Last week Ben and I took a 16 hour bus from Santa Marta on the coast to the more centrally located city of Medellin. Besides the frigid cold air conditioning, the bus was really nice and the ride went by pretty fast. Medellin is considered the capital of the Zona Cafetera (the coffee region of Colombia). Being the coffee feigns that we are, we will probably spend a lot of time in this region of the country.
Our first couple days in Medellin were spent wandering around the city center, checking out the famous artworks of Fernando Botero, going to a salsa club with some new friends (we really need lessons) and day-tripping to a small, brightly colored town called Guatepe.
Most big cities we’ve spent time in throughout Latin America have been filled with beautiful Spanish architecture, decorated with gardens and parks and fountains. There’s a certain tranquility in these spaces. And I think that’s what I was expecting of Medellin. But Medellin felt different. It had it’s nice, open spaces, but overall it felt a bit wilder than other Latin cities.
After wandering around Medellin for a couple days, we felt like there was something deeper about the history, the buildings, the art, and the street life around us that we were missing. So yesterday we decided to do a free walking tour of the city. We were guided around town by a wonderful woman named Juliana. She was born in the U.S. but has lived in Medellin since she was 4 years old. It was hard not to get chills while listening to her passionately talk about Medellin. Throughout our 4 hour walk, she explained how Medellin was founded, how exactly it became the most dangerous city in the world, and how it overcame this tragic reality.
One fact she made very clear early in the tour was that Medellin was not built with drug money, as its reputation would lead you to assume. There’s a lot of chatter about Pablo Escobar among travelers here. I admit prior to coming here, when I heard the word Medellin I immediately thought about cocaine and Pablo Escobar. And after initially walking around town it was hard not to wonder how much of Medellin’s infrastructure came directly or indirectly from the pockets of those in the Cartel, much like how Miami developed. I could sense Juliana’s frustration in acknowledging the global legacy Pablo has left on Medellin. Because of all the suffering he has caused people here, it’s a very touchy topic and not something locals will openly talk about. She seemed to have trouble even saying his name. After disclaiming that this was not a tour about the Medellin Cartel, she quickly moved on to how Medellin really developed.
Note: I thought it better to separate this post into two sections. In case you don’t want to read the bloody history of Medellin and Colombia and just want to read about the happier times the city is experiencing today – just scroll down a little.
Short History of Medellin
To explain Medellin’s prosperity today goes back to how it was founded. In the early 1600s, people from the Basque region of Spain who were seeking independence and Jews fleeing religious persecution from the Inquisition made the arduous journey deep into the Andes where few would follow. Here they remained completely isolated from the rest of the country for hundreds of years. Over time the town developed differently than the rest of Colombia, mostly due to that fact that they didn’t have a slave culture. Also, the land had the perfect conditions to grow coffee, which people farmed themselves on their own plots of land. They were self-sufficient and independent. Over time they began referring to themselves as “Paisas” (a person from the coffee region of Colombia). Medellin’s industrial boom came in the early 1900s when they built a railroad that allowed coffee farmers and gold miners to enter the global economy.
Today, Paisas are very proud of their history. There’s a sentiment among the people here that they are different and maybe even a little better than other people in Colombia. They also have a reputation, throughout the rest of Colombia, for being great business people and even better liars. (all Juliana’s words, not mine).
The violence and tragedy that was unleashed on Medellin and the rest of Colombia happened, as they usually do in history, as a result of political differences in the Capital. The assassination of a major public political figure in 1948, led to all out anarchy between Conservatives and Liberals. Instead of conducting a civilized investigation into the assassination, these political parties took to arms and fought one another, mostly in the countryside, in a bloody ten-year civil war. The complete chaos and lack of security in many rural areas in Colombia forced millions of people to abandon their homes and cost an estimated 200,000 people their lives. This crazy era in Colombia history is chillingly referred to as “La Violencia“, and not because of the number of casualties but because of the horrible and tortuous manner in which they killed one another. It got so bad Juliana explained, that at one point every day at 6 pm, dump trucks would go around towns to pick up the bodies.
I know this is getting a little graphic…but it’s hard to fully understand and appreciate Colombia without knowing what they’ve been through. It’s a very complex history, made even more so by the formation of paramilitaries and guerrilla armies (such as the FARC) who were fighting each other and the government for control. The FARC would target politicians and the rich, kidnap for ransom, and destroy the communities they started out trying to protect. Then, in the 1980’s when the Cartel needed their thriving coca farms protected, they entered the conflict by aligning with the illegal armies on both sides of the war and began pouring massive amounts of money and sophisticated weaponry into the scene. This made the situation even more complex and spread the violence throughout the entire country. And as the usual case goes in political unrest and civil war, the people were caught helplessly in the middle.
With the rise in demand for cocaine in the US and Europe, the cocaine industry began to unravel because of greed among those in the Cartel. Paisa’s were defenseless as gun battles and car bombs were common throughout Medellin and in the early 90’s the city had the highest homicide rate in the world.
In an attempt to keep this very complicated history brief, I left out a lot but I encourage you to read about the country’s history for yourself. Although tragic, the realities of the past 50 years have a huge impact on Colombians today and the atrocities the people have endured deserve to be recognized.
Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993. In 2002 a lot of stability was brought to the country and to Medellin. After so much bloodshed, Medellin needed to rebuilt its once proud and vibrant spirit. One way they began doing so was to take very dangerous and dilapidated areas of the city and strategically turn them into something beautiful.
Juliana took us to a couple sites around Medellin that had once been considered its underbelly. One place is known as the Square of Lights, which is comprised of many tall pillars lined with LED lights that shine brightly each night. The square also has bamboo gardens in the center which symbolize the promise of rapid transformation that Medellin so desperately deserved. Next to the square used to be several abandoned buildings, but now they house the city’s Ministry of Education offices. Many poor neighborhoods in the city now have public libraries and art centers.
Perhaps the greatest achievement is the city’s Metro. The metro system was actually built 20 years ago, during the height of the conflict, to give people hope for the future. Today it remains very special to the people here. Juliana smiles the whole time she explains how the metro is a symbol of progress and civility for Medellin. It’s something they can be proud of.
They’ve taken the traditional metro system one step farther by creating a cable system that ascends up the surrounding mountains to reach the city’s poorer communities. In the past, these communities were isolated and lived in fear. Now they feel much more a part of the city and can get to its center in minutes. Ben and I have been riding the metro every day and we were surprised to find out its age. It’s kept very clean and looks almost like new. You won’t find one name scratched on the seats or one speck of graffiti on the walls. It’s just too important to them.
Because of these recent changes, Medellin earned the title “Most Innovative City” in 2013. Government officials from around the world have traveled to Medellin to learn more about how they’ve reinvented themselves and how they can implement some of these ideas in their own cities.
There’s a slogan that was launched by the local government that says “Medellín: Adelante y Sin Reversa”, which means moving ahead without looking back. I think this sums up the spirit of the people in Colombia in general. After everything they’ve been through, they remain so positive, social, and fun-loving. They are always looking for an excuse to laugh, dance or have a party.
Towards the end of the tour Juliana explained it best to us: “Once you’ve been so close to death, you understand how beautiful life is”.
Everyday we learn so much about Colombia and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to be here. There are still many problems. There are still a lot of people living in poverty, the FARC are still active and the government still corrupt. Over the past 30 years, the demand for cocaine in the US and Europe has remained very high, and the Colombian government has spent countless millions fighting the Cartels within Colombia with little to no affect on the industry. But things have also changed dramatically for the better. Most notably, the people in Medellin no longer live each day in fear for their lives.
After only 5 days, I can’t say that I know Medellin well, but I can’t imagine not ever seeing this amazing city and how its prevailed.
Towards the end of the tour Juliana took us to a huge open space in the middle of the downtown area. It was a little eerie because no one was using the square and it looked almost abandoned. At one edge of the square stood a destroyed Botero sculpture. She then explained why we were there…
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