In the 1980s and 1990s Medellín was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Violence, kidnappngs, bombings and terror were commonplace then, as Pablo Escobar ran his drug empire from here. I first came to Colombia in 1999, but gave Medellín a wide berth. In the last decade or so it has been working hard to shrug off its unenviable reputation. But has it succeeded? I spent a week exploring the city seeing for myself.
Medellín has a wonderful location in a valley surrounded by mountains. It reputedly has an eternal spring-like climate. I was looking forward to a Mediterranean Spring, but unfortunately got a cloudy, grey and rainy English Spring.
Despite several reports in guidebooks that Medellín is now completely safe to visit, I had been warned about staying in the city centre as it can be very sketchy after dark. So I stayed in the neighbourhood of El Poblado, a safe area a few kilometres south of the centre with good restaurants and where most traveller accommodation is to be found.
I ventured into the centre on my first day and found it to be rather unappealing. The rain didn’t help, but there are almost no old buildings and the atmosphere is distinctly edgy. There are, however, some great statues in Plaza Botero by famous artist Fernando Botero as well as in the Museo de Antioquia.
I don’t mind a bit of urban grit and didn’t feel particularly ill at ease, but I just didn’t like the energy or atmosphere. There were probably more down and outs and drug addicts on the streets than I’ve seen anywhere. Obviously, the city suffered hugely from lack of investment during the time of the cartels and is now slowly taking back control of previously no-go areas, but it still has a long way to go.
The next day I went on a walking tour organised through Real City Tours, which put the city into context with Colombia’s history and was really fascinating. Our guide, Julio, told us how he remembers being woken up as a child by an explosion in the street which blew out the windows of his house.The city was basically a war zone, so it’s hardly surprising it’s taking a while for the city to regenerate.
The metro is a symbol of the city’s rejuvenation, however, as are the new cable cars which link some of the poorer parts on the hills above the city with the districts below in the valley. They are a tourist attraction in themselves and I took two of them to reach Parque Arví. There are several walks you can do, but you have to go in a group. Not only that, but at one point on the Laguna walk which I did, two mounted policewomen accompanied us. Clearly they were there for a reason.
A great trip out of the city is to Guatapé, a town by a huge artificial lake, famous for its colourful frescoes adorning its houses. Just outside the town is a huge rock, the Piedra de Peñol, you can climb for extensive views over the area. It’s just under two hours by bus, so it’s possible to do it as a day trip, although I wish I’d stayed overnight. There’s also a great Indian restaurant, Donde Sam, which makes the trip worth doing just for the curry alone.
Medellín is a city which is drawing travellers. Everyone I have spoken to has either been or plans to go. To be honest, I can’t see the huge attraction. It’s pleasant enough and it’s fascinating to learn more about the history, but there are more interesting cities in the world. The centre is just not somewhere I’d want to spend a lot of time and hanging out in the tourist ghetto of El Poblado has limited appeal for me. I’m now looking forward to getting out into the surrounding countryside which is home to countless coffee farms.