Infamous for being Pablo Escobar’s city and the world’s most dangerous place a few years ago, Medellin has drastically changed over the past years to become one of the most popular destinations in South America.
We had planned three nights in our little AirBnb but quickly realised that we would need an extra night in order to cover what we wanted to do. The first thing we did was taking the metro, symbol of hope for the people of Medellin, as it was built and completed amidst extreme violence that went on for decades in the city. We quickly went through the botanical garden, which wasn’t much to fuss about, and met our group for the Real City Free Walking Tour that would take us around the city center for the next 4 hours (we give the name because nobody should visit Medellin without doing this tour). Our guide was named Pablo, a rather funny coincidence considering that most of our discussions revolved around the criminal with the same name. He told us about the events of the past 50 years, the violence, the political changes, the desperation and the hopes of the people of Medellin. It was a very heavy tour, emotionally speaking, but it gave us a great insight of what people went trough and keep going through, because although tourists are being showed a new, glittery Medellin, many problems and tensions persist and cocaine (mainly consumed abroad) remains a source of suffering for the Colombian people. That evening we went for dinner in the El Poblado district, popular with gringos, and Quentin was offered “coca, marijuana, women?” every 5 meter on average.
The next day we went to Guatapé, a little village 2 hours east of Medellin famous for being overhung by a massive “220-meter high monolith”, which can be translated as a big rock the height of 650 irregular steps with a beautiful view from the top. We then walked around the little colourful town of Guatapé and went out of the touristy center looking for affordable food. We found salvation in the form of a tiny place held by two Afro-Colombian mamas that for a few pesos cooked a complete meal including juice, soup, salad, meat, potatoes, rice, etc.
Back to Medellin, the next day we did another walking tour, this time in the Comuna 13, a district that used to be considered the most dangerous place in the world just eight years ago, as most of the city’s drug and weapons trades were controlled from there. In 2012 (and after decried military operations), large amounts of money were invested to build symbolic (and helpful) escalators going up the steep hilly slopes, thus “connecting” the comuna to the rest of the city. Pop and street art became a new way of expression for the residents, and once the streets became safer the walls covered in graffiti became a tourist attraction.
The walking tour gave us a good overview of the transformations that happened there in the past years but it also felt that we were being sold an image not exactly corresponding to the reality of the place, because behind the colourful graffiti we could still witness poverty and youngsters sniffing cheap cocaine equivalents made with even worse ingredients. As we were about to head down the escalators, we heard several gunshots close by, and a helicopter started patrolling above our heads. In the past months, dozens were reportedly killed in Comuna 13 but it is said that tensions between gangs are high at the moment due to the upcoming transition to a new president…
Still, this is only a small part of Medellin, and it is true that the city itself is literally reviving after all the violence it went through. Colombians also have this amazing ability to remain joyful and positive, and many approached us in the street to make conversation, curious of where were are from, what we thought about their city, and eager to give us tips on where to go. One evening, in particular, we mingled with the locals on a square that is famous for live music and dancing. While it was planned to just take a look, Rebekka quickly found herself on the dancefloor with a man three times her age and a head smaller, but also wearing a cool hat and a broad smile :-).
Another great thing about Medellin is that it offers a large panel of international food, allowing a change from the usual deep-fried Colombian dishes. Thai curry, Italian pizza and even Chinese Baos were between our culinary experiences, and all were absolutely delicious!
After the Colombian hills, it’s time to head north and have a last taste of the Caribbeans before our travels bring us to the Andes!