“Colombia; the only risk is wanting to stay” runs the country’s tourist slogan.
The Colombian Ministry of Tourism is as aware as everyone else in this country that by far the greatest obstacle preventing Colombia from realising its massive tourist potential is the fear factor.
There are of course reasons why Colombia has such a dangerous reputation, but all too often these reasons are blown out of proportion and misunderstood.
It was those negative images of Colombia which I was most mindful of when I first stepped onto Colombian soil, but of all those supposed risks of coming to Colombia it was that risk of “wanting to stay” that I actually succumbed to.
This is my simple story of how it happened.
It was April 2004. I had been travelling for just over a year and had notched up a decent collection of stamps in my passport. Among them were the backpacker favourites of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia followed by an eight-month stint of work, travel and mischief in Australia.
Sitting at an STA travel desk in Sydney with my fake Bangkok-bought student card (which would shortly be confiscated by the STA rep, much to my chagrin), I booked the South-American leg of my trip which would form the final part of my tri-continent adventure.
I figured I would fly into Santiago, Chile, travel south into Patagonia, and then head north through Argentina and up the Gringo Trail through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, stopping in Quito.
North of Ecuador the map showed that land of violent drug cartels, guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, bombs, kidnappings and general lawlessness.
Clearly I wouldn’t be going to Colombia!
So from Quito I supposed I’d fly or boat my way to Brazil from where I would catch my final emotional flight back to the UK.
I was sitting in a hostel in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo one cool evening sipping a beer and engaging in the usual travel chit-chat… “Are you heading north or south?”, “Machu Picchu was great, but way too touristy”, “I was an inch away from falling off the death road in Bolivia!” etc etc.
“Colombia’s been my favourite country so far” piped up one guy.
I’d already met one or two people who had been to Colombia in the six weeks that I’d been in South America and it tended to turn heads. There were the usual comments of “But why the heck would you want to go there?” from others around the table but he spoke so highly of Colombia, and without any of the “Hey, I’ve been somewhere dangerous!” bravado sometimes evident in travellers, that I remember that night as the first time I seriously contemplated the idea of going to Colombia.
As I steadily wound my way northwards I came into contact with more and more travellers who raved about Colombia. They were outnumbered by Colombia’s detractors, although I noted that almost without exception the negative comments came from people who had never set foot in the country.
It seemed that many of those I spoke to had gone to Colombia with the same reservations I had, namely security worries.
Not one of them had any tales of muggings or kidnappings, they spoke instead of stunning landscapes, fascinating towns and cities, and the charm and friendliness of the people. Many also highlighted the incredible beauty of the women which, to a single 24-year-old lad as I was at the time, is as much of a draw as any deserted beach or colonial town.
In addition to these glowing recommendations I also cast my mind back to the South-East Asian leg of my trip. Cambodia retains a dangerous reputation from the days of the Kymer Rouge and the terrible legacy of landmines that they left.
However, despite some reservations about travelling to Cambodia I found it to be a wonderful country and also very safe, given that I took sensible precautions and heeded advice given about where and where not to go.
With Colombia still embroiled in civil war the perceived risks of visiting the two countries are clearly quite distinct, but if I had learnt anything from my Cambodia experience it was that one should be prepared to accept a certain amount of risk in order to discover the true nature of a country.
I pondered what a terrible shame it would have been to have missed out on a country such as Cambodia simply because of what essentially amounted to a fear of the unknown. And so it was that whilst travelling in Peru I decided to give Colombia a go.
In early August I found myself at the Ecuador-Colombia border. Following passport formalities I took a small minibus the short distance to the small Colombian border town of Ipiales.
As we rolled into the outskirts of the town I saw graffitied on a wall the word “FARC” (acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a show of support for Colombia’s largest guerrilla group who have been locked in a bloody conflict with the Colombian government for more than 40 years. As I continued onwards into Ipiales I wondered just what Colombia had in store for me.
Border towns are never particularly representative of a country and Ipiales, a chilly, dull, non-descript place, was no different. I probably wouldn’t have even stopped in Ipiales were it not for the stunning neo-gothic ‘Santuario de Las Lajas’ church built over a valley a few kilometers outside the town that I had a look around that afternoon.
Back in the town that evening I enquired as to how to get to Popayan the following day. I was told to leave as early as possible as there had been reports of trouble on the road at night. As I took an evening stroll I noted an increased police presence compared to Ecuador, but as I went to bed that night I still didn’t feel as if I’d really arrived in Colombia.
The following morning I rose early, as advised, and embarked on the 6 hour journey north to Popayan.
Within a short time I was treated to spectacular views out of my right hand window. The road fell steeply away to a lush green valley rising up to dramatic mountain peaks. The green landscape had an intensity far greater than I’d seen during the last couple of months travelling through the coastal and Andean regions of Peru and Ecuador and it hit home the feeling that I really had entered a country quite distinct from its southern neighbours.
Popayan is a marvelous city and to this day remains one of my favourite places in the world. Known as ‘The White City’, its heart consists of quaint cobbled streets flanked by whitewashed colonial buildings with small plazas and churches discretely tucked around corners and surrounded by rolling green hills.
It was on my first night in Popayan, my second in Colombia, that I truly relaxed and stopping expecting the FARC or some drug-starved ruffian to appear from round the corner to attack me.
I remember sitting in the beautiful central plaza of Popayan watching a small child learning to ride his bike. He’d manage a few metres, topple over, dust himself off and then hop back on to try again, while his Mum jogged behind him offering shouts of support. An elderly couple sauntered past arm in arm, a young couple hugged and kissed on a bench. It was all so… normal. It was the night that the majority of my preconceptions about Colombia disappeared. All the negative stuff churned out by the media and the commentaries by people who have never been here yet declare with absolute authority that Colombia is a no-go zone were forgotten that night.
As the days passed I also became somewhat embarrassed at my own naivety and ignorance. Here I was, a seasoned traveler who had written off a country without really endeavouring to delve beyond the bad reputation and veneer of danger in which Colombia is shrouded.
From Popayan I continued my way north over the next month or so. I find it difficult to recall a more exhilarating time in my life than when I was travelling through South America, and the peak of it all was Colombia. Admittedly I was fortunate to meet some amazing travellers and the experience wouldn’t have been the same without them, but it was mostly down to the wonderful Colombian people and the incredible diversity of culture and geography that lies within the country.
I can honestly say that with a little common sense and precautionary behaviour, there is no reason at all to fear Colombia. It is an incredible country that will one day be heaving with tourists from all over the world. So forget any preconceptions you may have of Colombia and simply come and see for yourself.
Just beware of falling victim to that ever-so serious risk of “wanting to stay”.