International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
The city of Medellín, located in north-central Colombia, has an inspirational story. Only two decades removed from the height of its notoriously violent past, it is now considered to be one of the safest big cities in Latin America, with character, nightlife and public art that any urban area would envy.
Surprisingly though, it is Medellín’s public transport system that is one of the city’s biggest highlights . The metro famously played a pivotal role in reducing violence and desperation in Medellín, a miraculous achievement that contributed to it being named one of the top transport systems in the world in 2012 by the international organisation Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. And as a bonus, it offers visitors possibly the least expensive but most comprehensive and photogenic city tour in the world.
The city's impressive elevated metro system, completed in the mid-1990s, was augmented in 2006 and 2008 with the addition of two Metrocable lines. These cable cars, which climb both sides of the valley in which Medellín sits, travel deep into the far-flung and formerly difficult-to-reach favelas (shanty towns) that are located in the surrounding hills and have had a measureable social impact on the city.
Prior to the completion of the cable cars, people stranded in the favelas wanting access to jobs, education, healthcare and even basic shopping had to make a slow and arduous journey down the mountainside to get into the city. Sporadic and unpredictable buses were available in some areas, but mostly people walked – sometimes for hours. This isolation, depravation and hopelessness contributed substantially to Medellín's famous and now rapidly fading history of crime and violence.
The Metrocable has made commuting from even the furthest edges of the favelas a quick, affordable and scenic journey, travelling over the mountain and down into the valley where it seamlessly connects with the trains. Access to the system, including transfers between the trains and Metrocables, which effectively allows for an orientation tour of the entire city, is a refreshingly inexpensive 1,750 pesos -- or about $1.
To get their money’s worth, visitors might want to start their tour at one of the metro's terminus stations, either Itagui in the south or Niquia in the north, but the best scenery is along the central stretch of the line, namely the 9km between the Industriales and Acevedo stations.
Taking the train north from Industriales, easy-to-spot highlights include the kitschy faux-township of Pueblito Paisa -- a miniature version of a typical Antioquian town – that looms on the left, followed by Parque San Antonio to the right of the station of the same name. The park contains three sculptures by the prolific artist Fernando Botero, including his Pájaro de Paz (Bird of Peace), which was severely damaged by a guerilla bomb in the 1990s, prompting him to place a replica beside it to highlight the futility of war. Minutes later, just before the Parque Berrio station, you will see one of Botero's most famous works on the right hand side, a female torso known as La Gorda (The Fat Lady), standing in front of a branch of the Banco de la República.
At Parque Berrio station, roughly the half-way point of the tour, get off the train for several more sights from the platform. On the right, visible through the park's thin trees is Medellín's most prominent church, the 16th-century Basílica de la Candelaria. At the northwest end of the platform is the impossible-to-miss, black-and-white, sumptuous Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe (Palace of Culture), famous for hosting concerts, art expositions and other events.
Back on the train and continuing north, at Prado station is the Iglesia Los Doce Apostoles (Church of the Twelve Apostles), and moments later just after Hospital station on the right is the Cementerio de San Pedro, containing a remarkable number of extravagant tombstones, sepulchral chapels and mausoleums. Just before Universidad station, also on the right, is the enormous Joaquín Antonio Uribe Botanic Garden, containing 600 species of trees and plants, a lake and a herbarium.