The Medellin metro was built in the 1990s and runs the length of the city, perched up high above the buildings. It’s therefore a great way to get a real idea of the whole city – and a fantastically cheap way too, given that one ticket costs less than 2000 pesos (less than 40 pence).
That ticket also gives you access to two different cable cars. Unlike in other cities (London, I’m looking at you), cable cars are not an expensive tourist attraction but a cheap and essential way of getting around the city, changing the lives of over a million people who live in the slums and, in fact, the lives of all those who live in Medellin and those who visit.
You see, the centre of Medellin is situated in a valley surrounded by steep hills. The slums rise up the side of these hills, far far away from the centre, on roads that were often too steep for cars or buses. They are inhabitanted by generations of refugees from Colombia’s decade-long war, victims of the violence between Liberals and Conservatives, and then guerillas and paramilitaries. The countryside around Medellin has been depopulated over the years, with murders, massacres, disappearances, and those remaining alive trying to escape the violence – moving to the cities.
There were few jobs in the slums and so residents were either faced with the prospect of a horribly long and tiring commute or to stay in the slums. They had no real link to Medellin and the only people that paid them any attention or bought any money into the slums were the drug cartels who provided guns and bought loyalty, leading to Medellin becoming one of the most dangerous cities on the planet.
Then in 2004, the first Metrocable opened, up to the Santo Domingo slum area, and in 2008 the second line opened, to La Aurora – Medellin was the first city to use cable cars for public transport.
As well as the cable cars, and most recently, there is now an escalator running up to one of Medellin’s most deprived areas. Residents of Comuna Trece used to have to walk up steps equivalent to a 28-storey building to get home – now they get there in six minutes on the escalator! It’s completely free to use, and one of my favourite facts is that before it opened, the council organised visits to local shopping malls so residents could learn how to use escalators as so few of them had ever been on one before!
The cable cars and escalator are credited with having an incredible effect in reducing Medellin’s horrific murder rate, once 380 people per 100,000 residents, now lower than many American cities. For context, Caracas in Venezuela now holds the honour of most murders outside of a war zone with 120 murders per 100,000 in 2015. Medellin no longer makes the top 50, below New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore and St Louis.
They did so by bringing people into the city, making it easier for them to see lives outside of the slums, but together with other public initiatives such as cleaning up the streets, providing people with paint to spruce up the outside of their houses, and investing in fantastic public buildings in the most run-down areas, such as the huge public library in Santo Domingo, where Internet and computer use is free. There is also a much increased police presence – the police used to be too scared to go into these areas.
“First the mayor gave us a security platform with the police and the army, and then he built the house on two pillars. The first, transport, the second, democratic architecture.”
The “democratic architecture” is the open public spaces you will see all over Medellin (more on those in a later post). You can see examples as you go up the cable car, such as the library I mentioned above, and outdoor public gyms.
Of course, things aren’t perfect. One woman I spoke to was very adamant that Medellin still had a serious problem with gang violence, and although the majority of slum residents support the Metrocable, some fear it will lead to rising prices and that they will eventually be pushed out of the area. But the figures speak for themselves, Medellin is a much safer city now than if was before the cable cars.
On my first day in the city I went out to Acevedo and then caught the cable car up, over the slums, towards Santo Domingo.
At the top, Santo Domingo, I got off and without really thinking, got on the next cable car, for which I had to pay an extra fare of just under 5,000 pesos. I suppose I wanted to have a really good view of the city. This is a tourist cable car and therefore not fully linked to the main system. What I hadn’t quite realised was that this cable car went all the way to the top of the mountain and over the top, into Parque Arvi – a national park where paisas could enjoy some nature very close to the city.
The views were incredible as we went up. The roads through the slums soon petered out to be replaced with dirt tracks and there was no more electricity. There were less and less houses, poorer all the time, and then we were over the top and travelling over trees towards Parque Arvi. The trees were huge and tiny forest tracks meandered below us, with huge florescent blue butterflys fluttering above them. It was a long ride but beautiful.
However, I found Parque Arvi itself quite disappointing. You either had to go on a guided three hour hike or walk down the road quite a way to come to a small river that you could swim in and sunbathe by. If you lived in the city and wanted an easy and relatively cheap way of escaping out to some countryside, it would be great, however, if you were travelling and were spending time in Colombia’s actual incredible countryside, I think you would find it disappointing and not worth the effort!
I did however fall into step with an American guy so we began chatting. I say “we” – he began talking and proceeded to spend well over an hour telling me his life story. It was very interesting but I was most amused by the fervour with which he spoke of walking as a meditative, personal, silent activity and wanting to walk the PCT and write a book about it being a meditative activity… And yet he did not stop talking while we were walking together! I found it quite interesting that a lot of the solo travellers I met seemed just desperate to talk to someone, they talked on and on and on. I didn’t really have that need while travelling alone and was more than happy just to have short little encounters with people. Although that may have been because I was able to be in contact with James so was still able to talk to him despite being in different continents!
I took the cable car back down, changing in Santo Domingo to take me back down to flat ground, in the heart of the slums that run up the hills from the centre of Medellin. Here, I thought, I have to be careful – this is surely the dangerous part of Medellin. But still – all I saw was a guy teasing his younger brother, holding something high and out of reach, kids scuffling over footballs, a young schoolboy walking up the hill, in school uniform with sticky-out ears.
In the cable car, alone with four local men, I took my phone out to take a picture and immediately froze. What had I done?! What an idiot! I felt I was sure to be robbed now. I clutched my phone to my side desperately as if they hadn’t seen it, waiting for the moment when we came into the station and one of the men siezed it from me… But nothing. We all got out of the cable car and continued our lives, me again feeling chastened for thinking about the Medellin I had read about rather than the one I was experiencing.
On my last morning in Medellin, I took the other cable car to the top of the hills on the other side of the city. First I had to take a different line of the metro, which zoomed me past several huge, out-door swimming pools. I was annoyed I hadn’t known about them sooner and gone for a swim! After 15 or so minutes I changed onto the new cable car. This line is a few years newer and so I had been told not to get off the cable car – it was apparently safe enough inside it, but it hadn’t been around for long enough to have fully improved the areas around the stations in the way that had happened around Santo Domingo.
The poverty was even greater below this cable car and really clear to see. It went up one hillside, down into a valley, and then high up the next hillside.
On the top of the first hill was a flat, empty area, manned by several soldiers with huge guns. The poorest houses were on the other side of this hill, clinging on to the steep slopes, a long way from roads, cable car stations or any other form of public transport.
Going down, my cable car quickly filled up. At one point I wanted to take a photo but looked around me, wondering whether this would be the most stupid place to get out my iPhone. However, I soon realised that everyone else in the car was also on a smartphone! And so I figured I would be fine, and I was. Calm down Alice.
The cable cars and a trip on the metro are a fantastic way of seeing Medellin – and a very cheap way! As the metro is perched high above the city you can peer down and see all the different areas in central Medellin, as well as getting the wonderful views from the cable cars.