My recent trip to Medellin, Colombia was an eye-opening experience. The city is a beautiful, green haven nestled in the mountains, and is undergoing some really interesting and innovative urban renewal programs. I was lucky enough to go with a friend who grew up there and knows how to navigate it very well. She and her friends grew up during the country’s difficult times (Pablo Escobar, drug wars, kidnappings, etc.), and those memories still seem raw for them, but they are extremely proud of their city and how far it has come.
While we were there, Medellin was hosting the World Urban Economic Forum, an offshoot of the Davos meeting. The city has changed so much that it is now considered a model of urban regeneration. We wondered whether things had been cleaned up and security tightened because of the meeting. We were told by a number of people, that while that was the case to some extent, it really is very clean and much safer these days, and they are very anxious for the world to know that. We took a fascinating "graffiti" tour which was led by the artist, fiti artist, "El Perro", whose own graffiti work is acclaimed for its social commentary. He uses graffiti as a way to teach social history, inspire, and provide a positive outlet for those who would not otherwise have access to those privileges. Graffiti seems to be finding rapid acceptance and appreciation all over the world, and having tried it myself, it is remarkable what these artists can do with cans of paint.
We visited one of many new libraries. Functioning as much as a community center, as a library, this one was built next to the site of a former prison and in an area once plagued by urban blight and violence. Although school was out for the summer, we witnessed numerous groups of children and adults engaging in learning and cultural activities, and playing games in the light filled spaces. The kids followed us outside, curious about what we were doing and asked us to speak some English words which, to our mutual delight, they found fascinating. El Perro told us that without the library, these kids would most likely be left to the streets, and perhaps a life of trouble. This particular library is only one in a series of similar centers throughout the country, each designed to represent some aspect of urban living. The one we saw was modeled on train cars.
We also saw a series of escalators recently installed up a hillside in a poor neighborhood, enabling its inhabitants to more easily navigate the steep pathways to their homes. What a beautiful solution it was and highlighted the city's efforts to help those who might in other times and places be overlooked and even ignored.
Medellin is also a great place to visit for just plain fun. There are wonderful restaurants, many of them indoor/outdoor due to the wonderful climate. You can dance all night at salsa clubs, with music so good you can't help moving your body, even if you are really bad at it, like me. Watching the locals strut their stuff is also well worthwhile. And if you are traveling with dollars, they go a long way, making shopping and other financial pursuits very satisfying. That said, it is good to follow locals' advice and travel safe and smart. I am already looking forward to my next trip...