“We have weapons too, but they’re spray cans and microphones.” That’s what a Colombian rapper told me as we walked through what used to be Latin America’s most violent neighbourhood.
Medellín is this weird mix of things, a mash-up of contradictions. For decades it was one of the most dangerous places in the world, Pablo Escobar’s old stomping ground, and now the backdrop of Netflix’ Narcos. But Colombia’s hot and rainy second city has undergone a serious transformation. Nestled in a lush green valley, enjoying tropical weather pretty much year-round, Medellín has top eateries and an awesome art scene. Its transport has even won awards for innovation.
To really get under the skin of the city, you have to go to Commune 13. In the past this district was torn apart by violence, but the locals (known as paisas), have transformed their home through a unique mix of street art, hip-hop… and escalators.
Walk through Commune 13 these days and you’ll mostly see children in neat school uniforms, skipping and playing. Mothers watch from their stoops and crack jokes. Commuters make their way home, and street vendors cheerfully peddle their wares.
Every wall and brick house here is plastered in gorgeous, colourful murals, from animals that depict strength, to children’s faces representing hope. There’s even a graffiti school, launched by local rappers, that uses spray cans and paint brushes to give kids an alternative to a future of violence. So when kids here tag walls, they’re not rebelling: they’re actually staying out of trouble.
According to some reports though, violence flared up in the district this month – so the shadows of the past aren’t entirely gone.
On the other hand, there’s also a big backpacker and ex-pat scene in Medellín, with loads of coffee shops and co-working spaces catering to digital nomads. When I lived in the city for a spell last year, I usually hung out at Pergamino, which serves up the best Colombian coffee beans (a lot of the good stuff tends to be exported).
There’s a string of bars and clubs around Parque Lleras. Bar Chiquita is unmissable. The décor is … strip club meets glitter unicorn? It has to be seen to be believed. The cocktails are sub-par but that’s really not the point — and any bar that gives you free drinks on International Women’s Day is alright in my book.
You can check out Colombia’s top artists at MAMM, an edgy contemporary gallery housed in a repurposed steel factory. Stroll through Plaza Botero to see the artist’s cheeky sculptures of chubby men and women. There are also top chefs in Medellín – sample cutting-edge cuisine from local chef Juan Manuel Barrientos at El Cielo.
And for a quick escape from the city, hop on the city’s award-winning (yep) cable car. Just 20 minutes and you’re in Parque Arví, a sprawl of forests, lakes and hiking paths.
There are loads of incredible places to visit across Colombia but in my view, Medellín is the place where you really get a sense of the vibrant, boisterous and determined nature of this country. This generation is proud, eager to shake off the stereotypes of the past, and you can feel it in this open, welcoming city.