Medellin: My Three Amigos In Gringolandia

In February 2016 K went back to Australia for a couple weeks to see her folks. It was bollock-cold freezing in New York and I was jealous that she was thawing out in the West Australian sun. I’d recently started working remotely and had the beautiful realization that there was nothing stopping me from taking a trip myself.

Before she left K mentioned that Medellin, Colombia was becoming a hotspot for digital nomads. She called it the “Thailand of South America”. I knew that Medellin was old mate Escobar’s hometown but apart from that I didn’t know shit. So I did some Googling. The place looked warm, tourist-friendly and cheap as fuck. I was sold.

The flight was straightforward, just a single connection in Atlanta. It was dusk as my plane descended into Medellin. The landscape looked incredible; rolling green mountains for days.

I stepped out of the airport and my nervous system rejoiced. The sun had gone down but the air remained at an idyllic t-shirt and shorts temperature, the opposite of the brutal winter I was enduring in Brooklyn.

I went to the taxi rank and quickly realized that having zero Spanish at my disposal was going to be problematic. I didn’t even know numbers; the driver had to use the calculator on my iPhone to show me how much my ride would cost. I did the exchange in my head. The price was fair so I got in the cab.

After snaking through the countryside for a while, Medellin revealed itself. The sprawling city is situated in the middle of the Aburrá Valley, and it was lit up like a Christmas tree. We slanted down the mountain towards the middle of the bowl. There were a million breathtaking vantage points, but there was something slightly frustrating about the experience. The city was too vast, and it was seemingly impossible to take in the full picture. 

Originally I was going to get my own 1-bedroom apartment in a super boujee building with a gym and pool. But I realized that if I was by myself I would have limited opportunity to meet other English-speakers. Yet, at the same time, I felt like I was too old to enjoy the hostel experience. 

So I decided to rent a cheap bed in an Airbnb with multiple other bedrooms. As we got closer to my destination, I noticed that the shops and restaurants started becoming newer and more westernized. After 45 minutes we reached my Airbnb which was situated in a neighborhood called Manila, a small part of El Poblado, known to some as “Gringolandia”.

I couldn’t have done a better job picking a place to stay. My room was very basic, but Manila was super hip and had everything I needed. Plus, I quickly made friends with three of my housemates. 

Peter, a softly spoken Mid-Westerner, was lounging in a hammock reading a book when I walked through the door. Peter had made a bunch of money working for a San Francisco start-up a couple years prior and moved to Colombia to escape the rat race. We clicked and shit got deep real quick. Peter cheerfully answered my barrage of questions about Colombia and we riffed ‘til the wee hours. Fortuitously, we both shared a burning hatred for Tim Ferriss and “life-hack” culture in general, and this helped congeal our instantaneous kinship.

The next day I met Liesi from Austria. She had quit her cool music industry job in Vienna, broken up with her long-term boyfriend, and decided to travel all over Central and South America for a year to “find herself”. When I met her she was three months in and had already been to Cuba, Mexico and a few other countries.

And on my third day at the house I met Jason, a good old boy from Guthrie, Oklahoma. He was recently divorced, worked in phone sales, and shared custody of a young daughter with his ex. Jason was really green, in more ways than one. It was only his second time out of the US; the first was a Disney-themed cruise around some Caribbean islands for a family vacation. A wake-and-bake practitioner, Jason selected Colombia for a short solo vacation after learning that finding weed in Medellin was super easy. I really dug the guy, and we had a lot of similar interests, such as the folky musings of Father John Misty and marijuana-piloted YouTube trawling.

By day, I smashed out my work at coffee shops in the Poblado area. I made a point of exploring everywhere on foot, and got a good feel for the neighborhood. My total lack of Spanish was kind of a hindrance, as despite the growing number of tourists, few locals knew any English. But the thing that struck me was how happy and cheerful everyone was. With some sign language and exaggerated act-outs I was always able to get what I needed.

By night, I went out partying with my three new amigos. We drank Aguila and listened to the buskers in Parque Poblado. We enjoyed dinners at Argentinian steakhouses. There was plenty of Aguardiente-fueled dancing at various clubs on Calle 10. And we often found ourselves wandering through Parque Lleras, observing all the dealers, hookers and general craziness. 

But in retrospect all the best moments happened back at the Airbnb. It was a weird throwback to my uni share-house days. We played a lot of drinking games and laughed aggressively at goofy shit. The infamous Trump rally speech where he said “the wall just got 10 feet higher!” happened shortly after I arrived, and I remember guffawing at this repeatedly with the others.

Through Peter I learnt about the three types of gringos in Medellin.

First up, there’s the Party Dudes. They’re generally Australian or American, and come to Colombia exclusively to sniff powder and fuck whores. These type of bros will do some cultural stuff, but only if it resembles something they saw on Narcos.

Then you’ve got the Digital Nomads. The 4-Hour Work Week is their bible and they love saying “time is the most precious resource we’ve got, man”. They’re always looking for places that are super cheap so they can work as little as possible. Other hobbies include yoga, mindfulness and telling you why the rat race is for suckers. Unfortunately for me, I fall into this category, but I like to think I don’t exhibit too many of the aforementioned character traits.

Finally, there’s the crusty old Backpackers. Sometimes stereotypes fit like a glove. At any given moment there are thousands of dreadlocked folks meandering through the South American continent. As you’re likely aware, they run on hippie dancing, vegan smoothies and vague spirituality. 

Out of my three amigos the one I hung out with the most was Liesi. She was trying to tee up a language-share stay with a family who lived just outside of the city, and had a lot of time to kill while she waited for that to get going.

One day me and Liesi took a trip out to Comuna 13, which is an old gang area that’s become muy turistic because of some epic street art and some randomly placed outdoor escalators.

As we wandered through the neighborhood Liesi started to open up. She had decided to bail on her life in Vienna because she felt lost. But after three months on the road she felt more confused than ever. I understood where she was coming from. She was in limbo. I too had tasted the same cocktail; a harsh mix of existential doubt, identity crisis and homesickness.

After we were done with Comuna 13 we got back on the subway and caught the Metrocable, known as The Gondolas of Medellin. These things are perhaps the number one thing for tourists to do in the city. They are essentially massive ski lifts that connect all the poor people who live in the outer barrios with the public transport system. From the Metrocable you can see down into the ramshackle shanty towns that are brimming with life, like that Brazilian flick City of God.

“What do you think I should do?” Liesi asked me as our gondola headed down the mountain, back towards the city.

I laughed and shook my head.

“I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anyone who knows.”

We looked down at Medellin, appreciating its beauty in silence. I thought about my own situation. My life wasn’t perfect, but I was in the honeymoon phase of a new transition, where the future was rosy and bright. It still didn’t seem real. I actually worked for myself remotely. We weren’t making a lot of money but we were getting by. All I needed was a laptop and a wifi connection. I could go anywhere.

A few days later I had my final dinner in Medellin with the crew. We went to a rock and roll burger place around the corner from the Airbnb. It was a Sunday night, and the atmosphere was subdued. I swear you could freeze my body, send me to Mars, wake me up, and I could tell you instantly whether it was a Sunday or not. It’s the only day of the week that can neutralize the air itself.

After dinner we smoked a joint and engaged in some general chit chat at the house. My flight was super early the following morning so I said my goodbyes. I was looking forward to going back to New York and seeing K. But the moment was bittersweet. The bonds you make whilst traveling are real and deep. But the fun was all because it was made up. If I hung around it would evaporate. I hugged each of my new friends and said adios.

The cab picked me up from the Airbnb at 4am the following morning. The teenage driver was obviously coked up. Reggaeton blasted out the stereo as we sped towards the airport.

I looked out my window, down at Medellin just as it was just waking up. I had enjoyed my ten days and wondered if I’d ever be back. With my tired eyes I tried to capture the entire skyline, but the perfect picture evaded my gaze once again.