Colombia: Ground with gusto

La Plaza Botero and the gorditas (little fatties), central Medellin
La Plaza Botero and the gorditas (little fatties), central Medellin

Stepping out of the tower next to the Colombian Stock Exchange in northern Bogota, I walked in search of a bank down a clean-swept sidewalk seamlessly covered in mid-morning shade by a few of the columns of earth-tone brick buildings that so define the city’s skyline.

I had been increasingly in need of an ATM that would accept my US debit card; Colombian banks were proving to be relentlessly finicky with taking foreign cards and I was forced to only make charged purchases while budgeting my pesos. The Malaysian debit card I had handy was resulting in similar, predictable failure.

After abortively uttering a question to the bank’s security guard, I quickly discovered the location of an ATM machine – giving the short, sun-crisped skinned man a moment to pick up his walkie-talkie.

Hay extranjero aca,” he boomed into the receiver. There is a foreigner here.

“There was a time when no one would visit Colombia,” a business expert had just told me moments earlier. “It was once up there with Iraq, or where Syria and Libya are now. The only English you would here on the streets,” he continued, “would be from bald-headed American marines.”

But that harsh reality is no more. Tourism receipts are now on the uptick, and security guards make a point to notice visitors – though more so to ensure additional safety is provided. In the country’s largest city, Asian immigrants set up restaurants in chic shopping districts that throng with young Bogotano trendsetters on their way to the hippest, newest discotheques.

Street scene in La Candelaria, the historic center of Bogota
Street scene in La Candelaria, the historic center of Bogota

The Colombian security situation had indeed changed for the better, largely in major cities and in part because of the highly controversial policies implemented in 2006 by former President Alvaro Uribe that encouraged paramilitary groups to “demobilize” from their conflict with communist gorillas.

An escalation of violence that had been born out of vendetta killings when the father of a pair of brothers from northern Medellin was murdered by the notorious Fuerza Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a Marxist-Leninist faction of rebels-cum-drug lords that still occupy Colombia’s jungles (with 18,000 members as of latest), was slicing the country apart with centrifugal force.

The initial reaction to Alvaro’s move was seen as contentious because many of the former militia were given not only impunity, but also political offices in many of the outlying villages they once occupied. Yet as much of a short-sell as it appeared to Colombian urbanites, economic progress has since been rejuvenated, imbuing business owners and foreign investors in turn with a renewed sense of confidence in the country’s future.

Today, instead of having a failed state, Colombians have a country with drastically increased security that is currently experiencing a GDP growth rate of 5.9 percent year-on-year, according to the World Bank. Bogota’s GDP alone, my business acquaintance is fond to point out, is larger than Ecuador, Costa Rica or Uruguay. Depending on the statistics you look at, Colombia or Spain would be considered the second largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world by population next to Mexico.

“Safe and welcoming”

Though Colombia is still more often associated with coffee and coca leaves than Candelaria, the historic center of Bogota known for it Spanish colonial architecture, the street scenes across Bogota, Medellin and both the cities’ surrounding villages frame a society intent to step away from the past and modernize their country’s image with all the gusto of that displayed by a bicyclist in the ciclovia, a weekly bicycle route that opens up extra lanes across streets in Bogota, Medellin and Cali from 8am to 2pm every Sunday.

Tourists passing through Colombia that I met in Medellin had positive comments to give the country: “Compared to Central America, Colombia feels safe and welcoming,” a middle-aged Canadian couple living on an island in Honduras told me.

Colombia’s clean up has come at a cost to others, recent headlines suggest. Most of the lawlessness and drug-related violence once tagged to Colombia has since migrated northwards to El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. “We feel sorry for people in Mexico because we know what they are going through,” a paisa friend told me (paisa being a person from Medellin and the surrounding region of the Andes).

Much of Colombia’s charm – once obscured by the stigma of protracted violence – is now readily accessible to foreigners, and plenty of locals will be ready exhibit their touring skills to lead the way, whether to out-lying attractions or to delectable dishes made up of an amalgamation of meats and fruits, creating a blend that is as diverse as the multiethnic faces of Colombianos themselves.

Guatavita, a village an hour north of Bogota
Guatavita, a village an hour north of Bogota

The pueblitos, or small villages, that dot the countryside an hour outside of Bogota are alluring attractions. With their soft sand shingles and cobble-stone corridors, Colombian countryside villages look as if they were plucked out of Spanish literature and hung on the side on of the Andes with all the delicacy of an artisian piecing together a ship in a glass bottle.

How Colombia had built up such negative notoriety was only apparent to me on these country drives, both outside of Bogota and Medellin, where military personnel armed with M-16s hailed down cars to perform inspectations at puntos de contoles, or checkpoints. Driving by other sentries spaced about 100 meters apart required all passengers to signal by sticking their thumbs up; mirrored gesture from soldiers indicating a pass.

I would come closer to embracing a key contributor to the country’s security crisis on the last leg of my trip.

 Cure of the Cartel

Perched half way up a slaloming mountainous road overlooking eastern Medellin, the whitewashed cinder blocks of a quaint house seem to bathe a meticulously tended garden and yard with splashes of reflected sun, giving the property an iridescent beauty that belies its notorious history.

This particular two-story mountainside home was once the hideout of the infamous kingpin of the Medellin Cartel: Pablo Escobar. The day before he died, I am informed, Escobar was in this hideout celebrating his birthday. Once responsible for nearly 80 percent of the world’s cocaine during the late 70s and early 80s, making him the 7th richest man in the world at the time according to Forbes, Escobar was a kind of reckless Robin Hood to the people of Medellin, bestowing homes on the less fortunate of the city while encumbering day-to-day life with the hardships of a drug war being raged between the cartel and Colombian and US special forces.

Such is the infamy of the late Escobar that his trade has become inextricably attached to the Colombia. Next to coffee, the coca leaf always comes with Colombia, along with the culture of warfare it promoted.

“Meet Pablo Escobar’s Brother”, a tour poster read at my hostel in El Poblado, the trendy bar district of Medellin. Sure enough, the nearly $30 (50,000 Colombian pesos) paid brought me in front of Roberto Escobar, who stood like a wax figure in front of the whitewashed walls of the hideout’s back patio.

The tour had caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal last December, and was giving Roberto a steady cash flow from mostly 20-something backpackers that he said was being used for his AIDS charity. A book documenting all of his visitors was there to prove his income.

Roberto Escobar and I
Roberto Escobar and I

Half blind and half deaf from a bomb going off close to his face, Roberto lived the life next to his kingpin brother, fondly recalling the time when the two escaped from jail together when asked by a tour participant about his favorite memory of Pablo.

That the Colombian government allows the tour is a signal that – beyond being indignant to persistent associations with tarnished history – the country views it as a piece of history that has shaped their present and is inseparably part of the fabric of Medellin. Roberto’s claims to have made a breakthrough with finding a cure for AIDS may also be giving him an additional shine to the public, who seem to be charmed by his altruistic disposition – whether he actually finds a cure or not.

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