On a recent trip to Colombia, it was Medellin that really captured the attention of our Latin America Specialist Simon. Made famous for all the wrong reasons, thanks to its shady past that was brought into the limelight in Narcos, Medellin is a city that has not always been at the top of travellers’ hot lists. However, Simon explains how this innovative city has shaken off its reputation and become one of Colombia’s most inspiring destinations.
In the late 1980s, Medellin was labelled the most dangerous city on Earth, gaining notoriety worldwide as a hub of drug production, trafficking and violence. Aided by the rise of Pablo Escobar and continued by the FARC (Colombia’s guerrilla movement) in the decade after his death, this reputation is one that seems to have stuck in people’s minds. Now, a quarter of a century after Escobar’s very public demise, this fascinating, complex, innovative city and its inhabitants have succeeded in shedding this oppressive weight from their shoulders.
One of the most crucial ways Medellin has escaped the clutches of its violent past, perhaps surprisingly, is through public transport. The city’s location, although beautifully set in a valley between two Andean Mountain ridges, provides a huge challenge in the face of massive urbanisation and population growth: it can only expand upwards, into the mountains. Historically, Medellin’s poorest and most violent neighbourhoods, or Comunas, have always been those set highest in the hills, isolating their inhabitants from the jobs, communities, opportunities and soul of Medellin. The introduction of a cutting-edge cable car system in 2004, along with improved metros, trains and buses, suddenly presented the city’s poorest citizens with a chance to prosper, simply by being able to navigate the labyrinthine and impossibly steep streets.
No neighbourhood has epitomised Medellin’s dangerous past, desperate need for change and epic transformation more than Comuna 13. In 2002, firmly in the grip of the guerrillas and one of the worst affected areas in the city, this was the setting of ‘Operation Orion’, an operation in which military forces attempted to drive out those in control of the neighbourhood by force and with the aid of two military helicopters. In doing so, a level of destruction and loss of life occurred that, to this day, is contradictorily reported by police, the government and those who lived there. Nowadays, Comuna 13 stands risen from the ashes, characterised by enormous stretches of incredible, vibrant graffiti artwork of famous local artists and children of the neighbourhood, depicting the dark story of the neighbourhood and providing opportunities and community projects for those that live there to take part – and pride – in. Perhaps the starkest contrast to be seen here is the implementation of outdoor public escalators through the heart of Comuna 13, which show how even the poorest areas are a part of, and crucial to, Medellin’s stunning revival.
Elsewhere in this city are incredible and essential sights to be seen on every visit; in the centre you will find the Plazoleta de las Esculturas, in which giant Fernando Botero sculptures stand proudly outside, surrounded by local people, musicians and tourists alike; away from the urban soul of the city is the green Arvi Park Nature Reserve; and dotted around the outskirts you’ll find quaint villages such as Santa Elena, home to families of silleteros (flower vendors), preparing huge, colourful flower displays for the annual parade in the city.
Truly now, no holiday to Colombia is complete without experiencing this inspiring, multi-faceted city, whose transformation has been nothing short of extraordinary, and embodies the transformation of Colombia as a whole.