Population… 2.5 million
Type… Big City
Time… GMT -5hrs
Currency… Colombian Peso $
Exchange rate (at time)… €1 = R$ 4.21
No. of days… 16
Average daily spend… €51.85 p/p
Accommodation… Boutique Hostel
Daily Temperature average… 28°C
Nightly temperature range… 17°C
We travelled from Foz do Iguacu via São Paulo via Bogota without giving it much thought. We later calculated it was a distance equal to that of Dublin to Abu Dhabi.
Exhausted and bleary eyed, the taxi journey from Medellin airport to the city caught us off guard. We knew little of the geography of the city before we arrived. Medellin is located in an almost circular, deep valley. Once the taxi comes over the surrounding mountain you get an incredible view of the lights of the city and you descend a seemingly endless winding road.
Making ourselves at home
We stayed in Poblado. An area the locals accurately refer to as ‘Gringolandia’ (Gringo is slang for anyone who is not from Colombia and we have been assured it’s not an insult). There are more authentic and cheaper places to stay in Medellin but Toucan Spanish school, where we were planning on taking lessons for two weeks, was located in Poblado, and Medellin is not a city you want to be commuting in. Two hour commutes are common and the queues for the metro at rush hour are the longest we’ve ever seen with streams of people backed up for hundreds of metres outside the station. So that was the decision made.
Poblado is a perfect place for a gringo. There are amazing food options, impressive rooftop bars, late night salsa and techno clubs, and accommodation options for every budget. You wouldn’t actually need to leave. So we rarely did.
Day one was spent on the rooftop of our Los Patios hostel enjoying the view and the bar. Rest and relaxation was very much in order before embarking on our first week back to school.
The next few days didn’t get all that much more adventurous. Arriving back to our hostel in the midday heat after 4 hours of draining concentration meant we’d little energy left for the rest of the day. Knowing we’d plenty of time in Medellin, we were happier to adapt to a slower pace.
Celebrating a blooming good time of year
Fiesta de las Flores is the second largest event in the Colombian calendar. It’s a week long
event that culminates in the flower parade on the final Sunday. We were in Medellin for the week leading up to it and headed to the Botanic Gardens to soak up the atmosphere of the fiesta. The Gardens were setup with food and drink stalls and hundreds of displays of flower arrangements all seemingly competing for prizes within their category. Although we missed the main event on the final Sunday, we were fortunate our stay coincided with the build up as it really added to the atmosphere and colour of the city with the events in the build up to it.
Answering questions we were afraid to ask
To get to know our surroundings a bit better, we took a real city walking tour. It took us through the heart of downtown and packed in the city’s fascinating and very recent history. Many of the topics for discussion were ones which had to be discussed with code words and nicknames. The locals, most of whom speak no English, would immediately be incited hearing only “blah blah blah.. Escobar… blah blah Márquez (the current controversial president)” and with no context, were likely to start a row on the street. It sounded like this happened often. Even with the names disguised, many people stopped and stared while our guide ran through the history in great detail, clearly curious as to what version of events was being presented.
We learned of how rapidly things have changed for the people of Medellin. Once the most dangerous city on earth, it is now a safe, innovative and buzzing city. Although walking around many parts of the downtown area of Medellin is still what our guide referred to as “level 5 papaya” in other words, hold out a papaya and someone is most likely going to take it. Phones and cameras stayed in the bag. It was intense. There was plenty of staring. It didn’t feel threatening but you could certainly sense it wasn’t normal for the locals to see groups of white people strolling around the downtown area.
Walking through a thriving community with a troubling past
Just a few years ago Comuna 13 would have been recognised as the most dangerous neighbourhood in Medellin. It is located on the hills of the city with good access to the main San Juan highway. As a consequence, it became the most important location for trafficking drugs, money and arms in and out of the city.
Needless to say, tourists would not have set foot in it previously. However, things have changed dramatically in the comuna in recent years. We took a tour with a local called Hafa to learn how the area so quickly reinvented itself. Hafa was in his thirties and had lived there all his life. He gave us a passionate account of the war that was fought on his doorstep, between the government paramilitaries and local guerrilla groups who were loyal to Escobar.
It took the power of the local people with no help from the government, to set up an infrastructure of art, education and community events to slowly pull people out of the gangs.
Hafa pointed out former gang members who can be seen strolling around the neighbourhood living and working amongst former rivals, most of whom have now turned to music and graffiti to make a living. The walls of the comuna provided a canvas to share their story and give the people a sense of pride in their once terrifying neighbourhood. It has provided an outlet for the gang members and now draws enough tourists to help the locals make a living.
Obviously it has not turned out well for everyone. Hafa’s brother, a former gang member, left the comuna to live on the streets and many of the residents live in the shadow of a mass grave site. For the most part it is an uplifting story and Comuna 13 is a model on the continent for how a community can pull together and turn things around, but undoubtedly there is still much progress to be made, and many scars that will never heal.
Hearing the past from the people
The memories museum offered a very visual account of the impact of the wars fought in Medellin on the people of the city, rather than being about the war itself. Videos, photographs and articles were brought to life through a wonderful variety of mediums and it offered a perspective on Medellin’s history that you don’t get from tv series, films or books. It gave the people an opportunity to be heard and a chance for us to listen.
Seeing the city from the sky
Without doubt the most interesting thing we did in Medellin was ride the cable cars. Paisas (people of Medellin) are fiercely proud of their public transport system. Their train that runs through the city, while convenient and an impressive feat given how it was completed during a period when the city was going through so much, is not something to marvel at, but the cable cars most certainly are.
The view below is fascinating. You move up at a speed just slow enough to catch momentary glimpses of everyday life in the comunas. It would feel invasive if the lives of the residents weren’t lived so much on the street. Doors are open, people sit out on stoops and children and dogs run wild. The gaps in the door of the cable car allow the sounds from the streets below to flow in. The radios from houses and cars, the screams of children playing, motorbikes, dogs barking, all come together to create a peaceful soundtrack from what looks like absolute chaos below. The views of the city of Medellin in the distance are also incredible but very much play second fiddle to the life below.