Is Colombia Safe to Travel?
Planning a trip to Colombia but questioning whether that’s a smart idea? Is it actually safe to travel Colombia? If you’re on the fence then it’s well worth taking the time to read this wonderful story by Teresa Schumacher of Candid Voyage, who has travelled Colombia multiple times.
It’s well past sunset as we head back to town, the sound of hooves on pavement picking up tempo as our horses set their sights on home.
It’s the end of a long but beautiful ride-through lush forests, over sloping hills, past cascading waterfalls. A short rest at the top of the hill to enjoy ice cold cokes and watch the sun make its spectacular descent over the town below.
Then back down through green valleys touched by the last golden hues of the day.
Its dark now, fireflies lighting up the distant fields, and I sit back and relax, suddenly overcome by a comfortable fatigue. The horses soon come to a halt at a street corner where a group of men emerge from the shadows to assist us.
The man who takes my horse’s reins is old and weathered, a faded cowboy hat tilted back over his graying head.
I hear his comrades refer to him as “abuelo.”
“Did you enjoy your ride?” He smiles up at me.
He’s missing a few teeth, his Spanish layered with a thick accent and a heavy lisp. I return his smile and nod.
“Yes. It’s so beautiful here.”
I pat my horse one last time before dismounting and turning to the other riders-a family from Spain and two young backpackers from France. We wish one another well and wave our goodbyes, commiserating one last time about the aches and pains our unaccustomed bodies will feel come morning.
The old cowboy walks off with my horse in tow and I call out one last “thank you” before heading in the direction of my hotel.
I’ve never been great with directions though, and the way is dark, the dust of the day now settled over the nearly deserted street.
Just as I’m looking down at my blank cellphone screen and wishing I’d thought to charge my phone, I hear footsteps approaching from behind. It’s the old cowboy, gesturing the way. “I’ll walk you home” he says kindly.
And so we walk.
He’s talkative, eager to tell me all about this place he calls home.
He wants to know my experiences so far, asks where I’ve been and where I plan to go.
He tells me that tourism is a relatively new phenomenon for the little town of Jardin, Colombia.
In recent years this peaceful refuge with its brightly colored homes, lively downtown square, and beautiful scenery, has begun to attract visitors from all over the globe.
“Things are changing” he tells me.
“People want to visit us now. They didn’t used to.”
He shrugs and offers me his wide, toothless grin as we arrive at my accommodations.
“I hope you enjoy Colombia!”
He smiles and adjusts his hat before heading back into the night.
Colombia! Why Would You Want to Travel There?
When I first told my friends and family that I was going to Colombia, the reaction quickly became predictable.
A concerned furrow of the brow, a flash of fear across the eyes, a skeptical smile.
Why would she want to go there?
The unformed question always lingering in the silence that followed.
I could see the images flashing through their minds-drug cartels, bombings, and kidnappings. Scenes ingrained in us by decades of horrific news headlines, perpetuated by shows like Narcos that continue to portray Colombia as a place permanently drowning in violence and crime.
When I told my family and friends that I was going to Colombia, no one said “have a nice trip!” Or “take lots of pictures!”
I thought of them often as I traveled through Colombia, and their concern for me always seemed strange, out of place, in the context of my own experiences. Never before had I been somewhere so accommodating, so friendly, so peaceful.
I often had the urge to call people back home and say, “This place is amazing! You’ve got it all wrong!”
Yes It’s True – Colombia Wasn’t Always a Safe Place to Travel
Yet Colombia hasn’t always been the ideal place to visit.
There was a time in recent history when this country was considered one of the most dangerous places in the world, due to dissent between government and militant groups and the massive drug trafficking movement led by Pablo Escobar.
Marcela, co-founder of Other Way Round and a native of Medellin, remembers growing up in a country turned upside down by violence. “There were times when we were outside and the shooting began. Children were killed by stray bullets.”
Marcela’s memories are all too common for those of her generation.
Paula, Other Way Round photographer, has similar experiences.
When Paula was young her mother, an employee at a bank, would frequently get alerted in the middle of the night because her bank had been bombed by Pablo Escobar’s men.
“I was young, I didn’t understand” Paula says. “All I knew was that my mom had to go out and we’d worry that she might not come back.”
Both Marcela and Paula will be quick to say how proud they are of the changes their country has seen in recent years. Yet the memories from childhood still haunt them.
“You feel it, still.” Marcela admits. “It affects you.”
Given what the country has been through, you might expect Colombia to be a place burdened down by its past and struggling to move forward.
Yet what I’ve found, over and over again, is the exact opposite. “We Colombians are a happy people” says Monsa, a guide who provides educational tours to a steadily increasing number of international visitors.
“We can take one happy thing and stretch all the joy from this one thing. And in this way the reality of life does not kill us.”
So How Safe Is Colombia Today?
Visiting the country today, you’ll see this in the brightly colored murals, the uplifting music, the new infrastructure, the smiling people.
Colombia is working hard to move toward a brighter future despite, or perhaps in part because of, its tragic past.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sprawling metropolis of Medellin, the place once known as “The Most Dangerous City in the World.” It is here, in the city center, where Monsa gives her tours, illustrating the many improvements and innovative changes the city has made in recent years.
There is the Parque de las Luces, once an “inner city swamp” where no one dared venture, now a colorfully lit park where children chase birds and men nap on nearby benches.
There is the city’s new metro, the only rail-based mode of transportation in Colombia, where local pride is evident in the pristine seats, clean floors, and graffiti-free walls.
Monsa ends her tour in the Plaza de Antonio, a place few tourists venture even today.
It is here where she points out two bronze bird statues standing side by side-large and disproportionate in the classic style of Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero. The statues are identical in every way, except that one bird has a gaping hole through its belly, exposing through its wound a jagged view of the park beyond.
It was here that in 1995, during the height of drug-related violence in Medellin, a bomb was planted during a music festival. The resulting explosion left 30 dead and more than 200 injured.
The ruined statue was scheduled to be removed from the park, but the artist, Botero, decided to instead leave it standing. It would serve as a reminder of the old Colombia, ripped apart and ravaged by violence and death.
Botero would then create a new statue and place it by the old one’s side. The new bird, perfect and whole, would represent Colombia’s future.
A Brighter Future
“We have good things coming!”
Says Julian, tour guide for Other Way Round.
His outlook is positive, refreshing, and utterly Colombian.
“Five or six years ago, people were too afraid to come to Colombia. And now you are here, wanting to know about our history and see our country!” He gestures around with enthusiasm, his pride palpable.
“We have so much to show you. Nature, food, dance, culture! So much more than violence and drugs.”
And from what I’ve seen so far, Julian has reason to be so enthusiastic. I can’t speak personally for Colombia’s heart-breaking past, or describe this country from anything but a visitor’s perspective. But from what I’ve seen, I can say that Colombia is vibrant, diverse, beautiful, and complex.
It’s a place that welcomes you in like an old friend and stays with you long after you leave, haunting your heart until you return.
It’s a place that is so much more than “safe.”
Soon I’ll return to my hometown-just outside of Dayton, Ohio. You might recognize the name from recent news.
A few months ago we had a mass shooting here, a senseless act of violence that left nine people dead and a city turned completely upside down. It’s the last in a long string of random violent acts that have shaken the United States to its fragile core in recent years.
I will soon return home and people will inevitably ask, “Did you feel safe in Colombia?”
And I will answer honestly, “Safer than here.”
Yet to pretend that present day Colombia is perfect would be naive and harmful to the progress this country has made so far.
There is still crime. There is still poverty.
Colombians will be the first to tell you, No des papaya.
An expression that literally means “Don’t give papaya” but can be translated as “don’t give anyone a reason to steal from you.”
And there is still a long road ahead for Colombia, through a past littered with sadness and loss, but also through a present still faced with a great deal of political unrest.
“People are protesting right now because they are frustrated with the government” says Marcela, referring to President’s Duque’s painfully slow implementation of the 2016 Peace Deal, designed to mitigate tensions between the government and F.A.R.C.
“The protests started with some people banging pots and pans in their kitchens. Gradually the movement spread.”
Marcela smiles as she describes the largely peaceful protests.
“We even had a concert here in Medellin. As a way to bring people together.”
I think of the headlines I read about the protests before coming to Colombia. Articles depicting violence, a country torn apart, potential civil war. Funny, no one ever mentioned pots and pans or free concerts.
Forget the Dated Stereotypes & Come Experience For Yourself
It’s my last night in Colombia and I’m sitting in the Plaza de la Trinidad in Getsemani, the pulsing heart of Colombian’s coastal city of Cartagena.
It’s a place to sit and watch.
Listen to music, sip a beer, grab some food from a nearby street vendor. Dance if the spirit moves you.
We are on Colombian time here, and that is ok.
I’m speaking with Eduardo, a man who lives in Cartagena but grew up in a nearby village. I ask him if he’s ever been to the United States, and he says “No, but I’d like to someday.” Then he shakes his head. “But not New York. I’d be afraid to go there.”
I can’t help but laugh, and I tell him that most people in the United States, even New York, are afraid to come to Colombia.
He looks genuinely puzzled.
The sun is setting, casting a warm glow over the plaza. Children are running about, playing a heated game of tag while their parents look on. In the background there is music. Always there is music here, rhythm pulsing through the plaza like a collective heartbeat.
Eduardo shakes his head in disbelief. “But here it’s so peaceful.” I smile and nod. Yes, I think. That’s a pretty good way to describe this place.
(Read Also: 35 Interesting Facts About Colombia)
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