Forgetting the past in Medellin, Colombia
When you think of Colombia do you think about the time they tied with Germany in the 1990 World Cup? Do you think about the immaculate metro? Maybe you think about the beautiful architecture and city design? If you do think about these things, you might be a Paisa, a person born and raised in Medellin. If your first thought was cocaine, corruption, and violence, then you might be someone born anywhere else around the world.
According to the guide who led our free Real City Walking Tour, “us Paisas are proud, almost to a fault. We are some of the most friendly and optimistic people you will meet, partly because we choose to forget the past.” The names of notorious cocaine smugglers, political figures, and war leaders were omitted during the tour for fear that Paisas nearby by might hear the names and get upset that she was talking about someone so unpleasant, tainting the impressions of these impressionable tourists. She has been criticized by locals for taking tourists to the “real” parts of downtown Medellin. “Why are you showing them that part of town! Just show them the tall buildings and the nice parts,” they plead. And while she did show us the nice parts, she did not omit discussing and showing us the city’s real side too.
She took us to the park that locals will tell you not to go to day or night. We ate lunch next to a church where “shady business” happened near the posts and phone booths. “Weird things always happen next to churches” she said many times. With a solemn tone, she spoke extensively of the myths and truths behind the famous drug criminal Pablo Escobar whom she called by his alias, “the doctor”. It took about 5 years to take down this self proclaimed Robin Hood who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people including anyone who spoke or acted against him, even high ranked politicians and judges. He made the violence and political conflict at the time worse by giving the paramilitaries loads of money to protect him and his cocaine stash. The “richest criminal in history” is a huge sore spot in Colombia’s history. Us tourists are fascinated by the story, but he is no glorified figure to the people who are still mourning the loss of their loved ones. She also talked about political corruption and how Medellin had only been so poor in the past because politicians used all of the money for their own means instead of putting it into the city. When they finally had a mayor who wasn’t corrupt, the city was suddenly rich and it completely changed.
“You can understand why people would want to forget” she explained. “Because if we focused on our past, we would be a very depressing people. When you meet a Colombian, are they sad and mean? No, they are vibrant, happy, and hopeful!” I couldn’t agree with her more.
“The fact that you are all here today is a testament to how much this city has changed. 20 years ago it was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Now we host summits and teach other world leaders on how to better their communities through strategies like democratic architecture”. Innovations like installing beautiful tall lights in the dark parts of town, escalators up the steep mountain sides in poor neighborhoods, and music schools in gang-driven territories, have all contributed to the positive change that this city has seen in such a short amount of time. But one of the biggest changes and the jewel of this city is the metro. “You’ll never see graffiti or trash on the metro. That’s because it was made for the people. Everyone respects it”.
“We mustn’t forget our past or else we’ll be doomed to repeat it over and over again. But we also mustn’t dwell on it. Because that would be really depressing and we wouldn’t be able to move forward.” If you look hard enough, you can find some painful reminders of the past- a Botero sculpture of a bird that was destroyed by a bomb is still displayed in a park so no one forgets those who died from the explosion. But my first impression of Medellin is of innovation, energy, and hope. I see the numerous beautiful and playful Botero sculptures, the prominent and proud metro system, clean and walkable neighborhoods, and smiling faces. Walking around Medellin, you too just might forget the awful history that this city and country has seen, and in that way you might be becoming more and more like a Paisa yourself.
A review of the Real City Walking Tour: We recently discovered “free walking tours” (thank you Becca!) and it sounds like they are available in many big cities. This is a great way to get acquainted to a new city, learn about it’s history, meet other travelers as well as a local, and get in some good exercise! The tour was 4.5 hours and even though that sounds like a lot of walking, most of the time we were sitting on the steps in a scenic location while she talked about our surroundings and the history of the city. Guides for this particular tour are paid solely in tips. The standard tip was 20,000-35000COP ($8-15 USD) but she explained she was happy to accept any amount, making the tour affordable and accessible to everyone. In my opinion, the quality was so high that we gladly paid the expected amount. I was so impressed at our guide’s knowledge level, her ability to keep everything interesting and entertaining, and her ease at answering tough and obscure questions. The only thing I remember her not knowing was the amount of employees in one of the government administrative buildings…yes, someone actually asked that question. This tour exceeded my expectations and set the bar very high! I even want to do a walking tour when I get back to San Diego! Has anyone else attended a free walking tour? How was it?
Some more photos around Colombia….