Medellin then and now

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.

A Day in Medellin, Colombia

Medellin, Colombia is an increasingly cosmopolitan city. The city’s struggle to fight crime and stay clean has actually yielded certain benefits for those visiting the city. With an ongoing campaign to modernize the city while simultaneously keeping the attractions affordable, you won’t have any problem carving out the perfect day in Medellin.

During a recent visit to the city, I versed myself, unintentionally of course, in How to Make The Most of A Day in Medellin. Check it out.

1. The Botanical Gardens. Start your day off with a stroll through these lush gardens. Boasting free entry and more than 5,000 individual plants, you won’t find urban nature organized this well anywhere else in Medellin. Pack a breakfast and picnic beside the water. Tip: You can find some slightly overpriced but still not that expensive stuff worth buying in the gift shop. From attractive leather wallets to a tiny little rag doll key chain (now hanging on my niece’s backpack), this gift shop isn’t nearly as mundane as what I’m used to.

2. Once you’re through with breakfasting and plant-admiring, why not soak in even more beauty? Take a trip to the Medellin Museum of Modern Art where you’ll be impressed with the architecture, gift shop, and yes, you guessed it, even the modern design of the building itself. Tip: If the Botanical Gardens gift shop is cool, the museum’s gift shop is ridiculously cool. From vinyl record coasters to earrings I would definitely wear, my only complaint about my experience with the museum’s gift shop was that I didn’t have enough time to buy everything I wanted to buy. And while you’re there, check out the graffiti across the street from the museum.

%Gallery-112374%3. For lunch, try out En Casa de Oliva. It’s this so-cute-it’s-kind-of-kitschy but still impressively authentic restaurant in Poblado. It’s open-aired and as you dine, you can ease your eyes with the surrounding beauty that takes shape as a casual indoor garden. I tried a little bit of everything here and I recommend it all-especially the lemonade. Tip: The portions here are big. Consider sharing.

4. After lunch, take a walk. This section of town is optimal for shopping. You’ll find boutiques, clubs, salons, coffee shops, and other specialty stores in this area. Make sure you stop by a grocery store while out shopping. You won’t regret picking up some coffee or chocolate for the folks back home. Tip: The security at Medellin’s airport can be surprisingly strict. Keep this in mind when you’re buying goods to take home. A few bags of coffee is cool. A suitcase full of coffee might cost you some time.

5. Take yourself and any respective travel companions on a 70 cent cable car ride. You can pick up the cable car from the Medellin Metro and ride it to its peak. The cars ascend into the Andes and the ride up is breathtaking. The cars can fit 6-8 people, but you can snatch one just for yourself if you’re sly and have good timing. Plan it so you’re on this thing around sunset and you’ll catch a picture-perfect view of Medellin glistening in the valley on your ride down. Tip: if you’re thirsty, hungry, or curious at the top, there are usually vendors around up there. And by the way, ‘up there’ is currently a giant park still under construction.

6. Drop down to Parque Lleras in the Poblado area for dinner. Bijao has excellent food and a superb wine selection. My personal recommendation: the tuna.Tip: Definitely use the toilets here. They’re luxurious in a way you’ll only understand after you use them.

7. Have your nightcap at any one of the nearby bars or clubs. This district is a nightlife hotspot, so don’t be shy. Tip: Keep your wits about you. Medellin is a big city and just like other big cities, you’re going to have to be aware of your surroundings, and your belongings, if you want to stay safe.

Have other suggestions for a perfect day in Medellin? Share it with the rest of us via comment.

[photos by Ben Britz]

10 reasons to choose Colombia as your next vacation destination

It’s safe, it’s affordable, and it’s attracting travelers like never before. Colombia, the closest South American getaway to the United States, has seemingly appeared on just about every “hip new travel destination” list over the last few years, including the New York Times list of 31 Places to Go in 2010. So why is everyone raving about it? Here are ten reasons:

10. Medellin Named the world’s most dangerous city only two decades ago thanks largely to the exploits of Pablo Escobar, Medellin has cleaned up its act in a big way since the drug lord’s death in 1993. Nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, Medellin’s near-perfect climate, cosmopolitan atmosphere, and vibrant nightlife make it a must-visit Colombia destination.

If you can, schedule your trip so that you can witness Medellin’s one-of-a-kind Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) in early August. My fellow travelers who attended could not shut up about it. Check out Anthony Bourdain‘s thoughts on the city here.

9. Cartagena The word is out about Cartagena: it might just be the prettiest and best-preserved colonial city in South America.

Strolling the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, with its massive balconies covered in bougainvillea and church spires looming overhead, feels like something out of a fairy tale. If your significant other is overtaken by the city’s romance, take him or her to the Palace of the Inquisition to check out its vast collection of medieval torture instruments. That’ll stop all the marriage talk!

8. The food and drink
Colombia does not have much of a culinary reputation, and in many small towns it’s not hard to figure out why. Much of the cuisine, as my trusty Lonely Planet notes, is “unseasond, unspiced food, prepared simply and ungarnished.” Exciting it is not. Fortunately, despite the blandness of some Colombian food, you’ll still find many things to tempt the ol’ tastebuds, like the ubiquitous arepas (buttery corn tortillas), patacones (plantains that are pressed flat and fried), exotic fruits like the lulo, and fresh fish on the coast. As the home of Juan Valdez, Colombia also serves up an above-average cup of coffee, unlike much of South America which relies almost exclusively on the execrable instant coffee Nescafe. Fresh, exotic fruit juice, or jugo, is widely available and incredibly tasty. Colombia’s national spirit is aguardiente, an anise-flavored white liquor that almost makes up for its godawful taste with its 29% alcohol content. Almost.

7. It’s safer thank you think! If you caught Ingrid Betancourt on Oprah the other day (hey, my remote was broken!), you might get the impression that Colombia’s still-dodgy reputation is well-deserved. Betancourt, you’ll remember, was the Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped by the guerrilla group FARC back in 2002 and held until 2008 when she was dramatically rescued by the Colombian military.

Yes, Colombia has long been associated with drug trafficking, kidnapping, guerilla groups, and violence, but those days are mostly behind it. Medellin, once the most dangerous city in the world with about 380 murders per 100,000 people, is now one of the safest cities in South America. The vast majority of Colombia’s dangerous areas lie in the country’s sparsely-populated eastern half, a region well off the tourist trail. (We didn’t go there and neither should you, with the exception of the Amazonian town Leticia.) Colombia’s big cities and small towns, as well as every attraction on this list, are as safe as anywhere in Latin America.

6. San Gil Far and away the adventure sports capital of Colombia, San Gil attracts travelers seeking cheap (and we mean cheap) thrills, whether it’s white-water rafting, paragliding, horseback riding, caving, or rappelling down a waterfall. The town itself, though admittedly short on culinary delights, is home to a pleasant tree-lined square which lies an easy walk from Parque El Gallineral, a beautiful ten-acre park perfect for an afternoon stroll.

5. Barichara For those travelers who are more Betty White than Bear Grylls, avoid the white-knuckle adventure (“these kids and their paragliding!”) and take a 45-minute bus ride from San Gil to the picturesque town of Barichara. This beautiful pueblo, with its cobblestone streets, colonial churches, and quaint cafés, makes a wonderful day-trip destination.

Its culinary scene is also surprisingly developed for a town of 10,000, with several restaurants offering regional dishes like cabro con pepitoria (goat with blood and organs) and the (in)famous hormigas culonas, giant ants that have been fried or roasted. Surprisingly tolerable!

4. Taganga Looking for a bargain-basement PADI course so you can finally learn what all the scuba diving fuss is about? Make your way to the fishing village of Taganga, where several operators offer four-day open water courses for about US$250. Taganga also makes a great base for trips to Tayrona National Park and Ciudad Perdida (see below), and as such, the town attracts gringo backpackers like moths to a flame. This means, among other things, that there are plenty of inexpensive and occasionally rowdy hostels in town, as well as some pretty good restaurants and coffee shops. Embrace your gringo-ness at the Swedish-owned Café Bonsai just a half-block from the waterfront. Cool music, tasty food, hot drinks, cocktail specials… Is there more to life?

3. Tayrona National Park
Located on a small stretch of Caribbean coastline, this 93-square-mile national park offers an abundance of attractions for hikers, nature lovers and beach bums alike. Easily accessible from the towns of Santa Marta by bus or Taganga by boat, the park’s dense jungle leads to pristine white-sand beaches, some of the best in Colombia.

Spend lazy days bronzing on the beach and swimming in the warm Caribbean waters, or take advantage of extensive trails to see some of the park’s 300 species of birds and 770 species of plants. Swing yourself to sleep in a hammock at one of the many campgrounds in the park– just don’t forget the bug spray!

2. Bogotá More than just another noisy, crowded Latin American capital, Bogotá might just be the most pleasant surprise of your trip. Progressive and cosmopolitan, Bogotá was recently named the world’s third-most bike-friendly city after Amsterdam and Copenhagen. The original home of the now much-copied ciclovía concept, Bogotá closes 122 kilometers of roads to cars every Sunday for hundreds of thousands of cyclists to enjoy. Its walkable colonial neighborhood La Candelaria, home to the Plaza de Bolivar (pictured), boasts the world-class Gold Museum and the worthwhile Donación Botero, a museum with works by Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, as well as unknown dabblers like Picasso, Renoir, and Monet. La Candelaria is also a food-lover’s paradise, with top-notch international cuisine, tasty and inexpensive local fare, and scores of street vendors selling aromatica, a wonderfully addictive spiced hot tea.

1. Ciudad Perdida Accessible by a challenging five-day trek through the jungle, Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”) is, for me, Colombia’s top attraction. Dating from the 9th Century, Ciudad Perdida’s ruins were hidden for centuries beneath thick vegetation until grave-robbers discovered the site in 1973. But Ciudad Perdida is special not because of the ruins themselves, but because of the spectacular five-day hike required to get there. For more on this great hike, check out my recent should-have-been-award-winning Gadling piece on Ciudad Perdida.

For more wanderlust-inspiring articles about Colombia, check out a couple favorites from the Gadling vault: The rebirth of Medellin? and Coming attractions: Colombia. The New York Times has also been all over Colombia recently; check out their coverage here.

[All photos belong to the Colombia Board of Tourism or your humble correspondent]

The rebirth of Medellin?

You’ve probably already heard of the Colombian city of Medellin, but not as a tourist attraction. Once the infamous stomping ground of “Cocaine Kingpin” Pablo Escobar, this Colombian city boasted a murder rate of 380 per 100,000, earning it a reputation as the most violent in the world. But as the writers at Blackbook recently discovered, these days Medellin’s tourist prospects are looking up.

Life in Medellin has changed dramatically since the dark years of drug violence. Blackbook found a city blessed by “verdant beauty, its residents’ hospitality and gregariousness, its rich artistic heritage, and its richer cuisine.” Painter Fernando Botero was born in Medellin and a new art museum bearing his name opened here in 2004. In addition, the city offers a wealth of delicious foodstuffs including sancocho, a stew of plantains, yucca and potato, as well as local moonshine aguardiente. Even the travel world’s chosen son, Anthony Bourdain, visited Medellin in 2008, giving the town rave reviews.

So is Colombia destined to become the world’s next great hot destination? It’s not quite there yet. An uptick in violence last year again has residents and visitors on edge. But Medellin’s beauty, friendly citizens and unique culture will not go undiscovered for long. A secret this good was bound to get out sooner or later.

Gadling + BootsnAll – Picks of the Week (5.22.09)

Welcome back. Here we are again for Gadling’s weekly roundup of links from the independent travel experts at BootsnAll. This week’s links are custom-made to get your wanderlust racing and put you in the right travel mindset. So pull that suitcase out of the closet and start clicking below:

  • Biggest Soccer Rivalries – soccer is a sport that tends to elicit groans of boredom from many Americans. But around the world it’s serious business. Rivalries like Spain’s Real Madrid vs. FC Barcelona or Boca Juniors vs. River Plate in Argentina spark intense fan participation, raucous crowds and huge TV coverage. Jessica Spiegal has a list of some of the best rivalries, including teams in Egypt, Iran and England among others.
  • Weird World Heritage – the World Heritage Site program was established to conserve sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance to all of humanity. That said, Cherrye Moore points out that the program’s selections include quite a few picks off the beaten track, including the “Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo-Jump” in Alberta Canada (the Native Americans used to run buffaloes off the cliffs) or the Quseir Amra Castle in Jordan.
  • Bone Churches – European church builders seem to have an odd proclivity for building and decorating their structures with human bones. Often called ossuaries, these unique bone structures can be found in churches from Spain, to Italy and all the way to the Czech Republic. Whether you’re a Goth into the black arts or just interested in some unique cultural landmarks, Jessica Spiegal’s bone churches roundup is worth a look.
  • South American Subways – as Eileen Smith points out, Europe is not the only continent with a wealth of public transportation options. If you happen to be traveling around cities like Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Caracas, or Medellin, Colombia make sure to give them a try.
  • Amsterdam Amenities – let’s drop the stereotypes: Amsterdam has a lot more to offer than marijuana, Van Gogh museums and canals. The WhyGo Amsterdam blog has a roundup tips to know before you visit. Ever considered some Indonesian food for dinner? Or a visit to the world’s largest flower market? Have a look.

That’s it for this week’s BootsnAll Picks of the Week. Check back again next Friday for another roundup of great links from around the world.