If you, like everyone else on the gringo trail, have been watching Narcos, it might be hard to reconcile the city of Medellin you meet today with its turbulent and bloody past. Well, nothing was exaggerated for the sake of drama, if anything the reality was much worse. But the key word is WAS, and the better you come to understand this, the greater admiration you will have for the Paisas, and for a city that can show you so many examples of transformation.

You don’t have to look very far – the city just bursting with proud Paisas, waiting to tell you their story.

Casa de Memoria

I started out with a trip to the Casa de Memoria, a dimly lit space that meticulously details Medellin’s history and the suffering of the Paisas under the combined terrors of the narcos, the guerrillas and paramilitaries and corrupt and toothless government. The footage of survivors relating their stories of loss and suffering (subtitled in English) really bring home the fact that no one was immune. The violence touched everyone.

Real City Tour

A few days later I signed up for one of the excellent Real Medellin Free Walking Tours. Most people in the hostel did one at some stage, and everyone agreed it was a great investment of time and money (yes, it’s free, but the guides work for tips). The guides are articulate and passionate, full of knowledge about Medellin’s past and present, and give you a great introduction, and a warm welcome to the city.

Graffiti Tour in Comuna 13

While on that tour, I heard about the Graffiti Tour of Communa 13. I had done a graffiti tour in Bogota, but this was something different; it’s not just about the art, but about how a community can transform. Communa 13 was one of the most dangerous areas in one of the most dangerous cities on the planet – now the community activists that run this tour want to show you how a community can change, and the role that art – hip hop, street art and dance – can play in that transformation. It’s the story you hear over and over again in Medellin. Things have changed. Things are changing. Things will change. It’s exciting and mind blowing, because the Medellin of today seems so very far removed from all these stories of violence, fear, blood and despair. In Medellin today, backpackers like you and I can stroll safely through ultra trendy Zona Rosa, seeking out vegetarian food, great coffee and browsing local designers. We can zip up to the Centro and around town on the clean and efficient metro to visit an art gallery, strike a friendly bargain at a street market, or celebrate with the crowd at a soccer game, all with a perfect sense of security. Don’t get me wrong, like anywhere, you need to be aware and keep yourself safe (no dar papaya!), but you can also relax, explore and enjoy what this city has to offer. I highly recommend you try to talk to some locals about the city – whether it’s by taking one of the excellent walking tours, or just bailing up your waiter for a few minutes – you’ll get invaluable insider tips on where to go and what to do. If you let it, I think Medellin will surprise you, charm you and educate you about just how strong and resilient a place, and its people, can be.