I suppose it’s correct to say that Colombia has a bit of a reputation. Just the name brings about thoughts of drug lords, gangs and gun violence, and guerrilla groups ready to murder, pillage and kidnap. Scenes from Narcos run amuck in your head and overall, you perceive that it’s likely not a place one should travel through, or at least, it’s a place where pre-caution at it’s highest level is continuously required. While all of these statements were true for several decades, spanning the era of Pablo Escobar and beyond, Colombia has mostly shed it’s monstrous shadows. The rest of the world just hasn’t quite caught up because the media perpetuates the image of a terrible and dangerous place, where the civilian populations cheered on the likes of Escobar as they terrorized the nation. In actuality Escobar was loathed and despised in Colombian communities for the ruthless tyrant he was, particularly in Medellin (his hometown). In present day, any mention of him is simply for the benefit of tourism. The nation has worked strenuously for 20+ years to evolve and to repair the damage of spirits past.
Though Medellin was once known as the second most dangerous city in the world, today it is winning awards for innovation, urbanism and world cities; with the crime rate having dropped 95% since the 80s, it is now considered safer than many cities in the United States. While cocaine is still a major export, and gangs, paramilitaries, and guerrilla groups still exist, the civilian population is now generally far removed from the chaos that is narco life. There was a time when community members of Barrio San Javier (Comuna 13) were unable to leave the hilltops they called home. Their neighbourhood was so roughly plagued with violence and crime that they were sectored off from the rest of Medellin. Today, this same neighbourhood is a place of hope, inspiration, and progress; where art, music, and tourism are breathing new life and actual livability to an area that is now not only reconnected with the city, but is one of it’s highlights.
Colombia’s second largest city really is something to behold. Its bowl shape allows the most scenic views of all it’s peaks and valleys, day or night. Looking into the centre from the top and looking up at the mountains from the centre, are equally awe striking. “The City of eternal spring” has a moderate climate with lots of precipitation especially in the months of April, May and November. These 3 months are considered low season. This climate makes it world renowned for the most amazing flowers and blooms. A flower festival is actually held each May and is the city’s most important festival; it includes a pageant, automobiles, a Paso Fino horse parade and many musical concerts. The locals, known as the Paisa, are very friendly and welcoming, and love to chat with foreigners. Thomas ended up getting a tattoo during our stay, and the tattoo artists took such a liking to us that they brought us site seeing, to a soccer game, a wonderful local restaurant and even offered us a place to stay for our secondary stay in Medellin in June. I can’t recommend Medellin enough to anyone looking for a city destination with a lot to offer.
Along with the metro cable cars, the trams, metro, and buses and walking, make travelling the city very easy. While Uber is technically illegal in Colombia, the service is functional and is always a much cheaper option than taxis; just make sure you sit in the passenger seat, to avoid attention from the police. Getting caught using Uber can carry a heavy fine for the driver and for you. If getting an Uber from the airport, the driver will likely ask you to meet him/her in the parking lot due to these legalities, so keep this in mind.
Where to Stay
El Poblado, is the main neighbourhood (barrio) where travellers tend to stay due to the sheer number of hostels, as well as the better likelihood of finding locals that speak English. Laureles is another, but is far less “touristic” and is more of an Airbnb haven. Medellin has 16 barrios also called communes, so the options are endless, but the ones mentioned above are your best bet for accessibility, and safety. Even the most rejuvenated areas, may not be the best places for tourists at night; petty theft is a possibility anywhere you go, and minimizing the chances is always a good idea.
Things to See and Do
This list could go on forever. There is so much to see and do…it’s tough to pick just a handful, but I’ll do my best.
- A ride on the metro cables (cable cars) will give you a stunning 360 of the city. I highly recommend riding one cable car line during the day and one at night.
- Try a menu of the day dish (discounted special of the day) at most restaurants. The Colombian staple Bandeja Paisa, is a platter with generous amounts of red beans cooked with pork, white rice, ground meat (carne molida), chicharrón, fried egg, plantain (plátano maduro), chorizo, arepa, hogao sauce, black pudding (morcilla), avocado and lemon, and is often served with a bean soup.
- Catch a soccer game at Estadio Atanasio Girardot Even if you aren’t a soccer fan, or even a sports fan, the incredible energy at a Colombian soccer game is not to be missed.
- Real City Tour (free walking tour) A guide will take you all over the city core and provide you with a history lesson, show you sites and sounds, and tell you about different foods the city has to offer.
- Free Salsa Classes Most hostels will have information on free salsa nights around town, and a quick google search will fill in any gaps. The lessons usually last about 1 hour and if you don’t have two left feet you should be pretty salsa fluent by the end of it all; if you do have two left feet, go anyway it’s lots of fun. The host bar usually then opens up to a general night of salsa dancing.
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