Medellin – A brief history

Today was our final day in Medellin. We had a night bus booked to Cartagena at 8.15pm so had a bit of time to kill. We wandered down to the coffee shop that Efrain recommended and it was the best coffee we have had since leaving Australia. So much so we had two! 

We then went and caught the cable car to have a look at the city from above. The coolest thing about this cable car is that it actually is part of the metro system so we paid 2350 pesos each (less than $1) to get there and go up and back. The views weren’t spectacular but you did pass right over one of their roughest barrios (suburbs) showing the houses stacked up on top of each other. Similar to most South American ghettos.

We had booked the free walking tour in the afternoon as we had done these in previous cities and they have mostly been great. We were meeting in the centre so we slowly made our way there passing through a few tourist sights on the way. As soon as we got off the metro in the centre we felt as if we were seeing the real Medellin. It was a little more edgy and had a real hustle about it with no real other gringos. Not that the Poblado area didn’t have hustle it was just a little more polished.

We picked a little restaurant off one of the pedestrian streets that was full of Colombians and ordered what our neighbors were eating as there didn’t seem to be a menu. We ended up with two courses and a drink each all for the wonderful price of $6. 

The walking tour started soon after and we were introduced to our guide Camillo who was a biomedical engineer student with fantastic English. The tour started off quite spectacularly with Camillo remembering all 23 names in the group at our first stop. We soon found out that Camillo grew up in the rough barrios we passed in the cable car. This tour was more on Colombian and Medellin history rather than actually going around and seeing sights per se but we found it to be one of the best tours we have ever done. I will try and explain a little of what we learnt…..

Up to the late 1940s the country had two parties red (left wing) and blue (right wing). In 1948 a red presidential candidate who had risen from the people rather than the rich or army was assassinated. This started a civil war between the two political parties for around 10 years. After that time the two parties sat down and in order to stop the fighting decided that every four years the power would go from one party to the other. This upset the public (obviously, as their right to chose was taken away) so soon guerrillas like FARC and ELN (left extremists) and paramilitaries (right extremists) were popping up on both sides, trying to take political power. So pretty much everyone was fighting everyone. 

To further complicate things you then had the drug lords enter the show in the 70’s and 80’s who would provide money to the guerrillas on either side to protect their crops. Apparently this is when things got really bad because before, the fighting was limited to the countryside and jungle but the drug money allowed the sides to get better weapons and training etc and soon the war was on the streets.

ThIs was the time that Medellin was the home of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. It was also the most dangerous city in the world. At the time he was loved by the poor in the city as he would be very kind and generous to them. In 1993 he was hunted down by the government and killed thus ending his rein. But Medellin was in a pretty bad state. The government continued their war on drugs to varying degrees of success but even today Colombia is still one of the leading producers of cocaine. But Camillo did point out like any product, it’s production is based on demand not supply and as most of the cocaine is exported the problem won’t sort itself out until demand falls. 

In 2002 the then president entered into negotiations with FARC and the right wing guerrillas supposedly stopped the fighting as they said the only reason they took up arms was because the government was not doing a good enough job protecting their interests. Around this time America gave a ton of money to Colombia to help (probably with strings attached). Most of this money was spent on security for the country and kidnapping apparently decreased by 90%. A lot of social projects where entered into targeting the worst areas of Medellin. Carmillo called it social architecture. For example, right in the centre there used to be two old abandoned buildings which were the dodgiest and most dangerous crime areas of the city and they cleared them out and sent all the homeless to shelters and it is now the centre for education in Medellin. These projects actually worked and Medellin and Colombia slowly started to claw its way out of its dark times.

So this president kickstarted the change for Colombia but unfortunately it has come out that before the peace talks with the FARC his army was shooting civilians in villages and then stripping them and putting Guerilla uniforms on them to show the media how many guerrillas they were killing. So not quite out of its crime past yet. But the next president has continued with the efforts and things are looking good for Colombia. Apparently before 2002 only 50,000 tourists would come to Colombia a year compared to 4 million in 2015 and to make it even more dramatic, apparently the influx did not really start the upward trend until 2006. Someone in the group asked in Camillo if he agreed with the peace talks as a lot of Colombians don’t agree. He said that in his personal opinion the talks were productive for Colombia and the only way to move forward. Even if many Colombians think the punishment for the guerrillas will not be enough.

So that’s Colombia’s story in a very short and generalized nutshell. During the tour Carmillo delivered all this with a passion for his country and an enthusiasm for the future of the country that was really quite moving and dramatic. Throughout the tour it was reiterated that we (tourists) were playing an integral part of shaping Colombia’s future. Like we have said many times they are such a friendly people and during the tours people would walk past and come up and ask Camillo if they could say “welcome to Colombia”. Many of them would just come up and start talking to us while on the tour. Also every time we stopped to listen people would come up to see what was going on and try and join the group. It really was something special.

An interesting point was that Camillo never said Pablo Escobar’s name. The reason being that although most couldn’t understand a word of English they knew the name and many might get upset that we were talking about him.

One of the social projects of the city was from the famous Colombian sculptist Fernando Botero. He donated many of his sculptures to be placed around the parks and plazas of Medillin. The tour ended in one of these plazas in front of a destroyed statue of his. In 1995 during an open air concert, someone (fingers strongly point to FARC) placed a bomb at the bottom of the statue killing 23 people. Instead of getting rid of the statue the artist donated another exact replica and placed it beside the ruined one. Symbolizing the past and future of Colombia. I nearly shed a tear at Camillos closing speech. The man should have been a politician. The city of Medillin really is a melting pot of contrasts and we could have spent a lot more time here discovering its secrets. S

A little park area right near where we were staying  
The views from the cable car

 There was a pedestrian street in the centre lined with shops and then vendors selling all kinds of things. This guy was selling kiwis with a microphone. You could hear him from ages away.

The left of this building apparently was started by some famous architect but the public were not too impressed with it and said it looked too much like a church. The architect heard some of these rumours and told everyone to go jam it and left the country. The new builders apparently couldn’t understand any of the plans they were so intricate and the rest of the building was finished off looking like the right side of the building. At first glance I thought they were two different buildings but apparently not!

Some of Botero’s statues. You apparently rub them for good luck which changes the colour of the statue. There were one of two male nude statues and their doodles were the parts changed the different colour. Hilarious.


The same statue. The left one after a bomb went off under it and the right a sign of hope and progression.


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