By Sandra Hutchinson
After our family had spent several days in Cartagena, on the northern coast of Colombia, we flew with Avianca, the national airline of Colombia, to Medellin. It was an easy, less-than-an hour flight.
Known as the “city of eternal spring” because of its year-round temperate climate, this city of about 2 1/2 million people was also formerly known as the “murder capital of the world,” as the home of notorious drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar. But with Escobar’s death, and a peace accord between the guerrillas and the democratically-elected president, Medellin has evolved, and it’s now considered a relatively safe place to visit.
I’ll mention the highlights of our two days in Medellin.
Public metro trains; cable cars and escalators
Without a doubt, the most notable part of time in Medellin was learning about the social change and economic opportunity that has been occasioned by the investment in public transportation. We spent a full afternoon with 26-year old Sebastian, a Medellin native, architect and urban planner.
The central core of Medellin lies on a sprawling valley floor, at about 4,900 feet altitude, with steep mountain slopes rising up on either side. The mountainsides are covered with barrios, sometimes called “favelas,” or “squatter” communities, where many thousands of low-income residents have built houses, sometimes literally on top of one another. When the government installed a system of cable cars (think gondolas at ski areas), an arduous journey which previously took hours by foot, climbing down and back up stairs and steep pathways, became an easy commute. This opened up access to education, health care, and jobs, on the valley floor below.
Looking down on some of the homes, Sebastian asked us to note Venezuelan flags. Colombia has been absorbing large numbers of Venezuelan refugees, and some have moved into the communities on the mountainsides of Medellin. It is hard to make them out in the photo below, but they are there. They are similar to the Colombian flag, but have stars within the blue band. Click on this link to read an interesting article in The Atlantic about how Colombia is handling the influx of Venezuelan refugees.
In another neighborhood, Comuna 13, on the mountainside above the San Javier metro station, a series of outdoor escalators has been built to provide similar access. Not many years ago, this neighborhood was considered to be the most dangerous and violent area within the most violent city on earth. Now, it draws tourists and residents have opened cafes and shops to cater to visitors. There are many murals that commemorate the path out of violence and the hopes of the residents for a rebirth of the neighborhood and city.
Museum of Memories
In Medellin, we were also very moved by our visit to the Museum of Memories, which commemorates the lives of the many thousands of innocent people killed during the country’s decades of civil war and violence.
Here’s an explanation of the Museum from Atlas Obscura:
“By the end of the 1980s, Medellín was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels had unleashed a wave of violence that would plague the city and Colombia for decades to come. Even after the death of Escobar in December 1993, crime rates remained high, and paramilitary groups like FARC and the AUC continued to destabilize the entire country.
Then came Operation Orion in 2002, the largest urban military operation ever to take place in Colombia, whose goal was to disband the urban militias in Medellín. But almost immediately after the military intervention, the members of these groups formed further criminal gangs who continued to terrorize the city.
In 2006, four years after Operation Orion, the Victim Assistance Program in Medellín began to assemble the source material for what would eventually become the Museo Casa de la Memoria, or House of Memory Museum. The three-floor museum was finally opened in 2012, as a place of remembrance, reflection, and a firm reminder to future generations that strategies are still needed to ensure such violence never takes place again.
The museum houses an impressive range of multimedia exhibits that tell the history of Medellín and explain, in often stark fashion, the city’s violent past. Interactive maps highlight areas of Medellín affected by massacres; hundreds of testimonies can be heard, viewed and read; works of art depict the conflict; and you can listen to powerful songs, mainly hip-hop and rap, that talk of the violence.”
The exhibits within the museum are in Spanish, but when you enter, you can download an app on your phone which provides English commentary throughout the exhibit spaces. It was appreciated and easy to use, although ideally you should use headphones so as to not disturb other visitors.
Fernando Botero (born April 1932) is perhaps the most famous living Colombian artist. He is primarily known for his sculptures, which depict people and animals in exaggerated sizes.
In downtown Medellin, the park called Botero Plaza contains 23 of the artist’s bronze sculptures. The park borders two highly regarded museums — the art museum named Museum of Antioquia and the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture, which houses the Institute of Culture and Heritage of Antioquia, which is the department in which Medellin is located. We did not have time to visit either of the museums.
Before leaving Medellin— the traditional Antioquia dish, called Bandeja Palsa is a very full plate of white rice, beans, shredded meat, chicharrón (pork rind), chorizo, morcilla (black pudding), fried egg, avocado, arepa and plantain. This photo is what I believe to be one version of Bendeja Palsa. At least there’s some salad!
The message we took away from Medellin was one of hope. Hope for the people living in the mountainside communities that they can earn a decent living and have access to education and health care; and hope that the violence in this part of the world has truly ended.
Stay tuned for part 3 of our Colombian trip — on to the high altitude capital city of Bogota!