Which is the better city, Bogota or Medellin? There are two well-defined camps amongst visitors, expat residents and travellers when it comes to this long running debate. I am certain to ruffle some feathers, upset others and offend the rest and still be unable to come to a conclusion. As a resident of Bogota, but a long time and well publicized critic of the city in various blogs my opinions are going to be in no way objective. I do however, enjoy living in the capital.
As Cali was the first city I got to know in Colombia back in 1998, I came in with a different perspective regarding Bogota and Medellin. My knowledge of Latin American cities is pretty complete having traveled in and worked in most capitals and seen each for their benefits and drawbacks.
Initially as a backpacker I was far more enamored with Medellin. I was, after all, not looking to live there and was interested in the nightlife, a good climate, pretty girls and catching a few football matches all the while following a route around the city to explore the legacy of Pablo Escobar, up and down the metro cable, along the much vaunted metro system all in the name of journalism. I wrote the now obvious article in 2002 for CNN Traveller magazine about the turnaround of the city from a dark Gotham of murders and contraband to a city of progressive ideas and industry. But later, as I came to live here in Colombia, the attraction of Medellin wore thin as I started looking for more than the superficial.
(Here’s another helpful article on the subject in question by www.tellanto.com)
Culturally speaking Bogota is the superior city, this comes from being the capital and that a great deal is invested into the arts and education. There are so many universities in the downtown Candelaria and around the seat of power that you are immersed immediately into a melting pot of electric and political graffiti, galleries, museums, bookstores and profoundly historical buildings. Medellin’s culture as a city is far more contemporary and probably is not what the Mayor nor governor of Antioquia would want to promote, that of a place of violence and cartels. Theatres and museums are new to Medellin but those that are here are very good.
It is hard to be the second city and this is a misnomer for Medellin. Bogota may be the capital but the paisas of Medellin will not stand for this kind of disrespect. They truly believe that theirs is the number one city in terms of progressive and inclusive urban planning through an able public transport sector and former Mayor Sergio Fajardo’s library project. I guess having a pretty powerful football team in Atletico Nacional helps too. Putting a huge escalator in to unite some more impoverished barrios is certainly forward thinking, but it also only works for a city of a relative size. Medellin has had a great period in the spotlight as birthplace of two-time and always polemical former President Alvaro Uribe. This does merit a mention and would go some way to explaining a lack of modesty held by paisas. It was after all their land that produced the president who put the guerrilla to the sword…almost.
This last weekend I had the opportunity to visit Guatape, a tourist destination, two hours outside Medellin. The countryside was spectacular, the town well-kept and the people incredibly polite. Well worth a visit for the hikes, the lake-side activities and of course traditional paisa food heavy on frijoles and pork scratchings and oh so filling. What struck me though was while I was waiting at the bus stop, there was a local buying a ruana – a local type of poncho – that had the slogan “Si Antioquia no se Despierta, Colombia no Desayuna”.This translates as: “If Antioquia doesn’t get out of Bed, Colombia won’t have breakfast.” Funny at first, but truly paisa. There’s comedy but quite an arrogant stance as well. In actual fact Norte de Santander and Santander produced more fruit, vegetables and beef individually as departments in 2011 (DANE statistics) than Antioquia. I haven’t even checked out the figures from Boyacá or Cundinamarca. Maybe Antioquia’s hens laid more eggs?
The Paisas are hard-working, industrious and outward looking, preferring to gaze north to the United States than to Bogota for ideas and this has turned various parts of the city such as the Milla de Oro and El Poblado into complexes of huge modern apartments, shopping malls and fast food eateries. This is fine if this is what you are looking for, and for the long-term traveler perhaps this might be comforting.
Talking of travelers I had a discussion with a friend in the tourist industry not too long ago and he spoke of a French tourist who, upon looking at the streams of rain falling in Bogota smirked and said: “they should just move the capital to Medellin.” Surely a judgment based on happy travels on an accessible metro system and sunny weather.
But something struck me as we flew out of the Rio Negro airport and the jet circled over the Aburra Valley in which Medellin is situated. It’s all an illusion, the modernity, the progressiveness and cleanliness as it exists within an incredibly small area. Just try visiting the communas and the places hard to reach on the periphery of the city. Not so grand.
Should Medellin be the capital? Frankly, if they want it, they are welcome to it. Let’s see how this suffocating valley adapts to a swell of thousands more displaced people building makeshift homes, on the streets, in the public transport. Please, take the bureaucracy and corruption associated with the politicians here. There’s nowhere else for Medellin to grow except up the valley walls. That said Bogota has serious flaws as well, on one side there’s the Cerros Orientales which you are not supposed construct upon but somehow mega apartment blocks are springing up, most of the city is built on rivers creating serious instability and then there’s the issue of the peat bogs extending out into the countryside.
Neither city is ideal. Perhaps one could say that due to its location Bucaramanga is well suited. Only on the map, but the risk of the city being completely destroyed by an earthquake is all too real. Cartagena would be the historical choice, but the islands and access hinder this. Villavicencio would be a good bet in order to create communication and infrastructure into the under-populated, isolated and overlooked nether jungle regions. But, we all really know what the logical and viable option is…Barranquilla. I digress…
My final two points can roll into one. Only a few weeks ago someone contacted me through my tumblr blog to ask if I could help mediate in a discussion he was having with his brother. “Where are the fittest girls in Colombia from, Bogota or Medellin?” I don’t recall which city he was rooting for but I remember thinking when I first came to Medellin that the women were spectacular. Then, I suppose that the plasticity and novelty wore thin. “Bogota has fine looking women,” a friend retorted when I put the issue to him: “it’s just that the weather in Bogota doesn’t lend itself to scantily clad women as it does in Medellin.” I guess you are more likely to see chicas in turtlenecks and a scarf, suggesting nothing and leaving everything to imagination in Bogota.
So, it’s the climate? Yes, Medellin’s climate is far more accommodating than that of Bogota. I think between the years 2007 and 2010 when I first moved to Bogota it rained every single day without fail. This was down to meteorological peculiarities, but it was enough to make any SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) sufferer leap from the Torre Colpatria in despair.
So, where does this leave us? Medellin has a warmer climate and is flourishing…Bogota is thin on oxygen and suffering due to corruption and indifference. But, that’s it; the capital is always going to a place of greater discord and political games while the second city is meant to flourish for exactly the reason in that it is not the capital. Medellin would not thrive as a capital city it would suffer just as Bogota does.
Barranquilla should be the capital and Cali has the most attractive women. There you have it!