Medellin, Colombia: An Incredible Story of Beauty From Ashes

*note: this post says it was written by Trista, but was actually Dan who forgot to log Trista out lol.

I think Medellin is best known for Pablo Escobar.  So I was very interested to see exactly what this city was like as I know that it has worked very hard to move forward from this reputation.  What we found was a relatively safe city, that has many interesting things to offer.  And like everywhere in Colombia, people were extremely friendly.

We got off the bus ride that we had heard was supposed to be 10 hours in about 7 hours and so our first night in Medellin was already off to a good start.  So, how you get around in Colombia?  There is mass transit (which we used in Medellin and was pretty good) but the stations are more spread out than in Europe or somewhere like that so many times you would want to take a taxi or an Uber.  Technically Uber is illegal in Colombia but there are tons of drivers and we definitely used it some.  Taxis, like anywhere, are varying degrees of honest in Colombia.  Definitely make sure you negotiate the price before you get in a taxi there or demand they use the meter.  Otherwise you are setting yourself up to get scammed.  On this night we first tried to get a taxi from the bus station to our hotel which was about a mile away.  But the taxi drivers were quoting us ridiculous prices like 50,000 Colombian Pesos ($15 USD) so Uber it was for about 5,000 Colombian Pesos ($1.50).  I would personally prefer to adhere to the laws but the taxi drivers kind of do it to themselves.

Beautiful sunset when we first arrived

We settled in at our hotel and decided it was time to hit the town for some food.  We were staying in the El Poblado district and just walked a little less than half a mile to the nearest area that had restaurants and bars.  Unfortunately some things are very familiar in Colombia and lots of places either being closed, or closing early on Sunday night was one of them.  One strange thing we noticed in Medellin is that there are tons of pizza places.  However we ended up opting for even a stranger Colombian option a poke restaurant ran by these two guys, one originally from Colombia who lived in Hawaii the past 10 years and one from France, before coming back to Medellin.  We also managed to have a few beers and it is amazing how cheap beer is even in the big cities in Colombia.  $1-2 pretty much everywhere.

After that it was time to see what kind of nightlife we could find.  Like the restaurants many bars were closed but all was not lost.  We did eventually stumble into a bar that was open and then stumbled into one of the more interesting nightlife scenes of the trip to that point which was essentially an outdoor dance party/rave.  It had a DJ set up on a table on the sidewalk with an extension cord running into the nearby business and he was mixing vinyl records with EDM beats which actually turned out to be pretty good.  There was a corner convenience store selling beer and it was quite the party.  A few people have asked me about whether there is a prevalent drug scene in Colombia and my answer would probably be no more than in the US, but this was definitely a place we got hit up to buy drugs (we passed obv).  After an hour or so sitting on the curb taking in the music and sipping on a beer we called it a night

Day 2 in Medellin involved what has to happen in every long trip.  Some downtime.  So we slept in until about 1pm and then decided to spend some time in the rooftop pool that afternoon.  I took what turned out to be a fairly long walk to the grocery store and bought some random Colombian pastries, snacks and beer. The hotel we stayed at, Sites Hotel, was a very nice place to stay and has a good rooftop pool with a view.

We also ended up chatting with some guys who were in town for a friends wedding and it turned out that while they were all from different places (Scotland, England, Portugal), we had been to all of the places that they lived fairly recently so it was interesting talking to them about some of our past travel experiences as well as some of their travel experiences as well.

That night we went down to basically party central in Medellin, Parque Lleras.  This seemed to be the place you found the craziest bars, the American import bars like Hooters and Hard Rock Cafe as well as everything in between.

Before we got started though the first stop was to have a traditional Colombian dinner.  We ordered two dishes. First was a bowl of a Colombian soup that had chicken, potatoes and some other vegetables in it with a plate of rice you could either add to the soup or pour the soup over.  The second was essentially a Colombian trash plate that had fried pork, a fried egg, rice, some type of ground pork or beef (we weren't sure) a potato and a boiled plantain.  It came with arepas (cornmeal bread), two huge pieces of avocado, two bananas a bowl of pork and beans and a plate of salsas and herbs.  It was very good and you could mix and match all of the different ingredients in any way you wanted to get a number of different flavors.  Like almost all the food in Colombia it was insanely filling.  We couldn't finish it.  In fact we have had a hard time finishing 90% of the meals here regardless of how much we order it seems.

There was also quite a street "vendor" culture in this area where it seemed like everything from drugs, prostitution or just the random people selling beer, water, whatever were milling about in the square that was the middle of the area.  It made for some interesting people watching.  We also gave the local grog a shot while we were here which is called Agaurdiente and is a anise based liqour that tastes like mouthwash.  Not my thing but it was cheap I guess at least.

Being the oldsters we are we only made it until about 11pm before it was time for bed.

The last day in Medellin we got to do my favorite thing to do while traveling, laundry.  The downside to taking backpacks only and going on two week trips is you cannot take enough clean clothes.  We got that much needed evil out of the way and then had a pretty full day planned after for our last day.

First stop was to head down to the central park of Medellin and check that out.  This is an older and poorer part of Medellin and the contrast between El Poblado and this area was pretty stark.  There was a highway overpass that ran through the entire area and it was completely full of junk vendors for probably at least a mile.  I am talking hundreds and hundreds of people selling actual junk off of blankets.  Not tourist junk, more like cassette tapes and broken TVs and the like, basically a flea market on steroids.  We didn't get many pictures because getting your phone snatched is a real thing in Colombia especially in areas like this.

We also wandered around and ate some random street food.  Trista got a cup of pineapple and we went to a place and had a few pieces of fried dough (were like 15 cents a piece!) and a piece of cake.  Quite the balanced diet for a late lunch.  Of course we did balance it out with a couple beers.

After this mayhem our next thing on the agenda was a graffiti tour in Comuna 13.  The plan had been to uber down there but we waited too long and the traffic was too bad so we ended up taking the Metro instead.  Although extremely crowded I was impressed that it was on par with the Metro in any of the European cities that we had been to and got us quickly to our destination a good distance away in the city.

Trista had booked us a tour of the famous graffiti paintings in Comuna 13 through AirBnb experiences and it was us and a nice couple from NYC who got to spend the evening walking around this district with a very nice Colombian guide, Kevin.

Our guide, Kevin, explaining the symbolism behind the various graffiti paintings

Kevin grew up in Comuna 13 so was able to give us insight on a personal level to the district.  The area had been under FARC (Colombian rebels) control in the 90s and was once known as one of the most dangerous places in the country.  Eventually the government rolled a tank in along with two blackhawk helicopters in 2002 and rooted the rebels out.  Needless to say there were many people killed during that era and it was a very dark era for this community.

But what has sprung out of it is truly amazing.  While it is still a fairly poor part of Medellin it is now considered safe and once again we were amazed by the friendliness of pretty much everyone around us.  I will let the graffiti pictures speak for themselves below and just talk about the experience.  You started the walk at the bottom of the neighborhood and walked up the mountainside through this neighborhood.

There are now several art galleries that we stopped in including one that is an art gallery/bar that recently had Bill Clinton stop in.  I got a good chuckle out of the graffiti below his pictures:

As you walked up the hill the views got more and more spectacular and by the time you reached the top they were truly breathtaking.

The mountainside is so steep that in a few areas the city has actually installed escalators to make walking it more feasible (it was built to the community as part of reparitions from the government for the killings in the 90s).  Near the top we ran into some kids that the guide knew that helped explain one of the graffiti works and also had quite the dance routine they performed for us.

In total there are over 300 pieces of graffiti commissioned by the city.  The art has truly been a way to revitalize the community, add a sense of community pride and now drives tourist dollars into an area that previously most people would not dare go. Here are more examples of the beautiful graffiti that we saw that evening:

After the graffiti tour we headed back closer to our hotel and had a couple drinks and some food on the edge of the area's square.  What we didn't realize is that there was a protest planned that night.  Many people in Colombia right now are protesting the government over a range of topics from corruption, climate change, income inequality and some issues related to a peace treaty signed with FARC in 2016 that has yet to be fully implemented.  The protests have been going country wide since the day after we got here and we have received numerous messages from friends and family concerned about our safety. From what I have seen both in the protesters we saw in Armenia and this demonstration they have been entirely peaceful.  Frankly a lot of the things they are protesting are things that we should be protesting in the US as well.

The next morning was on to a plane for a trip out to Isla Baru which will be covered in the next installment.  Until next time...


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