I Left My Heart in Medellin — But Brought Back a Pablo Escobar Shirt
After spending two wonderful weeks in Guayabitos, Mexico with my Earnshaw family, the day had finally come. I had been dreaming of visiting the famous city of Medellin, Colombia for some time, and I had finally decided that this would be the year.
To say I was a bit nervous would be an understatement for sure. This was the first time I would do a solo trip. My sister-in-law, Karen, sets up the entire trip for me when we go to Mexico or Cuba. All I have to do is grab my suitcase for follow everyone else.
Karen re-assured me that I could navigate the big airports myself, no problem. Plus, I had my cousin, Jody, waiting on the other end to greet me when I landed in Medellin. That was a huge comfort as arriving at 22:30 was daunting. Hell, it would have been scary even in the daylight.
Things did not start out as planned, which I‘ve learned is part of travel. My flight from Puerta Vallarta to Mexico City was three hours late, which caused me to miss the connection to Medellin. I was very stressed about spending the night in Mexico City, but the airline assured me that tomorrow I would get to Medellin. They shuttled me to a very nice hotel and gave me vouchers for dinner that night and breakfast the next morning.
The following afternoon, I was back at the airport to wait for the flight. A few hours later I was wowing at the awesome view as we descended into the famous city of Medellin. I knew my stress level would drop considerably as soon as I saw cousin Jody, and there she was.
After a big hug and smiles, she handed me a wad of Colombian pesos and led the way to where the buses back to the city were waiting. A cab ride after dark is not a good idea as too much can go wrong.
Jody had booked a room for me in the same hotel/hostel where she lives. A very nice little apartment type of accommodation with a TV, fan, and the all-important private bathroom.
They don’t rent daily or weekly so I had to pay for a full month, a whole $300CAD, That included wifi, the communal kitchen and everything. Back in Canada you would be lucky to cover two nights for that price.
Meeting Jody’s freinds made me realize that she was pretty much a celebrity in their eyes –the “North American gringa” with the bright red hair. We wouldn’t get very far down the street before bumping into one of her freinds. Then theres would be hugs, the traditional kiss on the cheek and a short chat, before we were on our way again. I could only hope to fit in as well as she does.
I met Alvaro at Andres’s little store, a little convenience shop where you can also pull up a chair and have a drink if you like.
I liked Alvaro right away, A very interesting man, in his early 70’s.
He lived in New York for 12 years and speaks English well. When he returned to Medellin, he became a former big-time food caterer, and his clients included Tata Escobar, Pablo’s wife. A serious car accident left both his legs badly damaged, He lives in the Boston area, the same as Jody.
Mayra is a young very ambitious woman who helped me out big time with my phone problems. She set me up so I was able to stay in touch with family back home in Canada, She is an expert with cell phones, which explains why the electronics store where she works is always busy. Ya, she makes me wish I was about 30 years old again.
Jody’s freind Will —short for Willington – impressed me as soon as I met him, A smart good-looking young guy who speaks very good English. He works for an international company called UPS.
He has the personality and the tech skills to do very well. I was a bit surprised at his monthly wage of about $400USD per month.
Fernando and Hiro are two brothers who run a small streetside restaurant with the best Venezuelan food you could hope to find. You need to make a reservation a couple of days ahead of time and they will cook an awesome Venezuelan meal for you, It costs about $6CAD. Great guys to sit and visit with as well. Fernando also makes empanadas in the evenings and they are usually sitting outside ready for a visit from their many friends.
I was able to meet Jorge – which translates as George in English. He is a very famous Colombian artist. This was an honour for me because he is a personal friend of Jody’s. His apartment and studio are the entire sixth floor of the apartment building, so it is huge.
His late wife, Ethel Gilmore, was also a legend and her work covers the walls. This is not something you will find in any tourist pamphlet anywhere. Although his health is failing, I was able to shake his hand and his personal caregiver, Lidis, gave me a tour of his home and the famous paintings while Jody visited with Jorge.
Then we were introduced to a man named Don Rodrigo, who lived in the same building on the entire 18th floor, He showed us around his beautiful home and I was able to snap some impressive photos from his balcony. The opportunity to meet people like this is quite humbling.
Santa Elena – a town up the mountain — was an interesting place to go on a Sunday afternoon. Its about an hour’s bus ride and costs about one dollar for a ticket. It is a small town that attracts quite a few tourists.
Actually, they were the first ’outsiders’ I had seen since I arrived. Jody doesn’t know any foreigners, which is why she gets to be ‘la gringa.’
We toured the town on foot and sat down at a small bar for a drink. There we watched the locals playing Sunday afternoon soccer, We later found a nice little restaurant and had lunch before heading back down to Medellin.
Another nice little place Jody introduced me to was La Polonesa.
A striking little bar that is famous for salsa dancing between the tables. And the coffee there was very good.
We took a cab to the suburb called El Poblado. This is a place that attracts lots of tourists. Its obviously a wealthy part of the city judging by the houses and apartments, the price of pretty much everything goes up accordingly as well. Although it was very nice, I would much rather be off the tourist path and back in the Boston area of the city.
Jody introduced me to her freind Alex and I liked him right away, He grew up in the “communa”, a very tough part of Medellin, We had no worries about being safe around Alex and he is a great tour guide.
We went to Parque Arivi with Alex. To get there we had to First, we took the metro train, It is a public transit system which is awesome. Next, it was onto what I called the “sky tram cars”. They are like ski lifts and take you up the side of the mountain over the slum areas of the city, It is probably about three or four kilometers of the jungle before reaching Parque Arivi.
There are a lot of interesting things to check out in this park, so we did lots of walking and admiring the view before we came to a restaurant. It was a pretty hot day, and it was nice to sit and have a drink and just enjoy the view.
As we sat there I couldn’t believe who I was seeing, A young guy named Jordan whom I had met in the airport in Mexico City was walking by with some other people, He didn’t notice me so I yelled,” You gotta be kidding me”. Of course, we laughed and snapped a couple of pics and yakked a bit, and then we were on our way again. What are the chances of that happening?
A few days later we met with Alex again to go to a place called “Communa 13”. This is a slum area made famous by none other than Pablo Escobar. Escobar had one of his headquarters in this communa, and he hired many of his people from there. He also often hid there from the many different sources that were constantly looking for him.
Although the place is attracting alot of guided tours, I would not want to be here alone when the sun goes down. I did see a flashy Colombia hat I liked, so I bought it. Thats when Jody and I noticed Alex admiring a hat with an embroidered semi-truck on the front. We knew he liked it, but it probably wasn’t in his budget, so I went and bought it for him. He was so happy. We both looked pretty sharp in our new hats.
We also took Alex for Chinese food. The portions were huge and there were plenty of leftovers, so Alex took them home to enjoy a Chinese supper with his mother that night. How good is that?
I wanted to see Alex once more before I left so we arranged to meet at Parque Boston. Alex is a huge soccer fan. He almost made me cry when he presented me with an official jersey of his favorite soccer team. He gave me a hug and said ” mi hermano,” which is Spanish for “my brother” It would be hard to top that moment.
In the Boston area of Medellin where I was staying, I quickly became known as “Primo,” Spanish for “cousin” because of my relationship with Jody. That made me feel good. More than once when I was out on a walk I heard someone call out “Hola Primo” — hello cousin, I felt like I was fitting in with Jody’s friends just fine.
Adela lived in the same building where I was staying in.
She is a very nice Colombian woman who spent several years in the USA. She speaks very good English and loves to excersise and she asked me if I would like to go walking with her, I really enjoyed getting to know her. We went for coffee and spent some time in Parque Boston just enjoying each other’s company.
Jody had arranged Spanish lessons with a teacher by the name of Isabel. Another very nice person. I know my Spanish is pretty limited, but everyone encouraged me, saying i was really learning fast. I didn’t notice it, but I think if I lived in Medelliin for a year, my Spanish would be pretty good.
I was quite impressed with Jody’s ability to communicate in Spanish. If I were at that level, I would be more than satisfied. The toughest part for me is understanding as Spanish is the second-fastest spoken language in the world.
Did I stick out like a tourist? Ya probably, but I did my best to try dress like the locals in jeans, a button-up shirt and running shoes,
I came away with a whole lot of ambition to continue improving my Spanish. You don’t learn a new language in a few weeks, for sure. In the Boston area of Medellin its pretty rare to see tourists and very few people in this barrio speak English, so it is advisable to know enough Spanish to communicate or have someone with you who can. It makes being there so much easier.
A couple days before I was supposed to leave Jody came down to my room and said, “You wanted adventure. Well, now you’ve got a story” She showed me an email she recieved from the Canadian Embassy, advising against all travel in Columbia for 72 hours.
A group of rebels had announced an armed strike from 06:00 Friday, February 14th to 06:00 Monday, February 17. it was not safe to be out and risk being caught in the middle of a very serious clash between the rebels and the authorities.
Great, so now what? I was supposed to leave on Saturday, February 15th right in the middle of it. Jody’s idea was to talk to the locals and find out how they felt about chancing the bus ride to the airport. She got alot of different opinions, but the general feeling was that it would be safe to try getting to the airport,
Her plan was simple. We would take a cab to the the bus stop at 09:00, by then the buses would have made several trips to the airport. If they were getting through, no problem, If they weren’t, then we go back to the hotel and rebook the flight for Monday.
Turns out they were running so we hopped on the bus and 45 minutes later we were at the airport, It was a huge relief, but I was still worried about Jody getting back safely, which she did.
There were a lot of police and military presence, choppers in the air as well, the airport was not near as busy as it normally would be, but I was there, My flight didn’t leave for several more hours, but I had no problem killing time,
I felt pretty safe as its unlikely there would be any problems at an international airport. From there it was pretty easy, a short flight to the capital city of Bogota, then on to Toronto and then the final leg of the journey to Regina.
Overall it was an amazing trip, and I would — and probably will — go back without a second thought. Some may find it a bit silly that I was so stressed at times, but managing the huge airports, the plane delays and an armed Colombian guerrilla threat was a pretty big accomplishment in my mind, especially on my first solo trip.
I rode bulls when I was young, I practised baseball with a semi-pro team in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, I even fought a bull in Cancun, but this trip ranks highest on my list of awesome experiences.
Other ‘out and about’ photos: