Travel to Medellin – The Only Risk Is Wanting to Stay

If you had asked me a year ago while I was planning my trip to Central and South American whether I would be visiting Colombia, I would probably have said, “No, I’m just gonna skip over Colombia”. All I knew about the country was what I had seen on the news and in movies like the blockbuster hit Blow and the film-festival favourite Maria Full of Grace (a highly recommended flick). In a nutshell, my image of Colombia was unfoundedly negative.

I imagined a very poor country highjacked by drug lords, citizens living in fear, nameless guerillas patrolling the jungles, and foreigners being robbed and kidnapped. I used to think that only hardcore backpackers, coke feigns, and undercover CIA types ventured into Colombia, but then again – that’s exactly what many misguided people think about current day Mexico. Luckily, shortly after beginning my trip I started to meet travelers who only raved about their time in the Colombia and even described it as their favourite country in South America. I decided not to skip Colombia.

View of Medellin

Loving Medellin

Today, five months later, I find myself in Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city. It is Saturday evening and I’m looking forward to taking in more of the city’s vibrant nightlife. The slogan of one of Colombia’s tourism campaigns ‘Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay’ couldn’t be more fitting. I only have two weeks left in the country and I am in a state of travel paralysis – I just can’t move on from Medellin. Luckily I am not alone. I have met several travellers who came here intending to spend just one week and are still here months later. There is something absolutely intoxicating about Medellin’s happy people, rich culture, and bubbling energy that has me wanting more. I am tempted to say that I could see myself living here – at least for a year or three. A fellow blogger Ryan from ‘Ryan Goes Abroad‘ wrote a great post about Medellin and called it a super-livable city, read why.

Medellin’s not so favourable past – Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel

Pablo Escobar and Roberto Escobar's Wanted Poster

Wanted poster for Pablo Escobar & his cartel

It is hard to believe that in the 1980′s and early 90′s Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous places on earth, with an average of over 500 murders monthly. The notoriously ruthless drug-lord Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel (one of the most powerful criminal organizations in history) ran the city and a drug empire that was reported to supply as much as 80% of all cocaine entering the United States. Escobar and his cartel employed a violent policy they called “Plato o Plomo” (silver or lead). Whenever someone opposed Escobar he would give them a simple choice  –  either take a bribe and look the other way, or  take a bullet (the lead). This policy gave rise to regular bloodshed that claimed to lives of policemen, judges, journalists, opposing gang members, and even innocent civilians – Medellin was not a popular tourist destination. In the early 90′s the Colombian government, assisted by the U.S. Special Forces and other tactical groups, initiated a manhunt to find and capture the elusive Escobar (at the time considered the 7th richest man on earth by Forbes Magazine). In 1993, after nearly a year and a half on the run, he was tracked down and killed at one of his safe-houses in Medellin. The years following his assassination and the fall of the Medellin Cartel marked the beginning of a new era – one of repair and recreation of the city.

Medellin – The Present 

My original perception of Colombia was more than a bit sensationalized and archaic, dating back to what was happening during the Escobar era (yep I was alive then) – but that era is now long over. Today Medellin is considered Latin America’s fashion capital and one of the safest cities in Central and South America . In the past few years the Medellin government started a campaign aimed at shedding the negative image of the past called “Medellin: Adalante y Sin Reversa,” meaning “Medellin: Moving forward without going back.” Escobar and the damage he did to the city’s reputation will never be forgotten, but the proud citizens of Medellin do not want the live in the shadow of Escobar and the past. Today Medellinis a thriving Metropolis sitting right up there with the giants like New York, Toronto, London, Milan, and Hong Kong. In the upcoming posts, I will be showing you some of Medellin’s exciting present and future, and why many foreigners can’t help but fall in love with the city.

Photo credit Joseph Le

So do I think Medellin is a safe place for travelers? To reiterate the words of a current tourism campaign, “the only risk is wanting to stay.” My recommendation – take that risk, you won’t regret it.
So have you been to Medellin? What do you think about the city? Would you recommend Medellin as a place to visit or live? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.