Why You Should Ignore Everything You’ve Heard & Go to Colombia

Stereotypes. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have them. Some have more than others, but everyone prejudges at some point, fairly or not. When you spend your entire life hearing horrible things about a group of people, or a country, or a culture, it’s hard not to form an opinion – regardless of whether you’ve met those people, visited that country, or know anything about the culture in question.

So, when we decided to visit Colombia during our time in South America on our RTW trip, many family members and friends were up in arms. We’ve all watched the news. We’ve all read the reports. We know that Colombia is filled with nothing but drug-dealing, machete-wielding, machine-gun-carrying, kidnapping, violent people – right?

While I have to admit that I was apprehensive when contemplating a visit to Colombia, I am more than ecstatic that I listened to the people who had actually been there instead of the doom-and-gloom reports of the media. I can’t help but chuckle now at the absurdity of thinking that traveling in Colombia was going to be a bad idea.

So, check your preconceived notions at the door and forget everything you’ve heard about Colombia, because I’m here to break down the three biggest barriers that might prevent you from visiting this wonderful, awe-inspiring, beautiful country filled with the most delightful people I’ve ever met.

Misconception 1: Colombia is full of cocaine-addled drug addicts.

Unity

 

I’m not going to lie and say that I didn’t also have this misperception of Colombians. Throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s, Colombia was synonymous with cocaine. But as we approach 2015, that is far from truth anymore.

The Colombian government has taken real steps over the last decade plus to slow cocaine production.  In fact, cocaine production in Colombia has fallen over 70% since 2001. And while people may still have the false perception that Colombian’s themselves are the one’s using the cocaine they produce, that distinction actually belongs to the United States. The majority of the cocaine produced in Colombia comes to America, constituting about 90%, according to PBS.

They hate that the rest of the world has this perception of them as drug addicts, when in reality it’s the western countries’ drug problems that fuel cocaine production in countries like Colombia.

The irony in all this is that the vast majority of the cocaine Colombia produces is exported. And Colombians are more than willing to point that out. In one of the most interesting evenings of our entire year-long trip, I spent hours discussing this phenomenon with a group of young, early-twenties Colombian college students at our hostel in Bogota. They were quite insistent about pointing out that they aren’t the ones using. We are. They hate that the rest of the world has this perception of them as drug addicts, when in reality it’s the western countries’ drug problems that fuel cocaine production in countries like Colombia (and now Peru and Bolivia, who have actually overtaken Colombia in cocaine production).

They went on to talk about how younger generations of Colombians are motivated by education. They are intent on shedding this unfair label their country has had since the 80s and 90s when Colombia was ruled by Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels. They want foreigners to come see that their country, and their population, is the complete opposite of what most perceive.

This conversation happened on our second night in Colombia. It was refreshing to see a group of young men and women so patriotic and passionate about correcting the misperceptions about their country. I was more than impressed, and even though I had spent less than 48 hours there up to that point, I had already noticed a remarkable degree of friendliness, kindness, and happiness amongst the Colombian people – none of which was coupled with the use of narcotics. The remainder of our month in Colombia only reinforced those first impressions.

Misconception 2: Colombia is dangerous. You will get robbed, kidnapped, shot, or possibly killed.

 

Colombia

Colombia has had its share of violence in the last 30 years – there’s no way around that, and there’s no way to hide that. It was a dangerous place, even as recently as the early 2000’s. And there still are some dangerous areas in Colombia (as with most of the rest of the world). But as I mentioned above, times are changing.

But in Colombia, everything was met with just that – enthusiasm, friendliness, and a huge smile.

The Colombian people are embracing that change – they want change, and they are doing everything in their power to expedite it. At no point in our month in Colombia did we ever feel as though we were in any kind of danger. In fact, the local people went out of their way to steer tourists clear of any places that may be dangerous.

It all started when we got off the plane and started asking the usual questions: “Where’s an ATM?” “Where can we change money?” “Where’s the best place to get a cab?” We asked those questions more times than I can count over the course of the trip. Normally we got some icy responses and pointing, usually not very many smiles.

Now, I don’t want to paint the rest of South American countries as being unfriendly, because they weren’t – but just like at home, asking questions like these at airports and bus stations usually isn’t met with friendly enthusiasm. But in Colombia, everything was met with just that – enthusiasm, friendliness, and a huge smile.

Colombians always seemed to be smiling. It was contagious. How can one not be happy in a place like this?

After arriving at our hostel and finding out that there was a problem with the room we reserved, we moved. While we were initially frustrated, we quickly changed our tune as the woman working there worked so hard and fast to find us a new place, all the while apologizing over and over and even walking us to our new place. The people at the new hostel could not have been more helpful and friendly. One of the workers had a house in the beach town of Taganga, and when he found out we were planning to go there, he invited us to his place – not just to hang out, but to stay. Anything we needed, they helped with, and they always did it with a smile.

Colombians always seemed to be smiling. It was contagious. How can one not be happy in a place like this?

 

And it continued in that way. Cab drivers, servers, bartenders, everyone who worked at our hostel, people we met in the streets, police officers, guards – literally everyone – was open and warm. It was almost surreal to see this kind of friendliness. Everyone was patient with our Spanish. Everyone was willing to help.

After learning more about Colombians and their culture, I think they are just embracing the chance to be happy. After living under so much violence, after their country was torn apart over the last several decades by drug cartels and paramilitary groups, they are rejoicing.

While sometimes as a tourist and traveler I have felt not wanted and as though I was a burden to the local people, it was the complete opposite in Colombia. We were welcomed with open arms, and not just because we had money to spend. They were genuinely happy to see us visiting their country. And the pride that was evident in that group of college students was seen everywhere. Colombians love their country, and they want the rest of the world to feel the same.

Misconception 3: There’s really nothing much to see in Colombia.

 

Tayrona National Park

Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that Colombia is a perfectly safe place to travel. But since many people have never even considered a trip there, you probably have no idea what’s awaiting you. While the people are what puts Colombia over the top as a tourist destination, I don’t want to short-change the beauty the country has to offer.

There are bustling metropolises like Bogota and Medellin that have everything large, urban cities in other countries have to offer, but without the attitude that usually comes with them. Tinto (sweet, black coffee) vendors are everywhere offering 25¢ cups of coffee. Beautiful, unique tourist attractions like the Gold Museum and Police Museum offer something that most other museums don’t – like free admission and personalized tours by Colombian police officers, all with the goal of improving their English.

A short jaunt up the Caribbean coast offers fishing villages like Taganga, where literally everyone we met stayed longer than planned – I’m serious, everyone.

There are stunning beach cities like Cartagena that offer not only beautiful white sand beaches, but also gorgeous architecture and wonderful food. A short jaunt up the Caribbean coast offers fishing villages like Taganga, where literally everyone we met stayed longer than planned – I’m serious, everyone. Fresh seafood vendors, masseuses, and jewelry touts slowly sauntered down the beach in an extremely laid back manner, even being so polite as asking permission before showing you their goods.

Then there’s Tayrona National Park, the most beautiful, serene, and empty tropical locale I’ve ever visited (Note: We were there in March during shoulder season. I have heard that high season brings with it plenty of tourists). Sleep in a hammock on the beach, enjoy hiking through lush jungle from deserted beach to deserted beach, and take advantage of the solitude and lack of development that a place with this much beauty very rarely affords. Tayrona is a place where days can be wasted away just enjoying nature, swimming in crystal clear waters, lounging on what seems like your own personal beach, and watching a coconut slowly being taken out to sea and being brought back to the beach. It truly is Heaven on Earth.

And while those stereotypes and barriers have been slowly crumbling and deteriorating the more places I go and the more people I meet, Colombia took a sledgehammer and knocked a huge hole in that wall. I urge you to let Colombia do the same thing for you.

Big cities and beach oases aren’t all that Colombia offers, though. Trek through the jungle like Indiana Jones to La Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City). Spend time on a finca (coffee farm) lounging around the pool, sipping coffee, and touring the coffee plantations, all the while being treated as though you’re part of the family. Go salsa dancing in Cali, visit a cathedral carved out of a rock salt mine in Zipaquira, go rafting, kayaking, or paragliding in San Gil. Colombia really does have it all.

One thing a trip to Colombia did was open my eyes. As few as five years ago, I never would have thought to travel in a country like Colombia. It just wasn’t something that had ever occurred to me. But now I am fascinated by the way different cultures live their lives. I want to do away with that wall of stereotypes that have been built up over the years. I want to make my own conclusions about a country and its people.

And while those stereotypes and barriers have been slowly crumbling and deteriorating the more places I go and the more people I meet, Colombia took a sledgehammer and knocked a huge hole in that wall. I urge you to let Colombia do the same thing for you.

Ready to go? Read more about Colombia and South America:

Photo credits: Pixel StudioAndrey Gontarev, all other photos by Megan and Adam Seper and may not be used without permission

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Older comments on Why You Should Ignore Everything You’ve Heard & Go to Colombia

John Tripp
25 February 2010

Colombia is beautiful, I lived there for over a year and enjoyed it immensely. Just stay away from drinking aguardiente and you’ll be fine. I think Medellin is the best place to start and there are cheap buses and flights from there to all other points. My favorite city was Sante Fe de Antioquia, a city preserved in time with a hot, desert like climate.

arcu-409
25 February 2010

Thanks for this. Am going next year! I’d like to know though, which places still qualify as dangerous?

seabass43
26 February 2010

The dangerous areas now are not on the tourist trail. The cartels have been pushed pretty deep into the jungle, and not many tourists are traipsing deep into the Colombian jungles. Just listen to the locals while you’re there; they won’t steer you in the wrong direction.

arcu-409
26 February 2010

Good advice,thanks!

Carole Harmon
27 February 2010

sign me up for your next trip
carole

wondersalve
01 March 2010

just a few things, as i just spent a month in colombia:
1) parque national tyrona can be an utter hellhole if you show up in high season, even after the colombian holiday season ends in mid-january. it gets *severely* overcrowded, mostly filled with south american tourists. the staff was rude to gringos and the living conditions awful (long waits for filthy toilets, etc.). i have no doubt that when empty, as described in this article, it is a wonderful place. however after this last trip, i have to wonder if this place is ever empty anymore…
2) those students were wrong–cocaine is widely available within the country–it is more readily available than marijuana, for example. you might even see people openly partaking in clubs. this is not to say that you will encounter any problems from it, only that it is not “all exported” to the US.
3) otherwise the article is spot on–colombians are wonderful people and now is the time to go, before it gets discovered.

KatyS
01 March 2010

I completely agree. You just shouldn’t venture east of the Andes. I went to Colombia and had a fantastic time. Didn’t find it any more dangerous than any other South American country. I really recommend Parque Tayrona and Cartagena.

MUJINGA
02 March 2010

Hi Adam,
Very grateful for this article! I’ve shared my own thoughts about your article on my blog http://tiny.cc/guSVx

Keep cracking,
Juan

MUJINGA
02 March 2010

Hi Adam, Very grateful for this article! I’ve shared my own thoughts about your article on my blog
http://www.lankachallenge.com/component/content/article/2-lanka-challenge-blog/96-break-down-the-walls-.html

Keep cracking, Juan

seabass43
02 March 2010

We were in Tayrona last March, and it was empty, and obviously high season will bring more people. As far as cocaine goes, obviously it’s still available in Colombia and there are users, as I was offered it on more than one occasion. But in my experience the ones I saw using were tourists, not locals.

Diana Porto
13 July 2010

Thank you so much!!! Articles like this are the ones that make us feel so proud of being Colombian!! I couldn’t stop smiling while I read your article!!! Eye-watering beautiful and true! I’m always talking people into going and changing their views about Colombia, and I’m definitely using this article as one of my weapons :P That way they can see that that passion I feel every time I mention my country can also be felt by others.

Once again Thank you!

seabass43
23 July 2010

No, thank you! Your country and people inspired me to really throw away any preconceived notions I may have of something-whether it be a country, a city, a group of people, a type of food, anything.

I am very happy you liked the article so much. I enjoyed writing it more than anything I have written. It’s quite easy to write something like this if you feel so passionate about it, and I do feel that way about Colombia.

I love it and can’t wait to go back some day.

Shannon French
05 September 2010

SO glad to read this article. I am traveling with some mates from Australia in a few weeks to Cartagena and a little nervous because none of us can speak Spanish and some of the horror stories we have heard. Any advice would be great.

Jamie Gerig
08 September 2010

Colombia is a Godsend. It changed my life.

Anybody who expects more from life should consider living in Medellin, but frankly I’d rather they didn’t as I don’t want it to change.

http://www.themedellinmap.com

space123
13 January 2011

hi seabass and ya all i`m planning a trip to colombia in the next few months and i like to know how hard it is to communicate with colombia locals with english speaking westerner. but most of all is how would colombia re-act to people in wheelchair (that don`t speak spanish ha ha)i`ve travel around india and china as spent only little time in each of the local area some place ifound it hard wheel ie stairs, very steep hills, would i excpect the same there you think?. could i rent a car there (very compotant drive)or do you rent a car and driver. from what i`ve seen on internet i think i would overcome most of it it`s just the finer parts of colombia that worry me. i don`t think that you talk me out of comeing their, but aleast i will know what i`m in for beside a good time. looking forward to meeting you all, see you there soon