…or the giant urban escalators of Medellin
A system of outdoor escalators has been built in what was once one of the poorest parts of the city of Medellin. The escaleras electricas: fun things in Medellin are educational interesting and functional.
In the barrio (district) of Las Independencias, la Comuna 13 de Medellin sprawls down the impossibly steep mountainside. Its residents – twelve thousand citizens – have benefited enormously from this public transport installation.
Comune 13 from the escaleras electricas
Not so long ago Comune 13 was considered dangerous and off limits to most people. Steeped in poverty, crime was rife among the narrow little streets and the inhabitants felt disengaged and forgotten by the government. The area was little more than a slum or a shanty town until 2011 when everything changed.
Social impact of the urban escalators
The building of this new transport system has had several benefits.
- It makes the residents feel a part of the city of Medellin; that the government does care about them enough to invest money in their run down area and now includes them in the modern transport systems that serves the city.
- It makes day to day living a whole lot easier for the residents who no longer have to drag everything up and down hundreds of steps.
• It opens the area up, enabling police and security forces easier access and the ability to respond more quickly to crime and troubles
• It has provided a canvas for some astounding graffiti and street art and a space for community exhibits, performances and events which builds a more cohesive community among the residents.
• It has opened the area up to tourists and visitors who are attracted by the street art and the views over the city. Some property prices have began to rise as new residents are attracted to this area and judging by the lovingly painted houses and tiny little gardens and terraces there is a pride in this area.
colourful houses scramble up the mountainside
1500 journeys are taken on these escalators daily, some by visitors or tourists but the majority are made by the local inhabitants of this area just going about their day to day business. They travel to school or work, visit friends and family and get their post delivered.
Escaleras electricas: fun things to do in Medellin
Prior to the installation of this system the only way to reach the majority of the houses here was on foot. People had to heave children, food and everything else up the 350 concrete steps and along the narrow alleyways which cling to the side of the incredibly steep hillside which is inaccessible to cars or busses.
The area became a no-go area for law enforcement because gangs and criminals could quickly and easily hide and escape from the police among the narrow alleyways because it could take so long for help to arrive; if anybody bothered to notify the authorities at all.
Comune 13 still has a reputation for danger and crime so be careful when you visit – but no more than in any city that you visit. Don’t wear expensive jewellery or flash your camera around – although you will want certainly want to bring your camera here. Check out the latest prices for the compact Panasonic Lumix camera here. It is small enough to slip into your pocket when you are walking around but has a great zoom and is easy to use.
Colourful murals are everywhere. Even the tin roofs of the houses have not escaped the paint brushes and spray cans and they are adorned with flowers and birds which shine in the sun. University students, artists and local people have all contributed to the art which covers walls, doors and alleyways.
Escaleras Electricas: Fun things in Medellin
Obviously riding the escalators and peeping into people’s yards is fun. Take your picture with some of the fantastic murals that are everywhere or you can take a slide down a part of the mountainside. The architect obviously had a sense of fun with these slides.
The staff at the information centre were very helpful when we visited the area and as it was quiet, one lady joined us on our trip back down, pointing out some of the interesting art and even riding the slides with us.
Hopefully, the barrio will continue to be a safer place and vandalism, crime and disconnection will not set in again. Medellin has an amazing city metro system which includes cable cars as well as the escalators and the city planners have been working hard to lift the city out of its shady past by opening up the previous dangerous spaces.
How to get there. Take the Metro train to San Javier station. Cross the road outside the station at San Javier and wait for the bus # 221. Tell your driver that you want to get out at the escaleras eléctricas. You will be on the bus for about fifteen minutes. Leaving the bus you need to continue to climb, bearing slightly to the right. You will emerge at the top of the system of escalators where you will find the offices and administration centre for the transport system housed in a large concrete building. From here, its all downhill, although my friend Lisa (Girl about the Globe) and I went around a couple of times so that we could take it all in.
If you are looking for somewhere to stay in Medellin, there are plenty of places to choose from here at Hotels Combined
Medellin is a crowded sprawling city but it is relatively easy to navigate around and there are countless hotels to suit all budgets.
N.B. At the time of writing the number of the bus was correct.
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I was in and around Medellin for more than three months in the end, so it goes to show that first impressions don’t always count (mad cab driver)
The city is amazing! Similar to many others in Latin America it is situated in a bowl and surrounded by mountains but everything here is in perfect proportion. The ratio of the buildings climbing up the mountainside to the expanse of sky and the greenery, the climate which is rarely too hot or too cold and the people are so inquisitively friendly. Also, there is none of the claustraphobia of La Paz or the immense size of Quito. Medellin is perfect.
Medellin by night
Medellin was, until relatively recently, the most dangerous city on the planet and whilst it still has its dangers and it can be a bit edgy it has changed rapidly.
The government has initialised what is known as democratic architecture – which is when you take the most dangerous places and rebuild them. The hope is that this reclaims the streets from the criminals, giving people a pride and demonstrating that even the poor areas are worthy of investment. Plaza de Luz used to be a no go area, riddled with crime, drugs and guns but now it is a shining example of opening up a space (although it is still not advisable to visit it at night) with its modern library building and its tall light poles which stalk across the square.
Plaza de Luz
As part of this new development the city is now served by the most fabulous transport system. The metro train sweeps above the city on its concrete piers, a modern cable car serves one of the poorest barrios and whisks you up to Parque Avil and the escaleras electricas have made it easier for the residents in Comuna 13 to connect with the rest of the city. Bizarrely perhaps for us to understand, it is the metro system which symbolises the rebirth of the city from its dark days. You will not find one piece of litter or grafitti on it as the population carefully guard this most iconic representation of progress.
One of the gleaming metro bus stations
Cultural events abound in parques, and street art and libraries inform and educate. During my time in Medellin I went along to a samba festival which incorporated hip hop and street dance. The energy generated by the samba bands was over and above anything that I have experienced before with their complete love for the rhythms and dance. I went to a tango event, I saw French gypsy music and I watched Brazilian and Argentinian musicians play. I saw most of these events at the cool Centro Plazarte communal space in the rough-around-the edges district of Prado.
Plaza de Luz at night
There is a entire shopping mall dedicated to geekiness contianing what could be more than two hundred shops selling or repairing mobile phones and computers. I had met G one evening out dancing and when I asked him where I could get my broken laptop fixed he arranged to meet me at the mall and he helped me to negotiate a price and a repair. I believe that the store initially attempted to rip me off by finding a new fault with the computer and charging me nearly four times the original price. After they spotted me taking photographs and learnt that I write for a living they suddenly changed their tune and they couldn’t have been more helpful, keeping my computer for a few days and offering me to lend me one of theirs to take to Cartagena. I tell you this anecdote not to highlight the attempt to scam me but to demonstrate the kindness and generosity of the people. G spent hours with me waiting around, negotiating on my behalf and running me around the city on the back of his motor bike. He had met me once in a night club and simply wanted to help.
One of the fabulous Botero statues
Something which makes me chuckle is the pedestianised street in Medellin complete with traffic lights poking up between the crammed market stalls. This street was stealthiliy and illegally claimed by street traders who set up one, two then twenty stalls and by the time the authorities realised that traffic could no longer pass, they couldn’t be bothered to change anything, shrugged and so the street remains.
There is also a large square which contains two of Botero’s sculptures of birds. One is a mess having had a bomb explode next to it during the dark days and the other is a new one which was donated by the artist, although he insisted that the city do not remove the damaged one as a reminder of the high number of lives that were lost at that time.
bomb damaged and new by Botero
Like all cities in Colombia prostitutes parade outside one of the main churches, you can buy single cigarettes from traders with their little packed trays and drugs are readily offered as you wander about, but for the most part, everything is conducted under the watchful eye of the ever present police and ususally with a huge smile and good humour
I stayed for the most part in the barrio of Belen in a hostel cum apartment. Rubbing shoulders with backpackers in the dorm, longer stay guests and nomadic workers we shared food and conversations. Travel writers language teachers, musicians and artisans, medical students on a placement, an attorney and a digital marketer all connected and made the place a home from home
outside the liquor shops in La Setenta
I can’t end without mentioning the World Cup. The Colombian team and its supporters won the hearts of the world with their team spirit, salsa dancing and zest for life. I feel extremely priviledged and proud to have been in Colombia during this time when the atmosphere was electric and everybody, including the dogs, wore the gold football shirts
Whilst there was some trouble in some of the big cities on match days and alcohol was subsequently banned it says a lot that Medellin didn’t feel the need to impose such restrictions on its inhabitants.
I watched the Uraquay match in Calle La Setenta where every licor shop, cafe and club had rigged a TV and speaker system outside. The place erupted when Colombia won and the police good naturedly watched while the road was closed to traffic due to the sheer numbers of people celebrating.
waiting patiently in Parque Lleras
The final match against Brazil was AMAZING. A group of us made our way to Parque Lleras in the Poblado district where huge screens had been rigged up among the trees. The place was a sea of yellow with bottles of rum and aguardiente freely passing around. The crowd gradually became a little bit more subdued as it became obvious that Brazil would win and I did wonder what would happen at the final whistle? Anger, fights and trouble? The army and police had a heavy presence and the chances were that things could get ugly.
the final whistle blows and the foam erupts
The final whistle blew and… the place erupted. The Colombians had come out to party and party they would. Proud of their team rather than accusing them for losing they hugged and danced with strangers and celebrated. Music blasted out of houses and bars, drummers drummed and people bought cans of foam and we all had a massive foam fight running around like mad things. The clubs that night were full of gold shirts as the party continued and we stood for nearly half an hour in torrential rain at four in the morning trying to get a cab home.
I adore the city of Medellin.