Garin Etcheberry – On my last day in Medellin, on a recent trip to Colombia, I experienced a wild juxtaposition that seemed to perfectly summarize the excitement and energy of daily life in that wonderful country.
That morning my girlfriend and I took a guided tour based on the life of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. We drove around the city and saw sites like his fortified home/compound, the hideout where he was killed, and his grave.
Our guide actually knew Pablo and his stories were riveting. He told us how his ex-wife and daughter had fled the country to Switzerland, but he tearfully refused because “good men needed to stay behind and save the city.” (Sounds like a line from Batman!). As a Red Cross volunteer his hands were full cleaning up the aftermath of the incredible drug violence.
He explained how difficult life used to be in Medellin. “Ten years ago this was the worst city in the world.” He told us. “It was hell on Earth. People were terrified to even leave their homes.”
But as his story progressed closer to the present day his gloomy expression began to lift. He explained how things were gradually getting better, improving one step at a time, until finally, beaming with pride, he exclaimed “…and this year we were voted by Forbes magazine as the most innovative city in the whole world!” You could tell that it was profound pride and joy from a man who had sacrificed so much, held out hope for so long, and finally was seeing the fruits.
Afterwards we visited Parque Lleras, a popular hub in the chic El Poblado neighborhood. I had heard about a coworking space just off of the main square and I wanted to check it out. We found the office building and took the elevator up to the eighth floor. There we found an open office space with huge windows giving a striking vista of the whole valley below. In the office was probably a dozen young entrepreneurs, each quietly building their businesses on their laptops and creating the future of this city. These were people who had come to Medellin from all over the world to find opportunity and success.
Later that day, as my girlfriend and I sat in a restaurant on the bustling Carerra 70 in the Salsa dancing heart of the city, eating the delicious and always cheap menu del dia, watching the lively sidewalks flow past, we reflected on the amazing paradox that we had witnessed in one day. Ten years ago this city was gripped with fear and death, but today it stood for hope and optimism. And you could feel it.
Everywhere we went there was an excitement in the air, a palpable energy. You could see it in the faces of the people we met in the streets. In fact, many times people would eagerly come up to us when they heard us speaking English and say “Medellin, number one!”
All across the city there were symbols of progress and hope. Plaza Mayor, the open square right across from the mayor’s office, used to be infested with drugs and crime. Today it’s home to an enormous library and The Forest of Light, dozens of spires that light up the plaza at night. The whole place was meant as a figurative and literal sign that education is the light that drives out the darkness.
At the north end of the city is the famous new gondola which connects the impoverished hillside neighborhoods with the fantastic and cheap metro system at the bottom of the valley. The city built the tram to reduce commute times so that parents could spend more time with their kids. Once again, at the top of the cable line is an enormous library, because the people firmly believe that education is the only way to truly change their country.
These projects represented a mentality that permeated the rest of the society. Just walking around you got the feeling that this was a place that was moving up and getting better. People were excited to be along for the ride and to be a part of the momentum.
That for me was the most enchanting aspect of Colombia. Sure the prices are cheap, the food is delicious, the lifestyle is beautiful, and the people are friendly. But for me the happiness and optimism is what will bring me back.
My girlfriend and I initially went because we’re interested in spending some time in a growing economy ripe with opportunities. We’re also interested in going somewhere where we can take a break from the seemingly constant stream of revelations of disappearing civil liberties in the United States. My dad also traveled with us, and his motivation was locating the perfect retirement spot in Latin America (he’s already been to Ecuador, Chile, Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama).
For all three of us, on all counts, Medellin passed with flying colors. It’s a fantastic place that we hope to relocate to soon, and we can’t recommend it highly enough to all Live and Invest Overseas readers. I hope our story is helpful to you!