Medellin, Colombia, from drug violence to tourist destination

Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city, features a bustling nightlife, museums, an aquarium, cable cars and more.
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 10:57 AM

At 7 p.m. on a Friday, the patio of Basilica, a Peruvian-Asian restaurant on one of the most prized street corners in Medellin, Colombia, is bustling. Young men in polo shirts and blue jeans are passing around a bottle of rum at the bar, and women in miniskirts and stilettos are being seated at tables marked "Reserved." Sushi chefs are busily making California rolls against a fake waterfall backdrop, their movements almost in sync with the Lady Gaga and Madonna tunes reverberating all around.

As the night wears on, the party spills out onto the sidewalk and into the street, which is closed off by police barricades. Young boys accost the revelers, hawking everything from chewing gum to bracelets. ("Una fresa para la princesa?" asks one, offering me strawberry-flavored Trident. "A strawberry for the princess?") A bar outside the restaurant Barcelona is selling "political shots," including the Hugo Chavez, an arguably toxic mix of vodka, creme de cafe, tequila and soda.

At the Parque Lleras, the park in the square, partyers drink Club Colombia beer as vendors entice them with empanadas and other street food. But there's no need for BYOB, because the many open-air bars surrounding the park are literally giving the drinks away. When my friend Daphne and I order two caipirinhas at Barcelona, the waiter insists that we take advantage of the three-for-one drink special.

Daphne and I observe the mayhem from the patio, comforted by the presence of police officers on several blocks.

Not long ago the mayhem on Medellin's streets was controlled by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. In the 1980s and '90s, Medellin was the largest cocaine producer in the world, and Escobar guarded his empire so ferociously that the city became one of the most dangerous in Latin America.

Escobar is long gone, brought down by police in a 1993 gun battle as dramatic as his life. In the past decade, new parks, museums, libraries and hotels have opened in Colombia's second-largest city. Cable cars have been extended up to a mountain with a new nature preserve. Famed sculptor and painter Fernando Botero, a Medellin native, donated more than 1,000 of his works, plus pieces from his personal collection of contemporary art, to the Museo de Antioquia. Last year, Spirit Airlines launched nonstop flights from Fort Lauderdale to Medellin.

That's not to say that the city doesn't struggle to maintain the progress it has made in recent years. Violence has not been wiped out, as gangs compete for territory in parts of the city, making some neighborhoods off-limits. The U.S. State Department issued an updated travel warning last week, saying that violent crime is up in some major Colombian cities, including Medellin.

But Colombia is no longer the pariah of Latin America. Kidnappings have decreased. And the epicenter of the drug war seems to have moved north.

Though I've visited Colombia before - my father is Colombian and I have lots of relatives there - I'd never been to Medellin. But when Daphne and I decided to spend 21/2 weeks traveling through Colombia, we couldn't resist checking out the country's most notorious city. On our way from Cartagena to Bogota, we decided to make a stop in the City of Eternal Spring.

Upstairs, downstairs

I'm afraid to look down. We're on our way to Parque Arvi, a new ecological playground on a mountaintop, riding in a cable car that soars high above the slums that Escobar had built along the side of one of the mountains that ring Medellin.

The cable cars were originally built to connect Medellin's poorest neighborhoods to the rest of the city, but they've drawn tourists with their spectacular views. In February, the city extended the original cable car line from Santo Domingo Savio, which has struggled with drug violence, to Parque Arvi. Santo Domingo is the site of one of the many libraries that former mayor Sergio Fajardo had built to revitalize neighborhoods throughout the city. Designed by architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, the black three-building complex stands out on the mountain slope.

Toward the end of the 15-minute ride, we go from traveling on an incline above houses to gliding in a straight line above a forest. We feel like characters in "Return of the Jedi." Where are the Ewoks hiding?

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