Medellin, Colombia: Cable Car Rides, Favellas & Naked Statues
It’s another long overnight bus that brings us to Medellin, in the North West of Colombia. We’ve been opting for them over daytime buses whenever possible, as it means we don’t need to pay for a night’s accommodation and we don’t lose a day of our travels stuck on a bus. Having heard plenty of reviews from other travellers who have loved Medellin, as well as knowing it to be the dangerous playground of drug lord Pablo Escobar and his cartel once upon a time, our expectations are high.
The first problem we face when we arrive however, is that it’s currently 7.30am and rush hour. Medellin is a huge city and the first we’ve come across with a train system, which is what we need to use to get to the gringo neighbourhood, El Poblado. There’s a group of six of us that have clubbed together once leaving the bus, the issue is though, we can’t fit on the trains with our backpacks. The platform is completely rammed with people and every time a train arrives it’s also packed. The locals literally ram and push each other onboard while the group of us stand laughing in disbelief. After two missed trains a woman takes pity on us, telling us we need to go right to the other end of the platform or we’ll never get on with our bags. We do so and manage to squeeze onto the next train.
First impressions of Medellin? It’s a hectic, over-populated place where the locals stare a lot in curiousity. There’s a very obvious police presence, which is both worrying and comforting at the same time. Plus, other than the metro, the buildings look very rundown from what we’ve seen so far and it’s clear this city contains some extreme poverty. Overall, we’re underwhelmed, but perhaps that’s just because a) it’s a grey and cloudy day and b) we’ve heard such positive reviews of the place, we were expecting a bit more of the ‘wow’ factor.
On arrival at Hostel Lleras we’re able to check-in early and quickly get comfy in our dorm beds, all of which have individual curtains – what a dream! The hostel is more like a hotel; lovely and clean with white shiny floors and it’s own movie theatre. It’s raining outside so the remainder of our day is spent seeking out food (we find a KFC and can’t resist treating ourselves) and watching a film in the theatre.
Viewing favellas from above
The next day we try to take part in a free city walking tour but find out you’re supposed to sign up online and the tour is already full. It’s Friday and the tour only runs on weekdays, so we’re a bit gutted to learn we won’t be able to do one as we leave Medellin on Monday morning. It also means we’ll miss out on hearing all about the infamous Pablo Escobar and the effect he had on the city, and the country for that matter. Personal research will have to do.
Instead, we take the popular cable metro, which has been created as a means of transport for all the people living in favellas, built miles upwards into the valley that surrounds the city. It’s a great idea as it really helps connect the poorest residents with the main city, it’s job and education prospects.
At the top of the cable metro there is also a regular tourist cable car, so Dave and I jump on this too, thinking we can get some great views and photographs at the top. Sitting in a silent 8-seater car, the journey uphill is astounding. There are just so many houses! All different shapes, sizes and materials and sitting one on top of the other. We glide over the rooftops to see bricks strategically placed to hold down tin roofs and makeshift washing lines stretching across miniscule concrete patio slabs, hanging from windows or on the rooftops themselves.
The same thought occurs to me as when I was in Santa Marta, everyone is outside. Pensioners and adults and youngsters alike sit in parks, on the sides of pavements and outside their front doors. Children run in the narrow, dusty roads and as we pass over different types of music blare from individual houses. It’s an eye-opening sight that’s for sure.
The ride to the top takes twenty minutes, but we’re disappointed to find that there is no ‘view from the top’. We’re surrounded by a national park instead, which is nice but it’s a chilly day and neither of us feel like spending hours up here. We jump out of our cable car, overpay for empanadas at a food stand and jump back on the cable to head back down.
At this point it starts to pour with rain, so we make our way to an aquarium and science museum we’ve seen on our tourist map, called Parque Explora. The afternoon is spent wandering around a very interactive museum, trying experiments that are mostly explained in Spanish, and seeing some South American fish in the aquarium.
When evening comes, we step outside the hostel and cross the street for drinks in one of the many bars in the El Poblado district. Our hostel is lacking a little atmosphere, which is strange considering it’s position directly in the middle of the action. So it’s just Dave and I that go out for drinks, hoping to bump into some fellow travellers along the way. A beer costs three times the price of a shop-bought one and we visit two bars before deciding we’re not feeling it; time to go home.
Statues of naked people
Day two in Medellin we’re doing some more sightseeing by visiting Plaza Botero. It’s a park that contains around a dozen statues of various men and women, created by artist Fernando Botero in the 90s. The statues themselves are cool to see, but they are plonked right in the middle of a crowded and unattractive district.
There’s plenty of shady-looking people around and while Dave and I stop to eat our picnic lunch on a bench we witness drug dealers openly sniffing white powder, a few crazy people talking to themselves angrily, plus some homeless drunks. All this despite the very obvious presence of police. Needless to say we don’t hang around too long, just long enough to browse the statues and laugh at the obvious disproportion of (mainly manly) body parts they’ve been designed with.
Again, feeling a little underwhelmed by Medellin we head back to the hostel to relax for the rest of the day and play a few games of ping pong with some beers.
This is the part where we walk lots
We decide that our last day will be spent visiting El Piñon, which is a giant rock located near the town of Guatape, an hour’s ride on the bus from Medellin. Unfortunately, I barely sleep the night before due in part to not feeling very well and also because of the pounding techno house music blaring right outside our dorm room. So the plan to get up super early for Guatape is abandoned and replaced with another trip in the cable car, this time to actually take in and appreciate the national park; Parque Arvi.
It’s a much better day than when we were last up here, the sun beams and we’re able to leisurely stroll along a winding road until we find an entrance into some sort of forest track. Nothing is very well signposted so we’re not sure if we’re actually in Parque Arvi yet or not, but this bit of forest has waterfalls and streams, so it’s lovely to walk through.
…we continue our walk through the forest, noticing that the further we go the less people we see. The track runs adjacent with the road though, so we’re not concerned, just a little confused if we’re headed in the right direction.
We walk for forty-five minute before the track ends and we’re forced to exit the forest by balancing along a fallen tree over a stream.
I would love to say I re-enacted a famous Dirty Dancing scene here, but mostly I just tried my best not to fall off. I was successful, but I did drop my flask, which Dave had to get wet to rescue. Whoops.
Back on the road, we see a sign overhead that welcomes us to Parque Arvi – at last! It’s another fifteen minute uphill walk in sweltering heat before we reach the entrance and pay to get past the barriers. The lady taking our money informs us that the park features trails, lookout points and a ziplining centre, the latter we can’t use though as they’re already booked up for the day. Typical! Not disheartened though, we carry on to walk around the park, along long roads and hidden trails, catching a little train only once.
My legs are killing by this point, we must have walked around ten miles in the past few days. Too make matters worse, we’ve realised there are a queue of buses sitting outside the park, waiting to take tourists back to the cable car entrance. We could have jumped on a bus here in the first place! Ah well, we’ve had a lovely day out and definitely worked up an appetite, so it’s back to the hostel for dinner and to pack our bags yet again. Tomorrow we’ll be up early and on a bus to Bogota, Colombia’s capital. Read my next post to find out what we get up to.