Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, has been on our South American bucket list for a while. We finally made a whirlwind trip there last week, and my goodness, what a fabulous place. We crammed as much as we possibly could into four days, so much that I couldn’t possibly cover it all in one blog post. Here’s the first of a few installments about our visit.
To many people, the name “Medellín” conjures plenty of negative and downright scary associations: the Pablo Escobar drug cartel . . .the FARC guerilla war . . . the hopelessness and violence that come with poverty and isolation. Not so long ago all of those things applied; in fact, at one point Medellín had a reputation as the most violent city in the world.
What a difference a couple of decades can make. The Medellín Cartel is gone, and since the late 1990s the city’s homicide rate has decreased by 95% and extreme poverty by 66%; in fact, Medellín is now considered safer than many U.S. cities (thank you, Wikipedia, for those facts and figs!). And just before our trip, the Colombian government announced that it has signed a peace accord with the FARC, signalling the end to many, many decades of civil conflict. Some of the locals we talked to, including our tour guide, were skeptical – but it’s a huge step in the right direction.
All of these developments have breathed new life into the city and birthed a tourism industry that is still in its early stages, but growing fast. Clearly Medellín is on the move and building a new reputation as one of South America’s most progressive, modern, and scenic cities, and it’s beginning to draw visitors from all over the world.
Here are some of our general thoughts about Medellín:
- It’s pretty. Medellín and its surrounding communities lie in a deep valley surrounded by two mountain ranges, offshoots of the Andes, that reach 8,000-plus feet.
- It’s a bargain. Although we wouldn’t recommend our hotel for a variety of reasons, it was still clean, modern, and upscale, and set us back about $55 a night including breakfast. A fantastic filet mignon lunch in the outlying city of Sabeneta, including a bottle of wine, was about $36. We used Uber extensively to get around and paid no more than $3 (and that was for a long trip). We also rode the Metro light rail system extensively and paid no more than $8 total over our four-day visit
- It’s incredibly clean. With just a couple of exceptions, we never saw trash thrown ANYWHERE in Medellín and environs, including the roadsides. Anyone who’s done extensive traveling in Latin America knows what a rarity that is.
- It’s a huge city (pop. 2.5 million) that’s working hard to keep things on an approachable, human scale. There are leafy and walkable neighborhoods and parks everywhere, and the city has invested in some very beautiful and impressive public spaces. One that we visited, the Parque de Los Deseos (Park of Wishes) is a huge and modern plaza with a music hall, planetarium, and plenty of activities – like water parks and cultural events – for families and kids. And of course there’s Botero Plaza in the heart of downtown, displaying 23 bulbous sculptures by one of Colombia’s most famous artists, Fernando Botero. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his art, but we got a kick out of seeing all of the local citizens out for the day, taking selfies and otherwise interacting with the sculptures.
- Also on the theme of approach-ability and human scale, Medellín has one of the best public transportation systems we’ve ever experienced, anywhere. In the past decade, the city has made a big investment in a modern Metro rail system as well as cable car lines and even escalators designed to unite and modernize the barrios clustered on the surrounding mountains.
We loved Medellín and can’t wait to return for a much longer visit next time. Stay tuned for more posts and pics!