Driving along, up and over mountains, taking in the scenery that is now up there with some of the best we have driven through in South America, we ascended over the final mountain with the view of Medellin in the distance. It’s amazing how these cities are built in the valleys and over time develop up to the mountain side, giving a very 3D panoramic view of the city which definitely helps with your bearings.
Forget everything you’ve read about Medellín – it’s probably old news by now. Yes, the city was the headquarters and principal killing grounds for Colombia’s cocaine cartels. But the world press forgot to report Medellín’s remarkable turnaround. Today, it’s one of Latin America’s safest big cities, and also one of its most pleasant. People from this area are known as Paisas and to the rest of Columbia, they are both loved and hated. Loved because they are setting the way for the rest of the country, dictating how a city should be ran and how quickly it can be put into effect. Paisas have very good business minds too, but as an opposite they can be seen to be big headed and also make very good liars, or so we were told in our walking tour later on.
Part of this turnaround introduced the metro system that Paisas consider to be the heartbeat of the city, the turning point that changed the history of Medellin in such a short space of time. The metro stations and trains are kept in such pristine condition, no marks or scratches can be found anywhere and I actually got into trouble for eating my sandwich whilst waiting.
As we had the afternoon to explore, the best thing to do with our time was to take one of the cable cars, high into the mountains. To get to the cable car we had to use the metro and… WOW! The metro was heaving, rammed with locals going about their business. We had to squeeze our way onto a carriage whilst the door just about shut behind me and you had no control over the positioning of your limbs, but instead of swearing and shouting as they might in London, the locals were so happy, they laughed as we gave a look of amazement. They know how the metro system works by now, clearly we didn’t!
Not to worry though, we survived the experience. At a larger station many got off and the same number got on, a local pulled me in a circular direction so that I didn’t get carried by the crowd, I grabbed on to Chloe’s arm and she managed to stay on too. To get off we simply had to shove our way through and made it to our quieter connection that would take us to the start of the cable car.
Eight of us sat in the cable car and began the journey up into the slums. Immediately you felt sorry for the guys who had to walk these steep hills every day to work in the city, or even the people who had to do the shopping, you wouldn’t want to forget something in this place. There were some colourful corrugated steel roofs, some remains in the space where old wooden houses used to occupy and more developed buildings such as school and churches, could be easily picked out. The cable car went up, over the first mountain range, down and up into the next but instead of getting off, we decided to stay on and save ourselves another fare, because you could see everything from the cable car, although the windows were slightly blacked out and pictures weren’t too great.
Slums from cable car.
Back on the metro! The opposite direction was quieter and we jumped off a stop early as we still had daylight, to visit Cerro Nutibara, an old style village. There were a few steps to reach it, but there was a nice view of the city. The houses were typically colourful but mainly just souvenir or food stalls. We did walk into a building where two guys started talking to us, it turned out they were a famous radio station that broadcast to the country. They allowed us into their office and up to the balcony where we had a better view of the small village.
Exploring the city further, instead of heading back to the hostel where all we had was bed and loud music, the metro took us to Centro. Chloe explains later about this area as we came back during our walking tour, but we walked through the Cathedral and on to the main shopping street that all sold the same old stuff, clothes, trainers and handicrafts. We arrived at Parque San Antonio and attempted to walk over a bridge into a nearby neighbourhood to make our way home, although a police bike drove up to us and with his only words being “hola,” waved his hand when I tried to ask if it was safe to go ahead. We turned around and got the metro back to the hostel.
Almost a year ago, when we were sitting in Chloe’s living room watching TV, her dad set us a challenge. He had heard from his friend that there were “these steps up a rock in Columbia”. Ages away, we thought. And now, here we were the next day, on our way to complete this challenge. The metro left us at the bus station and a small, decorated bus was ready for us to take a two hour drive to El Peñol, or “The Stone.” The drive itself was beautiful, the skies were blue and the scenery was as nice as ever. 1.5hrs later we drove through the town of El Peñol and turned the corner to our first view of our task ahead.
The stone itself was between the town of El Peñol and Gutape so I asked the drive to drop us off at a dirt track where we would walk to the front of the stone. The challenge was to walk the 649 steps up the side or the peculiar rock formation but before we began, there was a lookout point further back where we could get a photo of the entire stone. But we did not expect to see the views beyond the lookout point. The sign on the way up had warned us, “The best view in the world!” and although advertising rules are not yet in place in South America, the views were stunning. A mixture of lakes, islands and expensive hotels or homes scattered the entire landscape, for as far as the eye could see, until it met the mountain range and clouds on the horizon.
So, time to start the steps. The stone is 220m high, granite monolith and it seemed like the stairs had been removed and reconstructed a number of times since the first explorer had scaled it many years ago and we believed the first set of stairs to be made from rickety wood and actually I was still expecting this. The stairs were numbered every 50 or so, we were soon half way and at a lookout point where the views increased in beauty. 649 steps later and we were at the top, we’d completed the challenge. But, we asked if we could get to the top of a small tower, we were. This meant another 50 steps to the circular lookout point with a big 700 placed on top of it, a complete 360 degree view of the landscape is just what we deserved and we sat there with Emma and Kelly for a while, spotting swimming pools, hotels and other buildings that didn’t really damage the amazing landscape, simply beautiful with such great weather. Thank you Alan for setting us this challenge, we would never have visited here without it.
At the foot of the stone, a tuk tuk taxi was waiting for us to take us to the nearby town of Gutape. We were only really coming here to get the bus back to Medellin, thankfully the next bus was an hours wait. So, obviously we had a wander. The main street was situated opposite the waterfront where there were a few boats and some pedalows and behind this street was the main plaza. As we walked through the small village our eyes were drawn everywhere, colourful buildings exceeded any other street we’d seen so far and the small walkways made it a very tranquil, pretty place that we now wish we’d have had more time to explore. Anyway, we had to leave, we were aiming to be back for a free walking tour of Medellin and we fell asleep for the majority of the journey home.
Frantically rushing off the bus, jumping onto the metro, we arrived at the meet point for the Real City walking tour 15 minutes late. We wondered around looking for a group of 20 gringos which usually isn’t too hard to spot, yet we failed. We took a look at the memorials which were in the Centro Administrativo Alpujarra square then started to walk back to the station, just as we did this the gringos arrived so we tried to join in. The guide said he had filled our places and it was a very big group so really we couldn’t join, but as he had never had anyone come and try and look for the group, he let us off and the 4 hour walking tour began.
Just as we started the heavens began to grumble and the rain came followed by hail, luckily we managed to take cover under a building for the worst of it. This allowed the guide, which sadly I have no idea the name of, to explain the violent history which Columbia has had to endure atleast over the last decade, between the left wing, right wing, the government and drugs, mainly cocaine. This combination created the reason why, in the 90′s, Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world. Luckily today they have made a drastic turn around and are now one of the most innovative cities in the world. They have taken the bad areas and conceptions and built buildings for all, creating a sense of hope throughout the city. The main branch of survival was the building of the metro itself, every citizen clung to this as a a way out from the hell they were living and now are so proud that you will not see a single scratch on a window or rubbish on the floor. Thankfully for this turn around meant tourist like us can now safely visit Medellin and enjoy what the city has to offer.
Finally the rain lightened and we carried on, the next section of the tour was to look at how the Colombian government took old derelict dangerous areas full of criminal activity and homelessness and made them into safe, clean areas for all to visit through the use of architecture. I was very curious how they achieved this but found it pretty fascinating. We went through the Square of Lights which is a square of 300 tall lights representing a sign of hope. Then to two buildings which were now a public library and the head of education portraying a new future for the youth.
Churches and plazas were next, some nicer than others. One particular church, the Iglesia de la Veracruz, the foreigners church, usually for people like us if we wanted to pray. However this church had a darker loom over it, this is where the prostitutes hung out and there were some rough looking women around the church. Apparently they go into pray, take a man to a love hotel then go back into the church and ask for forgiveness, become “clean” and repeat this. One particular girl took my eye, she had some serious bum implants, they looked ridiculous. Our guide did tell us that Medellin was the heart of plastic surgery for both men and woman, surgery is very cheap and as the Medellin people care a lot about their appearances, everyone was having it done. This girl was absolutely no exception.
One of my favourite plazas had to be the Plaza Botero, Fernando Botero, the sculpture, donated millions of dollars worth of his work to the city and some of his sculpture can be found in this square. He is a figurative artist and sculptor, his signature style, also known as “Boterismo”, depicts people and figures in large, exaggerated volume, which can represent political criticism or humor, depending on the piece. There were some really funny yet cool pieces, the proportions were hilarious.
The tour finally ended with the worlds largest cathedral made from clay bricks, Catedral Metropolitana, an ugly looking building but the people love it. Then we walked over to the Parque San Antonio, a huge plaza which is used for open air concerts and things alike, there was also four more pieces of Botero’s work including two a birds. The original had been there for all to see, then in 1995 a concert was taking place in the square and someone detonated a backpack killing 17 people. After this devastating incident the Mayor wanted this piece to be taken down, this was quickly protested against by Botero himself who was adamant that the damaged bird stayed and a new one to be placed next to it to symbolise that the Columbian people will not forget this horrific event but will move forward to a better future. At this moment in time the new bird actually has a cage over it, this is not part of the design but a statement from an organisation who is currently protesting throughout Columbia over the stalemate peace talks between the Columbian government and FARC. 4 hours later the fantastic tour was over, time flew by and I feel we got a real indepth tour.
We packed as much as we could into our visit to Medellin, we certainly could have had another day or another week here to go on the Pablo Escobar tour, who was the biggest drug dealer in Columbian history, or even to paraglide in the mountains, it’s a city with a vibe, with excitement and with a past that is slowly being forgotten with the optimism of its bright future where the whole of Columbia seems to have eyes on in order to replicate its achievements.