This past June, my assignment was to evaluate Colombia's tourist potential. Knowing only of the country as a land soiled by conflict, travel warnings, and infamous kingpins, I was wary of what may happen to me if I was only armed with a pen. What I feared most was being included in the sequel to Gabriel Garcia Marquez' News of a Kidnapping. Nonetheless, I was very curious to find out if and how the government found a way to distract tourists from the country's history of turmoil. Along with a desire to overcome my own reservations, I took the same deep breath I had taken before skydiving a year earlier, then I got on the plane.
Descending from 30,000 feet in business class was a bit mellower than jumping from 10,000 feet. Yet, the blanket of clouds hindering my visibility kept me in as much suspense as if I were strapped to a parachute. Minutes before landing, the verdant environs of Medellín came into view and the curtain of clouds disappeared revealing a cast of rolling hills, lush pastures, and small villages. From that point on, all of my preconceptions of Colombia seemed to disappear as well. At least until I landed.
Expecting to find a bulletproof SUV and armed guards waiting for me at the airport, I was a bit surprised to find a standard tourism van and a young charismatic guide with a smile from ear to ear. Alejandra had just graduated with a degree in tourism and her youthful charm enveloped the van. She was so captivating that I did not even realize the sun had set during the one-hour commute from the airport to the city center.
She took great pride in sharing information about Medellín not commonly known by foreigners. For instance, she explained, "Medellín is actually known as the City of Flowers." Eternal spring-like weather provides an ideal atmosphere for several specie of flower to blossom, including the carnation and the flower of love, the agapanthus. As we descended into the Aburra Valley, the imposing vista of a golden city of lights emerged. Resembling a Colombian lake said to possess the riches of El Dorado, Medellín appeared to be nestled in an amphitheater of Andean highlands. I was ready to explore.
After dinner at a restaurant with expansive views of the cityscape, I asked Alejandra where I might be able to find a bar in order to get a feel for the city's nightlife. Apparently, that was the question she had been waiting to answer since the airport. Discussing the different species of flowers in Medellín may have brought her a certain degree of satisfaction, but you could tell her true passion by the look on her face when I asked about la vida nocturna. Eyes wide open and glowing with joy, all she could say was "espera aqui [wait here]." In less than a Medellín minute, she went to the restroom and changed from conservative to casual attire. Judging by her giddy mood and restless feet, I knew we were going clubbing. So, I threw on my best pair of shoes and pocketed my camera.
Expecting to find people blowing cocaine out of a crystal bowl and dancing under a disco ball until sunrise, I couldn't wait to write the story. When we got in the cab, I told Alejandra what I thought the scene would be like. She had not seen Blow or Scarface and was surprised by my preconceived image of parties in Medellín. Nevertheless, she understood my naivety. She explained that since Pablo Escobar's death in 1993, the people of Medellín have witnessed a dramatic cultural and economic shift. The city no longer known as the cocaine capital and is not financially dependent on money laundering. Rather, Medellín maintains the second largest economy in the country and is home to many national and multinational companies. In fact, the recently re-elected President of Colombia was raised in Medellín and is devoted to continually developing the city.
The cabbie left us in a tree-lined park surrounded by enchanting sidewalk cafes. During the day, restaurants in Parque Lleras offer a variety of international cuisine and typical Colombian dishes. After dusk, however, the tables are moved aside and the party begins. The sounds of Colombia came alive once we exited the cab and within minutes I was learning the sultry moves associated with la cumbia. Considered a style of dance and musical interpretation popular throughout Latin America, la cumbia originated as an African courtship ritual. It was carried over during the slave trade in the 16th century and has been influenced over the years by musical instruments from various cultures.
Being a freshman on the dance floor sometimes has its benefits. Unlike my Milonga experience in Argentina where I was snubbed by countless tango enthusiasts, women flocked to teach me how to move my hips in Medellín. The night lasted nearly till sunrise and with the assistance of the national drink that locals kept urging me to try, aguardiente, I swiftly faded to sleep.
Refreshed by a strong cup of Colombia's finest coffee in the morning, I headed off with Alejandra to the urban center. With the recent construction of a practical metro system and the development of interactive recreational areas, city planning for municipalities throughout the country and the world can be modeled after the efforts made in Medellín.
Certain parks now feature unique attractions, such as the Park of Wishes and the Park of Bare Feet. In both settings, children and adults are educated by official guides free of charge on how to appreciate open space. Located near the city's Planetarium, the Park of Wishes is a place to observe the cosmos and interact with eleven different astronomical exhibits. The Park of Bare Feet, on the other hand, brings patrons down to earth to experience a sensual zen garden, a gaudua tree forest and an interactive museum. The museum displays nearly 200 hands on experiments explaining society's energy sources. Renovations of culturally significant museums and plazas, such as the Museum of Antioquia and the Botero Plaza, have also revitalized the urban center and have contributed to the success of Medellín's cosmetic surgery.
Regrettably, I had to leave Alejandra in Medellín as I boarded the one-hour flight to the colonial city of Cartagena. Adjacent to the Caribbean on the north coast of South America, the Spanish found Cartagena to be the perfect port city from which to export Colombian emeralds, Peruvian gold, and Bolivian silver. Before long, privateers and pirates such as the original Captain Morgan and Sir Francis Drake began sacking the city to claim the riches for themselves. Realizing the strategic importance of the city, the Spanish began developing a series of fortifications and walls. By the time the British put together a full fledge attack in 1741, construction was complete and the "Walled City" had received its name. Led by such naval officers as Lawrence Washington, George Washington's half-brother, the 28,000-strong British Navy was held back by just 3,000 Spaniards at the fort of San Felipe.
I walked along portions of the 11km wall, around the fort of San Felipe, and into its intricate tunnel system. From atop the city's highest hill, La Popa, I had a clear view of San Felipe and Cartagena's major districts, Bocagrande and the Old City. The peninsula of Bocagrande is where modern hotels soar over San Martin Avenue and the Old City lies peacefully amongst its impenetrable walls. The Old City hosts charming sidewalk cafés on cobblestone streets that surround quaint parks and plazas. The countless balconies with beautiful flowers accentuate the rich colonial colors, and the preserved historical architecture is remarkable. A late afternoon stroll offered idyllic photographic scenery, and the eclectic array of culinary fusions kept me around past sundown.
Unwilling to be spoiled by the comforts of bed, I met up with a few locals and jumped aboard the ceremonial chiva. Stocked with alcohol and a three-man band playing vallenato music, the chiva is a vintage Colombian bus that takes passengers around the city and drops them off at a requested destination. Based on my experience in Medellín, I only demanded to not let the night end. Fortunately, the musicians in the back had a jukebox repertoire and the driver couldn't seem to find the brake. When the gas tank read near empty, we were let off in the Old City's Getsemani sector. Laden with bars, Arsenal Avenue in Getsemani is everyone's destination after hours and Mister Babilla brings dancing to a whole new level. I've seen people dancing on a bar in the US and I have even seen a professional trapeze show at a nightclub in Ibiza, but never had I witnessed regular customers swinging over the dance floor.
Cartagena is a World Heritage Site for maintaining the most extensive fortifications in South America. However, the dynamic people and diverse cultures are truly the gems left unearthed by pirates and navies. From a budding "City of Flowers" to a "Walled City" of cultural treasure, visitors with or without preconceived notions of Colombia will be pleasantly surprised by burgeoning cities and delightful people. It is no wonder Colombia ranks as the second happiest country in the world. On July 12, a UK-based independent think tank published the Happy Planet Index and demonstrated a "very different look at the wealth and poverty of nations." Perhaps, this statistic should accompany the State Department's travel warning.
Written and photographed by William Karz