Due to the length of this tour and the number of photos, I am breaking it up into two posts. You know going in, this is an extraordinary long tour; they warn people when booking it. This is a “free” tour where you tip at the end. We have been on quite a few and are always disgusted when others disappear close to the finale or just do not tip at all.
The meeting point was the platform on the metro a few stops from the closest one to us. When we arrived, we stayed on the paid side of the turnstile, not knowing if we would use the metro or not. There was no reason to pay again if it were unnecessary. It was surprising when we tried booking the tour, there were no open slots for several consecutive days. This was our first chance at actually getting spots, attesting to the popularity of it.
This handsome man in his early thirties was wearing a white hat and a red shirt, the signal offered by the website to look for, to recognize the guide. Hurrah! This was our guide and in total, there were twenty of us. Once he had everyone checked off on his list, he had us follow him to the bottom of the Alpujarra Metro Station where Hernán pointed out the old railway station. This is usually the first stop on the tour. However, it is now under reconstruction, so there is no entry allowed.
Close by conveniently; there are steps where we sat while Hernán gave us some background on his career. He has a degree in economics, an advanced degree in bio-statistics, worked for five years in the field, but felt empty. He went to NYC to earn a second master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis on screenwriting. To allow himself time to write, he does tours to pay the bills.
While there, he also explained some culture things we should be aware of such as people staring at us, coming close and perhaps touching us. Passersby spontaneously demonstrated everything he said as if scripted. As we were listening, three children came to sit with us, alternating their stares between Hernán and the group. They tapped one of the men on the shoulder and tried speaking to him, but he does not speak Spanish. This did nothing to dissuade them from continued attempts. Others of all ages and both genders stopped nearby for periods to listen to what was happening; though we were assured, most did not understand English.
Hernán clarified that there are a number of accents within Medellin as there are in the entire country. Having been born in Medellin, people can further tell exactly which part of the city one is from by the accent.
Hernán explained that during his youth, Medellin had a reputation as the most dangerous city in the world. For years, he feared leaving the house for school. Over the years with much hard work by the government, there has been a significant change. Due to this, people are not yet accustomed to having tourists, basically, white people among them. He shared that Colombians are very touchy people, so if they touch us, we should not be alarmed, but cautious. People will stare and often times smile, because they are proud that outsiders want to see their city.
One enlightening fact was something that Rolando had mentioned when we were in Bogota; there are six economic classes. Hernán elucidated how this works. Neighborhoods receive a designated number from one to six depending on the economic level of that particular area. When a person lives in a neighborhood, they need to bring in a utility bill to prove their residence. They are then associated with the number assigned to the neighborhood. Those in neighborhoods one to three pay reduced prices for utilities, transportation, admission to museums, and so forth. When they go to university, they pay the same fee as everyone else for the first year, but if they have good grades and maintain them, they pay significantly less the following years. Those in levels four to six pay higher prices for all of the above, which helps to supplement the lower wage earners.
Next we walked to the Alpujarra Administrative Center, a large open square where on one side is the Antioquia Department offices (similar to a county) and opposite is the city administration with the mayoral office. “Monument to the Race” by Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt is a huge sculpture within the plaza. It is quite a beautiful and an extensive piece of art.
Funny, while Hernán was giving us the political history of the city and country, two police officers with police dogs kept hanging around behind him. Those of us in the group wondered why they did not leave us, but finally Hernán turned to speak to them. They wanted to be in a group photo. Once they had their selfie with us, they were happy and left. We can only hope we are not on some police bulletin board.
As we were leaving the square, we found white silhouettes of women on the ground placed in a circle on the plaza. Violently killed by different means, these represent individual women; each silhouette has a woman’s name with the dates of her birth and death.
Stop number three was thought provoking. An open-air market existed in this space for over ninety years before it burned to the ground. With the empty space, it became a frequent hangout for homeless people and drug dealers causing crime to rise. The city used ‘democratic architecture’ to create change. The idea was to take something with a heinous reputation and create something unique to make people proud. One corner houses a modern library with a horizontal fountain in front. The thinking was to show a value for reading and learning, which will inspire people to acquire knowledge. We witnessed a woman with three dogs, getting in fountain while trying to entice her dogs to follow. When they did, they were berserk with happiness and had a ball.
The rest of the square is home to dozens of spires pointing to the sky. In the evening, these poles light up, so there are no dark spaces on the square inhibiting criminal activity. This is Cisneros Square, the Square of Lights. Hernán told us to stand in the center and point our cameras up to take a photo.
We passed by the Carré and Vasquéz Buildings as Hernán enlightened us that although these are only four stories high, in the late 19th century they held the distinction of being the tallest buildings in the city. Charles Emile Carré, a French architect, designed them to resemble the traditional coffee-pulp drying houses in the county. After refurbishment, they are now the home to the Medellin Secretary of Education and to a housing agency for the city of Medellin, respectively.
One gorgeous building, named Palacio Nacional across the front is currently a shopping center: Centro Comercial Palacio Nacional. This is heartbreaking that such a gorgeous building that was once the headquarters of administrative offices for major government institutions in Antioquia now filled with shops and restaurants selling cheap goods. Belgian Agustin Goovaerts is the architect responsible for the design, the same man who initially created the Palacio Cultural.
Next – The prostitutes that love the Catholic Church