Medellín and Guatapé, Colombia

Medellín is everyone’s favourite story. Long notorious for drug cartels and violence, the city was deemed the most dangerous in the world in the late 80s and early 90s. Now, it’s made a remarkable turnaround in security and reputation, and is better known as a world vanguard of urban planning innovations, the cultural capital of the country, and one of the buzziest places in Latin America. Locals love the place, they’re friendly, and they’re proud of its progress. Foreigners flock here in droves, enticed by the backstory, the nightlife, the creature comforts, and the luxury for cheap.

In theory, this is a place that I too should love. I can see why so many people do.

The tenacity of Medellín is on full display at the Museo Casa de la Memoria (House of Memory). Nearly 60 years of violence, from the rise of guerilla groups fighting the state for far-left ideals, then against right-wing paramilitary groups who later teamed up with narcos, the Pablo Escobar years and the assassination of anti-cartel presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, corruption and coverups, all the way to the present day are all soberingly documented — not about the events themselves, but the countless victims: the dead, the disappeared, the false positives, and the people who love them.

The community came together, took care of their own, took pride of where they lived, and have built up a city that they can stay proud of.

As a public transportation nerd, the multimodal system here sticks out: you can seamlessly switch between an expansive network of metro lines, gondolas, trams, and standalone express bus stations (a la Curitiba). All this in a system that only opened in 1995 — the rest of us can only dream. From much of the above ground system, there’s fantastic views of the city in every direction.

Increased transportation options means bridging the wealth gap as well, enabling people in impoverished areas to commute, while also bringing more people and growth to different areas. This applies in the famous Comuna 13, a shantytown on the far western outskirts of the city, located up a steep hill.

In past times, various violent drug cartels and armed insurgent groups ran rampant in Comuna 13, as the area made for a convenient smuggling route. In 2002, this was the site of Operation Orion, a government-driven, paramilitary-assisted sweep of the commune for members of the ELN and FARC while leaving thousands of impoverished residents in the crossfire. Furthermore, any suspected guerilla members were killed or disappeared, and residents were either under duress or incentivised to report other innocent residents as guerilla members, known as the “false positives” scandal, to portray a successful operation.

Since 2011, Comuna 13 now has a series of eye-catching outdoor escalators allowing for far more mobility, and as a walking tour guide describes, reduced what used to be a journey of an hour and a half to the city center to something closer to 30 minutes. Almost surrounding the escalators as a centerpiece, there’s a sense of community pride, connection, and ownership, and art heavily plays a role in that — whether through the dozens of colourful murals, various dance groups and rap groups, or community facilities — providing kids with new opportunities and steering them away from a life of gang crime.

It’s a touching story of renewal, and one I was glad to hear by joining a walking tour of the area. Comuna 13 is now one of the top touristic sites in Medellín.

But… How do I put this? Walking through left me feeling cold — the area surrounding the escalators, while beautiful, has turned into a strange tourist show, with a sort of carnival atmosphere. Fancy restaurants, souvenir shops, public performances, Instagrammy walls, an “edgy” portrayal: the image presented is a jarring contrast, one that leaves me hanging on the community spirit that I’ve heard so much about. It’s still somewhere out there.

Unlike Bogotá, Medellín’s downtown feels a little claustrophobic. Despite the presence of the Plaza Botero and the adjacent Museo de Antioquia both showcasing more of Fernando Botero’s whimsically rotund art, the area is noticeably gritty, choked with traffic and informal street markets. While good for people-watching, it’s not a particularly enjoyable place to spend time. At least the city’s botanical garden a little ways to the north is nicer for both.

The places to be though, it seems, are the neighbourhoods of Laureles and El Poblado. Both are upscale and full of nightlife, buzzing with energy every evening of the week. Laureles has the stadium for the big soccer matches and concerts. But it’s really Poblado that every traveler I met in Colombia talked about, and where I decided to stay for two of my five days in the area.

Here, life is a fascinating enclave away from the rest of the city, full of international cuisines, trendy and spacious coffee shops that would make New York jealous, exclusive hotels, clubs, high rises, and any bougie thing you want — even a good ol’ fancy farmer’s market. Foreigners far outnumber Colombians. English is prevalent. Even the hostels are half populated with digital nomads.

For many, especially the long-term traveller or remote worker, this is paradise, an affordable (for foreigners) and easy place to live. And I gotta admit, I enthusiastically indulged in some good food and drink, despite not exactly missing the variety of choices as much as other travellers I met, being only two weeks into a trip. But yet… Something again felt a little off. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition to crippling poverty within the neighbourhood — while that’s something I see at home, too, there doesn’t seem to be a middle here. Perhaps it’s how disassociated it feels from the rest of Medellín and Colombia. Perhaps it’s the lack of local culture in pursuit of the modern monocultural aesthetic. Maybe it’s all of the above.

Still though. I wouldn’t mind spending every Saturday enjoying a chemex in one of those coffee shops.

Needing a break from the big city, I took an overnight trip over to the nearby day trip hotspot of Guatapé. Up in the mountains and surrounded by lakes formed by the construction of a dam, it’s even more photogenic from above: 708 steps up a giant rock jutting out from the landscape, the nearby Piedra del Peñol. Even the stairs themselves are a marvel, criss-crossing vertically like stitches.

In town, the houses and the square are a kaleidoscope of colour. Yes, it can be a bit of a tourist carnival here too in the day, with the classically selfie-friendly umbrella canopy, cobblestone streets, fancy restaurants, flashy moto-conchos, and endless souvenir shops. Yet just a few blocks away… Normality. The houses proudly display uniquely sculpted dioramas on their façades, and the streets are just as colourful but filled with slow, regular life: locals getting their breakfast fix at the bakery, kids in school, neighbours chatting, people washing their cars.

Even the tourist crowd here is a little different, with primarily domestic visitors embracing the kitschy atmosphere and getting into the spirit, taking boats onto the water, motorcycling the roads around town — I even hitched a ride on one. And after the bus tour crowds leave for the day, respite, leaving nothing but beautiful houses dimly lit by the street lamps.

Those three experiences above: I fell straight into the pattern of basically every visitor to Medellín. Whether by locals or other visitors, all three activities were heartily recommended to me. On their own, I found things to enjoy, and things to think about.

Yet taken as a whole, I struggle to reconcile them together into an overarching identity. It feels reductive that experiencing a city with the weighty history of Medellín can be boiled down to two model neighbourhoods of western-friendly gentrification and a day trip, and that those three things alone are what makes Medellín a universally-beloved world-class city. If this is all there is to it, frankly, it’s merely a fine city. It also feels reductive to boil the city down to its violent past, or to glorify the figures involved in it either, as we’re currently seeing in pop culture. Thankfully, exploitation of that legacy seems scant — though it certainly exists.

But I do think Medellín deserves its mythos. In what it presents to the visitor, there’s just something missing that I can’t put my finger on, and it feels like there’s far more than meets the eye, an innate appeal to those who live it every day. But hey… I don’t have to love every place I go to, nor does a place have to reveal all of its secrets.

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