Celebrating South America

It's been 90 years since Footprint first published the iconic 'South American Handbook', so we asked its editor what's changed the most in the first country he ever visited: Colombia

5 mins

A preacher was declaiming in the centre of the Parque de Bolívar in Medellín. To no one in particular he was listing the ills of the world and proposing better ways, but his message was falling on deaf ears. The old men sitting on the benches under the flowering trees were paying him no heed, nor were the hippies dancing in a ring, nor the people buying drinks from the little cart. Give or take some changes in fashion, the park scene, overlooked by the statue of the Liberator and the Metropolitan Cathedral, was as familiar as it was when I first visited over 30 years ago, but the apparent immutability disguised the huge changes suffered here since 1981.

I was in Medellín to check facts for the 2014 South American Handbook. The city didn’t feel threatening at all, but it was just as crowded as it was back in the 1980s (to quote myself: “the most jam-packed city I have ever seen”). I wondered at the time if the Metro – which was at the planning stage then – would make the streets less crowded. Not at all. But in the 80s the crowds and the atmosphere were charged with the growing influence of the Medellín drugs cartel and it was hard to feel at ease. In the last two decades of the 20th century, the area around the Parque de Bolívar went into serious decline, so much so that it was considered one of the most dangerous areas in the city centre. Now that it has been rehabilitated, it provides a couple of blocks of relative peace compared with the traffic-laden, pedestrian-filled streets that surround it.

A few blocks away is Parque Berrío Metro station. The huge concrete columns that support the Metro, the steel cantilevers of the station roof, the piles of transformers, look like the set of a Terry Gilliam film, dwarfing the cupola and black-and-white walls of the Rafael Uribe Uribe cultural centre and the streets below. Nearby is the Plaza de las Estatuas, full of the unmistakable bronzes of Fernando Botero: figures with tiny heads and arms but disproportionate torsos and legs; the Madonna and Child; a monstrous hand with shortened fingers; reclining nudes; a muscled horse. His Bird of Peace in Parque San Antonio was blown up in 1995 but he refused to have the remains removed. Instead, he donated a new version in 2000 to symbolise the search for peace and the futility of violence.

Thirty years ago, the central hotels were nothing to write home about, but now they look exhausted. There is no need to stay here, though, since El Poblado, just a few stops on the Metro, is full of hotels, hostels, restaurants and bars. I legged it around Parque Lleras and the Zona Rosa, logging precise locations for the map. How different from the 80s when the Handbook didn’t even give an address or phone number for half the hotels listed. You had to use your initiative to find a cheap sleep in the pre-internet, pre-Google Map days.

If you arrive in El Poblado on a Saturday and need something to eat, don’t hang about chatting before looking for a restaurant. As the group I was with assembled at a hotel bar, we got into some serious tasting of 3 Cordilleras beer before heading out for a meal. Waiter after waiter said: “In 30 minutes there might be a table free”; “Sorry, not this evening my friend…” Eventually we found Verdeo, which had a spare couple of tables. It might not have been the bandeja paisa (meats, rice, beans, flatbread, fried egg) that some had been hoping for, but it was excellent vegetarian food.

El Poblado used to be an exclusive barrio, a car ride from the centre of Medellín. In the course of Handbook research, a guide from a tour company (long gone) took me to various bars (also gone), trying to ingratiate himself with the owners and blagging free drinks. Young guys were smoking bazooka (crack and marijuana), and lingering in that environment didn’t seem wise. Through the 80s and 90s, the narcotics trade took over the city until the demise of the Medellín cartel after the death of its boss, Pablo Escobar, in 1993. Nowadays, Pablo Escobar tours are firmly on the tourist circuit of the city.

En route from Medellín to Bogotá, I stopped in Honda on the Magdalena River. Before departure, the driver videoed all the bus passengers, this in addition to the passport check that accompanies buying a ticket. Road journeys are measured in hours, not kilometres, as many major routes are only two lanes wide and traffic is heavy. In the valley of the Magdalena a dual-carriageway is at last being funded to cope with the huge volume of freight between Bogotá and the Caribbean coast. But when construction, or anything else, blocks the highway, there is nothing to do but sit in the queue of articulated trucks and watch your journey calculations go to hell.

It is those lorries that killed off the railway that used to run from Bogotá to the port of Santa Marta (one train a week, 30 hours in the early 80s; 16 hours, jams permitting, by bus today). The trains, for their part, had put an end to the stern-wheel paddle steamers that, until the mid-20th century, sailed as far as the rapids at Honda where all travellers to the capital transferred to road. On a terrace overlooking the river, eating a lunch of bagre (catfish), I watched the only craft now operating in Honda’s waters: narrow fishing canoes and lorry-tyre inner tubes in which boys run the rapids.

From Honda to Bogotá, there are two routes. Buses take the old, narrow road via Facatativá (‘Faca’) because the tolls are cheaper. The new route, via La Vega, enters the capital on Calle 80 – it’s still pretty slow. I know, because where the road divides at Villeta, there was a tremendous traffic jam. Further up the Faca road, there was a demonstration (no one could tell me what about) and no vehicle was being allowed through. After lengthy phone calls to his HQ, the driver of my bus got permission to use La Vega and we snaked our way up to the Sierra and crawled into the city in rush hour.

The taxi from the bus station to my hotel in La Candelaria, the original colonial quarter, also got snarled up in the traffic. One of the central thoroughfares, Carrera 7, has been pedestrianised so all north-south traffic in the heart of the city has to find alternative routes. Most inconsiderately, the Spaniards, when they laid out the city, did not have the foresight to allow for cars, motorcycles, buses and pedestrians, and the narrow streets get totally clogged up at peak times. I hopped out of the taxi to walk the last few hundred metres, leaving the driver to fume on his own.

Upwards and onwards

Although some of the congestion is relieved by the TransMilenio rapid transit system, the best way to get around is on foot; Bogotá, like Medellín, has guides who offer walking tours of the city. My guide, Lorena, was a huge fan of Bogotá’s amazing graffiti. She also supports one of the main strands of Industria Colombiana – namely, the pirating of films – and can take you to an unnamed shop, up a narrow flight of stairs, where you can buy just about any DVD you want. We went to markets of absolutely no tourist interest whatsoever (which, paradoxically, are fascinating), a sausage manufacturer, an historic deli and calles monotemáticas – where every shop sells exactly the same things as its neighbours.

One part of La Candelaria is the emerald trade’s epicentre, with calles monotemáticas of jewellers. I went to a little café selling organic coffee. Two men at another table took paper packets from their pockets and compared gems. Much the same as in 1981, but with better food (“Lunch on horrid burgers, with a clown and emerald dealers outside the restaurant”). Talking of clowns, Bogotá’s mayor from 2001 to 2003, Antanas Mockus, hired 420 mimes to ridicule bad drivers and offer pedestrians some protection from cars and buses. Now a few mimes patrol the street junctions and there were also many living statues. For several blocks I followed a soldier with helmet, uniform, boots, rucksack and skin all military green as he walked to his place of static work.

From many parts of Bogotá you can see the white buildings at the top of Monserrate, the 3,152m peak east of the city. A cable car and funicular railway run to the summit, whose convent is a popular shrine. The view is magnificent. In the early 1980s, though, the SAH was adamant on one point: take a bus or taxi to the foot of the hill and never be tempted to walk down from the top; muggings are frequent even in daylight.

Dutifully I took an expensive tourist taxi. Fast forward to today. On the evening I arrived I was eating at Crepes & Waffles (excellent for salads, as well as what the name of the chain suggests) with my friend Germán, who said, “Do you want to walk up Monserrate with me tomorrow?” First day at altitude; almost 2.5km steeply uphill before breakfast... why not?

We met early and walked unconcernedly to the start of the new path that has been built to the summit. We warmed up along with all the other power-walkers and runners. After setting off, Germán said, “See you later then,” and went up at his normal pace. I climbed at my ‘normal’ pace: walk 100 steps, stop and gasp, walk 100 steps, stop; I eventually made it. I took the funicular down, not for fear of muggers – the path is policed all the way – but for fear of missing breakfast.

Ben Box has been editor of Footprint’s South American Handbook since 1989, and also contributes to its Peru, Uruguay and Paraguay Handbooks

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