Medellin Day 3

Are you sick of this series yet? I promise this is the last entry gushing about Colombia. There will be still one more entry but it’ll be about what I don’t like about Colombia. Gotta be fair…

This entry is about last Friday that I spent being a tourist. If you remember from this entry, Fernando Jaramillo (the sales representative from Medellin) and his sister Fanny took me for a day long tour. Incredibly -talk about hospitality- they hired a tour guide. I felt like a queen. Her name is Adriana.

Medellin lies at 5,000 feet in altitude and is called the City of Eternal Spring for its temperate climate. It’s nearly the same year round. Adriana says everyone carries an umbrella because it rains frequently, usually in spates, not an all day dreary thing in my experience. There are 2+ million inhabitants in the city proper but the population of the valley is just over 3 million. It is a clean, safe and prosperous city, the capital of the needle trades in Colombia. It is an educated populace with over 30 institutions of higher learning and an impressive number of libraries complete with internet access. In one library I toured, there were over 48 computers on each of three floors! Even the kids (12 and under) had that many to themselves.

The first place we went was Cerro Nutibarra to see Pueblito Paisa. This is a miniature replica of an old Antioquian village as it would have been constructed by the Spaniards. I could have been home in New Mexico for all the similarities. By the way, I uploaded all my photos to a web album if you want to see those. I saw a really cool tree, Adriana says it was an araucaria but it didn’t look anything like the wiki entry. These trees are living fossils. She says this one is a male tree (at right), the female trees are more “disorganized”. Maybe that’s what’s pictured in the wiki. Mine is prettier. I think she thought I was weird to come all the way to Colombia to take pictures of trees and other weird things (like garbage cans). Well, you know me.

Next we went to this park called Pies Descalzos (Bare Foot Park). Sara (the bus hostess) told us about it on our drive by every day to the show but I didn’t listen because she said it was an “interactive park” and I thought “big deal, aren’t most?” but I didn’t say that. The park is set up as a series of experiences. First you go into the bamboo forest (below) and rest. There were people napping (no, not street people). There you take your shoes off and walk amid the bamboo leaves and small stones, designed to give your feet a massage as you walk.

From there you proceed to grass and then sand and then wood and finally, water. Two places of water. One for the feet and the other is a fountain to gently spray your whole body. The park is set up as a meditative relaxation experience to unwind within in a dense urban setting. Many people go at lunch. Below is a photo of public waste receptacles. These were common. One bin for recyclables, one for non-recyclables and the last for organic matter.

In the sand area, we saw these neat trees, they were part of the experience. Adriana said this (below) was a calistemo blanco but I couldn’t find a citation on the web for that. It’s a cork tree. The trunks are very soft, you can push into them. While walking over the sand, you’re supposed to crush the leaves of the tree and smell them. Supposedly, every leaf smells different so you only do one at a time. Mine smelled like lemon.

After that, we went to have lunch at a very nice place (below). Fernando is an incessant tease. He got a lot of mileage out of me being a vegetarian. Left to right is Fernando, me, Adriana and Fanny.

After that, we went to the Fernando Botero museum. It is rare to see such a display of intellectual artistic generosity, everything donated by the artist. If you’re not familiar with his work, you can be initially put off by his paintings and sculptures. He paints and sculpts people as …well… almost caricatures of obesity but that’s too simplistic. By the time you get through it, it grows on you. It’s not “fat people” as critics decry, it’s just his style. I don’t find any good samples on the web of his work, much of it has funny elements (el chismoso, the gossip) some sad (his child died at four in a car accident and it colors much of his work) and also, political and social commentary of his country. He was criticized for painting Escobar and the conflict of the cartels but says not to, is to deny an indelible element of Colombian history. His sculptures are marvelous, very large and are mostly outside the museum in the plaza.

From here, we took the metro (public transportation is extensive) to see the city on what’s called the micro-cable (wiki calls it the metrocable). It’s an aerial tramway, many cities across the globe have these. Below is a photo of the microcable station. Like buses, there are several stops up the mountain side.

Medellin’s tramway is unusual because it’s the first in the world to be used as mass transit which is the really cool thing about it -and it has lots of social and political overtones. In Latin America, it is more typical that poor people live on mountain sides, the opposite of the U.S. You may have heard these described as favelas (in Brasil), shanty towns that are crime ridden slums on steep mountain sides where police fear to tread. What streets there are, are poorly paved if at all and they’re too narrow and steep to travel by bus.

When Alvaro Uribe (the current president of Colombia born on July 4th, studied at Harvard) came into office, he made a huge priority of bettering the lives of the poor, a strategic move to undermine support for FARC which had largely become terrorist even against the poor. Working on these initiatives was risky though, in that it could alienate the business community. You should never discuss politics abroad -ever or anywhere- but you can listen if people want to talk to you about it. The business people I met were thrilled with their president because he also worked to develop and support industry. This aerial tramway, a shining jewel of mass transit, went to the poorest and worst neighborhoods (that’d never happen in the U.S.). It’s becoming a tourist attraction. The French government came to tour it before decided to implement theirs (the second in the world). Everyone was very proud of the trams and made a point of saying the people could get home now in fifteen minutes at most. Before it’d take well over an hour traversing the tiny corkscrew streets -assuming one had a car. It is kind of scary because you go so high up. Heights really bothered Fanny so Fernando spent the trip up and down supposing what would happen if the power failed and we got stuck between stops, or if we fell or the cars crashed… Below is a photo from inside the tram car. It’s a bit cloudy we’re so high up, the air at this elevation is pure.

The microcable totally changed the city and the neighborhoods in every respect. Before, the homes were poorly maintained with offal in the streets and there was no police protection. Now, people take pride in their homes and paint them in bright colors. Businesses sprang up. Here’s a photo of a neighborhood bar. Yes, a bar! Those are real flowers by the way, not fake. One of Colombia’s primary exports are flowers.

He implemented a neighborhood watch program in the poor mountainside neighborhoods. Here’s a photo of some of the volunteers. The back of the vests read “Defenders of Public Space”.

This is the last I’ll say of this -promise- but Uribe did another really awesome thing with the micro station. He installed libraries in them! What a great way to make learning more accessible to the least advantaged people. They are small of course but you can order books from other libraries and have them waiting for you. He also built an enormous world class library up there with money donated from the King and Queen of Spain. Here’s a picture of a library in the tram station.

Uribe also started a housing program, I didn’t take a picture of it but they came up with this really novel way to make the programs effects visible from streets and the metro. When a family is relocated from their substandard house into a new one, they install a high pole with a metal triangular shaped “flag” by each one so that anyone going by can see the number of families who’s lives have improved. Otherwise, you’d only see a substandard house and not know the people had gone on to something better. When you use the cash machine in Medellin, before you finish your transaction, you are presented with the option of donating 5,000 pesos (about $3) to the home building program. I thought that was a great idea.

The sum of all this being, support for the FARC has effectively been eroded. Recently, there were huge demonstrations across Colombia, protesting the FARC. Ten years ago, this would have been unheard of. Anyway, with no support in cities and towns, this is why the cities of Colombia have become so safe in such a short period of time.

Everywhere I went -even to the corner store- people asked me two things. Was everyone else being nice to me and helping me? And, did I need anything? Even this man, cleaning the planter at the airport asked me the same thing. We never clean these things here.

The people of Colombia told me some things they want you to know. You can come here, be safe, conduct profitable enterprise and enjoy your stay. I don’t know how to describe them… have you ever met someone pulled from the jaws of death or the potential of extreme tragedy? They tend to be joyous and hopeful, given their lives back, another chance to live and make their lives better. They don’t take it for granted. The overwhelming sense I have is that they are working inordinately hard to rebuild their reputations. They’re just so grateful. The entire country, psychically and physically, has been given a thorough scrubbing. Here’s a photo of the airport. Not a scrap of trash to be found anywhere. I even checked the gutters.

Oh, I forgot. Remember Sara, the law-student-bus-hostess? The evening of the last day of the show, she had a gift for me!

Wasn’t that sweet? I was so touched I almost started crying. She made a little card. It says:

July 31, 2008
I want to give you these key chains that I made for you myself as a small remembrance of your trip to the city of Medellin. One is a crocodile and the other is a butterfly.

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  1. Jasonda says:

    Wow, thanks for the great post. I loved the pictures. I wish Vancouver had that kind of attitude about social housing!

  2. Me, too. Makes me want to hope a plane and go! Since I speak Spanish, if I ever produce overseas, I’d like to do it in a Spanish-speaking country. This has been very enlightening–not the way I thought of Colombia.

    Thank you.


  3. Valerie Burner says:

    If we were tired of your writings, Kathleen, we wouldn’t come here every chance we had!!! I love the series, and certainly have a different picture of Columbia now. I wish I could go with you in February. Going to Central and South America for production sounds like a good idea.

  4. Leslie says:

    I have so enjoyed these posts. I recently made a friend of a young woman from Columbia who married an american. She is absolutely lovely. She is kind and helpful and just like you said, grateful. Beautiful inside and out. Her parents visited recently and they are the same. Her mom had this great pair of black leather shoes…….

    Thanks Kathleen. This was great!

  5. sarah says:

    What a great account! I have traveled much across Latin America and Columbia impressed me as well. There is something about friends,family and life that these people do right!!

    Thanks for exposing this gem to more people!!! Cartegena is also to be checked out~~

    I found many Euro and Israeli travelers , also many young Aussies,Canadians and Yankees!

  6. Karen C says:

    I’m so touched by this post I’m tearing up. One, to be proud of your president-I miss that feeling. Two, to have such pride in your country. Three, books everywhere. Four, being grateful. If you don’t mind I would like to send this post to my senators and congresswoman and mayor to inspire them on how to make our communities and our country better. Thanks, K.

  7. sylvia says:

    I know you published this comments some time ago, but as I was researching your site for info in Colombia I was so happy to see how you and other people appreciate what we are as colombias, we are just people trying to change the image of the drug cartels that took place so many years ago.
    Any way, this is coming from me, a Colombian in the US. THANKS

  8. natalie says:

    I have spent 4 months in Medellin recently. I am as excited as you about this fabulous city. It is a secret that needs to be shared, I admire you for telling it like it is. I can’t wait to return!

    The paisa people have respect for themselves, their city and their visitors. The rest of the world can learn from them.

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