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I Just Got Back From Medellín!

From New York Times Travel

IF Medellín is still a city that puts its visitors on guard, you wouldn’t know it from my traveling companion’s choice of footwear. “I can’t believe you’re wearing pink sneakers here!” I exclaimed to my friend Ryan, minutes after we arrived at the airport of Colombia’s second biggest city. “They’re not pink,” Ryan told me. “They’re salmon khaki. They’re pueblo rose.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, you traveled to the largest cocaine-producing city in the world in the same manner that you lowered yourself into a tank of feral hogs: accompanied by either an insurance policy or a very porous concept of life expectancy. Then the home of the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the city had its renown for cultivating prize orchids usurped by its ability to put the k in the word “traffick.”

As Michael Kimmelman reported in this paper last year, the annual homicide rate in Medellín 20 years ago was 381 per 100,000. In New York City, this would come to more than 30,000 murders a year.

Mr. Escobar’s death at the hands of the police in 1993 did much to cool the fires. At first the changes were subtle; gang members reportedly started showing up at group therapy sessions; former hit men started taking guitar lessons. Then this city of 3.5 million was gradually graced with a series of improvements befitting its jewel-like setting in a lush valley surrounded by green mountains. Parks, libraries, museums and hotels were built. A gleaming metro system was completed in the mid-90s; in 2006 and 2008, gondolas providing service to the city’s hillside shantytowns were added, reducing what had been a two-hour trip down to a few minutes. Fernando Botero, a Medellín native, donated more than 1,000 pieces of his own and others’ art to the Museo de Antioquia. Birds, in short, began to twitter.

Eager to sample this new Medellín, I canvassed my loved ones for a traveling companion. Thinking his essential winsomeness would be the perfect litmus test for any chicanery or danger, I selected my puckish 24-year-old assistant, Ryan Haney, a heterosexual mama’s boy who sometimes refers to his knapsack as “my little bag.” I knew Ryan would want to run the idea past his mother, Angela; 24 hours later, we received her blessing.

Our first point of order was to take one of the several Pablo Escobar tours now offered in Medellín. Having heard that one operator’s Escobar tour ended in a conversation with Roberto Escobar in his living room (Roberto, Pablo’s brother, was the Medellín cartel’s accountant), I wrote to the company, but was told they were no longer working with Roberto Escobar, who they said now painted his brother as a hero. A second tour operator I contacted added that Roberto now claimed that his job for the Medellín cartel had been to design submarines. I ended up enlisting Juan Uribe, a warm, emphatic tour guide in his 60s who took us to four Escobar-related sites. We saw the apartment building where Mr. Escobar’s wife and bodyguards lived; the roof where he was gunned down by police; a neighboring roof the police used to remove his body (Mr. Uribe: “They needed a lower roof. He was very heavy then”); and Mr. Escobar’s grave.

Between sights, Mr. Uribe recounted how the drug lord started his career by stealing headstones from cemeteries and reselling them, and how he gradually widened his power base, even holding office in government at one point. Ryan took all the accounts of cocaine-fueled mayhem in his stride, but when we visited the grave in a lovely, elevated cemetery in the middle of town, I started to feel vaguely anxious. I asked, “There aren’t cameras anywhere that are recording us, are there?” Mr. Uribe smiled, then pointed at four spindly bushes next to Mr. Escobar’s grave and mused, “Microphones.”

Between sights, Mr. Uribe recounted how the drug lord started his career by stealing headstones from cemeteries and reselling them, and how he gradually widened his power base, even holding office in government at one point. Ryan took all the accounts of cocaine-fueled mayhem in his stride, but when we visited the grave in a lovely, elevated cemetery in the middle of town, I started to feel vaguely anxious. I asked, “There aren’t cameras anywhere that are recording us, are there?” Mr. Uribe smiled, then pointed at four spindly bushes next to Mr. Escobar’s grave and mused, “Microphones.”

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Written by Rico

Rico

"Rico" is the crazy mind behind the Q media websites, a series of onlinemagazines that includes TodayColombia.com. Rico brings his special kind of savvy to online marketing. His websites are engaging, provocative, informative and sometimes off the wall, where you either like or you leave it. The same goes for him, like him or leave him.There is no middle ground. No compromises, only a passion to present reality as he sees it!