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  • Writer's pictureSanni & Gerri@

Medellin. Don't tell me that change is impossible!

23. to 26. November

After the wonderful and decelerated days in Filandia, we feel ready for the next big-city-experience and take the bus; like always; to Medellín. If you ask Colombians where they would like to live, in their own country, an overwhelming majority respond with "Medellín". However, this must be one of the recent changes in the country and surprises us at the first moment. Medellín was one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the world for decades. Pablo Escobar's drug cartel and the Colombian civil war have given Medellín a very bloody history. But the city has not only drastically reduced its murder rate over the last two decades. It is also considered a role of urban development today. And so the majority of tourists rave about Colombia's second largest metropolis, which now boasts itself as one of the safest cities in the country. We are curious about what awaits us.

Like almost all tourists we choose our accommodation in the El Poblado neighbourhood. There are countless restaurants, bars and cafés here. The streets are modern and clean, lined with fitness clubs and offices. Life almost feels like you're in a big European city. Here we can walk around at any time of day or night. Sanni has a small paranoid approach to one or the other, supposedly dark corner and doesn't want to go any further. In retrospect, however, this turns out to be completely unfounded and henceforth she is braver next time.


Comuna no. 13 San Javier

We do not have a special plan for Medellin and so our first activity is to join the much advertised and must-do walking tour through the neighbourhood "Comuna no. 13". Our tour guide is Kevin. Unlike many other tour guides, he does not wear official clothing, but is in normal everyday clothes (Adida's training pants). Besides us, our group consists of two more people. That's great. Together, we start our journey by public bus in the direction of Comuna no. 13 San Javier, as the district is officially called.

With about 43 inhabitants on 1,000 m2, this part of Medelin is one of the most densely populated areas. However, the actual number of inhabitants in the Comuna is probably significantly higher. Not all people are officially registered here. Most of the houses were built illegally many years ago. In the countless nested houses, which are mainly located on steep slopes, people still live mostly in poor conditions today.

Nevertheless, a considerable change has taken place

Until the end of the 1980s, the district suffered from the aforementioned Medellín cartel and the ongoing civil war. It gained sad fame through numerous bloody and deadly clashes between rival drug gangs. Medellín recorded one of the highest murder rates in the world at that time with more than 380 killing offences per 100,000 inhabitants. It was not until 2017 that the first tourists came here after an official visit by Bill Clinton, accompanied by corresponding media attention. At that time, the killing rate was officially around 21 victims per 100,000 inhabitants. After all, this is already 18 times less than in 1991. In 2021, the official murders was 405 for the entire city. With more than 2.5 million inhabitants, the murder rate has fallen significantly again.

Our guide Kevin, 27, grew up here and tells us about his memories as a child, in which the parents constantly urged caution and the violence was omnipresent. Even today, of course, not everything is good here. There are still "no-go" areas in the neighbourhood that even he avoids. And the drug problem has not disappeared either. For example, we learn that the shoes hanging at power lines in front of a house are a sign that drugs can be bought here.

We have seen this many times while travelling and thought it was "art" or a bad joke.

The fact that we are now strolling along here and cheerfully taking pictures of ourselves, the surroundings and street art seems somehow as unimaginable as it is questionable. You may rightly find it a little strange to stroll through one of the still poorest neighbourhoods of the city photographing. At the same time, tourism seems to be one of the essential keys to the already enormous change in the Comuna. Young hip hop artists perform their dance and rap talent, little boys show us a card trick and an old lady sells handmade chocolate and ice cream. The art of street artists is exhibited in small galleries and miniatures of them can be bought. While "jouldering" we remember the different graffiti artists and styles in Bogota. And in fact, we recognise the one or the other artist here and explore the messages of the Medellín graffiti scene. Everywhere there are food and drink stalls from the inhabitants. Thus, everyone here earns a regular, albeit small, income.

Besides some bloody military operations, the departure for transformation in recent years are the six orange, covered giant open-air escalators, which opened in December 2011. The facility with a total length of 348 metres, which is divided into six sections, overcomes a height difference of around 28 floors and thus brings us a good 400 metres higher. This enables the inhabitants of the neighbourhood to be more mobile and participate in societie‘s life downtown Medellín. In the past, the path down was only possible via old steep stairs, lasted hours and was therefore extremely arduous, especially for the elderly. Also part of the progress is the construction of its own metro station, including a cable car. The cable cars look something like the ski gondolas in Austria. However, we do not drive up snow-capped mountains with them, but to the highest residential districts in the region. Thus, for little money, residents can drive directly through the whole city. For us travellers, this has the advantage that we can get great views for 2,000 pesos, which is about 0.45 cents.


Downtown Medellín

To explore the historical centre of Medellín, we take part in a free walking tour again. Our guide Julio was born in here. His parents emigrated with him to the USA when he was little. It was probably more like an escape, because the city seemed too dangerous for them to raise a child at the end of the 1980s. When Julio was of legal age, however, he went back to Medellín, studied here and has been actively committed to the positive development of the city since. During the almost 4-hour tour, we learn a lot of interesting things. For example, about the most important and relevant culture in the history of Colombia:

The Paisas

The word Paisa derives from the word Paisano (countryman), but is considered in Colombia as a description of a subculture of people who come from the most original departments such as Antioquia, Quindío, and the northeast of Tolimas. The Paisa is considered as being productive, active, economical and entrepreneurial. Due to the geographical location, which is very mountainous, the paisas were very independent of the culture of the Spaniards during colonisation, of which one is still very proud. Even today, many men in Medellín wear the typical Paisa clothing, consisting of shirt, poncho, cowboy hat and most importantly: a shoulder bag. On foot, we immerse ourselves in the hustle and bustle of the streets and squares of the city to understand more about Medellin's history, development and conflicts.

Of course, the dark and violent past of the city is always a topic. When we asked about the great myth Pablo Escobar, Julio mentioned to be patient and explains that we will talk about this topic later in a more "quiet place". Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, "El Patrón", still polarises today. No wonder; considering how many people have lost their lifes in "his war" and how many made money as a result of it. Narcos is seen very differently here. While some street children wear a T-shirt with the face of El Patrón, you can't even say his name out loud in the subway. Arrived at Plaza San Antonio, we will learn a little more about it and Julio also gives insights into his personal opinion, without "listeners". Whether Escobar is seen as good or evil depends in his opinion on one's own income, but especially on the familie‘s past and their status in society. Of course, we also talk about the Netflix series Narcos, which in his perception is relatively authentic, but unfortunately also contributes to the myth and a resulting Narcos tourism. Allegedly, wealthy tourists can still do a "secret tour" for cocaine production in the mountains today. Colombia currently exports more coke than in Escobar's time.

In 1995, the guerilla movement Farc had hidden a bomb under the bronze bird of Colombian artist Fernando Botero on San Antonio Square. The explosion during a music festival on the square killed at least 30 people and injured more than 200. Pablo Escobar was shot two years earlier just a few meters away from this square. The destroyed bronze bird in San Antonio Square in Medellín commemorates the dark times as a memorial. Belly and tail of the bronze statue are completely shredded. Only the head looks stoically up. In 2000, Botero donated an identical intact bird to the city, which has been standing right next to it since. The birds are now also known as Birds of Peace.

Fortunately, we also see many positive aspects and places. The strong will to peace, the collective efforts of the inhabitants and many different social investments allow us today to walk in the city of "eternal spring" and to feel completely safe as tourists here. For example, many city-famous focal points of crime have been converted into public parks in order to make them safer for all residents again. Today, the "Plaza de Botero" and "La Libertad" as well as the "Parque de las Luces" are amongst the unmissable places in the city. Another very nice example of the participation of the population are the numerous sports facilities distributed throughout the city, which can be used free of charge upon presentation of a membership card.

In order to make education accessible to all, Medellín has a system of different libraries which use is free of charge for all residents. It not only provides media, but also provides a wide-ranging program for all ages to offer an alternative to crime, especially to residents of the poorer neighbourhoods. Of course, not everything is great in Medellín. Julio tells us that life behind the superficial urban planning measures has not yet improved as drastically for a large part of the population as one would think at first glance. But the strong will of the inhabitants and the great pride in what we have achieved are noticeable everywhere.

Our stay in Medellin was clearly one of the most heart-touching of our trip. What this city has created and changed in a relatively short period of time impresses us very much. In this respect, we gladly fulfil the wish of our guide Julio:

Tell the people of the world how beautiful and safe it is in Colombia and especially in Medellín.

So that many more people come here and thus support further progress!


*The English version of this blog is supported by automated translation*

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