The mere mention of our plans to travel to Colombia brought questionable looks or, more ominously, open concerns about our sanity for traveling here.
Truth be told, my experiences with Colombians before coming here was mostly limited to my time on the police department.
But, like most stereotypes, the one linking Colombia and the Colombian people as a whole to drug trafficking is patently false.
Here in Colombia, the transformation from the paroxysm of violence that once plagued the country to the Colombia of today is remarkable. Neighborhoods once the site of violent battles between government forces, paramilitary groups, and the FARC Guerillas (each often funded with the profits of drug sales), are now up and coming places to live.
The disparity between the economically powerful and those with limited means is still stark and terribly unequal, but one could make the same argument of many countries in this world.
The guides on our trip all fully acknowledge that the Colombia of the cartels–in particular the one controlled by Pablo Escobar-Gaviria–cast a dark shadow over Colombia’s reputation.
But they also proudly point out the dramatic transformation taking place in the country. During the height of the drug lords’ reign, Colombians feared to travel anywhere except what was necessary to survive. Kidnappings, assassinations, hijackings were all too common.
Yet now, tourism (mostly domestic with increasing presence of international travelers) is contributing to a growing economy.
Our lead guide, Carlos Valencia, is a true ambassador for Colombia. He wove a captivating and entertaining tale explaining the complex history and rich culture with his deep knowledge and sense of humor. To him I say, gracias amigo.
As we made our way around the country, we clearly were an unusual sight, drawing subtle yet obvious attention wherever we went. We were the gringos, a term not meant in a derogatory manner but just to define our clear difference from the norm.
Once you come to see Colombia as little different than any other country in the world–a clear benefit of traveling even in the time of covid– where people just want to live their lives despite the obstacles, it is a beautiful country with friendly people. The friendliness underscored by their bemused tolerance as I massacred their language.
I find it interesting that it was the very violence itself tearing the country apart which led to its healing.
Brave political leaders recognized that economic disparities provided the labor for the drug business. Faced with a choice between losing their farms and families, or facing deadly threats if they refused, many had no choice but to grow coca. Using the military to suppress dissent had the exact opposite effect.
The government refocused on the people and their welfare and the metamorphosis began.
Colombia has transformed itself from one of the most dangerous places in the world to one of the most enjoyable. Coming here made me realize that the Colombia I experienced and the Colombian people I met were always here, I just couldn’t see it because I never took the time to look for it.
Adios, Colombia, hasta la proxima vez
Go to Colombia, you’ll never regret the experience.