On Colombia, and Traveling Without Fear

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Above: Fernando Botero’s “Birds of Peace” – there is another one exactly like it next to it. This one was used in a bombing in 1995 that killed 29, whose names are listed below it. They are both on display to represent the changes Medellin has undergone.

When my then-wife LeeAnne decided our next vacation would be to Colombia, a variety of friends and family gave us the same response: “Why?” Whether they had been hearing about the drug cartels and violence for the last 50 years or had just been watching too much Narcos, everyone seemed to believe we would be landing in a war zone.  I admit, as a seasoned traveler, I even let the nervousness get the best of me and had to have to good people of r/travel on Reddit cool me down.

The entire time, I should’ve just remembered my favorite travel quote: “No place is as savage as you think it is.”  I really wish I remembered who said this, because they deserve infinite credit.  Nowhere is ever as bad as you hear or think it is; and besides, isn’t traveling about getting out of your comfort zone a bit? Experience new things that may make you feel nervous or uncomfortable?  It brings to mind another favorite travel quote, this one from Anthony Bourdain:

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

And the marks that Colombia left were all beautiful.  The people were some of the nicest we’ve encountered in our travels, and most seemed genuinely happy to have outsiders experience their country which had been getting such a bad rep for so long.  Even Medellin—ground zero for the drug cartels and once known as the most dangerous city in the world—was a vibrant and lively city that was intensely walkable.

cats
A kitty cat mural on the mean streets of Bogota.

Bogota was no different.  The few warnings I had received revolved around the La Candelaria neighborhood (where we happened to be staying, unbeknownst to the people warning us) and being careful at night, but despite walking all over the city and specifically that area at all hours of the day and night, I never once got the creeping nervousness you sometimes get when your body feels you may have entered a dangerous situation.

It really all comes down to situational awareness.  Keep your eyes open to your surroundings, especially at night.  Don’t walk away from an ATM counting your money.  Don’t flash your iPhone all over the place to take pictures.  Keep any valuables—wallet or passport—in some kind of zippered or fastened pocket.  It doesn’t make it impossible for someone to rob you, but it makes it more difficult for pick-pockets.

breaking
Night in a small square in Cartagena: breakdancing in the street.  Super dangerous people.

Over our 10 days in Colombia, only once (in Cartegena) was I propositioned to buy cocaine.  One time.  In Colombia.  And even in that heavily-touristed city, the type of city where petty crimes usually thrive, I didn’t feel ill-at-ease.

I don’t know if this post is more about traveling smart or about going to Colombia, but I will say you need to do both—be aware of your surroundings as you travel, and definitely go to Colombia.  See the cities, learn the history and what the people have been through, and watch Narcos if you haven’t just to see how drastically things have improved. Just don’t expect much from the food—its boringness is inversely proportional to the vibrancy of the cities and especially the people.

guatape
One of the vibrant streets of Guatape.
cartagena
A street in the walled portion of Cartagena, where the most dangerous thing was the heat.

All photos courtesy LeeAnne Mullins.

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