There is only one place I have been that has elicited an almost universally negative response from everyone who asked about my holidays: Colombia. In the eyes of most of the UK population, or at least that small proportion who talk to me, it seems the country is still synonymous with civil war, cocaine, guerrillas and kidnap: I got fed up of people telling that I was not coming back from this trip.
Despite or, more likely, because of this reputation, it is considered the jewel of South America by many backpackers. There is a popular route of six to nine months around South and Central America, on which Colombia is considered a compulsory stop. It is considered an undiscovered gem, famed for the sparkling beaches of the Caribbean coast, outstanding coffee, and of course Colombia’s most famous export.
We had an excellent trip but, for us, the highlights were not to be found on the Caribbean coast. Much to our disappointment, this stunning area was already the domain of well-heeled cruise ship passengers and partying westerners. Lovely Cartagena, the beautiful colonial city that reputedly provided the setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera and one of the jewels of South America, is full of boutique shops and expensive hotels. New cruise ships each day dock and disgorge tour parties into the old city, filling its streets with a milling throng of socks-and-sandal-clad, camera-toting passengers in matching baseball caps. In places it feels like it is impossible to move for all the tour groups.
Unable to compete in the old city, the hostels are located outside the old town, often in some of the seedier areas. We found a lot of visitors were Americans in their early twenties out to party. The hostels are more than happy to oblige, organising pub crawls and nights out. The most popular tour was the nightly ‘chiva party’. A chiva is an old, converted american school bus, but these ones had been further modified into a mobile bar. The party bus circles the old town, pausing only for toilet stops, before finishing in a club. The atmosphere smacked of Spring Break, and gave the feeling that it would not be long before Cartagena went the way of Cancun and the Yucatan in Mexico.
All these wealthy tourists in search of a good time attract touts and rip-off merchants. These give the city a less-salubrious side, including all of the amenities recently and so publicly enjoyed by the US Secret Service in Cartagena. Seeing such a visibly negative impact of mass tourism, destroying the very places they had come to see, always upsets me.
Elsewhere on the coast, the backpackers rule. Tayrona National Park is a swathe of coastal wilderness and a sometime refuge for narco ranchers. We visited remote Cabo de San Juan, several hour’s bus ride east of Cartagena. It is reached only after an hour’s walk through the jungle to the coast. The beaches make for a wild and incredible place, with a succession of bays and a smattering of houses, fringed by the lush green jungle reaching right to the golden sand. We stopped in the sweltering heat for fresh coconut juice from a small stall, for whilst Cabo may be remote, it is certainly not undiscovered.
Once we had reached the coast, we walked for another hour along the beach, paddling in the surf, before reaching the hostel. Consisting of essentially a bar, a covered area for hammocks and a few cabins, the accommodation was basic but certainly memorable. We stayed in hammocks hung under a small pagoda-like roof with no walls and open to the sea air, perched on a rocky outcrop high above two tiny semi-circle bays of turquoise water. Although elsewhere in the park the currents are too dangerous to swim, it was possible to bathe in these sheltered inlets. A truly idyllic spot where we hung, swinging in the breeze, above the rest of the hostel, which was blissfully dark and quiet after the generator was cut at ten pm.
But boy was it hot, and after a few days the jungle had beaten us: we were mosquito-bitten, sweaty, and out of toilet paper. Most of the mosquito damage had occurred on a hike up to an old pre-Colomban village in the hills behind the beach which qualified as cultural. However, there is only so much beach lounging and beer drinking you can do before it is time to move on, and the beach was a magnet for a swarm of backpackers constantly coming and going.
We felt that the best bits of Colombia were inland in the beautiful highlands, far away from the heavily touristed coast. Staying in a coffee plantation in the Valle de Cocora was a real highlight. Located near the cloud forest, we walked amongst bizarre palm trees reaching high into the sky through the mist. Hiking in the mountains in the rain, we paused to eat the central Colombian delicacy of hot chocolate and cheese, and watched humming birds feeding on the lush tropical plants in a rainstorm. For the record, my friend who considers herself a world expert on both chocolate and cheese, felt that the combination of the two did not live up to expectations.
We went to a bar and played a traditional Colombian sport, Tejo. The basic premise is to lace a sand pit with gun powder, then throw metal weights across the room at it whilst drunk: a truly genius idea. In amongst the sand are other pieces of metal, and the aim is to hit another metal bit and create enough of a spark to ignite the gun powder with a bang.
In Villa de Leyva, a formerly important colonial town, but now a tiny village with a disproportionately enormous central square and grand old buildings, we hiked in the hills to even more sleepy old towns. We ate the local delicacy smoked ants in San Gil, where we also paraglided over the green hills and fields. In Barichara we did a lot of sitting and enjoyed great food in the picture-perfect old town. All of this practically untroubled by other tourists, and not a cruise ship in sight.
What everybody’s talking about
However, it is nonetheless true that safety remains an issue. The capital, and the starting point for our trip did not fill us with confidence. Central Bogota has a suitably rough reputation, but it is where the majority of the hostels are based. A significant proportion of other travellers we met there had had a bad experience.
But the funny thing was how much everybody was discussing what had happened to whom, when and where. They were swapping tips so others could avoid the same scams, tricks and danger areas. This tip-swapping seemed to be happening far more here than anywhere else I have been. Briefed that another backpacker had been robbed at gunpoint whilst climbing Bogota’s mountain, Monserrate, earlier in the week, we opted to take the tram to the top. Simple precautions like this, and not walking alone, at night or drunk in dodgy areas, always help, but you still need an element of luck to enjoy a trouble-free trip.
Parts of the country remain completely out of bounds, and some parts are more dangerous than others. In Medellin, Colombia’s second city and the 90s setting of the infamous murders of two men named Escobar: Pablo, the notorious drug lord, and Andres, the footballer killed for scoring an own goal in the World Cup, we met an expat Texan. He described how he heard automatic gunfire from his downtown apartment most evenings, but that the murder rate was down from ten a day. He counselled completely against going near the Metrocable, a revolutionary mass-transit cable car system for the barrios. Even before his warnings, we had no intention of going near central Medellin after dark, but we did visit the Metrocable and were suitably alert, sticking to the main roads and taking nothing of value with us.
However, it is always unsettling to hear this sort of scare story, and sadly sometimes these concerns can completely dominate a trip. We met four Canadian girls who had chosen to start their first ever backpacking holiday in Colombia. They had stayed with an expat in Bogota, and his stories had completely spooked them: they were too scared to even catch a bus, and had blown their entire three-month budget on internal flights, which was a great shame.
Of course, travelling anywhere in the world you are taking an element of risk, but bad things can, and do, happen even in your home town. All you can do is be careful and try to play the percentages by following common-sense rules. If you take simple precautions, you can minimise your risk whilst still getting to know a wonderful country.
The reality of a trip to Colombia is somewhere between the rose-tinted backpacker view and the highly dangerous failed state that non-visitors see. Like a lot of countries, there are parts of Colombia that are definitely not undiscovered, are in fact extremely well-trod and do suffer for that. But by heading inland to the highlands, there is plenty to discover about this fascinating and beautiful country, and you are likely to be a little bit more on your own. And contrary to a lot of people’s views, it is possible to experience all this without getting murdered.