We drove by a billboard in Medellin that said, “Your New Medellin: Lowest Homicide Rate in 35 Years.” With a sign like that, I wonder what life was like here a few decades ago. I also wonder what the city really is like now, because things like that don’t change that fast, and you certainly don’t need a sign like this if everything is a-ok.
But we only stayed in Medellin two nights and luckily didn’t see any of the dark side. From the little that we have picked up in conversations, we learned that in the past, Colombia had three left-wing guerrilla groups and two right-wing paramilitary groups. All were at war with each other and with the government. The whole conflict was very complicated, cost many lives, and involved drug trafficking of course, and even funding by the USA. In recent years though, all of Colombia have seen significant improvement in security. The right-wing paramilitaries are now largely demobilized, and only two left-wing guerrilla groups remain. With those, the government has negotiated on and off ceasefires. When we first arrived in Colombia in early July, apparently the ceasefire was called off, and there were bombings and shootings around the country mostly in rural areas. We were told that some Pacific areas were not safe again as guerrillas started burning cars on the highway. But in the last week, the ceasefire is supposedly to be back on. The entire civil conflict/war is just too complicated for me to understand in passing, but it is interesting to say the least. I was surprised to know that the current mayor of Bogotá, the capital city, was actually ex-guerrilla!
For Medellin in particular, the city falls on a major drug trafficking route between north and south, between Caribbean and Pacific. The Pablo Escobar cartel was based in Medellin. For many years the city was a war zone between Escobar’s powerful Medellin Cartel that supplied most of the world’s cocaine and the opposing Cali Cartel, and later on, with the Colombian military and the even USA intelligence groups who violently hunted for Escobar. Many books and even movies have been written about this.
During our time in Medellin, we saw only the glossy side of the city. First, our apart-hotel was in the affluent El Poblado neighborhood, where most of the hotels are located. This area is considered very safe, full of restaurants, shopping and nightlife. Our apart-hotel was on the 19th floor with a beautiful view of the valley city, and it came with breakfast – made to order in our apartment! Yes, two ladies wheeled a cart to our door every morning and made us eggs cooked to order along with fruits, bread, cereal, juice and coffee. For us with two kids, breakfast like this was such a treat. All of this, by the way, for $50 a night. Colombia continues to be extremely good to us and very affordable.
We only spent one full day in the city and took advantage of the high quality museums. First, Plaza Botero and the Museo de Antiquia. The Plaza is full of Botero sculptures and the museum which is named after the state of Antiquia is full of Botero’s paintings and also a smaller collection from other Colombian artists. I am typically NOT a museum lover but I loved this museum, and I think the kids did too.There is actually an interactive play room perfect for kids on every floor. It is a museum I would actually look forward to visiting again.
Then we visited Parque Explora which is exactly like it sounds. It is combination aquarium, vivarium and lots of hands-on science exhibits. We took the subway here from Plaza Botero which is just three fast and clean stops away. A young Colombian man went out of his way to offer me his seat. Parque Explora was fun, especially for the kids. Then we took a walk around the Botanical Gardens across the street. There were street vendors selling mystery meat on a stick and the very tasty sugarcane juice guarapo. In the park, where lots of families were having picnics and parties, another Colombian guy saw Jamie approaching and ran to untie one of the balloons decorated for their birthday party to give it to him. People stopped us and ask to take pictures with us. And a musician doing collaborative music with kids in the park made a song for us. It was very weird to see such amazing hospitality.
It was another fun couple days in the city. As tempting as it was to stay in Medellin, it was time to see what Colombian coffee country has in store for us.