Once Colombia was on the cards the long mission to get into the country began. With long bus journeys, cramp, stiff necks and swollen ankles being part of our routine it was not overly daunting although two stop overs, a border crossing, taxi's bus's and the usual shift of acclimatising to a new culture, all at break neck speed, wasn't filling either of us with joy. Banos to Otovalo, to Tulcan, crossing the border into Colombia and then to Ipiales, to Pasto, to Popayan, to Medellin. A long trail of transport dotted with a quick sleep in a hostel, meat-sicles from road side vendors and packets of Toddy chocolate chip cookies which Simon has now realised is an investment if he wants a quiet journey.
The border crossing for all it's warnings was easy, quiet, clean and unproblematic. We found a cabbie who helped us change money with a bedraggled chap on a road side. The same cabbie also happened to have 'found' an iPhone in the back of his taxi the day before and asked how much did we think it was worth. Once he ascertained a value he made a few stop-offs along the way to bus station to offer it out to his friends. The street value of Apple is considerably higher than the street value of many other under the counter products known in Colombia it appears.
Border towns are grotty and this was stereotypically so, but once on the bus and on our way through Colombian hill and vale two things were evident. Firstly, Colombia is outstandingly beautiful; more staggering than many other beautiful places I've been lucky enough to visit. The second is they drive like lunatics; more insanely than any other country I have been unlucky enough to visit. A bold statement but with Simon being reduced to jumping off the bus at traffic lights to vomit and me struggling to stay off the aisle floor I feel I can say it with conviction.
Colombia is a dark, rich green. From top to bottom, each and every ravine and mountain is smothered with dense forests or groomed crops. The views are vast, clear and unadulterated with only a winding road and the occasional column of smoke rising from tiny marooned huts. Compensation enough for the trial endured to see it.
We had a couple of stop-offs before reaching our final destination as over night travel in the southern regions isn't recommended; a bandit territory with a reputation for heists. Pasto was a dirty functional city with dreadful food and with defined no-go areas. Popayan was different. Here the pristine cobbled streets, white washed colonial plazas decorated with tall palms and fountains were a breath of fresh air and so we stayed for 2 days. It is unfortunate that our lasting memory will be the friendly boy at reception mistaking our room for an empty one, letting himself in and getting what I am sure will be a lasting memory that still makes him cringe. Certainly the pinkness of his face and mine suggested we were both equally mortified. No sunset memories for us, more a full moon for him (and then some!).
Medellin was a night bus away. Arriving at 4am anywhere is a pain and so with an 8 hour wait for check in we found a spare sofa in the hostel living room and made ourselves comfortable. Simon's coccyx was giving him trouble and the days of bus journeys had taken their toll. He was exhausted as most of the hostel could tell - the rhythmic sound of Simon's snoring whilst people tucked into their cornflakes was probably not the best impression. A bit like nails on a chalk board.
Medellin had an instant good vibe and even us non-city slickers found something very appealing about it. It had a tricky history being the home for one of the worlds largest cartels run by Pablo Escobar but with huge investment and the untimely death of the ruthless gangster, the streets were cleaner than ever before. Our hostel had a comfortable vibe in a leafy suburb and so we unpacked our toothbrush and let our Colombian chapter start.
Simon's war wound meant he needed to catch up on sleep and rest his weary backside. I took to the streets on a free walking tour of the city. Medellin doesn't deny it's past and all it's dirty laundry and the tour took you to where people had struggled, where laws were being openly broken still, where bombs had killed and where today's addicts lay unconscious or using. It also showed you the squares where musicians met to sing and play guitar whilst people danced. It showed you how dangerous areas had been overturned into safe and pleasant parks. Where art had replaced brothels and crack houses. Where escalators and cable cars had replaced people's hard uphill commute back to their houses in the hills. Medellin showed how bad a place could get and what can be done to refute a reputation. The guide told me of hope, of Colombians ability to look forward not back. Both shocking and inspiring. Medellin is a place where history is raw and tangible but where the Phoenix is rising.
A good hostel is one where it encourages community. The space and layout, the mood of the staff, the facilities all contribute to an ambience which can make or break. We were lucky enough to have found a place with a good mix. Cross section of nations, ages, motivations and budgets all cooking, drinking, chatting and chilling in a common area. Conversation was in abundance, rum even more so and as such evenings in were a social event. With 19 year olds taking off their clothes whilst rapping, to 60 year olds talking of their sex tourism, to entrepreneurs talking of their successes. A cross section of world society. Simon cooked us beautiful meals, I warmed up the wine and we both had a chance to feel settled.
Both Simon and I feel we have spent our party tokens. With years of us both relishing in nights of loud music, crowded bars and full glasses we seem to have reached a point where, in short, we can't be arsed. We used our days to get up early and walk the streets seeing real life in action, seeing views from the ingenious commuter cable car and exploring parks, mooching with hoy-paloy amongst boutiques and designer coffee and going to the cinema. A bit of normality is nice once in a while so we thank you Meryl Streep for making us feel reassuringly boring.
Intrigued by the drug history of Colombia (reinforced by watching Breaking Bad throughout the whole of South America) we signed up for yet another tour which followed Pablo Escobar, his cartel and the Colombian drug reputation. A fascinating four hours which showed you where he laundered his money, blew people up, lived and lorded and even where he designed, built and managed his own 5 star 'prison' after finally being charged with some of his evil doings. He lived in cells. The tv cell, the office cell, the swimming pool cell, football ground cell...I'm sure you can picture it. The Colombian governments corrupt nature as well as it's resignation that Escobar owned them led them to ok'ing his idea. Ego got the better if him though and it was his escape from his barred hotel that led to his slaughter. He himself was a psychopath however the photos of police officers standing over Escobar like a deer after a shoot were themselves sick. Even the good guys can be bad eggs.
The tour guide was passionate about the legacy of drugs and Colombia. Her perspective was one of anger at the west for creating a market for a product that brings nothing but shame to her country as well as death, suffering and abuse for those desperate enough to work within it. She made the point that the blood on the hands of those who use cocaine is a high price to pay for a good party. We were quite frankly scared of our guide but it was impossible to not see where her point of view came from. When you see the toll it takes on a nation and on good people it makes you realise how blinded we are in the west. It's very clear that manufacturers want to keep its dirty secrets. Perhaps a school trip to Colombia might be a good education for future generations.
Simon and I left the tour feeling emotionally battered and feeling guilty for having a UK passport. Nothing else for it but a large glass of very legal wine.
Our plans to sneak up on the Nixon's had not come to fruition as they were being vague about plans so we confessed we had followed them to Colombia and would they mind if we stalked them to wherever they were headed. The plan was made. We were off to Salento for wax palms, tejo and lots of other Colombian things we didn't yet know.