I recently traveled to Medellin in Colombia for the first time. Like many Americans, my perceptions were built on modern history of my lifetime, and fueled by the recent series Narcos to remind me of that history. It is not fiction that Colombia was a dangerous country, and that Medellin was once the most dangerous city in the world. But I had heard so much about its change that I had to see it for myself.
The first thing I found in Colombia upon my arrival in Bogota, was how welcoming the country is. People are very friendly and the culture is fascinating. My guide took me through layers of history from ancient culture, through Spanish colonization, revolution, yes, through the guerilla period, and into modern times. I learned about the social relevance of graffiti, the strata of society, the tax and utility systems. Bogota with a local private guide was the perfect introduction.
But the country is so big and diverse, it was time to move on to learn even more.
Medellin, Colombia: Beauty, Spring Weather, and a Phoenix Rise
I wanted to go to Medellin because those who have been wax poetic about its beauty, its eternal spring-like weather (and the flowers that weather produces), and its phoenix rise from the ashes of a very dark period.
And what I discovered for myself was the ways in which Medellin has transformed itself from one of the worst places in the world to one of the best.
Where streets were once deserted for fear of violence and kidnappings, now inhabitants gathered in parks and squares.
Botero, the famous native artist, has a museum here, and the main city square outside it is filled with his famous full-bodied sculptures.
- There is a clean modern metro system that stretches through the length of the city.
- The café scene during the day is alive and gathering places for business people, intellectuals and neighborhood residents.
- Nightlife is vibrant, the salsa bars filled with dance and live music.
- And economic growth is apparent in new apartment high rises and office buildings.
An Inspiring Story of Transformation
But no better place tells the story of transformation than Comuna Trece, or Community 13
This low-income, heavily populated community of brick and stick shacks with corrugated metal roofs was the worst place in the worst place in 1993.
It was isolated from the main city because it crawled up a steep hillside; there literally was no way in, nor no way out.
Because of its access to both jungle mountains and the main San Juan Highway, there was crime, and easy transportation of guns, drugs and money. Therefore, it was infested with paramilitary, gang and guerilla activity.
… And Everything Changed in Three Days
In 2002 over three days, the Colombian military moved in to clear the area of the rebel groups that held it in its grip; it was a devastating time for the local population.
But once free of the illegal element, the government then connected the commune to the city below by a series of cable cars and later an elevator, so that accessibility created more job opportunities, and a transformation took place.
The Power of Community-Based Tourism
I visited Commune 13 with my guide Biko, a young local graffiti artist who lived through the hard times as a boy.
After going to university to study engineering, he pursued his passion for art and his community by joining with a group of fellow hip hop, dance and street artists to form a school for kids to show them a creative way to express themselves, not a violent one.
Saving Children From Violence
Biko himself had lost friends in 2002 and before and since to violence.
His artist community’s vision was to lead visitors on tours to raise money for the school that saved children from violence.
On our tour of the Commune, Biko pointed out commemorations to those lost.
Giving Commemorations to those Lost
One was a large slide down a hillside between houses. It looked like a playground; there were kids flying down the slide, then running back up to do it again. Heck, I even gave it a try. But the story behind it is sobering. It was a place where a child was fatally hit by a stray bullet, and the building adjacent was where his grandmother hung a white kerchief to show an innocent was there.
This became a strong symbol in the community.
The Stories of Hope
The Commune is brightly colored now where once dismal dwellings huddled in darkness of hiding. Roofs are painted with stars and flowers. Schools and community centers are bright and cheery.
And the walls!
Oh the walls of the buildings, alleyways and lining the streets a an explosion of hue!
Ever-changing artwork of the graffiti masters both of Medellin and of the world decorate the city, each telling a story, most of them of hope.
Renewal of Commune 13
The renewal of Commune 13 is a microcosm of the renewal of Medellin, and indeed in the change of Colombia.
I was moved to tears, not just for the loss of life and terror of violence, but also in the transformative power of the vision for a better world.
I looked down on the beautiful, new, shining Medellin in the valley from the hill that was the worst place in the world, and gained strength from those who had suffered but risen to create art, beauty and decency from the ashes.
In 2012, Medellin was named Most Innovative City in the World by the non-profit Urban Land Institute.
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