My first impression of Medellín is that it is a city of great warmth and beauty, both inside and out. In coming here, I dove headfirst out of my comfort zone in every possible way, so the first week has been a mix of both excitement and stress. But I already feel more welcome and at ease here than I ever did in Spain, and I can see why so many people come here and never want to leave!
The geography and climate are perfect for those who love the outdoors. Colombia is so close to the equator that there are no seasons, and the temperature varies mainly by altitude. Medellín is situated in a valley in the mountains, at an altitude of about 5000 feet, so it’s cooler than the coastal regions but warmer than Botogá, which is at a higher altitude. Here the temperature is a comfortable 70-85 degrees year round. Most restaurants have sliding doors that open up to a patio or tables on the sidewalk, which makes for lively streets. I am taking Spanish classes at EAFIT, a local university, and the campus is full of gardens and outdoor spaces where students can gather to hang out and study. Even the gym is open to the air — instead of normal walls, it has sliding glass doors that stay open unless it is raining. It does rain quite a bit here, but not every day. I find it hilarious that since there are no real seasons here, the locals say it’s “winter” whenever it’s rainy, even for just a week at a time. The entire city is incredibly verdant, but because of the altitude, bugs are not too much of a problem, for which I am very thankful.
Before I came here, I had heard that paisas — the name for people from this region — are both very beautiful and very friendly, and so far I’ve found that both of these assessments are generally true. My hosts are extremely welcoming and helpful, always eager to tell me about the city and the culture and asking questions about me and my background. Every day we talk over dinner about how the day went, which usually leads to discussions of our preferences and experiences, as well as comparisons of various aspects of our lives. People at the university and elsewhere in the city have also been very willing to help me when I don’t understand how things work, and so far I haven’t experienced any kind of antipathy towards foreigners. I think this is partly because the presence of foreigners here is a sign of how far the city has come since the days of violence and chaos a few decades ago. The people here are proud of their culture and eager to share it with the world.
One stereotype of paisas, especially the women, is not only that they are very good looking, but also that that are preoccupied with appearance. It’s true that Medellín is the fashion capital of Colombia and that the city is known for its plastic surgery clinics (there are two within a five minute walk of where I’m living). But my impression is that the women of Medellín are not really any more obsessed with appearance than those in Chicago or anywhere else. Sure, it’s not too difficult to find someone who fits the stereotype, but there seem to be a lot more women who dress modestly and wear little makeup on a daily basis. What is different is that there aren’t nearly as many overweight people here as there are in US, and I have yet to see a single pair of sweatpants on the EAFIT campus — the college students here are certainly much better dressed!
So far, the one thing about Medellín that doesn’t agree with me is the streets. Because of the mountainous terrain, the road network is much more difficult to understand and navigate than in Chicago, where everything is a flat grid. It doesn’t help that the street signs have tiny script and are usually located on the corners of buildings rather than the sidewalk, if they exist at all. The drivers are reckless and aggressive, and the motorcyclists are even worse than the drivers, constantly unpredictably weaving between the cars. All this I can deal with, but the what I really dislike is that the emissions regulations are less stringent here, so when I walk along busy streets, it feels like I’m smoking, and by the time I get home I feel like I need a shower. The fumes make it a bit uncomfortable to walk the streets for a long time, which is a shame because walking is a great way to get to know a city.
But it doesn’t take long to get out of the city and into the beautiful, mountainous countryside. Last weekend I took a little trip with my host’s son and daughter to a town not far from Medellín, in the mountains to the west of the city. It’s a little cooler at the higher altitude, and the countryside is very green and full of small farms. The agriculture in this area tends to be manual because the extremely hilly terrain makes it difficult to use machinery. On the way back, we stopped to take a few photos of the city from above. What a view!
I’m fairly well convinced that I managed to pick the best place in South America to study Spanish, and I was lucky enough to end up with a fantastic host family. Every day I learn more and grow more accustomed to speaking Spanish all day long. There is so much to see and do that I’m sure I won’t be bored for a single minute of my six weeks here. Watch out for more posts to come about my Spanish classes, learning to dance salsa caleña, and getting to know Medellín!