If Medellin is still a city that puts its visitors on guard, you wouldn’t know it from my traveling companion’s choice of footwear.
“I can’t believe you’re wearing pink sneakers here!” I exclaimed to my friend Ryan, minutes after we arrived at the airport of Colombia’s second biggest city.
“They’re not pink,” Ryan told me. “They’re salmon khaki. They’re pueblo rose.”
In the 1980s and early 1990s, you traveled to the largest cocaine-producing city in the world in the same manner that you lowered yourself into a tank of feral hogs: accompanied by either an insurance policy or a very porous concept of life expectancy. Then the home of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the city had its renown for cultivating prize orchids usurped by its ability to put the k in the word “traffick.”
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As Michael Kimmelman reported in The New York Times earlier this year, the annual homicide rate in Medellin 20 years ago was 381 per 100,000. In New York City, this would come to more than 30,000 murders a year.
Escobar’s death at the hands of the police in 1993 did much to cool the fires. At first the changes were subtle; gang members reportedly started showing up at group therapy sessions; former hit men started taking guitar lessons. Then this city of 3.5 million was gradually graced with a series of improvements befitting its jewel-like setting in a lush valley surrounded by green mountains. Parks, libraries, museums and hotels were built. A gleaming metro system was completed in the mid-90s; in 2006 and 2008, gondolas providing service to the city’s hillside shantytowns were added, reducing what had been a two-hour trip down to a few minutes. Fernando Botero, a Medellin native, donated more than 1,000 pieces of his own and others’ art to the Museo de Antioquia. Birds, in short, began to twitter.
Eager to sample this new Medellin, I canvassed my loved ones for a traveling companion. Thinking his essential winsomeness would be the perfect litmus test for any chicanery or danger, I selected my puckish 24-year-old assistant, Ryan Haney, a heterosexual mama’s boy who sometimes refers to his knapsack as “my little bag.” I knew Ryan would want to run the idea past his mother, Angela; 24 hours later, we received her blessing.
Our first point of order was to take one of the several Pablo Escobar tours offered in Medellin. Having heard that one operator’s Escobar tour ended in a conversation with Roberto Escobar in his living room (Roberto, Pablo’s brother, was the Medellin cartel’s accountant), I wrote to the company but was told they were no longer working with Roberto Escobar, who they said now painted his brother as a hero. A second tour operator I contacted added that Roberto now claimed that his job for the Medellin cartel had been to design submarines. I ended up enlisting Juan Uribe, a warm, emphatic tour guide in his 60s who took us to four Escobar-related sites. We saw the apartment building where Escobar’s wife and bodyguards lived; the roof where he was gunned down by police; a neighboring roof the police used to remove his body (Uribe: “They needed a lower roof. He was very heavy then”); and Escobar’s grave.
Between sights, Uribe recounted how the drug lord started his career by stealing headstones from cemeteries and reselling them, and how he gradually widened his power base, even holding government office at one point. Ryan took all the accounts of cocaine-fueled mayhem in his stride, but when we visited the grave in a lovely, elevated cemetery in the middle of town, I started to feel vaguely anxious.
I asked, “There aren’t cameras anywhere that are recording us, are there?”
Uribe smiled, then pointed at four spindly bushes next to Escobar’s grave and mused, “Microphones.”
On the ride back to our hotel, I told Uribe that I’d taken some heat from a U.S. acquaintance when I’d told him I was going on an Escobar tour, given that Colombia is trying hard to change its image.
Uribe said, “Don’t tell any Colombians that you went on this tour.”
The next day, eager to expose young Ryan to a brighter hue of the Medellin rainbow, we each paid just 1,800 pesos, about a dollar, for a metro ticket. Like us, most visitors to Medellin will probably want to stay in El Poblado, a villagey part of town that is thick with bars and excellent restaurants. From El Poblado, it’s a 15-minute cab or metro ride to the historic area downtown. The city runs north and south along the valley, with favelas climbing up the hills, which unlike most of Rio’s, remain wooded on top.
We rode a clean, elevated train across town and then switched to a gondola, which thrillingly lofted us over the city and onto the hillside favela of Santo Domingo. Although Santo Domingo isn’t a neighborhood I’d go to after dark, its hillside perch affords good valley-viewing by day. Houses here are mostly built of cinder blocks with corrugated tin roofs. As it was a bright, lovely day in mid-December — Medellin’s perpetual springlike weather has earned it the nickname “City of Everlasting Spring” — we felt no trepidation about walking through the favela to the three giant black slate boxes that form the neighborhood’s public library, the Biblioteca Espana. We marveled at its three floors of computers for public use, not to mention a nearby vendor at whose portable stand one could both buy earrings and make photocopies.
A second short gondola ride later we were up even farther, this time in the beautiful Parque Arvi, a sprawling mountain wilderness with hiking trails, hotels and a butterfly enclosure — a place where you can imagine going for a Sunday picnic. Walking along a dirt trail at one point, I told Ryan that it felt great, after our first day of imagining and reliving Escobarian excess, to plunge ourselves into something more wholesome and organic. Ryan looked at me sheepishly.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he said, “but I smuggled in 4 ounces of toothpaste in my luggage.”
We spent most of our evenings in El Poblado. The heart of the neighborhood is Parque Lleras, a block-wide, restaurant- and bar-lined park that has great people-watching at night, and whose Christmas lights were phantasmagoric. All the beautiful young Colombians — Sofia Vergara, we should not forget, was discovered on a beach in Colombia — throng to the park at night, the women in short bandage skirts and 3-inch heels, the men with their chests puffed out.
Indeed, Medellin is known for its night life. This is a city that likes to eat and drink and dance and watch soccer, often in groups, often in bars and restaurants. One night, sitting on a bench in Parque Lleras while a soccer game was being televised, I noted the number of TV screens within eyesight. I counted 13.
This is also a city that loves the sight of a sculpture or a drawing en plein-air. Major new buildings in Medellin are required to include public art; walls in both metro stations and favelas are bedecked with colorful murals. The city’s spectacular Christmas lights (this year’s theme: Flora and Fauna) are to Rockefeller Center’s what Cirque du Soleil is to a mime in a coffin. Night is turned into day — a throbbing, pistachio-hued day.
Also striking, though, are the sculptures that Botero donated to the city. As we approached the Museo de Antioquia downtown, we noticed 15 or so 8-foot-tall bronze Botero sculptures of bulbous people and swollen animals in the plaza. Although all the pieces were a dark chocolaty color, Ryan pointed out that some of the figures’ individual body parts — here a kneecap, there a foot — had been rubbed till golden. The nonbuff had been buffed.
Inside the museum, we marveled at a floor’s worth of paintings by Botero, including two of the heavyset Escobar being shot by police.
At gallery’s end, a placard on the wall asked, “Why does Botero paint fat people?” An accompanying quote from the artist explained, “I do not see them as fat but voluminous.”
Ah. I will try to keep this in mind next time I visit a volume farm.
Meanwhile, I was increasingly falling under the sway of Natalie, who worked the desk at our hotel, the Art.
Petite and enthusiastic, she’d helped us with various reservations. Although we’d met plenty of friendly and helpful natives, not everyone’s English was as good as Natalie’s. When she found out we’d been to the justly popular El Poblado restaurant Carmen, she had rapturously mouthed but did not actually speak: “Ohmygod.” I explained to Natalie that Ryan and I were the sole workers in a 120-square-foot space and that we wanted, the following evening, to have a blowout “office Christmas party.” Natalie enthused, “Of course!” She suggested we try a discoteca called Palmahia. She said Palmahia had a show — here she outstretched her arms and shimmied, to denote dance — that started at midnight. Perfect.
I also wondered, given how well Ryan was adapting to the seems-scary-but-actually-is-not theme of our trip, if Natalie had any leads on paragliding — because of the city’s strong thermal winds, the sport is popular here. Ten minutes later Natalie had us booked for paragliding (about $60 per person) from one of the city’s hills the next day.
That night at dinner I told Ryan, “If you die from paragliding, it will be awkward for me.” Ryan said, “My mother will call you each night and breathe heavily into the phone.” I said, “An Angiegram.”
The next day, we availed ourselves of one of the city’s inexpensive taxis and rode 40 minutes (about $30) to the top of a grassy hill on the edge of town for the paragliding. The view was gorgeous: a scrim of mountains and all Medellin down below. Given about five minutes of instructions, Ryan and I each put on helmets and harnesses and then strapped ourselves to individual 30-foot-long paragliders, each manned by a pilot.
“Break a leg!” I shouted to Ryan.
But it was not legs we needed to worry about. Once in flight, I started to feel slightly nauseated: My harness felt very tippy. I’ve hang-glided before, which was a gentle wafting ever-downward; but paragliding seemed much more variable and vertically oriented; indeed, my pilot steered us far above and then behind the grassy hilltop we’d started from. Ryan and his pilot zoomed deliriously past, corkscrewing and riding the wind like a unicorn in a perfume ad. Meanwhile I gently declined my pilot’s invitation to spiral, pointing my finger at my open mouth to denote the potential fallout of such an activity.
Back at the hotel, Ryan emailed his mother about the paragliding. Once she’d emailed back, Ryan reported, “She says I’m on her list.” I asked what list. He said, “The things she worries about while trying to fall asleep.”
Then came the night of the office party. We’d had dinner at Ferro, a mostly Italian restaurant in El Poblado, which, like the restaurant in the museum of modern art we’d been to the night before, the wonderful Bonuar, featured live Latin music, which prompted diners to stand and dance. But upon returning to our hotel, Ryan felt fluish; he lay in bed transfixed by a TV channel whose name an extra-suavo, extra-basso announcer repeatedly identified as “Gleeeetz.”
Did I feel safe enough to brave the Medellin nightclub world on my own? Absolutely.
I jumped in a cab, and at 11:30 on a Saturday night arrived at Palmahia in 10 minutes’ time. Hulking and black, it looked like the cross between a shopping mall and a Louise Bourgeois spider. The club’s swarthy bouncer and his friend looked at me dubiously.
“Palmahia?” I asked. The bouncer said, “Privado.” Not believing him, and suddenly feeling all of my 50 years, I pointed at myself and said, “New York City.” No effect. Scrambling for the Spanish for “office party,” I coughed up the Italian-ish “festa officina.” Still no effect. The bouncer’s friend said in heavily accented English, “Maybe tomorrow.” The bouncer said, “No.”
Not to be undone, I hopped into another cab and dashed off to La Strada, a shopping mall full of restaurants and clubs for the young and beautiful. Once inside the club Crista — a disco-ball-bedecked black box whose floors were covered with drifts of Styrofoam balls and glitter — I happily danced by myself for half an hour and then glommed onto a bumptious group of fellow boogiers. At one point I started spontaneously laughing at nothing: I was in Medellin! I was happy and safe! I had found some gleeeetz!
As office parties go, ours, with 50 percent of its participants incapacitated and 50 percent in a state of rapturous narcissism, was probably pretty average. But its location made it wholly unique. When, the next morning, Ryan asked how the clubbing had been, I simply mouthed “Ohmygod.”
My last image of Ryan is at the airport on our way home. We had stopped at the duty-free shop, and he surprised me by buying three large bottles of aguardiente, an anise-flavored Colombian liqueur that translates literally as “fire water.” Squeezing the three bulky bottles into his suitcase, he said, “I’m getting more and more Pablo by the minute.”