I caught an early morning cab to the airport and flew to Medellin, Colombia’s 2nd largest city on Avianca, the world’s 2nd oldest airline. The flight took about an hour. After landing, I soon realized how Medellin was more orderly than any other Colombian city. Rather than the mob of cab drivers trying to get you to go into their cab, there was a taxi line. I took a bus instead to save money. The bus line, too was tame. The airport is actually quite far from the city-about an hour. The drive went over a large mountain. 45 minutes in, we descended into the valley of Medellin. I’ve never seen a city that looks like this- tall building on both sides of a narrow valley. The bus dropped me off at a shopping mall where ladies in official green jackets flagged down taxis (that bus/shorter taxi ride saved me 80%). Also unlike any other city in Colombia, these cabs are regulated by meters and the drivers actually use them. No bargaining before getting in the cab, no disputes.
Eventually I reached the hostel, located in the swanky Poblado neighborhood. It looked very similar to Brentwood in Los Angeles. 3 days of not sleeping much in Cartagena had taken it’s toll on me so I napped for the afternoon.
At 4:30, I met up with Nicole who is a good friend of my friend Milly. She agreed to show me around Medellin for the evening. We first walked over to the Metro. Medellin is the only city in Colombia with a train system. The people of Medellin are very proud of the system. As a result it is squeaky clean but also extremely crowded. There are currently 2 train lines and 3 gondolas that function as part of the system to get up the hills. The city is currently expanding the 2nd line and building 2 more gondolas. We pushed our way onto the capacity train as we headed into the city center.
We briefly walked around the industrial city center. We first stopped at a mall and got some traditional Colombian breads-one sweet and one salty- and “the best iced coffee in the world”. While I don’t drink coffee, it was actually pretty good. We also walked to a square with large lights. It seems like this city is putting a lot of money into increasing it’s infrastructure and public works. We then hopped on a bus to the stadium. The area is named for the football stadium but it is much more. In addition to being the home for Medellin’s two football teams, there is a complex for lots of different sports: skating, swimming, fencing, martial arts, team handball, baseball, basketball and more. All the facilities, built for the South American games, are state of the art. Nicole told me that these sports help keep kids away from joining drug cartels. The only city I have seen with a similar sporting complex is Sydney.
After the stadium, we took the train back to Poblado and explored the neighborhood. In addition to being the nicest part of the city, it also is the best place for going out. We got dinner at a steak restaurant and got drinks at a swanky rooftop bar with views of the whole valley. Medellin is known for having the best looking women in Colombia. While I don’t know about that, they were certainly the most put together. Basically every girl was wearing a fancy dress with lots of jewelry and makeup. Nicole said that this tradition goes back to the days when Medellin was run by the cartels and every girl wanted to be the wife or girlfriend of the leaders of the cartels. The cartels were exterminated from Medellin only about 15 years ago.
We got a couple drinks before Nicole had to catch the train home. While it was a short day, I really enjoyed walking around Medellin and am definitely glad I have a few days here.
Woke up early and decided to go to Guatape for the day. There was an organized tour but it was full. So I decided to wait it out and see my options for the day. Eventually the tour- a hippie van pulled up to the hostel and a guy who looks like a Colombian Dave Grohl (the singer from the Foo fighters/drummer from Nirvana) walks out. Luckily, a few people got too drunk last night and couldn’t make the tour, so I got to go. Great thing I did because it was an amazing day.
The van was full of a bunch of Israelis, two Australians, and a couple from Missouri, so I had something in common with everyone. I am Jewish and have been to Israel, I lived in Australia, and I went to college in Missouri. That made it very easy to make friends. Colombian Dave Grohl played an eclectic playlist of reggae, classic rock, and Latin music (tragically no Foo Fighters)
We drove up the steep hills around Medellin to climb out of the canyon. Eventually we passed a wandering musician and invited him into the van to play. He sang, played drums, and an Andean harmonica. After 3 songs, he stopped and asked for money. Most people gave him money and then we let him off the van back onto the road.
About an hour later, we finally reached the top of the valley. We pulled onto a dirt road and showed up at some house where we were served breakfast- by far be best meal I have had so far in South America. For the most part, I do not think the food in Colombia is good at all. Everything is fried and anything that isn’t fried is a salty steak. However, this time, we got an omelet, starfruit, pineapple, baba ganoush, and fresh bread. After eating breakfast we got back in the van and continued our drive through the countryside.
We stopped a few more times on our way to Guatape. First, Colombian Dave Grohl bought everyone oranges. Another time we stopped in the town of New Peñol. The old town was flooded to create Guatape Lake which supplies all the water to Medellin. The rebuilt town is pretty ugly. The worst part is the church. Apparently nobody in the town got compensated for moving the town. The new town is on the shores of the lake above the sunken old town. The priest from the church placed a large cross in the water where the old church used to stand. To commemorate the old town, they built a replica of the town square. It looked fake, but construction methods are different today.
We then drove down a questionable dirt road until the end where it dead-ended. There we got out and saw this very sketchy bridge. Parts of the bridge were collapsing and there were metal planks spanning parts where the bridge collapsed.
As we crossed, Colombian Dave Grohl leaped over the railing and down 40 feet into the water. I decided to not jump because of the railing. In order to jump, you had to stand on the railing and I imagined myself tripping and belly-flopping which would be bad. I ended up going for a swim underneath the bridge instead.
We got back in the bus and headed over to Guatape rock. The rock was giant. We parked at the bottom and had to climb 740 steps to the top. At the bottom there was a sign that said “Welcome to The Rock. ‘The Greatest View in the World”. The steps were built in a crevasse in the rock- it really felt like it should be in India. I started climbing and didn’t stop until reaching the top. The climb took about 15 minutes.
The sign wasn’t lying. It was indeed the best view in the world.
I walked down the 740 steps back to the van where we had a picnic. The lunch was easily the best food I have had in South America. Even better than breakfast. The rice, which was mixed with sesame seeds was the best rice I’ve ever had. Wow.
Hopping back into the van, we drove to the town of Guatape. It was a beautiful small colonial town with more colors than anywhere I’ve ever seen. Every house and building had colorful murals. There was a small square that was completely rainbowed out. Even the rickshaws and busses were colorful. The town was hopping with visitors and locals alike. Besides the colorful buildings, the town set up a zipline going along the lakeshore. Music was bumping. It just seemed like a very happy place to be.
On the way back to Medellin, we passed a fruit stand selling mangosteen, the fruit of the gods. The two Australians freaked out and insisted we stop then jumped out of the van and ran screaming all the way to the vendor. They were a bit less happy when the price was $15,000 pesos (about 7 USD) for a bag of 8 but still bought 3 bags. Apparently the fruit is only available in Indonesia, Malaysia and Colombia. I bought a bag and agreed that it is the greatest fruit in the world.
Our final stop of the day was a viewpoint overlooking the lights of Medellin. It was now 8pm- 11 hours after we started the tour. Colombian Dave Grohl (who’s real name is Rafa) told us there was some really good chorizo at the viewpoint. So far his food recommendations have been spot on, so i ordered one. Because we had to make a U-turn into the parking lot, when we passed by the chorizo man the first time, Colombian Dave Grohl yelled out “Cinco” at the top of his lungs. After we parked, the man walked over with 5 plates of food We ate the chorizo, enjoyed the view, and soaked in everything we had seen today. It was one hell of a day.
The van dropped us off at the hostel. Since it was Saturday night, everyone wanted to go out. Since I hadn’t really gone out at all this trip, I decided to go along. We drank outside on the hostel deck as we tried to figure out what to do. Finally at 12:25, we made the decision to go to a salsa club near the stadium. We got into the cabs and eventually made it to the salsa club, El Tibiri. It was in the basement. As soon as we walked in, the heat wave hit. The room must have been over 100 degrees with all the people dancing. The ceiling was incredibly low and the deejay was playing some very old school salsa. Since everyone in our crew was either European, Australian, or Israeli, I was the only person who had ever salsa danced or for that matter seen partner dancing. Everyone else went to clubs with electronic music. They were all shocked by the passion of the dancing but also liked how asking someone to dance was far less of a commitment and didn’t necessarily mean that you wanted to hook up with them. Most of the people at this club came to dance. It became quite apparent that we were taking up a lot of space on the dance floor just standing there, which annoyed the locals. Also the heat was too much for a bunch of people so we left after about 15 minutes.
We stopped by another club in the area before leaving again. There were 10 of us so we needed 3 cabs to get back to the main bar area near the hostel. For some reason, I got stuck getting a cab (and paying for a cab) all by myself. At this point I was really frustrated by the night- we started the night so late, the Europeans could not get into the Latin vibe, and I got stranded by them. Once we got back to Poblado, it was 2 and I was ready to go home. The bright spot of the night was unexpectedly running into some friends from Wash U. Besides that, I was incredibly frustrated by the night. I was reminded why I hate going out- looking cool for no reason, losing sleep and precious time, spending money for no reason, and all the drama. Not that its something I do, but I’ve decided that I’m done with clubs and bars late at night and am going to focus on experiences during the day. For me, there are no good outcomes from going out especially when traveling. Making every day count does not mean going out at night.
I woke up on my own at 6:30. Despite not sleeping much, I knew today was going to be a big day and I needed all day to accomplish my 2 goals.
My first goal was to go paragliding. I asked the owner of the hostel how to go and he told me to wait until 8:15 because the place isn’t open yet. So I slept for another 90 minutes and returned at 8:15. It turns out that the place was quite far- about an hour and a half one way. I first had to take the Metro to the Caribe stop then transfer to a bus for an hour. Just like the rest of their public transportation, the Medellin bus terminal was extremely easy to navigate and efficient. I bought my ticket at the counter, went to the gate and went off on my way. I told the bus driver I was going paragliding and he stopped at the shop, which was right on the side of the road. I got there right around 9:30.
The shop was on the side of a huge mountain overlooking the city. The lady asked me if I wanted to paraglide. I said yes and she gave me a form for my name, email, and country. After filling it out, I paid and the lady gave me an orange voucher. “Walk up that mountain and give this to Christian, your pilot” she said. No waivers, no safety briefing, no nothing. I walked up to the landing strip and handed my voucher to a guy who I am assuming is Christian. 2 minutes later, we were strapped in for the tandem paraglide. Christian shouts “carrera” and we run down the hill as we go airborne.
Suddenly I’m up 300 feet above the land flying with the birds. We soar over the city and the mountains. It was so lovely. Because of the wind we were able to climb very high all the way into the clouds. I had my phone in my pocket. Christian told me to take it out for some pictures, which was scary. I did of course. After 30 minutes, we finally landed. It was awesome.
I caught the bus down the mountain and headed back to town just in time for the Colombian football match in the Copa America, my second goal of the day. The Copa America occurs every four years and determines the champion of South America.
I headed to Parque Lleras, the center of all nightlife in Medellin. Today, however everybody was day drinking in their yellow jerseys. It felt a lot like St Louis during postseason baseball or Gameday in a college town except that the game is in Chile and everyone is watching on the big screen. The fans went wild everytime Colombia for the ball past the midline. Unfortunately they didn’t score a goal- who knows what would happen then. They ended up losing 1-0 to venezuela. Interestingly, nobody left the game early. Not even by a second. Despite the loss, it was fun to experience the party atmosphere.
After the game, I had a few hours of daylight left so I went to check out the cable car system. Medellin installed gondolas that go up the mountains and connect the barrios with the rest of the city giving poor people access to employment and city facilities. There are currently 2 gondola lines with 2 more being built. The gondolas and the metro are the main reason for the city’s rebirth after the drug era. While there is a fair amount of graffiti and trash in the city, there is none on the metro.
I boarded the gondola with 6 other Colombians who were waiting in line. For the length of the trip through the 4 stations, we were all silent. However the neighborhoods we flew over were anything but. We heard loud reggeton, chickens, children playing and life happening. The houses were decrepit poorly built structures with corrugated steel roofs topped with large stones to hold them in place.
At the end of the gondola line, I got off and checked out the awesome view!!!! Then I headed back down and back to Poblado. The rest of the night was very chill. I was exhausted from the last few days. I went out for dinner, got a beer and passed out on my bunk with shoes and clothes on around 9:30.
This is my last day in Colombia. Very sad but I’m so glad I got the opportunity to travel here.
Back when I arrived in Medellin, i signed up for the free city walking tour today. It started at 9:55 in the city center. I hopped on the Metro and got there very quickly. The tour lasted 4 hours and was in English. It was raw and dug deep into the history and struggles of Medellin.
The city of Medellin was founded in 1622 a full 100 years after most of the other cities in Colombia. It was founded by Jews and Basques, who were both persecuted back in Spain. They founded the city in the middle of a very steep mountain range that was isolated from the rest of the country. Their descendants, who mixed with the indigenous population, are now known as Paisa. Paisa consider themselves different and better than the rest of Colombians. Throughout the first 250 years of its history, Medellin became rich due to the gold in the mountains. The gold ran out just as coffee became a worldwide phenomenon. It turns out that Medellin is very close to the coffee growing region so the city then became the major center for exporting coffee to the world. The government built railroads all over Colombia to ease export of coffee.
However, in 1948, the prosperity quickly came to an end, as political strife enveloped the region. A three-way civil war broke out between extreme right-wing guerrillas, extreme left-wing guerrillas, and the government. The war technically still exists today, although most of the fighting then and now takes place in the jungles and hinterlands.
The situation really changed for the worse when a fourth player entered the civil war: the drug lords. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s a worldwide increase in demand for cocaine spurred by the hippie era added a new players to the game. The drug lords didn’t care who won the political war and supported both sides with arms and money in exchange for protecting their coca crop. Suddenly the political war changed to an economic war. Since the drug lords lived in the cities in order to contact their clients and for quality of life, the war moved into the city as the various private armies clashed against each other and the government for control of Medellin and other Colombian cities. Explosions, kidnappings and tank warfare took place daily. In the 1980’s Medellin was considered the most dangerous city in the world and was ruled by the richest criminal in history, Pablo Escobar.
Progress was made in 2002 after President Uribe was elected into office. He vowed to crush the armies: right, left, and drug. During his first year in office, kidnappings dropped 95%. Medellin finally became a safe place to live and visit.
We started our tour at the government center and then moved on to the various squares of the city center. One square, called the Square of Light, used to be a “decrepit area with homeless encampments everywhere”. After the rebirth, the government decided to place a public sculpture that glows at night so as to keep it open to the people at all hours of the day. They also installed a bike-sharing kiosk and built a public library so everyone can come to the square for learning. While libraries are not a big deal in the US, they are vital to a country where fewer people have access to the internet in their homes.
Another square had a very old church. There we learned that, for the last 400 years, most illegal/morally questionable activities happen near churches. That way, the perpetrators can immediately go into the church to repent for their sins. The police seem to turn a blind eye to all these sins. This particular square happened to be known for prostitution. And there right in front of the church standing around and making fake calls at the phone booths were about a dozen prostitutes. Everyone, including the police, seemed to ignore their presence. A few of them were chatting up potential clients.
In front of another church, we saw a bunch of drug dealers loosely disguised as cigarette salesmen. Apparently you can legally carry 1 gram of cocaine and 12 grams of marijuana for personal consumption in a Colombia.
In front of a third church, vendors were selling hardcore porn DVDs out in the open underneath umbrellas. One salesperson had her little daughter no older than 6 helping her out. At one point, a policeman walked up to a salesman. I thought he was totally going to bust him but instead he bought a DVD!!!
To be honest, I don’t think it’s all that bad that this stuff happens. It’s more of a morality thing rather than public safety. I couldn’t help but just laugh at the spectacles of daily life here.
We stopped again in front of a train station. The guide told us that a grenade exploded in the very spot we were standing killing 70 people. However, she said nobody remembers it. That is because Colombians have been through so much, that they prefer to forget the bad and celebrate the good instead. Selective memory. That is why they get so excited at soccer matches, or why the country erupted in celebration when a Colombian won a stage of the Tour de France (not the Tour, just a single stage). This is why Colombians are so welcoming and nice: everytime a tourist visits Colombia and Medellin, it is a rare good thing to happen and is reason to celebrate.
After stopping in a few other squares, we ended the tour in Plaza San Antonio, where in 1985 a bomb exploded by a statue killing 29 people. Rather than destroy the wrecked statue, the city (convinced by the artist Botero) decided to keep the statue and then Botero built a new version of the exact same statue. This represents Medellin: a tough past but now they have rebuilt themselves. As I was taking a picture with the two statues side by side, a drunk man photobombed me yelling “Viva Medellin”. Afterwards, he kissed my hand and walked back to his place.
I made one final stroll through the city, returned to the hostel and packed my bag. As I was walking towards the final train to head to the airport home, a huge group of students ran up to me and yelled “Dance, Gringo” and started clapping to a beat. I danced for 10 seconds or so as the cheers erupted.