Surprisingly, the first I ever heard of Medellin was not from the tales of Pablo Escobar, but from the golfer Camilo Villegas. His long hair, muscular build, and Latin swagger solidified him as probably my only ever man crush on a golfer. Of course, his contributions to Colombian history weren’t nearly as significant as his contributions to my putting stance. By the time I made it to Medellin nearly a decade after Villegas’ moment in the spotlight, all I could think about was the show Narcos.
It was exactly as I pictured it. Lively, chaotic, and sprawling. I stayed close to Parque Lleras, a much more modern and cosmopolitan district of Medellin. It was the nightlife and tourism hub, and where ~ the partying traveler ~ would call home for the next several days. I was on my first ever solo trip. Colombia likely wouldn’t have been the first choice for most people, but I was enamored by the prospect of diving headfirst into a crazy adventure.
Perhaps, a bit too enamored. I decided to pay a visit to Comuna 13, formerly the most dangerous barrio in all of Colombia. During the peak of the cartel days, Comuna 13 was a hotspot for bloodshed. Like I said, I was alone, and my Uber driver looked at me funny when I told him to drop me off at Comuna 13. This was in 2016, and while the murals and bright orange escalator were already there, it had not yet become the tourist attraction that it is today. Aside from a private tour group of about four people, I was the only other non-local there.
While I never felt unsafe, there were definitely moments when I felt uneasy. I found myself wandering aimlessly since I wasn’t entirely sure where I was supposed to wander. I followed the murals but it was easy to get lost in this sprawling section of Medellin. The shanty houses were stacked along the sloping hill, creating an intimidating aura when viewed from below. Even the bright splashes of colors could only do so much to ease my tension.
I decided to stick within shouting distance of the private tour group, just in case. Keep in mind this was my first international trip abroad alone, and I hadn’t yet grown comfortable with being uncomfortable. That still didn’t stop me from flaunting around my GoPro and iPhone as I took pictures of everything remotely picture-worthy. Thankfully, nothing happened as I was exploring and I was able to move along on my merry way.
Just one problem. I had no idea where I was. When I asked the Uber driver to drop me off at Comuna 13, he dropped me off on a random street. Like I said, this wasn’t a tourist attraction just yet, at least not enough that there’d be a long line of taxis waiting to pick people up. I didn’t have a SIM card and I had no idea where to go to even find a taxi. The muddle of buildings stacked upon one another made it impossible to see a main road, even from above.
I decided to wander down the slopes and pray for the best. My Spanish was okay, but I was a bit scared to speak because if I did, they might quickly realize that I was not from here at all. I was using my brown skin a bit as a shield from the attention that white Gringos might experience. Eventually, I stumbled into a group of kids playing football on a small stone court. I stopped to watch for a second, and that was all it took for them to notice me.
I guess my brown skin wasn’t as good of a shield as I thought.
“Chino!” They shouted, assuming I was from China. I explained I was from los Estados Unidos, and they asked how far away that was. Four hours I said, and they tried to wrap their young minds around how far that could possibly be. Enough small talk. They asked me if I wanted to play, and never one to turn down a beatdown on the field, I accepted.
I laid my bag down on the bleachers and one of them immediately ran over to grab it. Oh god, I’ve made a serious mistake, I thought to myself. He grabbed it and put it down besides the goalposts, saying it was much safer over here. Wow, I suck, I thought to myself.
In baggy khakis and a flannel, I proceeded to drop a hat trick on those little kids. Still had it in me, I guess, or maybe it was just because my entire competition was all three feet tall. I grabbed my bag and pulled out my GoPro to snap a picture with them. In hindsight, it was a blessing that my GoPro got swept away by a river in Laos nearly a year later. I was an absolute whore when it came to that thing.
Here’s my chance. Now that I’ve worked my way into the hearts of the locals, I can ask them how the hell I can actually get home. The entire lot of them started shouting over one another trying to give me directions. Thankfully, they were also pointing and gesturing, so what I couldn’t make out, I could assume.
I grabbed my bag before one of them asked me if I could buy them a Pepsi. It was a small price to pay for them saving me from getting lost in the throes of Colombia’s most notorious neighborhood. We hopped over to a bodega and picked up a 2 liter and several plastic cups and made our way back to the soccer court.
What a day. A lot of the best adventures happen unexpectedly, and I most definitely did not expect to be where I was right now. Sharing a drink with a bunch of local kids after a pick-up game of soccer while completely lost in the heart of cartel country. It is entirely unfair to even call it cartel country, as Medellin has moved on from its tragic history. The city has transformed, and Comuna 13 is the best example of that transformation. The splashes of color, the powerful murals, and its steps toward modernization have revitalized its image.
In the early stages of my travels, days like this one were the type of experiences that changed the entire trajectory of my life. As cliched as that trope may have been, imagine what it would be like if I had a bad experience here? If I was robbed or attacked instead, would I still be traveling nearly four years later? Many of us carry prejudices whether we want to or not, and travel often shatters those prejudices. What we perceive and what we actually experience can be so vastly different.
I was more than a bit ignorant when I came to Colombia. That much is undeniable. It was my first solo international trip and all I could joke about to my friends back home was getting kidnapped by the cartel. That’s literally all I knew about Colombia. Camilo Villegas, Shakira, and cocaine. Days like this helped shape my purpose for traveling, and solidified my passion for it.
If you told me a week before that I would find myself lost and alone deep in Colombia’s most dangerous barrio and told me to guess what would happen, playing soccer and having Pepsi with the locals would not be my first guess. Travel is a beautiful thing, and I am thankful for all of these little moments, especially when we do not realize just how significant they were at the time.