The small Greek community of Medellin, Colombia, comprised mainly of entrepreneurs and professionals, is booming.
Colombia’s second-largest city, called the “City of Eternal Spring” for its temperate weather, has changed a great deal since the 1980’s and 1990’s, when it was regarded as the most dangerous place in the world.
Home to the violent Medellin drug cartel, for years the city was held hostage to its leader, Medellin resident Pablo Escobar.
After the death of Escobar, crime rates in the city, which is nestled in the verdant Aburra Valley of South America’s Andes Mountains, have decreased dramatically.
However, more than thirty years after his death, Escobar remains a polarizing figure in the city. “The city is still divided. One half loves the guy and the other half hates him,” says Cristos Haritonides, owner of the “Greek Connection,” one of the most popular restaurants in Medellin.
Haritonides advertises his business through a “tsolias,” a local boy dressed like an Evzone soldier of the Greek Presidential Guard. “We serve avgolemono, tzatziki, Greek salad, spanakopita,” the tsolias says in a singsong voice, trying to entice potential customers into the restaurant.
“The tsolias is a big hit in Medellin. People love our tsolias,” Haritonides says, who adds that the people and the scenery of the city remind him a bit of Athens.
“When you say you are Greek here, the response is one of admiration,” he declares with pride.
Panagiotis Chalavazis, operations manager at Balalaika S.A., the second largest women’s underwear factory in Colombia, says of living in Medellin, “it’s like living in the Land of Canaan.” He compares his life there to the biblical “land of milk and honey” located in the Levant region of present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel.
“The people are fantastic, there is great culture and fun, the scenery is beautiful and the women are the most attractive in the whole of Colombia,” Chalavazis claims, a feeling which is also shared by Haritonides.
Architect Evropi Vangelatou, who has a Greek father and a Colombian mother, has been living in Medellin since 2002.
“I’ve studied here and I decided to stay and start a career. Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with Colombia… It has won me over,” she explains to the Greek Reporter.
However, Vangelatou adds, “Wherever I meet someone from Greece, it is like finding a small piece of the homeland.”
Retired seaman Konstantinos Kokkinakis says that he loves the people and the culture of Latin America.
“I learned through my job as a seaman that there are other parts of the world worth exploring. Different styles of living. Colombians live a simpler life than Greeks, and that makes them more pleasant. They party more than us and the family is more tightly knit here,” he claims.
Spiros Mitrakos bought house which used to belong to the Colombian mafia. He renovated it and then turned it into a hostel. He named the hostel “Arcadia,” which in Greek and Roman mythology represented an earthly paradise.
Leonidas Vangelatos Ruiz is a nutrition and health commercial manager at Greco S.A, a factory which makes kourabiedes, the famous Greek butter cookies which Greeks eat during the Christmas festive season.
Vangelatos Ruiz says that kourabiedes have by now also become a part of Colombian dessert culture. “There are not many Greeks in Medellin. Maybe about fifty. But all that I’ve met are really warm people and proud to be Greek,” he adds.
The small Greek community is leaving its mark in this city, which has successfully regenerated itself from the dark days of crime and drug cartels. It is now a vibrant urban hub, famous for its universities, academies, commerce, industry, science, health services, flower-growing and festivals.
In February of 2013, the Urban Land Institute chose Medellin as the most innovative city in the entire world due to its impressive recent advances in the realms of politics, education and social development.