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Medellín springs a leak

By Ignacio Piedrahíta

Medellín, so earthly in the interests of its inhabitants, has a deep relationship with water. The shape of the valley does not let a single drop of rain escape that wets it. The mountain streams come down bubbling, never losing sight of their destination below. It is said that in their infancy, these streams receive instruction from the groves. The trees show them the feats of the larger creeks as examples to follow, and chart paths for them to join the Medellín river as they descend through the ravines. It is, therefore, a whole didactic of water, which includes warnings about what awaits them as they pass through the city.

The founding of Medellín had to consider this web of water threads. The Spanish, inclined to build on high points, chose a plain between the river and the Santa Elena creek to erect the first houses. They had immediate water not only for domestic needs but also facilitated the work of those seeking gold in the Aburrá riverbeds or the creeks, according to local writer Tomás Carrasquilla. The rural houses dotting the valley slopes dwelled in a kind of natural Arcadia, whose nearby watercourse still endures in the childish drawings of all who grew up around here.

This constant gushing of water from the peaks, which rarely stops, makes its abundance invisible to us. It often takes the gaze of an outsider to notice the exuberance of the springs. In the early 19th century, the Italian geographer Agustín Codazzi noticed these wetnesses and proposed that the Aburrá valley had been a lake thousands of years ago. According to his theory, between Caldas and beyond Barbosa towns, everything was tranquil waters resting in that long and narrow basin, with a depth he calculated at 150 meters. The Nutibara and Volador hills would be charming islands in the middle of the large water mirror. Meanwhile, the creek inlets into the lake would form splendid bays on its edges. Codazzi's geographical utopia harbored even more water than exists today, in a kind of mythical deluge-filled past.

The temptation to flood the hollow where the city lies attracted illustrious supporters for decades. The eminent geologist Juan de la Cruz Posada endorsed it even at the beginning of the 20th century. He proposed that ancient glaciers had dragged a barrier of stone blocks to the height of what is now Moravia neighborhood, enough to back up the river and flood the valley. He imagined perpetual ice descending these mountains before the flood, frozen waters that further adorned the image of the possible great Aburrá lake. Although nothing would be better for the summery Medellín than a fridge hit or a good soaking, it was later proven that its ancient lands were never flooded. Those speculations are now preserved as poetic heritage of our relationship with water.

We now know that Medellín has not been of calm waters, but of turbulent ones. Unlike Bogotá, located on a plain, indeed a product of dried-up lakes, Medellín is marked by its virulent creeks. The term "quebrada" is a unique local adaptation in this part of the Andes that does not equate to a simple stream. It indicates that the terrain is broken and deepens, and it refers both to the water running and the deep breach that channels it. When we say "quebrada," we simultaneously say water and mountain, stone and torrent. The water running there jumps as much as it pools, rushes as much as it gets stuck.

The creeks are the landscape feature that best reflects the ambiguous character of the city's natives. Kind and trusting in their dealings, they can be impetuous and violent when their deepest principles dictate. In their upper parts, they often form dams of earth, sticks, and stones, which later lose footing and unleash in an avalanche of watery fury. They used to be the great protagonists when they performed their dramas in rainy seasons. La Iguaná was one of the most fearsome. It swept away the settlements on its banks several times. In 1880, it practically wiped the town of Anápolis off the map, which was permanently relocated higher up with the name of Robledo.















The local writer Fernando Vallejo says that the creeks around here are like children: tantrum-prone. As couldn't be otherwise, the author describes the one that may be the most representative of his city: La Loca. This creek runs parallel to Santa Elena to the north and, although it is covered by pavement, its course is revealed by the curvy Barbacoas street. “La Loca was gentle, smooth, and crystalline, like all of them, but in May, the month of rains, things changed”, as recounted in Los días azules: “a spark ignited, lightning flashed, thunder sounded, and a downpour broke out, the big shower of large, vulgar drops. […] And the little fountains turned into streams, and the streams into rivers. […] Roaring disheveled, La Loca launched itself menacingly over Medellín […]. La Loca was unleashed!”.

The temperate climate and the profusion of fresh, running water were a reference for local fun in the past. There were numerous baths throughout the city a century ago. The most famous was Cipriano Álvarez´s, in what is now Aranjuez neighborhood, below the asylum, and El Edén, on the grounds of the current Botanical Garden. There, writer Libardo Ospina recounts in his Baños públicos del viejo Medellín, “gentlemen accompanied by pleasant female company would go to refresh and eat snacks… after a good glass of brandy that the gentlemen would then repeat, if they didn’t consume the whole bottle”. El Edén was supplied by the creeks coming down from Campo Valdés, and they were equally elegant. Almost daily, “the main gentlemen of the Villa gathered there, who, while bathing, sipped their cocktails, talked about literature and art, and arranged business deals and marriage alliances”. There were also the baths of don Coriolano, de Palacio, de Villa, El Jordán, and La Mansión, in Villa Hermosa. La Bastilla, in downtown, was a “gathering of intellectuals, bohemians, politicians, and traffickers”. Apparently, the water in Medellín had a salutary character that differed in its manners from the Swiss Alps spas.

These public baths survived in their more popular version, the natural pools. The creeks generally descend in jumps between large rocks, and between the steps, paired streams and pools form. This set is known as a “charco”, and it is a landmark in local culture. Perhaps the first documented charco is Peña de los Monjes, which functioned at least since the early 19th century. Byron White and Jorge Ortiz locate it at what is now the intersection of Palacé street and San Juan avenue, behind the San Antonio church. These authors maintain that the charco was in the waters of the Medellín river, with which I respectfully disagree. Rather, it would be in the waters of a tributary of the El Zanjón creek, which in turn flowed into Los Ejidos and finally into the river.

The natural pool is the most democratic of our institutions. The charco does not demand, like the pool or the beach, a special, expensive, or fashionable suit. On the contrary, it welcomes any ragged or casual attire. A big rock acts as a dressing room for adults, a sunbathing spot for others, and a platform for diving or cannonballing for the younger ones. Small stones serve to set up the stew and place the music player. The cold mountain water makes you shiver and chatter your teeth, favoring the embrace, whether with oneself or another person. The consumption of aguardiente compensates for the temperature and spices up the gathering. The charco bath is perhaps the moment of greatest freedom for the city inhabitant. Individual and societal rituals are verified there. The Ancón hippie festival in 1971 showed that the leap to modernity had to be anointed with a celebration with holy water in the most traditional way. Rock and roll and marijuana were received through a naked baptism in the largest bathing place in the city, the Medellín river.


While there are still some charcos, such as the emblematic La Cascada in the Santa Elena creek, most have closed. Even two that supplied the outings of the northwestern and northeastern communes for more than a generation no longer exist: Charco Verde in San Félix and Chorro Clarín in Santa Elena, which has become a picnic area. Some still exist in nearby suburban areas, but they are no longer urban heritage as they once were. In today’s touristic Medellín, the rooftop pools of hotels are more famous, claiming that semi-forgotten aquatic advantage of the city. It is not like in the early days at the creeks, where men bathed on one side and women on the other. Quite the contrary, the mermaid, a fantastic being of water, has come to play a starring role as a nymph adapted to chlorine and tiles.

Another interesting change in the relationship with water in the city is the construction of tall buildings on the Medellín riverbanks. For the first time in its history, certain river waters do not have a direct view of their birthplace in the mountain peaks. Likewise, the young streams that spend their childhood in the mountain are deprived of glimpsing their elders at the bottom of the valley. The fantasy of the current’s waves replicating the profile of the mountain range’s relief is lost with each tower that rises. By severing that society of landscape forms, we move further away from the cyclical ways of water to which we have always been linked.

A river flanked by apartment buildings could, however, bring some unexpected advantages. With luck, people on balconies overlooking the water might start demanding a clean stream, even if just to improve the view and increase property value. Pet walks might include a station to drink and play on the river’s beaches. Or it might happen that tourism itself demands clean rivers and creeks for a dip. Perhaps it will be foreigners once again who show us the fantastic and poetic posibilities of the running water on these hills. Regarding the care of our rivers and creeks in Medellín, we are leaking—a paradox that suggests things can get better after hitting bottom.


Quebrada Santa Elena. Anónimo. 1920. BPP. Tomado de UC 139

Quebrada Doña María. Fotografía de Juan Fernando Ospina. Tomado de UC 139


Ripio - Parlantes

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