March 12th-14th, 2015
I flew from Santa Marta to Medellin (pronounced “Med-eh-jean” by locals) on VivaColombia airlines, Colombia’s version of RyanAir, a no frills discount airline that sucks you in with their initial low price but banks on swindling some money out of you along the way. Still I had read and heard of enough okay stories about VivaColombia to take a chance with them. You are only allowed a carry-on of 6 kilograms and of a certain dimension otherwise you pay a penalty. When you book your ticket online you can pay another 20,000 pesos ($8 US) to either have a second carry-on of 12 kg or a check-in bag of 20 kg. I decided not to gamble, not knowing if my bag was of the correct dimensions although I was pretty sure weight wasn’t a factor. You also have to print out your own boarding pass and bring it or face a 25,000 peso ($10) fee at the airport. Once I completed purchasing the ticket online I received a confirmation email and the following day another email that was my ticket. There were no further instructions so I figured that this was what I needed to print and bring to the airport. Just as luck would have it, the hostel’s printer was on the fritz so I had to walk to the nearby shopping mall and have it printed for about $1.50 (a lot for only 2 pages!). Anyways, I show up to the airport and realize a couple of things. First off, the others in the line-up seemed to have pieces of paper with bar codes on it. Dammit Dave…you didn’t print off the right thing. I must have had to log back in on the website to get my boarding pass, even though as I said there were no instructions stating that. Secondly, my check-in bag was only 8 kg and easily fit into the carry-on dimension checker thingy. In addition, there is no assigned seating with this airline but they board in four groups. However for some odd reason, those who have paid for the extra carry-on bag are Group #1, even ahead of old people and those with infants! And here I was, relegated to Group #4. Oh well, live and learn. I begrudgingly forked out my 25,000 pesos and resigned myself to have a bad seat but I actually lucked out and got a window seat and my bag showed up unscathed at the other end so it all worked out.
Boarding the plane:
I hopped on the shuttle bus, followed by a short walk to the metro station and finally a taxi to my hostel, the Happy Buddha Boutique Hostel. It seemed like a nice place, rather chic looking. I wasn’t however super pleased with my room as it had three bunk beds crammed fairly close together with some lockers against the wall at the foot of the bed. I was on the top bunk by a small window out to the street but there was no ceiling fan and the stand-alone fan by the door was partially blocked by the lockers and I felt no relief from it. The first night I cooked, and I don’t mean I prepared my food in the kitchen. One nice touch though was that they had an electrical outlet inside every locker so you could charge your electronics without fear of losing them, or the cable like had happened to me in Palomino. I changed rooms the following day to a larger 5 bunk bed room on the top of the three floors and it had cross ventilation that made all the difference. Plus I ended up meeting some great people in my new room…but more on that later.
Talking with some other backpackers, it seemed like the logical activity to begin with in this large city of 3 million nestled in a valley was to go on a “free” walking tour in the downtown area. Of course nothing in life is free. At the end of the tour the guide expects tips and outlines at the beginning what is considered a standard tip, and what is a great tip. I didn’t mind as of course these guys need to make money somehow and it ensures that they will try their best and not just go through the motions.
Our guide was Hernan, in his forties and he used to be a professor of microbiology or something like that, so obviously a smart dude. I was very impressed that he remembered everyone’s names (20 people) just from the initial sign-in. So naturally he was a wealth of information and a lot of the tour was not just a “Well this building was built in 1853 and the architect was…” It was more a history of the local people, the Paisas, and the history of this city’s colourful and somewhat checkered past. As we walked through the downtown core I couldn’t help but think about how much our group stood out as gringos. First off we were mostly Caucasian but almost as indicative was that 90% of the tourists, including yours truly, were wearing shorts on this cloudy, yet still slightly hot and humid day. None of the locals were bearing their legs. The tour stretched to four hours with a short break in the middle but it was getting dark when we finished and I think everyone was feeling it in their legs, not so much from walking a lot but from the almost continuous standing. Still, it was a great way to get introduced to the city.
This is the center square in the city with the pillars of lights...they kinda looked like light sabers in the day time.
This is a library beside the square. Part of Medellin's strategy to combat the violence of the 80s and early 90s was to build many libraries and other cultural buildings all around the city, including the poor areas.
Hernan starting his spiel:
A statue near some government buildings that depicts the history of the Paisa people:
That's the statue on the left:
An old locomotive by what used to be the train station:
This church, I don't remember the name, doubles as a place where "lonely men" as Hernan put it go to find some female companionship. So they pick up a prostitute, go to a nearby hotel for some fun and then return for a little confession. Note the two ladies of the night at the left side of the entrance.
Meanwhile this was happening just 20 meters away, to the right of where I took the last photo. See the gerbil just to the left of the center of the photo. Well the man is asking to place bets on which little "bowl house" his little feller will run into. People were placing 100 peso coins (5 cents) on one of the 20 bowls and then would win 5 times their money and the guy would take the rest. It was entertaining to watch that's for sure and a 6-7 year old girl won!
Hernan is explaining to us that the cathedral looking building on the left, the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture, was designed by a Belgian architect. In 1937 the government abandoned funding the construction and it was left half finished for many years. Eventually three Columbian architects were contracted to finish it and that's the plain wall we see in the middle...nice job guys.
The next four photos are statues by Fernando Botero,a famous sculptor from Medellin. His style was to have large, disproportionate figures.
With bronze statues, if you rub or touch them enough they surface turns to a bronzish colour...if you look closely, you'll see where ever touches this poor fellow...
This doesn't look like much but it's very symbolic. It was "The Bird", another statue by Botero but it was blown up in 1995 and the shrapnel killed 30 people. It was unknown at the time who planted the bomb...but their were many suspects: the Cali Cartel, paramilitary groups or guerrillas. The statue has been left as a reminder of the Colombia's tumultuous past.
However next to it, a new bird statue was donated by Botero:
The next morning I inquired at the front desk of the hostel about taking the Pablo Escobar tour. I had heard that there were two companies that offered the tour and on one of them you actually met Pablo’s brother, Roberto, who wrote a book that I read a few years ago called “An Accountant’s Story”. However, the other tour run by a company called Paisa Road received great reviews from some other backpackers so I opted for that one. Unfortunately the tour only ran once a day, starting at 9:30 am and it happened to be 9:40. Oh well, I’ll try tomorrow. So I sat down for breakfast but then the young woman at the desk, Yunari, told me that the tour company had just shown up and that I could join if I wanted to. I snapped up at the chance, wolfed down my food, quickly brushed my teeth and changed my clothes and was off.
The tour mostly consisted of driving around in a big mini-van (a bit of an oxymoron there) while the guide Paola, a local 28 year old woman, talked about the history of Pablo, the drug cartel, and how it all affected the local population. I liked that she didn’t sugar coat anything. Pablo was considered to be the “Robin Hood” of the city as he supported football teams and built some football pitches, schools and housing for the poor areas but he was still one super nasty bad ass dude. He was absolutely ruthless in his business, even with those who worked for him. This was not a guy you wanted to cross. At the height of his criminal activity he was exporting 70-80 tons of cocaine into the US each month and the cartel was making $60 million every day! He was estimated to be worth about $30 billion which is almost double that in today’s value. How did he get away with it for so long? Well he exercised “plata o plomo” which roughly means accept money or receive bullets, a pretty effective strategy.
At the start of the tour we stopped at a seemingly non-descript side street with a number of ten to twelve storey red brick apartment buildings but then there was an oddball, an eight or nine storey white coloured building that looked to be in somewhat of a state of disrepair. It used to be Pablo’s and was known as the Monaco building, a residence in which he and some of his family lived at from time to time and supposedly one floor was just for the kids, another just for parties. At the time there were no other buildings of this size nearby, solely regular sized single storey homes. Paola told us that Pablo had tried to get in to the country club as at the time he was starting to enter into the political ring, just for the benefit of receiving diplomatic immunity to avoid any chances of extradition. Even though he was rubbing shoulders with many of the city’s elite, they denied him membership due to his likely shady activities. So what did he do? He built this big white building in plain sight of the club so the members would have to look at it all the time. What a guy.
The Monaco building:
Paola our tour guide:
Medellin soon became the battleground between Pablo’s cartel, the police, some paramilitary groups and eventually a death squad known as “Los Pepes” which was from a Spanish acronym for “people persecuted by Pablo Escobar”. The Pepes were ruthless and used the same tactics as Pablo did and they whittled away at his infrastructure. Pablo crossed a few major lines and essentially declared war on Colombia itself. The first was the attack on the Colombian Supreme Court and killed 11 of 25 of the Supreme Court Judges and destroyed all legislation about extradition. And the second was the bombing of an Avianca flight that killed over 100 innocent civilians and Pablo’s intended target didn’t even turn out to be on the plane!
Medellin became the most dangerous city in the world with bombings occurring daily and hit men, well in Pablo’s case more like hit boys (as he recruited poor teenagers from the slums), taking out targets regularly. Assassinations often occurred by two men on a motorbike, the one in the front driving while the other one used his machine gun to splatter bullets at their target. Amazingly still today there is a law in Medellin that does not allow two men to ride on a motorcycle together. I started to keep an eye out after I heard this fact and sure enough, I saw a man and a woman, or two women but never two men on a two-wheeler. Crazy.
Near the end of the tour we entered a middle class neighbourhood and eventually stopped in front of a plain looking abode which shared walls with the adjacent houses although they were of different design. This was the place where Pablo was located by the use of, at that time, high tech equipment provided by the United States to triangulate his position based on his cell phone signal. He and his bodyguard Limon attempted to flee on the roof out the back but were both gunned down and killed. There is some question as to whether Pablo put the final, deadly bullet in his own head but the authorities at the time didn’t care, the head of the snake had been severed.
The front of the house where Pablo was found. They've added another storey since. Poor people who live here...every day gringos like me come and gawk at their house.
The back, where Pablo and Limon tried to flee. Limon fell down to the ground but Pablo died on the sloped roof.
Note the similarities (apart from paint colour) from the previous picture and the first one on this poster.
To finish the tour we visited the cemetery where he is buried along with some of his family and closest friends. While in my hostel I had heard numerous male backpackers state that they planned on visiting the grave and doing a line of coke off of his headstone. While I was there I couldn’t help but wonder how much cocaine residue was in that area.
The view of the city from the graveyard:
This is what all of the other tombstones look like in the cemetery:
Then there's Pablo and his entourage. His tombstone is on the left.
That evening was Saturday night and with Medellin being renowned for a wild nightlife I figured that I should hit the town at least once while I was here but going to the clubs by yourself in a strange city isn’t always that appealing. Luckily a couple of lovely ladies from my dorm room invited me along with them. Carolina and Vanesa both hail from Buenos Aires and another woman they had met, Michelle, also came along. Sweet, I had an entourage of Latin women…and I hadn’t even hit the bars yet! We joined up with a couple of other guys from the hostel and it was one of their ideas to start at a place called “The Mansion”. It was a dark club with a guy spinning some loud techno or house music (it’s all the same to me) with some psychedelic images projected behind him (think early computer screen savers). We had had to pay a cover to enter but that included a drink so we sucked those back and decided to see what else the area known as Parque Lleras in the Poblado neighbourhood had to offer. In the end we drank and danced at three more clubs/bars and wandered back home after 5 am. It was starting to get light out and the birds were beginning to chirp…so it was definitely time for bed but it was definitely a fun night.
From left to right: Vanesa, Carolina, me and Michelle
We were striking a pose that the video on the big TV screen had just done...honestly!
Gracias las mujeres bonitas!