Drinking up the Zona Cafetera

MEDELLÍN — Today, the usual chill of Bogotá is a memory while I soak up the eternal spring warmth of Medellín, Colombia’s second city. All around me ferns, palms and old hardwoods compete to see which can pop in a green burst against the impossibly blue sky and soaring mountains cradling this city. After the grey grime of Bogotá, it’s like I’ve forgotten what colors are.

My first impressions of Medellín are that it’s spotlessly clean, populated by beautiful, laid-back people. It’s a far cry from the high, cold capital where white collar workers with panicked, strained expressions pack the buses as they rush to work at 6 a.m. Medellín is a serious temptation as the place to live in Colombia.

Medellín was, as many know, the HQ of one of the worlds most notorious recent criminals: Pablo Escobar, who presented himself as a Robin Hood-type figure in Colombia but who was really a disaster for Colombia. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2011: “He blew up a civilian airliner, bombed the government’s security ministry, assassinated at least one presidential candidate and waged a war on the state that killed thousands, including dozens of judges and hundreds of policemen.”

Since the bad, old days of Escobar in the 1980s and 1990s, the city has seen a remarkable transition. From what was once “the most violent city in the world” and an urban warzone, it is now often picked as a model city with a modern subway, cable cars connecting the poor parts of town with the commercial center and a rejuventaed sense of itself as a city on the move. Violent crime remains a problem, however, with an uptick in murders in recent years, especially in the poorer sections of town. Recently a gang war between los Urabeños and la Oficina de Envigado (the heir to Pablo’s empire) has broken out and threatens the peace.

In the middle of this, Escobar himself is now a tourist attraction. Two rival companies offer Escobar Tours — Paisa Road gets good reviews from Lonely Planet for its objectivity — ranging from 55,000COP to 110,000COP ($30USD to $60USD). Many Colombians, however, object to the elevation of someone they consider a terrorist. But there’s a fine line between education and glorification and he was an important historical figure, so it’s hard to argue that he should be ignored.

I hope I have time to take one of the tours, but they last half a day and, unfortunately, I’m only here for a couple of days. Tomorrow I head south into the Zona Cafetera where I plan to shoot photos of the coffee workers and hopefully get in a hike in the magnificent Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, a volcanic region — with active volcanoes! — that gives Colombia’s coffee triangle its rich soil and which powers some of the best arabica coffee in the world.

But that’s a post for another day. Until next time, fellow travelers.

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