How Medellin went from murder capital to hipster holiday destination
Twenty-five years ago, Time magazine dubbed Colombiaâs Medellin âthe most dangerous city on earthâ. Drug lords lived like princes, judges and policeman were regularly assassinated, paramilitaries invaded neighbourhoods and ordinary people disappeared overnight without trace.
Even 10 years ago, Medellin was a âbad-ass townâ. Violence reigned, civil society had been destroyed and no one seemed to know how to put Medellin back together again.
Fast-forward to the present, and Medellin is a delightful place of law-abiding entrepreneurial folk. With an economy that is among the fastest growing on the continent, it is one of the great success stories of Latin America.
In 2013, Medellin was hailed as âthe most innovative city in the worldâ by the Urban Land Institute, brimming with creative ideas for urban living, like the eco-Ã¡rbol, a tree-like structure that acts as an air-purifier, and the spectacular Orquideorama for growing orchids. In Barefoot Park, where passers-by are encouraged to discard their shoes to wriggle their toes in pebbles, mud, and soft grass before finally soaking their feet in pools of water, I asked my guide, Julian, what had happened, how Medellin had gone from gangs and gunfire to zen-like experiences for bare feet.
âPublic transport,â he said. It was a moment before I realised he was serious.
âDonât laugh,â he chided me. âThe metro was the beginning of all the good stuff. It was like a bridge to a different world. We suddenly realised that things could change. It was the beginning of a revolution in Medellin.â
Traditionally, Colombiaâs second city had a reputation as a savvy and entrepreneurial place. But in the Eighties and Nineties those business smarts made Medellin the leading supplier for Americaâs cocaine habit. At the head of its drug operations was Pab lo Escobar, king of cocaine lords, who would eventually be gunned down by American-funded paramilitaries on a Medellin rooftop in 1993. It was also one of the front lines in the battle between the government and Farc, Colombiaâs guerrilla movement. Medellin became the worldâs murder capital.
So many people in this city have suffered, and Julian was one of them. His father had been left close to death in a shooting when Julian was eight. Several of his closest friends never made it to adulthood. There were moments when he talked of his own experiences, of the friends he had lost, when he needed to stop and compose himself. Tears were never far away.
Medellinâs pain has its own monument â" the Casa de la Memoria, the House of Memories. On the interactive walls are digital timelines with documents, newspaper reports, and film clips. Most moving of all are the dignified video testimonies of peopleâs experiences, of years spent searching for lost sons and husbands, of time spent fighting for the return of a box of ashes.
It was the sheer scale of the suffering eventually that drove ordinary people to reclaim their city from the guerrillas and the drug lords. Medellinâs transformation, of course, is part of a larger national revival. After decades of civil war, Colombia has been born again.
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Young people who went abroad for education and for work in the bad years have come home in droves, bearing an international sophistication and an entrepreneurial energy. But in Medellin â" where public projects helped instil a sense of pride and where ordinary private individuals simply turned their backs on the old ways â" the renaissance has been more dramatic than anywhere else in the country.
Today Medellin feels new-born. It helps that the setting is gorgeous. The city lies in a long valley between two Andean mountain ridges. Capital of Antioquia province, a fertile region famous for its coffee plantations and its flower farms, for its orchids and butterflies, it is known as the City of Eternal Spring for its idyllic climate. Everywhere you turn there seem to be new things happening.
I was wowed by the wide modern esplanades of the Parque de los Desos, the Park of Wishes, like an upgrade of Londonâs South Bank Centre with cafÃ©s and restaurants, lively concert halls and a n interactive museum, the cityâs university, a modern library and an open-air cinema. In the Museo de Arte Moderno or MAMM, I headed for the new galleries of Colombian artists. In the botanical garden I followed boardwalks through tropical rainforest laced with orchids and bamboo into secret corners of birdsong and green shadows.
At the metro, Julian was gratified by how impressed I was by the modernity and the cleanliness. He said the system had been rated as one of the best in the world.
âI know it must seem strange but when the metro was constructed in 1994, it was the first positive thing that had happened in this city for decades,â Julian said. âIt gave us confidence. With this metro, we suddenly realised things could be different, that progress and change were possible. In 1994, we needed to be shown that.â
He went on: âAnd suddenly it was easier to get around the city. People got out of their barrios, their neighbourhoods. Th ey went to work in different places from where they lived. The metro became a vast bridge, joining disparate parts of the city. People mixed. They looked outward. It may be just a metro â" but it changed the psychology of the city.â
We hopped off at the Plazoleta de las Esculturas, a grand central square with 23 large bronze sculptures by Fernando Botero, Latin Americaâs most famous artist, and Medellinâs most famous son. Botero is the Beryl Cook of Latin America. His figures are exaggerated and oversized and fun, and the whole square â" promenading couples, strolling families, old people on benches â" was infected by their playful character.
Nearby in Parque Berrio, the first square in the city, old men were strumming guitars in the gathering dusk while young girls promenaded arm in arm.
We followed the crowds into the great Basilica de la Candelaria where parishioners knelt in incense-laden candlelight with their guilt and their griefs. The organist began to play a Bach fugue, the notes echoing into the great vaults of the roof. Like some echo of Fitzcarraldo, the great organ had been transported here from Germany a couple of centuries ago, coming up the Rio Magdalena from the Caribbean coast and then across the Andes in pieces on horseback.
They could have done with cable cars. They are th e best part of Medellinâs new transport system. Connecting to the metro, the cable cars are the answer to the steep streets of the labyrinthine barrios that climb the mountain sides above the city centre. They carry passengers aloft above the rooftops and the congested lanes in glass pods.
Riding above the city, enjoying the views of the valley and the mountains above, passengers relax, conversations start, jokes are made. People shake hands as they disembark, having made new friends. When we took the car up to Santo Dominigo, it was ten minutes of pleasure rather the hectic stressed hour it used to take.
Pablo Escobarâs own neighbourhood, Santa Domingo had been one of the worst barrios in the city. But on a scale of one to ten, the sense of threat now feels like minus 8. Like a wide balcony over the city, the piazza by the metrocable interchange was full of families â" cycling children and gossiping parents. Street stalls, swathed in smoke, served empanadas and roast chicken. A busker played a tango on a battered violin, and a 12-year-old told me his dreams of playing for Barcelona.
A huge new library and community centre â" the Parque Biblioteca EspaÃ±a â" has helped the neighbourhoodâs transform its sense of its self. Just beneath the library, on steep slopes of crowded housing, the architect constructed a bamboo bridge between two warring neighbourhoods. People said it was madness; they will kill each other. The opposite happened; they got to know one another.
One of Medellinâs cable cars â" the Linea L â" escapes the bounds of the city altogether, rising over the top of the mountain ridge then sailing across the open spaces of Parque Arvi, Medel linâs own nature reserve, where a skein of hiking trails amble among woods and heathlands and lakes. To the south lay the green rolling hills of the Zona Cafetera with its coffee plantations and homestays and the worldâs best Arabica beans.
West of the city lies its charming predecessor, Santa Fe de Antioquia, enjoying a sleepy retirement like an ageing relation. Santa Fe was the original provincial capital founded in the 16th century by Spanish Conquistadors. It remains a glorious colonial town of cobbled streets and tree-shaded squares, of baroque churches and white-washed one-storey houses whose clocks all seemed to have stopped at the moment in 1826 when the provincial government moved to Medellin.