-imagined as a screen-writer, who gets great satisfaction out of the story-telling nature of these walks.
Colombians are curious and gringos are still a relative rarity in Medellin, although that is changing. So when a group of them turns up with a guide, quite often a head will pop into the semi-circle and start asking an audience member what’s happening (see guy in middle in above pic). Some don’t understand a word of English but nod and interject anyway. It’s hilarious to watch. Alison has experienced this before in China, but this is the first time I’ve felt like a novelty.
On the walk you learn Medellin’s history, see the various seats of power, hear terrible histories at the sites of bombings, cover the drugs stuff and more. Highlights include the Botero sculpture park (more fat sculptures), the church where the prostitutes hang out, Bolivar plaza (druggies, prostitutes, old boys hanging out and an assortment of low-lifes, all appearing friendly enough) and more. Just outside one church, a street full of knock off DVD’s: the Passion of Christ sitting right next to hard-core porn with imaginative titles.
The tour ends as I began this post: with a visit to an empty plaza with a torn and bent Botero sculpture of a fat bird, which was the sight of a massive bomb. Next to the ruined sculpture is a fresh version of the original. As the story goes the mayor was going to remove the sculpture that became shrapnel so people would forget the bad associations with the plaza. Botero called him and told him “don’t you f-ing dare, people must remember this, I’ll provide a new one to put alongside it and we will put the names of those lost, on a plaque, on the damaged version”. This ending was really quite moving.
Hernan also told us of a few interesting principles the city uses as it develops:
– Democratic architecture. In short, this approach turns bad places into good. Hence a plaza that was once a violent den of crime was cleared to become a lovely park and the headquarters of the ministry of education.
– Education. The city library – a huge edifice – is placed right in one of the hillside Barrios and free for all to use.
– Inclusivity. This enables the people in the Barrios to be part of the city, through proper transport links between the floor and upper tiers of the valley.
The metro, jewel in Medellin’s public transport crown. But how to bring the poor into the city rather than excluding them? Simple: extend the metro by building some super modern cable cars up into the barrios and make them cheap. Taking one of these gives a birds-eye view over the barrios and daily life within. It does feel a little like poverty tourism but the colours, sights and sounds are edifying. Plus, as your cable car climbs in altitude, you can watch lots of youngsters playing football on the hill below. It must be a real pain when the ball is kicked out and rolls downhill.
At the terminus of one of the cable cars, you can transfer to another (non-metro) line that takes you up to Parque Arvi, a large park / nature reserve beyond the top of the mountain. Parque Arvi was not at all what we expected and in fact we couldn’t get out fast enough. To start, it’s big so you need to research what you might want to do: water-sports, horse riding, camping. Secondly, where we expected nature trails and wildlife it, instead, involved walking along roadsides with buses streaming past. I am sure it can be a great, if expensive, family day out, but the “scenic spot” a guide told us about was just a small stream, 2km down a road where most of Medellin seemed to be BBQing. Total waste of time (for us). The only mitigating point was being introduced to a new dessert: arequepe (a caramel-like spread), coconut and grated cheese sandwiched between two large round wafers.
Definitely worth a visit: peaceful, large and lots of things to see. There are quite a few decent-sized Iguanas roaming free, indifferent to the locals; there is a sizeable pond full of turtles and wading birds; but my favourite was the butterfly house. A few minutes in there for some reason put me in a most excellent mood and gave a chance to test out our new camera on some bugs.
At the northern tip of Medellin is another hillside park. This really is more of a refuge as well as a zip-line centre and place to go river-bathing. We taxied up one Sunday and had the place to ourselves. Initially a lot seemed under repair and closed off. We walked the length in ten minutes wondering what on earth to do next, as we had wanted to be out of the apartment to give the owner and friends some space for the day. Fortunately an attendant noticed us and pointed us the paths to climb up into the forest canopy and some stunning viewpoints. A peaceful few meandering hours were spent up there, just enjoying the solitude, scenery and birds.
As we came back down to the eating area there was an absolutely bizarre function ongoing. It seemed to involve old people covering themselves in newspaper to loud music and exhortations from an attendant over a microphone. They were being judged on something. We tip-toed gingerly past wondering WTF was happening, whilst understanding enough to hope, beyond all hope, that we weren’t going to be suddenly dragged in and bedecked in newspaper.
Mondongo (tripe) soup in Mondongos restaurant, where Daphne and Steven severely over-ordered and filled an entire table with food. Steven made a super valiant effort to put a dent in it but ultimately went down with the ship (mixed metaphor alert).
Parque Lleras where you buy beer from a kiosk (the surrounding bars sell it at 5x the price) and sit in the park and chill as dealers offer Other People all manner of narcotics. Whilst there, we were approached by a group of school-kids and interviewed for English practise. It’s a great idea: send teenagers into a park full of mildly drunk/stoned gringos and watch the ensuing hilarity as the two camps struggle to understand each other. Priceless!
To summarise. Medellin, a vibrant, modern, safe(r) city with a chequered past and an amazing transformation. Still, it just didn’t really grab us like it seems to most other travellers. There is a lot of fun to be had here but we were happy to move south and into some of the most beautiful countryside we’ve encountered.
Oh and for those educated and well-bred readers who might remark on this post being a little more ‘sweary’ than others….no idea why, just seemed to come out that way. Perhaps Alison is a bad influence on me.
Cartagena to Medellin
- Take a plane! The bus is twelve hours, planes are cheap and the flight is only 40 minutes. Avianca and Viva Colombia both fly for around $50-90/pp one-way.
Airport to Medellin
- Medellin’s international airport is almost an hour away from the centre. There is an airport in the centre that services some local flights. Know which one you’re heading into to avoid a nasty surprise.
- From the international airport you can take a taxi (60,000Cop or $30), a Collectivo Taxi shared between 4 people (15,000Cop or $7.50 each) or a Collectivo bus (8,600Cop or $4.30 each)
- Easy to use, you can buy a card at any station ticket office with ten rides for 19,000Cop or $9.50.
- If you buy a 10-journey card, tap it on the card reader on top of the entry barrier. Don’t stick it in the slot, even when they tell you to or you’ll be standing around while they open the machine up to retrieve it. How do we know about this? Alison can tell you…..