Throughout our time in Bogota we heard virtually everyone rave about Medellin. Other travellers sang its praises, as did Bogotanos. Bogotanos always said its climate was great and it had a Metro. That’s a big deal in Colombia, and as we would learn, the Medellin Metro has great symbolic value for Colombians and especially Paisas (The dominant cultural group found in the state or Department of Antiquia).
We got up at 3:30 on Saturday morning and headed for the airport. We had a 5:30 flight to Medellin and we just made it. It was a short flight. An hour after takeoff we were on the ground in Medellin. From the airport, which was smaller and quieter than we expected, we caught an Uber to our hotel.
The drive from the airport into town was on winding, mountain roads with spectacular scenery. There was a haze or fog or smog hanging over everything, so the distant hill tops were often obscured, but from what we could see, the landscape was beautiful. There were tons of cyclists out for a Saturday morning ride in the mountains. I bet we passed 150 or more, riding alone and in groups, outfitted in spandex and many on expensive bikes. Here’s some not very good cellphone video to show you what it looked like coming into Medellin:
El Poblado is one of the most popular neighborhoods for tourists and wealthy people in Medellin. It’s a sprawling neighborhood of mid and high-rise apartments, shopping, and nightlife. I think the nightlife in Medellin (and Colombia in general) is a big draw for many visitors. Obviously it’s not something we care about at all or have experienced. Anyway, I was surprised when Mila said the hotel she booked was in a neighborhood called Prado and not in El Poblado. Prado is in Central Medellin, which like Bogota, is on the grittier side. In fact when I googled it, one website put it right in the middle of Medellin’s “no-go” areas for visitors and described the neighborhood like this:
Prado, located downtown on the northern side of 10th district, is the old residential neighborhood for the city’s wealthy. The neighborhood has been deemed cultural heritage because of its spectacular architecture.
However, the neighborhood is also a hotspot for crack cocaine dealings and child prostitution. The area around it, known as La Candelaria or El Centro, has the highest homicide rate in Medellin.
During the day, El Centro is also filled with bankers and business people hard at work in office buildings, but between 6PM and 8PM all commuters and cops go home and the downtown area becomes one of the most desolate districts of the city. Prado even more so.
In fact it was one of the hotels with the best reviews, and while most reviews acknowledged the neighborhood, they also indicated that the hotel was secure and a great place to stay. We decided to go to the hotel and check it out. We would simply find another hotel if we were not comfortable. As it turned out, the neighborhood was definitely on the grittier side, but the hotel was nice and secure. We decided to stay and it turned out to be a good spot. It was one of the more social hotels we’ve stayed in lately, and we met a number of other travellers in the hotel courtyard and restaurant.
After checking in and getting cleaned up, we caught another Uber and headed to the Centro Comercial Santa Fe, a big luxury mall in the El Poblado neighborhood. We were curious about El Poblado and Jette needed a new pair of sandals, so that seemed like a good place to start in Medellin.
Jette didn’t find sandals that fit, but we had a good afternoon. In the center of the mall on the lower level, where there might normally be a skating rink, there was a dog park. Obviously this was right up Jette’s alley!
We had a late lunch in the food court on the upper level which featured a huge balcony overlooking the city and the mountains. Like many buildings in Medellin, it was totally open air. The climate is such that many buildings are open to elements, even big, modern shopping malls.
In the photo above it was so smoggy it is difficult to see the mountains in the background. It turns out that on the days that we were in Medellin the local government made most public transportation free and banned most private cars from the road in an attempt to fight the horrible air pollution.
We were home by dark (again by Uber), had a light dinner at the hotel, and were in bed before too late. The next morning we took another Uber to El Pablado, to a restaurant that had good reviews online for breakfast. It was closed. The streets and sidewalks were empty and everything seemed closed. We walked a few blocks and down a cute street lined with (closed) bars and nightclubs. We don’t care about nightlife, but I suspect this is a main draw for many of Medellin’s visitors. We walked some more, through a cute park, and finally found an open restaurant. We had a very mediocre breakfast of rice and beans, arepas and eggs with sliced up hot dogs. The choices were limited and the quality not so great. The restaurant was on the corner and open air. Imagine open garage doors instead of walls on two sides.
As we were finishing our meal, a rough looking guy – young, dirty and disheveled – stopped on the sidewalk next to our table (we were “inside” but there was no wall separating us from the sidewalk, only a column). He sat and stared right at us for some time, making Jette extremely uncomfortable as she felt like he was staring at her. He was positioned in such a way that the column blocked my view of him. When it was obvious that we were talking about him, and when I leaned around the column to make eye contact with him, he came over and asked for the leftover food on our plates. I shook my head yes and he retreated a bit. I ordered another full meal to go and as we were leaving, gave him the freshly prepared meal instead of the few scraps on our plates. Probably a futile gesture, but at least that was a meal that he didn’t have to get through thievery.
By this time the neighborhood was getting more active and there were lots of people out and about. Jette wanted to go back to the park we had walked through earlier because they had some exercise equipment that looked like fun. We walked back and were surprised to see how many people were wearing their exercise outfits and “working out” on the machines. I don’t think anyone was working hard enough to break a sweat! For many of the yoga-pants-tank-top-possee it seemed more a social activity than exercise.
After some time exercising, we wandered around the neighborhood a bit more, stopped for a tea, then walked to a famous soup restaurant called Ajiaco y Mondongos for lunch.
We ordered two soups to share. Ajiaco is a pulled chicken and corn soup. Cazuela de Frijoles is a hearty bean stew. They were both super delicious. Yummy! The Monongo in the restaurant name is a tripe soup. We haven’t tried that one yet.
Once again we were back at our hotel before dark, had a light dinner at the hotel, and an early bedtime after doing some work.
The next morning we were up early for a walking tour of downtown Medellin. It was a very good tour. Our guide Juan gave us some excellent insights into Colombian history, culture, and of course, Medellin. The tour covered a section of Central Medellin, not far from our hotel. It is an area that is often labeled a “no-go” area for tourists. From city hall and the main municipal buildings to busy markets, we saw quite a bit in the four hour tour.
Juan did a good job of explaining Paisa history and culture. In a nutshell, descendents of Basque Spaniards, Jews and the native people lived in relative isolation in the mountainous areas of Medellin and Antiquia. They are the Paisas. The climate and geography was excellent for coffee and other produce, which they grew, but the mountains kept them relatively isolated and limited their ability to trade and profit. In the 20th century they built the first railroad in Colombia, linking them to the outside world and creating an explosion in trade and industrialization for the region. Paisas developed a reputation as industrious, hard working, good business people.
He also gave us a brief history of the Colombian Conflict, which began in 1948 with a decade long period of conflict known as “La Violencia” and continues in a limited form today. Juan grew up in the 1990’s. He said he had 8 close friends. 6 of them were killed. Given a 50+ year history of conflict, corruption, crime and the high levels of poverty it seems fantastic that Colombia is ranked yet-again as The Happiest Country in the World (Washington Post: Here’s what we can learn from Colombia – the happiest nation in the world).
I didn’t take many photos on the tour. In fact we haven’t been carrying a camera or other valuables when we are out and about in Colombia. I’ve been carrying a cheap phone I bought in Kuala Lumpur, which is one of the reasons our recent photos and videos have been few in number and low in quality!
The Colombians have an expression, “No dar papaya” which translates as, “Don’t give papaya”. What does this mean? It means don’t give anyone the opportunity to take advantage of you. If you leave your house, lock the door. Don’t flaunt wealth in public. Count your change. Don’t be a sucker. Don’t be an easy mark. Don’t carry anything you don’t want to lose (like a camera!). On the one hand, I understand it. On the other hand it seems a bit “blame the victim” and I wonder if this cultural belief isn’t fueling the relatively high crime rates and the general acceptance of them. In my mind, there is no excuse for theft and certainly none for armed robbery. In a society that won’t tolerate it, there will be little. In one that does, much. It is over simplistic, but am I wrong?
Anyway, on the tour, we had “Papaya Levels” to indicate levels of alertness as we moved through areas that were known for pickpocketing and such. We had no issues at all. Everyone was friendly. In fact, every time we stopped as a group to talk, we had odd characters in various states of sobriety join us out of curiosity and in the spirit of brotherhood/sisterhood. You can see a couple in the video below. (The intoxicated woman on the left and the nice older man who chimes in at the end). Our tour guide knew most of them by name and knew that they were harmless:
Another interesting thing that we learned on the tour regarding crime is that in Colombia, areas of crime and “sin” are often right next to churches. It is quite convenient as once the “sinners” commit their crimes, they can then walk immediately into church, pray, and be instantly cleansed of their sins. Juan likened it to a convenient bottle of hand soap that never runs out.
The tour was not all crime and violence. I seem to be having a hard time talking about Colombia without making it sound scary, and while it is sometimes, mostly it’s not. We learned a lot about Colombian culture, street life, markets, politics, the symbolic importance of the Metro, and more. Jette and Mila even got to eat some ice cream along the way! We saw some excellent shopping streets, with a variety of street performers, and full of people from a wide swath of humanity. To the eye most of Medellin seems less gritty, less impoverished, and generally “nicer” than many of the Asian cities we’ve visited. Bogota and Medellin are fantastic cities with vibrant street life and friendly people. It is simply it’s well-earned reputation for violence that gives one pause.
After the walking tour we walked to a nice restaurant on one of the main shopping streets and had lunch. I had a delicious lentil soup and Jette had a whole, fried fish.
Fried foods like fried chicken and fried fish are popular in Colombia and are often served with a set of plastic gloves so you can eat them with your hands and not get your fingers greasy. Jette joked that she felt like a “lunch lady” but I told her she was missing her hair net!
All in all our visit to Medellin was good. We certainly didn’t see it all, but we felt like we at least got a sense of it. The thing we can’t figure out is why people seem to like it so much more than Bogota. We liked Bogota more. We liked the weather and we liked the city, we like the people. Maybe it’s the nightlife in Medellin that people like? We just don’t get it. Medellin is interesting and it has some attractive features, but if we had to choose, we’d choose Bogota. To each their own, I suppose. We certainly enjoyed our time in Medellin.