The mere mention of Medellin brings up images of Pablo Escobar’s infamous drug cartel hit men gunning down policemen in the streets and reigning king over the hillside barrios. I did lots of research before deciding to make this stop. Once considered the most dangerous city in the world, the murder rate dropped in 2009 to it’s lowest point in 30 years. Now on the incline again, I figured I had better go before the upswing trend continues! Besides, if it was safe enough for Anthony Bourdain, I figure it was safe enough for me.
What a surprise it turned out to be! Medellin is really a cool city. I enjoyed it much more than Bogota. Known as the “city of eternal spring” because of the spring-like weather, it was extremely pleasant in spite of the accompanying “spring showers.” It is a very metropolitan city with a very hip, culturally rich feel. The locals seem very proud of their city, and the transients contemplate finding the means to linger.
The city is nestled in a valley along the Medellin river, flanked on both sides by steep hills, serviced by the most elaborate cable car system that I have ever seen, the Metro Cable (pronounced CAB-leh.) I rode each of the routes to the top of the mountains and back, as I could not get enough of the stunning views, with unlimited continuous rides to be had for about a dollar.
These mountainside neighborhoods are mostly inhabited by the more impoverished, living in terracotta brick and tin roof houses stacked one on top of each other, with narrow streets and stairways that wind down from the hills. Very few have cars, so they Metro Cable has been a great boost to their standard of living, reducing the commute into the city where jobs and schools are located down from two hours to twenty minutes.
Near the top, all the other passengers in the car had departed except for me and an old man. He kept trying to tell me something that seemed important, but he only spoke Spanish, and with my limited comprehension, I was at a loss to piece it together. I was leery at first as he moved closer, but then he kept pointing up saying forcefully, “MONTANA!” I smile and nod nervously. Finally, we come to the end of the line, and he literally takes me by the sleeve and walks me over to another cable car and points up again, “MONTANA!” I figure if it is THAT important, then it must be something good, so I board the car and ride for 20 minutes across the treetops, until I realize the name on the cars has changed to “Cable Arvi”, which I later find out translates to Ecological Park, a new nature reserve with hiking trails, camping, and interpretive trails of typical Colombian flora and fauna. I could look down and see flowering bromeliads in the trees and hear the birds chirping below! It is a brand new park, not quite finished yet, but very beautiful!
I had only one day to explore Medellin, so in addition to riding the Metro Cable, I also visited Parque Berrio, Botero’s sculpture park. “In art, as long as you have ideas and think, you are bound to deform nature. Art is deformation.” So says Fernando Botero.
By this time, it was really starting to pour, so I dashed over to the Parque Bolivar to wait out the rain in the Catedral Metropolitana, built in 1875 in the neo-Romanesque style. There was an Ash Wednesday mass taking place so the cathedral was filled with flowers, the smell of incense, and umbrella-toting devotees.
I had been wanting to try the typical Colombian meal known as “Bandeja Paisa,” which translates to “heart attack on a plate!” A fried egg on top of rice, surrounded by beans, sausage, skirt steak, avocado, plantain, and a one inch thick strip of bacon! The rain outside gave me the perfect excuse for an early dinner, allowing my arteries ample time to rebound before bedtime.
My 8 hour bus ride from Bogota had me rethinking the next leg of my journey via bus from Medellin to Cartagena – a dreaded 13 hours. But the only way to fly there was to backtrack through Bogota with a lengthy layover, and since I was over an hour from the airport, it just didn’t make sense. I could sleep on the bus, save a nights lodging, and arrive in Cartagena with a full day added for exploration that would have otherwise been spent in the airport. Having done 22 hours on a bus before to San Miguel, I knew I was up for it. I just had to get past my inclination to flinch at the sound of the sentence, “I am taking the overnight bus from Medellin to Cartagena…”