City of Hope

Before we put ourselves offline for 14 days to attend a Spanish course in Guatapé we went for some days to Medellín. Not so long ago this city was ruled by the “Medellín Cartel” and “The King of Cocaine”, Pablo Escobar. During these times in the 80’s and 90’s Medellin became the murder capital of the world. However, these days are clearly over as we could experience at first hand.

We arrived in the late morning after a long and depressing night in the bus (it was the night after the elections in the USA and there was wifi available in the bus so we could follow the outcome closely). We were a bit tired but could find the way to our hostel pretty easy thanks to the excellent public transport.

When we arrived at the Palm Tree Hostel we were pleased to discover it was a very nice and quiet place owned by locals. We relaxed the rest of the day and cooked ourselves a nice meal.

Next day we had a guided walking tour planned through the city center. It was a free and highly recommended tour run by young Colombians. Together with some other tourists we were welcomed by Carolina who guided us around the city center for about 4 hours. It turned out the recommendations in Lonely Planet and on the internet were justified!

To start Caro talked about the “Paisa region”, of which Medellín is the most important city, and it’s culture. We learned Paisas are mainly descendants from Basque and Jewish immigrants who came to the region during the 16th century. For hundreds of years the city was pretty isolated because it is located in a valley surrounded by the Andes. When after a long time the Paisas where connected to the rest of the country again they were feeling different and a bit “better” than others. Gold and coffee were the main export products and brought welfare.

Of course we also got to learn a bit more about the more recent history. How with the end of Escobar’s “kingdom” the city tried to recover from very bad times, and succeeded. A lot had to do with giving hope and something to hold on to. For example, the metro of Medellín which is the only metro system in Colombia. This project gave people something to hold on to, to forget their problems and hope for better times. Furthermore, once it was finished it gave cheap means of transportation that even poor people could afford. We still noticed how clean and well maintained it was, the metro is clearly something the Medellín people are proud of and it is treated with respect.

Besides that they also used architecture to turn the tide. An example of this is the “Parque de la Luz”. A former notorious square with a roofed market place, which was the home of drug addicts, prostitutes and homeless people. First they started to build homeless shelters around the neighborhood. Then the roofed market was demolished and replaced by a “Forest of Lights”, pillars that light up in the evening. Two of the oldest buildings in the city at the edge of the square were practically in ruins and an absolutely no-go zone, they were completely renovated and are now home to the Ministry of Education. All this symbolism in combination with support for the former inhabitants made this square today a main attraction without any danger.

Okay, enough with all the history! Of course we had some fun too! We went through the shopping streets packed with street vendors. Got to the old building of Justice which they turned into a shopping mall filled with fake clothes, shoes, jewelry and more. We witnessed how churches, prostitution and porn go hand in hand in Medellín, it’s convenient to commit a sin and go to wash it away straight after.

We also got some tips on bargaining in Colombia, which involves basically a lot of smiles and friendly words.

At the end of the tour we were reminded again about the more violent past, and how the people do not forget but focus on the future.  A Botero sculpture of a bird was blown up by one of the rebel groups (it is not clear which one as they all claimed the attack) and killed more than 20 people during a music concert. The shredded sculpture is still at it’s place as a reminder, but a new one was placed right next to it to symbolize hope and the future.

Pfiew, that was a lot of information. More pictures and less words coming up!

Back on our own we opted to take one of the metrocable cars up the slopes of the Andes to Parque Arví the next day. The metrocable reminded us a lot of snowboarding season in the Alps, except that there was no snow. And of course they also provided nice views over the city. It was funny though, how abrupt the transition from city to country side happened. Literally one minute we were in the city and the next we were surrounded by nature.

In Parque Arví we made a short but fun walk in the forest. A small trail provided nice entertainment and challenges! 🙂

And more nature coming up! Another site to visit is the “Jardín Botánico de Medellín”. There was nothing really special about the garden but still we enjoyed it. Especially the butterfly garden got our attention.

As in this post we ended Medellín with some city landscapes. A quick hike brought us up to “Pueblito Paisa”, a fake mini village in the middle of Medellín. The tourist attraction itself was not that interesting but the views over the city were pretty nice. Especially when the clouds play a game with the surrounding mountains.

So, what did we think of Medellín? We liked the city a lot, mostly the spirit of the people. Not lingering in the past, but going forward with pride. Their own special personality was also pretty interesting, a lot of hospitality, self-mockery and persuasiveness. Do not ever believe a Paisa when he tells you: “come with me, we’ll just have one more beer!” You will end up following along for a couple of hours and have many more than one!