“Look up magical realism in the dictionary, and it will describe a literary style incorporating fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction. Colombia is where it began.”
With high mountains deep seas, Colombia’s cinematic greenery, cheerful people, and vibrant culture are drawing increasing tourism towards its periphery. As the capital of the Antioquia province, Medellin is becoming one of the most popular destinations in the country. In 2016, the city was awarded the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, symbolizing its innovative urban solutions.
Its modernity is evident. Medellin’s metrocable-a gondola lift system is definitely one of the most exciting forms of public transportation I’ve ever laid my eyes on.
Yet, just over two decades ago, this was not the case.
At the time, Medellin was known as the most dangerous city in the world.
Like any other country, Colombia is much more than its tourist destinations. Like many other countries, Colombia’s sociohistorical setting is often portrayed by the likes of Hollywood to reflect certain stereotypes. Unfortunately, for this vibrant state, these labels mostly pertain to drugs, sex, and Escobar.
Although delicate, this is one of those topics that often lingers in the background of any related conversation.
To give some background, Escobar and his Medellin Cartel ran some of the most profitable drug operations from the mid-70s to the 90s. From political associations to backroom dealings, the Medellin Cartel went head to head with government crackdowns. During these years, thousands of people lost their lives, including policemen, rival cartel members, and civilians.
In addition to paramilitary activities, guerrilla groups, and gang-related violence, Colombia’s social fabric is complicated, to say the least.
As such, my stay in Medellin made me truly appreciate the strength and resilience of a people who, through all of their hardships, remain inherently positive.
Granted, there are many places to visit in this vibrant city with such a rich history. Below are a few must-dos if you ever find yourself in Medellin!
Medellin is a charming city. Surrounded by mountains and hills, the modernity of the cityscape often offers sufficient contrast against the backdrop of greens and browns. In the evening, the fincas and residences on these hills illuminate the night sky with thousands of splendid light.
It is absolutely spectacular.
In Medellin, I was fortunate enough to stay with a friend’s friend.
Freddy and his girlfriend were calm souls. They lived in a comfortable apartment in El Poblado, a nice middle-upper neighborhood that also acts as a popular tourist destination.
The neighborhood has numerous hostels and bars, with backpackers wandering its streets, and pub-crawls happening on a nightly basis.
Since my backpacking trip already took me from hiking the mountains of San Gil to getting lost in the valley of Cocora, I was pretty much spent at this point. Instead of experiencing the much-raved-about Colombian nightlife, I opt for early sleep and daily explorations.
Comuna 13 holds an important piece of history. Once known as the most notorious neighborhood in Colombia, the comuna has transformed itself into a vibrant, positive community.
Colombia’s complex sociocultural dynamic involves a tangled web of actors. In addition to the government, crime organizations, paramilitary groups, and far-left guerillas’ fight for power, multinational companies, and the United States’ subsequent involvement have heavily impacted the country’s political sphere.
Comuna 13, also known as San Javier, was one such place that suffered greatly because of these sociopolitical interactions. The neighborhood once had a substantial homicide rate and a large number of displaced residences. Since it sat near the San Juan Highway, it was a central zone for gang violence, guerrilla movements, and paramilitary activities.
After joining a local guided Graffiti walking tour at the San Javier Metro Station, we took a small bus that dropped us off at the waist of a hill with thousands of brick houses crawling up its surface.
Our guide was a father who grew up in the comuna. His past experiences, love for his neighborhood, and optimism for a better future oozed through his animated monologue.
Between the 1980s and 1990s, Comuna 13 was full of illegal activities ran by groups loyal to Escobar. Although the homicide rate dropped after 1993, it skyrocketed between 1997 and 2002, going from 123 to 357 within a three year period. This was the result of worsening conflict between the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) and left-wing groups including the Armed PoPeople’sommandos (CAP), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN), who controlled the comuna at the time.
In 2002, the Alvaro Uribe Velez government carried out the controversial Operation Orión to suppress the violence between the paramilitary and guerrilla forces.
This four-day siege involved more than 1,000 policemen, soldiers, and helicopters. It also resulted in the torture, detainment, and suffering of hundreds of innocent civilians. Many were killed, including children.
The walls of Comuna 13 have become a beautiful space that presents its painful past, hopes for a better future, and the collective desire for peace. While our guide tells us that there continue to be crimes in the area, the neighborhood has re-invented itself to becoming a place that showcases beauty, vibrancy, and positivity.
I spent half a day touring the most popular areas of Medellin. Starting from the Old Railway Station, our walking tour wandered through the crowded streets and dissected the city’s rich history.
We met at the Alpujarra Metro Station. Since it was only 40 minutes away from where I lived, I decided to put on some music and explore the city on foot.
Once I arrived, I was greeted by two energetic girls that wore Real City Tour‘s signature red shirt. The company offers local-ran free walking tours in Medellin and operates on a tips-only basis.
After confirming my name, I headed towards the back to join the growing group of travelers. It was then that I noticed someone familiar standing off to the side.
Belve was a Turkish biker that was embarking on a year-long journey from Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro. We met while staying with the same host in Tulum, Mexico, and a month later, here we were!
Same country, same city, same tour, four months later.
How crazy small is this world?
“Monument to the Race” is a statue by Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt, in honor of the history of Antioquia. It is located at the administrative government center for both the city and the department.
Our guide, a lawyer-turned tour guide was incredibly passionate about her country. She energetically pointed out the intricate details of the sculpture and explained the tales of hardship and freedom it depicted.
Since the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century, the Department of Antioquia has experienced countless conflicts. Yet, it has always been able to come above the difficulties, becoming better, stronger, happier.
In the sun, the magnificent piece of art stood tall and proud.
Plaza Cisneros is a fascinating space that holds 300 light poles. Constructed with concrete and metal, some of these poles reach a height of 78 feet! At night, they illuminate the square with white beams, a sight not to be missed.
More important than the appearance of the plaza, it is its significance that truly captures the essence of Medellin. The square is named after Francisco Javier Cisneros, the engineer that headed the construction of the Antioquia Railway.
Although it once housed the most important aspects of Medellin, the plaza eventually became an area of vagrants, drugs, and prostitution. To revamp the square, these poles were built to convey a sense of modernity and renewal. Thus, Plaza Cisneros’s transformation not only symbolizes hope and prosperity for this particular area, but also for the future of Medellin, Colombia, and its people.
Like many countries in South America and Asia, Colombia is known for some nice, affordable products. Within Medellin, one of the best shopping areas is El Hueco.
With thousands of small shops, vendors, and people, this shopping paradise reminds me of China’s hidden local markets. From clothing to sports goods, El Hueco often has some of the lowest prices in the city.
Better yet, there are hundreds of food stalls and restaurants that will cure your Colombian street food cravings!
The Botero Park is another venue of attraction in Medellin. The vast outside park holds twenty-three sculptures by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who donated numerous artworks for the Museum of Antioquia ‘s renovation in 2004.
It is a treat to wander through the park and goggle at these full-figured bronze statues.
Located to the north of Bolivar Park, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Medellin is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The small park that the Cathedral sits in is a great place for people-watching.
Our guide noted the diverse population that occupied the park. From students studying to families playing to elders drinking, the space is full of fascinating characters. Sitting by the fountain and watching the evening sky dim, I felt incredibly in love with this dynamic city.
Ever since my host family in Soacha cooked up a storm during my visit, I’ve been in love with Colombian cuisine. From fresh juices to savory meats, Colombian food is incredibly diverse.
Bandeja Paisa is one of the must-haves in Medellin. Traditionally, the dish includes white rice, beans, chicharrón, ripe plantain, Carne en Polvo, chorizo, fried egg, avocado, and arepa. But the one I ordered substituted powdered beef for a piece of deliciously fried pork belly. The combination was hearty and flavorful. The beans were tender and the meat was crispy and absolutely exquisite!
Street food is another common appearance around the many corners of Medellin. From golden empanadas and cheesy buñuelosto to sweet arepas and sugary churros, an endless amount of selection is available for the average person with an insatiable appetite.
Guatape is often known as the “most colorful town in Colombia.” Each house is painted in a bright, dazzling shade. Together, they offer a lively, positive space like no other. Just a few minutes away from the peaceful beauty of La Piedra, the town is a must-visit when in Medellin.
From Terminal del Norte Medellin, Guatape Colombia was a comfortable ride down. The journey was approximately 2 hours with a price tag of COP 14,000.
I spent a happy day touring the many roads and streets of the town space, capturing the colors and vibrancy that differs significantly from Medellin’s modernity.
Medellin is a beautiful, vibrant metropolitan. Its modernity is not just a testament to Colombia’s advancement, but also to the Colombian people’s resilience and grit. Despite many hardships, the country I experienced exhibited a sense of positivity and joy like no other.
It is truly remarkable.