A few decades ago, Medellin was said to be in the grip of drug czar Pablo Escobar, long deceased. When we mentioned to other Americans that the city was our next destination, they often expressed concern! What we found was a clean city full of helpful people, beautiful buildings and parks, and plenty of good restaurants. We did, however, meet many more European and Asian tourists that we did other Americans. Hey, Americans, check it out for yourselves!
First sign of courtesy. Having taken the night bus from Cartagena so that we could spend one more day there, we were really tired when we arrived. The bus station is very large and appeared to be well laid out. Before we had a chance to find our way through it, a fellow passenger asked whether we knew where to catch a taxi and went out of her way to guide us to the right spot, waiting to ensure that the driver understood our destination. That was only the start of Medellin hospitality.
Friendly People at the Hostel. We soon arrived at our hostel, the Palm Tree; we were pleased to find out that it was just a couple of subway stops from downtown and quiet at night. Once there, we were greeted by the proprietor who showed us around and introduced us to other guests. Right away we noticed that it was easy to meet people because the eating area, bar, and TV / reading rooms were centralized. The first new friends we made, Sven and Ildi from Germany, were so very helpful that they drew us maps to get to the subway and to the supermarket.
Courtesy on the subway. Settled in, we decided not to nap and to head right downtown. The subway was easy to use and we had just a short ride to the center of town. Talk about clean! Everywhere we looked, employees were cleaning the handrails, the floors, the walls, the escalators. I believe one could safely eat on the floor of the subway stations. And everyone was helpful; staff and travelers asked us where we were from, where we were headed, and whether we knew where to transfer. A few passengers point out landmarks we passed.
Helpful guides. We had a restaurant stop in mind: Versailles, a cross between French style and a Colombian eatery. Even with a rudimentary map and a description, we had a hard time getting oriented in town. We seemed to be going the opposite way from what we intended. Confused, we asked directions from a man frying and selling potato chips who took time to look at the address and the map and point us in the opposite direction. He did not think much of our tourist map, shaking his head in the negative.
Waiter courtesy +++. Salon Versalles is on Pesaje Junin, a walking street at this point. Featuring bakeries, apparel stores, and much more, it was so tempting to window shop that we nearly forgot we wanted lunch. An attractive two-story restaurant, Versailles specializes in quality, superbly delicious food, both Colombian and international. More on that later: On the courtesy theme, our waiter, Emerson, was excited to learn we were Americans and that he could practice speaking English. A student at a local university, he is specializing in literature set in Cuba, particularly Ernest Hemingway. Emerson helped us select typical Colombian empanadas, suggesting we leave room for incredible desserts. He stopped by and chatted whenever he had a moment, making our visit all the more enjoyable.
An usher advises us. The next totally helpful person we met went far out of his way to help us. We had seen a church with an ornate façade from the train and wanted to visit the inside. Alas, we arrived during a well-attended funeral, likely for a community leader. Once one of the ushers understood why we were there (obvious because we were not wearing suits…), he assured us that there were much more beautiful churches nearby, provided precise directions, and suggested we take a break at a juice stand he thought was especially good. He went back inside as we started down the stairs. The church doors popped open and he ran after us to revise one part of the directions so that we would walk in a more beautiful street. I do not think that has ever happened to us before. Greatly appreciated because it was a beautiful street.
The helpful sales clerk. This kind of kindness continued day after day. Citizens of Medillin were always helpful, including a store clerk who sold us her sample tube of hand lotion made from Brazil-nut oil because the store shipment was not due for a couple of days.
Palm Tree staff. And not to forget the courtesy of the staff at the Palm Tree! They made sure we received our free eggs every day and also that we attended their barbeque / party to try the local and delicious sausages. Although our beds were a bit hard (the mattresses were being changed out and we happened to get a room with the older ones), we will definitely stay there again: Palm Tree Hostel.
Thanks to our travel gossip. And thanks again to the courtesy of Elke Wiese at the café Gato Negro in Cartagena who had stayed at and enjoyed the Palm Tree earlier this year. She is such a fabulous travel gossip because she recommends the spots she has visited herself.
For a very big city of nearly 4,000,000, Medellin showed us small-town warmth and friendliness. Muchas gracias. A+. (May 2009)