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Medellin, Colombia, from drug violence to tourist destination

As the night wears on, the party spills out onto the sidewalk and into the street, which is closed off by police barricades. Young boys accost the revelers, hawking everything from chewing gum to bracelets. ("Una fresa para la princesa?" asks one, offering me strawberry-flavored Trident. "A strawberry for the princess?") A bar outside the restaurant Barcelona is selling "political shots," including the Hugo Chavez, an arguably toxic mix of vodka, creme de cafe, tequila and soda.

At 7 p.m. on a Friday, the patio of Basilica, a Peruvian-Asian restaurant on one of the most prized street corners in Medellin, Colombia, is bustling. Young men in polo shirts and blue jeans are passing around a bottle of rum at the bar, and women in miniskirts and stilettos are being seated at tables marked "Reserved." Sushi chefs are busily making California rolls against a fake waterfall backdrop, their movements almost in sync with the Lady Gaga and Madonna tunes reverberating all around.

As the night wears on, the party spills out onto the sidewalk and into the street, which is closed off by police barricades. Young boys accost the revelers, hawking everything from chewing gum to bracelets. ("Una fresa para la princesa?" asks one, offering me strawberry-flavored Trident. "A strawberry for the princess?") A bar outside the restaurant Barcelona is selling "political shots," including the Hugo Chavez, an arguably toxic mix of vodka, creme de cafe, tequila and soda.

At the Parque Lleras, the park in the square, partyers drink Club Colombia beer as vendors entice them with empanadas and other street food. But there's no need for BYOB, because the many open-air bars surrounding the park are literally giving the drinks away. When my friend Daphne and I order two caipirinhas at Barcelona, the waiter insists that we take advantage of the three-for-one drink special.

Daphne and I observe the mayhem from the patio, comforted by the presence of police officers on several blocks.

Not long ago the mayhem on Medellin's streets was controlled by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. In the 1980s and '90s, Medellin was the largest cocaine producer in the world, and Escobar guarded his empire so ferociously that the city became one of the most dangerous in Latin America.

Escobar is long gone, brought down by police in a 1993 gun battle as dramatic as his life. In the past decade, new parks, museums, libraries and hotels have opened in Colombia's second-largest city. Cable cars have been extended up to a mountain with a new nature preserve. Famed sculptor and painter Fernando Botero, a Medellin native, donated more than 1,000 of his works, plus pieces from his personal collection of contemporary art, to the Museo de Antioquia. Last year, Spirit Airlines launched nonstop flights from Fort Lauderdale to Medellin.

That's not to say that the city doesn't struggle to maintain the progress it has made in recent years. Violence has not been wiped out, as gangs compete for territory in parts of the city, making some neighborhoods off-limits. The U.S. State Department issued an updated travel warning last week, saying that violent crime is up in some major Colombian cities, including Medellin.

But Colombia is no longer the pariah of Latin America. Kidnappings have decreased. And the epicenter of the drug war seems to have moved north.

Though I've visited Colombia before - my father is Colombian and I have lots of relatives there - I'd never been to Medellin. But when Daphne and I decided to spend 21/2 weeks traveling through Colombia, we couldn't resist checking out the country's most notorious city. On our way from Cartagena to Bogota, we decided to make a stop in the City of Eternal Spring.

Upstairs, downstairs

I'm afraid to look down. We're on our way to Parque Arvi, a new ecological playground on a mountaintop, riding in a cable car that soars high above the slums that Escobar had built along the side of one of the mountains that ring Medellin.

The cable cars were originally built to connect Medellin's poorest neighborhoods to the rest of the city, but they've drawn tourists with their spectacular views. In February, the city extended the original cable car line from Santo Domingo Savio, which has struggled with drug violence, to Parque Arvi. Santo Domingo is the site of one of the many libraries that former mayor Sergio Fajardo had built to revitalize neighborhoods throughout the city. Designed by architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, the black three-building complex stands out on the mountain slope.

Toward the end of the 15-minute ride, we go from traveling on an incline above houses to gliding in a straight line above a forest. We feel like characters in "Return of the Jedi." Where are the Ewoks hiding?

The Parque Arvi station is made of wood to blend in with the trees. So far, only one of its six planned parks is open to tourists and residents. A shuttle bus takes us to Piedras Blancas (White Stones), where we can canoe, zip line or go horseback-riding. There are barbecue huts, restaurants and bars along the way.

The bus drops us off in front of the recently opened Piedras Blancas Hotel, which, like the cable car station, was built mostly of wood to fit in with the landscape. We take a hike along the trail that leads from the hotel down to a lake, reading signs along the way that announce what kinds of insects we might expect to see. Not too keen on insects, we skip the butterfly museum at the end of the trail in favor of a leisurely walk around the grounds, following a group of schoolchildren on a class trip.

When the altitude (we are about 8,200 feet above sea level) starts getting to us, we hop back on the cable car, joined by a family of six.

"How beautiful that forest is," exclaims Doralba Lopez, a Medellin resident, to her grandkids. It's their first visit to Parque Arvi. Before the cable car was built, residents would have to take a bus up the mountain through dangerous neighborhoods.

At the bottom of the mountain, we hop on the subway to the Museo de Antioquia. Paisas, as residents of Medellin and the surrounding Colombian state of Antioquia are known, are even prouder of being from Antioquia than they are of being from Colombia. So it comes as no surprise that their museum highlights the works of native sons and daughters, however obscure. I am captivated by a 1929 self-portrait by Eladio Velez. You can see every vein in his hand.

But since this is Botero's homeland, I'm most curious about his work. My favorite is not one of the many bronze statues that dot the Plaza Botero across the street but his painting "Death of Pablo Escobar." There's the infamous drug lord, standing on the roof of a house, his shirt unbuttoned, with a gun in his hand, his eyes closed as a barrage of bullets mows him down.

That's the duality of Medellin: It's a place that can produce both a great artist and a criminal mastermind. I thought of what a British journalist friend who lives and works in Medellin had told us: "Paisas represent the best and worst of Colombia."

Party hearty

It's midnight Saturday, and we're in Barrio Colombia, a neighborhood that reminds me of New York's Meatpacking District. It's the site of warehouses-turned-nightclubs where bouncers check IDs and make you wait in long lines for no apparent reason.

At Kukaramakara, a band onstage belts out Colombian singer Shakira's World Cup song. Blue and white balloons drop from the ceiling and the crowd goes wild, jumping up and down and singing along. Lights flash and the dance floor gets smoky.

I'm talking to a German tourist named Torsten Baurlen. He lives and works in Mexico, which is now as notorious as Colombia was years ago. "I like it here," he says. "The people are charming."

The band ends its set and the deejay plays the Black Eyed Peas' party anthem "I Gotta Feeling." Once again the crowd starts jumping. Torsten and I can't help joining in.

Paisas are known as many things: hard workers, skillful entrepreneurs, formidable beauty pageant contestants - and party animals in good times and bad. After one night of clubbing, I could understand why our British journalist friend called Medellin dizzying.

For a more traditional Colombian experience, we head to El Suave, a dark, hidden two-story salsa club that even our cabdriver has a hard time finding. Coming along are my two 20-something half-nieces, who have lived in Medellin for years. At the club, each table is required to order at least one bottle of liquor. Most people are drinking either rum or aguardiente, the anise-flavored national liquor. In honor of our host city, we order a small bottle of Medellin rum.

We sit timidly at our table as men come up every few minutes and politely ask us to dance. My niece Jenny takes one of them up on the invitation and they hit the dance floor, their hips gyrating. This is a place for serious salsa dancers, and Daphne and I choose to watch rather than participate. Watching salsa dancing is just as entertaining as dancing it.

At Mango's, perhaps Medellin's most popular nightclub, I feel as though I've walked into a Texas bar. The club is designed to look like a ranch, and there's John Wayne and Coca-Cola paraphernalia all around. The faucets in the bathroom are shaped like horses' heads. Onstage, go-go dancers flash their ample bosoms, barely hidden beneath skimpy tank tops (Medellin is also known for its many plastic surgeons), alongside shirtless men with six-pack abs. The deejay is spinning American club hits, interspersed with the occasional reggaeton tune. A group of American guys starts chatting us up. This seems more meat market than Meatpacking District. By 4 a.m., we decide we've had enough. Medellin does not want to say good night, but we do.

What lies beneath

Paramilitaries once controlled the town of Guatape, a two-hour bus ride from downtown Medellin. Pablo Escobar had a country home there, as did many other drug lords.

Now you can take the train to the Caribe metro station and hop on a bus to Penon de Guatape, a large rock formation beside a reservoir built by the Colombian government. (The U.S. State Department urges caution when traveling by bus outside urban areas, but we felt safe and weren't the only foreign tourists on our bus.)

There are no real stops along the way. The bus just stops whenever someone hails it, and it doesn't stop stopping even when it's packed. Along the way, we see horses, cows and lots of food stands, some with chorizos hanging out front. A cow holds us up at one point when it decides to cross the road - very slowly.

When we arrive, we're swarmed by locals offering us donkey rides to the foot of the rock, but we prefer to walk. Along the way, we meet David Leonard, an Australian music producer visiting his friend Michael Lawless, who lives and works in Bogota. Lawless, originally from Australia, has visited Medellin numerous times. "When I came here eight years ago, there were no restaurants," he said. "Now there are tons."

We climb up nearly 650 steps wedged in a vertical crack that runs to the top of the rock. Standing at the summit, we stop thinking about how sore our legs are going to be the next day. The panoramic view of the man-made lake beside the rock, with its many islands, is extraordinary. We spot a hotel with a pool on one of the islands and wish we could spend the night there.

The climb has made us hungry, so we take a cab from the base of the rock to Guatape, a delightful little town with houses painted purple, blue, pink, yellow and other happy colors. The lower half of every building sports zocalos, woodcarvings that depict horses, flowers, llamas and other animals.

We have lots of choices for lunch, although the several restaurants with outdoor seating along the lake all offer similar menus. The one constant is the bandeja paisa, a staple dish of Medellin that includes arepas (corn cakes), rice, beans, avocado, fried plantains, chicharron (pork rind), fried egg and either ground beef or steak. We opt for lighter fare: the trout, a Guatape specialty.

Next up is a motorboat cruise of the lake to see Escobar's house. Our captain, Eudoro Diaz, tells us that we are cruising the largest artificial lake in Colombia and shows us the lakeside homes that belonged to Escobar's rivals. Then he points out La Manuela, Escobar's house, named after the drug kingpin's daughter. All that's left is a bombed-out shell that was looted after Escobar's death by people who believed that he'd hidden money in the walls. Although he shows tourists Escobar's former home, now government-owned, Diaz doesn't much like talking about the drug lord. Medellin is trying to forget that part of its history, he says.

Floating on, we arrive at a metal cross atop the steeple of a submerged church. When the lake was created in 1978 to provide water to Medellin, the town of Viejo Penol had to be flooded. We stop at Puerto de la Cruz, a restaurant and museum on an island near the cross, to look at pictures of the former villagers, who were moved to Guatape.

The cruise over, we head back to the center of town to catch our bus. With an hour to spare, we lounge on the patio of a restaurant next to the bus stop and watch children play in the town square.

Back on the bus, one of the passengers, a Miami resident, tells us he'd paid $150 for a round-trip ticket from Fort Lauderdale to Medellin. "That's less than what I spend one night in Miami," he says. "I'm thinking of coming back next month."

So am I.

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