Upon arriving in Bogotà I knew it was the 50th country I was about to visit. My first milestone. And also the first time I formed the idea of my quest of travelling to all countries and the initial start of my blog.
Bogotà is the capital of Colombia, as well as the 3rd largest city in the Americas (behind Mexico City and New York City). I arrived around midnight and took a cab to downtown Bogotá, La Candelaria, where I had booked my first night in Hostal Sue.
The first thing I recognized were armed street guards and I didn’t know if I should have felt safe because of their presence or if I should have been worried because their presence was a needed measure. La Candelaria is the old city and a very vibrant spot in Bogotà with an artsy touch. Loads of bars, students of the surrounding universities, street art and colorful painted houses add up to the lively athmosphere.
On my first morning I went up to Mt. Montserrat. A cable car ride and short hike later I stood right up there on the top of this mountain, that made me realize what 3rd largest city in the Americas could possibly mean. It’s gigantic. It gives you the feeling you can see to every part of the city, while the city just fades on the horizon and goes on endlessly.
I spend the rest of the day strolling around Bogotà, trying my best spanish with all sorts of street vendors, realizing that I should have learnt some before going to South America, to actually have a chance to interact or communicate with locals. English is basically non-existent. I also went to Museo Botero, that has one of latin america’s most important and internationally recognized art collections, named after Colombia’s famous artist, Fernando Botero. It is definitely worth a visit and if you don’t know anything about Botero before you go there, you will be surprised. I didn’t know any of Botero’s art and was very amused that he solely produces art about fat people and fat animals. It looks really different to any art you’d normally see in museums.
Back in the hostel everyone staying there was hanging out at the bar and I met Dimi, a German-greek, who wanted to go to Medéllin the next day and had an extra plane ticket from his friend, who lost his passport in the US and had to fly back home. He offered me the ticket and we planned to go to Medellín together. We tried to change the name on the ticket to my name, but even with the help of our colombian host we were not able to change it online or via call center. So we figured we’d just go to the airport and try to change it there. We didn’t think the language barrier would be such a big deal at the airport.
Assuming we would just make it work somehow, we went to the airport the following morning. Imagine five airport staff girls standing behind two counters in front of you, looking at you in utter disbelief and confusion. Dimi and me gave our best, until eventually they found a staff member, whose repertoire of english vocabulary included ‘name – ticket – change’, but nothing else. It turns out we would have needed a written letter of the guy whose name was on the extra ticket, that approves the name changing. We knew there was a chance of these events, so our plan B was that Dimi flies to Medéllin, the extra ticket is a no-show and I’d buy a new ticket and we’d meet in Medéllin again. You win some, you lose some. I was not sad or anything. I got a ticket for a flight 40 minutes later and off we took to the city formerly best known for Pablo Escobar.
The flights take around 1.5h and cost between 50-80 US$, while the bus takes around 7 h and costs 20 US$. It took us about 2 h to get from the airport to El Poblado in Medellín with dead-end annoying traffic.
El Poblado is a quarter in more developed Medellín, where the majority of foreigners stay and where most latin clubs, bars, restaurants are. It is a nice mix between locals and foreigners. Without a doubt, Parque Lleras in El Poblado is the place to be on weekends. It’s a park surrounded with bars and clubs, where locals and foreigners alike, meet up to hangout, drink rum and then move on to the clubs. The level of safety is pretty high, as there are guards everywhere(!).
Medellín’s haunting past has one tragic figure, that is without a doubt the source of their darkest hour. Everyone heard about the late cartel boss and drug lord Pablo Escobar. He is known to have been one of the wealthiest man in the world with an estimated value of many billions, at a time when Bill Gates still drank baby milk. Many hostels offer Pablo Escobar tours. Dimi and me went on this tour and didn’t really know what to expect. We figured they would just show us some streets and places where he has been or lived. We got a lot more than we thought.
The first stop has been the biggest Medellín graveyard, where we visited his grave. It is a really beautiful graveyard and his grave is not pumpous but simple and plain. During the next stop we barely got out of our mini van, as we just passed by a building, where Escobar had one of his many offices. Really not interesting. But the third and final stop was the highlight. We visited one of his houses, that is now a museum and most of the stuff from back then is still the same. You see two cars, his white jetski and bullet holes from various shootings. The most impressive spot in the whole place has been the garden. This house is on a hill and from the garden and you are able to see a small airplane landing strip on another hill. We were told Escobar sat there drinking coffee and watching plane after plane take off with loads of cocaine. Usually the brother of Pablo, Roberto, is in the house and talks to tour groups, but apparently he hasn’t been around when we visited.
Colombians are proud and passionate and they are past these dark days and hours. Medellín is the only city in Colombia that has a metro and locals are very proud of it. Nobody would ever do acts of vandalism there. The metro is a genius idea, as it connects to cable cars that go up to the surrounding hills around Medellín, where the poor slums and areas are. You should only go there though, if you speak spanish, as this places have a real sketchy reputation. Or you stay in the cable car and just enjoy the views and do a quick detour to enjoy Medellín by night, which looks amazing with all the hills lightning up.
An awesome experience was the free walking tour around Medellín with Real City Tours. It lasted for about 4 hours and the guide gave us a real insight into the past about the Escobar days, FARC, paramilitaries, how people were affected during these sad days and how it has influenced their way of life. We visited places you normally wouldn’t go to and experienced the real Medellín first-hand.
One of those places, that had the biggest impact on me, was a small church with a gorgeous little park in front. Our guide narrated that locals don’t want foreigners to come here, because they are ashamed of that place. The little park is known for hosting drug addicts, homeless people and prostitutes seeking safety from the church and their belief. It is also a place where we were not feeling safe. Even our local guide put his bag on his front and while he told us how men have sex with the prostitutes in the houses next to the church and then go to the church and pray for their souls, a tiny, but old colombian appeared and talked to us for a bit. Many of the people in the group were worried about him and felt unsafe in that sketchy area, but then our guide translated. He said that he thanks us for coming to Colombia and loves us for being interested in learning about their history and culture. But he also said we should watch our bags as pickpocketing is common in especially this area.
I can’t express how much I enjoyed my time in Medellín. There is so much positive energy, enthusiasm, rum, latin music and life on every corner, that it made me stay for the rest of my trip in Medellín and I definitely will come back to explore much more of Colombia.
Colombia had the wrong reputation for a long time now, but it improves, not only their soccer team. Colombians are proud of their country and every bit of it is beautiful. Drink rum, learn spanish, dance to latin music and enjoy the pulsating heat of the country with the most beautiful women of the world. (True story!)