Medellín, ColombiaApril 15, 2017 in Colombia ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C
In case you were wondering, I finished the two seasons of Narcos in Panama. If you've been living under a rock, Narcos is the Netflix series on Pablo Escobar's cocaine empire - a thrilling watch and a prerequisite for any trip to Colombia. Thanks be to Cat for her early encouragement which later turned to frustration as I favoured the gory series to her conversation. Sorry, not sorry Cat. Hence, we arrived in Medellín with all the background we needed to pursue our interest in the notorious late Pablo Escobar. Unfortunately, what we had forgotten was that it was still Santa Semaña...very much so. This caused a very quiet introduction to an otherwise extremely lively city which nearly nine million Colombians call home. Almost every shop was closed and the streets were void of traffic and pedestrians. To be honest it was eerie and a little scary having nobody around.
But hang on a sec, that doesn't include the bus station in which we arrived - that was a different story. It was hectic, unfamiliar, and to make matters worse - nobody spoke english. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem but whilst trying to buy tickets for our onward leg to Bogotá in three days time, we were turned away with little more than 'no hay' - twice. For those who don't speak spanish, 'no hay' means something along the lines of 'there isn't' or less literally 'we don't have any'. A request for an explanation or even just an elaboration was met with an agressive blurt of incomprehensible spanish. Information assured us that there were tickets at the companies who had explicitly told us there weren't just moments earlier. Bloody Santa Semaña! It dawned on us that this could be our first major cock up with bookings so far. Well by our, I mean Cat - the booking guru, who's the brains that keep this ball rolling. Finally we found tickets for a night bus that got into Bogotá at 3am - not ideal and you'll surely be hearing about it. I don't miss a whinge. Ever.
But enough of that - Medellín is breathtaking. Exclusively red brick houses sprawl up every side of the valley like tomato soup sloshing up the sides of a shallow green bowl. At the periphery, the densely populated urban scene cuts to farm or forest so sharply it's as if the visual contrast was intentional. Remarkable in every direction. We have a thousand photos in our effort to capture this and I'm still not convinced we have. To add to the scene, quick moving clouds ranging from fluffy white to stormy black race over the valley adding a naturally fluctuating light to the scene. It is a view that would never bore and one that almost every resident can appreciate - the further from the city centre, the better it gets.
Medellín has recently become home to the Metrorail and Metrocar which - believe it or not - are my first rail and cable car of this trip! The public transport system is first world - swipe cards, crowd management and prompt, clean services. Both the rail and cable car are suspended over the city, minimising displacement of residents and providing cheap travel for all (US70c flat rate). The metro has transformed the city. On top of all the usual benefits of decent public transport, the Metro lines have had an interesting effect on low socioeconomic areas with high crime. Each of the areas to have recieved a nearby line or station have shown unprecedented reductions in crime and unemployment, and have ultimately been transformed into thriving, safe, residential environments. Remember we're not talking about chopping five or ten minutes off your daily commute. Many of the lines provide CBD access to those who would otherwise be unable to complete the round trip in a day.
A city of nine million people obviously has it's diversity, but if you're still thinking of it as third world, think again. Cat and I are in agreement that this is a city that we could well call home. It has good public and private transport options, a respectable CBD, multiple universities, a world class sporting venue (that would put Sydney's Olympic Park to shame), as well as plenty of sports clubs, modern bars and restaurants. It's also located just a stones throw from nature and an abundance of adventure; hiking through forest, swimming and kayaking on lakes and rivers, top notch mountain biking and if you're up for it - parasailing the ridges surrounding the city. Last but not least (and most importantly for me) it has a temperate climate! Don't get me wrong, there's still crime, slums and dirty areas in Medellín but it is leagues ahead of what we experienced in Central America.
What does one do in Medellín after a night on a bus? Sleep would be the obvious answer, but we're on a schedule and haven't the time to nap. At least that's what Cat repeated whilst I flooded system routinely with coffee. After a day exploring town and riding cable cars, we decided that it would be rude not to attend the local footy game, given that every second person we saw that day had been wearing their colours. It was of course sold out, which forced us into the unenjoyable task of obtaining tickets from scalpers in what was a hectic entry to the game. Luckily we were in the company of some Danes who had slightly better spanish than us. After much faffing and bartering we got the tickets for only a few dollars more than we should have and began the process of finding a seat. The stadium was packed! Not even standing room was available and every access route was blocked by fans - stood or seated. It was a nightmare! After climbing over nearly 100 occupied seats we finally found a spot to watch the game, fortunately distant from the carnage ensueing behind the home goal. The home team, Athletico National were dominant for the entire 90 minutes but were unfairly punished by two break away goals resulting in an undeserved 2-0 loss, amusingly reminding me of a typical Cows victory. The meagre 100 odd away fans vocal in their joy and ultimately escorted from the match by equally as many police. The party continued on Carrera 78 as the locals flooded the street to commiserate the loss with shot after shot of aguardiente.
But all of this and no word of Escobar? Well, it took some time to find a man who would show us around as most of the tours were closed for Santa Semaña. Since the launch of the Netflix series, tourism Medellín has capitalised on some key locations in Pablo's life; his grave, his place of death, one of his (80 odd) houses - the Monaco building - which in fact was bombed by a rival cartel, and of course Pablo Escobar the suburb. Yes, he has a suburb named after him because he built it - all 800 houses. We were able to visit all of the above, but missed out on meeting his brother and on visiting Hacienda Napoles (his farm/zoo still filled with exotic animals from around the world). It was an interesting but underwhelming tour in all honesty. If only it wasn't Santa Semaña and we could've got the tour we wanted! We did however get a local's view on Escobar. Apparently in Medellín about 80% of residents hate him and 20% love him. Free housing likely to be a leading contributor to the fans. Either way, aside from in Paisa Pablo Escobar, Medellín has done it's best to destroy his legacy and erase the painful past he had created.
A brief and busy visit to Parque Arvi via cable car brought around the end of our time in Medellín as we raced back to pick up our bags and head to the bus station for another partially overnight bus. Instantly demotivated by more of the Santa Semaña crowds we had been battling all afternoon, neither Cat nor I were particularly happy about this bus. To make matters worse, the bus company had double booked our bus. A disorderly 'line' turned to pushing and yelling as everybody tried to board the bus. This reinforced my already firm belief that Colombians don't queue. If you can push into a line, you do. If you are of the belief that your question is more important than others, interupt and ask it. Obviously it's not rude here, but it's taken a lot of getting used to to forget all of your manners and delete any awareness of personal space. Anyway, I've digressed. Back to my bus whinge. We had absolutely no idea what was going on until we found someone who spoke english, conveniently pushing past us in the crowd. After nearly an hour of moshing and worrying that we wouldn't be able to leave, a lady called our name and we squeezed through many aggressive and fuming Colombians onto the bus that was now over an hour late. We then discovered that there was another bus, the ticket agent had just put the wrong bus number on a whole bus load of passenger's tickets. We were actually grateful for the delay, we weren't looking forward to arriving in Bogotá at 3am with no accommodation. Well that was until the bus driver decided that he'd try and make it up. He drove that bus so brutally I nearly fell off my seat. In a coach. With arm rests! The dinner stop was all of 15 minutes at 11pm and we arrived in Bogotá on time. This will probably be the only time in my life I will be upset with a prompt service. Finishing our night's rest on the floor of a freezing Bogotá bus station was salt in the wound, part one. Salt in the wound part two was that our hostel didn't have an indoor living room, a place to doze or even hot coffee when we arrived at 6am, nor could they provide directions to a place that did. That there made for a tired and grumpy start to Bogotá for the both of us. Ah well, you can't win 'em all!Read more