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Neighbourhood guide to Medellín

Medellín’s tragic past informs — but can’t dampen — its dynamic present. Colombia’s boomtown of new beginnings is a warm, welcoming mass of contradictions

Neighbourhood guide to Medellín
Antioquia, Medellin. Image: Heiko Beyer

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Upward is the preferred direction in today’s Medellín. The urban sprawl crawls inexorably up the verdant hillsides of the surrounding Aburrá Valley. Once forgotten margins are now some of the city’s most dynamic and creative areas. Lofty innovations are trickling down, too, to districts whose ground-level is a riot of art, design and commerce, along bustling streets and in long-dormant industrial districts now awash with edgy new museums, quirky shops, all-night music and dance venues, sexy bars and coruscating restaurants. The people of Medellín are looking up, too, asserting the city’s pleasures as part of the post-Escobar future. Best of all, they do it with the signature warmth and openness Colombians hold on to in good times and bad.

A long ride from the airport takes you to the once-suburban, now red-hot neighbourhood known as El Poblado — a kicky, lushly manicured zone that creeps and weaves amid the hills on Medellín’s south-eastern side. For now, it’s the city’s most fashionable area, home to almost every notable restaurant, nightclub and hostelry.

In blocks that radiate from the always-carnival-crowded Parque Lleras, I plunge into the all-night Medellín that’s raved about, hangover be damned. Streets are chock-a-block with shady-chic bars — everything from stylish cocktaileries to rock clubs and gay bars; dining rooms in iterations from junk-food to white-tablecloth (but never starchy); and throbbing after-hours venues (dress up, take money). Each is more appealing than the next; tables groaning beneath clusters of friends glued to intense, chattering conversation. I sit at a sidewalk table at Altagracia eavesdropping on El Poblado’s unending pageant of revellers, a human zoo that welcomes all.

Big nights — there’s no other kind, it seems, in Medellín — mean a pre-party libation at hotspots on Carrera 35 and nearby lanes; late suppers at glittering, celebrated restaurants; and, inevitably, clubs whose volume levels leave you with no choice but to boogie. I can sleep tomorrow.

Such hotel options range from corporate competent to wild, look-at-me boutiques (be sure to duck into Hotel Charlee and have a drink on the terrace, with its breathtaking views of the city’s tallest towers); hippie hostels also abound. I love Patio del Mundo, a ‘BnB’ (note sans Air) in a former ranch-style mansion, now outfitted with five-star touches that embody Medellín’s vibe as one of South America’s most ambitious, everything’s-up-to-date cities.

Million-thread sheets aside, best of all is the hotel’s extensive veranda and garden, on two levels — an Eden I still don’t believe is the work of just two full-time gardeners. Open-air breakfasts feature refined patisserie — plus fruits only Colombians know — amid springtime showers that drip from serpentine vines and splatter onto platter-sized leaves. A seductive tonic for El Poblado’s relentless nights.

Mornings are just as funky, just as fashionable. Pergamino suggests a club for chic early-risers at the forefront of Colombia’s coffee renaissance. “Until very recently,” a solemn (but sanguine) barista intoned, “Colombia sold its best coffee for exportation and only kept the bad stuff.” Not today. A bumper crop of speciality cafes grow heirloom beans on proprietary plantations for exquisite, handmade brews. Post-java, I tread trails beside creeks feeding the Medellín River, right in the middle of the district, amid dazzling equatorial botany and picturesque waterfalls. Design and clothing shops alongside streets echo that splashy, colourful exuberance, in kicky, flower-print togs, colourful bags, pointless but irresistible accessories and other gewgaws you never knew you needed.

Unhurried clerks sniff out my gringo-Mexicano accent and start digging into my story — as a transition to talks of Colombia’s current stance in politics and football. The Paisas (Medellín natives) start out with an appealing formality that goes intimate — and almost always amusing — after two minutes max.

A ride on Medellín’s elevated metro may be the most thrilling 62p I ever spent. Far above heavy-metal traffic, alongside close-packed, well-behaved commuters, I find myself mesmerised by the city’s hundreds of red-brick apartment towers, haughtily sprung, defying gravity on far-off hills, seemingly as tall as the lofty mountains on all sides of the city (at least in my mind’s eye). Closer in I spy middle-class blocks, industrial ruins hard by new architectural landmarks whose exuberant modernity fuses glass, colour and cantilever. Magnificent trees and tropical greenery squeeze into the city throughout, despite the aggressive development.

neighbourhood guide to medellin

Cable-cars over Medellin. Image: Getty

At the end of the line I start a journey that pulls me far from the Poblado bubble. The five lines on the world’s first cable-car public transit system soar to districts once considered among Latin America’s toughest slums, an inspiring testament to what happens when you cut working people a break. The lines’ vertiginous heights, heavy-duty infrastructure and futuristic stations ascend impossibly steep inclines, to neighbourhoods once only served by hundreds of exhausting steps. The direct connection between poor districts and the city at large have supported community solidarity other global cities have sought to reproduce using similar innovations.

I reach the erstwhile crime capital known as Comuna 13 on a series of six public escalators, a fascinating ride that combines postcard views with the reality of Medellín’s daily slog. Stair segments land at small plazas and overlook modest houses and junk food stores, now painted blinding shades of green, purple, orange and blue. The spaces attract locals and increasing numbers of visitors, with old-timers poring over tabloids and skateboarders skirting stairs and railings, impervious to concrete-jungle pratfalls. Arts centres such as Casa Kolacho have sprung up as forums for local graffiti artists, photographers, rappers, dancers and activists, who have turned the street into one of the Western Hemisphere’s most dazzling outdoor galleries; Comuna 13 in particular is an epicentre of mural paintings that transforms cinder-brick walls and facades into a kaleidoscope of fascinating art, in an array of dazzling hues. I marvel at portrayals of everything from barrio beauty queens to psychedelic birds and beasts, magical-realist landscapes and unflinching social commentary.

Back on the train downtown. Everyone says the quarter is complicado — a curious euphemism alluding to working-class crowds who jam commercial streets, perennially maddening traffic, blaring radios in every storefront and much less of the visitor-friendly ‘smell-good’ you immediately perceive in El Poblado. There’s a bleary-eyed vibe, still evident after decades of violence and political instability. But signs of the neighbourhood’s belief in a turn-around inspire a deeper dig.

neighbourhood guide to medellin

Plaza Botero. Image: Alamy

Raffish Plaza Botero is no insider secret. But it’s a forum in the best urban sense, open to all, where the avant-garde and the abject live cheek by jowl. On its esplanade, studded with the namesake artist’s rotund statues, the people-watching is superb. I poke into the Rafael Uribe Uribe Cultural Centre (whose chessboard floors and ribbed vaults bring Teutonic to the tropics) as well as the landmark Museo de Antioquia, an edgy, engaging art museum housed in an ultra-cool, art deco pavilion that was once City Hall. The down-at-heel neighbourhood does nothing to dim the splendour of the artworks presented.

In fact, new, forward-thinking museums and cultural institutions have kicked off nothing less than a cultural explosion in repurposed architecture whose gestures are equal to the daring Latin American aesthetic they showcase. The most right-now is the Museo de Arte Moderno, which is in a once industrial zone just south of the city centre.

Taking my place amid a winsome cohort of Paisa bohemians and eggheads, high-coif señoras and au courant foreigners, I watch as an artist occupies the centre of a sawed-open white grand piano, banging out dissonant variations on Ode to Joy as he propels and plucks the instrument hither and yon across the museum’s main level. The super-cool aesthetics are doing wonders to activate the area; museum galleries in former bodegas connect to a sleek, adjacent tower that’s home to more exhibition and events spaces, boutiques and appealing new eateries. Equally cool is nearby Mercado del Río, a railroad depot now restored as a forum for artisanal restaurants, bakeries and coffee roasters. The city’s wealth — ill gotten, freshly laundered or otherwise — is now being channelled into some of Latin America’s most spectacular, forward-thinking contemporary art and architecture.

The progressive culture and thought-provoking visuals call for something raucous. I slide into Salón Málaga, beneath the Metro, right downtown, shoehorned between cheap clothing stores and blinky telecom stands. It’s a louche iteration of the tango bar no solemn Argentine could sanction: a deep, fluorescent-illumined storefront enlivened with antique radios and other vintage furnishings, old ‘celebrity’ headshots and wide-ranging ephemera. I’m surprised when I’m informed that a reservation is a requirement (at least for a table close to the band), but even squeezed into the back, the vibe is pure celebration. No-joke old-timers focus on the music alone; the kids from the office gossip over a few rounds before attempting some clumsy moves (dance and romance); chatty waitresses serve drinks while maintaining admirable cool — tonight they come to the aid of one gent in particular who’s overindulged somewhat; in an unsuccessful attempt to call it a night, he knocks over a pair of tables, shattering numerous glasses.

Downtown Medellín is an aggressive crush and ‘local charm’ is par for the course. Yet I got that funny feeling that if things continue to prosper, revitalisation can’t be far behind, in what could be a friendlier, more walkable neighbourhood, with everything from the ghosts of 19th-century emporiums to amazing modernist structures that are dying to gentrify. The waitress Elena pours me another drop of the local spirit aguardiente and as the low-vibe warmth goes to my head, I contemplate what Medellín has suffered — and dream of how it’ll move into the future.

neighbneighbourhood guide to medellin

Locals dancing in the streets. Image: Getty

Medellín’s delights

El Castillo

The imposing mansion a prominent industrialist built in the early 20th century is a tropicalised iteration of a Loire Valley chateau, tinged with tales of family tragedy. Take a guided tour to get a close look at the marvellous antique furnishings and the frankly fantastic, turret-enclosed library.

Bandeja Paisa

Medellín’s traditional luncheon tray: ground beef, pork crackling, beans, rice, avocado, a fried egg and more can be virtually inedible at the hands of chain-restaurant chefs. Try it at classy Hatoviejo, a nostalgic hacienda that’s up in the hills above El Poblado; their refined take on the traditional dish is scrumptious.

Museo Casa de la Memoria

The city contemplates its bloody past — and progress that still needs to be made — at this engaging, thought-provoking museum. A striking architectural setting leads visitors on a literally twisted path to exhibits exploring repression and injustice surrounding the city’s drug- and civil war-related violence. Other sections take up terrorism (both private and state-sponsored) as well as past and present misogyny, racism and homophobia.

Essentials

Journey Latin America’s 18-day Undiscovered Colombia, Providencia and Panama tour includes Medellín, with a stay at Park 10. Prices start from £4,401 per person, excluding international flights.

American, United, Lufthansa and Avianca fly non-direct from London Heathrow to Medellín from £486 one way.

Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)