Colombia’s second-largest city is breaking free from its dark past and undergoing an exciting revival, writes Christina Horsten.

A bird - or rather a statue of one - recalls the bad old days in central Medellin.

The stomach and tail of the bronze statue located on San Antonio Square in the centre of the Colombian city are completely shredded. Only the head looks down stoically from on high.

In 1995 the guerrilla movement FARC hid a bomb beneath the bronze bird that the Colombian artist Fernando Botero had created.

During a music festival, the bomb blast killed at least 30 people and injured more than 200 others. Botero insisted the destroyed statue should remain there as it was, as a memorial. But he placed a new and unblemished bird directly next to it.


The bomb attack on the "bird of peace" was the zenith of terrorism and violence in the city in northwestern Colombia - and at the same time it became a turning point.

Two years earlier Pablo Escobar had been shot dead only a few kilometres from the site. For decades the powerful and brutal drug baron had terrorised Medellin's people and had virtually shut them off from the outside world.

"Medellin was synonymous with the drug war," says Ricardo Rodriguez as he steers one of the yellow taxis over the hilly streets of the city of three million people.

"During all those years, hardly any tourists dared to come here."

The irony is that Colombia's second-biggest city, in the Aburra Valley between lush green mountains, always had the best potential for tourism. Its climate is mild year-round, giving Medellin the nickname "city of eternal spring".

But violence and poverty kept tourists away - until now. During the past few years, Medellin has undergone an overhaul and now is hoping its reputation will catch up with what has been accomplished.

Large infrastructure projects have made Medellin one of the most progressive and liveable cities anywhere in Latin America.

It has built a rapid and clean elevated rail system and several new and architecturally exciting public libraries and museums. The poor neighbourhoods spread over Medellin's many hills are now connected with the rest of the city via escalators and cable cars.

"In the past, going to a job interview or visiting some civil office meant a day-long excursion for the people in the poor districts," says Julia Colzanes, a student.

Now, the escalators and cable cars have become a tourist attraction.

Even Escobar is a tourist draw, and many people go looking for his grave outside the city. "Each day, 40 to 50 people - they are exclusively tourists - come here," says cemetery worker Federico Arroyave.

Tourists also search out the rooftop where Escobar was gunned down, as well as his penthouse. There are even guided tours to the spot.

To this day poorer Colombians still revere Escobar as a kind of Robin Hood, although Medellin's city administration is firmly opposed to any kind of Escobar-related tourism.

Taxi driver Rodriguez doesn't care what brings in the tourists. "The main thing is that they are here. Then they'll notice what nice, friendly and warm-hearted people we are here in Medellin. And how we're going to stay that way."