Solo Female Travel in Medellin
Solo female travel in Medellin??! Isn’t that too dangerous?! After all, Medellin is synonymous with Pablo Escobar, cocaine, & drug trafficking. Anyone who’s watched “Narcos” knows all about that. But the heyday of Escobar is long past, & after having visited Medellin twice, & spending nearly a month there: I feel as safe there as I do in my adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon. In fact, I’d actually take Medellin over Portland in terms of safety, these days. There’s no question that right now, I’d feel safer in Medellin.
In this post, I’d like to look at actual crime statistics combined with my personal experiences, to give you an idea of what it feels like to visit this vibrant city that’s currently experiencing a huge resurgence.
Is Medellin, Colombia Safe?
Does Colombia still have issues with drugs? Yes, or as you’d say in Spanish: “Si, claro.” Colombia is still the world’s leading producer of cocaine, which has to be transported from the jungle up to where people pay top dollar for it: the good old United States. What made Colombia so dangerous back in the 80’s & 90’s was major drug violence, which Escobar often used as leverage against the police & his competitors. Innocent bystanders were affected by this violence ~ not just those involved in the drug trade. This is when Medellin was known as the “Murder Capital of the World.”
When you visit today, they’ll show you where the cartel used to dump bodies in the river (the metro line runs right along that river, today). The history of violence is still present in the city: but today’s Medellin is vastly different, & far safer. Instead of being the “Murder Capital,” it’s now labeled as the “Most Innovative City.” Medellin’s current crime rate is 20 violent crimes per 100,000 people. By comparison: Cleveland, Ohio has 1,334 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2018. In St. Louis, Missouri ~ it’s 1,817 violent crimes per 100,000.
So, statistically speaking: you are nearly 100% safer in Medellin in 2019 than you are in Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago ~ or many of America’s largest cities.
Solo Female Travel in Medellin
Going over hard statistics is one thing ~ but to really understand a city, I feel that personal experiences shed more light, & help better prepare you for travel. That’s what these bullet points are: some of my most memorable exchanges & memories from two trips to Medellin: one in 2016, the other in 2018.
- I’ll never forget the discussion I had with a volunteer at the Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum that explains the history of violence that has affected Colombia for so many years. Visiting this museum is a MUST if you want to understand this city. After watching video interviews, I told her how moved I was, particularly by the strength of Colombia’s women: for the traumas they had survived, & their willingness to stand up to the cartels, in spite of very real, very grave danger. Rather than be afraid, they instead were fighting & demonstrating for peace in their country: standing up to the cartels. I found this extremely moving.
- I struck up a conversation with a young man playing with his dog at the top of Pueblito Paisa, a famous place to watch the sunset in Medellin. I felt nervous asking him to take a photo of me at first, because of warnings about people trying to steal my phone. But after watching him play with his dog, instinct told me he was the right person to ask. He was, & the brief photo session turned into a conversation about our dogs, both black labs.
- A wonderful taxi driver ~ the best of the best ~ gifted me one of his favorite Latino CD’s after I introduced him to the song, “Roses,” by The Chainsmokers. I can still feel his excitement & insistence that I take the CD in spite of my protestations. “No – you must have it! You must take something to remember our country!”
- I still recall the faces of the boys I encountered near Parque Biblioteca Espana, the library perched on the side of a cliff in Communa 13 ~ the district once controlled by Escobar. I walked all throughout this colorful area, not once feeling afraid. Rounding a street corner, I was approached by a group of boys with big smiles, who asked me in perfect English: “Where are you from? Are you from America? Do you like to play soccer?” I smiled & began chatting with them. In these young faces I saw smiles. Hope. And mostly, curiosity. And all this in what used to be the “most dangerous” ghetto in Medellin, where no tourist would have been caught dead (pun intended) in the 80’s.
- More invitations to join soccer games: this time, outside the beautiful Medellin castle called El Castillo Museo y Jardines. The men in the photo below asked me if I wanted to join their game…& little did they know, I LOVE playing soccer. The warmth of the Colombian people is evident everywhere, not necessarily by their words, but by their actions.
How Has Medellin Reinvented Itself?
Probably the most valuable resource I found during my Medellin research, was an article by The Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy, called “Medellin, Colombia: Reinventing the World’s Most Dangerous City.” After reading it, I not only felt I’d received a history lesson ~ but more importantly, I gained understanding about how the city was changing. How & where money was being spent: i.e. in its poorest neighborhoods. How the creation of a cable car allowed people in the barrios to get out & not be “stuck,” to find employment vs. having nowhere to go but into a life of crime.
I found that the words of a 16-year old boy named Sebastian, who lives in the barrio near Parque Biblioteca Espana, captured this new resurgence of Medellin best:
“This was the most dangerous barrio in Medellín. It was impossible to reach the center of town; we were stuck here. All our elder brothers were on drugs or dealing drugs. I just lived in the house, & the bullets came flying in, during dinner.” What’s it like now? “I use the cable car, I use the library – I have a card, I can take books out – but I also go there to do homework. I like history best.”
Where would you be without these changes? “I’d probably be dead.”
Solo Female Travel in Medellin
Today in Medellin, if you stay in the El Poblado neighborhood for instance, you’ll be hard-pressed to realize you’re in Colombia ~ & not London, or some other upscale metropolitan city. In El Poblado: you dress UP. Multi-million dollar restaurants line the streets, with multi-tiered patios, hanging plant gardens, & beautiful people enjoying happy hour with their well-heeled compadres. Medellin is a stylish & eminently easy city to travel in ~ as Uber’s, taxis, & the metro are all easily accessible, giving you free reign in a city filled with energy & enthusiasm for the future: because this future is far more hopeful, & far more peaceful than its past.
The Legacy of Pablo Escobar..
I once asked a Colombian what he thought of Pablo Escobar & what he meant to their country, since he was the person most closely tied with Colombia’s international reputation. He responded after reflecting a moment, & said that Escobar helped create an extremely violent reputation for Colombia, which was ultimately very unfortunate for the citizens of his country: because that reputation was the single biggest reason that keeps travelers away from Colombia, & that it was a great shame for his country & his people.
And this is one of the reasons I continue to write about Colombia: because I have a passion to tell people what it’s REALLY like ~ not how it has been. My experiences there have been so overwhelmingly positive, I cannot help but want to share them.
Solo Female Travel in Medellin…
And one more thing about Medellin: if you visit there, you simply MUST MUST visit Guatape, which is just two hours away! It’s one of the most insanely beautiful places I’ve ever been, like it was created straight out of a fairytale ~ check out my photos & travel guide for Guatape here. And if you’re visiting Bogota during your Colombia travels, you can read more about it in the article below…
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