Why Medellin should be on everyones radar and why it is one of the greatest cities
Medellin, Colombia, a city about 2.5 million people call their home (almost 4 million including the surrounding towns and villages, making it larger than Sidney, Singapore or Berlin). A city, where life is striving and where being proud of your home town actually means something.
Yet, in many parts of the word, Medellin still is the city of drug wars and rebels. Which isn’t entirely wrong to begin with – if you have lived in the Medellin of past, 20 years back from now. But not only is Pablo Escobar long gone, also did Medellin itself vanish from the list of the most dangerous cities in the world. A list where it was almost on the leading spot in the 80ies and 90ies.
By now, the city has changed 180 degrees. By itself? No, by working on change, by integrating its citizens. It made it to become “city of the year” in 2012.
Changing the face of Medellin wasn’t a slow and automated process. Instead, the local government and the Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) (= the public utilities company) put a lot of effort and investment into the development.
One of the first steps was to increase security be increasing police officers and their public awareness, protecting locals from crime and violence. An important part, but changing the city took much more.
Next, Medellin wanted to show every resident in the city that they are part of it, that the government cares about them. So, they built the first metro system in Colombia. They created an affordable public transportation system, that helps everyone in and around Medellin to get where they want to go and to perceive the inner city as a area within everyones grasp.
Their metro system is comprised of three metro trains, which run every couple of minutes moving thousands of people. But additionally, they also thought of all the people living further up the hills. Medellin is in a deep valley, so most of the citizens actually have to walk up steep streets to get from downtown to their homes. The solution? Cable cars were built as part of the metro and free escalators help residents up the hill in other parts (the kind you usually only see in malls). And for sure, there are busses and like many other cities, bikes to rent. The people love their public transportation system, they can commute and get home easily. No area is has been left un-connected.
Establishing this system, including in poorer regions on the hills and having the only metro in Colombia, is making its citizens proud. Subsequently, they have developed their own metro culture – la cultura metro. In the metro, everybody shows respect. There is no littering in the metro, there are no scratches or spray paintings to be found, there isn’t one piece of paper on the ground. People treat each other the same way, that is respectfully. There is no pushing, no fighting, and everyone offers up their seat to anybody who needs it. It’s amazing to watch and to be a part of it.
The face of the city
After including the people by offering public transportation, the city started to turn poorer and dangerous areas where criminals used to lurk, into areas that are now becoming prosperous regions. The strategy: Introduce education and cleaning up the place for a nice look on top. In one of the favelas, that is out highest (favela = outskirt of Medellin area where the poorer people reside, mostly located on the hills), called Santo Domingo, a library for university students was built. It is directly located at the end of the metro cable car track. The library acts as a symbol, showing the local residents that their area is worth the attention, bringing them hope, visitors and business. In downtown Medellin, el centro, which was one of the most dangerous areas only a couple of years ago, they built another public library and renovated the square and the surrounding houses. Bringing education, changing the looks and therefore bringing in visitors reduced the crime so much that now everybody can go shopping in the markets around the square. Yes, there are still parts where you should be careful, but it’s nothing compared to 15 years ago.
Locals still warn you to be careful. A warning which is frequently followed by: „I’m just telling you this, because I still remember how it used to be. You can actually go there now.“
Quality of life
Medellin wants to become a green city. For everyday life, there are an increasing number of bike ways, making it easier to use the metro bikes to get around. You can now see the young and hip folks riding a bike to get around. A couple of years ago, it was the means of transportation for only the poor.
The city is building tunnels for two of the main streets next to the city river, the Rio Medellin. Rerouting the cars underground is not supposed to create more housing areas. Instead they plan to build a huge park for residents, raising quality of life and offer spots where you can easily walk, hang out or work out. But even now with this park being not available yet, there are many possibilities. Every Sunday morning, the city closes some of its main streets for cars. Residents can then go running, take out their bikes or have a nice stroll with the whole family.
Is that all? No. EPM also established a new water system. This is no exception for Columbian cities, but still worth mentioning. Tap water is drinkable everywhere. Furthermore, they built a dam as an energy source and created the lakes of Guatapé. This cute town was not surrounded by water a few years ago. It is now and has turned into even more of a tourist attraction. The area is now a fun park for locals while at the same time, it provides energy for the area.
The government established different programs for start-ups and traditional tech companies. Thereby, they attract many small and large innovative firms to come to Medellin. There is a great infrastructure, that supports founding a company. Medellin as many incubator programs, available funds and co-working spaces. The risk is therefore much lower and networking much easier, which is inspiring for entrepreneurs, digital nomads, expats and locals.
Even for established companies, the city has attractive offers. The different Medellin governments learned by observing and learning from cities in the rest of the world. They noticed that a healthy mix of established and new companies brings most profits for everybody.
So is Medellin dangerous? Parts of Medellin still have a high crime rate, yes. But when looking at locals, you know how careful you have to be. They don’t want to be robbed either, and there is areas where they also carry their backpacks in front or hold on to their purses a bit tighter in order to avoid being pick pocketed. But that’s not considered news for any big city in the world.
As for everywhere else, there are two simple rules: 1) Don’t offer papaya. 2) Because if papaya is offered, somebody will take it. Translation: Don’t create opportunity by being careless. Wear the camera strip around your wrist, when taking a photo. Hold on to your phone with your whole hand while taking a picture, as opposed to using only your finger tips. Don’t put important things in an open front pocket of the backpack, secure them. Be mindful of your surroundings and you will be fine.
For the most part the people of Medellin are proud and happy, when ever they see tourists looking at their parks and at their home town. They feel welcomed and interesting. That’s why they want to say hi, and want to return some of the displayed respect, and sometimes they are just curious about these “tall” visitors. Apparently, they sometimes just stand next to tall guys to compare their own size.
If you are here: Definitely do the Free Walking Tour by Real City Tours. It’s free, but worth a lot. Our guide (Hernán) was great. He offered a lot of well told stories to help understand the city and the Colombian culture. And then, speak with locals and partake in their pride.
Medellin actively changed the quality of life in such a short amount of time. Medellin showed respect for its citizens. And it deserves a lot of respect and should be considered a role model all around the world.