Our flight from Cartagena landed in Medellin on the afternoon of November 13th. Our host was picking us up from the airport but all we knew was her name and telephone number. We decided to try calling her to see where we should meet her. We say “try” because we were unsuccessful using the local pay phone, but luckily a nice older woman saw our struggles and offered us her cell phone. We finally met up with Natalia and her boyfriend Steven, who are both in their early 20’s and study Biology at the Universidad de Antioquia. Natalia also works as a tour guide at the Museo del Agua, while Steven works in electronics at a large department store. They live together in a two-story apartment on the north side of town, which beside being up the side of a mountain, was very accessible via buses and the metro. We stayed with the couple for 10 days, and became acquainted with the city, the culture, and best of all, our new hosts’ friends and family.
Medellin was once known as the most violent city in the world with a murder rate in 1998 of 435 per 100,000 residents. The chaos was a result of bombings and deadly gang wars involving the Medellín Cartel, which was ran by druglord Pablo Escobar. However, 20 years after Pablo Escobar’s death, the city has undergone an urban renewal, and thanks to improved infrastructure and community planning, a new emphasis on education, and an increased police presence, Medellin is now a relatively safe large city with murder rates less than that of Washington, D.C. and New Orleans. Officials predict two million foreigners will visit Colombia in 2013, which means tourism is up 200% since 2006. Medellin is known as la ciudad de la eterna primavera (the city of eternal spring) with temperatures averaging 76 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Medellin’s landscape is breathtaking as the city is located in a valley surround by the Andes mountains.
Our daily routine consisted of a morning workout, either in the home gym or hiking nearby, followed by an adventure in the city. Then, on our way home every night, we stopped at our favorite panaderia for arequipe churros. Natalia worked most days until 2 pm so we tried to coordinate our plans to meet up with her after work. She took us to Plaza Botéro, to her parents home downtown where we made natilla (a traditional Christmas dish) together, Parque Arví, and best of all–a visit to her maternal grandmother’s home.
At her abuela’s we were joined by her uncles, aunts, and cousins. The family was extremely welcoming and kind. Despite the fact that the family spoke little to no English, and our Spanish was a work in progress, we were able to have outstanding conversations through broken Spanish, hand gestures, eye-contact, and translation from Natalia or her cousin.
Once Ryan was comfortable watching the championship game of the Colombian Primera A, one of the uncles invited Lisa into the kitchen to make buñuelos (which has since become a new signature dish).
On many occasions, like the night at grandma’s house, Natalia’s father would give us a ride in his truck, even if it was far out of his way, because… anything for his princess (right Jim?).
Our stay concluded with a night out in the neighborhood to visit the community’s holiday market with our new friend, Milton (Natalia’s coworker and neighbor, and Ryan’s teammate from the weekly friends’ soccer game). The local church hosted the elaborate block party and the streets were lined with vendors selling traditional food, handmade crafts, and special Christmas treats. Milton made sure we tried them all! From guayapo (cane sugar drink) to bocadillo (candied guava), every time we turned around Milton had a new candy, food item, or glass of drink for us to try. He guided us through the bustling market before Natalia and Steven met up with us for dinner and dancing. We feasted like royalty by the bandstand, listening to the local police officer union play traditional ballads, salsa, and cumbia.