At dusk, as Medellín comes into view round a hairpin bend on the airport road, I recall a line by the local novelist Jorge Franco, in which “tiny lights encrusted in the mountainside twinkle like stars”. The innate, arresting beauty of Colombia’s second city owes as much to its Andean location, clinging to the sides of the narrow Aburrá valley, as to the subtropical flora and “eternal spring” climate of which Paisas – the local inhabitants – are proud.
This topology has its drawbacks. The higher up the slopes, the poorer and more abandoned the barrio, or neighbourhood. During the reign of the cocaine cartels in the 1980s and early 1990s – when the city was the world’s murder capital – the Medellín film-maker Víctor Gaviria remarked that the only law that held in the hillside slums was the law of gravity.
Although narco-trafficking and violence persist in pockets, Medellín is now far safer, its crime levels comparable to those in North American cities. As I discovered on a visit four years ago, and felt with renewed force on my return this year, art and architecture have been key to this rebirth. Ambitious designs dignify shanty towns being newly connected to a city centre that was once worlds away.
Since city planners decreed that any new central building have public art in its blueprint, their aim of drawing people out of their homes and neighbourhoods to mingle in public without fear has remapped the city, and augmented what amounts to an outdoor art gallery.
In La Alpujarra, the seat of local government, Rodrigo Arenas Betancur’s immense, curved sculpture, “Monument to the Race”, has a relief on which good battles evil. The vision might strike a chord with Sergio Fajardo, whose “social urbanism” transformed the city when he was mayor from 2004 to 2007 and who, in January, became governor of Antioquia – the state of which Medellín is capital. When I visit him in the governor’s office, we talk on the roof terrace, where he points out the city’s needle-shaped tallest building, built for the Coltejer textile company by his architect father. Fajardo describes what it means to him as mayor to “build the most beautiful things for the humblest people”. He sees it as building hope – not least to rival the allure of violence.
Staying in El Poblado, the city’s affluent cradle in the south, my first stop downtown is a founding piece of public art. Medellín had a muralist movement in the 1930s inspired by that of Mexico. Its pioneer, Pedro Nel Gómez, adapted to the humid tropics techniques he learnt in Italy. His murals for the Banco Popular, now at the Parque Berrío Metro station, are a capsule of Medellín’s history. The 12 panels on each side move from conquistadors and Amerindian gold-panners, coffee growers and cowboys to railways and industrial looms in the “city of textiles”. Nel Gómez’s house farther north is a museum. More murals, including ones of miners and oil workers, are on the grand staircase in the art deco former municipal palace – home to the 130-year-old Museum of Antioquia.
The museum’s main collection was donated in stages by possibly Latin America’s most famous artist, Medellín-born Fernando Botero, who was 80 this year. The first donation in 1974 became the Pedrito room, dedicated to Botero’s son, who died in a car crash. Botero’s fleshly style ranges from bullfighters to bishops but also takes up local history from Nel Gómez, depicting guerrillas, gangsters and paramilitaries in a civil war fuelled by narcodollars.
Botero’s art is one alternative to the many Pablo Escobar tours that trail after the dead drug baron – which many local people I speak to find distasteful or distressing. In one miniature the fugitive Escobar, who was killed in 1993, is struck by a hail of bullets on a tiled roof backed by Medellín’s green hills. In another painting, a blue car explodes. In the nearby Parque San Antonio, Botero’s “Bird of Peace” bronze was eviscerated by a guerrilla bombing in 1995 that killed 23 concert-goers. He made another on condition that it sit alongside the bombed one.
In the museum’s Café Botero, I refuel on a bandeja paisa, an ample platter of beans, rice, pork rinds, avocado, egg, plantain and chorizo. The café’s umbrellas, opposite the 1930s Belgian-designed Palace of Culture, are a chic addition to the Plazoleta de las Esculturas, once known for prostitution and drugs and now revered as the Plaza Botero. The museum’s director, Ana Piedad, ascribes the turn-round largely to Botero’s donations since 2002. More than 20 of his bronzes sit in the palm-lined square. Children clamber and lovers loll on the statuary, often having snaps taken. Botero’s gifts are a source of civic pride. I see citizens take it on themselves to polish the bronze.
I ride north on the clean, safe overground Metro. On completion in 1996, each station had an artist anoint it, and some have free lending libraries for commuters. I take a cable car to Santo Domingo Savio, the notorious setting for Gaviria’s films of the 1990s, Rodrigo D: No Future and The Rose Seller, when it was a breeding ground for teenage sicarios – cartels’ hired killers. The cable gondolas and Giancarlo Mazzanti’s granite castle – the Parque Biblioteca España, built in 2007 – have changed the area’s fortunes. I take the extended Metrocable over beautiful forest to Arví, a high-altitude “eco park” where orchid trails follow ancient Indian stone paths.
Also in the “new north”, I visit Moravia’s Centre for Cultural Development, the last major work by Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona, and inspired by meso-American temples. It was built in 2008 beside a 45-metre-high garbage heap once home to thousands of desplazados – refugees from civil war in the countryside. Its director, Carlos Uribe, sees it as a “little school for the arts”. There are two dozen soundproof rehearsal rooms under the auditorium. The surrounding district – Colombia’s most densely populated – is now a pleasant place to stroll. On the other side of the evacuated dump, panels made by city artists ringfence the toxic hill.
Later, I have a beer and take-out chorizo with the novelist Héctor Abad in Palinuro, a tiny book shop that he opened downtown with friends. In Abad’s dystopian novel Angosta (2004), the deepest hell of a divided city was a festering garbage mountain modelled on Moravia.
In a new area of regeneration, Medellín’s Museum of Modern Art (MAMM) moved into a former steel plant three years ago. Founded by local artists in 1978, it is now in the Ciudadela del Río, a riverside area once smoggy with heavy industry.
Drug-related violence is still a problem, though the streets are full of schoolchildren making their way home as I visit with a local rapper, Jeihhico. He tells me that five hip-hop artists were killed there last year, sometimes crossing “invisible frontiers” – the shifting borders in turf wars. From the San Javier Metro in the west, we take a new Metrocable up to La Aurora and then a green bus to the gleaming “escaleras electricas”, outdoor escalators easing access to the highest reaches. The path is being readied for murals by graffiti artist “El Perro”, for whom community-sanctioned graffiti means taking ownership: denying the hold of the “combos”, or gangs. It is a reminder of the urgency behind the beauty of Medellín’s spreading art.
● For tourist information on Colombia, see www.colombia.travel
● Abercrombie and Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers 10-day trips visiting Medellín, Bogota and Cartagena from £1,995 per person, excluding flights.