Like many major Latin American cities, Medellín has a city tour bus. Fittingly, it’s called the TuriBus (too-ri-bous). For 12,000 pesos, or about US$6, it will ferry you around in sanitized comfort to all the top attractions in the city. A guide will even explain, in Spanish, what everything means. Sound like a good deal? Here’s why you shouldn’t take it.
First, while $6 ain’t much in Gringolandia, in bus fares here it is legalized robbery. Scrimping backpacker and tightwads: there is another option. Second, the Turibus hits every tourist attraction in the city. Every tourist attraction. You miss the local hangouts, the markets, the maricas, the real Medellín mayhem. Off-the-beaten path travelers and cultural connoisseurs: there is another option. Third, though it hits some great highlights, many of them deserve a trip of their own. Cerro Volador, Parque de los Deseos and Cerro Nutibara (with Pueblito Paisa atop) all deserve—and all but require—individual trips for anyone with a little bit of time in the city. Slow-paced travelers: there is another option.
Without further ado: Colombia Report’s Guide to Circular 302 Sur, the bumpy, jolting, all-original, 1,200-peso, US$0.60 joyride. Enjoy.
The easiest place to begin is on Oriental, the city artery named for being located east of the river that roughly divides the surrounding valley. Appreciate the colorful, tiled ‘mountains’ running down the street’s divider. Notice how, as the city intended, the homeless no longer sleep on the median. (Now they’re on the sidewalks…)
On the first curve you’ll pass through an area called by some locals the Cuadro del Machete. But don’t expect big knives. The rather beat-up zone where by night stroll drag queens and transsexuals. You should also spot the brick facade of the Catedral Metropolitana, the largest brick building in South America, to your left. Try to count the 1.2 million bricks as you pass.
On the religious theme, the red brick mall on the left is a former seminary–Bibles being replaced by burgers and books is not uncommon in the city. After a time, you’ll come to the conveniently and clearly labeled Plaza Minorista, the second largest market in the city (the largest? Plaza Mayorista, naturally). Stop and go in for soccer jerseys, computers, avocados, pig carcasses… well, everything.
The bus then passes through the garment district, then the long-haul-truck-repair district (not kidding!) and come to one of Medellín’s greatest contradictions. To your left you’ll see the modernist playground of Plaza Mayor, all clean lines and cool designs. To your right, and joined by a neo-gothic type footbridge, will be Barrio Triste, where paint huffers with popping veins urinate in plain sight. Try to fathom the money spent on one of those buildings would do for the other side of the street. But enjoy the daring architecture too.
Next up is the dated shape of the Plaza de Toros, the concert hall and (if you know any Spanish at all you’ve already guessed it) bull ring.
As you zip past the following super market, you enter a nostalgia zone. First, keep an eye for the brick pillars of a former factory—integrated into the face of a huge mall—which I’m told in it’s glory days ‘manufactured everything’. The bus will next cross Carrera Setenta, party headquarters for nineties mafiosos. Then it’s Zona Rosa, yesteryear’s Poblado, though the shine still hasn’t worn off some stores.
First pitstop: La America. This is the end of the line, so the bus stops, but you don’t have to get off. In fact if you do, you’ll have to shell out another… 60 cents). But you’ll also get to browse through stalls of fruits, plants, crafts and fish. Need a souvenir? Here’s your spot.
Starting up again, you can doze until you reach a roundabout—rompoy or glorieta, if you’re working on your Spanish. It swings the bus south onto a wide road locals call Ochenta. Take no notice of the street signs reading 81. Restaurants, bars, clubs, even a golf course and a cemetery line this expressway.
Next the bus scoots under a pedestrian bridge and the neighborhood and park of Simon Bolívar. Look for a couple of long-haired guys lying in the grass smoking a joint. Another glorieta (a roundabout, remember?), another parquecito (little park) and you’re into a top area for typical food. Yet another rompoy (got it this time?), this one circled by bars. Then you pass Parque del Obrero. Look for long-haired guys practicing Capoeira—stoned.
The building nestling a half circular courtyard that comes up next on your left is the Villa de Aburra. Just a mall, but frequented by adolescents and residents. Then take a short nap, because it will be a while before you reach a huge white medical clinic and library designed by a Japanese architect. Depending on the time of day, the kids on the bus may get off at the next stop. Don’t be fooled by the coils of barbed wire, it’s a co-ed high school not a prison.
McDonalds and Dominos pass on the right, in case you’re a diehard gringo. A slick brick mall slides by next, its parking lots filled with cars pumping bass. Of actual interest is the art house cinema across the street. Check it out.
Ever wanted to feel like you were going to be run over by a plane? Well, then the section of barbed fence looking right Medellín’s mini-airport is your spot. You’ll have plenty of company. If that’s not your thing, than say goodbye to the trees, because now it’s industrial heaven. There’s some cheap clothing, but not much else until the river.
Ever want to shoot some Aguardiente and dance salsa under an overpass? (And I don’t mean by yourself and out of a paper bag.) Well, Medellin specializes in odd fantasies. Under the intersection of six or so freeways you’ll find a handful of salsa clubs. Academic-types can continue to University EAFIT, the priciest in the city. Then it’s Clínica Las Vegas that specializes in plastic surgery, if you’re in the market. Reach out the window here to try to grab a mango from one of trees on the medium.
Then it’s another university for technical courses and Monterrey mall. The latter is an aging relic of the mafias, supposedly hiding bodies in the concrete pillars. Ciuadad del Río rolls past next. At time of writing, it was unfinished, but the plan is to convert a former metal alloy factory into yet another modernist playground, or something. Bancolombia’s skinny but towering new headquarters pass next, looking like sand run by rivulets. If you’re up for a hike, get off near here for Cerro Nutibara, which easily peeks over the nearby buildings.
Suddenly you’re back on Oriental—albeit the section without mountains and hence with huddled bodies—and the joyride is almost over. You’ll pass Parque San Antonio, where a Fernando Botero bird sculpture was blown up during the terrorism of the nineties. It remains there today alongside a fresh copy, in a profound testament to the past. If all these Spanish names have you banging your head, you can enroll at the swish Alianza Francesa, where Spanish and English are taught, as well as French.
If not, you’re done. Hope no one has stolen your wallet!