“What did your friends and family say when you said you were coming here?”
Pablo, our tour guide, is asking the group a question he already knows the answers to. He knows that people thought we were crazy to go to Colombia and even crazier to go to Medellin. He knows that people were worried about our safety. He knows that people mentioned the FARC and cocaine and Pablo Escobar. He knows what we’re going to say, but he wants us to lay it all out and establish an honest tone for our tour.
Over the next few hours, he’s not going to deny any of the things we mentioned — in fact, he’ll add personal perspective and insight into Medellin’s struggles — but he will greatly expand on the narrow narrative that continues to hinder the world’s perception of what Colombia was and what it is today. He takes us way back to where everything began, through the recent years of turmoil, into present day Medellin, and inspires us to think about the possibilities for the city’s future.
After meeting the group at the Alpujarra Metro station, Pablo takes us on a short walk to an area surrounded by administrative buildings where he gives us an overview of the history of Colombia, the Paisa Region, and Medellin. He breaks things down in a way that’s easy for Colombian history beginners to absorb, and he peppers his stories with spicy language and unflinching honesty.
He’s quick to say that while you cannot tell the story of Medellin without mentioning Pablo Escobar, this is not a Pablo Escobar tour. He doesn’t want to play into the fetishistic way some visitors consume Escobar’s history, and I respect that.
He educates us on the significant aspects that shaped the history, culture, and psyche of the Paisa Region before segueing into mid-20th century Colombian history and explaining how things got so bad in Medellin. As he tells us about El Bogotazo and La Violencia, 20 years of fixed elections and guerrilla warfare, I realize how little I knew about Colombia’s history.
Even though I’ve been traveling around the country for a few weeks, I realize that I’ve still been thinking of Colombia’s history as those flashes I saw on the TV news as a kid — the 30 second snippets of jungles and bullets and chaos of some faraway nightmare. Colombia felt enigmatic even while I was traveling through it, and as Pablo says the things so many people hold back, the country begins to feel less ambiguous and much more real.
The situation he describes in the 1940s to 60s already sounds bleak when he explains that in the 1970s and 80s, “A fourth actor came and they fucked it up. Believe me.” He is referring to the drug cartels. When he speaks about this era, you know he is talking about something he lived through himself, an extremely violent and painful period that still lurks in the background in Medellin.
But at the same time, you can sense that getting through that horrible era combined with the characteristic independence of the Paisa region has helped drive forward the rapid change that’s occurred in Medellin, a city that is constantly being recognized for innovation in recent years. So while Pablo is extremely candid about Medellin’s lingering problems and the downsides of Paisa culture, you can see that he is full of pride and passion for city. It seems that he wants others to truly care about it in a way that’s only possible if you see the larger story, not just one extreme or another.
As we walk to the light sculpture at Plaza de Cisneros, he suggests that we look up when we get there. He explains the history of the plaza, how dangerous it used to be when he was a kid, and how even though it’s vastly improved, we should still be vigilant. As he tells us these stories about the square we forget to look up, but he reminds us. When you view it at eye level, it’s not the prettiest piece of art and it looks industrial against the afternoon’s gray sky. But it becomes more compelling as you interact with it and observe it from various angles.
Pablo encouraging us to look at the sculpture in a different way feels like an appropriate metaphor for the whole tour. Over the course of four hours, he guides us in breaking away from a limited view of Medellin. He helps us take a look back, around at the wider view, and up at the possibilities above.
Real City Tours offers four hour walking tours of Medellin twice a day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The tour covers many facets of Medellin’s culture and history and I’ve given only a tiny glimpse of it here. We visited various plazas and shopping centers, sampled street food, and saw plenty of Botero sculptures. The tour is free, but you have to book a spot in advance through the website. Tips are accepted at the end.