Cali to Medellin by bus is a 6-8 hour journey, unless there have been major landslides as you leave the plains for the Andes then it turns into at 12 hour deep joy epic. The bus classifications are still something of a mystery to us, premium is not premiere, VIP is not luxury, all very confusing but on the bright side we are managing to avoid the chicken bus. Arriving late in the evening, tired, slightly irritable (apparently) with mildly square derrière’s, any disquiet of dastardly taxi drivers was eased by finding they are all metered, regulated by the police and reasonably priced, a good first impression.
As we were on a longer stay Sally found a studio apartment at the San Juan Suites, a new modern student type place which was very comfortable, clean and quiet, mostly http://www.booking.com in the lovely Laureles district. Kitchen, laundry, nearby gym, supermarket and metro links. With our metaphorical ducks lined up in a row we formed our plan to explore, as always, starting with a walking tour. You can usually judge a city by the quality and length of them, this one was fascinating, captivating us with information on history, violence, murders, grenade attacks, bombed statues, churches, prostitutes, pick pockets, reconciliation (well sort of), regeneration and how they are moving forwards. We finished up sat in a cool old authentic Tango Bar with a craft beer wondering where the last four hours had gone.
Not sure if narrative and pictures alone will be enough to do this place justice but here goes.
Medellin has nothing of any colonial history or buildings. Although the Spaniards first discovered the Aburra Valley and it’s local inhabitants in the 1540s they found no obvious gold to plunder so they just cracked on. The ‘City of Eternal Spring’ was not founded proper until 1616 by Francisco de Herrera Campuzano, with the early settlers speculated to be Spanish Jews fleeing from the Inquisition. Medellin’s rapid growth came much later, around the beginning of the 20th century with the building of a railroad and this enabled the coffee crop, tobacco and newly mined gold to reach the markets, it was boom time. Within a few short decades Medellin had become a bustling metropolitan city and all was well, apart from the Government’s imposition of taxes that saw a black market form with the opening up of smuggling routes.
Next came the Bogota Riots of 1948 sparked by the assassination of popular presidential candidate Jorge Gaitan that led to a period called “The Violence” (interestingly the case is still open with two suspects, the Colombian Government and the CIA worried about communist spread post WW2). This hit Medellin hard as it became one of the front lines in the battle between the government, the paramilitaries and FARC, Colombia’s main guerrilla movement. Could things get any worse? Well yes actually as old Pablo emerged in the 80’s, using the black market smuggling routes to become the leading supplier for America’s substantial cocaine habit. How bad is bad?
Todays murder capital is shared between Los Cabos and Caracas measured at 111 per 100,000, when Medellin held the title the rate was almost quadruple that number at 390. Any thoughts that by killing Escobar in 1993 the violence and drug problem would be solved were at best naive. His $2500 monthly bill for rubber bands to hold his money created a certain void that was filled by the Mexican Cartels. Demand increased and continued to increase with the Country producing an estimated 1400 tons last year. Even 10 years ago, the city was unsafe as violence reigned, civil society had broken down and the place was a complete basket case.
Today it has the fastest growing economy on the continent hailed in 2013 by the Urban Land Institute as “the most innovative city in the world”. So how did they turn it around? I posed the question to Edgar our guide not expecting him to reply “public transport”.
The Metro system, the only one in Colombia, opened for service in 1995 and runs North to South and Centre to West across the city. The Metrocable, a gondola system similar to those found in ski resorts was established in 2004 and provides access to the hillside communities that the Metro was unable to access and allows people to move out of their Barrios. A few miles of social mobility opened up a new world of jobs and opportunities for them and that was all they needed and the revolution had begun. Helped by Innovative Public projects such as Education with Dignity, democratic architecture, putting libraries in the troubled areas, green spaces and parks and giving paint to those who wanted to create stories in the form of street art, the people of Medellin seized the opportunities with both hands. This was enough for the young people who had gone abroad to study during the dark days to come home (Edgar has a Masters degree from Switzerland) adding a new youthful, progressive can do energy to the mix. There is a genuine positivity in looking forwards turning their backs on the old ways.