To get from Santa Marta to Medellin we opted for a 17 hour night-bus as an alternative to the 75 minute flight, for a massive saving of… 1 nights accommodation. Despite the Antarctica themed air-con the journey wasn’t anywhere near as tortuous as it could have been. As expected, Aisling utilised her Ph.D. in Sleeping to be awake for the entire first 6 minutes of the journey and for a quick crisp intake. I awoke in a RyanairflightafterElectricPicnic-esque panic any time I tried to sleep thanks to the drivers unsurprising penchant to take sharp turns 5000ft up a mountain without braking. The very same Formula 1 style driving also resulted in me gracefully falling out of the locked toilet whilst trying and failing to do my belt. The clattering noise did awake various passengers but obviously it’s common practice on such trips as they all seemed not the least bit perplexed. The scenery during daylight hours was absolutely unreal so as tough a choice as bussing it over a similar priced flight was, I’d do it again. We did see an overturned lorry high up the mountains which was a sobering thought amongst the cloud hugging scenery, as was the subsequent 4 mile bumper to bumper traffic that ensued as a result.
We booked into the Black Sheep Hostel, El Poblado, and being the intrepid backpackers that we are we headed straight off for the free city walking tour, under the ominous instruction to meet our red T-shirt/white hat clad guide at a metro station. Thankfully this turned out to be fairly straightforward and the tour itself was highly insightful with a neutral commentary on events from the city’s troubled history. The tour also allowed us to walk freely in areas we would have perhaps otherwise felt unsafe, such as Parque Bolivar, climaxing outside the front of Catedral Metropolitana in the Down-town area, the rear of which was a meeting point for men of a certain discretion looking to achieve a different type of climax.
The next day we went on the Hostel organised trip to Guatape, ran by Van por Colombia. We weren’t entirely sure what the trip entailed other than walking to the top of a very large rock, and it turned out to be one of our favourite trips to date. The theme of the day was set when we temporarily picked up a young Colombian guy en route who proceeded to busk to a remarkably high standard considering his uncomfortable seating position; sitting on the dashboard facing his audience. We then headed to a remote community and had breakfast with what we assumed was a friend or relative of the tour organiser, Rafa. Having freshly cooked native foods for breakfast, sitting in the garden of a local house was a great added touch that left us impressed before we were even close to the trips major attraction.
Next on the itinerary was a bridge jump of unspecified height. As previously established when bottling a baby jump in Minca, heights are not my forte but I was intent on avoiding a repeat embarrassment…. After spending the remainder of the journey enduring cold sweats and a rapid heart rate, our fears weren’t particularly alleviated upon arrival. The bridge was definitely high. At least 5x the size of the one we had both previously given a wide berth.
To make matters worse the two trip organisers both avoided the jump saying they had done it before. I was hoping the whole group would bottle it so that my fairyness could be masked but unfortunately there was a Kiwi couple on the trip, and if we learned anything about Australians & Kiwis whilst living in Australia, it’s that they love jumping out of/off things. The lad stepped up relatively fearlessly and plummeted miles (10m) to the water below. Seeing his successful survival, I had no choice, lest I shame my Queen, country and gender. I fell through the air with the grace of a wounded rhino and urged the water to hurry up and meet me halfway. Finally it succumbed and I had survived with my limbs and, more importantly, my ego intact. I opted to then jump a few more times even though I wasn’t entirely sure I enjoyed any aspect of it. Aisling also proved her bravery and after much nervous deliberation with the female of the Kiwis, they both conquered their own fears and lived to tell the tale.
The remainder of the day was filled with a challenging climb up La Piedra Del Peñol, the views of which are highly unique and the views from which are absolutely phenomenal. Check out the picture below to confirm this as opposed to me researching synonyms of ‘nice’ to describe it. The guys again cooked us a range of fresh and tasty food all knocked together using whatever portable implements and ingredients they could fit in the small van. On the return journey to Medellin, we were able to gather a little background on the topic of our following days trip, the infamous Pablo Escobar, through the hard-hitting documentary The Two Escobars. I was slightly elated to see Tino Asprilla featuring prominently throughout. (For anyone with an interest in Medellin, and Colombia generally during the height of the drug cartels, I would recommend this as an insightful introduction.) We arrived back at the hostel thoroughly happy with the content and delivery of the tour, with the organisers of the tour, Rafa & his mate, bearing a certain resemblance to Che Guevara & Alberto Granada of Motorcycle Diaries with their highly infectious and affable personalities.
Pablo Escobar Tour
The following day we embarked upon the much famed Paisa Road, Pablo Escobar tour. The van that picked us up was similar to the one from the Guatape trip but unfortunately the similarities ended there for us. Although the organiser of the trip was knowledgeable about Escobar and Medellin at that time, having lived through the drug wars, her clear disdain for Escobar and anyone with any link to the drugs trade made the tour somewhat overbearing. The information she relayed was probably highly factual, and definitely passionate, but it was such a dark and negative delivery that it was hard not to feel drained by large aspects of the tour.
My increasing dislike for all things ‘dark tourism’ as the tour went on was then compounded by an American guy, who seemed the type who would chant ‘U.S.A. U.S.A’ at a children’s swimming gala. As the trip culminated with a visit to Escobars grave, he visibly stood on the grave as if to make a statement in front of the wide range of cultures both on the tour and in the public graveyard. As if that wasn’t irritating enough upon return to the van he professed to all that ‘not only did I stand and spit on his grave, I whistled on it too’ (not sure about the significance of the whistling). We both struggled to comprehend the unfathomable stupidity and sheer ignorance of not only his actions but then his boasting. In the confined setting of the packed van I had neither the energy or the inclination to politely point out the many flaws in his attitude, (he probably would have chinned me anyway) so instead spent my time stewing about what I should have said/done.
We decided to stay a few days longer than we had planned as we were really impressed by Medellin and also to be in a busy place for my upcoming birthday. After celebrating with a few drinks in the Black Sheep we then headed with the hostel crowd to Parque Lleras, which is a great spot in the centre of the Zona Rosa in which you can buy alcohol at a shop and consume in the bustling park. The novelty alone of drinking legally in a park in a city centre was enough to satisfy our needs for the night. The atmosphere in Parque Lleras is very lively as it is central to a lot of bars and clubs, and it also feels surprisingly safe. We headed to MedellinTechno so that I could see in my 26th birthday embracing my favourite genre of music…. Heavy Colombian Techno.
On our final day in Medellin we again took advantage of the great trips offered by the Black Sheep and headed to an Independiente Medellin football game. The same driver from the Escobar tour picked us up and we headed to a ‘bar’ near the stadium a couple of hours before kick off. The bar was again a shop selling beer for legal consumption in the streets. The atmosphere was lively even at this stage and the sight of RoboCop style police made us wonder if we were going to be witness to some South American football hooliganism.
Minus a few hairy moments on the walk to the ground it didn’t get too rowdy, for which we were grateful being that we stood out like a sore thumb. Once inside the ground the stadium was exactly as expected, no roof and vertigo inducing terraces. The atmosphere was electric, even when the home team were 2-0 down, and the people around us seemed genuinely glad to see that we were supporting their team. The game finished 2-2, and the Colombian fans did not disappoint in making it an enjoyable spectacle. It was definitely an experience we would hope to repeat at some stage later on in the trip.
Accommodation – Black Sheep Hostel, El Poblado. An extremely reasonable 35000 COP each a night for a private twin room, shared bathroom. Although it is a bit of a walk to Parque Lleras it is still well positioned, and is closer to the brilliant metro system to access the rest of the city. It is definitely a sociable hostel and is ideal for meeting people through nights out and the various brilliant trips they have ties with. Highly recommended.
Medellin Verdict – Medellin surpassed all of our expectations as we hadn’t had anyone particularly rave about it to us. It is an extremely liveable city with great night-life for a range of tastes and almost perfect climate. There are many tours we didn’t manage to fit in, but of those we did the Guatape tour with Van por Colombia will last long in the memory. The city has so much more to offer than simply being the place where Pablo Escobar reigned supreme, although that is obviously one of the major draws of backpackers and tourists. The public transport system in which cable cars rise and fall almost vertically over mountainsides is the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world, and is almost a fun day out in itself.