3 Days in Medellín: Pablo Escobar, the Comunas and Santa Fe
Medellín, Medallo, País Paisa, Paisa Land. However you call it, it seems to hold a special place in the hearts of Colombians. Their accent is said to be ultra sexy, the women are known to be the most beautiful in all Colombia (not to mention the most operated), and quality of life is incomparable to that of the capital.
My Colombian family are last-minute planners. It must be a Colombian thing, to decide last minute with so much ease. (*Note: if you do decide to book your vacation in advance like normal people, roundtrip plane tickets to Medellín can easily be found for under $100).. So when I found out I was going to the city of eternal spring 2 days before departure for a long 3-day weekend, I rushed to do some quick investigation so as to make the most of my short vacation. Searching online and asking expats and paisas (people native to the region of Antioquia), what surprised me the most was that the top recommended activity to do in Medellín was to ride the metro!
The Metrocable of Medellín
The first person to tell me this was a paisa. My first reaction was to laugh shamelessly. Living in Europe, I had regularly taken clean and organized transportation before. This was not groundbreaking to me. As I continued to chuckle, she looked at me slightly insulted and confirmed that indeed, I had to ride their metro and go up their metrocable as it would give me a good overview of the city.
I also turned to Google for some advice. And guess what? Number 1 recommended activity on TripAdvisor: riding the Medellín metrocable.
Aside from personal recommendations, I also turned to Google for some advice. And guess what? Number 1 recommended activity on TripAdvisor: riding the metrocable. OK then!
The second most recommended activity was a free walking tour. There’s nothing better than getting to know a city by foot, so I took note. And although I would have liked to put Parque Arví or Guatape Lake on my to-do list, I had to leave some room for last-minute, improvised family plans.
After the short one-hour flight from Bogotá, we had arrived. First destination: metrocable. The public transportation was clean, straightforward and easy to decipher as there weren’t many lines anyways. My Colombian family and I rode from the Poblado metro station to Acevedo, where we took the metrocable up the comunas, slums of rickety brick houses covered with improvised metal planks for roofs.
A very brief history of the comunas.
Although comunas are the 16 districts that make up Medellín, the word comunas refers only to the disadvantaged neighborhoods. Back in the 80s, this area was one of the most affected by Colombia’s ongoing conflict with curfews from 10pm-5am. A friend told us that back then, one of his work colleagues who lived in the popular district of the comunas of Medellín would find one or two cadavers everyday on his daily commute. Today, Medellín has moved past its dark history and has become the top technological hubs and one of the most advanced cities in the country.
My Colombian family was impressed to see how clean the streets looked from our metrocable soaring up above the comunas, and how tidy everything was, right down to the laundry hanging on clotheslines in back patios. We had several stops throughout the comunas of Medellín and people would come in and out of our little cable car, sparking up friendly chit chat. Locals of the commas spoke of the improvement of their district, how they felt safe, how the metro provided cost-effective transportation throughout Medellín from early morning until 11pm.
My Colombian family’s surprise also led me to realize that 20 years after the conflict, even Colombians are not fully aware of the change and improvement in their own country. Maybe it’s only the higher estratos, who have always frequented the same cozy neighborhoods, been protected by their bodyguards and taken care of by their maids. Living in a world apart from the reality of their country, they haven’t noticed just how much things have changed. Just food for thought…
City Free Walking Tour
Pleased with my first impression of Medellín, I ventured in a 4-hour walking tour the next day. ‘4 hours is so long,’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m probably going to die of boredom and leave halfway through!’. I chose to go with Real City Tours, and we met midday at the Alpujarra metro station. Our lively guide, Pablo, was from Medellín and had grown up seeing the change. He introduced us to Medellín with his incredible story-telling skills and made us all fall in love.
Super Quick History of Medellín
Pablo explained how the Antioquian community was a blend of Jews and Basques, who, mixed together, formed a very proud community (helping to explain why paisas feel superior to the rest of Colombia). Thanks to the railroad which quickly brought industrialization to Paisa Land in the early 20th century, Antioquian’s were able to export gold and coffee, helping the city grow sixth-fold. Zipping through time, by the late 20th century came a new era of violence and political instability. The city of eternal spring was home to Pablo Escobar and as a result, of the urban war set off by drug cartels, Medellín became known as the most violent city in the world.
During Uribe’s presidency (2002-2010), official government statistics claim that within the two years of his elections, homicides and kidnappings in Colombia decreased by 50%, their lowest levels in almost 20 years. However accurate this might be and what was done to achieve such results must have come at a high cost. But I’ll save this conversation for another time. It should be recognized though that Uribe has reinstated safe and improved living conditions from which we are still benefitting from today.
Back to my city tour of Medellín, our guide Pablo unfolds his hometown before our eyes, mainly showing us what is known as ‘Social Urbanism’. Buildings, plazas, and neighborhoods which used to be dangerous, where crime, rape and illegal businesses were being held, have now been turned upside down. These locations have been transformed to promote social and cultural progress. Squares, where people used to stay away from to avoid trouble, are now cultural centers with public libraries, empty buildings with dodgy activities have turned into city halls and libraries with unique architecture have been built within the poorest neighborhoods to entice youths to pick up books instead of guns. All these architectural improvements within the city and many more have served a social purpose and greater good.
By the end of the tour, more than the beauty of Paisa Land, I was moved and impressed by how far the city had come in such a short period of time. From the most dangerous city in the world to one of the top technological hubs of South America, Medellín is an example to follow by.
The Town of Santa Fe de Antioquia
Yes, of course, I would have liked to escape to Parque Arví or the Lake of Guatape, but in just 3 short days and with familia paisa to visit, I could only do so much. While spending family time, it was decided last minute to escape to the colonial pueblo of Santa Fe de Antioquia instead. Once the capital of Antioquia and only one-hour drive from Medellín, we walked around the main plaza dotted with stalls selling all types of sweets, among them the traditional dulce de tamarindo (tamarind pulp with A LOT of sugar).
I’m not the type to walk into every church and museum, but more about getting a general feel for the city and soaking in the energy. So we walked around a bit, ate a delicious late lunch/early dinner at a charming Spanish restaurant and drove back.
The next day we were on the first flight back to Bogotá to celebrate Father’s Day with the grandfather. Yes, because no matter how much fun you’re having, family is always more important than anything else. Looking back on my short 3 days in Medellín, beyond the beautiful women and sexy accents, I am left with a sense of respect for all the city has accomplished (Not to mention I am also left still digesting the heavy bandeja paisa I ate on the same day I arrived).
So if you are spending 3 days in Medellín and are not sure what to do, I recommend a walking tour over any visit to a park, plaza or museum, guaranteed to leave you a lasting impression of the second largest city in Colombia. Medellín is a beautiful place, a symbol of pride for Colombians and is definitely a well worth a visit if you are traveling through the country.