Chapter 23: Medellin, Colombia
Wednesday, July 28
I slept soundly on my last night in Bogota, mainly thanks to the beers. I woke up at 6.30am to pack and leave. After settling my bill and taking breakfast at a quiet cafe down the road, a taxi was ordered for me. At the bus terminal, different destinations were being shouted out by various men. I wandered over to the Medellin bound-buses. A small gentleman in a white shirt and dark trousers approached me and pointed to his Andare Class Marco Polo bus. He quoted 30,000 pesos and the bus was leaving in 15 minutes. I parted with the notes and then he disappeared. I felt a little nervous. What was happening? But then I noticed the man by the main desk and within 10 minutes he returned to me and gestured to remain where I was. It was all being sorted. Moments later his colleague called me onto the bus. I was shown to my seat and my ticket was stamped. Both men were very polite and attentive. Another quite spectacular journey through the Colombian countryside ensued. Descending to a lower altitude and crossing the Rio Magdalena, the day became much hotter but the landscape remained as lush as ever. If there were any rules of the road, one of them seemed to be, when overtaking, you came to a stop if another vehicle approached. I soon became used to the sudden stops and resumptions. We stopped a good half an hour for tea and then climbed for the final few hours to Medellin. There were many more police and military checkpoints en route. Many armed officers were beside the road, watching out for anything. I then caught a fleeting glimpse of an old man, sat in the shade outside a roadside hut, tuning up his guitar, such a contrasting image. We neared the bright lights of Medellin and came through a long tunnel. Within minutes we were safely into the terminal. The yellow taxi system like Bogota, operated in Medellin. I’d reserved a bed at the Palm Tree Hostal but it was full. Not to worry though, the receptionist reassuringly said, and immediately she phoned up the nearby Hostal Medellin. It was past 10, I was tired and wondered whether it was safe to walk the few blocks. The young woman smiled considerately and reassured me it was safe. I soon found the hostel, set back from a busy road. Claudia, the hostel owner, came to the security gate and welcomed me in. I was quickly made to feel at home. There was a lovely atmosphere. I settled into my room and returned to pay for my first night. After I asked a string of questions, Claudia’s eyes lit up. She chuckled, touched my arm and whispered: “tranquilo, be quiet, okay, you’re here now, all’s well and we’re happy you’re here, so just chill!” Claudia told me another guitarist was staying for the night. I met him moments later as he was eating dinner round the main dining table. He was Aldo Samir, from Mexico City but living in London and making a living as a guitar tutor. Aldo was travelling with his English girlfriend. A nice crowd mingled freely in the hostel. A young Korean lad was on his travels but staying at the hostel for a fortnight to help out with duties. He was hilarious and so warm and friendly with a smile so captivating. The Hostal Medellin was a house of happy faces. Aldo joined me for a few beers from the hostel fridge, which we had to mark down on a white board and pay for when leaving. Hours later we were still sat around a long table with a gang of New Yorkers, one whose name was Seth. It was such a cordial evening and so relaxed, just what I needed after so much travelling. There was a laptop on the table and we all took turns to choose our favourite tunes on YouTube, headlining with a whole Led Zeppelin concert! Aldo was a really accomplished guitar player. He’d bought one in Bolivia so we jammed together. His approach was to play along with an original track. By tuning in to your favourites you ignited your imagination! Aldo’s big smile widened as he implored me to stay awake and wait up while he briefly left the hostel. Minutes later he returned with a generous bag of weed. The night just got better and better as the music, beer, smokes and good company made it one to remember. We sparkled and smiled into the early hours. I eventually retired to bed feeling so much happier and more relaxed.
Thursday, July 29
I stayed in bed later than usual but wanted to check out the town so I got out and about. I visited a nice little cafe nearby where a gorgeous waitress recommended the best breakfast. The cafe was largely empty so we chatted for quite a while. I was starting feel more confident since arriving in Colombia. My Spanish was improving by the day. There was a lightness of colour and subtle sophistication about Medellin. It was after all The City of Eternal Spring. The BBC online article about Medellin inspired me to take the Metrocable Arvi from Acevedo Station. The high cable car connects the underdeveloped barrios on the hills down to Medellin’s modern city centre. It was the world’s first cable propelled transit system and reached parts of Medellin previously inaccessible to most forms of transport. The barrios were cleared and redeveloped in years gone by with funds from Pablo Escobar. The huge costs for the metro came from elsewhere as the authorities attempted their own clearances of the higher districts above Medellin. I had to change for the last car which took us even higher above the ground. There were amazing views but I briefly felt a little nervous and shaky. Luckily there were really nice people with me in the little car and they immediately struck up a conversation after rightly guessing I was a tourist. We reached the end point, seven kilometres up in the hills and right in the middle of dense woodland in the Parque Arvi Santa Elena. The top section had only been completed a few months previously and, as the BBC report indicated, it really was opening up the town. There really wasn’t much to see at the slowly developing visitor centre but there were plenty of rambling routes. However, one of the four metro libraries caught my attention so on the way down I popped in there. The Biblioteca Espana (Spain Library) was an additional renewal of hope for the locals. Its ultra modern appearance was amplified by what was inside. There were books, facilities and peaceful spaces to study on four large floors. Having a nice fuzzy feeling from the night before, I hopped back into a cable car and returned down to the city. On the way back down, a group of chatty teenagers tagged on to me. We jointly admired the awesome views and they kindly stayed with me on the metro and indicated my intended stop at Parque Berrio. There was a bright, confident atmosphere in Medellin. So much of its recent history of battles between the authorities and cocaine barons seemed to have fortified the peoples’ characters. Many I met just wanted the best for themselves, their families and friends. I took a look inside the gigantically impressive Catedral Metropolitana, the largest brick church in South America. Its dark, neo-Romanesque appearance really stood out and it had a wonderfully, mysterious feel inside. As I stood outside taking a look at the cathedral’s exterior and taking pictures, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A white man introduced himself, Jon Graham, from Queens in New York. Jon was on a two week vacation. We must have chatted away for half an hour. Jon was a transport manager for the local authority in Manhattan. We agreed to meet up the next day for a trip out west. I later walked the numerous blocks back in the direction of my hostel. However, as darkness approached, I crossed a few too many Carreras. I found the familiar looking dual carriageway near to the San Antonia Metro Station but felt really lost. Eventually, after asking for directions, I found the hostel. I still struggled with my bearings but I was hanging loose and chilling a little more. In the evening my dormitory mate Claudio from Portugal surfaced and we enjoyed a few beers and some more smokes. I really was beginning to enjoy myself.
Friday, July 30
An invigorating day of travelling. After a proper wake up coffee, I walked as far as Parque Berrio where I took the elevated Metro to Prado. The Metro afforded low level views of Medellin’s prosperous looking city centre. Jon was already at Prado and had kindly purchased a ticket for me to the Terminal del Norte. From that terminal we took an old bus on a two hour journey through picturesque countryside to Santa Fe de Antioquia, the ancient regional capital. It certainly seemed like a step back in time as we strolled along the cobbled streets amidst whitewashed buildings. There were lively scenes in the main square. Jon marked out an interesting place to visit which would feed his appetite for all things transport infrastructure. The Puente de Occidente was five kilometres east of Santa Fe. We ventured down a narrow side street and stopped at a small shop to ask a man if he could call for a taxi. This he gladly did for a couple of pesos. As we waited, a stray cow suddenly came charging down the street. A couple of men on horseback followed, desperately trying to subdue and guide the beast. It came closer, focussing its attention on us and stomping heavily on the dusty ground. I leapt back, pushing Jon against a wall, but fortunately the cow steered just past us in a state of wild confusion. We were lucky. Jon laughed and said such incidents just didn’t happen where he came from! Minutes later our moto taxi arrived and we buzzed off to the Puente over the Rio Cauca. The Puente de Occidente was one of the first suspension bridges built in the Americas. It looked remarkable and our leisurely walk along it really was a great experience. Other areas of Antioquia were still very risky for travellers. Jon seemed well aware of the risks for an American tourist in particular. Being on a regular income meant Jon was on much higher travelling budget, but we happily agreed to share a large menu del dia. The lunches were good value in these parts. We later waited roadside, close to where the arriving bus had dropped us off. A big one soon appeared and we escaped from the loud music blaring from the street stalls. A police checkpoint stopped us just outside Medellin and I had to explain myself yet again. There really was nothing to worry about but there could always be a bad cop wanting to plant something on you, so I kept a close watch on my rucksack at all times. The stop and search bemused Jon. Back on the bus he suggested a meet up later in the evening. I felt rather lethargic and politely passed on it but asked if he wanted to meet up again on Saturday. I enjoyed Jon’s company. We were on similar wavelengths. I mentioned my only visit to Manhattan, back in early summer 2001. Jon’s road consultancy work in Manhattan coincided with him witnessing the Twin Towers attacks on September the 11th. He just shrugged and didn’t say too much else apart from saying he’d watched, from about a kilometre uptown, the second tower going down. Jon had fascinating recollections of growing up in New York and relished telling me about the vibrant street culture of the early 1970s where kids from different neighbourhoods mixed together more freely. But he said the street culture became more sanitised as the decade wore on. He enjoyed the New Wave music scene though. Jon was 49 but looked more like he was in his early thirties. I stayed in the hostel for the evening and retreated to the second floor balcony and watched an approaching thunder and lightning storm flashing in the night sky. I wasn’t too hungry after having a big slice of cake from the nearby Exito supermarket, but I enjoyed a few more beers. Mitsu, the exuberant Korean hostel volunteer, was still busy. He was a very positive character. It was joy to catch up and chat with him. He laughed when he saw me and asked ‘do we speak English or Spanish’. His happy smile reflected well on this friendly hostel. There was something about being on the same wavelength in Medellin. I hadn’t felt this comfortable anywhere else in South America. The Feria de Las Flores (Flower Festival) was due to begin in Medellin. The town exported a lot more flowers and textiles nowadays. However, it was still very messy in Colombia and no visitor could afford to underestimate the terrifying potential for violence. The country still controlled much of the world’s cocaine market and a United States-sponsored eradication of coca fields had growers and traffickers just moving to different locations. The political elite still kept a stranglehold over the country, but left-wing groupings like FARC retained a strong presence and control over large swathes of the countryside, and then there were the right wing paramilitary defenders of the status quo.
Saturday, July 31
It would have been my Dad’s Birthday. The end of July, at the high point of summer, when the season’s warmth stayed longer in the land. Such fine summers back home like 1976 and 1984 left lasting memories. Back here in Medellin I took the Metro and met up with Jon at the Vottbana Hotel. He was staying in the annexed part, close to the Plazoleta de las Esculturas, and was bouncing with excitement after capturing some great shots of the town. He photographed an exact moment when the Metro train passed at eye level just across from his room window. We visited the hugely enjoyable Museo de Antioquia. It housed pre-Hispanic, colonial, independence and modern art collections spanning Antioquia’s 400 year history. An exhibition of the region’s music captivated me. There were so many different instruments. Of all the paintings, Fernando Botero’s typically inflated orange, with a worm crawling out of it, did it for me. Botero’s large bronze sculptures, Los Gordos de Botero, were sat outside in the Plazoleta and they really captivated the Saturday crowds. There were so many sculptures of large ladies, cats and dogs. The Saturday market buzz lifted as we came across a family of musicians sat on a large bench. Their lovely guitar sound and lush harmony of voices were quite a contrast to the day’s hustle and bustle. After lunch we made our way to the Jardin Botanico to enjoy our first glimpse of Feria de Las Flores happenings. There was already lots of partying and live bands but I think we’d missed the opening parade. However, the gardens featured lots of fine shrubbery. Jon wanted to check out the cable car ride on the western hills of Medellin so we took the Linea B from San Antonia to San Javier. It was a much higher climb on Metrocable Linea J from San Javier to La Aurora. At about 1,300 feet over a deep, upper valley, our car came to a shuddering halt and swayed slightly in the gusty wind for a good five minutes before resuming. Jon was deep in concentration and assured me we were waiting for the descending cars to pass. He was clearly fascinated by a system implemented by the City Council of Medellin and now managed by the corporation Metro of Medellin. A lady sitting opposite just couldn’t take much more and crouched on the floor. I hardly felt much better but Jon calmed us all down. There was a hillside sprawl of skyscrapers in Medellin which concerned Jon. We took lots of photos and then returned to my hostel where I introduced Jon to some of the other guests. We went for dinner and Jon told me some fascinating stories about growing up in the Big Apple. His father was a renowned jazz musician who counted Louis Armstrong as a friend. Jon vividly recalled a childhood memory of Sunday afternoon tea at Armstrong’s home. After the night of John Lennon’s murder Jon was one of the many people who went out onto the streets to take part in a vigil. There was so much sadness, but we have to remain strong. Jon left after dinner but we promised to keep in touch. I was ready for a Sunday departure to Bucaramanga and then Cartagena. I drank a few beers and quietly contemplated the times ahead, when I heard a real commotion outside the hostel front gate. A wealth of startlingly beautiful young women were getting out of a line of taxis to enter what looked like a private party in the house next door. Those hostel party sharks back in Argentina would have gone wild! I remained boringly reserved and ready for the next day as I retreated to my dormitory.
Sunday, August 1
At 3am the dormitory light came on and loud, inconsiderate voices reverberated around the room. I immediately smelt alcohol. About four lads with Australian accents had arrived. They spent about half an hour sorting their stuff out. I stayed calm and philosophical and soon fell back into a light sleep. I was up early. After paying up, Mitsu appeared and accompanied me to the nearby Caribe Metro station where I showed him the directions for the Metrocable. He stayed with me to go to Terminal del Norte because the trip out to Santa Fe appealed to him more. He really was a hilariously positive person with not a cell of malice in him. A bus was already waiting for him. We shook hands for the final time and I presented him with a banana and chocolate bar. Our conversation had been solely in Spanish as Mitsu now laughingly refused to speak any English with me. Our levels of Spanish were about the same so the communication efforts were quite entertaining for others in close proximity. I waited until midday for my next journey, to Bucaramanga with the Copetran bus company. The 10-hour trip cost 55,000 pesos. Renovation works rendered the terminal a horrendous mess with very little signage. At least I had shelter from the heavy rain though. I eventually found the bus, an Aga, similar to a North American Greyhound. There were lots of empty seats as we departed. One character in the back retreated into the tiny toilet to smoke some weed. A lovely smell quickly wafted down the aisle. After some perilous overtaking we all arrived in one piece at Bucaramanga, the capital of Santander. I checked on further details about journeys to Cartagena and then took a taxi to Calle 31 where the cheap hostels were located. The Lonely Planet-listed Residencias ABC was full but the receptionist took me out onto the street and indicated another place across the way. I ambled across with my heavy load and, sure enough, the Residencias Mi Recuerdo had a single room, for 15,000 pesos. The downstairs bar was full of regulars enjoying the sweet guitar sounds of an old character wearing a big hat. He warmly greeted me with out-stretched arms and whispered a few merry comments about my guitar. I settled up at reception and got into my room, hoping to return to the little gathering to listen and possibly join in. But, according to the receptionist, the evening’s entertainment was sadly coming to an end. I needed food and walked a few blocks without really finding anywhere. It was very late and the streets were subdued but I found a hot dog stall and a small store selling beers on my return to Residencias. My room was basic but ideal, another hard bed, small television, towel, toilet roll and a little bar of soap. I fell to sleep dreaming of the milky skies with slithers of blue over Medellin. The seductive charm and abundance of its shiny, happy people really lifted my spirits.