Colombian artist and designer Daniel Aristizabal is known for his mind-boggling surrealist compositions. In strict geographical terms, he divides his time between his muse-town Barcelona and his hometown of Medellín. He feels lighter in Barcelona, he says, because he knows a bit too much about his homeland, but finds himself most creative when bouncing perpetually between the two. Drawing on this wealth of knowledge and associations, Aristizabal takes us on a 10-step tour of Medelllín, a town that in the last few years has gone from crime capital to a cultural boomtown.
Artist Fernando Botero, known for his depictions of big girls, is Medellín’s favorite son. He has gifted a lot of his work to Museo de Antioquia, a classic museum located in a rough part of downtown. The plaza outside is still a bit dangerous but contains all these amazing Botero statues, which have become part of the urban landscape. People have touched them so much in their most delicate places that the paint is starting to come off the copper. This is what is becoming of our most famous artist’s sculptures, but that’s a democratic relationship to art, and I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín
Medellín’s contemporary art museum is one of my favorite places in the city. Alongside their holdings of Colombian modernist art, including the works of Débora Arango, they show experimental work from all over the region. MAAM recently moved into an old factory, in an industrial area for car parts that they transformed into an awesome park. The once-depressed area is now pretty fancy, but the museum is still really cheap and down to earth. The new MAMM has two movie theatres, one inside and one outside, which projects films on Sunday. There are good cafes and food trucks all around it. And the building is just so cool.
Museo el Castillo
This fancy museum is a real French castle built by a rich family on the mountain peak overlooking the Poblado neighborhood, surrounded by incredible gardens. The architecture is overwhelming. The interior is overwhelming, too, but in a different way. You walk through the family’s old rooms and see the remains of their existence, the art they collected, including porcelain from China. It’s all a bit scary. But then from out front, overlooking the valley, you can see the city in the most spectacular way.
Medellín’s favelas used to be entirely disconnected from the city center. The city built gondolas to the outskirts, and one of the most famous stations is Santa Domingo. This area is bookmarked by it famous library, Biblioteca de España, which has this amazingly thoughtful design. Its architects constructed the building to mimic the shape of the streets around it, which are irregular, narrow, taking sudden 90-degree turns. Afterwards, if you keep going up in the gondola, you reach one of the coolest places in Medellín: Arví Park, which is a protected forest area full of waterfalls and natural pools. It’s 15 minutes from the city center and it looks like Jurassic Park. Before, visit the nearby farmer’s market for an energy boost, where they sell arepas, home-made cheeses, and coca tea.
Envigado is a small town on the outskirts of Medellín, and a beautiful place in its own right. It contains an old chapel, a beautiful square where old people go to feed pigeons, and old casinos. It’s not fancy and I think that’s what I like about it. The town is also the best place for Colombian fast food, which is delicious and fatty. Whenever I start to crave it, which is often, I come here. There’s a national dish called Bandeja Paisa, a Colombian variation on the English Breakfast, a staple food here. The restaurant Dona Gloria is famous for its huge portions of it, and the strong Aguardiente drinks it serves on the side. This can be a bit painful afterwards, because everything is so big, but you have to do it once. Another place you have to see here is La Casa De Las Piedritas, the house of small stones, a beautiful house that a guy from around here built with his bare hands with stones he collected. It’s now a kind of museum. If you visit, he’ll give you a personal tour.
This science park is a museum, a gallery, a school and an aquarium all in one. I love science and I tend to geek around a lot there. People come here to learn about new technologies; they teach video mapping and VR. They aquarium is filled with fish from the Amazon. They teach you here by playing. The nearby botanical garden is gorgeous too. Known as the lung of Medellín, it is design is inspired by an orchid. It is free to go here and people treat it like a public space, doing whatever they want.
Two hours outside of Medellín, Guatapé is one of the oddest and most beautiful places in the country. Fifty years ago, the government built a power plant here and summarily flooded a large portion of the town. Now you can swim in a lake that used to be the old center. If you see a cross sticking out of the water, that’s the old church. You can take a boat across it also. Pablo Escobar had a huge mansion here that now stands in ruins. Guatape is known for its huge rock formation, El Penol. If you climb up to its peak, you can see the whole East of Antioquia. And the town itself is one of the most colorful places on earth. They have a ferris wheel, a shitty old ferris wheel, which is the best kind of ferris wheel.
The Laureles neighborhood, where I grew up, was planned by an artist, a sculptor Pedro Nel Gomez. He based the design on a neighborhood on Paris, arranging the streets to form concentric circles. This is one of the only neighborhoods in Medellín that was designed with any premeditation, whereas other neighborhoods just grew naturally. Back in the day, my grandfather was offered property here, and he declined, saying that the area was just a bunch of tall grass and nothing more. It later became a prosperous neighborhood. Smart move, grandpa. When I visit, I spend time at Café Vallejo, which is kind of an intellectual hub in the neighborhood. They have a great selection of books, great coffee, and great beers, and I can sit there for a very long time.
What does Colombian-Greek food taste like, you ask? Delicious, that’s how. Zorba serves feta cheeses with local fruit. They have local drinks and ouzo. They have a stone oven for pizzas. And there are musical performances, too. This restaurant represents a new side of Medellín. Tourists and foreigners have swept into this area, Poblano, and made it almost unrecognizable. Barrio Probenza is the coolest part, a street full of restaurants and bars. There’s a salsa bar next to a reggaeton club, next to a rock-n-roll joint. The mix is so strange and all the life is on the streets. And then there’s a big church amongst it all — this is Colombia, after all.