On my first morning in Medellin, I left my hotel and jogged past a small park with a soccer field and free weights for anyone to use, then continued down a street lined with cafés and boutiques to a larger park with terraced hills, a waterfall and a path shaded by palms. Eventually, I stumbled upon a virgin – the Virgin of Milagrosa. She was sitting in a display case, watching as a devotee made the sign of the cross. Voices of children singing a hymn wafted over from a nearby school.
Medellin, I discovered, is like that: full of surprises.
One of the biggest, no doubt, is that this Andean city located in a lush valley surrounded by mountains is experiencing a renaissance through architecture and emerging as a global centre for innovation and design. It has come so far, with its edgy buildings, squares, libraries and parks, that it could teach Canadian cities – and the world – a thing or two about progress.
I was last in Colombia 15 years ago to cover the saga of a Canadian taken hostage by guerrillas. Today, it is almost cliché to talk of how far the country has come since its dark era of civil war and kidnappings. The government is now in peace talks with the greatly weakened Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, and the GDP per capita has gone from $3,000 a year to $10,000. It has been 20 years since drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was gunned down on a Medellin rooftop and, since then, the city's homicide rate has dropped tenfold.
While the impact of the past can still be felt in public murals and monuments commemorating victims of violence, the focus is on renewal. The driving force behind Medellin's transformation was Sergio Fajardo, a mathematician-turned-mayor who reclaimed city streets by investing in urban projects in the city's worst areas. From 2004 to 2014, Medellin built 120 schools and nine "library parks." Fajardo is now a state governor, but the current mayor, Anibal Gaviria, continues to carry out his vision. "Ten years ago, the reputation of Medellin was in tatters," Gaviria told me. "Now we are seen as a modern city with enormous potential and great human capital."
In 2012, Medellin was named the world's most innovative city by the Urban Land Institute. Later this year, the city of 2.4 million will host World Urban Forum 7, a United Nations conference on urban issues and a chance for Paisas, as residents of Medellin are known, to show off jewels such as Parque Explora, an interactive museum in a dynamic sequence of bright red buildings.
Another structural marvel, by Colombian architect Alejandro Echeverri, is Ruta N, a metal and glass complex built to promote high-tech start-ups in the city's north end. It's financed by the government and by the publicly owned utilities giant EPM, which is required by law to direct 30 per cent of its earnings to social projects annually. Since Ruta N was launched four years ago, 19 international companies, including Hewlett-Packard, have opened offices. It's a telling example of how compelling design and public-private partnerships can lure creative workers.
"When I told my parents I was moving to Medellin, at first they couldn't believe it," says Stephanie Pang, a 27-year-old native of Niagara Falls, Ont. who is interning at non-profit Instiglio. "But I have been amazed at how well everything works here. This is a great place to live."
Medellin also has a remarkably modern transportation system. In addition to the country's only metro, expanded over the last decade, there's the stunning escaleras electricas, a $5-million series of outdoor escalators that carry people 384 metres up a steep hillside to Comuna 13, once the city's most dangerous slum. Connected to the metro is the Metrocable, a network of aerial gondolas. Completed in 2010, the gondolas ferry people from shantytowns on steep hillsides to the city core below. One of the districts the Metrocable stops at is Santo Domingo, once the hilltop stronghold of drug lord Escobar. Today, it is a village transformed. When I visited, I met Sebastian Montoya, a teenager who helpfully recited factoids about his once-infamous barrio. "Before we only had dirt roads up here. Today my mother takes the cable car to work in the city and my school has been totally renovated."
On my final night in Medellin, I slipped out of my hotel and returned to the nearby park to say goodbye to the Virgin. A family was having a picnic nearby, while lovers lay entwined in the grass. Then I saw several heavily armed soldiers. "They are making sure the bad elements in society don't contaminate this park," a dog walker said when I asked her about them, "to make sure it remains a place for everyone."