Medellin – Bring on the Tours – Days 113-118

Two children riding the cable cars in Medellin

We arrived in Medellin (pronounced Medejin as Julie keeps correcting us) with our sunburnt bodies. We settled in the area of Laureles, as Paigey decided that was the place to stay. She found a “hipster-ish” Airbnb that worked for us perfectly (it had laundry which we desperately needed). Our goal was to spend a full week settled in one place doing some slow living and some schoolwork. We filled all the drawers with our freshly laundered clothes. We filled the fridge with actual groceries (yep, we bought butter) and not just snacks. We even signed up for an NBA league pass to watch Raptors’ basketball in Colombia. We made ourselves a comfortable home base.

Laureles was a great place for us to stay as they had restaurants aplenty, wide sidewalks, old people walking dogs and dangerous ledges for children to walk on and fall off. Our accommodation was adjacent to a primary school which reminded us how much less we taught our kids during a school day. The only real drawback to the area was its distance to the metro. We ended up splitting our time between taxis, walking and the occasional metro. The metro is fantastic and we highly recommend it. First, it is extremely inexpensive with decent routes running north and south allowing you to cover decent distances without sitting in gridlock (and they have it in Medellin). For us, the highlight was that the metro also includes access to the cable car routes that are spread across the city. It allowed the family to experience areas of the city outside of the affluent centre. It grounded us a little bit and prompted us to learn more about these more remote comunas.

Based on our learning from Cartagena, we started with a tour to get our bearings and teach the children about the city’s history. We lucked out as our free walking tour was one of the slickest productions we have been a part of. First, the company made sure that groups were manageable for the guide (i.e. under 20 people). Second, we had a passionate guide. He was a professional and his storytelling was next-level. He would address everyone by their name (no we didn’t have name tags, and he remembered both our children’s names). Since we knew nothing really about Medellin, the guide ensured the tour wasn’t focused on narcos but rather on the history of his city. Before the tour, we were warned that the children might see some things they might find disturbing as the tour would not gloss over the challenges facing the city. They didn’t know we had seen Hastings Street, so the homelessness and substance abuse was not foreign to us. Pablo, our guide, expressed frustration that some of the areas we visited were actually on an upswing before the Pandemic. Using Plaza Botero as an example he explained how shelter closures during the pandemic seem to have led to a massive increase in street vendors and homelessness in what was before a completely public space.

We then went on a mini binge with tours over the next few days. During our tour to the neighbouring area of Guatape, we realized that large, organized tours are NOT for us. People missing meeting times by half an hour cripples you with kids. But we did acknowledge the pros as we could have not done it cheaper than what we were charged. And some of the tourist trap activities (like a 30-minute boat ride on a lake we would never have done on our own) can turn out to be a blast. But the part that killed us was a group of 5 college frat guys being….college frat guys! I know I sound old, but really how were they gassed climbing up the 695 steps while the kids didn’t stop or break a sweat? It was a long day, we made no friends but the climb and the greenery around Guatape made it a worthwhile day trip.

Paige paragraph below – another one of our blog content compromises!

Comuna 13 is the most popular tourist stop in Medellin. We did not even really know what we were going to see when we met our guide at the Metro Station and boarded a “local bus” (that was full of tourists) and headed up the side of the mountain. Medellin is built in a valley and the metro and main roads run through the bottom of the valley. Neighbourhoods or “comunas” are often built on the sides of the mountain and so people take cable cars, buses or walk to reach the heights where they live. In the 1990s, comuna 13 was likely the most dangerous place in Medellin and very poor. It was built on a very steep part of the mountain and was hard to reach. More recently, the city built a series of outdoor covered escalators – a project designed to integrate the remote neighbourhood with the city and make it easier for people to get around. But they never expected that this would become a tourist attraction! About 20 years ago, the first guides started bringing people to this area showing them the escalators and the spray-painted murals that surround it. Break dancers also perform in the area displaying the community’s link to hip-hop culture. After visiting comuna 13, you realize that the guides are as surprised as the tourists that people are coming to see where they live which is still dangerous (our guide admits businesses continue to pay protection money to gangs). But we realized that the reason to go to comuna 13 is the guides themselves. We met someone who grew up in a very dangerous place yet managed to not only survive but to go to university, learn English and improve his life. Our guide told us of his father being shot for refusing to pay a 5th group demanding protection money but he also told us that he is a guide today because he makes more money taking tourists around than being a teacher (which is his passion). All in all, it was a sobering look into what Medellin was like in the 1990s and 2000s and what it is like today.

The family really had a blast in Medellin as there was more than enough to keep us entertained. Hopefully, we embrace this idea of staying put for longer periods of time! But then again we’re off on another 2-day jaunt. Bring on the coffee plantations.

Where we stayed (5 words or less);

By the numbers:

  • Ice Cream Consumed: 4 – 1 Paleta, 1 ice cream in the shape of a pig, 1 frozen yogurt with excessive toppings, 1 popsicle (mike dropped his and got another)
  • Visits to the grocery store: 4
  • Rappi ordered: 2 – Yep, I have never used Uber Eats at home, but I’ve used the Colombian version twice
  • Number of steps climbed at Guatape: 695
  • Number of songs requested on the boat cruise: 1 – La Bicicleta by Shakira and Carlos Vives of course!

What we ate (this is Paigey’s section and I’m mad it is being pushed as a go forward section)

  • Crepes y Waffles – We’ve decided it is like a Jack Astors but with tasty food
  • Different kinds of street food tried: 6 (empanadas, doughnuts, chicken empanada, bunuelos, potatoes, potato chips)
  • Bandeja Paisa – I was worried about my gut, but this plate of protein and calories was surprisingly tasty

Ciao for now,

Mike