After the mystical surroundings of San Agustin, where I spent my time at a fabulous hostel on a green and pleasant hill, I travelled to Cali via the same bendy, partly unpaved road to Popayan. Cali is the salsa city of the country and perhaps of the continent. The city itself is not particularly pretty. For you Dutchies and Lowlands Country citizens, Cali is a bit like the city of Rotterdam. It’s not terribly inviting at first sight, but if one takes the time to dive in one can find some gems and the gem of Cali is the salsa beat pulsing through the city. Visiting the salsa clubs everyone- and I mean EVERYONE- dances salsa as if they came grooving out of the womb. It functions as the great unifier of people of all ages, shapes, shades and income brackets. Certain songs are considered classics filling up the dance floor or causing spontaneous mass sing-a longs. I am a Dark Fairy with rhythm, who loves to dance, but I have to say I felt rather intimidated by all the salsa skills and as I plan to come back to the region, I promised myself to emerge myself properly next time round, so I can enjoy myself rather than feeling (unnecessarily) intimidated.
After big salsa city action I went for some more mountain chill and travelled to Salento, a village in the famed Zona Cafetera, or coffee region. Salento sure is touristy with foreigners- mainly gringos- and Colombians alike, but Colombia hasn’t hit levels of mass tourism just yet, so the vibe is still very chilled. It is a town with colourful houses and a distinct artisan streak as many shops sell all sorts of arts and crafts, which I didn’t dear to have a look it so not to tempt myself as I am a real sucker for hippy bling and the like.
I stayed at yet another fabulous hostel a 20 minute walk outside of town surrounded by glorious hills. The place was a proper finca, which is often referred to as a house in the country for those who can afford it. And that’s exactly what it felt like; I felt like a guest at someone’s country house. As Salento is located in the famous coffee region it is surrounded by coffee farms and taking a coffee tour is considered a ‘must-do’ activity. Besides getting some insights on coffee production one can enjoy glorious walks, or go horse riding or mountain biking. Cocora valley close by offers a relative easy 3 to 5 hour walk through most varied surroundings, from open spaces to lush rain forest. On this trip I have been getting in touch with my inner outdoor girl and she is totally digging the almost meditative hiking activity.
After Salento, it was a return to big city action as I took a bus along some more bendy roads to the City of Eternal Spring, innovation and reinvention: Medellin. It is called the city of Eternal Spring due to its climate as temperatures seldom fall below 20 or exceed 30. These figures are considered fabulous summer temperatures in Northern Europe, but that’s another matter. Medellin is not a particularly pretty city, yet it has quite a remarkable history and a rather distinct vibe. There was a time when Medellin, consumed by drug feuds and dominated by him-who-is often-not-named, was more dangerous than 1980s Beirut. It is not less than remarkable then that the city has been able to transform itself from the city with the highest murder rate on the planet some decades ago to the world’s city of innovation in 2013. People from Medellin and the province of Antioquia are called Paisas and they consider themselves to be a bit different and a bit more special than the rest of the country. The rest of the country consider them to be good sales people and great bullshitters. It is from that culture and the great demand for Colombian marching powder from so-called more affluent parts of the world, that the city’s most notorious son, Pablo Escobar could rise to infamy. Having had a brief career as a politician he became a shrewd and incredible wealthy business man dealing in illicit means in the 1970s and 80s. Some like to paint him as a sort of 20th century Robin Hood. Although he made an effort to create goodwill among the people, and the poor especially, by building hospitals, schools and sports facilities, many a Paisa will vigorously state that he was nothing of the sort and that he held the city in an iron grip of terror. His tactics in dealing with politicians, officials and other people consisted of bribes and bullets.
As FARC and other leftist guerrilla organisations started to execute their violent campaign in the country side, many a land owner took matters into their own hands, as the government didn’t seem able to offer any protection, and started to organise their own defence forces leading to the creation of right-leaning para military groups. Both leftist guerrilla organisations and para military groups were then engaged by drug barons to assist in the sourcing, production and transportation of cocaine. What might seem like just a means of intoxication that is deemed illegal across the world for not terribly sophisticated reasons, is a far murkier affair in a country like Colombia. Due to the toxic mix of cocaine production and trade, guerrilla and paramilitary activity and an incompetent government, cocaine is a very dirty and bloody drug. Guerrilla and para military groups have been funding and supporting their activity with drug money and protection of drug barons. So, most of the violence the country has seen in the last decades is drug related. To add insult to injury, Western powers, the US especially, have always put great pressure on the Colombian government to sort out ‘their’ drug problem, while the problem does not lie on the supply side. If there is no demand for a good, no one would be supplying it. Medellin’s most infamous son died a violent a death at the end of 1993 when he was killed by a coalition of Colombian and American forces. According to his family he killed himself. In the years after his death crime levels in the city remained high yet decreased gradually until President Alvarό ‘Iron Fist’ Uribe, also a Paisa and former mayor of Medellin, executed a hard and effective campaign against FARC and other guerrilla organisations.
The hardship Medellin and the country has endured throughout the decades is only ‘visible’ to me through the stories of Colombians. That said, Colombians don’t seem to be a people who dwell on the past and despite previous or current hardship they make an effort to take joy from the little and greater things in life.
And life is being milked in the up-market neighbourhood of Poblado filled with hostels, expats and swanky cafes, restaurants, bars and shops, so many I wonder how they all can make a decent living. But the vibe and the pretence are there. It could be West London, although when it comes to the weather, Medellin wins that contest hands down.