Alone in the Most Dangerous Neighborhood in Medellin

Colombia. When I told travellers my age I was going here, they couldn’t stop singing its praises, telling me how much it has to offer. When I told anybody in my family, or any of my older coworkers, they first confirmed that I did, in fact, mean the Colombia in South America, and then asked why in God’s name I was going there.

To be fair, this could be a function of younger people taking more risks and being arguably more stupid, but I don’t think so. My grandparents and parents grew up watching Colombia’s tumultuous and violent past, while to me it’s just that: the past.

While in Medellin, I put myself in some slightly unnerving situations, but I never truly felt threatened – except by the tear gas, and on the worst bus ride of my life, which wasn’t even technically in Medellin, and I’ll get to those in my next post. From arrival to departure, I fell totally in love with this city that used to be a terrifying place.

Arriving in Medellin

I arrived here after a full day of flights, transiting through Mexico City – exhausted from several weeks of flying back and forth around the East Coast for work and then for a family emergency. I didn’t feel prepared or ready and was even having trouble feeling excited: despite the fact that I was about to land on my sixth continent!

But the moment I got myself into Medellin, all that went away. A guy from my hostel (Happy Buddha, 10/10 would recommend) picked me up and I got to practice my very rusty Spanish right away, chatting about everything I could figure out how to say.

And when we got to the neighborhood my hostel was in and I ran up to meet a close friend from university, I was completely taken aback. I stayed in El Poblado, which is definitely a backpacker hub, and if you had just plopped me down there, I would have had no idea what continent it was even on. It reminded me of Florida, Montreal, Europe, and Japan all at once. I’d later discover that its cafes and restaurants were some of the most beautifully designed I’d ever seen, but on my first night – it was all about the bars.

I arrived around midnight, and given the crowds of young backpackers with awesome accents milling all over the entire neighborhood, I needed to get myself a beer. Theresa and I proceeded to party the night away with fellow backpackers from all over the world – but mostly Australia.

I have no recollection of these guys’ names or why we are posed so awkwardly.

Santo Domingo

The next day, already in love with Medellin, it was time for me to go out sightseeing. Theresa had already checked out the places I wanted to see, so I was on my own – and with a bit of trepidation I took one of the city’s famous cable cars up to a neighborhood called Santo Domingo.

As you probably know from the Netflix show Narcos or from, like, reading the news, Medellin used to be home to Pablo Escobar, and was therefore one of the most dangerous cities on earth for quite a while.

This neighborhood was one of the hubs of murder and fear. So what did I do? Hopped on a cable car to go wander around alone, dressed about as much like a backpacker as I ever have. (Elephant pants anyone?) The cable cars were built to connect the poorer neighborhoods to the city centre, in an awesome example of urban planning.

And how was it? Awesome. I walked around completely unbothered, with children coming up to me to say hi, local women smiling shyly at me, and only a few of the ubiquitous Latin American hisses from the men. It was the most fantastic insight into local culture I’ve ever gotten – I didn’t see another tourist!

Colombian foods I couldn’t even identify were sizzling on portable grills everywhere, their hawkers yelling incomprehensible slang. More fruit than I’d ever seen for sale, beautiful Colombian children tugging their mothers’ dresses in search of some pesos to buy some. Stray dogs wandering everywhere, peacefully and unmolested. I didn’t take pictures of these street scenes, because that felt very intrusive.

I even walked up a sketchy set of stairs, seeking a viewpoint Theresa had told me about and found a group of children playing hopscotch – turns out it’s a universal game, and it’s even cuter in Spanish.

My purpose in coming up to Santo Domingo was that viewpoint – but I couldn’t find it, and decided I had already gotten enough out of my visit. I went for the Instagram, but I left with what felt like an insight into the strength and happiness of Colombian people – something that would just keep happening, all throughout the country.


PRACTICAL INFO:

Take the very safe and clean metro to Acevedo, and transfer (for free) to the cable car. Get off at Santo Domingo, and don’t take any valuables.

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