Our first Colombian city turned out to be a corker, and possibly our favourite city overall. Previously overshadowed by the terrifying rein of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, it wasn’t until he was gunned down on a rooftop in 1993 that Medellin really opened its doors to tourists, and even now the locals couldn’t be happier to see you.
Literally every half an hour or more, a local would gleefully shout ‘Welcome to Medellin! The city of eternal spring!’ – because of the city’s year-round clement climate, but also, more touchingly, because they’re really happy you’re there. It’s a sign that things are getting better and safer, along with their swanky Metro line that eases social cohesion by connecting the barrios of the North with the city, via an amazing scenic cable car that costs about 50p to ride!
We had old dudes at bus stops welcoming us to town, people approaching us with a friendly ‘Gringo!’ or ‘Gringa!’, holding our hands, asking us whether we’re a couple or related (a worryingly common question) and wanting to know what we thought of Colombia. The whole city pulsates with friendliness, and although you can see traces of the troubled era, or ‘the violence’ over the city, it’s a place we could easily see ourselves living.
Surrounded by mountains on all sides, it’s undeniably beautiful and even after a few days I was struck by the vistas as we stepped out of the Metro station – whether mountains by day or twinkling city lights of the barrios by night.
We took an amazing free walking tour that taught us the story of the city – from drugs trafficking, to the ‘paisa’ (regional Colombian) way of shrewd business acumen; from the tragic bombings that happened on a main square not so long ago, to the eternal Colombian hope and pride, and everything in between (including illegal fake markets and male prostitution hot spots).
It was a refreshingly honest tour by a local student and she painted us a great picture of both the downfalls and the unwavering positivity of Colombian life, and drew out some beautiful symbolism in the city – like the revamped square in town, previously too dodgy to visit, now all sculpture lights and music performances.
There’s plenty of cool interesting places in and around town. Trademark hilariously proportioned Berrio sculptures abound (he was a proud Colombian), and we found some beautiful government and council buildings with art deco architecture that we spent hours wandering around.
Just a short cable car up from the city, we also visited leafy, huge Park Arvi, where we took a picnic and chilled by a river drinking some brewskies in the afternoon sun. Oh did I mention, it’s legal to drink in public in Colombia?! And a 6-pack of beer costs two quid. So THAT’s pretty awesome.
We also took a day trip to nearby lakeside town Guatape, where we climbed the heart-pumping 650 steps up a huge rock called El Penol which offers amazing views of the endless surrounding bright turquoise lakes.
Once we’d caught our breath, we visited Guatape town itself – possibly the most photogenic city of South America, made up entirely of colourful ‘fresco’ era houses adorned with ‘zocalos’, or panels of relief artwork. There were lambs, there were flowers, there were local folk, all depicted into wood carvings on the outside of houses. We had a gas walking around town gawking at the bright decor and beautiful buildings, as well as the quintessential beautiful cathedral and central plaza!
For our last night, we did what any self-respecting Colombian would do on a Friday night, and got blind-drunk on local favourite boozes (beer mixed with fizzy apple drink Postobon, and shots of aniseed firewater Aguadiente) – then hung out on the main square with locals gibbering in terrible Spanish. The next day we managed all of the following: food shopping for our escape to the Caribbean coast, eating chicken, and making it the night bus. WINNING!