New Years, knives and narcos

‘That skinny bit between North and South America.’ Everyone refers to Colombia as a ‘dodgy’ place – “Have you watched Narcos?” is as common a question as “Do you watch Breaking Bad?” is for Albuquerque – and I was desperate to write about my experiences that disprove this stereotype, but from the second we landed in El Dorada airport, Bogota, on New Years Eve, we were on the lookout for people trying to pull the wool over our eyes. A ‘cab driver’ undercut the competition to take us to Canderia, the historical district where our hostel was located but we realised his illegitimacy when he beckoned us away from the lit area where the taxis waited and into the darkness under a bridge. We kept our distance and snuck away behind a pillar when he was out of earshot, and paid the same price for a proper, yellow cab. “We’ve been here 2 minutes,” James said as the driver locked all his doors and began the half hour journey to the hostel.

Hostel Fatima was the perfect location for us to spend New Years Eve. Booking hostels had always been my responsibility throughout the trip, and I felt like the ‘Booking.com/yeah man’ as we walked through the common area to see it bustling with travellers drinking, a bar where we were offered a free cocktail on arrival and the general vibe of the hostel. We made friends with a French group, establishing common ground over my trainers and a mutual dislike for our Sambuca and drank until the countdown at 12. We flooded out into the street to watch the locals strip a bar of its tables and chairs, burning them in the street and lighting fireworks from the resulting bonfire. They sporadically whizzed in every direction – the Colombians had no need to stick them into the ground when they could be handheld and fired from the hip.

New Years Day had a very different tone. A French guy, Adrian, no taller than 5’5”, wandered in early morning with a bust nose and blood gushing from his face. He had been attacked by a group after apparently mispronouncing “Que tal?” (“What’s good?”) and causing offence to locals. He hadn’t fought back and just accepted that he was outnumbered, taking the beating. Canadian Francois had been approached on his way to the hostel and robbed of his phone and money. On our way back from town, having enjoyed a cheap pizza, we were followed back by a Colombian who pulled a knife out of his sleeve and demanded that we empty our pockets (only the equivalent of £1.30 was left as change from the pizzeria, I regret not upgrading to a Gigante now, or at least tipped the waitress to spend the leftover coins). Over the next few hours, everyone I spoke to in the hostel told a similar story. The trust that ‘the skinny bit of Latin America’ had built up with me over the last few weeks had been destroyed in a matter of hours.

Thus it was in the same manner that gazelles make the journey to the watering hole/buffalo cross a river taking precautions to avoid the lions/crocodiles that we prepared to leave the hostel on ‘excursions’. We left everything in the lockers (there were reports of gangs getting into hostels and robbing travellers in their rooms- the lockers were the only genuinely safe havens), leaving cameras, wallets, phones and – most importantly – passports before venturing outside. We hiked up Cerro de Monserrate (this was the only time I dared take my camera) and visited the Cathedral and Botero’s art gallery. It was peculiar to have such quiet, respectful places in the midst of constant paranoia and fear; and weirder still to see so many of the robbers wearing crucifixes around their necks. Trips to the cashpoints became a planned affair: we went in groups of 4, covered each other’s backs and tucked the withdrawn money into our socks in case we had been seen leaving the ATM’s. In three days in Bogota, I gathered 15 seconds of footage and one photograph to document our time here:

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James overlooking Bogota from midway up Cerro de Monserrate.

 

 

It’s a shame that this is what I’ll remember Bogota for, because it should be remembered for its vibrant street art and the interesting architecture that arises when you have rich and poor living side by side, with Spanish and indigenous influences in equal measurements. It is a true case of the ‘minority ruining it for the majority’, because when I interacted with locals that weren’t wielding knives, they were genuinely helpful. A father-son duo walked with us to the top of Monserrate, helping us with directions as we meandered through the woods avoiding the police who were attempting to close the hiking trail, and two more free-running Colombians showed us how to climb over the 18ft gate (locked, lathered in warning signs and wrapped in barbed wire by the aforementioned police). The freerunners efforts were in vain though, as we realised being caught on the other side of the gate was simply inexcusable: even if we pleaded ignorance to the Spanish language, barbed wire and padlocks is universal for ‘Keep out’. We chose to walked back down the mountain rather than risk a night in a Colombian jail.

We had planned to travel north to Medellin, as there is a monastery that I had always wanted to climb up to; however the only bus available would arrive at 11pm. Even in a perceived safer city, the hangover from Pablo Escobar’s reign is still present and continues to be a 46% chance of being mugged. Arriving in the dark isn’t the most sensible of ideas. So we opted to miss out Medellin (Colombia has become a country where I would like to come back to, for this reason) and head south to Cali instead, where 57 out of every 100 travellers encounter trouble,  travelling as a four with French Loic and French-speaking Canadian Francois, catching the overnight bus to save on a nights accommodation.

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I’m a little gutted that I didn’t get to climb these ‘stitches in stone’ in Guatape, just east of Medellin.

The bus was what I’d come to expect from South American coaches (having revelled in the luxury of one as I crossed from Peru to Bolivia last year); and I caught 8 hours sleep in a seat that reclined almost 180◦. In the morning, 10 hours since leaving Bogota, I checked my GPS and was disappointed to find the blue dot only half way between our departure town and our destination. James told me of a 90 minute period where we were at a stand-still whilst crossing the Andes as well as an hour break so that the two drivers could eat a midnight dinner. At midday, 13 hours into the journey and 4 hours since we were due to arrive, we came to a stop again: this time due to a lorry crashing as it sped round a tight bend. This delayed us for another few hours, and it was a sigh of relief when we finally pulled into Cali in the dying moments of sunlight. We would be at our hostel before nightfall, which is when we presumed the gangs, robbers and drug dealers would come out of their hiding places ready for a night of criminal activity.

We presumed wrong, or were simply lucky: even after 3 days I’m not sure which. True, the drug dealers could spot gringos from a mile off, and would follow us relentlessly trying to get a sale – but (if they had them) their knives stayed in their pockets. We hadn’t a single incident in the daytimes, so considered it safe enough for a night out in the nearby district Menga. Salsa courses through the veins of Cali, and we brushed up our skills from Guatemala to dance amidst the locals in a salsa bar. Everything about the evening was worlds apart from Bogota, and I began to trust the country again. (I later learnt that the police seize 400 weapons a week from the Menga district – although the locals claim that this is purely for protection. As long as they stay out of my eyesight, I’m happy).

Our activities were similar to Bogota: Cali is built in a valley surrounded by the Andean mountains. The four of us climbed up steep rocky walls to summit Tres Cruces, expecting nothing more to be at the top than the three crosses that illuminated the city at night and (if we were lucky) a local selling Gatorades. Wrong. An entire gym had been built in the open, 2000m up from the city, and was in full use by the locals, who were pleased to see us use it without intimidation. We stayed for an hour – the hour-long climb up was the perfect cardio warm up before a weights session – before beginning the descent down. With a pool in the hostel (El Viajero), we cooled down afterwards with a beer before merging with (more) French travellers who had flown down from Bogota to meet us.

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Clean and jerk (?) at the top
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James in his natural habitat.
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The pensive ‘re-hydrating whilst looking over a city’ shot went down so well in Bogota that we recreated it in Cali.

After 2 nights in El Viajero, we started to put together plans to cross the border to Ecuador, where we would spend a few more days with Loic surfing the Pacific coast before heading to the capital to couchsurf with James’ uncle, Carlos. The plan was written onto a scrap of paper and stored in my wallet; we said goodbye to Francois (one of the funniest people I’ve met on this trip in terms of mannerisms – he is Pablo Escabar’s doppelganger and claimed that no one dared to rob us while in his presence! A dubious claim, but it perhaps explains why we heard Escobar’s name every few minutes?) and the other French group before heading to catch our first bus.

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Pablo Escobar/Francois. One of the best passport photos of all time.

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