Story and photos by Michelle Ardiel, Global Recruiter & Community Manager
Have you ever felt the need to pick up your life and shake it out a bit? To lift up the rock and see what’s underneath? I decided this was the year I was ready to strip off my day-to-day routine and go skinny-dipping in the unknown.
I’m a single mom with two busy teenage boys who works full-time outside the home. With close family, friends and a great job, I have a generally fulfilling life, albeit one that feels like a crazy juggling act at times (hello 21st-century living); however, is it all too easy to fall into a staid pattern week after week, and I felt I’d fallen hard. I was more than ready to stop hitting the snooze button and inject a little more life into my life, so I threw my laptop and camera in a carry-on, left my cozy home in Victoria, Canada and went off to live in South America for 30 days.
City view of Medellín from a mountainside trail.
My role as Flytographer’s Global Recruiter is happily one I can do anywhere I have access to good wifi, so getting the go-ahead from work was the easy part. The tough part was leaving my kids behind. A month would be the longest we had ever been away from each other, but as they are now at an age where it seems I need them more than they need me, I knew they would be fine. The pressing issue was arranging for them to move house and stay with their dad while I was gone. This required a fair degree of scheduling, confirming and note-creating on my part before I left, but once that was organized, coupled with my immunizations and flight bookings, I was ready to make my break.
Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture in Plaza Botero (and a local man politely ignoring me while I take a photo).
Fernando Botero is one of Colombia’s most famous artists, known for his roundly-figured sculptures and paintings. He donated over 100 of pieces of work to his hometown of Medellín, on display in this public square and in the Museum of Antioquia (seen in background on left).
Thanks to one of our photographers, I was introduced to a company called Unsettled, which offers 30-day co-working retreats in locations around the world. As soon as I dug into their website, I was smitten; they state they are “a community for those who embrace uncertainty and value meaningful human connections, who believe that feeling a little bit ‘unsettled’ is a positive impulse for change, innovation, and discovery.” I didn’t need to be asked twice – this was exactly what I was seeking. With Unsettled, you choose from a short list of cities based on month offered, have an online interview to make sure it’s a fit for both of you, and then pack your bags to join your group, made up of about 15-25 other people from around the world. My city of choice was Medellín, Colombia. It was somewhere I’d never been, on a completely new continent for me, with a language I barely spoke. If I was going to shake it up, I was going all in! Barely a few days after I rang in 2018, I was on a plane headed south.
I felt so fortunate to look out at this every day from my balcony in Poblado.
As I just mentioned, I had never been to South America before and my Spanish was so basic as to be non-existent; regardless, from the second my plane touched down, it felt like home. Medellín is stunning: the city is nestled in the Aburrá Valley, surrounded by lush green mountains, with warm-hued skyscrapers and rooftops sprawled across the landscape. Its beauty as I drove down the hill from the airport left a lasting first impression. My cab driver spoke little English, but was eager to teach me useful Spanish words and point out landmarks along the way – an early introduction into the overwhelming pride I discovered most Medellínenses (more commonly known as paisas) feel about their homeland. (Tip: to pronounce the name of the city like a paisa, turn the double “L” into a “J” sound – “Medi – jean.”)
Casa de la Memoria, a museum dedicated to remembering the victims of the city’s violent past. An exhibit in the excellent Medellīn Museum of Modern Art (MAMM).
Pause for a little background: Medellín is the capital of Antioquia, the coffee region set in the Andean mountain range, and the second biggest city in the country after Bogotá. It’s known as the “City of Eternal Spring,” due to a cheerful year-round temperature of around 24C (although I witnessed more than one crazy thunderstorm blow through the city, but the sun was never gone for too long). Most people hear “Medellín” and think immediately of Pablo Escobar and cocaine (associations made even more prevalent thanks to Netflix’s popular show “Narcos”), or that it was named the most dangerous place in the world not that long ago (I can’t tell you how many times I heard this little nugget when I told people where I was going), but the city is doing an incredible job of pushing beyond its violent past. It has re-branded itself as a safe, tech-friendly hub with a vibrant art and food scene, friendly locals, and real civic pride. It is the only city in Colombia to have a metro system, and the cars and stations are gleaming; unlike other metros around the world, you won’t find graffiti on the walls or garbage lying around. The citizens are very proud of their efficient public transportation system, and many say Medellín’s revitalization is owed in large part to its existence.
View of Jardín, a pueblo about a 3-hour drive from Medellín.
Colourful tables and chairs in the main square of Jardín. La Garrucha, possibly the scariest cable car ride in existence. Up to 6 people fit in a little crate suspended on two thin wires, which runs you over a deep valley to the town. Say a quick prayer before climbing aboard!
Learning about the coffee business and hunting down the red fruit (or “coffee cherries”).
So, back to my taking some time off from reality …
One of the best parts of being outside my normal life was the lack of obligation. I didn’t have to be home at a certain time to cook dinner, or run the kids to soccer practice, or even get dressed to go to work. (I spent more than a few mornings working in my pajamas on the balcony of my flat – I had excellent wifi at home and a killer city view surrounded by tropical birdsong, so why wouldn’t I?) For 30 days, I was able to make decisions just for me, to say “yes” if I wanted to do something or “no” if I didn’t, and not have to plan socializing around the family schedule. A revelation! Did I want to go straight from the office to dinner and drinks with friends? (Yes.) Did I want to go to the clubs and dance until 4 am? (Yes.) Did I want to jet off to Cartagena for a quick weekend away? (Oh, yessss!) This was such a freeing experience, and the first time I had this opportunity in almost two decades of motherhood. We all have obligations in life, to family and friends and coworkers, but for me, the joy in the temporary suspension of such cannot be overstated. As parents, we love our kids to bits and would do anything for them … but we all need a little break just for ourselves now and again, am I right? (Again, yes – but you already knew that answer.)
My lovely Colombian amiga Laura relaxing in a hammock at the finca in Jardín. A little Sunday drive through the Andes.
I haven’t really travelled solo since my uni days, which is to say, too long ago, and in doing so this time, I happily re-discovered the freedom from expectation it grants you. You don’t have any former relationships to anyone and can just be who you are, not who people expect you to be. If you want to jump around like a total nut on the dance floor, you can (and I did) – who’s going to judge? And what’s more, if they do, who cares? We often box our friends and family and even ourselves into roles; I felt that in this month away, I was able to show up more authentically. Of course, I didn’t turn into a completely different person in Medellín, but starting fresh with new people means you can really relax into who you are, released from any preconceived constructs, and that’s a nice feeling. (And by the way, I’m holding on to that “who cares?” attitude whenever I’m presented with any dance floor anywhere from now on. I realized I’ve wasted far too many dancing opportunities over the years feeling self-conscious and propping up the wall. If you happen to run into me in some club around the world, I’ll be the uncoordinated Canadian dancing very poorly but filled with joy.)
The sunsets in Cartagena are legendary.
Travelling solo is made even sweeter when you have incredible people around the world waiting to welcome you to their hometown! As Flytographer’s Global Recruiter, I’m lucky to get to know so many amazing photographers as we go through the rigorous process of inviting them to join our team. As a happy side effect, when I travel, I have friends almost everywhere, and Colombia was no exception. I was thrilled to meet up with the fun and generous Juan Felipe, who lives in Bogotá. He was in Medellín just as I arrived and kindly showed me around for two days, and then our schedules lined up again when we both happened to be in Cartagena at the same time, me on that weekend getaway and he on a wedding assignment. He also introduced me to his friends who live in Medellín, with whom I met on other occasions to hang out and tour the area. Sadly, I was unable to meet with Juan A, who lives in Cali, and Juan E, who is also in Bogotá, but it just means when I return, these cities are now on my must-visit list. In addition to Cartagena, I travelled to the charming Antioquian pueblos of Gautapé and Jardín. There is so much to see in this gorgeous country that I barely scratched the surface, and it’s no lie that Colombia stole my heart.
The Clock Tower sits at the main entrance of the wall surrounding the historical core of Cartagena.
Cartagena is full of colourful Spanish colonial buildings, many with gorgeous bougainvillea dripping off balconies. I met Juan Felipe in Cartagena and joined him on a little photo tour as he captured city footage for a wedding.
My desire to kick off 2018 with fresh perspective and new inspiration was the main draw for temporarily moving to a new city. Exploring an unknown destination is the perfect antidote to boredom. Most mornings, I walked from my flat to the co-working office to put in my work day, and I would try to take a slightly different route each time. Medellín is full of colour, with vibrant street art and a lush spectrum of green on the surrounding trees and plants. Nothing inspires me like rich hues and energetic design, and discovering new murals around every corner was like opening a little gift every day. (One of the best places to get your fill is in Comuna 13, once the most dangerous neighbourhood in the city, and now an area where you can take a tour with a local guide to see the beautiful public art that tells stories of the community’s turbulent past.)
Inspiration also came by way of the workshops that I attended through my Unsettled group. Several of us offered our expertise in various subjects throughout the month, and the resulting discussions were both interesting and profound. Being with a fresh group of people from a diversity of backgrounds who offered up different ways of thinking was enriching. It also reinforced that no matter where we live or what we do, we all share similar core issues and concerns. The stories that spring from human experience are endlessly fascinating.
Looking out over the hills from Comuna 13. Six escalators scaling 384 meters run the hills in Comuna 13, a once dangerous and inaccessible area run primarily by drug traffickers and guerillas. It’s an innovative urban project that has helped open the neighbourhood to new people and fresh ideas, and allowed tourism and enterprise to grow.
Stairs or slide? You can bet which most people choose! (There is a small plaque here noting that the slide was built in honour of a young child who was caught in gang crossfire several years ago; from sorrow blooms a memorial that now brings countless children – and adults – joy.)
Local kids hanging out on one of the lookout balconies in Comuna 13.
When you travel, your memory bank will quickly fill up, but in the end, it’s often the people that you remember the most: the connections you’ve made and the friendships you’ve built. Kind, funny, smart, ambitious, fun, warm-hearted people are everywhere, and I’m so grateful I met exactly this on my adventure. I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be leaving the Unsettled group and my Medellín friends after the month was over, but it would not be exaggerating to say I had a little post-retreat depression. Suddenly, the people with whom you spent every day going out for dinner and drinks, dancing the night away at bars, chatting on hikes and tours and day trips are gone, as though it were all a dream. We stay in touch over chat channels, of course, but it’s never the same as having a laugh together in person. I would say this is the hardest part of travelling solo – you have no one at home to relive memories with on a daily basis. Despite the sadness of parting, however, it is comforting to learn that no matter where we go in life, the phrase “strangers are just friends you haven’t yet met” is a happy truism. It just requires that we get out of our comfort zone now and again to make that magic happen.
Locals in the main square of Gautapé.
So what is my biggest takeaway from my month in Medellín? I was reminded that there’s no reward if there’s no risk. If you never ask, the answer will always be “no,” so don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there and increase your odds of a getting a “yes.” It would have been easy to stay in my day-to-day routine as the New Year approached, but instead, I chose to ask for significant time away from the office, I chose to leave my kids with their dad for a month, I chose to spend time and money on myself (and as all parents will know, this is not where time and money usually goes). I bestowed upon myself a big pile of “yes” and my reward came in the form of incredible experiences and connections, and the taste of a city and country that I cannot wait to get back to.
And who knows? Maybe by the time the holidays start sneaking up at the end of this year, I’ll decide another shake-down is in order for 2019 … and I’ll be off to continue saying “yes” to new adventure.
Beep beep! Waiting for my motochiva driver in Gautapé.
Ready to take your own life break and experience Medellín (or another amazing city) for yourself? Unsettled will set you up with a comfortable flat in a great neighbourhood, secure a desk at a co-working office for you, organize assorted optional activities and field trips, and provide you with an amazing group of ready-made friends from around the world who are also on the retreat. If you’d rather go it on your own, it’s easy to track down short-term accommodation and find the right office fit at one of the many co-working spaces offered in the city.
What to Eat, See & Do in Medellín, Colombia
Incredible views of Poblado from The Envy Rooftop at The Charlee Hotel.
Pergamino – My go-to for excellent craft brew and a fun, buzzy atmosphere in a modern café. This family-owned business roasts beans from their own farms and has them on the shelf within 48 hours for the freshest coffee. I crave it now that I’m home, but the good news is they ship to North America.
OCI.Mde – I had my best meal in the city here, and what’s more, the best salmon I think I’ve ever had – and that’s saying something, considering I live on the west coast of Canada! It’s a gorgeous space filled with fashionable people, and as such, it’s busy, so be sure to make a reservation.
Ganso & Castor – Juan Felipe brought me here on my first day, and I made sure I went back again before I left. Perfectly-cooked eggs, fresh local fruit, and good coffee in a chic French-inspired bistro – the best place to come for brunch, no question. There are 3 locations, but I stayed loyal to the one in the Manila neighbourhood.
Cosechas – When I needed something fresh and healthy to go, this smoothie and juice chain did the job. They have a wide variety of fresh fruit to mix and match, and it’s never the wrong answer to add in a little ice cream or yogurt for fun.
This traditional regional meal, called bandeja paisa , is carefully wrapped up in plantain and banana leaves for easy transport into the fields.
Inside: beans, rice, mashed potatoes, fried plantain, egg, arepas, meat (mine is the veggie version so I have chickpea patties instead), and a side of avocado. This meal will keep you fuelled for a full day and beyond!
Ajiacos y Mondongos – This tiny restaurant is only open for lunch and serves just three traditional paisa dishes. It’s packed with locals (so you know it’s good); come early before they run out.
El Zorro y La Gitana – Delicious artisan pizza in a trendy bistro tucked away on an unassuming side street opposite a garage. (I didn’t get here myself, but others raved about Café Zorba, an all-vegetarian pizzeria that often features live music.)
Via Cocina – We had our first Unsettled family dinner at this restaurant/community project in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood. Chef Brian Johnston offers skills training to locals who want to learn culinary techniques but may not otherwise have the opportunity, and funds his project through donations and by offering group dinners like ours.
Cartagena is a must-see destination when visiting Colombia.
Mercado del Rio – The market is actually an upscale food court housed in a former warehouse, with two floors of open seating surrounded by modern eateries. Follow the flight of stairs up from the second floor to discover the rooftop bar.
37 Park – A large pub-style restaurant with outdoor seating on little tree stumps. Situated next to the public outdoor muscle gym and basketball court, it’s a lively place good for people-watching and meeting a group of friends.
Rappi – When you just want a night in, download the Rappi app and get delivery from pretty much anywhere: restaurants, the grocery store, the liquor store … it’s all available through Rappi. Delivery is fast and cheap, but the best part is that your driver sends you texts with updates and a fun selfie showing him picking up your order, and then a GPS map follows his progress with a little motorbike icon so you can see exactly how far away he is. (When I ordered groceries, I would not only get a selfie and greeting from the driver, but also one from the grocery clerk at the store who was shopping for me! It was a nice touch to show the faces of the people on the working end of the app.)
Botanical Gardens – Don’t miss this beautiful stretch of green space in the city, full of thousands of botanical species, including my favourite: orchids. There are many large lizards running around and popping up in the trees for extra excitement. Bonus: it’s free to enter the park.
Museo Casa de la Memoria – A series of displays and artwork commemorating the many lives lost and families affected by the city’s most violent decades. Plan to spend some time here and bring your tissues – I guarantee the images and stories will move you. Free entry.
This intricate architectural structure at the Botanical Gardens , called Orquideorama, filters water and protects the orchids growing below.
Plaza Botero – Come to this busy downtown plaza to see the incredible public sculptures donated by famous artist Fernando Botero. As they are mostly naked brass figures, you will quickly see which parts of the statue people seem compelled to touch. (I’m sure you can use your imagination to figure out which have become the shiniest bits.) This is a great place to people-watch, but be mindful of your wallet and phone/camera here. There are lots of shops and fresh fruit stands around, so enjoy some juicy pineapple rings, salted mango slices or sweet avocado halves while you wander the plaza.
Medellín Museum of Modern Art – Aside from Botero, I must confess I didn’t know much about Colombian modern art, but the MAMM gave me an excellent lesson. Also, as an architecture nerd, I can say the concrete and rusted steel structure housing all the art is in itself worth the trip. I think it’s one of the most interestingly-designed galleries I’ve been to … and I’ve been to quite a lot of them around the world. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Dulce Jesús Mío – I can quite honestly say I’ve never seen anything like this bar, and am unlikely to again. It is full of neon-lit decor meant to resemble a traditional town, with eye-popping, brightly-coloured tchotchkes on every square inch of surface, a raucous stage show, and loud Latin music, all of which adds up to a bit of sensory overload. Waiters are dressed in animal and superhero costumes, life-sized cartoon characters await you in the toilets, there’s a lot of flag-waving and group singalong, and everyone’s having the time of their life. (You will too once you get over the craziness of it all.) Words can’t do this place justice – you really have to experience it for yourself.
Climb the 700 stairs of Piedra del Peñol in Guatapé and be rewarded with this stunning view.
Jardín – Lively, colourful and so much fun, Jardín is a pueblo in the heart of the mountains about 3-hours’ drive from Medellín. Our group went to a coffee farm, rode horses, hiked to a waterfall, rode a scary cable car (see the photo of La Garrucha above), and soaked up all the good-spirited energy. The large main square really comes alive at night with festive locals and cowboys showing off their horses.
Gautapé – About an hour’s drive outside of the city, the draw of this town is in its charming brightly-painted zócalos (or friezes) along the bottoms of the houses, depicting natural elements, like animals or flowers, or daily activities, like playing a game of cards or waiting in line at the government office. After exploring the pueblo, it’s mandatory to climb the 700 steps of the large rock called Piedra del Peñol to witness the incredible views. You will be tired and sweaty after your climb, but don’t worry – there’s beer and ice cream waiting at the top.
Pueblito Paisa – If you don’t get the chance to see a real pueblo, like Jardín or Guatapé, then Pueblito Paisa is a decent runner-up. It’s a recreated town on Nutibara Hill in the middle of Medellín. This tourist attraction mimics the layout and architecture of an Antioquian town (sadly without local townspeople, which is really the heart of a place), and the city views from here are worth the trip if nothing else.
Pueblito Paisa is a recreated town at the top of a hill in the middle of Medellín. One of the best features is the 360-degree view of the whole city from the peak.
Plaza Mayorista – A massive market in Itagüí with giant stalls selling pretty much whatever you want to eat – meat, fruit, vegetables, nuts, sweets, plus large-scale grocery stores and restaurants. It’s a great place to discover the incredible variety of Colombian fruits you should definitely be trying.
Via Primavera – My favourite shopping street, full of small fashion boutiques, trendy galleries and delicious food stops (including Pergamino and Café Velvet, another good coffee shop). I might have spent the majority of my pesos in this street.
Cerro Pan de Azúcar – “Sugar Loaf Hill” offers incredible views over the whole city and is accessible via a paved hiking path called Camino De La Vida, which starts in Comuna 8. It’s a popular hike for families and locals, with vendors lining the trail selling fruit and snacks.
View of colourful Comuna 8 from the start of the Camino De La Vida hiking trail.
Parque Lleras – Even if late-night partying isn’t your usual M.O., you can’t miss the scene on weekends in Parque Lleras. Hard-hitting Latin music pumps out from the bars, the streets are filled with happy crowds, and the neon lights are turned on high. Get the night going with a bottle of Aguardiente for your group, and work your way around the square trying out different clubs. If Medellín is somewhat buttoned-up during the day, it really lets its hair down at night.
Ciclovia – On Sunday mornings, the city closes a few main streets from vehicles to encourage people to use the roads for physical activity. Join the crowd to walk, run, cycle, dance … or whatever is your preferred form of exercise. There are food stands and market stalls along the way, adding to the festive feel of the weekly event. It’s also a helpful distraction from your Parque Lleras hangover.
Walking in the streets of Jardín. Beautiful Playa Blanca in Isla Barú is an hour drive outside Cartagena. Don’t forget your sunscreen!
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See more: solo traveller – City Guide – Team Flytographer – Cartagena – Medellín