The city of Medellín, located in north-central Colombia, has an inspirational story. Only two decades removed from the height of its notoriously violent past, it is now considered to be one of the safest big cities in Latin America, with character, nightlife and public art that any urban area would envy.
Surprisingly though, it is Medellín’s public transport system that is one of the city’s biggest highlights . The metro famously played a pivotal role in reducing violence and desperation in Medellín, a miraculous achievement that contributed to it being named one of the top transport systems in the world in 2012 by the international organisation Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. And as a bonus, it offers visitors possibly the least expensive but most comprehensive and photogenic city tour in the world.
The city's impressive elevated metro system, completed in the mid-1990s, was augmented in 2006 and 2008 with the addition of two Metrocable lines. These cable cars, which climb both sides of the valley in which Medellín sits, travel deep into the far-flung and formerly difficult-to-reach favelas (shanty towns) that are located in the surrounding hills and have had a measureable social impact on the city.
Prior to the completion of the cable cars, people stranded in the favelas wanting access to jobs, education, healthcare and even basic shopping had to make a slow and arduous journey down the mountainside to get into the city. Sporadic and unpredictable buses were available in some areas, but mostly people walked – sometimes for hours. This isolation, depravation and hopelessness contributed substantially to Medellín's famous and now rapidly fading history of crime and violence.
The Metrocable has made commuting from even the furthest edges of the favelas a quick, affordable and scenic journey, travelling over the mountain and down into the valley where it seamlessly connects with the trains. Access to the system, including transfers between the trains and Metrocables, which effectively allows for an orientation tour of the entire city, is a refreshingly inexpensive 1750 pesos -- or about $1.
To get their money’s worth, visitors might want to start their tour at one of the metro's terminus stations, either Itagui in the south or Niquia in the north, but the best scenery is along the central stretch of the line, namely the 9km between the Industriales and Acevedo stations.
Taking the train north from Industriales, easy-to-spot highlights include the kitschy faux-township of Pueblito Paisa -- a miniature version of a typical Antioquian town – that looms on the left, followed by Parque San Antonio to the right of the station of the same name. The park contains three sculptures by the prolific artist Fernando Botero, including his Pájaro de Paz (Bird of Peace), which was severely damaged by a guerilla bomb in the 1990s, prompting him to place a replica beside it to highlight the futility of war. Minutes later, just before the Parque Berrio station, you will see one of Botero's most famous works on the right hand side, a female torso known as La Gorda (The Fat Lady), standing in front of a branch of the Banco de la República.
At Parque Berrio station, roughly the half-way point of the tour, get off the train for several more sights from the platform. On the right, visible through the park's thin trees is Medellín's most prominent church, the 16th-century Basilica de la Candelaria. At the northwest end of the platform is the impossible-to-miss, black-and-white, sumptuous Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe (Palace of Culture), famous for hosting concerts, art expositions and other events.
Back on the train and continuing north, at Prado station is the Iglesia Los Doce Apostoles (Church of the Twelve Apostles), and moments later just after Hospital station on the right is the Cementerio de San Pedro, containing a remarkable number of extravagant tombstones, sepulchral chapels and mausoleums. Just before Universidad station, also on the right, is the enormous Joaquín Antonio Uribe Botanic Garden, containing 600 species of trees and plants, a lake and a herbarium.
Three stops later at Acevedo station, transfer to Line K, the first of Medellín's Metrocables. Take care not to follow the crowd through the metro exit gates or you will have to buy another ticket to re-enter the system. Instead walk to the Line K entrance, wait for an empty car to slowly inch around the terminus bend and step on. If photography is your primary goal, hang back and wait for a car with newer, cleaner windows; older cars with scuffed and defaced windows will defeat even the best photographers.
As the car climbs, the city transforms. Modern, permanent buildings with finished rooftops begin to fade. The structures become shorter, three levels at most, the exteriors comprised of bare cinderblocks and the roofs of simple corrugated tin. Likewise, the streets begin wide and expertly paved, then deteriorate, becoming narrow and uneven. These are the favelas.
Several fascinating minutes later at Santo Domingo station, the Metrocable's mountaintop terminus, you will see an improvement in the surroundings. A revitalisation has occurred here, anchored by the new Biblioteca España (Library of Spain), an artistic, three-part, irregular structure made of black slate that would likely be the pride of any community, never mind this far-flung, long-suffering neighbourhood.
Linger on the Metrocable platform and snap pictures of the neighbourhood and copious long-shots of Medellín down below. Many locals and expats warn visitors from wandering the favelas, but Santo Domingo is relatively safe.
Reframe or capture missed photo opportunities on the way back down, then retrace your route on the metro, heading back south to San Antonio station, where you will switch to the east-west Line B. The six stops on this branch of the metro travel mostly through business, retail and then residential areas, though the colossal swimming and soccer stadiums break up the monotony.
At San Javier station, six stops from San Antonio, it is time to sidle onto Metrocable Line J, the newer and, at 2.7km in length, the much longer of the two cable car lines. Again, the surroundings begin to change only a few moments after the car begins its ascent. The neighbourhoods on this side are decidedly scruffier, with the poverty far more palpable and unsettling. The homes are built mainly from cinderblocks and corrugated tin, though several shacks appear to have been simply lashed together with whatever material could be salvaged. Streets, when there are any, are narrow and impossibly steep at times.
As some of the slopes were too prohibitively steep to build on, there is also a lot more greenery on this line, and you will rise to much higher points than on Line K. Keep an eye out for small planes gliding down the length of the valley, coming in for a landing at Medellín's domestic airport. Once again, feel free to alight from the Metrocable at La Aurora, the final station, to snap panoramic photos of Medellín, which is now so distant that the city may be smog-obscured.
Finally, descend back into the city at your leisure, knowing that you have now quite literally seen all of Medellín -- in what is arguably one of the biggest bangs for a buck on the planet.