South America Travel

Kidnapping, cocaine and cliches – what it’s really like to visit Colombia

My two friends and I arrived in Colombia with trepidation. Getting off the plane at the airport just outside Cartagena, we had our money and passports in our bras, socks or money belts, and wore our backpacks on our fronts.

Heading out onto the tarmac to flag a taxi, we walked carefully, gingerly eyeing our surroundings. For as excited as we were to be in Colombia, all we really knew about it was the cliches that are constantly thrown around.
Colombia is a country with a bloody, war-torn history. Telling friends and family I was planning to visit there, their eyes would go wide with shock.

“But won’t you get kidnapped?” “Isn’t is super dangerous?” “Don’t the gangs control everything?”

Our $13 accomodation in Cartagena

Our $13 accomodation in Cartagena

I’d ended up with travel insurance that covered me for kidnapping and ransom, and everyone joked that I’d probably need it.

And Colombia’s history isn’t pretty. When cocaine trading took off in the 1970s, it quickly ballooned into a drug empire. Colombia’s most famous face, Pablo Escobar, ran the Medellin Cartel in Medellin, once the world’s most murderous city.

But this was just one of the many cartels in Colombia that had a profound impact on the nation. The country quickly gained international notoriety for its brutal drug trade, and the murder and terror that came with it. Violence between left-wing guerilla groups, far-right paramilitaries and drug cartels led to kidnapping and murder, and terror for citizens.

Made famous by the recent television series, Narcos, it’s easy to write Colombia off as too dangerous to visit.

My experience in Colombia couldn’t have been more different to what the cliches show.

My friends and I got into our taxi after dark, wondering what we’d gotten ourselves in for.

We arrived at our hostel in the “Old Town” late, and waited until morning to see the sights in the city.

We woke up the next morning in what turned out to be the most amazing place I’d ever visit.

The streets of Cartagena's "Old Town"

The streets of Cartagena’s “Old Town”

Cartagena’s old town is a beautiful, brightly coloured town filled with cobblestoned streets, plants bursting off windowsills and music around every corner.

The people in Colombia were the kindest, most vivacious people I’ve ever met. It seemed like within a single day we’d befriended the local bar and cafe owners and as many friendly passersby as we could. The people were so kind, so warm and so fun that we laughed to ourselves that we had thought that Colombia was a country full of brutes.

We had an incredible time in Cartagena, partying with locals, eating amazing food, soaking up the architecture and visiting various spots around the city.

Next stop was the infamous Medellin. We were ready for the “real” Colombia to kick in here, expecting it to be a lot more dangerous, but again we were amazed.
Medellin was an incredible city, full of life, people and music. We partied with locals, trained around, took the gondola right up into the hills and had an incredible time.

We spent the next couple of weeks exploring different parts of Colombia, and each was just as amazing.

It was two years ago that I visited Colombia, and luckily, more and more people are starting to visit. What Colombia’s war-torn past was is distinctly different to the place it is today, and people are starting to recognise that.
Colombians have lived through a very sad history, and as a result they are grateful for everything. They are so happy and warm and pleased just to be living in relative peace. It’s the people that make Colombia what it is – an incredible place to visit.

Skipping stones with locals at the beach in Taganga

Skipping stones with locals at the beach in Taganga

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