Colombia's image problem: safe to go but nobody knows
Updated: Mar 8, 2020
"Kidnapping is really old skool," said the taxi driver who would take us to our first hotel on arrival in Bogota. The tone of the conversation was immediately set and our conscience was immediately soothed. Exit all the conversations on drug cartels, Pablo Escobar and other cliché images after this first taxi ride. Insert the beautiful landscapes, mysterious archaeological sites, sustainable coffee plantations and colonial, architectural gems. Due to certain prejudices and stereotypes, Colombia is not yet suffering from mass tourism. So it's time to pack your bags NOW. Vamonos!
A destination for insiders
Since the peace agreement in Colombia between the government and the Farc rebel movement at the end of 2016, more and more tourists are finding their way to Colombia. As a travel influencer I noticed that other travelers were eagerly going to the homeland of James Rodriguez, Shakira and new face Egan Bernal (Tour de France 2019 winner). Because of the numerous Instagramworthy locations that were reviewed on certain accounts, I was convinced that I would disappear in a crazy flock of tourists at the start of the high season , but it turned out not to be the case.
Tourists can be found everywhere - that's just a fact - but in Colombia it felt more like occasional encounters with like-minded souls; they had already heard through fellow travelers how fantastic this country was, they were informed about safety and had left with an arsenal of ideas and hot spots.
Because let's be honest: if you don't do your research beforehand, you will get no further than coffee, drugs and images from an actor who plays the role of Colombia's biggest criminal. And that's a shame, because Colombia has so much more to offer. Anyone who finally puts aside all prejudices, will soon notice how Colombia is going to conquer your heart and travel soul, even before you have set foot on the ground.
Off the beaten track archeology
That fertile, green, intriguing Colombian soil. There is something special about it. Especially there where the mysterious statues of San Agustin take over the landscape. They are haphazardly scattered in the region as if God, or let's say some pre-Colombian supreme or supreme goddess, put them there with much bravado but without structure. Not to mention the tomb walhalla in Tierradentro where you can only get with a jeep via muddy roads with threatening landslides and where you first have to hike a 17 km through the mountains to see them all (about 40). You descend to the unknown via a winding staircase and almost literally walk into the pre-Colombian past..
Due to certain prejudices and stereotypes, Colombia is not yet suffering from mass tourism. So it's time to pack your bags NOW. Vamonos!
Colombia is often critized for not being able to give us 'a Machu Picchu', but the mysterious veil covering the Colombian archaeological sites and the roads leading to them are just a little more exciting than joining Peruvian lamas between hordes of tourists.
I have not been there myself due to lack of time, but if you are in good physical condition and a 4-day hike through the jungle sounds like music to your ears, you should definitely opt for 'Ciudad Perdida'. A trek of 44 kilometers and an ascent of about 1100 steps that lead to a lost city founded by Indians in 800 AD.
If you don't have time for this trip through the wilderness, you can also get in touch with Mother Earth at plenty of other National Parks. The Puracé National Park, for example, is the home of the Andean condor that has been re-introduced to the region through a special breeding program. Three condors now live in the wild. You can also spot the "frailejon", a plant that plays a very important role in the local water supply. The hairs of the plant and the thick spongy stems collect water vapor from the air and release it through the roots. About 85% of the fresh water in Colombia is processed by plants such as the frailejon and is released into lakes, rivers and streams.
It is even possible to spend the night in a national park. The Tayrona National park takes you on an entertaining hike through the jungle to a succession of sea bays, where imposing boulders mark the landscape and lush palm trees effortlessly surround the beaches. Postcard worthy places that should not be outshined by more famous, tropical destinations. If you want to stroll the picturesque bays at your leisure, you can rent a tent in the park or reserve a hammock and stay there for several days.
Wherever you are in Colombia, the landscapes are endearing, wide and wonderfully green. There are a few exceptions, like the Tatacoa desert. In theory it is not a desert but a dry forest. It evokes a Lone Ranger vibe and kind of looks like the moon. Strange, but magically beautiful.
Another photogenic natural phenomenon in Colombia is the wax palm tree. The largest palm trees in the world stick out above the sometimes in mist shrouded peaks of the Cocora valley, in the middle of the Zona Cafetera, the coffee region. This national tree can grow up to 60 meters!
It is certainly worthwhile to stay here for a few days to explore the region. In addition to the Cocora valley trek, you can also visit different coffee plantations where you can even pick your own coffee berries and put your taste buds to the test. Those who want to go for the complete package can stay in a 100 year old, renovated coffee house that now serves as a lodge. Including vegetables from the garden, fresh trout and homemade yogurt! Yes they were already promoting ecotourism long before it became a hashtag on the gram.
The alternating rhythm of the city
When you are ready to exchange all that greenery for a portion of cultural concrete, you will end up taking the night bus or the not so expensive flight to Bogota, Medellin or Cartagena where you can sign up for a free walking grafitti tour, get a taste of culinary Colombia and can dive into the colonial past of the country.
Medellin is the prime example that Colombia is undergoing a complete make over. The Comuna 13 was previously one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellin. A true no-go zone where various drug cartels competed and divided the neighborhood into different areas with imaginary lines; whoever crossed a line knew that danger was lurking behind the corner. Now it is a neighborhood with break dance battles every afternoon, where one graffiti wall is even more beautiful than the other and where you can even take the escalator (yes, like in a shopping mall)! But more importantly, it feels safe. This is the result of a transformation process that the municipality has set in motion to evolve into an innovative neighborhood. They call it 'social urbanism'.
Another great neighborhood is Poblado, where nightlife is king and where one can taste modern, Colombian cuisine or go for a tasty slize of pizza.
After eating chicken, rice, beans and baked banana for a few days, it just feels good to walk inside a hipster coffee bar for an Instagrammable piece of toast avocado, to search for hidden rooftop bars and to take out the Visa for some souvenir hunting.
Cartagena is a city where you can basically take a nice picture before every single door and on almost every corner of the street (read: you can finally wear those picture perfect dresses that you have been dragging along all vacation long). Getting lost without a map is the message here. You secretly hope that Colombia will never be the victim of mass tourism.
A country that was roughly 10 years ago a dangerous place to be for both tourists and locals, is now eagerly awaiting the next load of visitors.
Fifty shades of turquoise
This colonial gem is also the ideal starting point to visit the Islas de Rosario. An archipelago about 35 km southwest of Cartagena, consisting of 27 small coral islands, including some small islands. The islands are surrounded by coral reefs, where the color of the sea equals 50 shades of turquoise! Bring along a good book, your best bikini and some cash of course. And when boredom pops up again and the sand between your toes is getting a bit too much, the possibilities are still endless with numerous snorkeling activities, boat trips in the mangroves and even spotting fluorescent plankton.
After a few days of rest, I'm back in the harbor of Cartagena in a heart beat. Before I realize it, I'm sitting in an (illegal) Uber to the airport with - oh cliché - a backpack full of memories. Those last clichés and prejudices have been washed away at the last high tide. In fact, in my best Spanish (which has remarkably improved the last few weeks), I enthusiastically talk about my fantastic trip and the taxi driver looks at me with a nod of approval. A country that was roughly 10 years ago a dangerous place to be for both tourists and locals, is now eagerly awaiting the next load of visitors.
"Adios", I say to the taxi driver one last time, while I hear "Vamonos" echoing in the distance. The start of undoubtedly another mind blowing vacation. "Gracias, Colombia, gracias ..."