I can certainly understand why so many people end up staying here indefinitely, it’s an intriguing place. I wonder if I will end up joining them. I’ve decided to write this after my first day in the city to see how it compares to my thoughts after more exploring.
One of the main areas to stay is El Poblado. Very touristy, very chic. Lots of nice bars and restaurants with every cuisine imaginable and plenty of police presence.
I should say early on that there is a huge police presence in the city day and night and that is seen as a good, reassuring thing rather than a foreboding sign.
I’m staying in a hostel called Casa Kiwi near the main street of bed and restaurants in El Poblado. It’s not cheap – a dorm bed costs over £10 per night (except the 11-bed downstairs but I heard the security is better upstairs as only guests are allowed), but it’s central, clean and comfortable. Rooms are short on plug sockets and the staff aren’t very courteous but it’s fine.
Downtown and the History of Medellín
Today I went on the free walking tour of the downtown area by Real City Tours. It’s reputed to be one of the best walking tours in South America and it didn’t disappoint. You have to book online at http://www.realcitytours.com and the tours book up quickly so you need to book a day or 36 hours in advance.
My tour was at 14:19 (I totally forgot to ask what was with the crazy specific timing) and began at the Alpujarra Metro Station in the central area of the city. There were 20 in the group and our guide was Carolina, born and bred in Medellín with an engaging style, fantastic English and a passion for helping us get under the skin of the city.
I’m not going to describe the tour step by step – for that you should definitely come to Medellín and go on it yourself as it lives up to its reputation. I just wanted to talk a bit about the city and its history.
Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia, with 3.7 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area, it is also the capital of the region called Antioquia. The people from this region (and a few other regions nearby) are known as Paisa (pronounced pie-sa) and they are a very proud and industrious group, boasting the first railroad in Colombia and now the first metro system.
The Paisas were a fairly isolated population due to the geography of the region – Medellín itself is built entirely in a valley surrounded by steep mountains. The neighbourhoods (Barrios) stretch right up the mountainside all around. Many of the early inhabitants were Europeans who arrived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, specifically groups of people from the Basque country and Sephardic Jews who fled the Spanish inquisition, giving rise to different DNA to the rest of the population along with different culture.
The climate in the region produces excellent coffee, and even up to three harvests per year, so with the introduction of the railroad, this allowed the previously isolated Paisas to unleash their potential on the world, producing a famously business-minded and entrepreneurial group.
I won’t go hugely into the details but Medellín is infamous worldwide because it was the heart of the drug trade in Colombia. Now it is bouncing back from being the murder capital of the world and is becoming (it has some way to go) a place where different groups can come together in safety. But while we are on the subject of drugs…
It’s an extraordinarily tough situation. The minimum wage isn’t enough to live on, so people turn to crime to get by. The drug cartels have forced farmers to grow coca and this has been on the increase too, with coca production reaching an all-time high in 2016. This is devastating for so many reasons. Coca production is causing an unbelievable amount of human displacement as people are threatened or killed to make way for the plants or caught in the crossfire amid arguments. It’s also a very complex issue for economic reasons – from a farmer’s perspective coca is easy to grow, giving a higher guarantee of harvest, and what’s more, there’s a guaranteed buyer, so if you think about it, it must be hard for legal crops to compete. Then you’ve also got the fact that Coca is incredibly hard to kill – many of the fields are protected by landmines and even if you get past those you’ve got to dig the plants out by hand mostly. The only alternative is to use a pesticide which is known to be one of the most toxic in the world, hazardous to human health and known to cause cancer. It kills everything it comes into contact with. The chemical was banned from use from 2016 and it was partly due to this ban that coca production boomed that year. For this reason perhaps, it has recently been found to no longer be harmful to humans and is being reintroduced. What an unbelievably difficult situation.
On our tour we went to regions of the city that were, until fairly recently, the absolute worst, most dangerous neighbourhoods until some significant investment, and carefully planned redevelopment. In what is now the Square of Lights, semi-permanent drug dens were sprawled, the two oldest remaining buildings in town were the headquarters of crime in the city. These buildings could have been bulldozed, replaced and forgotten, but it is much more powerful that these former dark places are now included at the heart of a profound transformation.
One of the biggest transformative forces has been the introduction of the metro. It was built twenty years ago, while Medellín was still the murder capital of the world and when kidnappings and disappearances were daily occurrences – the circumstances are barely imaginable now when you see the metro. As Carolina said, there may be dirt and litter on the streets but when you get onto the metro it is absolutely spotless; no stickers, no graffiti and not a scratch on a window or panel. I’ve never seen anything like it actually. The people are so proud of the metro that normal bad habits are transformed when they step on board. In two of the steeper, poorer neighbourhoods, the people are connected to the metro by cable car lines – this has fostered significant improvements in relations between the residents in these poorer districts and other citizens and there are plans to build more cable car lines.
Another interesting thing about the city (and it is by no means alone) is this: if you want to satisfy any vice, you head to the nearest church. Iglesia de la Veracruz is a known hotspot for prostitution, with plenty of girls hanging around outside the church, and plenty more pay-per-hour rooms in the surrounding buildings. Along the street beside the Basilica of our Lady of Candelaria is the place to go to buy fake DVDs and hardcore porn alongside crosses and devotional items for worshippers. An intriguing place! Just for the record, bartering is key here.
The park opposite the Basilica and outside the metro station, Parque Berrío, is a great place to people watch. Women walk around with flasks selling coffee (terrible, terrible coffee) to locals who are enjoying a singalong to traditional music or relaxing on steps discussing anything and everything with fellow Paisas (and you too if you stop by).
Returning to religion briefly, the people of Colombia have an unofficial 11th Commandment which we briefly discussed on the tour.
11. Don’t give papaya
It means don’t present the opportunity to be robbed. If your phone is hanging out of your pocket and somebody takes it, it is YOUR fault according to Colombians and this commandment. Fair enough perhaps. Strange phrase though.
We walked through Botero Plaza, absolutely full of enormous bronze statues in his famous disproportionate style. I’d love to come back here to spend longer, the tour takes you through the park but not quite slow enough to enjoy all the artwork. The park surrounds Palacio de la Cultura, a stunning building with a hilarious backstory. It was only part finished by a Belgian architect and when he left, the proud Paisas were absolutely certain they could use his plans to finish it. Turns out they were extraordinarily wrong so, on one side, the gorgeous building looks like it has been partly obscured by a fairly ugly building with trees growing up the side to hide it – turns out that monstrosity is the work of the Colombians. Once you’ve seen the other facade this contrast makes sense, but now I know the story I also find the finished article strangely endearing.
The last stop on the tour is poignant. On 10th June 1995, San Antonio park was hosting an open air concert and was absolutely packed with people enjoying themselves when a bomb went off, killing 23 and wounding over 100 people. The bomb had been planted under a Botero statue of a bird. The sculpture was ripped apart by the unimaginable force of the explosion which killed and injured so many. During the clean up, the major was about to have the statue disposed of, when he received a phonecall from Botero himself who suggested than instead of removing the poor bird, it could be installed as a memorial.
Today, the Wounded Bird (Pajero Herido), is a memorial and also a symbol of the city. Just like Medellín, he has been through a lot, he may be hurt and bleeding, but he is still standing. It brought a lump to my throat hearing about the horror of living in Medellín in the time of Escobar and in the bloody aftermath while we were stood in the presence of such a powerful symbol. It does even now as I write this. The people of Medellín have been through so much and it is quite a testament to their spirit that they are emerging from such tragedy to become the most advanced city in Colombia, using creative methods to unite communities and individuals.
Note: I haven’t written here about the current/recent political history but if it would be of interest I certainly can, just let me know.