I departed Cartagena in rough shape after falling off a sidewalk due to the condensation on my sunglasses and taking a nosedive on the cobblestone streets. A lovely police officer picked me up (literally jerking me from the ground) and helped dust me off before we realized the blood dripping on the street was actually coming from my knee. Pulling myself together, I iced my wrist and knee before embarking on the next leg of my Colombian journey to Medellín, the country’s second largest city.
Medellín is most commonly known as the former cocaine and murder capital of the world. It was home to Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellín cartel, one of the largest and most lucrative cocaine operators in the 1980s-90s. It was a dark, dreary place juxtaposed with beautiful valleys, thick-forested hillsides and one of the Colombia’s two rivers rushing through it. The cartel controlled the local government and police and often terrorized anyone or anything in its way. It was a fearful time for the people of Medellín.
Today, locals aware of their past fight aggressively for their future. With Pablo Escobar’s passing in 1993, the cartel’s influence over the city dissipated and the City of Eternal Spring enjoyed a rebirth. The Metro train system is state of the art and transports locals from poor neighborhoods across the city and high into the hilltops. While 40 percent of the population continues to live in marginal areas, locals of all economic backgrounds use the Metro to whisk them into the 21st Century. The city spans from north to south (like Bogotá) and red brick skyscrapers, top-tier shopping malls, restaurants, museums and universities are plentiful in Medellín. Outdoor art decorates the main plazas and an abundance of birds, flowers and lush vegetation crowd city streets.
Medellín has a population of about 4 million people. It is named after Medellín, Spain in the province of Extremadura and is located about 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level in the Aburrá Valley of the Andes Mountains. I stayed in the Poblado District of Medellín, a modern upscale neighborhood, where I looked down on the bustling commercial district and across the horizon to the Andes. It is fully accessible by Metro and is a convenient and safe area to be based.
Medellín is clean, progressive and green. The people are conversationalists eager to share their desires to be recognized leaders in academics, textiles and flower-growing specialists. On a Metrocable car over impoverished neighborhoods through densely forested areas, I met two sisters ages 18 and 20 studying international business. We conversed in broken Spanish. Traveling on school break from Santander, Colombia, they hope to be business owners one day and work in fashion in Medellín. My guide Santi who does speak English is studying international business to sell sporting goods abroad. His girlfriend is a lawyer and his sister a struggling fashion designer. Locals demonstrate entrepreneurial skills on every level. Sidewalks crammed with fresh fruit and vegetables give way to merchandise for sale, while other vendors peddle desserts and typical Colombian favorites like arepa and bean dishes.
It’s easy to study and to work in Medellín. If people choose not to study, it’s because they may have been influenced by the drug trade and believe the “good times” are coming soon. They sit and wait while the rest of the people in Medellín create opportunities and chart a new direction for this world class city.