Day 5 of the tour and we hit the Pan American highway from Solento to Medellín. It used to be known as the kidnap express during the 80s/90s when guerillas would stop cars on the road and demand ransoms. Our guide told us that school children in the 80s didn’t learn what to do in the case of a fire or earthquake but what to do in case of extortion, kidnap or a car bombing 😬.
It was a road that would have given the long and windy road in the Beatles song a run for its money! I guess that what’s you get in a country filled with mountains! It was not the most pleasant of journeys but we made it in one piece and the scenery along the way was beautiful.
It seemed right to be watching ‘Narcos’ (the Netflix series about Pablo Escobar) on the bus to Medellín – he is not necessarily a part of the history that Colombian’s, particularly those from Medellín, like to remember, to the extent that tours on the topic can not be called Pablo Escobar tours and therefore some are called ‘don’t mention his name’ tours. Still, it is part of the history never the less.
That said, some people still consider him like Robin Hood as he supported the low income society but we were actually told not to ask people about him or mention him in the city as you never know what impact he had on their lives and that of their family!
Medellín is Colombia’s second largest city and sprawls through a value and up the side of the hills. Over the last few years, the city has transformed itself from one of Colombia’s most notorious as the home of one of the country’s biggest drug cartels, to one of the most innovative – being named as the world’s most innovative city in a competition organised by the non-profit Urban Land Institute in 2013.
No area has gone through more transformation as Comuna 13, once labeled the most dangerous community due to its extremely high homicide rates and forced displacement of thousands of residents. It is an over-populated and low socio-economic zone that crawls up along the west hills of the city with thousands of brick and cement homes stacked close to one another. It was a pivotal center for paramilitary, guerrilla, and gang activity. Its location is ideal for crime, as it leads directly to the main highway (San Juan Highway), providing easy transportation of guns, drugs, and money.
We travelled to the area on part of the great city integrated transport system – it includes a clean and efficient metro system, buses (the buses were clearly designed for short Colombians as there was no room for legs in the seats and not enough head room when standing without using the skylight), cable car and bicycles that can be borrowed. After a metro and a bus ride we met our local guide – Christina, she has been born and raised in the area and now works on the escalators (more about them soon) and takes groups through the area.
In the 80’s and 90’s, the neighbourhood was controlled by groups loyal to Pablo Escobar and illegal activities in the area continued after his death in 1993 as the drug cartels controlled the area.
In 2002, the tensions reached their peak, and on October 16 of that year, the Colombian military launched the controversial Operation Orion, an operation to overthrow the rebel groups in the area. Many policemen, soldiers and helicopters attacked the area killing nine people (including three children) and injuring hundreds. It was not until people took to the streets with white flags, that a cease-fire was called, allowing the locals to get medical treatment (the street art with the elephant is representative of this).
Since that event, that went on for 2 nights and 3 days, the area has reinvented itself, aided by the creation of the enormous 384m covered outdoor escalator, uniting Comuna 13 (located high on the hillside) to the rest of Medellín. A journey that once took residents a strenuous 35-minute hike up the hill has now been transformed into a six-minute trip. The escalator, completed in 2011, is divided into six sections allowing people living on different levels of the hillside to access at different points.
Although it has now drastically improved life in Comuna 13, initially the community believed there were better ways to spend the over US$5 million spent on the escalators that only serve part of the large population in Comuna 13. Still those around the escalators have now embraced them and the area around them has been beautified with street art and colourful buildings and many of the locals have set up small businesses selling souvenirs to the many tourists who now visit.
It also seems that the neighbourhood dogs are also enjoying the escalators as they were happily jumping on and off them except for the one that struggled to walk up the down escalator 😂.
As part of the visit, we purchased groceries for a family in need in the community and delivered them to her home. She lived in a tiny studio apartment, high up the hill (I found it ironic that the poorest people have the most amazing views – in other cities around the world, people would pay millions for the view alone😬). She shared the space with her three children under 4 – she did not work and her husband had disappeared 15 days earlier. She doesn’t know if he has been killed or run off with another woman – it is a tough life for some.
Next we jumped back on the metro and then transferred on to the cable car which runs up and down the hillsides to other areas of the city. Again, with stunning views across the city.
Back in the centre of the city we had lunch in a restaurant in the Botero museum. Another museum of Botero, the artist I liked from Bogota. Medellín is his home town (though he now lives in Europe somewhere) and again, like Bogota, he has donated a huge number of works, including 23 larger than life sculptures for the plaza in front of the museum and we had some time to work around and ‘admire’ their form 😂.
Next we walked through the busy downtown shopping centre before arriving at the old train station (no trains run through here anymore) and on to another park where we were encouraged to get in touch with ‘PachaMama’ – a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes (and the rest of Colombia), literally mother earth! We walked through a pit of sand, stood in a fountain and lastly soaked our feet in a spa pool – all in the centre of the city. We finished our day in Medellín with a Limonada Coco – a wonderful drink of fresh lemon mixed with coconut milk and blended with ice. A top idea for a warm day.