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Bienvenidos a Medellín – ‘Bangkok light’. So ran the title of one of my earliest Google blog entries. I wrote it after spending a month in Colombia’s second city where I worked in the Greek-owned Arcadia hostel in the “gringo infested” Poblado neighbourhood, a somewhat exclusive party zone.
I’d grown frustrated at seeing the many ladies of the night in the area strutting their stuff, subtly as most did albeit. In that way, the Bangkok comparison may have been overstating it a bit — I did use ‘light’ all the same. The prostitution was more discreet but it was prostitution nonetheless. (Indeed, it could have been even subtler.)
As a rather innocent country boy from the west of Ireland, it tainted my otherwise largely positive impression of Medellín, a city that has much more than just sex tourism going for it.
It would be wide of the mark to say it was because of this I had no desire to return there. It was more down to the fact that I live in bustling Bogotá, so when it has come to escaping its ‘madness’ I’ve opted for much smaller places to unwind.
Thus, a stronger reason than ‘just because’ was always needed to bring me back. That reason came in the form of a semi-business-related trip, flights paid for. OK, it was to the airport based in Rionegro, a city about a 40-minute drive from Medellín.
Yet it’s the airport that caters for most Medellín-bound passengers, so when I knew I’d be landing there the idea of a brief reacquaintance after almost eight years with the Antioquia department capital was always on the cards.
“Unlike the Poblado prostitutes, these ones were not one bit discreet.”
Incidentally, I did spend one night in Rionegro as it was there I had my business meeting. It seems a pleasant enough place with a well-kept main square, if a little pricey for the staples (read ‘tienda beers’ in this instance; at 25,000 pesos for a quite decent hotel room, accommodation was reasonably priced, though).
With just over 24 hours in Medellín, to keep things simple plus a curiosity to see what my old employer’s hostel was like after all these years, I decided to spend my one night in the aforementioned Arcadia.
As the bus from Rionegro dropped me close to the city centre, I took the opportunity to have a wander around there first before heading further south to Poblado. Get a feel for Medellín’s ‘raw’ side — well, rawer compared to the leafy middle-class vibe around the hostel.
It was certainly lively in any case. There seemed a lot more going on than you’d normally get in Bogotá’s historic centre. A big tourist attraction is the many Botero statues in the eponymous plaza.
Noisy public works aside, Plaza Botero was hiving with foreigners. Great for Medellín tourism.
The thing is, a good number of those foreigners were young ladies from neighbouring Venezuela. And they weren’t there to get photos taken next to the large, naked Botero works. Well, unless those statues were willing to pay them that is, if you get me.
I’m sure the many beautiful women offering their services there would much prefer it if that were the case, rather than having to get ‘down and dirty’ with what often resemble real-life versions of Botero’s oversized male sculptures. Needs must and all that, however.
In contrast to the subtle, nighttime manoeuvres of the Poblado prostitutes, in Plaza Botero they were anything but that. A fair-haired (what’s left of it, that is) man walking alone, think of a moths-to-light scenario. “There’s plenty of money in them there pockets”, or whatever the equivalent expression is in Venezuelan Spanish.
That prostitution is happening in Medellín, sad for those who feel forced into doing it all the same, is not the issue here. It’s the fact that it’s so blatant in a very popular part of a city that prides itself on being one of the most progressive in Latin America.
Perhaps my visit this time coincided with a particularly promiscuous Friday afternoon on the not-so-free-love scene. However, with the hotels nearby readily set up for the trade, it would seem it’s standard practice these days.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong or illegal with it. I’m guessing, though, it’s an image the city’s tourism board doesn’t want to portray. It’s fair to say many visitors would find those much-maligned Pablo Escobar tours far less uncomfortable.