Medellin, Colombia – The ‘Berlin’ of South America?

Standing in the middle of Plaza de Cisneros in central Medellín makes you feel as though you’ve been transported to a futuristic sci-fi novel. The plaza contains a forest of concrete pillars more than 50 feet tall that light up concrete waterways and a small (real) forest of bamboo at night. The artist who proposed the design in 2002 called it an ‘urban poem.’ It reminded me of something I’d see in Europe. And that’s when it occurred to me the Medellín is on it’s way to becoming a major destination in South America. In fact, I was originally going to title this post the ‘Paris of South America’ – but then I realized that Buenos Aires already holds that title. I think Berlin is a better fit. So, what else is it about Medellín that reminded me of Berlin?

Pillars of Light, in Plaza Cisneros, Medellín

Pillars of Light, in Plaza de Cisneros, Medellín

The Fernsehenturm (TV Tower) - a pillar of light in Alexander Platz, Berlin.

The Fernsehenturm (TV Tower) – a pillar of light in Alexander Platz, Berlin.

Let’s compare:

  • Both cities have spent time in the shadows of some of the world’s most notorious bad guys. Berlin, of course, had Hitler. Medellín had drug lord Pablo Escobar.
  • Both cities have been ravaged by violence. Berlin was at the heart of WWII. Forty years later, while not destroyed completely, Medellín was at the heart of a war between various drug cartels and the Colombian government.
  • Both cities exude the theme of ‘transformation.’ Berlin, over the past 20+ years since the fall of the Wall, has integrated East and West, has rebuilt from the rubble of the Cold War. Medellín has spent the past 20 years integrating the rich and poor neighborhoods, the shining city center with the poor favelas on the hillsides.
  • Both cities have spectacular Metro systems that have aided that integration (although, Medellín’s Metro is ALL above ground – makes for some good sightseeing of the spectacular mountains that surround the city. Berlin has no mountains.)
  • Both cities have become known for beautiful parks and plazas, trendy restaurants, shops and café’s, museums, public art projects, memorials, and intriguing architecture.
  • Both cities have big parks just outside of the city limits, accessible by the Metro.

Certainly, there are differences. On the streets of Berlin you buy ‘laugenbrezels’ (pretzels). In Medellín, you buy buñuelos (basically a fried dough ball – like a donut in which salt and cheese have replaced sugar). A laugenbrezel will set you back about $2.50 USD. A buñuelo, $0.25 USD. Many North Americans would more readily visit Berlin that Medellín. When I mentioned to people that I was traveling to Medellín for a conference, a common response was, “Is it safe?” My response would be, “Is it safe to visit Chicago? Or LA? Or New Orleans? Or any big US city?” The answer, of course, is ‘yes,’ if you use your common sense and don’t go any place the locals wouldn’t go. But for many North Americans, I think the work ‘Medellín’ is nearly synonymous with ‘cocaine’ and ‘drug cartels.’ And those of us who remember the 80’s and early 90’s have every reason to think that, based on the news from Colombia during that era. I have to admit, that despite everything I had read about the transformation of the city, and the fact that I was staying in an upscale neighborhood, I still had butterflies in my stomach as I sat in Miami waiting to catch my plane. Early impressions are hard to shake.

Because I was in Medellín for work-related activities, sightseeing was not really on the agenda. But I found myself with a half day free before the start of the conference and decided to learn as much as I could during that time. I had no guidebook and no plan, and so, decided to join a group called Real City Tours. The tour guides are native ‘paisas,’ i.e., born in this part of the country, and have the inside perspective on life in this city, the history of the region, and of the country. They are expert storytellers.

Our guide, Hernán, was a former university biostatistics professor. If he were still a professor, he would have people lining up to take his classes. He told us stories about the history of Medellín and Colombia in a highly animated fashion, giving us what he called the ‘cartoon’ history of Colombia and Medellín. As someone who has spent a good chunk of my life in classes, teaching classes, or thinking about teaching, I truly appreciate a great lecturer. What I learned from Hernán was the value of a very well-constructed story in engaging a diverse audience.

We toured a number of streets in central Medellín – government buildings, the old train depot, historic squares and parks, the shopping district full of knock-off designer products (sunglasses, ‘iPhones’, mP4 players, magazines) sold on card tables on the street. And at each stop, we learned a bit more about what makes Medellín tick.

La Candelaria church in Parque Berrio, central Medellín

La Candelaria church in Parque Berrio, central Medellín

The city of Medellín has invested money into transforming places that were once dangerous (Plaza de Cisneros), areas that were the centers for drugs and violence, and turned them into places that people want to visit. The idea was, also, to find ways to integrate the poorer neighborhoods with the richer neighborhoods, as a way to prevent the growth of gangs. So, in the past 10 years, the city has invested a lot of money into art, transportation and education. For example, Medellín’s shiny Metro is the city’s pride and joy.

Medellín's Metro

Medellín’s Metro

When you ride the Metro, you will find no trash, no graffiti, no scratches, nothing. The Metro is cheap –about $1 USD to ride, and allows those who live way up on the hills to come into the central city to work. In addition to the Metro, there is a rather intricate network of buses, and, in one of the favelas, constructed along a hillside too steep for roads, they have even built an outdoor escalator! The city has made the favelas the location of it’s best museums and libraries – to bring people from the city centers into the outlying neighborhoods.

So, did I feel safe in Medellín? In general, I felt as safe as I would in the center of any big city in the US. There were places we visited on our tour near the city center where I would probably feel uncomfortable walking alone. And I would not walk alone in the city at night, outside of the neighborhood where I attended the conference. But I could say the same for San Francisco or New York City. Crossing a busy intersection in Medellín can feel la lot like trying to cross a busy street in NYC – lots of traffic, honking cars, a sea of yellow taxis. Red lights are really just ‘suggestions’, not laws. In that way, this is one of the ways that Medellin is much different from Berlin (but maybe not NYC!) If you’re accustomed to life in a big city, from the traffic, to shopping malls, fine dining and nightclubs, you might be right at home here.

There was so much I didn’t get to see – gondolas, the botanical gardens, parks, museums – It would be easy to spend a week there. Medellín is still a bit off the beaten tourist path, particularly for North Americans. But it’s grown a lot, and, to me,  it’s way to becoming one of South America’s gems.

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