Throughout the 80s & 90s Medellin was a no-go city for everyone who wasn't on Pablo Escobar's payroll. The most notorious cartel head in Columbia, he was reported to have offered to clear the national debt with his spare change, kept a private zoo with rhinos, and gave $1000 to anyone who'd kill a policeman. Some locals we've talked to treat him with same warped reverence some cockneys show to the Krays, a Latino Robin Hood who, if you overlook the years of kidnap, extortion and murder, put a lot back into the community.
As there are back-packer targeted tours of 'Escobar's Medellin' to celebrate the Goodfellas side of the area we were a little apprehensive of how much we'd get out of visiting the city but were proved very wrong.
The 14 hour night bus was expectedly freezing cold but unexpectedly the entertainment took the form of the singing driver. Super freak, Saturday Night (Wigfield), We are the Champions all played loud and on loop. Not speaking English or knowing the words was not a barrier to our man joining in. I accept he needed to stay awake on a long night drive but we're in Columbia; There are other means.
Medellin is huge, sprawling and surrounded by mountains. At a higher altitude than we'd experienced so far it's also a lot cooler. After the heat of the coast and jungle it was really nice to walk around without risk of melting.
On day 1 we joined a walking tour run by a local man (realcitytours), Pablo, who took us on a 4 hour history & cultural guide around the bits of the city most gringo maps have red crosses through. Pablo had grown up during the Cartel years and made no bones about how unglamorous life had been. He showed us places where people 'disappeared', where politicians were gunned down in broad daylight (3 out of 4 candidates in one election), and where corrupt officials used to detain people indefinitely. From this though he explained how Medellin had rebuilt itself through political and social reform, and learnt to celebrate at any opportunity. The outcome is an impressively developed city with extremes of society sharing space and pride in their city.
Example: Medellin has a metro system entirely free of vandalism, litter or rudeness. An announcement played every 20 minutes or so reminds you to observe 'the Metro way' which translates into keeping it clean, giving your seat up to people who need it etc. and everyone does.
The poorest few million people live in barrios (neighbourhoods- really not slums as we were told to expect) sprawling up the steep hills around the city base. To bridge the gap of opportunities the city built a cable car (free to all) to transport people up and down - a journey that you might otherwise consider only doing once a week and would take an age, & a lot of brake pads.
We used both forms of transport and on both locals were keen to tell us about them. On the cable car a woman pointed out the massive library built in 2006 - the biggest library in the city bang in the middle of the poorest area. We went in and it had art exhibitions, rooms full of computers etc. Hard to relay that in the UK we're closing all ours down.
Downtown the plazas are filled with Botero sculptures, people watchers, alcoholics, prostitutes, children, shoppers and traders all rubbing along together outside the many churches. Local musicians play for free (not at all interested in tourists because it's too new a phenomenon still) and people form big crowds to play Chase the Lady. Downtown is also where you can buy cheap, large meals ($3 for half a chicken if you don't mind sharing your bench with a shoe-shine and a rent boy).
Uptown is very different: gated houses, swanky apartments with armed guards on the door, and a square packed full of USA style eateries (including Hooters. I'd rather starve.). The women are pneumatic (boob jobs are around $700 here), the men are pumped up mahagony creatures dripping in gold and very happy to flash their cash. Uptown has US prices to match it's aspirations so we hung out with the scruffs.
The relatively recent inclusion of Medellin on the gringo trail made it very good for being stared at. If we stood still for more than 2 minutes a group of locals would join us to see what was happening and thanks to co-travellers Jess & Peter, they had 2 ginger fellas to gawp at (clearly referring to Peter there. Jess does not sport a ginger beard).
Very enlightening to see a bit of real Columbian life but like all big cities schlepping around it was exhausting so after 3 days we packed up and hopped on the bus to Salento.