“Imagine there is a line here,” said Carolina, our tour guide, as she drew an imaginary line in the pavement. “This side is the legal side, and this side is the illegal side.”
“What side do you think Colombians like to stand on?” she asked.
As a few of us gave our guesses, she answered; “We like to walk down the middle of it! Well actually, we prefer to salsa down it!” she remarked, as she casually salsa-ed down the elusive line of morals.
I was on a walking tour of the city, and Carolina was taking us through Medellin’s downtown area where people were selling, well, everything. Bootleg DVDs, fried street food, sweets, fruits, knock off sneakers, knock off soccer jerseys, hardcore porn being sold right next to a church, as well as women of a certain profession offering their company to churchgoers; literally anything you could have wanted to buy seemed to be readily available.
I had arrived in Medellin a few days prior, after relaxing at a small finca in Manizales, and as much as I loved the coffee country, I was craving some city life. And Medellin certainly delivered.
Medellin had my curiosity early on in planning my trip; my uncle had lived in Medellin in the 80s during its most tumultuous period, and I had read a lot about the city going through a renaissance in recent years. I had mixed responses to people when I told them I was going to Medellin (and Colombia in general, but especially Medellin). Many people looked at me wondering why I wanted to visit the world’s most dangerous city, alone. It seems old statistics die hard, yeah? Others, mostly people who had actually been to Medellin, couldn’t have been more excited for me and went on to tell me it’s one of their favorite cities they’ve ever been to. What I knew about Medellin was a tale of two cities; I am well aware of Pablo Escobar and the violence he brought upon the city and the rest of the country. But I’ve also read about the city’s innovation, the pride of its citizens, and how it’s been rebuilding itself and writing new chapters to its story. I guess I was eager to see it all for myself and get my own perceptions of the place.
I hit the ground running when I arrived; immediately meeting up with friends I had made in Salento, and because it was the weekend, we walked to Parque Lleras, a party area where people drink in the park and socialize before heading to bars and clubs that surround the area. Similarly downtown’s shopping area, Parque Lleras is a sight for the senses. Lots of young people dressed in their best, sharing bottles of booze and laughing in the park, with people hawking cold beers and cigarettes, among other vices. The more you imbibe and submerge yourself into the scene, the blurrier the lines get. Take a double look, that seemingly innocent transaction of buying a pack of cigarettes might have been something else. That pretty lady flirting with your friends has a deeper voice than you expected…
The next morning I felt the pain and the shame of my hangover wash over me, and it took me a while to get going. I felt the anxiety of not getting up early and exploring the city I had heard so much about, but I spent the better part of the day lounging around in my hostel with no stamina to do any sightseeing.
My guilt finally got the best of me, and I made it out of my hostel to meet a friend for lunch. Along the way, I met a few Brits who had the perfect antidote for my hangover; Cuba Libres. Lots of Cuba Libres. Through our drinks, we came up with a great plan to do some sightseeing the next day and to go to the Atlético Nacional football game, one of the only things on my list of things I really wanted to do while in Colombia.
As things turn out, the game ended up getting canceled/postponed! What?! Super bummed, but still determined, we were told there was a football game going on in Envigado, a town right outside of Medellin. A much smaller scale than a Nacional game, but hey. We ended up grabbing a beer before the game at an unassuming outdoor restaurant. As it turns out, the restaurant was just about to close, and after the grill is put away and the plastic tables and chairs are stacked up, the eatery is also the home of the people running the restaurant. Soon, the family members brought out their own tables and chairs and began socializing with each other and playing card games. Suddenly, we felt very intrusive and tried to finish our beers quickly so we could head out.
Instead of being met with annoyed faces by the restaurant/homeowners, a man came over with a bowl of snacks and sat down with us. We stumbled through a few sentences, our Spanish not holding up so well and him not being able to speak English, but eventually he called his nephew over to help translate. After a few laughs and exchanges, the man started getting emotional and grabbed a napkin to wipe a few tears from his eyes. His nephew said that he was just very overwhelmed with talking to the three of us; apparently we were only the second group of foreigners he had ever talked to and he said it was a very special moment in his life. We eventually forgot about the football match and decided sitting outside of this man’s home and sharing beers with him was a much better night out.
The next day I set out for a walking tour of the city, where our guide, Carolina, gave us a really amazing rundown of the city and its history. I learned about the paisa culture, which is the name of the people who come from that region in Colombia. I learned that paisas were originally Basque and Jewish, which I found interesting as that is my heritage as well. Carolina took us all over the city, to many places she said locals would never recommend travelers to visit as they can be kind of seedy, but these areas are part of the city nonetheless. She also gave really great examples of how Colombians continued to live their lives and be their lively selves even during the most tragic and violent times.
While listening to Carolina tell stories of Medellin’s most darkest days, I was simultaneously watching the current state of the city; people selling things at the market and curious passersby smile and welcome us to their city. It was touching and emotional to learn about the turmoil the people of Medellin went through not so long ago, but to see how alive the city is today. It left me feeling inspired and optimistic about life in general, to see a city go through such a rebound and to see the people along for the ride.
After becoming a bit travel weary (I was getting sick of packing my bags and hopping on a bus, or catching a flight, and checking into a new hostel every few days), coupled with the vibrancy of the city, I extended my stay and spent the remainder of my days slowly but steadily exploring the corners and nooks of Medellin.
I biked around the very hilly and lush hills of Poblado, weaved my way through the crazy traffic downtown, and somehow managed to cycle up a mountain to Pueblito Paisa to take in more views of the beautiful city.
I took the metro up to the cable cars, which bring people up to comunas that are built high up in the mountains. The views alone from the cable cars are spectacular, but getting off and exploring the neighborhoods are also a real treat… A group of us explored Santo Domingo, the streets were filled with locals enjoying sunny day.
While admiring the brightly colored street art in Comuna 13/San Javier, a woman on her porch started asking me and the group of girls I was with such questions. Her curiousity was piqued when we all gave her different answers to where we were from (the US, Germany, Canada, and Belgium). Once we told her we had just met at our hostel, and that we were all traveling through Colombia solo, she became very interested. She invited us into her home so we could meet her daughter and grandson. Between me and the three other girls I was with, we were able to pool our Spanish speaking skills together and had a lovely chat in her living room as she passed around photos of her family and asked us about our lives.
As we left her home, we all felt like we had just stumbled into a really special, magical moment. It seemed these little chance moments were following me in Medellin; to having a beer with the man from Envigado, to being invited into that woman’s home, and to having a family cook me lunch in their home!
While I was in the Amazon, I met a family from Medellin who were staying at my hotel. Camila, who is about my age, spoke English and told me that her parents wanted to invite me over to their home and cook me lunch. Camila picked me up at my hostel, and brought me to her beautiful high rise apartment in Poblado. I was welcomed by Camila’s parents, her brother, Camila’s boyfiend, and his young daughter who was very excited to tell me all of the English words she had learned in school.
Camila’s mom prepared a delicious lunch of traditional/typical dishes of the region. Over lunch, I talked about all of the things I had done in Medellin, and everyone declared that I had seen a lot! So it was decided that instead of Camila showing me around the city, we’d go for a swim and laze around their apartment’s pool. Fine by me.
After a few hours of swimming and napping poolside, Camila drove me back closer to where I was staying in Poblado. We wandered around a bit, and I asked her about growing up in Medellin; what it was like to grow up during the city’s most violent days and to watch it transform. It was really fascinating and I felt grateful that I was able to get firsthand accounts about what it was/is like living in a city that is so captivating.
Medellin was certainly a city of extremes. Seeing the tangible vivaciousness of the people and the daily life was contagious; watching people play soccer, skateboard, and enjoy the sunshine in Parque Ciudad del Rio, the kids running about and biking down the steep hills in Santo Domingo, listening to the man shout “Empanadas!! Empanadas!!” while selling the home cooked delicacy to his neighbors in San Javier, dancing at a club in Parque Lleras in a large circle with Colombians while screaming the lyrics to a song I had just heard for the very first time, having a girl armed with a Super Soaker loaded Aguardiente squirt some of the fiery beverage into my mouth, having strangers come up to me on the street to shake my hand and welcome me to their city… This whole mish-mash of life confirmed why I love city life so much.
But then there was the sheer beauty of Medellin; nestled in the Aburrá Valley with the lush, green Andean mountains surrounding it. Every view seems to be more beautiful than the last. Is it city living that makes me feel more alive or is it the mountains? I’m not too sure, but with Medellin, you don’t have to choose. You get to have both.
I ended up staying in Medellin much longer than I had planned on, which seemed to be a common theme among many travelers passing through. After I finally willed myself to pack my bags and move onto my next destination, my hostel was full of people who were researching apartments and trying to figure out a way to stay in Medellin for the long term.
I’m not sure if it was me falling in love with Medellin that made me stay longer, or me knowing that my next move, up to the Caribbean coast, was to be my last destination before it was time to head back home. I thought, maybe if I just ended up staying in Medellin just a bit longer, it would somehow put a stoppage in time and my inevitable departure from Colombia…