My Colombian Adventure by Rose Collard
I spent just over two weeks in Colombia in March 2016 and my only complaint would be that it wasn’t enough time.
As two young female travellers setting off alone, we were met with a great deal of apprehensive comments from worried friends and parents alike. Their perception of Colombia was still very much shrouded by the drug-induced terror of the 1980s and 90s. My mum was so worried she made me contact her every single day I was in Medellin! However, I was pleased to find out that all these worries were entirely unfounded. Colombia was one of the most interesting, dynamic, beautiful and inviting places I have ever travelled to.
As the epicentre of Colombia’s narcotic past, I must confess I was a little nervous on arrival in Medellin. I had absolutely nothing to worry about, however; Medellin was a vibrant, exciting and incredibly friendly city. Highlights included an insightful walking tour, a beginner’s Spanish course, (attempting) to learn to Salsa, and of course the infamous Pablo Escobar tour. Perhaps the most famous figure in Colombia’s history, Escobar has divided opinion. I spoke to one woman on the Barrio Escobar who was convinced Escobar was still alive and providing for her family. His polarising legacy was very much brought to light at this moment. By the end of our time in Medellin, however, the name Pablo Escobar was more synonymous with a friendly game of paintball than a terrifying cartel leader. (Yes, you can play paintball in one of his opulent estates). Some might argue this type of tourism is disrespectful; reducing such a turbulent and critical history to a money-making game for ‘gringos’. But I think the word “history” should be singled out here. Yes, the Escobar reign was a violent and bloodthirsty time – but that has passed. Now, the majority of Colombians seem to want to forget and move on. Our tour leader, for example, was overwhelmed with gratitude for our genuine interest in his country’s history, and said he was proud Colombia was turning its violent past into something positive. I feel that converting one of Escobar’s houses into a paintball ground – merging the ominous with the downright silly –is representative of the new vision of Colombia it’s people want to present.
Next, we headed to Cartagena, which was by far my favourite of our four destinations (we started the trip with a few days in Bogota, and ended in a small village called Sapzurro before journeying to the San Blas islands). Inside a beautiful walled city, its colourful buildings and stunning colonial architecture never ceased to be a visual wonder. Wandering the cobbled streets, passing horse and carts and men selling fresh fruit or cold beers from rickety stalls, was a perfect way to spend the day. What surprised, and pleased, me most was the cuisine. With Colombian and Caribbean influences, we dined on freshly caught seafood, jerk chicken, rice and beans, gigantic creamy avocados and plantain. No visit to Colombia is complete without sampling some of its unbeatable coffee, and as a self-confessed caffeine aficionado, Cartagena’s coffee tour was certainly not one to be missed. Cartagena had a much more Caribbean feel than Medellin, being right on Colombia’s north-east coast. Lounging on Bocagrande beach, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were on a desert island in the middle of the Caribbean. By night, Cartagena really comes alive and the bars and clubs were overflowing with music and people. The stereotype of party-loving Colombians certainly made its presence known here!
The one thing that surprised me about Cartagena was the proliferation of other tourists. A popular stop off for Caribbean cruise ships, I heard more English spoken on the streets than Spanish. Given its stunning setting, proximity to the beach and delectable cuisine I suppose this should not have been surprising at all.
Overall, my time in Colombia surpassed all my expectations. I never once felt unsafe, and was overwhelmed by both the kindness of the locals and the abundance of things to do. I cannot recommend Colombia highly enough, and think the reputation it has as a dangerous destination is incredibly antiquated. I would go back in a heartbeat if given half the chance.