While all of Colombia was impacted by the decades-long armed conflict and Pablo Escobar’s drug empire, Medellin was Ground Zero, earning it the notorious title in the 80’s of being “the most dangerous city in the world.”
You can take Escobar Tours and even buy t-shirts with images of Pablo’s blood-stained face, but most Colombians strongly discourage this type of tourism, as the Escobar years caused them tremendous pain and loss and they want their country’s image to move forward from its sensational past.
They are quite rightly distressed that their major export continues to keep their country mired in corruption and a simmering violence, but as they have succinctly said about the world’s fondness for party drugs, ” You buy cocaine, you hurt a Columbian.” That is a lot to have on your conscience.
Medellin has been plagued by violence for more than 30 years. I read sporadic stories over the years, but the scope of the violence and the horror of the “disappeareds“, the luring of citizens into the paramilitary and the terror in the streets of a far-away country never fully registered.
Escobar’s reign unleashed a wave of violence and fear that subsided briefly after his death in 1993, but then surged again as paramilitary groups like FARC and AUC destabilized the country.
Operation Orion was formed in 2002 with the intention of disbanding urban militaries, but ultimately some members of this group splintered and formed additional criminal gangs.
This photo shows a key member of Operation Orion pointing out houses where suspected “criminals” lived, although later it was discovered than many, many innocent lives were lost.
The excellent and deeply moving Museo Casa de la Memoria opened in 2012 as a remembrance of the victims of the violence and as a testament to the resilience of the Medellin residents. The country has not completely stabilized yet, and the threat of that time is in recent memory. This interactive museum presents in both Spanish and English, with photographs, written material and several audio-visual displays. One of the displays, with English subtitles, profiled several people who had lived through that time, including a mother whose son disappeared, and a young woman who was lured into the paramilitary.
The photographs were wrenching. This one bore witness to the effect on children, as they lived through inexplicably shocking sights in their neighbourhoods.
Medellin is divided into neighbourhoods, or comunas, and the most famous of them all is Comuna 13. Generally speaking, the higher the houses climb up the mountainside, the poorer the residents and Comuna 13 was one of the poorest. Because of the alleyways and easy access to the mountaintop, it was also ideal for the drug trade to funnel product out of the city, and this neighbourhood became the danger epicenter.
Today, although the houses are still modest, and the inhabitants still poor, it is a vibrant and thriving community. Dozens of NGO’s have helped develop social initiatives, but perhaps the greatest change was the implementation of six sets of free escalators. These escalators helped to move people up and down the mountainside in minutes; eliminating the arduous climb of the over 350 concrete steps.
Although it is completely safe to explore Comuna 13 on your own, we took a walking tour since we wanted to hear the local perspective about the history and the graffiti of the area. Our guide, Leandro still lives in Comuna 13 and his personal history impacted on our understanding of the area.
He was kicked out of his house at 17 because of his drug use and unsavoury friends and shortly after that, he joined a paramilitary group and carried a gun. Other than assuring us he never used the gun to kill anyone, he alluded to some frightening experiences that convinced him he was on the wrong path. He wanted us to know that the time and place (20 years ago) were ripe for the exploitation of desperate young people, and how those circumstances have greatly changed. There are scores of organizations who work with street youth as well as residents who are still dealing with their traumatic past.
The murals and graffiti that sprung up in Comuna 13 are a political statement, a beautification project and a huge tourist draw.
Hip hop performers and break dancers are part of the street scene; hopefully the tourist tips are making a difference to them.
A typical corner in Comuna 13.
There – the big elephant is out of the room. I wanted to start with the obvious and move on to the Medellin that has emerged from tragedy, although it is not over yet, as the 2016 treaty with FARC is on shaky grounds, and violence and corruption is still present.
But, so much has happened to transform the city and make it possible for residents to live without fear and for tourists to feel safe enough to visit.
And we do feel quite safe here. We are staying in a delightful leafy residential area, called Laureles, with small grocery stores, fruterias and loads of cafes and restaurants close by.
If you notice the red brick of the buildings in Laureles, they are simply a more polished and pretty version of the rest of the city. Unlike Mexico City’s extravagant architecture (our only other Latin American metropolis comparison), the architecture here is subdued and geometric.
In every neighbourhood in Medellin, the red brick dominates – there are not elaborate flourishes and bold pops of colour.
Another fantastic urban initiative in Medellin is the transit system. Buses are everywhere and the Metro system is fast, clean, safe and efficient.
Taxis are numerous and cheap – a massive flotilla of buzzing yellow cabs will take you most places for under $5. We used Uber a lot, simply because they would sort out our destination ahead of picking us up, which saved us struggling with Medellin’s confusing street numbering system and our limited Spanish.
It was the development of the Metrocable that helped to transform the city. In 2004, the first gondola was installed to climb the steep mountainside and serve the poorest upper neighbourhoods. This opened up greater access for work, education and health opportunities, and by 2018, there were three lines.
We took the Metrocable to get to Arvi Park, an ecological reserve on the top of the mountain, just outside the city. Each car holds 8-10 people, and the wait is seldom more than a couple of minutes.
The views from the cablecar were staggering, and at times, slightly voyeuristic, as we swung right above people’s rooftops at times. Those stairs to the left will give you an idea of the steep climbs residents have to deal with.
Within a half hour we reached the summit, and set out to explore. You used to be able to hike the many trails at Arvi Park, but unfortunately, the rules have changed, possibly because people were getting lost.
At any rate, the forest trails are only accessible with a Spanish-speaking guide, so we set off to walk the main road in search of the Cascada (waterfall). We arrived at our destination and were met with a lovely man who was clearly wanting to manage our expectations. “Pequena (small)“, he said, with thumb and forefinger indicating that what lay ahead was not Niagara.
All good – we got to watch a group of young Colombian bodybuilders in tiny bathing suits flexing and posing in front of the Cascada. Even though we did not have the chance to get lost in the ecological reserve, we had that fabulous gondola ride both ways.
And then, we had a most memorable Metro ride. We had been taking taxis everywhere, so this was a first. As promised, the Metro was clean, fast, safe and well policed. We hopped onto an already crowded car and managed to grab onto a railing. Two stops later (we had five in total), and we were simply crammed in, when an older couple came on, banged into Stephen’s back and twisted him around so they can also grab on to the railing.
When our stop mercifully came, Stephen was wedged in behind the old lady and she would not relinquish her grip on the railing to allow him to leave. In a panic, I grabbed her fingers and pried them off and we escaped, much to the amusement of everyone in our immediate area.
We first saw the works of Fernando Botero in Bogota, but Medellin is his birthplace and he is well represented here – both with his sculptures in Botero Square and in the adjacent Museo de Antioquia.
Here, we have Adam and Eve.
We had been warned that Botero Square was a bit sketchy, being right in the downtown area and that was certainly the case. There is a lot of poverty in Colombia and somehow more obvious in the cities.We saw a lot of sad cases – homeless men asleep on the sidewalk, dull-eyed hookers and this unnerving sight. This mother, with babe in arms and three other young daughters, had set up some music and the young girls gyrated suggestively, hoping to attract tourist dollars. Tourists are asked not to give money to children, as it discourages them from going to school, but it is just as hard to imagine them being hungry. Not hard to imagine what else they might endure.
The Museo de Antioquia is one of Medellin’s premier museums and we spent a couple of hours there, admiring more Botero art, among other things.
The Museum of Modern Art had edgier collections, including the work of Debora Arango, whose work covered social issues such as poverty, violence, hunger, and prostitution. Much of her work dealt with how the disparity in gender relations continues to be a threat to Colombian society.
The town of Guatape is a 2-hour bus trip from Medellin, and it is notable for two things – the fact that part of it was flooded in the 70s to make way for a hydro-electric dam, and in the rebuilding, moldings called zocalos ( squares) were added to the bottoms of the buildings. Inhabitants began to add these zocalos at the beginning of the 20th century. Murals, zocalos, painted doorways – Guatape is an assault on the senses.
Typical street scene.
Archival photo of what Guatape looked like before the addition of the zocalos.
Calle del Recuerdo is a replica of one of the streets of old town before that area was flooded.
A couple of examples of the detail of the zocalos.
Some final Medellin images. This translates into “A little coin and my God paid him!”, which is obviously open to interpretation.
The Cemeterio de San Pedro. The oldest cemetery in the city – built in 1842, with mausoleums of some of the city’s most prominent families. Much of the white marble was shipped here from Italy.
Looking for epiphanies. A sentiment by artist Mariana Parra that could well express the feelings of many Colombians.
And my goodness – that is it for now! So much more to think about, but Medellin has been rewarding, fascinating, upsetting, uplifting and so much more than its outdated reputation might suggest.
Tomorrow we leave for Jardin, right in the heart of coffee country.
24 thoughts on “Medellin: Escobar is a Dirty Word”
Fascinating! Thank you for sharing your experiences in Medellin – so curious to go there. Your photos and historical descriptions provide such insight into this city.
We just scratched the surface, and while it was an incredible experience, I’m ready for a switch to the countryside again. It’s been quite intense.
Ginny, I am forwarding your blogs to my cousin who lived in Bogota for many years and is now in Quebec. This is his latest reply:
Bravo! Yo trabajaba bastante en Medellín cuando era súper peligroso. Estoy muy contento ver esta fantástica ciudad es tan segura ahora.
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Scary but beautiful at the same time !
Wow! Your description sure brings back memories. Medellin is reputed to have the best economy in S.America. We visited Communa 13, and the murals were incredible. That schoolyard you walk past, is where executions took place. Botero had to leave Columbia because of threats on his life. Great read Ginny. Keep it up.By the way, Columbians hate the Narco t.v. Series as they say it’s inaccurate and the lead play is not even Colombian.
Yes, our guide took us to that schoolyard, and he also pointed out a big bald area on the mountaintop where thousands of bodies were thrown after being executed and the bones are still being uncovered. I think the Colombians hate everything about Escobar and the glorification of the drug trade. They are such wonderful people, and it is both hurtful and tiresome to be associated with that image.
We talked to Juan, the gentleman who owns the fruteria across from our place. He lived in Boston for 20 years and moved back to Medellin a few years ago. Without asking him directly, I’m assuming that he felt forced to leave his country for safety reasons and returned as soon as he could. Such a common story.
That’s so true, Vikki – it is not scary, but you know the potential is there.
Just in the middle of Narcos, the American version of the Escobar era, having watched the 75 episodes of the Columbian version that did not feature the Americans as playing a big part in Escobar’s ultimate demise. Indeed a horrible episode in a country racked by periodic violence even before Escobar. From 1948 to 1958 there was a civil war (La Violencia) with thousands of deaths in a struggle for power between the Liberal and Conservative parties. It featured political assassinations just like Escobar’s war against Columbia to have the extradition treaty with the US withdrawn, which it was. So after watching and reading about all this, it is wonderful to hear how very much it must resemble most large South American cities of the northern parts once again. As usual an engrossing travelogue with photos to match. Thanks to you both for being such adventuresome and curious travellers and taking the time to do your blogging.
I’m so curious to read more about Colombia’s history. Someone at the Casa de la Memoria museum recommended When the Guns go Silent by Natalia Orozco. She is a journalist who won the trust of government and FARC during their peace talks and made a documentary, which you can watch online. It is an endlessly fascinating country, with peace such an elusive goal.
Fascinating! safe travels to you both 😃
Thanks Diane! We are fully engaged with this trip, for sure.
The street art and stories you uncover never cease to be interesting and informative. It is amazing what you can find when you explore a city with its own unique history. Now you can search for some interesting birds in the protected areas of Jardin. With some good fortune you might be able to see the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock: “https://owendeutsch.com/lodges/la-reserva-natural-jardin-de-rocas-colombia/#imageslodge-2”.
I just read about these beautiful birds and apparently there is a refuge where we will have an excellent chance of seeing them. Jardin is a major birding centre, so we have fingers crossed for all kinds of tropical sightings.
Your pictures are Beautiful as usual, Ginny. I’m living through your posts! You are definitely brave travellers.
We are in a huge cold snap at the moment so all that warmth and sunshine is killing me. lol. Enjoy! Stay safe. Hi Steve.
We’ve been reading about your cold snap – being described as “once-in-a-generation” temps. The weather here is pretty perfect – daytime highs about 27-28 and cooler at night. Now we’re in the mountains in coffee country and it is more unsettled – still, no snow, no ice. :>)
Thank you so much for your informed and so well written news of Medellin.
I have heard of the wonderful people and certainly Wade Davis loves Columbians (not necessarily just Medellins). That elusive ‘peace’. Sheesh. We are fortunate living here.
-23 last night and blowing fluffy, white stuff obscuring views. It has calmed a bit now. They say it is unusual.
Jardin sounds lovely! I hope you have well deserved rest and fascinations in wildlife there.
You are adventurous souls! Enjoy
Robin, I think all our weather is now being described as “unusual”. We’re getting more rain here than normal for this time of year – also “unusual!”
We just got back from a hike and a table of four on the piazza called out, “Hello!” to us. “Where are you from?”, seems to be the most interesting thing, but when we say “Canada”, they usually just repeat “Canada” back. I think most Colombians experience with other countries is with the U.S.
It is lovely here – no end of great adventures and delightful people.
Ginny Miller…I can just see you prying those fingers back with determined force! A flash back to Guelph ….thank you both for the amazing descriptions and photos …you are providing my travel fix for now.
Nanc, we have had a good laugh whenever we think of that experience. But “flashback to Guelph”? You’ll have to fill me in – nothing is coming to mind.
You were in a fist fight with a women
Medellin strikes fear in the hearts of anyone who remembers Escobar and the evils that ensued as a result of his deeds. It is refreshing to hear that there is so much more to the city now than the images that were brought to mind in the past. Thank you for showing us a glimpse of the present. We both chuckled at Ginny coming to Stephen’s rescue from the iron-clad grip of the old lady … Superwoman pales by comparison, Ginny!
Heather, I had visions of me being forced off the Metro, and Stephen being trapped on, and with no idea of what would happen after that! I guess when it comes to fight-or-flight, I fall into the fight reaction!
As always Ginny you provide such a wonderful view of the world. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for reading, Annie. The fact that I have someone other than Stephen to read my blog is what keeps me going.