Medellin is a pleasant city, largely because it enjoys an excellent climate (temperatures between 21 and 28 C year round). Not in vain, it is nicknamed “City of the Eternal Spring”. Moreover, it has a vibrant cultural life and efficient public services. Until recently, it has carried the stigma of being a hot spot for drug cartels, legacy of the infamous Pablo Escobar during the 80’s. That may be the reason why the paisas (people from Antioquia) are now so proud of the improvements of their city and are nurturing a deep sense of belonging.
Medellin has several interesting sights, but lacks a “must-see” that would attract large crowds of visitors. Although I had visited the city a year before, on the first day I went to the Museum of Antioquia and saw other sculptures by famous Medellin sculptor Fernando Botero. I also visited the cathedral and wandered around the frenetic city centre.
I didn’t have a clear idea of what to do in the following days, so I asked a few paisas what was worth seeing in their city. Their short lists always included a curious answer: take the Metro (subway/Underground).
I’m quite a metro buff. I’ve used it daily in Madrid for 17 years. Whenever I go to a city that has one I try to use it, so I already know a few. It is a telltale sign of how the city is: whether it is old or brand new, immaculate or dirty, the ads, the signs and so on. The users are a mixed crowd, a good sample of life in the city, from retirees to professionals and schoolboys. That makes it the perfect spot for people-watching.
However, the metro is usually regarded as something practical, that’s why I was surprised by it being recommended as a tourist attraction. Medellin’s metro runs on the surface, instead of underground, across the valley that hosts this sprawling city.
Why do paisas feel so proud about their metro? They would answer: “it’s clean”; “there are no hawkers” (unlike in the buses); “it has integrated impoverished parts of the city”. Okay, all that’s true, but I believe there’s still one more reason they fail to mention: Bogota doesn’t have one. 🙂
Once inside, you can hear at every station messages that seem designed to educate the passengers. Example: “Sentarnos correctamente es sinónimo de nuestra buena educación. Además, evitamos incomodar a las personas que viajan de pie” (“Sitting correctly is synonymous with our good manners. Furthermore, we avoid inconveniencing those people who are standing”). I thought this one to be really pedant. This spirit of civic-mindedness and respect is also evoked by signs in the Metro: “Aquí vivimos la cultura Metro” (“Here, we live the Metro culture”).
A more interesting trip is to go uphill in the Metrocable, a cable car system that extends Medellin’s Metro to reach the suburbs in the steep hill. This project has been widely praised for its positive social effects: it has boosted the development of the impoverished neighbourhood of Santo Domingo and drastically reduced the time its residents spend commuting to the city centre. The investment in the area has boomed, and previously high criminality rate has dwindled.
Entering the Metrocable you could of course see the sign: “Aquí también vivimos la cultura Metro” (Here, we also live the Metro culture). The trip is worth it if only to see the excellent views of the city.
I got off in the last station. You can easily notice the ongoing revamp in the surroundings. The street that goes down from the station is nice and almost has a touristy feel, totally different from the other streets nearby. The avenue leads to other of the pillars of this ambitious project: the Biblioteca España. This library was built with help from Spanish foreign aid, and inaugurated by the King and the Queen of Spain in 2007. The architectural complex has been awarded important prizes for its design and is now a major landmark in Santo Domingo.
I stayed in the Bibioteca España for the rest of the morning, accompanied by my Microeconomics textbook. There weren’t many people, just a couple of youngsters studying and some women who had come to an office below the library.
I left with the impression that, after a history of drugs and crime, Medellín and its people feel particularly compelled to demonstrate that the city is safe, modern, open and dynamic, governed by the rule of law, with efficient public services and democratic values. Elsewhere, all that is sometimes just taken for granted.