MEANDERING UP A STEEP INCLINE through Bogota's notoriously dangerous Barrio Egipto neighborhood- just steps from the city's tou rist-flooded historic district La Candelaria - I found that t hings seemed relati vely normal. Kids are playing. Oldtimers are milling about. Women are carrying the groceries home. It all seems so mundane until motorcycle police come whizzing around the corner and down the hill toward our group. I see a policeman's eyes light up. He hops off the back of the motorcycle even before it comes screeching to a halt. "You're foreigners?" he exclaims in not only amazement but also genuine fear (for us, not himself!).
Our brave leader, rife with tattoos and healed bullet wounds, dressed in a ball cap and button-down denim shirt sealed to the top, is nicknamed "EI Calabazo" ("The Pumpkin"). He is a member of La lOma, one of four gangs that control parts of this crime-ridden neighborhood. He tells the police not to worry, that we are safe with him. The police balk at the idea. EI Calabazo insists. "OK, whatever .. " the policeman re lents. "You're responsible for their safety."
And that is precisely the point. We are in the midst of what is surely Bogota's most fa sc inating new city tour, a walk around Barrio Egipto- a neighborhood that foreigners are warned not to go anywhere near-with gangbangers who have given up a life of crime in favor of this cultural tourism initiative started by Universidad Externado de Colombia in cooperation with Impulse Travel (impulsetravel.co). They've traded guns for guiding, if you will.
On the Breaking Borders tour, you learn the history of organized crime in the neighborhood, take in outstanding city views, visit the homes of former gang members, and, if you're lucky, try some loca l chicha (homemade hooch made from fermented corn). Proceeds and tips not only help support the community, but also help keep previous criminals like EI Calabazo off the streets-he earns COP$25,OOO per person per tour. On a good day, that's much better pay than flipping iPhones! And they say tourism doesn't pay!--KEVIN RAUB
Kevin Raub is a Lisbon-based travel and entertainment journalist and author of nearly 50 Lonely Planet travel guides.
Caption: El Calabazo, a member of one of four gangs that control part of Bogota's Barrio Egipto neighborhood.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.