Tell your friends and family you’re going to Colombia and you’ll probably get two reactions. The first will usually be a look of shock – “Isn’t it really dangerous?” The second might be a knowing wink and a finger tapping of the nose. Drug cartels, mules, paramilitaries and death squads are all synonymous with this country, but things have changed recently, especially after the signing of last month’s peace treaty with the rebel group FARC. Colombia has been back on the tourist trail for a few years now and it’s time to see beyond the cliches.
When I first came to Colombia in 1999 there was a real sense of danger. It was impossible to travel by bus for fear of being kidnapped. Within a few paces of my hotel in Bogotá I passed a man wielding an enormous knife. Passers by froze in their tracks. Arriving by cab at my hotel in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, a dealer stuck his head through the window while I was paying the driver and offered me drugs. I hadn’t even set foot on the street! And just before I arrived in Cali, an entire church congregation had been taken hostage.
In the five days I’ve spent here in Bogotá I’ve felt completely safe, although the usual safety precautions apply like in any big city. La Candelaria is the downtown area with historic buildings and colonial churches. This is also where the new backpacker scene is located with several hostels and bars.
The two museum highlights are the Museu del Oro (Gold Museum) and the Museu Botero which has paintings and sculptures by the Colombian artist Fernando Montero who likes to paint big, huge people. It’s also huge fun. But the best thing I did was a street art tour, which takes you through the neighbourhood and also gives you history not only of local graffiti artistes but also the city and country itself. It’s illuminating and intriguing.
I’ve enjoyed the rest of my time simply wandering the streets, discovering simple food in local eateries, dancing to raggaeton music (still not sure about that, maybe it’ll grow on me) and practising my Spanish.
What impressed me most on my first visit 17 years ago was the extraordinary friendliness of the people and the huge diversity of the country. It has everything from beaches, to mountains, to the Amazon. I saw almost no other foreign tourists on that trip. Now I’m at the beginning of a six month journey through South America and I’m keen to see the changes that have occurred and be able to explore areas that were once off limits.