As of 2012, a new Airport serves Quito and it is a great big clean modern paragon of efficiency. Clearly then, this capital city is going places and promised to be a place that reflected its method of ingress. Sadly I was to be mistaken.
Many guidebooks describe Quito as “beautiful” and “astonishing”. I would describe it as “dirty” and “crowded” and perhaps “sketchy as hell”. It was without a doubt the dodgiest city I have visited during my travels in South America and while it is by no means a terrible place, it is most definitely over sold as a tourist destination. As a colonial city it has lost all semblance as a well preserved historical centre with most of the original architecture blackened by the high levels of air pollution and festooned with unwelcome additions mostly made from breeze blocks and corrugated iron. There are exceptions – La Ronda just to the south of the historical centre is a very pleasant street to wander down, and the main plaza is still a white square of colonnades and flags. The new centre is where a majority of the hotels and hostels are located as are the restaurants and bars. Touts are common, and petty criminals abound here, but while I had a hostel in the old centre I would recommend you stay here and visit the old town for a day.
Whatever you may feel about the appearance of the city, it is the atmosphere that is most unnerving. At no point, even during the day, did I feel completely at ease. Muggings and hold ups by nefarious taxi drivers are alarmingly common, and sadly so is rape in these cases. Anyone who visits is sure to encounter at least one person who has been a victim of some kind of crime; during my two night stay a girl had her bag snatched barely twenty metres from our hostel in broad daylight, and a guy had his passport stolen. Fortunately nothing untoward happened to me, but I left with a sigh of relief, but with a new level of stress to contend with: the crossing in to Colombia.
The land border is a notoriously risky crossing, and many people choose to fly. The flights are expensive however, so I opted to take the bus. I had spoken to a number of people who had made this journey without any issues, but the writing online always had the one disclaimer: it might happen, so keep safe however you can. As it turns out, the border crossing itself is totally painless I am happy to report. Get a bus to the border town of Tulcan and a taxi to the crossing itself. Get your exit stamp, walk across the border bridge and in to the offices of the Colombian border force and get your entry stamp. Get another taxi or collectivo to the nearby border town of Ipiales where you can then get a bus of your choice further in to Colombia. Touts will dog you at every step, but ignore them all; the money changers in particular will give you a terrible rate. Once you have decided on a bus company, consider your timings as it is highly recommended that you do not travel at night for any part of the journey between the border and Popayan (which may take a good six hours to reach) due to the higher risk of robbery and kidnap here than in most parts of Colombia that you will likely visit. Given that the road from Quito to the border itself is a six hour trip, you will likely need to stop at some point or just power through to Cali (or Popayan if you wish to stop there). I was on a bus that was destined for Cali and the locals seemed not too bothered by the night travel. Regardless, I decided to stop at Pasto which in and of itself seems like a nice enough town. Pasto has one large hostel named Koala Inn, that I am positive receives 90% of the passing backpackers and most of these for a single night. I myself arrived at ten in the evening, and left at nine in the morning, making it by far the quickest single stay I have had in my trip.
I have neglected to mention one other part of this journey that is certainly noteworthy: it is beautiful. Make sure you get a window seat to enjoy the spectacular green hills and valleys.
Cali is known to many outsiders as a “sister” town to it’s more famous sibling Medellin, but only for one reason: cocaine. The Cali and Medellin cartels were the most notorious in the country, so many preconceptions of Cali come from this time. Fortunately it is a much improved city, and with most backpackers staying in the barrios of San Fernando and San Antonio, the chances of being affected by the crime that blights the poorer neighbourhoods is slim. My taxi driver could not find the hostel (but to be fair, the street numbering system of Cali is bizarre) so I asked a passing family out for a late walk (the fact that families can walk around at night was a calming factor for me!) if they knew. They did not, but immediately fetched out their phones and an iPad to investigate. A short while later they had found it! It was around the corner, so they walked me there, much to the amusement of the hostel owner who was sitting outside when I arrived. Colombians are incredibly friendly, generous and helpful, so this was an ideal way to be introduced to this fact.
The city of Cali is a fairly small place for the most part, so areas of interest are in walking distance. The historical centre is, much like Quito, a dodgy place but more so at the weekend when I was there so I didn’t even visit. The barrio of San Antonio is a colonial gem, and walking around it is a pleasure, soaking up the architecture and the general relaxing vibe. There is only one other thing to do really, and that is dance! Cali is the undisputed capital of Salsa and there are a multitude of clubs to visit, but as it was a Sunday most of these are closed. The owner was having none of this so got me and a delightful trio of Aussie/Kiwi girls to a place that was open, to drink (far too much) rum and dance the night away. Memories are thin on the ground…
Between Cali and the next obvious northerly destination of Medellin is the zona cafetera in the hills around Armenia, Periera and Manizales. While this is an area that is perfect for coffee growing, it is also achingly beautiful and peaceful. The small town of Salento is the heart of this region for visitors and all I can say about it is that you simply must give over three or so days to this Eden in the middle of the country. I specifically recommend the hostel La Serrana, an old finca that is now a wonderful chill out spot twenty minutes walk from Salento. If you are so inclined you can stay a while to volunteer, which I would have loved to have done given a bit more time to play with. Maybe next time.
Pablo Escobar needed to spend $2500 a month on rubber bands to hold his cash together. 10% of the cash earned every month was eaten by rats or spoiled by water damage. At the height of his power, he controlled 80% of the global cocaine trade. As the centre of his operations, Medellin is saturated with tales of his cartel’s activities and more frequently by the devastating violence that afflicted Colombia for more than two decades. While there are segments of the population who still revere Escobar as a Robin Hood figure (and he certainly did build things for the poor, but mostly because he recruited his thugs from the poorest segments of society), you would be hard pressed to find anyone who really misses the man. In the early 90s he paid anyone $1000 who could prove they killed a cop – 600 did. In 1989, he wanted to assassinate a presidential candidate and so bombed an entire air plane, Avianca flight 103, and killed 113 innocent people. This kind of reckless, insanely psychopathic violence has scarred the country and is still what people think when someone mentions Colombia. The truth is that visitors to the country will find a beautiful nation full of wonderfully kind people who adore the fact that the country is now open to foreign tourists. On several occasions I was embraced by complete strangers who were thrilled to see a gringo enjoying the country that they are desperately proud of.
Medellin is actually of limited appeal to the visiting tourist outside the numerous restaurants and bars, but many people do stay for a while, mostly to party. Sadly this is in no small part due to the price, purity and availability of cocaine in the city. The many guys selling chewing gum in the tourist heavy El Poblado area are not just selling chewing gum. You might want to do the superb free walking tour (the guide earns his keep from tips) or climb one of the cable cars to get a good view over the city or maybe take an Escobar tour (one of which is run by Roberto Escobar, Pablo’s brother, although it supposed to have a very biased angle, unsurprisingly). One thing is ensured: the beautiful people. It is phenomenal how near perfection the people in Medellin look, especially on a night out. Not many places come close.