Living in a big city myself, I’ve been consciously avoiding hanging out too long in other cities during my travels, preferring the wide open spaces of mountains, coastline, islands and smaller, more intimate places. But there has been one city I have been increasingly looking forward to visiting. Whenever I have asked other travellers for highlights of their trip to Colombia, there has been a constant refrain: you must go to Medellín.
Famously (and, let’s be honest, pretty spuriously even then) dubbed “the most dangerous city on earth” by Time magazine in March 1988, at the height of Pablo Escobar’s narco-trafficking wars, Medellín has undergone an equally famous transformation in the last 20 years, led by a forward-looking and innovative approach to city development. What I discovered is a city that still displays extremes of wealth and poverty, with skyscrapers and leafy middle class areas in the valley, whilst Comuna shanty towns sprawl up the steep hills all around. But overwhelmingly Medellín inspires as a city creatively looking to the future and using the lessons of its past to create a different kind of future. Here are some of my favourite things about Medellín.
1. Location, location, location
Medellín’s location, surrounded by mountains in every direction, in the Aburrá valley, still at an altitude of 1500m, has earned it the title of the City of Eternal Spring. Daily temperatures sit perfectly and pretty steadily in the mid-20s, just perfect for comfortable strolling around its streets, for sitting in street cafés and parks by day, and bars by night, or for climbing up the hills around. It’s a place that just makes you want to be out and about. Although you’re in a city, look up in any direction and you see dark green forested hillsides and peak. For a massive place of 3 million people, and effectively the industrial capital of the country, with busy highways bisecting the city, it still feels surprisingly rural and airy.
2. The ‘Paisa’ welcome
Wherever you go in Medellín people stop you with a smile to ask where you’re from and welcome you to Colombia and their city. With a cheeky “Hola gringa” there appears a genuine sense of pleasure that tourists are coming in increasing numbers each year to this place, and a pride in what they have to offer. There is a confidence in the solidly ‘Paisa’ identity, which is a cocktail of the many cultures who settled here: from Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Basque people with their spirit of independence, along with indigenous American nations with their sense of ceremony, and the African and Europeans who arrived to service its burgeoning industries. The Paisas are knowing for their self confidence, their smooth talking ways, the ability to drive the hardest bargain in any negotiation and their love of food, including the classic “Bandeja Paisa” an enormous pile of food seriously rivals the great British breakfast for the fat-fried volume of meat, blood pudding, and eggs it contains.
3. The best city walking tour!
If you come to Medellín, make sure to get yourself onto the free walking tour with Real City Tours. Our guide was Camilo, who with huge enthusiasm, acting ability and creativity in using his hat, his rucksack and water bottle as props, didn’t just show us the city’s pretty spots, but the uglier ones too, the underbelly of Medellín life, the human stories in its history, the sense of what it means to be a Paisa and to live here. I’ve done many walking tours over the last few months, and all of them have been informative, many entertaining but this was the first one which brought a genuine lump to my throat, as we stood in the Parque de las Luces, previously a dangerous centre for narco traffickers, the gangs and criminals, now fringed with a massive public library, palm trees and a forest of tall flagpoles which light up at night – the square of crime turned into a square of hope and light. Classic buildings nearby were once run down dens for thieves and gangs – now refurbished and deliberately made the city’s ministry of education. This is how you rehabilitate a city and make it great again.
This renewal of public spaces has been a deliberate strategy of the Alcaldia de Medellín, or city mayor’s office, dubbed democratic architecture. It means taking the good stuff to the people who need it most, creating architectural attractions and services in places that people may otherwise not choose to go. More great examples of this are up in the hillside shanty towns where the local government is building “library parks”, simultaneously improving educational services for those barrios, but also creating incentives for other people to visit these areas, and instilling a new sense of pride in what they have to offer.
5. Metro Medellín
Medellín boasts Colombia’s only metro system, which makes it super easy to move around the city very quickly and safely. It has also brilliantly and excitingly integrated the train Metro up with a number of “metrocables” or cable cars that have transformed the journey up the steep mountainsides into the poorer areas such as Santo Domingo, from where there is now a “mirador” with great views of the city, as well as a library park.
6. The heart of Comuna 13
Travel on the Metro to San Javier station and look up. Sprawling hillsides are the various shanty town barrios that make up Comuna 13. Look more carefully and you will spot an area roughly the shape of a heart where hundreds of houses have been painted in a rainbow of colours.
We were taken through this part of Comuna 13 by local residents Laura, a mother of two, and 18 year old David of new start-up Zippy Tours who told us how the narco traffickers used to use this as a recruiting ground, and how, after Escobar was captured and killed, all hell broke loose as rival cartel gangs fought for control of the area. Nearly every family here has a personal story to tell. Where other barrios have now got metrocables, this area has got a series of 6 orange escalators to whisk you up the steep gradient – it’s transformed access in and out of the higher areas. At every level graffiti symbolically tells stories of the history of this place, a desire for peace and community, and expresses hope for the future. Sometimes haunting, sometimes humorous, but all thought provoking, my favourite is a twist of the classic ‘ascent of man’ cartoon which ends in a defiantly modern street dancing figure doing a handspring. Once defined only by poverty, crime and violence there is a clear sense of renewal led by young people going on here.
We end the tour with David teaching us the basics of salsa, merengue, salsa-choque and champeta, the last a uniquely Colombian fusion of styles including one step that looks ominously like gangnam-style!
7. Botero’s birds of peace
I loved how Medellin-born Fernando Botero plays with a sense of proportion in his enormous bronze sculpture which now adorn the square outside the Museum of Antioquia. At first the human ones remind you a bit of a Beryl Cooke painting with their corpulent figures, but then you realise these people are not just fat, but different attributes are being playfully emphasised and diminished. It’s like a homage to the body positive movement. They are further ‘enhanced’ by years of people touching and stroking their favourite parts, no prizes for guessing which now gleam most brassily golden.
But of all of them, the birds of peace in San Antonio plaza touched me most as the perfect fusion of art and political statement. The original bird sculpture was blown up on 10 June 1995 when a bomb placed inside it detonated during a music concert, killing 23 people. When authorities wanted to remove the wreckage, Botero intervened and requested it remain there as a “homage to stupidity” and memorial to those who lost their lives. He offered instead to make a companion bird to stand alongside it as a symbol of hope and resilience. The two birds side by side, one such a twisted damage mess, the other so perfect and shiny smooth, seem to sum up Medellin perfectly.
8. Fanatical football – the greens and the reds
Colombians love their football and Medellín just happens to have the two best football teams in the Colombian top league this year: Atlético Nacional and Deportivo Independiente Medellín. And it just so happened that a local derby match was on whilst I was there. Normally I’d have supported the home team, but as both were local, I made a deeply scientific analysis and chose the team whose shirt I liked best (Medellín being sponsored by Pepsi put them out of the running) and donned the green colours of Nacional for the game. Both teams play at the same stadium, but this was technically DIM’s home game, giving them three quarters of the seats in a stadium packed with banners, trumpets, fans jumping, singing and chanting. Nacional fans meanwhile made up for their smaller numbers with a cacophony of exuberant noise from start to end, with plenty to cheer about as we dominated the first half and went a goal ahead. The second half the turned into a cracking end-to-end battle with a further six goals including two penalties, and home advantage eventually playing to Medellin’s favour to win 4-3. The fans kept unfurling banners of ever greater magnitude, one of them almost the entire depth of the stand, and the noise never abated for a minute – a cracking match and amazing atmosphere. We lost the game, but “my team” Nacional is still 7 points ahead of Medellín at the time of writing!
9. Not just Narcos
For fans of Narcos, Medellín offers a number of Pablo Escobar tours and experiences, including the opportunity to go on a paintballing shoot out in one of his old estates. I had mixed feelings about all of this … all the more so when Camilo during our walking tour never referred to Escobar by name but only talked of ‘the famous man’ in case people walking by overheard him and misunderstood him to be glorifying a family who held this city in a state of terror for two decades. When you think about it all in its bigger context, this is a city that was founded over 400 years ago, in an area which has a significant pre-Columbian history, which was built through its agriculture and coffee industry, the coal mining industry and railways for hundreds of years before the narcos dominated it. There’s no doubt that narcos, who funded both the paramilitaries and the left wing guerrillas during the civil war, have left a huge scar on the city.
A visit to the Casa de la Memoria, or museum of memory was a pretty sobering testament to the thousands of victims of abductions, killings, rape and torture inflicted by the various factions and the drug lords, and the pain still felt by their families, by indigenous communities, women and young people. But my experience was that people really didn’t want to talk much about Escobar, except as a damaging chapter in history, and even less do they want Medellín to be defined now only by him or the narcos. Medellín today has so much more to offer. They want us all to move on. The Pablo Escobar tours therefore didn’t see a single peso from me.
10. A short hop to Guatapé
OK, so my last favourite thing is not in Medellín itself but a trip you can take if you go there. The embalse de Guatapé is a massive reservoir that was created in the late 1970s, along with a big hydro-electric dam, overlooked by a huge batholith known as La Piedra de Peñol, from which you get magnificent views of all the lake, islets and inlets, if you can make it up all 649 steps to the top!
The town of Guatapé itself has become a riot of colour as a project to renovate the outside of houses with bright paint, colourful tiles and bas-relief carved scenes (known as Zócalos) of local life in lower panels of the walls, often depicting images relevant to the family or business occupying that building. Even the mototaxis were all painted up here, as were the many boats waiting on Guatapé’s lake shore to take you on trips around the reservoir. We had a great day out here, and I could easily have stayed a night or two more.
As always, there’s much more to Medellín and it’s surroundings than could ever adequately be covered in one blog:
– You can do yoga in the Jardín Botanico on a Sunday morning (and see huge land iguanas)
– Or have fun experimenting in the Parque Explora just opposite.
– Or take the second metro cable from Santo Domingo over the tree tops to Parque Arví, where there are guided walks and trails.
– Or you can climb Cerro Nutibara for great 360 views of the city from a small version of a traditional Paisa village square, and visit the small but interesting Museum of the City there.
– Then there’s the night life, from the hundreds of restaurants, bars and clubs surrounding the Zona Rosa in El Poblado where my hostel was, or the night I spent down in the southern suburb of Sabaneta, drinking beer and aguardiente and eating popcorn, as a street performer mimicked all the gaits and gestures of the people walking by.
In Medellín, they definitely know how to have a good time, and if you ever make it there, I bet you would too!