After touching down at Rionegro airport, we took a 40 minute taxi ride to Medellín, winding our way through the mountains and trying desperately not to hum the ‘Narcos’ theme song. The city sprawled out in the valley below, tendrils of ramshackle barrio snaking up the lower reaches of the mountain sides.
After checking in to our hostel in the upmarket, touristy El Poblado area, we met up with a friend visiting from England, Rupinda, who would be joining us for the week. She was understandably knackered after her transatlantic flight, so after a quick drink we headed to bed.
The next day we made our way to Lleras Park, a hub of bars and restaurants in the centre of El Poblado. Finding the last available seating, we sat down to watch the England – Colombia World Cup match unfold. Thousands of locals filled the area, bedecked in the National colours and cheering wildly. Being English, I silently willed on my countrymen, hoping that it would be a clean, uneventful game. Being Irish, Erin had pulled on her Colombia football shirt and was waving a tiny Colombian flag with (to my mind) excessive zeal. To make matters worse, I had foolishly revealed my nationality mid-haircut in the hour before kickoff, and now sported a ‘James Rodriguez’ haircut.
The match was dispiritingly dour, as both teams dived, cheated and kicked lumps out of each other before an eventual (and unheard of) England penalty shootout victory. Though clearly deflated, the teeming crowd swiftly moved on to dancing, drinking and having a cracking time, and I reflected on what a determinedly happy lot Colombians are. A lady of around 80 years was propping up the bar, bedecked in the National colours. “Don’t feel bad, English man” she said, “I live in the most beautiful country in the world”.
After an excellent breakfast at the highly-rated (though highly touristy) Pergamino Cafe, we spent Wednesday on a free walking tour of the city, led by our wonderful guide, Sara (a pale-skinned ginger who was nonetheless 100% ‘Paisa’). She gave us the lowdown on what makes Paisas (northwest Colombians) unique; a combination of isolation, business acumen and self-reliance.
We then received a concise political history of Medellín, with the controversial President Uribe nicknamed ‘Ironfist’ and the infamous Pablo Escobar ‘Voldemort’. Sara was a child during the worst of the cartel years, and recalled stepping over bodies on her way to school. At that time, Medellín was the most dangerous city in the world, with 290 murders per 100,000 people annually (the modern figure is 20/100,000, less than many US cities).
Escobar remains a divisive figure, 25 years after his death on a Medellín rooftop. He gave money and facilities to the poor, taking the place of an absent, often corrupt state in deprived areas. To many, he seemed a benevolent ‘man of the people’. However, he was also a murderous thug, responsible for hundreds of murders, kidnappings and bombings throughout the country.
Understandably, Sara took a dim view of tourists walking around Medellín wearing t-shirts with Pablo’s face on; his recent glamourisation by Netflix has not gone down well with many in the city. The cult of Pablo has spawned paintballing tours of his haciendas (where many opponents were brutally murdered) and, horrendously, tourists snorting lines if cocaine on his grave. Imagine a Northern Irish ‘Troubles theme park’ or ‘Auschwitz paintball’ for an insight on how offensive such things are to many here.
Continuing our tour in Parque de la Luz, Sara told us how previously dangerous areas of Medellín were being re-developed as monuments to hope, education and regeneration. Where once were slums that locals feared to walk by, now there are libraries and an array of LED-covered poles which light up the city centre at night. The nearby Palace of Justice building had been converted in to a huge shopping mall, as Paisas try to conserve the grander buildings in a city that has frequently been rebuilt.
Parque de la Luz
The old Palace of Justice, now a shopping mall
Passing the venerable Iglesias de la Veracruz (where prostitution is rife, clients ‘washing their sins away’ afterwards in the church), we walked through Plazoleta de las Esculturas, a leafy square filled with the sculptures of the local artist, Botero. Parts of the bronze statues have changed colour from repeated touching, revealing the interesting predilections of the general public! The adjacent Palace of Culture is a Gothic Revival masterpiece, designed by a Belgian architect who was booted out by locals after a dispute.
Iglesia de la Veracruz
Botero’s sculptures in the Plazoleta
The Palace of Culture
Sara paused by a gleaming metro station to tell us of the symbolic importance of this transport system to the people of Medellín. Commissioned and built in the face of unremitting violence, the Metro represented a sliver of hope and source of pride for the embattled populace. She explained that Colombians responded to the horrors of the past by choosing to forget, clinging to the good in order to survive.
We finished our tour in Parque San Antonio as the light of the day began to fade. In June 1995 FARC planted a bomb in a concert crowd here, killing 30 and injuring over 200. A bird statue by Botero was shattered by the blast, but the artist refused to replace it, instead producing an identical, new statue to stand beside the old. Today the ‘Wounded Bird’ and the ‘Bird of Peace’ are a symbol of Medellín’s violent past, as well as its hopes for the future.