I Lost My Heart in Medellin

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You know those times when you go somewhere and it feels as if you’ve fallen into some rabbit hole where absolutely everything and everyone is delightful? That was our trip to Medellin.

Husband Man has relatives in there, in particular, a 96-year-old aunt and an uncle who is 99 years, 9 months old.  I had never been to there, and we wanted to make the trek so he could visit them and Mustard Seed could meet them. The plane took off on a Sunday morning, and in a matter of 30 minutes, we were there. (That trip would have taken 6 hours to cover 135 miles by car!)

We flew Avianca into Rio Negro to the southeast of Medellin.  From the plane, you already begin to see the sprawling ranch houses of Paisa country.  An old friend of Husband Man and her husband, who would be our hosts for our stay, picked us up. The plan: a quick stop-off at their apartment to drop our bags off and then on to their daughters’ school concert. Afterwards, lunch at the Pies Descalzos (Barefoot) Park and on to El Tesoro, a mall with an incredible view and a kickin’ kiddie park.

Just the drive from the airport was beautiful. We headed down the curvy Las Palmas highway toward the city. Medellin is in a different branch of the Andes from Bogota, and the elevation is somewhat lower. You still see a lot of eucalyptus, like around Bogota, but in and around Medellin, the quintessentially tropical plants grow in abundance and pines are mostly absent from the landscape.

Plumeria overhangs the road, purple-flowered vines overtake walls and fence posts, the forest is overgrown with an orange marigold-like creeper called ojo de poeta (poet’s eye).  Yarumo trees stand out here and there, surreal in their shape and their white (or is it silver?) leaves.  Our friend tells us only grows in this part of the country where there has been deforestation, as it grows easily and tends to fill in any empty space.  Banana trees peep out of sugarcane. Bird of paradise, calla lilies, and heliconias are strewn as if they’re a dime a dozen all around.  Here, they are.  In fact, this landscape was similar in many ways to what we saw 2 years ago when we visited the Eje Cafetero, with the difference that there was even more of a jungle-y feel there compared to around Medellin.

Our road wound us gradually down to the valley in which Medellin rests, surrounded on all sides by mountains.  And WOW.  The first glimpse of the city with its tall buildings and thousands of blocks in miniature was breathtaking for a Texas prairie girl like me. Unlike Bogota, where urban sprawl onto the mountainsides has mostly been checked by the designation of the Cerros Orientales (Eastern Hills) as nature reserves, Medellin creeps out of its bowl. A number of high-rise buildings stand out in certain areas, but the great thing is that for all that, Medellin has not lost its green.  How often I’ve loved to drive down a street in Houston lined with ancient oaks on a sunny March day.  The feeling was the same, just switch out the scenery for bamboo, almond trees with their bright red fruits, monolithic kapoks, yellow acacias, flaming red cresto de gallos, bright pink-flowering kapoks, mangos, papayuelos (another tropical fruit), and purple estrella de orientes, which look something like lilac or wisteria. It’s no wonder Medellin is called The City of Eternal Spring.

Our friends live on the ninth floor of an apartment complex with a pool and a nature reserve right behind it.  They explained that there are quebradas all over that region. Quebradas are like small waterfalls where water makes its way down from the mountaintops. By law, all these are supposed to have a protective perimeter, which is why there’s the preserve behind their complex.

Their daughter’s  concert was held at the Medellin Metropolitan Theater, a first-rate facility and wasn’t your typical school function.  Their daughter goes to a music school, and the annual performance selected was “Music from the Movies.” We had a great time enjoying all our favorite hits and seeing our new friend sing.  Plus, the orchestra had glow-in-the-dark bows! How cool is that?

Afterwards, we walked across the street to the Pies Descalzos Park and ate lunch.  This park consists of a long, modern, concrete building–very minimalist, but the kind that appeals to me.  It had very low overhangs and a breezeway. Everything in Medellin is indoor/outdoor.  The doors of places seem to stay perpetually open. People leave their windows and balconies open.  Both malls we went to had “indoor” areas that had no visible way to close them off from adjoining outdoor courtyards.  But why would you, when the temperature is always so comfortable and you keep the air circulating that way?

But back to Pies Descalzos.  In front of the building with the restaurants is a huge square, on which is a gigantic sandbox for kids and adults alike, as well as a wading pool and grassy areas.  Families come and picnic on the grass or the concrete. Kids run around in bathing suits or wet clothes.  (Of course, we were sorry we hadn’t brought ours, but Mustard Seed and our friends’ two girls had loads of fun anyway.) Some young people formed a circle and practiced capoeira, as spectators gathered to watch and listen. Some other kids were doing amazing tricks with tops. It reminded me a little bit of Houston’s Discovery Green–a mixture of splash pad, city park, and restaurant complex but with a more laid-back, fun, community feel. Close by, the spire of the Iglesia Sagrado Corazón de Jesus and a suspension footbridge were visible.

We began walking a block or two east, through the Plaza Mayor, the convention area,  and caught the MetroPlus, a feeder bus that takes you to the Metro, the city’s famous el train. Then we hopped on a regular old bus that took us to El Tesoro. As we moved through town, our friend, a history professor (could I get a better tour guide?), told me about the founding of the city on Nutibarra Hill and how there’s still a small-town-like (but now touristy) atmosphere in that area. He told me about Río Medellín, which bisects the city, how there was–and still is–gold in the river and the old days when foreign companies came to dredge for it.

I caught glimpses of several Gothic cathedrals and the oxidized copper cupola of what I later found out was the Palacio Nacional, former government building turned shopping center. I took in the old-timey posters at the Metro stations, honoring their namesakes, like Francisco Javier Cisneros, a railroad tycoon of the late 1800s. I love it that Medellin can produce modern, minimalist architecture that’s refreshing and doesn’t look like industrial hunks of steel, and that it’s right at home alongside the older Gothic, Romantic, and Victorian elements that underpin its history.

To cap off the day, we took in a beautiful view of the city from a high breezeway at El Tesoro. They looked to have a great selection of stores, Colombian, American, and international brands, but we didn’t spend much time on that.  We headed down to the kiddie park, which was situated in a little outdoor ravine area that the mall is built over and had beautiful landscaping.  We indulged in chocolate-covered strawberries on a stick while the kids rode the train and the boats. The Ferris wheel wheeled, the music played, we smiled, broadly, and the lights flashed as twilight descended in the sky they shone against.

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