MEDELLÍN, Colombia – Twenty-five years ago, traveling to this city at the northernmost reaches of the Andes Mountains probably meant one of three things: You were a drug enforcement officer, you were in the cocaine business, or you just had a death wish.
In the grip of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, Medellín became the murder capital of the world. Cocaine exports outpaced coffee. Even after Escobar was killed by Colombian special forces, the slums he once controlled were dominated by violence.
Today, it’s hard to imagine any city enjoying more of a turnaround. Medellín has become the superstar of Latin America, a mecca for urban planning that seeks to serve all citizens, including the very poor. Its world-class public transportation system includes gondolas that soar up the steep hillsides, gliding over the corrugated rooftops of the neighborhoods below. Where there was once gunfire, parks, public art, and contemporary architecture are now the hallmarks of the place.
A trip to Medellín still requires vigilance, like in most destinations in South America. A friend had her mobile phone stolen, and I was advised not to wear a nice watch, unless I wanted to make a “donation.” There is still soul-crushing poverty. There isn’t the great food, night life, or sights of the coastal city of Cartagena, or Rio, or Buenos Aires.
But it’s inspiring to see a city revealed for all it has to offer, emerging from darker times, like Prague or Hanoi. And you can’t beat the weather. Not far north of the equator, Medellín’s mile-high altitude makes for temperate weather nearly year-round — a factor in its settlement by Spanish conquistadores in the early 1600s.
The urban planning set loves Medellín for the way investments in infrastructure have been leveraged for maximum impact. The celebrated interventions were on display in April at the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum, a gathering of some 20,000 planners, elected officials, and others focused on improving conditions in the rapidly growing cities of the world. The tours reminded me of the way planners flock to Portland, Ore., to gawk at the light rail, the urban growth boundary, and resurgence of once-desolate neighborhoods.
Even if you don’t have an interest in urban planning, checking out the city’s “interventions” is a good way to understand how real life unfolds these days.
Taking a ride on the gondolas is an absolute must. Some might think it preposterous to put such infrastructure into what is essentially a slum. But most of the inhabitants of informal settlements in Medellín work for a living; they were spending loads of money, and time, just to get to their jobs. The Metrocable, as it is called, has changed everything.
To see all this in action, take the gleaming Metro (note how seats are given up for women and the elderly) and get off at Line K for the ascent to Santo Domingo, a rough barrio now site of the contemporary architecture of the Biblioteca España. The last segment runs over treetops that are in sharp contrast to the dense comunas, to the Parque Arví, a public park of hiking trails, horseback riding, and picnic areas. Crafts and local mushrooms and cerveza are in abundant supply at the terminus.
The outdoor escalators are another piece of infrastructure that may seem odd at first, but in fact improves the lives of thousands who had to trudge up paths and narrow roadways, the equivalent of taking the stairs in a 30-story building. An example is in the 20 Julio neighborhood; take the Metro to the San Javier station, and jump in a taxi for the short ride to the base of the zigzagging, six-stage moving stairs.
The nearly 50-mile long Cinturon Verde Metropolitano, or Jardin Circunvalar, is a long-term endeavor to ring the top of the steep slopes of the Aburra Valley like a halo. The project is aimed at both containing squatter settlements and providing outdoor amenities for all residents. An appropriate spot to view one section of the greensward is at the very top of Comuna 8. The once-beleaguered neighborhood is now the entry point for the camino de la vida, or Walk of Life, a stone pathway that winds through serene landscaping with dizzying views. It’s accessible off a tiny plaza reached by impossibly steep and narrow streets.
These destinations are not for the timid, and speaking Spanish helps. Checking in with the Urban Development Corporation (www.edu.gov.co), the agency behind many of these projects, is not a bad idea. Some spots are reachable only by taxi, best hailed from hotels and other official stands. Most trips are only a few dollars, and the driver will be delighted by a tip. There can be very thick traffic, however, and unfortunately the practice of the “millionaire’s ride” still lingers, where drivers work in cahoots with bandits. The Metro system is well worth figuring out, and can get you close to where you want to go, either by heavy rail or bus rapid transit.
And do see the more traditional destinations: the architecture and grounds at the Jardín Botánico, the Museum of Antioquia and its Botero collection (the artist is a native son and his trademark sculptures adorn the plaza outside). At night, beautiful young Colombians parade around and populate the dance clubs. There are day trips to coffee plantations and even hang-gliding.
Another interesting tourist attraction is the Pablo Escobar tours, which promise insights into the drug lord’s life on the lam, and his incredibly prosperous business operations. I skipped that myself, knowing someone whose children narrowly missed being killed by a bomb Escobar’s gang had placed at a school. For Medellín, that was then, and this is now.