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?
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!