Medellín Walking Tour: Historic Tour with a Difference
Walking tours are becoming ever more popular in cities around the world. Many of them are historic walking tours. The Medellín City Walking Tour (from Real City Tours) is also an historic walking tour – with a difference. It covers the most recent history of a city that was considered to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world in the last 2 decades of the 20th century, often at #1 on that list.
Our tour guide was Carolina, and she led 21 tourists (from Wales, USA, Australia, Mexico, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Canada, France and Russia) around the sights of her city. It was an afternoon tour and it rained – a lot. But Carolina found us sheltered places as often as possible. She spent time describing the significance of the places on the route while we waited for the rain to ease.
As we left our meeting point at Alpujarra Metro station, the afternoon rain began. Carolina led us quickly to the nearby DIAN building, where we took shelter. She used this opportunity to introduce us to her Medellín. This included a brief, 400 year history lesson. She wanted to acquaint us with her people – the Paisas. She told us they are descended from people who fled from Spain: the Basque (political persecution) and Jews (religious persecution).
We then moved on to the first point of interest in the city of Medellin.
1. La Alpujarra Administrative Center
Around this the square stand state and municipal government buildings: the Governor of Antioquia’s office, the Mayor’s office (City Hall), the (new) Palace of Justice. In the centre of the square is El Monumento a La Raza (The Monument to Race); a huge statue by local sculptor Rodrigo Arenas Betancur, depicting the history of the state of Antioquia.
2. Ferrocarril de Antioquia – old railway station
This was Medellín’s main railway station on the first railway in Colombia. It was originally built to carry freight, in rural areas, and to and from mines. But, when it reached the city, passengers also started to find it convenient. Once road transport became more popular, this old station lay in ruins. It is now renovated and valued as one of Medellín’s important historic sights. It has an old steam locomotive in a pleasant courtyard, with access to a choice of restaurants and cafes.
3. Parque de las Luces (The Lights Park)
Directly across the road from the old railway station, is the Plaza de Cisneros. The main market of Medellín used to be held in this plaza. Carolina explained that, after a fire, which destroyed the market hall, the area became a haunt of the homeless, criminals and drug users. It was a very unsafe area.
During the urban renewal in the early 2000s, these people were moved on and the area underwent an architectural transformation. It was believed that a change in the appearance would result in a change of attitude towards the place. And it did!
4. Vásquez & Carré buildings
Also in the precinct of Cisneros Plaza, these 4 story buildings were once the tallest in central Medellín. They also suffered in the fire and were occupied by the ‘low life’. They were renovated during the transformation. The Carré building was designed by the French architect Charles Émile Carré and is now the office of the Medellín Secretary of Education. The almost matching Vásquez was designed by his students.
At the end of the plaza is the Biblioteca EPM. This is not just changing the architectural landscape, but also adds an education facility – another tier to the plan for transformation of the city.
5. Palacio Nacional
This impressive building used to be the palace of justice. It’s in the middle of the shopping area, and is now a multi-storey shopping centre selling mostly shoes and clothes. Carolina explained that this happened, against opposition, as it was a sure way to preserve the magnificent building
6. Veracruz Church
Don’t look, but…
Carolina proceeded to explain that the area around the church is rife with prostitution. After the couple take care of business in nearby pay-by-the-hour hotels, they can be seen entering the church to “wash their dirty hands”…
This church was built for foreign residents in Medellin and is the second oldest church in the city.
7. Plaza Botero
Fernando Botero is probably the best known Colombian artist and sculptor. His work is all over the country, but Medellín is his hometown.
This square – also called Plaza de Las Esculturas – has 23 Botero sculptures, all donated to the city by the artist. They are worth more than $US2milion……………each!!!
Carolina also suggested we pay attention to the parts of the bronze sculptures that are highly polished. This is where people really like to touch them. Since most of them are nudes, this is an interesting insight into human behaviour.
Rafael Uribe Palace of Culture, a huge backdrop to the sculpture park, was begun by Belgian architect Goovaerts. He left in frustration when people complained about the aesthetics of the building. It was completed by the locals and thus has quite a disconnected feel to the style of it. To see this you have to compare the street facing façade with the back wall, bordering Plaza Botero.
8. Parque de Berrio and Pedro Nel Gomez Murals
We left Plaza Botera and walked toward Parque de Berrio, following the Metro line. This took us past the mural painted by Pedro Nel Gomez (1899-1994). It is protected by glass and depicts the history and development of Antioquia.
The line is elevated and it gave us protection from the rain. Carolina took the opportunity to stop and explain more of the Paisa personality, including the way they deal with their history. She explained that they basically forget about the bad stuff and only remember the good stuff. She also spoke about the Metro; the people are very proud of it and value it highly. It is always very clean, free of garbage and graffiti.
From there we could also see the Coltejer Building – tallest building in Medellin. It is sometimes nicknamed the needle, because it sort of looks like one, and because it was designed for a textile company.
Then onward to Parque de Berrio, which was the original main square of the city. It is still a favourite meeting point for locals. The oldest church of Medellín, La Candelaria, is on one side of the Park and the Metro is on the other, providing a contrast between old and new.
Down the street beside the church, you can buy any Porn you like – another case of being close enough to “wash your dirty hands”, according to our guide.
9. Parque Bolivar
There has to be one of these in most Colombian cities and this is the one in Medellin – complete with a statue of the man himself, of course.
This is a park of contradictions: on the one hand there is the obvious presence of drunks and drug addicts; on the other hand people bring their families, and the children run around freely.
At the far end of Parque Bolivar stands the large Catedral Metropolitana.
10. Parque San Antonio and Botero’s birds
The park was purpose-built in 1994, as a recreational and cultural venue. There are a number of Botero statues and an auditorium for free concerts. During an event in 1995, a bomb was placed in one of those statues – a bird – and killed 29 people when it exploded.
Carolina told us that the city’s government wanted to remove the damaged statue as quickly as possible – an example of putting the bad things behind them. Botero found out and made sure it stayed. It became a memorial to those who died in the blast. Next to it is a new sculpture of the same bird. Carolina also told us that the park is not often used now for its original purpose.
We recommend a visit to the once troubled, and now transformed, city of Medellín. And, although we don’t take walking tours very often, we also recommend this historic walking tour , as well as the Comuna 13 street art tour , when you visit the city. Both provide an insight into the recent past by young people, who lived through the violent times.
Note from the photographer: most photos were taken before or after the tour. The pace of the walking tour, and the wet and dark weather, really didn’t give much opportunity to take decent photos… So don’t be surprised to see blue sky in many pictures!
Medellin, A City Transformed , by the Inter-American Development Bank
Medellín: South-America’s Most Dangerous or Safest City , by Culture Trip