Medellin, Colombia: From Fear to Hope

Medellin, Colombia, is built on a series of mountains with the poorest at the very top
Medellin, Colombia, is built on a series of mountains with the poorest at the very top.

Down, Down, Down, into the Valley of Medellin

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

In Medellin, you're never out of view of a cop or a soldier. Photos by Max Hartshorne.
In Medellin, you’re almost never out of view of a cop or a soldier. Photos by Max Hartshorne.

Max Hartshorne recently returned from a trip to Medellin, Colombia, where he found a city that was once the world’s most dangerous had been transformed into a liveable, hope-filled place with a bright future. Below are some of the daily blogs that chronicled the places he went and the Colombians he spoke with during the trip.

I am lying on a very hard bed at the Intercontinental Hotel in Medellin. We landed at about 9:30 pm and were met by Alejandra, a 20-something young woman with a lovely smile and a shapely figure. One of the first things that she told us was that this city is home to the most beautiful women in the world.

And that the city is known for flowers and fashion, and that partly explains the many good-looking women. We couldn’t disagree.

The route to Medellin from the airport is down, down, down. The city unfolds in a dramatic sweep. I cannot recall ever landing at an airport at such a high altitude, nor descending so far down to get to a city. It was dramatic! Alejandra pronounces the city like the pilot on the plane--Meh da JEAN.

We checked into our hotel and then found the restaurant. Alejandra asked us more than once if we’d like her to take us out to some nightclubs, but we (Paul Shoul, Jason from California, and I) were tired and hungry and so we passed. But she gave us her cell and  I’m sure we’ll get the chance to see the nightlife with her sometime during the trip.

Big Plates, Heaping Portions in Medellin

Kissing in Santa Domingo, a neighborhood that's been brought back from terror.
Kissing in Santa Domingo, a neighborhood that’s been brought back from terror.

We got to know each other a bit during dinner. The food came on big plates in huge heaping portions, I had Trilogy of Aves, or chicken, turkey, and duck chunks with veggies.

Paul chose the traditional fare, rice, beans, fried egg, and a Flintstone-sized piece of bacon. Jason is an editor for the E channel, splicing and dicing Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton footage, and shoots video and writes for In the Know Traveler.

Tomorrow we’ll get to see the city center and the famous Silleteros parade, men who come down from the hills bedecked with thousands of flowers, and we’ll see some other city highlights.

Viva Medellin! Viva Antioque! A Heartfelt Cheer Here

I’ve spent a whole day and night in this mysterious and misunderstood country. And I love it already! Colombia truly has gotten a bad rap, and over and over again, we got a chance by meeting friendly people and seeing wonderful sights to prove that it deserves a second look.

Of course, I’m not saying there aren’t problems here. A newspaper story was headlined “Three Days with No Homicides,” celebrating a dubious milestone for Medellin. But then I thought, what is New York or Chicago’s record? How many US cities go very long without any murders?

There are some interesting changes that have come with the state of extreme security now in place here. Motorcyclists must wear vests that have their plate number prominently displayed on the back, and on the helmet. That’s because of the large number of murders committed on the backs of speeding motorbikes.

Extreme Security in Medellin

The police, army, and private security presence are extreme. It’s hard to walk that far without seeing some sort of guy with a gun. Guardhouses are manned all over the place, and there are even men who wear jackets with Vigilancia on the back, these are sanctioned private neighborhood security forces who back up the cops.

Cable cars are how people get up to the high reaches of the Santa Domingo neighborhood, and the locals are proud of the system and keep it clean.
Cable cars are how people get up to the high reaches of the Santa Domingo neighborhood, and the locals are proud of the system and keep it clean.

Roadways are full of police cars pulling over motorists and barriers and blockades are common.

Our guides told us that the last pockets of regular FARC and drug cartel problems are down by the Venezuelan and Ecuadoran borders. The bad guys run over the border and cannot be hunted down by Colombian forces.

People here are angry with many Scandinavians who somehow confuse the FARC rebels with freedom-fighting heroes and actually give them money. There is no way these murdering drug dealers deserve any support–the list of horrors is long and proven.

The exuberance that we felt today at the Flower Parade when the crowd cheered Viva Medellin! Viva Antioque! was heartfelt. It was like we were hearing them cheer each other on, and to the rest of the world, all they can do is try harder to solve their security problems and invite them to come and see what Colombia is really like.

Eating Criolla in Plaza Major, Medellin Center

Stairway in Santa Domingo. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Stairway in Santa Domingo. photo by Max Hartshorne.

We had lunch yesterday in the Plaza Major…while the PA announcers repeatedly tested the mikes booming out over the squares, in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the Feria de las Flores, a huge flower parade. The group was seated at a very long table…with TV crews and journalists from Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and the UK. Our guides sat on our end and told us some more about Colombia.

“The rich subsidize electricity for the poor,” said Juan Jose Del Real Ibanez, a big man who speaks animatedly and easily in English. “Most of the city has internet connections…the government sells computers very cheaply and lets people pay for them in installments like their electricity bills.

“Most poor people here pay about $5 for all their utilities. All of the public services are available as pay-as-you-go, people can put $10 down as they do for cell phones. So we don’t have the problems of stealing electricity you see in other countries.”

We ate Criolla–Colombian food. One dish was a large yellow-colored soup served with an avocado and a banana which you slice up and put in with the meat and broth. “You can drink the tap water here,” Juan said proudly.

On the way from the airport, our guide waxed enthusiastically about her President, Uribe. “He works so hard, gets up at 4 in the morning, and works till 11.” The President himself was in the stands when we watched the Silleteros, or flower bearers, trudge by with their burdens of racks of flowers. We saw the helicopter overhead dumping flower petals, and on the way out, we saw the official Presidential bano, a portapotty cordoned off for Uribe’s use only.

Sergio Farjardo, Mayor of Medellin. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Sergio Farjardo, Mayor of Medellin in his office. photo by Max Hartshorne.

Meeting the Mayor of Medellin

Today was a busy day with our busload of South American journalists, we covered a lot of ground in and around Medellin. The most interesting part of the day was when we went to Medellin’s city hall, and met the mayor of the city. After passing through the metal detectors, of course.

Sergio Fajardo is a handsome man with long hair, dressed in a blazer and blue jeans, he spoke to us in a big conference room and addressed head-on the challenges that face his city. He said that journalists have focused for so long on drugs and violence, that it’s been a tough road to show the good. But there is so much that has been accomplished, as evidenced by the New York Times story a few weeks ago praising the changes.

“We’ve gone from fear to hope,” he said, and he’s hosted mayors from Brazil and elsewhere to help them succeed as Medellin has done. His main direction has been to build parks and libraries across the city to provide respite, places to hang out, and a reach out to the community to come together.

Bullets Used to be Flying Overhead

I spoke with a vendor who was selling sugar cane drinks and he said bullets used to whizz over his head, and he knew many people who were killed in the battles between the FARC and the paramilitaries. Now his business is thriving and it was very safe–enough for 18 journalists to walk the streets and chat with the locals as we toured the new library that Spain helped build up here. No way, said our guides, could we have done that 10 years ago.

The Mayor was once a mathematician at the local university. He said that part of his success came from the fact that he wasn’t an insider, not a politician but a citizen. His cabinet too is not from the inside, and that’s made people feel better about them. He’s built dozens of new libraries and community centers and has battled the corruption that stifles progress. The city’s motto is ‘don’t look back, look forward,’ and ‘compromise for the public good.’ It’s called social intervention, providing for the people and maintaining a hardline on security, that has made a big difference.

The city is basking in the glow of a wave of foreign tourism, including Americans, and it’s sad that the great and hard-working mayor’s term ends in October. Then again, he might be a great candidate for a much higher office in the years ahead.

Minuto celular, a way for the poorest to speak on cellphones. Max Hartshorne photo.
Minuto celular, a way for the poorest to speak on cellphones. Max Hartshorne photo.

Chatting on a Rented Cell by the Minute

This is one way poor entrepreneurs make money in Colombia–Minuto Celular. Just take a phone, put up an orange sign, and your neighbors or passers-by can make cell phone calls on your phone for some pesos.

We’ve seen these as high as 400 pesos, or as low as 200 pesos in the barrios. This was shot in Santa Domingo, a hillside barrio that our guide explained “on a scale of 1-6, with 6 being the richest, the people who live on this mountain are all 1.

The city has built an aerial tram that takes people all the way up and connects them to the rest of the city down below. Bullets used to fly between FARC and paramilitaries but today it is calm and residents enjoy a city-built library up at the top as well as many new schools and some of the worst houses have been torn down.

Getting a Cheap Suit in Medellin

Last night we had a farewell dinner with our Latin American friends, who were meeting in the lobby for a 3:30 am departure. Ugh! Our host was the General Manager of the InterContinental in Medellin, Tony Ruiz.

As he began his little speech to us in Spanish, he looked over at Shoul and me and said “can I speak English?” and we enthusiastically said YES! He is from Miami and has been the GM here for five years. We asked him about what it felt like to go from Salt Lake City to this city in Colombia, and he said he and his wife enjoyed it.

He explained that in the hotel business, you just never know where your next posting will be, it’s like the army. Security, while mostly unseen, is a huge part of the job here. He says he has businessmen from the US every week exploring investments here in the booming Colombian economy.

We asked him about the city and one of the things he mentioned was that this is a great textile center. Men’s suits, he said, were about $100 for something you would find in the states for $800. He said all of his hotel clients shop at Arturo Calle, in the San Diego Shopping mall. So we are heading over to be suited up and then at 12 we meet Lilian Valez, a travel editor at El Colombiano, the local paper.

From Santa Domingo, Looking Out at a New World

The people in the Santa Domingo barrio, at the very top of a mountain overlooking the city, live in a teeming and crowded world, with every street going nearly up and down or squiggling sideways. This area has been reborn with the steadfast determination by city officials who realized that part of the problem was how disconnected it was from the rest of the city.

People we passed by were smiling in the streets and in their little houses, cobbled together with bricks with tin roofs. One of the things that I like about Colombia is how busy everyone is. They are selling loose cigarettes and gum, or sugarcane juice, or offering a shoeshine or building a house.

There is an energy in Medellin that is contagious…a feeling that people are working hard, and going about their business, and collectively wish that the world would give them a second look. We did and we think this country is bound for a great future.

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