Medillin is a city unafraid to tell its story and bare its soul to outsiders.
Dancers see opportunity in the pause of a red traffic light. Love and creativity is present in every plate of food. Mangoes, julienned, for sale at every streetlight. And the sound of music everywhere.
Colombia is mystery as much as it is heart on a sleeve, with a collective desire to create, and an unconditional pallet on which to express the messages that serve to unite its people.
Colourful murals. Global music. Local veggies. Mouth-watering carne. Gurgling creeks. Mountain pathways. These are only glimpses of what Medillin is made of. A heart-beat pulses deep inside backroom cafes, on roof-top soccer fields, in the tent-cities of the homeless, floating above the Comunas on the metrocable, and with fruit vendors at every traffic intersection.
The view from our rented Medillin residence, the 16th floor of the Energy Living Building in the El Poblado neighbourhood, is an amphitheatre of thick morning mist making its way through the trees and the sea of red-brick apartment buildings in the city’s green valley. Some of the most stunning architecture I have ever seen is layered into the mountain-side above me. Flat-roofed homes with cantilevered rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, an impossible black grand piano built among jungle, inside, dance and music halls, workshop and rehearsal spaces, and an open-air auditorium.
Every morning, before we leave to find breakfast, we wait for the voice of the Scarlet Macaw, a bird with a brash tone and story-book coloured feathers. At around 9:00am, he comes to the same perch, bouncing the branch under his weight, making an occasional call that echoes into the ravine below. We wait in anticipation for him to lift off to see his full array of colours, a wingspan as bright as the Colombian flag against a grey sky.
There are many day trips to take from Medillin, one of which is visiting the colourful colonial town of Guatape. On the way, most tourists visit and climb El Penion, the second largest rock in the world. Seven-hundred-and-some steps up the side of the rock leads you to views of a beautiful “lake land” plentiful with islands and peninsulas and immaculately kept farm houses. Pillars support homes with panoramic views of tomato, bean, banana, and coffee bean plantations.
Medillin is divided into 16 Comunas. Comuna 13, in particular, has become a more recent tourist destination in the past six or seven years since the installation of six escalators easing the steep mountain-side climb, and according to our tour guide, has gained notoriety on social media because of its colourful street art, street performers and story to tell.
Walking around Comuna 13 feels a bit like walking through someone else’s documentary. I feel out of place and intrusive, watching the daily activities of a neighbourhood’s people hang their laundry, drink their morning coffee, and watch their children play in the skinny roadways. There is a sense of community, of residents looking out for each other—many exchange words or share a fist pump when they pass and then disappear into the maze of stairs and steep alleyways. But there is still a feeling of desperation, and of lines that cannot be crossed.
A short 15 years ago, a war broke out between paramilitaries and competing communist guerrilla groups who wanted control of some of comuna’s neighbourhoods. Gang members living in the area still collect “insurance” from local business owners and residents to protect their belongings and family members. Our tour guide tells us, two months ago, a guide was gunned down in front of his tourists after refusing to pay “insurance.” He also warns us not to tread past the invisible line between Independencia 2 into the more unpredictable and dangerous Independencia 3.
The beauty of this place is there is always new artwork to see. We are some of the first to see new murals that have been painted in the last few months, including the one of the Columbian girl above, where there was only grey concrete before, an indication that there can only be more colour that will come to define this neighbourhood.
Cali, with her unmatched passion on the dance floor and creativity in the kitchen, was enough for my cup to runneth over.
Our first impression of Cali is that it is going to be a long five days. On the outside, Cali is a quiet city with not a lot going on. When we get a map of the area and list of “things to do” from the hotel front desk, he points out a zoo, a river walk, and a hike up a hillside to see the Tres Cruces, none of which interests us (too sad, too buggy, and too hot, in that order).
Turns out, where Medillin has worked its way off the “50 most dangerous cities in the world” list, Cali has not. And it definitely has an edge. On the first night, after realizing we don’t have enough money to pay for our cash-only dinner, we make our way down some dark streets and across an overpass where overpass dwellers do what they do, to get cash from the closest cajero (ATM).
But we soon discovered the many gems of San Antonio. The days that follow our arrival here are pleasantly quiet and involve an intimate exploration of the neighbourhood. We come upon artistic cafes screening movies, traditional, meat-heavy Colombian dishes. We get to know a friendly owner in a corner panaderia, discover a hang-out of the late Anthony Bourdain, practice our Spanish, take salsa lessons, and, of course, see a Salsa show.
On a lazy morning, we wandered into Tierra Dentro Cafe & Co. as it was opening and sat talking with its owner for half an hour about his life in Colombia and the different ways they process coffee: “Natural,” “Lavado”, or “Washed”, and “Honey.”
Strolling the streets of San Antonio one morning after a salsa lesson, it occurred to me that Cali, with its many dancing studios and selection of group and individual lessons, and its long-list of delicious restaurants, coffee and desert spots, it is the perfect, quiet, culture-rich getaway.
I felt nothing but welcome in Colombia. Thank you to all the lovely people we met along the way in Medillin and Cali, and for making it a memorable experience.
Thank you, Colombia, for…
Keeping your pop in glass bottles
For waving white flags in your green valley
For turning your sadness into art, instead of more violence
For all your friendly faces
For selling fresh fruit instead of bar codes
For dancing your heart out and making me feel my soul
For your kindness and all your directions
For dancing at traffic lights
For your passion fruit and tree tomatoes
For giving us leg room and a sandwich on your domestic flights
For sharing your stories despite wanting to move on
For using your own currency
For teaching me to salsa
For Bandeja Paisa & Sancocho