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Holding hands with thieves and other stories: Adventures in glorious Medellin

Anyone know anything about Medellin?

This city is probably the reason most of our friends looked at us like we were crazy when we said we would be traveling to South America–particularly Colombia. If you told me what you knew about Colombia, I know most of you would say…

Salsa dancing!

Sarcasm aside, Medellin, known today for its engaging, wild culture and inventive public transit (and so much more), was once… the murder capitol of the world! Anyone watch Narcos? Escobar killed over 1,000 police men, candidates died left and right, the city was in shambles. Meanwhile, most of Escobar’s product was shipped overseas–power and violence, supply and demand.

But that was the old days.

Today, Colombians really don’t like talking about those times. In fact, they hate Narcos for more reasons than the main actor’s Brazillian accent. Any small amount of research will tell you that Colombia has improved dramatically since the Escobar days, but their reputation still doesn’t match its current state. A show like Narcos hasn’t helped, so please when you watch it, remember it is the past. We wouldn’t want foreigners to think of the US as a society that oppresses marginalized groups even though said oppression doesn’t exist anymore. Oh wait…

Look, I’m not saying Medellin perfect. There still are drug cartels and guerrilla groups that hold power and create violence, but the state of this city is vastly safer than it was 20+ years ago. Now, after being here for almost a month, I just have the utmost, mad respect for the people here. Colombians have really pulled themselves out of hearwrenching times and continue to grow. Plus, the locals, especially the paisas (a name for people in the Antioquia region) in Medellin, are damn fun.

Put Colombia on your bucket list.


We expected (hoped) to make new friends on this trip, but we didn’t expect reunions between old ones. Jackson, one of Paul’s best friends in high school, whom he hadn’t seen in 10 years, happened to be living in Medellin during the time of our travels. By the time Paul and I arrived in Medellin, it was Jackson’s final week in Colombia. He was kind enough to show us some of the greatest spots in the city during the day and invite us out at night. In Bogota we were somehow lucky enough to find Didier to show us around, and in Medellin, we found that in Jackson.

And I got to learn so much more, not just about Medellin’s sordid past, but Paul’s. It was a good time, and that’s all I will say about that.

El Cerro de las Tres Cruces

One of the first few days we were in town, Jackson took us on a hike to the top of the Three Crosses Hill… not appropriately named, in my midwest opinion, as it was less of a hill and more of a mountain. Despite that, our hike was so worth it! We went early enough in the morning, so we found ourselves surrounded by just the fittest in the city. Every step we climbed, the view increased in beauty. Fog lay so thickly along the horizon that sunlight was obscured during our climb. And ahead of us, we could barely see the other mountains within the same range except one peak poking through clouds. The mountainside was lush with the greenest, most wild grass, and cows grazed brazenly along the steep slopes.

There was just one problem.

You see, Jackson was a whole league of fitness ahead of both Paul and myself. We currently carry our share of fluff, and we were hiking with a man so fast, so un-winded by this hike, that it was impossible for us to keep up. It was like he was walking on a personal escalator the way he glided majestically to the top. Meanwhile, pobre Paul was wet, wheezy mop, and my legs screamed with every step. Luckily we eventually met Jackson at the top before sauntering home in the hot sun.

Comuna 13

Medellin is sort of at the bottom of a fish bowl, flanked by mountains around all sides. Some of the poorest neighborhoods are built right into the mountainside. Comuna 13 is one such neighborhood. It also used to be one of the most dangerous places in all of Medellin, but today, though still impoverished, it’s less violent. And they welcome tourism. I won’t go into depth about this neighborhood’s history on this blog, but please look it up, as it is fascinating.

Part of what makes Comuna 13 so unique is its transportation system. Medellin is the only city in Colombia with a metro system, and many of the neighborhoods and one national park are connected to the metro via cable cars that soar above the mountain, allowing you a bird’s eye view of the city while using public transit. The people of Comuna 13 decided they didn’t want a gondola. They wanted escalators. So, embedded into the outdoor mountainside are escalators covered in bright orange awnings that take you near the top of the mountain.

In addition, the Comuna 13 has beautiful wall-to-wall graffiti that endlessly winds through the narrow streets. Each piece is dedicated to the dynamic history of Medellin and the neighborhood itself, as well as its hopes for the future. This is a must-see if in Medellin, though I would recommend a tour if you do not speak Spanish or have a friend who already knows a lot about the neighborhood. Keep your wits about you, and as always, no des papaya, as the Colombians say. (Don’t give papaya, don’t give people an opportunity to steal from you.)


Jackson is an incredible salsa dancer, especially for someone as tall and glaringly white ;). (Please keep reading this blog, Jackson!) He invited Paul and I out dancing at DanceFree, a studio/bar in the Poblado neighborhood that hosts frequent free classes. It was nuts. On a Thursday, the room was completely packed. I couldn’t actually see the instructors’ feet, so I had to follow the footsteps of a girl in front of me. Paul didn’t want to dance. Honestly, it was a good thing because from the center of the crowd, I was overheating, so I can’t imagine what he would have done. We all still had a blast. I learned salsa from some Colombian boys with braces while Paul sipped a couple of Colombia’s finest (lightest) beers.

Later in the week, Jackson’s roommate invited us to what he thought was going to be a calm going-away party.

Nope. Aguardiente, “firewater,” the black-licorice paisa specialty was poured all around. And soon thereafter, with reggaeton bumping so loudly the door was literally vibrating, and the music audible throughout the entire neighborhood (at 1 AM), we were dancing. More than once I thought just how many times the cops would have been called if this situation were to occur in the US, at least in my city, yet no one said a word. This music was as common as the morning aguacate and tamale salesmen using megaphones to magnify their monotone voices. At first, I was worried that the people with megaphones were some government or guerilla agents, as I was not accustomed to megaphones being used for unofficial business. But nah, just a guy trying to sell his avocados.

I was very proud when Jackson’s roommate, albeit drunk, told me my dancing was so good, that I was paisa. YES.

Also, for those of you wondering, I thankfully did not get Cinco-de-Mayo-throw-up-at-Cub-Foods drunk. Phew.


One of the coolest things we saw while in Medellin–and Colombia– was El Peñon de Guatape. You’ve probably seen photos of it on the Internet. It was only a two-hour bus ride from Medellin. The Rock of Guatape, also known as La Piedra, reaches 2,135 m (7,005 ft), and in order to baske in the incredible view from the top, you must earn it. A vein of switchback staircases run back and forth from the base to the top. 740 steps in total. #stairday

According to the all-mighty Wikipedia, this magnificent rock, now belonging to the city of Guatape, used to also belong to the nearby city of El Peñol. Both cities fought endlessly about whose rock it really was, so one day citizens of Guatape aimed to paint, in giant letters, the name “Guatape” on the rockface. They didn’t get past the G and part of a U (looks like GI), before a Peñol protest stopped the painting from continuing.

Thievary, almost

To get to Guatape, we followed this article almost exactly. From our hostel we took the metro to the north bus terminal. The metro in Medellin is the cleanest public transit train I have ever seen. Our free walking tour guide enthusiastically explained that the metro is so immaculate because its conception and creation shaped the development of modern-day Medellin. The citizens respect the train so much that they keep it tidy.

However, despite its look, there are still people desperate enough to attempt theft. I want to emphasize that this is something that could happen anywhere, it is not a reflection of Medellin itself nor Colombia as a whole. I was hesitant to post about this because I don’t want whoever reading this to feel as if I am insulting Medellin. That is not it, whatsoever. I loved my time in this city. I am writing about it because it didn’t actually happen, because robbery is a common happenstance for many backpackers worldwide, and most of all because it’s kind of funny.

We did everything you’re supposed to do. Backpacks on your front, phones in your front pockets or bags. Yet, a friendly, yet rough-looking man, appeared as the train pulled into the station. Charmingly, he shuffled us off the platform and through the opening doors as if he were worried that the tourists wouldn’t make it onto the train in time. We boarded. At the next stop, the man left the train. Paul looked at me. “That man tried to rob me,” he said.

Photos from the town of Guatape

Paul later explained that the Trader-Joe’s-friendly man, who draped his coat over one arm, sneakily reached behind his jacket into Paul’s front pocket. This strategy is usually effective, because the coat, when rubbed lightly along the victim’s body, creates a tactile destraction, so you don’t notice when a wandering finger enters your pocket and pulls out your possessions without you feeling a thing.

Luckily, Paul is a hypersensitive person who often feels the slightlest touches. He even thinks insects are crawling on him when they aren’t there. I don’t mean to say he should be in the hospital for seeing things that aren’t there, I just mean he is aware.

Paul slapped his pocket, thinking it was a mosquito. Instead, he found a fore- and middle finger of a stranger in his pants. You’re welcome for that wording. He gripped the man’s fingers tightly, but he slipped his away and yelled wildly before also boarding the train with us. Awkward. And Paul glared angrily at him until he left.

We didn’t say anything, because we didn’t know how, and we didn’t have evidence.

In the end, though, this was the only person we’ve met whose been anywhere near this malicious. Instead, countless people have gone out of their way to help us when we’ve been lost or confused. Unfortunately, poverty is still a huge problem in Medellin, and thievery from rich tourists is a consequence. This poverty shouldn’t be exploited nor ignored.

This story is sort of a metaphor for Medellin itself, like the Botero “Birds of Peace” statues in San Antonio Plaza. In 1995, an iconic artist’s bronze statue exploded during a concert. 23 people were killed that night. The city then decided it should remove the statue, as it was reminder of violence, but Botero, the artist himself, called the city and stopped them. He said that Medellin needed to remember what happened, it needed to honor its past. In 2000, he added a second bird statue, and it resides next to the first. The past, the future.

Nothing is perfect in any city, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel, that you should look down on a place in which you were robbed.

Election and World Cup

We happened to be in Medellin for two rather significant events, the presidental election, and the World Cup.

My aim here is not to talk about Colombian politics, but instead tell you about how bizarre that day was. Our friends that we met in Villa de Leyva were to be meeting us in Medellin the weekend of the election, a Sunday. They wanted to do Medellin right–and party! However, in Colombia, there are dry laws during the election. Thus, bars were closed, and alcohol could not be bought between Saturday at 6 PM and Monday at 6 AM. Sort of a let down for backpackers ready to drink the night away.

Villa de Leyva loves

On Sunday, Paul and I rode the metro all day long (no issues with robbery despite being in an insanely crowded train and queuing for hours on end). The train was free due to the election, so everybody and their grandmother was out and about. Interestingly, I didn’t see any polling places.

Shops were closed, as well as many restaurants. But people were out. Every train was so humid, not from the weather, but due to the sheer amount of people inside them. Boarding the cable cars required intense patience as we all had to stand in a line that snaked throughout the entire terminal just to get onto the gondolas. Eventually, we found ourselves headed up and over the mountain. And we spent the afternoon hiking through a massive national park. I can sufficiently say, I had never before entered a park via cable car. It was awesome, except for the red-headed dude singing off-key the entire way. La musica gratis.

View from the gondola

On Tuesday, we watched the Colombian vs. Japan match at 7 AM. It was opposite of the election day, as I’m pretty sure restaurants with TVs opened early. The city was decked out in yellow jerseys. We went to the stadium near our hostel, and the game was being projected in front of a crowd. People were serving beer (which I, in broken Spanish, dubbed “cervesa desayuno”), bananas and papayas. And the crowd animated every pass, block, and goal. It was so exciting to be a part of it. Too bad they lost.

Shortly thereafter, Paul and I boarded a 9-hour bus from hell. But that story is for next time.

Also, Paul wants you all to know he found an Andean Motmot. It’s a bird.


2 thoughts on “Holding hands with thieves and other stories: Adventures in glorious Medellin

  1. Awesome post. We were there in April and we found it to be such a diverse city. Our favourite thing about Medellin was all of the great places to explore around it. Have been to Jardín?


    1. Thank you for your comment!! Glad to hear you guys had a good time in Medellin too. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go to Jardin. We just left Salento and are heading south. Have a good rest of your trip!


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