Last week I spoke again about “roomie” and our adventures with his first Christmas tree. I soon discovered that there was No Assistance Required. I have often mentioned him in articles on SERENDIPITY. The adventures with my Colombian mate all began on the following trip. 

Medellin, by Rich Paschall

A mile high in the Andes mountains of Colombia, located in the Aburrá Valley, lies the city of Medellin. It is somewhere between the size of Los Angeles and Chicago. Some of its neighborhoods are built up the sides of the mountain, but the city center is mostly flat.

Nevertheless, bring a good pair of walking shoes to make your tour around town.  Traffic in downtown Medellin can be something close to gridlock at midday.  A large number of buses and taxis will not help you get around quickly.

Medellin downtown

Medellin downtown

My trip was somewhat of a lark. A longtime internet friend encouraged me to come to visit. Although we talked often on Google Hangouts (which no longer exists) and Skype and chatted via Facebook Messenger, we had never actually met.  After seeing all the Facebook pictures of friends and relatives, it was as if we were old friends. I accepted his invitation.

The weather there is just about perfect all the time, so I used my few remaining vacation days that year and hopped a plane south.

I was not eager to transit through another country, so I decided to take American Airlines from Chicago to Miami and then fly directly to Medellin. It would have been cheaper to connect in Panama City, but lacking Spanish, it seemed a better choice to connect in an American city. Besides, the Miami connecting times were shorter.

Columbia’s international airport is in Rionegro, 45 minutes from Medellin. It’s at a higher altitude than Medellin and offers amazing views of the tropical region. Although the airport is the second largest in Colombia, it was closer in size to Sarasota, Florida, though much busier. The airport is modern and efficient. Much easier to get through customs than Miami — a story for another time.

My friend was waiting for me as I came out of customs. From this point on in the trip, it’s a good idea to have someone local with you, even if you speak Spanish, which I don’t.  Most signs are entirely in Spanish … which by itself can be a problem for tourists.

I had exchanged currency at the airport in Miami — never a good thing. Rates of exchanges at airports are the worst. Even ATM rates would have been better, but then you have fees, so I suppose it’s a toss-up.  I did not see currency exchanges in the city, but there were some large banks in downtown Medellin that might have been able to make the exchange at a better rate.

You definitely need cash. Most stores and restaurants take only cash, even when you see a MasterCard sticker on the door. The only place you’ll likely use plastic is at an ATM.

There are plenty of taxis and buses at the airport, so transportation to the city should be no problem. My friend took us to the taxi line. The first one was for a shared cab to a designated spot in the city. He chose this for economy

We shared the ride with a couple and a single person. A three-way split is very economical.  In fact, it was cheaper than from O’Hare airport to downtown Chicago — and O’Hare is actually in Chicago proper.

Road to the airport

Road to the airport

The ride down the mountain in the dark was an adventure. The road into the airport is wide and well-lit, but soon you are on a winding two-lane highway. In the mountains. At night.

The driver knows the road well, but racing down was quite a thrill.  We would get tossed from side to side like a roller coaster ride. When we arrived in town and dropped off the others, my friend negotiated a rate to go to his apartment.

At night we visited a neighborhood filled with outdoor cafes and sports bars. A large central square was crowded. You could buy beverages at nearby stores and sit in the park. The square and two streets along it formed an “L” and was like Bourbon Street in New Orleans — one big open-air party.

The downtown shopping area the next day was crowded. We went by Metro and returned by taxi. The wide walkways on many streets could accommodate outdoor stands and carts where a variety of goods were available. Tropical fruit drinks (non-alcoholic) were everywhere  — a good thing when you’re doing serious shopping.

Downtown shopping

Downtown shopping

Many stores featured products from the US. We saw one store supposedly selling “USA brand” clothes.  My friend said to me, “all originals,” with a wink and a laugh. I decided after a while that I could figure out which places sold authentic goods and high-end merchandise because they had armed security guards at the door. It did not appear the police walking the streets were armed, although I didn’t study them.

Medellin is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” because of its temperate climate.  The average annual temperature is 72 degrees Fahrenheit.  Most days are in the 80s all year long, but since they are in the mountains, it cools off to the low 60’s at night.

The upper 50’s would be a cold night. Few places had air conditioning. Restaurants and bars are open air and the climate is perfect for living outdoors. Cool enough for comfortable nighttime sleeping, too. The days were in the upper 80s, and the cooler nights did not require jackets. Pretty good compared to December in Chicago.

If your knowledge of Medellin comes from news stories from 1993 or earlier, forget it. They have worked hard to live down the past and transform the city into a welcoming place.

If he comes up in conversation, locals will tell you that Pablo Escobar does not live there anymore (died in 1993), just as Chicagoans sometimes have to say that Al Capone does not live here anymore (he died in 1947).

The people are friendly, the food is good, the climate is great, and the scenery is beautiful. The trip was too short. I went one more time before my friend could join me in America. 

Visit the Medellin photo gallery at Sunday Night Blog here.

See also: The Christmas Tree Dilemma, SERENDIPITY, December 11, 2022. 

Categories: Culture, Rich Paschall, Travel

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