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Colombian Sketches: Finding Medellín

Impressions of Colombia's second city: Afro-Caribbean, green corridors & art

Painting of woman
Graffiti seen in Comuna 13

This is part 2 of the Colombian Sketches series.  You can read Part 1 about Providencia here.

Medellín sits surrounded by mountains. The city has a futuristic feel: brutalist architecture and skyscrapers. The city is overwhelmingly green. Hanging gardens cover many buildings like curtains. Palm trees stand between the office towers and apartment blocks. Papagayi screech over highways.

Medellín: an overview & brief history

Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia, after Bogotá. The city sits in the Aburrá Valley, a river basin in the Colombian Andes. The valley takes its name from the Aburrá people, who, along with the Nutabes and Tahamí, were the indigenous inhabitants before the arrival of the Spanish in 1616.

The Spanish quickly established plantations for the cultivation and export of coffee. Centuries later, the plantations have become destinations for tourists and city dwellers looking for a weekend in the mountains. 

Medellín’s growth exploded after the completion of the Suez Canal in 1914. Construction of a railroad linked it to the Pacific coast, a fateful decision that, decades later, would facilitate a flourishing drug trade, turning Medellín into the most dangerous city in the world. 

View of town and hills

Medellín’s metamorphosis: Comuna 13

Finding the Medellín of today is a city transformed. And nowhere embodies that transformation more than Comuna 13. Comuna 13 lies on the westernmost part of Medellín. Comuna 13 has one of Colombia’s largest concentrations of Afro-Colombians, descendants of enslaved peoples. The neighbourhood’s houses are built into steep hills, giving the neighbourhood excellent views of Medellín and the surrounding mountains. It’s one of the most visited places in Colombia.

Its strategic location at the edge of the city with a direct route to the Pacific Ocean made it ideal for trade. As the cocaine trafficking grew, so did the cartels power in the area.

Child playing basketball
Comuna 13

In the 1980s and 1990s, Comuna 13 was the most dangerous neighbourhood in Medellín. Drug cartels used the city to ferry drugs and arms in and out of the country. Tens of thousands of people lived in cramped, unsanitary conditions, terrorised by poverty, racism, government neglect and gangs. Twenty years ago, The New York Times reported Comuna 13 as having  “130,000 people [and a] homicide rate 55 times that of New York City.”

In 2002, President Uriba launched a military operation called Orion. He sent the army to invade Comuna 13, bringing it to heel. Three thousand troops opened fire on their own citizens, maiming and killing dozens (though official tallies were unreliable). For weeks, the residents endured bombardment. 

The government claimed it was necessary to end the gang violence. Still, it’s more likely that they were after the leftist guerillas, who’d found sympathy (and shelter) among residents who’d been forcibly displaced to the outer areas of the Medellín a generation earlier. After the operation, many of the gangs fled, but there was also continued violence, including against civilians, by the government.

Starting in 2006, the government invested heavily in infrastructure in Comuna 13. They installed escalators and cable cars to connect the neighbourhood with the rest of the city, further integrating it into Medellín. Grassroots organisers and activists encouraged creative expression by the residents through art, murals, dance and theatre. Comuna 13 is now a gloablly-recognised example of community-led transformation.

Irina, a young local who grew up in Comuna 13 and now gives tours of her neighbourhood, recalled the days when, as a child she walked by dead bodies in the street, victims of gang warfare. “That today people come from all over the world to see us is crazy.”

She took us around the neighbourhood, showing us murals dedicated to the government raid that killed so many and marked a turning point in the neighbourhood. Pointing to one mural, she said, “Afro-Colombians built Colombia, literally, but they’re ignored.”

Apartment building in Medellin
Apartment building in Medellin

Medellín Today & Green Corridors

Modern-day Medellín has a futuristic feel. Not just because of its modern architecture and above-ground metro system but also because of how much nature thrives inside the city. In 2008, Medellín started its “Green Corridors”, planting over 2.5 million plants and 880.000 trees. The goal was to reduce air pollution, keep the city temperatures from rising, and improve the overall quality of life for the city residents.

Almost sixteen years later, banana trees stand next to new apartment buildings. Skyscrapers have forests on roofs, and office buildings have gardens hanging from balconies. The city also added large parks as part of the project. According to the BBC, “just two of these parks, the Nutibara and Volador hills, were responsible for removing 40 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year from the atmosphere.”

Finding Medellín: birthplace of Colombia’s most famous artist

Medellín is the birthplace of artist Fernando Botero (1932 - 2023), widely considered the greatest artist Colombia has produced. He produced larger-scale, exaggerated portraits and sculptures of his subjects. His work depicts animals, people, the Mona Lisa, natural disasters and even guerillas from Colombia’s brutal history. 

The city is a heady mix of urban cool, nature and history.

In the next instalment of Colombian Sketches, we’ll look at Tayrona National Park and Santa Marta.

Have you been to Medellín? What did you think of it?


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