Postcard from Colombia

Drugs? Coffee? That 80’s soccer dude with the crazy blonde affro? The irresistibly dizzy Gloria from hit US sitcom Modern Family? Just what is Colombia most famous for?

Truth is, it’s all of the above. Which is a shame really as there is much more to Colombia than these easy clichés. And in particular there is so much more to Medellin – the city whose history is so inextricably linked to late drugs king Pablo Escobar that even now visitors spend good money on grisly Escobar-themed city tours, some 20 years after he was shot dead as he tried to flee government forces…

Globalteer’s marketing and strategy manager, Simon Hare and South America Project Manager Colin Newstead have just returned from Medellin where they visited the Colombia Kids’ project and got themselves some first-hand experience of this little known and often mis-represented city. 

We are now approaching Medellin...

Flying over lush green hills dotted with million-dollar mansions with their cool swimming pools, and landing at Medellin’s sparkly new international airport took us quite by surprise. This was really not what we had expected. It was strangely reminiscent of the rolling green hills of England, or well-to-do towns of sub-tropical northern New Zealand. The journey to the city on a smooth new toll road through luxuriant vegetation – silvery eucalyptus trees, brightly  coloured birds-of-paradise, giant ferns, palm trees and dazzling bougainvillea blooms just added to our sense of disorientation. And it was warm…and a little bit humid.  We could easily have been in Queensland, or California

We were staying in a suburb called El Poblado. Modern, high-rises cling to the steep hillsides that drop down into Medellin. Broad, tree-lined streets meander down the slopes, converging at the district’s throbbing heart, Parque Lleras, a pulsating, shady square with bars, restaurants, craft stalls and street artists surrounded by neat little side streets crammed with chi-chi boutiques and excellent coffee shops, selling that smooth, justifiably famous Colombian coffee.

El Poblado is the same district where our volunteers stay if they choose our hostel accommodation option. Globalteer’s bubbly and extremely knowledgeable volunteer coordinator in Medellin, Elena, shows us around the hostel where we meet the friendly owner and the even friendlier guests. We have to admit to being total bowled over by the accommodation – particularly the private en-suite rooms on the new third floor - and the excellent communal areas including a barbecue patio, a large, well-equipped kitchen and a huge upstairs terrace furnished with very inviting hammocks.

But Medellin is like a sassy, streetwise teenager, showing the acceptable face of gentrified neighbourhoods like El Poblado to incoming visitors whilst just a short metro ride away lurk the harsh realities of inner city Medellin.

The city has come a very long way since the bad old days 20 or 30 years ago when no one dared to venture outside their home after dark. We walked freely and safely around El Poblado well into the night, the biggest hazard being bumping into merry late-night revellers staggering up hill to their beds.  But at its core, Medellin still bears the scars of gang warfare and the extreme poverty and hardship that are the legacy of decades of lawlessness. Drug feuds have been driven out of the cities to Colombia’s new, rural badlands, displacing families who are forced, in turn, to seek safety in the cities.

Inner city parks and squares are no-go areas by night. Even by day we see nearly naked homeless men sleeping on sunny pavements. It is hard to tell if they are even alive. One man dances in his underwear as the street cleaners hose him down on the Plaza Botero, a fabulous permanent open air exhibition of more than twenty voluptuous bronze sculptures by the city’s second most celebrated son. Prostitutes openly ply their trade outside the beautiful Church of La Veracruz, Medellin’s oldest, whilst inside the faithful say their prayers as they listen to mass.

And on nearby Parque San Antonio, teenage boys can be seen selling themselves to passing strangers as silent spectators look on through clouds of pungent-smelling cigarette smoke. This is the kind of life that awaits thousands of children who live and play on Medellin’s streets.

Globalteer’s partner project in Medellin provides food, shelter, education and security to these vulnerable children who are placed with the project by the authorities when living “at home” is deemed just too dangerous. The project is located one of the better neighbourhoods of central Medellin in a large former family home with a sunny central courtyard.

Resident children sleep in spotlessly clean dorms; there is a well-equipped computer room, the “volunteers’ cupboard", bursting with teaching resources and children’s games, and a sparklingly clean new kitchen where nutritionally balanced meals are prepared by a team of smiling, uniformed cooks – everything here is done in line with the rules laid down by the authorities to enable the project to operate.

Nearby there are parks, open spaces and sporting facilities that in the past these children could only have dreamed of. But above all the project helps to stop the children from falling into a life of drugs, crime and worse still, the sex trade, that could otherwise all too easily be their fate. It gives them a fighting chance of one day being the young adults who can eat and drink in the bars and restaurants of Parque Lleras, and who knows, maybe even one day own one of those apartments overlooking the city from the heady heights of El Poblado.

To find out more about how to volunteer in this beautiful yet challenging city, please visit our Volunteer Colombia Kids' Project pages.