Medellin Colombia in the Valley of Aburrá
Recently, someone from that country up north asked us about Medellin, what it's like living here, its inhabitants, facilities, transportation, entertainment options, restaurants etc. It occurs to me that I've not devoted a blog post to this great city, so this post addresses those things. We love living in Medellin, and we highly recommend at least a visit here. It's also an excellent choice as a retirement spot. Here's an overview of what it's like, including some of the negatives, and there are a few of those. In fact, let's start with those.
Medellin air quality 3 pm, Sunday 4/15/2018
Starting with one of the downsides to life in Medellin, I include the air quality. The report above has better numbers for particulates, smog, and carbon monoxide than usual, partly because it's the weekend here, and traffic is light. The bottom line is that Medellin does have a problem with poor air quality. Nestled in the Aburrá Valley, between two ridges of the Andes, Medellin is in a bowl, thus emissions and particulates from more than 100,000 vehicles a day are trapped with no way to ooze out. It's not uncommon for the mayor of Medellin to issue a two or even three day 'Pico y Placa,' a restriction on vehicle use, until pollution numbers decrease. Because of rapid growth in the population, expanding industrial output, attendant commuting for employment, and the continued operation of many older, dirtier vehicles, Medellin's air quality has suffered. Efforts are underway to fix the problem, and progress is being made, with more natural gas buses & taxis, fewer two-cycle engines, more bicycles, and regulated personal car usage.
Medellin Colombia looking north from Comuna 13, and the Escaleras Electricas
Now the good news, and a story of a city on the rise. Thirty years ago this city was home to 1.5 million souls. Today an additional 2 million live here, about 5% of the population of Colombia. Greater Medellin also includes the separate cities of Girardota, Bello, Niquia, Envigado, Sabaneta & Itagui.
Pueblito Paisa: Old Medellin Barrios of Medellin World Class Metro System
More facts & figures:
The name Medellin derives from a city of the same name in Spain founded by Roman General Quintas Metellus.
Founded in 1616, the original part of Medellin was sited near present day El Poblado.
Original name: 'Villa de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria', Village of Our lady of Candelaria.
Size: Medellín has an area of 382 km2 (147 square miles)
Population (2017) 3.5 million
Trade output: Medellin produces 70% of the GDP of Antioquia Departamento, and 11% of Colombia's GDP.
Elevation: Medellín is located at 1,500 m (4,900 ft) above sea level.
Access: Two airports serve Medellin, Olaya Herrera, EOH, and José Maria Cordova, MDE.
Air Carriers: COPA, American Airlines, Avianca, JetBlue & Latam Airways
Public transport: The Metro carries more than a million passengers a day, and includes the integral Green 'MetroBus' system.
Climate: Temperatures range from 15 to 30 °C (59 to 86 °F). Medellin is known as La ciudad de la eterna primavera, city of eternal spring.
A local vigilante system in many barrios, the Celadores whistle all night long
Crime: This is a common concern, so I'll give it a separate section. Medellin was once the most dangerous city in the world, with an annual murder rate higher than any other. In 1991 there were 7,273 murders, 20 murders a day, for a rate of 266 per 100,000 people; in 2017 Medellín suffered 577 murders for a rate of 23 per 100,000 inhabitants. The city is now statistically safer than St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans and Detroit. The vast majority of today's capital crimes are gang related, and confined to upper barrios. The photos above show Celadores, men who patrol the barrios all night. Similar to town criers of old, the Celadores whistle that all's well. A product of the tiempo de violencia, the Celador program represents a local effort to combat street crime, and it's been very effective. Crime in Medellin has dropped dramatically.
Public transport is easy, inexpensive, plentiful, and well thought out (if not always efficient).
From the top left: Taxis, taxis, taxis! There are 26,000 of these little yellow bugs on the streets of Medellin. Like golf carts on steroids, taxis stand ready to serve, though how any of the 'taxistas' make enough pesos to survive is anyone's guess. (In my next post I'll explore the taxi situation in Medellin in further detail. Look for it soon).
The "Escaleras Electricas', or outdoor escalators of comuna 13 are part of the interconnected and purposeful system that addresses not only transport needs, but other needs as well. In 2004 Mayor Sergio Fajardo introduced his plan called Social Urbanism. A major part of the plan was to identify areas with the most pressing need for services, including public transport. One of those efforts, the escaleras changed a resident's grueling, 350 foot slog uphill into an easy ten minute (free) ride to his or her casa. More escaleras are in the planning stage to bring this access to other comunas.
The picture top right shows the MetroCable, Lines J & K of the Metro system. Line K continues uphill to Parque Arvi, a nature reserve.
At the bottom left, a train enters the Poblado station. The pride of the city, the Metro system is the only urban train system in Colombia. Prior to the Metro's opening in 1995, someone from Bello in the north of Medellin who worked in Poblado rode 2 hours each way to get to their job. On the Metro, that trip takes 30 minutes. With 27 stations, and five different lines, The Metro carries more than 1 million Medellin residents each day. Part of Mayor Fajardo's Social Urbanism was an effort to make the Metro system available to all. Fares on the Metro can now be based on a person's 'Estrato', a flexible system that charges less for those living in poorer barrios, and more for wealthier people. The estrato system is yet another initiative toward a more equitable, livable city. With six 'Estrato' levels, less advantaged people pay less for basic services than do the well off.
Next picture shows a unique urban initiative called EnCicla: free bicycles. Residents of Medellin can acquire a pass to use these sky blue bikes found in racks all over the city.
The last picture is of an ambulance, a private vehicle. This is one of the negative aspects of living in Medellin. There is public ambulance service here, but these sparse and ill-equipped vehicles respond primarily to road trauma, not medical emergencies. If a resident has a medical crisis at home or work, the best option is likely a taxi or Uber car for transport to a hospital, not an ambulance. Speaking of Uber & Lyft etc., both are technically illegal in Medellin, though still readily available.
And Medellin has traffic! Especially at certain times, Friday afternoon for example, roadways often come to a standstill with masses of traffic backed up, often for a mile or more, just another reality of big city life. After a time one learns when and when not to leave home and go places. And motorcycles, holy buckets! Here's a traffic tip that your taxi driver will appreciate: Never open a car door without looking behind, on both sides. Motorcycles pay no attention to which side of the car you're exiting. They'll squeeze through at highway speed regardless. Moto drivers will detour onto the sidewalk...no fooling...we've seen it happen.
'Maternidad' by Medellin native son, and Colombian artistic legend Fernando Botero
The sculpture above is one of 23 located at Parque Botero, downtown Medellin. This park is one of many cultural and social centers of this city. Following the ugly period of the drug wars during the 1980's and early 90's, the 'Paisas' of Medellin made a conscious decision to take back their city, and to make it more than livable. They wanted to turn Medellin into a haven, a place where they could raise their children in peace, and have a rich, satisfying life. As its nickname suggests, the City of Eternal Springtime put its chilly, violent past behind, and has blossomed as a center of culture, entertainment, and enjoyment. The transformation didn't come easily, but if residents are asked today about the bad old days, they politely change the subject. Medellinenses refuse to discuss the drugs, gangs, and rampant criminal activity, and the name Pablo Escobar is not mentioned. Instead, residents of this city adopted a new mantra: "Depende tambien de ti, darle amor a Medellín" It depends on you to give love to Medellin. The effort is working. In 2013 Medellin was awarded "Innovative City of the Year" by the Wall Street Journal. In 2016, Medellin won the coveted Lee Kwan Yew World City Prize, ahead of 38 other world class cities.
Art Expo, The Lights!, Educational Offerings, Street Art, A Zoo, A Symphony.
The annual Expoartesano brings crafts people from all over Colombia. Alumbrada, the annual light show illuminates Medellin for three weeks during the Christmas season with millions of festive lights, bringing tourists from all over the world. Educational initiatives are everywhere, with many Colombians seeking a better life through learning. Public spaces do double duty as libraries in this education focused city. Street performers such as this mime can be found all over, doing their acts for a few thousand pesos. Medellin has a zoo! It's not large, diverse, or filled with exotic creatures, but our zoo is attractive, clean, set up well, and a definite must see. And there is a symphony. The world class Filarmed de Medellin performs at home at Plaza Mayor's Teatro Metropolitano, the Jorge Gutierrez Gomez concert hall. In addition to its in-house events, the Orquesta Filarmónica de Medellin entertains residents with frequent free performances in city parks and various malls.
Flower Fest: Every year flowers fill the malls. Horseback riding is a cultural touchstone.
The Silletero festival brings thousands of tourists to Medellin. Malls and public spaces overflow with flowers during this time. Horseback riding is one of the primary sports activities, and a reminder of the cities rural past as well. In addition, Medellin supports two Futbol teams, Atlético Nacional, and Independiente Medellin. Cycling is also a prominent sport. Medellin closes major roadways every Sunday for Ciclovia, when bicyclists, skaters, and pedestrians use public highways to exercise and socialize.
Cuisine in Medellin: Diverse, Scrumptious, Fun, Cheap, and served with smiles.
1) National breakfast soul food, The Bunuelo. Deep fat fried, and mouth watering good! And they come in all sizes!
2 & 3) Friends from Boquete chow down (And visit with resident greeter Frida Kahlo) at 'Contenadores' in Envigado.
4) Hot wine, a perfect lunch accompaniment at somewhat chilly RioNegro.
Other events & venues: Come to Medellin and see the International Poetry Festival, the Tango festival, the annual book & culture festival, International horse Festival, and more.
Museums: The Museum of Antioquia, Museum of Modern Art, El Castillo, EPM Interactive Museum, the Minerology Museum, the cemetery of San Pedro, (yes, a museum in a cemetery. They even offer 'full moon' parties!), the Museum of local painting & artistic legend Pedro Nel Gomez.
Parks to visit: Parque Explora, Parque Botero, Segundo Parque Laureles, Primer Parque Laureles, Parque de los Deseos, the Planetarium, Parque de los pies descalzos, (barefoot park), and Jardin Botanico.
Retirement data etc:
Medellin is a world class city, a dynamic and engaging tourist stop, a center of innovation in city administration, a place where culture and industry go hand in hand, and a growing, prosperous home to 3.5 million Colombianos. It's also our home, and a great spot to retire to. We live in a high rise building near La Frontera, on Medellin's south side, within walking distance to many five star restaurants, sophisticated shopping malls, health centers to meet our needs, and easy access to transportation. We don't own a car and don't need one. We live very well on about $1,500 per month, USD. That figure includes rent, high speed internet, electric & gas, health insurance, cell phones, and most grocery costs. There are farmer's markets every day in Medellin, and weekly vegetable costs can be as low as $15.00 USD. (Not a typo--fifteen dollars! And goods here are generally free of chemical additives). Other market costs for us average around $200.00 per month USD. (Look for a post very soon about La Mayorista, the center of fruit and vegetable distribution in Medellin.)
We have a temporary, one year cedula/visa, which we'll renew at one year. After five years we will acquire permanent residency in Colombia. We have a bank account here with BancColombia, and there are ATMs scattered all over town from which we access our needed funds via a major investment/financial firm.
As for safety, always a concern to expats, we can say this. After living in Medellin for one year we've never once felt threatened, unsafe, or even uneasy walking, taking taxis, the Metro, visiting public parks or partaking in local activities. Medellin is a big city, with the usual big city concerns. So we don't wander around downtown after dark, drinking and looking for drugs & trouble. We don't flaunt our wealth, which is considerable compared to that of the folks we live among. We don't wear jewelry or fancy watches, and we don't dress like we just left a Paris runway. We don't flash our cash and credit cards in public. We keep cell phone usage to a minimum. We're learning Spanish, and we believe this effort alone provides a degree of acceptance that protects us somewhat. We're not naive, but we're not constantly wary and living in fear, either. We simply love living in Medellin, and we believe that energy shields us a bit from whatever negative offerings some folks encounter.
Medellin: Saturday April 7th 2018, 5:45 am.
The view from our balcony on the 17th floor. Looking NorthWest, we can watch the morning sun bathe the city, its light sweeping down the Andes, and creeping across the Aburrá Valley. It's a great way to start a day. Aguacatala Metro station is in the lower foreground. It's an easy walk, and from there, all over Medellin in a minutes.