Returning to Medellin, the City of Eternal Spring

As the plane descends for its landing into Jose Maria Cordova Airport, thirty minutes outside of Medellin, Colombia, the view looking looking down is of rolling, verdant mountains covered in lush green vegetation with small villages clinging to the lower slopes of the hillsides and cattle and sheep grazing in the meadows.

Medellin lies nestled in the Aburra Valley on the Western range of the Northern Andes Mountains, 5,000 feet above sea level, running from South to North, dissected by the River Medellin. The unique location of the valley provides a microclimate with steady daytime temperatures of about 72 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, and is known as “The City of Eternal Spring”. Trees and flowers do not follow the usual pattern of four seasons and can flower up to five times a year. It is springtime twelve months a year.

Only twenty years ago, Colombia was ravaged by Gguerrilla wars, drug trafficking, murders and corruption and it is unfortunate that the legacy of Pablo Escobar has lingered on.  Most people have no idea that the Medellin of today is a world class city, with sophisticated restaurants and hotels, the leading stock exchange in South America, a growing tech industry, outstanding architecture, museums, a thriving fashion industry, and a real estate market that has given excellent returns to those who had the courage to invest.

Buying real estate in Medellin has proved to be a wise decision for those who recognized the opportunity; truly, a  city on the rise and a strengthening dollar versus a weakening peso. All three major credit agencies have raised Colombia’s Credit Rating to Investment Grade and Sam Zell, the US millionaire (and Chairman of Equity Group International) has invested as well as recommending it to others.

The city is modern, attractive and well laid out with some outstanding architecture. Construction cranes are part of the skyline as there is ongoing construction. The flowers, the vegetation and the contrasting texture of different greens is interesting and this pattern of vegetation has been built into the City landscape, where there is a strict ratio of developed land to green spaces.

Eight large shopping centers have been built in the last few years. They are modern, American style, with high fashion stores, restaurants and food courts. Medellin is a city with a huge appetite for partying. There are many public holidays and people don’t seem to know what they are, but they know when they are and party up a storm. In my humble opinion, the men are average looking, but the women are spectacular, well built, very beautiful, extremely sexy and they know it. Word has reached the United States, and the American men are arriving to “sample the merchandise”.

Like most modern urban cities, traffic is heavy and can be congested especially at peak hours. In the last few years with the improved economy the number of new cars on the roads has increased – no old cars to be seen. Yellow taxis are plentiful and can be hailed in the street or come promptly when called. Most rides cost between $3 and $6.00. The taxis have their own driving code and stop anywhere they choose, nonchalantly blocking traffic. There are a lot of buses and because of their size, they too have their own road rules and it is best to give them the right of way. The biggest nightmare on the roads are the motorcycles of which there are too many. They pass on both sides of the cars, zipping in and out of the traffic and are very aggressive and a pedestrian’s nightmare. A driver’s license costs about $60 – there is no DMV. To qualify, one attends driving School for one week and the driving instructor in his/her wisdom decides if you should have a license !!

One big blot on the Medellin landscape is the Communas or slums for which it is notorious. While the country was enduring wars and drug trafficking, leading
up to and including the Escobar reign of terror, a large portion of the population living in the countryside was disenfranchised from their land, being pushed out by the drug lords. These numbers were second only to the numbers of displaced people in Ruanda. Whereas the situation in Ruanda is out of control, the Colombians took action to manage their urban crisis and have introduced effective social programs to deal with the problems.

The refugees could not afford proper housing and built shacks on the hillsides outside the City. These are shanty towns, built of cinderblock, with tin roofs held down against the elements with rocks and plastic covering on the windows. When it rains, the shanties slide down the hillsides with tragic results. The slums were breeding grounds for crime, controlled by rival gangs and were very unsafe. One problem was that there was no transport linking the slums to the developed part of the City and it was difficult for people living there to get to the City and apply for jobs. They remained unemployed and reliant on a life of crime or prisoners of their destiny to be forever on the “outside”. It was a City divided.

After Pablo Escobar’s death the civic leaders were determined to turn this City around. One of the ways this was achieved was through social programs and installing a good, inexpensive, efficient transport system that connected the slums to the rest of the City.

From a base line outside one of the worst slums, a gondola system, such as one sees in luxury mountain resorts, was installed. It connected the slums to the City and shortened the time it took to make this climb by foot from ninety minutes to about fifteen minutes. More recently, to connect a different slum to the City, a huge six section moving staircase (escalator) with piped music was built, that allows people to ride up and down the hill, rather than climb the equivalent of a twenty eight story building , that was tedious and exhausting.

To encourage change a number of Public Libraries cum parks with plazas were built on the edge of the slums, in and around the starting points of the gondolas and the escalator. They are open to everyone, but were located where the citizens of the slums would be able to use them. The Library near the Gondola Station is a dramatic black slate building, designed by a leading architect with three floors of computers which are free to use, lots of books and a social center and have effectively changed peoples lives.

This is not yet a perfect solution but the problems are being addressed and crime is substantially down. For the one dollar that I paid to ride on the gondolas I had an incredible view of the slums and the City. We traveled above the Communas and it was heartbreaking to see how people are living with buildings clinging precariously to the steep hillsides. It was a busy Saturday afternoon, with lots of “traffic” but the gondolas were spotless with no graffiti even though they were in constant use.

The Medellin of the Pablo Escobar era is a bad memory and has been replaced with a City transformed through progressive business, an active and engaged civil society and political leaders who had the vision and were able to work together to eradicate what had been a poster child for drug trafficking, drug wars, murder, corruption and lawlessness. These changes have so far gone unrecognized by the rest of the world who are hanging on to the old legacy.

In a competition organized by Citibank, the Land institute of Washington and the Wall Street Journal in March 2013, Medellin was voted the most innovative City in the World, beating out New York and Tel Aviv for the top spot. Much of this can be attributed to its forward thinking social programs that have led to the turnaround.

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the road less traveled