Medellin, Colombia – Impressions

Medellin was once known as the most violent city in the world. In the 1980s there was a major urban war here revolving around the infamous Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel. Since his death 20 years ago things have changed dramatically. Crime has declined significantly and the city has opened up more for tourism. Medellin is now known as the tourist capital of Colombia, south of the Caribbean Coast, with most travellers skipping the capital, Bogotá, for the warmer and better set up Medellin.

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The second largest city in Colombia with 2.4 million people, Medellin is a 10-hour bus ride north-east of Bogotá on a winding mountain highway.

The best way to see the historical centre of Medellin and to learn about its history is via a free city walking tour. On the tour you learn that the people of this area were cut off from the rest of Colombia for almost 300 years because the valley is surrounded by the peaks of the Andes. This isolation led the community to thrive and grow, using the region’s main natural resource, gold, to fund different advances. It was this gold that built Medellin and not the drug money of Escobar, as many believe. The drug money actually caused more harm than good, killing hundreds of thousands in the urban war and giving Colombia a sour reputation that it would fight for years to overcome.

After Escobar’s death some of the more dangerous areas of the city were cleaned up and monuments erected to the ‘new’ Medellin. Monuments such as Plaza Cisneros and its many light columns. Each of the columns have strips of led lights on four sides that are lit up at night as a symbol of hope.

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There are pretty places scattered throughout the city, such as El Palacio de la Cultura, but many of them have darker secrets, some more obvious than others.

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The Medellin government in the 1920s didn’t like the gothic inspired palace causing the Belgian designer to flee the country after only having completing a third of it. Colombian builders didn’t bother to finish it, instead simply sealing the unfinished side with a plain white wall.

Then there is this pretty inner city church…

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…surrounded by brothels, gambling houses and drug dealers, its visitors seeking to gain forgiveness for the sins they commit on a daily basis.

There are plentiful interesting sculptures dotted around the city, donated by a rich and locally famous artist.

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After the darkness of the 80s and to foster education in the poorer parts of the city, grand libraries were built.

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These structures stand out from the terracotta brick buildings of the surrounding city and is a symbol of freedom for the local population.

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Overall, Medellin is an interesting city to spend a few days and is very much a party city for tourists making their way from the northern coast to the countries of the south.

Next I’m off to the Caribbean Coast and the city of Cartagena, famous for being plundered by the notorious Pirates of the Caribbean during the 1500s and 1600s.

The World Wanderer

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Bogotá, Colombia – Impressions

Situated at just over 2,600m above sea level, Bogotá is the third highest capital city in South America after Quito and La Paz. With 9 million people, it’s also the largest of the three.

I arrived in Bogotá after a crazy 10 hour bus ride from Cali, where the bus driver thought he was a Formula One driver along the very curvy road. It was as if he was fleeing the cartels as he overtook trucks on blind corners and slammed on the brakes when a vehicle came the other way. However, I still managed to get some sleep. I guess I’m well used to bus travel on this continent.

Once in Bogotá, I caught a taxi to La Candaleria, the city’s historical centre where my hostel was. On arrival, the area looked rather old and dirty. At the hostel, I was warned not to go too far in any direction at night. Luckily I’d eaten during the bus trip and didn’t need to go out.

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The following day, I headed out to see some of the sights and was again warned about the city. It’s not fun being on edge when walking around a city but I avoided being kidnapped, so I guess that’s something. Not far from the hostel I found some architecture, but many of the buildings had been tagged and not well looked after.

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After a couple of days the hostel began to annoy me, blasting music from morning until night, with the only good internet actually in the midst of the music. When the internet stopped functioning completely along with my inability to have a decent hot shower, I moved to another hostel closer to the centre of the city.

Near my new hostel, I discovered Zona Z, a large areas of malls, restaurants, bars and night clubs. Zona Z felt far cleaner and safer than La Candaleria. While I was there they were well into setting up for Christmas even though it was only early November.

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Before going to Bogotá, I’d arranged to meet a group of locals who had similar interests to me. They were amazing people and I ended up staying three weeks to spend time with them. They were some of the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels. One of the group took me under his wing, taking me to different places to visit and hang out with his friends. Then towards the end of my stay it was my birthday and one of the girls from the group surprised me with a cake. All for one random stranger who showed up one day to hang out with them.

During my stay was S.O.F.A (Salon del Ocio y la Fantasia) – loosely translated as ‘Leisure and Fantasy Lounge’, a 4 day popular culture convention. Included in the show was everything geek, from Cosplay to board games, every type of console, computers, robotics, paintball, RC vehicles, shows, art, concerts and much much more. The first two days were bustling, allowing time to walk around without too many people. The final two days – Saturday and Sunday – were insane, with so much noise and people everywhere. On the first and quietest day…

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All over South America I’ve been told that Colombian women are the prettiest on the continent. I can officially vouch for that one!

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The day after the convention I headed up the cable car to a church called Monserrate atop a hill for a wondrous view across the city.

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Across the valley, atop another hill is, surprise surprise, a statue of Christ, protecting the city.

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I also wanted to see the famous Gold Museum in Bogotá, but as it’s closed on Mondays I missed out.

Overall, while not overly touristy, it was the people of Bogotá who kept me there longer than I would have stayed. Next I’m heading north to the more touristy – and warmer – Medellin.

The World Wanderer