I don’t sleep well on vacation. It’s strange, but my already terrible sleep habits become even more exaggerated when I am not in my own bed and instead enduring bunkbeds in a hot and stuffy room. I arose at the crack of dawn. I’m sure the 20 somethings already hate my guts because I have gotten up at crack-of-dawn time for the past two days. But, what can you do? After some breakfast and much needed coffee, I caught the Metro to San Javier. I am just pleasantly amazed by this city’s Metro system. Not only does a metro ticket only cost roughly 68 cents US, but it’s is the cleanest and most pleasant ride. Plus, SUPER easy to navigate. And you can get from line to line to line and only pay once, unlike Rio.
I got off at San Javier and was a little confused and also wicked early for my walking tour. So, I walked around the neighborhood and found the biblioteca and a lovely park. As I made my way back to the station, I had to ask two different people where my group met. Apparently, there are two entrances for the San Javier station: One for the cable cars and one for the Metro. I was in cable car land. When I finally found my group (in the nick of time), I introduced myself to Laura, our guide, and started asking people where they are from. Of course, I asked the super anti-social guy from Seattle first. That was painful. But then I found my people with a lovely teacher from the Brooklyn, New York. We became fast friends bonded by education.
The free walking tour of La Comuna 13 is an absolute must! If you have more than two, I recommend making a reservation online a few days ahead, but if you are solo, you can show up on the day and all is well. The walking tour is guided by people who actually live in La Comuna 13 and is tips based only. So, what is La Comuna 13? It used to be the poorest and highest crime area of the world. It started with Pablo Escabar, who gave 1,000,000 pesos to any person who killed a police office. This was naturally appealing to the impoverished youth who saw this as easy money. La Comuna 13 became the breeding ground for drug cartel members and later guerrilla members. Typically, young people between the ages of 15-19 were the heaviest recruits. Hundreds upon thousands of people died between the time of 1990-2008. When the government finally decided to step in, they used severe military force, killing thousands of guerrilla members and innocents. Our guide remembered the night when Blackhawk helicopters flew overhead and rained bullets on anyone walking in the area. Corpses lined the streets on a daily basis and she lost many friends. Then in 2012, there was a huge initiative to clean up the area. With the help from a German alliance, transportation in the form of an escalator revitalized Comuna 13. There was now access to the area and winding walks that connected neighborhood to neighborhood. And in typical Colombian fashion, local artists were hired by the government to create beautiful and breath-taking street art making the area more colorful and symbolic. By 2015, tourists were starting to trickle into the area to look at the beautiful artistic creations. And now, Comuna 13 tours are the most popular tourist activity in Medellin. Through the brutally honest, yet hopeful art and the dilapidated houses intermingled among the newly built structures, Comuna 13 tells the history of its dangerous past among the hopeful renewal we see today. Does that mean it is completely safe? No. If you are going to go, go with a guide. You can do the main street where the escalator is, but to really experience the culture and history, a guide is welcome and necessary. And don’t think you are going to Disney World or the Zoo. These people are real and struggle everyday with constant military presence and the ever-lingering desire to return to a tougher but lucrative time of crime.
Laura, our guide has lived in Comuna 13 all of her life. She is an amazing storyteller and clearly takes pride in her home now. As soon as we met up with her she introduced the tour with, “Thank you for being here. Ten years ago, I would never have told anyone where I was from. I was ashamed of my home. Now, I am proud to welcome you to Comuna 13. You will see that the biggest change in my attitude towards Comuna 13 is you. Tourist not only being able to walk into my home but wanting to do so is a true honor and testament to how much we have changed. So I am proud to welcome you to Comuna 13, because you all are my voice around the world and my hope by the end of this tour is that you spread the good that is my home.” I think that last part is really powerful. We are her voice able to repair the reputation of her home. Laura is quite remarkable. She is full of first-hand knowledge of the history and the art that surrounds the homes and businesses. She personally knows the people and gives amazing recommendations for places to eat, and when and where money is well spent. She even personally invited us to her home to tell us the story of her family during times of great stress and rebirth. My favorite part was her story of her father who passed from a heart-attack: “Every time I brought tourists to my home, my father would smile and I know that he is smiling from heaven on you all now.” These tours have changed her life and the lives of those around her. It is one of the few times I have seen such rapid change in what seemed like a hopeless area. I hope more places continue to strive to be more like Comuna 13. Because although there was outside monetary and military help, the people of Comuna 13 wanted the change, demanded the change. Even Laura’s story of learning English through free lessons given in the area a few years ago is pretty remarkable and inspiring. I left Comuna 13 feeling welcome and hopeful.
With my spirit renewed, I headed to my next adventure. I have wanted to paraglide forever! And I even thought about taking a quick overnight trip of San Gil to Paraglide the canyon. However, when I found out that there was paragliding in Medellin, I canceled my tedious plans and signed up. Not only is it wicked cheap in Colombia, but flying over the vast Medellin seemed like a dream. I am in awe of the aerial view of the city. I made my way up one of three of Medellin’s cable cars (part of the Metro system) that connects some of the poorer and isolated areas to the city (a true game-changer for them) and headed up the mountains. I was a little nervous, so I ate some local cuisine and had myself a little liquid courage in the form of a beer. I had heard it was really smooth, but running off a mountain with only a cloth keeping me from plummeting to my death, gave me some heart palpitations and sweaty palms.
Then I met Gonzalo, my driver who took me from the station to the jumping point. I was a little hesitate to add on the extra cost of a shuttle, but in the end, I am very glad that I did. Gonzalo was in a terrible car accident ten years ago. It paralyzed part of his lower body, so he drives using mostly his hands. I am so in awe of this guy. He overcame numerous surgeries, a divorce, and having to relearn basics. And his driving was amazing. He drives a stick shift while also breaking and accelerating with this little lever that hooks to the pedals. All of this is done with his right hand while he pushes the clutch with his left foot and steers with his left hand. His right foot is almost totally useless. Hearing his story was worth every 5.50 USD added to my bill.
Gonzalo dropped me off at the base of a mountain…literally the base…and I had to climb up what felt like a million dirt stairs to get to the jump site. I swear they do this on purpose. You are all nervous and then you climb a million stairs and emerge at the top winded and hurting. By that point you are like “just get me in the freaking air, so I can get off my feet!” Nerves gone! I met these awesome Indian dudes from Chicago. We chatted for a bit about pizza and traveling. Then I was called up because I had a reservation and a super sweet man waiting at the bottom to take me back to the metro station. My tandem partner and pilot’s name is Will. He has been flying for the company for 15 years but has been flying solo since he was 13. And he says he loves every minute of it. I asked the Chicago boys if they would get pictures of me from the bottom. Then Will and I walked to the edge of the mountain, clipped in, and waited as the helpers fluffed the parachute. All of a sudden, I felt this jerk and was having a difficult time touching the ground. Vamos! Will said, and we were off running off the cliff. You would think there would be this huge drop or this jerkiness as your feet no longer touched earth, but it was super smooth. The air settles the chute and you are simply gliding along, looking down at the vastness that is Medellin. If this is what a bird feels, I am coming back as one of those next lifetime. It is so peaceful in the air. The only uncomfortable part for me was when we turned. I don’t like that falling feeling and the turns feel like you are about to fall until the chute picks up the wind again. But it lasts less than a second. Will and I chatted for a bit in Spanish. Then I just enjoyed the quiet of the ride. A quick 20 minutes later it was over and we were landing. Feet up, chute pulling in, we came to a smoother landing than most aircrafts. The men unhooked me from Will and I popped up ready to go again!
Coming back out of the jump area, I reassured several people that it was not scary at all but really smooth and peaceful, said goodbye to my Chicago boys, and headed back down the stairs of doom to meet back up with Gonzalo. I don’t know if it was from the delayed adrenaline or if my legs were just freaking finished with all of the stairs I had subjected them to. But standing on the metro, my legs started shaking like crazy. Of course, every change in Metro line required me to go up or down three to four flights of stairs. Then the trek back to the hostel is completely uphill. So, I popped into a store, bought a beer and a large bottle of water and plopped down on the sofa outside my hostel to call my mom and tell her my adventure (after the fact of course).
After a much-needed shower – I didn’t realize how hot Medellin would be at this time. Apparently, it is spring all of the time here, according to Gonzalo, but it feels like summer – I headed further into El Poblado in search of some night life and food. This is where all of the hostels, bars, and clubs are situated. The streets are really safe and tourists / hipster locals flock here for cheap drinks. There are endless possibilities to choose from for food – Ramon, Mexica, Thai. It was a difficult choice, but I went with Ramon. I wanted something light and easy. Then I started walking around. There were some bars that were popping and others it was a little early for them to be crowded. But here is the thing about the short time I have been in Medellin: It is a very lonely place to be when you are solo. In Brazil, I could sit at a bar or a table and ten different people would come up and ask me to join their group. They had no problems with the fact that I could not understand a thing they were saying. We communicated through beer and dancing. Here, people don’t sit at the bar and they certainly don’t come up to solo travelers. Well, they do, but it isn’t the company that you want. So, bar hopping alone was hella depressing. I ended up hostel hopping instead, where you go to the hostel common areas and meet travelers. I met a few, but none were really my age. There are lots of young people here partying their ass off. I think I need to come back to Medellin (with someone) for a longer amount of time. I definitely want to give it another shot, but for now, I am ready to head to Cartagena.