Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA — PART 29 COLOMBIA – PAMPLONA TO VILLA DE LEYVA

Colombia

Colombia has 18 national holidays, second only to India in the world’s rankings of most national holidays. It hosts the world’s largest theatre festival (the Iberoamericana), biggest outdoor horse parade, biggest flower parade, biggest salsa festival and the second biggest carnival.

Even children drink coffee in Colombia. However, hot chocolate is a strong contender for the top spot as 500,000 cups are consumed every day. The sugar and caffeine must be working as Colombia tops global happiness surveys on the regular.

Colombians are even more into plastic surgery than the Argentinians and the Venezuelans. It’s the fifth most popular place to get plastic surgery, making it the number one in Latin America, Brazil is 8th and Mexico is 10th. South Korea is number one, followed by Greece, Italy and the US.

In terms of biodiversity, it is megadiverse country, with the most species of birds, 1754 and counting.

We’ve talked about the good stuff. Now we need to talk about FARC. FARC began in 1964 as a rebel army of peasants. Cocaine was its cash generator and now that the Havana peace talks are heading towards their conclusion it remains to be seen whether they will walk away from that. Ex-president Álvaro Uribe exerted massive military pressure to push them back.

Some Colombians didn’t think the government should negotiate with FARC after their reign of terror and the thousands of lives that they have taken. The civil war lasted for 52 years and 220,000 lives were lost.

Choosing to negotiate with FARC in Havana made President Juan Manuel Santos unpopular in some quarters especially with the previous president Uribe whose support helped him get elected. It almost cost him his second term.

Peace negotiations are now reaching a close but it is understandably difficult for Colombians to believe in a resolution. Colombian people are grateful for the relative safety of their lives now and march for peace. They are also a deeply divided country and such polarised opinions are uncomfortable bedfellows.

We also need to talk some more about trade, specifically about the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement negotiated by Santos. Human rights violations were the main blocker to getting such a treaty previously as with many of these type of agreements between the Western world and developing countries.

Everything looked rosy and the majority of imports and exports had their duties lifted, however, this is the US we’re dealing with here. Police destroyed a town’s rice crop for being ‘illegal’ which is a bit rich when they spend so much time trying to stop coca growth.

The reason for this? Monsanto and other similar organisations that supply agricultural seed. The farmers were being punished for using their own harvested seeds as they always had done.  Despite the country’s anger, the article of law is still valid. The farmers went on strike and Santos had to deal with it. Monsanto is an interesting company to google if you enjoy getting wound up.

Escobar

One name that is synonymous with Colombia’s history of drug trafficking is that of Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, the notorious drug lord, have a go politician and narcoterrorist (a term coined in his honour perhaps?). Escobar was a big cartel leader, at the height of his power he was overseeing an operation that was smuggling half a billion dollars of cocaine a day which is the equivalent of 15 tons. His accountant claimed that it cost them $2500 in rubber bands to keep their vast sums of cash organised.

He lived in Hacienda Nápoles where he had his own zoo, including four hippos. They broke free and there is now a ‘wild’ population of 40 African hippos thriving in Colombia. People used to dig in his garden looking for buried treasure, although I don’t think they found any. It is now a tourist attraction popularised by Netflix show Narcos, based on Escobar’s life.

He controlled 80% of the cocaine trade to the US at the height of his power and at one point he was in the top ten of Forbes wealthiest people. He was shot dead by the police in 1993.

In recent years, the American rapper Wiz Khalifa angered Colombians when he published photos of himself visiting the grave of Escobar in Medellin, he has a joint in his mouth and went on a self-styled ‘Escobar tour’. Not a man who gave much thought to the Escobar’s campaign of terror that killed thousands.

But Escobar was not the only shadowy figure in the Colombian drugs trade.

Godmother of Cocaine

If Escobar was the godfather of cocaine, them Grizelda Blanco was the godmother. She was heavily involved in the drugs trade and forged links with South Florida that still remain. She was a brutal woman who fought during the Miami drug wars and remained under suspicion for the deaths of her three husbands. Two of her three sons also met their death whilst working in the drug trade that she’d brought them up into.

She was ironically killed in a motorbike drive-by shooting in Medellin outside a butchers shop, it was an ironic way for her to die as it was a killing method that she regularly utilised in order to control the Florida market.

She was at the pinnacle of her power in the late 70s and early 80s and she made billions of dollars during this time. This need for power led to her being convicted of three murders out of a possible great many more, one was of a two-year-old boy which shows how cold and ruthless she was and the enemies that she made led to her murder.

Straight out of her paltry twenty-year sentence she set up a distribution network across the US, as cocaine was eclipsing marijuana as a valuable commodity, the demand meant that there were regular shipments of 1,500kg being sent out to meet it.

She thought of herself as a one-woman Mafioso and christened her third born Michael Corleone Blanco and used an underwear shop as a front for smuggling coke in the bras and knickers. One famous story about her was that she confronted her cartel partner and husband Alberto Bravo in a nightclub car park over missing profits and shot him and his bodyguards dead, despite only having a pistol against his Uzi.

She left the scene with one minor gunshot wound, which reads like something from the Godfather trilogy that she so admired. It is thought that she was responsible for around 40 murders, possibly more. She did escape the death penalty when a key witness Jorge Ayala her so-called lieutenant, was discredited for having phone sex in the prosecutor’s office.

The story of Colombian drug terrorists gets more bizarre as there was a sticker album on sale in Medellin with all 20 pages dedicated to Pablo Escobar himself, and it was very popular with the kids, which surely has to be a bad sign for future Medellin society. It also makes Pokemon, the Spice Girls and Manchester United players look like fairly tame subjects in comparison. It would be the equivalent of a Reggie Kray sticker album back in Britain.

Pamplona

To enter Colombia from Venezuela I got the bus from Merida to the border and then crossed on foot, got my entry and exit stamps and bussed it to Pamplona. It’s a nice, easy border crossing. Pamplona is a nice place with a big plaza and I stayed in a hotel. The best bit about Pamplona was that my room had a TV and I got to watch American shows like Friends on Fox. I cannot stress how much I missed being able to watch shows in English from the comfort of my bed without being crammed into a room full of other people. Bliss.

San Gil

I managed to have quite a wild time in San Gil considering that it isn’t a very wild place. From Pamplona, I got a bus to the urban sprawl of Bucaramanga then onto San Gil. It is a town known for adventure sports but I did not have the money for such shenanigans! It is a sedate place up a hill and I pretty much immediately made friends with a group of lads as soon as I got there. The hostel was owned by an Australian guy who had been dumped by a few Colombian girls and was broken because of it. 

The five of us – one Aussie, one American, one Dutch and one British guy all went to a club for some rumba. It was a typical grinding, sweaty South American night and afterwards, the Aussie owner suggested going for ‘chicken on a stick’. We were all game for chicken on a stick, however, he had an ulterior motive as the van was opposite a strip club.

So in we went. There were varying degrees of enthusiasm varying from very, very keen to considerably unkeen. I was the only female non-stripper in the building. We chose two girls who were, of course, beautiful and we made a circle of chairs. 

One of the women asked me to undo her camiseta but I just couldn’t do it. The expressions on the boy’s faces during this group lap dance were a picture, from unimpressed to heavily turned on. The girls got naked and luckily I avoided naked crotch.

I have slept with girls but there is something alien about paying for nudity, at least for me. I understand the need to make a living. Although I would blame the demand as opposed to the supply. But sex will always sell everywhere in the world and does, every day.

On another day I visited Guane, which is a picturesque mountain village. A bit less high adrenaline than some of the other activities on offer. There isn’t really anything to do there except look at old men sitting around. You can walk to Barichara if you feel energetic. Its an hour to get there and back and its nice journey.

I left SG and the boys behind for the even more sedate town of Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva

I stayed in a hotel recommended by a guy in San Gil that was just off the square and it flooded in the night so I had to change rooms.

The draw of VDL is that is fairly undeveloped and many of its buildings are from the sixteenth century. Its a popular day trip from Bogota due to its prettiness and countryside setting even though there is not an incredible amount going on.

I went on a day trip in a taxi to see Museo El Fosil which is a preserved near-complete skeleton of a Kronosaurus (a Cretaceous-period crocodile relative). It is thought to be 110-115 million years old and got beached in the mud which is how the remains survived.

This is not the only interesting reptile to be found in Colombia, as Titanoboa was also discovered in another part of the country.

During the Paleocene Epoch (the 10 million year era that came following the extinction of the dinosaurs), which was around 58-60 million years ago, Titanoboa lived. Titanoboa was a gem of a find as it replaced the equally badly named Gigantophis for the title of the world’s biggest snake.

This was only recently unearthed in Colombia in 2009 when it was found by a group of scientists and was hailed by a few as being the greatest discovery since the T-Rex. In modern terms, its closest living relative would be the boa constrictor. It was found in the Cerrejon coal mine which is in La Guajira the uppermost North East of Colombia, very close to the border with Venezuela.

This was a most wonderful South American discovery especially as it broke previous records for being the heaviest, longest and largest. At 48 feet and weighing over a tonne, it measured 1 metre in diameter at its largest point. Comparatively, the smallest snake is the Barbados threadsnake (Leptotyphlops carlae), which is only 10 centimetres long. The largest T. cerrejonensis snakes that are living today are the Python Recticulatus at 29ft and the anaconda at 17ft, which incredibly seem rather small in comparison.

The scientists believed that the region would have been warmer than they thought for it to grow to such a size and it conjures up Jurassic park style imaginings, of giant lizards roaming the earth, like the dinosaurs only smaller and better adapted for the environment.

There have been replicas made and programmes produced in honour of this great find by Jonathan Bloch and Carlos Jaramillo, a palaeontologist and paleobotanist respectively. I hope that there are plenty more discoveries still to come…

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