Travel: Blondie ambition in Colombia

Plazoleta de las Esculturas in Medellin. Picture: Contributed

Plazoleta de las Esculturas in Medellin. Picture: Contributed

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YOU’LL be the centre of attention in Colombia, which has splendidly exorcised its past as drug capital of the world, writes Lia Sanders

We are attempting to track down a pair of sloths in the Medellin Botanical Garden when a wedding guest stops us and asks for a photograph. But when my friend goes to take the camera from her it becomes apparent that we are to be in front of the lens, not behind it. Forget the giant iguanas that are lounging around the park – the truly exotic animals here are us and she wants a photo.

During our time in Colombia we become used to two things: attracting attention and the constant, unrelenting selling taking place all around us. Sound systems boom the praises of mangos sold from carts on the street, fake Colombian World Cup shirts are to be had at every street corner, and bus rides are enlivened by entrepreneurial locals attempting to barter their homemade wares. And from all of these vendors we hear “Mona, Mona!” Translated to “Blondie” (or, bizarrely,“monkey”), it becomes clear that we are an anomaly among the native population.

Risking further heckles, we leave the tropical garden, staying outside to enjoy the gorgeous weather in this “City of Eternal Spring”. We head to the Barefoot Park, a public square where shoe wearing is discouraged. Feeling oddly vulnerable in our naked feet, we scrabble around in scratchy sand, leading each other up pillars – an activity we are supposed to do blindfolded. Talk about a trust exercise. Having completed the challenges, we are allowed to cool our feet in a grown-up paddling pool. As evening sets in, a nearby art installation lights up. Coloured balls of light like delicate UFOs are scattered among bamboo trees.

Twenty years ago this was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, achieved global infamy in the 1980s and 1990s under the domination of Pablo Escobar, a drug lord known as the “king of cocaine” and one of the richest ever criminals. However, in the time since his death in 1993, the city has become a global example of urban development, winning an award for Innovative City of the Year in 2013. Colombia’s problems are by no means over, yet walking around the affluent streets of Medellin you could be forgiven for forgetting that.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the nearby Cisneros Square, in an area that was once home to one of the most violent doss-houses in the city. The building was demolished and replaced with a “light forest”, which resembles nothing so much as a cluster of giant, sparkling lightsabers stretching into the night sky.

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In search of an explanation behind the city’s changes, the next day we take a free walking tour with Real City Tours. The “Real” in the company’s name is justified by the focus on off-the-tourist-trail locations. We visit a former palace of justice turned shopping mall selling knock-off designer gear and see a church where prostitutes gather and their customers atone for their sins by going in to light a quick candle afterwards. We see pirated pornography being sold on the streets, old men enjoying illegal gambling and witch doctors unnerving potential customers with photos of ingrown toenails.

The tour is not shy of facing tourists’ awkward questions about Medellin’s recent past, and over four hours our tour guide Juliana talked with astonishing frankness about tragedies that have affected her own family and about her experiences growing up in this former capital of crime.

Yet the part of the tour that lingers the longest is a description of the metro. Taking it as a symbol of Medellin’s transformation, the stirring way Juliana represents this transport system almost has me in tears. And certain things begin to make sense. Twenty years ago, ten years even, it would have been unthinkable for foreigners to visit Colombia. Our paparazzi moment is explained: tourists are a tangible, physical representation of how the country has turned itself around.

We cannot neglect all of the tourist destinations though, so we head to the Museum of Antioquia, which houses a massive collection of the artwork of Fernando Botero. Botero has a reputation for playing with proportion and volume – or, as the layman might have it, he likes to draw fat people. He has donated a huge amount of his work to his hometown and his million-dollar sculptures are displayed in outside areas across the city. There’s no graffiti on them; the bronze sculptures look immaculate. Botero’s donations marked the beginning of “democratic architecture” in Medellin, the belief that money should be lavished on making the most deprived and dangerous parts beautiful. It is what gave Medellin its Cisneros Square and numerous other public areas that have become some of the most striking parts of the city.

On our final day in Medellin we visit one of the biggest transformations when we take a leisurely Sunday afternoon cable car up one of the valley sides. For years this part of the city was known as “Escobar’s cradle” because the vulnerable young shanty-dwellers provided his drug cartel with a ready recruitment pool. By linking cable cars to the city’s metro system, this area is better connected and its inhabitants can afford the transport that will allow them to work in the city centre. Strangely perhaps, now the routes have become tourist attractions in themselves.

For once untroubled by sellers, we sit on a patch of grass at the top of the line, enjoying refreshing sugar cane juice at 30p a cup. The view over the valley mingles terracotta orange with a deep green, while salsa music blasts out of the houses below and tumbling children practise their gymnastics. It could hardly be more Colombian if the scene had been meticulously planned by an LA studio. Yet the fact that two blonde tourists are able to sit here, at the heart of this once dangerous area, shows that some things do not fit the stereotype. Colombia, so long linked to crime and war, is losing its danger.

• Fly to Colombia from Scotland via Frankfurt or Paris Charles de Gaulle with Air France (www.airfrance.co.uk) and Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com), which run direct flights to Bogota from around £570. From Bogota there are regular flights with Colombian airlines to Medellin from around £35.

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