It’s unsettling to arrive in a country you know nothing about. You make your way through the airport and out into Colombian culture, not entirely sure what to expect. Technically, saying that I knew nothing of Colombia would not be completely true. I knew what most people know. I knew of the cocaine problem, I knew of Pablo Escobar and I knew that I was flying into Medellin, a city that was previously known as the most dangerous in the world. Knowing these things didn’t really set off the excitement bells upon arriving. Apprehension was a more appropriate feeling.
It didn’t take long for apprehension to turn into confusion. After my fear of being robbed and shot disappeared, I began to wonder “why the hell is everyone so damn happy?” and seriously, “where are all the angry people?”. For two months, Curtis and I wandered the streets of Medellin trying to find these answers.
The first thing you need to know is that right now Colombia is in the middle of a huge shift. They are emerging from darker days when it really wasn’t safe to walk the streets, drive out into the countryside or send your kids to school. If you’ve watched Narcos on Netflix, then you probably have a similar idea of Colombia as I did. Don’t be fooled. Colombia is so much more than its recent history. They are in the middle of transforming their country into a high standing destination to live, work, play and visit. It’s a fascinating process to witness, it’s a true tribute to the resilience of human happiness.
I asked a number of locals what the best thing about Colombia is and every single one of them said “the people” as their top answer. I have to agree with them. I will most definitely go back to Colombia, and it’s all because of the people. They are proud, happy, kind and affectionate. They love to dance and celebrate. They are all of these things because they know how beautiful it is to be alive.
As the Escobar empire fell in 1993, the people trembled with fear and waited for the rebellion and chaos to explode. But, with the death of Pablo, nothing like that happened. Chaos was not what erupted in the streets, something much more magical happened. A celebration took place, people went out into the streets and danced, laughed and smiled. The transformation of a nation continued to take place from that point on. I say continued because because before the drugs, Colombia was already on the road to success in terms of being a well known, sophisticated country. The drugs were simply a bump in the road, a temporary setback. The people have now continued to move their country forward. The days of “plata o plomo” (silver or lead = take the bribe or take the bullet) are long gone.
Along with a sense of liberation that the people feel, they are eager and forward thinking. They are hopeful for the future of Colombia. They’ve opened their doors to the country to create more business and attract more tourism. Colombia is a country that for a long time saw very few foreigners, and their need to speak English was non-existent. In their progressive nature, they have started to encourage and teach the English language. The Colombian people are now beginning to see that English is a business language and the main language of tourism. Though most people don’t speak English, in their fast changing society that will quickly change.
It’s easy to see how proud the people are of their country. Their eyes light up when you ask about the different parts of Colombia. They proudly tell you that Colombia is very diverse, you can see so many things within their country. And they’re right. Colombia has 314 different types of Eco-systems within it’s borders, making it one of the worlds most bio-diverse countries. You can find tropical Caribbean waters, Pacific mangrove forests, coastal rainforests, two desert regions, the Andean mountains, the Amazon, the Los Llanos plains, wetlands and coral reef islands. Not to mention the incredible amount of rivers and streams that weave through the country. It has the worlds most diverse bird and orchid species and is home to 15% of all plant species in the world. That being said, it’s all being destroyed at an alarming rate. I do hope that with Colombia’s rise into the spotlight, that they start to see the value in their landscapes and protect more of it while also using the diversity to attract more Eco-tourism. Every Colombian I talked to about their landscapes recommended that I see Magia Salvaje, a documentary about their beautiful country. I did see it. I didn’t even need to understand Spanish to understand its beauty.
The things you need to know about Colombia are that the people want you to visit, they want to welcome you and share their country with you. They want you to see what they’re so proud of. They’re beginning to open their minds to other cultures and they’re slowly beginning to understand that sometimes the rest of the world likes to wear shorts when it’s 30°C degrees outside. That’s a bit of joke. If you’ve been to Colombia, you probably understand what I’m talking about. The rest of you just need to go and see for yourselves!
The truth is that if you want to see authentic Colombia, the time to go is now! In 5 or 10 years the country will be completely different. The younger generation doesn’t know the fear that their parents grew up with. They are growing up with a different attitude, an attitude that will change the Colombian culture. I hope that the country holds on to it’s love of dance and the ability to celebrate the smallest victories. I hope it holds on to it’s happiness and lack of angry people. The world needs more of that. I hope it holds on to it’s bio-diversity while enforcing regulations to protect its wild spaces. I hope you visit sooner rather than later. To see Colombia in all it’s grit and glory.
Have you been to Colombia? I would love to hear your thoughts?