#18 – Medellin-g around in Colombia

One minute of extra time to be played. 49,900 of the riotous fans inside the 50,000 stadium are willing Nacional to score. One goal to take the grand final of the Colombian league to penalties.

A couple of half chances come and go, as the crowd moan inconsolably. People are starting to leave, edging away from their seats, gazing back at the pitch nervously in hope, desperation.

Still they sing, still they chant. The seconds are counting down, us, in our fake Nacional jerseys, contemplating the anti climax if the home Medellin team lose. That would be it for the night out, the city would be in mourning, no street parties, no farewell night to Medellin, an early bath.

The whistle should go at any moment as Nacional force a corner off of the opposition. The ball is whipped in and a Nacional player bursts in to the box to meet it. The next few seconds pass in a blur as the net bulges and the entire stadium lets out a deafening roar of relief and ecstasy, and for a second it feels like the stadium will come crashing down around us as.

Instinctively people are screaming, jumping, hugging each other and total strangers, bouncing around like a herd of cats on speed. Nacional haven’t won yet, but you wouldn’t know that as the noise echoes around the ground. They are back on level terms, it’s going to penalties.

On the pitch the opposition players are entirely deflated – they still have a chance to win on the straight to penalties format, but momentum is a funny thing in sport, and they know it.

As the penalties commence, I observe some of the crowd can’t watch, others are close to tears. For one woman in front of me, it is too much and she is sobbing away in front of me.

The opposing team Barranquila miss a couple of penalties while Nacional bury their first 3. The party is already starting in the stadium, as Nacional score their 4th penalty to win the shootout and send the city in to ecstasy.

The atmosphere was wild outside the ground, as we made our attempts to leave. There was an air of danger and chaos, crowds were spread as far as the eye can see, with a combination of flour, foam and huge explosions going off all around to create something that felt more like a warzone.We decided to try and get away from the crowd, but this was easier said then done as we picked one direction and did our best.

As one of our group stopped to try and buy some water, he was completely covered in flour and foam. At first it seemed normal, as this was going on everywhere, but it went on for a long time, and before any of us were any of the wiser or could work out what was happening, an accomplice had pickpocketed him of his girlfriends iPhone.

Still wiping away at his eyes, it was a cruel blow to such a memorable night, as we headed back to the safer area of El Poblado where the majority of visitor accommodation lies.

The streets in El Poblado felt much safer then outside the stadium, but were still huge parties in street, all with foam, flour and lots of chanting. No one escaped it – innocent passers by or cars were covered completely, though in a jovial way that continued throughout the night.

We celebrated with the locals until the sun came up, and as we were wearing our fake Nacional tops, we were accepted like one of their own, as various Colombians flittered in and out of what would be a long and interesting night.

Welcome to Medellin – but I’m jumping the gun a bit, as my first proper stop in Colombia was a disappointing few days in Cartagena. I had loosely planned to stay here and recoup for a week or so, and if I’d have done my research, I would have found out that Cartagena is HOT. Really, really fucking hot.

Not like, oh.. lets go buy a disposable bbq and sit in barleyhurst park hot, nope, I’m talking of survival mode between 12 – 5pm every day kind of hot. Anyone daring to step outside are instantly transformed to sweaty zombies, desperately searching around for air conditioning.

I’m not sure if it was the heat, or just that the city wasn’t doing it for me. I mean it’s pretty but there just didn’t seem to be anything under the surface for me, a lack of substance or interest. It’s how i’d imagine Kate Middleton to be, yeah she is pretty – but would you want to stay a whole week inside of her? Ok maybe you would and that is a bad comparison, but for me Cartagena was a little tedious is what I am trying to get at.

I should have left after a couple of days, but my malaise ensured I kept staying an extra night, failing to put any effort in to working out where to go next. Enough was enough I concluded after the 4th or 5th night, and I flipped a coin. North to the beach, or south to Medellin. The coin said south, so Medellin it was.

Strangely (or perhaps not strangely because it is hilly as balls), it is often cheaper to fly in Colombia then it is to take the coach. So it was on the bus from Medellin airport to down town that I got my first view of the vast city, sprawled out in a large valley, nestled amongst imposing mountains. As the bus wound its way down towards Medellin, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. #loveatfirstsight

The city’s population is a couple of million, but it looked much bigger, as the sides of it scale up the mountain side clinging precariously to the hill. The predominantly red brick buildings give it a charming terracotta glow, like a newly painted kitchen after a hard day (what?).

I don’t think anyone has ever written anything about Medellin without mentioning the infamous Pablo Escobar. So there we have it, he lived here and stuff happened – look it up on Encarta 95 for more info – but the bottom line is that Medellin has evolved from what was once considered the murder capital of the world, to an invigorated youthful city.

The metro system is fantastic for getting around the city, and for the price of a Freddo or Chomp, you can ride the entire system, which astoundingly includes a couple of cable cars which take you high in to the suburbs up the mountain and provide views that will make you want to take pictures. Even though you know the photo won’t come out, and that the perspective will never do it justice – you’ll still take pictures, it’s that nice a view. The cable cars were designed for helping Medelliners commute, but doubles up as a cheap tourist activity which can easily keep you amused for a whole day.

The chances are, is that if you are staying in Medellin you will be in the El Poblado area. At first glance, parts of it look like an exclusive Gringo hangout, and I had my reservations to begin with, but I quickly learnt that it is frequented by a huge number of Colombians, and although it does look more modern, with western style restaurants and bars, probably about 95% of the people you will meet will be Colombians.

I won’t delve too much in to the nightlife but yes, there is nightlife, and yes it gets pretty ridiculous – particularly on the weekends. There are a few that will last long in the memory –though after one weekend, I wasn’t sure I would quite survive another. The night would usually end up at one of the local parks in the centre of the bars, after everything has closed around 7 am. A bizarre amount of people still hanging out, with people still going around selling cold beer from backpacks. The next stage is to eat as many Empanadas as possible before crawling back to the hostel as the sun comes up.

As the weekend faded away, it was time for a detox to the country side – enter stage left, Salento. In Medellin I had made good friends with an Irish girl & guy, and an Englishman (culturally diverse I know). Probably all very bad influences on each other, we hadn’t quite escaped the Medellin haze, as we loaded up on the long bus with a few beer in tow.

It was a truly spectacular journey, during the day being absolutely glued to the scenery (or the Cianary for Cian), and as night fell the most amazing thunderstorm followed the bus for 2 or 3 hours. If you are a previous reader (Hi Dad), you will remember me describing a Cuban thunderstorm – well this completely knocked it out of the water.

It was only when we stopped at a service station, we could truly see the magic of the lightning. Every second or two, casting flashes that illuminated the whole sky amongst a backdrop of colossal mountains, which had the hairs on my neck standing on end. If they weren’t standing already, the power completely cut out from the station for about 10 minutes, as we watched the rain absolutely stream down amongst the thunder and lightning before boarding back on the bus with a few extra beers.

We were all in a particularly jolly mood, on what was the best coach journey yet, and made even more bizarre by the emergence of an outrageously well spoken Colombian guy, who would make the Queen sound like a council estate chav. He overheard that we were not able to make it to Salento, and would only get as far as Armenia before the buses stopped running.

He was ridiculously friendly (as I found almost every Colombian), but his accent was making conversation excruciatingly painful not to laugh. All of us trying to stop giggling, any one of us ready to set the other off.

He helped us with some options of where we could stay in Armenia as he phoned his mum to ask of anywhere she knew, and his amazing hospitality extended once we got off the coach too, as we met his parents at the bus station. They insisted on paying for our Taxi, and would not take no for an answer.

The hostel was sadly booked up, but it so happened a Colombian couple who were in the process of opening their own hostel-come-homestay were in the reception talking with the hostel owners. Before we knew it, we had been gifted with more amazing Colombian hospitality as we arrived at a beautifully quaint farmyard retreat and stayed there for a night before heading on to Salento.

The hostel in Salento, in fairness, was a bit of a let down. The crowd varied from hippies to pretend-hippies, each trying to out do each other in saying profound things, collecting mushrooms and making ridiculous concoctions of tea from bizarre herbs. Not my cut of tea (whey), but Salento itself is absolutely beautiful – particularly the valley walk, which is home to incredibly lanky and rather otherworldly looking tall trees, which are fascinating to see.

A short walk to a hill which overlooked Salento is where I spent the last few hours of being 24. With a small bottle of Aguadiente and a friend of mine I had met from her work at the local supermarket, I talked to the extent that my Spanish would allow and as we watched a very distant thunderstorm move slowly closer, it was a nice place to celebrate being halfway to 50, though a little depressing at the same time.

Rather sadly I had a flight booked to Buenos Aires a couple of days later (never make decisions on a Sunday), so I only had time to briefly see Bogota for a day after Salento, before heading on my way. I’d not heard great things about Bogota, but with the day and a half I was there I got a good feeling from it, and would have loved more time to explore.

I wanted more time in Colombia as a whole – a truly fantastic country, and it was with a slight cursing of my rash and hungover flight purchase the previous Sunday, that I made my way onwards to the airport and Argentina.




One thought on “#18 – Medellin-g around in Colombia

  1. Hey James that was another great read….. “I always told you it will be special”….. Loved it! Loved the selection of snaps!!! Can’t wait to read the next couple of posts.. Cheeers with love Dad x

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