I just returned from a 17-day trip to Medellin Colombia. I made the trip for two primary reasons. The first is that it is as hot as Hades in my new Texas home. It’s been 100+ degrees here every day for the last couple months. I knew it was going to be hot when I moved to Texas. I also know that I have a flexible work schedule and can temporarily re-locate elsewhere if I want to get out of the heat.
When I lived in Ohio, I’d spend a lot of the winter months someplace warm. Now that I’m a Texas resident, I can do something similar by spending time in a cooler environment during the summer heat. Medellin is known as “The City of Eternal Spring.” It’s near the equator, but up in the mountains. High temperatures are between 70 and 80 degrees with generally sunny weather year around.
The other reason I went there is that I wanted to do some more research for my upcoming book on travel scams. I stayed in an area of Medellin that is full of expats, digital nomads, and foreign travelers. This neighborhood (Poblado) has a lot of money. Therefore it also has a lot of thieves and scam artists trying to separate the wealthy visitors from their cash.
I speak conversational Spanish and can get by in any Latin American country without problems. Colombian Spanish is one of the most clear dialects I’ve heard. The Colombians fully pronounce and annunciate every syllable. They also speak slower than the residents in other Spanish speaking countries. I find Colombian Spanish amazingly easy to understand. That was critical for my research efforts.
I spent every night walking for a couple hours in the streets pretending to be a clueless tourist. I chatted up all the hookers, thieves, hustlers, drug dealers, and scam artists I could find. I was trying to learn how they worked their scams from direct experience . Understanding their language was critical to this effort. I could get scammed in hundreds of places around the world, but I wanted to be able to understand how the scams work in order to share them in my book. I could only do that if I could talk to the scam artists. In Colombia, I was able to do that fairly easily.
To better describe the area, here is a video of the area I frequented nightly. Lots of fun. Lots of music. Lots of good food and drink. And lots of hustlers/scam artists.
I like Medellin. I last visited in 2012. It’s a generally civilized place. Most things work the way you want them to. There is reliable electricity, potable tap water, and internet everywhere. But there is still a very edgy Latin American vibe that keeps things interesting. There is a lot of wealth disparity. Both the ultra rich and the homeless share the same neighborhoods. The streets are lined with homeless people for begging money as the wealthy folks visit the high end restaurants and night clubs. It’s an interesting place to be. I’d liken it a bit to Rio de Janeiro, but with a higher percentage of homeless.
An aware American can truly enjoy himself/herself here, but one must always be alert for pickpockets, robbers, hookers, and scam artists. Medellin has just enough shadiness to keep things interesting, but not enough to be really dangerous (at least in the nicer neighborhoods).
They say a picture is worth 1000 words. Take a look at the photos below to better understand the wealth disparity in the city. The first shows a taxi driver stopping to dumpster dive for recyclable bottles to turn in for extra cash. Every dumpster and trash can in the city is constantly being searched for recyclables by the poorer residents.
But there is also a baseline level of prosperity not seen in much of South America. There is a lot of money here. The wealthy live an amazing life. The picture below is of a Harley Davidson store in the neighborhood where I stayed. Unlike many poorer countries I’ve visited, business owners in Medellin use proper concertina wire (rather than embedded broken glass bottles) to secure their property. All the high dollar businesses had razor wire like this or electric fences protecting their property. That tells you that there is a real concern for theft, but also that many folks have the resources to minimize their losses.
I stayed in the Charlee Hotel on the recommendation of friend who lives part time in the city. It was a great place.
Here are some pictures of my room, which cost a little more than $100 a night. It was huge and had a sitting room with large windows that open to give it an open air patio feel.
The hotel was centered right in the middle of the night life capital of Medellin. It literally say between the two busiest party streets in the city. It was noisy at night with the windows open, but the hotel soundproofed the door to the open air sitting room. With the door shut, you couldn’t hear any noises from the outside. For an idea of what it’s like at night, check out this video shot from my open window on the third floor of the hotel. This was a Friday night at about 2:00 AM.
The place had the best Latin American gym I’ve ever seen. It was small but had a lot of great equipment. The gym was on the top floor of the hotel and had large open windows overlooking the city. To be honest, the gym and the rooftop pool is what sold me on the place. I was happy with my stay.
The hotel had a nice touch of hospitality in that every evening a hotel bartender would knock on your room door while pushing a drink cart. He offered completely free cocktails to each guest every night. I often ordered a mojito. The bartender usually said “You’re big. You need two.” and would make me an additional mojito or margarita. It was a nice touch, but daily free cocktail deliveries may have diminished my writing production a little bit.
A Deeper Look at Colombian social Issues
I saw lots of shocking things during my stay in Medellin. My entire experience was quite educational.
The craziest thing I saw were boxed babies. While walking to lunch one day, I came across a naked little girl (I would say around two years old) sitting in a cardboard box on the sidewalk. There was a dish sitting next to the box with a few coins in it.
I looked around and found mom about 50 yards away. She had two other kids less than 5 years old, each naked in their own cardboard boxes strategically located at various places on the sidewalks along a popular tourist walking route.
Mom was sitting in the shade watching her naked, boxed kids generate income for her. I didn’t take photos for obvious reasons. That level of poverty and abuse is abhorrent in America, but is considered “everyday life” in the developing world.
I mentioned that I spent most evenings strolling around the popular tourist spots trying to get scam artists to engage me for book research.
One night I finished my stroll and went to a corner grocery store to buy a couple beers to fuel the night’s writing effort. Two little girls followed me into the store and approached me begging for me to buy them food. That’s really common in Medellin.
I would guess that these sisters were 12 and 10 years old. When I refused to buy them food, the older one pointed at her little sister and said in English “You can have her. She will do anything you want. Cheap. Cheap.”
A 12-year old was pimping her 10-year old little sister. I’ve traveled a lot in places like Thailand, Brazil, and Cambodia where underage prostitution was rampant but I’ve never seen anything like that.
Most people have zero idea about the level of depravity that makes up everyday life in many parts of this world.
I would have loved to help these little girls (and the kids in boxes), but there are significant hurdles in doing so.
1) The scale of the problem. While on my two hour walk one night, I passed several hundred starving kids begging for money in the streets. I was solicited by probably 20 underage prostitutes in the same time frame. None were as young as these, but being hit up by 14-16 year old girls selling their bodies on the street has happened dozens of times a day for my entire trip.
With so many kids needing help, how do you triage your efforts? It’s impossible. I would be bankrupt in a week if I tried to help all the kids down here who truly needed it.
The other issue is that my helping them in any way is a tacit reward for the choices they are making. If they successfully appear weak and helpless they get more money. That only encourages them to prostitute themselves/beg more.
It’s harsh, but if there were no one down here trying to “help” these kids by giving them food or money for sex, the kids would have to do something more legitimate to generate income. The kids need to be going to school rather than begging/prostituting themselves on the street. If tourists keep giving them money, they have minimal incentive to improve their lot in life.
Remember that a lot of parents force their kids to beg because tourist donations are an easier way to make money than picking up a minimum wage job. Many of these kids’ parents don’t want to improve the lives of their children because those kids are often the most reliable sources of household income.
2) Zero community support networks. There is minimal government assistance going to the poor. There are relatively few charities. There are no resources locally to refer these people to.
The hotel employees despise these kids because they often steal things to get money to eat. The hotel staff don’t want their customers ripped off by the street urchins. They run these kids off their property mercilessly. They absolutely wouldn’t be helpful if I showed up with these two kids. They wouldn’t let the kids inside and would probably evict me.
There is simply no place down here that helps these kids.
3) Personal risk. What does it look like when a 50-year old man brings two pre-teen prostitutes back to his hotel room to “help” them? The hotel staff would likely call the police and kick me out of the hotel.
These kids aren’t dumb. Even if your intentions were nothing but honorable, there is nothing to prevent them from lying to get paid.
In countries like this with overtly corrupt police forces, some of the local girls are in cahoots with the police to scam tourists. If I help the girls by getting them off the street, they can call the police and claim I raped them.
The cops will show up and demand a $10K bribe to avoid jail. Of course you’ll pay because you don’t want to end up in a third world prison. The cop will give a little money to the kids and pocket the rest. The kids hop back out to the street to work the scam on another gullible tourist.
While I would really like to help all of these kids, it’s logistically impossible and places me in great risk of false accusations that could potentially ruin my life or completely drain my bank account.
There’s no way someone like me can realistically help these kids. The only thing I can do is to support the “Mom and Pop” groceries, restaurants, and vendors with my money. If those proprietors are successful, there’s less of a chance that their kids will end up on the street.
Beyond the beggars and hookers, there was a tremendous problem with homeless folks called “indigentes” or “gente de la calle” in Spanish.
Medellin is a city of contrasts. Right by my hotel there is a beautiful urban park with trails and waterfalls. That’s unusual in many Latin American cities.
But walk a little further upstream and you see that this beautiful little river is also where all the homeless people bathe.
It’s stunning to see such abject poverty in an area where the richest people in the country live. I think that’s part of the reason I like Medellin so much.
Police and Security Interactions
I didn’t see many police on patrol during the daytime. The national police carry SigPro 9mm pistols in Blackhawk Serpa holsters. Unlike the cops in Bogota, I didn’t see any cops carrying long guns in Medellin. All the cops are also armed with a PR-24 style baton, handcuffs, and a radio. They wore external plate carriers and always patrolled in pairs. They generally looked fit and alert. They weren’t hassling folks or shaking down people for bribes.
Despite the lack of daytime police presence, there were, however, lots of security guards. Some were armed and some were not. Whether or not they were armed seemed more to be dependent on the individual rather than the job. The daytime hotel security guard was about 35 years old and wore a nickel-plated four inch S&W Model 10 in a nylon flap holster with five extra lead round nose cartridges in loops on the outside of the holster body. The late night guard was younger and only carried a PR-24 baton.
The security guards could be sharp. On my second day, I ate lunch at a large outdoor restaurant frequented by mostly locals. I had my flashlight in my front pants pocket (not clipped, that draws too much attention). It was daylight, so I was carrying it primarily to use as a small impact weapon. As I was eating, the guard walked over to me and bent over to better inspect the bulge in my pants pocket. He quickly determined it wasn’t a pistol barrel, smiled, and moved on.
I suggest that you become friends with the security guards at your residence in Latin America. My hotel had a very high end rooftop bar that attracted a lot of prostitutes and other shady characters. It’s almost exclusively rented by wealthy foreign travelers. All the local hookers and hustlers try to get inside to run game on the clueless Gringos.
As such, security was tight. Three security guards at each door. Metal detector wands for everyone going in at night. If you know me, you know that going through metal detectors is hazardous to my health. Social engineering is a thing.
On my very first morning there, I brought coffee back from a local shop for all the guards and front desk staff. Every time I walked in and out, I talked the the guards in Spanish for a little while, asking about their lives and families. All of the other Gringo guests ignored them.
Within a day, they no longer wanded me with the metal detector and waved me in without any security screening. I was a good guy and no longer considered a potential threat. Over my stay I brought the door guards some food, coffee, and soft drinks. My total investment during my time there was about $25.
Near the end of my stay, the hotel staff upgraded me to a much more expensive room. The door guys got me the “local” price for a haircut at the barbershop down the street. They took me to a laundry place that only locals know to get my laundry done for half the Gringo rate.
They all called me “Mr. Marine.” I kept telling them that I’m just a writer who likes to work out. They didn’t believe me, but they played along. It’s was fun.
For the cost of a couple coffees and hotdogs, I became friends with all the staff and they were more than willing to take very good care of me. Personal relationships are far more valuable than money in much of the world. I urge you all to cultivate these relationships when you travel. They will enrich your life and make your stay much more enjoyable.
Outside of the hotel, I was staying in one of the safest parts of the city. Lots of security guards everywhere. At night, plenty of cops on foot and motorcycle patrol. Unlike many South American cites, the locals don’t seem to be too concerned about getting jacked. People count money out in the street and walk around holding expensive cell phones with no worries.
The security guards all carried very strange weapons in my neighborhood. I made friends with a local security guard and he let me take a photo of his shotgun.
It was a 16 gauge break top single shot cut down with pistol grips. Loaded with birdshot.…in a super crowded outdoor dining venue. This video gives you an idea of the area the guards were patrolling. It was two blocks away from my hotel.
The sticker on the gun says “Royale Express” with a logo of a bull. I saw lots of these, some nickel plated. I only saw one other pistol gripped shotgun. A convenience store guard near my hotel carried a chrome plated Winchester 12 gauge pump with pistol grips. It reminded me of the store guards in Honduras.
I needed help identifying the pistol in the guard’s flap holster. My friend Will Peck and some of the other authors from The Firearms Blog helped me out. They did a great job of identifying the pistol as an early model of the Colombian Cordova 9mm auto.
That was the only semi-auto pistol I saw security guards carrying. Almost all the guards in my neighborhood carried the sawed-off single shot shotguns or .38 revolvers.
It’s important when you are outside the USA not to have any visible indications of carrying a weapon. Having a pocket knife clipped to your pocket goes unnoticed in America, but will attract a lot of attention in the developing world. I mentioned my flashlight earlier. I carried it in my right front pocket, next to my money clip. The money clip contains less than $100 in local currency and one credit card. I don’t take my wallet with me when going out in public.
I had my Spyderco Salt knife clipped to the waistband of my pants in the appendix position. If going to a bar or club with pat down searches, I moved it to my underwear just behind my belt buckle. I carried my POM pepper spray in my left front pocket with my cell phone.
The most common attacks here are street robberies. In the event of multiple attackers or loaded guns, my plan was to give up my money clip and phone. But a lot of these robberies are committed by unarmed punk street kids. In that case, I had a weapon right next to each valuable item I carried. If they demanded my phone, I feign compliance and go for the pepper spray. If they ask for my money, I feign compliance and then hit them with my flashlight.
The knife is a last resort. No one will care if you beat the hell out of a criminal down here, but if you stab someone, you’ll be in a lot more trouble. Besides surviving the attack, you’ll also want to avoid a long prison sentence in the developing world.
I did one tour while in Medellin. It was a free tour of Medellin’s Poblado neighborhood provided by Beyond Colombia. The tour guides work for tips. These are a bit of a crap shoot and really depend on the individual tour guide. I’ve had good ones and bad ones. This one was horrible. The guide gave us a little history of the neighborhood and the park where we met. He then showed us some graffiti walls before taking us to the rooftop bar at Masaya for “a break.” After 40 minutes in the bar, I grew bored and left. I can go to bars on my own.
I also took an Uber (20 minutes, $3.00) to the Medellin botanical gardens for a stroll one afternoon. Entry was free. It was more like a large, well maintained city park than a nature exhibition. There were tons of plants, but none of them was labeled. When I was there on a Sunday afternoon, hundreds of families had just thrown down blankets and were spending a lazy afternoon in the garden eating picnic lunches with loved ones. I wish more Americans would embrace that lifestyle.
After strolling through the gardens, I wanted to visit the downtown park where all the Botero statues are. According to my phone, it was two miles from the gardens. I wanted to walk, so I asked the garden security guard if it was safe.
His reply? “More or less. The neighborhood is ugly. Lots of homeless and street people. Guard your money and your cell phone.”
The perfect challenge. I made the trek. The guard was right. It was ugly. I would have taken photos on the traverse, but my phone was hidden down my pants. Lots of poverty and chaos. A fascinating piece of abandoned land that was taken over by shade tree motorcycle mechanics. Only there was no shade. so each group of mechanics set up a big blue tarp for shade and worked on the motorcycles people brought them. There were dozens of these “shops” on a piece of abandoned property about two acres in size. Lots of them were keeping busy. The true “underground economy” at work.
I was most certainly the only gringo around. I got some strange looks, but emerged unscathed. The picture below is the famous downtown park. While there, I was treated like a wallet with legs. It was great practice for improving my situational awareness and learning some more scams run against travelers. Hustlers everywhere.
Then I got to see the only artistic statues that reinforce my positive body image. I love Botero.
One of the reasons I enjoy third world travel is that lots of things are amazingly cheap. I stayed 17 days and needed to do laundry midway through. I went to a wonderful place called “Laundry and Beer” recommended by my hotel security guards. They took a week’s worth of my dirty laundry, washed, dried , and folded it in less than two hours for the equivalent of $4.50 US. I got a haircut for $5.00 and an hour-long massage for $20.00. Most of my meals were less than $10 each. Draft beers at a bar were about $1.25 US. It was a nice escape from the ever increasing price inflation in the USA.
On travel in general
I can confidently state that travel is continuing to get worse. While waiting on airport delays during my flight home, I looked back at this year’s travel. I’ve thus far flown 36 flights in this calendar year. Twenty-eight of those flights have been delayed or cancelled.
Flying to and from Colombia in the last few weeks has been illustrative of the entire process.
My flight down to Medellin was delayed 2.5 hours, meaning I didn’t get to into my hotel until 3:00 am.
Coming home, my flight left Medellin on time. I arrived in Miami with a two hour connection to go through immigration/customs and board my plane to Austin.
I was flying at the front of the plane and had Global Entry, which meant I entered the country with a line of only three people ahead of me. It took less than five minutes to get processed through immigration. The folks that didn’t have Global Entry were looking at a 90+ minute wait in line.
Then I had to collect and recheck my bag. It took 1.5 hours for my bag to arrive on the conveyor belt. When the bags arrived, there were only four of us from the flight (all with Global Entry) who had made it to the baggage claim area The rest of our flight was still waiting in the immigration line.
As I was picking up my bag, I got notification that my connecting flight was delayed 30 minutes. I was glad. I wouldn’t have made the flight if it had left on time. I had to walk/sky-train 50 gates in Miami’s D-terminal to get to my connection. I arrived four minutes before my flight boarded.
The flight landed in Austin. We sat on the runway for 50 minutes after arrival. The pilot explained that the airport was operating with a “skeleton staff” and there were not enough employees on the ground to guide the plane to the gate.
That “skeleton staffing” was also evidenced in the baggage handling. After deplaning, it took another hour for the bags to arrive on the baggage carousel.
I’ve been traveling a bunch in the last nine months. Most of it has been flying around the country to teach classes, but I’ve made a couple international trips now. All have been utter chaos and getting continually worse.
Things don’t seem to be improving.
Despite the travel delays, I enjoyed Medellin. I think I will spend even more time there next summer. If you are interested in some more information about my stay, I will be posting some more articles about my trip on my Choose Adventure website next week.
Even though travel right now is a massive hassle, it still beckons to me. I hope articles like this one make you more interested in seeing the world as well.