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A Medellin City Tour
I wrote recently about the planning that went into our recent trip to Colombia. One of the great surprises of the trip was our time spent in the infamous city of Medellín. The name Medellín brings forth visions of Pablo Escobar and the massive violence he was responsible for in the city during the 1980’s & early 90’s. Today the city is rapidly working to modernize and shed that image.
On our last day in the city, we were lucky enough to take a Medellin city tour with Camilo Uribe who has lived in the city all of his life. Camilo runs Medellin City Tours and has a passion and knowledge of his hometown that shines through.
Our Medellin city tour started off by dealing head on with the city’s past. Just a couple of blocks from our hotel in Medellín‘s upscale El Poblado District, we drove up to a bare looking compound with a single security guard sitting outside. This house was the place that a rival drug cartel tried to assassinate Escobar with a car bomb in the 1980’s. Apparently neighbors have started to complain about the number of tours coming into the area to see relics like this from the cartel era.
Camilo explained to me that Escobar tours are his most popular. These four hour tours visit all of the key sites related to Pablo Escobar in the city. For us though, this will be the only look into the bloody past of the city. This tour is going to show us what modern life is like in Medellín. Why look to the past when the present is much brighter?
Typical Life In Envigado
From the swanky highrises of El Poblado, we continue the Medellin city tour and leave the Escobar house behind and enter the up and coming area of Envigado. While Envigado isn’t as developed as El Poblado, it isn’t hard to see that it will be soon. Dozens of high rises are under construction in this area, a sign of the increased wealth and prosperity that Medellín is experiencing.
In Envigado we briefly stop at a small square where the locals are going about their daily lives. Before me a pair of old men sit and stare at children playing near the fountain. The square’s small but beautiful church is the backdrop for this scene which is one I have so often experienced in Latin America.
This square is home to El Peregrino, a restaurant known for making oversized Buñuelos. Buñuelos are a essentially fried balls of cheese & dough. A very popular dish around Christmas, they are delicious and very filling. Camilo assured me that one ball would be enough for the three of us. When it came I understood why. It was the size of a baseball!
After we were done scarfing down the Buñuelo, Camilo took us around the corner to one of the many local bars in this area of town. Fonda Le Herreria is themed after the small village from which the owner comes. Displayed around the bar are pictures of the real life characters that are famous in the village. How I would love to meet these people. Perhaps another day because it is time to continue our Medellin city tour.
Stunning Views From Pueblita Paisa
We now leave the hills of Envigado and enter the flat lands of Medellín. The city started along the river in this part of the valley and many of the old factories are being torn down and redeveloped. The highway we are driving on doesn’t have much traffic, which is perhaps a benefit of strict traffic controls in the city. We notice a lot of people ride motorcycles to get around and Camilo explains they are a popular form of transportation, however due to the drug days, only one person is allowed on them at a time. Apparently the cartels would send out hit squads on motorcycles with a driver and a shooter.
We soon exit the highway on our way to Pueblita Paisa, a mock traditional town built by the government for tourism. While I don’t typically like made for tourist type places, Paisa sits high on a hill with fantastic views of the sprawling city. The so called “traditional” town failed to hold our interest, however looking down at the city of 6 million made the trip up there worth our time.
Real Life & Art In Botero Plaza
As our Medellin city tour continued, we headed back to the flat land to make a brief stop at Botero Plaza. Fernando Botero is a world famous Colombian artist who was born near Medellín. Today 23 of his most famous sculptures are on display in the plaza outside of the city’s main museum. With traffic being a challenge, Camilo dropped us off quickly to take a look around, however we didn’t have long to stay.
I am a fan of Botero and his style. We quickly pose for photos in front of a few of the lesser offensive statues before stepping back to take in the atmosphere. In one of the photos Shawn Reece poses while a homeless man sleeps on the floor next to him. This area is a microcosm for the city. While homeless people and beggars are just about everywhere, we also see well dressed businessmen and students going about their daily lives.
As we head into the homestretch of the Medellin city tour, Camilo takes us to the San Pedro Cemetery Museum. This is perhaps the only cemetery I have seen that has been turned into a museum. Many of the country’s important historical figures have been buried here. We would have liked to poke around a bit more, but it is still an acting cemetery and several services are going on. Out of respect we leave and head to the metro.
Real People Real Life
In what is perhaps the most unique part of Medellín, the city’s Metro encompasses both trains and cable cars. These cable cars connect the poor neighborhoods located in the mountains around the city to essential services like education down in the flat lands. They are essentially a life line to the poorest parts of Medellín. When the cable cars were built many of the people’s live were changed over night. “The people love the Metro.” Camilo told me.
The final part of the tour involved ascending high above Medellínon the Metro. Since I love both public transport & cable cars, this was the part I had been most anticipating. As we left the flat lands behind once again, we could see just how far Medellínhas to go. We started in the wealthiest area of Medellín and ended in the one of the poorest. Camilo tells us that he likes to take his tour groups up to the mountains so they can see the real Medellin. What we saw was typical of a developing nation. Poorly built houses, poverty everywhere and smiles as far as the eye could see.
Our Medellin city tour ended as Camilo drove us back to the sheltered area of El Polado where we grabbed our backpacks and headed to the bus station for an overnight ride to Bogota. In some ways Medellínis everything that I expected and in others it far exceeded my expectations. I was shocked at the booming real estate market and the wealth that was on display in certain areas, however my favorite part of the day was sitting in that square in Envigado watching life happen.
Disclosure: My family and I were provided the tour free of charge with no promise of the contents of this review. The words and ideas in this post are my own and based on my own experiences and thoughts. The tour was provided by Medellin City Tours.