Most people (my own family included) perceived Colombia, particularly Medellín as a hotspot for drug trafficking, kidnapping, prostitution and murder. I was determined to prove this “Narcos” fuelled stereotype wrong by spending a year there and coming back alive.
My Experience in a Nutshell
At 3am, 10 hours into a 16 hour bus journey, I’ve had armed soldiers from the anti-narcotics brigade hop onto the bus waving huge M4 carbines demanding everybody’s passports. I’ve had cross-dressing “ladies of the night” ask me inappropriate questions in a very deep voice whilst walking home. I’ve drunk tap water in a coastal town and been bed-ridden for 2 weeks. However, not often did I feel like my life was in danger.
Colombia is certainly not for the faint hearted, whilst I was looking at my Southampton classmates’ group photos in Málaga or Toulouse with all the home comforts, (which is fine for some people) I was living in a 22 man appartment with flat-mates from no less than 12 different nations. Despite not having hot water, a kettle and handles for the saucepans (?) whilst living in this very humble abode for the first 6 months, I was fortunate to have forged some lifelong friendships whilst living in this destitute abode and will always cherish the memories of living there.
I am fortunate enough to have already seen a great deal of Central and South America and whilst not entirely the most picturesque city, Medellín is definitely up there with, if not the most “western” city I have been to in Latin America. But this doesn’t mean by any stretch that it is “Americanized” or lacks its own character. Most tourists don’t venture out of “El Poblado” which is rather Americanized, but there are dozens of other Comunas you can visit (against the advice of most tourist guides). When I sported a local football shirt, drunk a tinto (small, espresso like coffee available for around 10p) or michelada (beer with lemon and salt – tastes nicer that it sounds) and conversed with the locals, they treated me like one of their own. As long as you don’t “dar papaya” (make yourself an easy target) and keep your wits about you you’ll be fine.
Since my experience in Medellín, at least five friends of mine have been intrigued by my time there and have been there on my advice, and loved it.
Things I wish I knew before I went (that Soton doesn’t think to tell you)
Unfortunately, there’s only so much a few confirmation emails from somebody on the other side of the world can do to prepare you for such a culture shock. So a couple of pointers:
- Unless you book a nice, relatively expensive Airbnb, you will be having hot showers and sharing your living spaces with at least 10 people and 20 cockroaches
- People will steal your clothes from communal washing and drying areas
- Some classes at the UPB start at 6am (but with the right amount of persuasive language you can move them to later on in the day)
- It is at least 30 degrees most days from 8am-2pm, then it will rain until you go to bed, so if you plan on going to uni for the day in shorts and sunglasses, make sure you bring an umbrella and a rain coat
- Yellow taxis will try and rip you off unless you know all the tariffs for specific journeys, so just get an Uber and save yourself the hassle, plus it’s cheaper (I am not endorsed by Uber).
- Apparently pickpockets are active on buses and the metro (the same as in every other country) so don’t leave anything out for them anything to steal…
- “Student Finance will reimburse three return flights” at almost £1000 each it is quite disheartening when they tell you it isn’t possible because The University of Southampton has not validated the term dates… So make sure you contact Southampton before you decide to see your family for the first time in 7 months.
- “Student Finance will reimburse any expense over £303” another deceitful lie, your student card, national ID card, university insurance and countless other expenses are in fact not even considered by Student Finance, leaving you out of pocket.
- When taking money out of an ATM with a UK or European card, due to the various charges at both ends, it is common knowledge that it is more efficient to take out large sums of money at once. Taking out the equivalent of £100 cost me £12 in charges, and having to carry the average monthly wage in my pocket.
- “Foreign ATMs are dodgy.” We always think “this stuff wouldn’t happen to me” right? Wrong, myself and 4 others were victim of a ATM fraud where thousands of pounds/euros/millions of pesos were taken from our UK/EU accounts by the ATMs. From one day having my student loan in my account, the next day I had “insufficient funds.” Did the Colombian banks care or do anything to resolve it? Of course not. Do the police care? Of course not.
- My best suggestion is create yourself a Colombian bank account, I used Bancolombia – you only need a passport and some cash to desposit. Then use Western Union to transfer yourself a hefty portion of your student loan, pick it up in cash at the Unicentro mall, then walk about 20 metres to the Bancolombia and deposit it in your account, then you can pay by card or withdraw smaller amounts and not worry about being robbed or scammed.
The house where Pablo Escobar was killed (remember the roof scene from Narcos?)
The view from one of my uni buildings
An Airbnb I stayed in was situated in this building
Carnaval de Barranquilla 2018 (not in Medellin but a must visit)