Medellin felt like our first major city of South America – yes, wed first landed in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, and spent time in colourful Cartagena but we are now a month into our travels and have (we think) found our feet so it felt like the first one to explore. On top of that, we’d heard a lot of Medellin: lots of travellers we’d met had raved about how great it is whereas others had said they really didn’t like it, plus it was the home of the infamous druglord Pablo Escobar and in the 90s was the most dangerous city in the world. We weren’t sure what to expect and I personally always find cities harder to acclimatise to than the countryside so I was intrigued about what it would be like.
We arrived in the morning, fresh from an overnight 13 hour bus journey, dishevelled and a bit disorientated. So much so that we ended up walking half an hour to our hotel in totally the wrong part of town. Medellin is so large that the addresses are used twice across the city in different districts and we were in totally the wrong part. The sweetest old man helps us out, takes Phil into his house to use his internet and then calls the right place for us, orders us a taxi.
Once we’d finally sorted ourselves out and got to the right place, we ate arepas, eggs and cheese, hot coffee in a Colombian version of a greasy spoon caff. Perfect after a long journey and no food for hours. Later that night when we go out for dinner, we eat cheaply: rice, meat, plantain for about £1.50 and the waiter will exclaim “the Queen!” when we tell him we’re from the UK.
One day we walk to Pueblita Peisa, one of the seven small outcrops in the city, which is wooded and has a small model village on top and amazing 360 views of the city. In the daylight and with it all around, I can’t quite believe the size of Medellin. Built in a valley, the city runs along a river north to south but also up the sides of the hills, expanding up and up until there will be no more room one day. It’s hot and the city is hazy, clay buildings of the favelas and glass metal of the commercial area glinting in the light. We can see the airport way out and the downtown shopping area, freeways which we have to run over during breaks in the traffic and older buildings sandwiched into all the sprawl. Walking past the Museum of Modern Art, the streets are clean, bright and there and teenagers practising their dance moves. We walk to El Poblado, the upmarket tourist district which a lot of travellers stay in and it’s filled with fancy bars and boutiques. We have an overpriced drink, three times what we paid for the previous night for dinner, but it’s fun and after a month of drinking beer the cold white wine is delicious.
Our hostel in the Colombian residential neighbourhood of Laureales is tall and thin and feels like a youth club with lots of rules on the walls. We meet some nice people, who seem to be spending a longer time in Medellin learning Spanish or volunteering or working although sometimes it doesn’t quite feel clear what they are up to. There’s a slightly weird vibe and we’re eager to get out and explore.
My favourite day in Medellin is a busy one: we book onto the Real City Walking tour which takes you around downtown Medellin, showing you the parts of the city not traditionally found on a tourist trail and sharing stories and insights about Colombian history and culture. Our brilliant guide, Hernán, makes us laugh, reflects on some of the more difficult parts of Colombian history and astounds us by being able to remember the names of every single person on the tour of about thirty people. He tells us at the start that he will refer to Pablo Escobar as “that famous criminal” should a Colombian walk past and hear Hernán say his name; most people here see him as a terrorist, glorified in the media, and don’t like that there are tourist attractions where you can go paintballing in his house. It would be like having a party in Osama bin Laden’s place.
Hernán takes us to the brutalist administrative centre, the Square of Lights built on an old crime-ridden den, down the Carabobo pedestrian street where you can buy almost anything, past Botero sculptures and through plazas and under subways.
We pass the Veracruz Church where right alongside the black market thrives. Here you can buy anything: fake watches, fake wallets, fake perfume, fake Prada. It’s also where you come to get your porn if you want to. As Hernán tells us: “religion in Colombia is like soap: you do naughty things and then you wash your hands going to mass”.
We pass under the subway, Medellin’s pride and joy and the only rail system in Colombia. Beneath the highline is a collection of old men, holding trousers, watches, ornaments. They’re bored at home, Hernán tells us, and simply want some human interaction so they take stuff from home and come down here for a swap shop. I love the thought of their indignant wives coming home to bare shelves.
People in Medellin are very friendly, happy that travellers are now visiting their once off-limits city. An old man stops to welcome us, happy we are in his city and this is a lovely experience that has happened a few times now. The square where we finish our tour is one of contradictions: families, prostitutes, a police station and people high on drugs, yet it doesn’t feel dangerous or unwelcoming.
Later that afternoon, Moz and I head off on our own to go up the San Javier cablecar and the escalators on Comuna 13. Because of Medellin’s size and that it is built on steep valley sides – where the poorest neighbourhoods are found – the city has worked hard to come up with innovative ways of helping its people. Now, cable car systems swoop up and down the hillsides and residents in Comuna 13 no longer have to sweat up hills: they hop on the free escalators. Hernán had said earlier about how the city had turned the capitalist image of an escalator, normally found in shopping centres and malls, into a democratic way of getting everyone around the city. My dad, an ex-traffic policeman turned transport consultant (or spy, as many friends joke) would love this.
That night, walking back to our hostel, we realise there must be a football match on: everyone is in the home colours of white and green so we head to the stadium to see if we can get a ticket. A bit of haggling with a tout later and a frisk from some policeman, we’re inside the stadium and it is amazing! Atlético Nacional have a hardcore set of Ultra fans who do not stop singing, dancing and jumping on the barriers for the whole game. It was a great atmosphere and so fun to go and experience a proper bit of Medellin life.
My summary of Medellin? Still on the fence I’m afraid. It felt too big to fully get my head around in just a few days, but it was fun, gritty and a city of contrasts. Next stop please!