The five regular readers of this blog probably know that I love doing city walking tours. Normally I try to go as soon as possible after arriving but they weren’t running on Sunday or Bank Holiday Monday, so today was the first opportunity. You have to be quick to get onto this tour. Internet booking opens 36 hours in advance and places seem to fill up quickly. This can mean a couple of things; it’s the only show in town or that it’s a good tour. While the first point seems to be true the tour was also excellent, up there with the best I’ve been on. It lasted almost four hours but didn’t feel anything like that.
Our guide was Pablo, an easy to remember name due to an infamous past resident of Medellin. Pablo possessed the Colombian attributes of being friendly, likeable, funny and loud. He was also extremely knowledgeable. The tour encompassed local and Colombian history, combined with seeing some of the great sites within the city. Pablo was fairly honest about Medellin. He acknowledged that it obviously still has social issues but there’s a world of difference from 20 years ago, a time when many people were scared to venture outside their homes. Pablo encouraged questions. Someone asked about the glorification of Pablo Escobar and the television show Narcos. Pablo said that most Colombians hate this depiction. It’s from a dark era of their history and a large proportion of the population have been personally affected. Even today he feels that a bit of a stigma remains attached to Colombians when travelling abroad.
The tour started off at Plaza Mayor, home to various government administration buildings and an interesting sculpture, the Monumento a la Raza. Across the street is the Square of Lights. Back in the day this area used to be seriously ropey. It has been transformed into a nice open space, dominated by a series of pillars that light up at night. They’re a symbol of Medellin’s transformation with the lights providing hope for the future. Also in the square is a library. Investing in education has been a key factor in improving the city’s fortunes. We called into what used to be the old Palacio Nacional, a beautiful building now converted into a series of market stalls. One of the cafes inside had a great sign, emphasising the Colombian philosophy of friendliness. It read something like, “1 red wine: 2000 pesos, 1 red wine please: 1500 pesos, Hello, 1 red wine please: 1200 pesos.”
Next up we passed the Rafael Uribe Palace of Culture, a strange building. Initially designed to be a grandiose gothic structure but building work halted during construction. It was eventually finished off in some sort of dreadful style, although this certainly makes it interestingly unique. Nearby Botero Square is popular for its numerous murals by famous local artist Fernando Botero. Without realising who he was, I recognised some Botero works from having seen his paintings of out of proportion people and animals. Pablo then took us along a side street of market stalls. There’s nothing unusual about this sort of setup in South America until you browsed some of the wares on sale. I understand that this is a family blog but there’s no hiding from the fact that a fair few of the stalls where selling what can only be described as hardcore pornography. What was particularly bizarre was that most of the stall holders were middle-aged ladies (and that’s probably being generous to them). A somewhat bizarre sight in a supposedly devout Catholic country! Also popular in the market were counterfeit perfumes. Pablo told us that these are required to be stored in the fridge in order to maintain their aroma! Next stop on the tour was the Metropolitan Cathedral. In most of South America you can’t go far without seeing a Simon Bolivar statue and a prominent one resided nearby. The tour finished in San Antonio Park. This isn’t the world’s prettiest park. It’s mostly concrete, with the odd tree and bench. The reason for visiting was that during a concert here in 1995, a bomb exploded killing 23 people. Looking at the plaque, many young people died, drawing a stark parallel with the recent incident in Manchester. A Botero sculpture in the park was badly damaged. At the insistence of the artist, this artifact remains today as a memorial. A rebuilt version stands alongside it as a metaphor regarding the rebirth of Medellin.