Medellín, city of eternal spring

‘The city of eternal spring’ (Ciudad de la eterna primavera) is how Medellín is known by Colombians because of its pleasant and more or less constant climate. Every day is a sunny day, and I can understand why increasing numbers of people are choosing to visit or even retire here. For me, however, it’s not the climate that makes this city – it’s the people. I have seldom experienced a city where almost everyone is so welcoming and friendly. It’s the kind of place where, when you ask someone for directions, there’s every chance they’ll simply take you with them. I love it here.

P1000068DSCF5498Medellín sits in a valley, surrounded by green hills and, further afield, the mountains. As a consequence, the city spreads up into the hills, but you can go for amazing hikes just 15 minutes outside of town.

DSCF5288DSCF6074For the first 4 weeks I was living with a host couple, Anyuela and Ruben (and their dog), in a house in a quiet residential street.

DSCF5201DSCF5597Since arriving in Medellín I’ve been back to school, in order to learn Spanish before setting off on the bike. This has been my daily walk; not a bad way to start the day.

Classes started the day after I landed, and not sure that my brain knew the time of day, let alone how to conjugate verbs. But congratulations to the school (Colombia Immersion) with their impressive and patient teachers.

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They have managed to get me to a stage where I’ll be able to survive once I leave the city (it’ll be rare to meet anyone who speaks English or German). My Spanish isn’t necessarily pretty, but it’s sufficient now, and of course I hope it’ll improve with time. Interestingly, the school is in the building where Pablo Escobar was killed. Whilst the school doesn’t make a big thing of it, there is a stream of tourists who pull up and take pictures.

DSCF5345Given everyone’s concern since I announced I was going to Colombia, I should address ‘the narcos thing’. In 1989 Medellín registered 4443 murders, with a population at the time of around 2.5 million. In 1990 and 1991 it was even higher, going over 6000/year. By way of comparison, last year’s (high) murder rate in London’s Metropolitan Police area with 7.2 million residents was 153. It’s understandable that Medellín has a fearsome reputation; bombings and killings were taking place on a daily basis and often pretty much randomly. That, however, was a long time ago. Escobar, the source of much (albeit not all) the crime, was killed in 1993. Since then the city has transformed itself and is an incredible place to live and to visit. It’s a big city with most of the problems that big cities have, but there’s clearly something very very good going on here. Each area (barrio) has a distinct feel, and each also has a church and town square where people congregate to meet or to take part in organized activities.

I was also lucky to attend another completely free event, an open air concert by Omara Portuondo, the 88 year-old Buena Vista Social Club singer. She was awesome. Even though the violence was long ago, I did wonder what the older members of the audience made of the fact that many of the younger people present wouldn’t remember the times when public spaces were unsafe, and you certainly wouldn’t have seen Westerners like me sitting happily in the crowd.

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As well as the great atmosphere and warm people, another thing that makes me appreciate the city is that they just LOVE cycling here. I’m in cycling heaven. There are events throughout the week when roads are closed and they’re trying to introduce bike paths where possible. On Sundays there are also cycle training instructors and bikes available for those – of all ages – who are unsure or can’t cycle.

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This short video is from one of the Wednesday night ‘Critical Mass’ rides in Medellín, where several hundred cyclists enjoy riding through the city together each week.

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My bike has already found instagram fame. This is my favourite café in my area, ‘Retriever Café’, run by the incredibly charming Juan, with his dog ‘Blondie’. Weirdly, in a

country that produces some of the world’s best coffee, a decent coffee is hard to find. Thankfully Retriever Café is the exception and I feel very at home here as I sit and do my homework (yep, I even get Spanish homework!).

Much of the transformation of Medellin was carefully planned, using unprecedented levels of community involvement, creating shared public spaces for leisure and sport and new transport infrastructure. This helped, and linked, communities. Here a link to a fascinating article about the transformation of the city.

These pictures are from Communa 13 and other previously problematic barrios. Communa 13 was an area where many of the worst excesses of violence took place in days gone by. Now it has become a magnet for tourists, with fabulous street art and, again, nothing but warmth from local people who are keen to demonstrate what Colombians are really all about.

As an example of the warmth, there’s this guy, whose picture I took after asking.

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IMG_1166As I do, I asked whether he had Whattsapp or email, so I could send him a copy. An exchange ensued on Whattsapp. The Spanish speakers among you will notice I made a bit of a howler when I tried to write that I loved the barrio (come on, it was my first week), but he understood and I got back the following response ‘Hello friend. Thank you, always at your service whenever you wish to return’. I’m not sure the average pitbull owner in the UK would respond that way, but who knows?!

 The Communa is one of those that climbs up into the hills, making getting home extremely hard work for residents. The transport policy in the regeneration introduced outdoor escalators (in other areas they’ve introduced gondolas), making it much easier to get up the steep inclines. Going down, however, can be much more fun if you choose it to be!

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After cycling, they’re also pretty mad about football here. Of course I took the line of least resistance and bought myself a Colombia shirt so that I would fit in and get to party like the locals. I passed this place on my way to school one morning when Colombia were playing. Of course it shows how much they were getting into things, but it’s also an interesting picture in respect of the skin colour of Colombians. Because of their history and the geography of the country, Colombians have come in all colours for many generations.

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There’ll be one or two more posts from Medellin, and in a few weeks I finally start cycling. Of course, with Medellin sitting in a valley it has the downside that, whichever way I go, I’m going up. Ho hum. The hard work will begin….

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Sending everyone my warmest wishes, wherever you are.

Stuart

22 thoughts on “Medellín, city of eternal spring

    1. Hi Paul, danke Dir! Reiseschriftsteller wäre mir doch etwas anstrengend, aber als Hobby macht es schon Spaß! Dir würde es hier glaube ich besonders gut gefallen….. Liebe Grüße nach RLP, Stuart

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  1. Hi Stuart. Wow looks like a very interesting city and that you are having quite an experience! Don’t get too cosy- the beast will not ride itself across South America! Mike

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    1. Hi Mike. I am indeed. Am wondering whether to take the beast to one of the very clever mechanics here to get a little motor built in – those hills are looking more and more ominous the closer my departure date gets! Best to everyone in Kingston, S

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    1. Thanks Mike, it is! Glad you like the last one – it’s the Pan de Azucar; a local vantage point over the city. Unfortunately my Spanish doesn’t exactly sound amazing yet, but very pleased to have got so far in a relatively short time. Look forward to the odd conversation in Español with you when I return to Europe. Hope all well in your world, Stuart

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  2. Hey Stuart, I watched narcos and its hard to believe the transformation you’ve seen – that’s such an uplifting perspective shift for me so thanks for writing a wonderful piece. Happy travels!

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    1. Hi Damon, indeed, the transformation is incredible. It’s probably also part of the reason why foreigners get such an especially warm welcome here, given that for years no-one came. Get yourself over here before the mass tourism starts! As a fellow cyclist, look forward to sharing future stories with you once the adventure starts – let’s see how that Rohloff holds up…. 😉 Warmest, Stuart

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  3. Great blog Stuart!!! Brilliant photography too. The photos really capture your stories., they make me want to join you!! Hope the bike is holding up well!!

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    1. Cheers Simon, really glad you’re enjoying. You know you’d be welcome to come and join, but wonder whether Mrs C might have something to say about it? Maybe a tandem then? Hope all good your end too, S

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  4. Stuart, looks and sounds great, I think it is a place that has suffered in the past and now is it’s time to shine. A good place to be I think. Immersion is the only way to truly learn a language and you should be at an advantage as already bi lingual. So I leave you with this quote from the Spanish poet Antonio Manchado- “ caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar” you can replace walk with cycle. Strangely I was just reading a book with this quote in it. The book is about “daring greatly” enjoy the experiences and relish the moment. Take care x

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    1. Cheers Ronnie, and good to hear from you. Yes, it’s certainly shining here. That’s a great quote, I shall keep it in mind when the going gets tough – as it will. Hope all good with you two too, and that your future plans are crystallising nicely. Best, Stuart

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  5. ¡Hola Stuart!
    This is Luz from your school, Colombia Immersion ¿Cómo estás?
    I just read this and I wanted to congratulate you for this excellent article about Medellin and your experience at the school. We loved it all! Your words, your great descriptions, and the lovely pictures of the city are amazing.
    Thank you for sharing your experience. Always remember that in Colombia Immersion you will always have a family in Medellin. Hope we can see you again someday, maybe on your way back from your cycling adventure 😉
    Un abrazo

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    1. Hola Luz, super bien, gracias! Gracias por los palabras amables. Mi tiempo en la escuela fue excelente – fue una buena decision de estudiar con ustedes! Yo voy volver a Medellín, sin duda. Un abrazo y un besito a cambio, x

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    1. Hi Deb glad you’re enjoying – I’ll try to keep it that way! It’s pretty awesome here, and I’ll be sorry to leave Medellin. But onwards and – quite literally – upwards! Lots of love, Stuart x

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  6. Hi Stuart,
    there are some things in life you just have to do and if it was on his wish list…..but…eventually it would be my turn… keep safe xx

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