Medellin Outside the Box and Colombian Chaos

Last week I had the pleasure of experiencing Medellin. For a lot of people, Medellin brings to mind drug cartels, violence, and Pablo Escobar. Since Medellin first entered my scope of awareness a few years ago, it’s image has only grown- in a positive way. This NY Times article sums up the changes since Escobar’s death in the early 90’s:

“Then this city of 3.5 million was gradually graced with a series of improvements befitting its jewel-like setting in a lush valley surrounded by green mountains. Parks, libraries, museums and hotels were built. A gleaming metro system was completed…gondolas providing service to the city’s hillside shantytowns were added. Fernando Botero, a Medellín native, donated more than 1,000 pieces of his own and others’ art to the Museo de Antioquia. Birds, in short, began to twitter.”

Medellin in the afternoon light.

Medellin in the afternoon light.

So my expectations were high. Here are some of my impressions:

  • I got to see Caitlin! I can’t even express how wonderful it felt to wrap my arms around one of my best girlfriends from UCSF. Being able to wander the city and chat about our lives, catch up in our endless analyzing of love lives, being nurse practitioners, travel, and self discovery. As Caitlin said, we often forget to appreciate how much it matters to be around people who really know you, no explanations needed.

    Caitlin and I in the botanical gardens.

    Caitlin and I in the botanical gardens.

  • I had my first Air B&B experience! Yes, Air B&B exists in Colombia and it was wonderful. Rather than deal with a noisy hostel (which is wonderful if you are looking to meet other travelers) we got a beautiful private room with a sunny breakfast balcony. It was perfect.

    The Botero Statue Plaza, full of cubby figures! (NOT referring to self!)

    The Botero Statue Plaza, full of cubby figures! (NOT referring to self!)

  • The Metro! It’s usually one of the first things you hear about Medellin and now I understand why. It’s a beautiful, efficient, safe system. Clean, never overcrowded, no pushing and shoving to get on or off…it was an amazing way to travel the city. And the gondola system is actually part of the metro- it takes you straight up the hillside, over the tops of Medellin’s shanty towns. Being the voyeur that I am, I loved the chance to grab sneak peaks into courtyards and onto roofs. It’s a rare chance to be able to observe the goings on of the neighborhoods (rich or poor) without being watched.

    Barefoot park!

    Barefoot park!

  • The Parks! Caitlin and I spent many hours walking the streets and wandering from park to park. The biggest was Parque Arvi, which is a free national park at the very top of the gondola. 30 minutes on a gondola and you arrive in the middle of the countryside with woods, lakes, horseback riding, free bicycles to borrow…It felt so good to get out of the city and breath some fresh air! Within the city we explored the FREE botanical gardens where we ate ice cream in the shade, did a free yoga class, and wandered a “green” hippie market (if you need fresh goat yogurt, organic juiced carrots, or a menstrual cup, this is your place!). We paid to spend a few hours at Parque Explora, the local science center complete with games, multiple exhibits, and an aquarium. It was very impressive and lovely to see a good quality science center full of families! Parque de las Luces is a cement plaza downtown full of 30 foot light sculptures that glow at night. And then there was Parque de los Pies Descalzos which deserves it’s own bullet point.

    Families hanging out in barefoot park.

    Families hanging out in barefoot park.

  • Barefoot Park, situated right outside the “Museo del Agua” is a beautiful public space complete with a sand pit, a bamboo forest, and a couple fountains all designed to encourage you to kick off your shoes and play. On Saturday night the park turned into a free concert. On one side of the plaza was the Reggae rock concert, complete with hundred of pot smoking teenagers. After a few minutes of that scene we wandered to the other stage which was featuring The Alan Parsons Project (popular 80’s rocker from the US) with the Medellin philharmonic. Caitlin and I bought some wine and cheese and settled into the bamboo forest to listen. The warm air, children running around, couples making out, drunk men trying to sing along with Parsons…it was a lovely evening!
  • The Cat Calls. At first I thought maybe it was just because we were walking around downtown (which I almost never do in either Cali, San Francisco, or Seattle) or because were two blond heads bobbing down the street. But no. It continued. In every neighborhood except for El Poblado, the wealthy and white neighborhood. And it wasn’t the nice kind of cat calls that I am used to in Cali. I’ve been paying special attention since I’ve been back and here in Cali I get a lot of stares and a lot of “Hola Hermosa,” “Que reina,” “Mona bella.” (Mona is the Colombian term for light, like they say Guera in Mexico- and no, it doesn’t mean monkey!) Compliments that make me smile and don’t leave me feeling dirty and violated. In Medellin there was a lot of hissing and looks that left me feeling naked. I felt much more defensive in the streets. It was more exhausting. It made coming back to Cali feel like a huge relief. Home sweet home! Where I feel protected and admired. I was a little worried, after Medellin’s amazing reputation, that I would lose some of my love for Cali. But no. I still love Cali best.

As you may have seen/heard (or maybe not) there is quite the community uprising going on in Colombia right now. It started with an agrarian strike protesting the US-Colombia free trade agreement, which they say is having a negative affect on local food production. As someone explained it to me, Colombia is used to producing enough to have plenty and still export. But right now foreign imported food is flooding the market and hurting the local farmers. But it’s not just campesinos now. It’s miners, the transport companies, and of course, at the heart of every protest, the national universities. Until last week the strike was a pretty abstract happening for me, even while I am here in the country. But while I was in Medellin, things came to a head and the universities joined in. Since then I am smack dab in the middle of it. So far, out of three threes of classes, we have managed one- the intro class on the first week. Last week the universities shut down for two days so that the students could join the big rallies and marches. This week, class has been canceled last minute for campus protests, sit ins, and even, yesterday, “papabomabs” which are “potassium chlorate, sulfur and aluminum dust mixture with a rock wrapped in aluminum foil bomb commonly used in student protests in Colombia” (Thanks Paxton!). We have continuously gotten reminders from Fulbright that as representatives of Fulbright and of the U.S. Government, because it can “jeopardize our security,” and because it is expressly forbidden in our terms and conditions that we are to steer clear of all protests AND to keep our phones charged in case of an emergency. It seems that negotiations are well underway and I get the feeling that things will quiet down soon. I haven’t been in danger at all and for the most part life continues as normal- except for a few canceled meetings and classes.

So, life continues! I am moved into my new home in my new neighborhood, which I LOVE. I live with an extended family including (as far as I can tell…it’s a little hard to tell who actually lives here) grandma, 2 daughters, one son in law, a happy singing 2 year old, a brand new baby (born yesterday!), a cat, a dog, and a few medical residents doing rotations for 2-3 months (who I haven’t actually seen!). The house is big and beautiful. We have a blender (back into the world of morning smoothies!), a juicer, an ice maker, and a blow dryer! So far I super happy here and feeling really settled. I have my french press and fancy local coffee. I have my morning smoothies. I have my fan. And today I joined the neighborhood gym just a block away. One advantage of looking so different from everyone is that you gain notoriety very quickly. I know that’s not always an advantage, but I love being recognized as a “neighborhood girl.” I love being a “regular.” I’ve been having moments of sadness for home and what I have left behind. But overall I feel really happy and excited about life.

Until next time, un beso!



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5 responses to “Medellin Outside the Box and Colombian Chaos

  1. Susi Sessions

    Hi Corinna,

    So glad to hear that you had a good time in Medellin. It must be so wonderful to meet up with a good old friend from school. Sophie just told me that she is going to visit you. I am so happy that this is going to work out. We are missing both of you a lot and we are so glad that you are having this wonderful experience abroad.


  2. Holly Cost

    Hi Corinna,

    I love the blog and great photos. I have tried to reply to your e-mail but for some reason it does not want to go through–please let me know if you received my reply.

    Best to you and to Colombia…


  3. Joy Robertson-Maciel

    Corina dear,

    Loving all that you share. When I spent time in Ecuador in the mid-70s, the major cities of Colombia were frightening and off-limits for sensible female travelers. You are helping me me re-set my thinking and emotions and for that I am very grateful. Love to you!

  4. Juliet

    Hey Cor
    My fav post so far! Feels like I’m there and makes me wish I was. My next door neighbors are from Cali. How random right?! They just moved to Davis in January. They’re super sweet and we were very excited I’ve even heard of Cali 🙂 Missing you and wishing you well xoxo

  5. Jen

    Love your post about Medellin. I’m here now and haven’t headed to some of the areas that you mentioned – thanks for the review!

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