They don’t call Medellín the City of Eternal Spring for nothing – although, paradoxically, it hasn’t always been that way. You see, between you and me, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the weather – think steamy, tropical thunderstorms rather than delicate April showers. Spring however is also the season of new beginnings, and Medellín’s story of rebirth and transformation over the past 15 years or so is nothing short of miraculous. Once a hub of cocaine-fuelled crime, and ruled over with an iron fist (plus an arsenal of weapons) by Pablo Escobar – he of Narcos notoriety – now Colombia’s second city is a vibrant, cosmopolitan place with a real sense of restored pride.
As is often the case, we were based in one of the nicest areas of the city – here, the leafy and coffee shop filled area of El Poblado, where you’re tripping over ex-pats – so it’s important to acknowledge that not the whole of Medellín is like this. Every city in the world has problem areas. But Medellín has taken more active steps than most to redress this over the last couple of decades. The city (well – half city, half jungle to be more accurate) sits in a deep valley, surrounded by steep mountains on both sides. Looking out from a rooftop, it appears as if the scenery is rising up to meet you, carrying the clouds along on top. As beautiful as they look, though, it’s generally these mountain-side communities which are the most vulnerable. Right out on the edge of the city, ramshackle settlements were set up spontaneously in the mid-1900s by families escaping violence in their home villages. Isolated, and with little in the way of income, displaced communities like these were easy targets for guerrilla groups – and the likes of Escobar – to take over.
Comuna 13, perched high up in the hills of the west of the city, was once one of the most notorious neighbourhoods here – which in what was also the murder capital of the world is not to be sneezed at. An overpopulated shanty town located right next to a major highway (and popular trafficking route), in the 80s and 90s the area was under the control of guerrillas loyal to Escobar and, even after his death in 1993, continued to suffer sky-high crime rates as rival gangs fought to be in charge. Today – whilst by no means a fait accompli – it is a colourful residential neighbourhood where you can happily walk the streets without fearing for your life, thanks (at least in part, and leaving aside a major military operation that took place here in 2002) to some very successful “democracy architecture”. Namely, a cable car line linking the district as a whole into the city’s metro system and a series of six bright orange, outdoor escalators which turn the hike up the hill from an arduous trek into a fleeting opportunity to admire the view. Enabling the area’s residents to easily and affordably access the rest of the city – and its many employment opportunities – has in turn brought prosperity back to Comuna 13. The community itself has more than played its part too, encouraging street art and music as a better means for expression with the result that the area feels something like a living, breathing – and evolving – art gallery.
Of course, transport systems by themselves can’t solve everything, and in another part of the city we were fortunate enough to meet and work with a charity helping to provide care and education for children of displaced families. Fundación las Golondrinas runs three schools in the Llanditas area of Medellín, supplementing the state-provided schools which are already filled to over-capacity. Catering for all ages from babies in cots to mid-teens, they ensure the kids get at least one proper meal a day and also free-up their parents to go out and work. Long-term, the charity hopes to equip the children with the skills they are most likely to need if and when they are able to return to their families’ home communities in rural Colombia – primarily, farming. So our task for the month was to help transform an unused patch of land behind one of the schools into to a vegetable garden. And that, believe it or not, was easier than trying to teach 3-year-olds which small green things were weeds and which were not, in Spanish. Nothing like a challenge though!
While the recent improvements might be most obvious in “on the edge” areas such as these, though, it’s safe to say that the whole city is reaping the rewards. One of the most notable changes has been the recent influx of tourists – seen as confirmation (as if they needed any!) that Colombia really is back on the map.
That said, if Colombia were a football team (its favourite national sport), Medellín would likely be the star player. The rest of the country is following suit but at a varying pace. In Bogotá for instance, where I spent a week before moving to Medellín, security was noticeably tighter – most buildings had armed security guards, and outdoor restaurants and the like were typically caged-in. However, it was hard to see that all this was strictly necessary – certainly during my time there I never witnessed anything untoward and the only time I felt slightly uneasy was when I noticed all the men lurking in doorways. Until I realised they were the security guards of course. Chatting to a local, she confirmed that it was perhaps a remnant of times past rather than a present-day necessity. And I was pleased to note that at least one apartment block agreed with her, having replaced its security guard with a plastic mannequin in uniform… The fact remains, though, that 15 years ago it just would not have been safe enough for us to take a 10 hour bus ride from Bogotá to Medellín, over the mountains and through the spectacular Colombian countryside. But we did, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.