Colombia has had a bad press for decades courtesy of Escobar, and Medellin was at the very heart of the violence created by the drug trade.
But this is a beautiful, friendly, surprising country and Medellin is a great place to start understanding its complicated past.
Medellin is a real eye opener. The first thing that strikes you is the huge scale. Set in a giant bowl of mountains, the red roofs of the city creep up the hillsides as far as the eye can see. Getting up high is the best way to get your bearings and take it all in. We headed for Parque Arvi National Park via the cable car from Santo Domingo. Over 30 minutes you climb up through the city and into the forest of the park and the views are spectacular.
We’re aware of the housing changing, becoming more makeshift and cramped, the narrow road winds it way up through the higgledy streets, there is no water or electricity the higher up you go. But they got the best views. In any other city, this would be the expensive housing for the rich and famous to enjoy the spectacular scenery and quiet!
Gently the cable car levels out and goes over the mount top to the park entrance. There are many activities for the energetic – hiking, bird watching, mountain biking – we enjoyed some fresh delights from the food stalls.
Back down in the city, we sought out Monumento ala Raza, the Monument to Race, built to commemorate the history of the state of Antioquia. Set in the La Alpujarra Administrative Centre (Medellin’s city hall), it’s a glorious, sweeping and very moving artwork, filled with intricate details.
We walked through the bustling shopping centre where the locals were buying yellow underwear to ensure wealth and happiness in the new year. We emerged into Plaza Botera, home to a fantastic collection of 23 glorious bronze sculptures donated to the city by the Colombian artist, Fernando Botera. The plaza is a great place to soak up the sun and atmosphere for a while. I love Botera’s work – chubby women and men, cats and horses, and all with the same face, really great fun. There’s a gallery full of his paintings in Bogota which is also well worth a look.
Palacio del la Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe is the beautiful black and white marble building on the Plaza. Hop in the lift to the top floor for great views of the city (they have jolly clean loos too).
To really understand how Medellin has shaken off its grizzly history, a visit to Comuna 13 is a great start. Back in the day this was one of the most dangerous areas of the city from where Pablo Escobar ran his drug empire and 100’s of people were kidnapped and murdered as the guerrillas and gangs fought for control. In recent years Comuna 13 has transformed from a complete no go zone to a sight on the tourist trail which welcomes visitors to witness how it has fought off its legacy and embraced a new era.
The cable cars and escalators which rise up through the red brick houses are a more recent development and make the sky high comuna more accessible so that the residents can get to work in the city. The streets are narrow and switchback up the mountain, with the steepest roads ever running through the crowded housing. The transformation is captured through the amazing murals painted by locals to remember their past and capture their hopes for the future. It’s well worth taking a tour here and hearing it first hand from a guide.
Using creativity – music, dance, art – the community is beating the cycle of violence and turning their surroundings into a colourful, vibrant neighbourhood. Activities for kids and a zero tolerance for crime have increased the security and opened the comuna to visitors.
There are football pitches, libraries, green spaces, better transportation and educational opportunities are all fuelling the renaissance of the area.
Now, that’s a lot of walking uphill so time for refreshments!
Great restaurants in Medellin
A renaissance is happening in the food realm too. Medellin is home to some amazing new young chefs who are serving innovative, exciting food to the expanding middle class and tourists alike, so step away from the hotel restaurant and get out there.
Calle 11, a safe touristy area in the El Poblado neighbourhood, is full of great bars and restaurants so you can wander and grab a cocktail before dinner. Unless, of course, you’re going for the degustation menu at Carmen, which comes with the wine flight, so maybe hold off on the pre dinner drink!
This buzzy restaurant is a beauty; all red brick, light wood and pale gold tones. The bar is propped up by the beautiful and hip too. Be sure to book in advance so as not to miss out, people were being turned away well after 11pm the night we visited. We opted for the 7 course chefs menu and it was amazing – fresh local ingredients, beautifully presented, modern twist on traditional dishes – it was simply stunning. Small plates packed with flavour, really interesting and elegant. And don’t forget the wine flight. It may explain why the dessert course photo is so lame. Make sure you don’t have an early start the next day.
For a different, more casual night out try El Codo del Social, a really fun, vibrant late night spot in the same neighbourhood, perfect for those nights you’ve had a big lunch so don’t think you need to eat again, but after a few drinks you realise you could eat your own bodyweight. The locals are here enjoying tapas style sharing plates and the buzzy vibe, plus the beer and the rum. We’re out under the stars until the wee hours enjoying the atmosphere.
For some typical Colombia food, well made, try Donde Dario Restaurant on Calle 33. We came for lunch and it was packed with locals enjoying a family meal, really buzzy and fun. Now, when you order one dish from the menu in Colombia, be warned that you’ll get several actual plates of food. So, your meat and rice dish will come with salad, an egg, maybe some avocado – no going hungry here – and all delicious. Ambiance and service make you feel right at home.
So, I hope you can see that Medellin has come a long way since the days of the narcos and is really a warm and welcoming city worth visiting. Like the rest of Colombia, it deserves a second look as it’s working really hard to change history and forge a new legacy. Go and enjoy and put some tourist dollars into their pockets and you’ll be richly rewarded with a unique experience.
See also Bogota and New Year in Cartagena.