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
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
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.
train north from Industriales, easy-to-spot highlights include the kitschy faux-township
Paisa -- a miniature version of a typical
Antioquian town – that looms on the left, followed
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
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.
Three stops later at Acevedo station, transfer to Line
K, the first of Medellín's Metrocables. Take care not to follow the crowd through
the metro exit gates or you will have to buy another ticket to re-enter the
system. Instead walk to the Line K entrance, wait for an empty car to slowly
inch around the terminus bend and step on. If photography is your primary goal,
hang back and wait for a car with newer, cleaner windows; older cars with
scuffed and defaced windows will defeat even the best photographers.
As the car climbs, the city transforms. Modern,
permanent buildings with finished rooftops begin to fade. The structures become
shorter, three levels at most, the exteriors comprised of bare cinderblocks and
the roofs of simple corrugated tin. Likewise, the streets begin wide and expertly
paved, then deteriorate, becoming narrow and uneven. These are the favelas.
Several fascinating minutes later at Santo Domingo
station, the Metrocable's mountaintop terminus, you will see an improvement in
the surroundings. A revitalisation has occurred here, anchored by the new Biblioteca
España (Library of Spain), an artistic, three-part, irregular structure made
of black slate that would likely be the pride of any community, never mind this
far-flung, long-suffering neighbourhood.
Linger on the Metrocable platform and snap pictures of
the neighbourhood and copious long-shots of Medellín down below. Many locals
and expats warn visitors from wandering the favelas, but Santo Domingo is relatively
Reframe or capture missed photo opportunities on the
way back down, then retrace your route on the metro, heading back south to San
Antonio station, where you will switch to the east-west Line B. The six stops
on this branch of the metro travel mostly through business, retail and then
residential areas, though the colossal swimming and soccer stadiums break up the
At San Javier station, six stops from San Antonio, it
is time to sidle onto Metrocable Line J, the newer and, at 2.7km in length, the
much longer of the two cable car lines. Again, the surroundings begin to change
only a few moments after the car begins its ascent. The neighbourhoods on this
side are decidedly scruffier, with the poverty far more palpable and unsettling.
The homes are built mainly from cinderblocks and corrugated tin, though several
shacks appear to have been simply lashed together with whatever material could
be salvaged. Streets, when there are any, are narrow and impossibly steep at
As some of the slopes were too prohibitively steep to
build on, there is also a lot more greenery on this line, and you will rise to
much higher points than on Line K. Keep an eye out for small planes gliding
down the length of the valley, coming in for a landing at Medellín's domestic
airport. Once again, feel free to alight from the Metrocable at La Aurora, the
final station, to snap panoramic photos of Medellín, which is now so distant that
the city may be smog-obscured.
Finally, descend back into the city at your leisure,
knowing that you have now quite literally seen all of Medellín -- in what is
arguably one of the biggest bangs for a buck on the planet.
The article 'The cheapest sightseeing tour in the world' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.