It is called the “City of Eternal Spring” for it’s consistently pleasant year-round weather.
It is called the “City of Hope” for the the remarkable transformation it has made and continues to make today. Over the course of a decade, it went from the murder capital of the world to one of the most progressive cities in all of South America.
Unlike the other places I have been to in Colombia, it isn’t about what there is to see and do in Medellin but rather, understanding the place and the people who live there that make it such a worthwhile travel destination.
The first thing you must understand is that, wherever you are in Medellin, you probably could not have stood there as little as ten years ago. During the reign of Pablo Escobar, the city was a war zone, torn between radical left and right wing political groups, drug lords and criminals who were all fighting for control. There were international travel advisories issued not to visit and even residents were fleeing for their lives from what was at that time considered the most dangerous city in the world.
You wouldn’t know it today. The transformation that Medellin has made from that period until now is remarkable and has not gone unnoticed. In recent years Medellin is receiving international attention and awards for being an “Innovative City” and an inspiration to other troubled places in South America and beyond. The rest of the world is catching on and tourists and expats are flocking to Colombia’s second biggest city to get a piece of the action.
The Medellin Metro
I’d been hearing about the famous Metro of Medellin since I arrived to Colombia. Even when I was traveling along the coast, whenever Medellin came up, it was inextricably linked with their transportation system. “Medellin has a metro” people from all parts of Colombia would proudly inform me. So what’s all the hype about? Isn’t normal for big cities to have a metro?
Well to begin with, it’s not normal in Colombia. This is the only city in the entire country with a metro. When we speak of Medellin as an “Innovative City”, that is for it’s advanced developments in social progress and infrastructure. The metro and Medellin’s public transformation system embodies both of those things. It has served to connect poor communities that were once isolated and left to suffer under the merciless control of whatever rebel force controlled them. Now thanks to the metro and the impressive, far-reaching cable car system which goes high up into the surrounding hills and is included in the small price of a metro ticket (less than $1) these communities can feel included and have access to their city.
Comuna 13, also known as San Javier, is a prime example of one such a community. Comuna 13 used to be the most dangerous neighborhood in the most dangerous city in the world. It’s position next to the highway made it hot property for narcos and criminals trying to control the drugs, guns and money going in and out of the city. Today it stands out, a beacon of color in an otherwise drab skyline.Now Comuna 13 is connected to Medellin by metro cable car and a series of outdoor escalators (like you would see in a mall). These were built to improve accessibility for the residents of the community but have turned into a major tourist attraction. Now visitors flock to this neighborhood to snap photos of the colorful street art that decorates the houses, part of a social youth project initiated in the community. The government has made big efforts in recent years to remove the degenerates from Comuna 13 and reunite it with the city, and they have paid off, turning Comuna 13 into a symbol of the city’s rebirth.
Real Cities Walking Tour
I began by saying that the value of the Medellin experience lies in understanding the place, the people and the history. That’s why this walking tour on the list of “musts” for Medellin. Over the course of four hours walking around the downtown area you learn from a local guide about the history of the city and the people. The residents of this region of Colombia are called “Paisas”, and having a guide that is local is important to share their personal stories and experience of their plight and their perspective on the city’s change.
“For the Paisa people, it is a miracle that you are here”
Our guide warned us at the start of the tour that for the local people it is still a shock to see outsiders in their city, so it is not uncommon for them to try and listen in, out of curiosity. Indeed, in almost every length of the tour at least one or two Paisas joined us, often asking questions about where we from and what we were doing here. You would think that they would be accustomed to seeing foreigners by now, as tourism in Medellin has been booming for years and these tours go through the center twice daily. Slightly traumatized from what they have lived through in their city, the fact that things have improved to the point that masses of outsiders would want to come and visit is still inconceivable to them, no matter how many times a day they see it. “We thought you would never come” one Paisa said to me. Our guide confirmed “For the Paisa people, it is a miracle that you are here today”. We could feel the eyes of the locals on us as we followed our guide around the center, I could feel their disbelief. “Welcome to Medellin” they would say in passing. One man stopped and shook my hand: “Thank you for coming to Medellin.”
Walking tours are a common part of tourism in any big city anywhere in the world, but this experience was unparalleled in my life.
In the same category of importance as the walking tour I have ranked “Casa de La Memoria”, the memorial museum to victims of the war of violence in Medellin and Colombia. I had to write an entire, separate post for this museum it made such an impact on me that you can read by clicking here.
You don’t have to leave Medellin to get your nature escape. You can arrive by public transportation to Parque Arvi, a breath of fresh air in the mountaintops high above the city. Watching the scenery change from city to shanty neighborhoods to fog and mountain greenery over the course of one cable car ride was an incredibly unique Medellin experience.
At the top, there are several trails you can walk, waterfalls, camping, picnic areas and stalls from local vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, home-cooked Paisa food, and local, handmade jewelry and crafts.
Pueblito Paisa makes more sense after you have been to some of the surrounding villages in Antioquia like Guatape or Jardin. It is supposed to be a small recreation of a typical village from this region like those, with their brightly painted, wooden country houses and restaurants serving typical, local specialties. The other draw of going up to Pueblito Paisa are the stunning 360 views of Medellin, a city whose impressive infrastructure goes sprawling all the way up the surrounding hills and mountains in every direction. Pueblito Paisa is in the perfect position to put it into perspective, right in the middle of it all.
Writing these posts about Medellin and Casa de la Memoria took me longer to write than anything else so far. It’s difficult because there are so many different opinions and it’s such a touchy subject for a lot of people. The more time I spend in Colombia the more complex the whole thing gets and I question how much I really do understand about what this country is going through. So I just want to make it clear that I am only transmitting here my impressions as I try to learn about and understand something that is extremely complicated and sensitive.
I am aware that us visitors are only seeing one side of Medellin and Colombia, and the Colombia I experience is going to be a far cry from what the local people have lived. Still, from my humble, outsider point of view I really think there’s no two ways about it: ten years ago we couldn’t be here, and today, not only are tourists coming by the masses, they are falling in love with the place and staying longer, even relocating here. This kind of transformation for the better in such a short amount of time is unheard of in the world. They are definitely doing something really right.
Colombia is amazing: it’s colors, it’s coffee, it’s Caribbean, beautiful people, scenery and culture; but it’s also these things that I’ve talked about in these articles. It wouldn’t be right to rave about how awesome traveling Colombia is and not address this part of it. There isn’t a country in the world without ghosts in their closets and problems that they have had to overcome and here is no different. That being said, learning about Colombia it is probably the most rewarding part about being here, and strengthens my adoration for this country and the people who have endured so much.