And breathe… Wow, that was intense.

As desperate as I always am to arrive at each new destination with zero expectations and a blank canvas onto which to paint my new adventures, sometimes it simply isn’t possible. When backpacker gossip and itinerary discussions with proud locals repeatedly combine to highlight one specific locality, the hype machine is set into irreversible motion and hopes are raised to only-child-on-Christmas-Eve levels (trust me, I know…). From the moment I set foot in Colombia, and in fact even well before, the word on everyone’s lips was Medellín.

Both Medellín and Colombia have come a long way since the dark days of homicide and narco-trafficking with which they are both still associated today, erroneously. But to merit the international recognition it has recently received (2020 Smart City Award; 2016 World City Prize; 2013 World’s Most Innovative City), not to mention the popular accolades I have heard every single day, what could this city possibly offer that would live up to the hyperbole? With the minor caveat that I reached this urban paradise after two weeks of hinterland wilderness, empty hostels, and catastrophically uninspiring gastronomy (no. more. arepas.), the answer was simple: EVERYTHING.

Picture a long and narrow valley, cosily nestled within the fold of two parallel Andean mountain ranges, at an altitude of 1,500m. Clouds form either side of the peaks, and also in between them during one marvellous hour each day, as the morning haze is finally dispelled by the sun’s warmth. Now imagine the homes of three million paísas, as the inhabitants of Colombia’s Antioquia region are known, sprawling like terracotta Lego bricks up, around, and over these hills, with each valley side connected by the world’s first urban cable car public transport system. That mental image you are hopefully enjoying is why I have extended my initial six day stay by another four. Welcome to the City Of Eternal Spring.

What a view, what a city!

My first impression of the city, however, was a little less romantic and a lot more materialistic. I reached my hipster hostel in the bourgeois district of El Poblado to discover an eye-popping array of bars, boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops. After two weeks of figurative desert life, here was my oasis of craft beer and smashed avocado sourdough toasties. A quick decision was made, backpacker budget be damned straight to hell: having not tasted big city life since São Paulo in mid-January, I was certainly going to make the most of this. As dusk turned into night, so the good people of Medellín came out to play, mixing happily with recent arrivals bemused at the sight of packed tables and streets.

As the city’s cultural riches were added to its nocturnal hedonism over the following days, so my realisation grew that one week would not be enough to do Medellín justice. Almost a full day was spent exploring the hills of Comuna 13, once known as the world’s most dangerous neighbourhood, into which the army deployed a battalion of tanks and soldiers less than twenty years ago, in an attempt to “restore order”. Today it has been transformed into a stunning open air street art gallery and dynamic community sustained by an active programme of rehabilitation projects and cultural associations. As symbols of the city’s renaissance go, this is as emphatic as it gets.

Mural celebrating life at the entrance to Comuna 13

The hills and houses of Medellín from Comuna 13

After exploring multiple scenic parks, devouring the city views from both miradors and the cable car, and enjoying the distinctively chunky statues of Fernando Botero, Medellín’s most famous artistic son, it was time to expand the zone of exploration to the surrounding region. Very few small towns I have ever visited pack the aesthetic punch of Guatapé. As if having a 200m high monolith with viewing platform conveniently located right next to one of the most beautiful man-made reservoir lakes were not enough, the town’s wonderfully psychedelic coloured houses complete the day’s sensory overload with a kaleidoscope of pretty zócalo friezes. It was on the bus back to Medellín, with a smile on my face and eyes closed dreaming of lake island contours and technicolour alleys, that I added another four days to my stay. I do love simple decisions when travelling.

Guatapé Reservoir viewed from the top of the Peñon de Guatapé

The kaleidotastic coloured houses and streets of Guatapé

It would be easy to ignore the ghost of Pablo when writing about Medellín, the damage his informal rule inflicted on this city, and the tours and souvenirs that are still a cultural part of this city’s capitalist heartbeat. But it is precisely because of the pain and horrors of the Escobar era that the city has risen from its ashes like a phoenix, with the civic pride from its workmanlike past increased tenfold following its post-apocalyptic reinvention as a city of the future. And this is the reason I have come to love Medellín so much: for what it represents to its inhabitants; for this very pride that they feel and so exuberantly display. I hear and feel it in every single conversation that I have with a paísa, intentionally teasing the subject out of them and feeding off its passion and intensity. I understand them, and am more than a little envious of their sentiment.

Drug dealer, mass murderer, notebook model…

But Medellín has also been the city of my own friendships reunited, and my main reason for the sheer unadulterated fun I have had here. I wonderfully caught up with Marinela and Mauro for dinner, the lovely couple who were the first Colombians that I met on my first day in Cartagena, the first people to really insist that theirs was a city I would adore. I met Hugo and Sylvain again, the two French backpackers with whom I conquered the Lost City and partied hard in celebration in Santa Marta one month ago. But most spectacularly of all, I randomly bumped into Darby, a Couchsurfer I hosted in my Madrid home two years ago, met again in Chicago the same year, and then again in Madrid just before I left the city for good in 2020.

At a Couchsurfing event I created, with new friends and old, Darby in the baseball cap…

How could I not feel at home in a city where I have seen someone I know every day, and where every new person I have met has made me feel as though I am at home, in their home. The hype is very real, and Medellín has delivered on all counts. I think I just have time for one last double IPA and a sushi burrito before heading back to the countryside to recharge the batteries…

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