On Saturday we took a cable car to Parque Arvi, a nature reserve in the mountains above Medellin. The view from the cable car was incredible, as we gazed out over the city sprawl below. The park was a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of Medellín’s streets, while the forest walk provided some much needed fresh air and exercise.
In the evening we took in another aerial view of the city, this time from one of the sky bars scattered around El Poblado. The dense lights of the city snaked in every direction, suddenly extinguished as barrio gave way to bare mountainside. We had a fantastic dinner of sushi and cocktails whilst taking in the glittering city below us – a definite highlight of our trip so far!
The next day we toured Comuna 13, a barrio which symbolised the recent transformation of Medellín. In the 1990s and early 21st century the area was controlled by Narco gangs, who used the dense housing and overlooking hills to keep the police out. Local kids had little option but to join the gangs, while dissenters were lined up along the streets and shot. In 2002 President Uribe sent in the army, clearing the neighbourhood in 3 days of bloody fighting. Civilians were given no opportunity to flee, with many killed in the crossfire. After the shooting stopped, 300 people were ‘disappeared’, their bodies thrown down a rubbish pit and chemically dissolved to prevent identification.
Following the fighting Comuna 13 was largely abandoned, a symbol of Medellín’s violent past. In 2012 local graffiti artists began to cover the walls with bright, evocative works of art, bringing in tourists and international artists. Two of the artists – Yorch and Choca, met Bill Clinton when he toured their art in the barrio.
Locals have flocked back to the neighbourhood, which has come to represent the bright promise of Medellín’s future. Leon (our guide) explained how the metro system provides communities like these with access to the jobs, education and entertainment available in the city centre. Kids here today don’t have to join the gangs, and we were treated to a dance performance by some of the local teenagers.
From Comuna 13 Leon pointed out where Pablo Escobar’s self-made prison ‘La Catedral’ once stood. Many in the poorer barrios remember Escobar as a hero, a bandit who stole from the rich/USA and gave to the poor. Leon remembers people crying in the street when he was killed, a reminder of the divisive past that Medellín is thankfully putting behind it.
On our last day in Medellín we took the metro to Caribe station, and where we met Silvio for a tour of barrio Moravia. Along for the tour was Gloria, one of the community leaders – most leaders here are women. As campesinos fled the violent countryside in the 1950s, they settled around a lake on the outskirts of Medellín. They filled the lake with rubbish until in time it was transformed in to a towering hill of trash. As more people moved to the area, houses, streets and farms were built on this mountain of crap.
After a government review it was decided that barrio Moravia posed a health threat, and alternate, free housing was built for the residents. Around 10% of the population refused to move, branding themselves ‘La Resistancia’ in defiance of what they perceive to be government intrusion.
Following reports that locals were somehow tapping the hill for cooking gas, it was discovered by hat explosive, noxious gases were being produced by the decomposing rubbish under the barrio. The pleas of horrified health officials were ignored, with locals building a series of vents to allow the gas to escape.
Silvio finished our tour of this remarkable neighbourhood at the local football pitch, built by Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. Following his death two gangs fought for control of the barrio, until one gang leader crossed the front line disguised as a woman. A ceasefire was agreed on one condition; every year the gangs would play a game of football together whilst dressed as women. The tradition became known locally as ‘The battle of the faggots’, and continues to this day.
Medellín is a fantastic city, and we enjoyed every second of our time in this irrepressible, dynamic place.