Along with Mexico, when we mentioned we would be headed to Colombia to begin our trip through South America, lots of people told us we were crazy. Some blatantly said we would be kidnapped or beheaded by drug dealers, just the same as if we went to Mexico. In reality, these fears don’t even come close to being justified.
What most people don’t realize is, Pablo Escobar’s drug regime was at its height nearly 40 years ago. That’s almost two generations! A lot can happen in 40 years, and we quickly realized on our travels through Colombia that the country is making some impressive strides in bouncing back. For good reason, it has become one of our favorite destinations yet.
POLICE PRESENCE IS STRONG THESE DAYS
In 2016 alone, the Colombian police force seized a record 378.3 tons of cocaine in response to a spike in the drug’s production that year. Just last week (on April 2nd 2017), the Colombian police force seized 6 tons of cocaine on the Caribbean coast, set to ship to Spain at a value of 200 million euros. This is direct proof Colombia is putting its shady past in check.
Everywhere we visited, from Bogota to the northernmost Caribbean city of Cartagena, and back down to the Ecuador-bordering city of Ipiales, the police presence was strong. And not in a bad way either – rarely did we see police carrying large firearms. They were always in the more traveled areas of each city, and in all of the central squares and parks. We also found that police throughout Colombia are genuinely kind and friendly to everyone, not just tourists.
On longer bus rides, police checkpoints were considered normal and a part of daily life. Locals conversed with police and military officials in a friendly manner as they checked cargo and let their equally friendly police dogs sniff around the cab. When a happy yellow police puppy hopped on our bus from Medellin to Salento, I wanted to smother him and all his cuteness, but had to put myself in check and remember this was official business! I’m sure his master would have allowed it though had I only asked.
Throughout our entire month and one week there, we felt completely safe. Having police peacefully present in every city or town we were in made it that much better. They were always willing to help if we needed directions or just had questions.
In all honesty, I felt more at ease talking to the Colombian police than I did talking to the police from my own hometown. There’s just a refreshing mutual respect between the police and the people in Colombia that’s sometimes uncommon where we’re from. The energy was always tranquilo, and never hostile.
TOURISM IS ON THE RISE
People are definitely catching on to the spectacular cities and gorgeous natural beauty Colombia has to offer. When we arrived in Bogota from Panama, we were surprised at the European feel of the place. It was sophisticated in a lot of areas and completely modern.
When we arrived in the Caribbean colonial city of Cartagena, we were taken aback by just how touristy it actually was. Five- star hotels lined the beaches on the new side of the city, while fancy bars and restaurants lined the colonial streets. Tourism was booming so much in Cartagena that we found ourselves feeling like part of the herd.
We were unaware that people had begun to visit Colombia at all yet due to its rough history, and after just a few days we felt somewhat foolish for thinking so. Even when we moved from Medellin into Colombia’s southernmost mountain towns, we found there were just as many tourists wandering about as we had seen in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Except here (unlike other places we’ve been so far) the crowds were a mix of locals on vacation and foreigners from around the globe.
It’s even safe to walk at night.
This was the first country on our never-ending journey that we felt completely safe walking around at night, no matter where we were in Colombia. In the massive city of Medellin, there are areas to avoid just like any large place.
However, after a fun night of heavy partying around Medellin’s well known Lleras Park, we walked the 15 minutes back to our hostel at 3am with no problem at all. The streets were deserted. Police were on patrol, but no one was around and we were completely safe. This was on a weekend as well.
In Cartagena and every other city we visited, we could always take solace in the fact that we could go wherever we needed no matter what time it was. Of course, keeping your wits about you and making sure you’re not going too far off the beaten track is key, just like you would anywhere else.
THE COLOMBIAN PEOPLE KEEP IT REAL
Traveling through various cities and towns we realized that we were among some of the kindest locals we have ever encountered, and that’s no exaggeration. Everyone respects each other in Colombia.
Passing people from all walks of life on the streets, rich or poor, old or young, respectful greetings are exchanged and it’s considered rude not to partake. Everyone greets each other in passing with a smile and a nod, and a simple “Buenos tardes”, good afternoon, or a “buenas”, short for good day.
Vendors don’t hassle you for sales. People are not only helping elderly strangers carry their things, but are assisting them in getting in and out of buses as if they were their own family member. Elderly ladies hanging out on their porches or in their doorways nod and smile, politely saying “buenas” to anyone passing by.
The door is always held open for the next person, and women with children and old folks always take priority on public transport. On numerous occasions when we struggled to communicate in bad Spanish, bilingual locals would never cease to jump in kindly and help in any way they could.
“…We could have talked for hours, and I genuinely felt as if she was a long-time friend of mine in just a few short minutes.”
In a small artisan craft market in Salento, we had a nice conversation with a shop owner about the weather and the town. We each talked about where we were from and she also directed us to great place to play the traditional game of Tejo. (We highly recommend it by the way.) Our conversation was so friendly that she and I shared a hug before we left. We could have talked for hours, and I genuinely felt as if she was a long-time friend of mine in just a few short minutes.
Her kindness, and the kindness of numerous other people we met along the way, caused us to fall in love with Colombia and its people. Colombians are vibrant, happy, and kind. They sincerely care about each other. There’s no “de nada” (no problem) when you say gracias or thank you, it is “con mucho gusto”. Which basically means, very much my pleasure.
To them, it is not only a pleasure to help another person, but they want you to know that they actually wish to help even in the smallest of situations. I found myself wishing the majority of the world carried the same honorable traits, and were just as respectful and kind to one another.
BREAKING DOWN THE STIGMAS
As we came to realize, the Colombian people do not want their beautiful country to be perceived as a cocaine hub, nor do they want Colombia to be solely known as the home of Pablo Escobar. It is a bit cruel to think that this blip in Colombia’s history represents the people of Colombia today. Especially since they have accomplished so much and worked so hard to better the country in recent years. It’s also important to remember that Escobar’s reign of violence directly affected the Colombian people in terrible ways and they weren’t his biggest fans either.
Throughout our time in Colombia, we were reminded that the fame and even the “cool” outlook surrounding who Escobar was is frustrating to the people. The general consensus is, he ruined Colombian history and defaced the entire country, so why would someone want to go on a tour to his home? Why would anyone think of him as a true representative of Colombia’s history?
“These days, Escobar is merely a piece of the past and the Colombian people are doing a great job trekking the road to recovery.”
It was for this reason we did not partake in seeing Escobar’s home or other related sights. We did learn, however, that those who visit these places are taught about the real damage Escobar implemented on Colombia and its people. There’s also great emphasis on how Colombia has made significant strides in taking their country back after such a terrible time in their history. These days, Escobar is merely a piece of the past and the Colombian people are doing a great job trekking the road to recovery.
COLOMBIA IS NOW OUR FIRST POSSIBLE PARADISE
Despite the struggles being faced, Colombia has become one of our favorite countries that we have ever had the pleasure to visit. Colombia has some amazing qualities. There is an excellent healthcare system, a great system for expats to gain citizenship, good infrastructure, and supreme natural beauty.
Most importantly, Colombia has genuine kindhearted people throughout. We simply couldn’t get enough of this place. Not only will we be returning to Colombia later on down the road, but we plan to live there. Perhaps even permanently.
Colombia is the safest country we have encountered so far on this our never-ending journey. It was a great surprise just how inaccurate the perception of Colombia is these days. All nations have a dark past in one way or another, and we were grateful to see how special Colombia really is. This country and its people are strong and sophisticated, and we know that they will continue to succeed. Colombia will always have a place in our souls, and we are looking forward to our next visit there already.
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