Colombia’s Incredible Transformation and the Medellin Miracle

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I’m just back from my third trip to Colombia since 2012. Before my first trip, I didn’t know what to expect and wrote a blog post about the experience. I came back in 2015 and 2016 and saw huge positive changes in Cartagena. I also went to Medellin, a beautiful city nesteled in a mountain valley for the first time. This post compares my experience from 2012 with 2016 and talks about why Medellin is a hidden gem that’s just starting to get its due both for tourism, but also as a potential tech hub in South America.

In 2012, a group of Chilean friends and I planned to go to Colombia’s north coast for two weeks and hang out on its beautiful tropical beaches.

I had studied a bit of Colombia in high school Spanish class, as my teacher was Colombian and wanted to share Colombia’s natural beauty with us. Being high schoolers, most of us only wanted to learn about Pablo Escobar, the drug gangs, movies, the violence, the civil war, how someone could murder a soccer star after scoring an own goal (watch the documentary, its really good)…pretty much the only news about Colombia we ever heard in the US.

In college, I wrote a paper about the drug war, the hunt for Pablo Escobar and the violence that plagued Colombia in the 80s and 90s. Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world, with a murder rate of over 381 per 100,000, 20x more than 2015 Chicago and 7x more than the most dangerous cities in the US. It’s now down almost 90% from its peak and is referred to as The Medellin Miracle.

My friends and I went to the north coast, landing in Cartagena, going to Santa Marta, Tayrona and Isla Baru. Some of my family and friends expressed concern about the trip, but I told them not to worry, Colombia was much safer and was growing quickly.

tayrona

We didn’t have any problems, but saw police corruption, lots of foreigner tourists in town for sex or drug tourism and underdeveloped, dangerous roads outside of the city. A few of our group got pickpocked, and you almost always noticed that bit of an edge: if you said something to the wrong person, or were in the wrong place and the wrong time, you might end up in real trouble.

Fast forward three years later. I spent a few days in Cartagena and the difference is like night and day. There’s hundreds of new apartment towers along the waterfront where there used to be crappy construction or nothing at all. The walled city is even more developed, with more restaurants and better lighting. It feels much safer. But the part that surprised me most was the part outside of the walled city, where I’d stayed before.

When I was there in 2012, most of the roads weren’t paved, the only accommodations were cheap party hostels. The streets were lined with drug dealers, military police and prostitutes, many of them working together.

In 2015, that’s all gone, at least from public view. The roads are paved, the infrastructure seems better. And there’s countless boutique hotels and interesting restaurants that have opened up to serve ever increasing numbers of tourists. Even the taxis seemed to have gotten an upgrade!

On that same trip in 2015, I spent time in Medellin and Bogota, this time for a mix of business and vacation. I hadn’t been to Medellin before, but had been watching Narcos to see a bit more about how things might have worked in the 80s and 90s. I didn’t really know what to expect and some of my family and friends still had the same idea about Colombia: that it’s dangerous, full of narcos, guerillas and corrupt police.

Upon arrival, I quickly realized Medellin didn’t deserve that reputation anymoreThe Medellin Miracle has reduced the murder rate by ~90%, opened up development opportunities and made the city a better place.

Medellin, know as the city of eternal spring, is a South American gem that’s just starting to get discovered by tourists. Nestled into a lush, green, mountain valley, Medellin has the same weather is the same all year round: 70s-80s and a bit of humidity. The locals say it’s a place you can pick your weather: want it a bit colder? Go up into the mountains a bit. Like it really hot? Go down into the valley some more. It rains tropically for part of the day during the rainy season, but otherwise is the perfect climate.

Cost of living is incredibly low. It would be hard to spend $2000 a month living in Medellin full time, living in the best areas of town in an apartment with beautiful views, living an incredible lifestyle. And you could certainly have a great lifestyle for $1000.

Backpackers have been coming to Medellin for years, but over the past few years, tourism is booming, along with a bourgeoning startup scene supported by talented engineering talent, talented entrepreneurs, smart venture capitalists, all helped on by Ruta N, a public/private program that gives grants to help entrepreneurs and tech people be successful.

I was just in Medellin again two weeks ago and the city keeps getting better. New infrastructure, restaurants and bars are opening up, nightlife is continuing to improve, startups, both from Colombia and abroad are expanding and more tourists are coming. Located 5 hours NYC, 7 from LA and Chicago, 3 from Miami, and 5 from Santiago and Buenos Aires, 3 from Lima, it’s uniquely positioned to take off as a place for tourism and to do business.

While Medellin is still clearly more dangerous than Chile or nice parts of major US cities, I never felt in danger riding public transport, taking taxis, and going to a night time soccer game. There’s still petty crime, drugs are readily available if you want them and there’s a bit of an edge in some places, but if you don’t get completely trashed and keep your wits, you’ll most likely be fine, just like in any other big city. There are still very dangerous parts of the country, mostly in areas where the ELN and FARC still have very strong influence near the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian borders, but most tourists don’t go there. The government has been negotiating with the guerrillas to end the world’s longest civil war. Most Colombians I talked to were sick of the conflict and ready for peace. They were hopeful that the peace treaty would be signed and that it would hold.

I’m really bullish on Medellin both as a bourgeoning tourist destination and also as one of Latin America’s startup hubs, and Colombia as a country. It’s a large market, close to the US, with interesting, open, fun people and some of the most incredible natural landscapes in the world. I’ll be spending more time there in the future.

Guatapé, 1.5 hours by car from Medellin

Guatapé, 1.5 hours by car from Medellin

Photo credits: Jorge Gobi, Nathan Lustig.