A Story of Transformation.

Street art in Comuna 13.

10th October 2022

Cartagena de Indias, Cartagena, Colombia – Cartagena de Indias, Cartagena, Colombia  via Club Nautico, Cartagena & Medellin, Columbia

Good reputations are hard won and easily lost. Bad reputations are easily won and are difficult to lose. Medellin had a bad reputation of being the most dangerous city in the most dangerous country in the world and has slowly changed that reputation to one of a city in transformation. With a story like this Ruffian has been left far behind on her own, we’ve travelled faster than we have in years and we have tried to uncover this change in reputation.

With Ruffian safely moored up in a marina far below, our aeroplane climbed to crest the mountains that have been our backdrop since we sailed into Colombia. The vastness of mountains covered in thick forest stretched into the distance with just the occasional lake and snow-capped peaks breaking the green monotony. From this vast green space Medellin came into view as it sprawled along valleys, snaked up hillsides and disappeared into the distance.

Making our way down from the high hills into the town, motorbikes swarmed around us like wasps as taxi’s jostled for space and our bus felt that judicial use of its horn would make it smaller. Everywhere we looked on this breakneck journey the town was bustling. Streets were lined with big businesses crammed into small spaces, while the street vendors thought nothing of wandering down the middle of the highway selling anything that they could carry.

The chaos of the roads was a complete contrast to the calm of the metro. Here no one spoke above a whisper, litter could find no hiding place and every surface was polished to a shine and unlike the roads there was no danger of death.

As we made our way around the bustling downtown, brutalist 60’s architecture stood next to art of monumental proportions that highlighted the journey this town has come though. Squares which once were centres of destitution were now beacons of light, learning and support, but we were never far from stories of a violent past and government whose usual business included backhanders, bribes and worst of all state sanctioned disappearances.

As we wandered through the backstreets where ladies of the night flaunted their wares* we found ourselves in front of the most monumental decorative gothic cathedral that was conceived, designed and constructed by a Belgium. Rounding a corner however this gothic style abruptly stopped and was replaced by drab grey walls, square windows and an absence of style, this marked the spot where the Belgium designer was sacked and local government took over.

All around the cathedral were out of proportion high art sculptures where heads were the size of peas, legs the sizes of tree trunks and bellies of unfathomable proportions. This art continued in Museum of Antioquia, which Iain walked around completely dumbfounded and Fiona found meaning its pictures, sculptures and installations**.

Within Medellin, the most dangerous city in the most dangerous country, we found our way to its most dangerous neighbourhood; Comuna13 and this is where the story of transformation really came to life. Here the drug cartels, the dope peddlers and the endemic violence had been replaced by thriving scenes of business, education and culture. Hip-pop was pervasive, in the graffiti that adorned the walls, the dancing that everyone seemed to thrive on and the music that pumped out of every speaker. Through a long process of education, enabling opportunity and growing local culture the community had changed beyond all recognition, again however the dark underbelly wasn’t far away.  Trainers hung over telegraph wires showing that drugs were readily available and poverty-stricken children played in the dark back alleys with nothing more than plastic bottles and scraps of fabric.

The old reputation that Medellin suffered from had gone and in the downtown and Comuna 13 it felt like we were walking around Disneyland, but with our growing braveness we wanted to uncover the underbelly of Medellin, venture further and get off the tourist track. Iain had a great plan for this and put together a day of the most random, non tourist and less visited attractions.

First in Iain’s list of local landmarks was the sprawling cemetery of Medellin. The towns cemetery is laid out as if it is a real town where the giants of commerce resided in the centre while all around high rise crypts housed the dead in apartments, each quarter was designated by occupation with merchants, artists and politicians all taking their place. To help keep this city of the dead connected to the living visitors are actively encouraged and we were guided around all the corners while trying to keep a respectful distance from those laying their loved ones to rest.

Leaving the cemetery, we were far from the tourist trail and felt it, as we found our way towards the university. Walking the streets, we were suddenly aware of serious commotion and then violence exploded behind us. Armed with batons men were settling a score on a poor unfortunate and running into the chaotic roads he used the traffic as a form of makeshift defence. Taking all this in their stride no drivers stopped and no pedestrians were perturbed, but we knew we’d reached the limits of our local experience and Medellin’s dark underbelly was on full show.

Clearing the ring of security at the University we strolled among the students, who either thought we were visiting professors of very lost tourists, but we were neither clever nor lost and our quarry of the university museum was in front of us. The museum offered us everything we wanted with bite size ancient history, mental art that only students without a commercial bone in their bodies could conceive and artifacts that had been scavenged from the hills around this town.

After all the art, all the history and all the smiles we found in Medellin it’s new reputation of transformation and rejuvenation is well deserved. The story of how this city with its thousands of murders, tons of drugs and battling cartels has moved to where it is now is remarkable, but even with this transformation the dark side is never far away and we’re pleased to have survived to tell the tale.

* At midday which made little Larry’s eye almost pop out.

** All this art was donated by Fernando Botero who believed in the rejuvenation of the city and made art a key to its success.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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