"You should watch Man on Fire. It's about an American girl who gets kidnapped, and it will give you a little perspective on Colombia." Jaw open, saliva dripping down my chin, this was the movie recommendation from my dentist after I told him I had a trip planned to Colombia. The fact that Man on Fire actually takes place in Mexico City didn't seem to be relevant. His point was that Colombia is a scary place where horrible things happen.
That was in 2006. Since then I have visited Colombia four times, and have probably heard this sentiment from various North Americans four thousand times. I'm usually also told that in addition to being kidnapped, I will see mountains of cocaine and be turned into a drug mule.
U.S. and Canadian customs seem to agree with this common perception of Colombia. If you catch a connecting flight through the U.S. on a return flight from Colombia, you are required to collect and recheck your bag. This gives a half dozen drug sniffing dogs the opportunity to sniff you and your belongings in search of illegal white gold. On my most recent trip back to Canada from Colombia, Canadian customs pulled me aside and told me that they needed to search my belongings. In addition to thoroughly checking each item from my suitcase and backpack, they also searched through my laptop and cell phone (of which they asked for the access passwords). They were suspicious of me because, according to them, I traveled to a 'high risk' country.
If you are from North America you likely have a similar idea of Colombia, that it is a scary place where horrible things happen. I am here to tell you that any negative perceptions you have of Colombia are likely vastly out of touch with reality. This post is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to all the amazing places you should visit and things you should do (although I will mention many). There are guide books about Colombia that do a much better job at that than I ever will. Nor will I focus on hard facts like 'the country is mostly Catholic,' or that '70% of cut flowers in the U.S. come from Colombia.' Rather I hope to use my personal experiences to shed some light on the reality of the country, and hopefully persuade you to change your impression of Colombia. Ultimately, the one thing I want to impart on you is this - the only risk with going to Colombia is that you will want to stay.
So, as far as I'm concerned, here are Five Amazing Reasons To Visit Colombia
1) Mountains, Clouds, Trees, Waterfalls, Amazon, Plains, Sun, Snow, Beaches, Chigüiro
Colombia is one of the most geographically and climatically diverse countries on earth. It has everything from snow capped mountains, to the Amazon rainforest, to tropical beaches. Because both the Andes and the equator run through the country, you can pick almost any type of weather and/or natural feature and you will find it somewhere in Colombia. It is only a matter of increasing or decreasing in elevation, drastically different climatic zones are often only a few hours drive (or flight) apart.
For example, if you visit Colombia from North American there is a good chance that you will fly into Bogotá. Not only is this the capital city of Colombia, it is also 2,640 metres (8,660 ft) above sea level. Because it is both high and close to the equator it enjoys a fairly moderate climate, not too hot nor too cold. However, if you drive for about two and half hours to a town called Girardot you will find yourself in a hot tropical climate.
As a result you will find very diverse and gorgeous flora and fauna. For example, in the Colombian Amazon you will see tons of amazing animals. Flocks of parrots will fly over your head, adorable monkeys will stare at you from lofty trees, and pink dolphins will swim along side your boat as you make your way down the Amazon river. It is also home to the largest rodent on earth, an animal they call Chigüiro. Think of a rat the size of a dog, remove the tail, and add a super adorable face. On the Caribbean coast there is a place called Tayrona Park (El Parque Tayrona) where will see picture perfect beaches lined with coconut trees, and intriguing animals like the Oncilla (tiger cat). Along the Central Cordillera (the highest of the three branches of the Colombia Andes) in the Cocora valley you will see extremely tall and slender wax palms and possibly even a mountain tapir.
My examples may be silly, but they are meant to illustrate the diversity in Colombia. It is a country with both funny little animals, and landscapes that will make you believe in god.
2) If You Get Robbed, People Will Help
I debated whether to include this story as I feared that it would reinforce negative stereotypes of Colombia. Also, I haven't yet told my mom about this (if you're reading this mom sorry for not telling you sooner. I didn't want you to be scared). Ultimately the Colombian people are wonderful, and in my experience good things can come from bad experiences.
In Colombia there is an expression that says 'no dar papaya,' which literally means 'don't give papaya.' The basic takeaway from this is that one should not put themself or their valuables in situations where they can be taken advantage of/stolen from. Just be mindful of what you're doing, as well as who is around you, and you will be fine. This is just basic advice that can be applied both abroad and at home.
Unfortunately I didn't heed this advice as much as I should have. One afternoon in Bogotá a friend took me to see some of the amazing street art that is present throughout the city. I really enjoyed the art, so I took out my new iPhone and very conspicuously took photos of everything I saw. In front of one particularly beautiful piece of street art a young guy approached me with a folded knife in his hand and asked for my phone. I immediately gave it to him, and he ran away. What happened next astounded me.
My Colombian friend looked at me for a moment, and then she started running after the thief. A moment later a guy stopped his car in the middle of the busy street and asked if I had been robbed. As soon as I uttered 'sí,' he put his car into park and began chasing the thief. He didn't even bother taking his keys with him or closing the driver side door. Twenty seconds later another guy came up to me with a cell phone against his ear and said that he was calling the police for me. My friend and the unknown vigilante yelled at the thief to drop the phone, and within a minute or two of pursuit the thief gave up and gently put the phone down on the sidewalk. I still have that same phone today.
Please keep in mind that this is a relatively rare thing to happen to tourists. But if something like this does happen, don't be afraid to make noise. I don't recommend chasing a thief, but if all goes well people will come to your rescue.
Oh yeah, the above photo was taken with my briefly stolen iPhone.
3) You Will Eat The Best Hamburger Of Your Life (and other delicious things too)
I could have just titled this 'Food,' but that would have done a disservice to El Corral, a chain hamburger restaurant in Colombia. After an extensive research project spanning nearly nine years, I have come to the conclusion that all the best hamburgers of my life are from El Corral. Part of the reason for this is that the cows in Colombia are both free range, and delighted to live in such a beautiful country. Happy cows make for great eating. Another reason is that El Corral has excellent command of flavour, their ingredients and methods of hamburger production are art and science. And if you are perpetually hungry like me, you can order up to 1lb of expertly prepared beef to be placed in the middle of their delicious artisanal Colombian bread. If you're in the mood for a hamburgasm, fly to Colombia and make a b-line for the nearest El Corral.
If you're not into hamburgers (I respectfully withhold judgement) and are more interested in authentic Colombia cuisine, there are a plethora of delicious dishes for you to try. From Mondongo, a soup made from tripe that is slow cooked with vegetables and has bananas on top... to Arepas, a hockey puck lookalike that is made from Maiz and sometimes has cheese inside... to Tamales, made from corn flour these logs of deliciousness are often full of meat and wrapped in a banana leaf. I adore all of these dishes, but there are so many more great ones you need to try.
It is also worth noting that there are some very innovative restaurants in Colombia. Another stand out establishment (in addition to El Corral) is Crepes & Waffles. Their juices are fresh and of the highest quality. They also focus on employing single mothers, and I would certainly classify them as a social enterprise.
The point here is that I am horrible at making food sound appetizing. You just have to go to Colombia and eat whatever you find. You will not be disappointed.
4) Amazing Adventures
The incredible thing about Colombia is that you can do basically any type of desirable and life affirming activity. From rappelling down waterfalls, to paragliding, to spelunking, to scuba diving, to swimming with pink river dolphins, to exploring lost cities. If you want something quieter you can always lay on the beach all day with a book and a coconut in Cartagena or Santa Marta. If you want to ride horses with over 100 vaqueros (cowboys) and drink beer & whisky all day, then go to the annual horse festival in Toca. I went to this festival last month, and I can tell you that nothing puts hair on the chest, or causes intense soreness in the deep tissues of the butt like riding a steed from dawn till dusk.
Because this event is organized by the local mayor's office, and because the municipal administration of Toca wants its townsfolk to be content and comfortable during this epic ride, they arrange check-stops along the route where instead of checking your blood alcohol content they give you beer and sometimes whisky. Don't worry though, the horses remained completely sober. When I found out that this is how the local government spends public money, I was understandably in awe. There are sooo many reasons why this festival would not be allowed in any municipality anywhere in North America, and that's a giant shame. The great about the festival was that everyone on horseback looked like they were on cloud nine, and they were all extremely helpful and respectful. When a strap came lose beneath my saddle one of the vaqueros stopped me and laced it back together again. It is just one example of the incredible and unique experiences you can have in Colombia.
If you want to go on great adventures in a country unspoiled by Western tourism, go to Colombia.
5) Medellín, Innovative City Of The Year
Colombia is full of incredible places to visit, but Medellín is special. It is perhaps the most emblematic city of where Colombia has come from, and where it is going. In 1988 Time magazine wrote an article called 'Welcome to Medellín, coke capital of the world,' in which they described Medellín as the most dangerous city in the world. This extreme level of urban violence was caused by a war between Pablo Escobar's Medellín Cartel and competing organizations. The crazy thing is that when people who have never been to Colombia talk about how bad it is, they are normally confusing this horrible period in Colombia's history with the present. Today the city couldn't be more different from its infamous past.
Incredibly, In 2013 it was ranked by the Wall Street Journal as 'Innovative City Of The Year.' And if you visit Medellín it is easy to see why. For instance, they have an excellent metro system that connects both the urban centre, and the poor neighbourhoods that run up the side of a mountain (Medellín is in a valley). The metro then continues to the spectacular Arví Park, thus making this tranquil natural paradise accesible to both the cities richest and poorest residents. What's even more incredible is the pride that the people have for their metro. Joint with Singapore, it is probably the cleanest metro system I have ever seen. There has also been significant investment in museums, cultural centers, schools and libraries. Even without considering its past, it is one of the most inspiring cities I have ever seen.
If you are interested in traveling to Colombia I would love to know what excites you the most! If you have traveled to Colombia before, or if you live there, I would love to know what your favourite thing about Colombia is! Tell me know in the comments.
And remember, the only risk with going to Colombia is that you will want to stay.
Cover photo from Flickr