No really, I survived without incident. I can’t count the number of people who were genuinely concerned about my safety while I traveled alone in Medellín, Colombia these past few weeks. Safety and solo travel, especially for females, are hot topics of conversation on many travel blogs, and of course amongst travelers themselves. However, I personally have found that it helps to just play it safe and use street smarts to navigate around safely on my own.
Despite the stigma attached to Medellín, the birthplace of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar*, and a city that was formerly known for its extreme violence and drug wars, I never once felt unsafe. In fact, I often walked home alone at night, even in the pouring rain. I also visited a few of the most dangerous barrios including Comuna 8 (aka 13 de Noviembre) and Comuna 13, which was the most violent neighborhood in Medellín in the not so distant past.
Would I go to these barrios alone at night? Absolutely not. Likewise, I wouldn’t walk through many U.S. cities alone at night. As they say in Medellín, “no da papaya”, (translation: “don’t give papaya”), which essentially means don’t flash your valuables. If you walk around looking like a lost tourist, brand new iPhone 7 in hand with your maps app open, and a camera around your neck, you could be a target.
If you’re drunk, walking the streets or even taking a taxi alone at night, you could be a target. There’s a chance that you can do everything right and still become a target. Crime happens everywhere and Medellín is no exception, but it’s certainly not like it used to be. You just have to be smart and alert, like anywhere else you travel.
The past two weeks I was living in a barrio called Señorial-Envigado with Andrés and his mother Ana. Andrés is a 22-year-old architect student who speaks excellent English, but tried his best to only communicate with me in Spanish. Ana is a nurse and doesn’t speak any English, but she tried to converse with me Spanish despite my inability to respond in full sentences.
I was the first student they hosted who couldn’t really speak Spanish, but we made it work and I really enjoyed my time with them, and the time they put in to help me during my stay. I especially enjoyed the fresh fruit and juices they presented me at night when I got home, and the homemade hot chocolate Andrés made several times (it’s basically liquid chocolate with hot milk…so good!).
Andrés had a few fantastic food and drink recommendations for me, especially in the El Poblado neighborhood. If you’re looking for the best macchiato and/or to buy some really good Colombian coffee to take home, definitely visit Cafe Velvet (photo above). If you’re in the mood for a chocolate croissant and/or incredibly delicious gelato, go to Arte Dulce. El Poblado is an upscale neighborhood in Medellín, so it is more touristy and pricey, but a really cool area to check out.
My homestay was arranged by Colombian Immersion, the school I attended each morning for Spanish classes (more on learning Spanish in another blog). I didn’t spend as much time as I would’ve liked practicing Spanish with my lovely hosts, but I was typically gone all day either sightseeing, or studying at a cafe (my homestay was about a 15-20 walk to the school, and the school was about a 15-20 walk in the other direction to good restaurants, the metro, etc). I loved my class and my professor, and met so many great people attending this school.
Even though I participated in a few of the tours offered by Colombia Immersion, I chose to go to Comuna 13 with Megan, my new friend and fellow student, last Sunday. We met near school, walked to the metro station, and rode the metro all the way to the San Javier stop (see below for detailed directions).
We opted to skip the bus and instead walked through San Javier and arrived at the “escaleras mechanical” after only a few wrong turns. Together, we navigated the steep and winding calles, rode the escalators, took pictures of the beautiful graffiti art, and stopped for delicious mini churros from a street vender.
I personally was underwhelmed by the famed escalators that take residents high up into the barrio in lieu of a bus or metro cable, which have been built in some of the other barrios such as Santo Domingo (take it all the way to Parque Arvi for an entirely different and majestic view of Medellín).
The graffiti art in Comuna 13 was cool (@yorch.art) and the history of this violent barrio and its recent revitalization is both terrifying and inspiring, but the escalators themselves just seemed out of place. The next day at lunch, some of the others students were shocked when we told them we went there alone…even here the stigma of its violent history remains.
Megan and I also did a tour of Fronteras Invisibles (invisible borders characterized by indiscriminate violence between gangs), with Nadia and our guide Julian. This tour took us to Comuna 8, another formerly dangerous barrio that has been reinvented and peppered with graffiti art. It was an insanely steep bus ride up the hillside barrio, but the views of Medellín were great, even with the fog and rain.
We spent some time talking to a few local kids who live in this barrio and who wanted to know what we were doing there and where we were from. They also asked us to repeat Spanish words in English, like apple (manzana) and orange (naranja) and pizza, which they were disappointed to learn is just pizza.
After our visit, we walked along El Camino de la Vida, a seven mile walking trail along the mountain slope that used to be known by the locals as Camino de la Muerte (the “path of death”). This trail now connects Comuna 8 with Villatina, a neighboring barrio where invisible borders use to prevent residents from crossing over for fear of violent retaliation. Julian told us about the efforts to rebuild the community, which now offers parks, playgrounds, and libraries to help keep kids off the streets.
We also had views of another barrio called La Libertad, but did not get a chance to walk through it. Despite the post-Pablo Escobar era and innovation throughout the city, Colombia is still a major exporter of cocaine and Medellín still pushes drugs. As such, there are still gangs, violence and drugs, but the city has come a long way to rebrand its image, especially with tourism. I would highly recommend a visit here!
Comuna 13 Directions:
There are buses that take you directly to the escalators, which you can easily find after exiting the metro station (exit right, look for the green buses and hop on the one that says Route 225i with 20 de Julio on the destination card). If you confirm with the driver that you’re going to the “escaleras mechanical”, he should alert you when it’s time to get off, but it’s a good idea to check your own map and exit the bus near the corner of Calle 38 and Carrera 110 (turn left, walk uphill for a bit until you come to the escalators, and if you get lost, just ask anyone and they will help you).
*Fun Facts for Narcos Fans:
I stayed in the same barrio of Medellín (Envigado) where Pablo Escobar grew up. I also learned that he was shot on the roof of the building of what is now Colombian Immersion’s Laureles campus. While there are Pablo Escobar-based tours around the city, I abstained from going on any as respect for the locals who don’t want to give him any more notoriety than he already has. I’m pretty sure many Americans, myself included, only know about Medellín and Bogata from watching Narcos, but I’m glad I came to see the real beauty in this country and wish I had allowed myself more time here. And the food is amazing…