Colombia reinvents itself from a troubled past

Any big city has its rough spots, but visiting Colombia’s capital was slightly more daunting than others because of its past reputation of drug lords and cartels.

Those thoughts dissipated when I arrived in downtown Bogotá and began wandering La Candelaria, a neighborhood equivalent to a European old city. The buildings were of Spanish colonial and art deco styles, colorful and quaint, and decorated with intricate murals. A cat eye painted on a utility pole lined up with the feline’s head on the mural behind it, if you looked at it from just the right angle

Exploring various narrow streets teeming with lively bars and restaurants led to multiple museums and the Plaza de Bolívar, unmistakably the city’s main square. Standing at its center surrounded by historic buildings, I grasped the grandeur of the city that has worked to cleanse itself of a bad rap.

To get a taste of other parts of the South American country, I took an hour flight northwest to Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city. I had lunch surrounded by greenery at the Situ restaurant inside the Botanical Garden of Medellín. The garden was blossoming with thousands of flowers and species and I was awed by the “Orchidiarium,” ten hexagonal flower-tree structures that shelter orchids and butterflies.

My next adventure was on public transit.

Stepping onto a gondola lift cable car and taking a seat as it began making a steep ascent away from the station, I felt the rush of delight that comes with riding up to a ski resort. The polished, box-like car climbed up the cable, revealing Medellín’s picturesque topography — a valley surrounded by mountains.

To me and other visiting Americans, it was a scenic bird’s-eye view of lush hills and earthy toned homes. But to locals aboard cable cars around us, the Metrocable was a means of transportation from their humble barrios in the mountains to Medellín’s city center, jobs and the hope for a better life.

“Ten years ago, this was a very dangerous area,” Juliana Correa, a spokeswoman for the city’s Metro system, said in Spanish, as more clusters of dwellings came into view. “People did not go out on the streets.”

When we got off at the Villa Sierra station, we were greeted not by rundown infrastructure, but by a modern outdoor gym. It was peaceful, serene. The Metrocable and how it turned the neighborhood once wrought by paramilitary war into a welcoming place for residents, and even tourists, is one reason Medellín won the Transformational City of the Year award from the U.S.-based Council of the Americas a couple years ago.

Colombia’s major cities are not overrun by drug cartels, as the Netflix series “Narcos” suggests.

“Pablo Escobar made Medellín known in the world,” Sandra Ospina, a spokeswoman for the Agency of Cooperation and Investment of Medellín and the Metropolitan Area, said in Spanish. “We have aspired to eliminate the barriers. It is now a city that welcomes foreigners with tranquility.”

On the ride back down the Metrocable, I gained a new respect for Medellín for bringing transit and innovation not to its richest, but to its poorest areas.

We transferred from the Metrocable to a Metro train to get back to the city center. I was impressed by how well-kept the system in the developing country seemed compared to mass transit back home. A friendly rider explained why.

“We take care of the Metro like it’s our home,” Bernardo Ochoa, 56, said in Spanish.

“This is heaven, it’s the truth,” he said. “When I die, I ask god to give me a window to see Medellín.”