I'm Part Paisa Now
24.04.2013 - 28.04.2013
Springtime in Medellin
The city of Medellin (pronounced Mede-J-ean not Mede-Y-ien) is known as the "City of Eternal Spring" because its unique climate produces year-round spring temperatures. The city is also experiencing another spring-like rebirth after many years of horrific drug cartel violence. Forget everything you think you know about Medellin. All of that is in the past, and the city is much safer than you think. I should have videotaped the reactions I received from people over the past few months when I told them I was headed there. I heard all sorts of stories, and a few almost dissuaded me from going to Medellin. Luckily, I read this article about Medellin in the travel section of the New York Times, and it assured me things had changed for the better: NYT Travel Medellin
I had a long discussion about Medellin’s reputational hangover with my good friend Juan. He is a long-time resident of Medellin. We met 13 years ago on the Semester at Sea program and spent 3 months circumventing the globe on a cruise ship converted to a college campus. My friend Juan lamented how the world still regards Medellin as the way it was many years ago, and not the way it is now. I told him to hang on as the rest of the world will figure it out soon enough. I compared it to our mutual experience in Croatia in 1999. Our Semester at Sea ship pulled into Dubrovnik on the heels of the Balkan War. Back then, people I met thought I was nuts for going to Dubrovnik. Nowadays people barely remember those times. I think the same will happen for Medellin.
In conclusion, I wouldn’t call Medellin “safe,” but I wouldn’t call many parts of Atlanta safe either. A few days after I came back from Colombia my mother drove right by a police shootout next to a suburban bookstore. If you exercise sound judgment in where you go and what you do you should be fine in Medellin (and Atlanta).
Tour of the City
I started out my stay in Medellin with a metro cable (gondola) tour of the city. Medellin runs along a steep valley, and the people on the outer, steep edges have a hard time commuting into the center. With its scenic views the metro cable has become a little bit of a tourist attraction, even though it was built for practical mass transit reasons.
To get to the metro cable, my guide drove me through Comuna 13, proudly demonstrating how safe and well-serviced it was. He stated “several years ago I could not have driven you through here.” In Colombia, the word comuna is used similarly to favela in Brazil, though technically every part of a city in Colombia, rich and poor, is part of one comuna. Comuna 13 used to be the heart of darkness during the bad times in Medellin. My guide explained how the turning point came when the former president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, ordered a military assault to clean out this part of the city in 2002. My guide spoke favorably of Uribe and his efforts, especially of Uribe’s action to imprison 40% of the Senate for corruption.
My guide pointed out multiple construction sites for clean housing, new hospitals which charge only $1USD per visit, cheap day-care services for working mothers, and police stations which respond to complaints in under a minute. My guide claimed some lower-middle class citizens were moving into the comunas because the public services were cheaper and better than in their existing neighborhoods.
There are still some shanty-town areas of Medellin. My guide said the government is good about offering people in these conditions free bricks and tin roofs so they don’t have to live in makeshift houses. Some of these people used to live in the countryside, but the FARC insurgent group ran them off and stole their property.
The next stop was a plaza in downtown Medellin for a viewing of the works of Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous artist. Most of Botero’s sculptures and painting feature plus-sized people as the subject matter.
One of my friends asked me to post pictures of nude women from exotic locales on my travel blog.
The highlight of the day was retracing the footsteps of Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug lord of Medellin. This building was one of Pablo’s hideouts until the rival Cali cartel tried to assassinate him with 600 kilos of explosives in a car bomb. My guide explained how the government keeps the building in its current condition on purpose as a "Crime Doesn’t Pay" message to others in the drug trade.
This is the place where the authorities finally caught up to Pablo Escobar and gunned him down. The building has been modified since then, but there used to be a patio leading out, and Pablo tried to make his escape off of it. The building is in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood, and an eerie vibe still surrounds the place.
Here are two Botero paintings depicting this event.
The final stop was the grave of Pablo Escobar. My guide explained how a substantial number of people still come to visit his grave, and some will pray to him as if he were a saint in the Catholic religion. In some of the poorer neighborhoods Pablo is remembered with nostalgia as a Robin Hood type figure.
Jardin of Coffee Eden
“Jardin” means “garden” in Spanish. I spent my second day touring coffee farms in the countryside around an agricultural town named Jardin.
The scenery in this area is absolutely breathtaking. Steep, green mountains roll on for miles. I quickly understood why so many urban Colombians enjoy escaping to a finca or vacation farm on the weekend.
My guide pointed out this odd-looking mountain. Its name in Spanish roughly means “hill where there should be none.”
My guide took me to a couple farms and we were well received by the residents. They do not receive visitors often in this area, which gave me a window into what life was really like for them on a daily basis. When I am on other organized tourist trips I often get the sense the tour company is just putting on a show for foreigners, but this trip to the coffee farm was a real experience.
“Conchita” is the name of Juan Valdez’s burro. A farmer asked me why I bothered taking a picture of the ugliest animal on the farm. My guide and I joked we were going to tell my friends it was Conchita.
One farmer named Hugo walked us through the fields and explained how coffee beans start off green and turn red when they are ripe. Hugo also explained how different farms specialize in different type of coffee beans. These beans are for standard coffee. Hugo pointed out a neighboring field (far hill pictured below) which specializes in espresso beans.
Another farmer walked us through the coffee bean collection and initial drying process.
Field hands pour the beans into this machine from the outside. The machine removes the shell of the coffee bean and provides an initial cleaning.
The beans pour out here.
Then they go through a sorting process where they are separated by size and are cleaned again.
They end up in this chamber, where a heater below dries them out.
The beans look white at this point. They don’t take on a brown color until they are toasted at the coffee collective.
This is what the coffee collective in Jardin looks like.
They test the beans at the collective using this equipment.
After visiting the farms and the collective, my guide took us into the town café to sample the coffee.
I had a chance to try a new product the Colombians will be marketing worldwide soon: coffee juice. Yes, you read that correctly. A coffee company is making juice out of the coffee bean shells. They claim the juice is higher in antioxidants than other healthy juices like pomegranate. The juice comes in liquid concentrate and is mixed in hot or cold water. The juice does not taste good by itself, so the coffee company adds lemon or raspberry flavoring. I tried it and I think it tastes all right, but I am not crazy about it. It tastes more like tea than coffee or juice. I brought some back and will be sharing it with other coffee lovers I know.
I had lunch from a hilltop with an amazing view of Jardin.
I made a new friend at lunch.
The people in this part of Colombia are very proud of their horse tradition. I saw many people riding or walking their horses through town.
In many parts of Colombia the entrances to colonial buildings are built high enough so a man can ride through on horseback. There is a central patio area in the center of these houses where the horses were kept.
Overall everything looked peaceful and pleasant to me, but my guide explained how the coffee industry in Colombia is in a state of panic. Other countries are subsiding their coffee industries and pushing the world price of coffee below the profit point for Colombian farmers. Many of the farms can’t get by without assistance from the government, and some riots have broken out in coffee areas over the low price of coffee.
Ironically, the coffee served in Colombia is not very good in most places. This is because the coffee export companies send their best coffee to other markets. I saw a few restaurant signs throughout Colombia letting people know they carried "export quality" coffee. Starbucks does not exist here. The Juan Valdez café is Colombia's alternative to Starbucks. They offer coffee flavors specific to key regions of Colombia. I tried many of their flavors and enjoyed them all.
Many street vendors will sell "tinto" a watered down and sugary coffee. I tried a cup in Cartagena and I think the vendor was a little surprised I asked for it.
Jumping off a Cliff
The highlight of my trip was paragliding over the skies of Medellin. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
Just After Takeoff:
Buzzing the Tower:
Medellin and Me:
Really High Now (Note the tower is now way below)
Flying Over a Green Mountain:
Coming In For Landing:
Worst part of the flight - The End:
I posted a video of the flight on YouTube. I am still having issues with my GoPro Hero 3 camera. The video looks great on my screen, but it breaks down when I upload it. The audio is messy. You may want to turn your speakers down.
The place to be is the Parque Lleras in the El Poblado neighborhood. Trendy bars and clubs of all types encircle the park, and the place seems to vibrant just about every night until the break of dawn. I found this picture on the internet:
At the recommendation of the New York Times article I stayed the Charlee Hotel. This is a brand-new, ultra-modern hotel. This is the view of my balcony.
The Charlee has an amazing rooftop pool with a lounge club called Envy. Below is a picture of it from the hotel website.
I watched a musical performance one night, and I think I discovered the next Shakira:
Picture by the Pool in my New Colombian Outfit:
My new friend Camilo Uribe of Medellin City Tours was my tour guide for most of my trip. The smartest decision I made was signing up for his nightlife tour on a Saturday night. Camilo knows just about everybody on the scene exactly where to go each night. I barely had a chance to sit down before I was surrounded by these beautiful and classy ladies. I wish I could claim credit for it, but it was all Camilo.
Here is a picture of the maestro:
Check out his website if you are headed his way: Medellin City Tours
The best moment of the evening was when the group dubbed me an honorary Paisa. People from Medellin are known as Paisas, and they take great pride in their regional heritage. One website I read compared the pride Paisas have for Medellin as being similar to the pride Texans have for their state. I am equally proud to be part Paisa now.