Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sleepless in Medellín

Medellín has quite the reputation. In the United States many people think of it as a dangerous city because not long ago it was the home of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. In Colombia it is known as a city with beautiful weather and women. As I’ve discovered with many things in Colombia, being here is often very different from what I’ve heard. One of my students, who grew up in Medellín, often tells me that it is the best city. In fact, Medellín was my first choice, but because of work I moved to Bogotá. Nevertheless, I wanted to see it for myself. Since I had to fly from Bogotá to Medellín before returning to the U.S. for Christmas, I decided to push my flight back a day and spend the night....

Because it was the holiday, many hotels were fully booked. When you travel really, really cheap, things like this don’t apply to you. Hence, I found a hostel a couple blocks from the best bars and restaurants in town. I was excited to visit Medellín as it had rained each afternoon virtually every day for the previous two weeks in Bogotá. When I left yesterday, of course, it was beautiful weather. The flight between Bogotá and Medellín was breathtaking, even though it took less than an hour. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera on me to take photos of the low puffy white clouds, and the different shades of green farmland that looked like a giant quilt laid over the mountains.

My student’s friend, Fredy, picked me up at the airport. He had a small sedan that looked brand new. I asked him if he was renting it. He said he had owned it for years. Then I looked around the airport parking lot. All the cars were clean, quite the opposite of Bogotá. The weather too was warmer and felt great. Fredy chauffeured me around Llano Grande, a lush, green countryside about 40 minutes from Medellín. He pointed out several farms owned by President Alvaro Uribe, a Medellín native. Many of the farms contained greenhouses for flowers. While most Colombians live in cities, the countryside is simply beautiful and necessary to visit.

On our way into Medellín I told Fredy I wanted to stop at a good restaurant for bandeja paisa, a typical dish from that region. It’s not the healthiest food, but it is tasty and will fill up the largest of potbellies. It has an assortment of different food on a big tray. In particular, I enjoy the large beans, which is not common in Bogotá. As we rode down the steep, winding road above Medellín, Fredy pulled over near a restaurant; it was across from the full parking lot. The restaurant stood at the edge of the hill, providing a great view of the city. I don’t recall the name of it but the food was what I expected, leaving me satisfied. As I was eating, an old man with a goatee walked in with his family. “That is Botero,” Fredy said. Fernando Botero, a Medellín native, is the Pablo Picasso of Colombia. He’s probably as well known as the president. His trademark is painting and sculpting chubby people, which can be seen in many walls, parks, and museums. I first thought he was pulling my leg, but he said it with a serious face. Looking at several photos on the internet I can confidently say Fredy was right. I was a little shocked. It’d be like seeing Pablo Escobar 20 years earlier.

Though I was dining with the famous, I was staying with the common folk. Casa Kiwi is a clean and welcoming hostel. They have common rooms and private rooms. The common rooms were the only ones available. Hence I had to sleep on a bunk-bed in a room with 10 guys. When I arrived, the room was empty. Like I usually do when I visit a new city, I took a stroll around town. Though there was a lot of traffic, it was much less than Bogotá. The metro system was great, fast and spotless. I rode it north, where I took a cable (like some ski resorts have) up to the top of a hill called Santo Domingo. It was a poor neighborhood and reminded me a lot of the Santo Domingo neighborhood in Bogotá. It was a bustling place with Christmas decorations and people in a festive mood. Only two days earlier the local soccer team, Atlético Nacional, won the national professional league championship. I walked to the edge of a dirt road where I could take a good photo of the Medellín valley. Near the edge, several young kids were drinking and smoking weed. They were happy to pose for a photo. Then one of the kids, Pedro, put his arm around me and offered me some alcohol. I declined his repeated offers as I smelled the alcohol on his breath. Nevertheless, he led me to his mother’s home, near the top of the hill. Granted they were very poor – a tin roof and several children in one bed. It wasn’t much of a shock. I had seen the same thing in Bogotá. His mother looked nothing like him and had much darker skin. Yet she said he was his son. She welcomed me into her home and seemed very subdued compared to her hyperactive son. I took some photos and chatted with them for a while. Then it grew dark and I headed back down the cable. Pedro asked me for some money so he could take a ride but I didn’t want to hang out with a 18-year-old drunkard all night so I declined his request. On the cable I met a young local couple and they asked me where I was going. I told them to see the river and the Christmas lights. They were going to the same place. Thus, I had local guides.

For those outside Colombia, Medellín at Christmas time is one of the most lavishly decorated cities in the world. Río Medellín runs through the city and about two miles of it is decorated with strings of lights that change colors in random sequences. There are hundreds of Christmas trees and other decorations that line the river. It takes two months to setup and two months to take down. Paisas are serious about Christmas. A small colonial village on the hill near the river is called Pueblito Paisa. Though small, it took me an hour to appreciate the decorations as seen in the photos below:

The river was still the main attraction. Walking shoulder-to-shoulder along the side of it, hundreds of vendors were grilling food and selling nicknacks. I had a few beers with my new friends. Though what I needed was an energy drink.

By the end of the walk my legs were sore. We parted ways at the metro with the notion that I was going to go to bed so I could wake up early to go paragliding.

Five minutes after walking into my hostel bedroom I knew that wasn’t happening. There were a couple guys from Seattle, a few from England, and one from Australia, talking on and on about the women they had met along their travels. By then I had realized that Medellín women were better looking than those in Bogotá. It was only after we went to several bars and clubs that I realized they were some of the best looking women I had ever seen. Unlike Bogotá, most of the people living in Medellín grew up there, and for some reason it is a city with a really good-looking gene pool. For the sake of space and my own personal discretion, I won’t go into details about my night. I can only say that I had planned on having a few beers and nodding off at one or two. My night, or morning, ended with one of the guys from Seattle saying let’s chuck a beer before we head to bed. The girl at the front desk told me later that she had tried to wake me up to go paragliding but that I didn’t respond. It was a great night, only next time I’ll make sure to get a private room.


DianaCats said...

I'm glad cause it seems you had a really good time in Medellín; but why seeing Botero was like seeing Escobar 20 years earlier? I would be happy if I ever meet Fernando Botero (I haven't!).

Anyway, sadly you just stay one night. If you ever come again let me know ok? Maybe I could go paragliding too! :)

Brett Garamella said...

Hi DianaCats, I'm glad you're still checking out my blog. Yes, Medellín was a blast. Next time I visit we'll go paragliding!
As for the Botero/Escobar comment... I was implying that Botero's notoriety in Medellín today is equivalent to Escobar's fame 20 years ago. Maybe it's a bad comparison. Anyhow, you live in a great city... I'm jealous of your weather and metro system.

Anonymous said...

Stupid white boys stay out of our country

Anonymous said...

I am glad you enjoyed Medellin. I hope next time you can stay for more than just one night. There is more to Medellin than meets the eye.

Anonymous said...

Come on! how can you compare Botero to Pablo Escobar?! And just so you know.. Botero didnt just became famous. he's been a VERY successful artist for a while now... probably more than 20 years.

Medellin Tours said...

Botero, Escobar, Paragliding... Don't forget Salsa, Tango, Shopping... There is actually quite a lot to do in Medellin.

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