Welcome to Medellin, what once was the worlds most dangerous city but today has dropped from number one back to eighth position..(a sarcastic) pheww. Well that’s what the official homicide rate tells ya and yes, back in the 80s and 90s this city was the heart beat of drug trafficking, murder and hideous crimes (the murder rate peaking at 27,100 in 1997) led by the infamous Pablo Escobar and his Medellin drug cartel. This was going to be interesting..
The bus ride from the peaceful zona cafeteria region was filled with spectacular scenery. Climbing in elevation we passed small towns, dense jungle, expansive valleys and river systems directing our passage way through the Aburra Valley to the city surrounded by mountains, Medellin. On the ground we had heard only good things about this city with an edgy university scene, sophisticated cafe and restaurant night life and a beautiful old town set within a valley. The city looked green and modern, with an efficient rail system that ran straight through the city and supported the 2.7 million residents.
Outside of the bus terminal we predicted that we were only a 5 minute taxi drive to our hostel, The Black Sheep. Yes it would have been a pretty easy walk but due to the cities past reputation and being robbed in Quito, we thought it best to jump in a cab. This proved to be more difficult then predicted. A line of the small yellow taxis were parked outside the station while the drivers stood around and chatted. They were managed by a lovely young lady that directed the traffic flow and ensured that taxi drivers didn’t over charge the tourists. The problem was that out hostel was so close that no one wanted to take us based on her preferred and prescribed rate. They argued amongst themselves for 15 minutes before the coolest Colombian gangster pulled up in his shinny black beast with his gold bling and his overly Americanised accent and hailed “Hey guys, how can I help yar? you wanna know whats going on with these drivers? they don’t wanna take yar cause the fares too low. Why don’t yar walk to your hostel? I would take you myself but I have my family in the car..’. And sure enough a little girl and wife peered at us through his tinted windows, smiled and waved. ‘Welcome to Medellin, our beautiful city guys, you will have an amazing time and don’t be scared, its a place of friendly happy people, yar safe’. And that was our non expected introduction to what was once, the most dangerous city in the world.
After coming to an agreement on price, we scooted up to the El Pablado region, the most upper class area and safest filled with leafy green streets, cafes and plastic surgery medical institutes. They were everywhere and the women were perfect! They walked the streets with bandages on their new noses, oversized chests ballooning out of their singlet tops and lushes lips that looked as though they could swallow you whole. It was a reminder that this was also the capital of the most ‘beautiful women in the world’, albeit with a little bit of help.
The NZ hostel was a perfect base to explore the city over the next three days before flying north to the Colombian Caribbean coast, Cartagena. We meet up with Amy again, the Aussie girl from Melbourne that grew up in our suburb and who’s Mum lived right around the corner from us. Also we ‘heard’ Mary, another Melbournian of 48 who had the strongest Aussie accent and had spent the last 15 years on a trawler outside of Darwin.
One of the highlights of Medellin was to take a ‘Pablo Escobar’ tour to learn a little more about why this city was considered to be so dangerous and the drug cartel and leader that was responsible for the countries bad reputation. The next morning we were picked up by the small mini bus and rolled on with a group of another eight backpackers from the UK, India, Germany, Mexico and of course, another bogan Australian from..you guessed it…Perth. Our guide was a pocket rocket of a Colombian young girl, dressed in her army pants, bad-ass attitude and foul language, she was the perfect guide for such an underground tour. And this was Pablo’s story..
During the 1980s, Pablo built and led the Medellin Drug Cartel empire that controlled roughly eighty percent of the cocaine that was shipped into the US and the rest of the world. The raw ingredients were brought mostly from Peru and Bolivia, and manufactured in and around the Colombian borders (still are). Escobar bribed countless Colombian government officials, judges and other politicians, and executed uncooperative subordinates. He brought up many of the real-estate in Medellin to which was identified by the color white with at least one palm tree planted out front. He murdered politicians, assassinated policeman, owned a fleet of 15 planes to transport the drugs into Panama, built overland traffic routes and was behind numerous car bombings and airline bombings that terrorised the people between the late 80s and early 90s. At the height of his power he was estimated to be one of the 203 billionaires with a personal net worth of $203 billion. He was finally captured so built his own jail, a purpose built mansion with jacuzzi and bar where he continued to run the cartel. On December 2, 1992, at the age of 44, Pablo Escobar was shot and killed in a gun battle on the rooftop of his safe house after escaping through a top floor window.
In our little mini bus we toured the city, viewing prominent sites, including where he was shot while the feisty guide unloaded the story. The last stop was the Medellin cemetery where he was buried, a luxury slate graveside where it was ‘the thing’ for tourists to ‘do a line’ right off his grave stone…are you kidding me? After that remark, the Aussie guy from Perth yelled our ‘this is the coolest tour eva!’ and we meet a few of those tourists back in the hostel.
The second and third day we explored the city. We opted to walk up the main road assuming that it would be fine due to the amount of passing traffic and major shopping malls on the way. First a stop in central Zone Rosa that was a few key blocks filled with expensive restaurants and late night bars, all very classy. We had learnt from our tour the day before to be very careful on the streets and not except paper handouts from any one and to always watch drinks. Criminals used a ‘zombie’ drug called scopolamine. The drug was a popular one due to it being odorless, tasteless and easily absorbed even through touch that rendered the victim complete willing to do or handover anything in their possession without remembering a single thing. So with that in the back of our minds, we were very wary going forward on the streets. Visiting a few malls on the main drag to escape some of the humidity we were still a few kms from the cities center. Coming to a overpass it started to turn dodgy quickly so opted to jump in a cab for the rest of the way.
Our first stop was was to the Botero Plaza and Museo de Antioquia and to view the ‘fatties’ by Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous artist. Parked out the front of the museum where his bronze statutes of over sized women, little boys and horses. We paid the entry fee and toured his works of fatties laughing all the way. Outside the museum we walked through the central markets selling a multitude of cheap Chinese imports from electronics, plastics, underwear and more all the way through to the central government zone with its modern buildings, sculptures and surrounding parks.
To get a birds eye view of the city we rode the metro cable car to Santo Domingo, a multimillion $ system built not only for the tourists but to connect the barrios on the high mountain outskirts down to the cities metro-rail. The first half of the cable was free of charge to connect those residents while we payed a few more dollars to pass over the mountain top to the newly opened Parque Arvi. It was the longest cable cart we had ever been on and gave
us some perspective of the size of the city and size of the surrounding slums that twinkled at night from ground level.
Back at the hostel we caught up with Amy and packed up for our $50 flight with Viva Colombia, the latest budget airlines to hit the scene and take us another 1200 kms north. Cheaper then the bus and 15hrs quicker, it was a no brainer. So we left what once was the most dangerous city in the world in one piece, enjoying our time, a little more aware and coming across again some of the friendliest, non people in all of South America.