Famous more for its previous cartel drug lord than for its successful transition, we weren’t sure what to expect from Medellin. What we found was a progressive city, worlds away from it’s past of armed violence between feuding cartels. Instead the city has inclusive neighbourhoods, an amazing metro system and charming neighbourhoods.
Medellin is mostly composed of new developments, since much of the former city was destroyed during the drug wars. It has tall apartment and office buildings covering the surrounding hills which makes an interesting cityscape. Inside these communities are vibrant neighbourhoods with lively dancers. bright lights and colourful graffiti. Even though it’s a big city, we were able to see its community spirit.
Medellin has an impressive metro system that is accessible for all its citizens. During the 1970s the ‘slum’ communities on the surrounding slopes were inaccessible and avoided by most citizens. Today, their revolutionary gondolas have made these previously inaccessible communities a viable part of the city. There are 5 gondolas which are connected to the extensive network of metro, trams and buses. It’s possible to travel throughout the city on one card with a fee of less than 80 cents USD. This has brought the people out of their destitute communities to become active members of Medellin’s workforce. In addition to increasing the working population, an obvious police presence and a peace agreement between rival drug cartels has made these communities safe. We took a gondola ride to the neighbourhood of La Sierra. At one time it was considered to be the most dangerous neighborhood in Medellin. Today it’s still very poor, but not destitute or dangerous.
We visited a museum to honour the missing and murdered innocent citizens caught between waring drug cartels. It’s a moving museum with interactive exhibits on computers and maps and a room full of pictures and stories of the victims. We were equally impressed with the large number of local millennials in the museum actively participating in the different stations. Most of these people were not born or were very young when the wars were at their worst. This museum will help them to understand why Colombia can never allow its history to repeat.
An hour outside of Medellin are two fascinating sites. El Penol is a massive granite boulder standing awkwardly, in the middle of a farming region. It was historically worshiped by the Tahamies Indians. In the 1950s a local priest urged two local men to climb to its summit. Over five days, sticking wooden boards into the 200m long crack, this pair summited El Penol. Today a switch backing staircase with 700 steps takes hordes of visitors to the summit each day.
The rock is unusual from below, but the best part is the view from the top. The area around El Penol was dammed to create Guatape Reservoir. From the top of El Penol is a phenomenal view of the maze resulting from the 500 km of shoreline including islands. It’s a popular resort destination for Colombians and foreign tourists. From the top of El Penol you can see their tour boats and jet skis glide across this lake to luxury resorts and small uninhabited islands.
Gautape is a small town located a couple of kilometers away from El Penol. It is one of the cutest colonial towns that we visited. Its central park and surrounding roads are lined with brightly painted one and two-story homes, many have paintings of the rural life or animals from the area on their walls. Even the tuk tuks are colourfully decorated. It’s bright exterior hides its dark past. In previous decades, feuds between drug cartels, guerrilla rebels and the Colombian government made this a dangerous town. That has recently changed and today, being close to Medellin, Guatape is a busy tourist town. Many of the colourful buildings are now cafes, shops and hotels. Even still it’s a great place to walk up and down the streets admiring the old, colourful buildings.
How to get to Guatape and El Penol
From Medellin – There are numerous buses leaving from Terminal Norte (Booth #14) for Guatape/El Penol throughout the day for 14,000 COP. You can get off at El Penol and after visiting the rock, take a collectivo (shared bus), tuk tuk (5,000 COP) or taxi for 4 ½ km to Guatape.
From the airport – Walk to the large traffic circle in front of the airport. Take any bus heading for Guame. Tell them you want to go to Guatape and they’ll let you off at the main highway. Flag down a bus that is headed toward Guatape. Tell the conductor if you want to get off at El Penol of Guatape. Chances are he’ll let you know in advance as they approach, but you can see El Penol from the bus, so you’ll know to get off there. It sounds more complicated than it is, the bus conductors seem to be used to it.
Coming Next: Tayrona’s Lost City Trek
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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