During the 1980’s, Medellín was the murder capital of the world. In this post, I talk briefly about the conditions during the city in this time and the terrorist acts committed under the orders of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. No traveller in the world would have considered Colombia to be a place that they wanted to travel, let alone the crime hotspot of Medellín. Today, Medellín is a traveller’s favourite and highly recommended by every person in Colombia that I came across. Colombia itself is truly making its mark on the well-trodden backpacker route around South America and is shedding its reputation of danger and crime.
One of the most interesting and most bizarre attractions that you can visit in Medellín is the San Javier neighbourhood, also known as Comuna 13. A particular section of the neighbourhood has several levels of houses adorned with colourful street art, with modern escalators built between each level. It can be quite surreal to walk into what at first seems to be regular, non-affluent neighbourhood, only to encounter fully functional escalators. Comuna 13 used to be one of the most infamous and dangerous parts of Medellín and today has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
The surrounding neighbourhood also has a large library and several green park spaces for youths to enjoy themselves in a safe environment. Although some locals stared at me, presumably because they are not that used to seeing foreigners in their neighbourhood, I never once felt unsafe or unwelcome. The local government has poured money into improving the neighbourhood and providing safe spaces and improved transportation systems, but the main change has come from the residents themselves. The beautiful, vivid street art demonstrates perfectly a community of people wishing to express themselves and improve their own livelihoods.
I found it so inspiring to see people take control of their own community identity and overcome the devastating violence that used to plague their neighbourhood. I truly believe that community projects at a grassroots level are the most effective and sustainable way to improve the development of an area. Giving residents control over their own space also fosters pride and brings a community together. It also helps to attract tourism to the area, with several shops situated within the main street art section, and a few tourist operators working within the area. Although I went to the community alone, I have heard good things about this company, which runs tours by a local resident and hip hop artist.
Parque de las Luces
Situated in downtown Medellín, Cisneros Square used to be a hotbed of violent crime and prostitution within the city. It was a dark and dingy place that no one would want to venture into, especially at night. These days, the square is flanked by a large, modern library and the square itself is filled with numerous large sculptures resembling columns. At night, the columns turn on, illuminating the square with light, hence the name of the Park of Lights. Symbolically, these sculptures serve as beacons of hope and a movement to reduce crime within the city. I still wouldn’t recommend visiting the area at night, especially not alone, but it serves as a symbolic step in the right direction of a city trying to forge a new identity for itself.
Medellín is still a city where you need to take precautions. I wouldn’t recommend walking around alone at night in downtown parts of the city and it is recommended to maintain a close eye on your valuables and not flash expensive goods during the day. However, the city has made leaps and bounds in improving its safety and its reputation with travellers, and is a highlight of many travellers’ time in Colombia. I find it truly inspirational that the government and the citizens have taken it upon themselves to reclaim their spaces and work together to build a better, safer Medellín.