Nestled in the Andes Mountains, rising from the fertile Aburrá Valley, a sprawling metropolis emerges.
Medellín. A once fractured amalgam of diverse communities, now bound together, I would find, by an unlikely combination of art and a sophisticated, modern infrastructure.
You are likely familiar with this place because of that show on Netflix. I pray you, dear reader, continue on and allow me to introduce anew a city that has so much more wonder and nuance than the words “Plata o Plomo”.
After a fruitless three day stay in Cali marred by rain and a bout with sickness, I fly to Medellín for a shockingly cheap $25. Such prices are the norm for flights within Colombia. After taking a miserable, uncomfortable, winding bus ride from Ipiales to Cali, going by air for my next venture was an easy choice.
Affordable airfare, I would find, is just one component of Colombia’s evolving, dynamic infrastructure.
Upon arriving at my hostel (Purple Monkey in the Poblado neighborhood), I set out for my first ride on the Medellín Metro. Established in 1995, the first and only metro system in Colombia connects Medellín’s city center with the dozens of surrounding burrows and ten other cities. In many ways it has become a symbol for a city; an engineering feat that has united Colombians across social strata and ethnic roots.
One Colombian man I spoke with challenged me to find any semblance of gunk or trash littered in the railcars. Indeed, I would find them to be remarkably clean. Medellín’s citizens are too proud of their metro to leave it dirty.
I cruise along the railways from Poblado (Medellín’s most posh and gentrified neighborhood – I didn’t stay there too long) through centers of commerce and industry, eventually passing by the downtown core. I arrive at the Acevedo station where I would begin my ascent up the mountainside by way of a cable car.
Completed in 2005 as an expansion to the Medellín Metro, the Metrocable connected several other large, hillside districts previously removed from the metro network. I hop on a car bound for the Santo Domingo Savio district, where I would arrive to find incredible views of the city.
While taking in the viewpoint, a young woman snaps photos nearby. Our eyes meet and she smiles. Later I would see her again, taking photos of some street art while walking through Santo Domingo Savio.
“It’s a nice community, isn’t it?” I ask her.
Blank stare. I’m already flushed with embarrassment – that feeling doesn’t go away even after a year of solo travel and countless awkwardly attempted introductions.
I try again in Spanish. Her eyes light up and she excitedly agrees with me.
I tell her that’s my sister’s name.
Our conversation is quickly cut off as an opportunistic young boy approaches us and asks if we want to learn about the district. How could we refuse?
The little dude spoke in fast-tongue, slang-riddled Spanish, so I missed much of what he said. Long story short, his neighborhood, much like many in Medelliín, was once extremely dangerous, plagued by poverty, lack of jobs, and the presence of cartels. The Metrocable helped alleviate these societal pressures, opening avenues for opportunity in the city center and drawing tourism to the area. Now Santo Domingo Savio is a thriving, charming little nook with parks, street art and an array of restaurants and shops.
The boy knows no other community but the one brought to life by Metrocable’s establishment. He will grow up with a host of opportunities that his parents never had.
Opportunity, I would discover, is what drew Ana to Medellín.
She is Venezuelan. If you’ve watched the news at all recently, you already know the sad state of her country. I ask her to join me for a few drinks.
We stop by a corner store, grab a few beers and bags of chips (she looks disgusted when I grab some Doritos and insists I try a local brand…admittedly they were much tastier).
We exchange stories while sitting in a local park. Ana is an aspiring architect who left Venezuela to finish her education. She recently graduated from the University of Medellín and is applying to jobs in the area. There is no opportunity for her in her home country, she says, the scorched earth of a failing communist regime has completely devastated the economy.
She has been gone for almost a year now, but paints a vivid picture from what she recalls coupled with what she has heard from family and friends. Massive protests at all hours. Rampant looting despite most groceries and pharmacies being all but empty. A severe shortage of drinking water. Families living in the streets, combing through trash for their daily meals. A currency so devalued that it makes more sense to weigh bills on a scale than count them out one-by-one.
Luckily her immediate family lives in a smaller city outside the chaotic capital city of Caracas, where the depression has hit the hardest. But she has friends there.
“Every day I wake up expecting something bad to have happened to them”
It was not always this way. Venezuela was once the crown jewel of South America, imbued with wealth from their vast oil reserves. In the early 2000’s, Venezuela’s infamous and polarizing President, Hugo Chavez, enacted sweeping socialist policies that ensured this wealth was redistributed to the masses. The country was happy, healthy, and prosperous.
So what happened? The simple answer to this complex question is that Chavez overplayed his hand. He spent money he didn’t have. Their reserves dried up and the price of oil plummeted. Burdened with insurmountable debt and little foreign aid, the results are what you see today.
Ana recalls from her childhood that there were many Colombians in her community whom had fled their homeland to seek out opportunity. It is strange, she observes, how quickly the tables have turned for her in a matter of years.
Indeed, there was a time when Colombia faced a similar magnitude of hardships like those beset on Venezuela today. This is emblematic in another community of Medellín, Comuna 13, where I find an array of beautiful and colorful street art.
Accompanied by some folks I met in my new hostel (Wandering Paisa in the Estadio district), I spent a day perusing the bustling burrow via a fantastic tour called Stairway Storytellers. Our guides, Esteban and Sulay, grew up there and show us their impressive, vibrant corner of Medellín.
Much like Ana painted a picture of Venezuela’s current state, the two young Colombians paint a picture of their community’s troubled history as we walk and admire the beautiful paintings seen throughout Comuna 13.
Crawling up the mountainside of the western part of the city, Comuna 13 was a hotbed of cartel activity in the 1980’s and 1990’s due to its proximity to the nearby San Juan highway. Drugs, guns, gangsters, and money flowed through the community. It became overpopulated, rife with crime and astronomical homicide rates.
Esteban and Sulay were not born until the late 1990’s, but the two have some dim memories of the events that occurred in 2002. In October of that year, the Colombian military carried out the controversial Operation Orión, which aimed to overthrow all rebel groups in Comuna 13. Over 1,000 policemen, soldiers, and aircrew in helicopters descended on the community of around 100,000 inhabitants. Three children and nine people overall were killed, hundreds were wounded. Sulay describes her memories as mostly sensory.
“Gun shots…screaming…crying…people running in the streets”
Innocent blood was dashed on the walls of Comuna 13 that day. These days, the blood has washed away and in its place the walls are covered with incredible works of art.
Following the events of October 2002, the community came together, took to the streets and waved white flags, indicating their resistance to both the cartels and brutish military intervention. Elaborate murals began to sprout up as citizens used their creative inclinations and the symbolic white flag to unite the community, an enduring reminder of their solidarity.
But creative expression alone would not bring prosperity to the area.
In 2011, a giant, 384-meter orange-roofed escalator was established. It scales the mountain in six sections, changing an arduous, steep, hourlong journey into one that takes just several minutes.
The series of escalators did wonders for the community’s health, opening up opportunities for residents in the city center and eliminating the dangers of walking through dodgy areas by night.
Esteban and Sulay describe the escalators as a uniting force for Comuna 13 and a beacon for tourism. They created a degree of accessibility never before seen in the community.
The two guides are all smiles as they rave about the strides their burrow has taken. Throughout the afternoon and early evening we walk all over, ride the escalators, see an abundance of ravishing artwork, munch on delicious green mango ice cream topped with lime and salt, and are treated to more sweeping views of the city.
In the middle of the tour we were given a perplexing assignment. Per our guides’ request, we write all the negative connotations we have of Colombia on a piece of paper, then draw all those that are positive on another sheet, and give both back to our guides. At the end of the tour we burn the sheet with negative connotations, and the two give us back the positive one with an endearing handwritten note on the back.
“So you’ll remember us and our community”
Esteban flashes a wide smile as he hands me my drawing with his note on the back. It was a fitting end to our day in a community that is setting aflame to their difficult past and moving forward with creativity, both artful and in their urban planning.
Our negative words reduced to ash, we cap off an amazing day with a soccer game versus some (incredibly proficient) school kids before descending the mountainside.
Comuna 13, I would find, is far from the only area of Medellín to use art and accessibility to improve community health. One day in the city center I decided to check out the Museo de Antioquia. Located just steps away from the Berrío Park metro station, it features a collection of works by Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero.
Haven’t heard of him? Perhaps you’ll recognize his painting below.
Indeed, the “y tho” meme was breathed into life by Botero’s hand. Such strange proportionality is typical of his paintings.
Botero, now 85, was born in Medellín and, despite spending time all over the world, has seen the city go through vast change since his childhood. In 2004 Botero donated 23 of his sculptures to the Museo. They are now featured in the aptly named Plaza Botero, accessible to the whole public as opposed to those who can afford the museum fare.
On a free walking tour, I passed through the plaza and admired Botero’s chubby figures.
In the statue above, you’ll noticed the gladiator’s member is a different shade than the rest of him. My walking tour guide tells me this is due to too many people touching it, causing the bronze to change color.
Aside from this penile grabbing, the area has seen a reduced crime rate in recent years. There are a number of factors that can attributed to this, surely, but I contend that, much like in Comuna 13, public artwork has been a boon for the city center’s unity, integration, and tourism.
At the end of the walking tour, our guide shows us two more Botero originals featured in a large outdoor amphitheater.
The bird on the left was destroyed by a bomb planted under it, set off on June 11th, 1995, during an outdoor music festival. The attack was carried out by the Cali cartel, rival to the Medellín cartel, in a display of force that killed 30 and wounded hundreds.
In a show of resilience, Botero crafted another just like it. Now the two stand side by side, another symbol of Medellín’s solidarity and fortitude in the face of evil.
Long known for its dangers, Medellín is sending a message to the world: We have evolved and are moving forward to a brighter future.
In February 2013, the Urban Land Institute chose Medellín as the most innovative city in the world due to its recent advances in politics, education and social development. In the same year, Medellín was announced as the preferred corporate business destination in South America, and won the Verónica Rudge Urbanism Award conferred by Harvard University.
Indeed, this is a place ripe with progress. Where young people like the boy I met in Santo Domingo Savio, Esteban, and Sulay, are now proud and eager to share their community’s progress. Where expatriated young adults like Ana have found a new home. Where creativity flourishes in the form of beautiful public artwork and innovative urban planning.
This is a place where negative connotations are being burned away. Where symbols of past violence and hate are being openly recognized and then rebuilt. Where Colombians are coming together to rid themselves of a past that haunts them to this day, on Netflix and elsewhere.