In Medellin: Thinking Botero, not Escobar

We had a guy named Pablo show us around Medellin.  This Pablo is a young guy who founded Real City Tours Medellin and spent an afternoon showing us around his city.  Medellin is a hard place not to like — it’s trying so hard and so earnestly to clean up its image as the one-time murder capital of the world.  In 2013, the Wall Street Journal named Medellin its Innovative City of the Year for its transportation system, public parks, and dedication to building new libraries, schools, and public art installations.

Medellin, Colombia
Spires in the Plaza de la Luz — fittingly, they light up at night
Medellin, Colombia
On June 10, 1995, twenty-nine people died after a bomb hidden in this Botero sculpture detonated in a crowded public park. The artist donated a new version of the sculpture (seen in the background), but asked that they leave the original as a memorial.

 

Pablo took us to Plaza Bolivar and said he remembers when this part of town used to be absolutely forbidden if you didn’t want to get kidnapped or killed.  Now, it’s filled with statues donated by Medellin’s most famous artist, Fernando Bolivar, and families stroll through the park, eating ice cream and posing with the art.

Plaza Botero - Medellin, Colombia
Adam and Eve
Museo Antioquia - Medellin, Colombia
Botero’s work in the excellent Museo de Antioquia depicting the death of Pablo Escobar

 

People from Medellin will be quick to tell you that their city is the only one in Colombia with a metro system (an above-ground subway).  As opposed to the subway in every other city I’ve ever visited, the metro in Medellin is absolutely spotless.  People do not throw their trash on the rails, they do not scrawl graffiti in the cars.  People here take a tremendous pride in this civic accomplishment, a symbol of their renaissance, and they take meticulous care of it.  Just for kicks one day, Jordan and I rode the metro to where it connects to a cable car system that goes up the mountain into what used to be Medellin’s worst neighborhoods, where even the police refused to go.  Through a security-minded president nicknamed “The Iron Fist” and a philanthropic mayor who’s built schools in those slums, this and other parts of Medellin are now safe to visit.

Medellin, Colombia

Medellin, Colombia
Stopping for some guarapo, sugarcane juice with lime

 

Any visit to Medellin would not be complete without the gut-busting lunch known as bandeja paisa.  Chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), chicharron (fried pork belly), minced meat, beans, rice, arepas, plaintains, avocado, and a fried egg to crown the entire caloric heap.  It’s a heart attack on a plate and it is delicious.  We got our fix at Restaurante Hacienda, a place on a pedestrian street with pleasant open-air seating where the staff dresses in traditional costumes.  Don’t let that last bit put you off — the food here is the real deal.

Bandeja Paisa - Medellin, Colombia
Bandeja paisa — we split this and were still stuffed

 

Right next door to the restaurant is El Astor Tea Salon, where we got an amazing slice of Colombian wedding cake, a local specialty.  It’s a rum-raisin cake, something I do not normally like, but this was flavorful, moist, and really wonderful.  Their chocolates also looked to-die-for (the place was started by a Swiss couple, so you know it does good chocolate!)

Medellin, Colombia

I can’t honestly say Medellin was my favorite city in South America, but it’s a real success story, with wonderful people and great food.  It deserves the second chance it’s working so hard for.

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