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.

An historic walking tour with a difference, where we heard & saw a firsthand account of the trouble & violence, and the recent transformation of Medellin.

An historic walking tour with a difference, where we heard & saw a firsthand account of the trouble & violence, and the recent transformation of Medellin. (Photo shows a souvenir stall with small Botero figures.)

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).

The group shot in Plaza de Cisneros. Notice the weather!

The group shot in Plaza de Cisneros. Notice the weather!

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.

El Monumento a La Raza by local sculptor Rodrigo Arenas Betancur at La Alpujarra Administrative Center - first stop on our Medellin City Walking Tour.

El Monumento a La Raza by local sculptor Rodrigo Arenas Betancur at La Alpujarra Administrative Center – first stop on our Medellin City Walking Tour.

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.

A full size steam locomotive on display at the old railway station - Ferrocarril de Antioquia - in Medellin. This was our second stop on the Historic Walking Tour.

A full size steam locomotive on display at the old railway station – Ferrocarril de Antioquia – in Medellin. This was our second stop on the Historic Walking Tour.

The interior of the former Palace of Justice, now a multi-story shopping centre. From outside and in, it's a very impressive building. Palacio Nacional - stop 5 on the Medellin City Walking Tour.

The interior of the former Palace of Justice, now a multi-story shopping centre. From outside and in, it’s a very impressive building. Palacio Nacional – stop 5 on the Medellin City Walking Tour.

 

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!

Parque de las Luces, part of the architectural transformation at Plaza de Cisneros. Our third stop on the Historic Tour of Medellin.

Parque de las Luces, part of the architectural transformation at Plaza de Cisneros. Our third stop on the Historic Tour of Medellin.

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.

The Vásquez building on the edge of Plaza de Cisneros - once one of the tallest buildings in central Medellin.

The Vásquez building on the edge of Plaza de Cisneros – once one of the tallest buildings in central Medellin.

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.

Iglesia de la Veracruz in Medellin - check out the 'girls', at the front of the church.

Iglesia de la Veracruz in Medellin – check out the ‘girls’, at the front of the church.

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.

Botero Plaza - Botero names his pieces just as they are. This is one of of his many sculptures and paintings called: Man on a Horse.

Botero Plaza – Botero names his pieces just as they are. This is one of of his many sculptures and paintings simply called: Man on a Horse.

Bolivar - liberator of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. There are many plazas named after him in all of those countries, and all of them have a statue of the hero.

Another man on a horse, this time in Parque Bolivar, the 9th point of interest on our Historic Walking Tour: Bolivar – liberator of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru.

 

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.

Rafael Uribe Palacio de la Cultura - this is the Belgian architect's design and is on the edge of Plaza Botero, 7th point of interest on the Historic Tour of Medellin.

Rafael Uribe Palacio de la Cultura is on the edge of Plaza Botero, 7th point of interest on the Historic Tour of Medellin. This part is the Belgian architect’s design. When you see the whole building, the incongruity of the local government’s completion is obvious.

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.

The Metro is an important transport link in Medellin, which was built against all odds. Therefore, the citizens are proud of it and treat it with respect; you won't find any graffiti or trash on the stations or inside the trains (unlike in other cities).

The Metro is an important transport link in Medellin, which was built against all odds. Therefore, the citizens are proud of it and treat it with respect; you won’t find any graffiti or trash on the stations or inside the trains (unlike in other cities).

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.

The Coltejer Building - tallest building in Medellin. It does look a little like a sewing machine needle, with the eye near the point. It is so distinctive that you can use it as a navigation point in the city.

The Coltejer Building – tallest building in Medellin. It does look a little like a sewing machine needle, with the eye near the point. It is so distinctive that you can use it as a navigation point in the city.

Another Botero bronze sculpture in Parque San Antonio, named Torso Masculino.

Another Botero bronze sculpture, this time in Parque San Antonio, the final place we visited on our Medellin Walking Tour. It is aptly named Torso Masculino.

 

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.

Parque San Antonio and Botero’s birds: this picture tells the sad story, that is just too common in Medellin's recent history. This was the final stop on our Historic Walking Tour of Medellin, and a fitting summary...

Parque San Antonio and Botero’s birds: this picture tells the sad story, that is just too common in Medellin’s recent history. This was the final stop on our Historic Walking Tour of Medellin, and a fitting summary…

Summary

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!


Further Reading

Medellin, A City Transformed , by the Inter-American Development Bank
Medellín: South-America’s Most Dangerous or Safest City , by Culture Trip


Are you on Pinterest?
We joined a walking tour by “Real City Tours” in Medellin – with the intention of learning more about the recent past and transformation of Medellin. The city is still recovering from its violent past of the late 20th century. Our guide, Carolina, lived through these times and was able to explain the historic events from a very personal viewpoint. Read our report to learn why we recommend the Medellin walking tour!

Enjoyed this? PIN this!

 

Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

You may also like...

19 Responses

  1. I wasn’t familiar with Botero’s work before reading your piece but now I am fascinated to go and visit. The story of Botero’s birds being saved as a reminder of past violence was most poignant. A coworker of mine had his mission in Colombia and he re-iterated what you said about the violence ebbing. He said the cities were extremely safe these days and he wouldn’t give a second thought about visiting any urban area of Colombia. Thank you for sharing and we loved your photographs, grey skies and all.

    • Yasha says:

      Botero’s work is exhibited world-wide, so you may not have to come to Colombia to see it. But this country is worth a visit for countless reasons. It was our favourite country in South America during our first visit over 2008-9. And during this trip (2014-17) it remains in the position, sharing the glory with Brazil. The people, the cities and towns, the mountains – it’s all just beautiful.

  2. Holly says:

    I liked Colombia and would love to get back to explore other cities. The park of lights looks pretty cool. Love seeing the different statues.. Tours are great when visiting new and different cities.

  3. Even though it was raining, it sounds like a great tour. I love Botero so I’d be totally into the Parque St Antonio. It’s such a moving story about the damaged statue.

  4. Val Wheatley says:

    I loved reading this post! We were in Colombia a few years back but never made it to Medellín (which was a huge bummer since their Flower Festival was in full bloom). The City Walking Tour from Real City Tours sounds like a super interesting and informative way to see the city but it was a bummer that you caught such terrible weather! Sounds like all of the people touching those nude statues also need to “wash their dirty hands”, lol.

    • Yasha says:

      Hahaha – indeed they do!
      Medellin really grabbed us. It has a lot to offer the short term and longer term visitor. The history is at once shocking and surprising.

  5. Christopher says:

    I personally think walking tours are one of the best ways to explore a city. Ones that include food and drink are even better ;) I love trains and the Ferrocarril de Antioquia – old railway station would be of interest to me. I love the steam locomotives. Some of the architecture is also interesting like the Rafael Uribe Palacio de la Cultura In Plaza Botero. I have to admit some of the sculptures are interesting too.

  6. Ami says:

    A very interesting post. I am quite amazed how thoughtfully converted a burnt area to an area of lights. And the building –
    Rafael Uribe Palace of Culture is so unusual and lovely. Loved your clicks

  7. I love taking walking tours to get a feel for a city’s history. I especially love all the Botero sculptures you’ve highlighted here, they are simultaneously powerful and whimsical.

  8. Megan Indoe says:

    I want to go to Medellin so bad, hoping to make it this year! It’s interesting to see how much this city has transformed over the years. We will have to do this walking tour when we go! These kind of tours are a great way to get to know the city and that’s even better that this tour has such a great cause!

  9. Gosh – I love walking tours but the weather at the start looked dreadful. Medellin looks like a great place for contemporary architecture and art. While the bomb in the park is tragic I am impressed that Botero found out and made sure the damaged bird sculpture stayed as a memorial. Very moving

  10. Eric Gamble says:

    I definitely have Medellin on my Colombia Bucket list. I keep reading of how this city has had a rebirth from its scary past from the Drug Eras. I love all the street art and statues you guys saw on the walking tour and I think Darcee would love the Railway Station cause she loves trains. I have heard that the street art is off the hook too!

    • Yasha says:

      The street art in Colombia is amazing. We’ve just been to Bogota and it’s every bit as good as Medellin. But the story of Medellin’s transformation is absolutely incredible.

  11. I’m bookmarking this post. We’ll be visiting Medellín in February. This will be my first return visit to Colombia since studying in Bogotá for a semester in 1974 (when I was a baby 😊).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

There will be more great content like this! On our Facebook Page you can also keep up with where we are and see the latest photos from our journey.
So why not follow us?

Send this to a friend