Driving into Medellin is out of this world, we couldn’t believe how massive this city was as we drove around the last corner of the mountain. Driving in from the airport you see the vast city spread out in the Aburra valley, a region of the Andes Mountains. Our first two nights were spent in the Poblado neighbourhood which is very touristy but has great restaurants, bars and nightclubs. We found a great cheap lunch spot next to our hostel. Set menu for $10000 COP (2.50 pounds) which was 2 courses. As it turned out quite a lot of our friends from San Blas Islands were in Medellin as well. This could only mean one thing. A big party. After exploring Poblado and having a bit of a chill we met up with everyone at one of their hostels. We spent some time there before heading to Parque LLeras, a big square surrounded by bars where everyone is allowed to drink in the street. We then tried to find a bar to drink in but all were pretty busy, we eventually found one before making our way to one of Medellin’s best clubs, Calle 9+1. We had a great night with everyone as this would be the last time everyone would be together.
On Sunday we moved into an airbnb for the next five days so we could get up and see a lot of the city without the temptation that comes with a hostel. We had a whole flat in the Estadio neighbourhood for 17 pounds a night the same price as two dorm beds. The area was residential however, Calle 70 was just down the road which hosts local restaurants, cafes and shops. It was here that Stu had his first Bandeja Paisa which is a typical dish containing red beans cooked with pork, rice, carne molida (meat), chicharron (pork rind), fried egg, plantain, chorizo, arepa, black pudding and avocado. In other words a heart attack on a plate. Picture below shows the size of it! This one came with chips (not sure thats typical) and wasn’t actually that good but I’m sure he’ll be trying another soon.
Monday morning we decided to book onto one of the free walking tours which are based on tipping however much you think is appropriate. The tour lasted a full 4 hours and we learnt so much about the transformation of the city in the past 25 years. The tour started at the old train station close to the San Antonio metro. Here we introduced ourselves and got to know our guide, Pablo. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Medellin is of course Pablo Escobar and his impact on the city. Our guide was – during the final years of Escobar’s reign of terror – a young boy growing up and it was fascinating to hear his perspective in comparison to online articles and the Netflix TV series, Narcos. He told us that his very first memory was of him and his family hiding in their houses waiting for a shootout on another family to end, this had been organised by Escobar himself. He remembers walking to school walking over the bodies of people murdered by Escobar in cold blood in the streets. It was chillingly to hear some true stories of what happened and its impact on everyday life for normal citizens. Escobar’s popularity is also somewhat exaggerated in the TV series and equally what he provided to the community. In the show it is claimed he provided housing to thousands, gave money to the poor etc. When in reality he built 300 houses and rarely gave cash handouts. What became even more shocking in a way, as we weren’t expecting it, was the fact that he refused to even say Escobar’s name. It is still to this day badly perceived amongst anyone over the age of 30. It was a real eye opener to the actual reality of Medellin. Our guide went even further than this by explaining that the Pablo Escobar tours offered to Gringos are disrespectful to the many people killed and families affected by his terror. The fact that people leave flowers on his grave leaves a sour taste in his mouth.
The next stop was the government offices square which had a monument explaining Medellin’s history. The monument itself was very impressive although we struggled to make out what was what in terms of the history of the city. We then had a mini history lesson of the 4 main political and paramilitary groups of Colombia from the past 25 years and how 4 groups at war have now dwindled down to two and thanks to strong government interventions there is much less violence.
This brought us to our next stop, Parque de las Luces. This newly built square epitomises Medellin’s cultural and social revolution. This used to be one of the most neglected, most dangerous and most anti-social areas of the whole of Medellin where drug use, violence and homelessness were rampant. This all started to change when the government in place decided that enough was enough in 2002. They invested heavily into the square by building the city’s main library, installing a magnificent lighting system bringing it out from the dark into the light and the old squatting buildings were renovated into the education department of the whole region rather than demolishing a sore image of the past. It was all about transformation and never forgetting the painful past. It was eye opening and remarkable.
The walk then took us up one of the main local shopping streets where Pablo pointed out some of his favourite street-food stalls. We stopped in front of a beautiful white church building where he pointed out a darker side. He explained that this was an area of prostitution because the men using the women would feel guilty after so would therefore repent their sins at the church. Walking further down the street we arrived at a magnificent square ‘Plaza Botero’ which hosted numerous sculptures by the artist Fernando Botero who donated these sculptures for the renovation of the museum in 2004 with one condition, that these particular sculptures would be put on display outside in the open for anyone to visit without paying. The square also hosts the ‘Palace of Culture Rafael Uribe’, a public building designed by the Belgian architect Augustin Goovaerts. This magnificent black and white building has an interesting and slightly funny history as halfway through the construction the local Colombians decided they did not like the design so after much debate Augustin decided enough was enough and they could build the rest for themselves and he went back to Belgium. Pablo then said that the locals looked at the plans and realised that this already massive building was only half built, however instead of finishing it as it should have been they built a wall where Augustin had finished as the rest was too big.
We then headed back towards the meeting point at the San Antonio metro we started from. We stopped outside where Pablo started to explain the significance of the metro system to us and how it has impacted on everyone’s daily life in Medellin. The metro is more than simply being a great public transports system, it is one of the defining improvements of bringing the city back together after the Narcos years. Everyone can reach every part of the city with ease breaking down social barriers. The metro is also the cleanest metro we have ever seen and this is because the people of Medellin are so grateful of having it that nobody even dares do graffiti on any part of the metro and nobody leaves rubbish behind. It is the symbol of a transformed city, the centre piece of an innovative city. Before heading off to our final stop Pablo explained to us that in the midst of the crazy years, someone threw a grenade towards of police officer which killed him and injured dozens more, but it seems to be forgotten about due to the crazy amount of killings and incidents happening still in the early 1990s.
This brought us to our final stop on the tour – Parque San Antonio. This is a cultural, historical and recreational square embedded in recent narcos history. The square was initially designed for celebrating people and music with big concerts taking place right in the centre of Medellin in open air. It also had some more Botero sculptures and was heralded a huge success. Unfortunately in 1995 during a concert a bomb detonated in one of the sculptures killing 23 people and injuring over 100 more. To this day nobody has been identified as the sole perpetrator of the attack. In the aftermath of the attack the then mayor of Medellin was pushing towards getting rid of the sculpture completely, this was until he received a phone call from Fernando Botero himself. He had got wind of the mayor’s plans and decided that this was just unthinkable. He convinced the mayor to scrap the plans and keep the blown up sculpture. He also offered to make a brand new identical sculpture and to install it next to the one where the bomb went off. To this day both are still there, the one half destroyed by a bomb and one in pristine condition. One must never forget the past no matter how painful it is, that is the message Botero wanted to portray.
End of Part 1…