8th-15th May, 2023
I often struggle when it comes to writing blogs concerning time spent in cities. As a traveller, I am more inclined to rural places so unless it is historically noteworthy, close to some worthy day trips, has notable museums, or something else to draw me in, urban areas are usually my pitstops before heading to places that excite me more. And the things that I do enjoy about cities – such as their museums – are not the sort of things that are translatable into an exciting story for readers to hear about, so I will skim through them and simply give highlights.
But those of you who know a little about Medellín will know that history is certainly a box that it ticks. It was formerly known as the ‘murder city’ and ‘the most dangerous city in the world’. It was a lawless place of slums, gang warfare, militias and home to the infamous Pablo Escobar and his Cartel de Medellín.
Yet now it is known as the city that turned itself around, and this is something I will get into a bit later, but if you want to have a detailed account of how such a thing happened, there are plenty of places where you can read about it online. I often give historical context on this blog, but I try not to make such things too long-winded as it is foremost an account of my experiences as a traveller passing through places.
So, what was Medellín like for me?
If I am honest, many of the ‘attractions’ I visited as a tourist left me feeling disappointed, yet I still managed to have a good time and grew to love this place.
To explain this, I will start by giving you a rundown of the places I visited and explain why some disappointed me.
I spent my first day visiting museums. First, the Museo de Antioquia, which was – despite its generic name – exclusively an art museum. Overall, I did enjoy it, but most of you will know by now that my foremost interest is history.
So, I hoped to get more information of that nature at my next stop, El Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum concerned with armed conflicts and wars within Medellín and the rest of Colombia.
Before I continue, I will first say that this museum is free to enter and I probably just happened to visit on the wrong day, so please don’t let what I am about to say stop you from visiting if you happen to be someone about to pass through Medellín. I have long advocated on this blog that when you are visiting countries that have endured hardships, you owe it to them to make an effort to understand their cultural content.
For one to get the most out of this museum relies upon using an audio guide you are instructed to download onto your phone, but on the day I came their wi-fi wasn’t working. No matter, I thought; I spent a considerable amount of my data allowance downloading the app, only to find when I opened it that kept malfunctioning. There seems to be an unresolved issue, so all I had to go by was the written information that accompanies the displays, most of which are translated into English, but I found to be mostly primarily generic statements about violence and war in general and very few facts about things concerning the Cartel, Pablo Escobar, and other matters.
One feature of this museum that I was able to appreciate, however – and thought was a nice touch – is the large screens in the middle of the room where they play video testimonials on a loop. They feature people from Medellín telling their stories. Mothers whose children went missing and spent their lives campaigning for justice. People who grew up in the slums and wanted to change things so joined grassroots movements. Victims of violence from elsewhere in Colombia who came here for better opportunities. Queer artists who moved here because this city is (somewhat) more accepting than their hometowns (but still has a long way to come). Former members of militias explaining what drove them to join and how they later reintegrated into society. I spent about an hour watching and listening to these stories, and – despite my disappointment elsewhere – they did make my visit overall worthwhile. Lived experiences are important when learning about hardships. They are the flesh of the story, and some similar museums I have visited in the past have lacked these and could learn something from this example here. However, whilst other museums have lacked this flesh, my visit to the Museo de Casa Memoria in Medellín was missing the skeleton as a framework to help me contextualise it all. If this museum manages to fix its problems – concerning its app – it could be an outstanding place, and if you are someone about to visit Medellín, they may have done this by now, so you should still definitely go.
I made an overnight trip to a little township called Jardín. It is a few hours away, but the journey passes through Andean villages. Many people end up staying here for a few days, as there are trails one can hike to waterfalls and caves, but one evening was enough for me. I went for a stroll up to Cerro Christo Rey to eat ate lunch whilst enjoying the view, and I also visited its church and a small garden known for attracting birds such as cock-of-the-rocks. Jardín didn’t disappoint me as a destination but neither did it blow me away.
I also made a day trip to Guatapé, a little town surrounded by farmlands on the shore of Embalse El Peñol. It is a bright and colourful place filled with cafes and artisan shops, making it a nice break from the (mostly ugly) metropolis of Medellín, but just as the lake itself is artificial – created during the seventies as part of a hydroelectric system – there is something that feels a bit over genteel about it.
Its main attraction is the nearby El Peñón de Guatapé, a geological oddity a few kilometres away.
After one has climbed up the many steps to reach the top, there are some truly spectacular views of the surrounding area, but the ambience is somewhat compromised by all of the loudspeakers the owners have planted around the place broadcasting a long list of fines one can be charged for various infractions whilst making your way up and down in the conveyor belt of passing crowds. It seems like the place has become too popular for its own good, and the family who own it are very aware that people will come and pay their money no matter what. After my visit, I happened to read online that this was once a sacred site to the indigenous Tahamí, so it seems a shame what the current owners have done.
Many people who make the day trip to Guatapé do so as part of a tour that includes a boat journey across the lake and a visit to La Casa De Pablo Escobar; the ruins of one of his former vacation houses. This was something that I was tempted by, but after doing some reading decided to forgo it as I discovered that access is controlled not by the community but rather by a former employee of Escobar, and thus – as far as I know – going straight into his pocket.
I have saved my biggest disappointment from my days spent in Medellín until the end – and after that, I will get to the good stuff, I promise – and the award goes to my day trip to Arví, a park on the outskirts. I had previously heard high praise for this place from other travellers who had visited over the years, but I have a feeling that this reputation it has built for itself is about to come crashing down after some recent changes that they have made.
I was surprised to discover that they have brought in new rules. Ones that require you walk its trails with the assistance of guides. Now, I have several problems with the way they have done this. Let me explain.
- This park takes a while to get to. First, you need to catch the metro, followed by a cable car system. The cable car is expensive (by Colombian standards) and it is my understanding it is owned by the park, so I imagine it is probably how they used to make most of their money (as most people would have no other reason to use this cable car other than to visit the park).
- This is a place people mostly hear about from travel guides and online, and almost all of these sources still state that it is free. The station you catch the cable car from has no information concerning any other charges either, meaning most people taking this long (and pricey) journey are still doing so on the premise that entry will be free. Some will end up paying because they feel like they have to after coming all this way, whilst those who refuse to pay will feel like they have wasted their time, and almost everyone is going to be annoyed. The woman at the (newly created) admission desk seemed embarrassed when she explained it to me, so I have a feeling they have been getting a lot of pushback.
- You don’t need a guide for this place. It is a park on the outskirts of a city with well-marked trails. It is not big enough to get lost in, and the climate is mild. In terms of wildlife, you are unlikely to come across anything more than some birds and maybe a squirrel or two.
- I have come across this trick of enforcing unneeded guides upon people before (it is becoming increasingly common in Asia), and trust me; nobody gets a fulfilling experience out of this. The people being ‘guided’ feel duped and frustrated, and the ones ‘guiding’ often adopt a passive/agressive mien to cope with the tension. Even if you try to be polite to each other, the energy is awkward. Imagine being one of those guides and your job only existing because it is an unwanted ‘service’ being imposed upon people, and spending your days walking disgruntled people around under the pretence that you are needed when you are most definitely not. It must be soul-destroying. There are many other ways people can create jobs. They could set up ziplines, open cafes, butterfly farms, or museums. The list is endless when it comes to creating opportunities for people to have valid and rewarding careers if they are innovative enough.
- I do understand how capitalism works and that Arví Park is a private corporation, so I would have happily paid a moderate fee to enter but it is currently a whopping 50,000 Colombian pesos for foreigners, whilst locals pay 15,000. Not only do I not want to pay that much Gringo Tax out of principal, but I honestly don’t think this place is worth it.
- Did you notice me saying that I would have happily paid a moderate ‘fee’ to enter? Well, that’s it. I go for walks in places like this for some peace and in the hope that I might be able to see some birds. I am not going to get either if I am lumped with a group of other people in a ‘tour’.
But on the bright side, there were some nice views of the city from the cable car. It just wasn’t quite worth the disappointment of the destination.
So you are probably wondering what exactly it was that I did like about Medellín. I have already said that it is quite an ugly place and most of its ‘attractions’ were disappointing.
Well – and I realise that this is going to sound very, very cheesy – but it was most definitely the people. Medellín is a place where I made friends, both ones that were born and raised in Medellín or are originally from elsewhere. Some move from the Caribbean coast for the cooler weather, some migrate from Bogotá because it is a little warmer, and almost all enjoy its modern transport system, safer streets, and wealth of opportunities. It is a city known for its rich nightlife and the arts, and the reoccurring theme for almost all of its residents – where ever they come from – is that they are all very proud of it.
On my last day, one of my friends – Juan – took me to Comuna 13.
Just in case some of you haven’t heard of it, this was once – out of all Medellín’s slums – the most dangerous of all. As recently as in 2002 it was attacked by the Colombian Military during their infamous Operación Orión, which aimed to clamp down on all the gangs and rebel groups but was a disaster. Civilians (including children) were killed in the crossfire, and the residents took action not by using aggression but rather coming out onto the streets in a series of peaceful demonstrations. This was when the community began to change and turn itself around, and gradually, over time, these grassroots movements built momentum.
It took a while, but Comuna 13 is a place now known for its graffiti art, bars, markets, and street performers. It is safe enough for tourists to come and visit (as long as they keep to the main strip and do not walk alone). Local businesses run tours where people can learn about its history, but they can also, if they like, merely wander around and soak up the atmosphere whilst having a drink or trying some street food and appreciating everything else it now has to offer. Despite its history, it is a surprisingly uplifting place now, and – despite being much safer – it still has a ramshackle charm and just that right amount of chaos to have not lost its personality.
That afternoon I spent in Comuna 13 is the time that will foremost stay in my mind when I think back on my time at Medellín, as it perfectly encapsulates what it is about as a city. Once it was a place that thousands of disadvantaged people migrated to in the seemingly vain hope of creating opportunities for themselves, and as they built their slums on its outskirts and the gangs and cartels took over, it seemed its destiny was inevitable. But, somehow, Medellín overturned the odds, and it wasn’t something it achieved through force or the actions of a draconian government, but through the community banding together and embracing the arts and socialism. Medellín truly is an amazing place with an amazing story.
Click on the following links for more photos of Medellín and Jardín.