7 reasons to write Medellín on your bucket list

by Jakob Horvat, April 29th 2017, Bogotá/Colombia
Pablo Escobar owned this city. Until two decades ago, Medellín was the most dangerous and murderous city on the planet. Today it’s one of the most innovative ones and safety is no longer an issue in most neighborhoods. The progress Medellín has made in the past fifteen years is both extraordinary and rather impressive. The development it has gone through shaped Colombia’s second biggest city into a place you want to write on your bucket list. Here are 7 reasons why.

1. The kindness of the locals is beyond compare

I got lost. The Colombian system of carreras and calles confused me. Losing orientation in an unfamiliar city and finding my way back to course usually helps me to get a better feeling for the area. Often it leads to a better understanding of the locals as well, hence asking people on the street for directions is what I like doing. My experiences with the „paisas“, the people from Medellín, was of an unknown kind. They are known to be the most helpful people in Colombia, their kindness truly impressed me. When I’ve asked for directions and if the first person didn’t know, it happened more often than not that he would ask the next stranger passing by. If this one didn’t know either, they’d pass the question on. And on. And on. Eventually there would be six people on the street discussing the best way for me to get to my destination.

Pulsing nightlife in El Poblado – where the "paisas" mix up with tourists
Pulsing nightlife in El Poblado – where the “paisas” mix up with tourists

2. A battleground turned into a model city

Medellín was the home base of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, a battlefield in Colombia’s infamous history of drug violence and guerrilla warfare. With a homicide rate of 381 murders for every 100.000 inhabitants in the 1990s, Medellín was the deadliest city on earth. In 2016, it has dropped completely from the Top-50-List of the World’s Most dangerous cities and has become one of the most innovative ones instead – a model metropole. Or as the former mayor Sergio Fajardo puts it: „Medellín closed the door to crime and opened the door to opportunity.“ Many people here took their chances and jumped on Medellín’s fast moving train of innovation. A remarkable start-up-scene has emerged, and those visitors who deeply inhale the city’s pulsing vibe can feel that this is a rather extraordinary place to be.

3. Ride the busy Metro circus-style

The metro platform is crowded with people, shoulder to shoulder, we are waiting for the next train. Dozens more are pushing down the stairs – it’s 4 PM, rush hour in Medellín. Easy to guess how the trains itself look like. When the doors open, some passengers literally fall out. Even more crowd in – and, they surprisingly fit. When it was my turn to be pushed in, I looked into the faces of dozens of people. They were not angry or annoyed, as I assumed due to the Austrian fashion I’m used to. No, they laughed. Collectively. Almost all of them. Some even cracked up. As if it was an enjoyable treat having somebody stepping on their feet every five seconds. The door closes. Opens up again. Somebody is standing in the door’s light barrier. Closes. Opens up. Closes. The procedure repeats seven times and for almost three minutes. Yes, I counted. I could not see a single person complaining or whining. Cool facial expressions, as far as I could see. Medellín – a city that teaches how to use a Metro the relaxed way.

Hundreds of people are queuing up to take the MetroCable uphill from the centre to their homes.

4. Learn how the poorest get chances

Steep streets and narrow stairs connect tiny houses built of red bricks and wooden boards, built remarkably close to each other. The holes in the rickety rooftops are provisionally plugged with stones. It’s a different face of Medellín I’m seeing here in Santo Domingo, one of the city’s poorest slums. The MetroCable that floats over the mountainside offers the tourist an interesting view, but has changed the lives of tens of thousands hillside residents significantly. „It took me two hours to get from my home to the centre“, an old lady sitting next to me in the cable car tells me how arduous her life had been earlier. „Some have never made it to downtown in their lives.“ Since the MetroCable was built in 2004, it links the underprivileged to the modern metro system, dramatically cutting commuting times to the city centre.

Five lines of the MetroCable improve the life quality of thousands hillside residents

How to connect different layers of society and give the poorest perspectives? Medellín has found some answers. Another one is called „escaleras electricas“, an impressive escalator built into the steep hills of a district called „Comuna 13“. It has been the guerrilla hideout and the stronghold of gang activity and drug violence until the early 2000s. Nowadays – although still a place not recommended to go after dusk – „Comuna 13“ is a tourist attraction with hundreds of stunning graffiti pieces and a breathtaking view. After decades of climbing up hundreds of stairs to their houses, residents of „Comuna 13“ can now ride an escalator 400 meters up. Again, Medellín’s investment in an innovative way of connecting the poor slums to the rest of the city has improved the life quality of tens of thousands.

5. Meet stunningly beautiful girls

The rumors say, in Medellín live some of the most beautiful girls in the world. Well, it’s not just rumors. Go out on a Saturday night in neighborhoods such as El Poblado or Laureles-Estadio and you will rest my case. Choose a night without rain (I know, that can be hard in Medellín) or chances are that they will stay at home. The percentage of gorgeous looking latin beauties is remarkable. Approach them with charm, respect and confidence and the general Colombian kindness will increase your chances of having a night to remember. To the girls reading: I obviously can’t tell you too much about Colombian guys. Girls do say they are worth a closer look though.

An ocean of lights on the hills surrounding Medellín.

​6. Enjoy nature amidst the city

​Rarely have I visited a city of the size of Medellín connected to so much nature. The water of a brook sweeps down the jungle-like bamboo forest in El Poblado, one of Medellíns richest and safest districts amidst the city. Close to the university, one can explore Medellín’s botanical garden. In the heart of the city thousands of birds and iguanas of the size of one meter give an idea of how great Colombia’s biodiversity is – it’s actually the second biggest in the world. Those who can’t get enough take the Line L of the MetroCable from San Antonio uphill and escape the busy city life. Within minutes the cable car floats over a deep forest. Welcome to the stunning nature of Parque Arví one wouldn’t expect to be that close to a three-million-metropole.

The “Jardín Botánico”: stunning nature meets urban environment.
A boy plays with water in front of the botanical garden.

7. Let the contrast shift your perspectives

The dusty streets are alive with the voices of residents calling each other from window to window and the rattling engines of motorcycles passing by. Somebody plays HipHop music that echoes loudly between the battered walls of tiny houses. Chickens mill around. Children play on the streets laughing. I’m wandering through the small and busy alleys of this impoverished district called Santo Domingo. The locals stare at me as if they have never seen a foreigner, an „extranjero“, before. Indeed, not many tourists come here. They are supposed to float over these barrios with the cable car. One who gets closer though and sweats heavily as he climbs up the steep slopes of the hillside district, can witness the thrilling contrast that Medellín has to offer. „Hola, buenas“, is my favorite way to stop people from staring at me. Almost all of them start smiling instantly, seemingly happy about the gesture. Many of them are refugees in their own country. They escaped from the Colombian conflict on the countrysides, hoping to find a better life in the poor regions of the cities.

The steep streets of Santo Domingo, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Medellín.

In Medellín one can actually dive into some parts of the so-called slums without taking too big risks. „Just don’t act lost“, is a rather valuable advice I got someday. I walk with confidence, even though I have no idea where I am. I don’t use my smartphone on the street, some could read that as an invitation. If I need Google Maps, I go to the next shop or café and check it there. What works best for me in terms of feeling safer, is simply getting in touch with the residents. They will reward you, most certainly, with perspectives you hardly get anywhere else.

Footprints from Medellín:

Christian Robinson, ex-Hollywood producer and Spanish school owner

Nicolás Arbeláez, travel agent and visionary in a wheelchair

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