Medellin, Colombia was once named the world’s murder capitol and most violent city (and not too long ago!). This was largely due to the drug cartels in the days of Pablo Escobar. The city is said to have improved dramatically since those days. Honestly, though, Bryan and I aren’t big fans of Medellin. There are some positive points to the city. The more upscale residential area where our hostel is located is pretty darn nice with tons of restaurants and bars. The city also boasts the only metro system in Colombia which is an extremely clean, safe, and efficient way to navigate the city. At the end of the metro system is a cable car which takes you up a hill over the barrios, or the slums on the hillside. The ride provides a safe peek into the impoverished neighborhoods. During our ride, we heard several shots. I asked Bryan if they were fireworks. It was daytime so they probably weren’t. Maybe they were from a backfiring car…hopefully.
In addition to the state-of-the-art metro system and cable car, Medellin also exhibits one of the world’s top Christmas light displays. Along Medellin’s mud-brown river, there are 16 million lights to honor the city’s 16 neighborhoods. The displays are several stories high and went on for miles. The holiday spirit of Paisas (Medellin residents) is contagious.
Guatape / El Penol – One of the most recommended things to do in the Medellin area is to take a day-trip to the towns of Guatape and El Penol. So the top thing to do in Medellin is to get the hell out? After walking the city, we were more than happy to take this recommendation. We took about an hour and a half bus ride and arrived in pure paradise. Guatape has an enormous rock to climb that offers breathtaking views. The lakes, islands, and lush green hillsides stretched as far as we could see. I thought I was in good shape after running a marathon last month. The steep hike up the rock was exhausting, but so rewarding.
The village of Guatape is picturesque; each building is painted a different color with it’s own unique artwork. No two building designs are alike – there are brightly colored flowers, horses, llamas, fish, and scenes of Guatape. Colorful, overflowing hanging baskets of flowers line the cobblestone streets. In front of the cathedral, the center of the town is filled with Christmas decorations, residents having lunch in outside cafes, and children riding bikes. I could understand why the Paisas took weekend trips to Guatape and El Penol for peace, fresh air, and boating.
Pablo Escobar Tour – Today we chatted in the home of one of the most wanted criminals in history – Pablo Escobar’s brother Roberto. He is one of the friendliest and welcoming people you will ever meet. Before his brother Pablo’s famed criminal spree, Roberto had a hugely successful cycling career. He raced against and beat some of the cyclists who went on to win the Tour de France. Sadly, when Pablo’s criminal activities became well-known the authorities targeted Roberto and he was sucked into the dark life with his brother. Roberto served time for his crimes though and is said to have never killed anyone. We also met his chocolate lab who is trained to sniff out bombs and protect Roberto (He’s a little bit smarter than my chocolate lab Rawley). Roberto has trouble seeing and hearing. While in jail in December 1993, he was sent a “letter-bomb” that exploded in his face. He believes that the government was behind it. There are still attempts to kill Roberto. The English-speaking tour guide pointed out recent bullet holes in several spots in the Escobar home from a kidnapping attempt just last year. Several of Pablo Escobar’s former vehicles are still on the property. There is a bullet-proof Chevy truck with bullet cracks in the window. We were all surprised to see a large photo of Pablo driving a motorcycle given to him by Frank Sinatra.
We’ve been traveling for just a week now. It seems like a month but not in a bad way. We’ve just seen and done so much and all of our days have been full. I’m getting adjusted to hostel-life. We’ve met so many people from all over the world who are full of useful travel stories. I even did laundry by hand today and survived. That’s quite a huge step for me! After a week of daily intermittent rain in Bogota and Medellin, I’m looking forward to heading to the sunny Caribbean beach town of Cartagena tomorrow!