• Laura T Petersen

Complicated Medellín


We spent 5 weeks in Medellín studying Spanish at Toucan language school. I didn’t do any writing about Medellín because I was so busy memorizing Spanish verbs, regular and irregular, and their conjugations! So, apologies for the belated post. I realize studying Spanish will now need to be a daily activity in order to retain what I have learned.

Medellín is a vibrant city. The municipal government encourages creativity. There are special tax breaks for entrepreneurs with creative business ideas. The green hills surrounding the valley of Medellín are beautiful. Music pours out of bars and restaurants. Locals can’t help but swing their hips to the music. Colombians can definitely move to whatever music is playing, be it salsa, bachata or reggaeton.


There are street performers at the intersections performing for the waiting cars during their red light. As the light turns green they walk through the cars to collect donations. I’ve seen hip hop dance performances that included a guy doing double somersaults in the air, juggling acts, and even a tightrope walker who had to be super quick to set up and dismantle his show so that traffic could pass. Many of these performers are Venezuelan immigrants trying to make some money to send to their families back home.

Medellín is a city of haves and have nots. There are people with money. Google and Facebook have offices here. There are many with very little, even though this city has a significantly higher income per capita and half the poverty rate compared to the rest of Colombia. Since the 1990’s, the city of Medellín has had a 1-6 stratification system based on the neighborhood one lives. Number 6s are the very wealthy. The hospitals, utilities, and city services charge people based on their income class, essentially a sliding scale based on their ability to pay. We heard both positive and negative stories about the healthcare system in Medellín. It seems to be effective for treating the poorer people’s urgent health issues but perhaps not their ongoing health needs. All the while it is clearly evident you can pay out of pocket for plastic surgery; boob jobs and butt lifts are obviously big business.

Medellín is a unique place with an tragic history (another post coming on Communa 13). Medellín’s municipal government is powerful and somewhat socialist because the city owns EPM, the hydroelectric company. The nearby Guatupè dam provides electricity to much of Antioquia, the department where Medellín is located, and to Bogota, the capital city. Much of the profit of the EPM is funneled into Medellín. The city has spent money on libraries (both downtown and in the poorest neighborhoods), universities, public parks and an amazing transportation system that is the pride of Medellin. The city has put in modern gondolas throughout the city to reach the poorest barrios in the hills, enabling residents to have jobs in the city. The metro stations are clean, with no graffiti in this city known for its graffiti. The trains and cable cars are a cheap and efficient way to get around. They cost for us to go anywhere we wanted within this sprawling city was about a dollar. For locals it is cheaper. The metro is well used which means there can be long lines to get onto the trains at rush hour.

I travelled on the Metro to volunteer with Glot, an organization supporting microvolunteering for multilingualism and positive change. Diana, the director of Glot, and I rode the modern cable car to Vallejuellos, a poor neighborhood in Medellín. The metro station was surrounded by simple wooden shacks with tin roofs and the Templo Comedore, community dining room, was just a few feet away. This neighborhood houses 1s and 2s and many

A beautiful mosaic at the entrance to the nearby Metro

Venezuelan immigrants. The Templo Comedore provides healthy lunches to the children of mostly single moms, and requires the parent to volunteer once a month. Glot has partnered with this dining room to teach English and academic skills to the children and parents after lunch. It’s a great way to ensure that the children will show up. Diana shows up every Tuesday and the kids adore her, and run to receive hugs. Diana was clear that she is not expecting these once a week English lessons will have a huge impact on their language learning. She sees it as more of an opportunity to show these kids that they matter by bringing foreigners from far away countries who come to spend time with them. The kids were adorable and it was a good challenge to keep the kids, ages 5 to 13, engaged in English learning games. I didn’t take any photos out of respect for the kids and their families.

For the month of February we stayed in the super safe and upscale neighborhood of Poblado where we rented a cute 2 bedroom apartment for a month. We ate incredibly well. It was cheaper to go out than to cook. Most restaurants offer a “menu de dia” (menu of the day) for about 15,000 COP which is equivalent to $4-5 and often includes; soup, protein, rice, plantain, arepa, juice and fruit. It is definitely the big meal of the day. We were surprised to find Colombian food bland as well as starchy. Many Colombians told me they don’t like spicy food. The restaurants in our neighborhood catered to foreigners as well as middle class locals with delicious food from a variety of cuisines. One of our favorites was apple and blue cheese pizza from Olivia’s.

We rented electric bikes for the month which we used sometimes to get to class at Toucan, or to go to Smart Fit, the super modern and popular gym that we joined for $13 a month. We also had a great time with John’s college friend Bob who visited us for a week. We did a bike ride to the lovely botanical gardens with iguanas, butterflies and a mini rainforest. However, on the return trip, I led us to the path by the river which we now know is a homeless encampment. It was a scary and scarring ride.

Medellín is a complex place and will always be special to us. We will remember the welcoming digital nomad community, the beautiful Botero statues, paragliding over Pablo Escobar's house, the fascinating past-time of the crowds of old men who go to the square in Medellin to swap watches as a means for socializing, and the amazing modern malls

that are also community centers. Keegan joined a couple of volleyball groups and would play on the outside sand courts on the 4th floor of the Envigado mall.

First and foremost we will remember the beautiful people inside and out.


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