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Published: August 13th 2014
We have been travelling for seven months now and had always planned on finding a place to stay for a while. We chose Medellin due to the climate, Bogota is too cold and rainy, and the coast is too hot and humid. Perched in the middle of the country, in the mountains of the coffee region, Medellin is known as the city of eternal spring. This is not like any spring I have known, it has been pushing on for 30 degrees every day since we’ve been here. For a city it is very green and as it is in a valley you can always see the countryside.
Where we have been staying there is a stadium complex with free open air swimming pools and every form of sport you can imagine. As the sun is always shining it is a good encouragement to exercise outside, I even started running! We have spent our time here job hunting, taking free Spanish lessons at the university, watching the world cup final in Parque Lleras, and getting to know the city. There are a couple of great parks to explore which I will leave Steve to talk about in a separate blog.
One of these parks can be reached by the metrocable. This a cable car that connects one of the poorest neighbourhoods to the metro system, and also to Parque Arvi. It might seem a bit odd to talk about public transport in a blog but the metro here is amazing. We were commenting on how clean and well organised it is and when we took a free walking tour of the city we found out why:
Colombia has a very complicated and very violent history; it was in an almost constant civil war since its independence from Spain, not to mention the violence that came with the boom in cocaine production. Medellin was at the heart of the latter. This was the infamous Pablo Escobar’s territory, he lived and was killed here. He is seen by some as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure but the people of Medellin (if they talk about him at all) will only talk about the violence he brought on the city. That’s not to say that he was the only one to blame, the police and government at the time were pretty shady and commited some horrible atrocities. During the 80s Medellin
had one of the highest murder rates in the world, with people being shot in the streets. Our tour guide explained that everyone in the city would have been affected by it either directly or indirectly. People were scared to walk the streets or send their children to school but you would not know it to see the city now.
He explained that part of the reason for the city’s transformation (after the death of Pablo Escobar and the current truce between the government and the Farc rebels), was due to ‘democratic architecture’. As well as building a shiny new, affordable metro system and cable car, public spaces which once were no-go areas have been transformed by art-works and other forms of regeneration. It was reported that within the first four years of the MetroCable’s operation, crime in the Santo Domingo neighbourhood virtually disappeared and jobs increased by 300% according to Steven Dale from The Gondola Project.
Steven Dale explains that the people of Medellin have had it so hard for so long that they are incredibly proud of how well their city is doing. The metro stands as a symbol of this new prosperity, which is why
you will never see anyone dropping litter or vandalising it. You can hear over the speakers on the metro people talking about ‘metro cultura’ and reminding people to be polite to each other and even to smile!
Part of the transformation of public spaces is due to the amount of public artwork. It is everywhere in the city and of course there is a square dedicated to Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, where dozens of the artist’s sculptures can be seen. All of which were donated by the artist himself. There are also two other sculptures by Botero that can be found sitting side by side in Parque San Antonio and are probably the most iconic. Two birds, one fresh as a daisy the other mangled serve as poignant reminders of the city’s violent past. In 1995, during a public concert a bomb planted inside the original sculpture exploded and killed twenty three people. Instead of having the remains removed Botero personally asked the city to leave them while he had a new cast created which now stands alongside the remains of the original. It is indeed an effective reminder.
There are still
problems in Medellin, for example the cocaine trade is still strong, muggings are common and it has its fair share of homelessness and displaced peoples, but people here tend to look on the bright side which is rubbing off on me. The smallest of victories are celebrated which we saw in action during the world cup. They have been through the worst of times so they have learnt to appreciate the best of times.
Due to the city’s violent past, people are very happy to have tourists visiting and still seem surprised by it. We have had people walk up to us in the street and welcome us to the city, which is nice. Even though Colombians are incredibly proud of their country they will still ask “why did you come to Colombia?” The answer is simple “why wouldn’t anyone want to come to Colombia?”
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