Travel Diaries: Embracing Colombia Beyond the Headlines
Once safety is not a social guarantee anymore
Welcome to Colombia – for many, unfortunately, still a country of cocaine, cartels and criminality. But after our 6-week-long trip through Colombia (time flies by so fast) we can confirm that this nation is putting a lot of effort into changing its image, to become known as the country of coffee, cocoa, cumbia (the music here) and Carribean.
I (Laura) can remember hearing the news about tourists being kidnapped in Colombia as I was still a teenager in a faraway land Estonia. When deciding to put Colombia on our travel route, we knew that things have changed here a lot over time. We have heard it from our colleagues from Colombia, we have had many friends visiting Colombia and read many blogs confirming that nowadays the country is a relatively safe place to visit. Of course, if you stick to a few simple rules.
We were not so concerned about the safety before we arrived in Colombia. Jens even did not know that Medellin once was the most dangerous city in the world (although we had watched Narcos). But once we sat in the hotel in Cartagena and dug deeper into forums and blogs, we started feeling anxious. In Kenya, we had not felt unsafe for a minute (unless when I was ). But now we were faced with the reality that there is a much higher chance that we could lose some of our valuables.
Of course, one could also blame us – why did you bring all this tech to one of the unsafest countries in the world?! The answer is simple – for our travel blog. And yes, should anything happen to our valuables – we are also to blame here.
So during our first days in Colombia we were being extra careful. We only had one phone with us, only the most necessary money, we did not take our camera with us nor a credit card. We of course were always very aware of our surroundings. We always picked the biggest streets. We never took taxis. We were back in our hotel before it was dark. Jens was getting super nervous as soon as it was getting closer to the sunset and we had not had our dinner yet. As a man, he feels himself responsible for the safety of both of us. And we both are very recognizably foreigners here – me with my blonde hair and he being super tall. And yes, maybe we were even getting a bit paranoid…
But you cannot live with this constant anxiety for a longer time. And what use will we have of the camera if its only in our hotel room. So what helped us was the statistics because numbers don’t lie. So I started googling about robberies and tourist death rates in Medellin.It was calming to realize that the risk of getting robbed is still relatively low considering that hundreds of thousands tourists visit Medellin every year. And the reported deaths of tourists are mostly connected to drugs. The thieves rather look for easy targets, so if you “no dar papaya” (meaning don’t show yourvaluables) and are aware of your belongings, you have already reduced the risk considerably. And if still anything should happen, then you either were in a wrong place at a wrong time or you are just part of the statistics.
So after a few weeks of being in Colombia we started to accept that not everyone in this country is criminal. Majority of them are just normal people trying to live a normal life. You rarely see begging as most people try to earn their money (be it just selling candies or bags for your dog’s poo). Of course, there are some shady people on the streets. But it does not mean that they will attack you with a knife the next moment.
By the time we are leaving Colombia, we have made peace with the anxiety. We bring a few more valuables with us, even the camera to the city center of Medellin and Bogota. We have dinner when it’s dark already and will just take an Uber back to the hostel. But we are still sticking to the safety rules, being aware of the surroundings and our belongings. And hope not to become part of the bad statistics.
Colombian people are so kind and helpful
We have noticed that once you let the anxiety go, you will truly start seeing the people. Despite all the violence, they are still so friendly, helpful and such a cheerful nation. The people on the streets say hi to you because they are happy to see tourists in their block. They are genuinely interested in where you come from because they are happy that a gringo is buying fruits from their market stall instead of going to a big supermarket. The Uber driver tells his kid to share some sweets with you because thanks to you he has a job to take care of his child as a single father. The beggar on the street shows you his ID to say how old he is because he is so happy that you bought a bracelet from him for 50 cents with which he can fund his knee operation. The strangers on the street are telling you to be careful of your mobile phone since because they do not want you to lose it. These people want you to return to home with positive stories – stories of a land that has transformed itself in such a short period.
The sad truth about Colombia and cocaine
Although Colombia is a much safer place for everyone now, it would be naive to think that the cartels have disappeared. In fact, Colombia is producing cocaine more than ever before, having once again increased its production by 24% percent in 2022. There are still over 200 gangs in Medellin, working for several criminal institutions. The drug lords have probably just realized that killing innocent people is not good for the business on long term.
The worst is to know that the root of the problem actually does not lie in Colombia but in our wonderful and safe western world. As long as there is demand there will be surplus. So if we really want to do something for the countries like Colombia – we should stop supporting the drug industry in any way through our own actions…
The pain of a nation so big there needs to be a change
And one thing is to think about our personal safety during our short visit, the other is to realize how it has been to live in Colombia – in all this violence. Our knowledge about the painful past is still very superficial. I believe no young person from Western Europe can imagine what the people here have gone through. As hard as it is to truly understand what does the war in Ukraine mean. We, the generation of peace, have never seen pain like this. And even less can we imagine it to be your everyday life – to hear gun shots in the night, to see dead people on the streets, to fear not only about your own life but also of your loved ones. The people in Colombia deserve better and it’s good to know that things are improving. There is hope. And the people here are resilient enough to make the change a reality to create a better future.
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