Biking around Medellin in the footsteps of Pablo Escobar

Biking around Medellin in the footsteps of Pablo Escobar
(Picture: Rupert Parker/Metro.co.uk)

I’m cycling around the centre of Medellin in Colombia, until recently one of the world’s most dangerous cities, with over 6,000 killings recorded in 1991.

During the 80s and 90s, local boy Pablo Escobar, king of the cocaine cartel, ruled with an iron grip and many of the murders were drug related.

He was shot by the police in 1991. Some companies offer Escobar tours, much to the disgust of the locals.

I’m seeing the city’s sights by bike and the only danger is fruit and vegetable merchants who seem happy to plonk their stalls right in front of me.

A sign that Medellin is back on the international stage is that it’s hosting the second edition of Tour Colombia with top cyclists from all over the world competing in its six day event.

El Peñón de Guatapé
El Peñón de Guatapé (Picture: Rupert Parker/Metro.co.uk)

Our very own Chris Froome is here with Team Sky.

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The vertiginous climbs up the sides of the Medellin valley are an ideal rehearsal for the Tour de France. I talk to some of the British competitors who tell me that the rides here are some of the most challenging in the world.

I’m certainly not up to their level but do manage a stretch downhill to the nearby town of Guatapé, about 60 km south of the city. It’s attractively situated by the side of a lake, and the white walls of its traditional houses are covered in brightly painted murals of people and animals.

The star attraction here is the climb up 659 steps to the top of El Peñón de Guatapé, at 2135m. It’s a lot of effort at this altitude but the reward is a stunning view of the fingers of the lake laid out below the distant green mountains.

Back in Medellin, I get on my bike to explore the city further.

House of Memory Museum

the house of memory
The House of Memory is well worth a visit (Picture: Rupert Parker/Metro.co.uk)

I start in the House of Memory Museum, a good place to get an overview of the troubled history of Medellin.

It opened in 2012 in a purpose built space and three floors of photos, videos and voice recordings detail the violence that plagued the city for more than 30 years.

For Colombians it’s a place to grieve, reunite and remember their nightmare. Its purpose is to ensure this never happens again.

Joaquín Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden

Joaquín Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden
Head to the Joaquín Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden for some peaceful greenery (Picture: Rupert Parker/Metro.co.uk)

The Botanical Garden of Medellin, named after Joaquín Antonio Uribe, a Colombian naturalist and writer, covers 14 hectares in the city centre and has over 1,000 species of plants.

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There’s a tropical forest, a lake with wetland area, a desert garden, an Orquideorama containing orchids, carnivorous plants and tree ferns and a palm garden with 120 different species.

New is a butterfly house and the garden’s restaurant serves an excellent lunch.

Plaza Botero

Medellin artist Fernando Botero is famous for his sculptures of large bodies
Medellin artist Fernando Botero is famous for his sculptures of large bodies (Picture: Rupert Parker/Metro.co.uk)

I continue to the urban park in front of Museo de Antioquia that displays 23 bronze sculptures created by the Medellin artist Fernando Botero.

His art is distinguished by his exaggerated body shapes, or ‘fat’ figures, as he calls them. He says that he’s attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why.

Comuna 13

Comuna 13
Once a makeshift shanty town, Comuna 13 is now a spot to stroll through with brightly painted houses (Picture: Rupert Parker/Metro.co.uk)

I ditch my bike and take advantage of the excellent public transport which includes cable cars to get people up to the higher barrios, once makeshift shanty towns.

Comuna 13, rising up the hill from San Javier Metro station, has no cable cars but instead a series of covered escalators, or moving staircases, that provide access to areas that were previously isolated. It was once the most violent neighbourhood in the city but now is completely safe.

It’s been transformed into a giant street art museum with murals and graffiti covering the walls at all levels.

large murals cover the walls
Large murals cover the walls (Picture: Rupert Parker/Metro.co.uk)
large murals on the walls of Comuna 13
(Picture: Rupert Parker/Metro.co.uk)

The houses have also been painted in bright colours to match the murals and it’s best to take a local guide who can explain the history behind the artworks.

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As well as street art, several small galleries and market stalls are dotted along the main pedestrian routes and there are often displays of dancing.

Arví Park

You can reach the park by cable car from Arví metro station
You can reach the park by cable car from Arví metro station (Picture: Rupert Parker/Metro.co.uk)

Perched high above the northeast of the city, Arví Park is an eco-nature reserve where city dwellers go for hiking, biking and horse riding.

You can reach it by cable car from Arví metro station and there’s a market selling street food as you step out of your gondola.

The park covers 16,000 hectares, 1,760 of which are natural forest and there are 54 miles of walkable trails.

Nearby is the little town of Santa Elena where flowers are grown for the annual Medellin Flower Festival.

Where to stay in Medellin and how to get there:

The City Express Plus Hotel in Poblado is a good base for visiting the city.

Piedras Blancas Ecological Hotel is handy for Arví Park and has its own private nature reserve.

Medellin Travel has information about the city.

Avianca flies direct daily from London Heathrow to Bogota and has connecting flights to Medellin.

TravelLocal (0117 325 7898 offers a 9 day trip to northern Colombia, including cycling in the Guatapé region, trekking in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Lost City hiking experience, from £1480pp with flights.

MORE: How to visit Brazil’s Amazon rainforest in an eco-friendly way

MORE: Widow travels the world with a cardboard cutout of her late husband

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