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What “Narcos” Won’t Tell You About Medellín

The Netflix series paints only a partial picture of the Colombian city’s history.

Narcos returned this fall, once again shining the light on Medellín’s infamous drug-violent past. While the Netflix series attracts a huge international audience, Colombia’s second-largest city holds more intriguing and historically accurate stories than ones concerning heavily mustachioed actors with dodgy Colombian accents. So join a local walking tour, explore revamped museums, or enjoy a bike ride under the stars to truly understand what makes Medellín tick.

Let’s start with the best approach to the whole “drug thing.” Medellín resident and founder of Real City Tours Pablo Alvarez Correa told me: “When people come loving the drug history and thinking Narcos is true, it insults us. We want to show a different side of the story.”

Pablo’s four-hour walking tour attracts hordes of visitors each day. Multilingual local guides take visitors on a colorful journey through the region’s beginnings to the present day. You’ll enter the ever-entertaining downtown, pass gasping buses and vendors selling mountains of luminous tropical fruits like lulos, guavas, and passion fruit, and succumb to the seductive aroma of freshly percolated Colombian coffee. You’ll end with a poignant image of how the city has, and continues, to strive against violence and evil.

Medellín’s transformation has been well documented in the international media—but to witness how local lives have changed, head to two sprawling neighborhoods under the Andean mountains. Moravia, located in the north of the city, once housed thousands of families atop a huge garbage heap. Now, thanks to a coalition between the community and local council, many residents have been rehoused and the mountain of waste converted into a multicolored flower garden. Over in Comuna 13, a once notoriously dangerous area, spectacular graffiti tells the stories of previous conflicts and pays tribute to local heroic figures. Both are relatively safe to wander during the day, but joining a local guide like Pablo’s or the Graffiti Tour ensures more profound experiences.

Museo Casa de la Memoria remembers the victims from the decades of violence and does an excellent job of retelling their stories. The beautifully designed museum sits in the city center atop a refurbished walkway shaded with overhanging palms. Inside, watch testimonials of men and women who joined far-left guerrilla groups, children who lost siblings to the drug violence, and mothers who, despite losing sons, declare forgiveness and peace as the only path forward. The exhibition room displays a photo gallery of military operations that have scourged the city, while the whispering wall tells local’s stories. Most parts are translated into English; entrance is free.

For a vision of the city’s past, head downtown to the Museo de Antioquia. This museum sits among the voluptuous statues by artist and sculptor Fernando Botero. Botero, made world famous by his disproportioned depictions of Colombian people, has donated over 20 statues to the plaza and a large number of paintings to the city’s oldest museum. His style, immediately eye-catching, often relates to life and historical events in Colombia, especially his home city of Medellín.

Botero sculptures in front of the Museo de Antioquia

If the Museum of Antioquia (built in 1881) demonstrates tradition, then the newly revamped Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín fuses historical debate, discussions, and future outlooks through creative thinking. Surrounded by food trucks billowing out scents of pulled pork, arepas (cornbread), and juicy hamburgers, and a park brimming with gymnasts, cyclists, picnickers, joggers, and dog walkers, this zone has become the city’s hipster hangout. At its heart, the MAMM hosts temporary exhibitions and discussions with experts about displacement, civil war, and the recently signed peace deal. On weekends, international films and documentaries often are beamed onto the outside wall and live music entertains crowds.

On a Wednesday night, join the whirring, shouting, and fist-pumping mass of cyclists on the SiCLas bike ride. Every week the group travels the city streets, entering terracotta-hued residential areas seldom visited by foreigners. As of 2015, the group also introduced a cultural tour, visiting six museums and a heritage ride that heads to inner-city hill Cerro el Volador. This 272-foot-high eco-park, and finest city viewpoint, once served as a sacred ground for the first natives to inhabit the surrounding Aburrá Valley.

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