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#18 Medellin – Well worth a visit

Medellin is the most important city of Antioquia, a region known for its coffee production and strong development at the start of the 20th century. In the 1980’s and 90’s it became worldfamous due to the notorious Pablo Escobar which, together with the rest of the Medellin drug cartel, transformed the place into the world’s most murderous city for several years. Ever since his death in 1993 and the subsequent dismantling of the cartel a few years later, the city has worked hard to clean up and the efforts are clearly paying off. Medellin is not featured on the world’s most dangerous cities list anymore and has even been awarded the title of the most innovative city on the planet in 2013 for its progress in politics, education and social matters.
Antioquia, and therefore Medellin, is part of Paisa country. The regions inhabitants, called Paisas (countrymen), are respected for their business drive and less appreciated for their sense of cultural superiority. They describe themselves as warm, welcoming people and we would definitely have to agree, especially after feeling less welcome in the north. In the four days we spent in Medellin we have had countless encounters with kind people and the city itself has impressed us in many ways.
In order to get a sense of what comprises the city and also in order to hear more than just about its drug history, we took the free walking tour (Real Walking Tours – Medellin). This four hour stroll through different parts of the city was incredibly informative and fun. Our two guides were historically accurate and passionate about their work. Not all of the places we went to should be visited alone and/or after sunset. Whenever necessary they made us aware of the current Papaya Level, a measure of needed awareness towards pick-pocketing and other possible inconveniences. Why Papaya Level? Because if someone is not careful with his belongings, therefore making a thief’s job easy, one is said to be offering Papayas.

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Our guide Hernán in his element
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Monumento a la Raza depicting the story of Antioquia
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Parque de las Luces
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Plaza Botero
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Parque Bolivar
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Left: the original Bird of Peace (by Fernando Botero) which was blown up by a guerilla in 1995 and killed more than 20 people – Right: instead of removing the exploded sculpture, Botero made a new bird and placed it right next to the old one as a symbol of peace

As most “Gringos” in Medellin, we chose a hotel located in a district called El Poblado. This upcoming neighbourhood is full of modern and comparatively expensive bars and restaurants. It’s a nice place to come back to after an exhausting city day but for sure downtown and the surrounding barrios give a much better idea of the real Medellin. One symbol of Medellin’s progress are the social infrastructure projects which connect some of the poor areas with the center and foster a sense of community not seen before. One of these projects is the cable car to the Santo Domingo neighbourhood. While it was probably a rather bad idea to come here as a tourist a few years ago it is pretty much safe nowadays. After getting of the cable car we walked around for a bit, observed the schoolchildren in their uniforms and got smiled at by locals.

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Santo Domingo neighbourhood

And if you thought we were not going to talk more about Pablo Escobar, of course you were wrong. Anybody who knows us also knows that we do like a good TV series and despite its apparent flaws (the biggest of which is probably the fact that Escobar was played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura instead of a Colombian), we did enjoy the first two seasons of Narcos very much. And we liked it not least because in our opinion he wasn’t idolized and they showed him as the ruthless criminal he was. As the locations are hard to come by online and they are spread all around the city, we took a tour. Not any tour though, as there are a bunch of them and apparently the quality varies significantly. We did our research, booked with Paisa Road and were not disappointed. Our guide, Paula, and her driver both grew up experiencing the violence and fear in Medellin. While showing us different properties and locations of importance to the life and story of Pablo Escobar, she painted a pretty dark but realistic picture of the events of that period that Medellin is so desperately trying to leave behind.

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Edificio Monaco – Escobar’s Medellin residence which was bombed by the Cali cartel in an attempt to kill him
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In the background: back then the Medellin cartel’s headquarters
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Front (refurbished) of building in which he was hiding before he was shot on the rooftop in the back of the same building

Our last day we went to Guatapé and Piedra del Peñol, beautiful places about two hours from Medellin. More on that in the next post.

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