The gondola rises fast from Acevedo transit station, hard beside the Medellín River. After a rush of vertigo, The Travelers settle. Their eyes see beyond the car’s seven tired occupants—working people with one of the world’s most unusual daily commutes. They ride an airborne cable-hoisted gondola to and from Santo Domingo, a red-brick crumble and jumble of a barrio high on an eastern mountain face over Colombia’s second-largest city.
Magnificent Medellín, with 2 million people, stretches up and down the river valley. Santo Domingo and other hillside settlements rise from both sides of the river, great red suburban wings fanning up the steep slopes of the Andes. In the valley, skyscrapers climb, showing prosperity’s bright, modern glitter.
The higher The Travelers cable the mountainsides here, the poorer the houses. This flips the model familiar to those of us raised in the United States, where Beverly Hills and Druid Hills and Brooklyn Heights signify comfort and, often, luxury.
Here, we dangle in space over Medellín neighborhoods that made the city notorious in the 1980s. Pablo Escobar rose to power here in these slums above the graceful city. Escobar made a name first as a street hood, then apprenticed to a powerful drug baron. He outgrew his master, ultimately amassing an estimated $30 billion in wealth (in some estimates) by smuggling 80 percent of the cocaine used in the United States during the high-flying 1980s.
Escobar functioned in those times with showy ostentation, protected by corruption and the mega-dollars he made supplying the eager noses of customers in Miami, Las Vegas, L.A., New York … anywhere the cool, rich, party people gathered.
The cartel boss also became a Colombian senator, endearing himself to many of Medellín’s desperately poor in their houses of stolen planks and unpainted red cinder blocks, their tin roofs held down by black stones.
He cultivated a Robin Hood image in the barrios 100 meters beneath the shoes of the people in the cable car. Escobar parked cars on the unpaved streets of Santo Domingo, opened their trunks, and handed out guns. These weapons gave many poor Colombians their first taste of empowerment, their first feelings of value. They willingly hid Escobar when he needed hiding, and they kept his secrets.
Escobar died at the hands of the Colombian National Police nearly a quarter century ago. Since the last shovelful of dirt fell on his grave, Medellín has managed one of the greatest image make-overs in world history.
Today, the broad swath of Medellín along the river buzzes with vitality, its streets florid with life and color. Banks and hospitals and businesses fill high towers. Escalators, not stairs, glide citizens and visitors up mountain slopes in places. A sprawling plaza around the Botero Museum constantly hums with life, people posing, often in risqué positions, on the 23 bronze Botero sculptures. (Fernando Botero, a native of Medellín, claims an international reputation for whimsical artworks of impossibly plus-sized humans.)
The nightclubs and restaurants of Parque Lleras surely make up one of the liveliest weekend scenes in Latin America. Colombians generally consider the girls of Medellín to be the most beautiful in the nation (rivaled only by those of Cali to the south). These chicas go partying in little twittering flocks, trailed by wolf packs of lean-and-hungry paisa boys. (People in Antioquia, this part of Colombia, call themselves paisas.) Euro-kids stump past under worn backpacks, headed for youth hostels. Gringos arrive from Cincinnati and San Diego and all points north, flashing dollars and hoping to dance till dawn at expensive discos … and maybe get lucky.
There’s a kid, a boy, in the cable car. He acts shy, barnacled to his mother, pressing himself into a corner. Behind his head, the afternoon sun lights Medellín, now far below.
We make conversation.
The boy says he’s eight years old. His mother smiles proudly. She’s a single mom, plus-sized like too many of the poor everywhere on earth, their poverty sometimes revealed not so much by a lack of food, but by the sugars and starches they consume. Madre carries a pack of colored pens, tools for an aspiring young Botero.
“I protect my mother,” the young boy tells us proudly.
“He’s very jealous of me,” the mother says, with a look.
The cable car crests the peak of the mountain and, just like that, vast Medellín disappears. It feels like a monumental magic trick. A natural forest of pines, branches studded with bromeliads, sprawls underneath for the next kilometer or so.
The car drops. The Travelers step out. This feels like the smartest cable car concept ever—launch citizens from the heart of Medellín, give them the greatest city view in Colombia, then transform it all suddenly into Colombia salvaje, the wild Colombia. In the park around us, jaguar and monkey and serpent and creatures still not even identified by humankind roam wild.
Arví Park can be hiked only with guides. Visitors who choose to pass up the two-hour trek through the jungle and just enjoy the nearby scenery can buy plates of rice and meat and beans, empanadas, fresh fruit bowls, sweets. Gardens of hydrangea greet The Travelers, and vendors under little white tents sell hand-crafted carvings and jewelry and religious stuff.
A big bird bursts from a path. A friendly guide who’s finished his work for the day nevertheless gives us the 411 on the fowl—they call it the barranquero. Bigger than a crow, blue and long-tailed, it burrows into soft red-clay cliffs in the park for six meters or more, designing a crook in the burrow to baffle snakes and other predators. Once the female lays her eggs, she leaves. The male then incubates the eggs for two months. Just before they hatch, the female reappears to reclaim the nest, a single mom with a twist. The male, duty done, hops out into the bright light of the Andes, ruffles his feathers, and flies away. Forever.
On the gondola ride back down to Medellín, The Travelers exit at the Santo Domingo stop. They wander a twisting, motorcycle-plagued, music-blasted street and take up an observer’s post at a coffee stop.
Life overflows at this intersection, vendors unloading bags of potatoes, beggars hobbling, young girls with short skirts and high breasts sashaying past, men dealing cards at tables, men drinking, men shouting at soccer players on a TV screen. Above street level, on second stories, women hang clothes, holding clothespins in pursed lips. So much happens here on Saturday afternoon, so fast, it might be Fate’s kaleidoscope, turning, turning again, everything changing, all the colors on earth.
A half hour later, the cable car hums quietly along the cable on the way down. The Travelers notice how bright colors break the monotonous brick-and-plank red clays of the barrio—it’s that brightly colored laundry, hung and strung everywhere, anywhere. One tin roof has been ambitiously painted by some barrio artist—a rendering of a giant pink flamingo peers up at the cable cars.
The Travelers remember that kid from Santo Domingo with his single mom and the colored pencils. We make a wish that his flamingo flies on a rooftop one day, wings spread, soaring with hope.
Photo: Marcelo Druck, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.