Medellin is the second biggest city in Colombia, right after Bogota, and is known for violence. All I saw, however, were beautiful mountains, loving families, amazing murals done by talented young people, and dozens of delicious fruits in crazy shapes. All kinds of meat dishes and fresh juices and fragrant fried treats. Mind you, there are guys carrying guns. Big ones. But they are military and they are keeping the city safe. Every person I talked to was glad that the army was visibly securing the city. Not going to lie, though, seeing guys with machine guns was a little alarming.
My flight from Cartagena was $25USD and as bumpy as it was cheap, but the mountains made for a great view during landing. The bus to the city stopped much earlier than expected, super far away from my train stop, so I had to take a taxi to my Airbnb. Mind you, the first thing I read about Medellin is do NOT take the taxis. 🙄😂🙄😂 So, with the help of google translate, I asked the young woman who’d been sitting next to me on the bus if she could help me find a safe taxi. After many subtle “No, not that taxi” comments, we finally found one with a meter who was as professional as he was swift in getting me home. A funny guy who told me all about his family and his favorite things to eat. I shared some mamoncillos with him and his little face just LIT up. He was my hero for that day, getting me (and my laptop) home in one piece. The ride was 45 mins and a total of $6.80USD.
My Airbnb was suuuuper nice and with this adorable young couple named Luis and Dur. They greeted me with smiles and hugs and made me feel right at home. They were also as beautiful as their English was perfect. And, the view from their 9th floor apartment was no joke 😻🇨🇴❤️ I was starving, so I ventured out to the cute restaurant close by and had the giant dish typical of this region: Bandeja Paisa.
Fried pork belly, chorizo sausage, blood sausage, avocado, rice, a fried egg, a fried plantain, a white arepa and a salty, greasy, deliciously cooked steak. I’m not usually a big meat eater, but I ate every single bite. Everything on this plate was scrumptious and I will have dreams about this dinner forever. On the way home, I popped by a supermarket and found tomatoes the size of tiny blueberries. Some as small as a pin head!
For my first full day in Medellin, I made a day trip to the small town of Guatapé. My hosts told me to head to the big bus station at 7am, but I was absolutely exhausted, so I ended up getting at about 10am. The bus station was a huge building with many different companies. There was no official desk, so I had to ask at some of the windows which area had tickets for Guatapé. My tickets were $6 each way and the ride was 2 hours. It was like the Burano, Italy of Colombia and something out of a story book. (See my post on Guatapé for more info.) On the way home, I was so touched to see the sweet couples and families on the trains, quietly whispering to each other and giggling about current events and inside jokes.
The next day, it was time for my coffee tour! I’d signed up through Airbnb and the translator, Jason (“Jheison”) met me at one of the transit stops. There were beautiful murals on every walls and nice people laughing and walking along the streets. There were family shops, fruit stands and little men protectively clutching their tiny pooches.
Jheison was about 18 years old, and working so hard on his English. He’s from Medellin and very familiar with the different areas and what used to be dangerous and which parts are still a bit dodgy. He explained that this very street that the tram was on, this used to be the dividing line between territories, and that anyone walking along here three years ago would almost certainly have been shot. Thankfully, times have changed, but three years ago is not a very long time. People are not scared anymore, but you could tell that the city has done their best to encourage families to come out and go shopping, eat dinner out or play ball in the park.
We went up to the lower entrance of the cable car, where we climbed into the seats and took the most magnificent ride above the trees and small, windy streets, seeing from mountain to mountain and everything in between. What a view!
At the top of the world, so it seemed, we could see for miles. When the cable car was built, it was literally a lifesaver. It helped people get home in one piece. Three years ago, the top of the mountains and surrounding farmland was more dangerous than being on the front lines. Everyone had a gun and was either terrified or out for blood, so walking home was described to me as a time where “the children would count the dead bodies to pass the time.”
My young, young guide told me that he was walking around as a young teenager and saw a group of people playing soccer – with a member of the rival gang’s head. Bloody and ripe. This didn’t seem to phase him at the time, as this was something that was quite common to see. I hope he was exaggerating, but I don’t think he was.
The city offered rewards for bodies of the “bad guys.” If someone happened to get shot in the mountains and it turned out that they weren’t part of the cartel after all, the government would dress him up like a cartel member and take pictures of the body to show the people in the city that they were “helping to save Colombia,” when all they were doing was murdering their own people. They would be rewarded for their “service” and for “helping to save the people.”
I was surprised that, even though people publicized that their loved ones had been murdered by the government, this wasn’t enough to squash these tragedies, but it sadly continued. The government is currently paying out millions upon millions of pesos in reparations to the family members effected by these senseless murders.
We finally got to the coffee farm. We picked coffee beans, saw how they were processed, ate the best meal I’ve ever had and tried the coffee AND the tea made from the coffee beans. What an adventure! (See my post on the coffee farm for more details!)
We walked back to the main train station and passed by incredible murals, painted potted plants, talented street performers and dozens and dozens of fruit vendors, yelling in Spanish: “Big mangoes! Big mangoes! Big, round mangoes!” to try and promote their products 😂😂😂
The next morning, I went on a Free Walking Tour! My tour guide was a Medellin native and gave us an in-depth history of the violence in Medellin. She told us that bloodshed and murder was part of daily life as she was growing up (she couldn’t have been more than 30), and how she used to count the dead bodies on her walk home from school. When she finally got home, she could never, ever go into the balcony. At a certain point in the evenings, all she could hear were gunshots. She showed us the giant main square with large pillars for lights, creating a glistening spectacle when the sun goes down. She explained that, although this is no longer the gun-central that it used to be and that it’s now bulging with tourists, the plaza empties after 8pm and is only visited by druggies and ladies of the evening after that. I was glad to hear that, as I was sad that I was staying so far from the center of town. We had some lemonade for $0.30 from a street vendor and it was delicious. Mainly sugar, but delicious.😂😂
We went into a mall and I was so surprised how…American (like US American) it was haha. Multiple floors and dozens of stores and the whole place smelled like chicken stew and air freshener. I wouldn’t call it pleasant, but it wasn’t revolting, either.
There was a cute little restaurant that had a sign that said, if we order “a tinto,” the price is $2,500 pesos ($0.80). If we order “a tinto, please,” they drop the price to $2,000 pesos. If you say, “Good day, a tinto, please,” the price changes to $1,600. Turns out that it really does pay to be polite 😂💰😂
These Botero statues were all over the big tourist street, next to the Antioquia Museum and the beautiful cultural center. The cultural center was supposed to have this attractive pattern all the way around the building, but as our tour guide put it, “The painters decided to take a break and, just like everything unfinished in Colombian, they’ll get back to it ASAP…in a of couple years.”
We had some delicious, salty, amazing, flavorful, scrumptious, filling, lip-smackin’-good empanadas and I will no longer be satisfied with anything else I eat for the rest of my life. There was also a cheese empanada that was made with sweet bread, almost like a croissant with an unexpected flavor, but still delicious. There were people selling fruit and clothes and stacks of sunglasses (on wracks that were upside down, no less 😂).
We finished the Free Walking Tour Medellin with a story about how someone put a bomb in one of the statues a few years ago and, instead of removing the statue, the artist contacted the mayor and said: “Please do not remove my statue. Even if it is destroyed, once we remove it, we risk losing the memory of what happened here today and how many people died. I will make another statue, identical to the first, to commemorate this tragic event.”
After the tour, I took the train to my Airbnb experience in Comuna 13, the street art district. Side note: Medellin has the best transit system in Colombia, making it feel almost European with how easy it was to use. Our guide explained that, even during the violence, people still had a tremendous amount of respect for the metro, making it one of the few things in Medellin unaffected by the gangs and instability.
Comuna 13 is the part of Medellin that used to be the most dangerous district, in the most dangerous city, into the world. The heart of the violence where people died every day. Now, most of that violence is in the past, but it is a continuous work in progress for the people that live here.
My guide, Rafa, was a well-known rapper in the area, explained that, as the violence was coming to a hilt, mothers pushed their children to become popular artists, because the gangs left artists alone. Street artists were (and still are) highly respected, and getting into the art scene was one of the only ways that mothers could prevent their children, especially their boys, from disappearing or even being shot dead in the street.
The people in Comuna 13 have gotten salty and sweet popsicles out of plastic cups for as long as they can remember, making it one of the few safe places throughout all of the violence. The girl pictured on the shop’s wall became the face of Comuna 13, and therefore, the face of hope for a peaceful future for this vibrant community.
Now, incomparably safer and much more beautiful, I saw lots of young men in Comuna 13, mostly makeshift patrolling, if you will. There were lots of families, and lots of children, but this community is super close knit (they had to be), so it almost felt like I was walking into a tribe. A welcoming, joyful, creative, artistic tribe with delicious food, but still something much different than I found even 20 minutes down the hill in the city center of Medellin. It was almost like a separate city in itself.
Comuna 13 was one of the best parts of my trip. It was something I did not, nor could not (and mostly still cannot) understand, in terms of their history and the violence and the bonds that they must have with each other, and I feel so honored that I got to meet these young (and old haha) guys and gals and be a part of their welcoming community – even just for a few hours. I wouldn’t move here, but Comuna 13 holds a special and irreplaceable part of my heart. It’s entirely unlike anything I saw in Medellin and I’m so glad that I was able to witness this community growing and spreading joy. (I also made a separate post for Comuna 13.)
The next day, I had an Exotic Fruits Tour! We tasted 16 different types of fruits – none of which I’d never seen before. They were delicious. The tree tomato is a sweet, sour version of a tomato that grows on a big tree. I found it strange, but most tourists liked it. Our guide, German (“Herman”) told us that most Colombians hate the tree tomato, because they were often fed this fruit by their parents for every meal due to its affordable price and accessibility.
I met another solo traveler from Portland on my tour. He said his parents were just as worried when he made plans to go to Colombia, and later, just as surprised to see how safe it now is. While bonding over anxious parents, we ate fresh cheese on a delicious golden arepa. It was sweet and made by a grandmother covered in corn husks. There were stacks of plantains, and fruit that tasted like sweet potatoes hanging from clusters of leaves of other fruits. The avocados were the size of my head, and German told us that the avocados that we know in the States, the Haas avocados, are considered small and piddly in Colombia. Here, normal avocados are the shape of giant testicles, which consistently amuses locals and visitors, alike.
We saw large, sweaty men shucking corn and working SO hard, and we were told that they were paid about $10 USD per 12-hour shift. 😭😭😭 The cost of living is lower, of course, but this just made me sad. They were covered in dirt and exhausted.
The lulo fruits are a favorite in Colombia. Lulos looked like an oranges on the outside, tasted like sour kiwis on the inside, and were technically a part of the tomato family. We tried another “fruit” that smelled like feet and looked like tamarind (not a durian). We were all very resistant to trying it, especially considering that we had to literally crack it open with a hammer, but we tasted its chalky texture. It melted in our mouths, kind of like cotton candy. It was even a bit sweet. It wasn’t unpleasant at all. Almost enjoyable. Surprisingly, I would eat it again.
There were soaps that had different pictures on the covers: piles of money or men professing their love. They were supposed to – when used twice a day -bring money to your household, or make straying men “behave.”
There were just piles and piles of delicious looking fruit. The yellow dragon fruit shouldn’t be eaten by tourists more than three times a week in order to avoid spending all day in…el baño. Good thing that the luscious pink guavas help to make things a bit more *expected.*
The small, maroon fruits with the lychee-looking slices in the middle are the most expensive of all fruits here, as they are super sought after and considerably difficult to harvest. We saw dozens of different types of mangoes (311 kinds in Colombia in total), and multiple varieties of fruits that I thought only existed in one form.
There are two popular types of passion fruit here. The small, purple one is the one we know in the States. But in Colombia, the Yellow Passion Fruit is in high demand- and freaking delicious. Super sour and mouth watering. I liked it sour and straight out of the yellow rind, but most people prefer them in a sugary juice. About $0.50 each. They don’t really go bad, because, when they get older, the nutrients stay with the seeds, which are the parts that you eat. German instructed us not to chew any of these big seeds, either because they are too hard and will break your teeth, or simply because “they are annoying and make the fruit not as nice to eat.” Haha
Then there were these fruits that looked like mini mangoes. Turns out they were yet another type of (sour, bathroom-encouraging) passion fruit! 😂
German explained that this fruit market used to be one of the most dangerous places in the city, infiltrated by guns and gangs. They have since installed security cameras, hired armed guards and put an entire police station on the top floor. Now, this diverse fruit market is one of the best kept secrets of Medellin. Hundreds of sellers, thousands of fruits and oodles of delicious smelling sweets made up this magical place.
Next, I headed to the main shopping street, passing by covered empanada stands, ladies of the…afternoon?…and parents with whiny children, just trying to get through the hustle and bustle of the day. I popped into the Medellin Antioquia Museum, which had dozens of beautiful Botero paintings, as well as hilariously “disproportionate“ statues outside. I really enjoyed these odd creations and their hilarious quirks.
Then, on my way to my Airbnb cooking class. We’ll call my host “Dez.” She was a 30-something, no-nonsense, straightforward gal from a city nearby, who gave market tours during the day and made dinners with guests at her home in the evenings. She was incredibly busy, but also short with me and, in general, off-putting (I later found out why).
When we first met, I thought she was rushed and unfriendly, but I couldn’t understand her sassy attitude. It wasn’t a language barrier thing, as her English was excellent. Maybe she was tired of hosting and giving tours and classes? No, she said she loved them. In between various passive aggressive responses to my infrequent questions and small-but-brief details about Medellin, she showed me the fun things at the market and told me that we were going to make some beef in the pressure cooker with fried plantains. Sounded good to me! She didn’t ask me anything at all, not even where I was from, but I guess getting to know the guests isn’t in the job description. However, I thought we would at least try to find something in common, as we were about to spend almost 4 hours together, just me and her.
I saw a couple cutting up the yellow passion fruits and asked if I could take a picture. They said that I was welcome to take pictures of the food, but NOT of the people. I asked why. Dez said that the people in this market are extremely superstitious. They believe that if someone has pictures of them, the photographer has control over them, their future and their fate. They don’t take pictures during holidays, weddings or communions. They even fought with the government about taking pictures for their passports and other official IDs, but they had no other choice.
Throughout this tiny market, we saw so many adorable little kids. They followed us all around. I wanted to try all the veggies, as I’d already taken a fruit tour, but grouchy Dez decided that we would be trying fruits, which fruits we would be trying (no vegetables) and that was the end of it 😂😂 On the way back to her house, we saw a cactus the height of a two-story house.
She had the cutest little doggie I’ve ever seen, who was snorty and slow and lovable. Super muscly, like a sumo wrestler…but female…and a pup. 😂😂
We made smashed plantains with a tomato/green onion spicy salsa and delicious guava juice. Other than pouring an entire container of sugar in it, it was highly enjoyable. I was getting so full from this yummy meal. While I was trying to bond with her over legit anything, she awkwardly watched me eat from across the table.
No plate, no food for her, and we had plenty of leftovers that were clearly not for me to take home.
“Aren’t you hungry??!” I asked.
“I’m on an emergency diet due to medical reasons, and therefore, I can’t eat anything other than protein bars.”
😭😱😭😱 Poor thing, she was just hungry! I wouldn’t hang out with her again, but at least I understood where she was coming from. I felt bad for her.
That night, I had a warm conversation with my favorite hosts. Dur and Luis were so personable and kind, travelers themselves and shared that, during the intense violence, everyone was stuck in the city because the hills were intensely dangerous. They just tried to move on with their lives, going to school, going on dates and cherishing their family. They didn’t know if/when the violence would end, so they had to just keep on living.
The next morning, with hugs and promises of a next time, we parted ways as I took off for the airport. The airport was full of stereotypical statues with MEDELLIN plastered everywhere, but I was so sad to leave this lovely city.
Everyone should go to Medellin at least once to see the beautiful views, eat the delicious fruits and meet the kind and loving people that give this city strength, beauty and a blossoming future.
When are youuuu heading to Medellin? ❤️