Last Saturday, Dan and I had a plan. We had researched and mapped out all of the places in El Centro, which is basically the downtown of Medellin, that we wanted to visit. We were going to spend the better part of the day visiting El Centro checking out museums, plazas, parks, and even found a place for lunch that we wanted to try. As we began to dive further into our research to see what other travelers had said about these places, we began to worry. All of the places we wanted to visit – Parque de las Luces, Parque de Simon Bolivar, Plaza Botero, Museo de Antioquia – were said to have thieves, prostitutes, druggies and you will probably get robbed at knifepoint or worse, gunpoint. There was a also a lot of talk about how after it gets dark, all of the police and business people leave, go home, and then you are completely on your own.
Being new to the city and not having any local friends yet, of course this freaked us out! We also felt so confused because many travelers come to Medellin and check out the downtown area – I’ve seen their pictures! If it is so dangerous, how did they get there and live to post about it? We had no other information except for what these people were saying online so we just decided to scrap the whole idea and check out Pueblito Paisa (replica of an old Antioquian village with a beautiful view of Medellin) and Laureles (another neighborhood) instead.
Still wanting to see these sights in El Centro, I found a free tour that takes you to all of these places and had amazing reviews on TripAdvisor (and later saw it was in my Lonely Planet as well) called Real City Tours. So, I booked us a spot for Wednesday afternoon and forgot about my desire to see this part of the city until then.
Wednesday finally rolls around and we meet our group of about 20 other travelers at the Alpujarra Metro Station. Our guide was Pablo who actually created the tour (and I’m pretty sure he’s only 26 by the way) and it was probably the best tour I’ve ever been on. Pablo not only took us to all of the places in El Centro that I wanted to see but he explained very passionately the history of Medellin and made us feel extremely welcomed in his city. He took us to the “real” places in Medellin that other locals (and travelers) will tell you not to go to. We started at the old train station, then to some big government building and plaza, Parque de las Luces, the Education building, Calle Carabobo, El Palacio, Plaza Botero, Parque Berrio, Parque de Simon Bolivar, and Parque San Antonio. And yes, in a few of these places there were prostitutes, drug addicts, etc. but there were also children running around and elderly people enjoying a cafe or cigarette. Everyone coexisting together. Pablo also welcomed us to come back to these places and just watch the world go by. Although these areas are somewhat complicated, they aren’t to be feared necessarily. Not once did I feel unsafe.
Overall, I was very grateful that we ended up going on the tour because Pablo’s passion and explanations made me feel more comfortable about exploring the city and I learned so much that I would not have learned if we had gone alone. Yes, some of the areas were a little sketchy, but as long as you are vigilant and aware of your possessions and surroundings, you should be okay. As the Colombians say “do not give papaya” which is basically giving someone a reason to want to steal or take something from you such as flashing around your iPhone. Oh and by the way, we were at the Parque San Antonio well after dark and the area around it was a madhouse! People everywhere! It was almost a challenge to get a taxi home. Any ways, I will be going back to many of these places to have a little more time and explore some more.
In the end, this experience gave me a very important lesson in not letting what other people say influence me so much, so much that it completely deterred Dan and I from doing something. Something in which we would have been completely fine to do. Listening to other people’s opinions, information and experiences is extremely important but for me, it needs to be taken more with a grain of salt. I need to experience things for myself and formulate my own thoughts instead of just taking someone else’s as the absolute truth. Not only will I apply this to this trip and travel, but it is an important lesson for me to practice in my everyday life as well.
I also came to the realization that world is a scary place, but only if you let it be. Proof that Medellin and Paisas are not so unnerving but are actually very friendly can be found on a sign at a coffee shop in El Palacio:
“Coffee with lots of love. A coffee: $1500 CP. A coffee please: $1000 CP. Good morning, a coffee please: $800 CP”.