I wasn’t planning on writing a separate post for the two months I spent in Colombia. I wasn’t even planning on visiting the country in the first place. However, after hearing nothing but raving reviews from travelers of all shapes and sizes, we rerouted our trip to include this apparent paradise to the north. As a result, I’m glad to say the country was my overwhelming favorite due to its energy and beauty, and I was amazed at the jolt of life I got upon arriving despite being in the seventh month of travel. If only given one place to visit in South America, Colombia gets the nod hands down.
Compared to Buenos Aires, steely Bogotá sports a comparable level of modernity and refinement through architecture and public transportation, a varied food and nightlife scene that blows it’s Argentine counterpart out of the water, and also incorporates phenomenal colonial architecture into the mix, all for half the price and none of the attitude.
Effervescent Medellín is a hauntingly beautiful world-class city also with neat, organized public transportation, great food, and phenomenal nightlife. Popayán, Villa de Leyva, and Salento display unaltered colonial architecture in gorgeous mountain settings, Cartagena de las Indias and Parque Nacional Tayrona represent the best of Caribbean history and pristine azure water and isolated beaches, Cali is the world salsa capital, and San Agustín and the surrounding southwestern mountains provide ancient tombstones and waterfalls to boot.
The country has an amazing bounty of produce, with twenty varieties of tart passionfruits and sweet mangos among the infinite fruits that are to die for. The country is also mad for football (soccer), is infected with salsa (the music!), and has an intoxicating friendliness that pulls you in.
Colombia is loud, brash, heat, and sex, but also calm, relaxed, warm, and friendly. And the women…my goodness. People speak a Spanish that is generally very formal and respectful, have open personalities as voluminous as a Botero sculpture, and love their country and want you to not only know it but also share and enjoy. The motto of my two months here, accompanied by a smile, has to be the ubiquitous “a la orden” or “at your service”, which is said in any business setting. The birthplace of magical realism is full of fantastical landscapes and small towns seemingly stuck in one hundred years of solitude. Colombia is a place to fall in love with.
Colombia has fascinating historical complexes as well. Columbus thought he had arrived at the real life Garden of Eden upon landing on the northern shore in the 15th century. Three centuries later the province of Gran Colombia (also including modern day neighbors Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela) gained independence from Spain led by Simon Bolívar, and Colombia was established as an independent state. Finally and most famously, the country was torn apart by narcotrafficking in the latter half of the 20th century, with men such as Pablo Escobar effectively running the country through terrorism.
The Colombia of today, however, is doing everything possible to distance itself from its narco legacy, and by most accounts is succeeding phenomenally. Violent crime has decreased around 80% since the 1990s, and the government is on the verge of signing US-backed cease-fire agreements with the leftist FARC and ELN guerilla groups, moves that while somewhat questionable in terms of substance and motivations could solidify the movement towards peace and normalcy. The country has strong systems of health, education, and transportation, while retaining just enough diesel smoke, crazy drivers, sizzling street food, urine wafts, bumping reggaeton, and overall randomness to feel authentically South American. While problems certainly exist, notably one of the highest levels of income inequality in the region, safety has returned to Colombia, and though I’m far from the first person to say this, it’s natural beauties, cultural delights, and bargain prices should make the backpacker haven a top travel destination for all classes in years to come.
Additionally, the narratives surrounding narcotrafficking and Colombia’s self-identity, while ripe and entertaining, require serious makeovers. The second half of the twentieth century plays along with the country’s theme of fantasy, because the level of influence drugs played in politics and daily life was astounding. Whether termed a legend or a nightmare, the reign of Pablo Escobar is the stuff of myth: hundreds of properties owned all over the world, thousands killed at his hand, millions of lives displaced and permanently affected, billions and billions of dollars moved. At the height of his power he was one of the richest men in the world, and his Medellin Cartel supplied over 80% of the world’s cocaine. He owned flamingos and rhinos, managed to imprison himself to barricade his empire against the authorities, and singlehandedly changed the Colombian constitution with a snap of his fingers. His legacy is interminably complex, because the man who died as one of the world’s most ruthless and feared criminals was also a boy who was born into nothing and donated massive sums of money towards community projects helping the poor in his beloved Medellin.
While I am certainly not an expert on the country, when examining the situation today one finds a country with first rate systems of infrastructure and education, a sweeping national pride, and high levels of innovation and investment that seem sure to continue. As a result, it is now incorrect, ignorant, and insulting to label Colombians or Colombia as dangerous or uncivil. The Narco era headed by Escobar was a time when circumstances fell together perfectly: one man combined the newfound mass production process of cocaine with an unprecedented amount of burgeoning demand in the United States and Europe and used strong-armed terrorist tactics of violence and fear to achieve his successes. Despite his contributions to the then-slums of Medellin he decimated a population far greater than that of who he helped and acted purely on terms of anger, hate, pride, and revenge. As a result, to say Colombians are redefining themselves as productive members of the global society is demeaning and naive. Colombians today are simply who they have always been, and Escobar and the other drug lords were just a topical tumor that obscured the true substance beneath. The redefinition argument assumes that prior to and during the Escobar days Colombians were at his level, which aside being entirely untrue is a serious disrespect to the innocent civilians harmed during his time in power. Pablo Escobar was Colombian but Colombia is not Pablo Escobar, and under this dated façade of misinformation lies an incredible country full of hardworking, friendly, warm people enveloped by an appreciation for fun and family and a love of life.
In the end, Colombia is a veritable paradise of nature and culture of the highest degree. The ethnic and natural diversity that exists is varied and exciting. Apart from its modern, innovative cities, small-town Colombia offers the best of a quintessential South American experience. Whether climbing 15,000 foot volcanoes, wandering through landscapes featuring quilted patchwork hills and mountains full of brightly colored flowers and simple clay houses, or sitting in a cramped van watching the paramo landscape of densely congregated coffee plants and ferns looked down upon by large, waxy palms framed by low-hanging clouds amidst a backdrop of lush, green, rounded mountains, rural Colombia is magical. It feels more untouched than Chile and cleaner and calmer than Bolivia, but still with a high degree of adventure and authenticity. As the last stop of eight months abroad, Colombia couldn’t have been more accommodating or phenomenal, a perfect combination of all the great elements that come from traveling around this crazy continent.
With love, and go Broncos,