Clean Break, Medellin – from dark past to bright future
Aug 27, 2014
At the risk of enraging pleasure seekers and hardened travellers the world over, a campaign to improve the image of Medellin, second city of Colombia, is long overdue. Hollywood’s portrayals of Medellin as a city under siege, a rundown and backward capital of murder and contraband, could not be further from the truth today. That reputation is due, above all, to the actions of the late Pablo Escobar, the billionaire godfather of international cocaine trafficking, But this enchanting city has changed and continues to change: welcome to Colombia’s new cultural heartland.
Now, with an emphasis on the arts, cultural enrichment, three increasingly strong football teams and the beguilingly seductive nature of the Paisas – people from the Antioquia region – Medellin is experiencing a renaissance and overturning its image as a place best avoided.
Set deep in the Aburra Valley and with a population comfortably over 2 million, Medellin is now more likely to be described as the city of eternal springtime, with its agreeable climate and verdant hillside avenues. Strolling and window shopping down the Carrera Junin and taking in the cool and shady relief of the city’s small yet well-preserved lungs – the botanical gardens – or sipping a tinto (coffee) on the steps of the Museum of Antioquia in Berrio Park, it is hard to believe that not so long ago this was the world’s capital of crime.
It is no exaggeration to say that, from Wednesday onwards, just about everybody comes to the parks of El Poblado to have a drink or two and pass the evening before hitting one of the ubiquitous salsa clubs or fashionable bars that line the neon-lit streets. In fact, it seems as if the whole concept of relaxing at the end of the day with a Cuba libre (rum and coke) or an aguardiente (an aniseed flavoured liqueur) could have been created especially for the people of Medellin: it is less a pastime than a way of life.
The Paisas have suffered for so long that it would be all too easy to dismiss their legendary hospitality as merely an extreme and intoxicated reaction to their new-found freedom. Historically a hard-working and resilient people, to attribute such strength of character to basic delirium would be wrong. Paisas have always fought for their city and are succeeding in pulling it far out of the shadow of the capital, Bogotá.
The two-line metro system and new cable car installments built to unite the poorer hillside districts with downtown are proof that the city means business and intends to overcome any adversity. Can you imagine a more enviable way of commuting to work than via cable car? Today the city boasts an investment boom which is nearly 300 per cent higher than a decade ago. Riding the metro that seemingly glides incongruously over Medellin’s colonial-style rooftops, one cannot help feel, and above all hope, that despite all the issues that plague Colombia this city will pull though.
This thoroughly modern Latin American city exudes an unmistakably positive atmosphere. Although Spanish laid the original foundations ion 1675 there is very little colonial architecture remaining. Aside from the original cathedral and a few old building dotted around, the city has given itself over to sleek public buildings and parks laid alongside the cramped bustle of urban living. From the ultra-modern sections of the public library to the impressive home of the public utilities authority, the Edificio Inteligente (literally, the ‘clever building’ – so called for its energy-efficient and green credentials), this is a city on the move. This must have been what city planners wanted for Brasilia but arguably failed to realize.
Any Paisa will engage a visitor in conversation and talk earnestly of the troubles that were inflicted upon their city. Of course there are still scars. Fernando Botero, a well-known artist and sculptor from Medellin had one of his most striking pieces desecrated by a bomb. The Bird of Peace sculpture was blasted apart in San Antonio Park in 1995 and responsibility for the crime was quickly attributed to the leftist Farc guerrilla group. Instead of tearing the sculpture down, Botero requested that the bronze sculpture be left in place in its now mangled form. Beside it he placed a new Bird Place. It was a defiant act highlighting the futility of violence and providing a monument to those who died in the attack..
After a filling unhealthy lunch of the local specialty dish bandeja paisa – a substantial platter of rice, beans, plantain, chorizo, blood sausage, avocado, ground beef, pork scratchings, corn bread, topped off with a fried egg – I set about getting a greater understanding of the famed resilience of the Paisa people.
Ana Maria, an industrial design student on her afternoon break, offered a remarkable insight into the strength and belief inherent in the Medellin psyche. ‘Medellin can be considered the future of Colombia. It is like looking through a keyhole at the future. If my country can work itself out this is what we could be seeing everywhere: modernity, courtesy, jobs and warmth in a tolerant and multiracial nation.
‘We have a bit of everything here; did you know that there is a massive following of Argentinean culture, for example?’ I confessed I did not, but later came across several streets boasting tango clubs and dedications to the godfather of tango, Carlos Gardel, who died in a plane crash in the city in 1935.
One hopes that bold statements such as Ana Maria’s can continue to be uttered so fearlessly about Medellin. For a place that has suffered so much to have achieved such a turnaround is nothing short of miraculous.. But, when the people talk of Medellin now they discuss the triumph of desire and the will of the people to defeat corruption and cocaine-fuelled notoriety. Medellin is now back on the map.