Colombia seems most closely associated in American minds with drug cartels in general and Pablo Escobar in particular. Medellin was Escobar’s city and the first place I landed in Colombia. What had become the murder capitol of the most violent country in the world in the 80s and 90s, is now a modern international hub that is safer than many American cities. A few comunas (hillside barrios), far from the city centers, are still controlled by gangs and these account for most all violent crime in Medellin today.
The myth of Escobar* continues to stir the imagination, however, and attempts to capitalize on his exploits and the Medellin cartel abound, not only in the form of narco-tours (some of these include Escobar’s family members and others from the Medellin Cartel), but also in the proliferation of books, movies and tv shows that variously memorialize or fictionalize the era.
While I didn’t take any narco-tours, I did climb one of Medelllin’s steep hills to Casa Museo Pablo Escobar because I wanted a photo for my friend Pablo who lives in the small town of Escobar outside of Buenos Aires (making him Pablo de Escobar).
When the guard outside the old hacienda finally understood that I did not want to take the tour or go inside to meet Roberto Escobar, brother and cartel accountant who now operates the museum that was once the brothers’ house, he took a picture of me standing next to an enormous photo, on la casa’s outside wall, of Escobar riding an elephant at his personal zoo.
I had arrived in Medellin on Easter weekend. Because a holiday in South America its generally a holiweek (or two), nothing was business as usual my first week in town. For example, my debit card didn’t work at the airport ATM and no banks would be open for days.
As some of you know, I had decided by the end of Chile to leave Pangean196. My solo trip to Patagonia confirmed my preference for being in control of my own travel and my 30 days notice culminated at José María Córdova Aeropuerto Internacional outside of Medellin. I was now officially a renegade. For a variety of reasons, every other Pangean over 40 had also decided – or in one case was asked – to leave the group around the same time.
Fortunately, I arrived in Medellin alongside the remaining Pangeans and was happy to meet up with some of them during my transition to solo travel. Alexis (goddess bless her) lent me 150,000 Colombian pesos ($50) to hold me over until my debit card glitch was straightened out. My Airbnb landlady, Beatriz, who doesn’t drive (or speak any English) had come to the airport with her neighbor to pick me up, and later walked me around Calle 10, the heart of the Poblado district, in the late night rain to find a restaurant that would take mi tarjeta de crédito. While credit cards are making inroads, especially in international neighborhoods like Poblado, efectivo (cash) is still king. I felt like a drug lord myself when I finally got an ATM to spit three hundred thousand pesos at me a few days later and found a shady, secluded corner on the street to hand half of them over to Alexis.
Evenings when I didn’t meet someone for dinner, I stopped into Roll Up Sushi Burrito, a little more than half-way up the hill I always had to climb to get home from anywhere. RUSB was happy to let me sit on their deck with my head in my laptop doing schoolwork. The Asian influence on the menu reminded me in a small way of the Peruvian food I had come to love so much, and I was always curious to try one of the unusual (to me) combinations like crispy pork belly wrapped in nori and sticky rice. RUSB also had tasty Sangria made with white wine, lychees and berries that swirled red and purple in the glass until the wine turned rose, burgundy or vermillion, depending on the berries. This sangria became my desert, and reward for completing my Spanish lesson of the day.
While Medellin is celebrated for its nightlife, I had given up on late nights out less than halfway into Buenos Aires where the very loud, driving techno-beat in most of the music made me feel a tad like Panamanian dictator and drug trafficker Manuel Noriega must have felt when the US Army used non-stop rock music and a constant stream of helicopters to dislodge him from the Vatican Embassy where he had taken refuge in the late 1980’s, around the same time that Pablo Escobar was also on the run from the DEA.
Mornings when I wasn’t rushing to be on time for class, I stopped into Betty’s Bowls, attached to Hostel Yolo (pronounced Joe-Low) near mi casa for their excellent cold brew coffee made from beans sustainably grown on their own farm. This was the sole place where I wasn’t disappointed with Colombian coffee. My disappointment came partly from the fact that Colombia exports its best coffee and only keeps the rest for itself, but also as a result of the agreement between Colombia and Brazil that Colombia will export (and therefore chiefly produce) only arabica beans while Brazil will export only robusta beans. Robusta beans, my personal favorite, are the kind generally used to make espresso and other dark roasts. Dark roasts, in case you ever wondered, are more effective than light roasts in decreasing the risk of developing Alzheimers disease.
Speaking of Alzheimer’s, a colleague in Santa Barbara, neuroscientist Ken Kosik, has been involved for years in a research study in Yarumal, a village outside of Medellin where half of the people develop very early onset Alzheimer’s disease. While most Alzheimer’s is not genetic, onset at a young age is usually familial.
Locals call the disease La Bobera (the foolishness) and the village bears an eerie resemblance to the fictional town of Macondo, whose inhabitantssuffer from memory disorders and hallucinations, in Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The genetic data sequenced by Ken and his team, together with historical records, point to the likelihood that a mutation causing the disease was introduced by a Spanish conquistador early in the 17th century. Five thousand of his descendants, carriers of the gene, now live in and around Yarumal and may ultimately be instrumental in the development of a cure for Alzheimer’s.
The city of Medellin itself, 5,000 feet up in the Andes, is shaped kind of like a bowl, with the most modern sections built up the sides, high-rises providing impressive views across the city, to the mountains on the other side, or often, to the various patterns of low lying clouds that linger there. My bedroom window offered such a view and I began to think of the photos that I snapped each day as the many moods of Medellin.Most afternoons or evenings were punctuated by tormenta (thunderstorms) making Medellin the kind of cold where you sometimes need a sweater.
Medellin is pronounced by paisas (as those who live there are called) as MedaJean, using a hard J as in Jeep for the double L (or y) sound, and I immediately understood much less Spanish than I had even a day before, in Peru. Different words, usage and accents in each country I visited had been only one of my challenges to picking up more Spanish than I had. Most Colombians have regional accents and use a lot of slang, most of it also regional. One word, chévere (pronounced shehbray), is common throughout Colombia and I now know when I hear it that something is like, really cool, man.
I’d often heard that Colombian Spanish is the most pure and easy to understand and so decided to spend my time in Colombia going to Spanish school. Once in Medellin, I began to believe that this ‘pure’ Spanish was in the same category of myth as El Dorado. I later learned that it’s the educated elite of Bogota who speak the kind of Spanish that I’d heard about. I also learned that Lake Guatavita outside of Bogota, where carved gold figures were ritualistically thrown by indigenous chieftains during pre-Columbian religious ceremonies, was likely the source of the El Dorado legend.
I signed up with escuela Nueva Lengua because they had schools in each of the three Colombian cities I would visit and because they offered extra-curricular activities I hoped would help with the transition from being part of Pangea to being part of nothing in particular. Not well known amongst Americanos, most Nueva Lengua students were Europeos. I met Swiss and Austrian young adults, for example, whose parents had emigrated from countries like Croatia during the wars in Yugoslavia, or Kurds who had fled Turkey.
There was a 20 or so year old guy named Alex who was so stereotypically French – his accent, his body language, his attitude of lazy arrogance – he seemed he must be playing a part. There was an occasional Canadian and one of the few Americans I met was Benny, born in New Jersey to a Palestinian mother and an Israeli Jewish father. Everyone was fluent in English and so it was the common language spoken outside of class, so prevalent that even after chiding the rest of us to speak Spanish during breaks, the instructors sometimes joined in the English conversation.
After classes I learned to dance a little Salsa and Bachata (slower paced and easier for me than Salsa). Later, in Bogota, I added a few steps of Cumbia to my repertoire but didn’t get very far with it because the shortness of breath that I’d cultivated as part of my altitude sickness in the Peruvian Andes returned in Bogota, 8,700 feet up in the air.
Among the places I visited in Medellin’s rough-around-the-edges El Centro, Plaza San Antonio stood out for its poignancy. Fernando Botero, Colombian’s most famous visual artist whose paintings and sculptures depict a very rotund humanity (and many of whose bronze sculptures can be seen in nearby Plaza Botero) donated a sculpture of a bird to the the plaza. In 1995 a bomb was attached to the bird and killed 29 people. Rightists, leftists and drug cartels all claimed responsibility for the bomb. Botero ultimately donated a second bird, El Pájaro de la Paz (The Bird of the Peace) to sit alongside the half desecrated El Pájaro Herido (the Wounded Bird) as a gesture toward remembering and moving on from Medellin’s violent past.
Mi compañeros and I rode the MetroCable (aerial tramway) to the end of the line (Santo Domingo, the slum that produced Pablo Escobar). Once a most dangerous comuna, this neighborhood high above the hills of modern Medellin, has been revived by the city’s ongoing investment in infrastructure, such as the MetroCable, which has begun to integrate what were the poorest and most violent hillside communities into the rest of the city. Santo Domingans now travel to work in town, business bustles on the calles outside the tram port and vivid street art lines the walls up and down the paths and stairways that cut through the steep neighborhood.
Next day, I rode a second cable car from Santo Domingo to Parque Arvi, a botanical garden and archeological site high in the mountains above Medellin. The thirty or so minute journey took me over a highway, a river with piles of garbage flowing along with the water, grazing cows in a green field, shacks built into the side of the mountain, and a labyrinth of paths and stairways winding up, down and around the sharp slopes. In the cable car with me was a young American man in white shirt, black slacks and tie who looked like he was 12 but who had a name tag declaring he was Elder Wilson. He was making a video of the ride for his Facebook page and spoke with his companions, 2 conservatively dressed young women, as an authority on areas with and without internet cafes.
In the market at el parque I bought a silver ring with blue enameling from a local craftsman, partly for use in my attempts to stave off unwanted intrusions that sporadically came from random men. Most of the men I met throughout South America were friendly and kind. Occasionally, a man became opportunistic, and even crude, toward me as a single woman traveling alone. I thought my age would be a protective factor against the kind of presumptions I had experienced some places in Europe when young and traveling solo, and, for the most part, I believe that it was.
Later, at the Museo del Oro in Bogota I bought a reproduction of a pre-Columbian gold band. In situations where I began to feel encroached upon in spite of the rings I took to lying outright, adopting the persona of a 70-year old widow with 3 adult children. The details of those children changed on any particular day but god bless those kids – and my deceased husband – they really helped me when things started getting too uncomfortable.
Before I left Medelllin, I sent my large roller bag with things I thought I could live without back to the US, bought a back pack, and still struggled with what I had left to carry without any help from the young Pangean guys who had always been around til now.
In Bogota, I continued Spanish classes with Nueva Lengua. The 3 other students in my class, Dave – a French Canadian expat living in Australia, Thomas – a young Swiss man who looked liked he’d been plucked by central casting from a village in the The Sound of Music, and Mariska – a gringa from San Francisco, were all more advanced than me. Each had already taken Spanish A2 and were now repeating it. For the first time in my life I felt like the class dunce.
I stayed at La Santa Maria, more like a bed and breakfast than her sister hostels La Pinta and La Nina, about a ten minute walk from school. The staff, mostly university students, were all simpatico, interesting, quirky and beyond accommodating. Smart and serious Cristian, with his dark hair in a kind of pompadour, made sure I was fed and comfortable my first night (which he later confided was also his first night at La Santa Maria). Lilia, who worked the overnight shift and sensed my directional disability, walked me to school on my first day so I would be sure not to get lost.
Oscar, the manager, had waist length shiny black hair and a handle bar moustache. He admonished me to use sun screen in spite of the cold, drizzly dampness that is Bogota until he understood that my only concern was trying to get warm. He found an industrial strength space heater for my room and turned my stay from barely tolerable into home away from home. Brian, probably the youngest member of the staff, his hair tinted mahogany and cut at a sharp angle, always wore overalls with one shoulder strap unfastened and left hanging down. He claimed not to be interested in politics, but had endless opinions about Trump and Venezuela’s Maduro.
The evening food tour I took in the Candalaria district (old town) of Bogota was interesting for the places we visited but ultimately disappointing for my stomach. I should have known as soon as I saw our very sweet but skinny young vegetarian tour guide that we might not get enough to eat and immediately regretted skipping lunch that day. The tour focused first on tropical fruit smoothies blended with milk in a trendy cafe/music venue where you could pedal a bicycle (when it was working) to blend your own smoothie. Next stop was a cafe using beans from a small, independent farm in an area now making a comeback from the devastation of the civil war. Along with the cafe’s wheat-free cookies made from Anchira, an Andean plant with sweet and starchy roots, I had hot chocolate (with more milk) because it was evening by then and decaf coffee isn’t a thing in Colombia. We were given candy at La Puerta Falsa, the oldest restaurant in Bogota, where I would have much preferred the tamales wrapped in banana leaves that were on display in the window (and which I later learned many consider to be the best in Bogota), and would have ordered 2 of the cheese and mushroom filled corn empanadas made fresh to order from a little hole in the wall if I’d known they’d be much smaller and less filling than Flavia had described them. I would have selected a large arepa con queso instead of a small pan de yucca from a street vendor if I’d realized that was the last food we would have before going for a shot of chicha (fermented corn liquor) in a small corner store followed by cerveza at an historic tavern.
When the trots that kept me home from school the next day persisted into a second day, I went to la farmacia. Using my best Spanglish and sign language, I described the problem to the pharmacist. He gave me something to stop the runs, something else to restore my electrolytes and said very forcefully No mas leche por dos semanos (no more milk for 2 weeks). I was happy to oblige. I was also happy that this episode was the worst revenge that Montezuma (not that the Aztecs were ever in what is now South America) had taken on me during my trip.
Aijiaco, Bogota’s signature chicken, potato and corn soup with capers, avocado and cream on the side, became my go-to comfort food. Some days I ate in an exceptionally good vegan cafe adjacent to La Santa Maria and felt like I was back in Cali, as my home state is often called by people outside the U.S.
Before leaving Colombia, I visited Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá near Bogota. This cathedral is a bizarre and magnificent underground Catholic church built within the tunnels of a salt mine. Dramatically and colorfully lit grottos, statues, and alleys were all hand carved from the salt rock by the miners. Some people were there to attend mass when I visited.
I ended my time in Columbia just as I began it – sin efectivo (without cash) and no way to get more at the airport. The only ATMs are in the lobby and I discovered too late that I was out of luck once I passed through emigration. I had left all my Colombian pesos as a tip for La Santa Maria staff, who by then seemed more like my children than the ones I had created. I finally found a shop that would take a credit card for the bottle of water I wanted and the next cash I saw was a stack of $20 bills from an ATM at Cuenca airport in Ecuador where the national currency is the US dollar.
The Colombians I spoke to are ashamed of Escobar and his legacy, though he is still seen by some paisas as a hero. Escobar constructed a kind of Robin Hood image by throwing lots of money into the comunas on his way to making a name for himself, first as a politician and later as the most notorious outlaw of his time.
Alert reader of these dispatches, Margarita Peggy Brown Paviour, sent me an article published in The New Yorker while I was in South America (I had put my own subscription on hold while traveling).
In his March 5, 2018 Letter from Medellin: The Afterlife of Pablo Escobar Jon Lee Anderson goes into great detail about the lingering effects of Escobar on Colombia. Based on many conversations with people who knew Escobar, who lived through the terror and/or who have strong opinions about the story of Escobar and Colombia, the article provides a great deal of history and context, some of which I’ve interwoven with my own observations, conversations and understanding, below. I refer you to that article for more seriously detailed information and can email a copy to you if you have any interest.
I was told by a guide who offers historic walking tours (but not narco-tours) in Bogota that most Colombians hate the Netflix series Narcos “because it doesn’t tell the truth”. Escobar’s son, Juan Pablo, as part of his lucrative career in rehabilitating the family’s reputation wrote a book offering a twenty-eight-point list of what he calls falsehoods propagated by “Narcos.”
Part of the fiction that Colombians see in Narcos is its distinctly US point of view, making heroes of those that Latin Americans consider villains: the DEA agents. Escobar appealed to a perverse sense of patriotism in the murder and mayhem around his attempts to force the Colombian government to disallow his extradition to the US. While the violence that the drug industry inflicted on Colombian society was astronomical, and hardly comprehensible to Americans, the motto of Los Extraditables: Better a tomb in Colombia than a cell in the United States resonated across a Latin America sensitive about Yankee intervention.
Garcia Marquez, in his 1996 non-fiction book Noticia de un secuestro (published in English as News of a Kidnapping in 1997), documents a world almost as surreal as any in his novels. His fame as a Nobel Laureate made it likely that the American press would pay attention to the book in which he describes Colombia after nearly forty years of rebel uprisings, right-wing death squads, currency collapse and narco-democracy. He describes Escobar as a monstrous Pied Piper. At the height of his splendor, people put up altars with his picture and lit candles to him in the slums of Medellín. It was believed he could perform miracles.
Journalist Alonso Salazar wrote a biography, The Pablo Parable, to deflate the legend. Salazar suggested that Escobar had merely been a conduit for the country’s bigotry and violent impulses. The Escobar story calls into question Colombia’s entire society—its political and economic elites, and the armed forces, he wrote. It’s also a questioning of the international community, especially the United States, for its deceit in maintaining a war, the so-called war against drugs, which has . . . created criminality and destruction of life and nature that is beyond any precedent.
El Patrón del Mal, based on Salazar’s book, joined a wave of narco-novelas (soap operas) featuring drug traffickers and made it clear that, in a profoundly unequal country, Escobar represented a form of economic mobility. When there are no regular paths to get out of where you are, the bandit is the one who makes it—the one who can jump ahead, said one of the shows producers, Juana Uribe, the daughter of an Escobar hostage and niece of a murdered politician.
Father Elkin, Catholic priest and recipient of Escobar’s largesse, told John Lee Anderson: Today’s youth still see narcotrafficking as a way to make quick money. Society doesn’t change, really. And those with the greatest responsibility for this—excuse me—are those in the media, with their television series and their books.
Omar Rincón, media-studies professor, sees it this way, We live the culture of drug trafficking, in aesthetics, values, and references. We are a nation that took on the narco idea that anything goes if it will get you out of poverty: some tits, a weapon, corruption, trafficking coca, being a guerrilla or a paramilitary fighter, or being in government.
For a generation of traffickers, Escobar left behind a model of success: build support among the disenfranchised by providing them with money and power they would not otherwise have; in return, they will be your loyalists, your spies, and your gunmen. For the middle class, use your wealth to corrupt policemen, generals, judges, and politicians.
As with Jim Morrison and Elvis, there are those who do not believe that Escobar really died. Father Elkin is one of them. If you ask me whether Pablo is dead, I would say I don’t believe he is, he says to Anderson, waving his arms around, as if to suggest that Escobar could be anywhere, still in hiding.