If there is one word that can be used to describe Medellin, it is simply this: transformation. A city that was once the most dangerous on Earth, with murders numbering at over 6,000 per year, is now a cosmopolitan city with tourists flocking from around the globe. With gorgeous weather, fascinating infrastructure projects, and the kindness of its native “Paisas,” Medellin is a city that is simply worth discovering.
In the mind of many, Medellin is still linked to the name of Pablo Escobar, its most infamous resident. The former drug lord claimed to be the richest man in the world, and the stories of lore are incredible. Rats ate millions of his stored cash, he had animals that could only be found in African safaris, he once offered to pay the Colombian national debt, and somehow even made it into the federal government as a politician.
However, truth be told, Escobar’s name is never mentioned anymore. If anything, it is an embarrassment to local residents. Foreigners who seek out Escobar tours are looked at as odd fools, glorifying a murderous madman. The new show Narcos was not received well either. For one, the main actor was a Brazilian who speaks bad Spanish. Secondly, it reopened the wounds of a chapter that the city and country has tried to move on from for two decades.
With this context, I entered Medellin from another jaunt in Panama City. The airport is actually nowhere near the city, it is 45 minutes away in the municipality of Rionegro. There is a smaller airport near the city, but with far fewer flights. One note, Uber is illegal in Medellin, so the driver parks the car in the parking lot and meets you in the arrivals area of the airport. Interestingly enough, the fare was actually more for Uber than a taxi. On the way, the driver stopped to allow me to take a picture.
This leads into another topic, Colombian currency. One US dollar equals 2869.45 Colombian pesos, so it is quite normal to pay thousands for basically anything. This is quite a shock at first but at some point one learns to make the mathematical adjustment.
My hotel was in the swanky district of El Poblado. Breakfast was had with a stunning landscape. Some of the typical dishes were there such as rice and beans and arepas. Also, there were fresh juices, orange and papaya. However, I was fascinated in seeing the real Medellin, so I walked to the nearest Metro station and made my way.
Medellin has a very good transport system. There are several rail lines and also cable cars called MetroCables, in addition to a very new light rail system. The MetroCables are more of a social experiment, they rise into mountainous slums, similar to Brazilian favelas. The idea behind them was to give the people here access into the city for jobs and education. Now, journeys that previously took an hour or more take a few minutes. The rides provide 360 degree views of the city and are probably the best tourist attraction in the city.
The Metrocable let off in the once notorious Santo Domingo neighborhood. To be frank, I felt perfectly safe here. I also saw some other European tourists here, it seems the authorities want people to visit these destinations to show the turnaround that the city has made. Here, a library was built, but is now undergoing renovation. This was also the strategy of the previous mayor, to build the best projects in the most forgotten areas. I can not think of any other city that has made such graceful gestures. The poor have no voice, and to bequeath them with such gifts is just. One can only hope other cities in the world take note.
From here it was off to the Botanical Garden, which I visit in most cities I visit. Like most botanical gardens, it was mostly locals that were walking. This was once considered a very dangerous area before it was transformed into a garden, another innovative project. Just across the park was an interactive museum called Parque Explorer. It had several interesting exhibits that ate up a few hours. After this, it was back to El Poblado. One of the biggest malls of the country is here, Santa Fe. It has concerts from nationally famous artists and is five stories tall with a large food court as well. I found a store I liked and bought two linen shirts, which are difficult to acquire and/or expensive in the US.
Day two took me to possibly the most interesting urban project I’ve ever seen: a set of urban escalators in the former neighborhood of Escobar, Comuna 13. This was the most dangerous neighborhood in the city at one time, so the local government made it a point to put a project here to show that the people here matter.
Basically there are five escalators that traverse up a mountainside.
This cuts a journey that once took up to half an hour into minutes.
There was a graffiti festival going on at this time, with artists coming from around Latin America. This is the first time I’ve seen such artistic graffiti. The skill it takes to take such pictures is simply astounding.
After this, it was off to another metrocable, this time to the La Aurora neighborhood. I only got off to take a picture here.
From here, it was off to the museum in the center of the city, Museo Antiquo. Just in front of the museum is the local plaza called Plaza Botero, named after the famous Colombian artist. Botero is known for his obese caricatures; it takes time to understand why he did this. He wasn’t simply obsessed with fat drawings, but he saw the art and beauty in them.
After spending a couple of hours here, I went outside and had an interestingly cut mango in the plaza along with some passion fruit juice.
After this, I took a trip on the new light rail system known as Tranvia. It passes through the east side of the city; the Buenos Aires neighborhood tends to be of interest due to its many murals.
This light rail also ends at a metrocable. I took this one as well to complete my full public transport tour.
From here I just decided to go back to the hotel. There was a local village replica called Pueblito Paisa, but from what I read it was more of a tourist trap so I skipped it.
This was essentially the end of my trip. I had another dinner in the Santa Fe mall, this time the local dish known as bandeja paisa: flank steak, pork belly, sausage, rice, beans, and an egg. It was good but I think the trout I had the night before was better.
After this it was off to sleep until my flight back the next morning. If I had one more day I would have gone to a lake two hours away named Guatape. There is always next time.
All in all, the city itself is fascinating not so much for its attractions, but the context behind the recent history of the city and what it has now become. It is an inspiration and shows the power of humanity to overcome. Hell can become heaven, roses can grow out of concrete.