Medellín is bustling with energy that feels like it must have been manufactured by a travel agency. It is hot, but pleasant. There is music everywhere, the local people are warm and welcoming, the streets are clean, nightlife is buzzing, and there are endless options for food. I spent the second week of my trip in Colombia’s second city, and was not ready to say adiós when I finally did leave.
But Medellín is more than just sunshine and salsa, there is depth and there is history. It would be easy to assume that the city has always been a modern, tourist friendly destination, and wonder why you haven’t visited sooner. But from the 1980s to as recently as 2002, Medellín was the epicentre of the cocaine trade and held the title of Most Violent City in the World. Over the last 14 years, the city has become known instead for its major urban transformation and social development. It is now celebrated as one of the most innovative cities in the world.
This happened through investment in infrastructure, mainly methods to connect the city’s poorest neighbourhoods to the centre. Medellín has one of the nicest metro systems I have ever been on, its residents are extremely proud of it and you won’t find a bit of graffiti or litter in the stations. The Metro is connected to cable cars that help those who live in the hillside barrios save over two hours commuting into the downtown area. In Comuna 13, which was once the most dangerous area in Medellín, escalators have been installed on the steep hillside and are now protected by security guards, helping people access the Metrocable system. World class transportation infrastructure, investment in education and literacy, and the redevelopment of hubs for criminal activity into shared public spaces have inspired a tangible sense of optimism and hope throughout the city of Medellín.
The Real City Walking Tour was the highlight of my entire trip so far. Our guide, Juan, shared both the positive and negative aspects of Medellín’s history and his own experience growing up there. Juan and I are the same age, 32, and he grew up during the city’s most violent years. He was open and candid about his life, then and now, the way he is impacted by the stigma associated with being Colombian, and his hopes for the future of his city and his country.
Several times on the tour we were greeted by inquisitive locals. They wandered over to our group to see what was going on, and each of them would welcome us to their city. Out of respect, Juan didn’t mention Pablo Escobar or cocaine by name; he explained that without context, people might resent him for talking about it. Medellín is not proud of that aspect of its history and doesn’t appreciate when it is glorified (such as it is in the show Narcos, which is hated by many Colombians).
When I first arrived, I went to Comuna 13 to check out the escalators and some of the street art there. That night, I joined some people from my hostel for a night out in Poblado, an upscale and trendy neighbourhood full of bars and clubs. Most of the clubs were full of beautiful, well dressed people in their teens and twenties. The preferred dance style is what I would call “grinding”.
One sunny afternoon, I took the Metrocable to Parque Arví. The ride offers amazing aerial views of the city, the barrios, and the mountains and landscape surrounding Medellin. I found the park itself boring, but I did not make it to the adventure park which includes a rope course. I nearly took a horseback ride, but my Spanish wasn’t good enough to establish an understanding of where I would end up at the end of my one hour ride (I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a one way trip). We struggled for at least five minutes and I gave up. After about an hour in the park, I made my way back down to the city looking like I had been through a rose tinted Instagram filter. I had to get back for Spanish class.
My time in Medellín was not as eventful as Bogotá. I was trying to save money to make up for what I spent on Spanish Lessons from Toucan Spanish School. The class was way outside of my budget at COP 590,000 (CAD $267; USD $202). I initially signed up for a group class which was similar format to the courses I took in high school: conjugating verbs and learning grammar rules. After the first day I switched to a private lesson so I could focus on survival skills: ordering in restaurants, negotiating prices at markets, taking public transportation, etc. At the end of the week, I wished I could spend another three weeks learning; but in my travels since then I realize I learned quite a bit with that brief refresher.
If you want to learn Spanish, Colombia is a great place to do it. People speak slowly and clearly, are patient and willing to help you. If I were to do it again, for the type of learning I needed, I probably would have gone with one of the many private instructors offering lessons much cheaper than the school.
Going to class every day left me feeling exhausted. It was only two hours but it stretched my brain. I spent most evenings in my hostel, cooking dinner and then reading or writing on the rooftop patio.
I stayed at the Black Sheep Hostel, which is about 15 minutes from the Zona Rosa in Poblano, the main area for restaurants and bars. It is on a quiet street just down the hill, and is about 10 minutes walk to the Metro station and a very nice supermarket called Exito. It was nice, but I don’t think I would stay there again. The staff was wonderful and I loved the common areas. The rooftop patio has three hammocks where you can sit and watch lightning storms in the distance every night. There is a nice big kitchen and wifi is reliable. The reason I wouldn’t stay there again is that the bathrooms are never clean. I had one nice shower in the middle of the day, I camped out while the maid cleaned and went in as soon as she finished. Other than that, pretty gross.
There are many activities to do in and around Medellín, most people went to Guatape and came back raving. Some people did the Pablo Escobar tour and I didn’t hear good things from any of them. It was COP 60,000 which is quiet expensive for a tour and they said they spent most of their time in the car and, as one guy put it, “the tour guide was impossible to like”.
I recommend the blog, Medellin Living. I found most everything I needed to know between this and the staff at my hostel. When I go back to Medellín, I will spend more time in the downtown neighbourhoods and will do the day trip to Guatape. Until then, I will look back with fond memories at the world’s most innovative city.