I sit in front of the big open window at my favorite cafe. My computer sits on the ledge-table as I gaze past it to the falling rain outside. I jump at the sound of thunder, this one rolling longer and louder than any of the others. The rain begins to crash to the ground in front of me, it’s droplets bouncing back up as they hit the road.
Rainy season in Medellín appears to have arrived and doesn’t seem to be going away. My flatmate/host says that rainy season typically starts around mid-March so when the clouds and rain made a daily appearance starting mid-February, I had hopes we might get a few more sunny days. I don’t think that’s going to happen often, but thunderstorms sure are cool. And the rain makes you appreciate the sun that much more.
Pronounced Medejeen (in Spanish ‘ll’ makes a ‘y’ sound, but often is mixed with a soft ‘j’) Narcos fans might know this city as home to cocaine drug lord, Pablo Escobar. With Escobar dead less than 25 years, your first guess might be that this isn’t such a great city. But don’t worry – you get a second guess.
The locals prefer that Colombia not be known for this part of its history, but rather that foreigners focus on the amazing transformation Medellín (and Colombia) has undergone since Escobar’s time. I’ve spent most of my time in one neigborhood (Laureles- not overrun with tourists and expats, but has a nice mix of locals and foreigners) so my experiences will certainly be reflective of this area.
Let me tell you a little about the wonderful Medellín:
It’s drinkable (in all parts of the city)! What an unexpected, pleasant surprise!
It’s flushable (in newer buildings)! As with water, this may seem normal to those who don’t travel much, but I assure you, flushing toilet paper is a luxury (one that is still not the norm here – it’s just improving).
Government programs and services = better quality of life for everyone
The areas of the city are classified by 6 estratos, where the price for services and taxes increases as you increase in estratos number classification. So, for example, those living in a level 5 area pay more than those living in a level 2 area. The money from the higher-priced areas goes to the lower-numbered areas, helping give everyone access to the same services and living comforts.
Also, every single home has access to clean water and electricity. Even in the poorer parts of the city, access is the same. Some homes may not have heated water but, especially with the city having yearlong spring-like temperatures, hot water isn’t a necessity.
The city is very good with recycling, having bins all over the city. I even saw this battery recycling bin:
The Metro system is great. While not incredibly extensive, it does reach all areas of the city. Most notably, the city recently extended the Metro system to include cable cars that reach into the mountains, where many lower-income families reside, giving them access to the same opportunities as those who live in the city centre. The cable cars have, inadvertently, become somewhat of a tourist attraction, but their purpose is so much more meaningful than a beautiful city view.
Beyond the cable cars, the Metro trains and buses are modern, reliable, and comfortable. The stations are beautiful and clean.
People form lines to get onto the metro, which is something I’ve never seen in any city I’ve been to. That doesn’t mean there’s never any pushy-ness – there definitely is! – but it’s quite civilized overall. During my first week here, I got a Metro card (you fill out a form and get your name on the card). Now, I can ride the Metro any number of times during a period of an hour and a half, whereas before I’d have to pay to transfer or to leave quickly and enter again. It also costs a little less per trip, which is nice. I simply tap my card as I pass the turnstiles, and my balance is updated and shown on the screen. I can top up the card with the machine or the ticket attendant. Does Toronto have a system like this yet?! *sigh*
Another really amazing thing is the metro also includes escalators in one neighborhood that is built on a steep hill. It is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, but the escalators – along with cable bars, buses, and trains– help connect this neighborhood to other parts of the city. This has also become a big tourist attraction.
There are also buses that aren’t part of the Metro system, but that service between Metro lines. These buses look pretty decent and don’t cost too much, but I haven’t had a need to ride them yet – what with Uber being so popular and pretty cheap!
In almost every country I’ve been to, people describe the driving as crazy. Everyone always says x country has the worst driving. But I think those people just haven’t been to country y or z. Most countries have wild driving – just in different ways. Driving doesn’t even seem all that crazy here when you sit and observe it, but this is the first country I’ve been in where I am this aware and this careful as a pedestrian.
In Kuwait, cars would make a right turn from the innermost lane in a 4-lane round-about. They would cut each other off, honk their horns for 30 seconds at a time, and take their chances at intersections – stop signs didn’t exist. But I never was concerned that a car wouldn’t slow down if I was crossing the street ahead.
In countries where cars would pass 3 wide on a 2-lane road, I also never questioned being safe as an aware, careful pedestrian. But here… I don’t know if that car would actually hit me, but it sure as hell ain’t slowing down (in fact, I’m pretty sure they speed up)!! If I’m crossing a road, I’m gonna make damn sure there are no cars anywhere near me, and if I see a gap that’s a little too small, I’m gonna put some hustle in my step to make it across before that car comes anywhere near me. If I’m at a corner, I make damn sure to check that no cars are turning because, again, I’m pretty certain they are not looking out for pedestrians crossing. Even if you’re at a crosswalk – if the car doesn’t have a red light, you better watch out! Pedestrians in Colombia (or at least in Medellín), have no rights (I mean, I’m sure they do, but I’m not gonna wait for them to be acknowledged at my trial while I’m in a coma in the hospital).
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived here is that there are people cycling everywhere! And not just cycling to work or the store, but people who are obviously going mountain biking in the mountains, or who are doing some serious road-cycling. I see lots of people in active clothes, jogging, and lots of activity in the gyms. There are even some of those outdoor gym-in-park areas. Colombians seem to be pretty fit, but there’s definitely a big range of fitness/health levels.
I’m not much for writing about food, but I’ll just give you some quick info about food here. As you could perhaps guess, beans, rice, and meat are very common. But Colombians also have this thing called an arepa, which is kind of like a tortilla made of rice. They commonly eat this for breakfast with cheese, eggs, beans, and a piece of meat (or at least this is what my flatmate tells me). Most restaurants have menu del dia (menu of the day), which is a set menu for a flat price. It usually includes a beverage (often fresh juice), a soup, main course, and desert. Prices are quite reasonable and service is obviously quick, considering they’re preparing the same meal for everyone. Medellín has lots of veggie options, too, which is nice.
There are also a lot of great cafes popping up around the city where you can get a good cappuccino or even some fancy cold press or other kind. Tinto (black coffee) is still the most popular. One grocery store was even giving it away for free.
Medellín is a huge digital nomad hub! At least in the neighborhoods Laureles and El Poblado, you will see expats with their laptops in almost all cafes. It’s kind of a cool lifestyle, actually. People are constantly coming and going for a few months at a time, and then there are some who stay for longer chunks of time and return each year (or don’t). Newcomers will post on the Digital Nomads Facebook group to meet up with others, and people organize events, to which anyone and everyone is welcome. Quite a cool community.
There’s also a lot of pretty amazing street art in parts of the city:
My flatmate took me to an old cafe that’s been around forever. It was a very traditional vibe, much like the small towns. One of the boxes on the street (electrical box, I think?) had a picture of a Colombian farmer– a nice way to keep in touch with the country’s roots and more rural lifestyle. The flowers were just pretty. 🙂
See Medellín’s transformation for yourself in this great video.
So, is that what you expected me to tell you about the city that was once ruled by cocaine traffickers and violence? Probably not, eh?
It’s a lovely place, and I highly recommend you visit. Until then, if you find yourself in a conversation about Colombia that’s dominated by the topic of Pablo Escobar or drugs, remember that Colombia is so much more than it’s past!