“You’re going where?! But that’s so dangerous!”
Tell someone you’re visiting Colombia, and I guarantee 90% of people will respond with the above statement. The other 10% will tell you about their father’s ex-wife’s cousin’s friend that went to Cartagena once and really liked it.
What was most surprising was not that my fellow Americans responded with that statement, but that Colombians themselves frequently declared the same sentiment after telling them what part of Colombia I’d be living in for four months: Guaviare.
Guaviare is considered one of the most dangerous departments in what, by reputation, is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Guaviare is where most kidnapped political leaders are held hostage, where coca production was most intense, and where FARC still occupy the jungle. Many Colombians have never heard of it, but the few who have would never travel there.
Every time a Colombian told me I must be crazy for going to Guaviare, I’d respond with this: “Well, that’s what everyone else in the world says about going to Colombia.” The irony, of course, is that we’re having this conversation within the country itself. We both realize how media portrayal and rumors can ruin what is otherwise a wonderful place.
Despite these warnings about Colombia and Guaviare, I went anyway. I am not some thrill-seeking daredevil. I am a 24-year-old female, freshly graduated from college with a degree in Anthropology. Looking for international work, I stumbled upon (and was later offered) a temporary position with a research group that would study malaria in the Nukak Maku, an indigenous tribe of hunter-gatherers that reside in Guaviare. Led by a Colombian PhD student, I and one other American girl met in Bogotá in February 2012 and spent the next few months researching.
During my time in Colombia, I also had the opportunity to travel. I spent several weeks taking buses around the country to visit Cartagena, Santa Marta, Bucaramanga, the coffee zone, Medellin (twice), and Bogotá (innumerable times).
My only preconceived notion regarding Colombia was cocaine and guerilla fighters. Despite this, I chose to venture to the country under the expectation that the leader of our project would be our guide and keep us safe. Because I was going to work, I did not research anything about the rest of the country prior to my arrival.
The first thing that struck me about Colombia was how incredibly kind everyone is. I have travelled throughout Europe, North America, Northern Africa, and a bit in South America (Argentina and Uruguay in 2009). But never had I encountered such genuinely kind and helpful people as in Colombia. Everyone from taxi drivers to waiters to people on the street will be endlessly patient and polite when you speak with them. In many countries street performers and beggars will harass you to no end; but even the most downtrodden of Colombians were respectful and distant, as if they never wanted to cross the line of politeness.
But even if I hadn’t talked to a single person for the entire trip, I still would have fallen in love with Colombia. The landscape is simply incredible. Misty, magical-looking mountains? Check. Green, savannah-like plains? Check. Sparkling blue Caribbean waters? Check.
I had three favorite sites in my travels: #1) The Valle de Cocora. Never in your life will you see a landscape as beautiful as this valley in person. It felt like a movie backdrop. #2) The top of La Piedra (“the rock”), near Guatapé. An easy day trip outside of Medellin, this flooded valley was breathtaking. #3) Laguna Negra near San Jose del Guaviare. A brief canoe trip down a deserted river led into this peaceful, dreamlike lake. Surrounded by thick Amazonian flora and fauna, I swam in the middle of the lagoon without a single other human in sight (but probably shouldn’t have, as it has a reputation for anacondas).
Unfortunately, Guaviare does not yet have the safety implements and capacity to receive many tourists yet. But in another ten years or so, it will probably explode as a more rustic version of Leticia.
Indeed, the entirety of Colombia feels like it’s ripe for a tourism boom. Over and over I asked myself why I didn’t see more foreigners. I’ve been torn by a desire to stop people on the street in the United States and tell them to immediately book a flight to Medellin if they have an ounce of sanity, and a selfish desire to keep the most pristine and beautiful landscape in the world all to myself.
And it isn’t just me – my boyfriend came to visit while I was there, and after one week of traveling, he was shocked that Colombia hasn’t already been flooded by foreigners looking for the perfect vacation.
The only drawback to Colombia is the food. The typical meal is mostly just meat, rice, and fried plantains; which is delicious, but gets a little tiresome. Although I was happy to chow down on the traditional dishes, a vegetarian would find it impossible to find complete meals outside the major cities.
The only other thing I didn’t like was Bogotá; it’s full of history, culture, and great museums, but unfortunately its beauty is lacking. On the other hand, Medellin, “the land of eternal spring”, has everything going for it.
Although I preferred to drool over the landscape, Colombia is also chock-full of beautiful colonial towns, urban arts and music, museums, and fantastic native crafts. Finding food and accommodations was easy, as there’s a huge range of options for every budget. Public transportation varies by city, but there are cheap taxis everywhere, and extensive airline and bus options to travel the country.
My one recommendation for anyone going to Colombia for the first time would be to either learn a few Spanish phrases and bring a dictionary, or be sure you’ll have a guide with you. The major destinations (big cities, Caribbean coast, and coffee zone) are full of people who speak English. But anywhere off the beaten track will be trickier. Even if your Spanish is awful (like mine), I guarantee just trying to speak in their native tongue will result in endless compliments about your excellent language skills.
Since I’ve returned to the United States, I’ve been ecstatic to report how wrong the common perception of Colombia is. I have urged everyone, regardless of age, gender, or language skills, to give Colombia a try. And do it soon.
After spending time in the “dangerous” part of a “dangerous” country, I can assure you that the international reputation of Colombia could not be further from the truth. I can’t wait to return to Colombia, hopefully with as many people as I can drag with me. I guarantee that soon everyone will realize how incredible this country is, and I can’t wait to brag that I ‘discovered’ it before it was cool.
This post was written by Ariel Dombroski in response to our request to share her experiences during her trip to Colombia in the same way as other travelers have been interviewed by us in previous posts. We would like to thank Ariel Dombroski for sharing her thoughts about Colombia with us and with our readers.
You can read more from Ariel in her own blog “The Counterfeit Quarter-life Crisis”.