Colombia as a whole, and specifically the city of Medellin, is known globally for narco trafficking and the violence associated with Pablo Escobar. The stigma surrounding the violence of the 1980s through the early 2000s has kept many tourists away from this beautiful country. Medellin is a stunning example of the power of hope and the resilience of the Colombian people. They have invested money and effort into community projects that have transformed the city. Unfortunately, many tourists who visit Medellin glorify Pablo Escobar even though he murdered thousands of people. Most locals were directly affected by the violence, either by deaths of relatives and friends, or haunting memories of fear of car bombs or gun violence. To further minimize any tribute to the man, locals won’t even say his name any longer. To respect the local people and not feed into this glorification of a truly evil man, we opted out of any tour relating to Escobar. One guide said it quite poignantly. When describing one optional Escobar tour where people paintball at his home, she equated it to paintballing at Auschwitz. In Escobar’s home, he killed and tortured countless people. It is not a place for fun and games. That would desecrate the memories of so many people. Although Escobar was killed in 1993, the Colombian conflict between the far right (the government and paramilitary), the far left (the guerillas), and the drug cartels (Medellin and Cali) spawned violence until the early 2000s. At one point in the history of Medellin, there were over 380 deaths per 100,000 people.
La Feria de las Flores is a large parade of flowers that occurs on August 11th. Families from Santa Elena grow local flowers and create floral arrangements called silleteros for the parade. Silleteros are based on a modified chair that were originally used to carry flowers down to the center of Medellin to sell at the market. They compete in five categories of arrangements for a cash prize. The parade earned a UNESCO classification for culture.
We stayed in the Poblado neighborhood, which is very trendy with tons of high end restaurants and cafes. One night we went to a rooftop bar for some salsa dancing. Medellin is quite large, with over 4 million people. The weather is relatively temperate and unchanging, giving Medellin the title of the “eternal spring.” People who live in Medellin are quite proud of their heritage and local culture. They call themselves “paisas” and feel a stronger sense of belonging to Medellin than to Colombia. We tried their local traditional dish called bandeja paisa. It consists of an arepa, avocado, plantains, rice, beans, chorizo, powdered beef, fried egg, and blood pudding. We also tried the local refajo, a drink made of orange juice, beer, soda water, and the local rum called aguardiente.
Medellin is quite proud of its metro system. The metro consists of a subway system, buses, trams, 7 cables, a bike share, and electric escalators that connect the city. It started being built in the 1980s and opened in 1995. The metro system is one of the reasons Medellin was voted the most innovative city in 2013. Locals describe a “metro culture” where people are polite and keep the metro clean, as it is seen as a representation of hope and pride in the city. The metro is subsidized for those in the lower economic stratas and people can recycle plastic bottles to get metro credit. We rode the cable down from Arvi Park to downtown Medellin.
We participated in a free walking tour of downtown Medellin.
Community spaces and libraries were built around the city to encourage people to gather together outside again, in a city that was once the most dangerous city in the world in the 1980-90’s. One example is Parque de las Luces. It was once a market that burned down. Afterwards, it became a hub of crime with prostitution and drugs running rampant. Now it is a library, education center, and artwork of lights. Most transformation projects like these were started in the early 2000’s.
Plaza Botero is known for a plethora of Botero sculptures. Fernando Botero is a Colombian sculpture known for disproportional body parts.
In San Antonio square, there was a Botero bird sculpture that was blown up by a bomb during a concert in 1995, killing 23 people and wounding over 200. The mayor of Medellin wanted to remove the sculpture, but Botero demanded that it be left in place to ensure that no one ever forgot the massacre. A new bird sculpture was created and placed beside the shattered remains of the first, a symbol of the past and the future of the city. They are known as the Birds of Peace. It is still unclear who placed the bomb, but it is thought to be either the guerilla forces or the cocaine cartel who were feuding at the time.
The Barrio Transformation Tour in the neighborhood of Moravia highlights the resilience of the people of Medellin. The poor neighborhood was built on and around the town garbage dump, which created a manmade mountain in the center of the city. Fifteen thousand people lived in small shacks on the hill until 2006 when the government displaced the families to another part of the city given the dangerous nature of living atop toxins. Families were given apartments across town as payment for leaving the area. Once cleared, a community project was instituted including an ornamental garden on one face of the mountain and trees on the other face. The roots of the trees help pull heavy metals out of the earth. Multiple greenhouses and nurseries were set up to employ the local community members and create opportunities for more financial return by selling plants. A composting system was also created to provide compost for the gardens, as well as to sell, again to generate more funds for the community. Our tour leader, Cielo, is a community leader in Moravia and runs a community garden nearby. The Comuna 13 community project of the electric escalators and graffiti street art is another example of Medellin investing in local communities to transform what were once dangerous neighborhoods into havens of hope. Comuna 13 was once the most dangerous neighborhood in Medellin, overrun with gang and cartel violence due to its geographical location on the most western side of the city. The location made it the hub of drug trafficking in and out of Medellin. With the community project, it is now safer though still can be sketchy in certain parts.
Medellin is a complicated and beautiful city that highlights the incredible potential for transformation. What was one the most dangerous city in the world has now become an innovative and creative hub. The people and the investment in community projects are symbols of hope and resilience and show the power of change.