This week I have left the hustle and bustle of Colombia’s capital city and have settled into Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city. Prior to my arrival, I admittedly didn’t know much about it other than it was recently one of the most dangerous cities in the world and it is where infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar staged his war against the Colombian government in the 1980’s. However, this week proved to be a pleasant surprise as the city was filled with interesting things to do as I document my experiences below.
Arriving to Medellin- I didn’t realize how much work it would take to get to Medellin until the night before I was supposed to leave Bogota. I had two options, neither which were particularly appealing. I could either fly into Medellin for about $30 USD but that would require me to be at the airport at 3 AM. The problem with that option is the flight only takes an hour and I would have to keep myself busy upon arrival until I would be able to check into my hotel at 3 PM. Unfortunately, the later flights tripled in price (good business move). The option I ended up choosing was the bus which had its own issues. If you look at a map, Medellin doesn’t seem like its too far from Bogota. However, when you consider the condition of Colombia’s roads and the fact that many small towns serve as choke points for the traffic, a 4 hour trip turns into a 9 hour one. My trip didn’t start off too great as the Uber app took me to a random intersection instead of the bus terminal and I had to pay the driver in cash to take me to the right place (I did get reimbursed). When I finally got to the terminal, I bought a ticket for the 7:40 AM bus to Medellin for 60k Colombian Pesos (COP) or about $18 USD. I chose a random bus company, Rapido Ochoa, which proved to be a big mistake. The bus had Wi-Fi but I couldn’t access it and there were no charging ports for my phone or computer. One lesson I learned is that if I am going to be on a bus for 9 hours, I should probably pay for luxury. With that being said, the bus ride itself was interesting in that we went through several small towns and I also realized just how mountainous Colombia is as a country. It turned out to be a great decision to leave early in the morning as we arrived early evening to Medellin leaving me plenty of time to settle into my hotel. Our arrival was pretty cool because we actually entered the city from above and got some pretty picturesque views as the sun set over the city.
Medellin City Tour-Usually when I arrive in an unfamiliar place, the first thing I like to do is take a tour of some of the more popular sites via public transportation. However, since I was only going to be in Medellin for a week, time was not on my side. Fortunately for me, the host at the hotel that I was staying at told me about Real City Tours which was a company that offered free walking tours of Medellin completely free. To make things better, the tours were provided in English. After doing the tour, I think this is a government backed initiative to educate foreigners that Medellin was more than just Pablo Escobar’s stomping grounds but who am I to judge. I was able to easily make a reservation for Tuesday morning online through the company’s website. Upon arriving to the meeting point (the pedestrian bridge at Alpujarra Metro Station) I met my tour guide Juan. In our group of 18, we had only three Americans with the rest being from Canada and Europe. Juan was an English teacher who had lived in the United States for several years so he spoke really good English. While he seemed pretty high strung at times when dealing with the locals, I can understand given Medellin’s reputation and the responsibility he felt to keep us “safe”. All in all, we walked to 13 different points throughout the city over a 3 ½ hour period. None of the sites themselves were remarkable but Juan did discuss several things from the FARC peace agreement to what Colombian’s really think of Netflix’s “Narcos” series. It was also fascinating to see different facets of Colombian society interact in various parks and plazas throughout the city. I also found a new favorite street food called a buñuelo which is basically a fried bread ball filled with cheese. I was able to buy four buñuelos for about $1 USD. Overall, I thought the tour provided an excellent introduction into Medellin and I gave Juan a 30K COP ($8.75 USD) tip because he doesn’t get paid a regular salary from the company.
La Piedra del Peñol- On Wednesday morning, I decided to take a day-trip to La Piedra del Peñol (The Rock of Peñol) which is a hike situated between the towns of Peñol and Guatapé, about 85 kms east of Medellin. I arrived at the terminal del Norte station in Medellin and was able to buy a ticket to Guatapé for 15k COP ($4.40 USD). The trip took about 2 ½ hours mostly because the driver wanted to fill the bus up before leaving the city. La Piedra del Peñol is actually about 15 minutes north of Peñol and can been seen from the town. The bus driver dropped me of at a gas station at the bottom of the rock in which he referred to as “parada la Piedra”. After overpaying for a water, I began my ascent up the steps situated next to the gas station. Turns out that this steep incline wasn’t the actual trail, but rather a walking path to the entrance above. It took me about 10 minutes to reach the base of La Piedra where there were various shops, restaurants, and vendors selling high-priced ice cream and souvenirs. In order to begin the actual climb up La Piedra, I had to buy a ticket for 18K COP ($6 USD). Ascending the 700+ steps of La Piedra was a frustrating experience because it was 90 degrees, I was not in great shape, and it was difficult to get around others who decided to lay down in the middle of the narrow path. Despite my frustration, it took me about 25 minutes to get to the top of La Piedra. Before arriving to the very top, there is another area that has more bars and souvenir shops. While its designed for people to hang out and take in the view, I found it to be too noisy and crowded to really want to stay for an extended period of time. I finished the ascent by going through a claustrophobic tunnel but the summit provided a great 360 degree view of the surrounding valley. Thankfully the descent was a lot more comfortable as it was in the shade and utilized a separate staircase from those going up.
Guatapé- After descending La Piedra, I found myself back at the gas station which I started. As I was figuring out my next move, a tuk-tuk driver offered to take me to Guatapé for 10k COP ($3 USD). I would have paid it had I not needed to charge my phone. I went to the restaurant next to the gas station and bought an ice cream while they allowed me to use their outlet. Once I my phone had enough juice to pull up Google Maps, I realized how close La Piedra was to Guatapé and suddenly remembered my rule of never accepting the first offer from a vendor or taxi driver. I ended up waiting for a passing bus and paying only 2k COP ($.60 USD) to get to the center of Guatapé. I could tell immediately that Guatapé was a tourist hub as there were restaurants and vendors every 5 feet. However, to its credit, it was a very picturesque place which provided ample photo opportunities. I almost felt that my Android camera didn’t do it justice. The center of Guatapé had a church and park which was surrounded by cafes and souvenir stands. Unfortunately, I didn’t have too much time to explore Guatapé but would recommend others who pass through stay a few days to completely appreciate it. After walking around, I was able to get a bus ticket back to Medellin for 15k COP ($4.40) as the buses run every 30 minutes.
Parque Arví- On Friday, I decided to take a trip to one of Medellín ’s most popular tourist attractions known as Parque Arví, an ecotourism park located about 30 km from the Medellín city center. While the park was exciting, getting there was its own adventure. Located deep in the mountains above the city, it is most convenient to take the metro cable from the Santo Domingo station to the park. For 6k COP ($2.50 USD), I was in a pod (similar to what I rode at Monserrate) getting ziplined up the mountain. This form of transportation was not only convenient but provided excellent views of the valley below. The ride itself took about 15 minutes but I arrived right at the park’s front entrance. The weather wasn’t that great, but the park provided plenty to see. I decided not to pay the 25k COP ($8 USD) required for a tour guide, mostly because I had limited cash, which meant I could not go into the jungle. However, there were some paths that I could explore. The “park” is so big that it is almost impossible to see many of the attractions on foot (There are actually bus stops along the main roads which cost 2K COP (.60 USD)). After what seemed like hours of walking, I ended up at a nice spot that had a stream and several areas to relax. I was also able to take plenty of pictures along the way. All and all, while I technically went to the park, I didn’t really explore it enough to fully appreciate it given the limited amount of time that I had. However, I definitely would recommend checking it out if you pass through Medellín.
Football- What Americans refer to as “Soccer” is called “Football” throughout the rest of the world. Colombians are crazy about football as is the rest of South American. The city of Medellín has two professional teams. Atletico Nacional is the most popular and successful one whose colors are white and green. Atletico was owned by Pablo Escobar during the height of his drug campaign. They have won several national and international championships. In fact, they were the opponent of Chapecoense, the Brazilian team that perished in a plane crash in 2016 on the way to play in the Copa Sudamericana Finals (Chapecoense was eventually awarded the title). Medellín’s “other team” is known as Deportivo Independiente Medellín and their colors are red and blue. While Independiente Medellín has had some success, they are basically the LA Clippers of the city. I actually went to an Independiente Medellín match which cost me 20K COP ($6 USD) for a front row seat behind the visiting goal post. The game was exciting even though Independiente Medellín lost 2-1 to a lesser opponent. On Sunday, Atletico played Independiente Medellín in what is known as “Clásico Paisa”. I wanted to see that game (and even walked to the stadium), however, the whole city was clamoring to get inside the stadium and there were no tickets left for purchase. I ended up watching Atletico destroy Independiente Medellín at a local bar. While the game started competitive, the final score was 5-2.