Sunday, April 11, 2010


Several guidebooks and every travel blog I've read about Medellin comments on the extreme beauty of the women who live here, largely because of the inordinate number of them who have had plastic surgery. This might explain why there were only single men staying at our hostel (besides ourselves). It would definitely explain their disgusting conversations outside our window about the "conquests" they've made while being here. "When in Rome" one of them so eloquently put it.

But, as Lonely Planet states: Some say all of the fake boobs are a lingering reminder of the profound influence drug lords long exerted on Medellin's culture and aesthetic. Beauty has it's price, and the drug culture that reigns in this city obviously has it's ugly side as well. We found it when passing through Santo Domingo - one of Medellin's most notorious slums. Or in the many strung out junkies that wander the streets. We were told by one Paisa (resident of Medellin) that there are over 1,000 different types of hallucinogenic plants grown in this country. So, besides the country's number one export of cocaine, there are many other ways that these people are able to poison themselves. Sad. And ugly.

However, given that during the late 80s/early 90s Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, it has made a remarkable turnaround. While shells of buildings still remain from bombs that ravaged them, there is a lot of beauty returning to this city in the form of tranquil parks, large sculpture displays by one of Colombia's most famous artists (Fernando Botero), and most importantly by the surprising and overwhelming friendliness of it's inhabitants. For all that they have been through, they are some of the nicest and most genuine people that we have met.

Botero sculpture

The south side of the city

We've seen cities more aesthetically pleasing than this - there are a lot of nice sights in Medellin, but it is nothing to gush about. What we will forever remember about our stop here though is the incredible people - the random strangers who came up to us in the streets to shake our hand and offer an enthusiastic "Bienvenidos a Colombia!!", or those that actually want to talk to us about the amount of petrolio in Alberta.

And we will never forget our new friends Luiz and Lady - a Paisan couple who happened to share a gondola car with us on the way up to a city viewpoint. Situated in a valley surrounded by abundantly green peaks, we did one of our usual favourite city activities and went to the most popular mirador (lookout) that gives a birds eye view. As much of the city and it's surrounding neighbourhoods spread up the mountainside, the city metro also includes a couple of lines of gondola cars to transport it's residents. Crawling up a hill in one of these cars, we struck up a conversation with Luiz and Lady. What we didn't realize at the time was that the gondola keeps going far beyond the city - over a seemingly neverending forest, but stopping finally at a new eco-park being built. Probably because we looked completely lost and surprised, Luiz and Lady took us under their wing and acted as our tour guides for the afternoon. They bought us treats (a tasty dessert made of sugar cane), directed us deeper into the park, and we even shared a boat ride with them around one of the lakes.

Upon return from the park, Luiz and Lady waited for us to safely board the metro before they took theirs in the opposite direction. It was an awesome afternoon spent practicing our Spanish, and getting to know this very beautiful couple.

And so in a place where people come for the beauty of the fake boobies, we leave appreciating the inner beauty of the people. Tomorrow we are on a one way plane bound for the Caribbean coast - it's been almost a whole month since we've enjoyed some beach time. I think we are overdue.

The Life and Death of "the" Drug Kingpin

Thanks in large part to one man - Pablo Escobar - this beautiful city used to be one of the most dangerous in the world. For several years before his death in 1993, violence gripped Medellin and it's residents as the drug cartels attacked each other. Buildings were bombed to the ground, assassinations of police officers were very common, and many innocent people were killed. Thus, one of the recent popular items on the to-do list in Medellin is to take a tour through the turbulent adult life of Escobar, starting at the home he built for his kids to his grave.

Escobar started in minor thievery - stealing cars and bikes for parts, and even allegedly stealing gravestones, sanding off the names, and reselling them. At age 25 he got into drug trafficking, and by age 29 he was the boss of the most powerful cartel in Colombia (the Medellin cartel) with vast international range. In 1989, Forbes magazine listed him as the 7th richest man in the world. With his "cover" business being construction, we were taken to many buildings throughout the city that he built for his own purposes - including his family home (which is now police offices) and the cartel headquarters (which is now a rehab center).

We pumped our guide with questions about what it was like to live in Medellin at that time, and what the public perception is of Escobar and his exploits. While most people vehemently dislike him for the innocents that died, there are still a few that regard him as a hero. Coincidently, as we sat outside of the house that Escobar was hiding out at before being killed by the Colombian police, a cab driver pulled up and engaged us in discussion about him. "¡Bueno, bueno!" the cab driver said when asked what he thought of Escobar. He went on to comment about what a good man he was for building so many good things for the community (soccer fields, etc.) He was, of course, buying the loyalty of the people who would help to protect him later.

On December 2, 1993 (1 day after his 44th birthday), he was found and killed by police with intelligence help from the US. The fragmented Medellin cartel folded.

For more information on Escobar, click here

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