Must-See: Medellín

Must-See: Medellín

By Steve English

Must-See: Medellín

Once the most dangerous place on the planet, the “Colombian Miracle” has transformed Colombia’s second city into a vibrant city of art and growing peace.

If your exposure to Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, begins and ends with the gritty Netflix crime drama Narcos, we have some important things to discuss. The Medellín of popular imagination – a dangerous no-go zone where drug gangs and Marxist guerrillas once fought bloody battles in the street with police – is, as far as the locals are concerned, ancient history. This city of 2.5 million has undergone a radical transformation since the violent era of cocaine czar Pablo Escobar. On the back of a stunning commitment to public works and progressive reform, a vibrant, innovative, and safe city has risen from the chaos to become one of Latin America’s leading lights.

Joaquin Antonio Uribe Jardín Botánico de Medellín

Wedged as it is at the bottom of the verdant Valle de Aburrá and surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Andes, nature is never far away in Medellín. One of the best spots to witness it up-close within the city limits is the Joaquin Antonio Uribe Jardín Botánico de Medellín (or merely the Botanical Garden.) Founded in 1972 and extensively renovated in 2005 as part of then-mayor Sergio Fajardo progressive “social urbanism” campaign, the garden hosts more than 1,000 species of flowers and animals across 35 acres (14 hectares) of parkland crisscrossed by walking trails. The highlight is the sprawling Orquideorama, a unique steel-and-timber canopy of hexagonal platforms set atop 50-foot (15-meter) posts. The award-winning structure is a sight to behold and was designed to create a public space for performances and festivals that exists in harmony with the park’s flora and fauna. The site also includes a butterfly sanctuary, an excellent restaurant boasting a South American fusion menu, and a gallery of orchids, Colombia’s national flower.

Parque Berrío

The best place to get a true sense of Medellín is Parque Berrío, the geographical and civic heart of the city since 1680 and named for Pedro Justo Berrío, a 19th-century governor of Antioquia who worked to unite Colombia’s states through “peace, roads, and schools.” The western edge of the square is dominated by the Iglesia de La Candelaria, a neoclassical cathedral distinguished by a pair of red-domed towers. Flanked by modern steel-and-glass buildings, the cathedral’s presence lends the park an intriguing blend of contrasts; in one direction stands a city striving towards the future, in the other, a reminder of its colonial past. (Despite being settled by Spain in 1675, few examples of Medellín’s colonial architecture survive.)

The park is home to some excellent works of art. To the southeast lies “The Challenge,” a 59-foot bronze-and-concrete sculpture by Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt, one of Colombia’s most important sculptors. In the southwest corner stands Fernando Botero’s voluptuous “Female Torso,” better known locally as “La Gorda.” A pair of dazzling murals depicting scenes from Antioquia’s history can be found on the other side of the park.

Santo Domingo

Perhaps nowhere are Mayor Fajardo’s reforms more evident than in Santo Domingo. Once the most dangerous part of one of the world’s most dangerous cities, the fortunes of this neighborhood in the hilltop Comuna 1 district began to turn in 2004 with the opening of the Metrocable, a splashy gondola lift. What was once an hour-long commute downtown through smog-choked streets became a pleasant ten-minute ride through the clouds. The Metrocable delivered change in the form of improved access to better jobs, stronger communities, reduced traffic, a bonafide tourist attraction in the form of the striking black monoliths of the Parque Biblioteca España, and modest prosperity. For visitors, the benefits are more immediate but no less compelling: convenient access to one of Medellín up-and-coming neighborhoods and an utterly breathtaking view of the city.

Comuna 13

Another success story lies to the west of downtown. Comuna 13, another neighborhood ravaged by violence, is steadily revitalizing itself as a bastion of peace, creativity, and community strength. The site of pitched battles between police, paramilitary groups, and drug cartels in the 1990s, the neighborhood’s fortunes changed in the aftermath of Operation Orion, a 2002 military campaign launched by the government to oust guerrilla groups that had seized the area in the wake of Escobar’s death. Hundreds of civilians were wounded in the siege, and with no access to medical help, residents took to the streets brandishing white flags. With that act, the fighting stopped, and the healing began.

Like the Metrocable in Santo Domingo, the marginalized population of Comuna 13 is now linked to downtown Medellín by improved public transit, most notably the escaleras electricas, a network of outdoor escalators. But it is the residents themselves that have led the charge in rebuilding the community. Hip-hop musicians and graffiti artists have helped transform the barrio into a haven for art. Using paint supplied by the government, the streets of Comuna 13 are now decorated with stunning graffiti murals depicting the neighborhood’s stories. (The famous white flags are a recurring theme.) Bilingual tours led by Casa Kolacho, a local non-profit, provide visitors with a safe and uplifting glimpse of a place once considered the worst place in the world. While far from perfect, Comuna 13 stands as a sterling example of just how far public investment and local will can go.

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