Book! Pack! Go Travel! by Robbie Mamo

Medellin

Medellin

My next stop in Colombia was the city of Medellin. It is the second largest city in Colombia at close to 4 million people. The city sits in a narrow valley carved out by the Medellin River and is also surrounded by lush green mountains.

The main commerce here is agriculture, exporting cut flowers and the production of textiles. The newly signed Colombia – Panama free trade agreement has also made this city an even better choice for those who like to shop in one of the many very large shopping malls offered here. The trade agreement has made a huge difference for the availability of imports to the country. You can almost get anything in Colombia!

Medellin is known as “The City of Eternal Spring” for the moderate temperatures it experiences. It has great weather and is also a perfect climate for farming. The produce available all year is some of the best I’ve seen anywhere and it is very cheap to buy local fruits and vegetables. The new potatoes available in Medellin are amazing and a large 1kg bag is under 3000COP/$1. If I lived here I would eat these daily. Expect to see new potatoes served with most meals in the city whether its fried chicken from a stand or a high end restaurant.

Arriving to Medellin…

Flying in Colombia is the only way to travel as it is the cheapest, fastest and most common way to go any distance within the country.

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Most short flights in Colombia are on medium sized jets and not airplanes. 

After landing at the Jose Maria Cordova International Airport I was soon on my way to the Prado neighbourhood located right beside the central area of the city. I took the Taxi Colectivo from the airport which charges a flat rate of $13000COP/$4. A colectivo is a shared taxi that doesn’t leave until it is completely full. This is never a long wait as the airport is always a busy place so you won’t be waiting long. A private taxi to most areas in the city costs around 70 000COP/$20.

This drive covers 40km and often takes around 45 minutes as a lot of it is along winding mountain roads. The views down the mountain and through the valleys are spectacular. Many people consider the views driving down the mountain are some of the best the city has to offer.

The airport colectivo taxi takes you to the center of town to an area called San Diego near a large shopping mall. This is where the other local taxis hang out. For a few dollars more the airport taxi will take you further to your final destination. You won’t have to wait long for the car to fill up and this service is very cheap and a welcome option. The taxi drivers in Medellin and most other large Colombian cities are very honest.

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Taxis lined up near San Diego Mall

For those wanting to leave the city for the airport there is a colectivo minibus that leaves from from Hotel Nutibara. The minibus service operates between 4am – 8 pm going to the airport and 6 am – 10 pm leaving from the aiport. This service also stops at San Diego mall as it approaches the center of the city. This service costs only 8000COP/$2.75 each way.

The city…

El Candelaria

Also known as El Centro this is downtown Medellin. This is the original center of the city it has a very urban feel. This area is where you find most sights in the city as well as art galleries, museums, parks and squares. It is the most historic area of the city and although somewhat run down it is where you see the most people in one place.

Each day I spent in Medellin I walked from the Prado neighbourhood where I stayed, down to the center of town on Carrera 52 which is also known as Calle Bolivar. This is one of the busiest streets in the El Centro area of the city. There are endless shops and street vendors selling anything you could imagine. Most new items in this area are cheaply made or used.

Carrera 52 recently has all the vendors from the nearby flea market that was displaced. The old Prado Metro station was demolished so they had to move.

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Vendors near the Metro station near Plaza Botero.

Plaza Botero is the central square that the city extends out from. This is the heart of Medellin and the square has been dedicated to the artist and sculptor Fernando Botero. Botero is the most famous artist from Medellin and many of his w0rks are showcased in the square. More of his own work and other artists sculptures and pantings can be seen nearby at the Museo de Antioquia.

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Plaza Botero and a very large sculpture.

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This is a great area to buy produce as well as street food. The main street food here was chorizo sausages, kebabs and arepas.

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Vendors stay open late as El Candeleria is a busy place!

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The busy El Candelaria district. 

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This guy lets you make calls on one of his many mobile phones. Most people stop in and use them to text. I think the going rate was 300COP or 10 cents!

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One thing I noticed right away in El Candelaria was that there are a lot of crackheads and homeless people. You can also smell weed everywhere you go around the busier areas of the district. 

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Homeless people sleeping in the streets all day is a common sight. This is usually in busier areas as they feel safer with the amount of people around. 

Prado

This is the area I decided to stay while in Medellin. First developed to replicate an area in Barranquilla, Colombia. It is filled with old mansions that once housed the cities elite and reached it’s peak in the early to mid 1900’s. All but a few of these original mansions have been torn down as many have been purchased and preserved by cultural organizations.

The streets are planted with lignum vitae trees that bloom twice a year and shower the entire area with yellow flowers. As the city grew many of the cities inhabitants moved further afield and into the more laid back areas of Poblado and Laureles.

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The streets in Prado lined with lignum vitae trees! 

El Poblado

This is hands down the most prestigious neighbourhood in Medellin. Avenido Poblado is the main street that runs throuhout the neighbourhood which connects to the city center via Avenida Oriental.

This area is very safe and a great place to walk the streets. The streets here have lots of plants and trees and are intertwined with creeks, nature paths and parks.

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The restaurant and club district is lined with large trees and surrounds Parque Lleras.

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All of El Poblado is full of trees and would be my first choice of where to live in the city.

Extending from Avenido Poblado is the famed Golden Mile. This is also the area where you will find the best shopping in the city and all of Colombia. There are boutiques all down the street mixed with commercal buildings. It is also home lots of amazing shopping malls.

Santa Fe Mall was built in 2010 and is the largest mall in Colombia. It is a massive 2 million square feet of total space. With over 450 stores and 25 restaurants this place is hard to beat.

Located a 10 minute drive away is El Tesoro mall which despite being the older mall in the area it is located in one of the wealthiest and what is for sale here reflects this affluence.

The epicenter of El Poblado is Parque LLeras. Around the park is where you can find what are considered to be Medellins best restaurants, clubs and party hot spots. There are also lots of hotels available here. It is also known as Zona Rosa which translates to a place for nightlife, restaurants, clubs etc.

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Parque Lleras in the day. This place comes alive at night. All night!

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El Poblado is best reached by Metro and the station has lots of street vendors nearby.

Laureles

This area gets its name from the medians that are planted with Bay Laurel Trees. It was designed by Pedro Nel Gomez in the 1930’s. Gomez was an engineer and artist and it was designed in a French style. It is another great option for hotels, food and drink options and great live entertainment..

Estadio…

Next to Laureles is the Estadio neighbourhood. This area is also worth a visit and where Atanasio Giradot Stadium is located. Here you will also find La Setenta(70th Street) which is another hot spot for entertainment in the city. Here you will also find lots of cafes, bars and restaurants.

Where to stay…

I chose to stay in the Prado neighbourhood which is beside the El Calendelaria district also known as the Centro area of Medellin. This was a great choice as it was close to the center of the city known as El Candelaria. Lots of attractions, parks and plazas were within a walking distance of no more than 10 minutes. The metro station was also nearby which made it a breeze to quickly get to other areas of the city.

I would always walk from the hotel down to the center of town on Carrera 52 which is also known as Calle Bolivar. This is one of the busiest streets in the city and connects Prado to El Candelaria. There are endless shops and street vendors selling anything you could imagine. Most new items in this area are cheaply made or used.

I stayed at 61 Prado guesthouse and this was an excellent choice. All rooms are private with ensuite bathroom in a classic styled building.  Rates start at 60000COP for a private twin room. King bed rooms are 80000COP/$25 per night. A Junior Suite is also available with a King bed as well as a twin and costs 90000COP/$30 per night.

The rooms were large, very clean and tastefully dec0rated. The hotel itself had very attentive staff and this included an a la carte breakfast which was excellent. I also ate here one evening and the food was top notch in both quality and preparation.

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The bed was large and comfortable. Each night here I slept great!

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The rest of the hotel is tastefully decorated and above all – It was clean!

Other more common options for hotels are found in the more modern, upscale neighbourhood of El Poblado which is an affluent suburb of the city. This is where you want to stay if you want to be closer to nightlife, restaurants and great shopping.

The Charlee Hotel gets my recommendation and is one of the most stylish boutique hotels in all of Medellin. That being said, it has a terrible reputation for giving away peoples reservations if the whole city is sold out and you arrive in the night. Rooms start at 800000COP/$275 and go way up from there!

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Other hotels in this area start at 120000COP/$40 a night and go up from there. If I had more time in the city I would have stayed in El Poblado for a few days.

If you are after budget accommodation in Medellin there is a huge list of places to stay on Hostelworld which can satisfy any backpacker budget. Rooms are priced between 24000COP/$8 – 60000COP/$20.

Things to do…

This city was a pleasure to be in and I loved every minute of it. It was a short walk to the many parks and plazas that are always nearby, with the most notable being Plaza Botero and Parque Bolivar.

You could spend days simply enjoying the action and vibrance of the city itself. There are also a myriad of cultural and art attractions as well as a very large botanical gardens. The largest freshwater aquarium in Latin America is also a popular attraction.

During the day the Centro area is full of lots of people, street food and vendors. The shops here sell everything you could imagine and most of what is on offer is very cheap.

I only had the better part of 3 days here so I was quite busy at times seeing the sights. Other times at complete ease and enjoying the wonderful surroundings. There aren’t many cities this size that enjoy such a lush mountainous setting all year.

The metro system is well laid out and it was a breeze to check out other areas like El Poblado which is in a much more upscale area of the city. This is where you will find a lot of boutique hotels and nicer restaurants. El Poblado is also home to the cities music scene.

Plaza Botero

This plaza is a park of sculptures by Fernando Botero. This is located at the center of the historical area of the city. The park is filled with bronze sculptures by Botero and is a focal point for tourism in the city.

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The sqaure is always busy with vendors, tourists and locals passing through.

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The giant sculptures give the square an artistic feel that is like nowhere else!

Here you will find many vendors selling drinks, food and souvenirs. There are many large statues to pose with for photos and this was a common site.

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Fresh lime ice on sale on a hot evening in Plaza Botero!

Museo do Antioquia

Located across from Plaza Botero is this wonderful museum. This is a museum that is actually more of an art gallery dedicated to Fernando Botero who is a famous modern artist and sculpture from Medellin. He has developed his own style, aptly known as “Boterismo” which depicts people and figures with an exaggerated volume. His voluminous works are exhibited all over the world and even if you aren’t an art buff there is a charm to his work that anyone can appreciate.

The entire 3rd floor is dedicated to exhibiting many of Botero’s paintings and sculptures. These were all donated by the man himself as well as many other works found throughout the museum. It was interesting to see such a large body of work of the same artist in one location. This really gave you an appreciation for this style and it was also neat to see the progression of themes and statements made throughout the years.

The other floors also feature art by the famous artist/muralist Pedro Nel Gómez who is also from Medellin. There are also other works on display here that have been donated from Botero’s personal collection. This includes art from Picasso and Monet to name a few.

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The large Museo de Antioquia dominates the square at Plaza Botero and is a must see while in Medellin.

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Some great examples of the voliminous works of Fernando Botero!

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Many of his paintings depict people but for me some of the charm of his works are how he uses the volume to also accentuate the features of other objects he paints. 

Entrance to the museum is 10 000COP/$3 per person. No bags are allowed but they have a free locker service behind the counter.

Parque Bolivar

Located in the vicinity of Plaza Botero and Museu de Antioquia is Bolivar Park. The park occupies 2 blocks of the city. It centers around a large fountain and is split into two sections. One is paved and the other is green space which includes native trees. There is also a statue of Simon Bolivar in the park. Bolivar Park is a great place to sit, relax and is like an oasis in the downtown area.

This area is also home to some of the colonial mansions and also hosts the traditional San Alejo market.

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Statue of Simon Bolivar in the park.

Metropolitan Cathedral of Medellin

Beside Parque Bolivar is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Medellin located in the Villanueva commercial district of the city. The cathedral was built betweeen 1875 and 1930 so it isn’t very old but is a sight worth checking out either way while you are in the area.

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The cathedral isnt the most spectacular on the outside but the interior is grand and worth a visit.

La Candelaria Church

The oldest church in Medellin it was originally constructed in 1649 using wood and thatch. It was then rebuilt again in 1712 and lastly the masonry church was started in 1767 and inaugarated in 1776. Restoration was carried out in 1997 and used material and techniques used at the original time of construction. I enjoyed this church more than the Cathedral just because of the history and the older colonial architecture. This is easily reached by metro and the nearest station is Parque Berrio.

Villanova Shopping Mall

This is a renovated historic building that is considered an architectual site. It has over 100 stores and was previously a convention center. It isn’t the flashiest shopping mall but it is worth checking out. Additionally this is the best place to go and get a good rate on currency exchange. There are many options to exchange cash in this area with good security and fair commissions.

Monument to the Race

This is a large metal sculpture named “Monument to the Race” by artist Rodrigo Arenas Betancur. The sculpture stands 38 meters tall and is located at Jose Maria Cordova Administrative Center. It depicts the history of the state of Antioquia which includes Medellin. This is a wonderful feat of sculpture and it is very impressive. This region has been populated with indigenous tribes since well before 10 000BC and was then colonized in the mid 1500’s by the Spanish.

Botanical Garden of Medellin

One of the days I was in town I wanted to get some shade in the mid afternoon so I visited the Botanical Garden of Medellin. This is also known as the Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden in the honour of the local naturalist.

The gardens are massive with over 30 acres of green space. It has over 1000 different species and is home to over 4500 flowers. Making it even more special is the rare collection of orchids.

One unique feature of the gardens is the Orchidiarium. This is a large covered area that has an indoor and outdoor section. The structure is 22 meters high and is a wooden mesh canopy. It is made in the image of flowers and trees and these collect rainwater to be used in the garden. This is used to preserve plants, butterflies and also as an exhibition space.

To get to the gardens take the metro line ‘A’ untl the Estación Universidad station. The gardens are located across the street from Parque Explora and the city’s freshwater aquarium.

This was the perfect place to come between sight seeing and enjoying the city. I stopped here between 1 and 3 and walked around enjoying the scenery and relaxing in the park areas. I really enjoyed my time here and it was a perfect stop to get out of the sun for a bit before carrying on with sightseeing.

Entrance is 1800COP/$.65 for the day.

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Large trees and plants line the path that winds through the very large garden.

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Many flowers were in bloom when I visited the city and this made the gardens even more spectacular this time of year.

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You an even take a train ride around the gardens if you like!

Parque San Antonio

This is a more modern addition to Medellins many parks. The 8 acre park has 3 more Botero sculptures and is worth a look if you want a place to relax and see more of Botero’s work. The works are all famous and include the Bird of Peace sculpture that was blown up during a FARC bombing which killed 23 people. An identical sculpture has been placed beside the destroyed remains of the original. The park also has an amphitheater, a large plaza and a landscaped green space that faces the San Antonio de Padua Cathedral. The one side of the park is lined with restaurants and is a great place to grab a bite to eat.

Rafeal Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture

This is a large palace and is used to host concerts, art expos and other live events. To get here take the Metro to Parque Berrio station. Rafeal Uribe Uribe was a lawyer, journalist and politician that lived in Colombia during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. He was also founder of what is now known as the Free University of Colombia.

The palace is an amazing piece of architecture and stands out with its checkerboard pattern and tall towers.

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Ride the Metrocable

One of the highlights to my time in Medellin was also one of the cheapest. The Metrocable was traditionally built to connect people that lived in the favelas(shanty towns) to the rest of the city. Using the metro system in Colombia is cheap and it costs 1750COP/$.60 and this includes transfers between lines and metrocables.

Once at Acevedo Station you must then transfer to Line K which will take you up the mountain.

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Waiting to get onto the Metrocable!

As you ride up from Acevedo station you are looking out at the city lodged deep in the valley as well as some of the lower income neighbourhoods that are serviced by the Metrocable. These areas weren’t as bad as some of the favellas in Brazil or other countries. It is always interesting to see how people live when travelling. Sometimes if you stick to larger cities and are in the typical tourist areas you end up meeting more tourists than locals. This gave a really good example of how regular people live in the city.

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The view from the Metrocable looks across some of the poorer hillside neighbourhoods of the city all the way down into the valley.

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The first section of Line K will first take you up to Santo Domingo station. It is half way up the mountain and is named after the neighbourhood it is local to. This area has seen a revitalization and is safer than it looks however not many tourists come here often so try to blend in.

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Santo Domingo. There is really no reason to leave the station to walk around in this area and it’s best viewed from the station despite being safer than it used to be.

After reaching Santo Domingo station you continue on the Line L which continues further up the mountain and over a large forested area that leads to Parque Arvi or Bird Park. This extra distance costs an additional 2500COP/$.90 and is well worth the extra money. This covers all of your return travel back down the mountain and down to Acevedo station and beyond.

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Rising up above Santa Domingo the Metrocable continues onward to Parque Arvi over a densely forested area of the Colombian Western Mountain Range.

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Riding the Metrocable further offered great views of the natural forest that used to cover the whole metropolitan area of Medellin.

Riding the Metrocable was an excellent value and a grat way to view the city from above. It was also a great vantage point for photos. If you are a really serious photographer you will want to try and get a newer cable car that has clearer glass, with less scuffs and scratches on it.

This is one of the cheapest and most rewarding activities in Medellin. It was a highlight to my time in this wonderful city and gave me a good feel for some of the other areas of the city I wouldn’t have had the chance to see.

Where to eat…

While in Medellin I had excellent food throughout my stay there. With all the fresh produce and food available locally it’s hard to find a bad meal. There are lots of very economical restaurants in El Candelaria district as well as lots of street food.

The main street food here was chorizo sausages, kebabs and cheese arepa.

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No shortage of chorizo in Medellin and you could buy it off the street for well under 3000COP/$1.

There was also a lot of fast food restaurants that mostly served fried chicken or grilled meat with boiled potatos which is what you will find as a side with most meals in the city. A fast food meal is under 9000COP/$3

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Fried chicken and potatoes! When you have potatos this good who needs fries!

Like most of Colombia there is no shortage of freshly baked cakes, pastries etc. and anyone who is into baked good or has a sweet tooth is in the right country.

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Cakes for sale were a common sight throughout the busier areas of the city! 

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Cake, cupcakes and other sweet treats on display. They all looked good! Colombians take their desserts seriously!

Patria Mia

This is a Colombian open pit bbq restaurant where I ate twice while in the city. It is in El Poblado right across from the one of the best locations in the best food and bar district in the city. Parque Lleras is located right across from Patra Mia which is the most prime location in all of El Poblado.

Here they have a picture of a cow with all the different cuts of meat listed. They specialize in beef but other meats are also available.

The first time I ate here I got the churrasco beef which was a good sized cut served with new potatoes and salad. This costed 26000COP/$9 and was delicious.

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Churrasco beef!

The second time I ate here I got the beef kebab which was served with new potatoes and arepa. This was also very good and well priced at 17000COP/$6.

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Beef kebab!

Prado 61

While in Medellin I started each day with a breakfast from the restaurant at Prado 61 guesthouse where I stayed. It was the same each day and they served fried or scrambled eggs with sausage and pancakes. This was one of the better complimentary breakfasts I’ve had in South America and I really appreciated it. They also served fresh squeezed juice and of course, amazing Colombian coffee!

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One of the complimentary breakfasts I enjoyed one morning. All breakfasts were a la carte which was appreciated.

With the breakfast exceeding my expectations I decided to try the food for supper one night. I ordered the grilled beef tenderloin which came with mashed potato and salad. The beef was grilled and then finished with a brown sauce with mushrooms. This was a great choice and I was really enjoyed my meal. I would stay at this hotel again and I would also eat at the restaurant again. I highly recommend both.

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Grilled tenderloin, mashed potatoes and salad! Great meal and only 12000COP/$4!

Nightlife…

The only place to go for nightlife is the neighbourhood of El Poblado. Here is where all the restaurants, bars and nightclubs are found. Once in El Poblado the main area to for nightlife is Zona Rosa which surrounds Parque Lleras. It is common to see people having a few casual drinks in the park before hitting the clubs.

It is the safest area in Medellin especially after dark where people can go out into the streets at all hours and not worry about crime. Something that can’t be said for the rest of the city where you have to pay attention to your surroundings quite a bit more after dark.

They also had a bandstand set up when I was there for outdoor music events. I didn’t have much time to sample the nightlife in Medellin but I saw the area come alive early one evening and I regretted not having enough time.

Go to Medellin…

Even though it was hard to beat Cartagena I can easily give Medellin a close second. I would go back here in a heartbeat and stay longer next time. I don’t think any trip to Colombia would be complete without visiting this city.

The lush valley setting, the arts as well as so much to see and do you could easily spend a few weeks here and not get bored. I only scratched the surface of this amazing city over the 3 days I stayed here.

Sure it has a bit of a shady feel to it and does have drug and crime issues but it has improved tremendously over the years since the Pablo Escobar days. I don’t see any reason for anyone to worry about their safety as long as they exercise common sense and don’t act flashy.

Gone on a whim…