We’ve only been here for just over a week, but I think that I can safely say that Colombia is a country full of contrasts. We’ve only covered a small portion of the country, but each city that we have visited has been completely different from the previous one.
When our taxi dropped us off yesterday in the Poblado area of Medellin where we are staying, I was quite astonished by what I saw. Looking in both directions, the street we are staying on is filled with trendy clothing boutiques and cute little restaurants with charming sidewalk patios. As we have explored the area further, we’ve found that the hip vibe certainly isn’t limited to our carerra, but extends for blocks and blocks on end. I’d heard some good things about Medellin, but I must admit that I wasn’t expecting this from a Colombian city. Colombia has proved to be pretty adept at destroying any stereotypes and preconceived notions I had about the country, though, and this was just another case of the country exceeding my expectations.
Of course, not all of Medellin looks like it could have been plucked from the streets of Portland or Vancouver. We knew that there was much more to the city than the obviously-well-to-do area where our hostel is located. Based on a recommendation from a couple we had met in Bogota, we booked our spot on a walking tour of the downtown area through Real City Tours.
Real City Tours works on tips, but our guide, Hernan, recommended that we pay him $35000 Colombian Pesos each (about $20 Canadian) if we were happy with his services. I’ll end the suspense and let you know that we were more than pleased to pay him the full amount he had requested, because the tour was incredibly done. Hernan was born and raised in Medellin, a true Paisa, so he has seen it all, from bombed out roads on his route to school, to public executions of politicians, to never ending fighting between guerilla groups, the government and everything in between, to what is now a revitalized city that he is prouder than ever to call home. The transformation that Medellin has gone through in the past decade is huge – going from being considered the world’s most dangerous city, to being named the world’s most innovative metropolis in 2012. Over the course of the four hour tour, Hernan detailed the history of Colombia’s, and Medellin’s, ongoing struggles, and what has been done as of late to help turn things around. It is obviously a subject that he is truly passionate about, and even after four hours of walking he never failed to captivate me with his stories.
Architecture and public art have been a huge part of Medellin’s transformation from a scary place to an inviting one. We visited the Parque de las Luces, where tens of tall light fixtures now illuminate what was once one of the most dangerous squares in the city. It’s next door to a library, part of a renewed emphasis on education that was also a pillar of Medellin’s revitalization, and the entire area has become a place that people from all walks of life can feel comfortable visiting.
Everywhere you look in Medellin, there is another piece of interesting architecture that will catch your eye. Fernando Botero, a well-known Colombian artist, has made a big contribution to the beautification and enrichment of the city, donating upwards of thirty of his pleasantly plump sculptures to adorn Botero Square. Many of these sit in front of the Palacio de la Cultura, a two-faced building that was started by a Belgian architect who ultimately left the structure half done when the Colombians had too many complaints about his work. The citizens of Medellin were committed to carrying out the design themselves… some day. It currently sits half unpainted and unadorned while the other half is beautifully decked out in black and white.
Downtown Medellin is full of life, and the streets were crowded with people hawking their wares, rushing to home or work, or just hanging out with friends watching the passersby. We came to a square where at least four different impromptu “bands” were jamming simultaneously, not seeming to care about the cacophony they were creating as they took turns drowning each other out in the jam packed plaza. It was a fun atmosphere to be a part of – not something you come across often in downtown Calgary! We received a lot of stares and often had people peeking over our shoulders trying to understand what we were up to but, as our guide explained, they were just curious and meant no harm. Tourism is still in it’s toddler stage here in Medellin as the city recovers from the nasty reputation of its past, so it’s inhabitants are often surprised and happy to see so many gringos wandering streets that were previously no-go zones for outsiders.
While often sobering, it was very worthwhile to hear stories of Medellin’s past from someone who truly knows what it was all about. There is still work to be done here, but it seems to me like they have used some very creative tactics to make some leaps in the right direction. Now that I’ve really gotten a taste of Medellin, I can’t wait to discover what more it has in store for us in the next couple of days!