The crisp, cold air felt rejuvinating as we stepped off the plane and into the Medellín airport. We were in the mountains now and it was time to dig to the bottom of our bags and pull out some of the warmer clothes we have been hauling around. After a week in the caribe region a 20 degree temperate drop was wonderful, as was the beautiful drive through the rolling green hills from the airport down into the city. Medellín is set in a valley completely surrounded by mountains making it a little oasis in a way, secluded from any other areas. The part of town we were staying in was the hip and up and coming neighborhood called El Poblado. The street we were staying on in particular reminded me a lot of parts of San Francisco with loads of modern craft breweries, bars, restaurants and potential brunch locations everywhere you looked. Cody was in heaven now to be in what felt like familiar surroundings and endless food and drink options. The hostel we checked into was called Happy Buddha and was one of the most fun hostels I’ve gotten to stay at. The front desk attendant, Ricardo, quickly became a friend during our 5 night stay as he cracked jokes and teased us everyday as we would come and ask for favors in our broken Spanish and his developing English. The accommodation was the typical 6 bed dorm, but the best element was the social area in the lobby and on the deck out front that doubled as a bar in the evening. This was the watering hole for what seemed like the whole neighborhood. Weekdays the folks staying at the other hostels would even wander over for happy hour deals and special themed nights like salsa lessons and the infamous pub crawl. Happy Buddha was where the party started, and unfortunately that also meant that the sleep was minimal. Even the first night, we arrived at 5pm and were already on the go on our way to a Colombian National soccer match at 7pm. Jordo had been in town for a couple days now and was able to score us some tickets last minute through a guy at the hostel. We even were able to meet up with Lucas, our friend from Cartagena at the game. The match was fun, singing the celebratory goal songs in Spanish and even sporting ridiculous ponchos in the rain. When we arrived back at the hostel the bar was already buzzing, backpackers downing 4K peso 3 Corvallis, a local brew from Medellin, and the pungent Aguardiente, the Colombians spirit of choice, getting ready to go out. We rallied a little group together and headed over towards Parque Lleras, the popular area for bars and discotecs, and found ourselves at a rooftop disco blaring reggaeton and salsa music. We danced until the place closed down, after which we simply moved the party around the corner. Our group was very diverse that night, travelers from Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and even some new local friends we met while attempting to salsa out on the dance floor. We had a few nights in a row of this partying. A non sustainable lifestyle that turned us into owls, sleeping half the day and staying awake all night. But the music was always calling and we were having too much fun not to say yes. The late nights were followed by some tasty brunches. The food in this town was top notch, and the sweet limonada con coco was too delicious to only have once.
The following day we took a walking tour of the city center and saw a whole different side of Medellín. The company we went with was called Real City Tours, which I can’t recommended enough. Over 4 hours our guide, Milo, filled us in on the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of Colombian history and was open and honest about any questions we had. He started the tour explaining about the people of Medellín and what Paisa, the ambiguous term we had been hearing, meant. A Paisa was someone from the Antioquia region, particularly Medellín. They are their own special type of Colombian and proud of it. He began to explain how this region between the mountains built it self up over the last 400 some years but that the world seems to only associate it with the cocaine distribution in the late 80s and 90s. A small period of time in comparison to Medellín’s GDP overtime. They had 340 years of gold mining, 70 years of the coffee boom, and were also the city that sparked industrial revolution in Colombia. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the money from the drugs started to come in, and what it also brought along with it was fear, tears and the stigma that they still are working to wipe their hands clean of today. He explained to us the four actors that are apart of the drug war, the FARC Guierilla’s (extreme left army), the Millitaries (the extreme right), the Cartel (that is sponsoring both sides) and the Government. During that dark time in the 90s and early 2000s, human rights were taken and hundreds innocent civilians caught in the middle were killed. My eyes welled up with tears at times hearing the stories of killings and bombings the innocent citizens endured. And despite it all they have managed to keep their heads up. Over the last couple decades Medellín has worked to reform itself from the most dangerous city in the world, into one of hope. They began to instill two pillars of safety through democratic architecture and social projects. We saw this as we walked though a town square that used to be a square of crime and darkness, that now had dozens of white pillars placed across it, strung with lights denoting hope. The building just behind it once had been a dangerous area filled with squatters was torn to the ground and rebuilt into an education center and a library, replacing a dark past with a bright future for their youth. This is an ongoing project known as education with dignity. The reformation efforts continued to show with the development of the metro cable car. Medellín is the only city in Colombia with a metro system and they are very proud of it. It allows easy transportation all across the city and access to areas to the seemingly forgotten areas. This area in particular is known as Santo Domingo a giant town built on the side of the hill, with houses that appear to be stacked on top of one another. One of the poorest areas, yet they decided to build the metro cable there to show unity and that the people of this community are just as accepted as an any other part of the city. The reoccurring theme for the city was replacing symbols that once represented fear with hope. Despite all the Colombian people have been through they walk around with smiles on their faces choosing to be happy, and look towards the future and not to dwell in the past.
On another section of the tour we walked through the town square with filled with bronze oversized sculptures. This was the work of the very famous Fernando Botero. His unique style depicts people and animals in large, exaggerated, voluminous proportions. Botero happened to have grown up in Medellín, and after becoming quite famous, donated 2.2 million dollars of art to the city. Milo also took us to another unique part of the loud bustling city center down a street called Cara Bobo. A name that literally translates into ‘stupid face street’. Vendors selling all kinds of knock off brand name items initially started out of the side walks and eventually began flowing their booths out into the street ignoring what once were traffic lights.
Medellín is relatively new to tourism. The last 5-10 years in particular starting a big movement. Milo reminded us that some people may not be used to seeing foreigners here and may use the term ‘gringo’ in conversation, but that it shouldn’t be taken as offensive. To them it just means someone who isn’t from here. The people we crossed paths with on the street were all very welcoming, cheerful and kind. Children and adults passing by saying hello, bless you, and welcome to our city. He explained that as much as the city has been working over the past decade to pick it self out of its dark past we are very much apart of that process. Milo then asked us all a question, “How many of your parents and families are excited that you are in Colombia right now?” One person out of a group of twenty-five in our group raised his hand. The world is afraid because they know only the bad and the parts the media chooses to show on television. By us coming here it is powerful and special. It shows that we are open to coming and learning about how the city has changed and to hopefully bring this newfound knowledge home. To help rid Colombia and Medellín of the stigma of cocaine and violence and to start to open the eyes of the world that Medellín is a city to visit and not to fear.
Our last day we decided to take a day trip to the nearby town of Guatape, which turned out to be one of my favorite days in Colombia. A two hour bus ride out of town into the beautiful hills and countryside. Our first stop along the way was the second largest of Pablo Escobar’s former country estates. The estate was set on the edge of the hydro electric man made lake that to this day provides 30% of energy for all of Colombia. It was said that Pablo used to forego the long drive into the hills by taking a sea plane and landing it on the lake. The property was bombed and pillaged after his death looking for what was left of the hidden dirty money. The now owner of the estate only opened the property to the public two years ago. During the tour and off road jeep excursion to the property we learned about Escobar’s life story and about how he nearly monopolized the drug trade. How he ran the Medellín cartel that was responsible for nearly 80% of the cocaine trafficking and the other 20% was the Cali cartel. After hearing the stories of all the lives that were lost through the drug conflict it was interesting to learn that the Colombian people actually had differing views of him. Some felt that while he was involved with the drugs he also did a lot of good contributing a lot of money to the poor communities and building homes. But in the entirety of the violent history, Escobar appeared to be more of a fascination with the gringos and not so much Colombians. Especially cause of late as so many people have watched the Narcos series. In reality, he was just one actor in the grand scheme of the drug problem.
After a tour of the property we hopped onto a small boat and toured what used to be the old town of Guatape before it was flooded with the creation of the lake. All you could see now was a cross from the top of a church steeple sticking up out of the water. The only reminder that there was once a city below. From there we headed across the lake and docked at the base of the new city center. It was there that we explored the colorful streets of the town and even managed to find the little bar we had been looking for. One of the Belgian girls we met in Santa Marta had told us her brother recently opened a bar in Guatape and recommended we stop for a drink. She said he had a red beard and we couldn’t miss him, and she was right.
After a beer and a walk all about the town we hopped back in the van and headed up the hill to El Peñon de Guatape, otherwise known as the rock. 740 steep stairs to the top! And boy did you earn everyone one of them. The 360 view from the top was spectacular and breathtaking all at once. We sat there for a solid 20 minutes not wanting to even blink and just visually take it all in. I had felt this way only once before, staring down at the crystal blue lake Louise in Canada not wanting to ever look away. It’s these kinds of moments that knock you off your feet and will forever be engrained in my mind.
One last day in Medellín meant one last night of dancing! We arrived back just in time for salsa and bachata lessons, along with a last bar hop with our friends from the hostel who we had spent the last week with. After that many full days exploring a new country with the same faces they start to feel like family, and we were sad to have to part ways. This is a special town that I’m sure will always carry fond memories for us.