My Spanish is embarrassing. Unfortunately, I stopped adding words to my Spanish vocabulary back in 11th grade. For some reason the only phrases I can remember are “Donde esta biblioteca?” and “Este es mi lápiz,” and I think it’s fair to say those won’t help me much. I naively thought Colombians would speak at least some English, or that my limited collection of words would get me by. Turns out, I was wrong. Vigorous hand gestures it would be.
I’d chosen Colombia for my PARALLAXploration for three reasons: First, I wanted to pick somewhere that wasn’t on my must-visit-destinations list—somewhere that I wouldn’t end up going in my life if not for this opportunity. Two, I wanted to go somewhere that scares me a little. And three, round-trip tickets from LAX to Cartagena were only $550.
The plan was to spend the first part of the trip exploring the coastal city of Cartagena, before flying to Medellin for two days of art, culture, and city life in the 3.5-million-person metropolis. I quickly discovered that five days is not enough time to even scratch the surface of these wonderful cities.
In Cartagena, we arrived at the Airbnb apartment I’d rented in the heart of the walled city, shook off the exhaustion from the previous night’s red-eye, and immediately took off to walk the streets. I was instantly awed by the blend of Caribbean, Latin American, and Spanish cultures. Colorful two-story buildings lined a labyrinth of cobblestone streets leading through a beautiful mix of old historic buildings and hip restaurants, shops, and art galleries. On every corner street-vendors hawked fresh fruit, Botero art knock-offs, and beaded jewelry. It’s a town you can happily get lost in for hours—or days.
Later that evening, we emerged from an indulgent dinner (amazing fresh ceviche, buttery arepas, and fruity cocktails) to find the streets lined with crowds five people deep. Within moments the drums began, and a cheering, singing, joyful crowd engulfed us as a parade swept through the streets. Elaborate floats carried musicians and dancing women (or, um, they might have been men dressed as women) in Mardi Gras-esque sequined and feathered bikinis. Kids and adults sprayed foam in the air, drowning the crowd in a layer of white bubbles. We were two of the only few Americans in the crowd, and yet everyone smiled and laughed with us, welcoming us into the procession.
Over the course of the next few days we explored the rest of the city, including the Gestemani neighborhood (a more recently gentrified area where people gather at night around a plaza to drink beers, eat street food, and watch kids play soccer, before going out to the hip bars and dance clubs); the “New Town” of Bocagrande (what locals referred to “like Miami Beach” where a row of high-rises abuts beaches lined with umbrellas and locals aggressively peddling foot rubs and beers); and the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas fortress (a massive super-fort created to fend off pirates). All in all, Cartagena was a sweaty, glorious, enlightening mix of history and hipness.
A few nights before departing to Colombia, we’d watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary The Two Escobars about drug-lord Pablo Escobar and (unrelated) Colombian star soccer player Andres Escobar. I’ll spare you the details (definitely watch it!) but it showed footage of the terrifying state of the country at the height of the drug wars in the 1990s. It was hard to believe I would be walking down those same streets a week later.
But a lot has changed in Medellin in the last 20 years. The city occupies a giant valley, sprawling from the hillside barrios to the urban city center. Everything online directed us to stay in the El Poblado neighborhood, an area that was said to be safe, with lots of restaurants and bars in walking distance. Throughout our short time in Medellin, we never felt unsafe. Friendly policia stood on corners every few blocks, and a progressive metro system made it easy to safely get from one side of the city to the other.
Over our very short day and a half in Medellin we wandered through neighborhoods, ate street food, had beers at the local breweries, and toured through the Fernando Botero sculptures in the city center (unfortunately, we were there on a Monday, so all of the city’s museums were closed—bad planning on my part!).
But of all the great things I experienced in Cartagena and Medellin, a one-dollar ride in Medellin’s Metrocable will be the thing I will never forget. In an effort to provide citizens in the barrios access to the city, Medellin built a progressive gondola system that connects people in these underprivileged areas with easier access to the city, jobs, and amenities (previously it took some residents 2.5 hours each way to get to work because the steep incline prevents buses from going to these areas and most people living in these poverty-stricken areas don’t have cars). Today, there are three gondola lines that ascend to the middle and top of the massive hillside, then over the ridge to Parque Arvi, a pristine nature preserve aimed at attracting tourists and providing locals easier access to nature.
When we arrived at the Metro Station, they informed us that the gondola that connects the metro line at the valley floor to the station at the center of the barrio was out of service, so we would have to take a cab there, then get on the gondola to Parque Arvi from there. The taxi experience was absolutely unlike anything I’ve experienced—cinder-block houses stacked atop one another, people and dogs and carts weaving in and out of the road, and the most incredibly steep incline I have ever driven on. I squeezed the edge of the seat, convinced that if the taxi driver let off the gas we would roll backward to our deaths. People stared at us, the only tourists for miles. It was a feeling that, in retrospect, was just the sort of discomfort I hoped to get fro this trip—that feeling of being totally outside my comfort zone.
Just when I was at the peak of my discomfort, the taxi stopped, dropping us off in front of the most luxurious, state-of-the-art metro station in the midst of the dense barrio. It’s won awards and is being copied in other cities around the world. The metrocable system in Medellin is beyond world-class. It was incredible to see this architectural and social achievement firsthand, and to experience the juxtaposition of poverty, modernity, and nature in one 20-minute ride. I’d recommend it to anyone in need of a little perspective.
Colombia was, in a word, amazing. I came home with a renewed appreciation for the life I’ve been afforded, a different perspective on a country that many Americans deem “scary,” and a new phrase: “Necesito aprender español.”
See galleries below!