Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Hostels In Medellin Attract World Travelers
Casa Kiwi Hostel in Medellin, Colombia
Colombia: Medellin - and the living is easy
Just five years ago, Medellin was a no-man's land for foreign tourists. But what used to be a city by-passed by travellers is now attracting a wave of visitors.
It's taken 14 years since the death of Medellin's most notorious resident, Pablo Escobar, for this city to get a makeover and shrug off its reputation as one of the world's most dangerous places.
A group of intrepid travellers who've recently made Medellin their home, have helped put this city on the gringo trail. They've opened up a crop of new hostels which are luring backpackers to Colombia's second city.
Kelvin Leeming, of Christchurch, had no intention of visiting Colombia while he was backpacking around South America six years ago.
"I never intended to come to Colombia," he said. "Like most people, all I thought about Medellin was that it was a dangerous place."
But Leeming was encouraged by good reports he'd heard from travellers.
"I just kept hearing great things about Colombia and, more importantly, there were few tourists," he said.
"There were places to explore in Colombia which no travellers were visiting. I felt as if I had the whole country to myself, which made it exciting."
He travelled to Colombia four times before he decided to settle down in Medellin.
He discovered a large house in a residential suburb, El Poblado, in the south of the city.
"I immediately thought the place should be a hostel. It was the perfect size and in a quiet and safe area and two months later I opened one."
The first morning the Black Sheep hostel opened, three people arrived. A few days later, Kelvin was rushing out to buy more sheets and pillow cases.
After 18 months in business, the hostel is now almost full most of the year with about 20 backpackers - most from Europe, Australia and New Zealand - staying at this homey place.
After spending months travelling around South America on a motorbike, 29-year-old Paul Thoreson, half Yank-half Kiwi, also decided to settle in Medellin.
He reckons the city offers the perfect combination of friendly people, great views and an excellent climate. Last year, he bought a house and converted it into the popular Casa Kiwi Hostel.
Medellin is nestled in a deep lush valley surrounded by undulating, green, fertile hills dotted with coffee, mango and plantain trees.
"What makes Medellin such a pleasant city is its climate," said Thoreson. "It's not too hot but always warm enough to be able to enjoy a drink outside and catch the sun on a roof terrace."
Mariscal Robledo Hotel in Santa Fe de Antioquia
Medellin also offers squares and parks with an avant-garde touch.
Botero Square, named after Colombia's most successful living artist, is just one of many squares where the locals, known as los paisas, relax amid works of public art.
Also in the city centre is the Park of the Barefeet. This was once a disused, barren space which is now an attractive square where children splash barefoot in ponds while couples sit on benches in a landscaped zen-like garden of bamboo.
As dusk falls quickly, los paisas get ready to indulge in their favourite pastime - dancing - helped along by the local aniseed-based firewater, arguadiente. For an evening drink, head to Parque Lleras where you'll find many trendy bars and restaurants with outdoor terraces overlooking a leafy square.
Entering a night club in Medellin feels like gatecrashing a supermodel party. The paisa women, who all look like beauty queens, attract prospective suitors by dressing in the skimpiest outfits while moving their hips effortlessly. Foreigners, urged on by friendly paisas, also inevitably end up shaking their shoulders on a sweaty dance floor.
While Medellin is a modern city with little colonial architecture, there are colonial towns within easy reach, making it a good base for exploring the surrounding countryside.
Leaving behind the shanty towns that cling precariously on the hillsides and riverbanks, curving roads reveal the charm of the Colombian countryside.
Mules carry firewood along the roadside guided by young boys wearing black and white straw hats. Women tend hanging flower pots and sweep porches that surround farm houses painted in green and red adorned with cascading bougainvillea.
Just a two-hour drive from Medellin lies the colonial town of Santa Fé de Antioquia.
This is a popular weekend retreat for paisas who flock here to stroll along quiet cobbled streets and enjoy a drink in shady, well-kept squares. Outside the town is an impressive suspension bridge set among tranquil rolling hills.
Another popular day trip is visiting El Peol. This is a huge black rock which juts out from the landscape, catching you by surprise. Steep stairs have been built into the granite rock and, after a strenuous climb of several hundred steps, you are rewarded with a view of fjord-like landscape reaching the horizon.
A short bus ride away is Guatape, a pretty town overlooking a lake with streets of well-preserved pink and ochre colonial houses.
Like in any major city, it's important to remain vigilant in Medellin. It's recommended to use radio taxis at night and don't become an easy target by staggering out of a bar alone.
In recent years, crime in Medellin has decreased significantly and the city is safer now.
"I know of only one backpacker out of around 2000 who've stayed at the Black Sheep who experienced trouble in Medellin," Leeming said.
Thoreson has had similar experiences.
"I've never experienced any problems while living in Medellin and I don't know of anyone else first-hand who has either," he said. "In fact, travellers will encounter friendly locals who go out of their way to help you."
LAN Airlines operates daily between Auckland and Santiago, with onward flights from Santiago to Bogota four times a week. Go to www.lan.com.
Colombia's currency is the peso. $1 buys about 1500 pesos, but it can be difficult to change kiwi currency so it's best to take US dollars. Don't change money on the street.
Medellin's metro system is safe, clean and efficient. Buses to Santa Fé de Antioquia from Medellin cost about $9.
WHERE TO STAY
In Medellin: the Black Sheep is online at www.blacksheepmedellin.com and costs from $10 a night. Casa Kiwi is at www.casakiwi.net and also costs from $10 a night. In Santa Fé de Antioquia: splash out on a stay at the elegant Mariscal Robledo hotel, from $70 a night.
New Zealand Herald, by Anastasia Moloney
Porto Belo Casa Hostel in Barrio Lalinda in Poblado
New Porto Belo Hostel in Medellin
Calle 11B No 31A - 140
Phone: 268 1694 Cell: 314 798 24 86
*NEW HOSTEL in Medellin!
Tiger Paw Hostel located in Medellin's Popular "Parque Lleras" Restaurant District.