This city was once infamous for being Pablo Escobar’s home, the notorious head of the cocaine drug cartel, until he was killed in December 1993. The murder rate was very high and no sensible American would dare visit. There were an estimated 6,500 murders in 1991 in this city, the second largest Colombian city of more than 2 million. The murder rate has since decreased, but in 2009, there were still about 2,900 murders. The last Colombian president is credited for curbing the influence of the drug cartels and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the revolutionary guerrilla group who kidnapped many foreigners and wealthy Colombians. However, the U.S. State Department still cautions Americans about the possibility of being targeted for kidnapping or other crimes, so many are frightened to visit.
Nonetheless, this city has attracted many foreigners because of the delightful weather, the availability of quality medical care at a reasonable cost, outstanding cultural events such as museums, theater, music, fabulous foods from around the world, modern architecture and friendly people. Once foreigners realize that dangers are exaggerated, tourists will invade the area like a locust swarm and others will select this as their retirement home.
My flight from Miami was to Bogota, Colombia, the capital and largest city, but I stayed only one night in a budget hotel for less than $40 (breakfast and Wi-Fi included) as I was transiting to catch an early morning flight to Medellin. The hotel clerk assured me it took only 15 minutes to get to the airport, but it took 30 minutes, and the ticket said bags must be checked in by 9 a.m. By 8:45 a.m., I was still in a slow-moving long line. Colombians are very solicitous of women with infants, those with handicaps and the elderly. I must appear ancient because an agent selected me to go to a special counter and a ticket was quickly issued.
The gorgeous city of Medellin has a pleasant year-round temperature range of 60 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, accounting for its reputation as the City of Eternal Spring. Rainfall varies between 2 to less than 9” per month. During my stay in November, it rained heavily a few nights and during one day, but was otherwise quite pleasant.
The most upscale neighborhood is El Poblado, with many European and North American residents and tourists, but my accommodation was surprisingly very cheap. I was able to rent a private room and bath in a high-rise security-guarded building in this neighborhood for less than $50 a night by searching the Internet. Fabulous views of the whole city were a bonus. Parque Lleras, an area filled with restaurants, shops and upscale nightclubs, is within walking distance. The landlord told me to remove my Rolex watch even though this was a nice neighborhood. It is only a Seiko, so it would have been ironic to be mugged for it.
A lunch stop across the street from Parque Lleras at a Cuban restaurant for soup, salad, rice, potatoes, chicken and a Coke cost all of $5. The walk back is uphill and the minimum taxi fare is $2. On another day, I took a taxi to the Poblado Metro station and for less than a dollar, rode on the elevated modern clean metro railway for a view of the city. My exit was at a cable car stop that was included in the price of the metro ticket. The cable car passed over a slum area that was quite clean. A huge imposing black building called Biblioteca de España (Spanish library) was in this area.
At the terminus of the cable car, there was a second one to St. Elena that went over a rainforest, but no animals or birds were seen. I recommend skipping this second leg. I returned to the metro and disembarked at the main plaza named for Medellin’s famous artist, Fernando Botero. His statues are scattered around the plaza. If you don’t recognize his name, you will instantly recognize his corpulent subjects. Steve Wynn likes this artist so much, that he named a restaurant for him with many of Botero’s paintings decorating the wall. The Museo de Antioquia adjoins the plaza and Botero has donated many of his artworks, but there is a wonderful selection of other artists and a visit is highly recommended. There is a restaurant within the museum that serves delicious reasonably priced meals.
The Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture next door has a striking art nouveau style with a checker exterior facade designed by Belgian architect Agustin Goovaerts. There are free art exhibits inside on the first floor and the other floors houses historical documents, music and photography archives. During my visit, a modern Colombian painters exhibit was impressive.
The Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica, the main cathedral of Medellin, is also within walking distance and contains a huge organ.
Medellin inhabitants are called Paisas or Antioqueños, whereas those in Bogota are known as Rolos. Paisa women are noted for their beauty, but because cosmetic surgery here is relatively inexpensive and a status symbol, it may not all be natural.
Try to time a visit to Medellin during one of the many festivals. These include: the exciting bullfight season from January to February; the Tango festival in June; the Paso Fino horse fair and Desfiles de los Silleteros, probably one of the most colorful events, where floral displays are carried on creators’ backs, in August (http://youtu.be/oFlnqoSCUbc) and a haute couture show in September.
It is interesting to hear almost everyone saying “ciao” (pronounced “chow,”) when saying goodbye, instead of adios. It could be said as a greeting, too, but that use is not that common here. Italian immigrants to South America brought it with them and it is now ubiquitous even in the USA among those trying to be “cool.” A longer expression, which has Venetian roots, meant “I am your slave,” but the phrase was gradually shortened to its present form. Some Italians say it should not be used in formal settings, for example with your boss, but that distinction is disappearing as younger people use it with everyone.
Some random observations about life here: very few people carry or use umbrellas when it is drizzling. Tap water is said to be pure and most inhabitants do not buy bottled water. An informative exercise in any new country is to visit a store. I went to Exito, a major chain, to buy a towel. There were long lines checking out because of poor cashier procedures. It took almost 10 minutes for my one purchase. Prices are reasonable, but not cheap. There are many slot machine parlors called casino that are rather dingy. There were upscale casinos near my apartment with better-dressed clientele, but the table games have rules so the house has a large advantage. There’s no place like Vegas for gamblers. Prostitution is apparently legal here, and men on the street hand out leaflets like in Vegas. There are also many transvestite prostitutes standing on certain corners. Visiting these areas, especially at night, is inviting trouble.
Argentine music such as the tango is very popular here. The most famous tango singer was Argentine Carlos Gardel, and he died here in a plane crash in 1935, but his memory lingers on wherever tango is played in the world. The Manrique sector of Medellin is devoted to Argentine music. This cosmopolitan city has bars specializing in disco, rock, classical, jazz, operatic, as well as Caribbean and other Latin flavored music.
I always like to taste local dishes and went to a restaurant called Mondongo in the Parque Lleras area. Their eponymous signature dish is tripe stew much like Mexican menudo and served with sides of banana, avocado, cilantro, and rice. It was tasty, but once was enough.
El Peñon de Guatapé (commonly incorrectly known as El Peñol) was a must see recommendation. A tour with an English-speaking guide cost $125, but this frugal traveler spent a total of $30, which included taxi fare to and from the metro, thence by public bus to the town of Guatape where a tuk-tuk costs only a few dollars to the rock. Peñon is a huge monolithic granite weighing approximately 11 million tons and at its apex is 7,000 feet above sea level. There are more than 600 wooden steps built to climb the 1,000-foot tall rock. Indigenous people worshiped it as a sacred site. At my age, there was no way I was going to climb to the top.
Guatape residents decorate the front of their homes with unique and colorful tile decorations featuring horses, flowers, dogs, geometric patterns or whatever artistic design they desire. The area is gorgeous, with a huge lake formed by a hydroelectric dam. The area was so nice that Pablo Escobar built many mansions here but many were destroyed during the battles to capture him. There is said to be a tour in Medellin that includes places that involved Escobar. With Escobar gone, this area has become a popular vacation area with water sports, hiking, etc.
Another recommended visit was El Pueblito Paisa, a reproduction of a country village depicting what life was like in the past. It is located on a hill overlooking Medellin and surrounded by a lovely park. It is very much like Olvera Street in Los Angeles, with gift shops and food stalls scattered among the living exhibits. Bandeja paisa, touted as Colombia’s national dish, consisted of blood sausage, chorizo, beans, rice, plantain, avocado, arepa, fried egg, ground meat and pork rinds. Ingredients can differ slightly from locale to locale, but the large portions would satiate even the most gluttonous Las Vegas buffet habitué. The avocados were huge, but bland tasting, and the salsa was not spicy.
My next stop is a return visit to Bogota for a more thorough visit, rather than transiting as I did when I came to Medellin. Ciao.
Las Vegas Tidbits
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The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.