Before arriving I had a very limited perception of Colombia, much of which was formed upon the Netflix series ‘Narcos’! But fears of drug cartels and political violence are quickly dissipated by the breathtaking scenery and exceptionally warm welcome from the Colombians. This is not to say that the problems have disappeared. The country is still in the midst of trying to overcome a tumultuous and violent sociopolitical crisis. The struggle between the Conservatives and the Liberals has been ongoing for centuries but the most destructive period is known as La Violencia which broke out in 1948. During the late 1950’s and 1960’s different guerilla groups formed including the FARC, a militant leftist group and various paramilitary groups supposedly fighting on the side of the conservatives. With different guerilla groups emerging and the army getting involved, many innocent civilians got caught amongst the violence and massacres. [I really appreciated reading ‘Oblivion- A memoir’ by Hector Abad Faciolince to better understand the period La Violencia, especially in Medellin. The book is a homage to his father who was killed by paramilitaries]. All sides have and continue to commit atrocities. Horrific scandals have come to light with little consequence such as the killing of innocent civilians by the army under the Presidency of Uribe from 2002 to 2009. It was discovered that the army was killing civilians, dressing them up in rebel uniforms and claiming them as combat kills in order to gain promotions or days off. However, most of the violence is now under control (and inapparent for tourists) and the current president is attempting groundbreaking peace deals with the FARC.
For me, Colombia is an impressive example of a very transformative country. At every street corner a huge billboard promotes a cause with the words ‘Todo por un nuevo pais !’ Some may consider this as political propaganda but it’s evident that there has been investment not just in billboards but also in raising the living standard. For example, the main roads are impeccable and public transport connects rural areas and outer suburbs with the economic hubs. The fact that only 20 years ago Medellin was considered the most deadly city in the world seems almost unthinkable now with it’s green parks, trendy boutiques, bars and restaurants and gleaming metro system.
Perhaps this forward thinking attitude is partly why Colombians are so particularly welcoming and open. More and more tourists are taking an interest in the very beautiful sides of Colombia and Colombians are eager to give us another reason to come back !
And it’s true that Colombia is a beautiful experience for all the senses ! It’s hard to describe just how colourful and lively everything is here. The landscapes are stunning and incredibly varied. It seems that Colombia has a little bit of every possible ecosystem on offer: from the Caribbean to the Pacific, lush green valleys, to jungle, to desert, to volcanoes and the andean Paramo. And we haven’t even covered a quarter of the country ! The flora and fauna is exotic and plentiful. I’ve never seen so many colourful birds, butterflies, insects, flowers and fascinating fruits ! The villages can be calmfully sleepy but will transform into a buzzing hustle and bustle on market days. I love how the job of maintaining the football pitches goes to the grazing cows and sheep. The cities are vibrant and cosmopolitan. I dreamt of settling in either Medellin or Cali for a year or two get to know better the different barrios, learn salsa, become part of the heady Colombian exuberance for a while. I loved the blaring music (obligatory from every house, shop and car window); and the ear splitting horn honkings of encouragement. There definitely seems to be a different notion as to what kind of noise level is acceptable. The television at full volume is a staple in any cafe, restaurant or hotel. And why stick up a poster when you can drive through the streets in a pick up truck with a crackly loudspeaker? It seems to me that Colombians know how to work hard and play hard.
Ok, yes the drivers are crazy, overtaking uphill on hairpin bends. Yes it’s a shame when we see piles of rubbish (mainly plastic) dumped at the side of the road. There is often a stench of burning plastic where people are setting fire to their rubbish. Even barbecues are fuelled by burning plastic bags and bottles!! And at the shops it’s a constant battle with the cashier to not give us 100s of plastic bags. And yes it’s strange when you’re cycling along a perfectly tarmaced road and all of a sudden the road turns to piste for 100m or so before turning back to tarmac with the explanation being ‘oh someone probably pocketed the money’. The thing is, to what extent are we better in our countries ? The issues here might just be a little more apparent but we have the same problems; we’re just much better at hiding them.
But for me the hugely generous nature of the Colombian people has by far left the strongest impression. Colombia may be a country of contrasts but somehow even this adds a fascinating aspect. And there’s a lot to learn from appreciating doing things differently. We might get frustrated that we’re still waiting for a boat that was meant to leave 2 hours ago but in Colombia ‘no pasa nada’ – stop worrying and enjoy a delicious fruit juice instead. While you wait you might just meet the person who will put you up for the night, or maybe someone will want to chat and offer you a coffee.
All I can say is thank you Colombia, we can’t wait to come back.