We’ve all heard the rumors, the ones from the U.S. government, from the Canadian government, from some European governments, that warn us not to travel Colombia. It’s dangerous, they say. Don’t get kidnapped, say your friends. What about the drugs? ask others. The truth? Colombia is just like any other country, which means it’s not 100% safe, but mostly so. Like any big city in The States or Canada or Europe, one should be careful of the areas they choose to walk alone at night, or be weary of mischevious looking groups, but for the most part it’s safe. It’s not the Colombia it was 10 years ago, where the drug cartels ran the show, offering rewards to any thug who “popped a cop.” And though Pablo Escobar (the leader of one of the biggest cartels) is gone and the drug scene has greatly diminished or been pushed further into the Amazons, it’s not completely gone, just like it’s not completely gone anywhere else in the world. But I didn’t see it, and the chances you will are unlikely, too.
I also didn’t get kidnapped and I didn’t get drugged with Devil’s Breath, though I saw the tree from which it grows. Actually, the scariest thing that happened while I was there was crashing on a motorcycle. Aside from this, I never felt threatened in any situation; I never felt unsafe. In fact, I had nothing but positive experiences (we even survived the crash without much harm!), and I’m sure you will have the same.
10 Reasons to Travel Colombia
1. The People
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Colombian people are fabulous. They are amongst the most friendly I’ve met, always greeting with a smile and a conversation. They’re also patient, caring and amazing hosts. We were fortunate to stay with a local family in a village outside Pereira, and were spoiled with food, attention, care and conversation (even if we didn’t understand a lot of it). And, when our motorcycle ended up under a truck, at least ten witnesses stopped to make sure we were okay, offering any care they could provide. Then, they stuck around to help us move the bike, and then get it repaired. It was a fantastic display of mankind at its best, and the people continue to be the one thing I always remember about travel.
2. The Mountains
Needless to say, they’re hard to miss. When the Andes range enters Colombia from Ecuador, it splits into three, covering a large portion of this sizeable country. In just 14 days of riding, we crossed over all three of them, and not a day went by without spectacular mountain views, each a luscious green from the tropical rains, and buzzing with animal and human life. It’s amazing some of the settlers ended up where they did, with the steep climbs they had to endure and the high altitudes literally taking their breath away.
3. The Cities
It seemed every city or small town we entered was surrounded by the mountains mentioned above. The cities began in the low valleys below but many, like Medellin featured above, have expanded into the mountainsides creating a large bowl-shaped city of 4 million people. One of the coolest parts about this design, though, is that even the houses built of metal scraps and brick have a million dollar view.
4. The Oceans
Colombia is the only country in South America to have beaches on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Most Americans don’t consider it a Caribbean destination for pina coladas and sunning, but it’s as fine as any island you might hop to, and the port in Cartagena is already a popular cruise boat stop. While we only saw two beaches on our tour – Santa Marta and Cartagena – and neither were ideal for an extended beach getaway, I’ve heard and read about several locations where one could easily while away a week or two (Tayrona is one).
5. The Coffee
Though we drank a cup of locally grown tinto (Colombia slang for black coffee) every day, we did a coffee tour in the coffee region on one of my last days there, and learned a LOT about the local coffee production. For instance, Colombia produces some of the highest quality beans in the world, though they’re surpassed in quantity by Brazil, and they hand select the good beans from the bad ones. Unfortunately for Colombians, all but 30% of the best beans are exported to the U.S. and other countries, while the ones deemed “bad” are left for the locals to consume at fair prices. The remaining 30% of the quality beans are sold expensively, making what we drank for the prior two weeks worse coffee than we likely drink back home. I bought a bag of good quality beans for $5, more than what some locals earn in a day.
6. The Adventure
From zip lining, motorcycling, paragliding, horseback riding, dirt biking, dune buggies, mountain biking and rapelling down waterfalls, Colombia has just about any adventure sport you can imagine. If you’re an adventure junkie, you’ll have no problem finding a tour or outing to fit your desire. If you’re looking for a motorcycle or dirt bike tour, check out Motolombia. If you’re looking for another kind of tour, visit See Colombia. And if you’d rather go find the adventure on your own (which is much more adventurous anyway!), you’ll have no problem finding something to suit your fancy.
7. The Lack of Tourists
Outside of Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena, we saw maybe a handful of other foreign tourists, and even the cities were less frequented than I had imagined with all the talk of Colombia on the rise. Before long, the word will really be out and people will flock, so go now, while it’s still quite pure. Things are already changing quickly, with the fairly recent free trade agreement with the U.S., and Subway restaurants and Hilton Hotels and KFC’s are popping up everywhere.
8. The Beer
Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest and then migrating to Colorado, one thing I usually miss while traveling is a good, quality, handcrafted brew. Throughout Asia I never once saw a local brewery, and getting a good beer meant paying high dollar for a Guiness, but Colombia has caught on to the trend with the Bogota Beer Company and the Medellin Beer Factory. Both served up delicious and frothy beers of varying tastes and colors, and either could have easily fit in in Oregon or Colorado, and probably given some of the big names like Deschutes or New Belgium a run for their money.
9. The Language
If you speak Spanish or you want to learn, Colombia is the perfect place to practice. Colombians are known for speaking one of the purest forms of the language, with their slow and clear pronunciation. With the exception of Medellin (where the locals say there’s a thick accent), Colombia is the best classroom for picking up some Spanish.
10. The Cowboys
It’s true: the South American stereotype of the “real” cowboys. We saw people on horseback almost everywhere we went, but my favorite scene was the roadside bars on Sundays, where six or seven saddled horses waited patiently outside for their riders to stumble back out. Riding in from the mountainside farm to grab a beer or a bottle of local aguardiente (the Colombian drink of choice – a clear liquid that tastes of a strong black licorice flavor – that differs a bit in every region. They pass it around or take shots until it’s gone, then order another.) with buddies is the perfect way to wind down after a hard week’s work. Or, like the cowboy above, just ride into town and grab yourself an ice cream. How’s that for a leisurely stroll?
I hope Colombia is on your bucket list, and that you’ll have the chance to cross it off soon. With all of these fabulous reasons to go, what’s stopping you?
If you’ve been to Colombia, what was your favorite part? What would you recommend to others?
*All photos taken by either Mads Kragelund or myself.
Travel Colombia: 10 Reasons Why YOU Should Go