Colombia: From Narcos to Love, Con Mucho Gusto

Sorry for the delayed post. I was too busy living life! Aaaanyway…

Colombia has a story to tell, and I will try to tell some of it. It may be long, but I think it will be rich. Let’s start from the beginning.

Started my Colombia experience in Bogota. This is noteworthy because I was warned throughout my travels to be extra careful in Bogota. With stories of muggings, stabbings, and shootings, I arrived with a very sharp awareness of my surroundings (James Bond would be proud). I wasn’t going to be just another tourist who got fleeced.

I did “get got” though, as kids say: Had lunch one day and proceeded to pay with a 10,000 bill only to be told that it was fake money. After I got over the embarrassment, I searched my memory for where and how I could have gotten a fake bill and remembered that I had taken a taxi and received change not too long prior. I also remembered that I was warned several times by Colombians to be extra careful with taxi drivers; from playing on tourists inability to decipher the various/confusing Colombian peso notes (long story) by short-changing them, to straight up giving them fake notes. Luckily for me, 10,000 pesos is just over 3 USD, so the only harm was on my pride.

Beware Fake Note

Fake bills aside, I had a good time in Bogota and was a bit sad to leave. They have these awesome free walking tours where you pay what you feel it is worth. Of course I am counting pennies so I was literally going to do it for free (no shame), but after the tour I was so moved that I actually paid the “suggested” donation. Anyway, if you make it to Colombia, make sure you join a free walking tour. Other cities have them.

It was no small consolation that my next city would be Medellin! Before getting to Medellin, I had to endure yet more hiking through the mountains, because why not punish yourself even more? I foolishly agreed to join a hike that would take us through areas formerly controlled by the FARC rebels. You would recall that the FARC was one of several militias to have entered into a peace agreement with the Colombian government about a year ago. What I didn’t know was that about 60% of the FARCs rejected this peace deal.* This meant that there was still a substantial number of guerrilla fighters lurking somewhere up in the jungle/mountains. Since I’m not into getting kidnapped, I hiked for a number of days and promptly diverted my route and headed for Medellin. I must tell you though that my friends who continued on the hike had no problem whatsoever and even though I knew I would be fine, I wasn’t prepared to test that theory.

Left and top-right: atop the Monseratte. Bogota
Sights of Bogota

Medellin was all that it was hyped up to be and more. It was one of those places where, upon arrival, I immediately felt at home. The people are ridiculously nice, the weather for the most part is ideal (spring-like year-round), and the women are fantastically beautiful. The only thing lacking was the food. The local food, while quite interesting, did not suit my palate and, for my standard, is quite unhealthy. That is not to say that I never enjoyed the food, there is stuff you can find that, while more international, is certainly very tasty.

F is for Food!
Me and my squad. Medellin

Although Colombians hate to admit it, Pablo Escobar’s story is a big reason for an uptick in the country’s tourism industry. As a consumer of many things Escobar, I could not pass up the opportunity to see things that I had read about or watched on TV.

After enjoying Medellin and playing dumb to narco tourism for a few days, I reached out to the backpacker community for recommendations and was introduced to a tour company that specialized in all things Escobar. Contacted them, scheduled a tour and it was on!

First stop was his grave. Felt a bit weird as that should strictly be for paying respects, whilst I only did it to take pictures. While there, I couldn’t stop thinking of the people he sent to their early graves and how most of them were forgotten, except by their families. I must respect the dead, but it didn’t seem fair that his grave was cleaned regularly, had flowers on it, and had frequent visitors; while those he killed didn’t enjoy the same celebrity status. Worth mentioning that the part of the cemetery he is buried in is informally called Narco cemetery, because other narcos are buried there too.

Pablo; his mum who supported his actions; his driver who died with him, Limon; his cousin, Gustavo; and the lady who taught him the drug trade, Griselda Blanco

Next up was the “prison” he built for himself as part of a cease fire agreement he inked with the government. Although it had prison bars, of course, it wasn’t really a prison for him; he hired the prison guards, ate what he wanted, received as many guests as he wanted, anytime he wanted, had all sorts of parties when he wanted, and the army was not even allowed 2km near the prison. If they had to visit the prison, he was to be informed days prior to that visit. In what can only be described as adding insult to injury, unbeknownst to the government, Escobar owned the land on which the prison stood, and he indirectly sold it to the government at four times what he bought it for. Let that sink in.

As much as the Colombian people want to erase Escobar from their history, I don’t blame them, they should embrace the past and learn from it, because ironically enough, as Escobar used to say, ” A country that does not know its history is condemned to repeat it”. If only Nigeria would take that advice. Smh.

Prison life
Left: His helipad. Top right: What used to be his private quarters.

We then went to a neighborhood named after him (Barrio Escobar) where he is still very popular. He built this neighborhood when he ran for local office; it was really to get votes, but the locals didn’t care. For them, he was a savior who gave them free homes when the government didn’t seem to care about them. In fact, the Mayor of Medellin once tried to change the name of this neighborhood, but was met with fierce resistance. It truly is complicated.

Barrio Escobar

Rounded up the tour at the place of his death, one of his safe houses where he lived, right in the city, for a year before he was found. It is now a Spanish immersion school.

Top: Safe house and rooftop were he was killed. Bottom: Infamous Monaco building (his personal residence in a Medellin affluent neighborhood – one of many)

The free Medellin walking tours are also a great way to discover the city. Again, highly recommended.

This post will be updated later with pictures and stories about paintballing in one of Escobar’s old vacation homes in Guatape. Stay tuned!

After soaking up all things Pablo, I made the trek north to the beach town of Cartagena. This city housed a major port through which slaves from Africa were brought to South America. I didn’t do my homework before getting there so I was super surprised to find out that there were so many black people there!

A friend of mine recommended that I try out a restaurant in Cartagena that is in a women’s prison. What?! It’s a restaurant where the inmates work as waitresses and chefs. This is part of a program to rehabilitate the inmates. Restaurante Interno blew me away. From the simple, but classy menu, to the top notch service, I was mighty pleased. Only drawback was the size of the portions. I was still hungry after a three course meal.

Inmates cum servers/chefs
Gourmet type of situation

I am so proud of this women and the people who started this initiative. Second chances really make a difference; this is proof.

If you’ve never heard of San Basilio de Palenque, it’s not your fault. No seriously, it’s not. I hadn’t heard of it until I got to Cartagena. However, you should know about Palenque.

Just under two hours from Cartagena, Palenque, considered the first free town in The Americas, was built by previously escaped African slaves. You know I’m a history junkie, so when the opportunity came to take a tour, I jumped on it.

Got to Palenque and immediately felt at home (I know I say that a lot, but what can I say? A lot of places in Latin America remind me of African villages…and for good reason); from the sweltering heat, to the types of food, even to the games the kids played on the road, all prove that though we live on separate continents and speak different languages, we are essentially the same people.

I was given information on the history of Palenque, its founder Benkos Bioho, the Palenquero language (a Spanish-based creole influenced by local languages in Angola and Congo), local music, and food – delicioso!

Finally, I wasn’t the only one on the tour and I did notice what seemed a lot like sexism: every male we talked to would only address me and never the females on the tour (unless I went off looking at something else. This not only made me uncomfortable, but it also meant that I had to show constant concentration which was especially difficult because I tend to drift after a few minutes. The sexism thing may just be me, but…nah, it’s not just me. It happened.

Top left: Statue of Benkos Bioho; bottom right: My guide, who freely interchanged between Palenquero and Spanish. My brain almost exploded.
Was honored to meet the great Rafael Cassiani, an award winning singer from Palenque. Others: Me appreciating the local art.
Above: Fried fish, rice, and salad – Palenque style. Below: Moments later
Palenque dancers in a square in Cartagena. This happens very often. Such a spectacle
The worst thing about wearing a COLUMBIA shirt in COLOMBIA is that people stop you every so often to tell you that your shirt is spelled wrong! Also, I love doors. I started it!

Colombia proved to be all that it was cracked up to be. An experience I would highly recommend to anyone who cares about going anywhere. Bad eggs notwithstanding, the people are generally so welcoming, so accommodating, and so touchy feely. Be prepared!

Songs of the day: That’s right, two! First one is Chantaje by Shakira ft. Maluma, because…Shakira. Need I say more? Ok fine, she’s Colombian.

I wanted to make sure I introduced you to Champeta, Cartagena (urban) dance/music. I really like this one and I hope you do too, it’s called La Loteria, by G Black. Sorry I couldn’t find a video. I’ll teach you how to dance Champeta later.

*Update on FARC: While a peace agreement has been fully agreed to by both sides, a few factions in FARC rejected this deal and refused to unarm. However, the surrounding areas are largely safe and these factions are not thought to wield much power.


4 thoughts on “Colombia: From Narcos to Love, Con Mucho Gusto

  1. Great post! Is it me or does Colombia ‘speak’ to you like no other country before it? I feel like you could have kept writing on about the country forever. You’re definitely hitting your stride in that great adventure of discovery. Always a pleasure to read your posts.


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