A few decades ago, Medellin was one of the most dangerous and murderous cities in the world. A place where several car bombs a day would explode. The infamous Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel were at war with the government among other challenges. (It is mind-boggling to see t-shirts with Pablo’s picture being sold around the city – but not dissimilar to the Che and Mao shirts you see around the world. The deaths and destruction caused by these three could only be celebrated by those that don’t understand their history. IMHO).
However, visiting Medellin in 2016, it appears the city has made significant progress reducing the violence. Like any big city, one needs to be vigilant, but today, Medellin is a vibrant, lovely city. There is the vibrant neighborhood of El Poblado with cafes and chic stores. In downtown, there is a park full of Botero’s sculptures and in the hilly barrio of Comuna 13 beautiful graffiti art is everywhere.
Medellin is often referred to as the “City of Eternal Spring”, and spring is immediately evident upon arrival by the various shades of green in the landscape and mostly cool temperatures. Driving from the airport to downtown is amazing, the mountains which surround the valley where the city center is nestled are green and lush. It is a fantastic city with great food and interesting sights. It is not Paris, London, or Hong Kong, but it is definitely othe shorter list of top cities of the world.
An interesting aspect of Medellin is the fantastic metro line has 3 lines of cable cars (think ski gondola) which offer a key means of transportation to the hillsides that climb out of the valley’s center. It is quite unique for an urban core.
We were in Medellin for about eight days and our goal for the week to study Spanish at the Toucan Spanish School. We stayed in the El Poblado neighborhood and had a 30min walk to and from class everyday which was perfecto! It was a great way to experience the sights and sounds of the city everyday.
In addition to our Spanish classes, another highlight of our trip to Medellin was our walking tour of Comuna 13. Colombia’s neighborhoods are divided into six strata. The house or apartment building that one lives in is designated by the government as being in a zone or stratum, 1 through 6; those in stratum 1 supposedly are those in the poorest urban areas and those in 6 in the richest. Depending on where one lives, you have a different tax rate, and you pay different rates for your public utilities. Comuna 13 is stratum 1.
For years, criminal groups -from street gangs to leftist rebels to drug trafficking organizations – made Comuna 13 area their home. On October 16, 2002, the Colombian government carried out a military operation in Comuna 13. While the army, police, air force and paramilitary groups combated left-wing urban militias, the then approximately 100,000 residents of Comuna 13 were caught in the crossfire, leaving hundreds injured and some killed.
Since the war in 2002, Comuna 13 has been trying to transform itself. Graffiti and hip-hop music are a couple of the tools that are used by some to help change the neighborhood.
The government also invested $8.5 million in a set of escalators in Comuna 13. The escalators are used by locals and tourists. For locals, the escalators are an important commuting vehicle cutting commuting time substantially as well as helping the elderly and disabled in the area move around. Each of the escalators is staffed with security guards. (Everywhere we went in Colombia, there are security guards (most with machine guns), and several times, a taxi we were in was stopped by police checkpoints.) Security guards and checkpoints seem to be more a preventative measure, at this point, to ensure the progress continues.
Walking around the streets of Comuna 13, the residents were friendly greeting us with “Buenas”. We also found some kids having a blast on slide in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood is extremely colorful with a lot of beautiful graffiti art.
At the end of the walking tour, we had a chance to try our hand at graffiti creating our own tag. We definitely have a deeper appreciation for graffiti art ! (It is a challenge to prevent the spray paint from running.)
If anyone has the 80’s or 90’s stereotypical perception of Medellin or Colombia ( I know there are a few readers out that with this perception :>), Medellin (and Colombia as a whole as we are now on our third week here) has made significant progress and is well worth a visit.