Medellín is an example of progress. It has gone from being the most dangerous city in the world in the late 80s-90s at the height of the drug cartel’s reign of terror and subsequent paramilitary takeover, to being crowned the world’s most innovative city in 2012.
Most tourists stay in El Poblado which is a bit of a bubble, a more upmarket part of the city and the best area to be in at night, but still close to the metro to explore the real Medellín. On our first day we took the metro and cable car to Santo Domingo and then onwards to Parque Arvi. The metro system is an example of innovation within the city, with the free adjoining cable cars connecting the poorer neighbourhoods and cutting travel time for residents that previously had to walk down the mountainside.
The view of the city as the cable car rose was incredible. A sprawling mass of buildings in a deep valley, far from the look of El Poblado where we’d been staying.
If there’s only one thing you do in Medellín, take the Real City Walking Tour. It’s free but you have to book a spot 2 days before online as it’s so popular. It was one of the best tours we’ve done anywhere, a really honest and emotional account of Medellín’s history and hopes for the future.
Our guide Juan was great, he had personally suffered tragedy at the hands of the cartel and his love for his city was evident. He wouldn’t mention Pablo Escobar by name and only referred to him as “the famous criminal” because if the local people heard him talking about him without context, they would get mad.
And who can blame them? After the years of violence and misery Escobar inflicted on this city, his life is being glamourised and people come here thinking of him as a Robin Hood style character, with tours tailored to his life and the “good” things he did. It’s true he built schools and gave money to the people in his poorer neighbourhood, they still think of him as somewhat of a hero, but that doesn’t make up for the thousands of lives that were lost due to him.
The city tour goes into downtown Medellín and areas that we perhaps wouldn’t have visited on our own. The locals were fascinated with the Gringos and many people came up to us saying “Welcome to Medellín” and “Thank you for visiting my city!” Never have we felt so welcome in a city in any country before.
Everywhere we went Juan would tell us a story of how a bomb had gone off here or someone had been shot there, it was really difficult to imagine just how dangerous this city used to be. But it wasn’t all bad stories, the innovation of the metro cable car system and the outdoor escalators in the poorer San Javier neighbourhood, the regeneration of crime ridden squares to peaceful plazas, the donation of sculptures by Medellín’s famous artist Fernando Botero and funny stories about Paisas (what people from the city call themselves) and their self-confessed arrogance. There was a real sense of hope and pride in their city.
Medellín wants to forget the past and look to the future, and it seems a pretty bright one to us.