Call it my imagination. While I looked forward to our visit to Colombia, I harbored the occasional image of thuggy bush-mustached Colombian narco-gangsters and aggressive gold cap-toothed street thieves shaking me down in the back shadows of Bogota or Medellin. (Yes, I realize I’ve probably watched one too many bad airplane movies.)
Colombia, thankfully, was altogether different. We spent time on our own, under the auspices of friends, on tours, in cities, way up in the hills, on the coast, and in destinations in between.
No narco-gangsters. No untoward experiences, for us.
Trying to understand a place is not only about jettisoning stereotype ballast, but also about absorbing details, parsing quotes, and plumbing idiosyncrasies to comprehend a culture for ourselves.
So we did — in barrios, on buses, in markets, on miradors.
And this is our initial unpacking of our Colombia experience, our first brush of impressions of the country, across dimensions.
1. You really don’t know how big Colombia is.
Really, you don’t. Or, at least we didn’t. Hint: combine the landmasses of Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Yes, Colombia is that big.
It’s also more geographically diverse than we realized. The Andean mountain range, once it enters Colombia, splits into three branches; the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea sit west and north respectively. Throw in the Amazon rainforest, the plains, the desert and top it off with the Sierra Nevadas, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, and you have Colombia. And I’m sure someone will tell us we’ve missed something.
Because of this and the contours of landscapes, people and vibe, Colombia can sometimes feel like several countries rolled into one. In fact, given all that we learned during our trip about Colombia we now have an even longer travel wish list than when we first arrived, including San Agustin, Nuqui, Caño Cristales and many other areas that we've heard are fantastic for trekking and mountain biking.
Note: When planning your travel around Colombia, check distances and bus times and consider flying the longer segments. The country features an impressive network of airports and domestic flights, which were previously intended to circumvent the danger found on roads due to FARC and paramilitary groups. Nowadays, violence is less a factor than it once was, but road conditions, distances and the recent introduction of low-cost airlines like VivaColombia make flying an easier choice. It will save you a lot of time and help you avoid some of the pains of enduring winding mountain roads.
2. Colombian People: Exceptionally Friendly, Courteous, Helpful
Sure, we’d heard Colombians were friendly and open — especially from Colombians themselves 🙂 — but there was still a part of us that wondered whether we’d meet the gangster stereotypes conjured in our heads by bad movies and media. (Think: Vinnie Chase as Pablo Escobar from the TV Show Entourage for a start).
Um, no. The exact opposite, to an extreme.
What struck us about Colombians, especially in areas less impacted by tourism, is not only how open they were towards us, but also how they went beyond whatever we asked. They wanted to help. Take for example the employee at Chicamocha National Park who insisted on standing in the rain after her workday ended to ensure we boarded the correct bus. Or the random guy at a busy Bogota TransMilenio (public bus) station who went well out of his way to walk us to our correct bus stop. Beyond that, teenage kids in villages greeted us politely and wished us good evening. People stopped and gave us rides. Sure, this wasn’t happening in the midst of downtown Bogota or in the crowds of Cartagena, but it did happen. And it seemed more par for the course than the exception.
We were told that Colombia’s violent past made it somewhat difficult for the Colombian people to trust one another, not to mention outsiders. The openness we found — not only toward us as gringos, but to other Colombians as well – made this all the more surprising.
I understand that we often point out how friendly people are just about everywhere we go. But in general, and specifically in Latin America, Colombians' distinction for being notably open, polite and helpful will stay with us.
Note: Knowing how to speak some Spanish, even if imperfectly, will greatly aid your engagement with Colombians. Especially compared to its neighbors, there’s not a great deal of fluent English spoken…yet.
3. Give Security Forces a Thumbs Up
In some destinations, armed men in military fatigues on the side of the road could be cause for alarm. In Colombia, however, the scene is common and welcome. In a country that lived through decades of instability and violence, the presence of military and national police indicates: “This area is safe. We are here to protect you.”
Colombians indicate their gratitude and support by giving the thumbs-up sign to the security forces. Even better, imagine that the big guys with semi-automatic rifles often give the thumbs-up sign right back, with a smile.
However endearing the gesture, it reflects something deeper: how appreciative Colombian people are for the security and stability they now have. Until 10 years ago or so, large swathes of the country were off-limits and road travel posed serious threat because of guerilla roadblocks and kidnappings.
Should they sense unease, Colombians may also assure you of your safety, sometimes to even humorous effect. In the town of Barichara, our hosts opened with the following welcome: “It's very safe here. Don't worry. No one will offer you marijuana or other drugs.”
4. Colombia, A Vegetarian Dream, But Only in the Markets for Now
Walk into a market in Colombia and you’ll likely find piles of fruit, herbs, vegetables, roots and tubers you’ve never encountered before. To what do we owe this vast selection? Colombian biodiversity. Mountains, coast, and rainforest, each with their own climate and soil. It’s among the best of all worlds, agriculturally.
When you visit a fresh market, be sure to chat with vendors to get a mini-tutorial on all that they are selling. Sample whatever you can, from gooseberries to lulo, from yucca to malanga. And don't forget to check out the avocados the size of small footballs. As you do, keep in mind #2 above: people are friendly, don’t be afraid to engage.
Among the Colombian fresh markets we recommend: Mercado Paloquemao in Bogota, the San Gil central market, and the Villa de Leyva Saturday market.
The disappointing flip side to these amazing markets? It remains more difficult than it ought to be to find all these vegetables used creatively in local dishes and in local restaurants. There are some chefs and menu designers in Colombia trying to change this, but it’s taking time.
A note for gluten-free travelers: Colombia is a surprisingly decent destination for gluten-free eaters. Many dishes, soups and treats are corn-based, and various other baked goods are actually made with tubers such as yucca and suga.
5. “No Dar Papaya” (Don’t Give Papaya)
The story behind this phrase and advice: just as it’s hard to resist eating a sweet, ripe papaya that’s placed in front of you, it’s hard not to thieve something that is left out or waved around carelessly in front of you.
Thievery is not necessarily met with approval in Colombia per se, but it does not come as a surprise to a Colombian should you expose yourself indiscreetly. So take care with your belongings.
Another interpretation of this concept that applies more broadly: you shouldn’t expose weaknesses in yourself so that others may take advantage of you. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be open, but rather be deliberate and careful regarding what you share, how and with whom.
What does this say about the culture and the Colombian mindset? The optimist says good advice: Don’t be careless and remain realistic about human nature. The cynic says: a cultural justification and rationalization for bad behavior.
While we are here, let’s further address the issue of safety in Colombia. During our more than three weeks with friends, on our own, on a tour, in cities and in hills, we never once felt threatened or at risk during our visit. We walked about quite a bit on our own, but we also know that there are notoriously dangerous areas that are to be avoided altogether. Ask someone with local knowledge where it’s safe, and don't try to prove anything to anyone. Should you choose to venture into an area known for crime (as we did in Barrio San Francisco, Cartagena), be sure to go during the day with someone from the community who knows the lay of the land.
Colombian society is systemically hierarchical and class-based, which is not unlike many other countries in Latin America. However, the government has taken it a step further by formalizing it through a classification of neighborhoods by socio-economic status into levels called stratos (with stratos 6 being the highest level). The idea: those living in richer neighborhoods subsidize the utility bills of people living in poorer neighborhoods. While this subsidy may be beneficial in some respects, it also stigmatizes and systematizes a sort of social class caste system. Some suggested to us that even today it’s nearly impossible to move up from, or date and marry outside of one’s stratos.
As with many of its neighbors, much of Colombia’s turbulence and political upheaval has been rooted in socioeconomy and the yawning wealth gap between rich and poor. Guerrilla movements like the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and criminal warlords like Pablo Escobar have all employed strains of populist rhetoric to justify their actions and the violence left in their wake. (Note: For an entertaining, yet sad, primer on Pablo Escobar and the rise of Colombian football, watch The Two Escobars)
For the traveler who spends all her time in Bogota’s Zona Rosa or Candelaria, Colombian coffee country, and the old town core of Cartagena, it's possible to believe that Colombia's richness has been for the benefit of everyone. But walk a few blocks off the path, and you may find a very different story.
7. Urban Planning for Social Change
Imagine your favorite city in the U.S. or Europe closing off vast segments of its roads on a Sunday to enable cyclists and joggers to move safely in an automobile-free environment. You’d think we were crazy, no?
But that’s exactly what Bogota does every Sunday with its Ciclovía when it cordons off over 400km of continuous roadway for the benefit of those who want to walk, jog, cycle or otherwise get some exercise and fresh air. Impressive, especially in a city of over eight million people.
Medellin serves as another fascinating case study in urban planning for social change and public safety improvement. Officials there invested in public transport, including a very cool cable car system into several poor and often gang-riddled barrios (neighborhoods) in the hills so that residents would have better access to the city. Additionally, other public works, including the Spain Library in Santo Domingo, were built to provide clean, safe learning environments for residents and children. The infrastructure and resulting impact also encourages people from other parts of the city to visit these neighborhoods, thereby aiding the normalization of relations between once disparate parts of town.
Although Medellin still has its share of problems, the transformation that the city has undergone in the last decade, especially in its poorer barrios, is worth watching. One may argue as to the sustainability of all these measures, but as a local teen told us: “We used to be at war with the barrio down there. Now we have a bridge that connects us.”
8. Impressive Street Art Culture
Another surprise from Colombia: fantastic street art. Not just some, but loads of it, at an astonishing level of quality, typically to make a political or cultural statement. Even more surprising, the acceptance and support from officials. Occasionally, the artistic process is even monitored by local police to ensure the protection of the artists.
Unsurprisingly, Botoga serves as the epicenter of Colombia’s street art scene. Travelers tempted to view the city as a transit point or a destination to be avoided altogether, think again. It's worth a visit, even if for a day or two. Wander the streets in Candelaria or around the area of Calle 20 and Carrera 4 in the Centro for the most message-laden pieces of street art.
In Cartagena, we really enjoyed the street art in Getsemani, the neighborhood just across the way from the core of its famous colonial old town. This area was originally where escaped slaves and the lower classes lived, but today it features a hip not-quite-fully-discovered vibe that serves as a worthy contrast to the polish and finish of the old town center.
Note: To understand the history behind the Bogota street art scene and the story of some of its most important artists, sign up for the Bogota Graffiti Tour (10 AM every day).
9. Arepas Unite!
In a country so vast and diverse in climate, culture, and geography, there’s one corn-based constant that unites it all: the flatbread arepa.
Each region does its arepa a little differently, none with less pride than the other. After tasting dozens over the last couple of weeks, we can attest to the fact that not all arepas are created equal. Arepas range from the appallingly dense and hockey-puck like to the crisp and delightful brine-cheese filled, from the cardboard tasteless, to the soft, sweet cornmeal.
Our favorites include the super crispy Arepas Boyacense and the warm, moist Arepas Santandereano. There's a stand at the Bogota Mercado Paloquemao that serves up amazing cheese-stuffed Boyacense arepas.
10. Colombian Coffee
Does an image of Juan Valdez come into your head when you think of Colombian coffee? If so, there’s a reason for that. The Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers created him in a brilliant marketing move in 1958 to be the “face” of the country’s coffee to the rest of the world. Yes, Juan is kind of cliché at this point, but the campaign worked.
Today, Colombia stands an impressive #3 in the world for coffee production after Brazil and Vietnam. What differentiates Colombia is that it tends to grows the more difficult, and often more prized, Arabica coffee bean rather than the higher yielding Robusta beans.
Visit coffee country around the town of Armenia and you will see plantation hills covered with coffee bushes, while in the Sierra Nevada mountains you’ll find an occasional bush planted by an indigenous family trying to diversify its income stream. In other words, coffee is everywhere in Colombia.
A visit to one of these coffee farms will help you appreciate all that goes into making your morning cuppa', including the people. A surprising coffee factoid: 100 kilos of picked coffee berries yields only 13 kilos of final product roasted beans. Coffee pickers are paid 500 pesos ($0.25) per kilo of beans. In one day, a good picker can make around $20-$25 from picking 100 kilos of beans. We were sent into the fields to pick beans; it’s immensely difficult work, especially in the energy-sapping heat. So, next time you peer into your cup of coffee, take a moment to think of everyone who helped create it.
Although much of the first quality coffee beans are exported, we found the quality of coffee in general served in Colombia much higher than in other Latin American coffee-producing countries we’d visited (e.g., Guatemala, Honduras). While Juan Valdez cafés usually serve up consistently good brew, we found our tidiest cup of Joe at Jesús Martín Café in the tourist favorite Salento.
There is one notable exception to the Colombian high quality coffee rule: tinto. Think watered down Nescafe with several spoonfuls of sugar turned in. It’s an acquired taste for outsiders, but it’s the Colombian national drink. And since Colombians grew up with it, they love it. You’ll find tinto vendors on every major street corner or market, so it won’t be hard for you to find – and judge — for yourself.
11. Cocaine and the Coca Leaf
Cocaine does not appear as relevant to mainstream Colombia these days, but it remains a force under the surface, if not still above it. Such is the world of the illegal drug trade. Don't make it the first mention to Colombians, however, if you choose to mention it all at. Most Colombians are understandably tired of this stereotype, have more important things going on in their lives, and wish to move on.
Before going further, we'd like to make a distinction between cocaine and coca. The coca leaf has been grown and chewed by indigenous populations throughout South America for millennia – it’s crucial to their rituals, it's part of their culture and their identity. For example, during our trek to the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, our indigenous guide always carried a sack of coca leaves, and would exchange leaves with other indigenous men as he greeted them. This was critical to his identity as a Wiwa man.
Cocaine, on the other hand, is a substance altogether different. Yes, the green coca leaf forms the foundation, but after that the process of cocaine production becomes flush with chemicals and explosive danger.
The cook on our Lost City trek, Enrique, sat down with us one evening to describe to us the entire process of cocaine production, from start to finish, including a frightening list of ingredients and refinement steps involving gasoline, acid and a host of chemicals that transform the green coca leaf into white powder. The knowledge he shared, and the way he shared it, formed a bit of a history lesson for us. It came from a time in his life when narcotics traffickers controlled the Sierra Nevada hills, and most people living in the area had little choice but to work with them. Today, he's very thankful to be able to cook food instead for the trekkers on the way to the Lost City.
So while Pablo Escobar and many in his infamous Medellin Cartel are dead, cocaine – and the byproduct “industry” that gets built up around it – still exists in Colombia. Fighting the illicit cocaine trade and all the social and economic by-products of the criminal networks built up around it, however, remains an uphill battle.
Note: We also encountered this during our travels in Bolivia and wrote: Cocaine: A Story that Begins in the Bolivian Jungle
12. Tourism in Colombia: Still Early Days
Only in the last decade has stability and restored public safety enabled people to travel easily without fear of violence and kidnapping. As a result, outside of the Caribbean, foreign tourism in Colombia is still in its relative infancy.
What this means is that there are many destinations in Colombia that remain “off-the-beaten path.” Even those on it still don’t receive a great deal of foreign travelers. For example, when we visited Barichara and Villa de Leyva, two colonial towns high on traditional “must see” lists for first-time visitors to Colombia, we came across only a handful of foreign travelers in each.
The upshot? With the exception of Cartagena and some other well-traveled areas along the north coast, Colombia retains a bit of pre-tourism innocence.
Sure, perhaps the infrastructure can be a bit spotty in places and information can sometimes be hard to find, but if you make a little effort you’ll always find what you are looking for, often with the help of some random stranger. It seems that Colombian people really want to help, and to share their country with others. And to us, this is really what matters.
Colombia’s tourism industry will only continue to grow. So if you’re considering a visit, factor in timing. Think about visiting soon, so as to catch a little bit of the early air and take part in Colombia’s development — and maybe even your own.
A note of thanks to: Gregg Bleakney who enticed with videos of Colombia long before we arrived and piled us with great travel advice, Tansy Evans who opened our eyes up to the culinary potential of Colombian fruits and vegetables, and our G Adventures CEOs (leaders) Henry Sisa and Carmen Trujillo who were always there to answer all of our questions and help us understand the nature, culture and history of this complicated place called Colombia.
Our San Francisco Barrio and Gabriel Garcia Marquez walking tours in Cartagena were provided by Context Travel.
As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.
Most of experiences above were from the G Adventures Colombia Journey Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!