MEDELLIN, Colombia -- This handsome, prosperous city of 2.4 million rises from a lush valley, surrounded by steep mountainsides. The air is clear, the temperature perfect year-round, the people confident and friendly. I am delighted and surprised.
I don't know exactly what I expected to see in Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city. The very name has "cartel," as in drug cartel, attached to it in most of our minds. Would it be tarpaper shacks and masked men carrying AK47s, with drug dealers doing business on every street corner?
What I saw on a recent visit could not have been more different. With its year-round mild climate, (average temperature 26 C) Medellin is known as the city of eternal spring. Its clean air is the result of an enlightened "pico y placa" policy that limits traffic during rush hours to those with odd or even licence plate numbers, depending on the day. There are new libraries, new museums, new shopping malls.
The South American nation of Colombia knows it has a challenge getting the message to North American travellers that the country is vibrant, modern, rich in culture -- and, now, safe in most places. That's why tourism officials are meeting the stereotypes head-on with a new slogan -- "Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay."
Medellin has beautiful new parks and cultural amenities, but more impressive than these is the spirit of the people. They've have been through a war and lived to see peace. Now the ones I spoke to seemed optimistic, enthusiastic and enormously proud of their city, which has seemingly been redeemed from the drug violence that plagued it in the past.
Our guide, Daniel Alvarez, 23, was personally affected by the violence. He never knew his grandmother, because in 1985 she was killed in a terrorist attack while waiting to pick up his mother. He, too, is optimistic about the city's transformation.
In the centre of Medellin, a formerly derelict area has been turned into the 14-hectare Botanical Gardens, a beautiful, peaceful space complete with an orchideorama (orchid display pavilion), butterfly house, lake and elegant restaurants. Nearby, a former slum has been cleared and in its place is Parque Explora, a family-centred facility covering 20,000 square metres that includes indoor and outdoor fun science activities for children and an aquarium.
When we visited, there was a display of life-size robot dinosaurs that was a hit with kids and parents alike. (And yes, housing has been provided for the people who were displaced.)
Rarely would I get excited about a public transportation system, but the one here is unique. The most impressive part is the Metrocable, a series of gondola-style cable cars that ascend the mountainside and connect the barrios, or former squatters' villages, with the downtown core.
As in many other cities, squatters from the countryside built housing on the steep mountainsides -- so steep that for some areas even bus service was not possible. Those who wanted to work in the city faced a two-hour Grouse Grind-like climb back from work every day. Now, for less than $1, an aerial tram takes them to work and home.
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The system at present consists of three lines; the one we rode rises nearly 400 metres at a length of 2,072 metres -- nearly the length of the Grouse Mountain Skyride.
According to guide Alvarez, the goal of this system goes beyond simply getting people to work. It's an attempt to unify the city and bring the formerly isolated barrios into Medellin's social and educational network. Each Metrocable stop has a library that offers more than books -- they're community centres with Internet training for all ages, galleries to exhibit local artists, meeting space for women's groups and much more. Graffiti outside the vast new Santo Domingo Library, which we toured, laud peace and deplore violence.
Library volunteer Christian, 23, who was clearly pleased to have inter-national guests, laboured with English to show us preschoolers learning computer skills and a photo display of local teenagers. He told us that every July, there's a peace festival.
Local people were curious and friendly, the streets clean and small stores neatly kept. One woman of about 60 said she'd lived in the neighbourhood most of her life, but had never been down the hill to the city. Alvarez Gonzalez assured us visitors to Medellin could ride up and safely spend a day here.
From Santo Domingo we caught another aerial tram for the 15-minute ride to Parque Arvi, a 16,000-hectare nature preserve where paisas, as the people of Medellin call themselves, can go for day hikes, horseback riding, mountain biking or camping trips. Much of the area includes small settlements, but there are 1,760 hectares of highland tropical rainforest, virtually untouched for the last 450 years, when the Conquistadors passed through. There are a just a few roads -- hand-hewn pre-Columbian ones thought to be about 1,500 years old.
At the village of Santa Elena, just outside the park boundary, we felt we'd gone back in time. There a statue of a silletero, a man carrying a display of flowers, or silleta, has pride of place at the village's entrance.
This area is known for its flower production, and traditionally, men would carry the silletas, weighing 80 to 100 kilograms, down the mountainside to Medellin. Although there are now roads, by tradition, silleteros still carry the heavy displays down for Medellin's flower festival that takes place every summer. Back in Medellin it was time to visit popular Plaza Botero, home to 23 sculptures donated by the Medellin artist Fernando Botero. Botero is to Medellin as Gaudi is to Barcelona: His works and influence are everywhere. Although Botero, born in 1932, now spends most of his time in Paris, he is revered as the most Colombian of artists.
Many of his own paintings, as well as paintings from his private collection, can be found at the Museum of Antioquia across the street from the plaza. Botero is known for his large, sensual, "fat" figures.
Botero, too, has a connection to the city's past and its transformation.
In 1995, in the Parque San Antonio, a Botero sculpture of a pigeon had a bomb placed inside it, presumably by a drug cartel. When the bomb detonated during a street festival, 27 people, including children, were killed. When asked to create a replacement for The Pigeon, Botero insisted the remains of the original be left beside the new one, as a memorial
Now the original bears a plaque with the names of the victims, while children play safely around it. But enough about Medellin's past. Its present includes modern restaurants like El Herbario, that, with its industrial look and fusion cuisine, would be at home in Yaletown; five huge upscale shopping centres featuring clothing designed and made in Medellin, which has an enormous textile industry; and the über-hip Lleras Park district, a square of restaurants and bars filled with hundreds of stylish young people, the shops on nearby streets displaying cutting-edge local fashion. Colombia is justly renowned for its beautiful women, and no place seems to have such a concentration of them as this area.
Medellin hosts many business travellers; just ending, when we were there, was Columbiatex, an annual event that showcases supplies and services for the textile and garment manufacturing industry and draws people from around the world.
A related event, Colombiamoda, features the latest in Colombian fashion. Textile manufacturing and design are responsible for about 60 per cent of the area's economy, but other growing industries include medical tourism.
Clinics provide not only cosmetic surgery, but eye surgeries, transplants, and heart- and cancer-related treatments.
On my last day in Medellin, I left my hotel in the upscale Poblado district and wandered across the street to the huge Santa Fe shopping mall.
There I bought a pretty blouse of Colombian fabric as a souvenir. It was morning, and there weren't many other shoppers, but there were, to my surprise, skaters. At the ice rink in the centre of the mall, families clung to the sides while helmeted children made tentative forays onto the ice.
I preferred to return to the mild, sunny, perfect weather outdoors. Of my visit, I would have to say: Indeed, the risk was in wanting to stay.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
Medellin is a modern city where ATMs are common. The currency, the Colombian peso, takes a little getting used to as one Canadian dollar is roughly 1,800 pesos! However, this does not mean things are cheap. Costs for hotels, meals, clothing, etc. are roughly equivalent to Canadian prices.
Ranges from peasant fare to upscale cuisine. You can get a hearty breakfast from a street vendor for $1 or a gourmet dinner for $65. We had excellent meals at El Herbario (www.elherbario. com) and Bijao, on Lleres Square (www. restaurantebijao.com). The one thing every meal seems to include is an arepa, or cornmeal patty that might be grilled, fried or stuffed. Especially good is the arepa de choclo, stuffed with cheese.
Colombian cities are safe for tourists, as long as you take the same sensible precautions you'd take anywhere. Walking around alone at night with your $800 camera hanging from your shoulder is probably not a good idea, for example. Some areas of the countryside, especially border areas, are more problematic. Check the Canadian government's website, http: //www.voyage.gc.ca/ countries--pays/menu-eng. asp, for up-to-date-information. At time of writing it is recommended to avoid all travel to most rural areas of Colombia.
There were police everywhere in every city I visited on this trip. However, they are, as one of my fellow travellers observed, reassuring rather than threatening. They're young, smiling, wearing clearly marked fluorescent vests, and not obviously carrying weapons.
Air Canada flies direct from Toronto to Bogota, where you can get an Avianca Air flight to Medellin. Check with your travel agent. Continental Airlines flies from Vancouver via Houston in roughly the same amount of time.
The Lonely Planet guide to Colombia proved useful and accurate.