Colombia: The ‘Miracle of Medellin’

Story and photos by Diana Rowe

Line K of Medellin's MetroCable stretches over a mile up a steep mountainside to the poor communa of Santo Domingo.

With 3.3 million people, Medellin emerges from Colombia's narrow Aburrá Valley to forge an inspiring urban center as rugged and resilient as the surrounding Andean Central Mountain Range and the paisas, the people that call this home. Forget what you’ve heard about Medellin. The country's second largest city has re-surfaced from a dark past with civil strife and drug lords to become the Miracle of Medellin, a safe destination well worth visiting.

Urban gondola adventure

From the wooden bridge stretched across the Medellin River, I looked at the modern building housing the Acevedo Metro Station, one of 34 on the line. From there, Line K’s cables extended over the river and up, up, up the steep hillside more than a mile. Scheduled stops aboard the Medellin Metrocable included Acevedo, Andalucia, Popular, and Santo Domingo, four of 10 barrios (neighborhoods) in the Aburrá Valley. Stepping onto the station platform, I’m reminded of home and the gondolas in Colorado mountain resort towns.

Boarding the world’s first urban cable car, the Medellin Metrocable, our gondola drifts across the cables. As much as 1,900 feet below, a cityscape patchwork quilt of red-brick makeshift shanties created a colorful blanket sprawling up the hillside underneath the Metrocable. A group of teenagers played a friendly rooftop basketball game. Over there, a grandmother watered her flowers, and then to the left, a woman hung up her laundry on the rooftop clothesline, the breeze gently swaying the brightly colored garments. The intricate network of paths (mini-streets) created a labyrinth that wound through irregular terrain and around the close-knit shanties. The massive columns were firmly implanted in the hillside, like thick iron trees stretching to the Colombian sky.

Our guide, Adriana Moreno, was the epitome of the paisas, a beautiful, charming, and educated young woman. As we made our way to Santo Domingo, she told us that these poor barrios were once disconnected from Medellín by steep terrain and lack of reliable and timely transportation. What took residents of Santo Domingo as long as two and a half hours now takes less than 30 minutes on the MetroCable and costs the U.S. equivalent of about 75 cents.

Fellow Metrocable passengers included uniformed general workers, public service employees, hospitality industry staff, uniformed school children, families, locals, suited business persons, and tourists among the 16,000-some riders of the Metrocable each day.

Santo Domingo, 'the real Medellin'

The night before I had explored the “Zona Rosa,” an area full of modern restaurants, bars and nightclubs – party and gastronomy central, but as spirited as it was, it lacked character and really could have been any big city. 

As we glided up the Metrocable to Santo Domingo, formerly one of the poorest and most dangerous barrios in the city, I knew I’d found the real Medellin.

Surprisingly, not only were the cable cars clean, but when I stepped off the platform into Santo Domingo, the streets also were impeccably clean. The open-door shops displayed their goods, including homeopathic medicines, produce, clothing and bakeries.

In fact, as I looked around, this once dangerous slum was as clean as a whistle. No trash littered the street. Even the locals were grime-free, clean and tidy. When I mentioned it to our guide Adriana, she told us that paisas are proud of their barros, so they make sure to take care of what God had given them.

Pueblito Paisa, a mini-version of typical local township. Friendly local smiles greeted us, and again I was surprised, considering this was a slum, at the lack of homeless and shysters. Barely a handful of people approached us asking for a hand-out or attempting to persuade us to visit their shop.

I slowly walked the narrow street, taking in the sights – kids chasing a ball, mothers shopping for home remedies, workers hauling produce into the shops, and two pack mules patiently nodding off on the side of a building.

Who could resist the fresh-baked scents and the glass case lined with Colombian treats at the neighborhood bakery? My mid-morning pastry was a cheese-filled arepa, a flat, round, unleavened patty made of cornmeal or flour 

Then we moved further into Santo Domingo toward the Parque Biblioteca España, a library overlooking Medellin, made possible by a donation from the Spanish government. The library offers the neighborhood opportunities to learn, such as education on using computers (we witnessed groups of students accessing the Internet). The “librarians” also give tours and develop programs for all ages, from children to adults.

Wall drawings depicting the community's journey from violence overlook a cement playground near the library.The library is a sprawling building surrounded by a playground and cement open space. The background of the playground depicts the journey of this barrio’s independence from the violence of the decade between 1992 and 2002. 

This is where our young storyteller, six-year-old Juan Pablos Flores and two of his young compadres greeted our group. Delightfully entertaining and funny, he recited the sad story of violence in his own backyard.

Storyteller Juan Pablos Flores.Juan Pablos told a story in Spanish that’s difficult to imagine. How this colorful, friendly neighborhood with giggling children and families strolling along hand-in-hand was a scene of unimaginable violence. It was here, 20 years ago that cocaine druglord Pablo Escobar recruited innocents as assassins, kidnapping some, killing others, and reigning terror, so much that no one left their home for fear of death – or worse. During this time of terror, Medellin became the most violent city in the world. His neighborhood, Juan Pablos explained, sadly experienced hundreds of deaths.

Although he cannot remember a life without the Metrocable and tourists, Juan Pablos discovered his story by interviewing the architect of the library. After he finished his story, we clapped our hands in appreciation and gave him a tip.

Regretfully, it was time to leave Santo Domingo, but not before another young boy ran by, stopped and then turned back. Laughing, he asked us por favor to take his foto. We complied and then he raced off laughing and shouting, “Muchos gracias.” Moments later, we spotted Juan Pablos and his friends sharing a handful of candy – bought with our tip.

The Miracle of Medellin is never more remarkable than in the once violent, now friendly barrios of Santo Domingo.

Getting there: Avianca Airlines (www.avianca.com) schedules direct flights from Miami to Medellin’s Jose Maria Cordoba Airport. 

View of Medellin from the InterContinental Medellin.Staying there: Medellin offers dozens of tourist-class hotels throughout the city. Among them, luxury accommodations are offered at the InterContinental Medellin http://www.ichotelsgroup.com/intercontinental/en/gb/locations/medellin , overlooking the City of Eternal Spring from its location in El Poblado. Another is  the conveniently located Holiday Inn Express Medellin http://www.hiexpress.com/hotels/us/en/medellin/mdeex/hoteldetail inside the LaStrada Mall in the exclusive La Milla De Oro district. 

More info: Visit the Tourism Authority of Colombia at www.colombia.travel/

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