Like Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton, Jr. in Talladega Nights, urging you to NEVER go to Tijuana, I urge you to NEVER go to Colombia. Well, almost. I strongly suggest it anyway.
In this day and age, where nobody has the courage to be honest (a symptom of every age, I suspect), and the faces of social media only display Utopian falsehoods and photo-shopped fakery of the shoddiest kind, it’s rare to be presented with any sort of candidness concerning anything. Fear of being internet unpopular is what scares our culture from revealing genuine feelings or opinions.
At the end of 2019, my dear bestie and I accompanied her dad to Colombia for what we imagined would be a lovely tropical getaway.
Colombia is a tranquil, cultured place, according to the interwebs, where we could live a life of affordable luxury as we passed the Canadian winter by, dining on renowned cuisine in a nation finally well-prepared to receive visitors after many years of violent crime, corruption, and unrest.
Hmmm… yeah. Not quite.
Colombia definitely has a lot of natural beauty, the parts not littered with garbage and dilapidated slums, and there are certainly some culturally interesting things to see, but it’s still a hugely dysfunctional place. Travelers are advised to avoid many parts of the country at all costs, because you could very well get killed in them. Kidnapped, if you’re lucky. And even places that are lauded as wonderful and safe, are anything but.
Don’t go downtown after dark in Bogota. Just don’t. Don’t go anywhere after dark in Cartagena (We never went unmolested after nightfall in the walled part of Cartagena), and even be careful where you go in broad daylight. I can’t emphasize the importance of hiding all valuables out of plain sight. Even a phone wrapped tightly in your fingers is up for grabs. It was a shame, really, because Cartagena, on the surface, looks like quite a beautiful old city. However, the reality is that she’s a greedy, dishonest, jaded old whore.
One night, after getting pushed far beyond fed up with the incessant bullshit that is Cartagena, I told the Policia who were trying to extort me to either shoot me or take me to the station. I wasn’t about to give them a goddamn centavo. By that stage of Colombia, I had endured all I was willing to put up with.
The police were too lazy to take me to the station, and just smart enough to not shoot me, so they let my wife and I go. By the look in my eye, they must have deduced that any attempt to extort me would end badly for one or all of us.
A disturbingly high number of travelers I talked to in Colombia had either been robbed, stabbed, scammed, or had someone attempt to rob or scam them. A very popular travel blogger who has been to 130+ countries was stabbed in Colombia. A first for him. My father-in-law was ripped off and hustled multiple times in almost every town we visited. My wife and I were persistently hassled for money, and if I hadn’t spoken Spanish, we would have been fighting a lot. Or dead. Nobody in the entire country ever offered a hand at no cost.
According to “statistics“, the situation has improved tenfold since the ’90s. But the utter abject destitution in many places illustrates why everyone still has a hand or a knife out. Or both. Unless they’re filthy rich from corruption or legitimate crime. The poor peasants live with less than nothing while the wealthy peasants at the top trample all over them. Often young people have no options but crime or hopeless poverty.
The percentage of educated Colombians seems to be rising, though, and I hope, for Colombia’s sake, that it is. I wouldn’t trust government statistics to be honest in that regard, however. Or in any regard.
I must also address a vital aspect of every functioning society in the realm of human culture, the most vital after water: food.
I have no clue what delusional propaganda department is responsible for inventing Colombia’s alleged reputation for good food, because it’s complete shit almost everywhere. As far as I’m concerned, that alone is enough to avoid visiting.
A country’s food mirrors its personality, and the bland food (Arepa, a ground maize flatbread – is not good), combined with all of its other shortcomings, make Colombia a very undesirable destination for anyone with standards. Though, worth mentioning, they seem to do chicken well in many places (Pollo Asada). This little place in Playa El Rodadero (Gaira) called Rico Pollo knocked it out of the park a few times.
So, as is probably apparent by now, I generally hated Colombia. But it was not an absolute bust, however. There were a few shining lights…
Palomino, on the Caribbean coast, was good for three days of pleasantness, with only one pickpocket to slightly sour the experience. The city of Medellín, on the other hand, has some neighbourhoods that could make one entirely forget that they were in Colombia. To be completely honest, I like Medellín. It’s the gem of Colombia in my opinion, and deserves its own post, which it will get.
Some of the lovelier bits of Colombia
Many cities and towns in Colombia also boast beautiful colonial Spanish architecture, but beautiful old architecture can be found in many places and is not a reason in itself to suffer Colombia. The Portuguese city of Porto has more amazing buildings in three square blocks than all of Colombia has, so save yourself a stabbing and go there.
I know there are people who travel Colombia and have a wonderful time, or so they claim, and it’s probably possible to explore the country somewhat unmolested, especially if you’re rich and famous and have an entourage to protect you from the uglier aspects of everyday reality, but as a place to visit in some semblance of normalcy, it falls dreadfully short.
I know poverty exists, and violence, and crime, but I do enjoy being able to eat at least one restaurant meal per week, or sit on a beach, without being hassled or hustled. I didn’t get to explore some of the smaller villages that people seem to rave about, and I do believe it’s possible that they’re inhabited by more decent folks.
Colombia’s natural beauty is amazing, but it would be more amazing if it wasn’t covered in garbage. Spending money for a day trip to a boat-access-only beach that looks like paradise in the pictures, only to arrive and find condoms, Styrofoam, and plastic floating in the water is rather disappointing. And this sort of scenario is all too common.
What ended up as the ultimate catalyst in my eventual attitude toward Colombia was the ever-reliable level of dishonesty. Pictures rarely depict reality, the menu often didn’t match the tab, and unless you’re aggressive in almost all interactions, you’ll get taken. Someone wants what’s in your pocket, and they’ll sell their dignity to get it.
To all the decent Colombians who rightly take umbrage at my tirade, do better. Make your country something to be proud of. Colombia could be special. It may take a revolution to achieve this, but anything’s possible.
With so much to discover in this world, the risk-versus-reward of staying in Colombia doesn’t add up as far as I can tell. Not yet, anyway. So if I want to go speak Spanish somewhere warm, I’ll go to Spain, or Mexico, or even Costa Rica. They’re all places with their own issues, but they’re countries where most of the people have big hearts, big smiles, some sense of honour, and better food.
Next Stop: New Orleans