There was a time I could never have stepped foot in this city, as I have now done, or safely walked its streets without worrying about being kidnapped, shot to death or blown to pieces.
Medellin was one of the deadliest places on Earth as drug cartels unleashed terror on each other and anybody who stood in their pesos-paved path. This city – with Cali to the south – was the mecca of drug-trafficking, kidnappings and murder. You’d essentially be committing suicide by traveling to Medellin during the 1980s and years beyond.
If governments around the world warned their citizens to stay out of Colombia because of a decades-old guerilla and paramilitary war against the government, they practically banned visits to Medellin..
Today Medellin is a different place. It has undergone an amazing transformation, and it’s a very livable city. With a mass transportation system that is the envy of other cities, there are fantastic commercial centers offering great shopping, a thriving art scene, top-notch museums, parks, plazas and a bevy of activities and festivities that draw thousands of visitors annually.
Yet, the city has not completely been able to shed its unwanted and now unwarranted image as a dangerous place. So many of my friends have asked if it’s safe for visitors. I’ve received “be careful” warnings from them. Thanks to the days of the “Medellin Cartel”, when big drug boss Pablo Escobar was king of the hill, the city’s history is one of bloodshed. And years after his death, Escobar in some circles is considered a patron saint, Colombians say. But to the vast majority, good ol’ Pablo did more harm than good with his ill-gotten gains. Some say he flood the streets of Medellin with money and built things. But he also tore things down, namely the image of Colombia as a place to be avoided at all cost. Medellin is now crawling with visitors and Colombians couldn’t be more ecstatic. They show it by embracing visitors like family or longtime friends. They ask “where are you from?” and pray that you are having a good time.
But you must come to Medellin to see for yourself. Yes, the drug-trafficking hasn’t been completely erased – as long as there is demand there will be supply – but the violence and crime has dropped dramatically and industry increased. Some neighborhoods are still not safe, but doesn’t every major metropolitan area have a no-go zone?
I couldn’t wait to get to Medellin after I heard so much about it from other visitors and Colombians themselves. They talked up a storm about this city!
When two couch surfers from Slovakia I hosted in Miami – Martin and Lucia [love you guys! 🙂 ] – told me they were ready to end their trip around the world and stay put in Medellin, I was floored because they had seen some incredible cities around the world during their journey. What was it about Medellin that would have them relocate to Colombia? Others expressed similar feelings about Medellin and so I put the city high on my list of places to visit. And here I am,now part of the “we love Medellin” bandwagon.
About 45 minutes to an hour outside the city there are some fantastic towns, with much to offer, including colonial charm, great dining, and incredible landscape. I went with friends to just one such place where incredible desserts are the order of the day. I tried some local foods and despite the rainfall, loved walking around exploring.
I judge a city based on a number of factors, including weather, walkability, activities, friendliness, cleanliness, and general quality of life. Medellin gets high marks on all. For instance, it has a metro transportation system that is so clean you could eat off the floor. It’s spotless. And I’m told by Colombians that if someone dare try to spray graffiti or throw trash on the floor or in any way vandalize the train system they will meet the wrath of other riders. People in Medellin guard their metro system as if it’s their personal property.
And while Colombians are generally friendly, people in Medellin are even more so. Example? Every time I ask for directions of one person, everybody within earshot steps in to offer help and advice, in some cases walking with me whole way.
Last night I was on a bus heading from the center to the home of my hosts Chucho and Ana in Envigado. I asked the bus driver to let me know when I arrived at my stop because I was unfamiliar with the area. The woman seated in front of me said she would tell me. Another who got off the bus at the same stop not only pointed the way, but walked with me talking to me as if we were old friends. This has happened over and over again in Medellin, as locals reach out to make sure a visitor’s stay is safe and enjoyable. They tell you where you should go and where you should avoid. Unlike some places I’ve visited in the world (are you listening Paris?) not once has anyone frowned and walked away unwilling to help with directions.
It is now rainy season in Colombia, but generally the weather is fantastic in Medellin, not too hot, not too cold. That’s why it’s known as “the city of eternal spring”.
Gone are the kidnappings. The violence in the streets. There is police presence everywhere! You can’t take two steps without bumping into two cops. Or the military and security guards in many places. It is a safe city. Certainly safer than it once was. And I have been enjoying my time here from the moment I stepped off the bus from Cartagena, another great Colombian destination. And Colombians, I see now why you – and visitors – are mad about Medellin. I could live here. But alas, I must move on.
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