Ciara Kenny

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Medellin: A path less travelled

Pablo Escobar, violence and drugs spring to mind when people think of Medellin, harking back 20 years when it held the title of ‘World’s Most Dangerous City’

Niall Minihan looking out over the city of Medellin.

Wed, Dec 11, 2013, 08:45


Niall Minihan

When I told my worrying mother I was moving to Medellin in Colombia she feared the worst. Visions of Pablo Escobar, violence and drugs naturally sprung to her mind harking back to period 20 years ago when Medellin held the undesirable title of World’s Most Dangerous City.

Stereotypes are hard to shake off but Medellin is doing a very good job at changing theirs. The transformation since the early 90s, when the Medellin cartel’s empire collapsed with the death of its leader, has been dramatic. Through some bold civic and infrastructural projects Medellin has managed to breathe new life and relative peace into the desperately poor barrios on the city’s frayed outskirts, where murder and violence were a daily occurrence.

Two years after that conversation I am still here and loving life in Medellin. My mother’s attitude has changed as she sees how this diamond in the rough of South America has endeared itself to me.

Medellin is Colombia’s second city and is nestled in a lush valley surrounded by the Andes Mountains. Its 3.5 million inhabitants are extremely proud of their separate identity, referring to themselves as Paisas to distinguish themselves from the rest of Colombia. The city is sharply divided between a wealthy south and a poor north cut east-west by the Medellin River.

Having backpacked through Central and South America in 2007 with friends, my intention had always been to come back to the continent at some stage and study Spanish, with Buenos Aires being my preferred option. On returning from my travels I moved to London. Three years later it was time to take that study break and as I had some friends from Medellin, I chose Colombia over Argentina.

Once here, I easily fell victim to the laid back rhythm of the Colombian culture, which was in stark contrast to the hectic London vibe I had become accustomed to. The perpetual spring-like weather, which has earned Medellin the nickname of “City of Everlasting Spring” was another factor that confirmed I had made the right choice.

My company in London allowed me to work remotely for six months but when I decided to stay longer I had to find a local job. Gaining good employment here for foreigners can be difficult especially without a very good level of Spanish, which I didn’t have at the time. Many foreigners that stay here tend to teach English for a short time and then move on.

I chose this option and for six months I worked in a language institute, which I really enjoyed. It allowed me to meet some great people and learn some new skills. On completion of my first year in Colombia I felt it was time to make a decision to either move back home or to move to another country as good opportunities seemed limited here. I was looking at getting back into a career-related job but something different from the management consultancy I had been doing in London. A fledgling romance with a local Paisa girl and a chance encounter with a British expat made my mind up for me.

Niall and his girlfriend Susana at the Spanish Library high up on the hill of one of the poorest barrios in Medellin, Santa Domingo.

Nick Aldridge, who sold his UK company in 2011, had moved to Medellin to set up a new technology company called Kogi Mobile. When we met he was looking for a project manager to join his rapidly expanding team. This was the change I had been looking for.

Kogi Mobile is a mobile specialist software house that is made up of specialist teams who focus on the development of native applications for iOS and Android devices and HTML 5 web pages for iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Mobile.

Working for a technology start-up that has now grown to be the largest dedicated mobile app developer in the Spanish-speaking Latin region has given me great experience. I have worked on some high-profile applications for global brands. I have managed to bring new clients for the company and we are currently in talks with a few Irish companies about working together on future projects.

With the ICT sector in Ireland so strong at the moment I am hoping that when I do eventually move home in the next year or two there will be plenty of opportunities for me. Having started my career as a civil engineer, this is something I wouldn’t have been able to consider had I continued in construction.

I think it is very important to continually adapt to change and be willing to take some risk. Sometimes the road less travelled can present greater and more interesting opportunities.