Thoughts on Medellin


August, 2011
Ivan Obolensky

Medellin International Airport is situated at a much higher altitude than the city of Medellin which is located in a river valley about an hour’s drive away by car. As the plane was preparing to land, I could see that the country appeared hilly with interspersed patches of trees and open spaces.

The higher plateau, where the airport is located, is called Rionegro and it has a similar temperature to that of Northern California coast. Everything is incredibly green. Medellin is 5000 feet above sea level while Rionegro and the lip of the valley are at 7000 feet. One can easily feel out of breath. One’s initial look at Medellin stretching out 2000 feet below as one starts down the side of the valley is spectacular.

On the weekends there are many bicyclists that ride from Medellin up the side of the valley to Rionegro and back. The highway into the city is a well paved two lane road for the most part with a shoulder and a deep drainage ditch running alongside to take away rain water. It rains a lot. The problem is that the shoulders are often used by motorcyclists and there are several instances where the highway reduces to one lane while road repair takes place. Even the single lane portion can be very rugged. When I think of the stamina to cycle up the side of the valley on sometimes rough road, with motorcyclists and cars zooming by with inches to spare, and having to hold a line in spite of exhaustion and fatigue for at least an hour and a half at this high an altitude, one can only shudder at the thought. Going down is not much easier. The road is steep and speeds can rise quickly. With motor traffic moving down the valley alongside, the bicyclist’s line has to be precise and there are some rough road spots that can only be classified as serious white-knuckle zones.

I was told of a lady who is a waitress at one of the restaurants in Rionegro. She lives in Medellin and rides up the valley each morning and rides down in the evening. She repeats this routine every day. She is either a single mother or the head of her household because the Crepes & Waffles restaurant only hires those with that qualification. Whichever she is, she must have the fortitude and stamina of a world-class cyclist and a tenacity that can only be classified as formidable indeed. In many ways, she is emblematic of those who live in the city.

Medellin is all hustle and bustle. It has grown from a city of a few hundred thousand to 2.6 million in about 25 years. Streets are jammed with cars all travelling as fast as small cars can go. Most are Renaults, Hyundais and Mazdas. I saw three BMWs and as many Mercedes in the two weeks I was there. For every car, there were probably five to ten motorcycles – very few with an engine size of over 200 cc’s. Since Medellin has expanded so fast, road construction has not been able to keep up with the overflow of traffic; so rules have been put in place to mitigate it. On certain days, and for a certain amount of time, only cars with license plates that end in a specific digit (odd or even) are allowed on the street. Violators are issued exceptionally large fines. It is not uncommon for a family, or individual, to own two cars, or a car and a motorcycle, to be able to drive freely every day.

Over the past forty years, rural neighborhoods that would have been considered suburbs have been torn down and 15 to 20 story towers put up in their place with the former property owner often owning an apartment in the new high-rise. Construction has been so rapid that in the space of just a decade whole sections of the city are barely recognizable.

Nowadays, security is still intense. Each building has its own gate keeper and security force to monitor all traffic entering and leaving. Road congestion is still one of the city’s biggest problems. Most of the streets are one way and sometimes, unannounced, become one way the OTHER WAY in order to ease the traffic flow. Not even locals are certain of whether their planned routes to a destination have been modified. Even traveling to destinations only a few blocks away sometimes requires long circuitous detours. Luckily, rather than having a thousand traffic lights, traffic is routed into roundabouts so it at least moves.

Only the land next to the river or in downtown Medellin is on level ground. Most of the more affluent dwellings are in the high-rises that extend up the valley sides. When it rains, the asphalt becomes so slick that it is just barely possible to maintain traction and climb due to the steepness of the grades. Cars simply have to roll back down or in some case slide backwards with wheels spinning. Vehicles below are forced to quickly scatter like birds in order to get out of the way.

Riding a motorcycle is the most popular form of transport in Medellin. In wet conditions, motorcyclists have to “tip toe” around corners and carefully navigate steep declines that often have a ninety degree turn at the bottom. It is an experience one is not likely to forget and that is just as an observer.

Since the roads are so steep, downward momentum is contained by bumps in the road called “policías acostados” or lying down policemen. Since each bump can range from eight inches to a foot in height, one races over these at one’s peril or at least with everyone and everything strapped down as if in an off- road competition. Although driving in Medellin does not require a special annotation to one’s license, as in the case a pilot transitioning to high powered aircraft and jets, it does require serious attention and flair at the very least.

To outsiders, Medellin still carries the stigma of Pablo Escobar. Upon announcing that one is travelling to Medellin or to other parts of Colombia, friends give you one last look to forever imprint your face in their minds, convinced your life expectancy is on par with those who enjoy free diving with large sharks in the open ocean. I would like to point out that this stigma is eighteen years out of date, Escobar died in 1993. Visiting Colombia I was very pleasantly surprised at what I found. Not only was I not molested but I was treated in an extremely cordial and generous manner by everyone I met, and I went out of my way to interact with as many people as possible.

Overall, my impression is that Colombia, Medellin in particular, is a lot like South Texas. South Texans have an old west civility and politeness that one might have thought lost in this modern age. They will treat one with respect until that person acts in a manner not worthy of it, and then one is truly on one’s own. In their minds, it does not matter if you are the president or the gardener. Of course, South Texans can rise to the occasion if provoked and so can Colombians. There are also areas of New York, Miami, and Los Angeles one should probably stay clear of, or if finding oneself there, flee as quickly as possible. I am sure it is the same in Medellin.

One thing that did impress me was that everyone was busy; and if they had a job, it was done with care and with determination. So busy was Medellin that I likened it to New York meets Melbourne, Australia, with bit of South Texas thrown in: a truly vibrant city and only a miniscule part of Colombia.

I will have you know Colombia is big; bigger than Texas and California combined. Travel in the old days was not just an adventure but an expedition. To get to Medellin from the sea coast required many days of travel through mountainous territory. Food had to be transported on horseback so it is no surprise that local cuisine today reflects that expedition quality. Staples such as rice, beans, and chicharrón (thick crispy bacon) are part of the heritage and form the foundation of the local cuisine. In my mind, any country whose national dish is bacon has to have something extraordinary going for it. Who would have thought such a place existed? Most restaurants offer a dish that is called “típico” or typical. It consists of rice, beans, chicharrón, avocado, steak, sweet plantain, a white corn “arepa”, and a fried egg. For breakfast, lunch, or dinner, this will do the job.

The best food though has to be the empanadas. Each restaurant seems to make them slightly different and each, of course, considers their rendition the best. Regardless, if I had one thing to eat for the rest of my mortal existence, empanadas might just be the thing. They are little half-moons of pastry that fit in the palm of your hand and contain slightly spiced combinations of beef, potato, vegetables, and a slightly piquant sauce. I ate these for breakfast along with a giant bowl of hot chocolate. I ate them for lunch. I also ate them for dinner. They were good no matter when or where I ate them. Such joy!

The city of Medellin and the country of Colombia sticks in my mind. There is so much to see. I can’t wait to go back.


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