Medellin, Colombia isn’t the way it used to be. Once known for its drug cartels and their inordinately vengeful wars that regularly victimized citizens of the city as well as travelers, Medellin has gone under, well, the knife, in more ways than one. The city’s makeover has made tourists from across the globe feel more welcomed and has brought peace to locals who know what it was like back then. ‘Back then’, a phrase Colombians don’t use lightly, but do use frequently. Since Escobar’s reign of terror, Medellin has reclaimed itself and is now better prepared than ever to brave what’s to come.
No one would have considered Medellin a tourist destination 10 years ago. It simply wasn’t. Hundreds of lives a month were being lost in the city at the hand of relentless drug wars then and the city was dubbed ‘The Most Violent City in The World’. The city sculpted into the Andes was avoided by travelers, and for good reason. Locals at the time could barely call Medellin a home and many were being driven away from their houses, encumbered by fear, and forced into Witness Protection programs or other forms of hiding because they ‘knew too much’. With the waters being so treacherous for locals, foreigners felt even less at ease and found themselves targets in the unforgiving battles for territory taking place, battles headed up by drug-lords who had more sway than city officials back then. When Escobar was killed in 1993 (or when he killed himself, reports vary) and the two drug-lords that stepped up in his place, leaders of the Cali Cartel, were finally brought down, Medellin’s districts were ceded with this trio’s vanishing and the city needed an emergency recovery plan. That plan has helped make Medellin traversable today.
Medellin’s makeover began within. City officials rallied and conjured up support from nations far and wide, raking in investment money for the city chunk by chunk. Citizens bound together and formed a bit of a union, a promise to rebuild their city and keep out the bad. They joined forces while unblinkingly awaiting the support that eventually came from around the globe. With foreign aid, a devoted community, and a powerful drug-lord out of the way, the city had promise and the building was underway.
During a recent trip to Medellin, I walked through places that were monumental in the city’s development.
%Gallery-113677%The public library sits atop a hill, silky clouds from the mountains slither between the modern structure’s sleek twists and turns. The attention-grabbing building was placed smack in the middle of a neighborhood in Medellin once known as one of the worst. Still neighbored by poverty-stricken homes that steadily climb the mountainside, the library was placed intentionally, just like the high schools. The idea was to positively influence children who only had seen the worst.
And the plan seems to be working. Babies born into these neighborhoods become children who frequent the library with their parents or teachers and those children become industrious teens who attend high schools that have perks, like running water in some cases, that they never saw at home. These teens, of course, become better-rounded individuals more capable of considering the colorful expanse of possibilities for their future.
In a further attempt to improve this area of the city highly affected by the pain of the past, Medellin installed its metro system in such a way that it runs straight through this same district. The city’s subway isn’t too unlike the subway system in New York City. Trains arrive at and depart from even cleaner stations (no eating on the metro in Medellin) and commuters flip through their iPods and books while eyeing the bright advertisements in their peripheral. What’s unlike New York City is the cable car portion of the metro system.
These cars ascend into the clouds that roll off the Andes. They are pulled gently and at such an elevation, it’s not difficult to see what those investing in Medellin see: a beautiful sprawling city tucked into a lush valley, hungry for the chance it deserves. For just 70 cents, passengers are slowly raised up the mountainside. The ride is serene and the to-be destination on the top of the hill is even better: a massive city park that will eventually be available to everyone for hiking, camping, and other outdoor recreational activities. But for now the cable cars provide opportunities for those living on the hills beneath. The opportunities provided? Jobs mainly.
Without proper roads or means to travel on those roads even if they did exist, many people born into these neighborhoods have found themselves a part of a cyclical depression, one that carries over from generation to generation. The cable cars have made it possible for employable residents of this area to not only find work throughout the city, but to actually mobilize.
The dedication to Medellin extends beyond cleaning up dirty neighborhoods. The campaign, in fact, has been widespread. From the loft-like Brooklyn-esque Medellin Museum of Modern Art to the towering Botanical Gardens, the city truly survived a nightmare with the power of a dream.
I attended the annual Christmas lighting ceremony–a celebration that unites the city with the holiday spirit. I watched as locals enjoyed the fantastic displays of light and water and I couldn’t help but suspect the locals were cheering for something far beyond the engineering of man-the potential of man. And if any city ever had potential, it’s this one.
Although Medellin’s crime rate decreased steadily in the years following Escobar’s fall, it should be noted that the crime rate has been on the rise again in more recent years. But before you rethink your Colombia travel plans, consider this: Medellin has dealt with worse. From abject misery to widespread hope, Medellin is better equipped this time around.
A good traveler is one who is always aware of his or her surroundings, and if you’re a traveler in Medellin, you need to be a good one. Follow the obvious rules of travel (don’t travel alone, don’t travel into dangerous neighborhoods, be weary of traveling at night, don’t carry valuables you can’t afford to lose with you, etc.) and you should be fine in Medellin.
And remember: the more support Medellin has, the better it will do. Already triumphant in its plan to take back the city, imagine the lasting transformation that will be cemented with increased support from travelers everywhere. When all is said and done, Medellin gives me hope for Mexico.