July 18 - August 23, 2014
Ah, Medellín. One of the few places in the world that I could see myself living there. I have grown so attached to this beautifully modern city that it resonates with me today, beckoning me to return. I cannot explain what makes this place so special to me without doing it a disservice. It could be Medellín’s beautiful location wedged between mountains or the eternal spring-like temperature, consistently hovering in the 70’s the entire year. Maybe it is the city’s drive for innovation that benefits the more than 2.4 million inhabitants.
I worked at the Buddha Hostel in Medellín for just over a month. Over that time, I met many people from all over the world that I remain in contact with today. I shared a room full of bunks with 10 other people and worked the night shift, checking in other travelers and making reservations. Located in the quiet neighborhood of Laureles, the hostel was a short walk to the metro, the only urban train system in the country designed for mass transportation. Many of the attractions were within walking distance with roadside cart venders selling fresh fruit juice along the way.
Medellín is one of Latin America’s most progressive and innovative cities with a fantastic art scene and a vibrant energy. Unlike Bogotá, Medellín has a reputation for individualism, separating themselves from the overpopulated, dreary capital city. Consisting of 16 comunas or sectors, it is Colombia’s second largest city behind Bogotá and is the industrial powerhouse of the country. Medellín had very similar origins to San Francisco, attracting settlers with the prospect of panning gold. In response to rapid growth, Medellín was founded in 1675 as many of those families settled in the region. Ever since then, the people from Antioquia were known as “paisas”. The people are warm and inviting to foreigners, reassuring them that Medellín has shed its darker self since Pablo Escobar’s reign. When foreigners travel there, they realize that Medellín has transcended its cocaine image into a proud, innovative city.
PABLO ESCOBAR AND THE MEDELLIN CARTEL
Medellín has not always been the most inviting city as it is today. Watching the Netflix series “Narcos” gives a sense of how dangerous this city was under Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel. Responsible for more than 4,000 murders including over 30 judges and 657 police officers, his legacy has left a difficult stain on the perception of Colombia. His atrocities branded Medellín in the 1990’s as the most dangerous city in the world, the capital of murder and violence.
Pablo Escobar began his empire of cocaine-trafficking in the 1980's. At its prime, the Medellín Cartel controlled 80 percent of the world’s cocaine trade. In fact, his empire was so powerful and lucrative that his organization profited 30 billion a year, making Pablo Escobar the 7th richest man in the world in 1989. The notorious drug lord had a reputation for offering “plata o plomo” (silver or lead) to those who refused his demands. He would bribe or execute any judge or political leader blocking his way. He personally owned over 19 residences in Medellín each filled with his own luxuries. Pablo Escobar was a master at manipulating public opinion. Known as the “paisa Robin Hood”, Escobar raised money toward public service projects, building roads, soccer stadiums, and housing complexes. He was seen as an idol to the poor.
His empire was exposed when Pablo Escobar was voted into Congress, bringing his public life under the national spotlight. President Virgilio Barco decided to interfere in the late 1980's. In response, Escobar lead the attack against the State, setting off car bombs to intimidate those who opposed him. Bounties were issued on police officers and cash rewards were given for every successful assassination. His war on the government left many casualties and bystanders caught in the crossfires. By 1991, Medellín peaked at a homicide rate of 435 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
In 1993, Escobar was killed in a middle-class neighborhood in Medellín while fleeing authorities. His death brought no relief to Medellín as a new wave of turmoil ensued between other organizations trying to gain traction. The fragmented cartel left vacancy for a new leader and subsequently, Medellín was in disarray. Guerrilla movements waged war on the paramilitaries, gaining support from poorer comunas of Medellín. By the early 2000's, violence decreased significantly after Operación Orion, which contained many of the poor comunas at a cost of hundreds of lives.
Pablo Escobar had a lasting influence in Medellín after his death. Many people, especially the poor that benefited from his contributions, mourned his death. The Pablo Escobar Tour invites tourists to explore his home where he was fatally shot. Besides being ridiculously expensive, many Colombians advise not to glorify the terrorist even in death by visiting this attraction.
As the violence subsided, Medellín was deeply segregating and the government decided to act during this time of peace. Few foreigners would ever consider visiting Medellín and many neighborhoods were still too dangerous for residents to lead fulfilling lives. Sergio Fajardo, who surprisingly obtained his Ph.D. from UW-Madison in 1984, became the mayor of Medellín in 2003 and pressed forward a series of development projects known as “social urbanism” in order to integrate the comunas. The expansion of the metro was a symbol of transformation, tackling the issues of inequality, violence, and corruption. According to Fajardo’s philosophy, “the most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas”. Now each neighborhood has its own distinct identity.
Medellin worked alongside the private sector and invested heavily in public works in order to improve the infrastructure of poorer comunas. Museums, libraries and a new cable car transportation system opened up the community to equal opportunities. Today, Medellín is safer than cities such as Washington D.C., New Orleans, and Milwaukee. Its rapid results caught the attention of foreign investors and international organizations as a model of excellent urban planning. Medellín won the “Green Prize” from Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2013 as well as “Most Innovative City of the Year” in 2012 from the Wall Street Journal and Citi. It is today one of the safest and most prosperous regions in Colombia.
Over 20,000 people a day depend on the metro for reliable transportation. The construction of the metro cost nearly 1.6 billion dollars, but to the people of Medellín, it is a symbol of revitalization and a sense of pride. Paisas embraced this iconic achievement which spreads 16 miles east to west and 4 miles north to south. I can say with confidence that the metro reduces the commute time from an hour in a taxi to under 10 minutes by train. The people of Medellín respect the metro so much that it is super clean with no signs of wear or trash anywhere. Integrated into the metro is a free cable car system that transport people that live in the poorer, steeper comunas to and from the center. Zigzagging up the neighborhoods that hug the hillsides provides stunning views of the city and street life below. Besides being on a tourist’s itinerary, the cable car removes the barriers that once segregated neighborhoods by integrating even the poorest paisas to the rest of the community. It is the first city in the world to use a metro cable as public transit and provides a greater sense of community and standard of living.
The last string of cable cars extends beyond the highest comunas, leading to the mountainous wilderness known as Parque Arví. Spanning 40,000 acres, Parque Arví is a nature reserve used as an escape from the bustling city traffic. Thick forests of pine and eucalyptus trees hold many hiking paths for recreation. I visited the park multiple times during my stay. The first time I visited Parque Arví, I went with a group from our hostel. We soon found out that on Sunday, part of the cable cars are closed off. All 5 of us crammed into a taxi which took 30 minutes to reach the top. However, by the time we got up there, we were told that the cable car system stopped at a specific time and we were worried we wouldn’t be able to come down. It made me appreciate the lines even more, for that taxi ride was rough and expensive.
The best attraction one could do in Medellín is the Free Walking Tour. The tour was incredibly informative, describing in great detail the history of the city as well as the major attractions. After over four hours, I could feel myself adjusting to the city and as cheesy as it sounds, I felt like I belong here with an overwhelming sense of pride for a city I just met. For those of you that have watched an episode of Portlandia, my tour guide was an obvious doppelganger with not only his appearance but also his mannerisms. He showed us Parque de las Luces, an artificial forest of concrete posts jutting from the ground. Over 300 posts illuminate at night and is an example of public spaces being transformed to benefit citizens. It quite literally shone a spotlight on a dangerous area and pushed crime away.
Medellín is a city full of parks and plazas within walking distance from the center. Vendors and shop attendants with the greeting “a la orden” meaning “at your service” fill the streets selling everything you could ever imagine. We saw Iglesia de la Candelaria, the oldest church in Medellin constructed in 1682. Our guide told us that Catholicism and religion in general was seen as a way for Colombians to wipe their hands clean from their wrongdoings. He said even drug lords would attend church after their horrible atrocities to be renewed and essentially continue to commit more crimes.
The short distance from the church opened up to the Plazoleta de las Esculturas, a park with some 23 voluptuous sculptures donated by Fernando Botero. Native to Medellín, he has received international recognition for his large, disproportionate representations of people and animals. Museo de Antioquia towers over the park, adorning a permanent collection of his works as well as other Colombian artists spanning almost 4 centuries. It is one of the top art museums in the country and Botero personally has over 100 pieces on display. On the opposite end is Palacio de La Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe, a strange Gothic building with black and grey patchworks on the southeastern corner of Botero Park. It was designed by Belgian architect Agustin Goovaerts between 1929 and 1937. According to the tour guide, the building looks unfinished because the architect abandoned the project amid criticisms that the building was "grotesque". Feeling unappreciated for his work, Goovaerts left them the blueprints to finish the construction themselves. The blueprints were too complicated and instead the remaining architects decided to cement the remaining production. The once government office is now an art gallery with rotating artists. Nearby, an artist without hands was drawing portraits in roughly ten minutes with his feet. A huge crowd surrounded by the subject and I decided to get my own done.
Over the next few weeks I spent time exploring other places outside the city tour. I visited the Jardin Botanico de Medellín, a tropical city park with over 5,500 species of trees and plants and serves as a popular hangout spot for students. A small pond is located in the middle where I saw an iguana bathing in the sun. Across the street is Parque Explora, home to one of the largest aquariums in Latin America and an interactive museum with over 300 scientific puzzles and games. I had a chance to see many species of marine animals native to Colombia.
Pueblito Paisa is a small replica of a traditional Antioquian village located on top of Cerro de Nutibara, one of the only hilltops protruding the flat valley. It is a rather cliqué tourist attraction with people dressed in traditional costumes, but there is a beautiful vantage point of the city and a small museum with photography exhibits. Pueblito Paisa offers a variety of souvenirs and hosts many events in the main plaza.
Everywhere you go, shopping malls display female mannequins with exaggerated breasts. Medellín has a reputation for beautiful women. At least that is what anyone everyone talked about when I mentioned I was visiting the city. “Medellín? Oh, the women are so beautiful”. Plastic surgery is inexpensive and widely accepted in Medellin which is viewed quite differently than the United States.
Poblado is a very prosperous comuna, filled with arguably the city’s best restaurants, bars, and hostels. It is a popular destination for foreigners who like dance clubs with authentic salsa and pub crawling. The drink of choice in Medellín is Aguardiente, a liquor derived from sugar cane with a taste similar to black licorice. Although I personally despise black licorice, Aguardiente is rather smooth and in fact, I miss it dearly. Along the way, I visited Museo El Castillo, a former landowner’s home from the 1930's with beautiful furniture and a small collection of porcelain and international artwork.
Feria de Los Flores
Every year, Medellín hosts a very important festival to commemorate its colorful identity. I was extremely fortunate to be around during the week-long celebration of Paisa culture. Feria de Las Flores or The Flower Festival begins during the month of August, attracting people from all over the world. This unique event is so popular that the hostel I worked in doubled the rates for the week. There is nothing like this anywhere in the world. Medellin celebrates its proud heritage with brightly colored flowers grown in the countryside. On the first day of Feria de Las Flores, my good friend Duvan and I went to the center and found gigantic flowered animals. There were a variety of different animals represented such as the iguana, leopard, armadillo, frog and dragonfly for public display. Free flowers in every imaginable color were available to the public by the truck load. The celebration features a variety of events such as an antique car parade. On one day, a few guys from the hostel and I rode the cable cars to Arvi Park to visit Santa Elena, a tiny town with a reputation for supplying most of the flowers for the festival. It was a festival full of dancing and day drinking, but the best part was catching the bus down the mountain and taking in the scenery.
Throughout the week, there were free concerts at night and the atmosphere was very joyous. The grand finale concludes the week with a flower float parade known as Desfile de Silleteros that lasted roughly 4 hours with performances and dancers. Over 400 campesinos from Anitoquia come to Medellín to display their floats made of flowers, carrying them using wooden “chairs” mounted on their back. The event represents the end of slavery, demonstrating how slaves had to transport men and women on their backs up steep hills. Unfortunately, it was especially hot during the day and both young and old campesinos walked for miles. For them though, it is a sense of honor and pride in their art and tradition.
Truth is I have been putting off this article for quite a while. I love this city and I was trying to justify my impressions in a single article. It was one of the best experiences I had during my trip. I visited every attraction the city had to offer. I was fortunate to share it with my wonderful friends Duvan, Pacho, Juny and Monika. We were a small family at Buddha Hostel.
I spent my last day on top of Pueblito Paisa, watching families spend the afternoon flying hundreds of kites over the city. I reflected for a long time about my departure until it grew dark and it was time to go back to the hostel. I took pictures of the night landscape with millions of tiny lights settled under a massive cloud. On August 23rd, I was all packed for my flight to Lima, Peru. We had a group picture taken together with the staff. We all said our farewells and the weather fit the mood: gloomy and cold. Duvan took me to the bus station that led to the airport on top of the mountain. Medellín is a beautifully ambitious city that has shaken off its drug reputation and is making quite a comeback. Take a trip to Medellín. You will realize immediately how progressive, innovative, and beautiful Medellín is compared to many of the cities in the United States. A few words of advice: Don’t slam doors of taxis. Taxi drivers are very sensitive about their car doors.
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