It’s not often that a city known for its 7 a.m. breakfast meetings and workaholic residents also gains renown as a premier party town. Yet in Medellin, Colombia, the paradox begins to make sense very late on a raucous Friday night, when I find myself in a packed nightclub discussing the finer points of entrepreneurialism and urban planning between shots of 60-proof aguardiente. And that’s before I’m hugged by a mustachioed dwarf in a mariachi outfit.
Until recently, Medellin hasn’t had a whole lot to offer in the way of nocturnal amusements or legitimate business deals, Bloomberg Pursuits magazine will report in its Holiday 2013 issue. Police curfews often kept people inside their high-security homes, and the most significant commercial transactions tended to involve large amounts of cocaine. The city was the longtime stronghold of Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cartel, which once controlled the majority of the cocaine shipped illegally into the U.S.
Widely known as the murder capital of the world, Medellin lived up to its bad press: In 1993, there were 381 homicides for every 100,000 residents, a rate that’s more than seven times higher than the current figure.
“For a long time, nobody even thought about coming here -- and anybody who already lived here just wanted to leave,” says Carlos Botero, president of Colombian fashion trade group Inexmoda.
Last summer, in one of the countless signs of Medellin’s resurgence, Inexmoda and the city shelled out more than half a million dollars to stage a runway show by Paris couturier (and Colombia native) Haider Ackermann during its annual fashion week. Meanwhile, Medellin is rapidly solidifying its reputation as a pioneer of inventive architecture and urban renewal, with an array of bold public projects. It’s also angling to become South America’s answer to Silicon Valley, luring international technology firms and startups with tax breaks and reduced rents.
Even with the murder rate touching new lows, large chunks of this city of 2.2 million still aren’t safe in broad daylight, let alone after dark. And yet Medellin’s renaissance has turned it into a remarkably attractive place to visit. It’s got a spotless metro system, a gorgeous setting in a lush valley, year-round springlike weather and a palpable buzz that’s fueled, day and night, by decades worth of pent-up energy.
The city’s transformation started a little more than 10 years ago, when the government was desperate for new solutions to problems in Medellin’s ever-expanding hillside slums, home to hundreds of thousands of people displaced by drug violence and guerrilla warfare in the surrounding countryside.
Under Sergio Fajardo, the onetime math professor who was mayor from 2004 to 2007, the city launched several initiatives, including a series of architecturally stunning parques bibliotecas (public libraries–cum-parks) and sports centers. The idea, as Fajardo put it at the time, was to put “the most beautiful buildings in the poorest neighborhoods” to cultivate a sense of engagement and optimism in impoverished, long-ignored districts.
The results are evident on the Saturday afternoon I stop by Parque Biblioteca Tomas Carrasquilla, a sleek glass-and-concrete structure flanked by plazas with spectacular views of the Aburra Valley. It sits on the edge of a slumlike barrio that’s crisscrossed by Medellin’s notorious “invisible borders” -- unmarked frontiers between areas controlled by rival drug gangs, where many an innocent pedestrian has been shot dead while walking down the street.
At the library, it’s possible to borrow books, but really the building functions as a kind of crossfire-free community center, a safe haven where neighbors can study together, use the Internet or just hang out. Reggaeton music blasts from one room where a dance class is in progress; the teacher, a buxom woman in a neon-orange tank top, leads a dozen smiling young girls in a suggestive routine, complete with an exaggerated booty shake. Outside, a 12-year-old named Alexis, who’s flying a kite on the terrace, tells me that it was here at the library -- not at school -- that he learned to love reading.
“Especially books about witches,” he says.
Prominent Medellin architect Alejandro Echeverri, who was Fajardo’s director of urban projects and a mastermind behind the city’s transformation, says that although such structures have indeed helped reduce crime, they’re only the most visible elements in a complex and ongoing effort.
‘Inclusion and Education’
“As an architect, I probably shouldn’t say this, but a building on its own won’t change much,” he says. “These projects are part of a larger program of inclusion and education, a fostering of trust and a sense of community in a very segregated city.”
It doesn’t hurt that Medellin has a devoted sugar daddy: Empresas Publicas de Medellin ESP, the publicly owned hydroelectric utility that’s required by law to fork over 30 percent of its earnings to the city. Last year, EPM contributed $400 million to Medellin’s coffers.
One major beneficiary is the transportation network -- the envy of Colombia’s capital city of Bogota, 440 kilometers (275 miles) to the southeast -- whose several aerial gondolas, similar to those in Alpine ski resorts, whisk residents to and from disadvantaged neighborhoods that were once accessible only by decrepit stairways. A staggeringly scenic 12-minute ride continues past the shantytowns and above a mountaintop forest, ending at Parque Arvi, a 1,760-hectare (4,350-acre) nature reserve.
Back down the hill, EPM is a main backer of the gleaming Ruta N complex, part of a newly zoned innovation district that aims to heighten the city’s global profile in technology and science. The ecologically correct main buildings, with a plumbing system that uses recycled rainwater, include two floors of cut-rate office space for domestic and foreign startups. Flagship tenant Hewlett-Packard Co. is one of several multinationals that have landed in Medellin within the past two years.
Beyond the confines of Ruta N, Medellin is luring young tech entrepreneurs who’ve heard that Colombia is ready to show them some love and perhaps even some cash. Conrad Egusa, a 25-year-old American, received a grant to start a sleek shared-office space, Espacio in El Poblado; he also runs a marketing company and organizes networking events.
Egusa moved to Medellin only last year and has already schmoozed with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a business convention. He says he’s been particularly struck by the local work ethic, which is a match for the city’s gigantic ambitions.
“As a market, Medellin is still small, and progress is needed in the level of English,” he says. “But it’s really a great place to start a business.”
Most of the expat newcomers here are young males, and when discussing Medellin’s charms, they’ll inevitably mention the legendary beauty of the local women. In dance clubs, there’s no shortage of gringos hoping to do more than dabble in salsa, cumbia and merengue. The vibrant night-life scene is certainly foreigner-friendly, yet it remains appealingly and authentically local, with an energy that’s unique in Colombia, says Ricardo Pelaez, whose company, D’ Groupe, operates one of Medellin’s clubs of the moment, Sixtina.
“In Bogota, the weather is cold, and so are the people,” Pelaez says. “Cartagena is also great, but much of the scene there is seasonal and geared toward tourists.”
Medellin’s most-popular -- if not most-interesting -- party zone is around Parque Lleras in El Poblado, where on weekends even the sidewalks are shoulder to shoulder with a slick and sociable crowd. The scene evokes a kind of glitzed-up frat party, only with louder music and tighter clothes.
A hipper and more grown-up vibe dominates the leafy streets just up the hill. At spots such as the publike El Social, the rickety metal tables fill with bearded creative types, while in the surrounding blocks a growing number of buzzy restaurants -- notably Mystique and Carmen, with their inventive, foreign-trained chefs -- are finally giving Medellin the beginnings of a culinary scene that it has long lacked.
After dinner, the wealthier set often likes to head farther afield, to places like Rio Sur, an indoor complex grouping several upscale bars and clubs under a single roof. (The night-life mall is an unexpectedly enduring legacy of the city’s sketchier days, when virtually no neighborhood was safe after dark.)
A few people warned me that Medellin natives are more introverted than their counterparts in cities such as Cali and Cartagena, but in a country often called the friendliest in South America, reticence is relative. At the few places where I show up alone, I’m adopted by a posse within minutes.
“You’re with us now!” one 30-year-old tells me at the disco Kukaramakara as his girlfriend and cousin force-feed me more shots. At around 12:30 a.m. on a Friday at Rio Sur, several gaggles of reed-thin, leggy beauties, looking like they’ve just returned from a Roberto Cavalli shopping spree in Miami, migrate from the bar Sinko to the club Sixtina, on the top floor.
Here, as everywhere else in Medellin, the concept of a dance floor is as quaint as a Victrola; everyone shimmies on pretty much any available surface, including chairs and tabletops. Even the security guards can’t stand still when the DJ plays “Mi Noche,” a hit by Medellin-born singer Reykon. “Una noche de alcohol,” he sings, “y de besos sin control, eso es lo que necesito …” (“A night of alcohol and uncontrolled kisses, that’s what I need …”).
My wackiest Medellin moments come an hour later at jam-packed Dulce Jesus Mio, a club tricked out like a perversely kitsch caricature of a Colombian mountain village, complete with raunchy performances by the costumed staff. This is where the mariachi gives me an ardent embrace after I compliment him on his sombrero and where, in the men’s room, there’s a urinal in the form of Minnie Mouse’s head, with her mouth agape.
Subtler thrills are on hand at a number of old-school music dens, such as tiny La Cabana del Recuerdo, where, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, a clan of grizzled musicians, seemingly beamed in from 1950s Havana, jams for hours while passing around accordions, guitars and maracas.
Another must, in the city center, is the delightful Salon Malaga, whose owner and house DJ, 79-year-old Don Gustavo Arteaga, has spent almost six decades spinning a mix of tangos, boleros and Colombian classics.
Lining the walls are Arteaga’s collection of 7,000 vintage vinyl discs, along with photos of the presidents and movie stars who’ve passed through and family vacation shots from Iguazu Falls. Though he’s partial to tango (the style is enormously popular in Medellin), Arteaga favors hard-to-find tracks by artists such as Colombia-born Guillermo Buitrago over better-known hits by Argentine icon Carlos Gardel, who died in a plane crash at the local airport.
“I can’t stand Gardel!” he barks.
You won’t spend long in Medellin without hearing all about the people called Paisas -- the charismatic natives of this mountainous part of northwest Colombia who give the city much of its unique character. Many Paisas are descended from Basques and Spaniards who settled here from the 16th century onward, and today, even as Medellin opens up to the world, the local culture retains deep traces of the provincial pride for which its European forefathers are known.
If Bogota is Colombia’s Madrid, then Medellin is its Barcelona: smaller, prettier and more pleased with itself. During my weeklong visit, no fewer than five people bragged to me that Beyonce had chosen Medellin over Bogota for a stop on her world tour. When news of the concert was announced in July, Mayor Anibal Gaviria sent out a self-congratulatory tweet, hailing Medellin as a magnet for “the most important international events.”
Even though Medellin still feels in some ways like a small town, it’s got the drive and the chutzpah of a world-class metropolis. Mayor Gaviria, who says his top priorities for the city are continued improvements in safety and social equality, acknowledges that city hall can’t fix everything. (“Unfortunately, virtually all crime in this city is linked to drugs in one way or another,” he says, “and the drug trade is an international problem.”)
But he’s got an ambitious agenda favoring more green spaces and massive public works, rooted in what he calls “educational civic urbanism,” a program that encourages respect for communal spaces by tapping into Paisa pride. Throughout the metro system, a squadron of mop-wielding cleaners works with a zeal that might seem extreme even in Switzerland. On the trains, a recorded voice earnestly urges riders to be on their best behavior: “In the metro, we are pleased to respect others,” it says.
Somehow, this works: Vandalism is rare in the metro and the parques bibliotecas. When I tell Echeverri, the architect, that I’m surprised that more books aren’t pilfered from the libraries, he admits that he’s surprised, too. He believes it has something to do with a gradual shift in the culture, a theory that’s seconded by Jorge Gallego, the 49-year-old taxi driver who drops me off at city hall.
“Everyone in Medellin used to throw trash out the car window,” Gallego says. “I did it myself all the time. There was really no reason to think about what was good for the city or its future. Now, we all know better.”
My visit to one of the city’s latest marquee projects -- a $5 million outdoor escalator in what may be the most dangerous slum, Comuna 13 -- offers evidence of both the promise and the precariousness of the so-called Medellin miracle.
Zigzagging its way up a steep hillside crammed with makeshift homes, the automated stairway reduces transport time to five minutes, effectively linking this neighborhood to the rest of the city for the first time. The mayoral aide who accompanies me to the escalator suggests that we make the visit in the morning -- “before noon, when the bad boys start to wake up.”
The blocks in the immediate vicinity of the escalator seem orderly and well maintained, even with the squawking, caged chickens and ubiquitous graffiti, but on the stairway itself this morning, policemen outnumber pedestrians. A few blocks away is the local Hall of Justice, which sits near the entry point of a major drug supply route; many guards in the area carry not pistols but AK-47s.
Even in more-central, wealthier districts, glimpses of Medellin’s underbelly are never far from sight. Just a couple of kilometers from El Poblado is the gang-controlled Barrio Antioquia, where a gram of pure cocaine can be bought in the open for about $4.
One way to gauge progress in Medellin these days is by monitoring sales of a more benign addictive substance: caffeine. The city lies at the heart of one of South America’s key coffee- growing regions, but for years it was almost impossible to find a decent espresso here, because most high-quality beans were exported to richer countries.
That’s quickly changing, thanks to neighborhood hangouts like Pergamino, an airy cafe in El Poblado with imported La Marzocco machines and Chemex brewers. Pedro Echavarria, a 26-year-old Tufts University graduate and son of a prominent Colombian businessman and coffee grower, runs the place with an eye toward weaning locals from the “crappy” stuff he says they’ve grown up with. During trips to meet with foreign importers, he’s been inspired by places like Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon.
“Everyone there wants to know exactly where the coffee is grown, by whom, what the environmental policies are,” Echavarria says.
At Pergamino, the baristas offer detailed treatises on various types of beans and roasts, and there are free classes on how coffee is cultivated and processed.
Like everyone else around here, Echavarria had some run-ins with violence during Medellin’s darker years: A relative was murdered in 1996, and at one point Echavarria’s family moved to Bogota to escape the threat of kidnapping. Today, however, Echavarria is giving his native city what may be the ultimate vote of confidence, by making it his home once again.
“Medellin is a completely different city now,” he says. “It’s actually a place I want to be.”
(Christopher Bagley is a contributing writer for Bloomberg Pursuits. Opinions expressed are his own.)