I wanted to love Medellin. Much has been written about its resurrection from the dark days of Pablo Escobar… today Medellin is heralded as the most progressive city in Latin America, with a state-of-the art public transit system that integrates cheap metro, cable cars, streetcars, buses, free bikes and cheap, well-regulated taxis. “Its the land of eternal spring” with temperate year-round climate. Drug dens are now free libraries; gang lands now plazas. Free wifi is everywhere. Medellin has the largest freshwater acquarium in Latin America and a science museum that rivals The Exploratorium. Two futbol teams, a pulsing Salsa scene, Ciclovia, and robust industry. Medellin is South America’s Urban Star… and I wanted the boys to experience progressive urban revitalization, so I planned a week here.
Indeed there’s much to love. In spite of visiting some rough areas, we always felt very safe. The locals (“Paisas”) are proud of their accomplishments, friendly, sophisticated, fit and eager to help – lovely people. We stayed in a fantastic AirBnB apartment, centrally located in the gastronomic heart of the family-friendly community of Envigado – nailed it. There are plentiful parks and plazas, and the public transit and taxis were indeed cheap, efficient and easy… and I bet on a sunny clear day the town sparkles. But we didn’t have any of those…
Our Monday flight from Cartagena landed on-time in Rio Negro, and after an airport lunch we found a friendly driver who wound us through the lumpy Antioquian Andean foothills and down into the long Aburra Valley, which Medellin fills. Our route spilled down through the tony Poblado district, but in the distance below the cloud cover you could see the tin-roofed cinderblock favelas coating the hillsides… and unimaginative block towers rising from the valley floor. The practical Paisas appear to favor economics over architecture… Medellin is a brick block city. We passed Pablo Escobar’s home on the way in… case in point.
AirBnB check-ins can be awkward, so we were please to see our host Andres waiting for us… and his apartment was spacious, cute, clever and wonderful… if you ever go to Medellin stay there and book it on AirBnB here. Our pad was 2 blocks from a language school, so I set the boys up for morning lessons – and in the midst of a very cute, restaurant-rich neighborhood. So far so good.
Tuesday at 9AM I walked the boys over and got them started in their Spanish classes. After their return and some down time we braved a taxi and the crowded metro to a downtown station to meet our free “Real City” walking tour, an unashamed encounter with Medellin’s gritty streets, problematic past and proud present. I made the mistake of arriving 45 minutes early… our meeting place near Medellin’s administrative center didn’t offer many tourist diversions, and it was a challenge keeping the family happy among the gray workaday downtown bustle. We killed the time strolling sidewalks lined with notaries using traditional typewriters and more essential shops, and soon enough joined our walking tour.
Our guide Maribel was an actress; she entertained us well with stories of He Who Shall Not Be Named (the Paisas resent foreigners’ obsession with Pablo Escobar) and the residual stigmas that Colombians endure. We discussed the reformative civic investments in public spaces, transport and other infrastructure, Botero’s sculptures, the arrogance that led to the botched completion of the Uribe Palace (the Belgian beginning is majestic; the Paisa completion not so much…), the contradictions of legal prostitutes trolling on church steps and the sale of porn videos adjacent to family flicks… it was an eye-opener for the boys. Sue and I let them recover at home while we went out for some fine italian back in our Envigado neighborhood.