When I told friends and family that I was starting my back-packing trip in Colombia, they all responded with a variation of the same question: “Is it safe?”
Granted, Colombia’s troubled past of civilian and tourist kidnappings from Guerrilla groups like the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) coupled with violence perpetuated by drug cartels doesn’t help calm anxious travelers concerned with their personal safety . . . but, after spending a month traveling the country by bus, it’s clear Colombia is in dire need of a massive public relations make-over. Record numbers of travelers, both Colombian and foreigners are taking advantage of Colombia’s rich biodiversity: Caribbean beaches, stunning mountain ranges peppered with volcanoes, wild rain forests, deserts, coffee farms, and vibrant cities full of culture, good food, and salsa music.
While opportunistic crimes like pick-pocketing and violent robberies occur, I’m reminded of the all the crime stories I’ve covered over the last seven years . . . many of the people who became victims of crime didn’t even have to leave the safety of their American up-scale communities in suburbia. If you’re able to employ a modest amount of common sense, traveling in Colombia is as safe as visiting any major North American city.
In all of the interviews conducted for this project and in the causal conversations I had with other travelers, a constant thread seemed to emerge . . . Colombians are some of the warmest and friendliest people. I can’t even count how many people would stop and ask me if I needed directions or help finding a certain location if I had a blank look on my face or was struggling with my guidebook. Must of my conversations with locals would happen on long bus rides, where more often than not, I was crammed into the back row of the bus with three other adults, two children, and once a small dog. In my awful spanish, we would talk about the beauty of mountains, what ever dish my next destination was known for, what living in the States was like, and if I liked Colombia.
One of the questions I like to ask travelers who agree to speak with me: “What is one of the greatest experiences you’ve had on the road?”
Reflecting on my month in Colombia, I can see now how frustrating thinking of an answer can be . . . my month in Colombia is composed of so many different little pieces of experiences in so many different places that to unravel and isolate one single moment as “the best” is nearly impossible. I have seen more golden objects from pre-Colombian tribes that I thought possible, walked many narrow streets with brightly colored colonial buildings, sat in countless plazas and parks eating fresh mango slices while I watched the world slowly march on, hiked to the lost city and felt in-tune with nature and one with the mountains, swam in tiny freezing streams, as well as, the clear blue water of the Caribbean sea, shared many beers with other travelers learning about their lives and their experiences, prayed and gave thanks for how lucky I was to be on this trip in awe-inspiring churches, rode on the back of jeep and held on for dear life as it sped along hair-pin turns, picked coffee beans, ate fruits I couldn’t identify or pronounce, rekindled my love for rice and beans, went to a local fair and felt like I was a kid in high school again, marveled at stone statues left behind from a mysterious culture, walked many miles on Colombian streets and through dirt paths in the jungle and forests, rode down a mountain on a bike after sitting in foul-smelling sulfur water at a hot-springs, ate more arepas than I thought humanly possible, lost hours swinging in hammocks while butterflies and humming-birds floated and whizzed by, shared even more beer with travelers in a local bar that played salsa and tango on old records and lps, visited galleries and museums, read trashy novels left behind from other backpackers, studied maps, said many goodbyes to people I hope to see again in the future, but know I probably won’t, relished taking hot showers when given the chance, crossed streams on nerve-wrecking suspension bridges in the Valle de Corcora, packed and repacked my backpack, watched many small towns and villages roll by from the window of my bus, rode cable-cars ,and got a little homesick for New York while riding Medellín’s metro. And somewhere along the way I started to approach this trip and hopefully my life with a little bit more openness, compassion, and understanding.
While the world is a big place, once you start moving around in it you learn that the majority of people you meet, no matter their age, race, gender, economic background, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin . . . we’re all pretty much the same at the core. We all want to make the best use of the time we’ve been given, to not only see as much of the world, but more importantly to find our place in it. We all want that hard to define and ever elusive word . . . happiness.
At the end of this amazing month in Colombia, I’m left with a tremendous sense of gratitude. It will be difficult to leave this place, where the landscape and people are matched equally in their beauty. If only in my heart, if only for one month, I really feel like I know what it means to say, “yo soy Colombiano.”
I would also like to thank all the travelers I met while on the road in Colombia, especially those who agreed to share their stories for A Tribe of our Own; Alicia Krzyczkowski, Jeff Bailey, Johann Waedmüller, Sophie Jutte, and Mia Spruit . . . your willingness to share a part of your life so honestly and openly with a stranger has been one of the greatest gifts.
See you in Ecuador. . .