Héctor Abad Reflects on Medellín, Colombia

Isolated Medellín is an aspirational and cultured city with a history of violence. Samuel Aranda / Corbis

The region is called Antioquia (like the ancient city Antiochia), and it’s one of the most mountainous in South America. Mountainous and jungly. From Patagonia it’s possible to travel by car north until the jungles and mountains of Antioquia and Chocó get in the way, like an impenetrable green sea. The same thing happens from north to south: it’s possible to drive from Alaska all the way to Panama, generally on decent highways, but where Panama ends and Colombia begins, suddenly all roads terminate at the edge of a sea of trees, mountains, and swamp. It’s no longer possible to continue by car. Not even on horseback; only on foot. There, in that zone known as the Darién Gap, my mountainous and isolated land begins. If the Americas are not united by land it’s because my region blocks the way to all and sundry.

I suppose that geography explains some things: Antioquia is a knot of inhospitable mountains, closed in on itself and even nowadays not easily accessible by land. And in the middle of the central mountain range, in a narrow valley at an altitude of 1,500 meters, is Medellín, with more than 3.5 million inhabitants. Colombia’s second city has been the gold, coffee, and industrial capital since independence and, in the final decades of the last century, became the cocaine capital. We speak a rough, old-fashioned Spanish here, with a resonant “s” heard only in a few towns in Spain. An hour below Medellín is the torrid, seething zone of the lowlands of the Cauca River. An hour above one comes to the highlands, chilly all year round. That’s why we say Medellín has three tiers: hot, temperate, and cold.

All through colonial times, due to bad roads and the difficult terrain, we were very isolated. Alexander von Humboldt himself, who in his equinoctial voyages explored all the little corners of the New World, had to skip Antioquia, due to lack of access routes, incessant rain, and fast-flowing rivers with no bridges to get across them. This isolation has bequeathed us a somewhat disagreeable pride: we have alternately thought of ourselves as white Christian hidalgos of old Spain or Basques reborn on the other side of the sea, but we’ve also been accused of being a pack of converted Jews hiding away in the remotest places. All this is more myth than reality, but people live on their myths. Those myths have created another: a belief that we’re special, different, in some way worth more than others. Or less.

Still today, well into the 21st century, to drive to the Atlantic Ocean from Medellín takes at least 10 hours on bad roads. And there is no direct road to the Pacific. Perhaps the very difficulty of doing business creates good businesspeople. Here tribute is still paid and songs sung to mule drivers and horses. During the municipal festivals, in August, the most popular event is the mounted cavalcade: tens of thousands of horses parade across the city, and behind them come the garbage trucks and street sweepers, who collect tons of dung. Industrialists breed horses, as do ranchers; the big cocaine barons bought horses for millions of dollars.

On top of this mythic, ancestral, commercial, isolated city there is another city, cultured and part of the world. The two cities fight and disapprove of each other. Perhaps our city’s commercialism and isolation produce a great craving to know the whole world. A craving for science, art, literature, knowledge. For centuries citizens of Medellín have dreamed of turning their city into a place more in harmony with the enlightenment and modernity, with education, health, government, nonviolence, clean water, and democracy. The two cities coexist: that of the mafiosi, smugglers, and corrupt politicians, and that of the artists, businesspeople, doctors, and enlightened politicians.

At the end of the last century it seemed like the former had won the battle. The city sank into a sea of violence and illegality. The corrupt politicians formed alliances with the drug traffickers and paramilitaries and produced hell. Our homicide rate was that of a country at war. All was blood and death. But in the last 10 years there has been a reaction from civilization against barbarity. We went from more than 7,500 homicides per year to 750. Instead of clandestine airports to transport cocaine, we built schools and libraries. Industry revived. Instead of smuggling contraband gold or white powder, we cultivate flowers and manufacture clothing, cement, and cars. The city seethes. All the legal and illegal tendencies coexist, sordid, dark, bright, and enlightened. The battle goes on, and it’s impossible to know who will win. This mountainous region of the northern corner of South America, isolated from the world, is geographically magnificent, tough, and joyful. In spite of everything, I like living in Medellín. Here I’ve never been bored for a single day of my life.

Héctor Abad’s most recent books to be published in English translation are Recipes for Sad Women and Oblivion: A Memoir. This essay was translated from Spanish by Anne McLean.