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Flying to Medellín without my passport didn’t seem wise, but we were already at the Bogotá airport and debated whether we should go back to my friend’s apartment to get it.

“The hitch is, if I make it on board, they might not let me back on,” I reasoned.

“Then you’ll be stuck in Medellín forever,” Hugh replied.

I doubted this, so I decided to wing it. Not the best idea, but, really, was it any crazier than going to a city once called the murder capital of Latin America?

It’s been more than ten years since police gunned down Medellín’s most famous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, and though crime has fallen precipitously, the city is still struggling to emerge from the hands of paramilitary groups who control vast stretches of the country.

But Hugh said the city was gorgeous, and as our plane angled down to the Aburrá Valley less than an hour later, I believed him. Below us sprawled lush, green, undulating land that was richer and greener than any countryside I’d seen in more than a decade of traveling. Another 40 minutes by taxi along a curving road that cut between broad-leafed palms on a sloping mountainside and we were in Medellín—Colombia’s third-largest city and the capital of Antioquia, a northwestern state bordered by the Caribbean Sea and cut through the middle by the Andes.

Nestled at 5,000 feet (1,500 meters), the City of Eternal Spring was stunning: domed cathedrals, cobblestone streets and neighborhood gardens bursting with geraniums, carnations, chrysanthemums and roses. The city offered surprises at every turn—from its squeaky clean metro (Colombia’s only subway system) which whizzed past old colonial buildings, to El Tesoro, a luxury mall with trendy retail stores such as Diesel and Sketchers. We rode a cable car 1,300 feet (400 meters) up to the mountaintop neighborhood of Santo Domingo, peering down at rooftops where laundry flapped in the breeze, and drank lattes in the renovated downtown district where corpulent, larger-than-life bronzes of artist Fernando Botero reclined in an outdoor sculpture garden beneath the sunshine.

The best surprise came that night, when we found our way to Parque los Periodistas, an underground club district where recordings of Moby, Shakira and salsa blasted from the open doorways of one tiny, cement-shack bar after another. Latin punk rockers, goth teens with metal piercings and hipsters in plaid pants crowded the streets, along with stunning young women swinging waist-length hair. Drummers and guitarists on the sidewalks vied to be heard, competing with fire-eaters for our attention, while junkies nodded obliviously on the curb. We plunged into the mayhem, entering a nameless club blasting Led Zeppelin. Squeezing past a mass of writhing bodies to reach the bar, we ordered shots of aguardiente, a fiery, clear brew like tequila, and started dancing. I realized then that I did not care if I made it back to Bogotá or not.

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