A visit to a former drug lord’s place, and misadventure near Cartagena
By Jeffrey Groberman, For Postmedia News – This year I decided I would try something different. Some of my friends have taken G Adventures tours, so I thought I would give them a chance. I call the company, tell them I’m a writer and ask if they have a tour they’d like me to cover – I suggested the Galápagos Islands – they counter with Colombia.
Evidently, for some strange reason, not many North Americans seem eager to travel there – not since Pablo Escobar turned the country into his own country club. But Pablo’s been gone for twenty years and Colombia has settled down into an easy peace since the cartel wars have moved north to Mexico. According to Lonely Planet, Colombia is about to become the next “in place.” So I said why not? What could possibly go wrong? Well to begin with, Air Canada.
I chose Air Canada because they have a direct flight to Bogota from Toronto. Next time I’ll walk – it will be quicker and less stressful: three late flights and one “schedule change” that leave me stranded in Bogota for an extra day. Air Canada certainly have lived up to their mission statement: “We’re not happy till you’re not happy!”
I finally arrive in Bogota and take a taxi to the meeting place for the tour – the Hotel Ambala – a three-star hotel (according to trip adviser) in the old part of Bogota. The room is so small I can touch all four walls from the middle of the bed without moving; but it is clean, has its own bathroom with plenty of hot water, and the staff is helpful.
I no sooner check into my small room when my new roommate arrives. “Hi,” he says. “My name is Peter – like Peter Pan.” He then proceeds to drag in two huge duffel bags, a packsack and a camera bag. By the time he finishes the room resembles the Marx brothers’ state-room in A Night at the Opera.
There is a note on the hotel bulletin board stating there will be an “Introductory Meeting” at 7 p.m. that evening in the lobby where I will meet our tour leader and fellow travellers.
Besides Peter Pan there is an Estonian couple whose total combined luggage would fit into Peter Pan’s camera case; a Canadian couple from London, Ont., and two women: one from Norway and the other from Montreal.
I also meet Henry, our guide, who is a fountain of knowledge about all things Colombian: that’s because he’s from Ecuador. Henry believes that Colombia is the second greatest country in South America – just behind Ecuador. “You think these mountains are high? You should see the ones in Ecuador!” He tells us that this is the first time G Adventures is offering the Colombian Coffee Tour. We are to be the “guinea pigs.” Did I mention they eat guinea pigs in Ecuador?
Henry tells us the next morning we will be taking a nice little eight-hour bus ride through the Andes to a coffee plantation where we will be staying in a “guest house.”
Because we will be taking taxis to the bus depot, we need to split into three groups. I am made assistant tour leader and assigned the Estonian couple to be in charge of due to my fluency in Spanish which is about as good as my fluency in Estonian.
Henry assumes I know where I’m going. Henry has a lot to learn about me. The last time somebody put me in charge of a tour bus, I lost the whole bus – people included.
I get into the first taxi with the Estonians and head off. I tell the taxi driver we want to go to the bus depot.
He fires back a burst of Spanish which I don’t understand; so I just smile and nod. An hour later we still have not arrived at the bus depot. The taxi driver’s cellphone rings and it’s Henry, our tour guide, wanting to know where we are.
He tells Henry I have given him the wrong information. Thirty minutes later we finally arrive at the bus depot. The other groups and Henry are not happy – we have missed the bus we were to catch. The Estonians aren’t upset – missing buses in Estonia is the norm there.
We arrive in Armenia well after dark and Henry arranges for a Jeep to transport us the supposedly short distance to the plantation.
I say “supposedly,” because the Jeep driver hasn’t the foggiest idea where the plantation is. My attempts at offering directions are not well received after my recent disaster as an assistant tour leader.
The plantation is actually a resort with modern rooms, a large swimming pool, sauna, whirlpool, and bar. Dinner the first night is a gourmet meal with roast chicken or vulture – I’m not sure which.
At dinner I learn something new about my roommate: he’s trying to create a real time record of the trip. He records everything. When I say “everything” – I mean everything. He walks around with a camera in each hand – shooting video with one and stills with the other. He informs me on his last trip he shot over 5,000 pictures – of what, I’m afraid to ask.
The next day we take the Jeep to a working coffee plantation. They dress us up as migrant workers and put us to work in the coffee fields. I try and organize our group and negotiate union wages.
I demand to see Juan Valdez.
I’m informed that Juan Valdez no longer transports his coffee down from the mountains on his burro.
He now owns a chain of coffee stores that would put Starbucks to shame, wears Armani suits, and drives a Ferrari.
Next it was off to Medellin, Colombia’s second biggest city. I have been looking forward to this stop because one of the optional tours offered is a visit with Pablo Escobar’s brother, Roberto. Most of you might remember that Pablo Escobar was the famous Colombian drug lord who had so much money he offered to pay off Colombia’s national debt in return for a pardon. They didn’t go for it.
The government eventually hunted him down and killed him in the mid-Nineties. So I marked down the Pablo Escobar tour as a “must see” on my itinerary.
We wait on a busy Medellin street for the unmarked van to pick us up and arrive at Roberto Escobar’s modest house, which has now been converted into a shrine of sorts to his brother. Roberto tells us that since his brother’s execution he has given up crime and is now developing a cure for cancer; which we can help by buying an autographed picture poster of him and Pablo – for a modest fee. It appears the Escobar family has not all together given up crime.
The final destination of the trip is Cartagena – the crown jewel in the tour. Cartagena is considered by many to be the Riviera of South America. It is certainly one of its oldest and prettiest cities; having been founded in the mid-1500s, it has a colourful history of being attacked by such greats as Sir Francis Drake and Captain Jack Spar-row. Perched on the Caribbean; the temperature is in the 30s and the water warm and clear.
Our tour group isn’t staying in a hotel in Cartagena. Henry has booked two large apartment suites right on the water so everyone has their own room, which means that I didn’t have to bunk with Peter Pan, who can’t sleep unless all the lights are on. I’m beginning to identify with Captain Hook.
The centrepiece of Cartagena is the “Old Town” which is surrounded by the original walls and still sports many of the original cannons. Henry arranges for a local guide to take us on a walking tour.
The guide proudly points out all the architecture; much of it dating back 400 years.
The next day is an optional tour to a private resort in the Rosario Islands, a Colombian National Park and Nature Preserve. It’s about an hour’s run offshore from Cartagena. We take a van to the port and stand in line to go through the government turnstile to get into the port and board our boat.
I look frantically for my ticket and find somehow I have lost it and didn’t realize it was missing until I was halfway through the turnstile. Now I’m stuck half in and half out and the thing is jammed.
Meanwhile, a long line is forming behind me of people pushing and shoving until a police officer – in desperation – buys another ticket which he inserts into the turn-stile and it suddenly unlocks – I slip through and board my boat while there’s an argument over who should pay for the ticket.
A short time later, Henry and the rest of the group arrive and apologize for being late. The police told him some crazy tourist jammed the turnstile. I look sheepishly at the ground. Henry looks at me, then breaks out laughing.
After three nights in Cartagena, it’s back to Bogota and the trip home. I suppose the question is whether or not I would take another tour? Probably – but to a different country – I’m not sure the army and police guys will be happy to see me return to Colombia a too soon. I still owe them for a ticket.