Experience Grade-A Colombia
"Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay" runs the country’s tourist slogan. The Colombian Ministry of Tourism is as aware as everyone else in the country that the greatest obstacle preventing Colombia from realising its massive tourist potential is the fear factor. There are of course reasons why Colombia has such a dangerous reputation, but all too often these reasons are blown out of proportion and misunderstood. Those negative images of Colombia were at the front of my mind when I first stepped onto Colombian soil, but of all the supposed risks the only one I experienced was indeed "wanting to stay." Here's how and why it happened.
I had been travelling for just over a year and had notched up a decent collection of stamps in my passport including Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and an eight-month stint of work, travel and mischief in Australia. Sitting at an STA travel desk in Sydney with my fake Bangkok-bought student card (which would shortly be confiscated by the STA rep, much to my chagrin), I booked the South-American leg of my trip which would form the final part of my tri-continent adventure.
I figured I would fly into Santiago, Chile, travel south into Patagonia, and then head north through Argentina and up the Gringo Trail through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, stopping in Quito. North of Ecuador the map showed that land of violent drug cartels, guerilla groups, paramilitaries, bombs, kidnappings and general lawlessness. Clearly I wouldn’t be going to Colombia. So from Quito I supposed I’d fly or boat my way to Brazil and catch my final emotional flight back to the UK.
I was sitting in a hostel in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo one cool evening sipping a beer and engaging in the usual travel chit-chat... "Are you heading north or south?", "Machu Picchu was great, but way too touristy", "I was an inch away from falling off the death road in Bolivia!" etc. etc.
"Colombia’s been my favourite country so far," piped up one guy.
I’d already met one or two people who had been to Colombia in the six weeks that I’d been in South America and it tended to turn heads. There were the usual comments of "But why the heck would you want to go there?" from others around the table but he spoke so highly of Colombia, and without any of the "Hey, I’ve been somewhere dangerous!" bravado sometimes evident in travellers, that I remember that night as the first time I seriously contemplated the idea of going to Colombia.
As I steadily wound my way northwards I came into contact with more and more travellers who raved about the country. They were outnumbered by Colombia’s detractors, although I noted that almost without exception the negative comments came from people who had never been there.
It seemed that many of those I spoke to had gone to Colombia with the same reservations I had, namely security worries. Not one of them had any tales of muggings or kidnappings. Instead, they spoke of stunning landscapes, fascinating towns and cities, and the charm and friendliness of the people. Many also highlighted the incredible beauty of the women which, to a single 24-year-old lad, was as much of a draw as any deserted beach or colonial town.
In addition to these glowing recommendations I also cast my mind back to the South-East Asian leg of my trip. Cambodia retains a dangerous reputation from the days of the Khmer Rouge and the terrible legacy of landmines that they left. However, despite some reservations about travelling to Cambodia I found it to be a wonderful country and also very safe, given that I took sensible precautions and heeded advice given about where and where not to go.
With Colombia still embroiled in civil war the perceived risks of visiting the two countries are clearly quite distinct, but if I had learned anything from my Cambodia experience it was that one should be prepared to accept a certain amount of risk in order to discover the true nature of a country. It would have been a terrible shame to have missed out on a country such as Cambodia simply because of a fear of the unknown, and with that in mind I decided to give Colombia a go.
Into the Unknown
In early August I found myself at the Ecuador-Colombia border. Following passport formalities I took a small minibus the short distance to the small Colombian border town of Ipiales. As we rolled into the outskirts of the town I saw the word "FARC" (acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), sprayed onto a wall, a show of support for Colombia’s largest guerilla group who have been locked in a bloody conflict with the Colombian government for more than 40 years. As I continued onwards into Ipiales I wondered just what Colombia had in store for me.
Border towns are never particularly representative of a country and Ipiales, a chilly, dull, nondescript place, was no different. I probably wouldn’t have even stopped were it not for the stunning neo-gothic ‘Santuario de Las Lajas’ church, built over a valley a few kilometres outside the town, that I had a look around that afternoon.
Back in town that evening I asked about getting to Popayan the following day. I was told to leave as early as possible: there had been reports of trouble on the road at night. As I took an evening stroll I noted an increased police presence compared to Ecuador, but I still didn’t feel as if I’d really arrived in Colombia.
The following morning I rose early, as advised, and embarked on the six hour journey north to Popayan. Within a short time I was treated to spectacular views out of my right hand window. The road fell steeply away to a lush green valley rising up to dramatic mountain peaks. The green landscape had an intensity far greater than I’d seen during the last couple of months travelling through the coastal and Andean regions of Peru and Ecuador; I really had entered a country quite distinct from its southern neighbours.
Popayan is marvellous and to this day remains one of my favourite places in the world. Known as ‘The White City’, its heart consists of quaint cobbled streets flanked by whitewashed colonial buildings with small plazas and churches discretely tucked around corners and surrounded by rolling green hills.
It was on my first night in Popayan, my second in Colombia, that I truly relaxed and stopping expecting the FARC or some drug-starved ruffian to attack me. I remember sitting in the beautiful central plaza of Popayan watching a small child learning to ride his bike. He’d manage a few metres, topple over, dust himself off and then hop back on to try again, while his Mum jogged behind him offering shouts of support. An elderly couple sauntered past arm in arm, a young couple hugged and kissed on a bench.
It was all so... normal. It was the night that the majority of my preconceptions about Colombia disappeared. All the negative stuff was forgotten, and as the days passed I became somewhat embarrassed at my own naivety and ignorance - I was a seasoned traveller who had written off a country without really endeavouring to delve beyond its bad reputation.
From Popayan I continued my way north over the next month or so. I find it difficult to recall a more exhilarating time in my life than when I was travelling through South America, and the peak of it all was Colombia. Admittedly I was fortunate to meet some amazing travellers and the experience wouldn’t have been the same without them, but it was mostly down to the wonderful Colombian people and the incredible diversity of culture and geography that lies within the country.
So, what exactly is it that makes Colombia so special, and why should you come here? And what are the negative aspects of Colombia, including the dangers you could realistically face? Some pros and cons:
Latin Americans in general are a friendly bunch and you’re unlikely to have difficulty making new friends in any country from Argentina to Mexico (language problems notwithstanding). What distinguishes Colombia from the majority of its Latin American neighbours is the struggle it has undergone to attract visitors. I believe this results in an increased appreciation for those that do find their way here.
The comments and questions you will undoubtedly receive form an interesting range. There are those that commend you on defying Colombia’s detractors to discover what they proudly state as ‘the most wonderful country in the world’, but there are also those who appear almost baffled that you would leave ‘an organized, wealthy, first-world country’ to live in these war-ravaged parts. Colombians are an incredibly warm, friendly, kind people who will go out of their way to help you and make you feel welcome. They're proud of their country, but it’s an inclusive sort of pride; a kind of "Here’s what we have, come and enjoy it!" spirit.
Without doubt one of the greatest assets that this country possesses is the richness and variety of its landscapes, both natural and man-made. From deserts to snow-capped mountains, vast plains to thick jungle, white-washed colonial villages to bustling metropolises, Colombia literally has it all. Few countries in the world, let alone in South America, enjoy the variety of geography that Colombia has to offer.
The only South American country bordered by two oceans (the Atlantic and the Pacific) also boasts the wettest region in the world (the jungle along the Pacific coast in the department of Chocó), as well as the world’s highest coastal mountain range in the form of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which runs close to the Caribbean coast. One of the most remarkable features of these landscapes is the dramatic and sudden changes from one to the next. For several months I was involved in a project based in Quibdó, in the jungle department of Chocó. The first time I flew from Medellin (where I live) to Quibdó I was amazed at how suddenly the tall mountains of the western Andes range stopped and gave way to thick virgin jungle. A couple of hours drive beyond the snow-capped mountains of the Santa Marta region is the largest desert area in Colombia. And there are countless other examples of these dramatic changes and micro-climates.
The majority of South American countries are comprised of a huge capital city, often located on the coast, and an under-developed hinterland. Colombia is very different. Coastal cities such as Barranquilla (Atlantic coast) and Buenaventura (Pacific coast) are important Colombian ports, but the larger of the two, Barranquilla, only ranks as Colombia’s fourth biggest city.
Colombia’s three largest urban centres are all located in the interior of the country. The capital, Bogota, with its 8 million inhabitants spread across a wide savannah, is a fascinating blend of the old and the new. The old colonial architecture of the central La Candelaria district contrasts with the modern apartment blocks and nightlife zones in the north of the city. Colombia’s second most important city, Medellin, is nestled in the western range of the Andes and known for its perfect climate (it’s known as the city of eternal spring), its flower festival and its stunning Christmas lights . And then there’s Cali, salsa capital of the world and home to what they claim are the most beautiful women on Earth (and it’s hard to disagree, although Medellin provides stiff competition).
Colombia has a complicated and bloody history, much of which continues today. Parts of the country are still ravaged by the war between guerillas (the FARC et al), paramilitaries, and government forces. People are lost every day to this conflict and kidnappings are still commonplace. Colombia has of course long been synonymous with drugs, and although Pablo Escobar’s infamous Medellin cartel is long gone, the production and trafficking of cocaine continues unabated despite various measures and billions of dollars of US aid. These problems are all inextricably linked to each other, further complicating the matter.
Anyone planning to spend time in this country should have at least some appreciation of its problems. The simple question is "am I putting myself in danger by coming to Colombia?" The situation changes frequently, so to answer that question it's important to find up-to-date information.
Since the arrival of Alvaro Uribe to the presidency in 2002 Colombia has become much safer, at least for the tourists. Most backpackers are likely to enter Colombia from Ecuador at Ipiales in the south and cross into Venezuela in the north-east at Maicao (or vice versa). The classic route is something like this (starting from the south): Ipiales - Popayan - San Agustin - Cali - Coffee region - Bogota - Villa de Leyva - Medellin - Cartagena - Santa Marta (including Parque Tayrona).
There are of course lots of variations of this route, but this and pretty much all of the other permutations are very secure. Many of the older guidebooks will tell you that travelling between Medellin and Cartagena, for example, is extremely risky at night. This was definitely true as little as 10 years ago. Back then the government even arranged huge armed escorts for people to travel to the coast on holiday as independent travel was prohibitively dangerous. People will tell you that they barely left their cities, it was so dangerous. Now, roads are well policed and the only danger you really face is the kamikaze driving style that exists across the whole continent!
One of the first places British citizens go for information about the safety of travel to Colombia is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. There may be small differences between the advice offered by different countries, but for the most part it is pretty similar. In the last year or two the FCO website seems to have become more representative of the current situation. A popular backpacker pastime is to lambast the FCO website as ridiculous over-the-top nonsense, but considering the FCO site and its equivalents are always going to err on the side of caution it probably isn’t too far off the mark.
However, everything on the site must be taken in context. Yes, there have been bomb attacks in Bogota and Cali in the last couple of years, but notice what the targets were: the Justice Palace, or a police station. Indiscriminate bomb attacks against civilians are, at least in the typical tourist destinations, very rare.
The FCO website doesn’t advise against travel to any of the popular backpacker destinations. Perhaps the one important exception to this is the Lost City (La Cuidad Perdida). This five or six day trek into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is very popular with travellers, but is still not recommended by the FCO. It has been several years since the last serious incident and in backpacker circles it is not considered a risk; you’ll need to ask around and make up your own mind. Also advised against at the time of writing is the port city of Buenaventura. I have been to this area as have many other travellers and have not encountered any problems, but travelling there, as with the Lost City and any of the other places blacklisted by the FCO, is something that should be researched a little beforehand.
One important point to make is that if you have travel insurance (and you should have), you may very well find that you’re not covered if you stray outside of the areas deemed safe by the FCO or your own government’s travel advice. Be sure to check with your insurance company!
Some travellers eager for a bit of adventure ignore warnings, head way off the beaten track and end up in trouble. This is something that annoys Colombians. You’ll find that you’ll lose a lot of sympathy if you’re kidnapped while trekking through the heart of known guerilla territory. There are enough tragedies happening every day in this country without needlessly adding to them. There are some grey areas where you'll need to make a judgement call, but there are some places to which travelling is downright daft. Many of the rural areas plagued by violence are also the most beautiful and there is always a temptation to take the risk, but every time a foreigner is kidnapped in this country news of it is splashed around by the world media and the damaging reputation lingers on. Do your research and don't contribute to the problem.
There is certainly a problem in Colombia’s larger cities of delinquency. Street crime is still commonplace, but Colombia is no different in this regard to any of South America’s other countries. Take the usual precautions.
There is a culture of littering here and it can at times be quite saddening to see roadsides strewn with all sorts of rubbish. This infuriates an awful lot of Colombians too. Just be sure to set a good example yourself.
Punctuality (or rather a lack of) can be a bit of a nuisance at times too. Be prepared to take time and distance estimates with a huge lump of salt especially in more rural areas.
I can honestly say that if you use your common sense and take reasonable precautions, there is no reason at all to fear Colombia. It's an incredible country that will one day be heaving with tourists from all over the world. So forget any preconceptions you may have and simply come and see for yourself; just beware of that ever-present risk of "wanting to stay".
Colombia's Top Five Places
1. Colonial Quarter of Cartagena
Colombia’s most visited tourist destination is the stunning colonial city of Cartagena. Within the old city walls lies a maze of narrow streets lined by colourful colonial houses and quaint leafy plazas. At night the area comes alive with trendy restaurants and people sipping beers outside bars as couples pass by in horse drawn carriages. Unmissable.
2. Parque Tayrona
A couple of hours east of Santa Marta, Parque Tayrona is a large national park containing arguably Colombia’s finest stretch of coastline. Thick jungle slopes down to irresistible sandy beaches and the warm water of the Caribbean. You won’t find bars or nightclubs here, this is a place to simply unwind and relax. Remember your insect repellent though!
Colombia’s capital city is a fascinating blend of old and new. The colonial centre of this sprawling metropolis contrasts with the slick, modern restaurants and nightclubs in the north of the city. Bogota boasts a myriad of museums, galleries and theatres and these days attracts many of the most famous music artists from around the world.
4. Villa de Leyva
If the pace of Bogota becomes a bit too much, the perfect escape lies a 4-hour bus ride to the north in the form of a delightful colonial town called Villa de Leyva. Almost the entire town consists of beautiful white-washed buildings and cobbled streets all backed by steep mountain slopes.
Nestled in the hills and mountains of Colombia’s lush coffee region, Salento has become a backpacker favourite. The town itself is pleasant, although nothing special. However, the real charm of Salento lies in the countryside that surrounds it. Walk through beautiful green rolling hills containing the world’s tallest palm trees or spend a few days trekking into the mountains that lie further afield. Also unmissable is a visit to one of the area's coffee plantations where you can learn all about the production of coffee.