I have a lot to say about Medellin. Spending a few weeks in Colombia’s phoenix, formerly regarded as the world’s most dangerous city, I have, like many recent visitors, developed a strong sense of affection for Medellin and its people.
The city occupies a long, thin valley formed by two Andean mountain ridges. The valley’s steep sides ensure that everyone in Medellin has some kind of a view – up, down, or across. The city is not architecturally beautiful: imposing municipal buildings sit alongside soulless residential towers, with poorer residents occupying the higher slopes. However, while Medellin has no truly memorable landmarks, when viewed from a high vantage point on a sunny day the cityscape as a whole is iconic.
International visitors to Medellin are immediately greeted with this view as its major airport sits at a higher altitude to the south of the city. The drive down into Medellin is breathtaking, both as a result of the panoramic vista and the taxi drivers’ ridiculously aggressive downhill overtaking manoeuvres.
The positive atmosphere in Medellin and the openness and hospitality of the ‘Paisas’ (Colombians of the Antioquia region) towards foreign visitors are immediately palpable.
Our first night started in an authentic salsa club – I say ‘authentic’ based on the fact that we were the only foreigners – but it seemed legit. Arriving late we were offered the only remaining table upstairs, away from the action. A couple of old guys saw this and demanded that we join their table in prime location next to the dancefloor. After plying us with aguardiente (“fiery water”) they introduced an equally steady flow of dance partners who were extremely patient and accommodating of our 6 left feet.
It was a great taste of what was to come. In a city which has only recently gone from global murder capital to the jewel in Colombia’s crown its people clearly love having fun and are proud of what they have collectively achieved, showing it off like proud parents.
Our New Colombian Familia
We met our Colombian-parents-in-waiting the following day, travelling to Itagui in the south of the city, where the hospitality levels went through the roof. Our affiliation with them was very loose – Walter and Patrick knew a Colombian guy back in New York who suggested we meet his parents in Medellin. Sure. Next thing we knew they had found us accommodation, sent a driver to collect us from the airport and invited us to what we thought was a light lunch on New Year’s Eve.
From the moment we arrived in Itagui we were treated like long lost family members; within half an hour I had been offered the spare room for the duration of my stay in Medellin. After a delicious (and very typical) lunch of chicken soup and tree-tomato juice we were led outside by our new tour guides, walking down the hill to view Pablo Escobar’s grave (more on that in a separate post) before going on a magical mystery tour, riding Medellin’s immaculate subway and taking a round trip in a cable car over some of its hillside neighbourhoods.
As dusk approached we suppressed a few yawns and started to regret a big night out on the 30th. Worried that we were peaking too soon for New Year’s Eve we suggested to our new Colombian dad, Gildardo, that we go for a couple of sharpeners while Eugenia (our new Colombian mum) went back home to pray.
We should have said our prayers as we proceeded to get hammered on aguardiente. Over the course of a three-legged bar crawl (there were three bars – we didn’t tie our legs together) we polished off an unknown quantity of the good stuff – every time we thought we were going home Colombian Papa ordered another ‘media’ (half bottle) despite being absolutely shitfaced. The more we drank, the more likely we were to be found dancing with any Colombian women that came near us (mostly in the 50+ category).
By the time we returned to Itagui our yawns had subsided; concerns about peaking too soon had been drowned in aguardiente and we were fully committed to seeing in the New Year with our new fam. We were led around like royal visitors and introduced to more family, friends and neighbours, always with a shot of tapa azul (“blue top”) to ease things along.
We weren’t quite sure how we’d got there but we went with the flow that night and loved it. Colombians regard New Year as a time to be spent with family and we couldn’t have experienced a more typically Paisan family New Year, including the obligatory handheld firework launch, which went surprisingly well for me.
I have never been made to feel so welcome by people I have just met, and went back to visit my Colombian parents again a few days later, this time taking my real English dad. It’s not often you get to spend one-on-one father-son time and this was the start of a brilliant two and a half weeks together.
As well as “mi casa su casa” it felt like “mi familia su familia” – they welcomed Jonesy senior as another member of the family before randomly taking us on a 40 minute drive to a roadside chorizo potato ball specialist.
While our incredible welcome from this family was just one example it seems to be representative of Medellin and Paisas in general. The generosity and goodwill I have experienced in Medellin is unrivaled anywhere else.
From indescribable hostility 25 years ago to overwhelming hospitality today, the city has undergone a personality transplant. While the Paisa people are known throughout Colombia for their hospitality I can’t help thinking that Medellin’s current character is at least in part a backlash against its troubled past.
When we tentatively asked Eugenia about her memories of the bombs and murders during Pablo’s reign her face dropped and eyes glazed over as she said “Lo vivÍ” (“I lived it”). After the darkness of the Escobar days Medellin now has light, and its people are delighted to share it with the world.
Next Stop: Medellin Part II – Pablo Escobar
What is The Gump Method
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