Celebrating 45 Years – in Medellin

Brenda and I are celebrating 45 years of marriage this year, and we decided to do so by visiting Medellin, Colombia. When we were young and newly married, we would not have considered going to Medellin, Colombia. It was rife with violence between drug cartels, government forces, paramilitary forces, and individual citizens caught in the middle. Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel ran rampant throughout and over the city, controlling government leaders, the economy, and complete neighborhoods. It was known as the most dangerous city in the world.

Today, Medellin is a beautiful, modern city that is perhaps the most clear model of city transformation in the world today. It is safe, clean, and very affordable. Where gangs used to inhabit city squares, there is social architecture, and where children used to be shot playing soccer, caught in the crossfire of drug war violence, there are schools promoting “education with dignity.”

In Communa 13, one of the former portions of the city under drug cartel control, there are vibrant tourist, music, food, and art cultures. It is truly one of the most colorful places we’ve seen around the world. Murder, kidnappings, and people “disappearing” used to be every day occurrences here, but today there is obvious pride in the community. It is not easy for a city to overcome a negative self- and world-image, but Medellin is doing it. There is pride not only in what Medellin has to offer, but also how it has survived, transformed itself, and is prospering.

Paisas (people from Medellin) proudly speak of the city’s transformation, and they say proof is that tourists have started coming to Medellin. During the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, tourists didn’t visit Medellin – it was too dangerous. Paisas now eagerly welcome visitors, and inwardly feel pride each time they do, because the visitors signal the great change that has occurred in their city.

Medellin sits at 5,000 above sea level, with perpetual spring all year long. The weather was absolutely perfect the entire time we were there (June). While the bowl that the city sits in amidst Andean peaks is good-sized, the city has outgrown its original flat area.

It has grown upwards in two ways. Firstly, it has grown up the steep sides of the Andes that surround the city. So, everywhere you look you can see the city expanding up the mountainsides. It makes for very scenic views. Secondly, it has grown upwards in terms of high-rise buildings. Most people live in apartment buildings, most of them between 15 and 30 floors high. The landscape of Medellin is a sea of very tall buildings, attractively and creatively designed. There are still some single-residence neighborhoods, but they are not easily visible to the visitors. It is one thing that many Paisas regret – that the old Colombian homes and traditional neighborhoods have been replaced with high-rises. But, they still smile about it because, again, it signals the great change the city continues to experience.

Our granddaughter’s au pair is from Medellin, and we were privileged to meet her parents while we were there. What delightful and wonderful people! We immediately loved them. We enjoyed touring their neighborhood, complete with over a dozen high-rises, each with its own swimming pool, gym, playground, sports field, etc. The complex had a supermarket, clinic, pharmacy, restaurants, etc. Their obvious pride and contentment with their neighborhood again spoke of the transformation of Medellin. And it made us realize how much these people have lived through, and how much their peaceful life now means to them.

We stayed in an apartment near the popular neighborhood of El Poblado. Uber drivers took us all over the city, usually for $2-5 a trip, depending on the distance. The first morning there, we walked 6.2 kilometers from our apartment all the way to downtown Medellin, specifically to Plaza Botero and El Hueco.

Plaza Botero sits in front of the Museum of Antioquia (the department (state or province that Medellin is the capital of). The Medellin artist Fernando Botero is famous for his “chubby” or “misproportioned” works of art. In the plaza outside the museum, there are 23 bronze statues by Fernando Botero. You can get an idea of the style from the photos. Inside the museum, you find an entire floor of paintings, drawings, statues, etc., done by Botero in his signature style. He has donated all of them to the museum.

Our new Colombian friends were surprised when we told them we went to El Hueco. This is probably not a typical visitor’s destination, but to this couple who have lived in Latin America for so many years, the town’s vibrant street vendors and markets always are a draw to us. You can find everything you can imagine at the best prices in town. But, it is crowded, noisy, and a little bit intimidating if you aren’t accustomed to the scene. We loved it. It is the heart of the city where the common, working people are doing all they can to make a living.

Medellin grew on us the longer we were there. The people were absolutely friendly and helpful, and the city itself is beautifully unique, as it climbs the slopes of the Andes all around. We just may find ourselves there again in the future.

In the next blog, I will share about two places outside Medellin that we visited, both very unique in their own ways: El Peñol and Guatape.

Until next time . .

This is Paul, a part-time expat turned full-time.

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