Almost everyone I have met in Colombia has expressed pity on my behalf for being placed to teach in Bogotá and not Medellín. Medellín’s weather is sublime, they said. Medellín is so beautiful, they said. Medellín is so much better than Bogotá, they said.
Now that I have “met” Medellín (the preceding phrase is a Spanish construction that I quite like; I imagine taking the hand offered to me by the Andes Mountains and grasping it), I agree with some of what the eternal henhouse of interfering “theys” have to say. But with how much, exactly? It’s a trap: you have to read to the end of this post to find out.
I must emphasize this: I was only in Medellín for four days. It’s impossible to get to know a city in that short of a time. Even so, I hope you enjoy what little I can tell you about it.
For starters, Medellín is a much more navigable city than Bogotá. Bogotá, as much as I love it, is a city that resists newcomers. If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost think it resists being lived in. Medellín is not that way at all. The metro system is the cleanest I’ve ever seen (also, unlike Bogotá, the metro exists), and it’s fairly easy to use. The weather, at least when I was there, is something out of a Renaissance love poem: balmy but never hot, sunny but not oppressive. The hills can be punishing if you’re as out of shape as I am, but I and my friend who lives there agreed that our legs were getting ridiculously well toned.
Here are a few of the things I saw while in Medellín:
Casa Museo Fernando González
This museum is something I stumbled upon my first day there, when I was waiting for my friend to finish work and trying to find museums that could be visited in about an hour and a half. I had never heard of Fernando González, but I saw that he was an author, so I decided to chance it.
What I found was a charming little house, free of charge to enter, with information about and quotes by González on the walls. There was also a gorgeous, although small, garden and a cafe with ample outdoor seating, as well as a library and a convention center that hosts classical guitar concerts and plays about badass Mexican nuns for free or very cheap. The institution is run by a literary foundation called Otraparte, which supports creative writing and arts initiatives in Medellín and beyond.
If my work had been a little closer, I probably would have tried to live there.
Fernando González himself seems like quite a character, and a good one, the kind we like. There’s a delightful photo of him in the house, with ears that stick out a mile and the expression of someone who grew old but never stopped learning. Unlike many such literary icons, he adored his wife and said this about her: “She is not my partner, but my wings.”
I want every man who has ever grabbed a woman’s butt in the streets of Bogotá to read that line and think for a good hard minute.
Verdict: It’s free, so go, and take me with you.
As you may have guessed by now, I am fond of museums. I like to learn something when I’m traveling, and I usually like to learn it inside, where it is much harder to be rained, snowed, or bird-pooped on. Museo Antioquia, Medellín’s art museum, has a wonderful collection of paintings, sculptures, and photography. They also have a Fernando Botero exhibit that rivals his own museum in Bogotá, so full is it of his work. Although Botero is best known for his paintings of disproportionate human beings, he also did still-life paintings and sculptures. A good deal of the rest of the museum is from his personal collection, which he donated to the museum after his death.
Verdict: Go if you like art. If you don’t like art, you likely don’t quite understand what art is, or are dead. Go anyway.
If you know anything about Medellín, you probably know it was quite the death trap about 20 or 30 years ago. I wish I were exaggerating. Drugs, crime, the works. Comuna 13 was the death-trappiest neighborhood in all of death-trap Medellín. Both Comuna 13 and Medellín are much safer now than they used to be. Whether or not Comuna 13 is completely safe now is a complicated question; I wrote an entire article about it for The City Paper of Bogotá, so check it out here if you like.
However, Comuna 13 is safe enough to visit if you are with a guide who knows what they’re doing and go during the daytime. You’ll see beautiful graffiti, breath-stealing views, and some Colombian coffee, the latter of which you’ll even get to taste if you take the right tour. You’ll also learn about the history of the neighborhood and the initiatives taken to improve it.
Verdict: Go, and hire a local guide. But go in daylight.
Guatape is a small, colorful town not far from Medellín. You can take a bus from there fairly easily. The town is primarily a tourist attraction now. It was originally founded in 1811, but it’s been well kept up. It’s mostly famous for its brilliantly painted baseboards, which have designs on them that show a bit about the families who live in the houses.
Although I liked Guatape, I found it horribly crowded for a town with such narrow streets. There’s some nice enough shopping to be done, but not enough to take the trip solely for that reason.
Verdict: Still go, but only if you have time. And try not to go on a weekend.
As a 23-year-old who still buys books of fairy tales, no matter what her mother says, I wanted desperately to see this castle. Really built as a mansion, but who cares? And it has art inside! Even better!
My friend and I were very impressed by the outside of the castle and its grounds. We were impressed by a few of the items in the castle’s collection (the world’s tiniest Bible, more spoons than any household should reasonably use). However, we were unnerved by the castle itself: it was dark and musty inside, we couldn’t take pictures, and the place was just too darn sad. For example, we learned about the young daughter of the family. She planned to study literature in the United States (as I did, once). However, she also died before her twentieth birthday (which I did not do, thank God). And that’s only one of many sad stories of the history of the castle’s owners.
Verdict: I guess if you don’t mind looking at random stuff you can’t take pictures of for like an hour, it’s good?
Overall verdict on Medellín: 10/10, would bumble my way through again. Go!