On Thursday, May 31st, I arrived at 5PM in Medellín. From the airport, it was 1 1/2 hours by bus to the city centre and then another 20 minutes with Uber to my hostel. I had thought about taking an Uber from the airport, but the bus was way cheaper and not much slower.
The Garden of Blues Hostel was all right, but not my favourite place. There were 2 buildings and no real social area, only in the main building, but even there it was a bit apart and not the place where you go first. This means, the only people in the hostel you really meet are the ones in your room and, in my case, they changed every day. The rooms were quite nice and there were, for once, enough bathrooms, but the breakfast really wasn’t good. So, I didn’t spend much time in the hostel.
That first night, there were 3 pretty handsome Germans and a French couple in my room, but they all had plans for the night, so I went out alone. My neighbourhood was very touristic, so there were many restaurants and bars, but it was a bit more expensive. I found a nice – not too expensive – Italian restaurant and had some delicious lasagna, tiramisu and a glass of red wine. I had a very nice evening there and then just went back to my hostel, not having anyone to go out with.
The next morning, the French couple and I went to the free walking tour. Our guide was great, she told us a lot about Medellín and Colombia and showed us all the important places in the city centre.
She told us that, in the last elections a week ago, there had been 5 candidates, 1 left, 1 right and 3 in between. All 3 in the middle were eliminated and only the 2 extreme parties are left for the elections in June. The one of the right parties is supported by Álvaro Uribe Vélez and is therefore more controversial. Álvaro Uribe Vélez has been national president from 2002 to 2010 and has brought great changes to the country. He has pushed Colombia’s economy greatly and crime has gone down a lot. Kidnappings and murders have decreased by 90% during his presidency and if Colombia is now quite a safe country to travel and live in, it’s in large part thanks to him. However, after his presidency, people have discovered that many human rights violations have been committed during his presidency and there are many lawsuits against him now. So far, they couldn’t prove anything, though. This is why he is a very controversial person.
She told us that, if Colombia is becoming more insecure again, it’s mostly because of the refugees from Venezuela. First, the government has tried to help them, but there are so many refugees now that they are unable to support or help them anymore. Most of them live in the street, they can’t work because they don’t have a work permit and children can’t go to school because they are there illegally. In some places, refugees have built communities and have taken over squares or churches and their poverty makes them dangerous.
From 1964 until 2016, there were 4 parties in the Colombian civil war: military, guerilla (like FARC – revolutionary armed forces of Colombia), paramilitary (retired military, etc. that created their own forces in reaction to guerillas, not believing the military works well) and cartels. The most important guerilla was FARC and in 2016 they have created a peace treaty with the government. Now, they are an official political party. Paramilitary don’t exist anymore; since there is almost no more guerilla (still, it exists), they are not needed anymore. Today, the only fighting forces are military and cartels and it has become much safer in the country.
Our guide told us that, when she was a child, going to school always meant seeing wounded or dead people. They were always afraid their loved ones might be kidnapped or killed for any no-good reason. Colombia has become much safer thanks to Vélez and the peace treaty between FARC and the government and people are very happy about it.
She also told us about 1985, a very hard year for Colombia. One day, the M-19 Marxist guerilla took siege of the Palace of Justice and held many people as hostages. The president wanted to talk and solve the conflict peacefully, but military forces didn’t care about his opinion and shot and killed everybody in the building; more than 120 people (many civilians) died that day.
A bit later that same year, a volcano erupted (Nevado de Ruiz), which caused a water avalanche that destroyed a whole city (Armero) and killed more than 20.000 people. That year, many, many people died.
Colombia has a violent and sad past, but Colombians are the most happy people I’ve ever seen; they never complain, they always see the good. They tend to forget the bad things that happened to them and look ahead to good things.
Colombia still is not a perfectly safe country – hell, my Uber has been robbed by an armed moto driver! (see later) – but it’s much better than it used to be and you can travel safely without being afraid of anything. There are just some areas you should avoid in the evening, that’s all.
In the last years, a project called « Libraries of transformation » has been created. They built libraries in dangerous areas of Medellín and did a « education with dignity » program to enhance education in these areas. Thanks to this, crime has decreased a lot and these areas are now much safer.
In Medellín, they try to make of dangerous places symbols of hope and prosperity. Not only have they built many libraries in dangerous areas, they have taken old buildings with a bad reputation and made education centres out of them. They have remodeled an old marketplace, that has been a very dangerous place, after it has been burned and they have constructed in its stead a huge « forest of light », a beautiful square with many bamboo trees and posts of light that look like a forest of lights in the night. This way, Colombians replace something dangerous by something good. 🙂
In the city centre, there are many churches, but they don’t really serve catholic purposes. In front of them, there are many prostitutes, alcoholics, and drug addicts. Police is never far, but they can’t do much; these people have nothing to lose, won’t go to prison for long and will be back there anyway. Sometimes help programs will go there and try to get them to join them. It’s quite sad and, in the night, you should definitely avoid these areas, but during the day you can go there without a problem.
We also saw a very beautiful church that has been designed by a Belgian (#proud). Colombians were pretty mad that it was a foreigner who designed the church and pissed him off until he left, leaving them to do it on their own. That’s why, on one side of the building, the wall is just beige, simple and ugly, cheap Colombian work…
The tour has been great and I have enjoyed it a lot! I can only recommend you do it too!
After eating some empanadas and other fried stuff for lunch (Colombians love everything that’s fried, just like Belgians 😁), I took an Uber to Laureles, a beautiful and very safe neighborhood, to get a new tattoo. I had decided, a few days earlier, that I would like to get a new tattoo in Medellín because it’s much cheaper in Colombia and because, well, why not. I had done some research online and had found one tattoo artist that does watercolor art that I like: Eternity Ink Tatoo Medellín. I wasn’t quite sure yet, getting a tattoo is always a tricky business if you don’t know the tattoo artist, but on the way, there happened something that made me sure I want it. When we had almost reached our destination, we had to wait at a red light and, suddenly, someone knocked on the driver’s window. He opens the window and there is a guy on his motorbike standing there with a gun in his hand and he shouts to my driver to give him his phone and valuables. I was sitting on the passenger seat, but apparently, I was too far away from him, so he didn’t want anything from me. I was a mess, completely freaked out! When the red light turned green, this guy told my driver to turn off the car and then he disappeared in the traffic. I don’t know who was more shocked, my driver or me! I told him to let me out immediately and I cancelled the ride, since he couldn’t do this without his phone… Fortunately I was only a few meters from my destination away and could walk there. First thing I did was ask a nice-looking lady if it was ok for me to walk alone in this neighborhood. She told me it was very safe, but I was still very freaked out.
I found the tattoo studio and got an appointment for 90 minutes later. I didn’t know what to do in the meantime and didn’t want to take a transport back to my hostel, too afraid of what else might happen. So, I walked 10 minutes to a big shopping mall where I slowly calmed down. I don’t know why but being in a big shopping mall with many other people but not overcrowded, I felt quite safe and was able to calm myself. I got a big chocolate ice-cream and bought my first paper book in a while (usually I use an eBook). I also talked to my friend Eddy and all that combined helped a lot.
Then I went back to Juan Camilo and got my tattoo. My encounter with a gun earlier had shown me that life is definitely too short not to get a nice tattoo. He is a very nice guy and we talked a lot, mostly about his work, travelling, Belgium and electronic music (he is also a DJ). I even got a good artisanal beer from him while he did the tattoo. I got a colibri and the sentence « pura vida » and I love the tattoo very much; it’s absolutely beautiful! ❤️
I took an Uber back to my hostel, but I was very afraid – I’m now absolutely paranoid in cars; hopefully that will cease at some point – and went for dinner to the Bogotá Beer Company. I had a delicious burger with fries and a very good beer. Unfortunately, new tattoos always give me a migraine and so I went back to the hostel and to bed at 9PM.
The next morning, I went to Parque Arvi. You see advertisement and hear people talk about it all the time, so I went there too. To get there, you have to take the main metro line until the end and from there you have to take 2 cable cars to the park. The view alone was worth the trip, because you get to see all Medellín from above and it’s really beautiful. In the second cable car, I met 2 people from a town close to Bogotá: Liliana and Mauricio. Mauricio lives in Medellín and Liliana was visiting him. They were super nice and we got to talking and they offered to explore the park together. I told them I had only a few hours of time because I had signed up for the free graffiti tour at 2PM and they spontaneously decided to join me for the tour. We walked a bit in this park, but Liliana and I were pretty disappointed. There were no trails from the entrance of the park, you had to walk for a good time on a road to get to trails and those were in a very bad condition. So, after a while, we turned around and went back to the entrance of park. I think it’s nice to take the first cable car up to the viewpoint because you get to see the city from above, but I would not go back to the park.
We had lunch at the park entrance (there were many people selling food, drinks, and souvenirs) and then we went to the meeting point of the graffiti tour. There, I was surprised to see Elena und Sarah from Switzerland, the 2 girls I had done the tour in Minca with.
We did the tour in Spanish and it was pretty good. Our guide was only 19 but he had a good knowledge because he lives in this area and he explained things well. This tour was in Comuna 13, a place in Medellín with a very bad reputation. Mauricio had lived there in the beginning but had moved away because it was too insecure for him. Actually, this area has been pretty bad before and still has a very bad reputation. Before, there have been invisible borders in this area and different guerilla groups controlled them. If you passed a border without realizing it, you were very likely to die. In this community, there had been an important road for the drug lords and it was very dangerous. People denounced each other for any no-good reason, just to protect themselves, and many people died.
Today, the situation has changed a lot and you can see and feel the energy and hope blooming in Comuna 13. It is filled with graffiti that depicts the history of the community and hope. It was very interesting and the graffiti were beautiful. This community is also the first one to have electric stairs going up the hill in order to facilitate interaction between people and to allow handicapped people to go up and down the hill. It is very impressive!
During the tour, I met Agim from Italy. He lives in Chur (Switzerland) and speaks German. We also met 3 other Germans, Christina, Charlotte and Marian who were very nice. After the tour, these 3 Germans, Agim, Sarah and Elena, Liliana, Mauricio and I stayed a bit longer in a bar that overlooked the area, had a beer and Liliana and I bought T-Shirts depicting some of the graffiti in the area and even got a photo with the famous artist, Chota.
After taking a shower, Elena, Sarah, Agim and I had dinner at a nice pizza place close to our hostels. That’s when it started raining heavily… We were supposed to meet the other Germans and the Colombians, but somehow nobody wanted to leave the restaurant in this rain. We went to the place where the Germans were anyway but we were soaking wet by the time we got there. Mauricio hadn’t understood my messages and they had taken a taxi to the restaurant instead of the bar and so they were also wet by the time they joined us. We had wanted to go dancing, but in the we decided to just have a drink in a bar. Agim wasn’t feeling well, so he went home early and the rest of us left around 12PM or 1AM, the Colombians and I going home and the Germans and Swiss going to a club.
The next morning, I got up early and went to the Terminal del Norte to catch a bus to Piedra del Peñol. This had not been on my original plan, but everybody told me how great it is and so I went there anyway. Since it was Sunday, there were many tourists. It was a good thing I got there early, because it was already full and almost impossible to get a nice picture. Piedra del Peñol is a huge rock on top of a hill. It looks as if a giant has dropped it there and forgotten to take it away. It’s not like a mountain; it really is a rock. A bit weird but definitely beautiful. They have built stairs along a cliff in the rock. Now, on top of it, there are many tourist shops and people are selling food and drinks everywhere. It’s a huge tourist attraction because, from up there, you have a stunning view over a spectacular landscape. I liked it very much, but there were definitely too many tourists. I would go back on a quiet day and just sit there and enjoy the view if I could. 🙂
I stayed there only for a bit more than an hour and then took a bus to Guatapé, 20 minutes away from Piedra del Peñol. Guatape is wonderful: a small town with beautifully coloured houses and cute balconies. The main square is nice as well, just as the church with its wooden decoration on the roof. I had lunch there and spent a few hours reading on the main square before, at 4PM, I took a bus back to Medellín.
It was 3 hours to go back to my hostel (2 hours by bus to Medellín, 1h to my hostel) and so it was pretty late when I got there. On my way, I saw the 3 Germans again and we talked for a while. Sarah and Elena were going to take a bus to their next destination that night, so I couldn’t see them anymore, but I will see them in a few days in Ecuador.
Agim was busy that night, so I just went to the Bogotá beer company and had a few beers and dinner by myself. Everywhere that night were huge screens and many people, because it was an important football match for Medellín. Colombians are crazy about football.
I had loved my stay in Medellín very much, despite not having a very social hostel and living a traumatic robbery. It is a beautiful and sparkling city full of life and happiness. Colombians in general, but especially Paisas (people from Medellín), are very open, happy, friendly and welcoming people. Especially in Medellín, everyone says hello to you in the street without being aggressive or annoying like in other Latin countries; they are curious and want to know all about you, about life and what’s going on, but they are very respectful as well. You don’t have to be scared when someone talks to you in the street or pretend not to hear them, you can just answer them politely and they just mean things they say nicely, nothing offensive or annoying has happened to me here and I love it!
I will definitely come back and can only recommend you spend a few days or weeks here.