A wall of art in Medellin's barrio of Santo Domingo Savio.
Less than a decade ago, Colombia didn’t rate very high on the tourist radar. The city of Medellín, in particular, stood for fear, violence, drug cartels, kidnappings and murder.
Much has changed in just a few years.
While crime still remains a problem in certain areas of Colombia, the country’s second largest city, Medellín, has not only cleaned up its act in terms of safety, it’s also seeing a cultural renaissance.
The mayor, Alonso Salazar Jaramillo, has spearheaded the city’s revival by placing a focus on art, culture and education.
The capital of Colombia’s Antioquia Department (similar to a state), Medellín is known for the warmth and friendliness of its people, spring-like weather all year long, and partying fuelled by aguardiente (a sugar cane spirit).
Spread on a valley floor, with neighborhoods rising up its hillsides and into the mountains, this metropolis of 3.75 million people features more than 72 movie theaters, 27 theaters, 18 museums and 2,200 restaurants – plenty to keep a visitor entertained.
The latest addition to the cultural circuit, the Museum of Modern Art in Medellín (MAMM; elmamm.org) opened in November in the industrial zone of Ciudad del Río. Housed in a metallurgic factory from the 1930s, the museum gave a new lease of life to this nearly abandoned area. Now hipsters and art and culture vultures flock to the neighborhood in the city’s south.
Exhibits feature homegrown and international artists, such as the controversial Belgian artist Jan Fabre whose show stole the opening spotlight. Other attractions include special programs for children and young adults, concerts, movies, seminars, workshops and a trendy on-site café-restaurant.
In the far northeast of the city, another area has benefited from the city’s urban transformation: the barrio of Santo Domingo Savio.
This hillside shantytown used to be a no-go zone during the era of Pablo Escobar, Colombia's notorious drug lord. Since 2004, the hilly neighborhood was revived with the introduction of MetroCable, an aerial cable car that whisks people up within 10 minutes (the walk used to take over two hours each way), thus connecting inhabitants to jobs downtown.
The area’s cultural epicenter is Parque Biblioteca España (Library of Spain), opened in 2007. This spectacular building not only offers prime city vistas; it's also the barrio’s gathering point, with a wealth of educational and recreational activities.
Medellín is a breeze to reach. American Airlines has two daily flights from Miami while Colombia’s national carrier, Avianca, flies directly from New York seven times weekly. The average rate is $350-$450, though prices can go as high as $1,200 in December. High season is considered June and July, December through mid-January and Holy Week in the spring.
More to see in Medellin
Don’t skip the recently renovated Museum of Antioquia located in the old municipal palace on Plaza Botero, which exhibits the best work of Colombia’s internationally renowned artist Fernando Botero. Plaza Botero, the square right outside the museum, is dotted with 23 of his monumental sculptures. Also not to miss is Explora Park, Colombia’s largest interactive park, with fascinating science and technology exhibits and the largest freshwater aquarium in Latin America.