Medellín was once known as the most violent city in the world. This unenviable title was the result of urban violence caused by the drug cartels at the end of the 1980s. The most infamous was Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel which used the city as it’s battleground. However, after the death of Escobar, crime rates in the city began to decrease. In October 2002, President Álvaro Uribe ordered the military to disband the urban militias of the FARC and other groups. Even after the disbanding of the main paramilitary groups, many members have been said to have reorganized into new criminal bands causing an unfortunate increase in violent deaths. In 2009 the number shot up 200% to an ‘estimated’ 2,899 violent deaths – that’s an average of 9 people killed every day in 2009. Yikes. That same year, Chicago had about 450 homicides and Chicago’s number is higher than the national average in the United States (this does take into account small towns and suburbs).
Now, to be honest, I didn’t really do this research until after my visit. I guess that’s a good thing, although I’m not even sure that really matters. I knew other travelers who’ve gone there and even live there and from everything I read, I really wasn’t worried. Although during my five days in Medellin, I was given some conflicting reports:
Medellin is a very violent city. And…It’s much safer in Medellin than it used to be…
Most of the danger and violence is up in the hills surrounding the city where I am told that parts of the poorer barrios are run by gangs and paramilitaries. It’s a flip from what some are used to in the United States or other western cities where the hills with the views are the more expensive and coveted areas in which to live and the valley below has some more affordable and/or poorer areas. People had warned me, police included, that the hood of Prado, where I was staying, could be very dangerous at night.
One bright, sunny day I was walking around popular, busy areas like the Parque de Las Luces and Plaza Mayor and was offered advice by many friendly Paisanas (inhabitants of Medellin) to be careful with my camera. I shoot with a fairly conspicuous digital SLR and am careful and keep it in my backpack most of the time. But, on the other hand, it was broad daylight and frankly, in order to take photos, I had to take it out of my bag. It was a pain in the ass to keep putting it in and out and often a conundrum for me.
I ended up walking alongside the Rio Medellin which was highly decorated for Christmas with ostentatious displays and lights all around. Of course nothing topped the huge, neon, character-like nativity scene on the hill overlooking the city. I was actually trying to work my way up that hill to check out the views on top of what they call Cerro Nutibara which seemed quite close. Or so I thought. I wasted what seemed like an eternity trying to cross a major thoroughfare with no traffic light anywhere in sight. Picture running across I-95. Just not a good idea. I finally gave up, when I spotted a policeman and broke into a small jog to catch-up with him.
“Perdoname. A donde puedo cruzar la autopista?”
He really wasn’t sure where I could cross. He thought of some suggestions but then just said ‘vamos’ and we walked together further alongside the river. Along the way we chatted a bit in Spanish. My amigo, Juan Pablo, had lived in Medellin all of his life. He liked his job, but said it could be very hard at times. After a while of strolling along, he radioed some other policia up in the distance. He told me they could help me get further along. How far was this place, anyway??
And then, like a baton in a Colombian relay race, I was handed over to two more nice policemen who also spoke no English. More small talk in Spanish continued and more warnings for me to be careful with my camera.
Not only was I getting a full-on police escort to my destination (which was thankfully not Colombian jail), I was getting some great practice with mi Espanol. And at this point I could tell that there was no way I would have found this place by myself. We walked about a half mile through what seemed like an industrial area until we finally reached the entrance to Cerro Nutibara. One of my new friends chatted with the security guy in his guard shack who told us it was just another thirty minute walk uphill to see the views and small, recreated colonial village. I was prepared for this part and could handle it from here. Just as I was thanking my two lovely police escorts, the security guard ran out and stopped a motorbike from going up the hill.
“He is one of us. He is a policia for the park.’
Oh. Okay. Sweet. (next baton hand-off)
They motioned me over. I hopped on the back of his motorbike and we sped up the mountain. Escort numero tres also chatted me up as we went along. When we got to the top, he shook my hand and told me to be careful…with my camera, of course…and I was on my own once again.
Some things I’d read had warned me of corrupt cops or shady taxi drivers. This was not what I was encountering at all. I’d negotiated down most of my cab rides and even then the drivers chatted with me happily the whole way. Nearly all of them were super friendly and really seemed to enjoy our chats. As did I. Plus I think I got my best Spanish classes with the cabbies and policia all for the cost of a cab fare. Que bueno! And, by the way, my camera is still with me.