things i learned: medellín edition

Behold a top ten list of my most valuable discoveries:

  1. Unlike Bogotanos, Paisas love to see foreigners roaming their city. Pablo informed us that Paisas see gringos as symbols of safety and security. Meanwhile, I think that Bogotanos see gringos as symbols of paternalism and gentrification. The result: Paisas are welcoming, while Bogotanos are hostile.
  2. Momentum = optimism. Paisas feel continually optimistic about where Medellín is going, so Medellín continually moves forward and progresses… so Paisas feel continually optimistic about where Medellín is going, and so on.
  3. Whether it is picking up trash or helping others navigate a train station, everyone does their part to contribute to their city’s maintenance and development. In return, no job is thankless, and no effort goes unnoticed. Because citizens feel like an important piece in Medellín’s puzzle, they are more invested in making it a better place to live. Praise and encouragement (positive reinforcement), not shame or guilt (negative reinforcement), motivate them to be responsible.
  4. I covered this a bit in my last entry, but it was so startling that I have to repeat it: Medellín’s Metro stations and trains are spotless. Seriously, they are by far the cleanest I had ever seen.
  5. Paisas are a cooperative people. They pay attention to others’ spatial needs.
  6. Locals maintain a purposeful, energetic walking pace. Meanwhile, Bogotanos walk so impossibly slowly, as if every step is yet another burden on their already traumatic lives.
  7. Contrary to what I heard before visiting, Paisa women dress more modestly and professionally than do their Bogotana counterparts.
  8. Medellín is a very layered, integrated city. At times pedestrians, bikes, cars, and trains occupy the same footprint but on different vertical planes.
  9. Architects in Medellín seem more invested in city building than do architects in Bogotá. They seem more willing to help themselves, whereas Bogotanos wait to be “saved” by foreign planners.
  10. If I had chosen to live in Medellín, would I have been working on more interesting projects? Would I have been contributing to drastic change? Would I have had the true Latin American experience? While I might have lived more comfortably in Medelín, I might have had a skewed perception of the Colombian struggle.


An hour after our bright red plane left Cartagena, Seth and I found ourselves in Medellín, the City of the Eternal Spring. Rather than take a cab from the MDE airport into the city, which would have cost us a whopping COP$60,000, we took a bus for $16,000. We then hailed a cab ($COP$8,000) to shuttle us to our hostel. Once there we dropped off our things, booked a walking tour for the following morning, and fled in search of food.

After an unremarkable sandwich, we boarded the A train to the Botanical Garden (estación Universidad). The architecturally divine Orchidiarium was closed for a banquet of sorts, but we were at least able to see it from outside the gates. We walked around the neighborhood, exploring the Planetario de Medellín, the Casa de la Música, and the Parque de los Deseos.

The 18 year-old Medellín Metro ran impeccably. Seth and I chose to load a few trips onto a single card, but we could have also purchased individual tickets, as you would with a carnet in Paris. The signs in the stations were easy to follow, and the trains were the cleanest I had ever seen; not a single person ate, drank, littered, smoked, or blasted music. Everyone was very courteous, making sure to give up their seats for mothers, children, and the elderly. After my hectic experiences with public transit in Bogotá, I was simply stunned.

Feeling tired due to a combination of travel, cloudy weather, and lots of walking, we headed back to our hostel early for beer and R&R.

The next morning we awoke at sunrise for our walk with Real City Tours. Pablo, the twenty-six year-old owner and operator of the service, picked us up from our hostel, and we met up with other travelers at the train station. Once we arrived downtown, he began the tour with an hourlong talk in which he discussed the stigmas surrounding Colombia—the cocaine, the corruption, the violence, etcetera. He mentioned several times that “Colombians are two things: good liars and good businessmen” and related the all-too-familiar story of the papaya. (“No dar papaya” is a common proverb in Colombia which, very literally, means “Do not give the papaya” because if you do, someone will surely take the fruit right from your hands. Figuratively it means, do not give someone the opportunity to take advantage of you because if you do, someone will.) Of course, because our tour guide was Colombian and shared his name with Pablo Escobar, the most famous criminal in the country’s history, he could not not talk about him. From his point of view, Pablo Escobar, while indeed a criminal who did very bad things, was only living “No dar papaya” to the fullest but from the other side; he took advantage of any opportunity that presented itself.

Pablo—the guide, not the criminal—led us to several of the city’s most famous landmarks, including the Plaza de Cisneros. Once the most dangerous space in Medellín, it now boasts a series of poles which light up at night as a symbol of hope and resilience.


Pablo also led us to several spots in Medellín that Seth and I surely would not have discovered on our own. He introduced us to a church that was originally designed by a Belgian architect but due to creative differences was reinterpreted by Colombian builders. Needless to say, the latter half of the building was a complete disaster. If you stand at just the right place in the plaza, it looks like the Botero sculpture is laughing in disbelief at the Colombian builders’ addition.

As we walked Pablo discussed several of Medellín’s many contradictions, particularly the widespread reconciliation of Catholicism and prostitution. He explained that many of the men who participate in such depraved activities use their religion and its unconditional forgiveness to justify their behavior. It was refreshing to have a tour guide so honest, as I feel like many contemporary guides and bloggers speak about the positive aspects of Colombia as if there are no negatives. His point of view elaborated that it is important for Colombians to recognize their country’s sordid history so that they may truly learn from it and move past it.

After the tour Pablo suggested that we all eat together at one of his favorite corrientazos. Seth and I had the displeasure of sitting next to a brand new, holier-than-thou “vegetarian” who proceeded to order bola beans and insist that they did not have meat in them. The conversation was lackluster from the start, so Seth and I ate quickly and returned to the train station.

From the Metro de Medellín we were able to transfer to the integrated Metrocable and spend an hour or two riding around the Aburrá Valley. On the first line we saw Giancarlo Mazzanti’s Parque Biblioteca España and hundreds of thousands of “slums” on the hill. (“Slums” is in quotations because while the houses did not meet a middle-class standard of living, they did still have running water.) On the second line we encountered actual slums and heard a not-so-distant gunshot. (At first I thought I had heard the sound of a car backfiring, but as the woman next to me gasped and crossed herself, I knew I had indeed heard a gunshot.)

After a while it started pouring outside, so Seth and I boarded the train back to our hostel. We grabbed a couple of beers and sat on the porch, where we met a sixty-something 9/11 conspiracy theorist who told us about his plans to sail the Amazon on a homemade raft. Fun.

The next morning we stopped for iced coffee at the delightful Pergamino Café. Unlike coffee shops in Bogotá which incorporate obnoxious planters to separate their patio from the sidewalk, Pergamino boasted a generous open plaza perfect for people-watching. We took our time sipping and reading until it was time for us to pack and walk to the train station. (Fun fact: Seth and I were able to take the Metro straight to the bus terminal and pass on an integrated sidewalk—free of cars!—right to our gate.)

coming soon…


In three weeks Seth and I will quit our jobs and fly to Cartagena, a beautiful and historic city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. We will spend our time lying on the beach, touring the nearby islands, and of course, sampling the local fare.


After a week in paradise, we will travel to Medellín—Colombia’s second largest city and the City of the Eternal Spring.

Let the planning begin!

[Cartagena photo courtesy of; Medellín photo courtesy of]