So my plan didn’t quite work as hoped. I arrived into Medellin airport (José María Córdova International Airport) at midnight to find that there was no real airport to speak of; once you collect your bags you’re basically at the airport exit/entrance, where there was one cafe open and a few chairs lined up in an open-air section if the airport. And it was pouring with rain and freezing cold; no chance of sleeping and no real chance of safety. So I paid $9,000 pesos (£2.60) to take the green bus that takes you to San Diego and then hopped into a yellow taxi for the 15 minute ride, at $7,000 pesos (£2) to the hostel I had booked for the following 2 nights ($23,100 per night, or £7.20).
I arrived at my hostel – Arcadia hostel – in the popular Backpacker area of El Poblado in the early hours of the morning, in the pissing rain, where I had no reservation for that night and there was no availability. The guys on reception were so so lovely and very kindly let me rest on the sofa until the morning. I honestly could not have been more grateful and they gave me such a warm welcome considering. I spent most of the night looking up things to do in Medellin and, upon the recommendation of both the guys on reception and a guy I had met in Brazil, I decided to use the full day ahead of me to visit nearby Guatape.
Guatape is about 2 hours by local bus from the Transportes Terminal de Norte, for which I had to first get the metro from El Poblado to Caribe for $2,300 pesos (80p). The bus to Guatape cost me $13,500 pesos (£4.20) and it was pretty crammed and stuffy. I asked to get off before the town of Guatape itself, instead hopping off at La Piedra del Penol – a huge granite monolith that you can climb – along with about half of the bus. You first have to walk up the side of the hill for 10/15 minutes before reaching the base of the rock, where you then pay $18,000 pesos (£5) to climb up the 750 steps up the side of the rock to reach the top. Not crazy amounts of steps but they are pretty steep, plus the humidity is always a killer.
You reach a lookout point with food and drink stalls at about 675 steps but you can then climb up more steps inside a tower (which has a couple of “shops” inside on the way up) to complete the full 750 and make it to the very top for 360 degree views of the valley below you and the banks of El Embalse del Penol, the artificial lake. The views of the mountains are wonderful and the swirling river banks pretty on the eye, however any peace you might possible feel is thwarted by the hoard of tourists crammed onto this small platform.
Back down at the bottom I waited for the next bus to come along and paid $2,000 pesos (80p) to be taken all the way into Guatape, a town of cute, narrow cobbled streets lined with coloured houses, with an Iglesia and tacky fountain in the main plaza and a river adorned with restaurants, market stalls and boats to commence day trips (party day trips, it would predominantly seem) out on the river.
Like many cities in Colombia it was colourful and quirky, filled with more locals than tourists, and there was a laid-back feel to the place. However it was pouring with rain, which makes it difficult to explore a town or city as you are looking down far too much, and I just didn’t find the town nor the rock as spectacular or breathtaking as people made out. I mean, you’re not going to love everywhere and it’s hard to know what you will or won’t like compared to others, but it can be disappointing when you have gone somewhere purely on recommendation and not got that much out of it.
I did, however, manage to take the opportunity of the short respite from the rain to sit in one of the plazas and have a pink beer I had been eyeing up from a local cafe; 3 Cordilleras, Rosada.
I managed to squeeze onto a bus going back to Medellin – literally, sat on the space beside the driver that is usually reserved for luggage – for only $12,000 pesos (£3.80) and enjoyed views of the vast city of Medellin as we came down the hill into it. Back at the hostel I signed up for the all-you-can-eat barbecue for $20,000 pesos (£6) which included grilled bread, baked potatoes, salad, home-made tzatziki and barbecued peppers, chicken, pork and beef. It was actually really delicious, and I ended up chatting with some lovely guys from Holland (Bas, Peter and Wurter) over a few beers before hitting the sack at around 11pm.
I had signed up with Real City Tours for a free walking tour of Medellin for the following morning. Now I don’t usually do walking tours – not enjoying tours in general and liking to be free to explore as I want – but so many people had recommended this tour in particular that I decided to give it a shot. On my way from my hostel to the meeting point I picked up a Salpicon de Frutas (a Colombian fruit cocktail) which was ridiculously sweet but known to them as one of their “healthier” options, probably because it is one of the few things not deep-fried.
Anyway, I grazed on the salpicon as I wandered to the Real City Tour meeting point at El Poblado metro at 8:54am (don’t ask) and getting the train to Alpujarra station, we made our way through various landmarks within this central part of Medellin, including Palacio Nacional (a shopping mall), Botero Square and Bolivar Park. What really made the tour, however, was the information we were given by our Guide, Mari, as well as the opinions, insights and stories she shared of her own personal experience.
At the Square of Lights we discovered it was originally the Square of crime and there was ongoing implementation to transform this Square into a place of safety, education and community. At Iglesia de la Veracruz we discovered that the women hanging around the front of the church in tight clothing were prostitutes, something I would otherwise have not noticed, and lining the roads alongside many churches in Medellin we also passed street vendors that openly sell pirate videos including all sorts of pornography.
At San Antonio Park, an area created for festivals, we learnt about the festival where a bomb exploded from inside one of Fernando Botero’s statues, killing 11 people, with the ruined statue still remaining with a new replica beside it to ensure no one forgot what had happened but to move forward with hope. She told us about the most famous criminal in Colombia, Pablo Escobar, and how Medellin was transforming itself from once being the most dangerous city to visit. Mari was informative, engaging, funny, personable and patient. It was such a good tour and I really recommend you go, but make sure to tip!
After the tour myself and a fellow tour-goer Jess decided to hop on the tram at San Antonio until the end of the line, paying 2,300 pesos (80p) as Mari had recommended this route for passing street graffiti after I had expressed an interest in seeing some. The route takes approximately 30 minutes to cover, winding up through the narrow streets, with street art popping up along the way – it became a bit of a DIY tour with the two of us jumping up from our seats to take photos whenever we spotted some. It was actually kind of fun and made a change from graffiti-discovering on foot.
Back at San Antonio I then found a food court on Carabobo Pedestrian Street to try out Bandeja Paisa – a typical and traditional Colombian dish of sausage, beans, meat (I chose beef but you can have chicken or pork), pork rind, plantain, avocado, rice, a small bit of salad and a fried egg. Not the healthiest of dishes (Colombians don’t seem to do healthy very often) but surprisingly not as greasy or heavy as I expected, plus I received a glass of fresh lemonade all for a total of $13,500 pesos (£4.20) for a dish that is generally hard to find for less than $14,000. Plus I had a side dish of entertainment thrown in by the male staff as we tried to have an articulate conversation about the dish in Spanish.
I then went back to San Antonio metro where I caught the train to Acevedo station before switching to the cable car up to Santa Domingo. The cable cars – or Metrocable lines – where part of the reform and transformation of the city, this connecting the metro with the barrios up in the hills and reducing the journey time to work for the poorer areas from two hours to less than an hour as well as reducing the cost.
Predominately used for locals as a mode of commuting, they are also an intersecting way to see the poorer areas from above as the cars climb the hill over the top of the colourful barrios, plus they offer pretty decent views of Medellin city below.
On my way back through town I hopped off at Estacion Universidad for the Jardin Botanico, which I sadly don’t actually feel is worth mentioning (despite being free) other than for the experience I had with locals there. Walking through a pathway I came out the other end to 5 Colombian girls filming a “news” segment on their phones, attempting to introduce it in a English. As I walked past they spoke to me in the minimum English they knew – hello, I love you, what is your name – before becoming all excited when I responded and then helped them with the correct way of introducing their news channel in English. Excited, they asked if I would be part of it and introduce the news, to which I gladly obliged – anything to engage with locals, especially if it makes them happy too. So there is possibly a school or a club in Medellin somewhere that has a film of me introducing a mock news show. Claim to Colombian fame.
Back at the hostel for the evening, I sat out on the terrace with Bas, Wurter and Peter, and a couple of girls from Essex – Sophie and Leanne – drinking gin & tonic from the can and sweet red wine from a carton (what can I say, I have become more sophisticated with age) until around midnight, when we finally managed to venture out and head to Happy Buddha, a party hostel in El Poblado known for its wild, drunken nights. I can’t say it is exactly what I expected and was much more tame than I had imagined, but we spent a couple of hours drinking there until it closed and then went back to our hostel where I finished up drinking and headed for bed at around 4am.
After helping myself to the hostel breakfast of pancakes (where the batter is provided for you but you make them yourself) I caught a cab to Terminal Transportes de Sur for $8,000 pesos (£2.20) where I caught the 11am bus to Salento with Flota Occidental for $45,000 pesos (£13.50). I did really enjoy my time in Medellin and it was an extremely interesting city, one definitely worth visiting for its history and diversity of areas, but part of what makes it so different to other cities in Colombia – its metro system and slightly European feel – may also be why it won’t stand out as my favourite place amongst other, more traditional or typical Colombian locations.