Medellín: More than Drug Cartels

There exists a great amount of diversity amongst the Colombian cities of Bogota, Cartagena, and Medellín.  Amongst the mountains of Bogota a jacket is necessary to fend off the winter chill.  The balmy coastal city of Cartagena is hotter than two mice holding sexual congress in a wool sock.  And Medellín is that Goldilocks porridge in the middle, eternally spring.

Medellín is renowned nationally as the home of the drug cartels and the most famous cartel leader in history, Pablo Escobar.  Thus it is no surprise that most people are unaware that it was named the Most Innovative City in 2012.  To get to know the paisa culture and people better (paisa refers to the region in which Medellín lies) I took a 4.5 hour walking tour.  Right in the center of the Alpujarra square is the Monumento a la Raza sculpture by Rodrigo Betancur.  The sculpture sweeps 38 meters into the sky and depicts the history of the paisa people, from their days as farmers, to the coming of the railroad system, all the way to the end of all symbolized by a winged monster at the sculpture’s apex (Betancur liked to express that death is the ultimate end for everything).

Transformation is evident all throughout the city.  Many public areas that were synonymous with crime, murder, and prostitution have been transformed into centers of inspiration.  Cisneros Square has become known as the Park of Light, with 300 light poles illuminating the once dark and dangerous area.  The poor used to be even more marginalized than they currently are, usually living in the mountainous outskirts of the town.  The government has installed escalators and cable systems to allow these inhabitants to forego walking up hundreds of steps.


The Park of Light.

With all that walking it would be almost impossible to look like the sculptures in Botero’s Park.  Fernando Botero is famous for his works of people and animals displayed in disproportion, such as a portly man with a ridiculously small head.  He has dedicated a number of his works to the city and they make for a comical comparison with some of the disproportionate women who walk through the park.  Medellín is famous for plastic surgery and there is no shortage of collagen and silicon on the streets.

Or cocaine for that matter.  On every other street there is a man selling nothing but gum.  Seems like an occupation with very little profit potential.  But the gum is just a front as their shouts of ‘gum’ turns into more subdued whispers of ‘marijuana, cocaine’ as you walk past.  It is also a little ironic that prostitutes congregate outside of churches.  The idea is that a person can hire an escort and then easily enter the church afterwards to wash away their guilt.  No matter how much the city transforms some old habits will always remain the same.

Medellín boasts the only metro system in Colombia and is a source of pride for the paisa people.  The metro was completed in 1995 yet it still appears almost brand knew.  There are no scratches on the windows or ¨call this number for a good time¨ written on the back of seats.  The people do not take the metro for granted like in most other cities.  They appreciate that buildings such as the planetarium and public centers such as the botanical garden are easily accessible.

Medellín is quickly becoming a popular must-see city for people visiting Colombia.  The city has survived the oppressive violence of the drug cartels and transcended into one of the most innovative and interesting cities.