When we started planning our South American tour, the western Colombian city of Medellín (pronounced medezhin) was not on our itinerary.
For me the very name of Medellín was synonym to drug cartels, murders and street gangs. After all it is only just over 20 years ago that Medellín was known for being the world's most dangerous city, run for and by the drug barons.
While we sailed from Panama to Colombia, our captain sparked our interest about Medellín, talking enthusiastically about the city and its transformation.
After a bit of research, it transpired that he is not the only one to think that the city is a must-see in Colombia and so we decided to have a look for ourselves.
We took the bus from Bogotá, mainly to see a bit of countryside. In retrospect, even though we saw some breathtaking mountainous landscapes, we should have flown, especially as airfares are so cheap in Colombia. The planned 9 hour journey became 12, with one single 30 minute stop and we feared for our lives several times, as overtaking trucks in blind corners seems common practice.
Medellín is a modern bustling city, cleaner and greener than most cities we have visited so far. Its heart is the cities transport system, a comfortable metro which extends into a cable car to reach the poorer parts of the city in the hills.
In one area they have even installed escalators up the hillside replacing the 30 minute hike for residents. It is partly thanks to its transport achievements that Medellín was named the world's most innovative city in 2013 and I like the fact that innovative means making people's life easier through new transport means or links, rather than some fancy skating rink in a desert...
The art scene seems to be thriving, with the ever present tributes to the city's best known artist Fernando Botero.
His sculptures of oversized or disproportionate figures populate one of the busiest squares of Medellín.
Botero has been a continual presence during our Latin American tour and it was rather special and comforting to see his work in the heart of his home city.
The green spaces are plentiful and well designed. The botanic garden is more a well-used interactive park than a museum of plants and is a great platform for people watching and spotting wildlife. At the end of the cable car line, Arvi Park offers lots of walking and cycling trails and an abundant fauna.
Our last morning was spent at the monthly San Alejo Artisanal and Flea Market on Parque Bolívar. It is an eclectic mix of old and new and the small stalls make the market feel more intimate and accessible. Sadly, no shopping for us as, with 9 more months of travelling ahead of us, but we had no room in our rucksacks.
I believe that what influences the soul of a place is its heritage and its people. While the city is recovering from its tainted past, violence has not been totally eradicated with the heavily armed police presence a constant reminder.
There are areas that should definitely be avoided. When asking for directions, it is quite amusing to get two routes: the direct but more dangerous one, and the roundabout, but safer one. Strangers kindly reminded us to hide our cameras and valuables, but even the locals don't always agree about it and at a 4th of July dinner in the Poblado area, one girl told me to hide my neck chain while another one dismissed that as nonsense.
It is clearly an evolving situation. Urban tension is normal in a city of this size, but it feels like people want to shake off bad times and embrace their revitalized safeish city.
I thought that people in Medellín, although unsubtle at times, were incredibly friendly and certainly direct.
They had no qualms in staring at foreigners or asking all sorts of personal questions. It didn't feel malicious or envious at all, but more of a way to establish communication and maybe to show off a little bit.
After months of meeting more reserved and circumspect people in Central America, this curiosity was refreshing.
Our 5 day stay was all too short.
I hope one day to return to the city and see the result of this on-going regeneration process.
Marc “Wondering Demon” can be found blogging about his travels and adventures at: