A Travellerspoint blog

Exploring Medellín

Colombia day eight

View Colombia 2023 on ToonSarah's travel map.

The Parque de las Luces

After a comfortable night’s sleep in our Medellín hotel, Park 10, and a good breakfast, we met up with our guide for the day, Jean, in the hotel lobby. He was to prove an excellent guide, the best to date on this trip (and, as it turned out, the best overall).

He started our tour in downtown Medellín, in a plaza with a dramatic sculpture, the Monumento a la Raza, celebrating the history of the city.

The Monumento a la Raza

We saw the nearby train station, now no longer in use, and from there walked to the next square, the Parque de las Luces with 300 tall columns, bamboo clusters and the main city library. Jean explained that the square used to hold a large covered market, built after the railway came to the city to encourage commerce. But the market became too crowded and spilled over into neighbouring streets, so the commercial focus of the city shifted slightly.

The Parque de las Luces and central library

Overlooking the Parque de las Luces, and in a nearby street

We walked through some of those commercial streets, busy with Saturday shoppers. This was an area of low priced shops and stalls with rip-off brands (Versace, Dior, Calvin. Klein)

Jean asked if we were interested in art and when we said that we were he added a stop at one of his favourite places in the city, a shopping mall in the former Palace of Justice. Its two upper floors are devoted to a series of small rooms showcasing art by a wide range of local artists, both painters and sculptors. The photo below is of one of my favourite paintings here.

In the former Palace of Justice

We passed, but didn’t go into, the Iglesia de la Veracruz. This is one of the oldest churches in the city, dating back originally to 1682. That earlier church was demolished in 1791 as it was facing collapse, and this replacement built on the same spot, opening in 1803.

Iglesia de la Veracruz

Plaza Botero

In the Plaza Botero

We arrived in the Plaza Botero, named for Medellín’s most famous son and filled with 23 of his characteristic sculptures. Some were the same as those we'd seen in the Bogota museum, but I liked them more here in the open air with people able to touch and interact with them. The bronze takes on a lovely patina when polished by the hands of so many. And the photo opportunities were excellent!






In the Plaza Botero

On one side of the square is the museum, and we had coffees on the terrace of the small attached café. We then strolled around the square and left it on the opposite side to where we had entered. This square has been fenced off and bags are searched on entry. That has reduced crime there but of course simply pushed it out to the fringes. So as we walked to the next spot Jean wanted to show us we could see a few prostitutes hanging around, waiting for business.

That next spot was the former site of the Banque Populaire, formed by working people to help working people. The bank has since been demolished but the murals commissioned for it remain, showing the history of the indigenous peoples from pre-Columbian times to the coming of the electronics era. They are protected by glass and were consequently rather hard to photograph.

Jean at the site of the Banque Populaire

Part of the murals

We took a circuitous route to our next sight, the Metropolitan Cathedral, as Jean said that the most direct route would take us through an area unsafe to walk in carrying a camera. On the way we passed another church, Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria. Like La Veracruz, this was first built under the Spaniards in the mid 17th century and later rebuilt at the end of the 18th.

Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria, and the statue of Simon Bolivar

The cathedral dates from the late 19th century. Its official name is the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, as it was granted minor basilica status by Pope Pius XII in 1948. In the square in front is a statue of Simon Bolivar, ubiquitous in every South American city. There was a service in progress so we only looked inside from the back.


The Metropolitan Cathedral

After this we stopped for lunch in a restaurant recommended by Jean, where we enjoyed some empanadas and plantain arepas. The food was good and plentiful, and we were very happy when Jean proposed asking the waiter to wrap our left-overs so we could give them to a homeless person during our walk, which he subsequently did.

Parque San Antonio

After lunch we visited yet another square, the Parque San Antonio, home to another Botero sculpture, or rather a pair of sculptures. Jean had explained over lunch how in 1995 one of Botero’s pieces, El Pajaro (The Bird), was stuffed with 22 pounds of dynamite and detonated during an outdoor concert in the plaza. The resulting blast killed 30 people and injured more than 200. FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or People’s Army) claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack.

In 2000, Botero donated an identical statue but insisted that the bombed-out remains of the original statue remain. Now the statues are collectively known as the Birds of Peace, one a symbol of Medellín’s violent past and the other a symbol of its bright future. The names of the victims of the bombing are inscribed on the base of the damaged bird.

El Pajaro, the bombed original

El Pajaro, the replacement

Social transformation

The second part of the day was devoted to what they term a ‘Social Transformation Tour', introducing visitors to the positive changes that have taken place in the city’s poorer districts in recent years.

During the 1980s and most of the 1990s Medellín had the reputation of being one of the most violent cities in the world. It was the unofficial ‘capital’ of Colombia’s infamous drugs trade and the base for the most famous of its cartels, led by Pablo Escobar. As well as exporting vast quantities of cocaine to the US and elsewhere, the cartel (and others like it in the country) was heavily involved in terrorism and paramilitary activities.

At the same time the population of the city was swelling, as large numbers of the rural poor fled the countryside, displaced from their lands by the drug cartels and coming to the city in search of work. They settled on the hillsides around the city in makeshift homes unconnected to utilities such as water and electricity supplies. When an uneasy peace was established in Colombia, and Medellín began to develop as an industrial and business hub, the people in these areas were left isolated, unable to benefit from the growing prosperity. A gulf was opening up between the haves and have-nots of Medellín. And there were inevitably high levels of both deprivation and crime.

It is only in recent years, under a forward-thinking mayor, that the lives of these people have improved. He saw that the way to increase the overall well-being and prosperity of the city was to start with its poorest inhabitants. If they were able to work and contribute to the city’s economy, while also benefitting from its resources, it would be better for everyone. So he initiated anti-violence campaigns and community improvement initiatives. Every comuna, as the city’s districts are termed, was to have its own community centre where people could meet, take adult education classes and access arts and culture. And key to his programme was the development of a transport infrastructure.

The cable car arriving at Santo Domingo station, Comuna 1

New metro lines, trams, cable cars and even an escalator now enable people from these districts to access job opportunities all over the city. Good public transport helps them to feel connected rather than isolated. Today some of these comunas are vibrant places to live and visit, and even the poorest are starting on the path that their more affluent neighbours have followed.

Comuna 1

We took the Metro several stops and then changed to one of several cable car lines that link these districts to the city centre. We alighted from the cable car in Comuna 1, an area that is only just starting to welcome visitors. We walked up from the station past some simple shops and houses of varying quality to a viewpoint over the district. Jean pointed out community centres built so that people could meet and get involved in social events, art classes etc.

Houses in Comuna 1

We then looped around the hillside to a small café with an even better view. From here and other points in the comuna you can see the city spread through the valley far below. Today that city is easy to reach, thanks to the cable cars, metro system and trams. But only a few years ago it would have seemed like another world, far out of reach despite its proximity.


View of the city from Comuna 1

After a while taking photos here we followed the streets back towards the cable car station. It was a Saturday and children were playing in the streets and in the simple playground near the cable car station. A man near there was offering pony rides, reminding me of those I’d enjoyed on donkeys on English beaches as a small child. One young man stopped to talk to us, welcoming us to Medellín and to his home area. He happily posed for a photo when I asked.




On the streets of Comuna 1

Comuna 13

We descended on the cable car then transferred again to the Metro, changing trains and eventually being picked up at an outlying station by the driver who had first brought us to the city centre. He drove us to another district, Comuna 13, best known for its street art. This area is much more established as a tourist destination and was lively with street art tours as well as locals out enjoying the start of their Saturday night socialising and drinking.

In Comuna 13

We walked around soaking up the atmosphere, then started to descend via a series of escalators, perhaps the most celebrated of the innovations brought in to improve access to these hillside communities. Jean described how Comuna 13 had suffered when the government had sent in tanks and troops to clear the district of guerrilla groups, with innocent locals killed in the fighting. Control of the area then passed to paramilitary groups but more recently people had been able to take back control of their community and their lives. They had encouraged street artists as a way of lifting the district’s fortunes, opening it up to tourism.







Street art in Comuna 13


One of several much-needed beers!

At the foot of the hill we were picked up by our driver. I was glad to see him as my knee was still suffering after the climbing in the Cocora Valley and it had been a day with lots of uphill and downhill walking.

Back at the hotel we had time for a rest and showers before going out for dinner. As it was Saturday I’d made an advance reservation at a local Mexican restaurant, La Malsentada. The food was good (although disconcertingly all came at once, starters and mains), as were the Club Colombia beers. A good Saturday night out!

Posted by ToonSarah 14:13 Archived in Colombia Tagged churches art history views city cathedral sculpture colombia street_art street_photography

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


Looks like a very interesting and varied day.

by irenevt

It was Irene - although on reflection I felt it would have been better split over two days as we rather rushed the last part!

by ToonSarah

Hello, Sarah! Thanks for taking us along your great route. You have a nice story here, as always.

by Vic_IV

Thank you Victor, I always appreciate your comments :)

by ToonSarah

Seems that your guide was able to tell you very detailed history of the city :)

by hennaonthetrek

Jean was an excellent guide Henna, and good company too (not always the same thing!)

by ToonSarah

What a day, Medellin sure sounds interesting!

by Ils1976

It's a fascinating city Ils, one of my favourite places on this trip :)

by ToonSarah

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.