So we’re back at home base. Settled in to little old Adelaide, South Australia, as if nothing ever happened. And judging by the state of affairs that we have come back to, nothing has.
Adelaide, consistency is both your blessing and your curse.
‘So what did you like best?’ – an understandable question, but one that I’ve had to repeat the answer of about 38 times now. So to shut you guys up, I thought I’d throw down what I felt were the very best bits of South America through this funky guy’s junky eyes.
For the last two weeks, we were back in Colombia. We didn’t do anything particularly special, or see anything particularly special, but it was a bloody great two weeks because we just friggin’ love Colombia.
We started our South American travels in Cartagena, on Colombia’s north coast. At that point we spoke bugger-all Spanish and didn’t have any other South American country to measure it against. Having spent the last 4 months in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, we are confidently calling it – Colombia is our favourite.
Bogota is the capital of Columbia. Officially it’s a city of 8 million, but when taking into account the uncounted – the homeless, the indigenous refugees displaced by civil war, the hard-to-pin-down workers of the drug trade – the number reportedly swells to around 13 million. So with around 40% of the population not ‘officially counting’ for one reason or another, it wasn’t a surprise to find the reputation of Bogota wasn’t the tits. We had a flight out of Bogota to duck down to Lima, and chatting to the other travellers who had come from the area, the general feel of the conversations were ‘Oh mate, Bogota? Nah mate fuck Bogota. You sure you need to fly out of Bogota? Try getting into town a couple of hours before the flight man cos, y’know, it’s Bogota’. BOY, WERE WE KEEN.
We had an early flight out, so teed up a one night stay in town. After locking it all down we bumped in to a local Bogotan at our Medellin hostel who assured us there was way more going on in the Bog than our Gringo backpacking connects would know. Her name was Sarah, and she offered to chauffeur us around and help us squeeze every last nug out of our 24-hour stint on the Bog.
But in the end, in a sales technique that my old boss Tim used to extol, Bogota is a classic case of under-promise and over-deliver. When your sights are set as low as ours, any whimper of anything cool will likely get you smiling, so in that way I feel like we tackled the Colombian capital in the right way.
What people had failed to mention was the fact that Bogota is the emerging street-art capital OF THE WORLD. It’s been flourishing over the last 10 years, and has got to the point now where artists are heading there specifically to set up camp.
The main drawcard is the attitude of the authorities. Rather than hang anyone with a hoodie and a spraycan up by their short and curlies, the local popo instead help protect the artists while they’re working. The flow on effect is the artists can work casually in broad daylight, which in turn makes the art of a ridiculous quality. The building owners are happy to donate a wall, as it not only looks mint, it means they don’t have to go and fork out for a fresh lick of paint themselves.
As much a Medellin thing as a Bog thing, the custom rig trade is flourishing in metropolitan Colombia. The preference is for junk. In the front and in the trunk. SO MANY BOOTY. I never had the Spanish/balls to ask, but I imagine arse implants being like forever sitting on one of those ring shaped haemorrhoid pillows. Comfy, but disconcerting. Reportedly if you’re a 15 year old well-to-do Colombian chica with certain parents, you might expect a crisp body enhancement voucher for your welcome into womanhood. If you’re a 15 year old Colombian chica from a more blue-collar background, you might invest in $5 worth of plaster and mock up a nosepiece for yourself, and tell the girls at recess that you’ve had a little scrape off the shnoz. Shit’s just that normal. ‘SHUT UP KAREN EVERYONE KNOWS YOU’VE STILL GOT YOUR OLD NOSE’.
Our lovely mate Sarah squeezed us into a few of the cool local joints later in the evening, and we hit the hay with 3 hours ticking down before we had our flight to catch. It could be argued that we were dickheads to not invest a bit more time into the joint, but all the more reason to head back.
When travelling Colombia, you’re going to be pointed to a couple of places straight off the bat – ‘Ooh, the Caribbean Coast’ they’ll say, or ‘Oh my stars you need to check out Medellin you sexy bastard’. And too true, these places are grouse, rad, and any other 80s slang for good you can think of. But being intrepid as shit, we threw the scrunched up metaphorical map back in the metaphorical face of this advice, and headed country.
Sizzle being from a town of 300 (if a couple of buses break down on the way through) and I being a kid from a throbbing 1000 strong metropolis, the hustle and bustle of a big city or a tourist haven tends to wear us down. Thankfully, Colombia has a shit ton of options if you’re into seeing mother nature in her intimates.
EXTREME. This is all that we were told about San Gil prior to heading there. EXTREME. IT’S HARD NOT TO SHOUT IT. Nestled in the mountains of the Santander region, it’s made it’s name as the adventure capital of Colombia. There’s 40,000 people squeezed into a cute little town that is a hot mess of old world charm. Cobblestone streets, old fellas having Tuesday morning beers while getting their loafers shined, Virgin Mary statues that have needed a lick of paint since 1983, it all comes together in exactly the way you’d hope. And the slow, chilled façade works magnificently as a counterpoint to the tourist activities, which, as I mentioned, are FUCKING EXTREME.
Canyoning. For the uninitiated, it’s as simple as getting dropped at the top of a canyon, and by whatever means necessary, you make it to the bottom of said canyon. In our case it meant starting with a spot of caving. If you were to ask me prior to San Gil ‘What is blacker than black?’ I would have answered with ‘don’t be a fuckwit’. Now I’ve changed that answer to caving. We had the benefit of headlamps for the most part, but every now and then, while we hung with bats, the lights would go out and we’d drop into what I assume the inside of a black hole looks like. From there we returned to daylight and abseiled down a couple of sizeable cliffs, rock climbed more minor drops, and finished with cliff jumping into a rock pool at the bottom. My triple salto with pike scored well with the Colombian judge.
We also knocked over some rafting, tackling rapids ranging from levels 1 to 5. Without knowing much about the ratings system, I’d convert that on the poo-yourself scale to 1 being a pop-off at your Nan’s place and 5 being thick spread vegemite in the briefs. There was a 30 minute safety demonstration at the start that had everyone worried that there would be a pile of cadavers at the finish line, but as long as you’re in control of your faculties there isn’t too much to worry about.
Colombia has a big rock. It’s called El Penon, which, creatively, is Spanish for ‘the rock’. It’s about 220m tall and 350m long, like a junior Uluru, but the landscape around it is the duck’s nuts. It’s located outside the township of Guatape, which is a town that was built in the 60s after a man-made lake was created to run a hydro-electric dam. The town could be seen as the antithesis of San Gil in that there’s no real history to speak of, but that has allowed them to create their own super unique aesthetic. At the front of every building you’ll find three dimensional tiles with pictograms of whatever tickles the building owner’s fancy. And the colour schemes are hyper, not only on the tiles but the entire buildings. It gives the impression they’ve tried to paint the entire town using whatever free sample packs Dulux have handed out. But in a yuck good way.
But what made Guatape more than anything for us was the hostel we stayed at. Sean is an English lad who’s set up a hostel right under the rock with his Columbian missus, and it is a peach of a place. You’ve got the rock out the front, the lake out the back, and home in the middle. If not for the fact we have to go to friggin’ Peru to see some friggin’ Inca stuff, I’d have stayed forever.
Medellin. Wow. We’ve been here for five days and there’s just so much to say about it. Never have I been to a place where people’s perceptions are so divorced from reality. The end of last century was hell for Medellin but the progress that’s been made in the last 20 years and the city that it has become and the people that populate it are truly remarkable.
The free walking tour is a must for everyone who visits Medellin (pronounced Med-eh-jzin, where the ‘jz’ sound is like when that guy from Queer Eye For The Straight Guy wants to ‘jush’ someone’s hair). They take you to the downtown area where most people would tell you not to go. Best of all they explain “why your parents are freaking out that you’re here, but why there is no need to worry”.
Colombia has a very complex political history which led to ole Pablo Escobar and his cartel buddies running rampant all over Medellin which I can’t even begin to explain. The over-simplification is that there was a civil war raging between conservative and liberal guerrilla armies for the last half of the 20th century; therefore there were lots of people with guns kicking around that were more than happy to do Pablo’s dirty work in exchange for a few pesos. By the end of the 80s he pretty much had control over the whole country.
In the early 1990s Medellin was the most dangerous place in the world with nearly 7000 murders in 1991. Hernán, our tour guide, remembers catching a bus to school and seeing entire buildings which had been bombed the night before. Children would be sent off to school and the parents wouldn’t even be sure if they’d see them again. Kidnapping was par for the course – tourists were prime targets because their countries’ governments could be bribed for more money. With that kind of shit going on Colombia, and Medellin in particular, deserved the international reputation it got.
But that was in the 1990s. In the early 1990s you couldn’t go to New York without getting mugged and yet no one freaked out when Fish and I said we were going to the Big Apple. 20 years ago Brixton was less than salubrious and now it’s a trendy place for young people to party if not move to. So why does everyone still assume we’re going to get kidnapped/robbed/stabbed in Medellin? I don’t have the answer to this, but I suspect it’s got something to do with the War On Drugs – poor Colombia is blamed because they’ve got the supply, yet basic economics would tell you that it’s the demand which is the driving force. The other element is that tourism is only just starting to take off so there hasn’t been enough people going back to their home countries to tell people how beautiful, safe and friendly Colombia is.
The city began transforming in the late 1990s with the help of an iron-fisted president and a brave mayor with a very civic approach. This mayor claimed back public spaces that had become over-run with criminals, where regular residents would never dare go, and overhauled them. The central square for prostitutes, drug-dealers, and hit men was cleaned up and now hundreds of pillars are planted around which are beacons of light at night. Around the square the historic buildings have been converted into a library and cultural centre. Escalators were installed in the poorest neighbourhoods where people would normally have to walk up 300 steps to their house. A metro system was constructed – the first in all of Colombia – which includes a cable car (exactly like the ones on ski mountains) up the hill of those poor suburbs – the first commuter cable car in the world. The striking thing about all of this infrastructure is the way the residents interact with it. It is so apparent that they’ve very recently lived through hell and they take nothing for granted. The metro train is unlike any I’ve ever seen in the world because it’s 20 years old and has not even so much as a scratch on it. The people are so grateful to have that metro system they practically worship it. Every ‘park’ Fish and I visited (they use the words ‘park’ and ‘square’ interchangeably, quite often there won’t be a single green thing in a ‘park’) was filled with people enjoying it. El Poblado- the touristy area and centre of nightlife – is gorgeous and surprisingly cosmopolitan. The streets are lined with enormous leafy trees and there are bars, boutiques, restaurants and cafes for about ten blocks around the main park, Park Lleras. It’s a really hip area, like, sushi bars and succulents-in-cute-pots level of hip.
As a crowd of 30 gringos on a walking tour through the heart of the city we stuck out like dogs balls. Locals would gather around as well despite not speaking a lick of English. They were just so interested as to why we were there. And appreciative of the fact that we had bothered to come. Once an older local man who may or may not have showered in the last week stood right next to Hernán the whole time he was talking, nodding along to everything he was saying. When Hernán had finished and we were about to walk on to the next place, this local grabbed at his arm and rattled off something in Spanish. Hernan stopped and announced to us, whilst Old Mate stood grinning widely next to him, “this guy just wants me to tell you that you’re all very welcome here”.
I found it very interesting that Hernán would make us stand in very close so no locals could weasel in whenever he was about to reference something bad which had happened during Escobar’s reign. People from Medellin are very ashamed of that part of their history. Even Hernán wouldn’t say Pablo Escobar’s name and wouldn’t talk about him directly unless he was asked. There are plenty of tours you can do that are solely about the guy, but we felt uncomfortable supporting them. We heard that they weren’t very good, that they glorified him – made him out to be a Robin Hood type figure. When you’re making $50 million per day I’d imagine that you would have some spare change to give to the people in the slums. The most interesting thing I learned from people who’d done the tour was that he didn’t use banks and spent $1000 every week on rubber bands to tie up bundles of cash. And 10% of his income was written off due to being nibbled by rats.
Of course, Medellin still has its troubles and it’s not all a Utopia. The unemployment rate is about 17% and there were a lot of drunk old men passed out on the steps in the town centre. Down the left side of every church (not sure why it’s always the left side, but it is) you can find a lady (or lady-boy) to take to a nearby hotel room which you can rent by the hour, or if there are none that take your fancy you can pick up any number of hard-core porn dvds from the stalls that line the street. But as a tourist I never, ever felt unsafe. The guerrilla armies are all but dissipated and the few that are still active are in select rural areas near the Venezuelan borders.
I had such a fantastic time in Medellin and was so impressed with what it’s like now compared to how it was. I feel like it’s a personal mission to do some international PR for Colombia and tell the world how beautiful, safe and welcoming it is. It’s becoming an essential leg of the Gringo Trail – the backpackers have discovered its glory. I’m sure it won’t be too long before the rest of the travel and tourism world joins in. And Dad, stop sneering about how it’s the Drug Capital – I’ve seen more lines racked up at house parties in south west London.
So get this guys, we’re in South America. We’re almost 2 weeks down in Colombia and thus far have done Cartagena, Santa Marta, San Gil and Medellin. All of these places probably mean as blot to you as they did to me a fortnight ago. I can confirm though that they are all splendid.
Some notes on Columbia so far;
Cold Friggin’ Buses
So the temp in Colombia hasn’t dropped below about 20⁰C for us. Up on the northern coast where we spent our first week we were lucky to get anything below 30⁰C & 100% humidity overnight. PRO TIP: when it’s that hot, ask if your room has A/C prior to booking, as drowning in your own sweat makes for an embarrassing funeral.
So we had a 10 hour overnight shuttle down to San Gil, and obviously bussing around in this sort of climate I popped on a smart pair of rolled up shorts and a fresh singlet to frame the pipes. But I couldn’t help but notice as more people got on that everyone had either a wad of blankets under the arm or were wearing a hoodie and trackie dacks (replete with pit and groinal sweat). Then the bus started.
It’s quite hard to describe the next 10 hours. It was almost an out of body experience – I was constantly shivering and constantly half asleep, so the trip felt as though it went for both 10 minutes and 10 days. As far as getting a celcius reading on what I was dealing with, I licked my finger and held it up to get a gauge but it turned black and fell off.
The ONLY good thing about being a bloody Gringo English speaker in Colombia – and it’s a small perk – is you get the joy of Spanglish fashion. It’s almost always in the form of a tie-dye top with sparkly English wording, near enough to grammatically correct so that Colombians can’t tell, but wrong/weird enough for us to find it funny. Some examples spelt verbatim;
YOU ARE EXPIRED
YOU CANONLY BE AS GOOD AS YOU TASTE
It’s what I imagine a Frenchy feeling like when he/she walks down the perfume aisle at David Jones.
Where Are The Hot Ones;
Prior to getting here there was ONE THING I knew about the Colombian people. They are smokin’. They’re all perfectly formed, carved from marble, Mister and Miss Universe contestants in the making. I was quite prepared to paper-bag my face on arrival so as not to offend the local Greek Gods and Goddesses.
AS IT TURNS OUT, they’re not all that flash. The fact that they win Miss World every second year is, as far as I can tell, just down to a shitload of luck. Sure, you get your sharper looking cats every now and then, but they are most certainly the exception. And I realise it’s hard for me to call out peeps on hotness when I’m no Rembrandt, but we’re being sold a lie. On the upside it makes you focus on their personality more, which I’m sure would be beautiful if I could understand a fuckin’ word they said.
SIDENOTE; You can’t get on Colombian television if you’re any shade darker than Vanilla Macchiato.