I never officially planned to travel to Colombia. After my study program in Buenos Aires, I had a 6 week window before my flight home from Santiago, Chile. My initial plan was to travel down the length of Argentina and up Chilean Patagonia. On a whim, I instead bought a one way ticket to Bogotá. Despite its negative reputation, something about Colombia has always appealed to my imagination and sense of adventure.
Most Australians only know about Colombia because of what they’ve seen on Narcos. Consequently, it has a negative reputation of a country still run by cartels, with cocaine as a major industry, and ravaged by violence all over the country.
When I tell people that I’ve travelled to Colombia, they get a certain expression on their face. It’s either amazement that I’ve gone somewhere so dangerous and different, or concern that I put myself in the situation in the first place. “Was it dangerous?” is a question that often comes up.
Colombia is the most beautiful country that I have ever visited, and it doesn’t deserve its negative reputation for so many reasons.
Colombia is not stuck in the violence of the 1980’s.
A lot of people are unaware that Colombia is no longer heavily involved in cartel activity for the trafficking of cocaine. Even though cocaine can still be easily found in the country, major cartels now operate out of Mexico. Colombia may be a major producer country of cocaine, but it’s worth remembering that the majority is shipped to the US for consumption. The industry wouldn’t thrive without the high demand from Western countries.
This means that a lot of the cocaine-related violence has reduced in major cities like Medellín. Although it would be unwise to travel to some regions, including the deep south of the country, all the major tourist destinations are perfectly safe to travel to if you use common sense.
I heard of other travellers having issues with violence in Cali, but other than that, the widespread consensus was that you shouldn’t walk alone on the streets in big cities late at night. This is common sense advice for big cities all over the world, and I regularly walked alone during the day and early evening with no issues.
People are friendly and helpful, particularly in rural towns.
The Spanish spoken in Colombia is advertised as the easiest to understand in the continent, and so it’s incredibly easy to converse with locals. A lot of Colombians are not used to seeing tourists, and so you will be met with curiosity and sometimes questions. Particularly in rural villages, I often had farmers stopping me to ask me where I was going and where I had come from.
A lot of the older people in particular will approach and ask lots of questions. I also had older men offering me free rides to town when I was staying in a remote eco-sanctuary in Salento. Old women in major cities would often come up and tell me to put my phone away because I was drawing too much attention to myself! Older Colombians are very well-meaning and will try to look out for travellers.
I also met up with a few guys from Couchsurfing in Bogotá and they were more than happy to hang out and chat in a mixture of Spanish and English. A lot of locals are very happy that you have decided to visit their country, in spite of its negative reputation.
Colombia’s negative reputation overshadows its amazing cities and natural wonders.
These were my highlights of my travels through Colombia.
Street art in Bogotá.
Bogotá can be difficult to travel around, because of the high altitude, but the winding mountain streets are definitely picturesque. There are a lot of attractions in the city, but my favourite activity was wandering the streets of La Candelaria and stumbling upon street art.
Hiking through coffee country in Salento.
Salento is a tiny laid back town in the middle of coffee farms and rolling hills. From here you can take a bus to the famous Valle de Cocora to see the giant palm trees, but the hikes around the town are just as beautiful. One of my highlights was visiting a coffee farm and learning about the process of making coffee.
Learning Colombian history in Medellín.
Medellín is an incredibly modern city with a violent history. One of my highlights was taking walking tours to see sites of former violence, and a tour that explained the history of Pablo Escobar and his cartel. It is a huge city and so you could easily spend a week here without getting bored.
Colonial architecture in Cartagena.
Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast and so the heat and humidity are sometimes stifling. If you can avoid the midday heat, the old walled city is full of gorgeous colonial architecture, and vendors selling a variety of tropical fruits. There are also easy day trips to beautiful beaches.
Paragliding in San Gil.
San Gil is not an exciting city in its own right, but it is a hub for adventure activities like paragliding, white water rafting, and bungee jumping. I opted to visit the Chicamocha Canyon for paragliding, and it was a beautiful and surreal experience to float so high above the ground.
Rural villages off the beaten path in Sogamoso.
Sogamoso and its surrounding villages were the highlight of my travels in Colombia. You can take buses between tiny villages with incredible colonial architecture, hike along a giant lake, and chat to friendly locals. Sogamoso is off the general tourist radar and so you will have it largely to yourself.
I would love to return to Colombia, as there are so many things left to see. I would like to learn salsa in Cali, hike to the lost city near Santa Marta, visit various national parks, and improve on my Spanish. I had only a taste of Colombia on this trip, and it was addictive.
Have you ever travelled to Colombia? What was your experience?