Riots in Medellin vs. Hot Tubs in Manizales
We couldn’t stop hearing enough about Medellin. It was on the top of the list of places in Colombia from every traveler we met when probing for “must see” destinations. It was a coin toss situation for us at the bus station once again. Heads for Salento, tails for Medellin. We were going to the zona cafetera one way or another, but tails decided that wouldn’t happen for at least a few days. Medellin sounded like a perfect blend of oven roasted artistry and innovative development aimed at improving the lives and conditions for residents of all classes. We read that the city was making progress in a positive light by encouraging outdoor art and mandating development of green and public spaces in conjunction with urban planning and new construction projects. A large river cut through Medellin, which city planners of yesteryear canalized with hopes that the city would be able to live harmoniously with the fresh water that fed the metropolois (this idea was stopped with the massive population explosion during and after the industrial revolution stages in Colombia: currently the river appeared to be in a state that I wouldn’t recommend a swim in unless you were conducting research on health risks of public waterways). Medellin’s population expansion came in waves for several reasons, with one being a large influx of Colombian farmers fleeing their rural roots to Medellin and other cities during the violent periods of political unrest. This, along with the opportunities created during the industrial revolution, expanded Medellin’s boundaries into the slopes of the valleys that surround it. The swelling population naturally created poorer slums, most of which didn’t have much access to the municipality’s basic amenities such as water services, transportation, and electricity. A large unemployment pool was a by product of the rapid increase in inhabitants, which in turn caused increased violence and unrest, and a sense of helplessness for the lack of a viable public transport system that could service the entire city.
Medellin is a poster child for innovation in our modern world, in my humble opinion. The city’s metro system connects a large portion of it’s limits in an efficient, easy to use train that helps transport up to 500,000 people daily. City planners added a massive escalator for safe travel on the steep slopes Communa 13, one of the poorest neighborhoods, to provide access to the metro at the bottom. Medellin also introduced projects to help bring attention to the neighborhoods on the outskirts of town, helping create a sense of community to areas that would be otherwise easy to ignore. A modern library was built in one of the isolated hill neighborhoods and was connected to the city via a gondola from a metro station. A quick ride on the ski resort style mechanism will bring you over the tin roof tops of barrios that tourists would never find themselves roaming around, and kind of give a “looking glass” view of life in one of the poorer sections. Rust colored squares created a patchwork quilt of abodes planted on the hillside of a city that was acknowledging the need for connectivity and addressing a basic need while trying to oust the social exclusion that a lack of transportation fosters.
Our hostel was located on the outskirts of El Poblado, which fees almost Californian in it’s energy. Coffee shops, clean public parks, a vibrant nightlife, and upper-middle class condos were plentiful. We wanted to digest Medellin at it’s roots and didn’t really want to spend much time in the arms this modern part of town. We rode the metro into el centro and were stopped by police guarding the metal gates at the exit of the station. Without a word as to what was going on, officers strapped with guns and vests sat in front of the gates while people on the outside waited to get in and we waited to exit. Nobody seemed to be asking questions, and an eery silence hung in the air for about 5 minutes before they raised the gates without any explanation. We exited the stairway and walked into oddly empty plaza, with rubbish bouncing around like tumbleweeds across the streets. Most storefronts had their metal security gates closed and locked down, and there were very few Colombians in sight. Naturally we gravitated towards an open bakery (Latin baked goods make me weak in the knees) that had signs of life and delicious scents wafting from it’s open doors. I remember gazing at all the options from the sidewalk, which is a polite way to avoid the friendly but aggressive Latin American sales pitches, when we felt a sense of urgency in the air. This was quickly followed by screaming, and blurry figures racing from the corner of my field of vision. The owner of the bakery grabbed us by our shoulders and threw us inside the shop while simultaneously slamming down the metal security doors and locking them in one swift motion.
With our hearts pounding, we listened to the loud noises just outside our doughy safe house grow more and more chaotic. The owner peered his head outside of the doorway while everyone inside the shop just sat there waiting for something to happen. After a few minutes, the noises quieted down, and we decided it was time to make our escape for the subway. We stepped out into the streets, seeing Colombians scurrying around the deserted streets. I remember hearing a loud explosion very close before we saw something that is now seared in the “holy shit” part of my brain. After the small “bomb” went off we looked left down a street just in time to witness a huge black military vehicle turn the corner. It still to this day feels like a scene from a film, like something I was safely observing from behind a screen and not in person. A massive, 10 wheeled machine appeared from the golden, dusty afternoon light with a mounted turret aimed directly our way with only about 100 feet of distance between it and our shoes. It was at that moment that running felt both socially acceptable and necessary. Without looking back, we sprinted for the subway entrance. We made it inside just before police threw down the gates once again, locking out the general public one more time. We scurried up the stairs and watched the scene from the safety of the subway platform a good 50 feet off the ground. Everyone was staring down at the scene below wondering what was going on. When the train came we piled in and sat down, embraced by the silence of sealed doors. At the next stop the doors opened and let in the orchestra of urban chaos, as if opening a sound proof window in front of a riot. Bottles and glass smashing, sirens sounding off, screaming, and the sound of objects thrown into metal doors echoed in the car for 10 seconds. The doors then shut, and off we were back towards El Poblado.
It turns out that our timing for Medellin was the opposite of impeccable (flawed, imperfect, or blemished for better choice of words). Tensions had been oscillating between the common street vendors that are a vital staple of the Latin American economy and politicians. It was believed that the street vendors were going to lose their rights to set up carts on the calles, selling whatever treat, object, or drink they have been selling forever, or be restricted to only specific areas. A failed meeting (I’m told a political figure was running very late) caused a flare up that turned into a protest taking to the streets. As protests often do, youth got involved for the adrenaline rush and began causing a mess. Our hostel owner assured us that this was very rare in Medellin and very out of character, and almost begged us to try again the next day to see the real Medellin. We heard another story from a traveler who witnessed a tourist getting mugged during all the confusion. We were a bit apprehensive, but believed in giving it another go the next day.
We gave Medellin a get out of jail free card and made tracks for the Biblioteca Espana the following morning. This modern library sits on the slopes of the mountain in the neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio and was built as part of an effort to connect the poorer slums of Medellin with the inner workings of the city. As a public works project, it is a grandiose library offering the tools for success in a neighborhood miles from town that would otherwise just be for people living there. From 100 feet up we were spectators looking down at a scene that resembled the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. These streets wouldn’t be a nice walk for someone who didn’t live there, and there was a heightened sense of security gazing at the life below from the unreachable vantage point of our glass and metal pod. By the time we had reached the top, we had somehow lost interest in seeing the library. We realized that as pretty as a modern library can be, we weren’t going to take out any books or do anything but look around so we took off. We decided to go back and see the botanical gardens instead.
The botanical gardens of Medellin were exactly what we were hoping they would be. It truly feel like we were in the middle of Colombia’s 2nd largest city and it helped relax our minds from the jitters of the riots. The entrance was lined with historic readings about Medellin and it’s rich history from all angles, which is a balanced approach I would love to see media take more often (mixing the good with the bad). Long, meandering wooden bridge paths brought us through a Colombian jungle complete with trees and plants that boasted placards stating their names and significance. There was a butterfly garden where you could and get up close and personal with the fluttering beauties while they fed on tropical fruit. We even stumbled across a tree planting ceremony complete with a live band commemorating it’s arrival. To say the least, the gardens offered a blissful retreat to the bustle that was outside of it’s concrete exterior walls.
After getting our fill of green we made our way to Plaza Botero to see the larger-than-life sculptures the artist donated to public. With some standing well over 15 feet tall, the statues featured the classic, plump figures the Botero was known for. Parts of the sculptures that were within reachable distance to pedestrians were rubbed into a golden color that brass turns when touched thousands of times over. The building itself was an awesome combination of bold, castle-like architecture with a very prominent green and white block pattern accenting the facade. As we were enjoying the plaza and it’s scene, the hairs my neck suddenly perked up again. The chaotic energy was felt before the sounds and sights came into view, and instinctively we were on high alert. We heard screams and saw a huge crowd begin to run through the plaza. We ran before we could see exactly what was chasing them and quickly wound up back at the subway station. If you’ve never had the pleasure of being in the middle of a riot before then you wouldn’t be familiar of the deciding moment when instincts tell you to get out. We threw in the towel for Medellin, the city of eternal Spring, regardless of the pleas from our hostel owner about the unusual circumstances. It didn’t feel right, so we moved along. *after we left there was 1 more day of public unrest and rioting, and the issue was public issue apparently came to a resolve*
We decided to make a layover in Manizales to seek out some R&R with the thermal springs it was known for. Manizales is another interesting working-class city perched in an unlikely location: directly on a valley ridge. It’s position geographically makes for a very interesting grid layout. The bus terminal is connected to one of the main streets by Gondola, and gives you a sense of the scope of the city. Walking from the gondola terminal to our hostel was a 15 minute excursion uphill with 40 lb packs. I remember the theme on that day was “sweat”. On either side of the main street the roads went downhill, following the contours of the ridge of the mountain Manizales is perched on. The city felt very much like a middle class town, lacking high end metropolitan shopping and restaurants from the little we saw of it. This was a big plus for me, because there is nothing I like better than cheap, delicious Colombian food and shops that didn’t foster like high end prices.
After finding a hostel in a busier part of town, we asked our hostel hostess to phone a locals-style thermal bath just outside town. They cut us a bargain price over the phone (prices are typically negotiable for just about anything outside of a store) and gave us some basic directions involving buses. On our way to find the bus we came across natural yogurt stands and delicious Colombian style diners before getting thoroughly confused about where the bus would actually show up. Eventually (after a few tries of “donde vas?”) we boarded our ride and bounced around for about 40 minutes, arriving at what appeared to be a family owned outdoor pool. A large hose delivered thermally heated water from the slope via a large hose plopped into the larger of the 2 pools, which spilled into the smaller of the two. This was a clever way of choosing your desired temperature. We brought a box of Chilean red wine and soaked away our sore muscles, relaxed our tired minds, and recharged our souls. I could have stayed in the welcoming waters of that tub for a year. I felt like gumby when we left the springs, and slept very hard that night in our little room.
There wasn’t a lot to do and to see for tourists in Manizales besides adventure sports and thermal spas. I woke up early to get a good feel for the city and to round up some grub prior to our departure. The church plazas and small authentic Colombian coffee shops were magnificent for people watching. I remember seeing lots of men walking around in cowboy hats, which has a warm place in my heart. Everyone meshed around with me with different places to go, different lives to lead, paying no head to the man with the camera sitting contently on the stairs. We departed Manizales the same way we came in; we rode the gondola back down to the bus depot with directions to get to the Zona Cafetera, the heart of coffee country, which was another place our wandering palates were craving throughout out journey in that amazing country.