‘Bienvenidos a Medejiin’ the taxi driver said as we got into the cab. It took me a while to realise that he was talking about the city we’d been pronouncing as Med-de-lin the whole time like proper gringos. Whoops.
So that was the first thing we learnt about Medellin – how to pronounce it’s name.
That was about all we knew. While I had heard of it, and knew it was supposed to be a nice city, it wasn’t initially somewhere we had in our sights. But when we found a super cheap flight from Panama to Medellin we were happy it was there rather than Bogota.
One of the things we didn’t know (though seemingly everyone else does) was that Medellin was famous internationally for being the home of Pablo Escobar, his cartel terrorised in the 80s and 90s, leaving thousands dead and making Medellin the last place you’d want to visit as a tourist.
That’s all in the past now though and for years Medellin has been a safe and pleasant place to visit.
In order to get an understanding for the city we decided to take the highly regarded Real City walking tour. We signed up, and along with a guy from our hostel, we walked the not inconsiderable distance down to Poblado Metro station, and met our guide Juliana.
We hopped on the Metro and got off a couple of stops down, where Juliana introduced herself. She was born and raised in Medellin, but also had lived in the US, so spoke perfect English. More than that though, she was one of the best storytellers I have ever heard. Facts are important on these tours but the way they’re delivered is key, and she was spectacular.
We started in front of a train at the old station, where she talked about Medellin’s industrious roots, first for gold mining, and later for coffee, both of which made the city very wealthy and important to Colombia as a whole. The hard working, proud and entrepreneurial spirit of the people (known as Paisas after the region that Medellin is a part of) still persists today and they are known throughout Colombia as such.
Moving on, we found ourselves in the La Alpujarra plaza, the home of several large government buildings in a distinctly modernist style. The centrepiece is an impressive sculpture called ‘Monument To The Race’ which depicts the history of the city along a huge concrete ‘wave’. The sculptor is buried inside the concrete apparently.
We took a short walk to Plaza de Cisneros, otherwise known as the Plaza De La Luz (Plaza of Light). The reason for the name is the 300 light poles which tower 18 metres above your head. The plaza used to be the location of a market which became a rough and dangerous area in its later years, and so the transformation into a safe public space is seen as an important step in Medellin’s regeneration.
Sadly we didn’t get a chance to come back in the evening to see the towers lit up, but even during the late morning sun they looked spectacular.
Next we took a walk down Medellin’s main shopping street, but with strictly local shops and very few chains. As a large group of foreigners, we did get a few stares and people trying to talk to us – the residents were very friendly and always wanting to thank tourists for coming to Medellin.
We ended up at a shopping centre. Not just any old mall, this one used to be the Palace Of Justice and the building has been preserved very well. The interior, with ornate columned walkways, was beautiful, even with rows of fake trainer shops lining them.
After a few churches we descended upon Botero Plaza, named after the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who donated a huge number of his sculptures to the city which now adorn the plaza in front of the Museum of Antioquia and the Palace Of Culture.
We loved the style of the oversized figures, especially the dog (of course).
The last stop also involved his sculptures, in a very sad way. At the side of a vast open plaza, two identical bird sculptures stood next to each other, one with a huge hole in it. Juliana explained that in 1995 a huge bomb placed under the sculpture at a festival exploded, killing 29. No-one (or rather everyone) claimed responsibility, and to this day no-one knows for sure who did it.
Botero created another identical sculpture but requested that the destroyed one stayed alongside it. Today it bears a small plaque stating what happened but the real impact is in seeing both the birds alongside each other.
That was the end of our tour, and we said goodbye to Juliana and the rest of our group.
On our other day in Medellin it was a public holiday so most of the city was deserted. So we mader our way along the metro line to the Metrocable, a series of cable car lines which run up the huge slope to the east of the city. This is where a lot of the poor barrios are situated and by all accounts the cable car has revolutionised transport for them.
It’s also an eye opener. Colombia is noticeably more developed than where we had arrived from (Central America) but some still live in pretty basic conditions.
Halfway up we had to change cable car (they’re right next to each other) to continue our journey to Parque Arvi. Eventually, after a good 25 minutes on cable cars, we reached the top.
This is where we should have done our research. Parque Arvi is not a park to chill and relax, it’s a huge nature park, most of which can only be explored on foot on Spanish language guided walks. Which wasn’t what we were prepared for. From reading Tripadvisor we’re far from the only people to make this mistake.
It wasn’t a total waste of time though as there was a fantastic food market at the top. We got a huge lunch wrapped in banana leaf containing rice, potatoes, plantain, egg, chicarron, minced pork and dried pork. It was meat heaven and super tasty.
After walking around what we could for a while and grabbing some juices from the market we started to make our way down. It hadn’t been what we expected but the cable car was an experience in itself and such good value.
We only had a short time in Medellin and it’s a large city, however the walking tour gave us a fantastic introduction to the centre, and staying in Poblado (a wealthy suburb) showed us the upmarket hip side of the city. It’s well worth a visit and by all accounts more pleasant than Bogotá.
We stayed at Arcadia Hostel around 10 minutes from the bars of Poblado (which we never visited!). Overall it was pretty decent though for a fairly new hostel the dorms didn’t seem that great. But for around £6 a night each we couldn’t complain too much. They also do an incredible BBQ every Sunday which coincidentally was the night we arrived! Cheap bar too!
The Metro costs 2000COP (£0.51) per ride and this includes the Metrocable for the first part. For the last (touristic) part to Arvi Park you need to pay another 4,600COP but that’s still only £1.18. Small buses run various routes with destinations printed in huge letters on the front and they cost less than 2000COP.