How Medellin went from murder capital to hipster holiday destination

"Today Medellin feels new-born. It helps that the setting is gorgeous"“Today Medellin feels new-born. It helps that the setting is gorgeous” CREDIT: GETTY

Twenty-five years ago, Time magazine dubbed Colombia’s Medellin “the most dangerous city on earth”. Drug lords lived like princes, judges and policeman were regularly assassinated, paramilitaries invaded neighbourhoods and ordinary people disappeared overnight without trace.

Even 10 years ago, Medellin was a “bad-ass town”. Violence reigned, civil society had been destroyed and no one seemed to know how to put Medellin back together again.

Fast-forward to the present, and Medellin is a delightful place of law-abiding entrepreneurial folk. With an economy that is among the fastest growing on the continent, it is one of the great success stories of Latin America.

In 2013, Medellin was hailed as “the most innovative city in the world” by the Urban Land Institute, brimming with creative ideas for urban living, like the eco-árbol, a tree-like structure that acts as an air-purifier, and the spectacular Orquideorama for growing orchids. In Barefoot Park, where passers-by are encouraged to discard their shoes to wriggle their toes in pebbles, mud, and soft grass before finally soaking their feet in pools of water, I asked my guide, Julian, what had happened, how Medellin had gone from gangs and gunfire to zen-like experiences for bare feet.

“Public transport,” he said. It was a moment before I realised he was serious.

“Don’t laugh,” he chided me. “The metro was the beginning of all the good stuff. It was like a bridge to a different world. We suddenly realised that things could change. It was the beginning of a revolution in Medellin.”

Traditionally, Colombia’s second city had a reputation as a savvy and entrepreneurial place. But in the Eighties and Nineties those business smarts made Medellin the leading supplier for America’s cocaine habit. At the head of its drug operations was Pablo Escobar, king of cocaine lords, who would eventually be gunned down by American-funded paramilitaries on a Medellin rooftop in 1993. It was also one of the front lines in the battle between the government and Farc, Colombia’s guerrilla movement. Medellin became the world’s murder capital.

So many people in this city have suffered, and Julian was one of them. His father had been left close to death in a shooting when Julian was eight. Several of his closest friends never made it to adulthood. There were moments when he talked of his own experiences, of the friends he had lost, when he needed to stop and compose himself. Tears were never far away.

Medellin’s pain has its own monument – the Casa de la Memoria, the House of Memories. On the interactive walls are digital timelines with documents, newspaper reports, and film clips. Most moving of all are the dignified video testimonies of people’s experiences, of years spent searching for lost sons and husbands, of time spent fighting for the return of a box of ashes.

It was the sheer scale of the suffering eventually that drove ordinary people to reclaim their city from the guerrillas and the drug lords. Medellin’s transformation, of course, is part of a larger national revival.  After decades of civil war, Colombia has been born again.

Young people who went abroad for education and for work in the bad years have come home in droves, bearing an international sophistication and an entrepreneurial energy. But in Medellin – where public projects helped instil a sense of pride and where ordinary private individuals simply turned their backs on the old ways – the renaissance has been more dramatic than anywhere else in the country.

Botero Square
Botero Square CREDIT: GETTY

Today Medellin feels new-born. It helps that the setting is gorgeous. The city lies in a long valley between two Andean mountain ridges. Capital of Antioquia province, a fertile region famous for its coffee plantations and its flower farms, for its orchids and butterflies, it is known as the City of Eternal Spring for its idyllic climate. Everywhere you turn there seem to be new things happening.

The Museo de Arte Moderno
The Museo de Arte Moderno CREDIT: GETTY

I was wowed by the wide modern esplanades of the Parque de los Desos, the Park of Wishes, like an upgrade of London’s South Bank Centre with cafés and restaurants, lively concert halls and an interactive museum, the city’s university, a modern library and an open-air cinema. In the Museo de Arte Moderno or MAMM, I headed for the new galleries of Colombian artists. In the botanical garden I followed boardwalks through tropical rainforest laced with orchids and bamboo into secret corners of birdsong and green shadows.

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