In 2015, I spent three months travelling Colombia and I actually would sell my soul to repeat the experience – it was that good. The country is incredibly underrated by tourists looking for the Latin vibe – most of them head to Mexico, Brazil, Argentina or Peru instead. But don’t sleep on Colombia – there’s so much beauty there. From the vibrant annual carnival in Barranquilla (in February) to the colourful, culture-soaked colonial wonders of the Caribbean coast with some of the whitest beaches I’ve ever seen (Palamino, Parque de Tayrona). Not to mention the crazy-good salsa skills that seem to possess every single Colombian person once they hit the dance-floor.
Colombia is stunningly diverse in culture and its people are often voted the happiest (and friendliest) in the world; there’s really not much to dislike.
But because of the country’s troubled history, there are more than a few misconceptions floating around. Backpackers visiting for the first time are concerned about their safety, how they’ll be received by locals and the level of violence in the country. And as minority woman, before I booked my flights last year, I was concerned about whether or not I’d feel at risk on my own.
I needn’t have worried; the country surpassed all my expectations. But based on my experience of travelling around Colombia as a solo brown gal, I’ve summarised my findings about all of that stuff below.
Is Colombia dangerous?
Criminal activity peaked during the drug wars of the 1970s and ’80s in Colombia, but the effects still reverberate through the existence of social and class divisions, rebel groups and the heavy military presence everywhere. Like any country, there are always going to be shady spots. Generally speaking, I felt more at risk walking around New York City at night than I did Medellin. Most of the time, Colombia felt very safe to me. Also, what most people don’t realise is that due to Colombia’s growing attraction as a backpacker haven, most popular spots are now gringo-proof. Cartagena, Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Santa Marta all have their risky areas, but chances are, unless you go looking for trouble, you’ll be treading familiar traveller ground.
The only times I felt on edge in three months was in Urriba (an area in the North with very little tourism) and the city of Cali. On the way to Cali, our bus passed a cartel shoot-out with police hours before it unfolded, and quite a few people were killed. And once we got into the city, it just felt shadier than other areas. Bogota too, has a high crime rate and you have to watch your back as a tourist – especially at night. Thefts were incredibly common in La Candalaria (the main backpacker area there) and I got my phone jacked from my pocket in the middle of the day. Boo.
How are tourists treated?
From my experience travelling Colombia, thee people are incredibly friendly and eager to learn more about the people visiting their country. The average monthly salary is below £1000 a month and most people have never left their native land, but are curious about tourists. Overall, the warmth and openness with which Colombians treated me has been incomparable, since I’ve travelled elsewhere. I remember trying to practice my Spanish in a small clothes shop in the tiny town of Amaga outside Medellin. The shop assistant spent 20 minutes chatting and trying to teach me how to roll my R’s (I still can’t do it). And the many welcome greetings In smaller towns such as this, you can’t walk down the street without being greeted with a friendly ‘buenos’ and a smile.
Are there black people in Colombia? How is travelling Colombia as a black person?
Colombia is super mixed; but tune into their telenovelas or watch their news channels and you wouldn’t think so. There’s only one dominant image of a Colombian woman after all: hour-glass figure, long dark hair and barely tanned in complexion. Although I never experienced any racism, darker-skinned travellers (men) sometimes told me they felt uneasy in certain areas. It’s strange because black women saturate Colombia, especially the Caribbean coast but there does seem to be an absence of dialogue on ghettoised areas (where most black people live in Medellin) and general racism.
Is Colombia Westernised?
Obviously that depends on what constitutes ‘Westernised’, for you. If your definition is based on availability of flushing toilets and clean water, then the country is extremely similar to Europe/the US. There’s clean water, clean streets and I didn’t poo in a hole once. On the other hand, I was pleasantly shocked at how little English was spoken throughout the country, even in the big cities. Colombia is the perfect spot to improve your Spanish skills and I was offered a job as an English teacher on more than one occasion. It was also hard to find clubs that didn’t play salsa, bachata or merengue. And one time I remember the kids in Medellin didn’t know who Beyonce was. Like how often does that happen?
Are there drugs everywhere in Colombia?
This is hard to answer objectively. Not least of all because I wrote this. Now, I think about the part I played in propagating the very media image Colombia is trying so hard to shake off and if I visited again, I’m not sure if I would repeat the article.
During my time in Colombia, I met countless tourists who were just there to party, dabble and get prostitutes. Drugs are readily available in Colombia, but you still have to seek them out somewhat and I don’t think I was ever offered anything in the street during my three months.
Is English widely spoken? Do I need Spanish?
No and yes. I was surprised that English isn’t really understood, or taught well in Colombia. Locals in Amaga, where I volunteered at a school, told me that Colombia is lacking competent English teachers. (I was offered work on more than one occasion and for anyone seeking an ESL position, I would advise simply turning up and asking around). Having basic Spanish will certainly make your life easier in Colombia; if anything, you’ll pay less for everything if you’ve mastered the art of haggling. Colombia is a great country to practice your language skills, but be warned; usually once a Colombian gets wind that you have even very basic Spanish, they’ll engage in a full-blown conversation and assume you’re fluent.
Have you been to Colombia? How did you find it?