By Flora Baker
Twenty years ago, tourists didn’t travel to Colombia. There were a number of reasons why: the threat of guerrilla warfare, the internal violence precipitated by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the burgeoning cocaine trade. Even now Colombia is dogged with stereotypical stories of how dangerous the country used to be, to the extent that telling friends and family I was travelling there alone prompted outcries of concern. But a foreign woman exploring Colombia by herself is not a rarity any more. In fact, it’s to be encouraged; I found myself loving the country so much that I returned three times over an eighteen-month period, and settled in Medellin for over three months.
What does Colombia have to offer?
A lot of foreign travellers are experiencing the same passion for Colombia that I have. The Caribbean coast tempts beach lovers, salsa dancers and those eager to explore ancient ruins and overgrown jungle. The bustling capital of Bogota is overflowing with quirky and cultural museums and galleries, and the mountainous coffee region in the centre of the country lets caffeine addicts explore some of the world’s best coffee plantations.
Medellin in particular is attracting a sizeable expat community, made up of American retirees, digital nomads, and long-term travellers – myself among them – because the city simply ticks so many boxes.
There’s an acute awareness of the hurdles that Medellin, Colombia’s second-biggest city, has had to overcome. Renowned as the old stomping ground of Pablo Escobar, the city was once known as the most dangerous city in the world, and during the 1980s and 1990s the local population lived in fear of a corrupt authority system, gang wars that played out on the city’s streets, and common deaths of numerous presidential candidates and police officers. But things are very different now. As is often the case when a city gets a new lease of life, Medellin has embraced its recently-discovered ability to welcome tourism and the progress the city has made so far (and its potential for more) is extraordinary.
The new face of Medellin
One of my first days in Medellin involved riding the cable car metro above and across the whole city. It’s an incredible way to get a feel for the place and allows you to see the cityscape change, from wealthy barrios like El Poblado to the more rundown neighbourhoods on the mountainside. And because the journey only costs about a dollar, poorer residents can afford the commute to work in the city centre; a factor which contributed greatly to Medellin being deemed the world’s most innovative city in both 2012 and 2013 in a competition sponsored by the Wall Street Journal.
I also took a free walking tour run by a local named Pablo (no relation to his more infamous namesake, as he quickly pointed out), and was immediately struck by his clear passion for being a Paisa – the name Medellin locals are known by. For three hours, Pablo walked a group of foreign visitors around his city and explained the historical and cultural aspects that make Medellin such a great place to live – and he managed to avoid mentioning Escobar and the city’s dark past more than a handful of times.
Nowadays, Medellin is better known for its moniker as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ due to its year round balmy climate, for its seemingly unstoppable nightlife scene (every night is Friday night), and for the annual Flower Festival, which overwhelms the city for a week each summer with parades and parties.
And then there are the Colombian people themselves – some of the friendliest people I’ve met in South America. As a foreigner keen to practice my Spanish with anyone who’d listen, I struck up conversations with Paisas on buses and in markets, at parades and in rainstorms. The majority of Colombians I talked to were eager to demonstrate their fierce pride in being from Medellin; not because of its history, but because of where it’s going next.