Ah, Medellin... city of eternal spring, home to world-class architecture, public sculpture you can touch, a metro-line that moves people efficiently, a cable-line that carts buckets of citizens from the slums high on the hills to the valley below to work each day, amazing art, botanical gardens ... and home to the most notorious narcotrafficer of all. Medellin, was made famous around the world by Pablo Escobar. We almost went to see the movie about him at the mall, but opted to see "Sweeny Todd" instead.
Medellin was our destination for so long, and fortunately the city didn´t disappoint. Unfortunately, the "back-packer" tourists we did meet were another story. We spent a month in Colombia before laying eyes on another traveler and we were eager to find out what they had to say. What had they discovered that we should try? What places have they been? What have we missed? What have they found with the FARC and paramilitary situation? In a word, Nada.
Sadly, for many "back-packers", Medellin is still the narco-capital and many have come to party. Displaced frat boys buy their bags of coke, hang-out in trashed hostels, and spend their days recovering from the night before. We were hoping to meet kindred spirits and, but instead we only found the party crowd. Back-packers rarely go beyond the four main destinations of Bogota, Cartegena, Santa Marta and Medellin ... and above all, they don´t go anywhere the Lonely Planet guide book said was unsafe 4 years ago when it was poorly researched and badly written. What they've missed!
The guide book warns that the slums can be dangerous, but we rode the spectacular Metro-Cable to the top and actually got out and walked to the new Biblioteca de Espana. There we talked with school children practicing English, got a guided tour of the library which reminded us of our own Seattle Central library, and savored a perfect home-made coconut paleta (popsicle) before descending the cable to ride the metro across town. It was better than an E-ticket at Disneyland, and the tough guy travelers who pride themselves on not having been robbed yet, were afraid to get out of the tram. I chided them over beers around the pool that night, and then encouraged them again to get out and meet the real Colombia.
What saddens me, is that the people of Medellin, and Colombians in general, consider themselves very friendly and helpful, but the world doesn´t know it. The media would have us all believe that coke is still king, people are sill kidnapped every day, and roads are unsafe to travel. Friendliness is in their national identity though, and it's true to form for ALL people we have met.
Simply arriving in a city of 2.5 million people and trying to find a particular traveler's hostel is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. We relied on incomplete maps and kind directions from locals until a father and daughter team in a small toyota stopped us in our tracks and asked where did we want to go. We handed over the address and phone number and they quickly whipped out their cell phone, got directions, and drove their pilot car and we followed on bikes. THAT's friendliness! When we ventured to the metro, people again and again came to help, point the direction, and explained the system. When we told our hostel-mate Mike about it, he said that would never happen in NYC where he´s from.
Throughout our time in Colombia, many strangers have come to our aid. Others have simply thanked us for coming to visit their country. There's a general feeling that they want us to tell the rest of Americans ... the rest of the world, that Colombia is a good place. It's not all about drugs and terror. I feel for the national psyche as Colombia struggles to right the wrongs of narcotrafficers who terrorized this country. I see faces swell with pride when we tell inquisitive Colombians that we have only met kindness in our journey.
I see the back-packers traveling in some sort of parallel universe finding only the worst of Colombia and perpetuating a time most locals would rather forget. They do have stories of being robbed ... at 2am ... while trying to find their way home drunk, but that could be true in any city in the world. They've missed the coyboys riding into the town square, missed hot chocolate and panela, missed the helping had of someone showing them where a good hotel is. I think they've missed the heart of Colombia.