Colombia: Lose your perception of the past and come visit!
Ever since I first visited Colombia in 2007 up until today I constantly get asked one question over and over: “is it safe in Colombia?” After spending nearly 4 months I almost laugh as I have had zero issues, yet I have to take a step back and think about my perception of the country before I first visited. What was “that” Colombia in my mind? How many Colombians could I name? Shakira, Pablo Escobar, and Juan Valdez–the third being a fictitious character I remember from the Colombian coffee commercials of my childhood. How about the rest of the country? My mind would instantly focus in on the narcotics trade, violence, paramilitary groups, the FARC; after that, coffee and bananas. Why would I want to visit Colombia? After spending time here a part of me wants to scream to the world “come!!!!!!!” The people, the culture, the natural beauty–I can keep going on and on. The other side of me thinks I should keep my mouth shut and hide it for myself, but it is really too good to do that!
I have been fortunate enough in my life to have visited dozens of countries on 5 continents and I can safely say one thing about this country: Colombians are the warmest and most friendly people I have ever met as a traveler. There are amazing people all around the world, but the pure kindness since day one is something I can only hope to experience again. Whether I am out in the field with Kiva, walking down the street, buying something at the grocery store or strolling through Parque Tayrona, I am constantly greeted with a smile and kind words. Colombians are also extremely outgoing; start speaking a little bit of Spanish and you will be surrounded by people who would love to hear your story or give you an impromptu lesson. My favorite coastal work: bacano. For you Spanish speaks it is another way to say cool, or the more common chévere. And if you don’t speak Spanish, don’t worry too much–many people, especially students or recent graduates, often times speak English as well.
What is the climate and geography like? Literally a little bit of everything. Colombia is a big country; it is nearly twice as large as Texas and is approximately the same size as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany combined. The geography ranges from coastal desert, to thick tropical rainforest, up to peaks reaching past 18,700 feet (5,700m)–and we are only talking about a small part of the northern coast! Colombia is an extremely diverse country than can range from hot and humid on the coast, to a very moderate and rainy climate in Bogotá, all the way to snow capped mountains only ten degrees off of the equator. There are lakes, gorgeous coastal beaches, the Amazon, and from what I have heard, an absolutely amazing area in the south in the coffee region near Armenia–my next trip when I return. Medellín, the second largest city, may have the best year-round temperature in the world, earning it the nickname of “the city of eternal springtime”. Believe me, it is nice–the temperatures do not usually leave 59 to 86 °F (15 to 30 °C ) day or night, all year long.
As far as the “must see” things in Colombia, it is a pretty extensive list and I have only been able to scratch the surface. Cartagena is the classic Colombia destination, a gorgeous coastal town full of history in the walled historic center. Another highlight of Cartagena; The Castle of San Felipe, which never fell to invaders of the city (the walls are massive); offers great views of the city. Parque Tayrona is another one of my favorite places I have visited, offers some nice hiking and amazing beaches. Medellín and Bogotá both are large, extremely modern cities that have a great night life and lots of cultural activities. Colombia is still a country that is missing most of the hoards of tourist that invade countries like Costa Rica and Peru, which makes it all the more appealing to me. The Pacific coast is supposed to have some amazing surfing and deserted beaches; the Amazon jungle trips won’t have a fraction of the people found in neighboring countries. Colombia still offers the opportunity to get off the well developed Gringo track that has been laid through most of the rest of Latin America–I am guessing it will not stay that way for long.
So getting back to my original question; is it safe to travel in Colombia? For the most part, yes. There are still some areas, particularly along the boarders with Ecuador and Venezuela, that have continued rebel and drug activity, which will have zero impact on almost any tourist’s itinerary. Do I feel safe? Yes. Would I recommend my family to come here? My younger sister on a solo trip? Yes. Keep your wits about you like in any other developing country and come enjoy Colombia–I don’t think many people with a desire for adventure and new culture would be disappointed!!
John Gwillim is part of KF14 and currently serving in Barranquilla, Colombia. He will continue on as a member of KF15 in Santiago, Chile with Fondo Esperanza beginning in May.
Interested in learning more about Fundación Mario Santo Domingo? Visit their page on Kiva here!