A dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people in Antioquia, Colombia – the heart of Colombia’s famous coffee triangle. Known as the land of the eternal spring it has a temperate climate – hot during the day and cool at night.
Not too long ago rated the most dangerous city if the world due to fighting between drug cartels, agrarian backed revolutionary groups, paramilitary groups, the government and years of America’s war on drugs.
Medellin was the home and headquarters of the famous drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. But Medellin wasn’t built on drug money as many people perceive. Drugs are only 3% of Colombia’s GDP. The coffee boom and industrialization made Medellin a major city in Colombia. Drugs and politics led the cities and country sides into a dark era of violence. The FARC, formed in the year 2000 as an agricultural people’s party, has left the jungle, made peace with the government and is forming its own political party.
It was a dark violent time when a new president, Alvaro Uribe, was elected in 2002,” one of the local tour guides told me. “A former math teach elected on a program of law and order to stop the drugs, violence, revolution and bombings.
He reformed poverty stricken barrios. He took on neighborhoods crowded with the homeless, drug dealers and prostitutes refurbished them, reconstructed the old town squares, moving the poor to better places where with more services and structures. He was a strong leader using American anti-drug money to finance some of the projects. He built libraries in poor barrios and the city metro which to this day is the pride of the city.
The dark era seems to be behind them. The city is safe, vibrant and very alive and well. In 2000, only 40,000 tourists came to Colombia (a big country twice the size of France). In 2017 there were 3 million foreign visitors – a 13% increase from the year before according Colombia’s Trade Minsitry. Visitors from the USA topped the list of visiting foreign nationals. Bogota received more than half of the visitors followed by Cartegena then Medellin.
International flights arrive to the Jose Maria Cordova International airport everyday. The city center is 28 kilometers from the airport and a taxi cab ride costs $25 or take the white city buses outside the city airport for only $5 for the 40 minute trip.
Medellin is in the department of Antioquia situated and stretched for 25 kilomters through the narrow valley of Aburra between the high mountains ranges of the Central Cordillera.
The residents call themselves Paisas. They’re known for being curious, clever people and good businessmen. Common belief is that Paisas think they are better than the rest of Colombians. The city was founded by the Jews and the Basque Spaniards who were escaping the inquisition of Spain. They were isolated in a valley between mountain chains for 400 years. Then came the coffee boom and the industrialization. The city blossomed.
The City’s Metro System
Medellin boasts a spectacular, spotless, elevated, metro system, free of drunks, panhandlers and graffiti. For $.70 you can safely ride anywhere in the city with cable cars at the end of the tracks going up in the mountains transporting people to the poorer neighborhoods up the mountain. The metro is the pride of the city.
Avri Park For a longer excursion take the metro line A to Avejedo and tranfer to cable cars going to Santo Domingo. Transfer – pay another $3 and go for a long stretch up the mountain to Avri park. The air gets cool, the wind picks up and the car starts swaying. Pack a sweater. You can walk around the park, there are trails into the woods, tours on horseback , food stalls at the terminal park and gift stalls. The last cable car down is at 6 p.m.
Nice hotels start at $20 night. Hearty lunches $3. Coffee and beer $.50 a shot. There are friendly, informative police all over the place. Perfectly safe during the days, some places in the center are a bit suspect at night but the areas of Pablado, Park Lleras – the Zona Rosa – are teaming with tourist, great restaurants, wine bars and brews pubs. Perfectly safe at night.
El Poblado is harkened at the place to stay. It a residential upscale area of Medellin – very safe with a lot of restaurants and hotels. Tourists all seem to collect in the trendy Park Lleras district, also called the Zona Rosa which is on the south side of the city. It’s an upscale area with a lot of night life, restaurants, clubs and hotels.
I think both areas are overpriced and slightly over rated. If you want to be more immersed with the locals and off the beaten path, I like the Calle 70– by the stadium in the northern part of the city. Here there are also a lot of hotels, restaurants, it’s safe to walk around at night, economical and busy with mostly people from Medellin and Colombian tourists.
Medellin is probably the second best city in Colombia for it’s range of restaurants (Bogota being the first). Everything from Italian, to Thai, Peruvian, Mexican and much more can be found here. Like in all Colombia, European restaurants mostly offer the best quality and variation. Colombian restaurants often have the same fare and presentation. It’s economical comfort food sometimes seeming to lack passion and creativity. The local dish of Medellin is the ‘bandeja paisa’ – a regional dish consisting of everything form sausages to fried pork skins, rice, beans, avocado, black pudding and arepas. Like most Colombian dishes – this one is a brick. Be hungry or better yet share it with someone else.
There are great shopping centers in Medellin. Centro Commercial Santa Fe in Poblado area is one of the best. Built by a European architect there’s plenty of high end fashion shops. Nothing is cheap but the mall is incredible sporting an ice skating rink and a roof which opens on pleasant days and closes when it rains. A better market is Aplujarra a nine block area in old Medellin where bargains abound.
Plaza Berrio is a metro stop in city center – the oldest square in the city – with lots of movement. Old people come here to exchange old possessions for more old stuff – a garage sale of sorts. Here there are musicians, street peddlers, con men, show men and guinea pig gamblers. The gamble consists of putting three bowls in a circle on the street. Take a guinea pig out of a bag shake the animal up and down – back and forth. People put money on the bowls, the guinea pig is placed in the circle and depending on which bowl the dizzy pig goes to, you win or loose.
Parque Bolivar is a big square dominated by a big brick church – Cathedral Metropolitano. Lots of the locals congregate here and it’s safe during the day but not recommended at night.
Near the metro stop San Antonio one can explore the city’s adopted connection with the Tango. Here there’s a old tango bar, called Malaga. The walls are lined with old gramophones, photos and memorabilia of the tango world. It’s a perfect stop for a cold beer while watching elderly couples gracefully tango the afternoon away.
Pueblito Paisa is a miniature Antioquian village also offering a good view of the city. Here a restored, typical little Paesa village from 100 years ago has been restored on top the hill. It’s a nice place to visit during the day and is heavily visited by locals on the weekends.
The sculptor Fernando Botero is a world renown Latin American sculptor. A native of Medellin, he is considered Cololmbia’s leading contemporary artist. His sculptures are known around the world. There are some statues and a Botero museum in Bogota his best works are displayed in Medellin. There are 20 original Botero sculptures in Plaza Botero – a beautiful square and the most visited in the city.
Botero sculptures are unique with their exaggerated proportions – some parts are big – others small. People have a relationship with these sculptures climbing up on them to have their photos taken. There is also a the Museum de Antioquia in the square with more of Botero’s work inside.
There are a few more Botero statues in the park by the bank near the San Antonio metro station. One of them , a statue of a bird, which doesn’t look at all like a Botero statue after someone left a backpack with explosives under the statue on June 10, 1995. When the bomb went off 25 people were killed. They were going to take mangled statue down but Botero himself, living in Paris at the time, wouldn’t allow it threatening to take the rest of his statues down if they moved the bird. He said the statue must be left as a sad memory of violent times. It still stands in the park today – a memorial. The names of the 25 dead bombing victims are etched in marble below the statue.
A good tour to take is Real City Tours – realcitytours.com. The tours are free. You tip the guide at the tour’s end. Sign up on their website a day or two before. They will send you a confirmation via email. Tours meet at 9:45 at a central metro station. They break up into groups of 20 and tour the city center. Tours last about four hours and are very informative and insightful.
Comuna 13 used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Medellin. Today it is a destination. There are graffiti tours run by companies for a price, but this is a tour you can easily do on your own.
Take the metro to San Antonio and they another to San Javier. When in San Javier there is a raised walkway that goes over to the library (biblioteca). Around the library there’s some nice graffiti. After the library, go back to the front of the metro station. Take bus 221 to ‘la escaleras electricas’ or the escalators. I found it’s easier to just take a cab. They’ll leave you at the bottom of the hill. Follow the graffiti covered walls up to the escalators which were built to take the residents up the mountain to Comuna 13.
For a different look and feel of Medellin, Comuna 13 is worth the trip. People say it isn’t safe to wander around there, but the residents don’t seem to mind the handfuls of tourists who venture into their neighborhood. There are sidewalk vendors catering to them. And I never felt threatened in the least the whole afternoon I was there.
Emerging from the dark ages of violence, the people of Medellin today have no fear of bombings and stray bullets. Feeling once again free to leave their houses. Life goes on. These are peaceful times. They are genuinely happy to see tourists return. It’s proof that times are better. The violence is over.
If you’re spending any kind of time in Medellin, which is easy to do, a get away from the city is in order. Guatape’ is the most popular. It’s located next to a reservoir created by the Colombian government for a hydro-electric dam. It’s a colorful, colonial town with everything painted in bright racing colors. There are a lot of shops selling arts and crafts in town. And on the malecon along the lake front there are a number of restaurants with patio tables featuring locally raised trout. Across the lake, about a mile walk away, is El Penol. It’s a bullet shaped granite rock. Not much to see here but there are 649 steps to the top, if you’re so inclined. They say there’s a nice view on top.
There are other towns to visit around Medellin with a Spanish colonial feel to them. Santa Fe de Antioquia is a steamy hot little town with a nice city center. Other pueblos to visit are Aguadas, El Carmen and Jardin.
For more on travel around Medellin see the following article:
For more of Colombian cities see the following articles:
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