Flew from Guayacil to Medellin via Bogota, though thought I might not make it to Medellin after soldiers at the airport in Bogota called me down to the luggage area along with some other lucky passengers and gave my suitcase the full drug-checking works, probing with sticks, sniffing every item of clothing, stern looking chaps in army fatigues, some with stereotypically Latin bristly moustaches, all with machine guns and the power to really fuck up your holiday plans were they so inclined. A young woman who had also got called down was being interrogated, and the soldiers must have particularly suspected her, turning her case inside out, ripping the lining, sticking metal knives into the packets of food and fruit she was carrying and then licking the knife to taste the produce. I was aware that the continuing war on drugs (and the fact that it has failed) and ‘Plan Colombia’ thought up by Clinton and the resulting US financing of the Colombian military (about 80% of the more than $5 billion spent on the program) had meant an increasing presence of the army in places like airports and places where I was (when finally let back on the plane by the soldiers, no apology given, no smile) now going, the former drug capital of the world and home of a certain Pablo Escobar – Medellin. The fact that I could go here at all is, as many Colombians would agree, down to their ex President, Alvaro Uribe (who hit 90% approval ratings in 2008), and the foreign welcome hopefully continued by Uribe’s old Defence Minister and President since 2010, Juan Manuel Santos.
Colombia is now emerging from its darkest days of guerrilla and narcotics warfare and attracting ever more foreign investment to its born-again cities of Bogotá and Medellín. Where strife and terrorism were once routine, there are now real signs of a civic and economic revival – cities being regenerated, booming tourism and impressive growth rates. The Colombian Special Forces have succeeded in dismantling much of FARC ((Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), including their leader, Alfonso Cano, last year. Santos has been credited with dismantling the drug cartels too, and he is a man Colombians respect and love probably as much as they did Uribe. The Colombian comeback then. So this is Colombia – Carlos Valderrama Tino Asprilla, Pablo Escobar, Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga (the footballer who got shot in Medellin for scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup) , FARC, beautiful women, cocaine, incredible beaches, diverse landscapes, friendly people….the first things that come to mind when I think of Colombia, in pretty much the order I’ve just listed. Yes, Valderrama’s hair isn’t something one forgets easily. The list also shows just how much the media influences one’s perceptions of a place. So I was determined to enjoy Colombia, which is just back on the tourist radar, not to be afraid, to quash any lingering negative stereotypes I had. Medellin, once the most dangerous city in the world, was just the ticket for that.
I landed in Medellin. Medellin is a beautiful city of around 2.5 million nestled in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, with a lovely climate that gives it the nickname ‘city of eternal spring.’ The taxi ride to town from the airport took 30 minutes, through winding roads and spectacular mountainous scenery, and cost a hefty 58,000 Colombian Pesos, though this was because I chose to go it alone and not wait for others to share the taxi with, in typical fashion that usually leaves me broke at the end of a month.
Checked into the Pablado Alexandria Hotel, situated in the upmarket Pablado district. Nicest hotel of the trip so far, a beautiful restaurant with a lovely garden, spotlessly clean, big colourful flowers in big colourful vases everywhere. The smartly dressed young gentleman at reception patiently listened to me jabbering away in broken Spanish, and gave me a room upgrade for my efforts, wishing me a pleasant stay in perfect English as I got into the lift up to my room. The hotel is in a mainly residential area, perched on a ridiculously steep hill, which, after I’d quickly changed, I walked down, coming to a busy tree-lined road flanked by banks and shopping malls. It was a gloriously sunny day, yet surprisingly cool. People were going about their daily lives, nobody hassled me, no-one even looked at me. I stopped by a gentleman selling ham and cheese empanadas – delicious snack to push me on. He told me he used to live in New York, and he did indeed speak impeccable English in a New Yorker’s accent. I continued through a small park and to the metro – Medellin has a clean, safe and efficient metro that can get you to most places of interest. It cost about 2000 pesos for a one-way ticket to anywhere you want, and your ticket is swallowed as you go through the gate, and you are never checked at your destination, so really you could go as far as you wanted and pay the cheapest fare, and no one would know.
I took the metro to San Antonio, where I changed to the orange line to San Javier, and then onto the cable car to La Aurora, which isn’t a tourist thing, but rather designed for those living in the steep hillside barrios to get home more easily. In my cable car I met two local sisters and their young brother, who got chatting to me in Spanish. I found out that I wasn’t on the ‘right’ cable car – the right one was back on the blue line at Acevedo – the one that allowed you to change to another cable car to go to Arvi National Park. Never mind. It was interesting to see the colourful barrios from above – places which used to be so dangerous, in what used to be the most dangerous city in the world in the time of Pablo Escobar and the cocaine trade. They were stacked almost on top of one another, some looked like the ground they were built on might crumble away any moment, sending the little house crashing down the hill, probably taking many others with it, a barrio avalanche that seemed entirely plausible from where I was looking. Every now and again we came to a little cable car station, where some residents got off to go home, then the cable car would continue again, climbing higher and higher and higher. Incredibly, I could see roads below snaking up the barrios, and on one road somebody had written in huge green letters ‘No violencia Prospero 2012”
I didn’t leave the cable car – and decided to try the other cable car. I caught the metro again to the next place, though my escorts mysteriously disappeared when a young friendly Colombian chap got talking to me to practise his English – which prompted lots of curious stares from the locals. Not many people speak English in Medellin, and there aren’t many tourists – I stood out like a sore thumb. We chatted about football, travel, outside perceptions of Colombia. Like Venezuelans, Colombians seem very keen on finding out what others think of their country.
I got to Acevedo, then got the cable to Santa Domingo, but could go no further as it was too late to get to Arvi. Instead, I opted for a self-guided tour of the barrios in Santa Domingo, and found them full of life, lots of shops, bars, restaurants, people. It had a very rough edge to it, and soldiers were everywhere with machine guns. Great views over the city and mountains, though. I bought a coke and strolled around, trying to keep a low-profile. Nobody seemed interested in me. I didn’t feel threatened.
I went back down and went to Centro, at San Antonio station. It was absolute chaos here, full of markets, dirty, sleazy, interesting and a lot of fun. Outside Iglesia de La Veracruz, Medellin’s oldest church, is, ironically, where most of the sinful acts of the worlds oldest profession of soliciting take place. Ancient whores, legs like twisted brown tree branches, some as thin as twigs, full or sores and looking ill of health from a lifetime on the game, patrolled in front of the church, along with the usual assortment of pimps and ne’er-do-wells that come as part and parcel of the job. All down the streets the whores hung out of doorways and windows beckoning – all in broad daylight, with police walking past. To appreciate a city, one has to see all sides I suppose, but it felt a little dangerous here – more so than up in the barrios, so I walked quickly, purposefully and without hesitation. I went on to Museo de Antioquia, though I only observed from a distance, the Botero sculptures around Plaza Botero and Palacio de la Cultura were far more interesting, depicting busty women and tubby men in all sorts of poses.
I went back to the hotel for a siesta just as night’s curtains fell. I woke refreshed and ready to experience the famous Colombian nightlife. I caught a cab to the Zona Rosa on Parque Lleras in Las Palmas. Full of bars and restaurants, and beautiful people, who are many in Medellin – a really nice place, buzzing, full of excited chatter. I ate dinner sat alone – something that seemed a bit strange to the locals – why would anyone eat alone? I enjoyed a couple of bottles of Club Colombia, a bottle of Redds, and an Aguila. Delicious. I headed to a couple more bars, but drinking alone is not the thing to do here – everyone was local, all in big groups, and, though everyone seemed friendly and curious, they weren’t ready to invite me to join them for a drink. I headed to El Blue club – rock and roll music, dark and dingy – perfect! I met a local couple who plied me with local firewater Aguardiente, which is aniseed flavoured white liquor, and a guaranteed hangover. Not that that seemed to stop anyone in this place from drinking it. Colombians don’t just pop out for a beer or 2, they come out for a full session and get absolutely smashed. It was only 11pm here – very early in Colombia – and most people were already wasted. I stayed for an hour or so, then left and found a tiny salsa bar, where I sat and drank Aguila and enjoyed watching the locals laughing and dancing. I really enjoyed it – the nightlife in Medellin is excellent, the people friendly, and it was a fantastic introduction to Colombia. I got a cab at 2am – an early night in this part of the world, and headed to my hotel, head full of what I’d seen that day.