In Full Bloom Once Again!


On my Colombia visit I must have heard that word a dozen times, and there was no mistaking it; for transformación is virtually the same in Spanish.

Medelin, Colombia

I was in Medellin, the mega metropolis now Colombia's second largest city with a population nearing three million. Founded four centuries ago Medellin is spectacularly situated in a most attractive mountain valley the locals correctly describe as "Andean Tropic." The agreeable climate is springtime year 'round.

Medellin today is a genuinely peaceful city where the world's loveliest, liveliest "Flower Fair" blooms annually in August. However, it is also the city once termed "the world's most violent" during past years when the vicious Medellin Cartel was a lair of international drug traffickers. Now the "cocaine cowboy" violence of the '70s and '80s is gone, and today this modern, bustling city is celebrating peace and obvious prosperity.

A modern Metro crosses the city connecting even the highest mountainside neighborhoods with "MetroCable," a continuous chain of sleek, eight-passenger cable cars. The ascending ride up the Andean foothills affords a splendid city view, and offers an opportunity to chat with locals.

And the past still casts a shadow over conversation.

"This movie called Medellin has taught us fear and now tranquility," a cable car passenger beside me said. Our attractive tour guide added, "and now it's easy to find love in Medellin." Later a video I bought was labeled "Medellin from Fear to Hope." Words, however, aren't what most convince the visitor of Medellin's dramatic turnaround. The city literally speaks for itself.

The skyscraper skyline is impressive. An expansive, new convention center is heavily booked with scores of major international meetings and congresses. Cultural attractions comprise eleven museums, and include the famed art and sculpture collection of Fernando Botero.

Inviting city parks and plazas are popular with locals and visitors alike. A favorite is "Barefoot Park" where one is expected to shed shoes, walk the garden paths barefoot, then soothe tired feet in fresh water ponds.

Also, celebrating the transformation, one will discover lively nightlife. Surrounding the downtown Plaza Lleras are blocks of open-air cafes, bars, and restaurants. Marking the 1935 death in Medellin of tango icon Carlos Gardel, the tango and milonga pervade many of the city's outdoor bars and cafes. An annual International Tango Festival is held here every June.

Shopping is also a major attraction in scores of major malls and small boutiques. Medellin is a fashion center. The smart, popular, bargain buy is women's clothing. There's even a fully stocked lingerie shop in the international airport between immigration and security. Artisan and souvenir shopping extends well beyond the city limits. The mountain highway to the airport, for example, is literally lined with colorful country shops crammed with antiques, art, ceramics, and leather goods.

No Medellin report can fail to mention food and drink. Best advice is to sample a Bandeja Paisa for lunch. It's a bright platter heaped with everything imaginable from sliced avocado salad to crisp pork rinds to savory beef, plus rice and beans and more, but beware the drink of choice here is potent. You'll be offered small shots of powerful aguardiente which my hosts claimed reflect Medellin's warmth. It does!! The strong sugar cane brandy instantly warms one right down into your chest.

Also reflecting Medellin's warmth is the surrounding countryside where historic haciendas, country inns, and inviting country clubs welcome visitors. This is horse country, and many ranches are home of Colombia's world famed paso finos. Here too the colonial Hacienda Fizebad, for example, specializes in outdoor weddings set upon a terrace encircled by tropic forest. Nearby the expansive Club Campestre hosts world championship water ski events, and the new Piedras Blancas Park nearby is home of an impressive, wild butterfly collection.

And the flowers!

Amazingly bright flowers, delicate orchids, bold bromeliads all compete for attention in the fields and homes of Medellin's state of Antioquia. One may visit immense flower ranches where flower production has become a major export industry. "We ship ten tons a month," a comely flower management girl advised, "and most go by jet to your country."

It was easy to believe for under protective cover thousands of healthy plants surrounded me in all directions. When I asked why Medellin is so ideal for growing magnificent flowers the succinct answer was "our perfect soil, climate, and altitude."

My only regret leaving Medellin was not being able to take an armful of that flowering freshness home. I had to settle for a silver orchid pin as a souvenir of this bountiful valley, but my mind was also filled with a new impression of a city that just days ago I had reservations about visiting.

When I thanked my hosts for showing me the transformation they simply smiled and said "the past is an image that's now long gone. You must return for the flower festival - but make sure you reserve well in advance. Medellin's in full bloom again!"

~ Jim Woodman