The morning after watching Lebron single-handedly grind the Warriors buzzsaw to a screeching halt in game 3 of the NBA finals, I woke up far too early to make my way up to Guatape, a small town two hours outside of Medellin. After bonding with a Swiss couple over our shared love of basketball during the game, the three of us set off to explore the town. Guatape is a popular day trip for one reason alone: a massive granite monolith with a 740 step winding staircase built into the side.
Although the ascent is strenuous, the view more than makes for it. The rock is surrounded by a peculiar man-made lake which was built to power a nearby hydroelectric dam. The dam is a source of great pride of Colombians as the country now produces enough electricity to not just sustain themselves but also export to neighboring Panama and Ecuador.
However, this economic benefit did not come free of externalities, as we soon learned upon taking a boat tour around the islands. Although the small group tour was in Spanish, we were lucky to be accompanied by a traveler from Mexico who translated the highlights into English.
In the 1960's, the town which one stood in the valley floor was slowly flooded to make way for the dam and its accompanying lake. Inhabitants who had lived there for generations took the news so harshly that 22 of the elderly citizens died of grief and other natural causes before even being forced to evacuate. In stark contrast, the beautiful hillsides are now dotted with mini-mansions owned by government officials, soccer players, and TV celebrities, a veritable who's who of Medellin's economic elite.
Yet one harrowing reminder of the quaint town remains visible: the cross that adorned the city's church still sticks out of the surface of the water.
Local dive schools even offer scuba diving explorations of the sunken city, where you can walk/swim through the streets and alleys of the old town in a kind of underground Pompeii.
On the boat tour we also learned that before the lake became a getaway for the rich and famous, it served as the hideaway place for many of Colombia's most infamous drug lords in the 1970's and 80's. Pablo Escobar, who singlehandedly controlled billions of dollars worth of cocaine and managed a cartel that at its peak made more than 60 million dollars a day, made the lake his personal playhouse. On the shores he constructed a compound which included a bar to host parties, a swimming pool, multiple soccer fields, houses connected via underground passageways, and even a bunker with access to a submarine for making undercover getaways from the authorities.
The area today is owned by the government and just a shadow of its former self, as nature has begun to reclaim the eerie abandoned structures.
So obsessed with his own privacy was Escobar that upon completion of the secret underground passageways he killed at least 40 men who had been working on the construction project. Although romanticized posthumously, Escobar and his cartel were ultimately responsible for a vast majority of the violence that erupted in Medellin and the surrounding areas just a few decades ago.
On my last day in Medellin, after a week of unsuccessful attempts, I was finally online at the right time to book a spot on Real City Tours' free walking tour of Medellin. The most talked about activity in Medellin among the word of mouth traveler community and the #1 rated attraction on TripAdvisor, the experience did not disappoint.
Instead of listing off facts and dates, our tour guide Pablo made the city come alive with enchanting stories of how the Paisas, the people of Medellin and the surrounding area, developed their prideful attitudes. Spanning back as far as the original European settlers of the land, Pablo explained how the area was geographically isolated, the political history of the notorious Colombian conflict, why "your parents are scared you're traveling in Colombia", and the triumphant tale of the country today, a place that is surely on the rise both socially and economically.
Pablo, as many Colombians are, is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and his passion bled through the tour, enchanting us all along the way by brining his stories to life with props, sounds, and personal anecdotes. Most miraculously though, he even remembered all 25 people's names the entire time.
As we weaved through the sights of the city center, one of the more hilarious observations was how intrigued the locals were by our wandering mass of gringos. They would ogle from across the plazas, stand creepily right behind the group to listen in, or even interrupt Pablo in Spanish with their own interpretation of a certain landmark or event.
Despite Colombia's relatively recent troubled history, the most pervasive feeling I sensed from Pablo and the Paisas of Medellin was hope. Hope that despite their violent past, the people had made it through and were mentally strong because of it. One of the representations of this palpable attitude is the city's new metro rail system. The only city with a public transportation system in Colombia, Medellin's metro is fast, clean, and reliable. More importantly, it enables million of citizens to commute from impoverished neighborhoods to the city center, a daily journey that previously took hours on slow, unreliable busses winding through the surrounding hills.
Pablo ended the tour with an allegory that perfectly depicts Medellin's transformation. In one of the city's largest squares just 20 years ago this week, an extremist military group placed a bomb next to a Fernando Bortero sculpture, which in today's dollars is worth more than 2 million dollars. 30 civilians attending a musical festival died that day, but instead of merely cleaning up and removing the sculpture, the city decided to leave the damaged structure there while Bortero built an identical replacement. Today the two statues side by side serve as a symbolic representation of the city, one with a troubling and turbulent past, but a decisively promising future due to the strength and pride of their people.