Medellín, Colombia: July 22 – Sept 16, 2017
The power of possibilities can sometimes be a debilitating force. In life we often feel limited in our possibilities. Part of our challenge is to push beyond our physical and social limits to discover new things about ourselves and the world.
As location independent travelers, we have the freedom to travel to almost anywhere on the globe and still maintain income and quality of life. Yet to be comfortable, we create limits to our travels. Traveling lightly (with just a backpack and carry-on) requires us to seek out places in warm climates. To stay within a budget, requires us to live in places where our desired spending levels afford us the ability to maintain a comfortable quality of life. To be consistent in our business, requires us to live in areas where we can setup our lives quickly and the pace/stresses of daily life are minimal. These are all self-imposed limitations.
As we neared the end of another 3-month springtime stay in Europe in 2017, we resolved to expand our limits in selecting our upcoming summertime home. Ironically, choosing a place for the mid-summer months is more challenging than one might imagine. Given our climate requirements and the wealth distribution in the northern hemisphere, most primary destinations (anywhere in the US, Canada, and Europe) become cost-prohibitive for us. When you have the opportunity to live anywhere at anytime, the way you look at cost and value changes. Why live in a place during high season when you can live somewhere else more affordable, wait it out, and then arrive when the cost matches your value?
In 2016, we settled on Montreal and it was a perfect mid-summer destination. Originally, we wanted to head further south and explore a destination that had been on my shortlist since I began my location independent lifestyle in 2011. But we were entering the second summer of our nomadic travel adventures and we weren’t sure how long this journey would last. So rather than staying within the limits of our possibilities, we decided to stretch our boundaries and explore what some call the “Chiang Mai of South America” – Medellín, Colombia.
Not all About Narcos and Nightlife
“You’re going to Colombia? Why?! Oh man, you better be safe.”
These are the typical words mouthed by an American upon the initial mention of a trip to Colombia. In the summer of 2017, the next thing out of their mouth was generally something about the Netflix TV drama, Narcos, which provides a glamorized depiction of a two decades-long period in the city that was nightmare for its citizens. Unlike our time in Cambodia, where there seems to be an entire travel industry dedicated to the exploitation of the murderous Pol Pot period (1975-1979), in Medellín most people don’t like to talk about their most infamous citizen of the past. So much so, that most don’t even call him by name in public.
Though he died in 1993, the violence that he propagated lasted another 10 years after his death. So it’s no surprise that many of the city’s business and community leaders today were molded as teens and young adults during an era of intense violence. They were scared to go to school, to go to the grocery store, to simply walk down the street at night. In the States, we tend to have segregated violence. If we don’t live in a “bad area” then we only tend to hear about those “bad areas” on the news. Yet, Medellín has a population about the size of Chicago, and the violence was everywhere, including in the periphery. There was no escape, no compartmentalization of the violence. It affected everyone.
Yet, Medellín is a city with a storied past. It was (and still is) one of the most dynamic economies in the region. Its terrain has been both a blessing and a curse. For nearly 400 years after the arrival of the Europeans (primarily Spanish Basques and Jews), the city developed almost entirely without much external interference. Nestled in a valley surrounded by treacherous 2,000-3000 ft mountains on all sides, it’s a challenging place to arrive and to leave. For these same reasons, it was a difficult place to protect and as a result, it became the center of the American drug trade in latter part of the last millennium. Fueled by America’s lust for white gold, the citizens of Medellín lived in hell. Four hundred years of a dynamic history tainted by a 25-year period of violence.
The city has spent last decade healing itself from this horrific period. In contrast to the United States, which has a tendency to sweep the dirt of its past under the rug, Medellín is focused on shining a light on its past. This approach is not only figurative but also literal in how they are reshaping the city to attract visitors, educate the next generation, and rebuild some of the darkest areas of its past and present.
Creating Light After a Period of Darkness
The pride and joy of Medellín is its Metro. Opened In 1995, it has become the economic beacon of the city and the pride of the “paisas” (i.e. the nickname of those from the Medellín area). It’s clean, it’s quiet, and riders stand in single file queues on the platforms waiting to enter the train. As the only rail-based metro system in the country, its social, cultural, and economic impacts on the city are significant to its past, present, and future.
Whereas in many places in the world the most economically fortunate reside in houses on the hills, in Medellín the poorest neighborhoods are in the hills – and there are lots of hills in the city. Transportation down the hills and out of the neighborhoods to the center of the city, or more economically prosperous areas, was a significant challenge for its poorest citizens. This challenge was a profitable opportunity for the cartels in past years, as they were able to recruit from these depressed areas where it could take up to 2 hours (one-way) to get to a more respectable job.
To address this issue and expand the city’s economic prospects, the government invested heavily in building a metro system that would connect the rich and poor neighborhoods. This drastically reduced the time it took to get down the hill and slowly began to increase the economic prospects of those communities. In doing so, they managed to build a world-renowned metro system complete with rail lines, trams, and cable cars rising along the mountainside into the heavens. It is the pride of Paisa, a beacon for economic development, and a symbol of significant change for the city.
In addition to building gateways to economic mobility, the city has also strived to bring education and beauty to once depressed areas – both emotionally and economically. While I didn’t get a chance to visit many of the new, beautifully designed libraries around town, you can see many of them perched upon the hills in the distance throughout the city.
I did find time to visit the “Casa de las Memorias” – an emotional tribute to the delicate and turbulent history of the city. The day I visited, there was a group of teenage kids on perhaps a school field trip visiting the site. I was struck by the idea that these kids are learning the history of their parents – not distant forefathers. Many of them were born soon after the fall of the cartels in the mid-2000s and during the start of the city’s rebirth. But it’s important for the social, cultural, and economic development of the city that those kids understand the errors of the recent past, so as not to repeat that violent history in their lifetimes. Where there is darkness, it’s important to shine light.
Medellín is a city that is blossoming and this is even more apparent in how it reshapes it public spaces. Colorful art displays dot its concrete walls and tell stories of the neighborhoods and their rebirth. Areas that were once hotbeds of nightly drug activities and gang violence are now beaming public spaces – clean, open, and inviting. Perhaps the most famous of these spaces is the “Parque de las Luces.”
Not too long ago the park was a drug-infested, violence-ridden area of town. Yet it is also in the dead center of town – across the street from major government buildings, the old rail station, a major pedestrian shopping district, and near the intersection of the two major metro lines. Rather than “sweeping the dirt under the rug,” the city decided to turn the darkness into light – literally. Parque de las Luces (which means “park of the lights”) is now full of towering light poles that shine bright at night, repelling the negative effects of the past and inviting positive change for a brighter future.
Catching Cabin Fever
That which is a strength can also become a weakness. As a destination, Medellín has many strengths. It is the “City of Eternal Spring,” with average daily temperatures between 70-85 F, everyday, all year long. Though it’s rather close to the equator, like most of the major South American equatorial cities, it’s nestled high in mountains (4,500 ft), allowing for cooler temperatures than low land equatorial towns. The mountains, which protected it from regional invaders for much of its history and imprisoned it during the time of the cartels, provide magnificent vistas in all directions. And sure, it rains. Almost daily but it doesn’t last long, and the air after the rain is comforting, even appetizing.
During our initial drive into Medellín from the international airport, we were captivated by the lush greenery, open fields, shimmering blue skies, and towering mountains. Tolerating 45 nauseating minutes of constant twists and turns, we wound our way down the mountainside into the ritzy Poblado neighborhood – often the first and only destination for many travelers to Medellín. Poblado is the primary reason why Medellin is often compared so closely to Chiang Mai. It’s full of great cafes, has an emerging co-working scene, lots of American chain restaurants and stores, and scores of high-rise condominiums that dot the skyline. It feels like an extension of Miami Beach (without the beach). Though we spent a few afternoons and evenings in the area visiting with friends (some old and some new), Poblado wasn’t for us.
Instead, we stayed in the Laureles neighborhood, about 15 minutes away by car and an hour away by public transportation. Laureles was recommended by a dear friend from our Chiang Mai days, Digital Lala, who stayed in the area the previous year. She knew Laureles was more our speed. It’s more low-key, more affordable, and more “Colombian” than Poblado. It fit the more immersive experience that we seek when we decide to call a place “home” – if only for a couple of months.
To immerse ourselves in Colombia’s second city, we made it a point to explore all corners of the Antioquia Valley. This included afternoons and weekends visiting the Botancial Gardens, the replica village of Pueblito Paisa, an exhausting but well-worth it Real City Tour of El Centro, and jaunts down to the small, peripheral villages of Sabeneta and Envigado. Medellín has more than enough to satisfy short-term travelers, but that which makes it beautiful and tight-knit, also makes it challenging to escape and explore other areas in the region and neighboring countries.
Prior to arriving in Medellín, we’d thought about using our two months there to explore other areas of South America – Quito (Ecuador), Lima (Peru), or maybe even parts of Chile or Argentina. Yet, we didn’t’ realize how far and costly these trips would be.
To give a bit of perspective, the distance between Medellín and Bogota (Colombia’s two largest cities) is only about 150 miles. Since there isn’t a sufficient rail transportation network in much of South America, everyone generally travels by plane or bus. Those that travel by plane have money and the prices reflect that. Everyone else travels by bus and the travel times are ridiculous by western standards. A bus trip to Bogota can take anywhere from 8-10 hours (and it’s only 150 miles away)!
During our time in Medellín, the average round-trip costs for a flight to Quito (only 250 miles away by air), was near $500. A bus ride would take almost an entire day or more. Flights to Peru, Chile, or Argentina were both costly and time-consuming. Whether the flights were direct or required a stopover, each flight was at least 8-9 hours. Not to mention having to endure a 45-minute to 1 hour nauseating ride through the mountains just to reach the international airport.
Given this myriad of factors, we recognized very quickly that we wouldn’t be leaving the Medellín area during our brief 2-month stay. Staying in one place for two months is challenging for us. We like to get up, hop on a train or quick flight, and explore nearby destinations. This is typical for us in Asia or Europe, but in South America (especially Colombia) it’s quite different. Many of the neighboring towns in the Medellín region are simply smaller versions of the big city and it’s not worth the long and treacherous bus rides, simply to escape to another place for a day.
Cabin fever is defined as, “boredom, restlessness, or irritability that results from a lack of environmental stimulation, as from a prolonged stay in a remote, sparsely populated region or a confined indoor area” (American Heritage Dictionary). Though this is often a result of life in places like Alaska or Siberia in the dead of winter – who knew that one could come down with such a fever in the City of Eternal Spring? Yet, we did and the best cure for this condition was friends, food, and familiar settings.
Finding Our Oasis
If you were to visit Medellín only to walk the streets and never engage with anyone, you might assume that people in this city are mean and possessive. We’ve had the experience of navigating streets and traffic in many places in the world, and yet Medellín was a totally different animal. Sure, in Asia (Vietnam especially), you have to be smooth, yet aggressive when crossing the street. Much more than in Europe or America, where traffic laws and legal systems reign supreme.
But in Medellín something strange happens when you step into the street…people seem to speed up. It’s as if you’ve entered their domain and their way to express dominion is to speed towards you. At first (like most things), it angers you and causes anxiety as you simply walk around the town. I don’t recall this same sense during our brief time in Bogota 4 years earlier. After chatting with a couple of taxi drivers about it, they acknowledged that it’s a cultural element specific to Medellín – even more so, specific to the lower income parts of town. I won’t begin to profess any assumed reasons for this except to say that in most places in the world, people with less to lose are often more risky in their behaviors and more possessive of what they feel is theirs.
Once you acclimate to this cultural oddity and begin to engage with Paisas, you quickly find that they are some of the nicest and most welcoming people that you may ever meet. After our challenging time in Valencia, where we’d visit the same cafes and restaurants on a daily/weekly basis only to be treated as strangers, in Medellín, we’d visit a place just once and the next time they would remember exactly what we ordered the previous time.
Lunchtime was our time to explore the food scene. The nighttime food scene is much more expensive and less healthy. For lunch, most places offer a “Menu del día” for about $3-5, complete with a soup, salad, meat/fish/poultry, rice, juice, and maybe even a coffee with a cookie for dessert. Our favorite spot quickly became the fittingly named “Urban Oasis.”
Once we settled on our comfort food and favorite cafes, we made it a point to explore the neighborhoods and the nightlife. Towards the end of our stay, we enjoyed the chance to explore local spots with friends, new and old. My wife and I hosted a friend, Yosha, from San Francisco, who we actually met during our time in Sevilla, Spain in 2016. They took a day to visit the majestic town of Guatapé, as well as tour the famous Comunal 13 area.
In the evenings, we often headed over to Poblado to socialize with other friends visiting in town or new friends made during our limited time in the area. One of the best things about having lived in so many places around the world is that we have exponentially increased our ability to connect with new friends and spend quality time with old friends.
At one point, we were sitting on the patio at a house party in Poblado, conversing in Spanish and English with folks from all over the world, only to realize that our connecting force at the party was our friend, Digital Lala, who we met in Thailand and now lives in Germany. The bond built with her over the previous six months had birthed the opportunity to visit Medellín and immediately integrate with locals and ex-pats in the area. The trifecta of food, friends, and familiar settings, helped to cure our cabin fever.
The Final Verdict
As we travel the globe, we often analyze destinations based on whether they are good short-term or long-term options. For us, Medellín fits into the short-term bucket. It’s great in short bursts and a perfect mid-summer spot for us. It’s close to the US and in the same time zone. It has a good café scene for digital workers, great weather, and welcoming people. And it’s fairly comfortable and affordable.
Though it has its rough spots, it is much like Saigon (where I sit now as I write this reflection). One must learn to love and appreciate it for what it is; even knowing that it’s not ultimately the perfect long-term fit. The inability to explore the region quickly and economically is a hindrance for us. Perhaps in the future, it would be best to explore other areas prior to arriving in Medellín and use the time there to rest and recoup before heading to the next destination.
By the end of our 8 weeks in Medellín, we were sad to depart from the new friends we met in our brief time. Yet, we were excited to head back to the US for a week to visit family and friends before heading back to Chiang Mai for our second stint of living in Thailand. I can see why Medellín quickly became the “digital nomad capital of South America.” It holds the title well and if we’re lucky, we will be back to visit and enjoy “la vida paisa” in the City of Eternal Spring.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.