Note: It is currently 2:08 in the morning. As I write this, caffeine is coursing through my body faster than Usain Bolt at the Olympics. I am at the night shift of my hostel again, in Prague, and I will be at this desk until eight in the morning, meaning I have drunken enough coffee to down an incredibly strong horse. My vision is all over the place, my hands are shaking, and it seems like I have the attention span of a fourth grader on crystal meth. I’m not sure how this post will end up; I am a newbie when it comes to the coffee game and even a few cups seem to effect (affect?) me dramatically. Please give me the strength to finish this post relatively coherently and without massive amounts of grammatical errors.
Note 2: This article, much like my life, is taking a while to get going. I am now at a horse ranch in Mallorca, working with a family of German dressage trainers. They are an interesting bunch, often telling me to use a diluted solution of bleach as medicine and telling me numerous times that they aren’t Nazis. It’s been an odd few days. I’m bunked upstairs in their half finished finca currently, attempting to wipe the horse shit off of my jeans. More on that later. Anyways, here is the long awaited conclusion to the Medellin trilogy. Enjoy.
Medellin, just like many other cities in the world, have their areas that tourists tend to flock to. If you are staying in Tokyo, you might end up in the Shinjuku area where many other travellers go. In Bangkok it might be on Sukumvit, Front St. in Cape Town, or Old Town in Prague. These are the places where hostels tend to be focused, where Starbucks is readily found, and menus for restaurants are available in four different languages and often provide an “American size” to accommodate the portlier travellers. Usually, these are the places I avoid; they tend to be more expensive, more touristy, and less authentic. A Hard Rock Café just doesn’t scream “local culture” like I once thought it did.
In Medellin, this place is called El Poblado, the area where we were staying. Walking around, you were more likely to see a European backpacker rather than a Colombian citizen, and every single restaurant and café was catered towards the hip and chic 21st century adventurer, WIFI readily available to allow the necessary Snapchats and Instagrams. I’m not bashing this practice, I admit I am a notorious social media user, Snapchats flying left and right off my phone to the friends and family, Instagram stories cataloguing every single cute dog I find on the streets. These areas are just part of the modern traveling experience.
It’s important, though, to make sure that’s not the only areas you see. If you stayed in El Poblado the entire time you were in Medellin, you didn’t really see Medellin. You saw El Poblado, which might as well mean you visited Los Feliz, Los Angeles in the autumn. The real Medellin lies outside, downtown, where travellers are warned to stay away and avoid or else face the dangerous consequences.
So of course, this is where we wanted to go. Nicole, Connor and I struggled out of bed sometime around the wee hour of 8am and stumbled to the metro station, where Anya met us with hot arepas and cups of coffee. We had all signed up for the Real Medellin Tour, a free walking tour of Medellin that promised to show us things that other companies wouldn’t as it was seen as “too dangerous.” Considering that Medellin was statistically safer than Baltimore, Maryland, I wasn’t terribly worried. I had gone paragliding the day before, walking seemed like a step down perhaps in the adrenaline rush.
Our tour guide was Juan, with the self described “most common name in Latin America.” He was a shorter guy, dressed in his red company t-shirt and immediately an incredibly fun guy to hang around. He took to calling Connor “Fuck” on numerous occasions, which we loved. He had a little PA system attached to his belt that would belt out numerous facts and information as the tour went along. The premise of the tour is that it promises us the “real” Medellin, the one that the rest of the tour groups are too scared to tell us.
That manifested itself in numerous ways. One was stories of his childhood. One day in the early 90’s, while hanging out with friends on the side of the street, a car pulled up next to them. A gun emerged and began spraying bullets at the kids as they fled. Two of his friends died that day, and two bullets hit Juan in the leg. Luckily, he was able to stop the bleeding long enough to get to a hospital, but that was just the reality of Medellin at that time. Standing on the street could be a lethal activity, even for a young bystander to a war that he struggled to understand. A few years later, two of his uncles were kidnapped by FARC, the far right militant group, and held for ransom. The family was able to pay and have the uncles returned, but many in that period were not so lucky.
The other way real Medellin was seen was through numerous facts and history lessons. I won’t go into major detail here, but here are some quick points:
- FARC was funded by Halliburton.
- Colombians do not enjoy the show Narcos one bit.
- People from Medellin are called paisanos
- The Medellin Metro is the symbol of hope and change for the city, and because of that it is widely respected. No food, no people singing while waving a hat filled with change in your direction, no rats sleeping next to larger rats. It’s almost like a church.
- Colombians need to only remember the good things. Too many bad things happened, and the good memories keep them moving forward.
Overall, it was an excellent tour, one that delved into the history of Medellin and made it pretty fascinating, as well as the sites we saq. We stopped at the old railway station and learned about the peace treaty between FARC and the President they called the Iron Fist. We stopped at a destroyed Botero sculpture and learned how it was bombed by the radicals and left as it was as a symbol to the strength of the city, how terrorism would never win. We traversed through the center of the city as well, peering upwards at the old buildings that towered above us. Downtown Medellin is incredibly different than El Poblado, the hipster coffee shops replaced with local food stalls and small, dingy cafes. The clean boutique shops were gone, now the streets were filled with vendors hawking everything you could ever imagine out of a stall. This was where the people that really lived in Medellin went and did their business, and it was a welcome sight from the artificiality of Poblado.
Throughout the tour, Juan would often yell our Papaya level. That was to determine how dangerous an area we were in. Papaya 1, that means its calm, feel free to wave your wallet above your head and scream out your debit card pin number. Papaya 4, hands are in pockets, backpacks in front of you, and your shoes are tied tight in case you need to sprint towards the nearest police station in fear. We were in Papaya 4 for some time, and honestly, it didn’t feel any more dangerous than any of the other big cities I’ve been to. Tokyo seems more dangerous sometimes than Medellin did. Oftentimes, I wondered if the danger was increased in order to ratchet up the tension of the tour. Or perhaps, the danger was always there, but I was blind to how close it really was to me.
Regardless, it was a great day, and after the tour was over, we spent some time shopping before Anya headed back to the apartment. We planned to see her tomorrow. Connor, Nicole and I, meanwhile, headed to Arvi Park, located high above the rim of the mountain and only accessible by miles on foot or by the incredibly cheap and convenient gondola, built to allow the poorer people living high up on the valley walls to come into the city for work. Of course, it also worked both ways, so we hopped aboard and headed for the top of the mountain, floating above acres of wilderness as we watched the city retreat behind us. Arvi Park is very strange, full of walking paths that are closed unless you have a guide, bathrooms that you are not allowed to enter, and trails filled with Halloween decorations. At one point, I felt like I was in the Colombian edition of a Spooky Forest Walk, with plastic cauldrons and stuffed witches hanging off of the trees. I half expected a man in a Freddy Krueger mask to jump onto the trail and shout “Boo.” It was incredibly bizarre, but nice to leave the bustle of Medellin and get at least partly into the wild.
That night, we went back to the hostel and did absolutely nothing. Some nights, as I’ve mentioned before, it is essential that you do nothing. After two wild outings in a row, we were happy to relax and enjoy the evening on our own. Nicole went to bed, Connor had a beer at the hostel, I wrote for a while. It was a lovely evening. For dinner we had empanadas on the street. There is an interesting custom here, where after buying your empanada, you take a bite, and then put some of the local chili and salsa into the bite hole. At that point, you don’t leave, you just stand there, slowly spooning sauces into your food as you eat it. No dipping trays, no small cups to carry around. You just stand there, chatting with the vendors, with other eaters, and enjoy the meal. Imagine hanging out a McDonalds, slowly tossing ketchup on your Big Mac as you stand around and chat with others at the drive through window. I’m going to try this when I get home.
Pictures, the following day below, keep on reading….
We fell asleep early, woke up late the next day, and made out way back to the Poblado station, roughly twenty-four hours later than the last time we did this. However, this time, Anya was joined by JJ, my unlucky at Tinder friend, and Derrick, Anya’s apartment friend that we had met the first night watching Werner Herzog docs. The six of us were headed to Guatapé, a small town a few hours outside of Medellin, renowned for its natural lakes and a very tall pillar of rock. We had no real plans for what to do there, just that we wanted to do it. We liked traveling on the seat of our pants, not knowing really what was to come. And boy howdy, if we had known, we might have changed our plans ever so slightly.
But we didn’t know, so we happily and blindly arrived at the bus station, found our coach, and took off through the mountains. Guatapé is east of Medellin, meaning you have to go over the valley wall and then down again into the farm land surrounding the city. Buildings turned to trees, trees to fields and shrubs, and eventually to lakes and islands. The city of Guatapé is built on a small spit of land that is completely surrounded by a large reservoir called El Embalse Peñol-Guatapé, and resembles what a mosquito looks like after you squash it underneath a rolled up newspaper. Or perhaps what it looks like when you throw a jar of honey into an industrial sized fan and watch it splatter against the walls. Or maybe…O. K, you get it, it’s a huge blob. Tendrils of water snake around the area, zigging and zagging near each other until land is just little peninsulas completely cornered by blue water.
The city itself is very small, nestled on one of these spits. Founded in the early 1800’s, this tiny little town was pretty much devoted to livestock and agriculture until the mid 1970’s, when a large hydroelectric dam was built. Now, that dam provides thirty percent of Colombia’s electricity, and alongside that is becoming a much hotter tourist destination, now that tourists can visit without fear of being blown up.
We arrived in the early afternoon and got Bandejo Paisa for lunch, the most traditional meal of the area. It consists of, get ready for this, red beans, a fried egg, avocado, black pudding, arepa, friend plantains, rice, ground beef, pork crackling, pork sausage, and a bit of lemon, for the health aspect. It’s a massive plate of food, literally creaking under the weight. If one was to eat a Bandejo Paisa once a day, one would most likely day before they hit thirty. It’s that good. We gorged on our meals at Mirador, a fantastic restaurant right by the bus station, where that absurd dish goes for only five bucks a pop. Colombia never ceased to amaze me.
After lunch I decide to try and buy my bus tickets for the next day, when Nicole and I would leave to begin our trek to Salento. The woman who sold tickets told me no. I asked why not? She said because today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow. That seemed like sound logic, so we grabbed our bags, hopped into some tuk-tuks which they had apparently borrowed from South East Asia and transplanted into rural Antioquia Colombia, and rode to our Air BnB. It was a lovely place nestled in the foothills, with a large view of the rock pillar to the west. There were multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, a picnic table, and a pool. Yes, a pool. We felt like kings.
The afternoon was spent listening to music, playing cards, and simply enjoying sitting outside in the countryside. We didn’t fell a huge urge to “do Guatapé,” rush and see all the sights and do all the activities. Sometimes, it feels nicer to just slow down, take a deep breath, and just live in the place you’re visiting, do something normal folks would do. We had all of tomorrow to be tourists, that first day we just wanted to be locals. That meant wandering around town, stopping in at a local middle school football game and awkwardly cheering on both teams while parents of players eyed us angrily. That also meant stopping at every stall on the lake street and buying snacks, ice creams, beers, bottles of liquor, more beers, chips and beers, and on it went. And of course, we went to the popular painted bench site and took some pictures with our DSLRs and… shit, I guess we were tourists that day too.
Regardless, it was a lovely day, and it ended with us at a local bar listening to music and drinking mixed drinks for three dollars each. I wasn’t in a fantastic mood by this point, and I’m not entirely sure why. I might have been getting tired, burned out from the constant go of the trip. Or maybe it was just overeating, since I was still practically bursting with Bandejo Paisa. I often forget that traveling doesn’t mean you take a break from your life, and just like in normal life, you sometimes have off days. It might have been the exhaustion, or the long talk at dinner about politics that dragged my mood down, or my fairly terrible meal in general.
In the end, I excused myself form the bar for a few minutes to get an empanada and ended up wandering around the main square. It was a Saturday, and even for such a small town as Guatapé that meant people were out. Kids were running around everywhere, jumping between the food stands set up around the area. Small bars were filled with people dancing salsa, a tight group of ten moving to the music, pool halls filled with cowboy hatted men smoking cigars. Guatapé was alive, and even though I was still in a bit of a funk, seeing the town shimmer with life made the whole night worth it.
Next Time, On the Wandering Minnesotan: The Injured Australian Strikes Again