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Spaniards first arrived in the Aburrá Valley in the 1540s, but Medellín itself was not founded until 1616; early development started in the southern part of the city now known as El Poblado. Historians believe that many early settlers were Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition. They divided the land into small haciendas which they farmed themselves - very different from the slave-based plantation culture that dominated much of Colombia. With their focus on self-reliance, these early paisas had little interest in commercial contact with neighboring regions. For these reasons, they came to be known as hard workers with a fierce independent streak - traits that you can still observe today on Medellín's bustling Pasaje Junín.

Though Medellín became the departmental capital in 1826, it long remained a provincial backwater, which explains why its colonial buildings are neither sumptuous nor particularly numerous. The city's rapid growth began only at the beginning of the 20th century, when the arrival of the railroad together with a highly profitable boom in coffee production quickly transformed the city. Mine owners and coffee barons invested their profits in a nascent textile industry, and their gamble paid off big. Within a few decades, Medellín had become a large metropolitan city.

By the 1980s, the city's entrepreneurial spirit was showing its dark side. Under the violent but ingenious leadership of Pablo Escobar, Medellín became the capital of the world's cocaine business. Gun battles were common, and the city's homicide rate was among the highest on the planet. The beginning of the end of the violence came with Escobar's death in 1993, and today Medellín is among the safest cities in Latin America, with rates of violent crime akin to many US cities.