Medellín, is a city of contrasts. We really had no idea what to except of Medellín: an Andean city with decent temperatures; drug-fueled and innovative; wealthy and poor. To us, it was not only the contrasts within the city that were evident but also the contrasts Medellín holds on every other city we have been to so far in the Andes.
Nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring”, Medellín is known for its temperate climate – not too hot and not too cold. Situated close to the equator the temperature doesn’t vary much and the cities altitude of 1495m keeps it cool. It is built in the narrow Aburrá valley and surrounded on either side by the Andes Mountain Range. This is a stark contrast to most of the mountain ranges cool and windy cities perched above 2000m.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s Medellín was considered one of the most dangerous and violent cities in the world for its size. An urban war set off by drug cartels in the 80’s led to a highly disproportional homicide and kidnapping rate. Medellín was home to the Pablo Escobar, “The King of Cocaine,” a notorious and wealthy Colombian drug lord who dealt exclusively in cocaine trafficking. By the early 1990’s, he was regarded as the wealthiest criminal in history with an estimated net-worth of US$30 billion and was head of the Medellín Cartel who virtually took over the city that same decade. Following the cartels disbandment and Pablo’s death, the city has rebounded tremendously (6500 murders in 1991 vs 2900 in 2009; the rate of murders per 100,000 people: 184 in 2002 vs 27 in 2014).
In 2013, Medellín was chosen as the most innovative city in the world as well as the preferred corporate business destination in South America and won the Verónica Rudge Urbanism Award conferred by Harvard University to the Urban Development Enterprise. Additionally, Medellín was cataloged as one of the best cities to live in South American (a survey of the global status of the Smart Cities by Indra Sistemas) sharing first place with Santiago and alongside counterparts in Europe of Barcelona and Lisbon.
While all cities in South America have a distinct contrast between the rich and poor areas, Medellín ‘s seem to stand out more than others. Like all Andean cities, Medellín sprawls along the valley floor climbing high into the mountains where the slums hug the upper reaches of the hills. In Medellín, the wealthier classes live in the well-protected hillside neighborhood of El Poblado, Envigado and Laureles. There is practically no difference in Medellín ‘s slums to other slums we have seen; however, the extreme contrast is evident when you look at how advanced and westernized the wealthier neighbourhoods are.
Unlike the majority of Andean cities that are highly populated with indigenous people, Medellín is over 93% Euro-descendant. From the infrastructure and general feel of Medellín, it was clear that they look overseas for inspiration and examples more so than to the rest of Colombia or South America. The malls and bars play music in English; the traffic officers wear Italian-style round, boxy hats; the architecture has a much more modernist appeal and Medellín boasts Colombia’s first and only Metro system.
Medellín was where we realized we were no longer travelling as much as we were living. The first few weeks and even months of our trip we were go-go-go, wanting to see as much as possible in as little time as possible. This gets exhausting. In Medellín, we slowed right down. It had been a process and a long-time coming but Medellín is where we really noticed it. We originally planned to stay for four nights but after seeing the El Pablado neighbourhood and all of the comforts of home it had to offer we opted to stay an additional four nights. Sophisticated and classy cafes with excellent coffee (and soy milk!), comfortable seating and free Wi-Fi; excellent grocery stores with a range of domestic and imported products; a French bakery with delicious baguettes (something we have missed dearly); organic markets; and last, but not least, amazing malls. We stopped caring so much about seeing the tourist attractions and instead just living in the city. We scoped out our favourite coffee shop and hung out there letting hours slide by; we spent too much time in the grocery stores oohing and ahhing over simple sauces and spices we hadn’t seen in months – inspired we cooked ourselves scrumptious near-gourmet and not-so -backpacker meals in the hostels limited kitchen. As a side note, don’t except to use an oven in South America – you will learn that almost anything can be fried.
Within a 10 minute drive of each other there were two of the newest and most decked out malls we have ever seen. Open air-style at the top, filled with all the international brands you could hope for (Zara, American Eagle, etc.) as well as plenty of South American brands, coffee shops, food courts, gourmet restaurants, movie theaters, amusement parks, arcades, a beach, zip-lining, the list goes on. Given our complete lack of shopping throughout the trip so far and now that we are finally heading away from the cold and strictly to warmer climates, some retail therapy was in need. We switched out our sweaters and toques for shorts and dresses. One afternoon we chose to go see Fast and Furious 7 (in English with subtitles) in the movie theater. We weren’t quite sure how much it would cost and when the total came to 10,000 COP (5$) for two of us we were shocked! We headed in with our tickets to find an almost completely empty theater and comfy leather seats.
The area we were staying in (El Poblado) is known for its night-life and bar scene, especially on Friday/Saturday nights. Since we were staying at a hostel (instead of our usual airbnb), there were plenty of other travellers to meet. Friday night we decided to join in drinking the local rum (mixing it with fresh passion fruit, lime and soda water) at the hostels outside terrace and then head out to a bar. In our group there was a British girl, an American and two locals from Medellín. They had all previously met in London. It was convenient to have locals with us who knew which spots would be good – they chose a relatively small bar where we got a table and another bottle of local rum. The music was loud and everyone in Colombia loves to dance.
Dan rented a bike one day (while Kyra got an incredibly cheap mani/pedi and sipped a delicious soy milk latte). Motorcycle is the only way to commute in any major South American city. Motorbikes have the ultimate right of way on the streets, they are encouraged to split lanes, swerve through traffic, ride the center line; basically not follow any rules it seems. At traffic lights, all the bikes weave through the stopped cars so they can be at the front for when the light goes green and speed off. There are hundreds of thousands of motorbikes zipping through the city, all under 150cc’s in size. It was a very interesting experience following these rules, and very efficient (surprising)! For just 12$ USD, I rented a 150cc Enduro style bike for the day and explored the entire city without ever being stuck in traffic (which can get insane during peak times especially in the downtown areas).
As mentioned above, we didn’t concentrate much on the tourist attractions Medellín has to offer – we visited no churches or museums or even the main plazas (some of which are quite famous). Additionally, Medellín has a cable car taking tourists up over the slums to a view point high in the surrounding mountains which I am sure offers beautiful views, just like every other cable car in the Andes. Having seen enough of these (as discussed in the Quito post) we opted not to go.
The only truly ‘touristy’ thing we did in while Medellín was visit El Peñón de Guatapé which is actually in the town of Guatapé a two-hour bus ride away. This giant barren rock starkly stands out against the lush green islands and blue waters of the river Nare below. It stands 63m tall and there are 675 steps to reach the top – a decent climb. Also known as La Piedra, which directly translates to “The Rock”, it is believed to be the product of a volcanic eruption. The stairs are crisscrossed in large crevice that runs up the rock. The sign at the bottom reads “Welcome to the rock the best views in the world” and while maybe the views weren’t the best we have ever seen – they were definitely quite stunning. We visited in winter (which still feels like spring) so there were no boats on the water and the rock itself was fairly deserted; however, from the amount of boats we saw stored in racks below, this is likely a popular spot in the summer.