Our fourth day was a Sunday. It was not just any Sunday: it was national election day. Over the previous few days, we had seen the posters with their candidate photographs and ballot numbers dotted around town. We had watched a few times as volunteers had unfurled banners across busy traffic junctions as soon as the lights turned to red.
We had even spoken to some of the canvassers handing out literature, and we had been surprised to find that the people distributing pamphlets were paid workers and had no intention of voting for the person they were apparently working to promote.
The election affected us in two ways; one negative and one positive. Colombian law prohibits the sale of alcohol on election days. It was impossible to buy liquor from 6pm on Saturday until 4am on Monday. The country is not alone in having this kind of legislation, but they certainly took it quite seriously. Supermarkets had tapes across their shelves and all bars were closed.
The good news was that election day also meant that all public transportation in the city was free, at least until 6pm. We decided to make the most of it by riding the metro back to San Antonio, the tram from there up to Oriente, and then perhaps the cable car on from there.
If there was no alcohol, at least there was plenty of coffee. Throughout our stay in Medellín we sampled quite a lot of Colombia’s most famous beverage. Some say that the really good stuff is all exported, but all the coffee we drank was excellent.
Nevertheless, whilst coffee is their favoured hot drink, Colombians don’t consume quite as much of the stuff as most Americans or Europeans; around 2 or 3 cups a day on average.
Medellín’s single tram line stretches east from the metro interchange at San Antonio. The system, opened in 2016, was built by the French Translohr company. It draws power from overhead wires but runs on rubber tyres and is guided by a centre rail.
The rubber-tyred system makes sense because of the elevation. As the trams head east, they climb the 12% grade on Calle 49 – also known as Avenida Ayacucho.
The first tram stop was at San José, just opposite the church that gives it its name. Medellín didn’t seem to be too well endowed with historic churches, this one dating from the 1900s had quite an imposing facade but the white interior, decorated for Lent, was a little underwhelming.
Whilst Roman Catholicism is no longer the official religion, it is still the dominant faith in Colombia. Surveys suggest that around 90% of the population are Christian; we walked past several churches with services in progress on that Sunday and they seemed well attended.
Museo Casa de la Memoria
The second tram stop, Bicentenario, is a short walk from the Museo Casa de la Memoria, the modern museum that tells the incredibly sad story of the urban conflict during the 1980s and 90s.
It was free to enter, and we spent over an hour looking around it. The displays were, in general, incredibly well done. Along one of the walls was a vast electronic touchscreen display. Tapping on the screen revealed more information, statistics or newspaper clippings. It was all astonishingly detailed.
In some ways, perhaps, it was too detailed and there didn’t seem to be a simple overview. It is a small criticism, but it did seem difficult to grasp the chronology of the conflict, especially as a non-Spanish speaker coming in with relatively little prior understanding.
Nevertheless, the way the museum dealt with the scale of the human loss was incredibly moving. One of the rooms was almost completely dark and on its walls were photographs of people that illuminated and then disappeared. They represented a tiny fraction of the 70,000 people who vanished.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of all were the life size video screens that featured (with English subtitles) testimony of both the victims and perpetrators of the violence. A lot of it was harrowing to listen to, but there were also stories of hope; victims who have found it in their hearts to forgive and ex-guerrillas who laid down their weapons to play new positive roles in the community.
Menú del día
Before we jumped on the tram, we went to a look for a restaurant nearby for lunch. We soon found one displaying a sign for “Menú del día” at 13,000 pesos (about £3).
Menú del día was our choice for lunch every day, typically it consisted of a meal of soup, followed by a plate of grilled meat (chicken, beef or pork usually) accompanied by rice, beans, plantain and salad.
A little more extravagant option was bandeja paisa – a plate of fried pork, pork crackling, mince, beans, egg, maize buns and plantain. Not for those with a small appetite.
Colombian food may not have quite the same reputation internationally as Peruvian, but everything we ate was excellent. The soup was particularly tasty. It was often vegetable, but it came in several different versions.
A glass of fresh juice would normally be included in the price. The juice was also delicious and sometimes made from fruits like lulo that were only available locally.
There would always be an arepa with the meal too. These small circles of unleavened bread made from cornmeal are very popular and sold as snacks everywhere.
After our hearty lunch we caught the tram all the way to the terminus at Oriente. The tram intersected with two cable car lines, one at Miraflores and one at Oriente itself.
Before we finally returned by tram to San Antonio, we managed to ride on both cable car lines. Even better, we found a small shop that was willing to break the rules and sell us some beer!