The Medellin Real City Walking Tour is a very popular free walking tour of Medellin and I had to try twice before I managed to get a space on the tour. It’s a free four hour tour around central Medellin with a local guide who speaks fantastic English. You have to book online in advance, i.e. bookings open on Tuesday evenings for tours on Thursday. Although their website doesn’t say the exact time that bookings open, I worked out that it was 6pm and so, on my second try, was on the website at 6.01pm and managed to book a slot!
If you’re in Medellin I would really recommend booking this in advance so it can be one of the first things you do as the guide also gave us lots of generally handy tips for exploring the city and for not being scammed in the city – for example noting that tourists often get the 1000 peso and 10,000 peso bills confused and street sellers often take advantage of this!
We met at 9am outside the Poblado metro, a small group of people in their twenties from Canada, the U.S. and Cyprus, and then together we caught the metro into the centre of Medellin where we met up with the rest of the group – also mainly in their twenties or thereabouts, travelling for various lengths of time, and everyone was very friendly.
The tour took us around the main sites of downtown Medellin following roughly the map set out below. The problem with Medellin is that there just aren’t really any great sites, other than the Plaza de Botero with its huge statues. As I said in a previous post, it’s really not a pretty city. But on the other hand, I now love walking tours and had a fantastic time – I genuinely think this is the best way to see Medellin!
We followed the route on the map below, stopping at various points to take a seat so our guide, Hernán, could tell us about Paisa history and Colombian history in a simple and entertaining way. From my reading, I already knew most of the history, but it added a personal element and a different take to it than what you get in books – and if you knew nothing about Colombian history other than from watching Narcos on Netflix and what you had read in the paper, it would give you a brief understanding of the city.
Hernán began at the beginning, by telling us about the origins of the city in the coffee boom of the 1850s. Medellin began to sell coffee worldwide and built a railroad for faster and easier transport of the coffee beans. That led to industrialisation – the railroad brought steel, iron, industry, and allowed the city to grow and modernise. The tour would normally start at the railway station itself but due to renovation works it couldn’t and we were elsewhere, by the Ministry of Justice building.
We moved on to the Parque de las luces where Hernán explained firstly, what Medellin used to be like, and secondly, how and why it is much safer now.
He said that when he was growing up, everybody was affected by the violence in Medellin, regular civilians caught in the middle of battles between the drug cartels. Everyone was afraid of going outside into public spaces. There were killings, bombs, muggings. He explained that the people coped through a form of “blitz spirit” and a sense that they couldn’t let the drug cartels win. To this day, Pablo Escobar is a hated figure in Medellin, and Hernán even said he was going to refer to him throughout the tour as “the famous criminal” because
Not very many people here speak English but they all know the name of the famous criminal, and if they hear me say his name, they might think I am glorifying him and get angry.
There is an Escobar tour for tourists but its controversial and none of the Paisas I spoke to thought it was a good thing – they didn’t like the idea, as Hernán said, of glorifying someone who had been so awful for their city. Hernán described killing Escobar as like smashing a pane of glass – you still have the glass, but it is now in much smaller pieces – i.e. there are still drug cartels but they are much smaller and with much less power.
In 2002, Uribe became the president of Colombia, described throughout as the “iron fist“. He put a lot of willingness, power and money into solving the security situation and in doing so, made it safe to travel again through the countryside. Investors started coming back to Colombia, the economy began to move again and in one year, the rate of kidnapping dropped by 90%.
However. There’s always a however. Uribe’s first presidency violated human rights a lot, in some ways making it worse for ordinary citizens, as I described in my review of Robin Kirk’s book, here. One particularly notorious incident – well, not really an incident as it happened many, many times – involved the Colombian army killing ordinary citizens and dressing them up as rebels, as they received payment for every guerilla soldier they killed. This began to come to light when they kidnapped a bunch of boys from a village who were found the next day, killed, dressed in guerilla uniforms. Their families were so confused – yesterday, my son had absolutely nothing to do with guerillas, can this really be true? And where it really came out was that one of the boys kidnapped was mentally handicapped. It has since been found as a result of detailed research by human rights organisations that these incidences were so systematic that higher ranks of the army and government must have known about them and supported them.
It was only really when Uribe wanted to win a second term as president that he began cleaning up his act with regards to the paramilitaries. So, the “iron fist” improved not only Medellin but Colombia as a whole by setting up a “security atmosphere” with policemen visible on the streets and soldiers on the roads. However, the key transformation of Medellin came with their mayor, nicknamed “the teacher” by Paisas. As I mentioned when I spoke about the cable cars, the mayor had two pillars holding up his safe house of Medellin – the first, transport, the second, democratic architecture.
Plaza de las Luces, where we were standing when Hernán told us this, is one example of the second. The mayor took a really run-down area in Medellin and renovated it, creating a public square with tall pillars with lights on the top – a positive public space. It is also right outside the library which has free public toilets for everyone to use – something else that is definitely a good thing in making a city nicer! As part of the drive to make Medellin safer, ten new libraries were built to function as community areas, built in dangerous neighbourhoods to encourage education rather than just going into gangs. Then there were the cable cars and the electric escalators in the slums that I spoke about in my previous post.
Hernán said that Paisas are so happy because:
Imagine I am stuck in a swamp, I am stuck up to my nose, up to my eyes, I can no longer breathe, I am going to die. But then, all of a sudden, I find a branch! I pull myself out, I take a deep breath, I smile, I shout, I celebrate, because I am alive when I was this close to dying. For Medellin, the metro was that branch.
We moved on to the Palacio Nacional, one of the oldest buildings in Medellin and now a shopping centre and then on down one of the main pedestrianised streets.
We stopped outside the Veracruz Church while Hernán pointed out something strange about Medellin – all the most blatant signs of “sin” tended to happen right outside churches. For example, this particular church was known as the place in Medellin to pick up prostitutes, and sure enough, at midday, there were plenty of prostitutes hanging out by the front entrance of the church. Another church had a small street running right by one of the entrances that was filled with stalls selling all kinds of knock-off goods … including hardcore porn videos and magazines, the front covers clearly visible as you left or entered the church!
We took a short ten minute break to get a snack and an old Colombian man came up to me and the girl I was with. He spoke really good English and just kept on speaking to us in English, welcoming us to his country, asking us questions about where we came from and shaking our hands over and over again.
When we moved on, Hernán told us a little of his view of the ongoing peace discussions with the FARC. He was sceptical that the agreement would be signed by March 2015 but was hopeful that it would work out. One of the key sticking points is what happens to FARC guerillas that have committed crimes as part of the struggle. As the peace agreement currently stands, if they confess, and if their confessed crime was not a “crime against humanity” they would get 8 years of labour – i.e. not even a prison sentence. This is something that is really pissing off a lot of people as they think that justice needs to be done. From my, completely external, emotionally-removed position, I think that the whole point of a peace-process is that you can’t just fully punish one side, as that implies that you won the battle. If you didn’t win outright, you have to make sacrifices. And, for example, looking at the Spanish Civil War, they had a culture of forgetting afterwards. Lots of people did not receive justice for the crimes they committed – but Spain is a safe country now with very little signs that just a few decades ago, brother was killing brother and the country was tearing itself apart. Anyway. That’s my two cents.
We moved on to my favourite part of downtown Medellin – the Plaza Botero. Botero is an incredible man, an artist / sculptor from Medellin who is world-famous for his huge figures, where he plays about with proportion and size. He’s considered one of the most famous Latin American artists. He is wonderful because of what he has done for Medellin and for Colombia, donating so many of his works to museums in the country. For example, he donated 123 pieces of his work and 85 pieces from his own private art collection (including Picassos!) to a museum in Bogota, the Museo Botero, which I visited. He also donated 119 pieces to the Museo de Antioquia, in Medellin, and his bronze sculptures fill the square in front of it.
The funniest thing about these is that, because they are hollow, when they are touched repeatedly they begin to change colour. And so you can clearly see which parts of the sculptures people most like to touch…….
We ended the tour at the Parque de San Antonio. In 1995, a concert was going on in this square, when somebody hid a bomb inside a Botero sculpture of a bird. The bomb exploded, killing 23 people and injuring more.
When it came to restoring the area, the mayor wondered what to do with the ruined Botero sculpture, whether to put anything in its place, and if so, what. One day he had a phone call. “Don’t remove the sculpture” said the voice on the other end of the line – and it turned out to be Botero himself. He asked for the ruined sculpture not to be removed as he didn’t want Medellin to forget what had happened. However, he made and donated a new sculpture, to sit beside the ruined one, as a reminder of Medellin’s violent history but also of its new chapter.
I then spent the afternoon with one of the girls I met on the walking tour, wandering around the Botanical Gardens in the cool shade with the sound of birds, the tall buildings of the city only occasionally visible through the trees. We watched the huge iguanas at the lake and then went into the butterfly enclosure to delight at the huge butterflies.
I made it back to my hotel just in time to change and go to an evening yoga class before heading out for dinner – my favourite day in Medellin and so I would really recommend the walking tour!