Travel Guide - Medellín: A City on the Rise
'Colombia?!' my family squealed before I left on a work trip, 'isn't it really dangerous there?!'. Unless you've been in hiding, you will know that Colombia is infamous for its nasty history of crime and drug trafficking. But during this trip and after some touristing, it has become blindingly obvious that those days are a thing of the past; this country is in a state of hopeful transformation. Though usually I'd just share my top travel tips, there is a bit of history I feel needs to be understood by those overseas first that I hope may go some way in attracting you here.
A bit of history...
Medellín began as a settlement of European Basques and Jews and it was this very mix that led to its two lasting characteristics: a fierce cultural identity (as the Paisas) and an infamous sense of business. Though it began (and existed) as an agricultural centre for centuries, the industrial revolution brought new economy to the area including gold and textiles which escalated its growth. In very simplified terms, this continued through Bolivar's liberation of Colombia from Spanish rule, the boom in oil production and right up til the late 1970s when things turned very sour.
'No matter what you may believe or may think you know, no number of houses or services for the needy is worth the killing of innocents. Never. Violence should never be the answer.'
Medellín is mainly famous because of one Pablo Escobar, the notorious head of what became the largest drug cartel in the world throughout the 70s & 80s. Escobar lived and ran his business from Medellín's Santo Domingo and it is estimated that by the early 90s, he was worth a staggering $30USD billion. Films and TV shows have not helped in glorifying (one way or another) this man's reign over the years to us overseas so I was intrigued to listen to how the Colombians felt.
Now I do not pretend to know enough to voice my own opinion, but allow me to share what I have heard over the last couple of days. Firstly, Escobar has been erased from Colombia's history books. Despite his prominence, nothing about him or his activities is directly taught in schools and at least from my exploring, there is no mention or feature of him anywhere around the city. From what I understand, within the generations that remember him, there are largely two groups of people here: those who worship him and think he did a lot of good providing to the poor, and those who fiercely believe him to be a monster who shed an obscene amount of blood to ensure his ongoing success. As one tour guide eloquently put it today, 'no matter what you may believe or may think you know, no number of houses or services for the needy is worth the killing of innocents. Never. Violence should never be the answer.'
Things may have been different in the countryside, but within the city violence and crime was at its very highest and people lived in constant fear of often unprovoked attacks and murder.
So what changed?
During Escobar's reign the country was led by 4 groups: the Government, the cartel, left-wing guerilla groups and right-wing socialists. It was a warzone. It would be almost 10 years after the assassination of Escobar (in 1993) that a President called Álvaro Uribe would come to power and knowing full well that things had to change, began the country on a path of total transformation and healing. This, incidentally, included the reduction of crime by an impressive 90% during his leadership. Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize for this very achievement, here is yet another man who has polarised the nation because of his unethical tactics...that is if you believe the rumours. And then in 2010, Juan Manuel Santos was elected and he went on to negotiate a peace treaty with the still very prevalent far-left and violent guerilla groups.
'The beauty of this city lies not in its appearance, but its story of hope and transformation.'
No one political leader is ever going to have the support of an entire nation but for all intents and purposes, it seems that now the Government is, for the most part, back in charge. With that, the economy and progress of the country can once again be prioritised. From 2003, Medellín has undergone two pillars of change in the creation of a 'new house':
'democraticising architecture' to repurpose areas that had fallen into disarray and to introduce within these spaces impactful social services
'providing education with dignity' whereby new educational services and infrastructure have been developed in those areas that need it the very most
A great example of this is in Plaza Cisneros; ten years ago, the area pictured was nicknamed the ‘Square of Crime’. Now the locals call it the ‘Square of Light’. The two warehouses that had fallen into disrepair are now the base of the city’s education authority. The building you can just about see on the right hand side, is a library. And apparently (though sad to miss it this time), aside from the bamboo forest, these odd pillars make up an urban jungle that light up at night keeping the area vibrant and bright 24-7. A constant reminder that there is no going back to the troubled days of the past!
For the entirety of the 12 years I have lived in London, there has been an underground transportation network, the 'tube'. I would hazard a guess that most people living today in London have only ever known it having this warren of underground transit routes and so it becomes very easy to take that for granted. In the height of the 80s and all of the violence, no such thing existed in Medellín.
I understand Colombians are a people that fiercely celebrate any small wins or good news because for the longest of time, it was only ever horrifying. Today one man described their mantra as a country perpetually drowning; when the water is rising and you are certain of death, even the smallest of branches can be used to hoist yourself up and out...at least temporarily.
So when it was announced, in parallel to the changes already happening, that the metro was being built and that this would allow for the affordable and safe movement and connection of people across the city, it became a symbol of hope and change. The metro has literally transformed the lives of the people living here socially, mentally, emotionally and economically. Though the streets of Medellín are not the cleanest, you will notice that once within the barriers of the metro, there is not one single piece of litter or graffiti. It symbolises the city's saviour and is respected as such. This remains the only metro system in the country and apparently, the best in all of Latin America.
When the water is rising and you are certain of death, even the smallest of branches can be used to hoist yourself up and out...
Medellín is far from the prettiest place I have ever visited on first glance, but now I have listened, I realise that the beauty of this city lies not in its appearance, but in its story of hope and transformation. Here is a city (and country) desperate to shed it's infamous reputation and instead, show off to the world its hospitality, landscape and culture.
The drug trade still very much exists here and will do so whilst there is a demand, but it does not control nearly as much as it once did. That control lies back with the people where it rightly should be. So come to Colombia; after only this short trip I can say that the people make this place truly visit-worthy. But if you do, respect the change that is happening here and do not instead proliferate the infamy of those criminals Colombia is desperate to forget. Whilst we scramble to binge watch the next series of Narcos, people here still mourn the unnecessary loss of their loved ones. What is our entertainment, was once their every day reality.
Come for the food, the dancing, the laughter and the culture.
Colombia, I will surely be back to explore you more!
My top tips to follow.