Beyond the Drug Cartel Stories Lies Beauty
Before I traveled to Colombia, almost everyone told me that it was not safe to visit the country. I can understand the reasons behind these sentiments. Maybe, Narcos- the Netflix series, depicting real life stories of drug cartels and cocaine trade, played a role too. Once known for its gold and silver mines, Colombia got on the world map in the last few decades of 20th century because of illegal drug trades, earning a bad reputation among global travelers. Organized crimes around the illicit drugs made its streets unsafe for tourists until the recent times. It did not sound cool to many people the idea of traveling to the region that has been the epicenter of all this: Medellín, Sabaneta and other parts of the state of Antioquia. I wanted to do it anyways.
My expedition began in Bogota, the capital city and the beating heart of Colombia. Surrounded by Andean peaks, the city is a potpourri of preciously preserved colonial culture. Drugs and crimes have left a mark on this city as well, creating a rift between the working-class barrios and influential drug trade gangs. A couple of days in Bogota gave me a chance to acclimatize and feel the sensitivity around the drug related topic that tarnished the country’s image. Nevertheless, there was much more to hear, sense and absorb in the coming days.
A bumpy bus ride through mountains and valleys ended in another beautiful city of Medellín. Once a murder capital and the most dangerous cities in the world- as noted by Time Magazine, the city is now a hipster holiday destination that gravitates backpackers from all around the world. I hardly sensed any danger walking on the crowded streets with so many hostels, bars and restaurants to cater to travelers of all sorts. I noticed one thing I made me remember my days in India- Bajaj motorbikes- Colombia is a big market for the Indian motorbikes manufacturer. I was told by some Colombians, who became my tour guides and then friends, that Medellín is positioning itself as an entrepreneurial center in Latin America. Medellín has been focusing on improving its infrastructure in the last few decade, building a public transport system including modern cable car system that has made it easier to travel in this mountain city and integrated slum areas with the city.
When I tried to hear from locals more about Medellín’s unfortunate past, I received a mixed kind of responses; some tried to dodge, others presented only a dark picture while a very few attempted to openly speak out their experiences. I wanted to hear and see more. A visit to La Catedral, a prison built by Pablo Escobar himself for his own negotiated imprisonment, and a museum helped me gain some insights into the region’s past. Many locals still come to pay their respect; Escobar built houses and schools for the slum population.
My short trip away from the Medellín city’s hustle-bustle to Guatapé, one of the most colorful towns in Colombia, was a soothing car ride through the Peñol lake, El Peñón de Guatapé, Pueblo de Zócalos and other small towns- all represent the colors and shades of Colombian beauty.
I could not skip Hacienda Nápoles, a luxurious estate built and owned by Pablo Escobar in Puerto Triunfo, approximately 150 km east of Medellín. This was my last stop and the final piece of my story. Hacienda Napoles was Escobar’s idea of Eden. A huge piece of land spread across lush green hills had elephants, giraffe, buffalo, camels, lions and other exotic animals bought from various continents. The animals are gone now, donated to zoos in Colombia and other countries.
Once a personal paradise now turned into a tourist attraction and family outing shows the transformation Colombia has undergone. I could see dozens of patrol soldiers along the highway while driving around rural towns of Colombia. The roads and cities are a lot safer than in recent decades, boosting tourism and bringing revenue. It looks Medellín has been able to come out of it’s darkest period, shaping itself into a vibrant and modern city.