Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Conexion Tours, Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela: Surely the world's worst tour operator

I think that over the last 7 months that Alix and I have been travelling, we have been both reasonably smart and reasonably lucky.

Typically when we book tours with a tour operator, we follow the sage advice of the travel guidebooks and shop around, asking lots of detailed questions about what is included on the tour and getting everything we can about the tour in writing prior to making a decision. Most tours we have been on have been with honest tour operators. This time, the situation was dramatically different.

I suppose we were really tired after two days straight bus travel without a shower or a bed to sleep in, and our defenses were down when we arrived at Ciudad Bolívar bus station. We allowed a friendly sort of guy to direct us to the office of Conexion Tours where we met Carlos, who was offering three day package tours to Angel Falls.

The package tour was reasonably simple, a flight to Canaima, a visit to three different waterfalls on the first day, a boat journey upriver to the main attraction, Angel Falls on the second day, and a flight back to Ciudad Bolívar on the third day. All meals and accommodation were inclusive, and the price was 2200 Bolívares per person. We bought the tour.

What we didn't know when we bought the tour is that on our return from the tour we would be sitting in Carlos' office being yelled at by him in front of the police, whom he called to eject us from his posada for having the audacity to complain when his promises did not come true. Later still, we would be publicising, by every means at our disposal, how bad this tour operator was. Alix wrote a detailed warning message about Conexion Tours and posted it on every major, relevant travel forum we know about. It neatly summarises the problems we had on the tour, so I'll copy it here, so you can skim read it.

Do not go with Conexion Tours They are liars.

My husband and I booked a tour with Conexion Tours, based at the bus station, to Canaima National Park, which included Angel Falls.

The manager, Carlos, seemed really nice, honest and friendly about what was included on the tour. Unfortunately, many of his promises did not come true.

While we saw and did everything promised (Angel Falls, Sapo Falls, etc.) the services were terrible.

1. No English-speaking guide.
I was told that we would have an English-speaking guide. When I arrived at Canaima, the man at the airport who took our vouchers said that he didn't speak English but that our guide who was at the camp did. When we got to the camp, we met our native guide Esteban (or Steven, as he called himself) who only said, "Five minutes." When we left to go to the canoe, he said, "OK, let's go." This was the extent of his English for the whole tour. He did not communicate with anyone in the group except those who spoke Spanish. Later, a Venezuelan girl, another man who spoke near-perfect Spanish and I were trying to explain and ask him something, but he didn't understand us. His Spanish was not that good either.

2. No mosquito nets at Angel Falls camp.
I was told and shown pictures that there would be mosquito nets at the Angel Falls camp. There were none. I got a lot of mosquito bites despite using mosquito repellent.

3. No functioning showers at Angel Falls camp.
I was told and shown pictures that there would be showers at the Angel Falls camp. The showers did not work.

4. Poor quality and insufficient quantity of food and drinks.
I was told that the food was "really good... touristic... meat, salad, rice... you will love it" and that there would be as much water and soft drinks as we wanted.
The first day, the lunch consisted of two stale bread rolls with a little bit of ham, cheese and tomato sauce, plus a small packed of sweet biscuits. It was really bad. We ate this while the canoe was travelling up the river. The whole trip upriver took at least 5 hours. Dinner on the second night consisted of a vegetarian omelette, plantain and rice; no salad or meat. There were huge gaps (up to 7 hours) between meals and there was no fruit or other snacks to have in between. I was very hungry in between meals and feel like I have been on a diet.
When we travelled back from Angel Falls to Canaima, which was 3 1/2 hours under the hot sun, I asked for some water, but was told that there was none and we had to wait till we reached Canaima. The next morning when we asked for some Pepsi to drink while we played cards, we were told we would have to pay 35BSF, but we could have water for free.

5. Timing of Angel Falls visit.
Because they changed the itinerary, we did not arrive at the Angel Falls camp until 3.30pm on the first day. We had to go to see Angel Falls straight away because there were people on the tour who had early flights to Caracas the next day so we would not have time to see the Falls in the morning. We were told to bring torches, if we had them, and we left the camp at 4pm. The walk to the Falls took just under one hour. Then we spent a little time taking photos and swimming. We started walking back to the camp around 5.20pm and this walk took about 1 1/2 hours. It began raining around 5.45pm and was completely dark by 6pm. I slipped on a tree root, fell and bruised my arm and hit my head on a rock, fortunately not too hard. The guide who was walking at the front of the group did not stop to help me or check that I was ok. When we got back to camp, I asked if they had a plaster but there was none, not even a first aid kit.

We got a free night's accommodation in Ciudad Bolívar before the tour and were told that the hotel had hot water. It didn't.

We were picked up at the airport by Carlos' brother, Rivas. When I told him about our problem with the guide not speaking, he offered us a free lunch, which we took - we were starving.

When we confronted Carlos on our return, he didn't listen and just talked at us saying that we had signed a contract (the receipt) and that everything promised (all the activities listed on the receipt) was delivered. He didn't care about anything else and kept repeating himself, saying things like, "What do you want?"

Do not go with Conexion Tours They are liars.

There is a little more to the story than Alix' warning message explains though.

After Rivas offered us a free lunch and sat us down in a restaurant, he disappeared. We had to pay for the 'free' lunch, and return to the Conexion Tours Posada, a guesthouse that functioned as backacker accommodation, tour office and Carlos' family residence all rolled into one. We explained the situation to Carlos' wife, and she reimbursed us for our 'free' lunch.

Alix detailed our complaints to Carlos' wife, who phoned the manager of the camp in Canaima. The manager at Canaima flatly denied all our complaints and concocted a story about us being drunk in his camp: we had not drunk any alcohol. She then phoned Rivas, and Alix detailed our complaints to Rivas. Finally, we got Carlos on the phone.

When Alix says that Carlos kept repeating himself, she is putting it quite mildly. Carlos was ranting like a lunatic. By this time Alix had been negotiating with Conexion Tours for over an hour, and we hadn't received so much as an apology for anything having gone wrong. Here is a short video of what Alix had been going through for about an hour at the time I recorded it.

What happened next is the bizarre part. Ranting on the phone, Carlos said he would call the police and have us arrested. For some reason that was unclear, he was so threatened by our complaints that he felt he needed law enforcement to back him up.

Rivas returned to the posada, where Alix detailed our complaints to him again, in person.

Half an hour later, Carlos showed up at the posada with two police officers. We all sat down for another little chat, and Carlos' problem became clear. In the posada, where we had been attempting to be heard for the last hour and a half, Carlos lived with his wife and his son, who was a toddler. Carlos was so incensed that we would talk about 'legal things' in front of his son that he was incapable of listening, lowering his voice, or talking without wild and erratic gesticulation. He carried on about how we would all get arrested and have to fill in police reports and we would be at the police station and not in his home, in front of his young son.

L-R: Carlos, a police officer, Alix

At this point we were over it. Alix grabbed her backpack. We apologised to the police for wasting their time, and they offered to drive us to another posada. I can only guess at what Carlos told the police to convince them to accompany him, but just before we left the policeman in the photo told him that in his opinion, we seemed quite reasonable.

Now that it is over and I am no longer angry about being yelled at and lied to, all I have for Carlos is pity. It must be very unfortunate to know that you are a liar, and to live with the fear that on some level your small son, who is still too young to speak, knows that you are too.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Caribbean Dream

For many of months travelling, especially when it was cold, Jace and I dreamed of reaching Colombia. More specifically, we couldn't wait to get to the Caribbean Sea and the hot weather, swimming and diving it promised.

After nearly 6 months on the road, we made it to Cartagena, the jewel of the Colombian Caribbean coast. It was hot. And very humid. But we were ecstatic.

Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena has a interesting history. It was founded in 1533 as a colonial Spanish town of 200 people on the site of an indigenous settlement. It soon became a major commercial centre as the Spaniards found and sent gold, silver and emeralds down the Magdalena River to Cartagena for export to Spain. As the port's wealth grew, so did its appeal to pirates and corsairs, who attacked many times in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The (in)famous Sir Francis Drake captured and held the city to ransom in 1586 and, after destroying 1/4 of the city including the recently built palace and cathedral, received 107,000 pieces of Eight (the equivalent of US$200 million today) to leave. After this incident, the Spanish put a lot of effort and millions each year into building and maintaining walls and forts around the city to protect it.

Map of the Caribbean showing the Spanish shipping routes

A maquette of Cartagena, showing the fortifications. The walled Old City is on the far left

Cannons line part of the Old City's wall

The huge fort of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Many tunnels form part of the fort

A display of a cannon and all the tools used to prepare it

In 1610, Cartagena became the third seat of the Inquisition Holy Office Court in the Americas, along with Lima and Mexico. Hundreds of people were accused, captured and tortured, but only 3 executed, over the next 200 years in Cartagena. The Inquisition Palace is a beautiful building on the Plaza Bolívar which has been made into a museum with displays on the Spanish Inquisition and the history of Cartagena de Indias.

The imposing entrance of the Palace of the Inquisition

Courtyard of the Palace

"Window of the Accusation. The Court of the Holy Inquisition received via this window anonymous accusations against those who's practices were considered anti-Catholic. The accusations were verified and the accused then had the chance to respond to the charges and then the process continued." (To what? you may well ask.)

Some of the torture devices used by the Spanish Inquisition

Jace is about to get the chop

Cartagena declared complete independence from Spain on November 11, 1811, but was reconquested in 1815 and became a ghost town after being virtually destroyed. Finally in 1821, Simón Bolívar and his troops defeated the Spanish and created the state of Gran Colombia, which included all of modern Colombia. Throughout the 19th century due to famines and cholera (Gabriel García Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera is set here), Cartagena nearly disappeared, but began to recover slowly through the 20th century and is now the 5th largest city in Colombia.

Simón Bolívar on his horse in the Plaza Bolívar

Today, Cartagena is a very popular holiday destination for Colombians - many own holiday apartments in the fancy Bocagrande area - and it's no surprise, it's very pretty and a bit of a party town.

Entrance to the Old Town

The Naval Museum is on the right

Courtyard of the university. Beats the Library Lawn any day

The clock tower lit up at night

Besides walking around the Old Town, Jace and I loved nothing better than sitting next to the colonial wall at Café del Mar, sharing a jug of rum punch and watching the sun set over the sea.

Nice view from Café del Mar

On our first afternoon in Cartagena, we were sitting waiting for lunch in the Plaza de Santo Domingo when we saw a very beautiful woman getting interviewed on camera. It turns out she was a famous Brazilian model called Raica Oliveira. We walked past a fashion parade later that night and figured out that she, and a number of "very hot" women Jace had seen entering one of the biggest hotels in the Old Town, must have been here to model at the event.

Raica Oliveira getting interviewed for Colombian TV

The Plaza de Santo Domingo was the place to be because we also bumped into Todd and Shana who we'd dived with in the Galapagos. We met up for a drink at Café del Mar the next night and arranged to go on a chiva bus tour on the Thursday. Thanks to Todd's work, he and Shana were staying at the Hilton in Bocagrande, so they kindly invited us for a swim in the pool to cool off and to have a couple of drinks before all headed out.

Todd, Alix and Shana in the pool

Alix has a go on the waterslide (yes, the Hilton Bocagrande  has a waterslide)

Sunset over the Hilton pool area

Jace living the high life at the Hilton

The chiva bus tour is almost a rite of passage as a visitor to Cartagena. You get picked up at your (or your friends') hotel in Bocagrande by a brightly coloured chiva bus complete with musicians, and you drive around for a while as other passengers are collected. Then the fun starts: plasic cups, a bucket of ice, a half bottle of rum and a bottle of Pepsi are passed into each row. You drive around some more while the MC introduces himself, the driver and the musicians, and he starts to get everyone excited by doing shout-outs for all the nationalities on the bus, gets the ladies in each row to "shake it" to the music, and then the men have their turn.

All of us on the chiva bus

All the necessary tools for a good night

The boys in row #8 "shake it"

[Video of musicians coming soon]

By now, you're in the Old Town and everyone jumps off the bus with their drinks to go hang out on the wall with everyone from the other ten chiva buses that have been driving around. Up on the wall, there are all the usual hawkers selling drinks, cigarettes and knick-knacks (Cartagena is full of them) as well as women in tradional Caribbean dress with bowls of fruit on their heads that you can pose with and have photos taken. There is also a troop of very energetic local dancers.

Last stop is a local nightclub, where you can leave the bus and party on till the wee hours, or just stay for a drink and a dance and get taken back to your hotel. We were all pretty pooped, so headed back early on the bus. It had been a very fun night.

Dancing in the club

Playa Blanca

Eugene, who had told us about Izhcayluma, also mentioned Playa Blanca as a good place to kick back and relax. After all our fun in Cartagena, we decided to head to this white-sand beach on Barú Island for some quiet R&R.

Getting there proved interesting. We were planning to camp so were taking all our gear, making the inland route (bus-ferry-motortaxi) a non-option. We went to the quay from whence all the boats departed, most of them day-trippers which stop at Las Islas del Rosario before taking people to Playa Blanca. A fast-talking salesman hussled us onto one boat with promises ("Yes, yes, it's direct to Playa Blanca... It will take one hour and a half."), which turned out to be total lies. Despite leaving Cartagena at 8.30am, we didn't get to Playa Blanca till 1.15pm, after stopping at Rosario for about an hour. We weren't happy but we got there in the end, got a "free" lunch and learned a valuable lesson.

Playa Blanca was very picturesque. We walked up the beach with all our gear till we came to a nice-looking place that offered hammocks and tents. They were cheap and clean so we took a tent, dumped our gear, changed into our swimmers and took a much-needed dip. It was lovely and warm but still refreshing; we were finally swimming in the Caribbean!

Ahhh, first swim in the warm Caribbean waters

Sunset on our first night

The next three days were spent in a very relaxed way: swimming, reading, eating fish, octopus, prawns or chicken with coconut rice and salad, getting to know the locals, and drinking rum & coke.

Having fun in the sand

Alix sunbathes while the hawkers try to sell necklaces to a couple nearby

Looking to the northern end of the beach

Yep, life's pretty good here

Unfortunately, the amenities on Playa Blanca are pretty limited, so after three nights, it was time to head back to civilisation (and showers). Plus, we really wanted to go diving in these warm Caribbean waters. It was time to head east again.

Glad they have spare lives on the ferry, but I'm happy with the one I have!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Venezuelan Dinero Shuffle

Our first foray into Venezuela was an interesting one. We weren't even in the country yet and we were already learning a new South American dance, one I like to call the Venezuelan Dinero Shuffle.

The Venezuelan Dinero Shuffle is a dance everyone who wants to travel through Venezuela gets into. The reason it is so popular is because of the peculiarity of the Venezuelan managed economy.

We first learnt about The Shuffle from Alex, a good-natured Brit who had just been through Venezuela himself. Over dinner he explained the situation to us, essentially that you need U.S. Dollars to travel in Venezuela, and you exchange them on the black market.

The reason for the popularity of The Shuffle is the fixing of the exchange rate. The Central Bank of Venezuela in its wisdom decided to peg the Bolívar to the U.S. Dollar. We heard on the grapevine that when you take out money at an ATM in Venezuela you get a rate of 2 Bolívares to the U.S. Dollar. At this exchange rate, a snickers bar will cost you about six bucks. The solution to this problem is the Venezuelan Dinero Shuffle.

Back in Santa Marta, Colombia, we attempted to buy up all the U.S. cash we could quickly get our hands on. This was not as easy as it sounds. The ATM's don't dispense U.S. cash and neither would the bank we went into. We were advised to go to an offical exchange booth, and when we got there we were greeted at the counter by a heavy sort of lady with impeccably lacquered fingernails and a very disinterested look. This counter lady had US$770 she could sell, but wanted to see our passports before she would let us buy any money from her. We didn't have our passports with us, so after much cursing we decided to go back the next day.

The next morning, passports in hand, we had bought up a whole lot of Colombian cash with our Australian dollars so we could convert them to U.S. Dollars at the exchange house. The same disinterested, lacquered lady was at the booth, but she didn't remember us. Nor did she have any USD to sell today. More cursing seemed appropriate.

Halfway across town we found another exchange house and another lady, one who didn't care about passports this time. Armed with a stash of U.S. Dollars we felt ready to go dancing in Venezuela.

Our bus to Venezuela included a brief stop at the border for the typical formalities and we were swarmed by money changers. Alix changed our last 2000 Colombian pesos (about US$1) and got 2 Bolívares for it. This did not bode well. We decided maybe the rates at the bus station in Maracaibo, our first Venezuelan destination, would be better.

When our bus arrived at Maracaibo it was 11.30pm, and the bus didn't go to the bus station. Instead, it dropped us at a taxi rank on a lonely and rather unfriendly looking highway. There was a lone taxi driver there.

We spoke to the driver and explained our predicament. It was very late and we needed a room for the night. We had no Bolívares to pay, only U.S. Dollars, because we thought we would be able to change money. He seemed rather unhappy about the situation, his body language alone indicated that we were very naughty children for not having any Bolívares. The taxi fare would be 50 Bolívares, he said, but he would drive us for US$10 to a hotel he recommended, because the ones near the bus station were very dangerous. So now the exchange rate was 5 to 1. The taxi ride was rediculously short for the price in either currency, but that's part of The Shuffle, too, and on a lonely highway in Venezuela we weren't in a position to bargain.

At the hotel, we were shunted into a triple room, priced at 260 Bolívares. At first the concierge told us we had to pay up front, but we pleaded tourist stupidity and promised to pay in the morning. If we paid by VISA the room would cost us about US$130, and it wasn't quite that good. The toilet didn't even work.

Our top priorities the next morning were to explain to the hotel staff that the toilet didn't flush, and find a friendly and efficient black marketeer. The concierge from last night was gone, replaced by a disinterested looking lady with lacquered fingernails.

This lady didn't really want to discuss the toilet, but she was quite keen to explain politely to us that we shouldn't have been allowed to rent the room without paying up front and that if we wanted to leave the building one of us would have to stay behind, in case we did a runner, just like those Colombians did the other week. We equally politely explained to her that we were quite hungry after having not had dinner while on a bus the night before and it was a little unreasonable for her to hold us hostage without any food. After several more minutes of polite banter we convinced her that we were a decent sort of folk who weren't going to run off without all of our worldly possessions, which were still locked in our room. She slowly and reluctantly unlocked the hotel door for us.

Outside, the place looked like the oil town it was, devoid of any form of culture except car dealership logos and the individuality one may express by driving a Cadillac. We went to the only shop that was open a few blocks away and the shopkeeper agreed to change a hundred dollars to Bolívares for us at a rate of 5.5. We had moved up from the basic Two-Step to the Advanced Shuffle. Now our hotel room would cost us $47. We bought some doughnuts to celebrate. They were plastic-wrapped on styrofoam trays for us, like at the tuck-shop on an oil rig.

Back at the hotel, armed with local cash, we were much better prepared to deal with our not-so-friendly concierge. We convinced her that because we were only two people and the room was a triple, she should charge us the double room rate of 180 Bolívares. Bingo, with a dip and a twirl the room now cost us $33.

In the light of day, with some better information and local cash, the same taxi ride that cost US$10 back to the bus station cost us 20 Bolívares, or US$3.60. With the sun shining brightly outside, the bus station was populated by what seemed like a horde of money changers. With a bit of polite haggling, we got a rate of 7.6 Bolívares to the U.S. Dollar.

Now I really did feel like dancing.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pablo's Colombia

Cash Rules Everything Around Me
Get the money
Dollar dollar bills, Y'all

C.R.E.A.M., The Wu Tang Clan

Last night as Alix and I went into the grocery store, an old bloke named Jorge introduced himself and asked where I was from, what my name was and so forth. He was a local man with a rich tan and a wonderfully toothy smile and he beamed with pride when he said he was Colombian and he wanted to welcome me to his country and his corner of it, and he beamed with pride when I told him in my pidgin Spanish that I thought his country was very beautiful. Alix was chatting amiably with the shopkeeper. We had been into his shop once before, so they were kind of like best friends by now.

How on earth does a country filled with such incredibly nice people end up with such a nasty reputation as a perilous and ugly place, I wondered? I have wondered this many times. Part of the answer when you skim the headline histories is embodied in one name synonymous with drugs and crime, and that name is Pablo Escobar.

In the Colombian capital of Bogotá, Alix and I visited the Police Museum, where a young, well-mannered and impeccably dressed police officer took us on a free tour of what used to be the Bogotano Police Headquarters. Curiosities abound in this place, where the history and operations of the Colombian Police are made vivid for the international visitor.

The highlights of the Police Museum are the displays showing the work of DIJIN, the Central Directorate of the Judicial Police and Intelligence, who investigate organised crime. In Colombia, this means narcotrafficking, and the walls of the Police Museum show photo-displays of some of the bigger scores DIJIN have made over the years.

DIJIN cops confiscate a boatload of cocaine

DIJIN cops confiscate a houseful of money

The centrepiece is the display detailing the gruesome hunt for Escobar, perhaps the most notorious criminal ever in the history of crime. At the height of his notoriety Escobar had a bounty on his head equalling $2,700,000,000 Colombian Pesos- enough money to buy, say, a city block with 100 apartments on it.

Escobar’s criminal career had a beginning and a middle, but at the Police Museum the Escobar story is all about the end. After years of warfare including a very public prison escape, the Colombian police had finally had enough, and Escobar had to go. They traced his telephone calls and located him in a nondescript middle class home in Medellín. He was found with his bodyguard and killed by gunshot on the tiled roof of the building as he attempted to escape. In the Police museum they have framed one of the tiles from the roof of the house, it is still stained with Escobar’s blood.

Pablo Escobar's death photo

December 2, 1993- Newspaper photomontage from the day Pablo was taken down

Bogotá is pretty rough and ready for the backpacker; the hostels are mostly all cramped together in the downtown and Alix and I were not going to stay there for longer than a day or two anyway. Our next destination was the city of Medellín, a wonderfully bright and cheerful kind of place that must have been unbelievably different when it was Pablo Escobar’s stomping ground in the 1980’s. Most people in Medellín don’t like to talk about Escobar. A lot of people suffered; everyone knows about the international reputation Escobar left Medellín with, and most folks want to put it all behind them. Nevertheless, Alix and I were curious, and a Pablo Escobar tour is the way the determinedly curious can learn the story in all its creepiness.

We jumped into the tour bus and our guide, a local Medellín bloke named Sergio, took us from place to place, unfolding the Escobar story as we went along.

From left to right: Graciela, Cliff, Alix, Jace and our guide, Sergio

The Escobar crime story goes back to his humble beginnings in working class Medellín. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the young Pablo said “A millionaire” and he set about making that happen with uncommon single-mindedness. In his early days he was a scam artist, car thief and petty criminal, but the crime of choice in Colombia is cocaine trafficking.

Cocaine is a wonderful drug for the narco-trafficker. Using it makes you feel fantastic, but the effects are short lived and you need ever-increasing doses to get that fantasy feeling back, ensuring a ballooning market even with a stationary consumer base. In the the USA the cocaine market was growing rapidly, and plenty of disposable yuppie incomes were being spent on it. By 25 years of age, Escobar was transporting plane-loads of cocaine to keep U.S. disco music sounding good and murdering his rivals to eliminate competition. When he was caught he did a little prison time but the punishment for cocaine crimes were quite mild and he was soon free again. The cops who caught him, the lawyers and the judges who convicted him all started showing up dead.

We learned was that for a period of about 20 years Escobar, as leader of the Medellín Cartel, virtually ruled Medellín as a tyrant. He became so rich and powerful, and his influence was so widespread that it touched the lives of almost all Colombians in one way or another. For some people it must have been difficult to tell if he was a good guy or a wiseguy. At one point he threw his weight behind fighting Communist rebels. At another he worked his way into legitimate Colombian politics, and trying to find out which politicians weren’t connected to his cartel was more difficult than finding out which ones were. He heavily cultivated his public image, constructing churches in poor areas and building then giving away 2,000 homes to poor people in Medellín, guaranteeing his hero status amongst sections of the working poor. In the unstable 1980’s in Colombia, cash was king. When the police placed a bounty on Escobar’s head, he placed a bounty on theirs, and the general wisdom was that it was safer to kill a cop than it was to try to kill Pablo.

From this single city, the Medellín Cartel controlled the export of cocaine with domination, controlling 80% of the cocaine market across the entire world. Escobar built his Medellín house in the expensive suburb of El Poblado, a block away from the country club to which he would never be granted membership. The house is an 8-storey concrete fortress, with two basements, one floor for security, another floor dedicated for throwing parties, another floor for his gym equipment, yet another for his mother to live in, and so forth. He named the building “Monaco”, and he installed a huge satellite dish on the property and could control his empire from within its walls.

Pablo's house, 'Monaco'. Kind of ugly, really.

Escobar ran the Medellín cartel as the sole voice of authority, and he decreed that all other cartels would kick up 30% of their profits to him. When the Cali cartel refused to paid this protection money, they did so by detonating an 80kg car-bomb outside Escobar’s house, missing Escobar but killing the two security men downstairs and permanently damaging his young daughter's hearing. Sergio showed us a photo of the street taken shortly after the bomb went off; the bomb crater was big enough to park a bus inside. Escobar’s retaliation was not pretty. Escobar knew that the Cali cartel owned the biggest pharmacy chain in that city, and that this is how they laundered their money. He organised 46 individual car-bombs sent to Cali, methodically destroying every strategic business interest the Cali cartel had, killing and maiming scores of innocent people in the process.

In a quiet moment of the tour, as our bus went down a nondescript section of road, Sergio explained that right where we were driving a car-bomb ordered by Escobar had been detonated in order to assassinate one or another of his rivals. Another car that was on the road that day and was caught in the blast was driven by Escobar’s best friend in childhood and had his best friend’s mother inside. In Medellín, the locals had a wry joke they would say around Christmas time. “What did Escobar get for his daughter for Christmas this year?” the riddle went- “The Barbie Car-Bomb” was the answer.

Medellín, a beautiful, relatively safe and enjoyable city today, was then in the grip of an increasingly out of control cycle of narco-terrorist violence. Escobar had a loyal army of local assassins, trained by ex-Israeli special forces instructors to ride motorcycles beside their targets while they were driving and put a gun through the window, a few quick shots and they would ride away leaving their targets dead in their cars. Colombia is a Catholic country, and Catholics are, by and large, a superstitious lot. Before a hit, these men would pray to the Virgin to bless their actions and bring them good luck.

The Rosa Mistica in Medellín, widely believed to grant good luck to the faithful

Escobar’s personal fortune was estimated at around $80 billion US dollars, but with so much money laundering and shady dealing it was impossible to tell how much money he really controlled. Before the United States DEA mobilised massively to combat the cocaine traffic, Escobar had bought his own Caribbean island to transform into one big cocaine production factory and even had his own submarines to enable clandestine shipping.

Back in Medellín, Escobar’s cousin was busy keeping accounts, laundering money through legitimate enterprise in big business construction contracts and a myriad of other businesses. This building, named Ovni, was built by Escobar as the central office for his money laundering operation. It was repossessed by the government after Escobar’s death and it is now used as a rehabilitation clinic for recovering drug addicts.

'Ovni' building- once Escobar crime HQ, now a big rehab clinic

And still, the bombs kept dropping. Escobar’s great fear was that an extradition treaty would be signed between Colombia and the USA, putting him right where he did not want to be, in U.S. hands. The Liberal government was close to such an agreement and the noose was tightening on Escobar; he was becoming increasingly desperate. In a single year, 150 police officers were killed in Medellín alone, after Escobar offered $1-$5 million Colombian Pesos to anyone who killed a cop. Stop and think about that for a minute. Imagine that in your city a police officer was shot dead for money, then another two were killed the same way that week. Then imagine this continuing every week for, say, a whole year. When Sergio was a kid, his mother didn’t let him outside after dark, it was just too dangerous.

Pablo car-bombed police stations and military installations. At one stage a presidential candidate he didn’t like was known to be taking a flight between Bogotá and Cali, so Escobar blew up the plane, killing all 107 passengers aboard. As it happened, the candidate had decided not to take that flight after all.

Probably the creepiest thing about the tour was the lingering sense of chaos that was ‘not so long ago’, and the sense that now no one wants to touch these relics of the past, as if they are cursed. The house where Escobar was killed was vacant for years, until an unsuperstitious buyer moved into it.

Escobar barrio- he was shot on the roof of this house

Buildings that were being financed by Escobar and built in the ‘concrete-block’ Escobar building style but were unfinished remain that way today. Light aircraft used by Escobar to traffic cocaine were seized by the police and parked at the back of the airport- uncertain what to do with them, their rotting hulks remain there now.

Unfinished- the remains of an Escobar building project

The remains of a few of Pablo's light aircraft

We wrapped up the tour with a visit to Escobar’s grave and it rained on us in a sudden downpour. Sergio liked my wristwatch and he told me so, he used to have a similar one but the display was a little bit different. Sergio was a law student when he wasn’t tour guiding. We played some table tennis back at the hostel before we parted ways.