Monday, 4 August 2014

Medellin, a city with many challenges but definitely on the up

Medellin is a city going through long term change making now a fascinating time to visit. Once the capital of the world cocaine trade Medellin had the unenviable reputation of having the highest murder rate in the world as it was held under the grip of Pablo Escobar's cartel. It is said Escobar offered $1,000 for every police officer killed, with approximately 3,000 killed during his reign. Escobar had a reputation of being a hero to the poor, funding building of schools and other 'philanthropic' projects. Even ten years ago much of the surrounding area was under lockdown, impossible for local people to travel in their own district much less tourists. There is plenty of information elsewhere on the history of the region but like the rest of Colombia travel is now open and deemed safe in the area with business thriving and tourist numbers on the increase every year.

Arriving on the overnight bus from Cartagena afforded spectacular early morning views.  As dawn broke over the steep vallies on both sides we wound our way over the winding mountain pass, it was almost surprising to only see one truck embedded in the embankment. I always think people who sleep through bus journeys miss some of the most rewarding experiences that travel offers. You have certainly missed out if you have slept through this journey.  Medellin itself sits in a long narrow valley with red brick and tiled Comuna ( equivalent to the term favella) reaching high up the valley sides.  A huge unsettling contradiction of the poverty of these homes making the city look beautiful, it is one of the most spectacular settings for a city.

Early morning view over Medellin from 61 Prado

Arriving at Terminal Transporte de Norte affords easy transit to the Metro. Colombia's only metro system affords clean, safe, easy and cheap transport across the city. It also contains the Metrocable (more about this later) in my experience a unique addition to the public transport system. A good metro system makes the biggest difference to getting around a city and South America seems to do them particularly well.

Medellin Metrocable

We chose not to stay in the popular backpacker area of La Poblado, largely because of the lack of private double rooms available.  Our choice of 61 Prado wasn't quite what we expected as it is in the process of shedding it's Hostel set up and re branding as a more upmarket guesthouse. Our plan to save money by cooking was foiled as they have replaced the guest kitchen with a cafe. The guesthouse affords spectacular views over the city from it's roof terrace.
View from 61 Prado roof terrace
First on our to do list when arriving in a new city is to acquaint our selves with a walking tour so obtaining a decent map is always a priority.  Having failed at the bus station we were disappointed our guest house didn't have one either.  At this point we were told not to walk to the city centre (other than taking a long circuitous route) as the area between us and the City Centre was rough.  The council had recently evicted many homeless people from buildings they were occupying leaving a large homeless, drug and prostitution problem on the streets in this area.

Feeling slightly edgy we headed off on the long route round and certainly felt an edge to Medellin which lasted our whole time here. While never threatened, directly approached or treated aggressively we were on our guard most of the time we were here. Bolivar Park was not somewhere we would sit to shade from the sun with a lot of homeless people and some overt marijuana smoking taking place.

Having enjoyed the excellent and free Museo Botero in Bogota (Botero's Mona Lisa - Here) so much we were keen to see more of Fernando Botero's work.  The Museo de Antioquia is 10,000 COP entrance and if you are a particular fan of Botero or have not made it to the museum in Bogota is well worth the visit. If you are on a tight budget and have seen the Bogota gallery, you could give it a miss but Plaza Botero is well worth some time. Large sculptures of some of his best known and most amusing works line the square.  Mime artists and street vendors give it a lively feel.
Plaza Botero

Day two we headed back on the metro towards the Metro cable to visit Paque Arvi.  The Metrocable is another of Medellin's forward thinking public works projects.  The steep valley sides made some of Medellin's poorest and most violent areas hard to access and difficult to get around.  Determined to improve links, accessibility and safety the city literally built a cable car up the valley sides with stations at important points along the way.
View from Medellin Metrocable of the areas it was build to reinvigorate

I have been in many cable cars as tourist attractions but seeing one in everyday use as a public transport system linking the poorest neighbourhoods to the central metro (one stop from the hospital) is unique in my experience and very inspiring. It is acknowledged to contribute to improving lives of those it serves.

The Metrocable was also continued beyond the city a couple of killometres deep into a pine forest used for leisure and recreation. As a tourist you have the contradiction of viewing the poor favellas while heading into the park.  We had an interesting conversation with one of the locals wishing us a safe journey and helping to explain to others in our car where we are from.
Metro cable high above Arvi Park

Arvi Park itself is worth visiting for the cable care journey and views of the city and park alone.  We took a short, slow paced guided walk through some of pine forest, though other activities such as visiting the lake require further costs and onward transport.

We took a day trip to Piedra de Peno and the picturesque town of Guatape, which I will write about separately.

Our last night in Medellin we were taken out to J&C by Melissa, one of Daniela's former students, our fourth Worldwide School reunion of the trip so far having met former students in Montevideo, Sao Paulo and Salvador. Melissa's mum and aunt picked us up from our guest house and took us for the most amazing arepas, easily the best we have had in Colombia.  We had a great evening chatting away with Melissa interpreting where necessary. We were fortunate and honoured to have such a warm welcome to their city. Such hospitality makes you feel so welcome in someone elses country it leaves a very special memory.

In our time in Medellin we saw the bright modern city moving forward with the rest of the country and also saw a city struggling with many social issues but making great strides to deal with this, we loved the stunning setting and met many wonderful people the long term future will take a lot of working towards but looks bright.

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