Colombia Round Up, Part One

Beautiful, bountiful, but badly scared, Colombia needs more time to heal from its violent past before facing its travel Mecca future

Colombia is an enigma: a land of unlimited natural beauty with a very ugly manmade past. Colombia’s unofficial civil war, known as La Violencia, is not that far gone, but guidebooks, travelers, and ex-pats (not to mention the Huff Post) trip over themselves to announce that Colombia has been reborn. Historically resilient Colombians even ranked #1 out of 54 countries on the 2012 “Global Barometer of Hope and Happiness” survey.

But, Colombia still has some demons to vanquish before reaching #1 on our travel list.

Colombia is at a critical intersection of past, present, and future | Old City wall, Cartagena

Colombia is at a critical intersection of past, present, and future | Old city wall, Cartagena

Once completely consumed by outlandish violence, for decades Colombia was considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world.  Ten years ago, Colombia was still considered off-limits to the casual traveler. When Cliff visited four years ago, there was little tourism outside of the UNESCO world heritage site of Cartagena. Today, Colombia is in the running to become one of the world’s great backpacking destinations.

And rightfully so. Colombia has impressive ancient and modern cultures to share with the world. From Pre-Colombian ruins to all-night salsa and meringue clubs, to its famed Zona Cafeteria coffee region, to its incredible biodiversity (ranked third in living species in the world) Colombia has a ton to offer.

Flower Colombia

Colombia is the world’s third most biodiverse country | Salento, Colombia

We got to experience (and thoroughly enjoy) several of these highlights during our short three-week visit. But we also got the feeling that Colombia hasn’t yet reached the cul-de-sac at the end of the road to recovery. Although no longer completely ravishing the local population (a clear improvement and obvious priority) robberies, kidnappings, muggings, and petty crimes still plague travelers.

Police, military, paramilitary, and other armed groups make their presence known at every turn. Authority comes in all shapes and sizes, from an 18-year-old boy, to a hardened—often angry—military officer, to several—often pinup perfect—female officers. They are all easily identifiable by some combination of  a bulletproof vest, full camouflage, and a large, fully automatic weapon. Still, one never quite knows who is in charge, who to ask for help, or who to avoid.

Army green is a strange contrast to colourful Cartagena on Colombia's Caribbean coast

Army green is a strange contrast to the colourful buildings on Colombia’s Caribbean coast | Cartagena

We never felt in mortal danger, but were always on edge in Colombia. At our first stop in tropical Cartagena, legions of uniformed officers clashed with the Caribbean city’s brightly colored buildings and pro-tourist vibe.

On Medellin’s immaculate metro, an outgoing local gave us directions in perfect English thanks to the decade he spent selling cocaine in New York. When we told him that we’re from the Bay area, he delighted, “Me too! I spent three years in San Quentin.” Only Colombians and New Yorkers could speak so nonchalantly about such a dark past. That afternoon, we met the ugly side of modern Colombia after a run in with muggers in one of Medellin’s top tourist sites, Parque Arvi.

Flying over the Medellin Slums on our way to Parque Arvi...only to be mugged. (we highly recommend the "metrocable" trip)

Flying over the Medellin slums to Parque Arvi. Take the ride, leave all valuables in the valley.

Fleeing Medellin for the cute as a button coffee town of Salento, we felt genuinely safe. But even in this few thousand person community, we were taken aback by the missing people (or Dissiperencia) flyers fighting for space on the tiny pueblo‘s street posts. Daily traveler chats at our favourite coffee shop almost always segued into reports of friends being violently held up, kidnapped (“temporarily” as accomplices test ATM pin numbers), and generally mistreated. When we finally tore away from Salento to catch a flight in Cali, military men grounded our bus. The soldiers had us all disembark, searched our bags, and gave all male passengers a full body pat down.

Theft might as well be the “T” in travel. And it’s without a doubt on travelers to keep their wits about them and their guards up. That said, it’s on a country when getting into a taxi or onto a local bus means that your likelihood of getting robbed instantly skyrockets.

The custom stain glass window in the former Medellin Cartel penthouse where we rented a room while staying in the city. The former owner was killed in the street in the 90's.

Medellin architecture is a direct reflection of the city’s drug money saturated past

Colombia’s history is riddled with neighbour-on-neighbour warfare, uprisings and suppressions, and, of course, with political, paramilitary, and organized crime groups (not mutually exclusive) fighting over a 47 billion dollar cocaine market. Thankfully, Colombian-on-Colombian violence has greatly subsided. But tolerance for violent crime remains chillingly stoic.A business-as-usually acceptance of violence sets Colombia apart from other countries we’ve visited.

Unlike most places, violence in Colombia isn’t as simple as economics, or haves and have-nots:

In Colombia, wealth— or the fight over who gets it—spurs violence, not poverty. This is one of the most striking things about the country. Violence concentrates where there is money and industry. In contrast, Colombia’s neighbors—Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil—have the more familiar problem of violence in the midst of poverty, with the rich able to screen it from their enclaves. –Robyn Kirk, More Terrible than Death: Violence, Drugs, and America’s War in Colombia

It’s perhaps this last point—that rich and poor are in the violence game together—that makes travel in Colombia more dangerous than other parts of South America. There is, perhaps, less reverence for Northerners and their foreign currency. In this case, violence follows money and the touristy industry.

“Art is a spiritual, immaterial respite from the hardships of life”, Fernando Botero | The Death of Pablo Escobar

“Art is a spiritual, immaterial respite from the hardships of life”, Fernando Botero | The Death of Pablo Escobar

If nothing else, our experience in Colombia was a reminder that we have to keep up our guard when we’re such obvious outsiders in someone else’s world. But it was also a reminder that no matter how much care is taken, shit happens. It’s the nature of life, and definitely the law of travel.

We’ve also gained a new travel mantra, adapted from the late, great adventure man, Teddy Roosevelt: walk softly, and carry very little at all.


Stay tuned for a more glass-half-full review of what we loved in Colombia in Colombia Round Up, Part Two.