Medellin, Colombia, once notorious drug haven, now known for its dazzling Christmas display

Medellín for Christmas vacation? Sí, sí!

The city once wracked by drug violence has undergone a massive social and economic transformation, and it's now known in tourist circles for spectacular Christmas light displays that veil churches, buildings, parks and even the Medellín River with glittering cascades of color.

The spectacle can be seen in neighborhoods around the city every night until Jan. 12 from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. The display draws an estimated four million visitors. The scene feels like a carnival, with crowds of families on foot gazing in awe, street vendors and long lines of cars and tour buses streaming slowly by.

The displays change each year and are created by EPM, a state utility company that derives much of its power from hydroelectric sources. The company, which also produces light displays in the Colombian cities of Cali and Quimbaya, held an open call for ideas for the light shows, resulting this year in more than 1,500 suggestions. The lights can be seen primarily in eight areas of the city: Cerro Nutibara, La Playa Avenue, East Avenue, Carabobo, San Juan, Junin, 70 North Street and Las Palmas. Each area's display has a different theme, for example animals, symbols of peace, flowers and Christmas trees.

Residents are quick to remind visitors that perceptions of the city as a center of drug violence are outdated. After all, Colombia's most notorious outlaw, drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, was killed more than 20 years ago. While it's possible to find tour guides offering "Escobar tours" that include a stop at the building where he was ambushed by police, tour guide Andres Munera prefers to focus on more positive themes, from the Christmas lights to excursions to nearby coffee farms and nature reserves.

"We don't do Pablo Escobar tours because that evil man was the worst thing that has ever happened to Medellin and the entire country. We prefer to focus on the positive present than on a painful past"

— Andres Munera, Tour guide

Munera, 43, a native of Medellín, started his business, Land Venture Travel, in 2010, and says about 50 percent of his customers are from the U.S. After all, "it's just a three-hour flight from Miami," he said. He credits Alvaro Uribe, who served both as Medellín mayor and Colombia's president, with helping to change Colombia's reputation and says life in Medellín has been transformed by everything from libraries and parks to assistance for entrepreneurs.

Despite economic and social strides in Medellín and elsewhere, challenges remain. The taxi industry in the capital, Bogotá, is plagued by robberies, and Medellín has recently been in the news over reports of underage prostitution.

But tourism in the country is on the rise. In 2013, about 1.7 million people visited Colombia, more than three times the number that visited in 2002. About 20 percent of 2013 arrivals, or 343,891, were from the United States, up slightly from the previous year. Tourism from the U.S. is expected to grow with the recent addition of direct flights on the national airline, Avianca, from New York.

Munera says the improved quality of life, along with social media and word of mouth, is helping persuade tourists to come.

"We don't do Pablo Escobar tours because that evil man was the worst thing that has ever happened to Medellín and the entire country," Munera said. "We prefer to focus on the positive present than on a painful past."

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