It has been a whirlwind week getting my feet under me as I begin this RTW journey. The first stop was the beautiful country of Colombia – and probably the place that received the most nervous glances and questionable responses before I left. Understandably so.
Historically, Colombia has been known for violence and drugs and political unrest – all of which were valid concerns as recently as 10 (or maybe even 5) years ago. Realistically, all of these are still of importance, but you could say the same for sweet home Chicago.
From what I have learned from my American/Colombian friend and graffiti tour guide, J, and wikipedia (only the most reputable sources make it on my blog, guys), the US and Colombia entered a bilateral agreement between the years of 1999 and 2001 to attempt to curb part of the drug trade and boost the Colombian economy. The plan – creatively titled Plan Colombia – provided US dollars to support the Colombian military and police for counternarcotics initiatives, with money coming from additional sources for social aid.
Critics of the Plan note that a lot of the effort of the military (now boosted with additional resources), went to fighting leftist guerrillas. As a result of this (according to some Colombians I met), the military felt they had a quota to fill, leading to the “False Positives Scandal” – a flood of disappeared persons who were killed and then pegged as guerrillas in order to inflate the body count.
So the Colombia my parents knew (and really, the Colombia that existed up until about 2012) was one characterized by cocaine, violence, guerrilla warfare and randomly disappearing people. Not exactly a prime vacation spot.
Things have changed.
You should absolutely put Colombia on your travel list.
The Colombia I saw (albeit only for a few days) was beautiful and welcoming and happy and fun. It was full of beautiful street art and delicious food. And most of all, it was made up of the most wonderful people.
From my fellow hostel-dwellers, I heard about dozens more cities in Colombia that I’d love to see someday – Cali and Santa Marta and Manizales. Cartegena and Salento, and of course, Medellin. Add them to the ever-growing list (I fear this trip is only going to grow my wanderlust).
But for now, I can only speak to Bogota. And here are a few reasons you should definitely visit.
- Art. Bogota is one of the top street art cities in the world, meaning the walls are covered in incredible graffiti everywhere you look. It makes the whole city a gallery, and makes walking around that much more enjoyable. I highly recommend the Bogota Graffiti Tour – an awesome 2.5 hour walking tour that takes you all around the Candelaria learning about the history of Colombia and how the art reflects the city’s culture. Also be sure to make your way to 26th St. where there are HUGE graffiti pieces. Apparently Justin Bieber painted a wall when he was there on tour a couple of years ago. The real artists immediately erased his work (within 30 minutes) and it sparked a week of protests.
There is, of course, more traditional art as well – check out the Botero museum for some super distinctive pieces.
- Food. Mmm food. In my culinary world, the most important thing about Colombia is that they have avocados that are the size of footballs. Holy cow. Amazing. Also, ajaico – Colombian chicken soup filled with potatoes, avocado, corn, and other deliciousness is so good (apparently the best place to go is Puerta Falsa. Unfortunately they were doing renovations while we were there, but there a bunch of good spots on the same block). And patacones. Portion sizes are huge, so be forewarned.
- Bikes. On Sunday mornings, the city shuts down several main roads and opens them up to bike and pedestrian traffic. If you aren’t there over a weekend (I wasn’t), check out Mike’s Bogota Bike Tour. We went out riding ALL around the city with our pal, Mateo. He showed us the hidden gems of the city (including taking us to a hidden back room of a bar to a tejos arena – essentially the Colombian version of bags involving throwing very heavy rocks at a clay target set up with small explosives. I kid you not. And I didn’t suck at it!).
- Beauty. Oh my goodness, Colombia is pretty. Bogota is a city like any city, but the historical district is super nice (yet another reason that Bogota reminded me SO MUCH of Quito). Also, take the funicular or the teleferico up to Monserrate for beautiful panoramas of the whole area. We went up at sunset, and despite some lovely smog pollution, it was so nice!
- People. The people are the best part of Colombia. Everyone I met was so kind and so welcoming. One such moment – I met three Colombian girls on my graffiti tour who befriended me as we walked around the city. So sweet. But then the tour ended and they invited me to go have dinner with them! Who does that? Who invites a complete stranger to come hang out with their group of friends? Colombians, that’s who. They told me about a national drink called chicha (fermented corn, sometimes with pineapple), which they all agreed was disgusting but also agreed that I need to try. So they took me to find it and bought it for me. Seriously. People are amazing.
So there you go. Visit Colombia. Obviously be smart – everywhere you travel has some danger, so street smarts matter. But don’t let the volatile history keep you from visiting, because you’d be seriously missing out.