most tourists have no idea what to expect of Medellin, Colombia
YOU ARE GOING WHERE!?
When I decided to take a vacation to the unlikely destination of Medellin, Colombia, my friends back in the U.S. made the expected sarcastic comments, ranging from inferences that my trip involved finding Pablo Escobar to suspicions of my performing Internet marketing for the cartels. Funny to the amigos perhaps, but overcoming these notions is a serious challenge that faces Colombian tourism.
Unfortunately, the notions that Medellin (and Colombia in general) is still a dangerous destination remain prevalent. Colombia has a long way to go in order to overcome the reputation it earned from its anything goes, drug running past. In recent years, the country has been making an impressive effort to do just that. As a marketing guy, I appreciate the manner in which the national ad campaigns directly attack the average tourist’s worst fear with the tagline, “The only risk is you’ll want to stay.” Catchy slogan indeed, even if only partly true.
Having already visited the semi-touristy Cartegena back in 2003, I was looking for something off the beaten path on this trip. Medellin has become famous among expats residing in Latin America, not only for the legendary beauty of its females, but also for the natural beauty of the landscape, the year-round, spring like weather, rich folklore and incredibly nice people. With a few Copa miles to burn and a convenient direct flight from PTY, I decided Medellin was the spot. (Scroll to the bottom of this post to see my trip photos!)
Arriving to Medellin from Panama City is easy. The flight is just over an hour and offers some fantastic scenery along the way. I knew upon exiting the aircraft that I was no longer in my Central American comfort zone. The Medellin airport is a, brick and wood relic reminiscent of a funkadelic, 1970s ski lodge. One has to pass through long lines and slow, military-style immigration and customs desks before finally making it to the street. Once there, a bevy of buses, taxis and pedestrians move about like a furious ant colony. After enduring a money changing process on par with transferring funds to an African republic, I took a shared taxi for the 40 minute ride into the upscale Poblado district. The fare ran me the Colombian Peso equivalent of about $15, not a bad start!
The cool air was an instant reprieve from the heat of Panama City. A winding country road leads from the airport to the city. From my taxi window I observed a green landscape of pine trees and rolling hills with red brick houses dotting the hillside. Save for the occasional Spanish sign announcing a local disco, one could be fooled into thinking they were in some Northern U.S. State, or perhaps Spain? Finally, after a series of death-defying maneuvers by my cabbie, we descended into the massive, red brick maze of construction that expands throughout the entire valley; I had arrived in Medellin.
The city of Medellin sits in a large, verdant valley at almost a mile above sea level. With over 3.2 million inhabitants, the place somehow simultaneously possesses the qualities of a mid-size city at its center and the traits of a large country town at its outskirts. The Medellin River runs through the City, as does the modern Metro system. While designed at very different times and by distinct creators, both are beautiful and also reflect the juxtaposed elements that seem ever-present in Medellin: the town’s nature embracing, cowboy-loving past and the City’s art deco, fashion-forward, engineered future.
I wanted to “go native” as best I could on this extended trip, in part to really see if there was tourism budding in Colombia, as well as to try out life in Colombia. After 11 years in San Jose, Costa Rica and Panama City, I’m not sure I’m bold enough to move to a third Latin American city, but I have certainly had my thoughts. To that end, I booked a private room at a hilarious hostel, The Pit Stop. The place itself merits an entire article, but I’ll summarize by saying that between the on-site pub, the gaggle of Israelis and other assorted colorful characters, I was constantly amused. Situated in a nice suburb between the shops of Poblado and the popular nightlife area known as Parque Lleras (or Zona Rosa), I found the accommodations to be quite, well…accommodating. The hostel was jam packed every single night I was there and I felt lucky to compare notes with so many well-traveled and interested characters, even if I was a bit jealous of them and longing for my days as a more free-spirited wanderer. If I were to do it again, I’d probably stay at one of the many other hostals in the area, like Black Sheep, Tiger Paw or Casa Kiwi, but at $22 per night, I was more than happy.
I spent days wandering the City via the very convenient metro system, which was cheap and easy to use and within walking distance of most points of interest. I toured a few museums, saw some historical buildings and monuments, then rode up the “metro-cable” (a gondola connected to the Metro system) up above one of the low rent barrios to see a Spanish donated modern library. I was pleasantly surprised with the cleanliness, organization and overall quality of urban planning that is often lacking in Costa Rica and Panama. Modern buildings with neat landscaping, fancy crosswalks, and pleasant policemen had me thinking on more than one occasion, “where the heck AM I?!”
The only tourist activity in which I partook was paragliding. This involves a half-day trip to a tour operator about an hour from the city center. It’s well worth it. The location is high in the hills above the north edge of the City, overlooking the town of Bello. At $50, the cost was about 1/2 what something similar might run in Costa Rica. From the one hour bus ride getting to the tiny mountain suburb, to the flight itself and the post-flight beer at a tiny shack overlooking the valley, the tour was excellent and highly professional. A gringo travel buddy and I were the only adventurers that day, so we had the entire sky to ourselves as we circled the valley. It was absolutely surreal to turn figure eights ABOVE the flight pattern of the small planes landing at the regional airstrip. I’d do it again tomorrow.
The nightlife in Medellin is vibrant, varied and plenty of fun. The famed Zona Rosa is street after street lined with outdoor cafes, bars and discos. What I really enjoyed were the wide variety of smartly themed bars and restaurants; from Scottish whisky bars to Reggae and French bistros. There was even something I’d never seen before: a girls-only bar that resembled a Barbie dollhouse. WEIRD! The overall cost for dining and dancing is slightly less than Panama City although hardly cheap. There’s a local brewpub known as Tres Cordilleras (3 mountain ranges) that makes several tasty brews, although the wheat beer is hard on the intestines, if you know what I mean. There are multiple hostels in and around the Parque Lleras, so the place almost has a college town vibe. I was surprise to see that the very nice Tiger Paw hostel is run by a Clemson alum, so I wasn’t the only gringo crazy enough to consider staying more than a week.
I am fortunate to have stayed in contact with a few Colombian friends living in Panama and Costa Rica, so I called up a few of their friends and was shown an excellent night on the town on more than one occasion. The people of Colombia are incredibly pleasant, friendly and understand the importance of good customer service. I was again and again impressed by the etiquette, since that’s among the most common grievances in Panama. Despite promises to myself, I sucked down more than a few shots of the local fire water, Aguardiente and subsequently stumbled around the Zona Rosa like a sailor.
One particular night, an expat gringo blogger residing in Medellin took me to his favorite live salsa music venue, which was fantastic. The locals can really dance and the shows were excellent. I think something like that would go over great in Panama City and am shocked Ruben Blades himself doesn’t have a namesake joint somewhere. Near the end of my trip I had a friend meeting up with me and so decided to upgrade to the nearby Holiday Inn Express, as there was a deal online for a $79/nt, very sweet suite right in the heart of Poblado. It was pretty quiet there but I did see the occasional business traveler and tourist.
Overall impressions from my trip:
- Medellin is as a city is fairly clean, organized and has great transportation
- Service is good and people are generally very polite and friendly
- The women are very good looking, with many enhanced by cosmetic surgery
- Tourism in the region is still in diapers, but has huge potential
- Backpackers are already in the area and many cited Colombia as their favorite spot
- There is still a notable element of danger in the air, but it can be avoided
- Prostitution and sex tourism is huge in Medellin, making it hard for a newcomer to know which ladies (if any) are legit
- The weather is incredible
- There aren’t a whole lotta gringos visiting there…yet
- There is a great sense of pride in the local culture, history and folklore
I don’t think Panama nor Costa Rica has much to fear from Colombia as a near-peer competitor just yet, but the country has definite advantages in terms of work ethic, tidiness, a service-oriented culture and general politeness and friendliness. All those things will allow for an easier cultural and economic transition to tourism.
If Colombia can push beyond its narco-associated past and enter the world community, I expect it to catch up very quickly. Part of the benefit of being so isolated for so long is that the country has been cured in its own unique culture for decades, making its rich traditions and unique style even more noticeable and salient. I think trendy, undaunted future travelers will take note as the country’s reputation for safety improves and its tourism infrastructure grows. I’d guess that within the next 5-7 years, investors will be talking about Medellin as they were about Panama 3-4 years ago.
|Written by Casey Halloran|
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Filed under: Business on September 13th, 2009