It doesn’t have a UNESCO-certified historical centre, a recognizable tourist attraction, or a particularly happy recent history. Nonetheless, Medellin, home of the proud “paisas” of Colombia’s Antioquia province, is one of the most interesting cities I have ever visited.
After a late night getting in from Santa Marta to my hostel in the Poblado neighbourhood, we began our first morning in the city with a free walking tour from Real City Tours (which I highly recommend). Our guide, Maribel, was well-versed in the history of Colombia, from its early beginnings as a Spanish colony, to its independence, to the political tensions between the left and the right that have led to the formation of guerilla groups and civil warfare for the past 60 years. Medellin was also the home of cocaine lord Pablo Escobar, though when Maribel brought him up, she referred to him as “Our city’s most famous criminal,” since many people in Medellin don’t speak English and would worry about what was being said about him to a bunch of gringos. Colombia, and Medellin especially, is only recently starting to see tourists. So many people stopped to stare at our tour group, made up mostly of white Europeans, Americans, and us two Canadians. As blondes, my boyfriend and I get a particularly high amount of stares, but also a lot of welcoming smiles.
Between the drugs and the guerilla warfare, Medellin was the most violent city in the world in the 1990s. But between (sometimes harsh) federal policies and plans in the 2000s under Alvaro Uribe, as well as municipal initiatives, Medellin has become one of the most innovative cities in the world, and safety has much improved in the city and within Colombia.
The tour took us to a square in the city centre that was once a hotspot for crime, but it has now been turned into a Square of Lights. The square is filled with all of these tall metal lights, providing a symbol of hope where there once was fear. There is also a building nearby the square which was once the headquarters for the Medellin cartel, and it is now a building for the ministry of education.
Pablo Escobar is a controversial figure in Colombia. He directly or indirectly caused the deaths of so many people, but also gave a lot of money to the poor and even built a neighbourhood in Medellin. You can find shirts for sale in the city that have his image and the words “El Patron” next to it, because there are people, especially young people who were not alive during his time of fiefdom in Medellin, who still idolize his persona. There were a few people on my tour who were especially interested in the story of Pablo Escobar, one even going so far after asking Maribel a question and saying “I had to ask, cause season 2 isn’t out yet,” referring of course to Narcos, a Netflix series about Escobar. Another Real City Tours guide was present during this question, and he said, as someone who grew up during that time, it’s difficult watching the history he lived through being turned into mass entertainment for Westerners. At the same time, he admitted to also watching the show, to see how his country’s history is portrayed.
Maribel pointed out several locations where violence had occurred. In particular, at Parque San Antonio, where a bomb was placed in a bird sculpture made by Fernando Botero, a renowned Colombian artist, and exploded during a music festival at the park, killing 23 people. It damaged the sculpture, but Botero refused to let the damaged sculpture be removed; instead, he made a second version, taller this time, and placed it right next to the original. It’s a staggering reminder of the city’s painful history, and of the peace that could be in the country’s future.
Medellin is one of the few cities in South America that has a metro system. It’s used by locals and tourists alike, and connects to the MetroCable (cable cars) that make it easier for those who live in the poorer neighbourhoods higher up in the valley to commute down to the centre for work, reducing social exclusion. Like many large cities, Medellin is subject to a lot of tagging, graffiti, and litter, but there is not a speck of garbage anywhere in the metro stations or on the trains themselves, nor is there any unsightly words scrawled onto the seats or the walls. Even in the small Canadian city I come from, our train system is a victim to vandalism, so how could this be possible in a place with three times the population?
With so much tragedy, both present and past, surrounding the people of Medellin as they go about their day, the optimism and happy moods of Colombian people as we walked by felt amazing. Maribel explained that in much of Medellin’s recent past, it has been like they were drowning, sinking and barely able to stay afloat. But a thing like the metro, or the metrocable, is like a branch, a piece of hope, that Colombians can cling to. Construction of the metro, now used by over 500,000 people daily, began in the 1990s, around the same time as the city was experiencing its most violent and devastating period, and thus was a branch of hope amidst so much tragedy. The paisas are very proud of their metro system, and so wouldn’t dare deface it or leave garbage around, since it stands for so much more than a system of transportation in their history.
Separate from our tour, we visited the Casa de la Memoria, or the House of Memory Museum, which is free to enter. This museum is an homage to the armed conflict and violence of the last sixty years. Much like European Holocaust museums, it is a sobering reminder of the tragedies of the Colombian people. My friend, a Medellin local, said that it’s a good and important place for Colombians to reflect and remember, since a forgotten past is one that is doomed to repeat. While the museum wasn’t fully open when we visited, we managed to watch the video roll of those who have been directly affected by the violence of the guerillas and/or the drugs, as well as enter a dark room with photos of the victims who had been kidnapped, murdered, or who are simply still missing.
Since I fell behind on blogging while on this trip, it’s been over a month since my visit to Medellin. Back in August, there was a lot of talk about the upcoming referendum which would ratify the peace agreement reached between the government and the FARC, one of the predominant guerilla groups, after four years of painful negotiations. Maribel, and other locals I spoke with, were in favour of the “yes” vote for peace; even though it granted a fair degree of amnesty to the war criminals, it would put an end to the 60 years of violence. However, Colombia just voted, by 0.4%, “no” to the peace agreement, which plunges the country into uncertainty about its future. The Real City Tour encouraged us to think about the possibilities for Colombia’s future, without sugarcoating the unfortunate pieces of its past. Whatever happens, I hope that Medellin, and all of Colombia, is able to find a branch of hope.