Traveling Solo in Colombia
“Never have I felt the comfort of strangers more so than I did in Colombia, a place once known as the “Murder Capital of the World.” Never have I ever encountered more people who went out of their way to help me – not in England or France, not in Croatia or Peru, Spain or Canada, not in Turkey or Thailand – and certainly not in my home country of the United States.
Odd, the paradoxes we come across in travel.”
– A note from my journal, following my time spent in Colombia
Originally, Colombia wasn’t on my South American travel itinerary. The original plan was to cover Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador. My friend, Zsa Zsa, however, was dying to visit Colombia. I, however, remained skeptical. Colombia’s reputation concerned me, and I certainly didn’t want to tell my family (who were already concerned about my traveling solo in South America), that I was starting my trip in Colombia, the “Murder (& Cocaine) Capital of the World.”
Clearly, Colombia’s notorious reputation had gotten to me.
If I had given in to my prejudices against Colombia and not traveled there, it saddens me to think of all the beauty I would have missed, and the people I would never have met, whose warmth and kindness I can still feel long after I left.
Which is why I’m writing this piece: to offer a different perspective on Colombia – specifically, my perspective, as a solo female traveler. I want to offer encouragement for those who wish to travel there, from someone who has actually been, versus relying primarily on the news or Pablo Escobar documentaries.
So, to start off: why did I change my mind and decide to visit Colombia, instead of pursuing my original itinerary of Chile and Argentina?
Answer: Money. Combined with stellar reviews from other travelers whom I trusted, about Colombia.
After traveling in Peru, the original plan was to meet a friend in Santiago, Chile, then head down to Patagonia. Great itinerary. Great on paper, that is. By the time I looked into travel arrangements, it would have either cost me $800 to fly from Lima to Santiago (though Peru and Chile are next doorto each other), which I thought was an insane price, OR, I could withstand a55-hour bus ride with several stops and transfers in order to get myself to Santiago – which frankly also sounded insane to me.
So I called up my friend and explained my predicament: I simply didn’t like any of my options for getting to Chile. It was either too expensive, or would take too much time.
Enter: Colombia. While looking up flights and bus routes at the Marriott in Cusco, my friend Sergio, one of the Marriott’s great concierges, suggested I look into flights for Colombia instead. He said it would be warmer than Chile this time of year (in February), cheaper, and probably a lot more fun. He also suggested that I scout for cheap flights on Viva Colombia, a low-cost Colombian airline, similar to our JetBlue. Since my perception of Colombia was beginning to change, I took Sergio’s advice and looked up flights.
Step 1 = $150 flight from Lima to Cartagena, versus $800 from Lima to Santiago. Done, and done.
Step 2 = Call up various friends who’ve traveled to Colombia. Get their advice, ask about any potential dangers or problems, and basically get reassurance that it’s “okay” to travel there.
Step 3 = Convince my friend to switch her flight from Santiago to Cartagena – no problem, as she had a refundable ticket.
Step 4 = Find a killer place to stay in Cartagena. Mi amiga gladly took on this job, finding us an insane penthouse apartment in the Boca Grande section of Cartagena for $60 per night ($30/each), complete with rooftop pool. Any worries we may have had about Colombia dissolved when we saw this view.
Our apartment in Cartagena was so wonderful, in fact, that our original stay of five days turned into ten. We just didn’t want to leave. I even watched the season finale of Downtown Abbey up on the rooftop of that lovely apartment, at sunset.
And so, that is how I found myself in Colombia.
After twelve days with my friend in Cartagena, I suddenly found myself on my own in Colombia. And I needed to navigate from Cartagena to Bogota, Bogota to Medellin, Medellin to Guatape, and then back to Medellin.
Was I nervous to be alone in Colombia now, as a blonde American, solo female traveler? The truthful answer is: no. Nothing I had seen so far gave me reason for concern. The only place that mildly concerned me was Medellin, due to its reputation as one of the most infamous drug-trafficking thoroughfares in the world.
And yet, in spite of this, I was still not overly concerned to travel there.
Why not? Because after spending time in the country, getting my own feelfor it – I simply didn’t feel afraid. People in Cartagena were laid-back and friendly. We walked the town at all hours of the night and day, and felt safe. As for Medellin, my friend Dominic had just traveled there and loved it. The only advice he gave me: don’t display your phone in Medellin, and be cautious if you go out at night by yourself. Other than that, he had no real concerns for me, though he knew I’d be traveling there alone.
Here are some examples of what I encountered in Colombia, during my travels:
- A man running after me through the streets of Guatape, yelling, “Senora! Senora!” I had accidentally left my bank card in the ATM, and this man who spoke no English ran until he caught up with me, just so he could return it. I have wondered since, if someone would have done this for me in America. The truth is, I don’t know.
- An invitation to join a rousing 30+ person conga line at a hotel in Guatape. I had inadvertently crashed a 40th wedding anniversary. Rather than being upset, I instead found countless eager Colombian faces passionately imploring me to join their conga line.
- Meaningful discussion with a volunteer I met at the Museo Casa de la Memoria in Medellin, a museum that explains the history of violencethat has affected Colombia for so many years. She asked me what I thought of the museum, and I expressed how moved I was by thestrength of the Colombian women, not only for the traumas they had survived, but for their willingness to stand up to the cartels and rebel groups, in spite of grave dangers for doing so. Rather than be afraid, they were instead using their voices to fight for peace in their country. I found this extremely moving. And my conversation with this Colombian woman, in spite of our language differences, was more meaningful to me than most of the discussions I’ve had in America with people who are fully capable of understanding me, and my language.
- The funniest, most welcoming taxi drivers I’ve found anywhere in the world. All were curious about me & wanted to know about my home state of Oregon – and every single one wanted to know my thoughts on Colombia. With excitement in their voice, they might ask something like, “So, what do you think of our country?” Then they’d turn back and look at me with curious eyes, eager to hear the experience of this foreign American girl. Personally, I think it delighted them to see foreigners discovering the true beauty of Colombia, in spite of the prejudices and fears we may have originally had about their country.
- Helpful bikers. On arrival in Medellin, I was in the back of a taxi checking my phone, phone facing the window. While stopped in traffic, a biker next to me knocked on the window, gestured to my phone, and told me to point it towards the center of the car instead. If it was by the window, he said, someone could easily swipe it.
- An invitation to join a group of young men playing soccer (aka “futbol”) outside El Castillo Museo y Jardines. They must have read my mind because I love to play soccer….
- The young man playing with his dog at the top of Pueblito Paisa, a famous place to watch the sun set over Medellin. I felt nervous asking him to take a photo of me at first, because of all the warnings about people trying to steal my phone. But after watching him play with his dog, instinct told me he was the right person to ask. He was, and him taking my photo turned into a conversation about our dogs, both Labrador Retrievers.
- Beautiful street art in the barrios of Medellin, near the Parque Biblioteca Espana, that made me feel as though I was walking in a museum rather than one of the more poor districts in town.
- Warm smiles greeting me every morning from the couple who ran the corner café in Guatape. I don’t remember the name of their café, but I remember my morning ritual: get up early, walk a few blocks down the street, grab one of their outdoor tables, and write for an hour or two over breakfast. I refused to go anywhere else in town for breakfast because their warm greeting and morning hugs always made me feel like I was home.
- Great bull-shitters. I bought this fantastic turquoise necklace from a man on a street corner in Cartagena. He cracked jokes and made me laugh – and somehow him and his buddy became the people we looked forward to bullshitting with every time we went to Old Town. There’s something about finding people to bullshit with that makes a place feel like home real quick.
- Gracious bellboys. In particular, the one at Casa Pestagua Hotel & Spa in Cartagena, who not only gave us a grand tour of his hotel, but who spent over twenty minutes crafting an impromptu photo sessionwith us, on the roof of his hotel. He ended up capturing some of the best and most spontaneous shots of our trip.
- A wonderful taxi driver – best of the best – who gifted me one of his favorite Latino CD’s after I introduced him to one of my favorite songs, “Roses” by The Chainsmokers. I can still feel his excitement and insistence that I take the CD in spite of my protestations – “No – you must have it! You must take something to remember our country!”
- The scenery. Guatape, in particular, left me staggered by its beauty. I had no idea that places like this existed in Colombia. I had no idea that Colombia was this beautiful. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. On the walk from Guatape to Piedra del Penol, I walked in rapture. I was in awe of that entire countryside. I became Keira Knightley’s character in “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth Bennett, who refuses to take carriages anywhere because she loves to walk in the countryside. That is exactly how I felt here.
- The faces of the little boys I encountered near Parque Biblioteca Espana, the library perched on the side of a cliff in Medellin – a library built in the ghetto once controlled by Pablo Escobar. I walked all throughout this colorful area, not once feeling afraid. Rounding one street corner, I was approached by a group of boys with big smiles, who asked me in perfect English: “Where are you from? Are you from America? Do you like to play soccer?” I smiled and began chatting with them, glad I had come to this barrio that was once so dangerous, no tourist would have ever dreamed of walking its streets. But now, in these young faces, I saw smiles. I saw hope. And curiosity. I am excited to see what they will do, these young boys and girls of Colombia – for they are growing up in a different Colombiathan the Colombia of their mothers and fathers, a different Medellin than the Medellin of Escobar’s time.
I could go on giving examples of the kindnesses and beauty I encountered all over Colombia, for there are far too many of them to count.
What is my take-away from all of this? It felt as if people everywhere, all over the country, were going out of their way to change my mind about their country – to prove me wrong, and say, “These are your expectations of Colombia – but let me show you what we are really like. We are so muchdifferent than you think.”
And they don’t just tell you how great their country is. They show you.
Remember that anniversary party I crashed? Well, as the party wound down (at like, 11:30PM on a Monday night), I ended up chatting with some of the younger crowd. I asked what they thought of Pablo Escobar, what he meant to their country, since he was the person most closely tied with Colombia’s international reputation. The young man who responded to my question reflected before answering. Eventually, he responded by saying that the reputation Escobar helped to create, of Colombia as an extremely violent and dangerous place, was very unfortunate for the citizens of his country. That reputation was the single biggest thing that kept travelers from visiting their country, and that it was a great shame for his country and his people.
That right there is the primary reason I’m writing this piece: to show how my experience of Colombia was so far different from what I expected. So far different from the violence I saw on “Narcos.” So different than what you would expect, if all you looked at were statistics.
Rather than telling you everything that could go wrong while traveling in Colombia – I wanted to show you everything that went right for me while traveling in Colombia, as a solo female traveler.
I’m not trying to change your mind about Colombia. And I’m not saying that bad things don’t happen in Colombia. Of course they do.
What I am trying to do is to offer a different perspective than the one you may have of this complicated and beautiful country. This is my perspective, based on direct experience.
But don’t just take my word for it.
The words below are from a 16-year old kid named Sebastian, who lives in the barrio near Parque Biblioteca Espana, as taken from an article by Ed Vulliamy from The Guardian, entitled “Medellin, Colombia: Reinventing the World’s Most Dangerous City.”
“This was the most dangerous barrio in Medellín. It was impossible to reach the center of town; we were stuck here. All our elder brothers were on drugs or dealing drugs. I just lived in the house, and the bullets came flying in, during dinner.”
What’s it like now? “I use the cable car, I use the library – I have a card, I can take books out – but I also go there to do homework. I like history best – I like reading about Simón Bolívar, and what he did for the people.”
Where would you be without these changes? “I’d probably be dead.”
And from Alexis, aged 18, who lives in the same barrio:“The biggest change is in the state of mind. We’re different people.”
But don’t just take their word for it, either.
Perhaps one day, you’ll see for yourself how Colombia is reinventing herself. When you do: tell me all about it. For I love this country, and I wish more people could glimpse their culture, and fall in love with it, as I did. And write about it. And tell their friends about it.
For in this way, we can begin to change the narrative for this country. We can begin to change the conversation, from one of violence and mistrust, to one of music and beauty, of laughter and dancing, of curiosity and passion.
Because that – that is the real Colombia.