Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Is Colombia safe?
It’s the first question I was asked before I left. The first question I was asked when I returned.
I went to Colombia on a whim. I spun my little desktop globe and that is where my finger landed.
I admit, my first thought was, But is it safe?
I read articles, scrolled Instagram feeds, watched YouTube videos. Everything was telling me that Colombia was, for the
most part, a safe place to go. No more dangerous than other travel destinations. I searched for flights and was astonished at how little it would cost, how easy it was to get there.
I called up my mother and asked if she wanted to go to with me. Never one to turn down an opportunity for adventure, she instantly agreed.
Where my finger landed on that spinning globe, there’s a man selling fruit from a stand. Fresh papaya, uchava, guanabana. He’s slightly bent over in the spine, face lined, carefully preparing mango slices with a dash of salt and lime. The thick humid air is alive with sounds-the rhythm of a drum, a rooster crowing, clop clop of a horses hooves, laughter. An elderly couple dances in the road with abandonment. The buildings are bursting with color, as if a painter took his palette and bathed the town from top to bottom in his most cheerful tones. A flea-bitten mutt meanders down the street, stopping to scratch behind her ears before flopping down for a spontaneous nap. A soft breeze passes, refreshing reprieve from the Caribbean heat.
This is Cartagena, Colombia.
I’m sitting on a step in La Plaza de la Trinidad, the pulsing heart of Getsemani, the most colorful and vibrant of the Cartagena barrios. The main thing to do here is to simply sit, and watch. Maybe sip a beer, grab some food from a nearby street vendor, dance if the spirit moves you.
We are on Colombian time, and that is ok.
I’m speaking with Eduardo, a Colombian native who lives in Cartagena and grew up in a small nearby village. His English is limited, my Spanish far from fluent. We are conversing slowly, patiently. Using our hands for emphasis. Slipping in words from our native tongue when we get stuck. I ask him if he’s every been to the United States. He says no, but he would like to someday. He doesn’t want to go to New York, though. Too dangerous there. He laughs when I tell him that most people from the United States, even New York, are afraid to visit Colombia.
The sun is setting, casting a warm glow over the plaza. Children are running about, playing a heated game of tag while their parents look on. Music, always there is music here, rhythm pulsing through the plaza like a collective heartbeat.
Here? Eduardo shakes his head in disbelief. Here is peaceful.
That evening I text family members to let them know I’m ok. No I have not been kidnapped. There have been no bombs or shootings.
I buy mangos from a street vendor, who offers me 2 for 6 mil pesos. I take the mangos, but then he then offers me 3 for 12 mil pesos. I nod in agreement. I am tired and my head hurts, jet lag striking suddenly. The man turns his back to me and makes the sign of the cross. “God forgive me” he mutters under his breath. I leave with three mangos for the price of four. They are ripe, juicy, utterly perfect. If God hasn’t forgiven this man, at least I will.
We fly to Medellin, an easy one hour flight into the heart of Colombia.
The city best known for Pablo Escobar and the cocaine trade. The place dubbed The Most Dangerous Place in the World only a few years ago.
Why on Earth are you going there? My friends and family back home ask.
We arrive in the neighborhood of El Poblado at rush hour and the traffic is thick. The sidewalks are alive-tourists, panhandlers, stern women with long flowing hair and skin tight jumpsuits. A police officer winds through the crowd with a drug-sniffing canine. The dog, a bouncy Golden Retriever, sniffs out something from a passing boy. The officer confiscates whatever the boy had hidden in his jeans and sends him on his way. The dog is rewarded with a tennis ball, tail waving with pride.
In the lobby of our Air BNB we are greeted by Pablo, a man of substance wearing a ball cap and a lazy grin. There is a gentle ease about him. Kindness in his smile. He shows us to our apartment and gives us his contact information, insisting that if there is anything we need, anything at all, we should let him know.
In the morning a man named Andres picks us up in his personal car and we drive off into the stunning Andes mountains to tour a nearby coffee plantation. Andres is a tall, slender man in his thirties: out-going, kind, and very enthusiastic about his job as tour guide. He and my mother sit in the front, chatting away like old friends.
I roll my window down and breathe in the fresh country air, marveling at the landscape. Rolling, verdant green hills. Banana leaves as tall as me. We drive through small towns, horses tied to posts outside of local watering holes, chickens wandering about, shops open to the street.
Andres pulls up to the front of a tiny store and taps on his horn, turning to us with a mischievous wink. This is Colombia’s version of a drive-through. Moments later a young woman steps out carrying a bag of pastries. She and Andres speak for a moment, a familiar exchange. We continue forward through narrow, winding roads. Higher and higher into the mountains. Andres’ demeanor is calm as he flies down a gravel road that becomes progressively more narrow and winding as we go. He insists on stopping to say hello to every dog we pass.
There are a lot of dogs in Colombia.
He tells us that way out here in the country, men greet each other with a howl like they are dying. To demonstrate, he rolls down his window as we pass a group of men lounging in a doorway.
The men grin and wave. Eeeeeehhhhyyyyyaaaahhha!!!! They sing in response.
We pull into a driveway, high up in the mountains, and are greeted with hugs and smiles by Nena and Jose, coffee farmers. They welcome us into their home and offer us steaming cups of caffeine. When Jose discovers that I am a veterinarian, he eagerly introduces me to his three dogs and asks my opinion on their health. I speak what Spanish I can, Andres filling in the gaps for me. We laugh when my mother confuses French with Spanish and ends up speaking in a garbled language only I can understand. We gather coffee beans from the trees. Nena looks at my meager collection of beans and shakes her head with mock sadness. I would never hire you,
We laugh. Drink more coffee. Pass around the pastries that Andres bought earlier.
Too soon it is time to say our goodbyes, and we head home through a beautiful sunset. On the drive we talk about politics, language, travel. We promise to keep in touch. That night my mother and I go to bed early, exhausted. We fall asleep to the sounds of music and laughter.
I've learned that Colombia is never silent.
But is it safe?
On January 17, 2019, just three weeks before my mother and I flew to Colombia, a deadly car bomb went off at Bogota’s police academy. Twenty-one military personnel were killed, 68 others wounded, with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, ELN, claiming responsibility. Colombia’s President Ivan Duque referred to the incident as “a crazy terrorist act.” Just another example of violence in a nation who's history is riddled with death and pain.
Ah, there it is. You say. It's NOT safe, is it? Maybe its best we stay home. And yet...
December 14, 2012: a gunman walked into an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut and killed twenty children, six adults, and himself.
June of 2016: a mass shooting in a nightclub left 50 people dead in Orlando, Florida
October 1, 2017: 59 people were gunned down while attending an outdoor country concert in Las Vegas, Nevada.
There was no link to drug cartels or politics in any of these instances. Just a broken man with a gun.
Here. At home.
Is it Colombia we should be worried about?
Another morning in Medellin, and we are driving into the mountains again-this time with a stocky young man wearing an oversized t-shirt and an eager grin. Sebastian speaks in an odd mixture of past and present tenses, pieces of slang and catch phrases thrown in at random. I ask him where he learned to speak English.
From music! he replies without hesitation. He grins sheepishly. I love Stevie Wonder.
I tell him that I, too, love Stevie Wonder. He cranks up the volume in his little hatchback and we roll the windows down, singing along to Rocket Love and Superstition.
We arrive at a small farm nestled precariously against the deep slope of the mountain, hidden from the road under a thick net of foliage.
It is here we meet Carlos, a retired arriero, or muleteer, who now shows travelers a piece of his world through horseback tours.
He is saddling the horses, speaking to the animals in a soothing voice, their ears flickering in response. He tells me the horse’s names, their personalities, their stories. Carlos’ wife, a shy woman with a kind smile, brings us ice-cold drinks-a delicious concoction made of coffee and lemonade. A black and white dog runs up and drops a large stone on the ground, eyes begging for a game of fetch.
Ay no, Sacha! Carlos exclaims. You will break your teeth! Play with sticks instead!
We mount and head into the mountains, Sacha following along, her forbidden stone replaced by large tree branch. The path is narrow, our horses sure-footed. We ride past farms, over bridges, through tiny towns where locals stare and children exclaim, Caballos, caballos! My mother says Cuidado, ninos! when they step a bit too close to her horse’s hooves. The children laugh at her accent, marveling at her blonde hair.
Carlos and I gallop up a hill, racing, horses chomping at the bit. My mom and Sacha follow along at a more leisurely pace. We reach a precipitous and stop, our horses sides heaving with effort. The view is surreal, something out of a fairy tale. Miles of green hills laced with flowers and brightly colored huts. On the way back down, the terrain becomes increasingly rugged. Carlos tells us to drop our reins and trust the horses, and the animals move with surefooted grace.
When we return to the farm-sweaty, dusty, fulfilled-we are offered more ice-cold coffee lemonade. Sacha plops down next to me, chewing on a banana leaf. Carlos proudly shows us a little book of poetry. It turns out this Colombian cowboy is also a poet. We each leave with a copy of his work, containing a personalized poem for each of us.
Sebastian drives us home, sleepy and content, while Stevie Wonder croons.
That evening we head into the city center for dinner. My mother’s iPhone is stolen, a pick-pocketer reaching into her open backpack while we walk down a crowded street. No des papaya. The Colombians will tell you. Don’t give them a reason to take from you. My mother is more ashamed than angry. No des papaya. She shakes her head. She should have known better.
The days rush by, one after the other, and too soon we are back in Cartagena and it’s time to go. I’m sitting on the plane, palm pressed against a tiny window, looking out as the coastal city fades into a tiny caricature against the vast, turquoise sea. I’m headed back to the United States, back home, but it feels all wrong. Tears well up, my heart aching suddenly and fiercely for a place I just met. I think of what home means to me. Security. A shelter from the world's darker corners. A place to let your guard down and feel peace.
Colombia fades into the distance like a dream. I'm crying now, reaching for my memories, trying to hold on to this feeling.
I think to myself, Colombia feels a lot like home to me.
Special thanks to the many kind and generous citizens of Colombia who took us in and showed us a piece of their world.
If you are thinking of going to Medellin, please check out medellindaytrips.com and bdmedellin.com for amazing tour experiences!