TRAVEL: Medellín, Colombia

In what was formerly known as the most dangerous city in the world, I encountered not drugs and violence, but zen followers, reinvented slums and party-hard Paisas.

Nearly two decades since Colombia’s drug nightmare reached its climax, Medellín is still struggling to shake off its dark reputation. The twist is that the city – Colombia’s second-most populated after capital Bogotá – could have been a travel agent’s dream. Its oft-forgotten merits include year-round spring weather and remarkable botany; wondrous colonial architecture; a thriving fashion trade and the unmistakeable warmth of its people.

The back-story is Colombia’s most famous export after cocaine:  for two decades Pablo Escobar terrorised (and often ended) the lives of thousands of Antioquians; in 1991, at the height of his power, there were up to 20 recorded murders a day. What was particularly galling to the government and their American aides was that  Escobar and his gangs achieved such legendary status in the northern mountainside slums of Santa Domingo Savio – thanks to a system of Robin Hood-esque scams – that candles were lit in tribute and altars emblazoned with Escobar’s image.

Street urchins and teen rebels were recruited as sicarios (hired assassins) paid extraordinary amounts by Escobar’s croonies to hunt down and murder any policemen they found in the area – five million pesos for each dead officer; a million and a half for agents; 800,000 for any wounded but not killed.

On December 2 1993, a day after his 44th birthday, Escobar was shot dead by the police. It was the beginning of a challenging new era where citizens struggled to rebuild Medellín amidst the riots following Escobar’s death. What’s astonishing is that, despite this grim history,  nobody here wants – or needs – your pity.

The general consensus among paisas – as Colombians from the state of Antioquia, of which Medellin is the capital, are known – is that life is too short to dwell on the past. Never has there been a city more determined to prove its worth to the world. That includes not wasting their time on recounting their losses – our tour guide nonchalantly referred to the cocaine-led bloodshed as ‘the situation’, while Escobar’s name is rarely ever mentioned.

 

The shanty towns are slowly being transformed, part of city mayor Sergio Fajardo’s campaign to take Medellin ‘From Fear to Hope’. One of the first steps was to bring the polar ends of the community fabric together, in the form of the Metrocable, unveiled in 2006. Travel to Acevedo metro station and hop on the strikingly modern gondolas that take you from the city’s affluent centre to these once remote mountainside regions – what was once a day-long trek by foot now takes a matter of minutes.


On a weekday afternoon the labryinthian Santo Domingo Savio looks sleepy and at peace – wrinkled old paisas smoke cigarettes on their balconies, watching the world pass below; others enjoy beer in the shade of a local bar. The tin-roofed houses were once painted in neutral tones to avoid association with any political parties; now they are daubed in lavender, blue, yellow and vermilion. Colombians love flowers – they export millions to the UK – and brilliantly coloured bouquets burst out of shop fronts and windowboxes. Stalls are dotted around the roads selling tumblers of swollen physalis fruits and slices of just-ripe mango sprinkled with salt.

In agreeable contrast to the quiet in the mountains is Medellín’s rapidly expanding city centre. Shopping malls are abundant with windows full of famous Colombian textiles and expensive lingerie (‘the best in the world’, says our guide) while skyscrapers are planned all around the capital.

The arts are highly valued – the Cementario de San Pedro is reknowned for its operas by moonlight, while famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s voluptuous sculptures are proudly displayed across the city. Head to the Parque San Antonio to contemplate Botero’s ‘Bird of Peace’. When the original was disfigured by a guerilla bomb blast, the artist produced an identical one on the condition that both were displayed side-by-side, as a reminder of the obstacles one faces to achieve peace.

Much has been done to allow citizens (and indeed visitors) to feel part of the city. There are lots of new or redesigned public parks – the most iconic being the Parque de los Pies Descalzos (‘barefoot park’) with its zen architecture and philosophy. Come here to unwind after the bustle of Santa Domingo Savio.  Make use of the features intended to relax the soul:  a calming bamboo forest or a therapeutic stroll (barefoot) across the elements – grass, stone, wood, sand – culminating in a meditative dip in cool waters.

Come nightfall, head down to the cosmopolitan district of El Poblado in the south. Parque Lleras is a hub of fashionable bars, cafés and restaurants. Excite your palate with ceviche or substantial steaks at the lofty Herbario (Carerra 43D, 10-30; 311 2537), followed by colourful cocktails at the mellow Melodie Lounge (Carrera 37, 10-19; 268 1190).

The square swarms with Medellín’s young and trendy almost every single night, losing themselves in the music and copious amounts of the local liqueur, arguardiente (literally ‘firewater’) – the whiplash of aniseed from the Antioquian tipple of choice is not for the faint-hearted. But the madness really begins at Mango’s Disco further uptown (Carerra 42, 67A-151; 277 6123), which feels like a bar, circus and stripclub all in one. The party goes on past closing hour, but if you can, take the time away from the salsa beats, firewater and passionate locals to find a view of the valley’s mountainside villages in the deep dark of night.

Medellín’s rolling twilight landscape is like no other, a poetic representation of finding beauty in even the most dilapidated of areas – you might be forgiven for imagining the thousands of hillside lights filling the skies to be a galaxy of shooting stars, suspended in time.

 

Originally published in Time Out London 

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