Despite its dark past, Medellín, Colombia, remains one of Latin America’s great cities

Michael Krumholtz | March 20, 2017
Medellin

MEDELLÍN, Colombia – People here sing when they speak.

That iconic paisa accent, which extends the final syllables of given sentences or phrases, puts a charming twist on the Spanish language and adds a siren song to a city gaining international recognition after decades of unwanted notoriety.

Whether the locals are praising something (“Tan bacanooo,” “So cool”) or lamenting something else (“Que pesaaaar,” “That sucks”), the rhythmic inflection remains a beautiful constant no matter the mood, like a jazz sax going from upbeat to melancholic in the same swirling improv.

Medellin
Medellín's MetroCable commutes users from the hillsides to the city center. Michael Krumholtz/The Tico Times

Behind the best songs are heartbreak and tragedy. In this sense, few cities know the blues more than the inhabitants of the world’s former murder capital. Once synonymous with drugs and bloodshed, and the recent winner of the biennial World City Prize that is routinely mentioned as one of the planet’s most innovative cities, Medellín now provides an unbelievably vibrant and colorful stage for the increasing number of foreign visitors it’s now receiving.

As I rode into Medellín from the airport at night with my girlfriend Jacque – a native of the “City of Eternal Spring” – and three of her friends who picked us up, they casually pointed out the advances making Medellín so modern. A new bridge (one of the largest in Colombia) and the diverse public transport options, like the Metro and the MetroCable chair lift, have helped revolutionize the city.

While they showed me these innovations, of which they are understandably proud, I found myself more struck by a simpler observation. There are people everywhere out in the streets.

In any given barrio at any hour in Medellín, you’ll see women gossiping on their porches, friends drinking together out in the open on plastic chairs, and children playing soccer in gated fields.

“The communities have been the ones really responsible for the city’s turnaround. Corrupt politicians and street crime still exist, but it’s being kind of mitigated by the strength of the communities,” our friend Andrés said as we were plunging into the heart of the valley, surrounded by a spectacular wall of lights from the city’s landscape, which reaches up and over mountainsides so steep it seems incredible that the buildings don’t slide right off in a light wind.

In the daytime, Medellín’s lateritious sprawl of houses in the skinny valley sets a gorgeous and entirely apt setting for a city on the rise.

If there is a constant in truly great cities it’s that the neighborhoods in the metro area become their own pockets of personality. This is particularly true in Medellín’s case where, for example, the more upscale and touristy El Poblado feels entirely different than the Laureles commune, where you can catch one of Medellín’s two soccer teams playing and later head to Carrera 70’s string of bars for a postgame celebration.

Medellin
Checking out an Atlético Nacional match at Atanasio Girardot Stadium downtown. Michael Krumholtz/The Tico Times

One common characteristic between the differing neighborhoods is the nightlife. Though the two communes mentioned are some of Medellín’s most well-regarded for nighttime fun, anywhere you go here you’ll find people ready to socialize.

Did I mention people are out in the streets constantly?

One Friday night we went to Sabaneta, a small municipality about 20 minutes from Medellín’s center, where the streets were packed with people drinking and dancing. Dominated by a white church in the middle of town, the rest of the landscape was pure, old-fashioned hedonism. Bars were filled with people spilling out every which way, and food stands with grilled meat wafted up amazing scents into the air.

Medellin
Partying paisa-style in Sabaneta. Michael Krumholtz/The Tico Times

This is the other thing that makes Medellín so magical: the food.

Since it’s the food I eat at home, I was lucky enough to have a cheat sheet and know what to expect – or more importantly, how much to expect – when it comes to the country’s cuisine. Breakfast usually consists of reheated rice and beans, a protein like pork, cheese, and an arepa — the flour patty that is so culturally ingrained into the Antioquia region that a popular expression states someone or something is más paisa que la arepa.

Medellin
Relaxing at Parque de los Pies Descalzos (aka "Barefoot Park") where you're encouraged to take your shoes off and dip them in the different water sources throughout the park. Michael Krumholtz/The Tico Times

If you’re not ready to go back to bed already after all that food, then just wait until lunch hits you.

The traditional bandeja paisa is a smorgasbord of glorious excess that epitomizes the quantity, and non-complex quality, of Colombian food. The dish features not only everything you just had for breakfast, but three types of meat (usually chicharrón, blood sausage and ground beef), as well as fried plantain, avocado, and even a fried egg.

Colombians, it turns out, are the only people capable of turning gluttony into a virtue.

Medellin
A delicious fish stew in La Minorista marketplace. Michael Krumholtz/The Tico Times

These traditional dishes, along with sancocho – Colombia’s take on chicken stew – show off the mountainous influences of a people that need food to be cheap yet filling enough to fuel a day’s work.

Another great influence comes from the coasts. During our visit, we wandered into a Caribbean restaurant in downtown’s La Minorista, one of Medellín’s large market plazas, that was recommended to us by a friend who runs his own stand at the plaza.

During a birthday lunch for my girlfriend’s mom, I put my trust in the family to order for me at La Sazón de Mila. This is not a place you’ll find on TripAdvisor, but it’s well worth the hunt.

Medellin
The calentado ("reheated"), a common breakfast in Colombia made of leftover beans and rice, served often with meat and an arepa. Michael Krumholtz/The Tico Times

Four Caribbean women cooking inside the stall crowded with customers was a good sign. Then came the swarms of food. There wasn’t even enough room on our table for all the dishes, drinks, and condiments that the women piled in front of us.

Our starter was, by a good margin, the best dish I had during my time in Colombia. The huge caldo de pescado (fish stew) was a mix of simple citruses and herbs with yuca, plantain, and fish bits that all somehow combined to make flavors I had never tasted before. We then feasted on whole fried tilapia and a side of mazamorra, milk with maize grains that is eaten with a spoon like baby food.

As unspectacular as all these dishes may sound in style, they deliver incredibly impressive taste.

Medellin
The amazing platano with shredded cheese and a sweet guava jelly at a popular food stand downtown. Michael Krumholtz/The Tico Times

That’s really what Colombian cuisine and culture are. There are these common ingredients that you see everywhere in Latin America, but it’s the mixture of them all together in such an audacious amount for a cheap price that makes Colombia special.

These are foods so unpretentious and yet so natural to the environment here that it makes ad phrases like “artisan” and “farm-to-table” sound hilarious and obsolete. We’re talking about simple grains, simple proteins and a solid amount of fruits and vegetables that produce delicious results.

That’s why some of the best foods here, like in anywhere in the world, are made at home. A lunch at my in-laws’, a home with a back alley entrance in a neighborhood adjacent to Pablo Escobar’s old stomping grounds that used to be the most dangerous area in the city, was another simple but fantastic meal.

“Look at Michael being so humble,” Jacque’s aunt said to the family as I eagerly took down a huge bowl of reheated red beans, rice and the always delicious chicharrón.

This was the word – “humilde,” or “humble” – that people kept bringing up to me in Colombia, as if I was constantly being tested as a Gringo to see how stuck up or conceited I was.

Medellin
A day trip to Guatapé is well worth the two-hour drive. Michael Krumholtz/The Tico Times

Colombia has improved, to be sure, in terms of street violence. But this is still a third-world country where a lot of people have very little. The working wages here are terrible, which is why everything for foreigners seems so cheap.

When I was in Medellín, it marked the beginning of the government’s planned peace deal with the notorious FARC, whose soldiers had begun to hand over weapons and reintegrate back to society, marking the supposed end to a 50-plus-year civil war.

The city strongly opposed the peace deal during last year’s nationwide vote, which rejected the deal before President Juan Manuel Santo pushed it through a subservient congress. Many here remain skeptical that peace will come or that the government has the capability to effectively ensure it.

On the verge of another hopeful era that marks a supposed end to a separate type of violence, Colombia’s often bloody history seems to be entering a more stable stage. Perhaps nowhere in the country is as representative of that turnaround as Medellín. A place once synonymous with images of bodies covered by bed sheets and countless flows of cocaine is redefining what it should be known for.

It’s no secret that it has suffered, but instead of trying to rewrite history or suppress an ugly and bloody past, it wears the scars with a blunt deference. When the friends I met here talked about Pablo Escobar or the decades of violence, they commented in very matter-of-fact ways, neither insulted that the subject came up nor trying to promote the cartel leader as a gimmick.

This whole place feels like a song waiting to be written. Neighborhoods that once made “bad neighborhoods” from other cities look like Disneyland now teem with Colombia’s great excesses of food and dance. A people and a city that have been to hell are the ones that ultimately know how to really enjoy the good times.

For me, it is the perfect Latin American city.

Coming to Medellín, I had heard a lot of hype about how great the city was. This constant praise came not just from my girlfriend, who will admit her hometown bias, but from North American travelers and Costa Rican friends that had come here and loved it.

It’s not just how surprisingly good the food is or how willing the people are to share their culture, or even how much there is to do here. It’s all of that coming together at once that makes Medellín beautifully contradict any of the preconceived thoughts people have of it.

Contact Michael Krumholtz at mkrumholtz@ticotimes.net

 

6 Comments »

  1. That is the best city of Colombia!
    No for the buildings and technology! For the people , smart,hard worker and never give up.

    QUE VIVA ANTIOQUIA!??

    Comment by Didier — March 20, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

  2. I know someone who lives & works in
    Medellin and she finds the people very
    Welcoming and the springlike weather
    Heavenly! She loves it & may never leave.

    I visited and stayed 2 weeks and wished I
    Could have stayed longer! Beautiful mountains,
    Delicious cuisine, friendly people and no
    Humidity or bugs! Prices of hotels, restaurants, clothing, etcetera are very reasonable.

    Can’t wait to go back!

    Comment by Nancy Adams — March 20, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

  3. Instpiring Thanks!

    Wanna be there

    Mike oregone

    Comment by Mike — March 21, 2017 @ 7:51 am

  4. I wish to make a visit; I wish to this entire part of the worlld, prosperity and peace through progress!
    Perhaps the time for a bit of ‘Americano’ influence has arrived?

    Pura Vida!
    Mjc

    Comment by Mike — March 22, 2017 @ 7:06 am

  5. My husband and I bought an apartment in Medellín last year after having searched all over Latin America for a sanctuary for part time retirement. I love this article for putting into words many of my own feelings about Medellín. I love our neighborhood (Carlos E Restrepo), I love our new friends and neighbors, I love the food, I love the metro system, the colorful celebrations, the weather and the affordability. I’m surprised so many folks are shocked that we’ve chosen Medellín as our second home. They still have in their minds visions of drug lords and bombs. I wish there were more articles published, like this one, that extols the virtues of our adopted city. Thanks for this!

    Comment by J. McBrady — April 9, 2017 @ 9:54 am

  6. […] – Mikael tipsar om mer läsning rörande Medellín, Colombia: Despite its dark past, Medellín, Colombia, remains one of Latin America’s great cities […]

    Pingback by Avsnitt 4 – Att vara digital nomad i Costa Rica | Svenska Nomader — April 11, 2017 @ 10:06 am

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