The old colonial centre of Cartagena. Picture: LESLEY STONES
The old colonial centre of Cartagena. Picture: LESLEY STONES

The smell of gunpowder curdles through the air as we swagger into a seedy bar in Colombia. Shady characters slouch at the tables, their cowboy moustaches twitching as they sip their beers.

The crackle of explosives startles us as our fearless gang leader Andres Salcedo shoves the swing doors open and enters a large room. I cough in the acrid smoke and draw my weapon. I’m armed and dangerous and ready to compete in Tejo, the unofficial national game of this lively Latin American country. After a few beers and a plate of beef and beans, there’s nothing like playing with gunpowder to round off the evening.

The idea is to lob a hefty round stone at six sachets of gunpowder balanced on an iron ring set in a bed of clay. A good shot smacks the sachet against the metal, causing an explosion.

Several games are being played with bangs, flashes and flames filling the air as the inebriated crowd carries on late into the night.

After a week in Colombia, I figure that Tejo is probably one of the more harmless activities going down after dark.

It seems fitting that the game involves gunpowder in a country plagued by pirates, followed by Spanish conquerors, civil wars, guerrillas and Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord from Medellín. When I booked a tour, I laughed when I read that Medellín was famous for year-round good weather; a few years ago, it was famous as the world’s most dangerous city.

It’s still an edgy place. According to a story in a local newspaper, in 10 days, Medellín’s security services dealt with 43 cases of dead foreigners. It doesn’t say how many locals were killed in the same period, but I’d put money on it being higher.

The hotels are safely tucked away in pleasant suburbs filled with inviting restaurants and bars. A train delivers us to the city centre to visit the museum dedicated to Fernando Botero, an artist with a fetish for fat bottoms. In Plaza Botero, outside the museum, are 23 of his larger-than-life works and people strolling around, enjoying exotic fruit juices and hormiga culona, a delicacy of fried ants.

I turn down a side street and immediately feel ill at ease. A junkie is following me, ranting violently, and another lies comatose on the pavement. I walk around him as a pair of prostitutes offer their services.

Medellín is in a valley surrounded by hills that the houses have crawled up, clinging at precarious angles. Where the houses end, the fertile hills return, perfect for growing coffee and coca plants.

A cable car serves the city’s commuters and takes us to Parque Arvi at the top of a hill to admire the views. As we swing above the shanty houses, Salcedo says that the drug trade flourished because people had no opportunities.

"The minimum wage is too low and the education and healthcare system are c**p. What you earn in a month, you pay for your house and food."

Back at the hotel, I see the safe in my room is wide open, and I instantly go cold. Then I see that my passport, envelope of cash and iPad are still inside. I must have left it open, and the cleaner ignored the temptation. Medellín, like anywhere else, has the bad — but they live among the good.

It all feels a world away from pretty Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, a town so quaintly old-colonial that it’s like a film set.

An old woman is crocheting colourful headbands and men are carving up pineapples on little street carts.

San Felipe Castle was the largest fortress the Spanish built outside Spain, and cannons on its mighty ramparts still point out to sea, originally to keep pirates and the British from stealing the gold that Spain was plundering.

Long, deep tunnels run beneath the castle.

Back outside in the bright and muggy sunlight, I stand below a giant flapping Colombia flag and watch a tropical storm blow in. I wait five minutes too long, and end up running back to my hotel, pelted by large raindrops. That evening, Salcedo takes us to La Caponera, a downbeat local bar just outside the old town walls. I’m overcharged for a Cuba Libre, until I take a gulp and realise it’s a triple. Soon the bar begins to fill and we’re dancing salsa to the music from a tinny radio.

The next day, the scenery changes again as we drive to the coffee region, which has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site. Mountain roads loop through endless switchbacks. We’re staying at the picturesque Hacienda Venecia, with a huge pool and colourful hammocks swinging on the red verandas.

Colombia has many turbulent undercurrents, with corrupt politicians, cycles of poverty and no attempt to hide its grittiness. I like it that way.

Salcedo wants his clients to go forth and evangelise the side of Colombia that doesn’t make the news — the friendly people, good food and stunning scenery. You can’t destroy the past, he says, but you can look to the future.

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