A Month of Fun in Medellin

It’s been quite some time since I last posted. Nearly a whole month. It’s all gone by so quickly, and yet at the same time, I’m still in the same city. I knew when I arrived in Medellin that I was going to spend some time here but the ease and speed with which I settled and established routines was rather scary.

I’ve spent just over a month living almost precisely as I had been when I was back in London. Keeping myself busy by day (although here with Spanish lessons rather than a job) and going out with friends, eating and drinking, by night. Before I took a break from my four weeks of Spanish lessons last week, I was getting into the process of collecting regular(ish) haunts – El Callejon, a slightly grimy local reggaeton bar that I never intended to go to, but always ended up in of a Friday night. Son Havana, a salsa bar in the Laureles neighbourhood, became my Wednesday night home. After establishing the first week that I really truly couldn’t dance (in the process clearing a nearby table of a couple of drinks), I spent the following weeks watching the more experienced regulars twisting and turning each other around to the music, looking totally spontaneous and exquisitely precise at the same time.

But back to tourism. Last week, a group of us who had lived in the same apartment block decided to take a break from our lessons to be proper tourists in Medellin. A four day itinerary was written, rewritten, complained about, and shifted around a bit more. On Monday morning, we set off on our first excursion of the week: to leap off San Felipe mountain with only a piece of flimsy fabric overhead to keep us from certain death. Or, paragliding.

After a long bus journey and gruelling scramble up to top, we each had a giant backpack and a pilot attached to us with a series of buckles. Then, without further ado, we were told to run full speed towards the edge of the mountain. Limbs flailed and feet tripped each other up, but then the parachute caught the air and lifted us powerfully upwards. I sometimes get nervous standing on balconies because I become convinced that I’m going to spontaneously topple over and plummet to my death so I had no idea how I’d react to the precarious heights of paragliding. But the smoothness of the flight, and the fact that I was almost foetally strapped onto the pilot, made the whole thing an incredible experience, and not at all scary.

We drifted over the mountains and I saw tumbling waterfalls, verdant forests, distant fincas and, less appealingly, what my friend told me afterwards was a battery chicken farm. We drifted easily upwards on the thermals and I could see for miles and miles across the city – a view that I’m in danger of taking for granted in Medellin where you seem to be able to gorge on mountain views across the city every five minutes.

Towards the end of my 20 minute flight, I witnessed my friend ahead of me spinning rapidly in large loops on his way back down to the landing point. “Do you want to do some tricks too?” my pilot asked, noticing me watching. “No thanks no, thanks. No.” I regret it somewhat now, but the only thing going through my mind at the time was “What’s the etiquette when vomiting from several hundred feet?”

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Day two. We took a two hour bus to Santa Fe de Antioquia – formally the capital of Antioquia and the ‘mother city’ of Medellin. I ate some soggy chips and then we wandered the streets, following the numbered spots on a map of the town we’d been given at the tourist office. Most of these referred to the old homes of prominent local people long dead. Spot four was now a mattress shop. A few stops later on the tour, we found ourselves peering into the local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous. Still, there were some beautiful squares and cobbled streets. We saw several churches – from the outside only, because they were only open at the weekend. We also took a short taxi ride out of the town to the Puente de Occidente which holds the solid claim to fame of being the ex-third biggest bridge in the world. Our driver spoke to us rapidly in Spanish about the engineer of the bridge. I gathered that he was a very intelligent, raging alcoholic who played the violin. The engineer, that is. Although the taxi driver may well have been for all I understood.

On Wednesday, we took the cable car up the slopes of the mountain to Santa Domingo. In Medellin, the higher up the mountains you go, the poorer the neighbourhoods become, and Santa Domingo is an example of this. The two cable car routes in Medellin are a relatively recent addition to the city and were built to ensure that even those in the poorest neighbourhoods can get into the centre easily and quickly. They have been a great leap forwards in reducing the isolation that those communities can suffer from.

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In a similar fashion, we took a rambling route to another poorer neighbourhood, Comuna 13. Here, instead of cable cars, urban escalators scale the heights of the mountain sides and make access easier for those in the remote areas. It was a rather gruelling walk, largely because none of us knew the way, but also because the roads to the escalators are steep themselves. After an hour of steep climbs and fruitless dead ends, as the sky was getting darker and the stares from locals getting longer, I was pretty convinced that my 27 years on the earth had furnished me with enough experience of escalators to give this one a miss. Fortunately, the other members of my group disagreed and we eventually made it. Riding up the five or so escalators to the top of the barrio, I was surprised with the care that was taken over the maintenance of the escalators They were staffed by proud looking Colombians in a uniform, and there was an office dedicated especially to their management. I’m hoping to do some volunteering at an organisation in Comuna 13 in coming weeks so will find out more about the role of the escalators in the community there.

 

Thursday morning was meant to be a trip round the museums of Medellin. However, in between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, Wednesday night happened. There was a rather empty bar in El Poblado where the service was all too attentive, a menu of adventurously named shots and a tired and weary group of travellers who took the path of least resistance: sitting there for hours, working the way through the laminated shot list like it was an exotic tasting menu. Fragments of memories of a taxi home. A deep sleep. The next morning, a hangover which slides easily into my top five of all time. Unbearable nausea. Intense loathing of daylight. Inescapable heat. Eating half an avocado balanced on my stomach in bed with my eyes closed in a vague apology/peace offering to my body. At one point around midday, I had a fleeting moment of panic that my heart had stopped and I genuinely couldn’t blame it.

That evening, we’d booked to go to El Cielo and I knew I had to get there. Recommended to us by an American traveller several weeks before, it was something that we had all been particularly looking forward to and an extravagant end to the week. Inspired by old Colombian recipes but aiming to create a complete ‘sensory experience’ the restaurant allows you to choose from two options – the trip (9 courses) or the journey (13). We opted for the shorter ‘trip’. The whole experience was beautifully presented with food courses interspersed with bizarre hand washing rituals. A crab empanada shaped like a cartoonish crab appealed massively to my inner child. A mound of juicy shredded beef drenched in truffle oil and hidden under a sheet of deep green spinach pasta paid homage to the Colombian mountains. And was immensely delicious. An inexplicable smoky tomato soup went unfinished because the apparent sensation of licking ketchup from an ash tray was totally lost on me.

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With all of us feeling extremely well fed and rather sleepy, the week of fun ended calmly with a shot of aguardiente for the road at a bar in Parque Lleras and early nights all round.

I have three weeks left in Medellin before my flight to Lima. I’ve had an amazing time here but I am coming to terms with moving on. The intensity of my first month here hit me somewhat over the weekend and I suffered a bit of a collapse of morale and my first bout of real homesickness. These next three weeks I have resolved to spend more calmly, taking more time to explore slowly on my own rather than barreling along at the breakneck speed of a group. And hopefully finding a bit more headspace to keep track of the experiences I’m having on here. I promise not to leave it a month next time…

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