Other than what I’d heard on the news, most of which was about kidnappings, violence, and the drug trade, I knew very little about Colombia before traveling there from the States. And honestly, because of what I thought I knew, it wasn’t very high on my list as a destination. But when I began to hear stories of its beauty from traveling friends who had gone to Colombia, and recommendations that were specific to digital nomads in Medellin, I decided to go. I’d always wanted to travel to a Spanish-speaking country, and even the U.S. Dept. of State was advising that Colombia was becoming safer, especially in its major cities.
Even with that update, family, travel friends, and the internet warned me about safety before going to Colombia, and part of me wondered if I should travel there at all. But I went anyways. Most of the advice from loved ones and research said to stay in the major cities, but not to go out at night, not to walk alone, or to accept open drinks, never to carry more than I needed, not to use my smartphone in public, never to share a taxi, and just to be safe, use Uber instead, with the windows closed.
There is a saying in Medellin, “no dar papaya”, which means “don’t give opportunity”. This was the best safety advice I got. Colombia was not out to get me. And not a single traveler or expat I met while there had any issues.
After spending two months in Colombia, here’s what I can pass on for advice.
First of all, you’re going to need a solid understanding of Spanish to get by.
I’d studied Spanish all through middle school, high school, and even specialized in Spanish literature in college. But as well as I could read and write the language, there hadn’t been many opportunities to practice listening and speaking back home in the Midwest. When I finally got to Colombia, I felt like I knew nothing at all. Because I’d decided to do a Workaway at a Spanish school, though, I was able to take a refresher course. But still, unlike so many of the countries I’d visited before, you can’t really get by on just English in most of Colombia — much of the country is not yet catered toward tourism.
Drugs seem like the biggest issue Colombia is facing, but they’re not.
Coming from the United States, I knew drug issues were a major part of Colombia’s past. However, having spent the better part of two months in Medellin, I learned that Colombia had been a violent place before Pablo Escobar was even born. Colombia is currently trying to fix many issues that are hurting its people and its reputation, including violence, a failing revolution, drug trafficking, displacement of its people from the countryside to the cities, integration into those cities, and more. The people I met are looking forward to the peaceful Colombia that is currently being created. In fact, their leader was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for a deal he developed to move past the era of FARC. On October 2nd, the Colombian people voted against the deal (the vote was almost 50/50). Although most Colombians are in favor of peace, they haven’t agreed on how to get there yet.
Yes, Pablo Escobar was a big deal worldwide, but you might not exactly understand what he did to Colombia.
Escobar wasn’t always easy to bring up in conversation when I was in Colombia, but he is everywhere, especially around Medellin. You can play paintball on his former property, visit his exotic animal collection, and hike from the prison he built himself (la Catedral) down the path he used to escape from it. However, Colombians are all still dealing with the problems he caused, and that means so much more than recapturing the violent hippos that escape from Hacienda Napoles. Every person who lived there while he was alive has a story of violence or death related to his actions, even those who were children at the time. A Colombian friend told me that because of Escobar, an entire generation of children grew up missing fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, teachers, and neighbors. Another told me a story of walking home from school to find a recent murder victim in front of her building. She said Colombians remember the day Escobar died like Americans remember 9/11. Although the drug trade existed outside of Escobar, narcotics were a huge source of violence in cities. And they haven’t completely disappeared — there are still places in the cities that are best to avoid, at the very least at night. Many of the neighborhoods are on the outskirts of Medellin, like Manrique, 13 de Noviembre, and the surrounding areas.
I’d been told the locals weren’t trusting of strangers, but that wasn’t totally accurate.
After what I’ve learned of Colombia’s history since the late 1940s, I would completely understand if the people were unfriendly, untrusting, or pessimistic. In reality, though, I found that Colombians seemed really happy, and they were exceptionally friendly towards me and other tourists. On my first day in Cartagena, I was stopped by a woman on the street who asked what I was looking for. She recommended a restaurant around the corner that turned out to be delicious, and is one of the most highly-rated online. I had plenty of opportunities to practice my Spanish with people of all ages in restaurants, in parks, walking down the street… It seems that even with such a violent past, Colombia is looking towards the future.
I had no idea the water was potable in Medellin, but it is.
This surprise was such a good one! I have traveled to places with and without potable water in the past, but this made such a huge difference in cooking, bathing, drinking, and planning trips, especially to other parts of the country where the water is not potable.
Once you visit, you’ll realize that Colombia has a lot of hope for its future.
Having lived near Detroit for most of my life, I’m familiar with violence, fear, and the power of hope and determination in the face of a fallen city. But Colombians remain hopeful and proactive in the face of ongoing issues. Traveling around the city, you’ll notice it’s full of artwork — much of it done by locals, and meant to inspire. Medellin is being redesigned to bring the community together — increasing safety and transportation, providing outdoor exercise equipment, closing certain roads on Sundays in favor of bikers, and building a community.
Of all the places I’ve been to, Colombia is one of few that I’d be happy to call home.