The road from Bogotá to Medellín cuts through the Colombian heartland—dropping down one spine of the Andes, crossing the Magdalena River valley, then climbing into the Andes again. In a couple of hundred miles, it passes sprawling cattle ranches, mist-covered coffee plantations with stately haciendas, small villages with colorful houses, and steep mountainsides that plunge into fierce, narrow rivers.
Five years ago, taking a drive on this road would have signaled something of a death wish on the part of the driver. Four decades of bloody, cocaine-fueled civil war have given Colombia a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous countries. Bogotá, the capital, was long kept under virtual siege by bombings, kidnappings, and contract killings. Medellín, the second-largest city (and former home to Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel), once claimed the highest homicide rate in the world. The road between the cities was filled with checkpoints, all of them equally menacing. If it wasn’t left-wing guerrillas or right-wing paramilitaries, it was common bandits (or corrupt soldiers) out to kidnap random victims.
But in the past few years, things have changed. I recently asked a hotel clerk in Bogotá about safety on the road. The clerk’s advice: that I wear my seat belt and avoid driving drunk. Her assessment was overly optimistic—according to the U.S. State Department, travel through rural Colombia is still wholly inadvisable—but her misunderstanding was telling, an indication of just how far the country has come.
Throughout my visit, everyone from government officials and security experts to shopkeepers and demobilized rebels told me that Colombia is becoming "a normal country"—or, if not quite normal, at least one where violence no longer defines daily life but merely infringes on its margins. Since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, murders have fallen by more than 30 percent, kidnappings by 80 percent. (Murder rates still remain high, at 17,200 deaths in 2006; drug production has not decreased, despite more than $5 billion of U.S. anti-drug aid.) As a friend in her thirties put it to me, "It is like returning to a place we have never known."
Now Colombia is trying to achieve the same thing outside the country: shedding its narco-state image and persuading travelers that it is becoming safer to visit one of Latin America’s most physically stunning and culturally vibrant countries.
Before I set off on the road to Medellín, Andrés Hoyos, the publisher of the magazine El Malpensante, guided me through the changing landscape of Bogotá. He showed me the northern edge of the capital, which has long been fairly accessible to visitors. Here, American defense contractors and anti-drug officials linger on the outdoor patio of the Bogotá Beer Company (despite a grenade attack on the bar in 2003). Nearby, posh lounges and casinos teem with traquetos: drug millionaires who drive black SUV’s, pay cash, and are trailed by an entourage of cuchibarbies—Barbies by the plastic surgeon’s knife.
Bogotá’s real charm lies in La Candelaria, a recently revitalized neighborhood of grand colonial buildings and narrow cobblestoned streets. According to Hoyos, the area "used to be hell: part of a whole city of private splendor and public squalor." Now, its Teatro Colón participates in one of the continent’s most important theater festivals, and its restored mansions have been turned into museums. Galleries, yoga studios, and dimly lit cafés give the area an air of gentrifying boho-chic. Hoyos calls it "a renaissance of public space."
Bringing about just such a renaissance has been a core part of President Uribe’s campaign. But he has focused as much on reclaiming rural areas as he has on rescuing urban centers. Securing the Bogotá-Medellín road and the areas around it was one of his first major offensives. In 2002, even before the military had increased its presence in the countryside or a controversial amnesty offer had persuaded paramilitaries in the area to start disarming, Uribe launched a high-profile tourism initiative called Vive Colombia Caravans, an effort to encourage Colombians to venture into the countryside again. On holiday weekends, a convoy of road-trippers would roll down a stretch of highway under the watchful eye of the military—an army of families in station wagons striking a blow for normalcy.