Cities In Transition, Lands Of Opportunity
Last week in Medellin, Colombia, one afternoon, we took the Metro Cable up the side of the mountain. The trip had been recommended to us since our first visit to this city 18 months ago as the best way to get a bird’s-eye view of things. Finally, we found the time and took the metro from El Poblado to the end of the line west. From there, we climbed the stairs to the departure point for the cable cars and climbed on board the next open car that passed by.
Up, up, up, the cable pulled us over the valley and to the top of the mountain, allowing us, along the way, a view not only of downtown Medellin, but also of the surrounding barrios. In these hillside neighborhoods, some accessible only on foot, people live simply.
We saw power lines and water pipes, but some of the shacks we passed over had no doors, windows, or floors. Women were laying laundry to dry on their tin roofs. Children were running barefoot up and down the dirt trails between houses. Men carried bundles of firewood on their backs.
Just the picture of Colombia that I guess many people harbor. I’m not going to try to suggest that this barrio we passed over last week is a place you’d want to live, but I will say that it didn’t strike me as dangerous. Just families going about their day-to-day business, some waving up to the cable cars as we passed overhead.
Later in the week, we found ourselves in another very “authentic” environment, as a friend described it. Lief, Jackson, two friends, and I stood on a corner in a neighborhood just outside central Medellin. This was, we were told, nearby Pablo Escobar’s old stomping ground, the place where he hid out when the heat was on. We hadn’t sought it out as part of a sightseeing tour. Rather, we’d been delivered here on the recommendation of a taxi driver who told us it’d be a good place to try to negotiate for a van and a driver to take our party for a day-trip to El Retiro.
Again, this was the kind of neighborhood people probably expect to find in Colombia…and that many probably fear. The sunny Saturday morning that we passed through, we found nothing to be concerned about. Everyone we met went out of his way to accommodate us. In the end, we managed to source a van and a driver at a very reasonable fee.
After the daylong excursion to the colonial town of El Retiro, we returned to our hotel in the center of the city. This five-star, international-standard hotel could be in any big city anywhere in the world, including London or New York. It has a big pool, a five-star poolside restaurant, a bar in the lobby where the white-gloved waiters are attentive, a salon, a spa, and the most gracious, welcoming, helpful staff you could hope for anywhere. Our suite cost about US$150 a night. Standard rooms can be had for as little as US$80 a night, depending on the season.
Most nights last week, we dined out with friends, again, in restaurants where the food, the wine, and the wait staff are as good as you’ll find anywhere. Dining out in Medellin can be expensive (US$30 to US$50 per person)…or not, depending what you’re looking for. My point is that you can find the best this world has to offer if that’s what you want and what your budget can accommodate. Or you can eat hearty (and local) for just a few dollars (five of us had lunch one day for a total of US$20). Both options can be appealing and fun.
Back in Panama City this week, we continue to be struck by the contrasts of life in this part of the world. Friends from Paris are in town this week, and we’re taking their visit as an opportunity to do some sight-seeing. Yesterday, Lief and I drove our friends to Portobelo on the Caribbean coast. Much of what was built in this part of Panama about 500 years ago (the massive customs house and the fortifications) remains standing and impressive. What was built more recently? Much less impressive. The town of Portobelo today is a barrio, maybe not so unlike the one we passed over in our cable car last week in Medellin. Small wooden shacks with tin roofs…garbage in the streets…
After our day out in Portobelo (which, despite its down-at-the heels appearance, I heartily recommend you visit if ever you have the chance, as both the history and the natural beauty of Portobelo’s bay are worth investigating firsthand), we returned to Panama City. Driving through town, our friend Vincent made the obvious observation:
“What a place of contrasts this is,” he said. “You have these big modern high-rise towers and brand-new hotels…yet just outside them the sidewalks are cracked and just next-door are very modest little shops.”
Medellin, Colombia, and Panama City, Panama, and dozens and dozens of other places we report on from this Latin America region are cities in transition and, therefore, studies in contrasts. We had a similar experience living in Ireland years ago, when the Celtic Tiger boom was building and that country was very much a nation in transition.
This appeals to us. Contrast and change, transition and transformation. We’re most engaged by places in the process of remaking themselves.
For these are places of potential…lands of opportunity.