We can’t take our eyes off the knife waving wildly right in front of our faces.
This was a bad idea.
“Put the steak knife down and eat your dinner, Alessandra.”
Danger, kidnappings, drug violence, muggings — we’d heard all the warnings about visiting Medellin, Colombia. Even the U.S. State Department advised against this vacation,, but our 3-year-old daughter’s brandished steak knife turns out to be about as dangerous as it got.
“Medellin? Why?” people asked. “Why not?” I countered. Tickets are cheap, exchange rates are great, the city has proclaimed itself revitalized and there are statistics to back it up.
In 1991, when Medellin was the epicenter of the multibillion-dollar cocaine empire run by Pablo Escobar, the city was called the murder capital of the world. Today, according to Insightcrime.org, it ranks as safer than a lot of major U.S. cities, including St. Louis and Baltimore. And FARC, the left-wing rebel party that waged civil war in Colombia for decades, has been in peace talks with the government since 2012.
With a climate that has given it the nickname “City of Eternal Spring,” Medellin is full of attractions that draw tourists. But they weren’t designed for tourists, and therein lies the city’s charm.
The key, as any experienced traveler — or city dweller — will tell you, is keeping your eyes open and learning which areas to avoid.
When they notice our antsy toddler, the immigration officials at José María Córdova International Airport expedite our family through the line with a smile and a wave.
A scenic drive brings our family to our Airbnb apartment. Maren, the Dutch owner, is there to greet us.
The apartment is just north of Laureles, a popular tree-lined, family-friendly neighborhood — but this is definitely a lot grittier area. Standing on the large terrace of the fourth-floor walk-up, I can smell the auto-repair shops.
Maren offers the expected tourist disclaimers. Don’t walk at night; take a taxi. Stay aware of your surroundings.
She alludes to unrest in the city. I discover that the taxi drivers are protesting the presence of Uber. The mayor is less than popular. The economy is not good. The March 2016 deadline for signing a peace agreement with FARC has come and gone, and the plan to integrate the guerrilla army into the general population remains unpopular.
I ask the question I can’t get out of my head: “It’s safe, right? I mean, we can walk around and everything?”
Maren hesitates, then looks at our tiny, blonde daughter.
“With her, you will be fine.”
I get it. Over the course of our visit to Medellin, I come to feel like the citizens are watching over our little family, not trying to take advantage of us. Street crime remains an ongoing concern, but we expect to take the usual precautions and hope for the best. There’s not much more you can do.
We visit some popular attractions, starting with those in central Medellin, close to the Parque Berrio metro stop. We hustle through the underbelly of the raised metro line to view Plaza Botero, a garden featuring 23 sculptures donated to the city by renowned Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero.
It’s delightful, but this turns out to be the only place in the city where we’re approached by (licensed) vendors hawking tourist wares.
Mostly it’s hats, blanket scarves and photo ops. Outside the sculpture garden it’s business as usual — the seedy kind. Drug dogs accompanied by police — mostly conscripted teenage boys trying to look tough — patrol the perimeter, and the unspoken message is, “Don’t start anything and there won’t be anything.”
After this, we stick to the residential side of the city. Within a few days, it feels perfectly safe to play at the busy neighborhood playground, even after dark. It’s not long after dark, anyway; because we’re traveling with a toddler, our Medellin is not the city of nightlife and its inherent dangers.
We find Colombian food to be delicious, if heavily fried, but Medellin also offers excellent international dining: Peruvian ceviche, Japanese sushi, Italian hand-tossed pizza and Caribbean barbecue are just a few options, and there also is a thriving vegetarian scene. Prices are in our favor: $12 for a filet mignon and 30 cents for homemade frozen yogurt, with our most expensive meal costing $47. Restaurant owners are excited to show off their establishments, food and culture.
We get a cheap sight-seeing tour by taking the cable car to Parque Arvi, a nature reserve above the poorest barrios. Butterflies and bees buzz around us as an employee lists the reserve’s offerings: boat rentals, fishing, a hotel, guided hikes and specialty shops offering mushrooms and craft beer are all open for business.
In the Plaza de Mercado La América, popular with locals, we buy a wide-eyed Alessandra a large bouquet of fresh dahlias. The cost? $2.
For adventure, we end up in the emergency room of a top-ranked South American hospital, the largest in the city, but only because Alessandra has a mysterious recurrent fever. A representative from the international health floor comes down to the ER, fluent in English and aiming to make our experience as pleasant as possible.
As we leave, I pay the bill (about $43) and the hospital’s representative extends an offer to have the international pediatric department review my daughter’s file. This is typical of just about everyone we meet in Medellin, striving to go above and beyond.
When we leave, the attendant logs the license number of every departing taxi, just in case. I wonder, is this taxi-stand safety precaution a throwback to the danger of the past? Or is the past still part of the present?
The city has one marketing goal: to make you forget that Escobar and the Medellin Cartel ever existed. It’s desperate to tell the world, “We’re not like that anymore.”
Yet the violence of the old days is an indelible memory.
At a park in the traditional Sabeneta neighborhood, we meet Samuel, a handsome 19-year-old man with a wide, braces-covered smile, who speaks English fluently.
His mother, Stella, hears our American accents and turns from her tinto (coffee) to ask, in Spanish, how we are enjoying Colombia.
Samuel translates, and small talk turns into a chat over arroz con leche at the family’s home in Envigado, Escobar’s home town. It’s now a trendy suburb, where sanitation workers scrub the parks and shopkeepers sweep the streets.
Mother and son want us to know how misunderstood Medellin is by outsiders, especially those from the United States. When I mention the Netflix series “Narcos,” Stella sniffs and talks fast at her son.
He rolls his eyes and laughs at his mother’s excitement. “Colombians are passionate people,” he tells me. He says that “Narcos” is wildly inaccurate. “The accents are terrible! No one talks like that!” says Samuel, displaying a pitch-perfect American accent developed during three years at a creative arts academy in Michigan.
But Stella also talks to us about the horrors her family endured during the drug wars. She’s typical of the Medellin citizens we encounter — industrious, polite, self-reliant, patient, confident and proud. Stella refuses either to forget the past or be drowned by it.
The city has put on a campaign to encourage patience and kindness on public transportation, and it’s working. People jump to let us sit down, and we are politely asked to keep Alessandra’s feet off the seats.
Medellin is a city of huge contrasts. Modern, glass-walled buildings overlook centuries-old farms.
Shopping malls are impressive, filled with animatronic dinosaurs, Ferris wheels and international shops. Streets are often spotlessly clean. But the poor scavenge anything they can recycle from the trash that is efficiently removed from street corners, and they drag it, bent over, on wooden pallets, barely eking out a living.
You get the sense that the future of the city has arrived. Innovation is winning. Pollution, poverty, violence, a changing drug trade and sex trafficking remain serious issues needing more attention. But the people of this city understand change, by necessity.
Despite all this, Medellin is a city worthy of five-star bucket lists and budget travel. I came there curious to see if the city lived up to its new international hype. It did.
Trexler is a freelance writer based in Hilton Head, S.C. More of her stories can be found at liesaboutparenting.com/travel.
More from Travel:
Plaza de Mercado la America
Calle 45 Norte No.79A-100, Local 031
Local lunch counter inside the market. Look for sign No. 31. Try the Sancocho de Pescado. a traditional Colombian fish soup. Entrees start at less than $4. Open during market hours.
Calle 42 No.71-24, Laureles
Italian with creative speciality dishes. Walled garden seating or eclectic indoor dining. Dinner only, so don’t arrive before 7 p.m. Reservations accepted. Entrees start at about $7.50.
Carrera 70 No.45E-65
Friendly, fast, professional staff serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Stop by for breakfast and a tinto (coffee). Open daily. Entrees start at less than $3.
Calle 38 No.75-06, Laureles
Excellent ceviche. Open Monday through Thursday noon-3 p.m. and 6 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon-11:30 p.m. and Sunday noon-9:30 p.m. Entrees start at about $5.50.
Carrera 52 No.73-75
An interactive science park, home to South American’s largest freshwater aquarium. Toddler play room, hands-on activities and experiments for all ages. Tuesday to Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Holidays 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Adult admission about $8, children under 43 inches in height free.
Carrera 52 and Calle 52, Centro
Home to Fernando Botero’s 23 donated works of sculpture art. Open daily, free admission. Additional historical attractions nearby.
Nature reserve with guided tours and outdoor activities. Accessible by metro cable line K (about $1.65 per ticket). Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mondays. Free admission.
Carrera 25a No.1A Sur 45
High-end shopping mall with open-air dining and kids’ play areas. Ask your taxi driver for Parque Commercial El Tesoro. Monday to Saturday 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday and holidays 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Plaza de Mercado la America
Calle 45 No.79A-100, La America
A permanent local market with fresh foods, flowers, lunch counters and friendly vendors. Browse the vendor stands and grab lunch at Sazon American (look for the sign #31).