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A little slice of Kiwi in the former murder-capital of the world

Casa Kiwi in Medellin  was opened when very few tourists were game enough to visit the city. Photo / supplied

Medellin once had the highest murder rate in the world. Today, it’s one of the most innovative, forward-thinking destinations in South America and a popular place for adventure travellers.

Back in the 80s and 90s, Medellin, for visitors at least, was a no-go zone. Unless you were a foreign correspondent, Medellin would have been off-limits to most due to the insane drug wars that almost destroyed the country. It was home to the Medellin Cartel, funded by Pablo Escobar and the battles between the cartels earned the city the reputation of being the most dangerous in the world. In 1991 the city had a murder rate of 381 per 100,000 inhabitants - putting it 40 times higher than the UN marker of “epidemic” rate of 10 per 100,000. After the death of Escobar in 1993 crime rates in the city started to decrease.

Now, Medellin and Colombia are becoming new mainstays for visitors and expats alike. Medellin, the second-largest city in Colombia, was voted the Urban Land Institutes most innovative city in 2013. It's a city of contrasts with its bustling valley-city shape surrounded by its lush green forest.

In the popular Poblado area of the city is a piece of Kiwi. Paul Thoreson owns Casa Kiwi Hostel, and admits the decision to open a backpackers in Colombia was a bit of a risk at the time.

Paul Thoreson collecting palm fronds for the roof of one of his cabins at Casa Kiwi. Photo / supplied

How long have you lived in Colombia?

I was born in Seattle, USA. My mom is from Thames, New Zealand and my dad is from the USA. They met in Vancouver, Canada, and then moved to Seattle. We travelled a lot to New Zealand when I was growing up, and I have fond memories of exploring the creeks and beaches of the coast north of Thames. I left home in 1996 to attend the University of Colorado, Boulder, and I’ve been living in Colombia since 2004. 

What first attracted you to live in Medellin, Colombia? 

It wasn’t at all planned. I was traveling the length of the Americas by motorcycle, from Alaska to Argentina, and Colombia was on the way. I met a really nice family a few hours north of Medellin, also on motorcycles, and they invited me to stay with them at their house in the city. That was my first introduction to the very friendly and outgoing nature of the people from Colombia. When we drove into Medellin, I was struck by the beautiful location of the city in a very green mountain valley. Also, since the city is almost on the equator, and at 1,600 metres elevation, it has a really nice climate throughout the year. So with all that going for it, I decided to stay in the city for a while, and then one thing led to another and I ended up buying a house and turning it into a backpacker hostel. That was long before there was much tourism of any kind in Colombia. 

Tell us a little bit about your hostel Casa Kiwi? 

I bought a big house in 2005 and turned it into Casa Kiwi Hostel. The original idea was that I would have a nice place to live, and at the same time open the house up to travellers. Back then there weren’t any other hostels in the Poblado neighbourhood where we’re located. Actually, there was only one other hostel in the whole city. Now there are more than 100 hostels in Medellin. The investment was a little risky at the time, not knowing what the future held for Colombia, but it was a risk that really paid off in the end. My hope was that the worst-case scenario would be selling the house 5 or 10 years later for a profit. But the business did well and eventually, tourism started increasing, so I stuck with it.

Paul says he didn't have a long-term vision for Casa Kiwi, he just wanted to create a "communal space for travellers". Photo / supplied

Were you not worried about the high crime rate that has tainted the city's name? In the 80's and 90's it was one of the most violent cities in the world?

Exactly, in the 80s and 90s, it was a very violent place, but that was a long time ago. The violence in the city was mainly due to Pablo Escobar and his cartel. After his death in 1993, the Cali cartel took over for a while, but in 1995 their leaders were captured. That ended the full control top-to-bottom cartel model that Escobar had set up and the Cali cartel had also implemented. After that everything got pretty fractioned, with different groups trying to fill the vacuum that the cartels had left. Eventually, different guerrilla groups, like the FARC, and the paramilitary groups took over most of the drug trade. In 2002 the Colombian government started a heavy handed campaign against the guerrillas and had made some progress increasing security by 2004 when I arrived, which is what enticed me to travel to Colombia. I had heard on the road from other travellers who had been in Colombia recently that it was much safer, but came with the warning to not venture far off the main highways, and never travel at night. The military was still closing off sections of the highways at night where the FARC had been known to set up their famous roadblocks where they would stop buses and rob and kidnap passengers, and set fire to commercial trucks or steal their merchandise.

When I arrived, the violence had just started to cool down a bit, especially in the cities. There was still some violence in the countryside, but mainly deeper in the jungles and mountainous terrain. 

Are there any 'dark tourist' stories you can tell us since you moved to Medellin?

Medellin has come a long way since the 90s and has had quite the turn around from when it was labelled the murder capital of the world. However foreigners do need to realize that there are still mafia groups operating, so it’s best to avoid getting involved with drugs or prostitution because you never know who you’re going to be dealing with, not to mention that these practices directly harm the people and culture of Colombia.

How have Colombia’s past problems affected you and your stay?

Gracias a Dios/Thanks to God, as they say in Colombia, I haven’t personally seen or been directly affected by any violence in any way during my 14 years living in Colombia. There is still violence in Medellin, and that’s pretty normal in most big Latin American cities and a city around the world, but it’s mainly in certain neighbourhoods that you wouldn’t have any reason to go to. In fact, you would have to purposefully go out of your way to go there. In other words, there isn’t any reason the average tourist would be affected unless they get involved in illegal activities, or due to bad luck.

What is it like owning a business in Colombia?

My process with owning Casa Kiwi was a very organic experience. I didn’t have a business plan or any real long-term vision of what I wanted it to be, other than to create a communal space for travellers. Nor did I have any entrepreneurial experience. Everything occurred in a micro way, focusing on every little step that occurred at the moment, and going with the flow as it were. 

The Colombian government has implemented a lot of bureaucratic controls of businesses while I’ve had Casa Kiwi, meaning more work for us to get up to speed with the new requirements. Fortunately, it was a slow process over a few years so I’ve had time to adjust.

Many more travellers are visiting Medellin, why do you think that is?

Colombia has become much safer over the years. Since many people considered it off limits before, now that it’s safe to visit and have opened up to tourism, people feel drawn to a place that used to be prohibited. I think Colombia has a certain mystique to it, like a forbidden, hidden treasure. It is also a country with an abundance of natural beauty, including Pacific and Caribbean coasts, Andean mountains, Amazon jungle, and deserts. The Colombian people are also very warm and open to foreigners. As more people visit Colombia and go home and tell their friends and family what a great time they had, I believe that word of mouth praise has the biggest influence on the rising number of people visiting the country each year.

What is your favourite bit about the city?

I personally love the great year-round weather. And the city’s situation in a mountain valley, so there are always views of the green hillsides. I also just really love the few blocks right around the hostel, with the creeks flowing down through the hills, and all the little cafes and bars and restaurants. 

Is it easy for a digital nomad or a business owner to start a life in Colombia, based on your experience?

There have been a lot of co-working spaces popping up around Medellin over the past few years, so there is quite a community developing around that lifestyle. Also, most living expenses are a fraction of what they are in more developed nations, so your savings go farther. 

Are there any comparisons between Colombia and New Zealand you can think of?

My mom who grew up in NZ has said that the rolling hills east of Medellin up by the international airport remind her a bit of areas outside of Thames where her family is from. I think both countries share a more laid back attitude compared to the US or some European countries.