Once labeled the ‘most dangerous city in the world’, Medellín has undergone a significant transformation. Now a must-visit location on any South America itinerary, the city has taken several measures to change not only physically, but also in terms of its landscape, culture and storytelling. Perhaps the most powerful element throughout Medellín’s incredible change is the focus on empowering locals – the people who have lived through the conflict – to be the ones responsible for representing its history and shaping its future.
Here are some of the ways Medellín has reinvented itself into a traveler hotspot in less than two decades, without forgetting its dark past.
Architecture & culture
Pablo Escobar’s home
The sad reality is many people still associate Medellín (and Colombia as a whole) with narco-trafficking and Pablo Escobar. While shows like Narcos have glamorized the reign of Escobar in Medellín, he was responsible for the death of 5,000 people between 1989 and 1993, as well as over 100 explosions in the city between September and December of 1991. Many people throughout Medellín have been impacted by Escobar and the cartel and it’s important to remember that he – nor his affiliates – are celebrated here.
In fact, in February 2019, Federico Gutierrez (Medellín’s mayor) supported the decision to demolish Escobar’s home. A crowd of people cheered and wept as the building fell – an act Gutierrez said was meant to “pay back a historical debt with our victims.” The site will later be turned into a park and memorial.
‘Birds of Peace’
There are other areas of Medellín that both commemorate the end of the drug cartel’s rule and allude to a safer, transformed city. In Plaza San Antonio, there are two bird sculptures created by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. The birds are exactly the same, except one is completely intact, while the other has a hole through its middle and shrapnel marks all over. The original bird was destroyed by explosives placed at the foot on the statue in 1995 during a public concert. 30 people died in the bombing, and another 200 were injured. Rather than remove the bird, Botero donated an identical one and insisted the two stand side-by-side. Today, the structures are known as the Birds of Peace, and are a stark reminder of Medellín’s ability to heal, but not forget.
Museo Casa de la Memoria
The civil war with the FARC (‘Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’ in English) – a left-wing, paramilitary group fighting for control of Colombia – consumed over 50 years of the country’s history, displaced 8.1 million citizens and took the lives of 260,000 people. For both Colombians and extranjeros, these figures can be difficult to really comprehend.
As a result, in 2006, Museo Casa de la Memoria opened in El Centro and became an important space for telling Medellín’s story about the conflict and extreme violence. The museum has a number of exhibits concentrating on the people affected, and fosters an open and diverse dialogue about the events that took place and the aftermath. Some of the works have been created by victims and offer a truly sobering insight into life in Medellín during the latter 20th century, as well as the ongoing hope of peace. Similar to the Birds of Love, the past and the future operate alongside one another in the museum, as there’s a packed calendar offering free community events and talks. Entrance is always free and guided tours are available in English every Tuesday and Friday.
The metro system
The physical landscape of Medellín has posed problems for residents for a number of years. Set in the basin of the Aburrá Valley, as the city expanded, poorer housing settlements were built further up the steep hillsides. The remoteness of these barrios (neighborhoods) meant they existed somewhat separately to Medellín – it’s within these areas that criminals could escape capture by navigating the narrow streets and layered housing.
To help develop the marginalized communities and improve access to the city center (and therefore to jobs), the Medellín metro system began construction in 1985. Line A between Niquia and Poblado was the first route, later Line B extended south to La Estrella, and in the early 2000s three metro cable lines were introduced. Today, over 1 million people every day take the metro over 76 stations: 27 for trains, 11 for cable cars, 9 for trams and 28 for buses.
The system transformed Medellín not only physically but also in terms of the economy and social inclusion. For example, the first metro cable (line K) alone allowed the 230,000 inhabitants around Santo Domingo station to half their travel time to Medellín’s center, and later research suggests that this mobility led to a doubling of work opportunities for remote communities in high-employment regions downtown. Furthermore, as the network expanded over the years, the metro cable link between Santo Domingo (once considered the most dangerous neighborhood in Medellín) and Parque Arví was not only a connector to the town of Santa Elena but a significant tourist attraction too.
Communa 13 escalators
Another example of a social mobility project turned tourist attraction are the escalators in Communa 13. Once plagued by drug traffickers and crime during the troubles, in 2011 a series of escalators stretching 384 meters were installed across the communa. The simple measure made the area far easier to get to and from, and helped in neutralizing the space from gang activity. While Communa 13 still has its issues, the residents welcome tourists to see another side of Medellín, complete with colorful graffiti splashed on the walls and panoramic views over the city.
These urban and cultural developments have all brought about a clear feeling of pride among locals – although 34 years old, the metro trains and cable cars are spotless, and commuters always respect the no eating or drinking rule. Both the metro and the escalators in Communa 13 are symbols of Medellín’s progression and investment in its people.
Colombia now lays claim to having the fastest-growing economy in Latin America, and tourism to the country has peaked at 2.5 million travelers per year compared to 540,000 in 2002. With the influx has come foreign investment and news of Medellín’s dramatic revival, and yet, Medellín has managed to retain ownership of its story. Rather than bury the past, parts of it have been incorporated into the city and serve as the basis to continuing transforming for the better in the future.