When I was a child, which was not so very long ago, the Colombian city of Medellin was one of the homicide capitals of the world.
Presided over by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, the city witnessed more than 6000 killings in 1991 alone.
It is amazing what a difference a couple of decades can make. Now Medellin stands as a beacon of hope to other cities currently in the throes of crisis.
This is not to pretend Medellin has transformed into a cosy destination. It is still a city with a hard edge to it and not without a sense of threat.
Walking around its rough and tumble centre P and I were very aware of the stares from many dispossessed individuals that followed us. I certainly would not venture out there at night.
Gringos do not appear to be a common sight in downtown Medellin. At least we didn’t see any, but then it was Easter Sunday, a strange day to be out exploring.
A sprawling dirty bric-a-brac market, displaying nothing any sane person would wish to buy, had taken over one of the main arterial roads and the strong smell of cannabis hung inescapable in the air.
It is a city in which at one moment the buildings look solid, the people friendly and you start to relax but then, 100 yards further, you suddenly sense the beginnings of a slum and wary eyes resting upon you.
“I don’t think this looks so good,” said P as we wandered through what had previously appeared to be a respectable barrio towards the Botanical Gardens.
“I feel like a lot of the people looking at us are thinking, ‘I would probably mug you, if I got a chance. I won’t right now because it’s daylight and there are a lot of people around, but if I came across you later on a quiet road, I would probably mug you.'”
He was probably right.
Moments later a scruffy individual with glazed eyes who appeared to be staggering a little dropped his lighter at our feet, as he bent unsteadily to save it a crack pipe was clearly evident in his grubby hand.
The Botanical Gardens when we reached them, mugging free, were lovely. Unsurprising given Medellin’s near perfect climate with daytime temperatures hanging around the balmy 25 degrees mark all year round, and the nights a comfortable 19 or 20.
Tropical plants grow here with a vengeance and would quickly reclaim the city given half a chance.
The centre sits festering in a bowl of land hemmed in by huge mountains thronging with vegetation, only held at bay by the steady stream of newcomers from the countryside in search of work. Favelas populate many of the steeper slopes but are no longer segregated from the city below thanks to a new cable car system linked to the metro. The richer neighbourhoods are also found on higher ground where the air is fresher. Huge high rise blocks glare down into the valley from the southern hills.
Most foreign visitors opt to stay in a buzzing little area called El Poblado, about three kilometres south of the centre. A lack of knowledge about the city’s geography prior to our arrival meant P and I were unaware this would be the best course of action and booked a guesthouse near the unappealing centre. But taxis are cheap and the hotel in question, Prado 61, delightfully quiet and comfortable.
We visited El Poblado on Sunday evening and were pleasantly surprised by its relaxed fun vibe. One of its two main plazas, the Parque Lleras is lined by bars and restaurants, their terraces invitingly lit up with fairly lights often wrapped around the many palm trees. A strange mixture of western pop and Colombian beats pour out into the square.
I am not yet ready to judge Medellin as a few factors, for which Medellin stands blameless, have marred our experience of the city so far.
Firstly we had a hellish journey getting here. After waking up at 5.30am on Saturday for a flight from Cuzco to Lima and then straight here we were told all flights were indefinitely delayed due to fog.
“Well, you can’t do anything about the weather,” said P with philosophical resignation.
We ended up having to fly to Lima, four hours later than planned then wait there for another few hours before flying to Bogota where we were finally able to board a flight to Medellin. The fact we were both bitterly hungover from too much wine topped off with Pisco sours the night before didn’t help.
We finally reached our Medellin hotel at about 1am on Sunday morning collapsing with tiredness.
Then yesterday, during our wanderings it became increasingly clear that P had finally succumbed to the dreaded tummy bug. Today he has been forced to remain in bed and near a loo all day. It has been my turn to be saintly.
So neither of us have fallen in love with Medellin but it has one more day to charm us before we head north to the coast. Here’s hoping.