From drugs to dreams: the unlikely turnaround of Medellin

From infamous drugs cartels, record homicide levels and widespread poverty, to economic strength, innovation and enterprise, Colombia’s city of Medellin has undergone a serious transition that’s changing the attitudes of citizens and tourists alike

Pablo Àlvarez Correa shows tourists around downtown Medellin. He kicks off the tour by recalling the time he was detained by security staff after they confused him with the infamous drug-lord Pablo Escobar, who dominated the city’s reputation so profoundly that despite his death almost 20 years ago, tourists still avoid ‘drug-cartel Medellin’ today. Àlvarez Correa’s company, Real City Tours, aims to bring tourists closer to the ‘real’ Medellin: the city’s violent history and continuing poverty, but also the vibrant, metropolitan city Medellin is becoming.

The tour starts at the Alpujarra metro station. “Fifteen years ago this would have been impossible,” he says. “Security was not good in any direction. Now on the tour we visit hectic places; even in downtown you feel safe.”

Bosques de Luz (forest of light) in Cisneros Square is part of the government’s democratic architecture initiative to transform the city’s most destitute areas into visually stunning tourist attractions. Àlvarez Correa ensures his tours pause at Bosques de Luz, a square filled with 300 light masts that stand at over 22m tall. According to local media, the square descended into a “criminal underworld” after the El Pedrero market partially burned down in 1968. Now the Forest of Light is a symbolic landmark feature.

Between 2005 and 2008, five libraries, known locally as library parks, were built in Medellin’s notoriously dangerous neighbourhoods. The Santa Domingo neighbourhood, which was so unstable a 5pm curfew was enforced up until 2003, now boasts Spain Library Park. Designed by award-winning architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, this landmark resembles three black stones that light up at night.

“Fifteen years ago this tour would have been impossible. Now even in downtown you feel safe”

Medellin’s social development is intertwined with its economic success. In 1991, the city’s government built Colombia’s first – and only – metro system, designed to provide cheap and rapid transport to Medellin’s poorer hillside neighbourhoods. A metro-cable and 385ft escalator were also built to address the needs of Medellin’s underdeveloped communities that have been pushed further into the city’s mountainous inclines. Not only does the metro system strengthen Medellin’s infrastructure, but also provides impressive views of the city’s Andes mountain landscape. The metro-cable is fast becoming a tourist attraction in its own right.

Àlvarez Correa notes that when he first began guiding tourists around Medellin his customers were predominantly from hostels, but now he tours with “not only backpackers, but professional couples on holiday, retired couples … people from five-star hotels.” Medellin’s government has made efforts to nurture the city’s tourism industry, allowing tax exemption for up to 30 years on new-build hotels and deferring VAT upon capital goods used for tourism exports. The city has recently been selected to host the 2015 Tourism World Organization Assembly.

Àlvarez Correa received no “big [financial] injection” for his successful business, and says that he applied the concepts he learned studying for his master’s degree in business. For Àlvarez Correa, the city’s culture is “in terms of tourism, open to innovation,” and “allows this kind of experiment.” In a surprising transition from the city’s situation in 1991, Medellin is now emerging as an economic and social leader of Latin America. The World Bank ranked Colombia as third in Latin America in its 2013 Doing Business report. But this has not been a smooth journey. For example, a programme aimed at benefiting demobilised armed militants managed to graduate only 129 out of 5,500 participants from their 18-month course, and despite a decrease from 6,349 reported homicides in 1991 to 771 homicides in 2007, violence re-spiked between 2009 and 2011.

However, Medellin won the Wall Street Journal’s search for the most innovative city of the year in 2012. This award not only recognised the city’s metro system, library parks and tourism investment, but also initiatives such as the Cluster City programme, the government-sponsored enterprise aiming to increase the city’s economic competitiveness through supporting small- and medium-sized businesses. In addition to the average 3-13% productivity increase for supported companies, the programme also reported 1,034 businesses were ‘supported with a gender perspective’.

Pablo Àlvarez Correa says he started Real City Tours because “people say if my generation don’t do something for Colombia, no one will.” Medellin is becoming an attractive city with its open green botanical gardens, library parks and enterprising business climate. But for Àlvarez Correa, the city’s progress lies in the changing attitudes he sees towards Medellin. His tour customers comment that after learning about the city’s history “we didn’t really like Medellin, now we love this city.”