Medellín ... A City Transformed

Medellín would have to be one of the most inspirational cities we’ve ever visited.  We have been so moved by the history and transformation of this city and its people, that it has left a lasting impression on us ...

Brief Background

Medellín is a huge city of over 4 million people, living in a vast valley between lush mountains of the Antioquia region of Colombia.  Being close to the equator, the average annual temperature is 24°C and locals love to refer to it as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’. 

But 25 years ago Medellín was known as the most dangerous city in the world.  Its people endured decades of conflict and violence at the hands of notorious cocaine king pin, Pablo Escobar, drug cartels and gangs as well as warring government and guerilla forces. 

Escobar was both loved and hated by the people in Medellín, for what charity he donated to the poor communities with one hand, he took away with the lives of many innocent people with the other.  We were told that at the height of the violence, you could pay sicarios (teenage hitmen) to have someone killed for as little as US$30!

The Transformation

In 1993 the Police shot Escobar and they reigned in the competing drug cartels seeking to fill the power vacuum left in his wake.  In some ways it’s ironic that it was Pablo Escobar’s death that helped pave the way for the transformation of the city.  The government built libraries, community centres and public transport infrastructure in an effort to encourage learning, revitalise culture and reconnect people within the city. 

Many proud Paisas (the name for people from the Antioquia region) would rather forget this dark chapter of their history, but it’s through remembering their past and its lessons, that will ensure they are not repeated again.  And while tourists find the story of Pablo Escobar intriguing in a Breaking Bad / Robin Hood kind of way, the city deserves to be celebrated for more than just a notorious criminal.  Rather it should be celebrated for it's wealth of culture and museums, artists and sculptors, panoramic views and green spaces.

There is still poverty, violence and organised crime, but many people have chosen to invest in a more secure and happy future for themselves and are working together to build strong communities where their children are safe. 

These days there is more emphasis placed on education and youth are encouraged to express themselves through music and street art rather than violent crime and drugs.  Nowhere in Medellín was this transformation more evident than when we visited Comuna 13.  

Comuna 13

Comuna 13 is one of the poorest and most dangerous barrios (neighbourhoods) in Medellín.  Its people live in colourful ramshackle houses that scale a steep hill on the fringes of the city and the poverty is palpable. 

Until the government built a series of cable cars and escalators, it used to take 3 hours to reach downtown (now only 20 minutes), making employment impractical and leaving its inhabitants disenfranchised and disconnected from the rest of the city.

To this day Comuna 13 is not a place where travellers or other Paisas for that matter can roam safely, so we joined a walking tour with Walking Tours of Medellín for an incredible insight into the area.  The tour began with a cable car ride to La Aurora where we took in breathtaking panoramas of Medellín from a viewing platform. 

Afterwards we were joined by Kbala, a respected community leader of Comuna 13 and local hip-hop artist.  Kbala took us through the barrio, explaining the symbolism behind the street art and pointed out collaborations with graffiti artists from other countries. 

We rode the escalators to the top of the barrio for more spectacular views and the best mango ice block ever - made with diced ripe mango, green mango, salt, lemon and sugar ... the only thing that would have made it better was a shot of tequila! 

In a quiet moment, Kbala shared with us some personal stories of the violence of the '90’s.  One day the city awoke to find it had been inundated with over 2,000 government soldiers attempting to flush out guerilla forces.  Helicopters swooped overhead firing indiscriminately at people and many innocent lives were lost that day.  We could see how painful the memory still was in Kbala’s eyes  - the wound may have healed, but it still leaves a scar.

The Paisa Spirit

The tragic past and inspiring transformation of Medellín has shaped the Paisa people to be some of the most warm, welcoming, hopeful and resilient people we’ve ever met.  Always optimistic they look on the bright side of life and find enjoyment in the simple things.  They are grateful for what they have and celebrate even the small wins with great enthusiasm.

It’s as though the threat of an uncertain future has helped them focus on what truly matters in life and has made them even happier - so much so that Colombians have been polled as the happiest people on the planet in 2012!  It seems as though we could all learn a lot from the Colombians about how to be happy - no matter what life throws at you. 

So it is with sadness that we leave Medellín, having ourselves been transformed with high hopes for a bright future for the city and its people.

Where We Stayed

Our base in Medellín was Hostal Casa Provenza in the safe tourist area and party zone of El Poblado.  The hostal was located in a quiet street between Zona Rosa and Zona Blanca, two of the most popular places to hang out in Medellín. 

We had a double room with huge bathroom, strong wifi and access to use the kitchen and roof terrace.  The hostal was super clean thanks to Doña Carmen, security was excellent and all the staff were friendly and helpful throughout our stay.  I would highly recommend Hostal Casa Provenza if you are looking for a quiet place to stay, but still in the heart of the action.

Our Favourite Five

These were our favourite five things to do in Medellín:

  1. Free walking tour of Downtown with Real City Tours – Hernan’s explanation of the complex history of Colombia and it’s present challenges was so insightful!
  2. Free walking tour of Minorista Fruit Market, Botero Square and Downtown with Walking Tours Medellín
  3. Comuna 13 walking tour with Walking Tours Medellín
  4. Cable car from Acevedo to Santo Domingo library and onto Park Arvi
  5. People watching in the Zona Rosa party district, El Poblado

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