It’s hard to think of a city that was more in need of a public relations makeover than MEDELLÍN. When turf wars between rival drug gangs became public in the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia’s second-largest city was rampaged by teenage hitmen, called sicarios, who, for as little as US$30, could be hired to settle old scores.
But when cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was snuffed out in 1993, Medellín began to bury its sordid past, though the notorious Mr Escobar remains an infamous attraction. These days, the increasing number of travellers who come here find an inviting, modern city with one of the country’s best climates – year-round temperatures average 24°C.
Pleasant green spaces, interesting museums, a bustling centre and thriving commercial areas make Medellín an exciting place to explore, while top-notch restaurants, vibrant bars and a pumping club scene provide non-stop fun until the early hours. The reliable metro makes it easy to get around. El Poblado, an upmarket area in the southeastern part of Medellín, has the highest concentration of lodgings, restaurants and nightlife.
The fortress-like cathedral, four blocks from Basílica de la Candelaria, along a pedestrian walkway, at Plaza Bolívar, was constructed between 1875 and 1931 and claims to be the largest church in the world built entirely of bricks – 1.2 million, if you’re counting. A large handicraft fair is held on the first Saturday of every month in the plaza.
Few individuals have had as great (and negative) an impact on Medellín in recent history as Pablo Escobar Gaviria – the most successful of the cocaine barons. After years of inflicting violence on the city’s civilians because of the Medellín cartel’s rivalry with the Cali cartels and his willingness to blow up a plane just to get at a single passenger, Escobar was unceremoniously shot down on the roof of a house on December 2, 1993, while on the run from the police.
Though many Medellín citizens find the idea of this godfather of crime posthumously becoming a major tourist attraction distasteful, a number of tours have sprung up since his death that take you around the city to various Escobar-associated sights. You get to see the building he lived in, apartment blocks he built, the rooftop on which he was shot, and, finally, his gravestone at the Jardines de Montesacro cemetery. Tours cost around COP$55,000 per person and the best of the operators is Paisa Road (317 489 2629, www.paisaroad.com), known for their sensitive and balanced tours.
Escobar is also the reason why there are feral hippos in the mountains around Medellín. To find out why, you can visit one of the more bizarre sites in Colombia – Hacienda Nápoles (COP$27,000; 1800 510 344, www.haciendanapoles.com), the huge farm that was once Escobar’s private kingdom, complete with mansions, menagerie of exotic animals, bullring and more. Once Escobar was on the run, the abandoned hippos broke out of their enclosure, fled into the wild and bred, thus giving rise to dangerous non-native mammals in Colombia. This strange attraction sits halfway between Medellín and Bogotá, off the highway 1km from Dorodal. Today you can wander through the abandoned mansion, check out the displays on Escobar’s reign of terror, and there are even some rides for children.
This lush botanical garden is one of Colombia’s oldest, dating from 1913 and home to over six hundred plant species as well as a butterfly enclosure. Don’t miss a visit to the stunning Orchideorama – a weaving structure of steel trunks and towering wooden petals – where plants are showcased and the garden’s annual orchid exhibition is held in August during the Feria de las Flores flower festival.\
Housed in an attractively restored industrial warehouse in the Ciudad del Río neighbourhood, the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín features an impressive selection of contemporary art by international and national artists, including prolific Medellín painter Débora Arango.
On the eastern slopes of the Aburrá Valley, Parque Arví is an ecological nature reserve and archeological site. It forms part of the network of pre-Hispanic trails of Parque Ecológico Piedras Blancas, which can be reached from the park in an hour on foot. Other attractions include canopy ziplines and a butterfly enclosure, and you can easily spend the day exploring this welcome bit of wilderness. The park is connected to downtown Medellín via the Cable Arví Metrocable from the Metro Santo Domingo interchange; the 15-minute ride up glides over the mountain ridge and into the park, affording spectacular views of the city.
If your appetite for Botero isn’t sated, check out his Pájaro de Paz (Bird of Peace) sculpture at Parque San Antonio, on Carrera 46 between calles 44 and 46. When a guerrilla bomb destroyed the bronze sculpture in 1996, Botero ordered the skeleton to be left in its shattered state and a replica of the original was placed alongside it as an eloquent protest against violence.
Medellín is the birthplace of sculptor and painter Fernando Botero, known for his satirical representation of all things fat – oranges, priests, even a chubby Mona Lisa who appears to have eaten all the pies. Although Medellín residents felt miffed by Botero’s donation of his extensive European art collection to the Museo Botero in Bogotá, the highlight of the Museo de Antioquia is the largest collection of his works, including painting, sculpture and sketches. Another twenty Botero sculptures are on display outside the museum in the busy Plaza Botero, including a rotund Roman legionary.
The geographical limitations of so many people living in a narrow valley have forced residents to live in overcrowded conditions, with many homes running up 45-degree slopes. Within the city centre itself there’s a huge shortage of open recreational spaces. An exception is Pueblito Paisa, a replica of a typical Antioquian village that’s situated atop Cerro Nutibara, a hilly outcrop downtown that offers fabulous panoramic views of the city. At the bottom of the hill is the Parque de las Esculturas, a sculpture park where the imagination of South American artists takes on abstract form. The closest metro station is Industriales, from where it’s a ten-minute walk up Cerro Nutibara.