I fell for Medellín pretty fast, on the bus in from Manizales. It was the balance it strikes with nature: the way it sits in its ample valley, the buildings climbing the hills to meet the forests and pastures on either side; the parks and tree-lined streets; the abundance of birds, flycatchers and parrots and tanagers and even hummingbirds. The place draws much of its power from its landscape. Quebradas snake through the city, lined by trees and paths that break into boardwalks to protect their roots; a couple of hills, both parks, rise from the valley floor like green heads. Against this green background, the buildings – mainly red brick, whether the fenced apartment towers of Poblado or the slums in the poorer comunas – seem almost like natural formations, cliffs or red ant nests. At night, the lights, with their snaggling human irregularity, are like constellations. Standing almost anywhere in the city, you can see the other side of the valley, or along the river that formed it. The landscape is always present; you never forget where you are. It is, by some distance, the most beautiful city in Colombia.
It’s also the best organised. In just half an hour from the city centre, you can be gliding in a cable car over Parque Arví, a nature reserve in the hills above the city. Here public transport is not just infrastructure to move people around; it expresses a philosophy of inclusion, so that people from any part of the city can move cheaply around, so that the whole city is theirs – literal social mobility. For this reason trams and cables reach from the two main spars of the Metro into the poorer comunas in the hills. People understand this, and the Metro trains and stations are spotless, the cleanest I’ve seen anywhere outside of Japan; it’s a civic achievement, and people are proud of it. (The trains run punctually, every five minutes, an impossible dream in Australian public transport.) In the same spirit, impressive libraries have been built throughout the city: often they dominate their barrios, taking the church’s traditional place as the most prominent symbol of community, the most prominent public space. More than most cities, Medellín seems built to serve its citizens.
Like the rest of Colombia only more so, the international perception of Medellín lags a long way behind reality. There were people in Australia who warned us not to go; the government’s official travel advice is not to travel outside the city. I’ve spoken to plenty of Colombians who are impatient with this perception, and it certainly doesn’t reflect my experience. One of the things I find so remarkable about the city is how much it’s transformed in less than twenty years, and the complexity of the forces it’s had to reconcile: not just Pablo Escobar and the cartels, but paramilitaries on the left and right. These days organised crime has realised it’s better for business to keep the peace, and keep a low profile; it’s easier to evade arrest in small oficinas than big cartels. Most of the violence has migrated north, to Mexico and Central America. It’s interesting to watch the city wrestle with the impact of all this: a few weeks ago, Edificio Mónaco, Escobar’s old headquarters, was demolished to make way for a public park, and there was a lively debate about the value of such symbolic gestures. The Casa de la Memoria allows you to explore Medellín’s recent history in an admirably open-ended way through its many touch screens, chronologically, geographically, thematically, through individual stories. How to make peace with the past is still a live issue – Ivan Duque’s conservative government is seeking to alter the terms of the peace with the guerrillas, and many suspect it of trying to dismantle it altogether – which is not surprising in a country where conflict between left and right has been a constant since independence, two hundred years ago. But the peace is real. I’ve travelled throughout the city and the department of Antioquia, and I’ve never once felt unsafe.
The different regions of Colombia have distinct identities and atmospheres, and there has always been a tension between regional self-government and control imposed by the white elites in Bogotá, the old Spanish capital. (An easy way to build rapport here is to bag Bogotá: people eat it up.) One of the reasons this part of Colombia feels so congenial to me is its similarity to Australia. People from Antioquia are called paisas (though paisa culture stretches south into the coffee-growing region around Manizales and Pereira). This part of Colombia was colonised later than Bogotá or the coast, and in a different manner: where earlier the Spanish government granted huge swathes of territory to Spanish gentlemen, often absentee landlords, the paisas occupied small plots of land, clearing it themselves. This gave rise to a culture with a strong campesino, or country, flavour; an attachment to place and a proud sense of ownership; and a reputation throughout the rest of Colombia both for hard work and a certain boorishness. In other words, quite like Australia. Like us, the paisas are grounded in good ways and bad: they know who they are, but they only believe in what they can touch. Fernando Botero, the artist famous for compulsively making everything plump, is a paisa, and his work makes more sense here than it does, for example, in Bogotá. Like Norman Lindsay, he’s obsessed with sensuality, with pulchritude, and like Lindsay he’s unable to do it straight; but where with Lindsay this takes the form of faces twisted in a porno smirk, in Botero it’s cruel distortions, tiny hands and feet, that mock the pretensions of his people, whether bourgeois couples or generals or priests. It’s an expression of the paisas‘ black sense of humour, like the sick joke about the man with no arms or legs tossed into the sea like a turtle. Botero is also an exemplar of how an artist can play a role in the life of his community: the Museo de Antioquia is built around his donations of his work, and the plazas are full of his sculptures, the bronze rubbed to a soft gold where people have clambered on them to take photographs.
I’m staying in a middle-class neighbourhood near the city stadium, and I love the rhythm of life here: the women who let down baskets on a string from their apartment windows to collect home deliveries; the man yelling “¡Mango! ¡Aguacate!” as he pushes his fruit cart along; the food stands that set up at night, selling burgers and chorizos, with lines of small plastic stools along the pavement; the roar from the stadium on weekends; the teen marching band that rehearses on the street outside my building, with brass and drums and wonderfully swishy boys with batons. It’s lively and peaceful, like journeys by cable car, maybe my favourite thing to do in Medellín. It’s quiet inside the cabin, except when you bump over a pylon; below the steep slope falls away, with laundry spread on the corrugated roofs, sound systems blasting competing musics, a single guayacán tree with its startling yellow flowers, old men working out in an outdoor gym and a hundred other human moments. Beyond, the full extent of the valley becomes apparent, the Metro following the line of the river, a plane taking off in the south. Inside the cable car someone’s taking a photo, trying to wrest a smile from a tired baby, or arguing the merits of something like the graffiti tour, which has turned a poor comuna like the one below into a tourist attraction. The small and the big, the near and far, are always linked in this wonderful city.