You can’t beat street food, and this place is no exception. I love the almojabanos, which are rolls with warm, gooey cheese inside. And the bunuelos – kind of like big hush puppies – are particularly delicious. My favorite, however, are the empanadas, hot and fresh, filled with steaming rice and onions, and found at stands all over the city.
At first I don’t know how much such things cost -and my Spanish is not up to the task- so I just hold out my hand full of various smallish denomination Colombian Pesos and let the vendor take what’s his. Exploring cities on foot, in sneakers and old clothes, is way fun, and tasting the local “delicacies” along the way is part of the joy of it.
Medellin, with a population of about 2.5 million, is sprawled in a narrow valley which runs north-south. At this latitude, the city’s elevation of 1500 meters results in a super-pleasant year-round climate; the nickname “city of eternal spring” is most appropriate. The peaks surrounding the city rise spectacularly another 1000 meters, and the city’s poor live in slums clinging to the mountainsides.
Walking north on Carrera Fifty-One, I weave around and through the commerce which spills from the shops onto the wide sidewalk. I’m headed to the Museo de Antioquia, but I may never get there with all the delightful distraction along the way. I hang a left on Boyaca, and check out the oldest church in the city, Ermita de la Veracruz. Construction of this seriously old stone building was begun in 1682, soon after Europeans first arrived on the scene and subsequently founded Medellin.
The friendly Paisa – that’s what they call inhabitants of this part of Colombia – at the entrance desk points me on my way, with explicit instructions on how to navigate the museum. After exploring a hall of pre-Columbian art, I confront a modern work by painter Fernando Botero. On the large canvas is abstractly represented the 1993 assassination of Pablo Escobar.
Perhaps a history lesson is in order here. When the cocaine industry boomed in the early 1980′s, the Medellin Cartel became the principal mafia. It was led by former car thief and future politician Escobar, and before the end of the decade the mafia boss’s wealth was estimated to be over $20 billion. Escobar financed massive public works projects, but also was behind oppressive violence which affected all Colombians.
Finally his reign of terror was ended when US-funded operatives gunned him down on a Medellin rooftop. Since then, “La Violencia” has diminished. Yes, the cocaine trade still flourishes, but foreigners and Colombians alike can once again travel safely in the country.
Sunshine between rain-laden clouds feels good on my face as I finally escape the clutches of the fascinating museo. On to Parque Bolivar, to pay homage to “El Liberatador.” In the early 1800′s Simón Bolivar led the move to independence from Spain across northern South America. He won the Colombian presidency and is held as one of the nation’s great heroes. Here in the cool shade next to a fountain spraying greenish water I share a bench with an edentulous old man. We feed the pigeons, both of us grinning in silence.
Well, isn’t this unique? I’m riding on a part of the Medellin public transit system, a cable car rising up the mountainside. An extension of the bus and light rail line, MetroCable allows access to parts of the city not easily reached any other way, in particular the mountainside slums.
The ride is silent, save for a muted hum, and I glide 30 meters above the colorful life below. The cable car makes several stops at stations on the mountainsides’ flanks, and I’m impressed with the huge, black stone edifice adjacent to one of them. This structure of striking design is a library the city has recently built for the otherwise impoverished residents of this part of town.
I continue up towards the last stop: Parque Avri, a sprawling municipal park and nature preserve on the mountain plateau high above the city. Low on precious time, when I get there I’m like Chevy Chase in “Vacation.” I walk around in the cool air for a few minutes, clap my hands, say “let’s go!” and board the next cable car down.
The kids here are ever fascinated by the gringo. I’m in the city center again, and they’re crowded around me asking in Spanish where I come from, although my being there also affords them an opportunity to practice a few words of English.
Some of the youngsters follow me into Jardin Botánico, the botanical gardens in the Manrique section of the city, and they proudly take me to the Orquideorama. Here, in an amazingly lush and peaceful setting just steps from the chaos of the city, are displayed the most exquisite orchids I’ve ever seen. I’m reminded that only The Netherlands exports more cut flowers than Colombia, and I’m hardly surprised.
Shadows are deep as I make my way south, striding quickly past the Cemeterio de San Pedro, it’s ornate sepulchral chapels and mausoleums beckoning for me to mingle among them. I shrug off the impulse to stop -not today- and keep moving. It’s time to board a bus back to my bed in El Poblado; I need to think about this day and get some of it into my journal.
Maybe I’ll grab a few bunuelos and empanados on the way home; I’m starting to love this paisa way of life.