By Nelson Alcantara l Special to eTN | Feb 21, 2008
On that given afternoon in December last year, a stroll down Medellin, Colombia's center provided a glimpse of how the city once referred to as "the murder capital of the world" has managed to lift itself up from the ruins of its beleaguered past to become the thriving city that it is today. Shops were bustling, the mall in front of Plaza Botero (Sculpture Plaza), which in itself is a tourist attraction for its 80,729-square-foot open-air space that holds 23 sculptures donated by hometown world renowned artist Fernando Botero, was crowded.
The streets were filled with passer-bys, spectators, traveling vendors with an inventory ranging from instant coffee to mango. A couple with two very distinct messages, however, stood out from the rest that afternoon--a singing preacher whose sermon seemed to captivate no one's attention and another man whose "how to make love properly" presentation drew a more sizable crowd.
Gawking over this crowd is a tall white building with the word "Hollywood," which bares striking resemblance to the real Hollywood sign, though they vary in size and color. The real Hollywood sign (in California, USA) is much bigger and is in white, whereas Medellin's "Hollywood" is smaller and is in blue.
From a spectator's point of view, the streets of Medellin are amusing to watch. The crowd is an eclectic mix of fashionistas sporting the latest trends and those that could care less or may be too poor to have the means to care about fashion, though the city is generally well-to-do. Thanks to its textile industry connection, the city has always trailed Bogota, Colombia's capital, in financial terms.
The peace process between paramilitaries and Medellin Mayor Sergio Fajardo, who is revered in Colombia as a strong symbol for peace, has made it possible for one to take what may be a lazy afternoon stroll down Medellin's center to even be possible. In a not so distant past, people were held captives in their own homes because of the bloodshed that erupted after the death of Medellin's most famous son—Pablo Escobar.
Talking with residents, the government seems to have imposed an unofficial gag rule on Pablo Escobar. For Medellin residents, the name Pablo Escobar is taboo and should never be uttered unless in tourism context. Something that is a bit hard to do for some Medellin residents because much of the poor people of Medellin view the late drug lord as sort of their version of "Robin Hood." To some of them, Escobar was (or is) a hero.
Ironically, the Colombian government, in what seems to be a paradoxical move, is helping fund a US$100 million tourism project that revolves on Escobar's life. His famed Hacienda Napoles is being transformed into a luxury resort-type accommodation facility and an amusement park in the vicinity utilizing Escobar's vision of a dinosaur-type park called "Jurassic Park" is closed to being finished. Before one can get to Jurassic Park, however, travelers (and Colombians, in general) will run into the government's not-so subtle warming on Escobar--a jail. That jail is being built as part of the US$100 million public-private project and it overlooks Hacienda Napoles.
Recognize it or not, Medellin's past is so closely connected to Escobar's life that his influence may forever be ingrained in Colombia's history. From a psychological standpoint, Escobar's impact is very much alive, even with the government's attempts to somehow mask it from Colombia's history. Oscar Orosco, a key figure in the US$100 million tourism project, still has nightmares of Escobar coming after him. Orosco, whose father recently passed away, said he at times asks his dead father to apologize for him for taking on the tourism project.
Whether the Colombian government likes it or not, Escobar is one of Colombia's biggest tourism attractions. The above mentioned US$100 million tourism project is enough evidence that the Colombian government, too, recognizes this impact. The project is situated some 100 miles east of Medellin (in Puerto Triunfo, Antioquia, which is where Escobar resided). Restaurants in the area proudly tell visitors, "Pablo ate here."
In Medellin, there are ample things for tourists to do; from nightlife to recreational activities during the day (the city has three world-class golf courses). The city now boasts the only public transportation in the world that connects its railway system to a cable car system. Called Metro, it operates two lines—Line A traversing the Aburra Valley from North to South and Line B, which connects with Line A at the downtown San Antonio station, serves the western neighborhoods of Medellin. The cable Metro, on the other hand, goes over a 49-foot high viaduct upon entering the cluttered uptown and downtown regions of Medellin, offering spectacular views of the city.
Riding the train and transferring to the cable car is an experience in itself. For one thing, Medellin residents take great pride in having it and it shows. The trains are the cleanest of any trains that this journalist has ever been on. Pertaining to the cable car system, "It is best thing that they [the government] have done for Medellin," said one elderly gentleman. For many, the cable car has become the preferred mode of transportation. "It is cheaper than taking the bus," enthused a woman, who on that afternoon ride of my visit was traveling with three of her children.
For Medellin, life moves on. "Today Medellin is a capital where civility and life in community are essential to a new vision of the world, which the thousands of admiring visitors from other regions and abroad are witness," said Mayor Fajardo in a welcome letter to tourists. Medellin now hosts almost 100,000 foreign tourists annually, though mostly business. The city boasts a vibrant nightlife that rivals any major tourist destination in the world. Night revelers put on clothes to impress to match the city very diverse bars and clubs. Even in daytime, it is evident that Medellin has managed to become the fashion capital of Medellin. The men fashionably sport every variation there is to "faux hawk" hairstyle seen nowhere else, while the women have managed to carve a more alluring stereotype—that they are "the most beautiful" in Latin America.
An event that has become a symbol of the city is the Christmas lights display that also attracts thousands of visitors. During December and January, Medellin transforms itself into "the light capital, "whereby thousands of lights are displayed creatively along the Medellin River, the Nutibara Hill, the Avenida La Playa Street, and other city roadways and squares.
Getting to Medellin has never become more accessible. Because of the Colombian government's efforts, there are now more flights to Medellin now more than ever. Travelers should take note, however, that the airport that serves Medellin (called José María Córdova International Airport) is located in another town called Rio Negro, some 45 minutes away from Medellin. Expect to fork up money for taxi fare, as most hotels do not provide shuttle service.