Miraculous Medellin

A quick flight brought us to Medellin from Cartagena shortly after noon. We had booked a small hotel in the El Poblado neighbourhood, an area of a zillion bars, restaurants, and hostels, considered a safe place for tourists to stay as the main historic centre is not. Medellin has a wonderful Metro system which makes the city readily accessible wherever you stay.  

  Immediately tried out the Metro to head down town to Plaza Botero, a large park area outside the major art museum littered with massive Botero sculptures. Seems so incongruous to see all these huge forms, naked and attired humans, animals, historic figures — with the usual passers by, fruit sellers, tourists and so on wandering among them dwarfed by their monstrous forms. It is considered good luck to touch them, so many of the rounded forms are shiny from being rubbed. Later we went inside the adjacent Museo de Antioquia which houses a large collection of Botero’s work as well as works by modern Columbian artists. Botero donated his work to the museum over a number of years, and donated many of the modern paintings as well from his own collection.  

  Next morning we hustled down to the Poblado Metro Station early to meet up with a walking tour called Comuna 13. We were the only participants and it turned into a highlight of our stay. Comuna 13 is a neighbourhood, or barrio, that experienced extreme violence during the height of the terrible period during the late ’80’s to early 2000’s when parts of Medellin were basically in the midst of a 3 way war between the drug lords, the para military groups and the resistance groups. At that time Medellin had the highest murder rate in the world. That it is now a relatively safe city seems like a miracle.

Medellin is divided into various comunas. The area where we stayed in Poblado is one of the highest income areas, Comuna 13 among the poorest. Comuna 13 comprises an area of slum housing, originally all squatters’ shacks, which stretches high up a hill side above the city. In 1985 there was tremendous displacement of people from other areas of Colombia due to ongoing conflict and economic instability. There are still 9 million displaced people in Colombia. Many of these displaced gravitated to Medellin and began erecting tin roofed shacks on the open hillsides around the city. When Medellin’s violence became extreme, the people of this barrio where caught in the middle — if they supported one group, the other group killed them, if they supported neither, they were picked off anyway. Pablo Escobar’s cartel exacerbated the situation by paying both the para militaries and the resistance groups to move drugs through the jungle and into bordering countries while encouraging the warfare between them. A lot of the coffee growing families switched to coca plantations and hired para military groups for protection. Thousands died or disappeared, caught in the crossfire.

  In the midst of the violence, community activists began working on solutions to improve the lives of the people without displacing them. When the government finally arrested and imprisoned various kingpins of the drug cartels, extradited some to the U.S., and finally tracked down and killed Pablo Escobar, progress began to be made. Innovative plans were worked out whereby squatters who had lived in their houses for 10 years were considered to own them, and to pay small taxes based entirely on income level. Social housing was constructed on the land seized from drug families. To access the barrios more safely and efficiently a whole series of cable car stations were put in from the top of the Metro system. And even more interesting, a series of six escalators was installed to access Comuna 13. Well lighted and lined by children’s playgrounds, community libraries, new hospitals purpose built to serve the needs of the barrios, they revolutionized the community. All the initiatives came out of the community and were financed by the mayor’s office. The infrastructure is ultra modern, amazingly clean and well maintained, as is the Metro itself, of which Medelliners are vocally proud.

  We went with the guide up the Metro to the top, continued higher and higher on the cable cars (just like the ones at Whistler) took a small bus to the bottom of Comuna 13 and continued by escalator up and up to the top. We visited the community library and the hospital, as well as some of the initiatives like free music practice rooms for kids, gyms and playing fields. All at the community’s behest, and lovingly maintained. A poignant touch is the local cemetery, colourfully painted with graffiti (wonderful graffiti in the area, none of it defaced) in a hopeful theme, the walls hung with plastic bottles full of soil and plants, each to commemorate one of the “disappeared” whom the community lost during the violence.

  A very innovative and inspired vision of social planning to house the poor and homeless, the philosophy is that every person is entitled to a home, no matter what their income level, and that this housing should be provided in the neighbourhood of the people, not in some other place, and at the behest of the community members who make all the decisions about location and design.

  The planned 3 hour tour turned into 4 1/2 as our guide was very eager to answer our questions and seemed pleased that we had so many. We ended up with a mini graffiti tour after I mentioned our new found interest in the art form, and he told us much more of the history of the violence in the city than he usually does because we had so many questions to ask. We were extremely well pleased with the day.

  Our second day we visited the Botanical Garden and the University area, and ate a gorgeous lunch in the restaurant associated with the garden. It was a Sunday, and Medellin, like Bogota, closes down the roads so that people can bike, roller blade, walk dogs, run, and just generally meet friends and hang out all through the city. The garden was full of families, having picnics, huge groups doing yoga and even belly dancing classes, and tons of groups just walking in the peaceful surrounds, steps from a Metro station. Great chance to observe Colombians having a Sunday out.

  A short stay by our standards, and we only decided to include Medellin in our itinerary belatedly, but we are so glad we did. So much of what has been done here is inspiring, city planners flock here for conferences apparently, and it seems that much of what has been done provides a great model for solutions to some of our problems. It takes a willingness to listen to those whose lives are involved, and generous funding by government. None of this was cheap, and all of it was done at the highest of standards both in the buildings and the equipment provided. Maintenance and cleanliness are the highest priority here in all public areas, and the pride engendered is obvious. As we rode the Metro, many people asked us what we thought of it. When we exclaimed our praise, people often said, “It is the heart of our city, it is our culture.” An interesting way to view public transit!

Off now for something completely different, the Zona Cafeteria or Coffee Zone. We are going to Salento, a small town high in the hills, in the heart of coffee growing and adjacent to a huge cloud forest park full of Colombia’s national tree, the Wax Palm. Cool and peaceful, we are looking forward to it.