02.03.2015 - 08.03.2015
The loose plan for the remainder of my adventure is for a whistle-stop tour around northern South America, spending some time in the Amazon before heading up to the Caribbean islands. Exactly where I'm going and how I will get there I have not yet decided. The countries are much bigger than those in Central America and distances between places are vast. It appears that internal flights are relatively cheap and will provide an alternative in the likely event that I get fed up of interminable bus journeys.
The first interminable bus journey I took was from Santa Marta (a taxi ride away from my hostel in Taganga) down to Medellín in central Colombia, a mere 15 hours. Thankfully the bus was quite spacious - until, that is, a woman with a fat arse got on and sat next to me, dangling her oversized posterior over my half of the seat. The bus had free wifi and plugs to charge things up, and showed films on screens embedded in the back of the headrest of the seat in front. Liam Neeson does not sound so menacing threatening Albanian sex traffickers when dubbed into Spanish.
I spent six days in Medellín, a couple more than I would have if I'd got myself organised properly. I stayed near Parque Lleras, a small but lively square surrounded by a lot of bars and restaurants, however I didn't meet many people as my two hostels there were very quiet and sparsely populated.
In the evenings, the square would fill up with a mixture of local teenagers and gringos, mainly drinking cheap beer bought from behind the grille of a nearby offy. As the evenings wore on, the area also attracted individuals wearing red jackets who would wander around selling snacks and cigarettes from boxes around their necks like ice cream women at the pictures. It was difficult to escape these persistent irritants and I must have rebuffed them 50 times in my time here. Invariably, they also did a sideline of weed and cocaine ("the best of the best" I was told). Also hanging around were scantily-clad young Colombian prostitutes who propositioned me on a number of occasions. My Mum will be pleased to know that I kept my money in my pocket on both fronts.
I did a couple of tours in Medellín, the first of which was a five-hour walking tour given by a very passionate 'paisan' individual called Pablo.
One of the more striking buildings on the tour was the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture, designed and built by a Belgian architect... or at least partially built. He got so annoyed by the people of the time whingeing about the design that he packed up and left, leaving them to finish it themselves. They found it too difficult so just built a wall next to it with a couple of simplistic windows.
Around this palace and elsewhere in the city (and in fact in cities all around the world) are a series of sculptures by Medellín artist Fernando Botero, mainly depicting people and animals with exaggerated features, typically making some of them extremely fat and others disproportionately small.
Pablo took us round a lot of places which 25 years ago would have been very dangerous, largely due to the criminal underbelly that thrived here under the auspices of one of the most notorious drug lords of all time - Pablo Escobar. Escobar headed up the Medellín drug cartel that dominated the global cocaine market in the 80s and early 90s. Extreme violence was commonplace in the fifteen years or so before Escobar's demise in 1993 and, in fact, Medellín was regarded as the world's most violent city during this time, 6349 people being murdered in the city in 1991 alone.
One such no-go area is now the Parque de la Luz in Plaza Cisneros, a square containing bamboo gardens and 300 tall poles, each of which lights up in the dark. Probably more spectacular in the evening but it was still pretty impressive in the daytime:
Parque Bolívar was a pretty little park, the centrepiece being a statue of Simón Bolívar on horseback. It seemed to be the hangout for the local down-and-outs, with people living in tiny tents and cardboard boxes, others selling a variety of wares from shopping trolleys and the unmistakable odour of cannabis pervading throughout.
The final stop of the tour was to a park where 25 people were murdered when a bomb exploded during a concert there in 1995. A bag containing the device was placed next to a Botero bird sculpture, and the damaged original remains there to this day alongside an identical version built subsequently, together representing the old and new Medellín.
Our guide never referred to Pablo Escobar by name in an effort to avoid upsetting local passers-by who often take offence at him continuing to associate the city with Escobar after all the strides that have since been taken to move on.
Medellín has Colombia's only metro system, completed in 1995. Given that it was built in the face of such corruption and violence, it has come to symbolise the city's progressive transformation into a modern urban city. For that reason, its trains are treated with respect - there are no damaged seats, graffiti or scratched windows, unlike, for example, the Tube in London. In 2003, Medellín actually beat off 199 other cities to win the 'Innovative City of the Year' award, given by the organisation with the world's most boring name, the Urban Land Institute.
The second tour I signed up for was one specifically dedicated to Escobar's life. I was already interested in him thanks to a fantastic book I read years ago called Killing Pablo, about the lengthy (illegal) operation by the Americans to track him down, in the misguided belief that his death would aid Ronald Reagan's futile 'War on Drugs'.
The tour was mostly spent in the back of a minibus while our guide gave us the facts and the driver took us round half a dozen or so locations relevant to Escobar's life.
In the 15 years or so after Escobar's ascent to the helm of the cartel, nothing got in his way - individuals in positions of power such as police, judges and politicians were either bribed or killed. In 1989, he had a plane blown up, killing 110 people, in the mistaken belief that a particular political candidate was on board. Bars and restaurants closed down as no-one was brave enough to go out in the evenings.
At the same time, Escobar cultivated a Robin Hood image for himself amongst Medellín's poor, building facilities such as hospitals, churches and football fields in deprived areas, successfully ingratiating himself with the impoverished locals. This allowed him to rely on them to provide and/or conceal information as necessary, and also to secure votes to further his political ambitions.
As a lot of shootings were carried out by people on motorbikes, a law was passed forbidding riders from wearing helmets, in order that perpetrators could more easily be identified. Still to this day, it is illegal (for men) in Medellín to ride pillion on a motorbike.
At its height, the Medellín cartel controlled 80% of the global cocaine market, bringing in $60m per day in the process. This made Escobar one of 227 billionaires in the world in 1989 according to Forbes magazine.
Some of that money Escobar spent on his own private zoo. After his death, the animals were rounded up and transported elsewhere... with the exception of the hippos, which proved too troublesome to capture so were just left to roam about as they pleased. They inevitably bred, and as a result the Medellín area is the only place in the world outside Africa containing wild hippos.
Escobar eventually received his comeuppance when he was tracked down using radio triangulation to a house in a middle-class area of the city and shot as he tried to escape out the window over his neighbour's roof. Our tour took us to this house, which is still there and now apparently occupied by a family of four.
Despite Escobar's death, and the associated decrease in violent crime, the drug industry itself has remained largely unaffected. Once the Medellín cartel ceased its operations, a different cartel based in the city of Cali just filled the gap and the status quo was quickly restored.
Anyway, that's more than enough about Pablo Escobar. Another part of the city's regeneration is the cable car that runs from the edge of the metro system into the deprived barrios in the hills of Medellín's outskirts. I took a trip over this area on my way to Parque Arví.
It was rainy and miserable at the park so I didn't spend much time there but even so, as nice as it was, compared to other parks I'd seen in recent weeks it didn't stand out that much.
One valuable lesson I learnt in Medellín was not to go on iTunes after a few beers. I bought a few albums including one by a band I've never heard of (Grouplove). I doubt I will be listening much to 'Hits of the 1960s - 100 Original Hit Recordings', despite including such classics as 'My Old Man's A Dustman' and 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport'.
OK, one more Colombia instalment to look forward to, and then it will be on to Ecuador.