In the Aburrá Valley in the Cordillera Central, northwest Colombia, the industrial city of Medellín is the capital of the Antioquia region and the country’s second largest city. It is on the tributary of River Cauca and flanked by the Porce River.
Little is known about the earliest inhabitants of the area, although the Quimbaya were resident in the region. The nearby Muisca people and the Taironas people of the Caribbean coast were the most powerful and sophisticated Pre-Columbian cultures and presented strong opposition to invading colonists. In Aug. 1541 the Conquistador Luis Tejelo defeated indigenous resistance and claimed the Aburrá Valley, but, sidetracked by the search for El Dorado, it wasn’t until 1616 that the hamlet of San Lorenzo de Aburrá was founded. Having moved to its present site, in 1674 the town was established and named Villa de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de Medellín. It was named after a village in Extremadura. The town was centred around a local gold mining industry.
Because of the isolation and difficult terrain, Medellín remained cut off from the rest of Colombia and changed little over the subsequent years. In the nineteenth century Antioquia became a centre of coffee production and the only place in Colombia to grow the plant on small holds and not plantations. It became the regional capital in 1862 taking over from Santa Fe de Antioquia, 80 km northwest of Medellín. But it wasn’t until the arrival of rail at the end of the nineteenth century that the city began to expand rapidly. The Ferrocarril de Antioquia connected the Cordillera Central with the Atlantic rail and boosted the lucrative coffee trade which became Colombia’s chief export. The first textile mill opened in Medellín at the turn of the century and the city soon became the country’s industrial centre. The city grew with the arrival of migrants attracted by work prospects. Cheap foreign competition affected the textile industry in the second half of the twentieth century and the void was filled with cocaine production which intensified from the 1970s. The illegal business reached its height in the 1980s with the Medellín cartel dominating the market. Medellín became Colombia’s second largest city and shanty towns sprung up on the slopes around the city. The control of the Medellín cartel slipped when its leader Pablo Escobar was arrested in 1993, control transferring for 2 years to the Cali cartel, but cocaine production and distribution continued in Medellín.
A highly industrialized city, Medellín is the national textile centre and one of the largest coffee production centres. It also has a large steel industry as well as food processing, chemical manufacturing and leather goods. Since the late 1970s Medellín has been infamous as a major centre of cocaine production and distribution and for the consequential violence. The city is accessible by road, rail and air. José María Córdoba international airport is 30 km southeast of Medellín. Since 1995 the city has had its own metro. The city’s university was founded in 1822.
Places of Interest
The Basílica de la Candelaria church is one of the few remaining colonial buildings, as is the Veracruz church. Built between 1791–1802, the latter has a Baroque façade and triple bell chamber. The Basílica Metropolitana built in the early twentieth century, is said to be South America’s largest brick building. Museums include the Museo de Antioquia with displays of works by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, the Museo de Arte Moderno and the Museo Etnologico Miguel Angel Builes. The city’s botanical gardens have an orchid display. Murals by Antioquian artist Pedro Nel Gómez inspired by Mexican muralism can be seen on various buildings. On the Cerro Nutibara hill, a replica of a typical Antioquian village has been recreated, the Pueblito Paisa.