We arrived in Bogota, Colombia to an overcast sky as the sun was setting. There was just enough light when we were landing to see the twinkling lights sprawling far wider than I expected. This was the first of many expectations that would be surpassed on our 5 month trip across South America, the intrepid land where backpackers go to find themselves or have an adventure in a place so completely different to what we know. It seemed in fact, that this capital city that I’d never heard of before booking the flights was just like any other. I was full of hope that it wouldn’t be a dangerous country full of drug barons and anarchists, waiting to make a quick buck by kidnapping the first affluent westerner they saw. That all changed when we stepped out of our hotel.
We were desperate for food and sure that we would find something just around the corner. When the homeless man removed the crack pipe from his mouth for long enough to shout abuse at me, we considered turning back. When 3 police cars flew past us, sirens blaring, I momentarily switched directions. Hunger drove us forward. We entered a surreal scene outside the Palace of Justice, a dwindling protest with trouble makers circling the perimeter that smelled suspiciously of piss. We hurried through and went to the first place we could see with lights one, a mexican fast food joint. Ironic seeing as we had just come from Mexico. We chowed down in a stunned silence, unsure of what we would face on journey back. Was this what Colombia was like? Really? We hadn’t encountered many people who had been before deciding to start our trip here, only a couple of my friends who said, “You should go to Colombia, it’s sick”, though in hindsight they probably weren’t the kind of friends I should count on for holiday advice. That epiphany was useless to me now.
Nothing happened to us on our way home, in fact the Palace of Justice was mysteriously devoid of any human activity a mere 20 minutes later. What we had experienced was a mixture of extreme culture shock and the petering out of a protest that was swiftly broken up by the police that had rushed past us. The crack addict merely chose poor location for his desperate fix.
The next day, Bogota looks brighter and more promising. The streets were full of people going about their business, market sellers, a few tourists, people drinking coffee on their way to work. Coffee! I rushed over to a street vendor and ordered a cup, thankful my boyfriend had basic Spanish skills from school. I choked it down, startled by the putrid taste in my mouth. Wasn’t this the country of coffee? Colombia is the third largest contributor to coffee production in the world, how could it taste so bad? I later learned about the harsh reality countries with a valuable export face, they rarely get to enjoy it themselves. They rely so heavily on the export value that the best beans get shipped out, and the worst remain in the country to be drank very cheaply by the common people, a sacrifice us coffee drinkers could have imagined but probably never thought about before.
I wasn’t overwhelmingly impressed with Bogota, but I didn’t mind. Cartagena was the place I was looking forward to, the 400 year old walled city on the caribbean coast that holds within it vibrant colonial style buildings on winding cobbled streets. It was everything I hoped for and more, despite the suffocating heat walking around was a delight, the heat was nothing a cold beer couldn’t fix. At night this part of town came alive with music, but it had the distinct air of safe tourism about it.
Getsemani was where the real action was. At Plaza Trinidad, young groups of friends stood around laughing and drinking beer, old men slumped back in their chairs with cigarettes hanging from their lips and groups of backpackers cemented new friendships. The main event though was the dancing in front of the church, dozens of women perfecting their salsa moves in what has to be the most fun community activity I’ve ever seen. And the best thing about it? It all seemed so natural. It would have happened whether we’d been there or not, this is what they do on a Sunday night. They don’t sit around feeling the impending doom of tomorrow’s work day. This is my kind of place.
We decided to travel to a less frequented spot on the caribbean coast for a few days, known mostly for the huge mud volcano that can be found there. There is one near Cartagena that most people go to but we fancied something different. Arriving in this town we felt a world away from the bright lights and bustle of Cartagena, this was a town of dusty roads and bicycle taxis. There were no other foreign tourists in sight here – this is a popular getaway for Colombians mainly- and we felt quite safe walking down the road at sundown until we got pulled off the street by a pushy old lady into dimly lit, sparsely decorated house. It was an eerie scene. We looked over to the corner, 3 young girls stared up at us from their computer screen. We approached, their english homework on the desks. It was all a ploy for them to get homework help, of course! We obliged willingly, had fruit juice stuffed into our hands and tried as best we could to help the giggling teenagers say the word “beach”, it wasn’t easy, but it was a lot of fun. The next day we set out for the volcano entirely confused by what the hotel owner had told us, mainly because our Spanish wasn’t that great yet. But we had nothing to fear. We found a bus station and told the man we wanted to go to the “Volcan”, and from then on, we were passed over from driver to driver on 3 bus changes, each looking after us diligently until we reached the entrance of the volcano, in the middle of nowhere, but sure enough the exact right spot. All for the equivalent of a pound. I couldn’t help but think of the bus drivers in London who are stationary in traffic but refuse to open the doors. The adventure was totally worth it, if you like that sort of thing 🙂
As the bus pulled into Medellin, I had knots in my stomach. Not because of the 14 hour journey with no food, but because this was a place well known for drug crime and bandits. It was dark, raining and I was convinced the taxi driver would kidnap up. My preconceptions were unfounded of course, but how was I to know any better with the media coverage and rumours we are exposed to? Since returning from our travels I never fail to notice how often I’m asked about what it was like travelling somewhere so dangerous. I understand why I’m asked, it was the reason for my fear as well, but when you return you realise it was no more dangerous than London or Paris, and I can’t convey this enough. I would go as far to say its less dangerous than both of these. Of course in Pablo Escobar’s days the country was a complete no go, but times have changed. He caused the country to be feared for so long, no foreigner got to enjoy the rich treasures of Colombia and no Colombian benefitted from the tourism trade. The people of this country are happy to see people visiting, fiercely proud of their country and desperate to show us how wonderful it is. A free walking tour of Medellin was just what I needed to put my fears into perspective, to show me the fascinating light installations that have been built to transform the most dangerous plazas, the gorgeous buildings and delicious street food, and most importantly to understand this country’s rich history.
The next day we attended a Couchsurfing event in the Botanical Gardens where we met some lovely Colombians who wanted to practise their English. They invited us out dancing for the evening, but none of us could afford the high cover charges. We ended up in the park drinking bottles of wine learning how to salsa. We made new friends that we laughed and danced with into the early hours of the morning, in a dodgy looking barely lit park we never would have crossed by ourselves. We felt welcomed and safe. In London, this sort of thing doesn’t happen. It’s notoriously hard for foreigners to make local friends, It’s a different world.
The next 3 weeks were full of moments like this. We would look at each other in disbelief that a way of life so naturally full of relaxed joy existed. When you’re stuck in the daily grind of work life balance, you have to make yourself relax, find opportunities to experience joy with friends and family on the weekends, take up hobbies, follow you passion, it’s natural. When we go on holiday we tend to assume that we need to do nothing, relax on the beach, sleep and recharge our batteries. But what recharges us is what invigorates us, and that is to experience something that ignites our passion and thirst for life, that keeps us active and finally leaves us in a state of relaxed joy. That is what we yearn for when we seek adventure, that is what you’ll find in Colombia.