Cocaine is a tricky thing. You can have as many high-profile ad campaigns promoting tourism as you want, place all the police you have on every street corner and generally clean your act up for both residents and tourists alike, but at the end of the day, people in the West, when they think Colombia, they think Cocaine.
Take Medellin, for example. If there is one city in South America, if not the entire world, that has a bad name it’s poor old Medellin. Infamous for the cocaine cartel of the same name that during the 1980’s was responsible for supplying 80%of the world’s cocaine, you’d think this would be a hard reputation to shake.
I read the book Killing Pablo several years ago – it deals essentially with the last few years of and hunt for, the cartel’s leader Pablo Escobar. At his most powerful and dangerous, towards then end of the 1980’s his organisation was responsible for 20 deaths a day, in Medellin alone. At the time of reading, I had no inkling that my travels would bring me to South America, let alone Colombia so the picture I had in my head was of a lawless town in a corrupt country – not somewhere I would ever considering visiting.
So it is a little surprising to find out that of all cities in Colombia, Medellin has done the most to break from the past and provide a modern and forward-thinking place for its population to live – and on the whole is doing a very good job of it.
One the first things you hear about Medellin, is that it has a Metro. Colombians from all over are proud of this, the people of the city even more so. Now, it’s not the Tube – it only has two lines, but given the layout of the city (basically lying from north to south in a wide valley), this gives a very wide coverage. Even better, and even more impressive is the MetroCable system. Being in a valley, barrios little more than slums creep up the mountains away from the centre on both sides (as opposed to Europe, in South America the rich live at the bottom and the poor live high up), so the good folk at the transport planning department of Medellin City Hall have come up with a most ingenious solution. Acting as another Metro line, 2 cable car lines link the train system with the top of the mountain, with 2 intermediate stops along the way.
As a tourist, this allows you to take a cable car to a 2 vantage points overlooking the city (and to see some genuinely poor neighbourhoods from above) of the bargain price of 50p, but much more importantly, it enables the folk living in these, frankly crappy, areas with very poor bus links (mainly due to living on a 45 degree slope) to easily get to work in the city proper. I was impressed.
Obviously it’s not just a cable car or two that’s going to turn a city round, but it demonstrates the kind of inclusive social thinking visible all around Medellin which is allowing it to move on from its murky past.
One last note, the ghost of Pablo is still present around the city with many of the shopping centres and even entire barrios having been built by him, his image of local Robin Hood was carefully cultivated. One stranger legacy however is the problem parts of Central Colombia are having with hippos. Professional hunters were dispatched to deal with the problem – with some success as this wonderfully headlined article tells us.