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Kidnappings, cartels and cocaine. You can’t help but think of Colombia when hearing these ominous words strung together. And it’s not surprising.

During drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s reign from the Eighties to the early-Nineties, visiting Colombia was about as safe as backpacking through the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But times have changed.

On the 20th anniversary of El Doctor’s death – and amidst a slightly more favourable security situation – I was curious to find out how far Colombia has come. Naturally, it made sense to begin my month-long visit in what was once considered to be the world’s most dangerous city – Medellín.

Big city life

Stepping off the bus in Colombia’s second- largest city, I can’t deny I am a little apprehensive about being in Colombia. But my fears are short-lived. Since Escobar was gunned down by police on the roof of a middle-class suburb here in 1993, Medellín has slowly and quietly been getting on with things.

A metro was completed in the mid-Nineties, and a decade later saw the implementation of a gondola system connecting the city’s favelas with the Central Business District – taking the trip up to the former no-go barrio of Santo Domingo for a beer at a local bar is an eye-opening way to spend an afternoon.

Thanks to a massive art contribution by famous Colombian sculptor and local resident Fernando Botero, the city’s Museo de Antioquia is well worth a look-in, and the cosmopolitan Zona Rosa district is the ultimate party destination.

Keen to get more of an insight into the days of the Medellín Cartel, I sign up for the official Pablo Escobar Tour (£35), which offers a rare chance to meet Pablo’s brother Roberto. Pulling up at the 66-year-old’s house, our guide Natalia casually invites us in for “some coke”. The joke is on us as we sip Coca-Cola, listening to Roberto – who did 14 years in jail for acting as the cartel’s accountant – regale us with the story of how he and Pablo escaped resort-like prison La Catedral in 1992.

But it is difficult to swallow Roberto’s claim that his younger brother – who orchestrated the deaths of more than 3500 journalists, politicians, police and other civilians – was a “kind, gentle, man”. Posing for a photo with the diminutive Paisa (a nickname for people of the region), left partly deaf and blind by an envelope bomb, is kind of unsettling. Still not sure why I smiled.

While the days of the Medellín Cartel are over, it’s estimated Colombia still accounts for up to 60 per cent of the global production of cocaine, and the bacrim (narco-paramilitary gangs) still operate across the country. The UK government currently advises against visiting rural areas bordering Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela and the famous salsa city of Cali, but I personally have no dramas busing up through the latter region from Ecuador. Street crime is still a problem in the big cities, yet I feel more or less comfortable exploring Medellín by day. 

The capital Bogotá, my next stop, seems a bit sketchier though, and I move on after checking out the fantastic free Museo Botero and photographing the street art in the funky La Candelaria district.

Colonial cool

After a week of city life I’m itching to get out into the countryside. First stop: Villa de Leyva. Arriving in this whitewashed colonial village around 150km north of Bogotá is like stepping into a Gabriel Garciá Márquez novel (the protagonist in the 86-year-old Colombian author’s iconic love story, Love In The Time Of Cholera, spends part of his life here).

I inadvertently arrive during the Fiesta de la Virgen, which see hundreds of caballeros converge to prance through the cobblestoned streets on their fillies – a sight I’ll never forget. A world away from the city bustle, this colonial time warp town is the perfect place to wind down for a few days, gorging on café con leche and cake. I meet some Argentinians who’d come especially to forage for magic mushrooms, but alas, they come up empty-handed.

Into the jungle

Escobar encounters and cake scoffing aside, my top priority in Colombia is tackling the famous Ciudad Perdida (Spanish for Lost City) trek. To warm up, I make a stop in San Gil – Colombia’s adventure capital. Roughly 300km north of Bogota, San Gil is the go-to town for class five white-water rafting on the Rio Suarez (£30 well spent). There’s canyoning, horse riding, bungee jumping and paragliding on offer here too, but the latter is more scenic in Medellín, which is rimmed by forested mountains.

If you really want to challenge yourself, it’s all about the Lost City. Discovered in 1972, the pre-Inca ruins located on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta near Colombia’s Caribbean coast consist of more than 100 terraces and several circular plazas carved into the mountainside, linked by a network of emerald green moss-covered stone steps. For many years, guerrilla groups controlled this region – the National Liberation Army (ELN) kidnapped a troop of hikers in 2003 – but the Colombian military now occupy several bases in the area, which has improved safety for tourists.


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Big trip to Colombia: Fancy 'coke' with a reformed cartel boss or finding the fabled Lost City?
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