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Medellín — Born Again
Casting off its violent past, the capital of Antioquia, Colombia, now touts itself as a hot destination for business, fashion, colorful fiestas, nightlife and beautiful people.
“The only risk is wanting to stay,” is the new slogan being used to promote Colombia around the world, and it suits Medellín perfectly.
The capital of the Department of Antioquia used to be known as the most violent city in the world. The local war waged by Pablo Escobar, guerrilla fighters, paramilitary squads and mafia hitmen left upwards of 500 dead a month and helped the city’s funeral industry do brisk business. Nowadays, Medellín has turned the page and is showing off what it has to offer: sizable economic growth, modern avenues, more than 25 shopping centers, a good number of stylish restaurants and design stores, plus several new hotels and convention centers – enough to host 14 conferences, forums and international fairs a year and a large number of high-level political, economic and sporting events.
Another of Medellín’s attractive features is the weather. It’s always warm in the “city of eternal spring,” so visitors can dress lightly and sport traditional vueltiao hats. Wanting to stay is a real risk. And it increases exponentially as you meet paisas, the locals, who are always so nice, “at your service” and taking care of everything “with pleasure.
The perfect place to witness Medellín’s transformation is Carabobo Norte, an impressive avenue, wide and clean. Equally impressive are the signs hanging everywhere with the slogan “Violence will not return to my city.”
Two must-sees in this area are the Orquideorama (the botanical garden’s homage to the national flower) and Parque Explora, over five acres of interactive scientific entertainment for all ages. If you’re short on time, just walking through this luxurious public space is a treat. Continue towards Plaza de Cisneros to Paseo Carabobo, a bustling walkway filled with colorfully dressed citizens and the delicious fragrance of arepas. Just ask someone for directions, and you’ll get a taste of their hospitality. They’ll invite you for a tinto (black coffee) and tell you about life in Antioquia or offer to join you on your walk. Being nice is serious business here; it’s part of paisa regional pride.
But locals also boast about being shrewd in business: “From Guajira to Nariño and Llanos Orientales to Chocó you’re guaranteed to find a paisa doing business,” claims one passerby who offered to join me and invited me to coffee. “Everything that happens in Colombia happens in Medellín first,” my new friend continues, and he throws in some other reasons for paisas to be proud: “We have a president from Medellín, and he’s tough. We also have the most beautiful women in Colombia.” Indeed, I must admit that paisa women are gorgeous; they have perfect eyebrows, amazing curves, and they’re comfortable with their bodies.
Moving right along… Paseo Carabobo boasts some interesting buildings. The municipality restored the Carré building, constructed in the 19th century. The National Palace, a public building with a mix of romantic and modern architecture built in the 1950s, now houses a shopping center.
A little further on is the Iglesia de la Veracruz, one of the city’s few remaining colonial buildings. For a long time, the church had a bell tower without a bell because some national hero sacrilegiously melted it down to make a cannon.
On one side of the church is the city’s largest display of Antioquian art. Medellín native Fernando Botero donated 23 sculptures that are exhibited in the open air from here to Plaza Botero, amid hoards of strolling people, policemen, children eating ice cream, vendors selling hats and clearly identified crossing guards who help those in need and act as guardians of public space.
Have a seat at Café Botero on one side of the plaza, order a beer and watch the spectacle of people and art with the Palacio Rafael Uribe as a backdrop. If you’d like to see more art, the Museo de Antioquia – which houses the café – showcases 108 pieces by Botero, as well as traveling exhibitions. If people-watching is more your thing, cross the plaza and take in the incredible public display at Parque de Berrío, where vendors sell hot coffee and cold water and musical groups sing gut-wrenching songs of heartbreak.
While singers wail on one side of the park, on the other side Antioquians reveal their more pious leanings at masses and rosaries in Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria Basilica, which houses several important colonial art works.
The New Face of Santo Domingo
Medellín was the first city in Colombia to build a subway system, and Parque de Berrío has its own station. Take the train from here to the Acevado station and transfer to the Metrocable. This cable car was developed as a form of mass transit for the inhabitants of Santo Domingo and stands as a testament to Medellín’s transformation.
A poor, isolated neighborhood with high unemployment, Santo Domingo used to be the perfect recruiting ground for hired hitmen, the paramilitary and guerrilla groups, making it the scene of dozens of confrontations and deaths touching innocent citizens on a weekly basis. Once the army restored order, it used the Metrocable to pave the way for social intervention. This transit system transports 16,000 people a day, bringing residents closer to sources of work.
Other initiatives include a demobilization program, an exchange of weapons for musical instruments, programs for reintegration, education, job creation and employment counseling, plus a new public library and park costing US$7 million. All this investment has performed miracles, transforming Santo Domingo into a model neighborhood. It’s amazingly clean, and the streets are packed with children playing and adults eager to tell their stories. This area is a must-see, especially for photography enthusiasts who will love its views and scenes of local life.
Under the Sun in El Poblado
On to pop culture and what’s hot. To see the other face of this city, take a taxi – nowadays, its safe to hail one down – to the corner of Calle 10 and Carrera 34 in El Poblado. Here, you’ll get a taste of Medellín’s glamorous side of design, décor and fashion boutiques.
Allow plenty of time to browse the boutiques on Vía Primavera; they showcase fashion designers who will probably go on to earn their livings in Milan or New York. The colorful window displays on this pleasant little street boast clothes, shoes, swimwear, jewelry, accessories and even daring lingerie.
At the end of the street is Parque Lleras, the heart of the Zona Rosa and Medellín’s nightlife. Here, you can find whatever suits your tastes, from sushi, Peruvian and Thai food, parrillas and pizzerias to discos, outdoor terraces and music. This is the good life, with beautiful people partying all night long.
In the daytime, you can refuel here or on Calle de la Buena Mesa. Walk over to El Poblado Avenue, Medellín’s new, ultra-modern area and see how it blends traditional red brick with near- futuristic buildings housing banks, private clinics, insurance companies and shopping centers. A refreshing walk through this clean, orderly neighborhood is the perfect way to enjoy the eternal spring of Medellín. in
LAN Flights: To Medellín, daily flights from Lima and Quito. Daily flights from Buenos Aires, Santiago and São Paulo, via Lima.
A City in Bloom
Medellín spills over every August with the Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival). The first ten days of the month, paisas are consumed with this event, which is as important to Medellín as Carnaval is to Rio de Janeiro. An explosion of color, music and traditions, the festival began in 1957 when 40 farmers from Santa Elena, 11 miles away, participated in a city parade to showcase the beauty of the flowers grown in Medellín’s rural areas.
The festival has been an annual event ever since, culminating in the Desfile de Silleteros. This endless procession of children, teens, adults and elderly people carrying silletas – huge, heavy floral sculptures – is cheered on by the crowds who wait for hours to see florists, musicians, dancers and even soldiers and police on motorcycles decked out in the best of spring.
And that’s not all. During the festival, there are loads of events, like parades on horseback, recitals, concerts, an enormous exhibit at the botanical gardens, arts shows, storytelling festivals, a huge antique car parade with people dressed up according to car year and model, jewelry displays, photo competitions, pet parades and even the Feria de las Flores international women’s soccer cup.
Where to stay
Hotel Dann Carlton Medellín
Av. El Poblado, Carrera 43A No. 7-50
Hotel Portón San Joaquín
Calle 42 No. 68A-32
Hotel Casa Laureles
Calle 35 No. 78-66
Hotel Park 10
Carrera 36B No. 11-12, El Poblado
Where to eat
El Herbario: A bold option. Herbs take center stage without being over the top. Delicious, pleasant, with a warm atmosphere.
Carrera 43D No. 10-30
Mezeler, Restaurante y Bar de Vinos: Simple, nicely presented food and a fantastic, award-winning wine list. Perfect for lunch or business dinners.
Calle 8A No. 37-20
El Cielo: A restaurant with a philosophy and a daring chef searching for culinary experiences through the senses.
Carrera 40 No. 10A-22
Hatoviejo: The best of Antioquian cuisine, with classics like bandeja paisa (meat, beans, pork rinds, chorizo, rice, fried egg, plantains and an arepa) mondongo (tripe stew) and cazuela (seafood stew), all served in a rural setting. Two locations.
Calle 16 No. 28-60 (Las Palmas)
Carrera 49 No. 52-170, piso 2 / 2nd Floor
(Sucre & Av. La Playa)
Where to dance
Mangos: The hot disco with theme shows and a Wild West décor.
Carrera 42 No. 67A-151, Itagüí
Oz: A more intimate setting with crossover music. Located in Parque Lleras, where the action never stops.
Carrera 38 No. 8-20, Parque Lleras
Carnival: Cutting-edge electronic music and different DJs. The fun really starts around 3 a.m.
Calle 80S No. 50-61, La Estrella
Kukaramakara: Disco and live music for those who never stop.
Carrera 43G No. 25A-58
B-Lounge: Bar and disco with karaoke. A colorful place preferred by women.
Carrera 35 No. 10-38