The perception that Colombia is still dangerous and unfriendly to foreigners is outdated and misguided. It is our responsibility as tourists to change that.
After traveling through Colombia for the past seven weeks, I wanted to write something for all the people that reacted with: “wow, this guy is going to die!” when I told them I was visiting Colombia. Truth be told, Colombia is one of the most fun, safe, and friendly countries I have ever visited.
I have always felt that bad things can happen to people no matter where we go. For example, as a Torontonian, right now gun violence in the city is at the highest rate it has been in my lifetime. Does that mean we are going to avoid downtown Toronto? Probably not, we just have to keep our heads up a little more than usual. I think the same can be said about traveling in Colombia at the moment. Sure, there are dangerous parts of the country, but the perception that Colombia is a gorilla-run, gun-slinging danger-zone off limits to gringos should be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, though, perceptions often take time to change, and most of the world's perception of Colombia is lagging behind. This is one reason I think it's important to travel: Because the only way to truly understand a place is by visiting it, and without that we not only miss out on seeing parts of the world due to misguided fear, but we also never give these countries a chance to change the perceptions surrounding them, no matter how misguided they often are.
Colombia has changed dramatically since the Pablo Escobar era. The country has made agreements with cartels and gorilla organizations in order to keep the peace, and the result is a prospering economy, rising standards of living, and increased safety. Tourism is a large part of the prospering economy, as the perception surrounding Colombia is beginning to change and young tourists are starting to travel the country, but it could and should be an even bigger factor. Unfortunately, for reasons I'll get into, tourism is still in its infancy. However, perhaps because tourism is so new, Colombians are generally ecstatic to see gringos, willing to go out of their way to help us with directions, practising spanish, recommending things to do, or just simply getting to know us. In my experience, Colombians have been nothing but friendly and I have felt safe every step of the way.
As I already mentioned, there is a commonly held belief that Colombia is still dangerous. The reason, I believe, is three-fold. First of all, the country truly was dangerous until very recently (tourism only took off in Medellin in 2015 and regions like Choco, Cali, and Buenaventura are still avoided because of their “unsafe” labels). But the drug-related violence is mostly a thing of the past and certainly isn't occurring in tourist zones. Why, then, does the fear-mongering continue despite all the upward progress the country has made in the past decade? I believe part of the onus for the ongoing perception of Colombia being unsafe is on us, the tourists.
As we see in the media, it is easier to sell the worst stories than the best. As tourists travel in Colombia, constantly interacting with each other in hostels and bars, we are obsessed with retelling the sexiest, most intriguing stories we know. Unfortunately, the sexiest stories are usually the most dangerous ones: how someone we know got pick-pocketed, how we once heard a gunshot, or how a friend of a friend got robbed at night (petty crime for the most part). However, the truth is that these stories occur far and few between (and can happen anywhere in the world). But it’s the exotic, dangerous stories that are easiest to retell, so they get passed on frequently to fellow travelers, making them seem normal despite them being outliers. The reality is that most experiences travelers have in Colombia are good ones, but the good ones are simply less fun to retell. It is for this reason that several Colombians insist that I tell me friends back home about how Colombia has changed and how safe and friendly it has become. It is, therefore, our responsibility as travelers to begin to tell the good stories rather than the bad ones if we want the perception surrounding Colombia to change for the better.
Another reason Colombia hosts such an unsafe reputation has to do with the way people consume Colombian culture; That is, through the lense of cocaine, reiterated in TV shows like “Narcos” and movies like “Blow.” The result is downright depressing: Certain people traveling to Colombia simply to enjoy good parties and cheap cocaine — and often cheap women too, another side effect of the cocaine industry — without experiencing real Colombian culture. I have met far too many travelers (usually Australians or Europeans) who spend their days sleeping and their nights enjoying cocaine and liquor. Obviously these travelers are problematic for a number of reasons. Most notably, because people are still dying over cocaine-related violence in Colombia and this behaviour not only encourages the distribution of cocaine within the country, but also contributes to the misconception that Colombia is synonymous with cocaine and has little else to offer.
Never, in fact, have I been to a country with so much to offer. Colombia has so many utterly different regions, cultures, terrains, people, and activities. In Colombia one can travel from the Caribbean coast where the people are Afro-Caribbean to the Amazon Rainforest where aboriginals have lived the same way for hundreds of years to the big cities of Medellin, Bogota, and Cali where hard-working ‘Paisas,’ ‘Rolos,’ and ‘Caleños,’ respectively, hustle through the days and dance (or consume football) through the nights, to the Pacific coast where the people live a more simple life, all the while stopping in the desert, tropical mountain towns, or lakeside villages along the way.
On top of all the different regions and cultures, Colombia, in reality, produces much more than just cocaine. In fact, there are more plant and animal species per unit area in Colombia than any other country in the world as well as 1889 species of birds and over 130,000 plant species (Lonely Planet, 2016). Due to Colombia’s location on the equator as well as its numerous microclimates, the country also produces some of the world's best coffees, chocolates, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and more.
What makes Colombia truly special, though, is its people. What surprised me most about Colombians is not just how happy they are despite having so little or how nice they are to foreigners but also how open they are. Compared to Canadians, for example, Colombians are much more willing to open up to people they hardly know, showing vulnerability to get to know someone for no other reason than to make that person feel welcomed. It is somewhat ironic, then, that it is us Canadians who own a reputation for being nice and friendly while Colombians host the opposite reputation.
One thing I have come to believe is that Canadian forms of kindness are often somewhat shallow. For instance, Canadians are known for saying stuff like “thank you” and “sorry” and holding the door open for others. While those little things are nice — an important part of our culture and a good stereotype to own — we Canadians often lack when it comes to being genuinely friendly or vulnerable, unwilling to give our time to others or go out of our way to make someone feel welcomed, especially with those we hardly know.
As someone born and raised in Toronto, Canada's biggest and fastest city, I believe the biggest reason for this disparity in kindness stems from the fact that most young people are so consumed with work in Toronto, often working more than enough to make ends meet (I think the same can be said about most big cities in the developed world). In Toronto we often work harder than we need to in order to buy ourselves something special (for the glow-up, of course) or to save up for when we have a family instead of just living in the moment, working enough to survive but no more like they do in Colombia and most of the world. It is for this reason, I believe, that it is harder to find people genuinely willing to give up their time or willing to be vulnerable in order to make new friends in Toronto than it is in Colombia, which makes it hard to accept the stereotypes that portray Canadians as kind and Colombians as mean and dangerous.
Anyways, enough of my ranting. Go visit Colombia and see for yourself what makes the country so special. Just don’t wait too long: as tourism grows in Colombia, so too will foreign investment, and the country you could see in five years will be drastically different from the one that exists today.