Medellin: Former capital of cocaine, crime, and kidnapping. Now, home to bike lanes, amazing public transit, beautifully rotund Botero statues, and Paisanos – the hardworking and friendly residents of the city.
We came to the city with big expectations. Colombians LOVE this place, and I can see its appeal. It’s a progressive city, nestled in the huge Aburra mountain valley. It’s hard to think that just 20 years ago this city would have not been on my radar – that people were murdered at random in drug-related violence, bombings, and at the hand of the city’s most notorious resident, Pablo Escobar, and his cocaine cartel. Progressive reform, efforts to reduce corruption, and to improve the safety and well-being of the city’s residents were often cut short when leaders were killed. In fact, one of the leaders of Medellin who began to implement the improved transit that eventually helped to turn the fate of Medellin was killed as a result of his efforts.
Thankfully, the violence of Medellin’s past is no longer still an issue in the city. Though the city is not quite like Cartagena, which feels like Disneyworld, it is safe and very easy to travel in.
Yesterday, though we have both been under the weather, Rick and I decided to rent bikes and explore the city. I wanted very badly to check out the Museum of Antioquia and to see the Botero statues in the plaza near it. I also wanted to head to the Botanical Gardens, because Medellin is known as the city of eternal spring and I’d heard good things about their gardens. I also thought that Rick might benefit from some exertion because he has been suffering from all kinds of bugs over the last several days and hasn’t had the energy to get out running like he was in Cartagena. It was a bit of an ambitious plan to undertake by bike, but Medellin has a really cool policy of turning Carretera 43a, “El Poblano”, into a bikeway each Sunday. They shut down two lanes of traffic and open it exclusively to bike and pedestrian traffic. The road is a busy one which cuts through the heart of the city, making a Sunday ride a very efficient way to check out many different spots. It’s an amazing policy that I wish was more common in the US!
We rode across the city for about 40 minutes on the bikeway, barely having to stop for cross traffic, under the friendly supervision of a crew of young people at intersections and on bikes who make sure that everything is going smoothly. The crowd out venturing around the city on bikes had to be a pretty good cross-section of Medellin – from families with little ones, to serious cyclists decked out in loud spandex. Everyone looked like they were having a great time, and so were we. We made our way to the Botero Plaza where I proceeded to take photos of every statue, with me in the foreground mimicking the statue’s pose – like a mature adult. (I think my imitation of the full-breasted Sphinx was probably my crowning glory.) We then made our way back to the Poblano and continued on toward the botanical gardens. At one point, the bike traffic seemed to shut down as we headed towards a tunnel. I looked at Rick, skeptical, and asked “Do you think we should go in this dark tunnel on bikes without anyone around?”. He shrugged that it was probably fine, the guards had seen us entering and hadn’t stopped us. So, we entered, biking fast, and hoping we weren’t making a mistake. Well, shortly after we exited on the other side, we saw a few more of the bikeway volunteers riding towards us. They shouted that the bikeway opened to traffic at 1 pm – which is exactly what time it was, so we quickly turned and followed them back the way we had come. As we were riding through the tunnel, out of nowhere a truck came barreling up behind us and veered around us. “Oh my god!” I screamed at Rick and we started sprinting on our pathetic rental bikes, at about 6,000 feet of elevation. It wasn’t pretty! We all were busting our butts to make it out of the tunnel, and just as we did, traffic began tearing through at high speeds.
Collapsing on some grass nearby to catch our breath, we re-evaluated our situation. We were both wiped out, and now our route home was a superhighway so we needed to figure out how to get home. We tried to follow the route of the road we had come on, but the frontage roads sort of meandered in and out of neighborhoods, through shopping areas, and across very un-bike friendly areas. It took us over an hour and a half to make it back to the El Poblano neighborhood where we were staying, and on the way we found ourselves on more that one occasion in places where we should NOT have been. It was actually kind of scary to me, and I don’t scare that easily. 6,000′ of elevation has had both of us wheezing and struggling, which didn’t make me feel any better about being in some rough parts of Medellin. Clearly, our acclimatization from our Denver days has worn off.
Anyway, we ended the night watching some good old American football, in an Irish Bar, in Colombia. Odd, right? We even started up a conversation with another couple there, and (crazy small world) the guy had graduated from UVA in the same December grad class as Rick. Together, we gave aguardiente (Colombian brandy that tastes like black licorice) a fair go, and decided shortly thereafter that we had made enough of our night so we headed home a bit early. We came home, nursed our sick bodies, and we have continued to do that through today.
Sharing sickness in a foreign place is certainly never comfortable, but together we have been making it a bit more manageable. I packed all sorts of meds and have been able to keep us well-tended to. He has made sure I get enough sleep (which I often don’t) and we both keep each other’s wellness in mind as we plan our activities. Though it is a bit of a downer to not feel like ourselves, there is certainly nothing that brings people closer than jointly commiserating over unfortunate maladies. And, honesty, we found the perfect place to be sick. Our current hostel is quiet, with peaceful lounge areas and gardens, we have a giant room with a king size bed, floor to ceiling windows, our own bathroom, and a walk in closet area! (Gran Hostel Medellin in El Poblano) Tonight we hope to cook dinner in (our first in weeks!) before taking off to check out some areas outside Medellin including Gautape, and the coffee-growing haciendas around Manizales. We will keep writing as we go!