Day 174, Medellin: Learning about Pablo Escobar, and more - my top 4 things to do in the city of eternal spring.
Medellín is Colombia's second largest city and the capital of the Antioquia region. It is located in a valley and surrounded by the Andes mountains. Medellín is called the "city of Eternal Spring", since the weather is very pleasant all year long (average temperature 22°C). Some 20 years ago Medellin was ranked the most dangerous city in the world, but has gone trough an impressive transformation since, being now one of the safest big cities in South America. It is an industrial and commercial centre for the region, a modern city that in 2013 won the title of the world's most innovative city (WSJ ranking). I had heard a lot about Medellín and was very excited about traveling here. When people ask me if I would like to live permanently in Colombia I used to say that no, I don't think so, but if I did I would live in Medellín. And this without ever having visited the city.
My first impressions are mixed: yes I like it, but I don't really understand what all that buzz is about. I have changed my mind. If I wanted to live in Colombia, I would live in... Cartagena! However, I spent a nice few days there, strolling around and discovering some of the most popular touristic spots. Medellín has its charms and is definitely a place worth seeing when in Colombia.
I'm so happy I chose to stay in an Airbnb apartment instead of a hostel. The place was great and my host very nice, an American Med student spending some time in Colombia. I had my own room with a big, comfortable bed and I slept a lot juste because it was pure heaven to sleep without being annoyed of heat, noise, mosquitos or anything. There was also a nice kitchen so I cooked a lot instead of eating out. And, the best thing: hot showers!! It is funny how you learn to appreciate simple things.
We were in the most popular neighbourhood, el Poblado, and high up on a hill. The views are great but walking is a real exercise. I swear, if I lived there and walked as much as I did during these past days, I would have a perfect body and I would not need to go to the gym!
So here comes my tips for Medellín, if you travel there for the first time.
1. Go for a free walking tour in downtown Medellín:
On Tuesday I went for a free walking tour in the centre, called downtown. It was organised by a company called Real City tours, and it was great. It is the number one walking tour in Medellín and has only very good or excellent Trip Advisor ratings, I absolutely recommend it. There are morning and afternoon tours and it takes about 4 hours. Be sure to book in advance on their website because it is very popular. The tour works on a tip basis. As our guide, Hernan, explained: they could either have set a fixed price that wouldn't depend on how well the guides do their job. Or, they can say that the tour is for free, and the guide really has to do a great job in order to receive tips. They told us to contribute according to our budget but since the tour was amazing, I think everyone gave something between 20M and 40M COP (6-12€), which seems reasonable to me.
During the 4 hours we didn't actually walk that much because all the sights were close to each other. We saw plazas, museums and administrative buildings, and walked through the busy central streets, full of food and drink stands and cheap textile stores. I'm not going to detail the places we walked by, I'll let you do the tour by yourselves. But here is the map and some pictures that I took. (Everything would look a lot more tempting if the weather wasn't this grey).
It was great to get a glimpse of what there is to see in central Medellín if I stayed here for longer. But this time I didn't go back to downtown, it was so crowded and messy. One day I will check out the museums, promise! What was more interesting than the sights, and what made the tour truly fascinating, was the stories our guide H told us. All Real City Tours guides are locals and if they all are as passionate about their city and job as H was, no wonder why the tours are so popular. He had such a captivating way of telling us about Medellín's history and traditions that when he spoke, everybody listened carefully and at least I didn't see the time pass. At times we got even a bit emotional when listening to him telling about the city's terrible past and how it has affected the people living there. Hearing a local share real stories about his own life is so much more interesting than reading a guide book, even though it feels more sad and tragic as well.
H told us a lot about how Medellín has developed over the time. First the coffee boom, then the textile industry brought money and helped build the city. The Paisas (locals) have always been a hard-working population and had an entrepreneurial spirit. However, by the 1980, the entrepreneurial spirit was showing its dark side and under the leadership of Pablo Escobar, Medellin became the capital of world's cocaine business. Conflict and battles between the government and various illegal and unofficial groups were common and the city's homicide rate was one of the highest in the world. To truly understand how it was to live there at that time, H told us about an event in late 1980s. On a central square, that we visited as well, a bomb was dropped from a balcony causing the death of 9 persons. However, soon after, this tragic event was already forgotten. And this simply because there were so many bigger disasters going on. Thousands of people were viciously shot, regardless of who they were or what political party or other group they supported. It was not safe to walk outside at night, and parents were afraid to send their kids to school. At the same time, a volcanic eruption in the Andes killed 20 000 people. There was just too much disaster and misfortune to care about one minor bomb.
After Escobar's death Medellín slowly started to recover and lead by Mayor Sergio Fajardo, began its urban renewal. With a focus on architecture, infrastructure, education and culture, Medellín has become a completely different place. Colombia's only metro system connects up-hill favelas to the rest of the city, and a ton of new schools and libraries have been built, especially in the poor neighbourhoods. Security has been reinforced and where once were the bloody battlefields, you can now see beautiful public squares, where musicians play and locals spend their sunny afternoons. I had heard so much about Medellín, the modern, dynamic and innovative city, that I was expecting something very western, trendy and cosmopolite. That is not the case, Medellín is still mostly old, grey and not very beautiful, not like Cartagena for example. However, now when I know more about the history, I understand that the change has been huge.
I also learned some interesting facts about the life in Medellín, for example:
- That the people from Medellín region call themselves Paisas and that Paisas think they are better than other Colombians. They have even dedicated a whole lot of plazas and monuments to people from their own region, and not that many to Colombia or Colombians in general. Others think that the Paisas are good business men, and that they are terrible liars. True, told our guide. Such good liars that they believe their own lies, like that are better than others. Go figure...
- And that in Medellín that they sell porn next to churches, which is also where prostitutes hang out. Colombia is a very religious country, but apparently you can do what you want, you just go to the church afterwards to clear your sins. Haha
Our last stop was at San Antonio park, where we saw two Botero sculptures: an old broken one next to its new identical copy. These two sculptures represent the change that Medellín has lived. When the statue suffered an explosion, killing and injuring many civils, Botero himself called the Mayor and told him to keep the broken piece of art on its place. He thought that it was important to remember the past. Seeing this, summed up very well the learnings of our tour. Medellín is on its way towards a better future, but the past will always be present and in the hearts of the locals.
What our tour guide H also emphasised is the importance of tourism. He was very glad that we all had decided to come to Medellín, showing that we are not afraid and contributing to the development of the city. When you hear people say that Medellín once was the most dangerous place in the world, the word to remember is "was". Now it is perfectly safe and a very interesting city to visit!
2. Ride the metro and cable car to Santo Domingo and Parque Arví:
Medellín has the only metro system in Colombia and it is amazing. When taking the metro I saw the modern, vibrant part of the city that I had heard about but doubted existed. It is well-organised and clean, a very comfortable, easy and attractive way of traveling. In addition to the metro lines, there are cable cars that go up to the mountains and connect far away neighborhoods, mostly poor and less favored areas, to the rest of the city. Thanks to this transportation system, inhabitants of these areas feel part of Medellín, thus the metro is essential to the coherence and well-being of the city. The metro means so much to the people there that they keep it clean and in good condition. It is more than just a transportation system. It represents a new opportunity: to connect neighbourhoods, to travel in a safe way, and to attract visitors. The Paisas didn't think 20 years ago that they could build a metro, this due to the drug business and corruption problems. But they did and now they love it. So did I.
What I saw reminded me a lot of Rio's favelas, thus I didn't go out (even if it is supposed to be safe), just changed to another cable car and traveled up to Parque Arví. When the city got left behind, the views suddenly changed and I was in the middle of a forest.
3. Walk up to Pueblito Paisa
In the city centre, close to Industriales metro station, is located a hill called Cerro Nutibara and up there a place called Pueblito Paisa. It is like a small, traditional village in the middle of the city. Easy walk (only 270 steps), and nice views over Medellín, I think it was worth seeing and doesn't take the whole day.
4. Spend lazy afternoons in El Poblado
El Poblado is the most touristic, and most agreeable neighbourhood to stroll around in Medellín. There are endless restaurants, bars, cafés and cute vintage-style shops, everything around two main squares: Parque El Poblado and Parque LLeras.
I spent a lot of time there: having lunch, (window) shopping and writing in cafés. These were my favourites cafés, all at Parque Lleras. Prices were very reasonable, less expensive than in Cartagena.
Peaceful ambiance and very tasty Dirty Chai Frappé (Chai Tea Latte with an espresso shot).
Very good food and downstairs a beautiful clothes/accessories/interior design - shop.
Delicious smoothies and "do your own mix" salads.
In the evenings Parque Lleras is very lively, and apparently the place to be. I went there on Friday night with my Airbnb host and a French guy that I met, to see the Colombia-Peru football game (we won and are in the semi-finals of Copa America!). Colombians really go crazy about football so the ambiance was very cool. Me wearing yellow is a regular sight but watching football and drinking beer, not so much...
Still so many places to see but this was a good start. Even if I was a little bit disappointed in the beginning, I started to like Medellín more and more every day. Moreover, all the Paisas were extremely friendly, even nicer than the Costeños on the Caribbean Coast. But now I'm back in Cartagena and very very happy about it. Cartagena is smaller, easier to walk around, by the sea, and just beyond beautiful. For all these reasons I like it more than Medellín and if I lived in Colombia I would live here.
Last recommendation: If you decide to save money and take a bus to the airport, be sure you have enough time! The busses leave every 20min from Parque Berrio and the price is very attractive: 9000COP compared to 65000COP for a taxi. I was told that the ride takes one hour but luckily I was very much ahead of my schedule because the bus was slow, and we got horribly stuck in traffic. It took us 2 and a half ours to get to the airport! I got there just on time for my flight but I heard that many people had missed theirs.
Read the next story, about my trip to Guatapé, here.
I'm Emilia, Finnish-Parisian, a recent Master's graduate. I'm currently traveling around the Caribbean and on a volunteering mission in Colombia. I'm passionate about writing, music and different kinds of sports. I can't wait to discover new places and cultures - and share my adventures with you!