All the news and media buzz about war in Colombia have left you wondering if it is safe to visit the area? I might know where that’s coming from: The rise of Narcos, cocaine and Escobar as part of the pop culture haven’t helped much in the past few years. In this entry I will do my best to paint the whole story so that you can make up your mind and assess if it is worth the visit. But before diving into it, I will give you five good hard facts why, contrary to many people beliefs, Colombia is safe for travel:
Now, since we ourselves think a broader explanation is needed, the following text will guide you through a contextualized explanation of the country’s current situation. First, a brief history on why you ended up thinking this beautiful country was dangerous; second, some clarifications about myths you may have heard; and finally, more good reasons to come visit: you have already read the hard facts, but we will show you what the international travel press is saying about the country.
Yes, come visit. I am a Colombian currently living in Bogotá but I have lived in Sweden and traveled extensively across europe and the US. And that matters because I am both knowledgeable about my country’s situation, and aware of your standards for ‘safe’ and can compare the two.
So,coming back to it: is it dangerous? That’s a tricky question with many answers. The shortest: No, come visit. The better: No, but it still is a latin american country. With the same risks as some places in Europe and Asia, meaning tourists can rest assured that their stay will be perfectly safe, albeit some minor considerations should be taken in big cities, like don’t walk a dark alley at 3am in the morning, and beware of pickpockets in crowded places.
Over the years, that is how the conversation has gone with my friends abroad. But, as you can imagine, it rarely ends there. You know what follows: “Why is it that I’ve heard so many bad things about the country?”. And this is where I give a brief background on how it all came to happen.
Brief history of the conflict
First: it is all true. Maybe not every bit (check the myth clarification ahead), but for the most part, if it came from a major media outlet, it is. “Huh? How can I conciliate the fact that the horrors are true, but it is safe at the same time?”. Well, it would be easier if we said the horrors were true. It is said that ever since this piece of land was declared ‘Colombia’, we’ve been at war. From the separation of Ecuador and Venezuela, instability, confrontations between centralists and federalists, killings coming from the two biggest political parties… the list goes on. Fast forward to our recent history, there was a worldwide focus on guerrillas and drug traffickers.
In the beginning, the two were very different. To start off, guerrillas were already around when the drug business flourished in the early 80s. Those were formed in the 60s by communist ‘peasant leagues’ that felt abandoned by the government. “Colombia’s geography is a blessing to the eye, but a logistical nightmare” says a British journalist about the three massive chain of mountains crossing the country. And thus, the untidy central government couldn’t provide for their citizens living in remote locations. Jump 20 years ahead and a few criminal entrepreneurs operating in the opposite side of the political spectrum (right-wing, avid for money), thought that they would rather grow and transform coca leaves into cocaine than transporting the raw product from Perú and Bolivia and the infamous cartels were born. The merge between the two came when the latter realized leftists guerrillas were armed, trained, had men, and needed money; whereas cartels were unprepared but had crazy amounts of money. So leftist guerrillas started serving as security and logistics for the cartels in exchange of vasts amount of money.
For 15 years we lived in grieve. News on bombings, murders and kidnappings were part of our daily lives. The army started an internal war against the cartels, as those were the ones in charge. Short after, and with the power of the cartels diminished and big figures killed or apprehended, the guerrillas took the drug trade and took the conflict from the major cities to the fields. With the money collected they got access to more weapons, and training which made things more complicated. Again, fast forward a few years and the guerrillas start suffering some major setbacks to the hands of Colombian army. Time after time they are being hit and losing control over many regions. The government then announces the start of the peace negotiation which after a few years ends with an agreement with the largest and oldest guerrilla in the western hemisphere.
The accord put an end to a 52-year war and was recognized with a Nobel peace prize in 2017.
After that -very- concise and -overly- simplified history of how we got here, let’s jump into the myths and truths to clear up two of the most common misconceptions about Colombia.
Colombians love Pablo Escobar and the streets are flooded with drugs. I honestly don’t know how that is a thing. The conflict left 220.000 victims over 50 years and the guy represents the very worst of one of the darkest periods of it. Why would we love him? And second, the streets are not flooded with drugs. Marijuana is quite common in big cities as the law is very flexible about it, but I’ve only seen cocaine twice in my lifetime. The majority of the illicit trade ends up in foreign countries. So please don’t bring that up again, it is not funny and people will feel offended.
If you go to Colombia, you risk being murdered and kidnapped by outlaws. Remember we signed a peace agreement with the largest guerrilla in the western hemisphere? By the time the negotiations started, they were roughly 8.000 armed men. Colombian active military forces account for 470.000, yet a military defeat was ruled impossible. If you connect the dots, you’ll find that the underlying reason is that they are masters of hiding, and wouldn’t even risk to be near urban areas nor famous landmarks, so chances of spotting one are close to zero.
Reasons to come visit
You have read the facts. But more important, know that Colombia is a true gem. The magic of this land lies in its geography: from sand dune deserts to the amazon basin; from clear water beaches in the Caribbean to snow peaks as high as 5700m of altitude, the country is a multicultural and biodiversity paradise and recently is welcoming more and more tourists that can confirm it as top destination. Last year it was a ranked as a top destinations for the likes of CNN, The Guardian, Bloomberg, The Telegraph, NYT, Lonely Planet and Conde Nast among others. They all agree that there has never been a better time to pay a visit, and recommend it better be soon. The message always revolve around the ‘get in there early, before everyone else’ and the reasons are well summarized by The Telegraph:
“The peace deal meant that many areas once deemed too dangerous to travel in – generally the most beautiful – were finally open for exploration. Instantly, Colombia had joined the likes of Cuba and Burma as a destination for which visiting was less a treat than a matter of desperate urgency.
Of course, what’s really meant when people say it’s ‘the perfect time to go’ somewhere is: get there before it’s overrun with Americans in shorts, shops selling ‘I love Colombia’ T-shirts and plastic Irish pubs. Go, and go now, before it’s just like everywhere else.”
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