After spending 24h on buses and being stuck at the border from Ecuador, I arrived in Cali, my first stop in Colombia. My expectation for Colombia built up as I was getting closer. Everyone that I met told me how beautiful this country is, how nice the people are and how safe it is. After spending there one month, I can say that I agree with all these.
The first thing that comes in most people’s mind when they think about Colombia is probably drugs, crimes and Narcos. Maybe Shakira for the big fans. But Colombia is not (anymore) all about this. It is a country that went through a lot of change recently. The beautiful nature, the food, the friendly people and the cultural heritage attract now more and more tourists.
To understand the current situation in Colombia and fully appreciate its progress, I’ll give you a short history lesson. Not long time ago, Colombia went through a difficult time. It was a war between the army, paramilitary forces and the drug cartels that lasted for decades. During these years more than 200.000 civilians lost their life. Medellin, for example, was declared the most dangerous city in the world. My tour guide, who grew up there, told me that she used to pass by dead bodies on the street when she was going to school. Bombings, assassinations, killings were a normal thing and as a civilian you just wished you won’t get into the cross fire.
In the last years the situation improved a lot. Not only the government became less corrupt and tried to find peace with all the paramilitaries, but also the drug cartels became less aggressive. Tourists started to visit the country more and more and Colombia became one of the biggest attractions in South America. A big contribution to this I think can be attributed to the popular and controversial TV show Narcos.
Even though the situation now is better than a few years ago, Colombia is still one of the most dangerous country in South America. The crime rate is still very high in the big cities like Cali, Medellin or Bogotá. In one of my first nights in Colombia, I was speaking with three other people from my hostel in Cali. All of them almost got robbed at knife point in daylight. On the Caribbean coast the situation is better. Cartagena and the area around Tayrona National Park are relatively safe, especially in the touristic areas.
Cali – The capital of salsa
Once the battlefield between the drug cartels, Santiago de Cali (aka Cali) is now considered the salsa capital of Colombia. A lot of hostels offer free salsa lessons and many clubs are open every night so you can practice your dancing skills. I didn’t like Cali that much as a city and I struggled to find something special about it. It has river crossing it, some churches and a hill not too far, but that’s pretty much it.
I’ve only spent a few days in Cali and one thing I really enjoyed there was the Street Food tour. For me food is a very important part of my travel experience. I like countries where the food is good, where street food is part of the culture and where I can eat something unique and special.
During this tour I’ve tried a lot of weird home made drinks from the street vendors (Champus), some snacks (green mango with lime, salt and condensed milk, shrimp cevrice, bunuelos, empanadas) and the traditional Bandeja paisa (meat with rice and beans steamed in banana leaf). The last stop of the tour was at the fruit market, where I tasted dozens of exotic fruits I’ve never seen before. Some of them with weird textures, some like a combination of different fruits and some with different health benefits. I will probably not be able to name or identify them, but it was a great experience.
Salento and Vale de Cocora
On the way from Cali to Medellin I stopped for one night in Salento, a well-known town in the high hills where they grow some of the best coffee in Colombia. I didn’t have time to visit any coffee farms, but the hike to the Cocora Valley was spectacular. Some of the tallest palm trees in the world grow here.
Medellin – A changed city
From the most dangerous city in the world, Medellin became the most innovative city of the world in 2012. Modern metro system, cable cars, free bike sharing system and escalators in the poor favelas. This is the level of transformation this city went through in the past years. It has a different vibe and culture than Cali and it’s been said that Paisas (the people from Medellin) are hard-working people and the best traders in Colombia. No wonder Pablo Escobar grew up in Medellin.
Communa 13 walking tour
Communa 13 was the poorest neighbourhood in Medellin and controlled by the paramilitary forces. In 2002, the government ordered Operation Orion in an attempt to take control back. Over one thousand armed soldiers, with the help of helicopters, rushed into Communa 13 on October 16th. The operation was considered a success, but the number of innocent people killed or missing was too high. More than 75 people died and 100 people went missing during the four days of ambush.
After this last deadly operation, Communa 13 started to change. The local city council invested a lot of money in infrastructure, education and cultural programs. The famous escalators and a public library were built. More importantly, the spirit of the people changed and a new artistic movement began. The local graffiti artists started to paint the walls in order to commemorate the victims of Operation Orion and those who lost their lives before that. A lot of graffiti under the slogan “Peace, love, transformation and love” fill now the walls of Communa 13.
Not far from Medellin is Guatape and Punchina Dam, one of the favourite places for drug lords to build their expensive houses. I remember our guide pointing at the biggest villas and telling us which drug lord it belonged to. From all these the most interesting is obviously the Mansion of Pablo Escobar and that can be visited.
La finca de Escobar
La finca de Escobar in Guatape is one of the thousands houses he owned only in Colombia. This one was mainly built as a holiday house and to hide money and cocaine. It had a private disco, sauna, swimming pool, tennis court, helipad, seaplane dock and a long underground tunnel for his escape. It was named La Manuela Hacienda, after his daughter. He only visited it three times before it got almost destroyed by a bomb attack planned by the Cali cartel. The house was so well build that the main structure of the house was left intact.
As we stopped at the dock, in front of the disco building, we were welcomed by Escobar’s own Chief Security Officer. He is the one that owns the buildings now and, luckily, our guide. As we were heading to the main house we were stopping at different trees on the way . “Do you see this Bonsai? It’s imported from Japan. This tree here, it’s from Madagascar” and so on. Escobar liked to have all these exotic plants from all over the world.
Even if the house is almost destroyed now, you can still make an idea of the luxury this guy used to live in. Built almost 30 years ago, in one of the best spots on the lake, this house was the state of art in terms of villas. With all the facilities, it must have costed a fortune. However, for Escobar money was not a problem. It is estimated that he was making over 60 million dollars per day in his good times.
After his death, the house became a target for those looking to steal his money. The double walls that were all full of money are now empty, some fish found home into the swimming pool and the disco became a restaurant for groups of tourists.
The Penol rock
Other than Escobar’s mansion, the Penol rock is another big attraction near Guatape. Considered the 3rd biggest monolith in South America, a 15 minutes hike will take you to the top of the rock from where you can admire a 360 panorama of the lake and the islands.
The rock is located exactly at the border between two regions and both tried to claim it. The people from Guatape even tried to write the name of their region on it, but only managed to write the first two letters. It was first climbed in the 70s before the dam was built and the area flooded. I guess before that the views were completely different. You can still see now the roads going into the water and probably a lot of houses are submerged.
Colombians and Narcos
Even though the TV show Narcos contributed a lot to the growth of tourism in Colombia, Colombians really hate it and don’t like to talk about it. How can a Brasilian guy with a weird accent be the main character? Colombia is not like this! Facts are wrong! The show presents Escobar as a hero! And so on… Well, it’s a TV show, not a documentary! To be successful, the producers had to find the balance between reality and fiction and present it in a way that will appeal to the worldwide public. And I think they succeeded. It’s a great show, I personally like it, and NO, Pablo Escobar is not my idol.
However, I understand Colombian’s hostility against Narcos. It presents the situation from 20-30 years ago and not the present. Colombia changed a lot, but many people still think it’s the same. Also, for many Colombians the wounds of the war are still fresh. Back in the days every family was affected by the conflict. My guide in Cali was telling us that he thought his family is safe if they don’t get involved with drugs, until one day his uncle got kidnapped and the family had to pay a ransom. When Pablo Escobar died, Colombians saw it as an end of an era and a new beginning. They didn’t want Pablo Escobar to be considered the most famous person in Colombia (It’s Shakira, right?) and the country to associated with drugs anymore. They wanted to forget the past, but Narcos did the opposite. It’s not funny when you lost a relative not many years ago and tourists come now and play paintball in Escobar’s house because of a TV show.
On the other hand, Narcos brought Colombia into the attention for many young people. It got me interested in knowing more about this country, about the details of this war, about the change it went through. When I arrived in Colombia I didn’t really know what to expect. I was a bit confused about what I saw on TV and what other people were telling me. Am I going to be robbed or will I be able to walk on the streets without any stress? But after one month I’ve learned more history about Colombia than any other country I’ve been to. Narcos made me appreciate Colombia even more and show a lot more respect for Colombians.
From Medellin I’ll take a flight to Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.