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  • Writer's pictureCullen Heater

Food Moves: Medellín

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

Medellín, Colombia: The City of Eternal Spring.

This mile-high paradise is Colombia's second largest city, and perhaps its most misunderstood. When I told my parents that we were heading to Medellín, they immediately asked: "Is it safe?" Despite its reputation and history as the most dangerous city in the world–a result of the war on drugs and Colombia's ongoing 58-year civil war–Medellín is turning the page on its violent history and choosing life over death. Call it the Miracle of Medellín.

The road from Guatapé winds through the green hills of Antioquia and through the Túnel del Oriente–the second-largest tunnel in Latin America, bored through Cerro Verde mountain. We arrive on the tree-lined streets of the El Poblado neighborhood–the bustling center of downtown Medellín's nightlife.

The steep hills and overhanging branches of Parque Lleras and the surrounding El Poblado area offer an incredible look into the life of Medellín. For a taste of Medellín's restaurants and cocktail bars, El Poblado is the place to stay. Many travel blogs suggest the neighborhood of Laureles for a more relaxed and residential vibe, but I'm saving that for my next trip.

Where to stay in El Poblado: Celestino Boutique Hotel

But first, coffee. After a lengthy nap in Latin America's second largest tunnel, I need caffeine. We pull our suitcases out of the car, pay the driver, and walk up to Celestino Boutique Hotel. We haven't eaten anything since climbing El Peñón, so after checking in and dropping off our bags, we head straight to Azul Selva in the lobby for brunch and coffee.

Celestino Boutique Hotel plays into the urban jungle vibe–down to the vertical garden in the lobby and the plastic tropical plants in the bedroom. It is in prime walking location for exploring the area and close to some of the best restaurants, cafés, and bars in the city. El Poblado is a busy place and can feel like a whirl of stimulation. I spent the first few days wandering in circles, trying to get my bearings. Getting lost is the only way to get to know a new city.

Medellín's streets are full of life. On one corner, an acrobatic street performer dangles perilously above traffic, suspended by a length of red fabric tied to a tree. He drops, coming within a foot of smashing his head on the street. As we enter the park, a dealer surreptitiously offers me a weed brownie. I resist the temptation. As we walk past the restaurant Oci.MDE, I spot a curious sign that makes me pause. "No to the Sex Tourist" it says, with a stiletto heel stepping on a flip-flop.

"This is a theme that we deal with on a daily basis," says Laura Londoño of Oci.MDE. "Some years ago our country received tourism almost exclusively for drugs and prostitution." It was at that time that the "No to Sex Tourism" campaign was created for the Pazamanos Foundation and adopted by many restaurants, bars, and cafés in El Poblado.

"Fortunately," Londoño continues, "these days we receive a large number of tourists interested in getting to know our culture, gastronomy, and nature. "

When asked about popular support for the campaign, Londoño responded, "Many restaurants in Medellín are in the same position that we are, but this can be a theme that generates controversy, so not all of them have made as aggressive a campaign as ours. In our case it has had a good result."

Poverty, prostitution, and drugs are an undeniable reality in Medellín. But the city is trying to put this image in the past. There is so much more that Colombia has to offer. “We want to keep offering our clientele a space where they feel comfortable,” says Londoño. “Our position has always been to take care of our space so that this restaurant can be a place for families and friends and healthy meetings of all kinds.”

Sunset at Alambique

From the street, it's a nondescript warehouse: graffiti on the roll-up door, a pane of broken glass in the large windows that cover the side of the building. On the inside, however, there is a culinary wonderland set inside a two-story jungle library. This is Alambique, the magical realist slow-dining experience that feels like having dinner in Macondo with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Sunset illuminates the haphazard shelves filled with books and trinkets–encyclopedias, romance novels, a book of Colombian art, plants growing out of whiskey bottles, a statuette of Anubis, a framed illustration of frogs mating. A disco ball hangs prominently from the ceiling.

Alambique was inspired by a philosophy of "enjoying life slowly," says head chef Juan José Piedrahita, "It's about observing the path and valuing the place where it leads you. This is Colombia: jungle, ocean, mountain, the tropical climate and its cultural diversity, the music. All of this comes together to create an oasis inside the city."

Our server hands us a menu that looks like a psychedelic children's book filled with whimsical illustrations–mushrooms, sloths, pangolins, detailed diagrams of various tropical plants. On page one, a cassowary wearing a summer suit and white hat carries a picnic basket filled with fresh vegetables.

"Our cooking is slow, without rush," the menu declares. "The result of processes that do more than transmit flavor. They invite you to converse, to share, to toast, and to enjoy a warm space."

So, we order a couple of courses and start with a cocktail. Colombia is a cocktail culture. Wine is almost non-existent, and local beers tend to be very low quality–with the exception of the cannabis-infused beers I couldn't resist in Guatapé. Colombia's cocktail scene, however, is on point. Medellín's bartenders mix delicious and creative drinks: tropical and elegant, colorful, but not overly sweet.

I take a sip of my Lulo Sour, a tequila sour featuring lulo, which the menu describes as an "autochthonous sour/sweet fruit full of refreshing flavor." The culture of mixology in Medellín is another expression of "the richness of the territory," says Piedrahita. "How can you not try the huge variety of fruits and experiment with all of these colors and flavors available to you?"

Colombia's gastronomic scene is growing massively, however, "we still have a long way to go in recognizing our own culinary identity as Colombians," says Piedrahita. "We need to value and rediscover our history along with authentic ingredients, recipes, and rituals." This authenticity has been "replaced, either by fast food (which is fine, but shouldn't be the standard-bearer) or 'Pinterest' food that looks beautiful but lacks soul."

Our first appetizer arrives: the Pandebono de Petronio, a perfect example of culinary authenticity. This dish brings together the cultures and palates of two different provinces in Colombia. Pandebono, a sweet and cheesy bread made with yucca flour, represents one of the culinary treasures of Cundinamarca (the mountainous province where Bogotá, Colombia's capital city, is located). This particular dish is stuffed with a seafood casserole inspired by the afrocolombian cuisine of the Pacific coast. The dish is named after Petronio Álvarez, an early 20th century afrocolombian musician born in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca on the Pacific coast of Colombia. Every August in Santiago de Cali, there is a music festival called "El Petronio" named after the artist and dedicated to all the "important musicians and composers who have been marginalized and made invisible by latent racism."

I soak up the the avocado purée with my last bite of cheesy pandebono, savoring the playful contrast of flavors. The server approaches the table for round two, carrying a dish named Perfect Avocados. Stuffed with Roquefort and Muenster cheese, wrapped in ground beef and bacon, and served with a passionfruit and chili sauce, this dish is a perfect monstrosity. It's rich and indulgent and makes you feel like if it kills you, that'd be okay, because at least you would die happy.

On the menu, the Brisket is labeled as "unmissable" and so, obviously, we order it. "Our plates are meant to be shared," the menu warns us. It's too big for the two of us, so we take the leftovers to go, hoping to share it with someone on the street who needs it more than we do.

Piedrahita sees a duality in Medellín's tourism sector. "The city of Medellín is experiencing unstoppable growth which will bring positive as well as negative things. Unfortunately, there is a persistent negative tourism that comes here for drugs, prostitution, etc. But there is a positive tourism, which I think is greater, that dares to discover the secrets and hidden corners that this region has, that interacts with locals and isn't interested in having everything handed to them. They want to let Colombia surprise them."

In his words I hear the echo of Londoño's optimism in popularizing the No to Sex Tourism campaign. Creating positive cultural change relies on the persistence of small actions and good intentions. "It depends on places with a social, political, and ecological conscience to create projects that will benefit everyone," Piedrahita continues. "In this way, we can maintain a stable balance in a city whose growth is outpacing its needs."

Comuna 13 and the Miracle of Medellín

On October 16th, 2002, the Colombian government under President Álvaro Uribe Vélez launched Operation Orion in coordination with right-wing paramilitary groups. According to the National Center for Historical Memory, this all-out assault on Comuna 13, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Medellín, led to the deaths of more than 70 people, and the disappearance of over 300. Helicopters hovered over the barrio built into the slope of the mountains surrounding Medellín and fired their machine guns indiscriminately into the homes and streets of Comuna 13 in a bid to eliminate the left-wing revolutionaries that had taken over the area including the notorious FARC, and ELN guerillas. While the number of dead, wounded, and disappeared is disputed, "there is no doubt that government forces carried out a number of human rights violations during Operation Orion: torture, illegal detention, and kidnapping."

The story goes that after the second day of shooting, an elderly woman crawled out from under her bed, ripping off the white sheet and waving it above her head as she went out into the street to confront the Colombian military. "Vida!" she declared, "Life! We choose life."

Over the following two decades, Comuna 13 made a radical transformation and chose life over death. According to the Urban Land Institute, Medellín’s homicide rate "plunged, nearly 80% from 1991 to 2010." The city made infrastructure improvements, building public libraries, parks, and schools in poor hillside neighborhoods. The 2011 installation of a cable-car system and public escalators enabled the residents of this overlooked neighborhood to access the economic opportunities in the rest of the city. In 2012, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy recognized Medellín’s efforts with the Sustainable Transportation Award.

In 2013, Citigroup and the Wall Street Journal recognized Medellín as "the most innovative city in the world, defining the most innovative cities as ones that "spark visions, remove barriers, and cultivate collaboration to improve the quality of life for residents."

"Few cities have transformed the way that Medellín, Colombia has in the past 20 years," states the Urban Land Institute. "Community organizations, health centers, and youth groups have formed, empowering citizens to declare ownership of their neighborhoods." The experience of Colombia's second-largest city has been described by the BBC as "one of the most remarkable urban turnarounds in modern history."

From there, tourism took off. The people of Comuna 13 organized schools dedicated to street art, freestyle rap, and hip-hop dance. They now have an opportunity to improve their lives through art, escaping the trap of poverty and drugs. “Medellín stands today as an example for many cities around the world," says Mayor Aníbal Gaviria. "Despite having lived very dark and difficult times 20 years ago we have been undergoing a true metamorphosis."

"Not many years ago, the prospect of Medellin being selected would have been unthinkable," says Egusa. "The city was arguably the most dangerous in the world, and it headquartered some of the largest drug organizations on the planet... The violence that plagued the city has been replaced by world-class educational institutions and by communities bonded together by a belief in a better future," says Egusa. "It is because of these initiatives from the city, along with the culture of Medellin, that the city has been able to transform itself from one of the most dangerous cities in the world into a center of innovation."

Medellín still has many challenges. Poverty and homelessness are a very real struggle, and drugs are still prevalent. However, "through innovation and leadership, Medellín has sowed the seeds of transformation." Children now have new role models and a new definition of success. "Youth and women," proclaims one graffiti-ed wall, "Looking for work? Opportunities. Discover your talents, abilities, purpose."

Freestyle rappers battle in front of crowds, overlooking an impressive view of the lights in the valley below. The neighborhood is filled with optimism, positive reinforcement, and community. The people of Comuna 13 have created something beautiful. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come to experience the radical change and to enjoy the graffiti murals, each inspired by a story filled with hope and pain. That hope will never die; out of poverty, springs art, music, and dance. From war and death sprouts new life, and the urban landscape continues to be transformed by the Miracle of Medellín.

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