Complicated Medellín

Complicated Medellín

It’s complicated. If Medellín could be described like a Facebook relationship status, that’s the option I’d choose.

Before going to Medellín, two words came to mind when I thought of the city: drugs and violence. And it’s not without good cause. You see, at one time, Medellín was known as the most violent city in the world given the urban wars sparked there by the notorious Pablo Escobar and his ruthless drug cartel. While growing up in Panama City in the ‘80s, Medellín and Colombia in general, were unthinkable tourist destinations. My parents witnessed the effects of the Colombian drug trade trickling across our border to the point that drugs became such a problem in the Panamanian public school system that when my older brother graduated from the middle school on our base, my parents sent him back to Los Angeles a year ahead of our departure so he could live with my grandparents and enroll at a private, drug-free junior high school.

When I initially approached my parents about the idea of visiting Colombia while planning our recent trip, they were game. But when my mom came across an article advising that Medellín is still one of the world’s most dangerous cities, just like that, she and my dad cancelled their plans to join us.

Instead of succumbing to my mom’s fears, we decided to stick to our guns and give Medellín (and the rest of Colombia) a shot.  After all, the country and some of its most popular cities like Medellín have long been at the top of my travel wishlist…forbidden fruit, I suppose. Plus, could a place that’s nicknamed the “City of Everlasting Spring” still be that dangerous?

First views of Medellín
First views of Medellín

En route to our hotel in El Poblado upon our arrival to the city, we chitchatted with our driver about things to do, we shared our surprise amongst ourselves about the fact that the heart of the city essentially sits in a valley surrounded by steep hillsides, and we asked our driver about the years he spent living in Connecticut. But after our small talk, we got down to the nitty gritty and asked what every traveler to Medellín wants to know: is the city really safe?

medellín-colombia

While our driver assured us that we didn’t have a reason to be concerned for our safety, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hyper alert whenever we stepped outside of our hotel. Worst case scenarios played on repeat in my head, and I made up my mind in advance that if anyone tried to hurt me, Jave, or my brother, I was going to go completely ballistic to keep us safe. Thinking back, it’s impossible for me to predict how I would’ve reacted if my back was against the wall, but fortunately, I never got the opportunity to find out.

For the most part, Medllín seemed safe, but at the same time, I didn’t get the impression that it’s the kind of city where you can let your guard down. Like most big cities, Medellín has its fair share of bad pockets where you’d quickly find yourself out of your element if you get off at the wrong metro stop or wander into the wrong neighborhood.

medellín-colombia
A seedy alley next to a church where you can buy all sorts of kinky porn…if that’s your thing

Medellín isn’t the kind of city where I’d comfortably wander around without a local, especially considering that I’m not fluent in Spanish. Knowing that we’d stick out like sore thumbs, I scheduled us for a guided walking tour, and having a local’s expertise was much appreciated, especially when he at times warned us to be on high alert while venturing to certain parts of the city. It was also great having a local guide who could so intelligently and passionately explain the stigma of Medellín without ignoring the reality that the city is still very much riddled with a drug problem.

Bolívar Park
Bolívar Park

We witnessed the problem unfold firsthand as we watched in awe as several addicts in Bolívar Park snorted cocaine and sniffed glue from paper bags in broad daylight; kids played nearby and the police turned a blind eye.

In 1995, a bomb was set off in this plaza by drug cartels, killing 30 and injuring 200 who were attending a concert. Botero's sculpture, "The Bird" was also destroyed during the explosion, so he created a replacement which sits next to the ruined one to serve as a reminder of the city's turbulent past and its hopeful future, side-by-side.
In 1995, a bomb was set off in this plaza by drug cartels, killing 30 and injuring 200 who were attending a concert. Botero’s sculpture, “The Bird” was also destroyed during the explosion, so he created a replacement which sits next to the ruined one to serve as a reminder of the city’s turbulent past and its hopeful future, side-by-side.
Protesters sit in mock graves to commemorate Operation Orion
Protesters sit in mock graves to commemorate Operation Orion, a 2002 military operation against paramilitary groups that killed at least 650 and left at least 92 missing.

medellín-colombia

medellín-colombia

Reminders of Medelliín’s turbulent past – whether in the form of a memorial or a current event – are ubiquitous throughout the city and sobering to say the least.

Plaza Cisneros
Plaza Cisneros

Nevertheless, proud Paisas seem to be making strides to change how their city is perceived, especially in light of the fact that following the implementation of several infrastructure and security measures by President Manuel Santos, tourism to the country as a whole and to Medellín in particular, has boomed in the past several years, creating a much needed boost for the economy.

Sculpture in Botero Plaza
Sculpture in Botero Plaza

 

Botero Plaza
Botero Plaza

 

Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture
Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture
The Carre Building was the tallest building in the city when it was built in 1895 by French architect Emile Charles Carre. At the height of Medellín's drug wars, the building fell into disrepair and was a crack house. It has since been restored.
The Carre Building was the tallest building in the city when it was built in 1895 by French architect Emile Charles Carre. At the height of Medellín’s drug wars, the building fell into disrepair and was a crack house. It has since been restored and is home to the Secretary of Education.
One of the city's immaculate metro stations
One of the city’s immaculate metro stations
Medellín's brand new tram
Medellín’s brand new tram

And these improvements are equally pervasive as evidenced by the city’s art and cultural scene, and even by something as seemingly simple as the pride locals take in ensuring that their metro stays clean and graffiti-free; after all, it’s the only metro system in all of Colombia.

So, is Medellín safe? Well, in light of everything, there’s no simple answer to that question.

But is Medellín worth experiencing for yourself? Absolutely!

PINNABLE

medellin-colombia

Have you been to Medellín? Is it on your travel wish list? Sound off in the comments below.

  • Sarah

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m really tempted to visit Colombia but my Spanish is so poor to say the least.

    • Hi Sarah! I’m by no means fluent in Spanish, so don’t be intimidated by the fact that your Spanish skills aren’t that strong. You’ll be fine knowing the basics. I’d highly recommend a visit to Colombia. Thanks for reading!

  • Frank Thomae

    I was nervous about going to Colombia the first time I went, that was back in 2006. I spent a month visiting Cartagena, Santa Marta, the Zona Cafetera, Bogota, and Cali. I never felt in danger but I was extra careful not to walk around at night in Cali and Bogota (the 2 cities that felt a little iffy). But I never felt unsafe anywhere else, in fact there were so many soldiers around that it felt quite safe throughout.
    The following year I went back with Spanky and again, no safety issues at all.
    I think people have perceptions that they have a hard time shaking. Or maybe they can’t be bothered doing research. But things change. Yet people have no problems going to a place like Barcelona where their chances of getting pickpocketed are much higher.
    Glad you enjoyed Medellin, its on my list for the next time I go back to Colombia.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • I agree – I felt completely safe in Santa Marta and Cartagena (even walking around at night). Cartagena brings in a lot of tourist dollars, so I think security is on high alert there. We saw quite a few police within the old city. And you’re right that the stigma of Colombia at the height of its drug days is going to take awhile to shake. I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to return to Medellin. As for Bogota, I have zero interest in returning. 🙂

  • Medellin is definitely one of those places that I have ever thought of visiting. All the stories I have heard about it have certainly not endeared it to me. Your post has made me think twice though, maybe one day I might just find myself there.

    • Definitely consider giving Medellin a shot if you get the chance to visit. I think you’d be surprised at how “approachable” the city is.

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