‘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.
Medellín 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.
For 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.
Since 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.
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.
Given 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.
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.
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.
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.
As 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!
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.
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….
Sending everyone my warmest wishes, wherever you are.