If I am being honest, I didn’t have high expectations for the city of Medellin prior to arriving. I figured it would be like most big cities we’ve visited on our trip. Divided out by different neighborhoods, some great night life, international cuisine, lots of shopping, and tons of cute cafes. I was right about all those things – however, the city of Medellin stretches much farther than that. Not so long ago many locals didn’t feel it was safe to even leave their houses. However, over the course of the past decade or so, Medellin has crawled its way out of the mud and is now a thriving and welcoming city. Even though it’s been a long while since our time there, I still think about it often, and I love sharing my experience with anyone who is willing to listen. I left Medellin feeling inspired and I hope my words can somehow relay that same feeling.
A Tumultuous Past
I’m sure when most of you hear about the city of Medellin (which is actually pronounced “Me-de-jin” by the local Paisa people) you think of one thing, or person: Pablo Escobar. This is mostly due to the Netflix show Narcos, but if you were paying any attention to the world news in the 90’s, chances are you heard his name come up quite a bit. Prior to my visit, I had not yet watched the popular show, which was a deliberate choice because I knew we would be traveling through South America and I didn’t want to go in with any opinions. Call me crazy, but I didn’t need any of that violence planted in my head while I was backpacking across Colombia. With that said, I don’t want to spend too much of this blog talking about Pablo and his infamous drug cartel, but it’s the elephant in the room and I can’t just ignore it.
One of the first things we did when we arrived in the massive city was take the four-hour free walking tour through the City Centre. As a traveler, sometimes it’s easy to visit a city without knowing or even learning much about it. You come and you do your thing and then you leave without ever really knowing anything other than the good time you just had. At first, the idea of a four-hour tour made my eyes roll. What could they possibly have to say about Medellin for four hours? I would come to find out that the city has such a turbulent and complicated past that the four hours flew by without any room for boredom.
I will say, first and foremost, and I’m sure I speak for Kevin as well, that the local people (and Colombians in general) are some of the nicest people we’ve encountered on our trip. Even as we were doing our walking tour many locals would approach us, curious as to why there were 30 gringos standing around listening to a man with a microphone. Eduardo would always ask them if there was anything they wanted to say to us. The locals were always very happy that we were visiting their city and they welcomed us to their country with open arms. A couple locals that were learning English even jumped into the group, just excited to practice their English and share something with us. I must give them credit, I’m not sure I would go up to a group of Colombians and try and practice my Spanish!
Our tour guide, Eduardo, spoke perfect English and was amazing. The first thing I noticed was that he wouldn’t even give Pablo power by saying his name. Anytime he would refer to him he just called him “the infamous criminal from our past”. We learned that the local Colombian people are very divided on discussing the cities past. Half of them want to forget the turmoil and look ahead to a brighter future. The other half feel like the past needs to be remembered and shared. How are they supposed to appreciate what they have and where they are going if they won’t remember what they went through to get there? I certainly can see both sides, but I find myself leaning more towards the ladder.
At one point in the show Narcos, Pablo was made out to be like Robin Hood, and it seemed like the media would glorify him. That’s not really how that all went down. Yes, he did help the poor by building 400 houses in the neighborhood he grew up in, but he did more damage than good. Throughout our tour, Eduardo also debunked a lot of the things that happened in the show – saying it didn’t really go down like that and was only added to make the show more interesting. He did give us specific examples, but unfortunately my memory can’t recall what these examples were.
I should point out that after Pablo’s death in 1993 the violence in the city did scale back but they still had a ways to go. The tour ended at a large plaza called Plaza San Antonio, and at first, we weren’t 100% sure why they would be ending there. The plaza didn’t offer much and seemed a bit ghetto, more so than the rest of what we had seen. Over to the side, we noticed two Fernando Botero bird sculptures standing side by side. Botero, for those of you that don’t know, is a famous artist from Colombia – he is known for his overstated plump statues and paintings. These birds were the exact same sculpture, but one of the birds was in pristine condition, while the other had a giant hole blown through its stomach and all the copper was twisted and mangled. We soon learned that a backpack bomb exploded at an outdoor concert in 1995, and as a result thirty Colombians were killed and 200 were injured – some of which were just children.
If you look it up online, there is some speculation about who was responsible for the bombing. I won’t get into that detail here, but in 2000 Botero donated an identical sculpture and demanded that the old one stay put. Eduardo explained to us that this was done as a reminder to where the city was then and where it is now. Botero named his second sculpture the “Bird of Peace” and the victims’ names were engraved on the one that was damaged in the bombing. I feel like these two sculptures really encapsulate the spirit of Medellin and the story left me feeling very inspired and made me fall in love with this city.
Transformation Through Progress
A pivotal moment in Medellin history was the opening of the “Metro de Medellin” in 1995. Riding the metro was the first thing we did in Medellin and we loved this aspect about the city. It was so easy to get around and explore, and one thing we noticed straight away was that it was immaculate. It was so clean you could probably eat off the floor if you wanted too.
The culture around the metro is simple: respect. This is spread across the entire community – it is just a known fact that you don’t mess with the metro. There was never any trash, no vandalism and no violence. In a city that is practically covered with graffiti, it was almost strange to see not a drop of spray paint around any metro station or car. If a woman with babies or children steps on, everyone would be getting up to give her their seat. It was unlike any other metro experience we’ve had in life!
Medellin is enormous! It has 249 neighborhoods and 2.5 million people call it home. In 2004 the first cable car opened in Medellin. The cable cars are what we would call Gondolas and are an extension of the metro system. You don’t have to exit to get to the cable cars and there is no additional charge for riding them, it’s just part of the metro system. Once the cable cars opened, it connected a lot of the outside neighborhoods found on the steep mountains surrounding the city, with the city itself. What would once be a 2+ hour bus ride to get downtown is now a 5-minute peaceful gondola ride. It created so much opportunity for growth in the city, and on top of that, we loved soaring above Medellin watching the local life happen below us.
Contrary to popular belief, Medellin was a safe and beautiful city – filled with beautiful, warm and welcoming people! I use safe somewhat loosely, because there are dangers in any large city, anywhere in the world, including the United States. The local people have a saying that translates into “Don’t give papaya!”. Essentially, they are saying “Don’t be an idiot!”. Don’t keep your valuables in exposed pockets because you are just asking to be pick pocketed. Often times, if you were taking a picture with your phone, a local would come up to you and say, “No le des Papaya”, reminding you to be careful with your belongings and hold your phone tightly. No less dangerous than the south side of Chicago, but at least the locals here do what they can to help the silly gringos keep possession of their stuff!.
With that said, hopefully now you have a better understanding of Medellin. I think as Americans we think we have an idea of what life would be like in Medellin based on what we learn on TV and through the media. Well I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong! Let go of those preconceived notions and open yourselves up to the possibility of a trip to this incredible place.
Okay! So that’s enough of that, you’re probably wondering what else we did in Medellin! Well, we had just come off our infamous four-day bender at Carnaval in Barranquilla Colombia, so we were still licking our wounds during most of our visit. Of course, Medellin is filled with amazing spots to eat and drink, so we sort of missed this aspect of the city. We cooked most our meals and only went out one night. However, even without those experiences, we still really enjoyed our time there.
From our research and talks with other travelers, it seemed that El Poblado was the best neighborhood to stay in. Now that Medellin is becoming a huge tourist destination, there are hundreds of hostel options, so when a fellow traveler recommended The Sugar Cane Hostel, we jumped on it. Anything to avoid two hours of searching for the right accommodations, it can be very overwhelming!
As soon as we arrived in El Poblado, I felt like we were back home in San Diego. Not only was the landscape similar, but it was chocked full of cute spots to eat and drink. It was a bummer that we had decided to watch our spending and tighten up the ole’ belt, so we didn’t end up try any of these spots. We did make one exception and had some of the best nachos we’ve ever had, and that’s after spending 6 months in Mexico! I don’t have many rules, but one of them is always say yes to nachos.
One thing we weren’t 100% sure we would do at first was Paragliding – after a bit of research we decided to pull the trigger. Up until this point we hadn’t really done any thrill-seeking activities (you know, aside from out-running an erupting volcano, and Kevin jumping off any cliff he can find) and I’m glad that we decided to go. You have to take the cable car all the way up to the hill where the winds are fantastic and suited for paragliding. Once your there, and in typical Latin American fashion, you don’t really go over anything – they just give you your equipment and a guide, clip you in, and you are on your way. All that aside, it was one of the most peaceful things ever – just soaring high above Medellin. We got lucky with a super clear day, which was great considering it was rainy season and you never know when a storm will roll in. I felt like it was the closest I’ll ever get to understanding what it’s like to be a bird. I have no regrets with our decision to try this out, and if you find yourself in Medellin, I recommend giving it a go.
I also recommend partaking in one of the many walking tours. I already told you about the City Center tour, but one tour we knew we wanted to do was the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour. This was a really great experience as well – it also focused on the violent past of Medellin, but it had an emphasis on how they used street art to transform this particular neighborhood. While Medellin was considered the most violent city in the world for years, Comuna 13 was the most violent neighborhood within the most violent city. During those years, this neighborhood was a stronghold in the city for the fierce guerrilla groups and violent drug traffickers. You can’t talk about transformation and the resilience of Medellin without talking about Comuna 13.
Our guide didn’t focus much on the violent past, although some stories were shared, but her focus was more on the now. Being with a guide, we were able to get the inside scoop on the history of the art found in the vibrant neighborhood. If you look at some of the murals, you will see the transformation of the city portrayed through symbols in the art. Often times we stare at street art but don’t know the full story behind it, so this was a unique experience and one of my personal favorite city tours in all of Latin America. Out of all we had seen, my favorite street artist was Chota, here is some of this work:
Comuna 13 is certainly unique with all its street art, but also features six sets of escalators that were installed back in 2012. Prior to these escalators, the neighborhood, which sits high up on the hillside, was so isolated from the city that it was ideal for gangs and violence to thrive, even after the guerrilla groups and major drug cartels were no longer around. On top of that, residents had to hike the equivalent of 25+ stories up to their homes after their grueling day of work in the city. This escalator project was one of many innovative projects within the city created to help unite the community and further the spread of peace throughout the city. If you visit Comuna 13, you will certainly understand how these escalators helped the local community for the better. I couldn’t imagine pushing a mango cart up some of these hills! Or having to go up and down every day to make a living or go to school.
The last big thing we HAD TO DO in Medellin was go see a Fùtbol match! We even had to extend our stay another night so we could make it happen. The hostel we were staying in was full for the night, so we had to move spots, but it actually worked out for the better because we were closer to the stadium, and we got to explore another neighborhood that we might not have seen otherwise. The night before was our big night out, so we were dragging a bit, but it was worth it.
On a side note, the night before we went to a bar around the corner from our hostel that had a giant ball pit in it! Like literally a 6’ deep swimming pool filled with balls. I put my germaphobe brain aside for the night as I played around in a giant ball pit with tons of other grown ass adults, so much fun. Anyway, I digress…
Leading up to the soccer game we had heard stories of how intense these games can get. We were advised to not wear any of the colors of the two teams so we would appear as neutral as possible. Just our luck, the game we happen to be attending was one of the two El Clàsico Paisa games that occur each year. In this game, Medellin’s two teams face off in an inner-city battle, so it was sort of like a subway series in baseball, except way more intense. I must be honest, from what I was told from fellow travelers, I thought it was going to be a bit more insane. Don’t get me wrong, that stadium was FULL of energy, but I guess I was expecting to see full on fights. Sadly, I didn’t. I mean, who doesn’t love a good passionate sports fight?! Am I right?
It was actually hilarious because the teams playing were Independiente Medellin (red) and Atletico Nacional (green). We must have entered on the green side because all we saw were green jersey everywhere. We were convinced that the entire stadium was going to be a sea of green. However, as we took our seats, we noticed that the vast majority of the stadium was red. Turns out, not only do they occupy separate sections in the stadium, but the fan bases also do the same for the bars and neighborhoods that surround the stadium. I guess we entered on the green side!
We sat at mid-field, but the real insanity happens at either end of the stadium. One end is red, and one is green, and they go all out. All sorts of signs and noise makers, a marching band, smoke bombs, you name it. If you are looking to experience the craziness we had heard about, just make sure you sit behind the goals. We sat next to the cutest older couple who was head to toe Independiente. We said we weren’t going to pick sides but as soon as they scored, I was up on my feet giving her and her husband high fives. High fives are really the universal language! This experience was not one to be missed, and maybe you’ll get lucky yourself and end up at El Clàsico Paisa for the real game!
Corazòn para Medellin
Needless to say, Medellin won me over big time. It welcomed us with open arms and did not disappoint. Out of all the places we’ve visited, I felt like we really immersed ourselves in the culture of the city. It was the city we stayed in the longest, and taking the time to learn the history of the city like we did really helped cement its place in my heart. We may have cooked our own meals and drank our own booze at night, but our days were jammed packed with rich experiences, and I wouldn’t change a thing about our visit. And as if Medellin couldn’t be any better, it happens to be sandwiched between two of my favorite places in Colombia, Guatapè and Salento. You can read all about them next my next post soon to come! Ciao!