After sailing into Cartagena, I was a bit over the heat and decided to bypass Santa Marta. After spending three months along both the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines and cruising through multiple islands along the way, I was well and truly ready for a change of climate and scenery so I booked a flight to Medellin.
I’ve been in Medellin, for three weeks now and what people have said about it is true. It is a definitely a special place. Fellow travellers who I had met along the way had told me that it’s a great place to stop by. As I was looking for a place I could slow down and improve my Spanish so it looked like Medellin was the perfect place to do so. Ben, an ex colleague from Sydney had also thrown in the towel at work and decided to go travelling and was also heading this way. We ended up meeting another couple of Aussies, Ivan and Rashana (the locals call her Rihanna) in the hostel who were looking to spend some time here studying Spanish and dancing as they are mad salsa enthusiasts. So we ended up using our collective bargaining power and found a four bedroom apartment in a nice part of town called El Poblado.
So over the last three weeks as I’ve grappled with improving my Spanish (as well as latin dancing). For me it’s been a slow and at times frustrating process, although I have to admit that I probably haven’t applied myself to it as much as I should post class with homework. Over this time, I’ve also come to develop some sort of affection towards the city of Medellin and have become increasingly fascinated with it’s transformation over the past twenty years as well as with the local Paisa people.
Like most people, my only knowledge of Medellin was that it was home of Colombia’s most infamous son, Pablo Escobar who along with his not so nice friends plunged the city into a nearly two decades of fear and terror during the 80’s and 90’s, until he was gunned down in a shower of bullets in 1993. When I was researching for this trip I had read how Medellin was voted the most innovative country in the world, ahead of some pretty well developed cities such as New York and Paris. So how does a city turn things around from a city and country on the verge of self implosion and and unthinkable violence to one thriving without the risk of of being murdered when heading to the local store?
Cue the history lesson…
You have to start before the cocaine and killing started taking over the city and country. Prior to this Medellin was a prosperous city, booming through industrialisation and trade. With this came a booming population, thus projecting it from a provincial town to a complex urban city on par with any other industrialised city in the world. Fast forward a few years, mix together an increasing population with an increasingly unstable national government and drug cartels and you’re left with a mountain of social issues on your hands. The solution for the city was to build public projects for the people such as the metro system. The only one in Colombia. More importantly, the metro system would not be built just for the working class, but be built as a symbol to bridge the disconnect between the poor and the rest of the city.
The metro line splits the city between North and South (23km) and East to West (5.6km). It’s hard to believe the peak of the construction was during the years of violence and bloodshed, however in true Paisa spirit they still got on with the job and in 1995 the first passengers were transported went through the turnstiles. Today, $1 on the metro buys you a trip to anywhere in city. As most of the station lines are elevated above the road levels, you’re able to get off at most stops to take in the views of the surrounding neighborhoods from the platform and then jump back on to the train. It’s a social and engineering marvel and something the locals are proud of. One look at the platform and trains and they are spotless.
So one does not simply build a metro system and expect an immediate change in behaviour or alleviate any fear of going out in the streets. The most powerful tool against crime and violence for the city was education and access to employment for the poor. The public works development continued with a cable car that runs up the eastern side of the city. Two stops to Santo Dominigo where it was considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the city is now the site of the Espana Library Park. This is no ordinary park though, but a massive library park in Medellin’s once most marginalised areas now bridging the social disparities where it is safe for ordinary citizens and tourist to visit. All up there are seven parks throughout the city, all of which are now popular amongst younger people and promote sustainability, cultural diversity, technology, entrepreneurship and community participation. This audacious project was a sign of a revival after years of violence and bloodshed with the people placed first in mind.
You talk to any local Paisa here about the past and they will generally brush over the topic and say we should all look forward to the future. I went on a city tour with a local guide who explained that the way of dealing with the atrocities in the past was to bury it deep and move on. The time I’ve spent here I have felt that it goes more beyond that though. They are a unique group of people: Hard working, full of pride and solidarity and overall are happy with a playful spirit most likely due to the eternal spring like climate all year round. Whilst I was on the tour of the city we were stopped everywhere by locals wanting to make sure we were ok or that the guide should be talking to us in the shade. It demonstrates a genuine, caring nature and a sense of Paisa pride and desire to let the world know that Medellin is a great city to be recognised.
That’s a pretty snappy summary of how Medellin stands out to me in the short time that I’ve been here. It can be tough not being able to speak fluent Spanish, however it’s the challenge that I’ve set myself. It’s no more prevalent than when I’m chatting to them with some Spanish speaking gringos. They will be insistent that I speak Spanish, not in a rude way because I am in their country after all and they genuinely want me to try for my own benefit anyway. The people I have met so far are always passionate and intent on telling me about the town and showing me a great time. It’s this sense of identity that I think back to and can’t help but feel slightly envious about as well as guilty that I know next to nothing or have the same about my own country of heritage and is the main reason as to why I have a deep sense of affection towards countries like here and Guatemala.
So what’s in store for the next month? Well I’ve finished Spanish classes for now so I’ll be doing a lot more exploring of Medellin. The architectural designs of the other public spaces here are stunning and I want to see more of them. Our short term lease on this apartment is up early next month and from then on I’ll head south to Ecuador. I’ll be cutting down the number of cities I’ll visit but the priority for me in Ecuador is to get to the Galapagos. I’m over halfway into the trip now and my focus is to see as many contrasting landscapes throughout this continent so expect some new photos and galleries.
Finally, I’ve tweaked my food section to include recipes tailored to budget and flavour conscious travellers. It’s primarily reader generated If you have any ideas on recipes or tips on places or ways of consuming food anywhere that readers will enjoy, please feel free to submit them.