Before Shakira came along with her truthful hips and waka waka'ed her way into the global consciousness, the most famous Colombian in the world was probably Pablo Escobar. Even though he was shot dead in 1993, when I was only 12 years old, the iconic image of him with his moustache and 70's pornstar hair are deeply seated in my popular culture unconscious. Perhaps because he has been used as the template for every Latin American drug baron in every single film since then, from the low budget El Mariachi, to big, Hollywood blockbusters. Often they'll have an exotic eccentricity, like a a killer pet iguana, just like Pablo who kept a small menagerie of hippos (who have since escaped and become a feral nuisance on the lower Magdalena river).
|The modern image of Medellin that the authorities want to promote: vibrant, affluent and cutting edge.|
Pablo Escobar grew up in Medellin, in the province of Antioquia. People from Antioquia are known in Colombia as paisas and are renowned for their hard-working nature, entrepreneurship and "jack the lad" attitude (Antioquia is also colloquially called Paisalandia). These were all attributes that Pablo had in spades and he used them to his advantage. Beginning with a small shipment of cocaine paste in the mid 70's his power and reach grew exponentially until he was controlling some 80% of the world cocaine trade and becoming, according to Forbes, the seventh richest man in the world, with a personal net worth of some $3 billion. He bribed everyone that got in his way, or shot them, until he was controlling the city as well as the drug cartel. He invested in hospitals, housing, sports fields and obviously the people loved him. The authorities had a different view, since his brutal methods led to escalating murder rates, and by 1993 the noose finally closed around him as he was shot trying to flee an apprehension squad.
Medellin is now an affluent, well-ordered town. Its neat streets, efficient public transport network (boasting Colombia's only metro system), multitude of museums, public art, and outstanding modern architecture set it apart from most cities on the continent. Traces of its ugly, violent past are meticulously glossed over in the official tourist literature in an effort to show a "civilised" face to the outside world, despite it being a cornerstone of its recent history. A shame, as it's this dichotomy that is particularly intriguing to me. Though if you dig a little deeper it's possible to discover Escobar tours and visit his one-time hacienda out in the Magdalena valley (which has now been turned into a kitschy, overpriced amusement park and zoo). Instead you are recommended to visit places such as Parque Arvi, an admittedly pleasant natural reserves in the mountains above the city. You're whisked up there by chairlifts that are integrated into the city's public transport net (the first city in the world to have chairlifts as part of their transport infrastructure, they have helped integrate the poorer hillside neighbourhoods into the city's fabric) and are quickly among pine forests and brisk fresh air, a world away from the 2.5 million people in the valley below.
|When the guide got the group to do calisthenics to prepare for a 3km stroll I knew it was time to leave and head out on my own.|
However even up here in the blissful nature the Escobarian legacy can be felt. Guided tours leave from the chairlift terminus along simple walking trails. Easy enough to navigate yourself if, like me, you like a little independence. The trails are regularly patrolled by mounted police officers who, upon spotting a lone visitor will urge very strongly that you join a group. They told me I'd get lost, robbed and even murdered. This happened on three separate occasions with three different police officers. The culture of paranoia is strong and they were adamant that I desist from walking alone, especially when I told them I planned to walk back down to the city. Though at the end of the day there was nothing they could do faced with equal stubbornness and my declarations of "so let them rob me" (I didn't really have much with me worth robbing anyway), which seemed to totally confuse them. In the end they just chalked me up as another crazy gringo and let me go. I'm glad I insisted as the walk down afforded not only unparalleled views of the city, but allowed me to amble through a number of poorer barrios. Downtown people would call them favelas, dens of crime and iniquity. Instead I saw ordinary neighbourhoods. Admittedly poor, but with paved roads, electricity, running water, established shops, community centres and no glaring problems. In many parts of Asia they would be seen as staunchly middle-class neighbourhoods. Nothing as threatening as what I had been led to believe. Anyway, if you are going to be robbed, it's not likely to be in a favela, since all the thieves are in other parts of town looking for richer pickings. You'd be a pretty useless robber if you waited for someone with money to turn up in your "dangerous" neighbourhood. That said I was cautious and didn't take (too many) photos.*
|As is often the case the poor neighbourhoods scale the hillsides on the edge of town. But at least they afford wonderful views.|
To the south of Antioquia (though still considered Paisalandia by many) is the heart of Colombia's largest legal agricultural export: coffee. The area is known as the Eje Cafetera (Coffee Axis). The mountain slopes provide the perfect climate for growing the bean (actually a seed) that is a more socially acceptable drug than coca. Small fincas dot the landscape and many provide little tours that allow you to see the entire coffee production cycle, from bush to cuppa, through collection, separation, drying, roasting, grinding and finally brewing. It was interesting to see, especially as I have seen coffee plantations throughout my travels, most notably in Indonesia and East Timor. I ended up visiting finca Don Elias, run by the eponymous Elias himself, an old man in his 70's, but still sprightly enough to oversee his few hectares of hillside where coffee bushes are interspersed with bananas, maize, avocados and many other fruit trees. For the same price as a cheap cup of Starbucks coffee I got a personal tour of the premises and a cuppa at the end. Just a shame I don't like coffee.
|Laying out coffee seeds in the sun, under cover, to dry. An important part of the coffee production process.|
*I would like, at this point, to state that I am not trying to downplay the violence and troubles that Colombia underwent up until very recently. Cities were virtual prisons as the roads linking urban centres were all in the hands of various outlawed groups that did not hesitate to rob, kidnap and execute innocent people. Talk to any adult Colombian and they can tell you stories of the fear, hardships and scary run-ins with unsavoury characters. And the scars are yet to fully heal, as Colombia is home to the largest population of internally displaced people in the world. However it is hoped that they have turned a corner (in turns of indiscriminate violence at least). I, personally, felt no danger or threat as I travelled the length and breadth of the country.