Blending In Like A Paisa

Botero Plaza
Botero Plaza in downtown Medellin
Botero Plaza in downtown Medellin.

Thank goodness for my dark hair and light skin. That combination served me well during my last trip to South America.

It has been more than two months since I spent five days in Medellín and the most popular question I have been asked is: “Was it safe there?”

Yes. It’s like any big city in America. If you use common sense, you’ll have a great time with no problems. And for someone like me, who has similar traits to many paísas — dark hair and light skin — I felt as comfortable there as in any big city I have ever been to.

I followed some advice from guidebooks and websites that I browsed: men in Medellín do not wear shorts. Ever. Unless they are working out, it’s always pants.

Those books and sites also suggested learning some basic Spanish. I’m already proficient so all I had to do was review my language books to refresh my memory.

And I was cautious when pulling out money to pay for things, and when using my camera or phone. I didn’t wear a watch or any jewelry either, not that I ever do.

I did veer from one bit of advice: tourists should refrain from going downtown at night alone. My hotel was near Parque Lleras, arguably the most popular nightlife area of the city. But not on Wednesdays. It was my first night in town and I wanted to have fun.

Two people had already asked me for directions that day, so I was feeling confident. I took a cab downtown. Not much was happening there either but I always felt safe. A homeless guy asked me for money, but so what? That happens to me every time I walk to the Metro near my apartment in Washington, DC.

My comfort level rose even more the next day when I met a guy from Cali who lives in New York and was in Medellin on business for the medical industry. I told him I went downtown against the advice of the guidebooks and he told me, “Unless you do something really stupid, you won’t have any trouble blending in here. You look enough like them.”

Paísas I became friends with didn’t feel as strongly as he did. But they seemed to agree that I would have no problems while I was there.

I had quite a dark tan in high school, all those days at the beach growing up in Hawaii. My color faded after moving away and not spending a lot of time in the sun. I remember lamenting my mom’s English, Irish and Scottish genes, how they stole my tan and have kept it away. I don’t complain anymore.

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  1. while I think much of the information on this site is pretty good, and worthwhile, i have to make a comment about articles like this….

    this is almost humorously bad. i don’t mean the writing was particularly bad but essentially, the article boils down to a few things about ‘blending in’ in medellin when you’re not from there. 1) look like them. (usually a good start when you want to fit in someplace) 2) speak spanish. (holy shit, they speak spanish in colombia?) 3) don’t be a gringo asshole and disrespect their city/act stupid. (now that’s some serious life coaching right there)

    let’s turn this article on it’s head. you’re very clearly not colombian, wearing typical american clothes, and speak spanish poorly. go ahead, go downtown at night. i mean, should you dye your hair super dark brown and go tanning for a few weeks before you go? what if you’re wearing, oh no, SHORTS! oh fuck, not shorts in medellin. they warn you about that when you get your visa stamped, i think – don’t they?

    look, i don’t want to pick on the writer too much, but quite frankly, I’ve been reading a lot of half-assed articles about travel in Medellin from people that, honestly, don’t seem to know the city worth a damn. if you want to see the other side of medellin, go to moravia. go to manrique. take the metrocable and get off half way up the mountain and see how the neighborhoods are there.

    medellin isn’t just poblado, it isn’t laureles, or parque lleras, or even going to botero plaza (which is scouted by thieves constantly). there is much more to it, and it is awesome – i just wish someone would actually write something that is not kitchy bullshit about how there aren’t gangs of assassins roaming the streets like it’s Mogadishu.

    • Appreciate the feedback. I take this as more of a criticism toward my editorial decisions (in terms of the articles I publish) versus Ryan’s desire to share his experience and perspective.

      Some of the guest articles I publish are indeed superficial because they are from people visiting the city for the first time. So yeah, you’re getting first impressions, versus someone who has been living here awhile and had a chance to go further afoot than the places you mentioned.

      Ryan has plans to return to the city in a few months to spend more time here, so hopefully between him and a few other expats who want to contribute, we can dig a bit deeper.

  2. Agreed. I live in Los Angeles and no its not all about gangs and movie stars here. There is so much to do on a day to day basis that gangs and movie stars are the furthest things from my mind. I actually avoid Hollywood Blvd and all the tourist stops as much as I avoid gang areas.

    Hopefully this blog doesnt start taking a turn for the worst.

    • Hey Trey, your feedback is appreciated, and I’ll do my best to make sure the quality on Medellin Living only continues to improve. Thanks

  3. Medellin, this beautiful city with an amazing future ,is the sum of all its parts; Laureles, Santo Domingo, Castilla, Poblado, Belen, San Javier, Estadio, Buenas Aires, Centro etc etc. This variety makes it enchanting and the climate so delicious that finally I can wear my shorts all year round and no one ever gives me a second look especially with my white irish skin and blue eyes! My Irish blood helps me blend in and understand Colombia, as in many ways our cultures are quite similar.

      • Hello Dave,

        So are they saying a dark skinned or moreno american would have trouble in Medellin? Because it is out of the norm there. I completely understand after living in Brazil for three years, my moreno skin tone was a blessing. So, is it a bad idea to travel to Medellin being moreno?