The trip started before we even left New York when Avianca called Jennie, my non-Spanish speaking sister, to let her know, in Spanish, there had been a change in our flight itinerary. Bold move, Avianca, leaving a message in rapid fire Spanish for two gringas who booked tickets on your US website. Good thing it wasn’t too much of a modification. After replaying the message about 100 times we (I) figured out that they had delayed our connecting flight an hour, no big deal. What was supposed to be only a 1.5 hour layover in Cartagena turned into a 2.5 hour layover, forcing us to eat lunch in the airport.
And thus, our cultural immersion began. We surveyed our options in the domestic terminal and observed that almost every Colombian was dining at the fried chicken establishment, so we did too. The food was decent; the price was incredible (at 9,900 COP, our meal cost us a mere $3.88). The most fascinating part was that every one was eating with plastic gloves. Genius. When you finish eating your fried chicken, your hands are clean; not smelling like fritanga for days.
Medellin: We spent only two nights in Medellin (meðeˈʝin not mede-ian), a decision based on the misconception that it was a small city that could be visited thoroughly in two days. While we did get a nice sense of the city and learn quite a bit about its history, I left with the desire to see and do more. There is no MUST SEE attraction in Medellin; the city has no Eiffel Tower, no Statue of Liberty, no Sydney Opera House; yet at the same time, there is so much to do.
After surviving our roller coaster taxi ride (the airport is one hour outside the city, and the drive is a series of curvy roads that line the mountain side down into the city), we arrived at our lovely little hostel in the Laureles neighborhood, which is not a very touristy part of the town. The atmosphere was friendly, the beer was cheap, food was good, no complaints here.
I think among foreigners, myself including, Medellin (Colombia in general) has a reputation for being a dangerous, violence ridden city, full of Pablo Escobars. The truth is, it is now one of the safest places in Colombia. Of course, there is still crime and poverty; its violent past is not ancient history, but many efforts have been made to improve the city over the last 10-15 years.
One of the most noticeable additions is the public transportation system. It is a very simple system of aboveground trains, buses and cable cars which still managed to confuse me (ashamed as I am to admit that coming from a city with one of the most intricate public transportation systems). The difference here is that the price of the ticket varies based on how many zones you travel. The interesting part is that you don’t insert a ticket when you exit the metro so it is not clear how the system knows you exit where you said you would. I suppose the people of Medellin are just very honest about where they are traveling!
What I consider the “coolest” part of the public transportation system are the cable cars that carry 8-10 passengers up the steep mountainside villages of Medellin. These gondolas, which now also double as a tourist attraction, were initially constructed in an effort to connect the traditionally poor, marginalized citizens of the northern favelas to the well connected, better off southern barrios. The idea was to decrease inequality among the Medellinenses by facilitating access to poorer areas of the city.
About half way up the hill, all the locals get off; there are no more homes after this stop. At the top of the mountain is Arví National Park. Before getting lost in the endless, winding, unmarked trails, there is a little market where vendors sell arepas and tamales, local fruits and wines to stock up on before your adventure in the wilderness, and, of course, jewelry and other trinkets for the tourists. We were lucky enough to ride the cable car up with a local who wanted to ‘take a walk in nature’ before heading to work later in the afternoon. Our new friend, Jaime, became our tour guide for the rest of the day.
He had us try new fruit, Uchuva (I don’t know the translation in English); a typical pastry from the region, solterita, and wine made from a berry that looks like a blueberry but isn’t. We picked up some treats for lunch and went on a stroll through the woods. It was great that he was there because the trails were completely unmarked; we might still be lost in the woods today if it weren’t for Jaime. Despite the maze like woods, I do recommend a visit to Arvi Park. The views are spectacular, the meandering trails are serene albeit disorienting and there are great locals to meet (people) and food to try along the way.
After our adventure in the park, Jaime took us to a bar with a local Colombian brew: Bogota Brewing Company, BBC, not to be confused with the British Broadcasting Corporation. It turns out Colombia was playing a friendly against Costa Rica in preparation for the Copa America, so the place was packed! It was almost as great as being at a bar in Spain watching la selección española play.
Even when there isn’t a match, I’m sure BBC is a great place to hang. It is located in the Poblado neighborhood, the touristy part of town, which seems to have been built right into a forest. The bar feels like a tree house.
Because we wanted to say we did more than eat and drink in Medellín, we decided to visit Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum dedicated to the victims of Colombia's recent violent past, and reminiscent of Yad Vashem. It is a small but comprehensive museum that shares the history of both Colombia and Medellin through a series of interactive exhibits. The Casa is unique because many of the stories are told by victims themselves, or relatives of the victims. As painful as it is to recall these personal experiences, a group of over 400 people agreed to share the pain they endured and the lessons learned as a result.
The museum aims to share the truth of a previously concealed past, commemorate the desaparecidos and other victims, unite the city and its citizens, and, most importantly, ensure that history is never repeated.
Now for the fun stuff: nightlife. Medellin comes to life at night. While there is a lot of hustle and bustle during the day, the city seems to transform into one big party once the sun goes down, at least on Saturdays. One street we walked down during the day seemed sketchy and desolate. When we walked down that same street at night, there were bars and restaurants and clubs, people dancing and chatting and singing on the streets.
We met up with my friend, Maria, and her friend, Juan Pablo, for an authentic Colombian night out. Ironically, we ended up going to a salsa club called Son Havana, a great venue with a live Cuban band and locals dancing salsa until the sun comes up (we did not last that long). So, although the music and style of dance did not originate in Colombia, the experience was very cultural.
Stay tuned for Part II of this story.