Narcos: How Medellin got a cultural makeover and left its drug-tarnished past behind

If ever a city had a sense of humour, Medellin does. Stroll around Plaza Botero, where sculptures of well-upholstered women and bulky men loom in their ample glory, and you have to smile. 

They were given to the Colombian city by the country’s favourite sculptor Fernando Botero, who said, “Art should be a place of refuge from the hardness of life,” and they stand in cheerful, defiant contrast to a time when life was impossibly hard. It was here that Pablo Escobar ran his drugs empire and although his malign influence ended in a hail of bullets in 1993, his memory is perpetuated today by Netflix with the release of another series of Narcos, the gripping drama inspired by his life. 

Fernando Botero’s sculptures are a great attraction at Plaza Botero

How far removed that image is from the reality. An audacious regeneration plan has transformed Medellin into a city that seems at ease with itself – open and sociable.

Central to change has been the Museum of Modern Art (MAMM), which was fashioned out of a redundant steel works about 10 years ago and now shows the best of Colombia’s burgeoning contemporary art scene as well as housing a ballet company and a concert hall. At the same time libraries and schools have sprung up; parks and friendly, unthreatening pedestrian streets have opened. A metro was built along the spine of the city and connects with cable cars that rise from the valley into the barrios. The aim was to bring the poorer districts nearer the centre but, with a pass for all public transport costing less than £1 a day, it means parts of the city have been opened up for tourists, too. One barrio, Communa 13, is offering graffiti tours – unimaginable 15 years ago. 

The cable car leaves the city behind and sways on over empty countryside for 15 minutes to Parque Arvi, 16,000 hectares of gentle jungle teeming with butterflies and birds. The temperature in Medellin is always spring-like, so this makes a delightful place to stroll or simply relax in one of the many restaurants or around the plethora of food vans.

It is a relief from the city centre’s old quarter, dominated by the rather stolid adobe brick cathedral, which is a hubbub of crowded streets, heaving with vendors selling anything from fruit juice to Sim cards. Only the Botanical Garden with its egrets and iguanas, not to mention an elegant restaurant, the In Situ, provides respite. 

Above all Medellin is a city of festivals. A fashion week in June…

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