I almost skipped visiting Medellin, and that would have been a major fail on my part, as it has actually been one of my favorite places! Not only is it a beautiful city, it has an incredibly rich and inspiring history.
Unfortunately, Medellin (and Colombia in general) is more commonly known internationally for parts of its tragic history when it was the home of the drug lord Pablo Escobar (romanticized by certain tv series) and was the most dangerous city in the world.
But today, part of the beauty of the city is that has transformed itself into a much safer city, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, with beautiful public spaces enjoyed by its citizens.
Medellin has a lot going for it – it has a beautifully warm climate (akin to southern California), is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and is a perfect climate for producing the cash crops of coffee, cocoa, and of course the other stimulant for which it became infamous, coca.)
It originally became a wealthy region for its railroad and illegal smuggling routes of cheap goods INTO the country. Those same smuggling routes later were used in the opposite direction to export coca by mafia-type groups that got richer and more powerful each year, fueled by the growing demand from North America. Add into the mix the armed extreme leftists and rights, and you have the molotov coctail for creating the most dangerous city in the world.
Through a complicated history that I will oversimplify by saying that through peace accords and urban revitalization, neighborhoods became safer and a beautiful culture began to emerge into public spaces. Once dangerous squares filled with drug addicts and homeless people, many parks are now filled with statues by the famous Paisa artist Botero and people strolling along enjoying the nice weather.
Services became available for those previously occupying those public spaces and the spaces themselves were transformed to be more hospitable. Buildings were transformed into libraries – designed as cool and interesting places to hang out, and they provided access social programs. And the metro was built, not only helping people get around, but as a symbol of pride for Paisas (people from the Medellin region).
The city is divided into large communities called Comunas, and Comuna 13 was a war zone between the different factions in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Our guide through Comuna 13 lived there through the violence. Her neighbors were armed members of the guerrilla groups, who used intimidation to get what they wanted. The area was notorious for drug trafficking and it was common to hear shots and helicopters passing above. One couldn’t freely leave and enter the neighborhood.
Then there was a hugely controversial government siege in 2002 to oust the guerrilla groups. For our guide, this marked a turning point, where within 2 years, the neighborhood started to turn itself around – it started to be safe to walk in the streets, and the beginnings of a transformation could be felt. (It was controversial because it also resulted in the disappearance and death of many people’s family members.)
Now, what were provisional shack/like houses have been transformed especially by the street art decorating their walls. As Lina guided us through the streets, she explained the meaning behind each work of graffiti, most of which depict this transformation – the suffering, the death, the injustice, the pain of a few decades ago, as well as the hope, the strength of the people, and the power of love to transform.
As a resident, Lina knew each artist and she explained that the neighborhood gets together to decide what areas will be painted and to assign areas to each of the artists that would like to do a piece.
Another big impact for the revitalization was the installation of outdoors, covered escalators in the neighborhood (sorry, I don’t have a photo). It may seem strange, but since the neighborhood is built on the side of a mountain, these escalators first helped people (especially the elderly) be able to get around better, and now are an added tourist attraction too.
For me, it was unbelievable that this sweet, humble, intelligent person standing before me had lived her young adulthood in the middle of a conflict zone, with neighbors as armed guerrilla members. For her, she said, it was unbelievable that she now not only walks freely in the streets, but that tourists from all over the world come to visit her neighborhood. It is something she never could have even imagined before; it is like a dream, she said.
Standing in the street corner, waiting for the bus to leave Comuna 13, a restaurant had the music loud (nothing unusual there for Colombia), and I noticed that 2 couples got up and started dancing salsa in the tiny space between tables on the sidewalk. Along with the break dancers and rappers we had passed earlier, I was moved by this casual, appreciation for life, a celebration of self-expression and the simple joy of being able to safely be out in the streets in their communities, something they didn’t enjoy a few decades ago here.