It’s Colombia, Not Columbia (Part I)

The second most biodiverse country in the world has come a long way since the days of Pablo Escobar.

What an “Encanto,” indeed.

Historically overlooked following the 1960s-1990s violence, Colombia has become a bonafide global destination because of its biodiversity, rich cultural heritage, and increasing development.

Medellin skyline

Also known as “The City of the Eternal Spring,” Medellin it’s Colombia’s second-largest town after its capital Bogotá.

Sitting in the Aburrá Valley, 151 miles north of the Coffee Axis, the city has won numerous accolades as one of the world’s most innovative and sustainable by organizations like the Urban Land Institute, the World Urban Forum and Harvard University.

“Pablo Escobar Dead” by Fernando Botero at Museo de Antionquia

Paisas, who suffered the drug cartel’s car-bombings of the 80s and 90s, are proud of this turnaround.

It is most evident at Museo de Antioquia, in the Old Quarter located in the center of Medellin on the Botero Plaza.

First established in 1881, its current incarnation began when world-renowned figurative painter and sculptor Fernando Botero made the first donations of his works to his hometown museum.

“Caballo” by Fernando Botero at The Botero Square, outside of the Museo de Antioquia

Botero continued donating his works through the late 20th century. In 2004, he gifted 23 of his large-scale bronze sculptures, previously housed in New York, Madrid and Paris museums.

The project is consistent with “Museo 360,” the institution’s mission of “recognizing the reality of the city, instead of hiding it.”

Works like “Pablo Escobar Dead” by Botero and one of my favorites, “Escopetarra” by César Lopez, are evidence of this new philosophy.

This AK 47-turned-guitar nicely sums up Colombians’ ongoing commitment to fostering peace through cultural expressions like music.

It doesn’t escape me that the artwork in question would also be apt for the United States of America.

“Escopetarra” by César Lopez and Luthier Alberto Paredes

Comuna 13 is another testament to Medellín’s positive change.

Considered the epicenter of the Pablo Escobar’s narco-violence, this sizeable urban enclave was a former stronghold for guerrillas and gangs.

It also served as a traffic route, and its youth were used as sicarios by the Cartel de Medellín.

You wouldn’t dare come anywhere near it.

Comuna 13

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Comuna 13 is one of the city’s main touristic attractions. 

Locals serve as free guides (tipping is strongly encouraged) and tell you the neighborhood’s remarkable story of redemption. 

They also entertain you with street art, live music and dance performances and delicious authentic food cooked in their homes.

As they’ll tell you, the miracle had a controversial start when, in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe launched Operation Orion.

The raid resulted in arbitrary detentions and disappearances where innocents were killed and wounded. 

The military offensive was followed by a robust redeveloping program, identified by the outdoor escaleras eléctricas, which connected the priorly isolated neighborhood to the city below and ushered in an era of community and cultural improvements.

Although change has been dramatic, and this and many other parts of the city are safer than they used to be, I still advise common sense and caution when visiting.

Piedra del Peñol, Guatapé, Antioquia

I highly recommend setting aside a day to visit the town of Guatapé, 49 miles north of Medellin. La Piedra del Peñol, the Peñol Guatapé Reservoir and the iconic zócalos are its most popular attractions.

Standing 676 feet, the 65 million-year-old granitic Rock is climbable through 708 steps that form a staircase built on the side.

At the summit, and after a shrine to the Virgin Mary located halfway, there’s a three-story viewpoint tower complete with a seating area and a convenience store. 

Storytime: The bordering towns of Guatapé and El Peñol had long disputed ownership of The Rock. The rivalry led residents of Guatapé to try to paint the town’s name on the rock in giant letters. When the other team noticed, they gathered to stop it. The unfinished graffiti is still visible as the large letters “G” and “U” on the western side.

The view from the summit includes the man-made Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir, a popular water-sports center among kayakers and water skiers.

View from the Piedra del Peñol summit

The most surprising fact about Guatapé is that it replaces what once was the agricultural town purposely flooded in the 1970s to create the reservoir that generates 30% of Colombia’s power.

In that sense, Calle del Recuerdo is a nostalgic replica of the underwater town (the iconic church cross rising out of the water is all that remains visible from the old city). 

The street is famous for the zocalos (painted panels on the houses). These decorations identify the type of building (a store, a shop) or its inhabitants’ beliefs. 

Street coffee vendor by one of the businesses and its zocalos

You may be wondering whether we ate at all on this trip. The answer is yes, in the world’s best restaurant: mom’s kitchen.

My folks were two of millions of Colombians who emigrated to neighboring Venezuela to escape violence and seek the best opportunities to start and raise a family.

Culturally similar (they were the same country back in the 1800s: La Gran Colombia), Venezuela and Colombia have always had a bit of an opposed dynamic.

About seven years ago, when once-promising Venezuela’s fortunes diminished, my family returned to their country of origin for a kind of enforced retirement.

Mom’s arepa. Is it Colombian or Venezuelan?

Time to bid Medellin farewell (for now). Bogota, here we come!

Part II

Author: Alex Marin

Natural-born explorer and storyteller. I grew up in Caracas and moved to New York City 20 years ago to pursue a career in media, which led me to work with broadcasting and tech companies. Last year, one month into my dream job with a famous social network, I had a significant health event that forced me to learn how to walk again. And now I'm training for the New York Marathon. All the words and photos in this blog are mine. You can reach me at Cheers!

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