Medellín was a bit of a mythological dream place to me for a long time. Well, for many months at least; to be honest, prior to watching Narcos last December, Medellín wasn’t on my mental map at all. For those of you who haven’t watched the Netflix television series Narcos, the show takes place in Colombia from the late 1970s-1990s and follows the wealthiest criminal in history, Pablo Escobar, as he grows from small-time smuggler and dealer to the world’s single-most important cocaine kingpin. Escobar’s cartel was specifically known as the Medellín Cartel because of where they were based.
Then I arrived here and began talking to fellow Peace Corps Volunteers about their favorite places that they’d visited in Colombia, and repeatedly the city was brought up. They all praised it for its weather, for its metro, for its food, for it being Medellín and not the coast. Given all of this, as soon as Marty confirmed he was coming to Colombia for a visit, I booked our flights to the interior.
Medellín is situated in the Aburrá Valley, formed by one of the 3 branches of the Andes Mountains that are situated within Colombia. It’s the capitol of its department, Antioquia, and the second most populous city in the country (behind Bogotá). The airport is actually located about a 45-minute drive outside of the city, and the ride in was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Seriously. For $60,000 COP (about $20), Marty and I got a sleek white car to drive us that distance. The driver was really quiet. He had the windows down, and I was a bit like a puppy dog – that cool air felt so refreshing after the oppressive heat of the coast. He wound down the crazy mountain switchbacks at 100km/hr+, and we gaped at the massive city sprawled before us, creeping up the sides of the valley towards the tops of the surrounding peaks.
One of the best things we did on our visit was take the Real City Tour. Led by a ginger Paisa named Carolina, we met in the neighborhood where we were staying, El Poblado (a wealthy and trendy neighborhood filled with luxury housing, hostels, and great restaurants), and took the metro as a group to the downtown area.
The first thing we did was sit down together in some shade near the government plaza and got a brief history lesson to understand how Medellín got to the place it is today and how its people, the Paisas, came to be who they are. The following is a mixture of what I remember and what Wikipedia is telling me, so it’s probably slightly inaccurate.
When Spanish conquistadors first stumbled upon the Aburrá Valley in 1541, they found an indigenous population there who raised corn and sold salt…and also had impressive amounts of gold. Hungry for riches, the conquistadors said, “Yo, this is ours now.” The indigenous people put up little fight to the jerks who came in and stripped them of their land; in fact, when the first settlement was officially founded in the valley, it was created with 80 of their people (in that now wealthy and trendy El Poblado neighborhood, where you can find 3-for-1s and lots of shots bars).
The settlements went through various changes during the first 200 years, mostly surrounding name changes and segregation, and it remained pretty isolated. It was hard to get to. Imagine going down into that valley on horseback, let alone with a cart rolling behind you carrying your junk. As a result of this isolation, the Paisa accent is very distinctive from that of the rest of the country. There’s a sing-songy Italianness to it and lots more “zh” sounds (Med-ay-ZHEEN is how they pronounce the city name).
Finally in the late 1800s, they realized they could be making a lot more money off their gold if they could get it out more easily. They contracted Francisco Javier Cisneros, the engineer who designed the pier in Puerto Colombia, to build a railroad into the city. This sparked their industrial revolution and the money – and people – started rolling in. During the first half of the 20th century, the population grew sixfold. Somewhere in this timeframe is also when the world began discovering the greatness of coffee, and this quickly became an even more important export than gold.
Then the 80s and 90s happened and the city was a very violent and dangerous place; the number of assassinations made by the Medellín cartel is estimated to be about 3,500, including 500 Medellín police officers, an attorney general, the governor, and the departmental commander of the police. Our tour guide Carolina shared that as a child, her family was afraid to leave the house. There was general terror everywhere. There will be more to the city’s story below, but I want to share here about the end of our tour. The last stop is a plaza that is big and empty – no trees, no plants, just cement. It was built to hosts cultural gatherings and events. During a concert in 1995, a bomb was placed inside of a Botero sculpture and detonated killing 29 young people and destroying the $2 million work. A few years later, an official was about to remove the sculpture when Francisco Botero, the artist himself, called up and said something like, “You can’t let this history be forgotten. You can’t let these lives be forgotten. Put up a plaque to remember them by, name each of them. And place this new $2 million statue which I am donating to you by its side, so that our people can see how devastating our past was, but how complete our future is.” Check it out from the front on Google Maps.
But someone at some point had enough leadership chops to recognize that the best way to develop the city and move it forward would be not just to squash the drug cartels, but to also invest in the city. One of the major and most impressive investments was in the form of an integrated public transit system (unlike anything I’ve seen in any other city here). The metro system opened in 1995 and allowed people easy and affordable access to the whole city. With a combination of trains, cable cars (like ski gondolas that take you to the higher neighborhoods), and buses, it makes getting from the poorest neighborhoods up at the top of the hills down to the central part of town feasible. They even have a newer bike share system which all residents with Metro cards have access to for free.
Other major investments have included transformational architecture projects: parts of the city that were previously most unsafe were changed for the better through these projects. One example is that a main plaza in the city center, a former roofed market that was known as much for selling drugs as for selling fruits was converted to a big open plaza with tall colored LED lights, some seating, and a library (top photo above). Libraries have been a huge part of this transformational architecture. By providing residents of the most unsafe neighborhoods safe places to pass the time that also provide educational opportunities, these neighborhoods can now be traversed without fear. In the second photo above, the two large box things at the top of the hill are part of one of those library projects. The buildings are made to look like rocks as an homage to the geography. Unfortunately it was under construction when we visited, but the renderings here are pretty impressive.
All of this history and all of these measures are why, in Paisa Carolina’s own words, people outside of the region have a certain perception of Paisas. 1. They think they’re better than everyone else and 2. they’re always looking for a way to cheat you. Thanks to their industrial revolution, they are shrewd negotiators who experienced a massive growth, made it through tough times and still manage to have their grasp on super important developmental measures like transportation and education. And that is why Medellín is the great city it is.
In upcoming posts, I’ll share more about specific things we did/saw while we were there. I’m excited to share more of this adventure with you!