I’ve never fallen in love with a place quite like I have with Colombia. A strong statement for sure, so let me take a moment to explain myself.
Colombia is without a doubt one of the most misunderstood countries on the planet, a place that has gotten its fame from violence, drugs, and extreme tragedy. Violence and tragedy started when Colombia became the worlds leading producer of Cocaine (it no longer is). Full of gangs and notorious drug lords, like Medellin’s Pablo Escobar, Colombia quickly became a place that the world looked at from afar and in response emitted a sigh of relief that they were not among the chaos.
Yet, there were people who were there. People born into a situation that they could not change. Children who witnessed the death of their neighbors, understanding fright far before they understood comfort. Parents who watched as their babies were robbed of the ease and innocence that should be an unquestionable gift of childhood. Teenagers who were denied social lives that so many of us take for granted, doors closed at dusk, homes becoming a personal prison.
Medellin, Colombia city center
And there is also the city of Medellin which has witnessed the rise and fall of Colombia’s internal struggle. A city that was once given the title of the most murderous place in the entire world. A city that was unwillingly splattered with the blood of its innocent children, mountains that absorbed the cries of grief-stricken mothers, and rivers that rose with the tears of too many affected souls.
Then in 2002, things began to change, a platform of security was put in place, and as Medellin opened itself up travelers started flocking.
A traveler in Medellin can feel that there is something in the air here. Hope. Change. Desire. A desire to learn through education, a desire to remember the past and with that change the future.
Standing in the central plaza of the city, I look up surrounded by tall concrete pillars a large circular light at the top of each reaching up into the sky. As I stare up a voice explains the significance of what I am looking at. His name is Pablo, our tour guide for todays free walking tour around Medellin.
“Where you stand” he tells us, “used to be one of the most dangerous areas of the city. We wanted to reclaim this space, reclaim our city from the violence. So we turned the area from one of fear into one of hope. Through architecture in public spaces we are proclaiming once again that we are the owners of our country.”
He points to a building to our right. “This place,” he continues on, “used to be the headquarters of crime. Today the building is the center of education. We are changing bad into good, violence used to be sexy, today we are telling our youth that education is what will get you farthest in life.”
Looking up at the pillars of hope
It’s not often that I find myself partaking on recommended walking tours around whatever city I am visiting. When I think of walking tours I think of lengthy historical descriptions that are hard to grasp on to, dry impersonal stories, and meaningless sights created to distract the foreigner from the real heart of the city.
Yet here I am on Medellin’s top-rated activity on Trip Advisor, a free walking tour.
However, standing before us is not a tour guide, we are not being fed bullshit. Instead in front of us stands a beautiful example of the power of vulnerability. Strength in its most pure form, someone pouring forth their experiences, their pain, and their belief in the power that can come of good.
Our tour guide and company founder, Pablo, standing in front of Medellin’s center for education
We walk through the disproportionate statues of Botero, perhaps the most touristic site of the day, and then onwards to areas of the city that most foreigners are told not to venture to. As we stride through plazas filled with upsetting examples of futures lost and souls confused we are told to take a second look, because sometimes things are not as they first appear. Outside a beautiful church we become aware of what unholy truths we may have missed.
We are encouraged to ask questions. About drugs. About food. About the future. About Pablo himself and the experiences he has lived through. About the homeless on the streets. We ask and the answers we get are honest and straightforward, no sugar coating, no exaggerated explanation, the way Pablo sees it the more people understand the truth the better the future will be.
After a day with Pablo, walking through the very heart of Medellin I start to understand Colombia better. Colombia is the kind of place where honesty and vulnerability trump convoluted explanations and well-rehearsed presentations. Colombia is the kind of place where people greet foreigners with an openness that is so genuine that you forget your perceived differences. Colombia is progress, a collection of incredibly strong individuals working to create a place where peace and justice are the norm. Colombia is the kind of place that most travelers simply can’t stop raving about.
Our group mid-way through the tour!
Details about joining Medellin’s Real City Walking Tour:
- The best way to book is to go to the company’s web page where you can book either the morning or afternoon departure time. The tour fills up fast though so make sure to book a couple days before you actually want to go.
- The tour is free but tips are strongly recommended and we’re sure that after four hours of listening to Pablo you will be more than happy to pay him for the experience that you have just had. A recommended tip is 35,000 Colombian Pesos, but more is always appreciated!