By Sarah Sekula
If you could pick up and move any place on the planet, would Colombia top your list? It did for David Lee, editor in chief of medellinliving.com and gobackpacking.com. I recently checked in with him to find out why Medellín, the City of Eternal Spring and once one of the most dangerous places in Latin America, is pulling on his heart strings. And I couldn’t agree more. My recent trip there had me feeling the same way.
1. How did you end up living in Medellín?
In 2009, Colombia was to be my last stop on a 15-month trip around the world. Once I arrived in Medellín, I immediately fell in love with the beautiful city and decided that I didn’t want to leave. I began my second travel blog, Medellin Living, to document my experiences. I used up the rest of my savings and then some to spend six months living there. I continue to return for six months each year.
2. What is it about the city that you love?
The city lies in a valley surrounded by tall, green Andes mountains. Due to the 1,500 meter elevation, and natural geography, temperatures are warm and spring-like all year. Medellín also features the country’s only metro train, which is cheap, clean, and safe. It makes the city more accessible. Medellín also has an exciting nightlife scene, with enough salsa bars, and dance clubs to keep everyone happy.
3. What is the arts and culture scene like?
Colombia’s government as a whole invests in the arts, and this is especially true of Medellín. There are lots of theaters, concerts, and cultural events happening every week. One of my favorite places is Teatro Lido located downtown. All of the events there, from movies to dancer performances by professional troupes, are free. As a result, you might be sitting next to a businessman on one side, and a homeless person on the other.
4. Favorite local dish?
The bandeja paisa is a regional favorite best reserved for the weekends, when you have the time to recover from eating it all. The meal typically includes a soup, beef or pork filet, sausage, fried egg, chicharron (fried pork fat), refried beans, avocado, salad, and an arepa.
5. Have you found other American expats while living in Medellín?
Yes, there is a small but growing community of American expats. Many travelers arrive in the city and don’t want to leave, so they begin teaching English or start a business to support themselves. The popular Casa Kiwi Hostel was opened by Paul, an American, and Robin Finely from California began The Arepa, an English magazine focused on the city’s culture and nightlife.
6. Do you feel safe living there? What types of precautions do you take?
Yes, I feel safe living in Medellín, however I’m also more cautious than I would be if I were living in a large U.S. city. This is partly due to the fact that I’m a foreigner, and am still learning to speak Spanish fluently. For example, I live within walking distance of my gym, however, I do not feel comfortable walking the 10 minutes at night, and therefore only go to the gym by day. In the evening, I’ll take taxis to get around, unless I’m going to meet someone along the metro line which has security people during operating hours. I take taxis almost daily, and have never had a problem with hailing them from the street, though some Colombians warn against it.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
As a travel blogger, my days are generally relaxed while living in Medellín. I wake up around 9 a.m. and check my email for anything requiring an immediate response. Otherwise, I’ll either go to the gym in the morning, or work at my computer in the apartment for a few hours. One of my Colombian roommates doesn’t work right now, and he handles a lot of the cooking, so if I’m home, I’ll have lunch there. In the afternoons, I’ll work some more, run errands, or go to my weekly salsa dancing lesson. In the evenings, I go out on dates, meet up with friends for drinks, or go out dancing.
8. What are a few things you had to get used to?
Colombians are more traditional in their approach to dating and courtship, so the majority of women will expect the man to pay for everything. It’s not unusual for the woman to show up to a date with no money of her own. In addition, it’s considered a courtesy for the man to pay for a woman’s friend as well, if you’re all going out together to a club, for example.
I also had to get accustomed to the way cell phones are used. Nobody, at least in a social context, leaves voice messages because it would result in the caller using up a minute of their prepaid time. As a result, it’s common for a Colombian to call you and immediately hang up, even if you are there to answer. This is a signal, and you are then expected to call the person back at your expense.
9. Where do you go when you want to salsa dance?
There are several terrific bars and clubs dedicated only to salsa in Medellín. El Tibiri on Carrera 70 is small basement level bar with a reputation for attracting some of the city’s best dancers. The beers are cheap and the atmosphere is friendly, if not cramped. El Eslabon Prendido is located near Parque Periodista in the city center. Tuesday nights are popular for the live salsa bands that are featured. El Eslabon is a small bar as well, so there isn’t much room to dance, however, the atmosphere is worth the few dollars in admission. Cien Fuegos is an upscale venue in El Poblado. It features the city’s biggest dance floor and live Cuban-style salsa every weekend. This is the best place to go if you seek a more mature crowd, or get tired of being knocked around in the smaller bars.
10. Do you take the Medellín Metro often?
Yes, it’s awesome. For about 80 cents, you can go anywhere in the city, including the two cable cars that reach up the mountains into the poorer neighborhoods. Riding the cable cars is a popular tourist activity given they offer expansive views of Medellín.
11. What are some must-sees for people visiting Medellín?
Plaza Botero features the larger-than-life bronze sculptures of the city (and country’s) most famous artist, Fernando Botero. Colombians and foreigners can always be seen having their photos taken next to their favorite piece. The Museum of Modern Art offers a break from Botero, and is housed in an old industrial building. An attached restaurant, Bonuar, serves up a variety of dishes from Colombia, New Orleans, and the northeast of Brazil. The Botanical Gardens offer a respite from the traffic and noise of the city. Small by western standards, you can walk around the entire area in about an hour. On the weekends, Colombians can be seen having picnics, hanging out, or attending concerts there. It’s accessible via the Universidad metro stop, and the city’s aquarium, inside Parque Explora, is across the street as well.
Medellin Tourism sponsored my trip, but I am free to write whatever I want.