In the academic year 2018-2019, I was given the chance to spend a year studying in Medellín, Colombia. Having purposefully avoided forming any preconceptions about what it would be like to live and study there, I had no idea what was waiting for me when I stepped off the plane. Nothing could have prepared me for the colourful, exciting, overwhelming year I was about to experience.
La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera (The City of Eternal Spring) is an apt name for this vibrant place. Nestled in the Aburrá Valley of the Andes mountains in Colombia, Medellín boasts a flourishing cultural scene and urban innovation that won it the World City Prize in 2016. The city is rapidly becoming a hotspot for tourists and expats alike, thatnks to its cultural attractions, thriving nightlife, range of restaurants and impressive parks.
Thanks to the widespread popularity of shows such as Narcos, Medellín is still combating a negative reputation. Those not from Colombia appear to think that Medellín is very much the same city it was in the 90s; that is, the city of Pablo Escobar, drug trafficking and paramilitary activity. Shows like Narcos only serve to perpetrate these stereotypes and don’t show the enormous changes Medellín has undergone. Far from ignoring its chequered past, the city and the people of the city pay homage to the victims of past violence in various ways. The museum Casa de la Memoria is a striking and sombre memorial to those affected by violence in Medellín and beyond. One of the most interesting areas of the city, Comuna 13, offers many tours given by local residents. This area, once a hotbed of violence and conflict, has been transformed into a neighbourhood full of community solidarity and beautiful street art. Getting a tour from a local is a great way to gain insight into the true history of Colombia. Those who lived through the violence are willing to tell others the truth about what it was like, without sensationalising anything.
Great art seems to grow from a city that has suffered from conflict. Being from Northern Ireland, I have seen this clearly in cities such as Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, and this is also the case with Medellín. The city boasts an impressive array of theatres, museums, galleries and street art. Whilst living there, I attended a poetry festival, a book festival, a jazz festival and a flower festival, all free of charge and organised by the local government. A commitment to the arts is evident and growing in this city. One of my favourite places in the entire city is the modern art museum the MAMM (Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín). With its reasonably priced cinema, monthly outdoor movie screenings, dynamic exhibitions and regular public events, the MAMM goes above and beyond other museums in terms of touching the public and fostering community spirit.
Medellín has made international headlines for its innovation regarding public transport. It was so refreshing to see a local government so committed to making public transport accessible for all its residents! In 2004, cable cars were built out to the more impoverished areas on the hills to enable easier access to the city centre. This combined with the extensive bus network and the Medellín metro make the city more accessible for travellers and locals alike.
But of course what really makes the city is its people. The paisa people (people who come from the Colombian region of Antioquia, where Medellín is situated) are renowned throughout the world for their warm welcome and genuine smiles. Family and community are very important and heavily emphasised in Colombian culture, and the welcoming spirit is clearly extended towards people visiting their country and city too. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a shop or waiting for a bus or ordering a drink or getting a taxi, people will always take the time to stop and ask you how your day is.
Medellín is not perfect. No place is perfect. But the Medellín of today is far removed from the Medellín of 30 years ago. Its progress is astronomical and it’s still growing rapidly. The ability of this city to bounce back from a painful history and be so resilient in the face of negative stereotypes will never cease to amaze me. The kind and welcoming people of Medellín truly love their city, and rightfully so. Te quiero Medallo.