Day 165 – 14, Aug 2015
Not anymore! Between 1991 and 2012, the homicide rate in Medellin has fallen by 80%. In the 1990s, there were close to 17 murders per day! Warring factions, that routinely initiated revenge attacks against each other, often caught innocent victims in the crossfire. It was normal life at that time. Then everything changed in 2004 when innovative public leadership began incorporating the city’s poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods into the commerce and opportunity that existed within the legitimate boundaries of the city. Now Medellin is a vibrant and thriving cospomolitan city. On the list of the world’s most dangerous cities, St Louis, Detroit, New Orleans, and Baltimore all rank higher than Medellin. I dare say that it was my favorite large metropolis in all of South America.
Now it occurs to me I may be a bit biased on my affinity for Medellin; I was lucky enough to be joined by friends from Chicago – Erica, Neal, and Stacy. While I love traveling and my wanderlust never seems to fade, I miss home sometimes just as much. To have that connection to the familiarity associated with dear friends always makes the sun shine just a little bit brighter.
Medellin’s modern cable car often gets partial credit for the city’s transformation. Before the cable car, residents that lived in the upper reaches of the city had no way of commuting to the business district and they often resorted to more seedy types of enterprise. Now the cable car, connected to the metro, is a symbol of the city’s progress. Intrigued by the significance, the gang and I had to take a ride. As you can imagine, the views were unmatched as we floated high over the rooftops. On the horizon, you could see nearly all of Antioquia sprawled out in the valley. By contrast, directly underneath us as we rose higher, were the slums, some abandoned and sadly, some only appeared to be abandoned. We also passed the library, a modern steel monstrosity, that was built in the Santo Domingo neighborhood as a place where people can gather and not be afraid for their safety. At the top of the main line, it’s possible to connect to another car and continue riding over the treetops to Arvi Park. On weekends, paisas (as Medellin residents proudly call themselves) flock to Arvi as a green escape. In my opinion, the park is lacking the ethnic color and vivacity of other urban oases but I understand the appeal to the locals. Everyone needs a break from reality and this green space at the top of a mountain, accessed by a gondola, is exactly that. All told, it’s remarkable what Medellin has accomplished in such a short span of time.
After exploring the city itself, my friends and I took a day trip to the colorful and kitschy town of Guatape. Nearly every home and building in the town has its walls adorned with zocalos, 3D representations of the homeowner’s interests or beliefs. It was fun wandering around and getting a bit lost as if we were in a child’s storybook. On our way, we stopped to view a waterfall off the side of the road. A perfect example of what I would call a “bad” waterfall is one that can only be viewed through a wooden fence at a distance of 50 m. This turned out to be the last one I saw in South America so, bad or not, it’s now a lasting reminder of so many other sites I saw along my journey. Guatape is also known for a giant boulder, El Penol, that sits rather conspicuously on the border between the two towns of El Penol and Guatape. It has been said that both towns have often argued about which one can claim the rock as their own. One night, the residents of Guatape climbed the northern face and began painting their name into the stone. They had painted the “G” and half of the “U” when the townspeople of El Penol rushed to stop them. This is why the letters “GI” are still prominently displayed from a distance. Now, sturdy concrete stairs have been built into the side so that anyone with reasonable fitness can climb all 740 steps for astonishing views.
When it was time for Erica, Neal, and Stacy to leave, I felt a little empty. The time had flown so fast and I wasn’t ready for them to go. Alas, they needed to return to work and I had another visitor on the way. My brother, Rhett, arrived just in time to explore Medellin himself before we headed to the tropical northern coast.
***And to Erica, who said in jest that my blog post about their visit wouldn’t be written until Christmas, I would like to thank her for giving me the motivation to get it done sooner! 😉***