Medellin: The City of Eternal Spring

Life is full of small little coincidences. Serendipity, in fact, is one of my favorite words, mainly for its many syllables and the way it just flies out of your mouth like a hummingbird after a wild night out in the nectar pubs. When traveling you oftentimes find yourself saying “oh wow, what a small world we live in.” For example, when I was traveling in Slovenia with a few friends, we were spending the night in Bled, a very small lake town north of Ljubljana. My buddies and I were on our way to meet a few local Slovenians who were about to drive us to a club opening in the capital (a whole other story unto itself), when all of a sudden I heard an incredulous “Luke?” It was my friend and fraternity brother Pat Cook, travel bag strapped on his back as he checked into our hostel. We both happened to be in the same small Slovenian town, in the same hostel, at the same time, while I happened to be in the building. Both of our jaws fell to the floor. What a small world.

And it’s in those chance encounters that incredible adventures can blossom, where no amount of planning or preparation could have been done to achieve it. That’s why its always a good call to keep your plans loose and free; you never know what kind of opportunities will come knocking on your hostel dorm room door. It was one of those encounters that first greeted me in the beautiful city of Medellin.

But first, I had to get there. I awoke in Cartagena and stumbled out of bed after my first real nights sleep in nearly a week, bleary eyed and confused about how the world looked in this state. Ten hours of solid sleep was more of shock to my body than any of my nights out so far. I assembled my things and grabbed a cab to the airport, talking with my driver about the dogs I work with in Alaska and the nine different birds he kept at his house. While driving down an extremely crowded street he felt it important enough to pull out his phone and start showing me pictures of his avian friends, including a green parakeet that, according to him, was the one that sang the most beautifully. I nodded quickly in agreement, hoping that would encourage him to watch the road instead of his pet bird videos.

We made it there in one piece and I check into Viva Colombia, a low cost airline that, due to the ongoing Avianca Airlines strike, was seeing an uptick in business. Viva Colombia, for context, once floated the idea of removing seats entirely from their planes and letting customers stand, much like the bus or subway, as they hurtle through the sky at five hundred miles an hour; so you have an idea of their business mindset. I end up paying an extra 90,000 COP for not printing out a physical copy of my boarding pass and for having the audacity to bring a carry on bag with me. It’s a very confusing feeling to be excited for your flight but also incredibly angry at the airline for their fees and service. Alas, when you buy a ticket for thirty dollars, you accept that it’s going to be a bit shit. Looking forward to my Ryan Air flight later in the month!

Anyway, I hop on the plane, and after not being offered water because I didn’t pay for it in advance, we landed in Medellin, the City of Eternal Spring. Medellin, with around 2.5 million people in the city proper, is the second largest city in Colombia, tucked away inside a valley with rock walls forming almost a bowl that the town is nestled into. Flying into the city, you can see the majority of the city lies in the middle of the bowl, with tendrils of towns and structures clinging up the sides of the rock and reaching nearly the top. With an altitude of 4,900ft above sea level, the hot and humid jungle is gone and is replaced by a near perfect weather nearly constantly, with an average yearly temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit.  Yes, you read that right, its in the seventies year round. Its like San Diego but without any of the annoying surfers and a quarter of the price.

Medellin, while being known as “the City with Amazing Weather All The Time”, was also known for a while as “the most dangerous city in the world,” due in large part to the massive amount of drug violence in the 1980’s and 90s. Medellin was home to the Medellin drug cartel, led by the enigmatic Pablo Escobar (who we’ll get more into later, I promise you), and during the height of his reign Medellin truly did earn its title. The number of murders in 1991 was almost 6,400 people, a rate of 380 murders per 100,000 people. It was an incredible violent place that was known around the world, with its tales of violence even reaching the O.J Simpson trial when his lawyers decided to blame Colombian drug assassins for the murders. When a cities violence problem manages to make its way into an NFL stars murder trial, its clear that the city is not one to visit.

However, following Escobar’s death and numerous initiatives by mayors and presidents to reduce the drug violence in the country, Medellin’s crime rate has fallen dramatically. In 2015, the murder rate was down to 20 people per 100,000, an extraordinary feat in such a short amount of time. Many see the creation of the Medellin Metro and Cable Car system as a shining example, creating ways for the poor on the edges of the city to come into town and find jobs away from the gangs and cartels. In fact, Medellin isn’t even in the top 50 in terms of murder rates, being topped by cities like Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit, and even St. Louis. If you ask any American on the street which city has more murders, Medellin or St. Louis, I can safely assume that The Gateway to the West would not be considered a murder capital. So now, when you decide to take your Colombia trip, and people worry about your safety, you can factually say “hey, at least I’m not going to St. Louis, am I right!”

So I felt fairly calm as I landed in the city and stepped outside in the eternal spring. The ride from the airport takes about forty-five minutes by bus, a steal at only 8,000 COP. I was staying at The Happy Buddha, renowned for the Wednesday Pub Crawls and its reputation as THE party hostel of Medellin. It’s located in El Poblado, an incredibly hip and trendy part of Medellin that looks more like Los Feliz or Silverlake in Los Angeles than a city in Colombia. Little boutique shops selling deep V neck tees dot the tree lined streets, mixed in with quiet cafés and expensive looking restaurants. It’s an incredibly beautiful part of town, but one that is uniquely different from the rest, catering more to the rich millennial partiers of the city. Of course, this became an immediate magnet for western travelers, and soon hostels began popping up throughout the area offering up the late night clubs and pubs we so crave.

The Happy Buddha, tucked away between a café and a Mexican burrito place, included an in-house bar, pool table, ping pong, and an incredibly helpful staff. As I checked in, I heard a questioning voice from inside.

“Luke?”

I turned, and there was JJ.

Now I didn’t mention JJ before, but now might be the right time to do so. I met JJ in Bogotá, after my first night out at the surprise gay club Teatron. After returning to the hostel around four in the morning and stumbling out of the cab, I ran into JJ attempting to end an extremely poor Tinder Date. Apparently, through some confusion, the date stretched about three hours past what either of them wanted, and soon the Colombian girl found herself hours away from home with no ride. JJ, from Seattle, was attempting to get her an Uber when I stumbled into the scene. He was so excited to see another American that, despite my inability to help the situation or for that matter form coherent sentences, he was happy to have me around. I hung out for a few moments before retreating into the hostel. The next night, I helped him get to a nightclub where a European DJ named Deckmantel was playing, and I assumed that was the last I’d see of him, swaggering into the venue with a smirk and the Belgian girl we had met earlier.

However, there he was, sitting on the couch and smiling from the corner. I ran up and gave him a hug, what a small world.

After grabbing a bit of lunch and meeting a very odd panhandler who became quite upset at us for not buying his packs of gum, we went of to get drinks with a few friends of his. I dressed up in my finest Thai Silk shirt and headed to Thaico, a bar in Poblado that offers the incredulous deal of three cocktails for 24,000 COP, or about eight bucks. It’s here we met Emily the Canadian, here studying Spanish, and Anya, from Seattle. Anya is a graphic designer who is visiting friends that work in Medellin, and is able to work remotely from pretty much anywhere in the world. That enabled her to spend the last year of her life working on the road and living in Eastern Europe, South East Asia, and now South America. She’s an incredibly interesting person; she loves scotch and can talk at length about it, has some pretty incredible tattoos, and speaks fluent Russian. The people you meet while traveling.

Anya sipped her drink at one point and cleared her throat.

“OK, so if this is too personal a question, feel free to not answer, but what’s your type?”

She looked around at all of us, waiting for our responses.

“Alright, I can go,” J said, some unsurely. “I guess I like girls who are a bit dominant, you know, like big personalities. And I like girls with darker hair, and I don’t know, are baristas or something.”

“Who are like baristas, or who actually are baristas?” Emily inquired.

“Well like girls that would probably be baristas, tattoos and dark hair, you know, baristas.”

We all shook our heads, as if we understand that line of logic.

I was next up.

“Well, I’m not sure, I guess I’ve never really put it into words before.”

“Right?” Anya replied, “Its not something we verbalize a lot, but its always interesting to hear others thoughts about who they like, it says something about them that you might not get otherwise.”

“Yeah true,” Emily said, “like the fact that J likes people who make him coffee.”

“Exactly,” said J, somewhat sarcastically, “only coffee makers for me.”

“So for me,” I started, “I don’t know, I guess in my past I’ve liked girls that are smarter than me, at least they usually are, and girls that are really outgoing and sure of themselves, confidence I guess, is huge. And adventurous. They need to be adventurous.”

We all shook are heads again, universal agreement.

It wasn’t something I had ever thought about, or at least thought of in a coherent way, but it did seem to be true. The girls I had always been interested in did seem to be smart, very outgoing, sure of themselves, and ready for anything. Thank to Anya, I now had a way to say it.

After our deep discussions over drinks, Emily went home and the three remaining quickly went back to Anya’s place so she could change. We walked into the apartment she was staying at and were nearly blown off our feet. Four bedrooms, a massive kitchen and living room, and the four guys that lived there only paid $250 a month. I can see why Medellin is fast becoming a heaven for expats. We met Derrick, Peter, Jaime, and Javier, two Americans, a Mexican, and a Colombian all living and working in luxury in Medellin. They were watching a Werner Herzog documentary on volcanos, so not wanting to interfere with their wild night out too much, we quickly bounced and went back to the Happy Buddha to begin our Wednesday Night Pub Crawl through El Poblado.

The night was pretty much broken into two parts. The first was led by Hernando, an incredibly happy and flamboyant gay man who, when seeing me from literally anywhere in the room, would scream at the top of his lungs PAPA SITO and sprint towards me, jump into me, and kiss me on the neck. However, he was also in charge of handing out the shots at every bar, so, it was a very thin line I walked on the entire evening. He was a really nice dude, but telling him I was more interested in the Colombian women didn’t much deter him. At one point in the night he grabbed my arm, pulled out a Sharpie, and scribbled PAPA SITO in large block letters.

“PAPA SITO!” He screamed again, and danced away into the club. I stood there with my arms till out, unsure what the hell was going on. Apparently, papasito, while literally meaning “little potato,” meant more in this context “cute guy.” If only the Latino women reacted the same.

It was a wild night, full of terrible salsa dancing, roaring music, and enough cerveza to sink a moderately sized fishing boat. Eventually Anya left for home and J disappeared into the night walking hand in hand with a pretty lady, and I was left alone, just me and a girl I had met from Los Angeles lost in the throng of dancing party goers. These pub crawls are mainly gringos, backpackers delving into the local countries party scene and taking over for a night. Groups of locals can always be seen on the sidelines, laughing at our antics and terrible dance moves. But eventually, as the night progresses, those two sides blur a bit, and soon everyone is together as one due to the massive amounts of alcohol and cultural melding that happens when everyone is sloshed.

The second part of my night was coming home. I fell into a group of Irish folks heading back to the hostel, and as we were nearing the Happy Buddha, one of the Irish guys decided to climb a street sign for laughs. It was pretty impressive actually, until seconds later when a flashing police car slowed to a stop and parked next to us. The Irish guy hopped off the pole with a sheepish apologetic look on his face, and since no one spoke Spanish in his group, I decided to stay and help.

Now, my Spanish is nowhere near good, much closer to abysmal and tolerable if anything, but through my broken stammering, I was able to get the Irish guys point across. He did it for fun, it was for a laugh, and he’s sorry. The police, a few stern looking guys, did not seem to get the joke. They told me that he had to go to the station, or else he could pay the fee now, 450,000 pesos, nearly 150 USD. My eyes glazed over when he said the fine, there was no way climbing a pole could be that much. His partner, a shorter man who reminded me of Gaston’s partner Lefou from Beauty and the Beast, showed me a citation book that in Spanish said something about screwing with street property, but that appeared to just be a power play to prove their bribery scheme was justified. I relayed this information to the Irishman, who became incredibly panicked and told me there was no way in hell he was going to the station.

Eventually six more police officers arrived to see the scene, and the Irish guy started to lose it.

“Mate,” he said to me, “I can’t go to the station, tell him I’ll pay, I don’t mind paying, honestly, I just don’t have it, it’s at the hostel with my passport, tell him, please.”

“Yeah,” his girlfriend pleaded, “tell him we’ll pay, we just don’t have it.”

They were properly upset, and I tried to convey that message to the police, but my Spanish was so broken I’m pretty sure all he understood from me was “guy sad, no money.” Fortunately, that might have been our saving grace. After a few minutes of back and forth and me not understanding most of his vocabulary, he told me slowly to return to the hostel and leave. I nodded, slight unsure what he meant, until, with a disgusted look on his face, he simply said va. Go.

I turned to the Irish folks.

“Alright, lets go.”

“Go?”

“Yeah, go, come on, lets go, before they change their minds, come on!”

We scurried off, unsure of what the hell just happened. In the end, I think my lack of Spanish and inability to work the police on bribery frustrated them to a point where it wasn’t even worth it to continue talking to the idiot gringos. At points in our conversation, the police officers would confer with each other, laughing and pointing at us, and then return and attempt again to get the bribe out of us. It seemed our lack of cash and my poor language skills actually ended up saving the day. Now, I can’t wait for the day when my terrible math abilities somehow land me a new car and a six night stay in the Bahamas. You never know, life sure can be serendipitous sometimes.

 

P.S. I know there’s not a lot of pictures for this one. It was mainly a “keep the phone in the pocket” kind of night. However, to make up for this, I included a picture of two puppies in a watermelon, and a picture of my mate Ollie, whose house I’m staying at in Leeds, England. I’ll be in Prague by Tuesday, more about that soon!

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Medellin at Day

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Puppies in a Watermelon

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Ollie (L) on a boat

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