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Stories From Medellín

Return to Medellín for 3 days

semi-overcast 68 °F

Apparently, my ‘Must Pet Every Dog’ credo extends to giant bronze sculptures of them

If my first visit to Medellin on this trip was, “Gee, look at this gorgeous city!”, the second stop was a dive into its culture and tragic history. Most Americas know this thriving metropolitan area of four million as the infamous home of drug cartels and violence in the 1980s. That was only one of four chapters of Medellin’s history, according to Dio from Real City Tours. Since then, the city has entered into the fourth epoch of its story, which he calls “The Transformation.”

Plaza Botero in downtown Medellín features 23 bronze statues designed by famous Medellín artist Fernando Botero

And transformed the city has been. No longer does Dio go to sleep hiding under his bed to avoid getting hit by stray bullets, as he did in his childhood. Now, Medellin welcomes thousands of visitors a day, many walking through and absorbing the history of neighborhoods that were its worst battlegrounds by day and night. Everything I had read beforehand said to take advantage and hear the first-person stories from local guides who’d lived through these experiences. So, we booked a walking tour with Real City Tours for our second day back in Medellin. For our last day, we booked a Communa 13 graffiti tour. Communa 13 is one of the hillside neighborhoods that poorer residents live crammed together in multistory residences.

The statues are in a seedy area of town replete with more prostitutes I have ever seen

However, for our first day back, we were on our own. I really wanted to visit Plaza Botero, a square where 23 bronze statues by Medellin artist Fernando Botero are located. Botero has a unique style where his subjects are portrayed way out of proportion (some might say in a chubby or obese style). His artwork has been displayed all over the world, so it would be cool to see how the city honored its native son. I’d read the neighborhood could be a bit seedy, so we seized the remaining daylight after unpacking to Uber down to the square. As we approach Plaza Botero, we drove through a neighborhood which “seedy” would be a compliment. Dozens of homeless had box-like shacks, rough-looking crowds stood around on the streets, and it looked like the place where plopping down a relatively wealthy gringo like me in the midst of would be like chumming the water in a school of Great White Sharks!

Not all of Botero’s sculptures are nude, but they all have the unique out of proportion style

Thankfully, Plaza Botero where we were dropped off was a bit more safe looking. There were families posing for pictures on the statues, vendors with carts selling snacks, and most importantly, policemen patrolling the plaza. That said, I had never seen so many prostitutes in one place in my life! And some of those in high heels and skirts seemed to be of questionable gender. There were also the random homeless or dodgy looking characters that filtered through the square. I kept my eye (and front towards) these when they approached, and never really felt threatened. I saw the police frisk or give a hard time to one or two of the toughs, so felt at ease enough to enjoy the plaza.

My favorite of Botero’s statues - it looks like Winston Churchill on a merry-go-round horse

The statues were a combination of whimsy and exaggeration, in my mind. The next day as we passed through the plaza quickly, Dio emphasized it was proportions - not obesity - that was they key to Botero’s style. I enjoyed taking pictures of the statues. They had loads of character. Many are nude, and folklore has sprung up about them. The naked Roman soldier (carrying a small shield not nearly large enough to protect his...um, vitals) is said to be where a woman looking for a lover should visit. She is to reach out and rub a certain portion of his anatomy - a rather proportionally small, I might say - and she will soon find her lover. Being bronze, the often rubbed parts of the statues are shiny gold and the rest a dull, mottled metallic brown. So, it was interesting to see what parts of the statues were shiny and try to guess what might be the result the supplicant was seeking!

Rubbing certain portions of the anatomy of Botero’s sculptures is supposed to bring a particular kind of luck

I think my favorite was “Man on a Horse,” which with his bowler hat looked like Winston Churchill on a merry-go-round horse. Of course, I had my picture taken in front of the Roman soldier - being a fan of Ancient Rome. Equally unsurprisingly, I noted the inaccuracy of his helmet and nudity. That would be their enemies, the Gauls! I also had my photo taken petting Perro, his cute, cartoonish dog statue. Many of the statues had people hanging out by them, and even more with people getting selfies in front of (or kids perched on top of). I alternated between waiting for them to finish or moving on to an adjacent statue and coming back. The photographer in me was enjoying the heck out of the plaza. I get a lot of pleasure out f composing subjects and their background. I am not nearly as skilled a photographer as many that I know, but I get the artistic principles enough to be the blind squirrel finding a nut now and then!

Botero’s cute dog statue, Perro, another of my favorites

On the other hand, I am also not a big connoisseur of nude art. Most of Botero’s statues are sans clothes. However, they are cartoonish enough for that to be irrelevant. I simply enjoyed composing an artist’s creations in my lens. Some statues appeared to be purposely paired with each other. Adam and Eve are an obvious example - two separate statues positioned so they are looking directly at each other.

The Palace of Culture looks like a cross between a Moorish mosque and a Renaissance cathedral

In the background, looming like a cross between a Renaissance cathedral and Moorish mosque, is the Palace of Culture. This domed building is starkly patterned in black and white stones. It reminded me so much of Andalusian architecture with its abstract patterns and use of contrasting black and white. Despite its religious look, it was never designed to be a place of worship. It has a very interesting genesis, though. Apparently, the Medellin public complained about its cathedral look so angrily and persistently that the Belgian architect actually walked off the job and quit! In a fit of artistic temper, he left the city to finish the building on their own.

It was starting to get dark, and not wanting to give the seedy nature of the plaza a chance to sprout, we summoned our Uber and headed back to our hotel. It was a great start to our exploration of the culture of Medellin.

Parque Berrio, one of the downtown plazas we visited on our Real City walking tour

Day 2, Medellin Part 2

For this trip, I minimized the guidebooks that I normally read when planning. Instead, I tried to used more recent blogs. One site I leaned on was Wander-Lush’s discussion of the top things to do in Medellin. You can find a link to their page here: https://wander-lush.org/things-to-do-in-medellin-colombia/. Number one on their list of 30 attractions was the free walking tour of the city run by Real Tours. In hindsight, I can say the passion our guide Dio put into his storytelling about Medellin made this the highlight of my stay in Medellin. As a History teacher, I know that my subject is all about stories. Dio poured out his heart to us in the four hours of the tour. The gut-wrenching and searing stories he told about growing up in Medellin during phase three of its history, The Tragedy, were the types of things people usually keep locked away in the dark corners of their mind. I will always treasure the trust he showed by sharing those glimpses into the past with our group of 10 international travelers.

A crescent shaped sculpture that tells the story of Medellín’s history in different phases, like our guide

After all this praise, I should put in a disclaimer. Dio’s tour was not a “take a picture of this famous building while I talk about it” type of tour. He even joked that, since a big chunk of time was us seated while he spun his tapestry of stories, we may feel this was a “sitting tour” and not a walking tour. Still, it was exactly what I wanted. I honestly think that I travel to learn. The four hours I spent with Dio were so inspiring that I was already Googling books to read later this summer so I could delve deeper into the stories he told.

Plaza de Luces in Medellín, whose 300 poles are lit up by LED lights at night

As mentioned earlier, Dio divided Medellín’s history into four phases: Origins (before European contact and most of the uneventful colonial phase); Growth (late 1800s and most of the 20th century, when the coffee industry and railroads led to a burst of expansion in the city); Tragedy (1980s to 2000, with the wars of the drug cartels and thousands of residents killed); Transformation (the last 10-15 years when Medellín was reborn as a modern and stable city attracting investment and visitors from around the world). The colonial period is considered uneventful because there was very little Spanish settlement in the Medellín area. Lack of gold and other riches the conquistadors were looking for led them to ignore the area. Medellín’s only rich draw was its year-round, temperate climate. This climate also led the area to be particularly suited to growing coffee year-round. This, of course, was a big part of the Growth phase.

One of Botero’s sculptures was sabotaged by terrorists with a bomb hidden inside during a concert, ripping it apart and killing 23 people

The tiny colonial presence, Dio explained, was why he didn’t have grand colonial walls or cathedrals to show us on our walking tour. Most of the buildings and monuments we visited on our walking tour were from modern times. We stopped by the old railway station, the office building of the mayor and government, and an interesting sculpture in the shape of a crescent that tells the history of Colombia. It begins at the point of the crescent near the ground with god (whose face is nearly identical to the artist who sculpted it!) creating the native people, then curves upward telling the story of colonialism, industry expansion, civil war, and more.

The view from the Eight Wonder Bar on a hill high above Medellín

We also visited Plaza de las Luces Medellín. This arrangement of 300 towering poles lit at night with LED lights was built on a downtown block of Medellin that was crawling with crime and homelessness. They city leaders wanted to transform the area into one of hope, of light. They built homeless shelters to house and take care of those evicted from the area. Medellín also built a series of modern libraries to engage the youth across the city and lure them away from a life of crime on the streets. Two nearby brick buildings that had fallen into disrepair and drug use, were cleaned out and became the headquarters of education. Dio talked about how each area of the very stratified city is ranked from 1 to 6 based on its wealth. Utilities and the cost of higher education are based off of the wealth of the citizen. The poorest pay a fraction for water, electricity, and college that the wealthiest residents of Medellín pay. If there is one overriding theme of Medellín city government the last 20 years it is honestly trying to help its poorest citizens.

Medellin’s urban sprawl as seen from the bar, high above

We also visited places I’d stopped by yesterday, including Plaza Botero and the Palace of culture. Dio wasn’t trying to sugar-coat the blemishes on his city. He acknowledged the prostitution, saying that it is legal. Only “pimping” employing and taking a cut of the hooker’s pay and child prostitution are illegal. An interesting approach reminiscent of Amsterdam’s “red light” district. We also visited Parque de Berrio, which he feels is the beating heart of downtown. He urged us, if we have time, to come back around 5pm and watch the office workers gather there and have a few cervezas. Traditional bands are always playing in the square, and as the people have a couple more beers, a huge dance party erupts in the square.

Lights begin to twinkle as night falls over Medellín, a city that has experienced both tragedy and transformation

We ended our tour at the Parque San Antonio. It is a wide open plaza designed to be a place for concerts and outdoor events. It was in use for a concert when a bomb was detonated from inside a Botero sculpture of a bird. Dozens were injured and 23 concert goers died. Neither the guerrillas on the left, paramilitaries on the right, nor drug lords claimed responsibility. The shattered bronze statue was left in place as a tribute to the victims. Botero created a new one, which sits placidly next to first one as a Bird of Peace. As the tour ended, we thanked Dio and exchanged numbers, as he had some advice for us on things to do in Medellin.

We closed out the day at a spot Dio had recommended, the Eight Wonder Restaurant. It is perched high atop a hill, overlooking the city. We arrived after a torrential downpour as light was beginning to fade. It was nice to watch the dusk deepen and the lights begin to wink on in the city below and the surrounding hillsides. The city looked peaceful, glistening in the valley below. It was a positive, hopeful way to end a day replete with past tales of tragedy and woe.

Day 3 of my return to Medellín will be covered in the next blog post

Posted by world_wide_mike 21:13 Archived in Colombia

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