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A City Reinvented

Botero Square in downtown Medellin

It’s time for part 2 of my Semana Santa adventuring with my parents. What’s next on the list? Murder Capital of the World turned Safest City in South America. It’s time to tell you a little bit about Medellin.

Our hotel in colorful Jardin

Yummy food from our vegan restaurant haunt

But before we get to the history of Medellin, I want to share some stories and photos of a few places we visited outside the city. After the Amazon, we landed in Medellin and took a wild mountain taxi ride to a small colonial pueblo called Jardin. Once again, it’s a good thing my parents love me because my dad claims that taxi ride took a year off his life :). The town itself is beautiful, super colorful and true to its name, many of the brightly painted buildings are also dripping with flowers. While there, I spent an afternoon dealing with the hassle of registering for fall classes while half enjoying a cup of local coffee. Jardin is in the Coffee Region of Colombia, so clearly I had to try a cup. As you probably know, I’m a huge coffee fan (not) but it was for the experience.

Anyway, here I am sipping my coffee and battling scheduling conflicts (as is my life). About half way into my cup, I kind of set it off to the side to focus my attention on the quickly lengthening email chain with my advisor.

Cock of the Rock. Photo Credit:

As I’m sitting there, the waitress must have decided I was done with my coffee and whisked it away before I could react. Sad, but hey, at least this way I didn’t run the risk of getting caffeine drunk. (I had two cups of black tea the other day and was the giggliest, loopiest little ‘drunk chipmunk’ for hours. I think whoever wired my brain got a few wires crossed somewhere). While in Jardin, we found a fantastic little vegan restaurant and ended up eating every meal there for the entirety of our stay. Yet another place I want to take back to Boulder with me. Another thing Jardin has to offer is a bird reserve which is home to a bunch of Cock of the Rock birds. These aggressively red little fellows have little fear of humans when putting on a show for the ladies and we got to enjoy their crazy colors and sounds during an afternoon rainstorm.

Rafting the Rio Verde

Hiking down to the river

Next we met up with my friends from Canada and went rafting on the breathtakingly beautiful Rio Verde. Despite only being a few hours from a city of 4 million, we were the only ones on the river. I’m guessing it was a combination of its relatively difficult access and not being a big thing to do in Colombian culture, but I’m still shocked it was so quiet. To get to the river we drove 2 hours then piled 12 people into a Land Rover along with all the rafting gear. This resulted with people in laps and 2 people riding with the rafts on the roof. We took a brief stop in the village of San Francisco which was the location of intense conflict just 20 years ago but is now a lively, beautiful town. That being said, the police station still leans at an odd angle from a bombing, which along with the memorial to those lost in the war, gives the town a bit of heavy air.

Ever seen a kayak on a mule?

The road petered out a little ways past the town and we continued on foot followed by a train of mules carrying the rafts and kayaks. After an hour of slipping downhill through the muddy, lush jungle, we finally reached the river. The river itself boasted some very fun class 3-4 rapids and incredible scenery. Unlike the rivers I’ve been on in Colorado, this canyon sported none of the steep rock walls or sandy desert plants. Instead, it was dripping in a million shades of green and home to toucans and surely many other judge dwellers. There were a few sections of the river altered by human hands, as we passed patches of nearly vertical fields and several illegal gold mining rigs but most of it was deliciously wild. All in all, it was an incredibly beautiful trip and I wish our guides luck in their mission to protect it.

It rains a lot in the 'City of Eternal Spring.' In combo with lots of motos, this creates 'plastic bag humans'

Ok, now we can get back to the history of Medellin I promised you. When I started making plans to study in Colombia, I had many interactions that went something along the lines of “So I’m looking at studying abroad in Colombia.” “Isn’t that dangerous?” Amongst the general worry about my safety, I also got asked if I was going to ‘that drug city.’ Well yes, I did visit ‘that drug city’ and I even took my parents there. Unlike much of the US population still believes due to the media, Medellin is actually one of the safest cities in South America now and safer than several US cities. But also, wow does it have a bloody history. The change this city has seen in the last 20 years is just incredible and honestly gives me a lot of hope that not only can things change, they can change incredibly quickly. We went on a 4+ hour walking tour with a local guide and learned a ton, which I would love to share with you.

Let’s start off with a brief and very simplified overview of the conflict that raged in Colombia for more than half a century. Starting in the 1930s and 1940s, a large disagreement over distribution of land between the liberal and conservative parties began to brew, officially kicking off the period of ‘La Violencia’ with the assassination of the mayor of Bogata in 1948. This sparked riots and widespread violence that left an estimated 200,000 people dead. Then in 1957 an agreement was reached between the parties entailing a power sharing agreement that swapped power between the two parties every 4 years. This greatly reduced the violence but blocked any other parties from gaining control and many rural Colombians continued feeling excluded. During this time most of the land was owned by a few rich elites and worked by a majority of very poor farming communities. Guerilla groups began to surface from the widespread poverty and inequality leading to the founding of FARC and ELN in 1964 and M-19 in 1970. FARC was the military wing of the Colombian communist party and originally got its funding from the Soviet Union. However, at the end of the cold war this funding dried up and they turned to shadier sources of income such as kidnappings for ransom, drug trafficking and protecting drug production. The elite and wealthy families of Colombia started fearing attacks by these groups and to counter this, many paramilitary groups were formed. Many of these groups had ties with the Colombian army and were essentially private armies hired to protect the wealthy and their land. Eventually these groups also got involved in the drug business. All of these warring groups caused widespread violence including frequent massacres, sexual violence, bombings, assassinations and displacement as people tried to escape the violence. This chaos set the stage for one of the most well-known drug cartels of all time: The Medellin Cartel.

Our tour group in front of a Botero statue

At the height of its power, the Medellin Cartel controlled the vast majority of the US cocaine market and the market worldwide, bringing in an estimated $100 million in profits a day. It was highly organized and efficient and managed to stay ahead of the government for a nearly 20 year reign. The face of the cartel, Pablo Escobar has been heavily publicized in narcos movies and news reports but was far from the only kingpin involved in the operation. The group started by smuggling powdered cocaine into the US in suitcases and then moving to flying it into the everglades. As governments started to catch onto their routes they began mixing it into products like cocoa powder and fruit juice that it could later be extracted from in the US. Naturally, to keep such a large operation in business the cartel was highly involved in politics, paying off or murdering officials and even assassinating a presidential candidate as he was about to walk on stage. While the exact tally of the murders they were responsible for is unknown it’s estimated to be about 4,000. The US, Canada and several other governments were deeply involved in trying to take down the cartel eventually leading to Escobar’s surrender. However, true to form he orchestrated his surrender so that he would be held in his own prison, which he naturally escaped from. After his escape, he began getting paranoid and turning on his allies, murdering two of them. This was his downfall, as former allies started calling in information on his whereabouts to the Colombian government. He was gunned down at 44 in 1993 after police were able to track his whereabouts from a phone call he made to his son. This was not the end of the cartel but it was the end of an era. Many of their smuggling routes are still in use today by smaller cartels but much of the drug trafficking and organization has moved to Mexico.

Scenery break! The mountains surrounding the city are just gorgeous.

Zooming back out to the greater Colombian conflict: in 2002 a new president Alvaro Uribe was elected on the platform of ending the violence. He received a substantial amount of financial and military support from the US government and in 2005 one of the largest paramilitary groups was demolished. Uribe began trying to weaken FARC militarily but at an incredible human cost and our guide told us that there was a high rate of ‘false positives’ that is just being uncovered. That is, innocent people who were killed and made to look like rebels to gain rewards. Then in 2010 Juan Manuel Santos was elected and began a different strategy of peace negotiations with FARC which came to fruition in 2016. This deal largely consisted of agricultural and land ownership reforms and support for rural communities in return for the disbandment of the guerilla group, a ceasefire and the hand over of weapons. While the conflict is far from over and there are still regions of Colombia foreigners are not allowed to visit because of sustained levels of violence, the efforts have largely been successful in drastically lowering the levels of violence, especially in the cities.

The super spiffy metro

Returning to Medellin and its miraculous transformation, a new governor was elected who focused largely on a unique transportation system to enable the poor neighborhoods on the surrounding hillsides to be able to access the city resources on the valley floor. This included a metro system (the first in the country), metro-cable system (think ski gondolas) and a system of outdoor escalators which greatly reduced travel time to and from the poor neighborhoods allowing access to jobs and economic stability. This along with many other efforts has resulted in an 80% lower crime rate than in 1991 and a massive decrease in poverty. Medellin has now won several awards including “The Most Innovative City of the World” by the Urban Land Institute, Citigroup and the Wall Street Journal in 2013. Now Medellin is home to a large foreign community and is generally regarded as an incredible symbol of progress. The metro is worth a little extra note as well. It was built during the depths of the conflict (I still have no idea how they managed this) and it has an incredibly special status in the city. Because of this Nobody messes with the metro and it's one of the cleanest and best taken care of metro systems I’ve seen. Also Medellin is known for it throughout Colombia. That is often the first thing I hear when I ask about Medellin: “They have metro.”

One of Botero sculptures showing his signature style of everything being out of proportion

As for our actual experience in Medellin beyond the history, it had a very well-organized and honestly very western feel to it but also has the wonderful thing I miss in most US cities of city design geared towards foot traffic. The central market must be accessed almost entirely by foot and is an incredibly lively place boasting local fruit, cheap merchandise, restaurants and more. Also if you need some underwear or socks, you can easily find what you are looking for on a street cart (I’m mildly confused who buys their underwear from a street vendor but who am I to judge). One of the most popular plazas is Botero Square which is home to a large collection of Botero Sculptures donated by the artist who is from the city. He also clearly still holds a lot of power as our guide mentioned multiple times that the mayor gets calls from him whenever the city makes decisions he feels is against the goal of his statues. The mayor is apparently currently dealing with the disappointed artist as the city has put up a temporary barrier around the square to keep out ‘undesirables’ and Botero called the mayor to inform him that that was not the reason he had donated the statues to the city, they are for everyone.

Last minute Tango lesson!

Last on my list to do in Medellin was take a Tango lesson. Maybe a little out of the blue, but I discovered that Medellin has a massive Tango scene of rather peculiar origins. Colombia has Salsa, Bachata and more African rhythms at its heart but Medellin has a special affinity for Tango. It started in the 1930s when a Tango star died in a plane crash in the Medellin airport, sparking a fascination with the dance which has built the city into a well known Tango hub. They even host an international Tango festival in June. Given my recent fascination with Tango, I naturally wanted to try to take a lesson while I was there. Unfortunately, due to it being holiday week, all the dance schools were closed. I did, however, get ahold of the number of one of the instructors and was able to set up a private lesson (way more affordable down here). I very much enjoyed it, but the best thing that came out of it was the number of an instructor in Barranquilla… Let the dance obsession continue (on a scale of 1-10 how confused are you that I’ve gotten into dance? I’m a solid 9 on the scale but hey, I’m loving it.)

That’s all for this round. Thanks for sticking through this pretty long post and thanks for sticking with the blog this far along. I feel so honored that so many of you find the time in your week to keep up with my adventures.

See y'all in a month!




Armed Conflict in Colombia - Timeline — Never Such Innocence. (n.d.). Never Such Innocence.

Serena, K. (2021). How The Medellín Cartel Became The Most Ruthless In History. All That’s Interesting.

Team, B. O. (2022). Medellin: From Murder Capital of the World to the Most Innovative City in The World. Blue Ocean Strategy.

Jessica. (2022, November 17). The International Tango Festival in Medellín: A Guide. Casacol.


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