In Colombia, I trace the footsteps of the man, the myth, Pablo Escobar. For people here, the drug lord is either a saint or a demon. For travellers, the “cool outlaw” is a tourist attraction. My visit becomes a challenge, and attempt to understand and reconcile these extremes.
Heading to Colombia from the Caribbean, the landscape around me changes, slowly but continuously. For fourteen hours, my bus follows narrow roads winding up and down hills. Towards the end, dramatic cliffs rise to my left and right and dense woods with scattered houses flash by. As we approach Medellín, the country’s second largest city, the reefs of vegetation are replaced by urban ones. Authentic ridges of slums, as far as the eye can see. As a first timer in South America, I have of course prepared myself for this city. But no theoretical background information has prepared me for this impressive sight, for this monumental scale and density. The “city of the eternal spring,” quiet and restless at the same time, greets me with soft winds, smiley people and its prominent shantytowns.
When I went to university, the name Medellín was one often mentioned. I studied at the social sciences college where everyone had an opinion and the left hand definitely had a lot more weight. Of course, one of the great habits of the college’s raised fist intelligentsia was to enjoy the sun of Lisboa, sipping beers, puffing away and scrutinizing current world affairs. In the 1990s, Colombia’s name was often changed into Cocalombia. As a joke, yes, but also due to all the cartel wars blitzing the country. And, above all, it was due to one man who stood out and whose reputation crossed the Atlantic: Mr. Pablo Escobar, aka “El Patron,” aka “El Doctor,” or just simply “Pablito.” I remember well that in my college days, Mr. Escobar enjoyed great popularity and had sort of a fan club. The big question is: Why?
Faustino, my first Medellín cab driver, has an answer: “Escobar should’ve been president of this country! He was the only one to help those in need!” To a lot of people in Medellín, “El Patron” is still a hero, despite his well known history of violence. “He killed a lot of people, people that stood in his way,” says Isabel, a Colombian college student I bumped into on the street. “But that was the only way… Good or bad, no politician helped the people like he did.” I try to understand. I try to see through her eyes. I need to find out more. What’s Medellín like now, almost 20 years after Escobar’s hunting and killing by the police? How do people see him? What’s his legacy?
Walking past a hostel in Poblado, what seems to me a higher class district of the city, I come across a noteworthy aspect of this legacy. A huge, golden poster announces in capital red letters: Pablo Escobar Tour. Looking at the poster, I have to pause for a second and rub my eyes. OK, so the man had more 20 dollar bills than the US Federal Reserve in the late 80s and was the first to import cocaine into the United States. Well, he also built an open air zoo at his house and chose his own prison, which included a nightclub. And yes, he was said to have ordered the murder of a soccer referee who didn’t help his team win a game. A myth of Colombia’s modern history! But does that make him a tourist attraction? The existence of the tour suggests that yes, and it seems to be very popular among travellers. But I can imagine that many Colombians might see it differently… I decide to do the tour the following day, not really knowing what to expect.
I am joined on the tour by the usual backpacking tourists. Brits, Australians, one Icelander. One of them informs me about his massive hangover but adds: “I just had to come on this tour, though. Escobar was really cool.” Entering the van I cannot help but think about these words. As the guide passionately tells Escobar’s story, I realize how weird I feel about all this. The drug capo actually has an aura of heroism around him. It seems like if you are going to do something outlaw, just do it at an immensely large scale, and it will become cool. Our first stop is Escobar’s headquarters and coke labs that were bombed by the government in the 90s. Tourists take pictures next to graffitis saying “Pablo Lives” while passing locals look at us in a strange way. I approach one of them, an old man walking slowly supported by his cane. At first he doesn’t talk. I detect this slight tension between us. My Spanish helps break the ice, and suddenly he just says “Que pasa? Son locos? Pablo era un criminal!” and walks away. I’m the only one to hear this, as all the others are still “rocking the Pablo thing.”
The next stop of the tour makes me feel even more weird and divided. We head to the outskirts of the city to see Pablo’s grave. I see some locals approaching the tomb. They don’t come close, though, as the grave is completely invaded by foreigners, taking pictures, paying their strange tribute to the “Patron.” We also pass by the site of Escobar’s death. Nothing special, but more stares from locals, and even some disbelieving head shakes. The most incredible part of the tour is yet to come. Up in the “Beverly Hills” of Medellín we visit one of his former mansions. As I step out of the van, I cannot believe my eyes. We are greeted by an old man wearing a cap, shouting: “Bienvenidos, my name is Roberto Escobar.” I almost lose it. Oh man, I thought I recognized him. A sudden flashback: I am about eleven years old, having lunch at my grandma’s place, and on TV I see that man on the news. Pablo Escobar is turning himself in to the police and his brother is with him. The same old man who is now shaking my hand. I feel a chill running down my spine…
And so you’re on a boat, crossing a national border. Not that you notice it, there aren’t many border checks in the Caribbean. “The easiest border crossing you’ll ever do!” Captain Dave said in his spontaneous optimistic smile. This premonition was not going to fulfill itself, unfortunately. My Colombia stamp was a hard earned bureaucratic prize shining on my passport. We did stop in an immigration spot in Panama but even the always vigilant bureaucracy must have its New Year’s break.
This way, we had to sail into Sapzurro illegally, for all means. Twenty four hours of blissful illegal sunbathing and siestas in Colombia. Of course we had to sort this situation out. In the back of your mind always laid the slightly uncomfortable feeling of the machine gun armed cops asking for your papeles. After several rounds of negotiation, we managed to hire Fernando, a goofy looking self entitled capitan, that seemed to have his dreams of grandeur as a sea wolf. If Fernando’s air didn’t really inspire that much confidence, I almost lost all my color when I saw the noble vessel that was to take us back to Panama. It was this narrow, wood made skiff, that shook even with the shy bay waves that petted our sailboat. “La Nina” was the name, maybe an ironic tribute to Colombus ship. I just had to ride it for 30 minutes, and the perspective didn’t look that exciting.
All on board, 9 people plus the capitan. Fernando was directing everyone to their places, with a fantastic ability for weight estimating and I was immediately promoted to honorary translator. Everybody had their lifejackets on, hoping we were not gonna need them and the passports were well tucked in to your pockets. And off we go! The first waves are easily crossed and only after we got into open waters the good fun started. “El mar esta muy picado!” Fernando warned us, letting us know something that we can easily perceive. He was actually laughing, not able to hide his excitement, showing his toothless grin everywhere he went. Long story short, the skiff almost flipped quite a few times. It was like a radical watersport, except I didn’t choose it. Every time we climbed a wave, Fernando’s fantastic mathematical skills were put into practice. “Amigo, go to the left, left I said! Hey, stick together you two, in the middle!!” As we passed Cabo Tiburon (Shark Cape), he also tried to enrich our knowledge about the local fauna assuring there were sharks while he did the sign of the cross – “Dios Mio!!” The idea of sharks passing by was not the most reassuring one, let’s put it like this.
Panamian bureaucracy was quite a proud one. It seemed almost like if the officials were somehow excited about it.Well, not overly excited, a dense tranquility played the cards in Puerto Obaldia. Stress? I could never get stressed here. Tranquilo!
First thing to do is to go to the police to register. Then, you’d have to go have your boat permit validated. Then you’d have to the “real” Immigration office to get your precious stamp. Then back at the Maritime office to pick up the neat paper permit. Of course, like any good protocol office, the official is absent. Rumor was that the blessed state official was out stamping some VIP plane passengers. Bless him for that. After a while waiting, this old, hunch backed lady pops out of the office and informs us that we need our passport copies in order to get the stamp. Bless her for that. An exit stamp, and they need to have a souvenir from me? A copy? No problem. See the thing is, our impatient clerk from the maritime bureau was really impatient to go home and watch TV. “Cierro a las quatro!” he said in an austere, civil service tone. So this means that we were being timed. In the end, no Immigration clerk came, we all ended up being stamped by a random guy that until then, was totally unable to give us the stamp. His words, not mine. And don’t mind me telling you, bureaucracy in Spanish is not easy. My diplomatic self was really put to the test. I almost like Jimmy Carter and his Israel-Egypt peace treaty success, when I convinced the maritime official to stay until 4h15. Mission accomplished, I’m legal again. Stress? Not really, it was all very tranquilo…
The ride back was another epic tale of maritime skill, with Fernando shouting orders and avoiding flipping over the boat. The spectacular landscape of the Darien did smooth the ride, at least when I wasn’t blind by the salty waters that splashed my face every ten seconds. Safe harbor was reached, passport slightly wet and the thrilling promise to see Fernando the following day. Capurgana here we go, for another Maritime, bureaucratic tale. That one was way less interesting, the sea was less choppy. The highlight was actually getting off the boat, when all the other boatman bursted into laughter after Fernando screamed “respectame, yo soy Capitan!!”