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.
I’m not going to lie and say that I didn’t also have this misperception of Colombians. According to BBCAmerica, Colombia produces 62% of the world’s cocaine. The majority comes to America, constituting about 90% of the cocaine used in the States, according to PBS.
But times are changing. The Colombian government has taken real steps over the last decade to slow cocaine production. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime claims that production in 2008 was the lowest in a decade, falling 28% just since the previous year.
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 a bunch of drug addicts, when in reality it’s the western countries’ drug problems that fuel cocaine production in a country like Colombia.
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 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 very dangerous place, even as recently a decade ago. And there still are some dangerous areas in Colombia. But as I mentioned above, times are changing.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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? Search for cheap hostels in Colombia, book flights to Medellin, and read our indie travel tips for visiting Bogota. Read more about South America:
- Five Unexpected Treasures of South America
- How to Get Around Visa Fees in South America
- 10 Places in South America to Escape the Northern Winter
- Wine Tasting in South America: Where to Go and What to Try
- How to Spot Inaccurate Beliefs While Travelling: Perceptions aren’t always Truth
all photos by Megan and Adam Seper and may not be used without permission