Do you know what it’s like to arrive at an airport and watch as someone checks your Colombian passport? To listen as they say, in a slow voice of recognition -
“Your name is Pablo… and you’re from a city called Medellin… please come this way for a moment…”
That’s what Pablo, our Medellin tour guide, has had to deal with multiple times in his twenty six years. An electronic engineer by trade, he studied in Budapest for two years, worked in France for another year, continued to travel the world and eventually realised how Colombia is often seen through other people’s eyes.
Of course, he’s got absolutely nothing to do with the city’s most infamous resident, other than sharing his first name. And from the moment we started our walking tour through the city of Medellin, Pablo was quick to point out that this wasn’t going to be a Pablo Escobar tour.
In fact, it was everything but.
An introduction to Medellin
Medellin once held the monicker of the most dangerous city in the world, and although it’s improved drastically over the last few years, there’s still an undercurrent of threat and seediness running through the streets. Pickpocketing is rife, prostitutes throng at the entrance to churches and there are still a multitude of gang wars with imaginary lines and boundaries that mustn’t be crossed.
Conversely though, the city is also becoming a foreigner’s haven, as more and more travellers arrive, find themselves somewhere wonderful and decide never to leave.
With this in mind, I went for a long haul stay in Medellin; a full seven nights in one hostel, and a stretch that’s guaranteed to garner various outcries of ‘oh, you’re here for a while then!’ from other travellers. It’s something I’ve noticed on the backpacker trails of various countries; any stay longer than three or four days is somewhat ‘overdoing it’ in the eyes of many.
But I had a long list of plans for Medellin. I wanted to get quite a bit of writing work done; to meet up with some bloggers who’ve made the city their home for the time being; do a bit of volunteer work; and then there was the crowning glory – Feria de Las Flores, an eight day city wide festival that just so happened to be occurring throughout my entire stay.
Totally accidental, but wonderfully appropriate nonetheless.
After a month in Colombia, I’m well aware of the draw this country has. Far from the violence it’s still remembered for, Colombia boasts gorgeous weather, stunning beaches, unbelievable scenery, an apparent love of festivals – and it’s also home to some of the most friendly and generous people.
So thanks to an overabundance of flowers adorning every spare surface of Medellin, the entire city was in high spirits. It made it just that bit easier to strike up impromptu conversation with Colombians; something that, as I get more confident with my Spanish, I find myself more and more compelled to do.
The benefits of speaking another language
Wandering the orchid gardens and getting caught in the rain meant an hour long chatting session with a elderly Colombian teacher and her three friends, all of whom loved the fact I kept writing down their suggested vocabulary for “storm”, “thunder” and “I’m getting very cold.” And while watching the vintage car parade, the stout lady in front of me kept grabbing my hand in joy whenever we spied a particularly attractive driver in the procession of cars that passed in front of us.
All because I made the concerned effort to actually talk in a foreign language, without minding if I get a few words wrong; something I never thought I’d actually feel comfortable doing.
So it was seriously impressive to walk throughout the city and listen to Pablo for almost four hours nonstop, as he relayed the events of Medellin and Colombia’s history – all in a language he wasn’t born speaking.
But Pablo had a bigger agenda on his mind than just relaying a slice of history. He wants to make sure people understand why Colombia is a place that needs to be visited, explored and understood. The people here have been through so much hardship, but have still come out the other side with smiles on their faces.
Because there’s an overwhelming sense of change in Colombia, and in Medellin particularly.
Change is a-comin’ in Medellin
Known the world over as Escobar’s hideout just twenty years ago, the city has undergone a complete overhaul, with new buildings, public spaces and an all new transport system. The latter meant Medellin was awarded the World’s Most Innovative City of 2012, thanks to a cable car that runs from the heart of the city all the way into the mountains – and still costs only $1 per ride.
As Pablo proudly announces, it means the poorest of Medellin’s residents can live in the favelas on the mountain outskirts, but still make their living in the city.
One of the central public squares of Medellin used to be an unpleasant area filled with drug dealers, squatters, prostitutes and thieves – and the Edificio Carré was right at the centre of it all.
“It represented for us a building of bad things, of drug abuse, of fear, of a place you did not want to even be close to. I was very scared to come here when I was a child,” Pablo said, sadly. “It was a place that held many bad memories for me.”
But thanks to the renovation of the city, the plaza has a new name – Parque de las Luces – and that same dilapidated, criminal-filled building, which could have been turned into a McDonalds or a Subway, is now the city’s Centre for Education.
It drives the point home that most long term changes in Medellin are going to stem primarily from education.
And that worryingly heavy military presence that Colombia is so often reported to have?
Well, there are still soldiers thronging the streets – but the horde of army personnel I saw emerging from a convoy of trucks were making their way to a music recital in celebration of Feria de las Flores. Soldiers clutching trombones and clarinets, their guns lying dormant at their hips.
Meeting Pájaro de Paz – twice
But the place that most affected me in Medellin was at our last stop of the tour, as darkness was truly starting to descend upon the city. Walking across an empty plaza, shadowy trees dotted along the edges, my somewhat weak eyes made out two statues that looked oddly similar in shape, but not in construct.
Two birds, both of the same, satisfyingly chunky style – Botero statues, with robust bodies and solid wings. But while the bird to the right was happily contented, the one on the left was missing something.
Missing a lot, actually.
Pablo gestured to our tour group and we made a circle around the left side bird.
“In January 1995, this plaza was like the others in the city. It was a place filled with people, and where children came to play. One day in January, someone left a backpack below this statue here,” – he pats the seemingly solid concrete – “and it exploded. This bird became a weapon; catapulting shards of metal across the plaza. Many people were injured. Twenty three people were killed.”
Pablo pointed to a plaque, attached to the concrete block the statue sat upon.
“Look at this name, here.”
Lina Marcela Taborda Herrera. Aged just seven years old.
“I was the same age as her, but I wasn’t in the square that day, so I’m alive and she isn’t. Such different lives, only because of where we happen to be at a given moment.”
He paused, allowing his words to take effect.
“After the explosion, people stopped coming to Parque San Antonio. And the government decided to tear down the exploded sculpture – it was a bad memory, and surely something that needed to be forgotten.”
But one day, there was a phone call. “There is no way you’re taking down that statue!” The official on the other end of the line was confused. “Sorry, who is this?” he said. “This is the artist. My bird stays where it is.”
Botero’s sentiment was echoed by the rest of the city, too. While the burning intensity of some memories do need tuning out, there are others that need to remain in the public consciousness. And Botero’s next action was what clinched it; he erected a new bird beside the old, to sit happy and whole once again.
“This is my Medellin, right here – the broken and the new.”
And as Pablo spoke, his vehemence echoing across the wide and empty plaza, a little girl crept silently between the legs of the new bird. Casual, comfortable, and not in any danger.
A bit of Medellin magic
Obviously there are still vestiges of the old and dangerous Medellin that are very prevalent. The Pájaro de Paz is huge testament to that.
“But you know what we do with those bad memories? We switch them off. And instead, we take those little happy memories, and we turn them up. We won a stage of the Tour de France and everybody celebrated for days. When we drew 1-1 in a football match with Germany? The entire country went crazy. I still get chills when I watch the goal on YouTube.”
And as for the Feria de Las Flores?
“It’s a silly festival, celebrating something silly. But we do it, and we love it, because it gives us hope. The chance to rejoice over something positive, and put happiness and beauty in the limelight.”
Medellin made my head spin, in so many ways. The city prompted such an array of experiences and emotions for me that it’s actually rather hard to condense them into words.
But I think my biggest takeaway from spending time here was the utter beauty of the Colombian people. There’s a reason why so many foreigners fall completely in love with the place and never leave.
And I was ultimately inspired by Pablo’s clear passion for his country, and his city. He’s so proud to be from Medellin, and so was every other person I met. They’re proud of their history, in all its difficulty and hardship, because it’s what’s shaped them into the city they call home today.
But if it’s given a few more years to expand and grow, I hope that Medellin will be even more of a popular destination – not just because of its dark past, but in its own right.
Pablo works tirelessly on his walking tours, and spends at least two days every week doing them completely for free (although there was no way I wasn’t going to tip him at the end of it!). If you’re in Medellin I highly suggest you explore the city with him on a Real City Tour – and say hi from me!