Surprisingly enough, Medellín has thus far been our favorite city in South America. Its reputation precedes it as the former home of Pablo Escobar and was once recognized as the most violent and dangerous city in the world. The fact that it has come so far in such a brief period is a living example of the ability of communities to turn things around. Within the context of our society today rife with problems like climate change, population explosion, and social injustice, we can take solace in knowing that through a concerted effort - drastic change is possible.
Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia with a population of about four million. Beginning in the late 90’s, the city began a rapid economic and social recovery through broad economic stimulus, a liberalized development policy, and large infrastructure projects that linked the many communities of the town together including the long forgotten lower class districts. The city is now a world-renowned case study in effective economic development. It was recently recognized by the Urban Land Institute as the most innovative city in the world due to its rapid improvement and is tied for the best place to live in South America with Santiago de Chile.
Within minutes of landing in the airport we knew we were somewhere very special. The streets were impeccably clean, the buildings were well designed and well-built and the air felt crisp and fresh. Our cab driver told us that Medellín is nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring due to its year-round temperate climate. It felt like I was in a cleaner, greener version of Los Angeles and as we drove from the outskirts of town to downtown, the neighborhoods kept getting nicer and nicer. We had truly found a diamond in the rough and new retail and multifamily developments was visible on every major street – this city was booming.
We spent our first full day in Medellín on a fascinating Pablo Escobar city tour. We learned more about the man and the terror he inflicted on the country as the head of the Medellín Cartel in the 1980’s. We started the tour outside of his eight-story apartment building in the nicest area of town. This massive structure housed his entire family as well as a small hidden prison in the basement. His level of depravity was so pronounced that he would switch from playing with his young daughter in the penthouse to torturing and killing prisoners in the basement within the same hour. It is little surprise he acquired his reputation as a ruthless butcher. We continued the tour with a drive up to the prison he had built for himself. In the early 90’s he had essentially declared war on the Colombian government and his numerous killings and bombings brought the country to its knees. As a compromise to keep the peace, the Colombian government allowed him to stay in a prison that he guarded and built himself. This “prison” was complete with a soccer field, helipad, and special “pleasure room” equipped with a rotating circular bed where he would rendezvous with his many prostitutes. The Colombian national soccer team, celebrities, and beauty queens made special trips to see him at the prison and there was virtually a revolving door of business associates and politicians who visited the property. As the story has it, the prison was designed to look like a fortress so Escobar could tell his young daughter he wasn’t staying in prison but enjoying the safe harbor of his castle. It is now used by the government as a retirement home and the plants and grass have overgrown much of the property. The use of this symbol of terror and criminal dominance of the government as a facility to help those in need carries with it an interesting meaning to me. It is a living reminder of the level of control Escobar had over the government but at the same time is a metaphor for what the city has done in response to this dark time in its history – a stronger and more beautiful rebirth. We later visited Pablo’s grave, the rooftop where he was killed, and finished our tour in the neighborhood now called Barrio Pablo Escobar. During his time in power he was generous with the poor people of the country and constructed hundreds of homes in this low income community. He drew the admiration of the community through his generous act and the residents named their neighborhood after him as a symbol of appreciation. The neighborhood carries his name to this day.
That night we enjoyed dinner and drinks late into the night in the main bar and club district in town - Parque Lleras. This neighborhood was impeccably clean and consisted of what seemed like hundreds of different bars, restaurants, boutiques, clubs, and galleries. It was as if someone took Old Town Scottsdale, doubled it in size, and stacked it on top of itself. I honestly think it rivals 6th Street in Austin, TX.
Two days was scarcely enough for the City of Eternal Spring. The unbelievable weather, tasty food, friendly people, and stylish spaces left us wanting much more. This city that rose from the ashes invites us all to think bigger about what we can do to improve society if we work together towards a common goal. // Jeff