(photo by Noah Bleicher) Oh, Medellín! With your daily rainstorms, fruit markets, $4 lunches, mobile phone girls, salsa tunes and Botero art that decorates the city the way Gaudi decorates Barcelona, it was not hard to love Medellín- pronounced “Med-i-shjeen”. We spent three days there during the first half of our Thanksgiving week trip to Colombia with our friends Noah and Marcela, who own and operate Su Casa Colombia, a tour guide/B&B business in the city.
Medellín was once ruled in fear by Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord. After his death, the Colombian government made great strides to sweep up the mess left behind and to give Medellín a second chance. In the past 20 years, Medellín has risen to become Colombia’s Second City and encouraging its residents to come out of hiding and enjoy its parks, museums, gardens, cafes, restaurants and shopping districts. Medellín still bears the reputation for crime, but on the contrary, we felt very safe. In addition, there are barely any other tourists – so get in before anyone else does. Like any city, visitors should be aware of their surroundings, don’t buy drugs from strangers, and don’t head into the poorer districts.
Stay: We stayed at Su Casa Colombia, which was Marcela’s grandparents’ home and where Marcela’s mother was raised. This typical middle-upper-class home has two levels with an open courtyard with hammocks, crisp white bedding, bright balconies where you are woken by fruit peddlers singing their songs of avocado, a pool table and a fun Colombian ring-toss game called Sapo. Noah puts together an excellent Colombian breakfast (or a regular American breakfast, since they are Americans) and organizes very full and fun itineraries to take you around town.
See: Fernando Botero’s art is the real gem of Medellín. This artist of oversized, overweight, expressionless characters creates a fun, round and humorous take on life, even the really serious ones. You can view his bronze sculptures at Palacio Municipal (including the Bird of Peace which, ironically, was damaged by a guerrilla bomb), Parque Berrio, and at the Museo de Antioquia which also has his paintings and drawings. We got an excellent walk-through from Marcela, who is an art expert and artist herself, and pointed out details we would never have noticed.
See also: A country of 98 percent Catholics, you can bet they have some interesting churches as well. The Catedral Metropolitana is made of 1.2 million bricks and is quite possibly the only brick cathedral you’ll ever encounter. The Basilica de la Candelaria, situated in Parque Berrio, is also another interesting design in black-and-white. There’s also the pretend church at Pueblito Paisa, a reconstructed mini-village of a typical Antioquian settlement atop a hill with sweeping views of Medellín. The other two percent may find spiritual peace at the Jardín Botánico’s orchid display, an architectural beauty in itself (right).
Ride: the Metrocable gondolas, which every city should implement to bypass traffic and provide birdseye views above. Medellín’s metro is the first for Colombia, too, and a very clean and impressive mode of transport about town. Otherwise, take a cab to your destinations – they’re incredibly inexpensive by American and European standards.
Dance: Participate in one of the free rumba classes in the Unidad Deportiva Atanasio Girardot plaza. This is one of the city’s ways of encouraging the community to embrace its parks. Or else try your steps at Eslabon Prendido (Calle 53 # 42- 55) downtown where live salsa music is played Tuesday nights. (If you don’t know what you’re doing, just move your legs around very quickly and try to look sassy).
Daytrip: El Peñón is a giant black monolith, which Noah believes to be an asteroid, but the ticket seller says is a result of plate techtonics. It is about two hours outside the city by bus. Catch a bus from the bus station (buses leave every half hour, ask the bus counter which one goes to El Peñón at Guatapé). More than 600 steps lead to the top for breathtaking views of the winding reservoir below. Afterwards, take a colorful tuk-tuk to Guatapé for lunch and to see one of the most charming towns on the planet. Every house is required to be painted colorfully, and entire streets are coordinated.
Eat: En Casa de Oliva’s owner went around all of Colombia researching recipes and regional cooking to create her carefully planned menu. Carrera 43D #10-72 Poblado (firstname.lastname@example.org). Also check out the fruit markets, where you can sample fruits that don’t exist back home. Our favorite is the granadilla which we affectionately called “booger fruit”, because its insides resemble, well, a pomegranate. Another option is to stand around an empanada stand and eat to your heart’s content, then pay for the number of empanadas consumed.
Pack: Raingear, like a jacket, umbrella and preferably some kind of waterproof shoe. Plastic bags are good to cover up camera equipment.