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Medellin – Building a New Bridge

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Given recent events, I feel like it’s time to build a bridge. I don’t mean a bridge to get across the Medellin River, I mean a cultural bridge. A bridge between 2 cultures that are more alike than they are different, Paisa and Western culture.

Pride and Prejudice

A large portion of the issue comes from cultural pride, and the prejudices that come from it. Ego is a dangerous thing, it’s what makes me think I have a chance with that woman who is out of my league, but it’s also that thing that makes me take a chance to ask her out to coffee. But when the ego is combined with ignorance, that’s when things take a turn. Right now, this epitomizes the situation with foreigners in Medellin. The thing which is ratcheting up the pressure even more is that it’s coming from both sides. 

When I first arrived here in 2015, the residents were all so welcoming and curious, especially when I told them how much I loved their city, the people, the culture, the weather, the nature, etc. I didn’t speak Spanish well, but the Paisa people welcomed me nonetheless. The fact that a foreigner chose to live in their city was a source of pride to them. That feeling of welcomeness never really changed until recently. After Colombia reopened post-pandemic, there was a palpable shift of the tourists that came here. There have always been the party crews coming here, but the responsible tourists were replaced by a group of tourists with the intention of trolling for sex, drugs and parties.

The dangers of Sexual Tourism

With the advent of the “Digital Nomad” visa type, the amount of foreign residents skyrocketed after 2021. With this came an influx of not only foreign residents, but also the tax revenue along with it. This was one of the last wins of the Duque administration. The people who are choosing to call Medellin home on this and the retiree visa are generally speaking, more responsible people, because the mental shift is to one of civic pride, meaning they call Medellin their home. The tourists that are coming here don’t have the same feeling. They tend to view the city as a playground. 

There was a slogan from the 90s for Las Vegas, “What happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.” and there is a feeling that Medellin is the same. The main issue is that here there are many cultural differences, and a language barrier to contend with. Many don’t think what happens here can follow them home, but legally and morally that couldn’t be further from the truth. Another misconception here is the genesis of the negative sentiment against foreign tourists, the age of consent laws in Colombia. I’ll cover those later. This along with the irresponsible actions they take while here are part of the negative view against foreigners.

Where the danger comes in is when the people here start to view all foreigners as predators. This is the point in the cycle where we are approaching. The OVERWHELMING majority of people here on long term visas are extremely productive members of society. But the problem is that people don’t know who is who, especially the police. The majority of foreign residents don’t enjoy going to La 70, Parque Lleras or Provenza. It’s an uneasy feeling to be there, and personally, 75% of the time I am stopped and searched by the police. When they see that I have a Cedula and a Colombian bank card, they let me go on my way. It’s not bad but it gets tedious. 

An open letter to the foreigners

I am imploring you as the foreigners and the potential tourists coming here to keep this in mind as you make your way through the city. You are a visitor here, you are not only a representation of yourself as you are in everyday life, you are representing your whole country in the eyes of people who have never been there. Those of us who live here have to deal with the repercussions of your actions, once you board your plane in Rionegro and fly home. If you want to come here and party, do so! But if your version of fun is to exploit the people and culture here, please stay home. Medellin has reached its quota of these people. 

If you are coming here to feel like a baller for a weekend, please stay home. The news is littered with people who’s ego has gotten them into dangerous situations, places they have no business being, dealing with dangerous people who don’t care if they live or die. If you come here and don’t heed the warnings that we have put out, as well as many other outlets, your life may be in danger for just existing as you do at home. There is a very famous Paisa phrase – “No Dar Papaya”. This in context means don’t stand out to make yourself a target. It feels like victim shaming, but it’s just part of the culture here. Every Paisa person knows if you attract attention, eventually the wrong attention will find you. Should people get robbed for chains/watches/phones/etc here? Absolutely not, but if you know this is a reality here and want to do it anyhow to flex, please stay home. 

I’m speaking directly to the men here; If you come here with the mindset that you are going to be the hunter, do yourself a favor and don’t even book your flight here. From the moment you get off the plane, you are the hunted. The hunt begins with the touts at the airport and the simple phrase “Taxi Medellin?”, you are not the hunter, no matter what your ego tells you. If you plan to come here and this thought is in your head, please stay home. 

If you think that you are better than Paisa people just because you have more money than them and you are owed whatever experience you want because of this. Definitely stay home. People here are not supporting actors, and you are not the main character of life just because of what your passport has on the front of it. There is truly more to Colombia than girls, partying, cocaine and Pablo Escobar. If you’re not open minded enough to leave your ego at the door and come here to respectfully enjoy the culture, the city and the country, please stay home.

If you are coming here to truly learn the culture, or find a way to improve the city, welcome. I am going to speak for the foreigners who have chosen to make Medellin our home, those of you who come here for the above activities and with those behaviors are making the rest of us look bad. We are trying to participate in the revitalization and growth of this beautiful country and this amazing city, and leave the world a better place than we found it. We all want the sex tourists to find another place to try and exploit. Medellin has reached its limit. 

An open letter to the Paisa people

When I came here, part of why I loved it here so much was how warm and welcoming the people were. Not just my friends here, not just my colleagues here, but everyone was friendly and curious as to why I chose to move here. I implore you to not let the bad actors take this very Paisa trait away from you. This would be a tragedy for the irresponsible actions of some bad actors to take away that friendliness that is such an integral part of Paisa culture. I implore you to see every foreigner here as a product of their actions, not a stereotype of their skin color or the name on the front of their passport. I know this is difficult, but this is a slippery slope which ends with prejudice and racism. Neither is productive to an evolving society. 

Are there bad foreigners? Absolutely! Are we all bad, not even close. Many foreigners feel like they are merely ATM machines to Colombians, and to some extent some Paisa feel this way. Is this how all Paisa feel? Not at all. This is where the danger of stereotypes come into play. If I am asking the foreigners to respect the city and the culture, I’m going to ask that people here stand up to financial manipulation of the tourists. Tourism is roughly 10% of the GDP of the city, and there is enough pie for everyone at the table to eat. Excusing violence against visitors spirals into a lawless society, which is not at all what we want. This is part of what attracts the terrible tourists to coming here. 

If you want to stop this from happening, expect more from your elected officials. Like it or not, the actions that are being taken by the mayor’s office right now are a reaction to the lawlessness that got out of control in the post-pandemic days here. Ask for your leaders to make changes to policies against the industries promoting bad tourism – the sexual marketplace and changing the laws with regards to how AirBnb is allowed to operate in the city. This will end the ease of which visiting predators can exploit the people sexually, and reforming AirBnb in the city will help to ease skyrocketing property costs in the city. This is what the Fico administration is working on doing. 

Bridging the gap

I have a unique perspective on this, because in 8 years here, I’ve learned how Paisa culture operates. I’ve learned how to navigate it and have not had too many pitfalls along the way. During this time, I have always kept in mind that no matter how long I live here, I’m a visitor. It doesn’t matter that I own an apartment here, I pay taxes, I have friends and family living here, if I am no longer welcome here either through my own actions or a change in cultural sentiment, my time is up, and I must move on. 

To this point the Paisa people have been spectacular at making me feel welcome, especially when I speak to them in Spanish and pay reverence to their culture, and show gratitude for their warm welcome. If you as a tourist want to be given the same respect, you must first show respect. I’ve worked very hard to learn Spanish and work on speaking it well, and if you’re coming here for a weekend, nobody expects you to carry deep conversations in, but at least learn the basics. This will show that you respect the people and the culture. As for the Paisa people, please don’t let a few bad apples, and loud trolls on the internet ruin your warmth. 

We can learn alot from each other, if we are open minded and respectful to each other. I’d love to hear from you, comment below, or you can email me at [email protected] my door is always welcome to everyone. 

2 Responses

  1. “Dar papaya” is not a paisa expression, it is a nationwide way of saying that you are risking too much.

    1. Yeah, I wanted to keep it local, but it is very very Colombian. Some travelers see this is victim shaming, but I’ve been here so long that I see it as a warning.


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