Country Colombia | Dates July 31 – August 4 | Accommodation El Alternativo
We left Salento and hopped a bus to Medellín, the city in Colombia we were most excited about. It turned out to be one of the more windy, treacherous rides of the entire trip – a theme of bus rides in Colombia. The bus stopped literally every 15 minutes for roadwork that seemed neverending, I nearly puked and Sarah repeatedly fell out of her seat, but it was worth it. For once, we loved the city as much as we thought we would.
We opted to do the Real City Tours free walking tour which is highly regarded — and also in high demand (advance reservation required). Our tour started with a lengthy introduction and a segment on misconceptions about Colombia, including a covert mention of Colombia’s famous drug lord (Pablo Escobar, referred to by our guide as “PE” as it’s still a sensitive topic on the streets). We traipsed through the sights, past monuments, food vendors, and crowded pedestrian streets lined with “100 miel “stores (equivalent to dollar stores) and the zealous fruit vendors we’d grown so accustomed to. 5 hours, 13 official sights, and many unoffiical sights later the tour concluded.
One place of note is the white Veracruz Church, which is known oddly enough as a spot for prostitution. A quick glance across the square proved this fact true; countless women circled the church looking for business and men certainly approached, reportedly taking comfort in the “moral soap” the church provided. “Don’t walk on the street to the left of the church,” the guide said. Finding it interesting and important to see all the sides of the countries we visit (even the not so good ones), we walked down this street 4 times to glimpse the overt and shocking displays in motel doorways and outside bars, even in the early morning. A bit of research told me prostitution is legal in Colombia within the bounds of the law (no underage girls, no pimping), but as often happens the reality we saw didn’t reflect the law.
The tour took us past many other places (full list at bottom of post), and to keep entertained we played a game of “guess where those Americans are from” with everyone in our group. We are getting quite good. I wanted to go to the Plaza Minorista José María Villa or exotic fruit market, but exhaustion set in. On our way back we browsed the numerous jersey stands for some new apparal to wear to that night’s futball game.
One of the most popular things to do in Medellín these days is to visit Comuna 13, a formerly dangerous barrio that was an absolute no-go for anyone due to its colored past of violence and criminal activity. Initially started as a simple – albeit lawless – settlement on the mountain for people migrating from the country (no water, no electricity, no social services), criminals quickly took advantage of the fact no police were present. Comuna 13’s prime location linking up to drug routes in the countryside made it even more appealing, and before long the benign settlement was overrun by gangs and plagued by years of conflict, resulting in dangerous conditions for all living there.
Today, due in part to a massive and well-lit escalator system providing safe and easier access to the city (it used to be quite difficult and time-consuming to get down the mountain) and in part to the high demand from tourists (yes, this includes us), Comuna 13 is turning around. Covered in beautiful street art chock-full of meaning, tour companies including the amazing (and amazingly free) Zippy Tours offer visits full of history, graffiti, and delicious homemade popsicles. Often, it’s described as a neighborhood “transformed.”
After a great morning tour we enjoyed the local dish, bandeja paisa, then hopped onto the cable cars accessible at the metro station near Comuna 13 (no additional charge once in metro – good value)! We ascended peak after peak, then plunged into the valley (it was quite scary, really) as we took in aerial views of Medellín and saw how people lived – from Comuna 13’s falling-down wood houses leading up the mountain to the fancy new high rises on the horizon.
We stayed in El Poblado, the area of Medellín known for its prevalence of gringos. The streets are unsurprisingly teeming with hostels, hipster restaurants and ATMs to serve the tourists that flock here. El Poblado is also known for its nightlife — with street after street of creative bars and the happening Parque Lleras where people hangout, pregame and regroup between drinks.
Atlético Nacional Soccer Game
Having heard it was the thing to do, and being lucky enough to be in town on the night of a home game, we bought tickets to an Atlético Nacional futbol match. We took the metro after dark (gasp – you’re not supposed to do this, but we made friends and felt safe in a group), following the massive hoard of bright green jerseys all the way to the stadium. While waiting in line it became apparent that the game was frequented by mostly men. It also became apparent we were mistakenly waiting in the wrong (male) security line. Once inside we found our seats, which were extremely close to the field. We were far enough from the raucous fan section (the “north end”) to avoid danger or the alleged knife fights that happen if Nacional loses. But close enough to enjoy the incessant cheering, full band playing at full volume, and gigantic flags being waved without pause.
Eating and Drinking
There were a LOT of choices when it came to eating and drinking in Medellín. Here are a few of our favorites.
Monsieur Burger (El Poblado) | We wound up here as it was strongly recommended by a girl we met in Bolivia – “the best burger I ever had” she said. It was quite good, although maybe not the best, and while we were eating we were lucky enough to be approached by a drugged man who asked for a napkin, then stood silent and motionless staring at us with his red eyes.
La Octava (El Poblado) | A bar with a ball pit. What more can I say?
Uknown Arepas Restaurant (Downtown) | I wish I recalled the name, but I was so busy eating and falling off my plastic stool into the street I forgot to write it down. Near the Plaza San Antonio, with a clothed corn on the cob on the sign.
Buñuelos | While it’s not a specific place, these are an absolute must-eat item. Hot balls of fried dough with some sort of cheese in the batter, always only 500 COP and always delicious.
Because some weird stuff happened…
- “Can we check out?” we asked the man at the desk upon departure. “No, you can’t. This is Colombia, we kidnap people,” he said. Then overcharged us.
- A toothless guy in a burlap shirt in our hostel room was getting rid of his destroyed day pack. He disposed of it in a planter in the hostel lobby.
Top Sights Downtown
So maybe I copied this from the walking tour map: Old railway station | Alpujarra Administrative Center | Square of lights (looks best at night) | Vasquez and Carre buidings | Palacio National (now a mall) | Veracruz Church (where prostitutes hang out) | Botero Square (look for the crazy statues outside) | Murals and Parque Berrio (people hang out, play music, drink coffee here) | Parque Bolivar | Metropolitan Cathedral | Parque San Antonio (location of birds of peace statues and 1995 bombing)