Another look at city life
16.11.2008 20 °C
Pictures should be up soon on Shutterfly!
"The city of eternal Spring" is Colombia's second largest city after Bogotá. With a mere 2.4 million people you shouldn't be fooled by its relatively small population (Bogotá is home to nearly 8 million inhabitants). The city itself is a bustling traveller's destination. Not for the easily bothered by constant requests on the street for money, patronage, or attention. While it has marketed itself as one of Colombia's premier tourist destinations, home to museums, plazas, art, history, and flora and fauna to boot, I wouldn't say its the most leisurely of Colombia's cities. But, I guess if you are going to South American city with over 2 million people, can you really claim to be looking for leisure?
Luckily, we were able to relax, for perhaps a little more than we liked on our 10.5 hour bus ride from Bogotá to Medellín and our 9.5 hour bus ride back (please note that tour agencies all claim the ride is 8 hours. Ha!) Nevertheless the frigidly air conditioned, Vallenato-music playing ride showcased gorgeous scenery for nearly the entire trip. There aren't so much highways connecting major cities, or small cities for that matter. Rather, winding 2 lane roads barely wide enough for the semis to traverse that carry cargo and passengers day and night. The result is that you drive through jungle canopy layered above river basins covering mango and banana tree lined streets dotted with waterfalls, tiny little towns peddling food and wares and occasionally opening up to see a view of the entire valley in between you and the next mountain. Its stunning.
We arrived in Medellín to a highly recommended backpackers/hippie hostel which welcomes visitors with a free BBQ on Friday nights, hot showers, coffee all day, a beer fridge stocked to your liking, internet, breakfast included daily, access to a full kitchen and happens to be conveniently located next to a huge grocery store and the metro. Oh yeah, Medellín has a real metrorail system. Like on tracks. Where like people actually are allowed to exit the train before the frenzy of passengers tries to get on and "Exit Only" turnstiles so to not clog up traffic leaving the station. Genius! Ok, but the hostel is great. Great, like-minded travelers who are just looking for a place to chill out after a day of doing whatever it is you do in Medellín.
So about what you do in Medellín; Its a cultural and art highlight of Colombia. Most famous for the massive collection of work by Fernando Botero whose numerous portraits and sculptures of fat people brighten up the streets and museum walls alike. While he manages to depict a very whimsical portrayal of each person or object, his historical and social commentaries are not forgotten. Check out some of his portraits here and sculptures here. The Plaza Botero and the biggest exhibit at the famous Museo de Antioquia (Antioquia being the department that Medellín is in), are dedicated to Botero's work and his personal collections. I like art but art museums are generally not the first thing on my list of places to visit when I go to a city. Botero however, I would like to meet (he is still alive). His stuff just kinda makes you giggle.
We did manage to pry ourselves away from staring at caricature-like statues of disproportionate men, women and dogs long enough to walk all over the city. Our first day was actually a mix of walking, metro-ing, and getting lost. We started by meeting with the folks at the YMCA in Medellin to hear a little about their programs. It turned into one of the more interesting history lessons in my life as we learned all about La Comuna 13 (a large sector in western Medellin) that was literally the battle ground between drug cartels, paramilitaries, militia and government intervention up until about 6 years ago. Unfortunately it was the civilians that paid the price for the violence and fight over money, territory, power, influence, etc. The effect of which you can still see throughout the city in the mangled limbs of beggars on the streets, public art dedicated to the lost and (still) missing and at the same time a true jovial spirit of the relative freedom and security most now enjoy. For these reasons the Y in Medellin has a much stronger focus on peace and 'convivencia' (peacefully living together).
Next we headed to lunch in El Poblado, a touristy bar and restaurant neighborhood in the southern part of the city led to a stroll through the Parque Zoologico de Santa Fe, aka Medellin's Zoo. Initially unimpressive, the small zoo is home to big cats, native and non-native, hippos, your standard assortment of African Plain animals; Elephants, Giraffes, Antelope, Zebra, etc. and a really impressive collection of birds, most of which are native to South America. Wandering a little further north we ventured up a million stairs (ok, like 300) for a pretty good view of the city atop El Pueblito Paisa, a replica of what a typical village in the region would look like. Complete with 'town bar', chapel, replica of an old colonial home and plenty of vendors to remind you what century you are really in. The sculpture garden coming down from Pueblito Paisa was unimpressive but we were ready to get back to the hostel anyway for the BBQ!!!
Turns out not many Americans are into Colombia right now, or at least not at the hostel that we were staying at but we couldn't complain as the Dutch, French, Italian, British, Spanish, German and Colombian company wasn't lacking. We had a great time just chatting it up with other travelers, getting the inside scoop on other places to see in Colombia and recounting our own tales thus far.
Day 2 could be affectionately called the day of strike outs and disappointments followed by successes. Mango Maduro was an awesome find courtesy of Lonely Planet South America for a fresh Bendeja Paisa (typical Medellinesen lunch). We hopped across the street to Parque Bolivar and wandered under the huge tropical trees, past guitar-playing old men dressed in suits and to the Metropolitan Cathedral constructed with more bricks than any other church in South America. Our quest for the Parque de los Pies Descalzados, a zen park where you can take off your shoes and walk through different kinds of rock and sand before dipping them in different wading pools was fruitless. When we finally found the place it started to pour; welcome to the tropics! We couldn't be too upset as the rain forced us inside the Museo de Antioquia and Plaza Botero where we spend the afternoon being all artsy-fartsy. Strike out number two came later that night at an attempt at seeing one play only to end up at a small indie theater that had gone all out do make the audience feel a part of their production of 5 intertwined tales by Edgar Allan Poe. Candelabras, a death march on the accordian, a dimly lit house set a great stage for "4 Mujeres", literally 4 Women, but is a tale spun together of 5 of his works, Ulalume, Berenice, Ligeia, and Lenore all broken up by a creepy dude reciting The Raven- aren't you proud Dad-- your literary interests have apparently rubbed off a bit.
Our last full day we had learned our lesson and got out early before the rain came. Just in time to take in the beautiful botanical gardens filled with tropical plants, birds, animals and any gardeners dream set-up. The orchids were awesome and made even more cool by the iguanas climbing in the trees a few meters away. After marveling at the gift shop which included an exotic plant nursery (you too can own your own carnivorous plants and rare orchids!) we strolled through the nearby Parque de Los Deseos and outside Natura (an Exploritorium-like interactive museum) just before getting caught in a downpour. Soaked, but satisfied with the morning we headed back to grab lunch before taking advantage of Medellin's MetroCable. Literally a gondola that is part of the metro system to reach and transport the populations on the mountains surrounding the city. A metro ticket will get you all the way to the Candelaria (the area at the highest point on the metro map) where we were greeted by 2 eager 8 year olds who dished on all the important info on the MetroCable built just a few years ago and the more recently opened library poised on the top of the hill. The views of the city were a little hazy but still pretty impressive.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the ride up to the Candelaria was the evidence of how quickly Medellin is "izing". That's to say modernizing, industrializing, standardizing, and globalizing. The MetroCable was installed only a few years ago and its already its obvious that among the thousands of houses stacked almost literally on top of each other and pressed together tightly, separated by crumbling roads, falling roofs and other marks of what most definitely used to be one of Medellin's more impoverished areas, things are improving. In particular around the "metro stops" on the mountain, fresh paint and new tablecloths are brighten restaurants while plants and new signs attract people to other stores and shops. However these marks of modernization do not exist a mere few blocks away where MetroCable traffic isn't nearly as heavy. "Izing" I tell you. And its all over the city in different forms, its just so blatant in La Candelaria as you can see the entire neighborhood as you approach and leave dangling just a few feet overhead.
Our last night in Medellin we decided to make dinner and relax with the other hostelers while recounting our weekend. We are glad to have visited Medellin and found the 3 days ample time to see almost all the things we wanted to see. We have also decided that if we have to pick a city to be living in, we are glad that its Bogota. Medellin is a very cool city with lots of things to offer but its obvious that the reputation Medellin has earned for its history of violence and drugs is still being shed. As a result their rapid "izing" has made it very tourist friendly in infrastructure but with many businesses and citizens still struggling to recover emotionally or economically.
Like I mentioned before, Medellin is a city for travelers not tourists but if you have your travelers had on, then by all means; Enjoy!