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.

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.

Pablo Escobar’s Hacienda popular with tourists

Visiting the former home of a famous person is pretty common. Tourists flock to Elvis’ Graceland and who wouldn’t love a look inside the creepy world of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch? But exploring the former compound of a Colombian drug lord….well that seems a little less likely. Yet aparently Pablo Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles, located outside of Bogota, Colombia, is a hit with tourists.

Though Escobar was shot to death sixteen years ago, he lives on in infamy in the country. Tourists who have an affinity for over-the-top tacky “narco-deco” style or who can’t resist a look at Escobar’s lavish estate (which is now owned by the state) can visit the compound for about $10 US. The ranch is considered an “anti-crime museum” and sells replica guns and fake Escobar mustaches.

The compound is being re-purposed as an eco-tourism park, though many of the eccentric features added by Escobar remain. Nearly 30 hippos still wander the property, which includes Jurassico Park – a park featuring life-size models of dinosaurs – plus a go-kart track and private landing strip.

The compound also features horseback riding and hiking trails around the large property, butterfly and bird sanctuaries and a wildlife reserve.


Not-so Dangerous Destinations

“You’re going where?!” my father asked when I told him of my plans to go to Colombia. The Colombia he knows of, the one from the 1980’s, is filled with cocaine, street violence, and Pablo Escobar’s thugs. The country’s days as a dangerous destination are gone, but its stigma still remains.

Colombia isn’t the only now-safe country still considered by the masses to be too dangerous to visit. Forbes Traveler has put together a list of other destinations that aren’t as dangerous as you might assume.

Along with Colombia, the list includes places many experienced travelers wouldn’t think twice about visiting – Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia are all included – plus a few a little farther off the beaten path, like Haiti and Tajikistan. The list also includes two spots that become a lot more dangerous if you travel there illegally: Cuba and North Korea.

There’s no such thing as a completely safe destination, but still most of these spots have earned their reputations. At one point, they were lands of famine, war, and strife. Now they’ve become safer, though in some (like Haiti and certain parts of Colombia, for example) problems continue and there are still areas you should not venture.

If you plan on visiting one of these “not-so-dangerous places”, do your research and be sure you know what you are getting into. The bad reputation in some of these places can mean lower travel costs and few tourists, but there may still be an element of risk.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 12: Colombia

Location: This week Anthony is in Colombia, a country that finds itself the setting of one of South America’s most remarkable transformations. In the 25 years since the death of Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most notorious drug lords, this once war-torn country has emerged like a phoenix from the scars of the past. Colombia offers Tony a tantalizing mix of cultures, delicious food and beautiful mountain scenery.

Episode Rating: Four bloody meat cleavers (out of five) in keeping with last week’s rating system.

Summary: Cocaine. Violence. Political instability. These are the unfortunate but typical words that are associated with Colombia, South America’s northern-most state. For many years the country suffered under the weight of rival drug cartels, fueled by an insatiable demand for their chief “pulse-raising” product in the United States and beyond. It is these very depictions that Tony comes armed to confront upon arriving in Colombia. Within the episode’s first five minutes Bourdain has already pronounced his visit to Colombia as an unexpected delight. Colombia is literally a country-transformed and with killer food to boot.
Tony wastes little time diving into the country’s cuisine. He meets up with restaurant owner Jorge in Cartagena, a city on the country’s Caribbean coast. After sampling some delicious ceviche at Jorge’s restaurant, the pair take a trip to Cartagena’s central market to shop for some fish. Mr. Bourdain looks like a kid in a candy store as he conducts taste tests on all manner of exotic produce – five types of mangoes, strange orange-lime hybrids, pretty much anything fruity and delicious is available and there for the tasting.

To top it off, Tony enjoys a hearty local dish consisting of seafood rice, chicken, fish and turtle eggs, the local delicacy. Ashamed that you’re eating an endangered species Tony? Although our host gives the ethics of turtle egg-eating momentary pause, the egg is already well on its way down his digestive tract before the issue comes up. All of you just promise you won’t try any turtle eggs if you decide to visit Colombia, cool?

Soon we are transported to Bocagrande, one of Cartagena’s flashiest neighborhoods, where Tony boards a small water taxi for a trip to a small fishing island just across the bay. The rustic island stands in stark contrast to the flashy mainland high rises, and Bourdain takes the opportunity to enjoy a laid-back lunch with a local free-diver, who catches him a Caribbean lobster for lunch. Throw the words fresh, lobster and rustic island together and you don’t need to add much else – the story basically tells itself. It was almost tortuous to watch him eat it all and not get a taste.

The next and final stop on Tony’s Colombian odyssey is Medellín, the second-largest city in Colombia and one of its most notorious. The crew visits Queareparaenamorarte (try pronouncing that one), a restaurant that serves traditional Colombian cooking from across the country. Tony gorges himself on a mouth-watering array of foods – a plate of chorizo, rice soup with meat, avocado and plantains, flank steak and tamales de tilapia prepared with coconut, plantains and passion fruit sauce. All the while he’s downing shots of aguardiente, the local Colombian rum, with his hosts. C’mon did you really think we could have an episode of No Reservations without Tony getting drunk?

And we’re just getting started. In a show renowned for its gluttony, Tony’s Medellín visit turns into one of the most gluttonous we’ve probably ever witnessed. Bourdain has breakfast at the “How Yummy” restaurant at the Plaza Minorista market in Medellín. After an appetizer of empanadas, he dines on Calentao, a typical breakfast plate of leftover rice, beans, fried eggs, fried plantains, an arepa covered in cheese AND meat. In what has to be the line of the episode, Tony decides that Calentao “makes the Grand Slam at Denny’s look like a carrot stick.” Heart attack anyone?

Clearly not yet full from his gigantic breakfast, Tony has an even bigger lunch, consisting of a plate with beans, salad, rice, fried eggs, pulled pork, an arepa, chorizo and chicharron. Good god man, please make it stop. It’s almost painful to watch a human being eat this much food. But then again, it is a cooking and eating show – who am I to judge?

Tony wraps up the episode with a visit to the some of Medellín’s rougher barrios for a traditional Sancocho lunch and a little local culture. His hosts are the neighborhood’s residents – people who have experienced a dramatic rise in their standard of living in recent years. What was once the training ground for the Colombian drug cartels and their armies of mercenaries is now home to young adults who have started their own hip-hop crew, a filmmaker and a talented young chef. Thankfully Tony spares us the “kumbaya” moment at the campfire and gets back to what he does best – eating some tasty food and hanging out with his guests.

Bourdain’s examination of Colombia offers the country high marks and an optimistic road to the nation’s future success. It’s the type of country that only Anthony Bourdain does best – a place cluttered with misconceptions waiting to be corrected. And although a “human interest” angle was definitely woven into the episode, No Reservations: Colombia was really all about the food. Tony’s focus on the country’s diverse and delicious cuisine definitely made this a surprising and very enjoyable episode to watch. But more than that, I found myself wanting to go visit Colombia – for any travel show, this is the pinnacle of a successful episode.