What were we expecting from Colombia’s Caribbean coast? Sunshine, obviously. Calm, clear waters? Hopefully. Maybe a bit of wildlife – tropical fish, turtles, a bit of bird life – and perhaps even a hammock and some typically local fruits, you know, a few coconuts and bananas. But no, we were not expecting this. All of a sudden there we saw some very different sets of coconuts and bananas, then some more and then, oh blimey, there were loads of them. These were the kind that belonged to naked people, and from nowhere we were suddenly surrounded by bare flesh. Somehow, in our extensive research of Tayrona National Park and where best to go, we had failed to read that large chunks of the beaches here are designated nudist beaches and now here we were, eating our lunch while Juan and his amigos were conducting a full frontal Yoga session right in front of us. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but we’re British you see.
Aside from the nudity, Tayrona had not been quite as relaxing as we’d envisaged however. The beaches were pristine and the palm trees were there of course, but dangerous currents meant the water was hazardous at best and by turning up on a Colombian national holiday meant we’d inadvertently pitched up at their equivalent of Butlins. The place was heaving. But never mind, we’d managed to find some tranquility a few beaches up from the hordes, even if that did mean mixing it with the naturists. Well, we thought, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So two pasty gringo backsides splashed into Colombia’s Caribbean. Another pasty gringo backside that made a splash on this coastline was Sir Francis Drake; English naval hero and knight of the realm. To the Spanish however, he was a tad less popular and was nicknamed El Draque (The Dragon), and in all honesty, he was a pirate. Having ransacked his way around much of the African and South American coastlines, looting and pillaging a huge amount of wealth as he went, Drake arrived at the Spanish colonised town of Cartagena in 1586 and setting about doing the same there. It was only after a polite request to clear off and leave them alone, along with a ransom of around 500’000 pesos, that Drake left the town be and moved on, but he left a legacy that lasts to this day. As a result of this and several other bombardments to this strategic coastal port, the Spanish decided to fortify their city. The 10 metre wide walls that were built are still standing today, and within them is a living, breathing museum, and it was this we had come to Cartagena to see.
The first thing that hits you in Cartagena old town is the noise and colour. Horse and carts rattle past sending bystanders scattering, hawkers tug at your sleeve incessantly, food sellers come and go amidst a cloud of steam and exquisitely dressed women balance fruit baskets atop their heads, catering to both the stomachs and cameras of a legion of sweating tourists. Taking a step back into the shade below the endless balconies that hang with flowers, you don’t have to look far to find a story behind your surroundings. The streets here have seen it all; executions, persecutions and inquisitions – the main entrance plaza was once a slave market, the row of arched souvenir shops in the city walls were once dungeons. It’s a part of Cartagena that leaves you breathless. Had we wanted to catch our breath however, then we wouldn’t have had much luck. On our bus into the city we’d come through a parade of sorts – a marching band setting the beat for a huge, writhing paper dragon – while time and time again we’d come across live music in the parks and squares of the city. Game for more, we paid a visit to the notoriously frenetic Cafe Havana, where a dance floor heaved to the sounds of the resident Cuban band and like everywhere else, it was as much fun to sit and watch as it was to get involved. We’d found it to be a place in stark contrast to the other major city we’d visited so far, Bogota, where we’d got the impression that to really enjoy the city you’d need to stay a while. Cartagena was a slap in the face, a shot of adrenaline – it gave thrilling, instant results – and we were rather glad that one infamous, rascal Englishman hadn’t levelled the whole lot. On the subject of rascals, we should probably talk about Pablo Escobar. A cheap and cheerful flight had taken us to Medellin, which as recently as the mid 1990s was considered the most murderous city in the world. Escobar is a name that is synonymous with the city, and the control, influence and wealth he had here is quite simply frightening. I’m not quite sure where the myth becomes reality – it’s said he used to pay his henchmen $1000 for every policeman killed; it’s said he was really a modern day Robin Hood, providing for the city’s poor on a large scale; it’s also said he had so much money (it’s estimated he was worth around $25 billion) that he once offered to pay off Colombia’s national debt – but either way, he undoubtedly turned Medellin, and indeed much of Colombia, into a war zone, where terror and death was a part of every day life.
Escobar was killed in 1993 however, and with that the Colombian authorities saw an opportunity to haul the city back onto its feet. Much has been done since then, the use of democratic architecture has opened up former ‘no go’ zones and in fact as recently as 2012 it was named as the worlds most innovative city. Paisas (inhabitants of Medellin and Colombia’s north west) are a proud bunch, and there’s no greater sense of this than in the city’s metro system which was constructed in the late ’90s, and as dull as it sounds, it actually is rather impressive. Medellin is the only Colombian city with such a system and it’s fair to say the residents here look after it; there’s not a jot of graffiti or litter to be seen anywhere and food consumption is strictly frowned upon. I know this because we had a whole carriage frown upon us for unwittingly eating an apple. Where the city streets begin to climb into the surrounding mountains the metro train turns into metro cable cars, ingeniously giving cheap and easy access to many of Medellin’s poorest barrios, and it was via this that we took a slightly voyeuristic ride up to Parque Arvi, a huge woodland area just outside the city. If by chance you should ever find yourself heading to Parque Arvi, take my advice and do some research first. Faced upon arrival with no idea of what to do or see, a lot of bewildering signs and very little else to go on, we ended up at what was supposed to be a lake, but seeing as it had no water in it, I think it’s fairer to call it a ‘muddy hollow’. Back to town we went. On a lot of our trips to cities, particularly European ones, we will try and eek out a free walking tour. Now you may scoff, the thought and sight of a bunch of tourists following some chap with an umbrella will generally incite hated from pretty much everyone, but 1) these are different (they don’t use umbrellas for starters) and 2) I don’t care. They’re different because they’re free – meaning they’re predominantly used by backpackers (for obvious reasons) and also meaning your guide is working for tips – and they are generally always fantastic. We’d heard of one in Medellin done by a company called Real City Tours, and so the next day we made for downtown to take a look. Having spent the morning nosing around the Botero Plaza and the brilliant Museo de Antioquia, we joined the tour and soon found ourselves wandering through down town; here were the pimps and the pushers, the glue sniffers, the junkies and the prostitutes (and that was just our tour group), and suddenly, we found ourselves in what was more like the real Medellin. In spite of our surroundings and the fact that a dozen gringos wandering around together wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, there was no animosity or perceived threat, just inquisitiveness and friendliness, and as predicted the tour was brilliantly informative.
We’d found Medellin to be a city of contrasts; grubby in places yet meticulously well looked after, edgy yet welcoming, a city tainted by its past but wonderfully optimistic about its future. In fact you could say we’d found it to be a good representative of Colombia as a whole, where slowly but surely it’s people are working hard to change a less than impressive reputation, and where they are hugely enthusiastic to show the world how it’s changed for be better. Colombia is a country in transition and a country on the up, and that my friends, is the naked truth.