We were set to begin making our way back down south through Colombia, where we would eventually exit into Ecuador in the next few weeks. We caught a flight from Cartagena to Medellin for destination #5. We found this flight on the Colombian Ryanair equivalent and it saved us a lot of bus time so there was no hesitation in booking it once we spotted cheap flights (In hindsight, Gavin couldn’t fit into the seats but look it was only over an hour!). I was really looking forward to Medellin and all the associated history, particularly brought to the fore by the Netflix series Narcos. We arrived to an airport about an hour outside the city so we were treated to some beautiful scenery on the bus transfer and with both of us admitting we had absolutely no idea just how vast the city was.
Once we were happily fed I took the arrival in Medellin and following afternoon of rain as an opportunity to restart watching Narcos as I had attempted to watch the first episode on numerous occasions before we left home and never managed to finish one fully!! The opening scene in Narcos states “there is a reason magical realism is born in Colombia”, and after our time and various tours there, I can only reiterate how appropriate that statement is. Magical realism is defined online as art that, while encompassing a range of subtly different concepts, expresses a primarily realistic view of the real world while also adding or revealing magical elements. I found myself questioning on many occasions during tours of this amazing city whether in fact the stories being told could actually have happened here, if they really were true – the city has a history that is really hard to believe.
The hostel we chose in Medellin, The Sugar Cane Hostel, is run by a German man, Gunther, who had travelled extensively and run previous hostels in other parts of Colombia. His experience was evident from the moment we arrived and this was a really super hostel. He provided us with so much information on things to do in the area and helped us book tours for the coming days.
We had booked in for a walking tour of the city to begin our first full day in Medellin and this was so worthwhile. Our guide was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable and the tour lasted about four hours. In that space of time we encountered a number of locals (known as Piasas), including our guide, and one thing so obvious was their pride. They are such proud and passionate people – we later found that this continued for the duration or our stay in Medellin where we would get stopped by locals saying to us “welcome to my country, this is your country too”. Our guide explained to us that the people are so happy to see tourists as it is a symbol to them of the transformation their city has undergone, 20 years ago you wouldn’t dream of visiting Medellin.
During the tour we ate our first Colombian street food! The stalls are everywhere, but partially due to a lack of Spanish and not knowing what anything was, and the other part being paranoia about hygiene, we had yet to experience it. In short, everything is fried! The guide recommended a good stall and we tested empanadas for the first time. A fried shell stuffed with meat and potato.
We stopped at the “Pillars of hope” which are erected in a square that was once known as the square of crime. Now they represent a symbol of the city’s transformation and each night they light up as a sign of hope.
During the walking tour the guide explained some of the dark history of the city but mainly in describing how it has transformed. There is a huge focus on education with many universities (some free), outdoor parks, libraries, soccer pitches, skateboarding ramps etc. to keep youths in education and out of trouble. We visited Botero Plaza, named after Fernando Botero who donated 23 bronze statues which are dotted around the plaza. Our guide informed us that each statue is worth $2.2m.
We later visited San Antonio Park which is used for concerts. The”Botero Bird” statues located here told a story about a concert in 1995 where a bomb was placed inside the statue and killed a number of people. At the request of the artist Fernando Botero, the damaged statue was left and a duplicate placed next to it as a memorial. The guide explained that this was unusual as it was common that Colombians tend to “forget” the past and nobody chooses to remember how dark times were.
Our guide also explained the importance of the metro to the locals, it is 20 years old now but was established at a time of despair in the city. We noticed as we utilized the service just how impeccable it was due to the level of respect the locals had for it, no graffiti, no rubbish, nobody eating or drinking on it. The second observation was how inexpensive it was, one ticket was 2,300 Colombian pesos which is the equivalent to approximately 75cent at home, and could take you on as many or as little stops as you wished. In addition there is a cable car system linked to the metro. The cable cars are of huge importance to the locals as it connects the areas of extreme poverty in the mountains to the city centre in minutes by the car and metro.
We took one of the cable cars in the west and the views of the coloured shacks stacked on top of one another with clothes drying on the roofs (where there were roofs), and the steepness of the area gave us an understanding of how poor the area was and how much the cable car must help those people in connecting them to the city.
The western cable car took us passed an area known as “Comuna 13”, once one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Medellin. The area leads directly onto the main highway which provided easy transportation of guns, drugs and money and as a result there was a lot of unrest in the past as paramilities, guerrillas, and Narcos all sought after its ownership.
We spent the evening planning the next few days in Medellin and enjoyed some Colombian food.