Medellin was a stark contrast to the sleepy Caribbean coast with a first class metro system and diverse population bursting the city’s seams. We arrived from Cartagena and hopped on the metro which runs overground across the entire city as well as up into the mountains where there are hiking trails at the very top (limited to 2,000 visitors a day so go early!).
Located in Medellin’s Zona Rosa, our hostel Casa Kiwi was Asian-inspired with bamboo accented patios on three levels. Lleras Square is at the center with plenty of pricey (by backpacker standards) restaurants and bars. Unlike Bogota’s La Candelaria district, this area is safe to walk around at all hours of the night and is the go to spot for Medellin’s young and hip crowd. It is also a very different world than the realities of most that live in Medellin which I’ll delve more into later.
That night, we were dead set on dancing and, at the recommendation of hostel staff, we asked our cab driver to take us to La Kasa, a club that apparently didn’t exist anymore (Note: it is an “our pick” in Lonely Planet Colombia). After a 20 minute goose-chase, we ended up back outside our hostel with a new recommendation to Mansion, a packed local club that was only a ten minute walk away and plays a mix of Columbian music and techno. Despite the night’s earlier hiccup, we had a great time dancing and sharing shots of Aquardiente with newfound friends into the early hours of the morning.
The next day, Patrick and I ventured out of Zona Rosa to explore El Centro, Medellin’s downtown area filled with touristic sights like the Metropolitan Cathedral and Botero Square (filled with iconic “fat” sculptures of the Colombian artist). Walking from the Cathedral to the Square, we also stumbled upon transvestite hookers in see-thru tops (now that was a double take) and sampled guava fruit given by a street vendor when we asked what it was (better in juice form in my opinion).
We also surveyed what I like to call “one stop streets” which is essentially a street with one item or genre like only shoes or bags or electronics – a South American phenomenon that I’ve seen repeated in Peru and makes it quite easy to find what you need and shop around for the best price. The best part of the day was sharing a steak at a local parrilla (barbecued steak served on a piping hot metal plate) complete with chimichurri, a glass of port to wash down the delicious carne and live local Colombian band overlooking a street filled with vendors selling socks and stores stuff with bags.
Looking to get out and see some smaller towns outside of Medellin, we took off on a day trip to Guatape, located in what I would call Colombia’s Lake Region. The town is also home to El Penol, a giant monolith with more than 400 steps built within a crevice where you are rewarded at the top with an amazing 360 degree view of lakes as far as the eye can see.
I don’t know how a monolith is formed, but it’s like someone or something placed an enormous rock smack dab in the middle of a lush valley (which forty years ago was flooded to form hundreds of lakes complete with trout which we would sample later in the day). After El Penol, we took a Mini Chiva (similar to the brightly covered tuk tuks that you see in Asia) to a local restaurant in Guatape for a trout lunch and after, took a nautical bicicleta (i.e. paddle boat) out for a ride around the lake.
What made Guatape stand out from other towns in Colombia was the ornate and colorful bas reliefs that line the base of every house, restaurant, and even the doctor’s office. Each one is totally unique with some as simple as birds or beach chairs to others painting you a picture of their life stories.
Another highlight of Medellin was taking the cable car up to Santo Domingo neighborhood where concrete buildings housing the city’s poorest are part of the fabric of the city’s mountain side.
It was a place that I was reticent to explore, but have Patrick to thank for pulling me out of my comfort zone. Mind you, ten years (even five years ago), even Colombians didn’t venture up into these areas that were once the recruiting grounds for Pablo Escobar and where the government waged a “war” to root out the rival drug gangs that followed after his demise.
Walking down into the neighborhood to take in the view of the city, we were approached by young girls giggling and curious about where we came from. It was a Sunday so families were out in full force with the teenagers pushing kids on miniature motorbikes and giant trampolines set up – just like one that my sister and I had as kids. That afternoon, I experienced one of the wonderful things about travel – connecting with people. Looking beyond what makes us all different and discovering those rituals that bring us together like spending a Sunday with the ones you love.
Later that week, Patrick and I said goodbye as he headed back to Zurich. It was sad to see him go, but it was time to take off my travel training wheels (i.e. his excellent Spanish and company) and continue on my journey. I also saw Ed, our Canadian co-traveler, off on his way to the Zona Cafeteria (where I’d see him a few days later).
My last few days in Medellin, I went paragliding over the mountains (a first and not as terrifying as I thought it would be).
With new friends from Casa Kiwi and some awesome paisas (people from Medellin), I salsaed until sweaty in the equivalent of a grungy, DC dive bar – my favorite kind, I might add. Other highlights include wondering around the beautiful botanical gardens and acting like a kid again at the futuristic and fun-fueled interactive museum (complete with aquarium and Imax theater).
I really enjoyed Medellin but, after 4 or 5 days, my wanderlust kicked in and with itchy feet, I hopped on a bus into the lush valleys of the Zona Cafeteria to explore Manizales and Salento.