Parque Arvi is Medellín’s largest park and part of its bid to become a national and international city of distinction. Comprising 16,000 total hectares, this reserve high above the Aburrá Valley encompasses more than 50 km of walking trails, 1,700 hectares of pristine forest, and several pre-Colombian archaeological sites.
The history of the park itself is hard to discern. The first reports of the area come from the Spanish Conquest, where conquistadors chronicled the discovery of crumbling buildings and “roads of chopped rock, wider than those of Cusco [Peru]” that they “dare not follow, for the people who made them must have been many”. The land sat untouched for 450 years, until in 1970 the Colombian government declared it the Río Nare National Park. Then in 2010, as part of a city-wide improvement program and a bid to triple the amount of park space accessible to the citizens of Medellín, the city completed a metro cable connecting the city’s train system with Parque Arvi. Since then, the park has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, both from Colombia and abroad.
A visit to Parque Arvi is much more than a chance to get some fresh air–it’s a chance to experience first-hand how much Medellín has changed in the past few decades. After repeated recommendations to visit, one sunny afternoon we caught the A line to Acevedo station and bought tickets for the gondola. As we glided over the rooftops of the hillside barrios, we could see people walking on the streets and children playing in the parks. Forty years ago, these neighborhoods were slums, cut off from the city proper and opportunities in the center of the valley.
The infamous Pablo Escobar gave a voice to the people of these disconnected and disenfranchised areas, demanding services for them in his brief stint in Colombia’s House of Representatives. After his expulsion from politics, Escobar recruited people from the slums in the drug trade and armed them, calling them to rise up against the wealthier inhabitants of city. Medellín became one of the most dangerous cities on earth, with the highest per-person homicide rate in the world from 1990 to 1999. In the worst year, 1991, the homicide rate was 325 people per 100,000, which is equivalent to the murder of roughly 1 in every 300 people.
Depending on who you ask, Pablo Escobar was either neutralized or assassinated in 1993. From there, government intervention and the election of political outsider and mathematician Sergio Fajardo as mayor brought sweeping improvements to all citizens of Medellín. The metro infrastructure was one of these, enabling people from the hillside barrios to easily travel into the city and find opportunities. The story is wonderfully chronicled here by The Guardian, but the punchline is that Medellín’s homocide rate has dropped to one tenth of what it was in less than thirty years and the poverty rate has fallen below Colombia’s national average. And the city feels it. Everywhere we’ve been, people have greeted and welcomed us. As we rode up on the gondolas, we encountered a man who recounted how bad it used to be in the hillside barrios, and how much things have changed. “Our mayor,” he said in stilted English, “He had a saying – por los pobres, los mejores – for the poor, the best. The best educations, the best buildings, the best everything.”
After the first gondola ride, we transferred at Santo Domingo station to the gondola for Parque Arvi. We passed even higher, up through farmland, and finally we soared over forest and touched down at the Parque Arvi station. A market greeted us, full of food and handicrafts.
The target demographic here was clearly middle class; one stall sold vegetarian portabella burgers and another served up locally-brewed craft beer. The people shopping and milling around the station were clean and well-dressed, and the stray dogs and ambient Spanish were the only indicators of Colombia. After walking the market, we purchased tickets for guided walk around the park. Park rangers lead these 2-hour hikes several times a day, providing information on the history and wildlife of the area. While we waited for the walk to start, we struck up conversation with a man who had brought his family to the park for the day. He tells us that he’s finishing his master’s degree in education, and that while Medellín has improved vastly since the 1990’s, there are still many problems. Education for better-paying jobs can be hard to come by, he attests, and sometimes the jobs themselves are scarce. “Still”, he says cheerfully, “I’m the first person in my family to get a higher education.”
Our guide arrived and we began the hike while she introduced the region’s climate and biology. She explained that the park encompassess multiple types of forest, and that many of the plants growing in these forests have commercial, culinary, or ornamental value. “However now we protect these forests, so we ask that you do not take or damage anything. And those people allowed to take things from the forest can only take things that do not harm the plant, such as seeds,” she says. I thought of what a subtle difference that was from the U.S., where removal of everything is banned in nearly every park. There, everything must be preserved with minimal human intervention. Here, faced with the reality that some people’s livelihoods depend on collecting from the park and that there may be no other jobs up here, Colombians have chosen a compromise.
Still, the biodiversity is impressive and we see a lot in our two hours of walking. Our guide shows us various various species of trees, bushes, and orchids. She points out some wild-growing blueberries which look like no blueberry I’ve ever encountered because it’s a different species; Colombia has the highest number of blueberry species in the world.
After more than an hour of hiking through thick jungle and forest, we enter a pastoral area where houses dot the hillside. We ask the guide whether we’re still in the park and she nods. When we ask about the people, she says that this is their land. “When we wanted to expand the park, we didn’t force people to sell the land,” she explains. “Instead, we paid people to care for it.” This lease system provides an incentive for landowners to preserve forest on their private lands.
We arrive to the camping area at the bottom of the hill where the hike ends along the river. Here people can picnic or spend the night for the fee of a camper’s permit. Looking at the campers among the pine trees, it’s easy to mistake this for some part of the pacific northwest, maybe just south of Seattle or along the coast in northern California. The woman with red hair could even be an engineer for Google. This is Colombia, and she’s (probably) not. But the similarity is proof of how much Medellín has changed.