Medellin, a rising star

I had heard great things about Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, from fellow travellers before I arrived and I was really excited to hear that this year it has been awarded the 2013 ‘Innovative City of the Year Award’ by the Wall Street Journal. Not bad for the one time ‘murder-capital of Colombia’. The home of druglord Pablo Escobar, 20 years ago the city had an annual homicide rate of 381 per 100,000. Escobar’s death on the rooftops of Medellin at the hands of the police in ’93 did a lot to change things, but a series of steady improvements over the years have meant that the city has developed at a stratospheric rate, with the construction of the Metro, liberalised development policies, improved security and education.

After a relatively comfy 16 hour night bus from Santa Marta (90,000 COP), I arrived into Medellin at about 11am and made my way to the Grand Hostel, a new hostel recommended by lovely Swiss guys I met in Taganga. Run by sister and brother, Luz and Giovanni, they made me feel at home right away, with big smiles and coffee on arrival. The hostel is big and spacey with large kitchen and common area, and I had the 8 bed dorm to myself! The only downside is the beds are not the most comfortable but the hospitality, location and ambiance of the place more than makes up for it.

I decided I wanted to spend a few weeks working in a hostel here in Colombia, as a way to curb my spending (!) and also just to put some roots down for a while and enjoy the place. I used Grand Hostel as my base for researching and soon found a hostel in the countryside just outside Medellin that wanted me to start volunteering (basically working for board!) the following week.

With a few days to spend exploring Medellin, I took off to take the fantastic public metro system to the two cable cars that climb both sides of the valley that the city sits in. The metro is one of Medellin’s success stories over the past few years, playing a major role in reducing violence and helping link the city to the favelas up along the valley. Before this, the favela dwellers found it nigh on impossible to reach the city and access schools, healthcare and jobs.

It costs a mere 1750 pesos (equivalent of about $1) to take the tram which links directly to the two cable cars – that’s the grand sum I spent for an entire morning of sightseeing.

My first stop after this was to explore the city around the Parque Berrio, smack-bang in downtown Medellin. This is where Antioquenos (the name for people from Medellin) have gathered for years. Between 1784 and 1892, this is where the public market was located and often where public executions took place.

Further down from Parque Berrio is Plaza Botero, named after the most famous artist from Medellin, Fernando Botero. I was somewhat familiar with his famous paintings of rotund people but nothing could prepare me for the grandeur of the plaza, filled with huge larger than life sculptures of women (a favourite subject of his), cats, dogs, birds and more.

Facing onto the plaza is the Museum of Antioquia, a modern art museum whose entire third floor is filled with Botero’s art work and sculptures. Visiting art museums and galleries is definitely one of my favourite things to do when I’m in a city and this one is definitely worth every peso of the 10,000 COP entry (and you get a free coffee too!).

While I was in Medellin, I had heard great things about the free walking tour that runs every other day and, as a big fan of free tours, I headed off to the Poblado train station to meet the group at 9.30am. Pablo, the owner of Real City Tours, has to be hands down one of the most passionate individuals I’ve ever met! Over the course of the next 4 and a half hours (!) he brought us through the very colourful history of Medellin, aspects of Colombian culture (the concept of ‘papaya’) and to places that as a tourist you would probably never stumble upon. I learned so much from him and his love of his home city is infectious.

The tour culminated at the Parque San Antonio, where there are now two of Fernando Botero’s ‘Pájaro de Paz’ or Bird of Peace sculptures. There are two, because the first work was seriously damaged (literally ripped apart) by a suspected FARC bomb which claimed the lives of 23 people including a number of children who were enjoying the park at the time. It was a ruthless act of violence but instead of removing the damaged sculpture, Botero insisted that a new and identical sculpture be placed alongside it and the other would now act as a memorial to those whose lives had been taken and it would also act as a vivid reminder of Medellin’s violent past.

Former President Alvaro Uribe implemented controversial policies in 2006 encouraging paramilitary groups to ‘demobilise’ after guerilla conflict and since then, the security situation in Colombia has vastly improved. Colombians for the most part can now feel safe to travel within their country and enjoy the beauty that it has to offer, when before it would have been dangerous to walk a few feet outside their familiar neighbourhoods and villages. Our walking tour guide Pablo, explained how many of the places we ventured to on the tour in Medellin would have literally been no-go areas just a few short years ago.

There is, no doubt, still a lot of work to be done and it is by no means a perfectly safe haven to travel to, but judging by the leaps and bounds it has taken over the past few years alone, Medellin is a rising star. 

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