Twenty years ago Medellin, the capital of Antioquia province, was known as the murder capital of the world. From cartels and narcotrafficing in the late 80s and 90s to guerrila and paramilitary groups (as recently as the mid-2000s) it hasn’t been easy for Antioquians. Not a day would go by when there wasn’t a car bomb, assassination or kidnapping in the city or the surrounding valleys. However, all of that has changed and we can safely say that Medellin is on the way up. In 2013, Medellin even won the title as ‘the most innovative city in the world’ and it is now a tourist hotspot.
Like most South American cities, a lot of the buildings are quite new but as Medellin has a more colourful history than most, it was good to see that they hadn’t hidden all evidence of this. For example, the Botero bird sculpture in Plaza San Antonio was blown up in a terrorist attack during a festival in 1995. The FARC (who later took credit for the attack) placed 22 pounds of dynamite at the base, killing 30 and injuring more than 200 people. Rather than simply replacing it with a new one, the original artist Fernando Botero insisted that it stay as a reminder and he donated a new one named “The Bird of Peace” to show that they won’t give in to terrosists. The original has a plaque below it with names of the people that were injured and killed in the bombing.
We spent the first few days in Envigado, the closest suburb just south of the city with our couchsurfing hosts Marshall and Stephanie. From Canada originally they lived and worked in New Zealand before coming to Colombia to teach English. They have three wonderful children who were really friendly and are pretty much bilingual now (after a year and a half… we wish we had that ability or opportunity at their age!). We were lucky enough to be invited to a dinner party they were hosting with some work colleagues and we shared an authentic Indian meal which was delicious. As they have really hectic schedules (they leave for work before 6am and aren’t home until 4:30pm) we only stayed with them for the weekend and had arranged to stay with another host, this time on Warmshowers in the touristy neighbourhood, El Poblado.
The day after we arrived we explored the city ourselves but it’s hard to really understand what the city was like before it became the safe, bustling metropolis that it is today. As such we went on a Real City Walking tour which is free but the most popular walking tour by far, so much so that you have to book onto it two days in advance!
Our guide was Hernán, a Medellin native who had two degrees and a masters, and after working as a professor for years decided teaching tourists about Medellin’s past was what he should be doing. One of the first things that you are told is that this is not a Pablo Escobar or Narcos tour. Although he plays a part in the city’s history and he would be mentioned, the guide has to be careful because the city’s inhabitants are still quite hesitant about mentioning his name. It reminded us of Voldemort, never mentioned by his name rather as “you know who”, so any locals that might overhear (and whom mostly only speak spanish) wouldn’t think that he was glamorising Escobar. This makes sense when you think about how many people’s lives were affected in all of the violence he and his cartel committed.
One of the most popular areas in the centre of downtown is Botero Plaza, pictured below, a park flanked by the impressively intricate Casa de Cultura on one side and the Museum de Antioquia on the other. The most interesting part of the plaza are the 23 bronze sculptures donated by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero in 2004, which completely renovated the space and it is now a meeting point for tourists and locals alike. A lot of the sculptures have simple names such as “Adam”, “Eve”, “dog” and “Roman soldier” (but in Spanish, obviously) and apparently its good luck to rub certain parts of the statues, which leaves some of them with weirdly shiny body parts!
The tour took us to half a dozen points of interest in the city, we learnt about some of the historic events that took place there and appreciated the change that the city has been through. None more so than the Metro system, which was one of the driving forces of change in the city. From its construction in the mid-90s onwards the metro was a sign that things were changing for the better and people started to move around the different neighbourhoods without fear.
With the addition of two cable cars, one on each side of the valley, it has opened up some of the poorer barrios and saved people hours of travelling time. All of the Medellin locals are so proud of their metro system and this is evident in how pristine their stations and trains are. You won’t ever see a scrap of rubbish or graffiti in these places, that’s how it important it is to them as a symbol of peace and community.
Comuna 13, also known as Barrio “San Javier” on the west side of the city, is a prime example of how the neighbourhoods have reinvented themselves too. Comuna 13 was one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods with over-population problems and in an ideal location for illegal activity, providing an easy transportation route out of the city for drugs, money and guns. However after government intervention and funding, it is now a tourist hotspot and locals run tours around the neighbourhood.
We’d heard mixed reviews about whether it’s safe to go alone or only go with a tour, but after asking around (and determining that it’s in fact no different to any other city neighbourhood we’ve been in before) we decided to do it ourselves. This turned out to be the sensible (and cheaper) option because once on the Main Street we simply followed the brown tourist signs to the escalators where we were surrounded by hundreds of other gringos, all on tours!
Like the metro system, the government has helped the local community by installing outdoor escalators making a 35 minute arduous hike now a quick 6 minute ascent. It was quite a novel experience for us! The walls of Comuna 13 have become a colourful canvas to depict the past but also to act as a beacon of hope for the future. We really enjoyed riding the escalators, walking along the streets with colourful murals on and supporting the local community by buying homemade juices from one of the many street side stalls.
Another place we visited was the “Casa de memoria” which literally translates as memory house and it is a museum containing pictures, news articles and just too much information for a one day visit! It isn’t a huge place but we spent a few hours reading and learning about the province’s history, of which there is a lot. It was super interesting using an interactive timeline to read actual news articles from the period and see how the events impacted the country and its people. We definitely want to revisit the museum again with a bit more time.
We spent a week in El Poblado, which is basically ‘Gringo central’. It is a neighbourhood catering to tourists with hostels, bars and restaurants lining all the streets and charging prices more akin to Europe than Colombia.
Jeremy was a great host and really made our time in Medellin. It is always awesome to stay with a Warmshowers host because they understand what cyclists need and want. So although he had an 8th floor apartment, we could take our bikes up in the lift and store them in his kitchen. We had our own room, hot shower and an amazing place to relax and base ourselves to explore the city. It felt so upmarket!
However El Poblado has a different vibe to Envigado. We preferred Envigado for the typical Colombian community feel, more small shops and it was cheaper, whereas Poblado felt like any tourist district in any big city. In general we think that Medellin has everything that you need, both in the city and in the surrounding area, so much so that we’re already thinking of ways to come back and stay longer!
Another reason we really liked Medellin was the people. Paisas are the self-proclaimed “friendliest Colombians” and from what we’ve experienced, they are pretty awesome. For instance Gustavo, who we met back in Jardin, messaged us to check Steph’s leg was healing well and to invite us for lunch. They made us a ‘bandeja paisa’, the local dish which we hadn’t tried before and was absolutely delicious. The meal starts with a soup, which you eat alongside the main of rice, pork belly, beef, plantain, beans, avocado and salad, and it was made even better being homemade. We also met their two sons, who had perfect English, and had a nice afternoon getting to know this Colombian family some more.
After a week in Medellin being tourists we were looking forward to getting back on the bikes and cycling east out of the city towards Guatape. We had budgeted four days of riding before starting a Workaway for a month, this time at a Spanish school in San Carlos. Henry, our Canadian friend that we met in Sucre, took Spanish lessons there and his language skills were really good so “Spanish Adventure” was a must-do for our time in Colombia. But for us to keep costs down we would be volunteering – Steph teaching English and Ben will be helping with some house improvement jobs.
But first, a trip to the dentist. Yay! Steph had a broken wisdom tooth that needed to be extracted so after a consultation, Luis (the dentist) said that both wisdom teeth were dead and needed taking out. Steph was a bit nervous but Santiago, the dental surgeon, did an amazing job. Only a few hours after she had no bleeding and very little pain, but we had the bad news that we couldn’t ride for three days. On one hand it was worth it though because it needed doing and was like going to a private dentist (but for waaaaay less than you’d pay in the UK) but on the other, it scuppered our plans to get to San Carlos on the bikes.
In the end we had to leave our bikes with Jeremy and took the bus to San Carlos, a small town only 4 hours to the east of Medellin. It was really weird not arriving by bike or having them with us, but it was only for a week as we collected them the following weekend.
So, we’ve already settled into our life at Spanish Adventure and we’re enjoying having a bedroom, kitchen and space for all of our things. It’s nice to unpack and not have to repack any time soon! We live in the house with other volunteers and students too, so there’s a nice atmosphere and there’s always someone willing to do something or practise your Spanish with. There’s never a dull moment and we some how (well… just about!) manage to find time for Spanish lessons and homework, volunteering work, afternoon adventure time and shared meals. It’s fun and hectic at the same time… hopefully after another week or so it’ll get easier.
Check out where we are on our map and see some of the stats from the ride so far.
Que le vaya bien.
Steph and Ben