Medellin, Colombia, is a city that has brought itself back from the precipice. Once the home of drug lord Pablo Escobar and noted as the city with the second highest murder rate in the world, within the space of a decade it has rid itself of Escobar and his thugs, rebuilt its city core, improved the lives of its poorest and set itself firmly on the road to prosperity. And in the process, it has become a prime tourist destination.
City Surrounded by Mountains
Medellin sits at 1,550 meters (about 5,000 feet) above sea level, at the foot of mountains that rise on two sides to more than 2,000 meters (6500 feet). From an overlook high above the city, on the road to the airport, 15- and 20-storey buildings appear as tiny miniatures.
From the flat valley floor of the city center, the city climbs up its mountainsides, with houses, hotels, offices and even shopping centers popping up high above the city. More than 3,750,000 people call Medellin and Antioquia province their home.
Police, the Army and the People, a Bond of Trust
Walking down the smart streets of Medellin today, it’s hard to believe where it was only a few years ago. Murder was so common that local people call that period “the Time of Violence”. That violence was destroying the community and the textile and other industrial base of employment. Drivers were afraid to come to a complete stop at traffic lights.
New political leaders, brave enough to challenge the power of the mob, were elected about a decade ago and change began. Corruption in the police and military were routed out and emphasis was shifted to protecting the people – not just the wealthy, but those in the poor hillside barrios as well. Incredible as it seems, a bond of trust was created and those armed police on the streets are the reassurance to people that “the Time of Violence” is over, will not return.
Metro for People on the Hills
Medellin has built a public transportation Metro system that for the first time make the whole of the city available to even the poor. In the barrios high on the hillsides, where the poorest live in crowded multi-storied houses, the city government has built 2 cable car lines. These Metrocables connect directly and inexpensively to the Metro stations below. Now a barrio dweller from Santo Domingo has access to the whole of the city on a clean, fast and efficient public transport system for less than a dollar per trip. And residents from more prosperous neighborhoods, along with tourists, can use the same cable car to access a vast nature park on the mountaintop above.
Education: the Key to Colombia’s Future
The Mayor and other officials have grounded their efforts to improve education. One example of this is the Parc Biblioteca España in the barrio of Santo Domingo, made up of a library, auditorium and exhibition space where computers are available free to children, and public daycare allows mothers to work while children learn the skills they will need to succeed in school. Outside, local police laugh and play with neighborhood children as they patrol their streets.
Medellin has come a long way in a decade, and is ready to welcome the world to a vibrant, lively and safe vacation destination. Testimony to this confidence in Medellin’s future is the fact that American Airlines has begun daily direct service to Medellin from Miami.