Photo: TLF Images/Shutterstock

8 Things People Get Wrong About Colombia

by Simon Willis Nov 10, 2014
1. It’s just a massive jungle.

Sure, Colombia has the Amazon, the most biodiverse jungle on Earth. But Colombia is also so much more than that. Just look at Los Llanos. This grassland plain covers vast expanses of land in eastern Colombia and is home to rope-swinging cowboys who herd cattle, tell mysterious folk stories, and do other cool cowboy stuff.

Then there’s Guajira Desert in the northeast of the country. Colombia even has snow. Los Nevados National Park, in the center of the Colombian Andes, has the largest relief of any coastal mountains in the world, with full on alpine peaks and ice-climbing opportunities. There’s hot springs, marble caves, multi-colored rivers, two oceans, islands, a 2000-meter-deep canyon, mud volcanoes, modernized cities…I guess one could say that Colombia is quite a diverse “jungle.”

2. Tourists will be kidnapped.

“If I bring a camera, will I be a walking target for kidnappers?” That’s what a friend asked me before coming to Colombia last year. I assured him that he and his Sony NEX-3 would not be a target for any potential kidnappers. Once considered the world-kidnapping capital, Colombia is much safer than it was a decade ago. Statistics show that in 2013 there were a reported 292 cases of kidnapping — a 92% fall from 2000. Also consider that most kidnappings are against human rights workers and oil workers, not Johnny-tourist types.

3. Everybody loves Shakira.

When I was in Buenos Aires, I often began conversations with fellow soccer fans with, “That Lionel Messi. Hell of a player isn’t he!” Most would shrug their shoulders and simply say, “He’s no Maradona.” The problem is that unlike Maradona, Messi never spent his soccer youth in his native Argentina — a decision which left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Argentinians. They see Messi as a great player, but a great European player, not a true Argentine legend.

The same can be said for Shakira. One would think that this international superstar singer is revered back in her native country. However, this is not the case. The truth is that, like Messi, her decision to leave her native country caused many Colombians to doubt her patriotism. To make matters worse, she once sang the wrong words to the Colombian national anthem…something music idol Juanes would never do.

4. It’s ‘Columbia’, not ‘Colombia’.

Don’t believe everything you read in the press, on TV news networks, or on Twitter. For decades people have been misspelling Colombia’s name. And take it from me, the locals here hate it. In fact, irritation with this faux pas hit such heights that a social media campaign was started a year ago called “It’s Colombia, NOT Columbia.” Its remit is to oust perpetrators of this crime and make an example of them.

Those left with heads hanging in shame include Starbucks, NBC Weather, UK newspaper The Metro, and the normally factually-flawless Paris Hilton. As a believer in taking the law into your own hands, I’d like to name and shame Wales Online for their article “Catherine Zeta Jones to Play Columbian Drug Queen in Film,” published in October 2014. At least this publication used the correct vowel seven out of eleven times in the article…

5. It’s full of gun-slinging drug dealers high on cocaine.

When visiting a country, most of us like to follow the local customs. In England you drink pints of beer in the pub. In Scotland you savor some of the finest whiskey in the world, and in Colombia you snort cocaine. Yet while England’s penchant for public houses and Scotland’s for scotch have a certain ring of truth, Colombia’s addiction to white party powder is simply not.

Yes, the drug is cultivated in and trafficked from Colombia, but consumption among residents is incredibly low in comparison to other countries. Not only do the tea-swilling English like to snort more, but the Scots were named as the biggest cocaine users in the world by a UN Drug Report. Colombia, meanwhile, appears way down on the list, behind both the US and the prim and proper Swiss.

6. You have to travel everywhere on a bus.

While traveling on buses in many South American countries might be the best option due to expensive flights, Colombia is different. Admittedly, some journeys are worth a pelvis-thumping bus journey, especially around the coffee region where dramatic valleys and deep green mountainsides make for perfect photo opportunities. But for those who’d like to get to their destination in a reasonable time, local airlines (especially budget option Viva Colombia) offer cheap deals that are often less expensive than buses.

7. When Colombians are not taking cocaine, they’re swigging coffee.

Colombia may produce a bucket load of coffee, but they tend not to get high on their own supply. Despite working long hours, most Colombians don’t rely on a cup of Joe for that early morning pick-me-up. That’s not to say they don’t drink coffee, they just don’t drink it to the extent you would think of a country that grows some of the best beans in the world.

The truth is that most Colombian coffee beans are exported to the US and coffee-crazed European countries. Studies into coffee consumption show that Colombians drink less coffee per capita than the US and most European nations — especially the Nordic countries. The phenomenon twists even more bizarrely when you consider that Colombia also imports coffee, mainly from Peru and Ecuador, due to lower prices.

8. Everybody knows Pablo Escobar.

I once asked a group of Colombian friends to name five things you should never say to a Colombian at a party. High on everyone’s list was, “Don’t ask if I know Pablo Escobar.” The drug lord who once terrorized parts of the country with his drug cartel cronies was gunned down in 1993, and the nation has spent two decades trying to forget him. Tourists wanting to hear stories of his drug-trafficking antics will be left disappointed. Those who persist with unwanted questions are likely to be ignored, insulted, or in the worst case scenario, told to get out of Colombia and never come back.

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