Oh Colombia, one of our favorite places we’ve traveled to. Our recent trip just kept surprising us. It was one of those “Holy cow is this even real?!” places. Also, the history of this country really takes you for a ride. I’m guessing it helped that we had no expectations. We booked the tickets on a whim, wanting someplace new and with lots of sunshine. We really wanted sunshine (all you Northern Michiganers are with me on this one right?) We didn’t know much about Colombia going in but left completely in love with the place. You can read more about our trip in Part 1: Medellín and Part 2: Jardín. Out of all the surprises, here’s 9 we really weren’t expecting.
1. ¿HABLA INGLÉS?
Hardly anyone spoke English, it was almost all Spanish. After all, Colombia issssss a Spanish speaking country so this wasn’t completely shocking but it was definitely different than the other countries we’ve been to. Usually, if people hear us or others speaking English, they’ll quickly switch over and cater to us with any English they know. (Generally speaking, it's pretty easy to find someone who speaks even a tiny bit of English but not in this case.) In Colombia, when they heard us speaking English it felt like they repeated what they were saying again in Spanish, only FASTER.
Honestly, I found it refreshing. I NEVER expect someone whose native language isn't English to cater to us, it just inevitably happens. But for the first time in our travels, we were truly challenged with a language barrier. We used Google Translate more than we ever have and I had to summon the ole 9th grade Spanish class Steph, struggling but somehow remembering the basics.
I truly think the lack of English made our experience that much sweeter, much like most things you have to work a little harder for. Also, it’s pretty amazing how much you can actually communicate when you can’t technically communicate. You’d be surprised how far a few hand signals, acting, interpretive dancing, and using the most basic level of a language to string a full on sentence together can get you. One of my favorite memories was with our zero English speaking, jungle tour guide Allibarro who we ended up laughing until we cried with because Scott pointed up to people paragliding in the distance, started flapping his arms like a giant bird and said "Condor Condor!" Allibarro seemed confused, butCond when he looked up to see the paraglider and repeated, "Condor?" it suddenly clicked. A few wing flaps later, all three of us had tears in our eyes from laughing and were somehow on the exact same page.
PS ¿Habla Inglés? from above means (very informally) Do you speak English?
2. IS COLOMBIA SAFE?
When people heard we were going to Colombia most were mildly concerned, some very concerned. Almost everyone asked if it was safe. Heck, even I asked if it was safe. The answer? Today, yes. But it definitely took a while to get there.
I knew NOTHING about Pablo and the cartels and drugs and wars and history of Colombia. I learned quickly that it was bad, but I didn’t realize just how bad it really was. All of the crime and corruption really kept Colombia off of the tourist map until recent years which means they didn't have people out and about visiting Colombia and then going back to their own countries advocating for them. I once had someone tell me that travelers are the peace keepers of this world because it's through actually meeting people that we get to form our own opinions of people and therefore their countries instead of believing everything the media has to say about them.
And now? I’m happy to say Colombia is changing big time my friend. Medellín, once the most dangerous city in the world, was named the Most Innovative City in 2013. They’ve really turned things around. We took a free walking tour (you KNOW I love me a good walking tour) in Medellín and both Scott and I ended up tearing up....multiple times. Listening to our guide talk about his city, what they’ve been through, how far they’ve come, where they are now, and how we are now a part of that story and get to go back to our home countries and be the voices and advocate for the people of Colombia. To say we were moved is an understatement.
Colombia is really doing something. They are taking their dark history and making the most of it. It was evident, almost everywhere we went, just how badly this country wants to keep moving forward and make a new name for themselves.
So to recap, "is it safe?" Yes. Sure, there are still dangerous areas, just like everywhere else in the world. The key is to be aware and be smart. But know this, don’t let what you’ve heard about the old Colombia keep you from experiencing Colombia today.
3. THE PABLO ESCOBAR EFFECT
Pablo Escobar, more like "He Who Shall Not Be Named" you know what I’m saying? This guy was horrible and the people of Colombia are still living with the wreckage he caused. I can’t believe how much he impacted this country. Our tour guide wouldn’t even say his name. He said that most of the locals don’t speak English (ahem, remember surprising thing #1?) and if they are passing by and hear him saying Pablo Escobar to a bunch of tourists they might come up and start sharing a piece of their mind with him and us as well. Without context of what he is telling us, they assume he might be sensationalizing Pablo and romanticizing his lifestyle to a bunch of visitors. The reality is that the majority of people really, really don't like the guy.
He caused so much violence, so much pain, and so much fear that the people have a very strong opinion about the man. Also, we found out that most of the Colombian people aren’t big fans of the Netflix series Narcos because they feel it glamorizes him and that lifestyle. The only people you’ll find who like him are a few people he gave money and houses to and a select few punk teenagers who think it’s somehow cool to wear t-shirts with his face on them.
4. NO AMERICAN MUSIC
Let’s circle back to surprising thing #1 and again talk about how there was NO AMERICAN MUSIC!!! Hear me out on this, almost every place we visit we hear the latest hits blasting through the speakers. Coffee shops, restaurants, clubs, you name it, there always seems to be a familiar song playing.
This was different though, I think we heard one American song on the entire trip! Everywhere we went, it was Colombian hits…..I think. They definitely weren't familiar and I for sure couldn’t understand them.
We would go out at night, walking around or grab a drink somewhere and every place we passed was blasting Colombian music and it seemed like every single person was singing their heart out. It was like the best karaoke bar you’ve ever been to minus the karaoke, just everyone knew each and every song. I loved it.
5. THAT COFFEE THOUGH
Man oh man if you’ve ever visited Colombia please tell me you know what I’m talking about. Coffee con leche (with milk) is the sweetest treat I ever did taste. It took us by surprise and I swear can’t be recreated. They also drink it any time, day or night, and is best paired with people watching. When we got back home we went straight to the store and bought a bag of Colombian coffee and milk and it was….meh. NOT. THE. SAME. I will literally pay someone to come and recreate Colombian coffee for us. I guess Colombia does has a robust coffee industry so it makes sense, but I definitely didn’t expect it to taste otherworldly.
I’m a big chips and dip fan but this is a different kind of salsa that I’m talking about here…dancing! Colombians love their salsa so we obviously had to try it out for ourselves. After watching some Salsa 101 on YouTube (for real, we spent 30 minutes learning the very basics in our hotel room) we set out to conquer the night. We sought out an underground salsa bar per the recommendation of our walking tour (see, they’re the best!) and prepared to show the world what we were made of. Boy were we in for a surprise. I swear we walked straight onto the set of Dancing With the Stars. The people down there were PHENOMENAL!! Well, the other people were phenomenal, we were down there too but definitely not phenomenal. We did try our best though and even got recognized at the next bar we went to by the table beside us. Again, through broken Spanish and some acting we realized they were saying they saw us salsa-ing at the salsa bar. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that they remembered us but we gave them a fist pump and high fived each other anyway.
7. I HATE TO SAY IT BUT THE FOOD WAS….MEH
Just keep in mind that I am a BIG FAN of Colombia but man oh man the food was lackluster. Of course not all of it but they sure do love their fried food, and was mostly just beans and rice and meat. It was good, don’t get me wrong but I wasn’t changed by it. I will say, we really enjoyed the street food but again, it was mostly fried stuff. Our favorite meal was definitely the homemade Bandeja Paisa we got on our mountain trek in the middle of the jungle. It is a traditional Colombian meal and this one included homemade rice, beans, fried plantains, potatoes, egg, chicharrón, and chicken wrapped in a giant green banana leaf. I think it had a lot to do with the experience but it was the best banana leaf meal I've ever had.
8. WE SHOULD HAVE RENTED A MOTORBIKE
One of our favorite ways to travel is by motorbike/scooter but everything we read online before we left said: “Don’t do it.” We’ve driven scooters in Thailand, drove more than 1,300 kilometers across Portugal, and own a 900cc motorcycle, needless to say we love ourselves a good bike ride. However, almost every single blog/forum warned, like adamantly, against renting one in Colombia. They said the people aren’t used to them and have a lot of road rage against them. I’d have to argue. We saw PLENTY of scooters and motorbikes in and outside of the town. They were in the city, in the mountains, and plenty of people drove them everywhere we went.
We would have fit right in and been able to explore even more if we had done what we always do which is rent them. We actually ended up renting a motorbike in the mountains of Jardín and if we had to do it again we would have rented one for our trip to Guatapé as well as the trip from Medellín to Jardín (again, you can read more about our trip here and here). So of course, be safe out there my friend, but if you're an experienced rider, I think you'd be just fine.
9. WHERE WAS THE COCAINE?
Mom and other moms out there, you’ll be happy to know that we never had anyone try to sell us cocaine or any other drug. I was pretty shocked. Mostly because other places we’ve been to, there is ALWAYS someone trying to sell it to the tourists and considering the history Colombia has with cocaine production and other drugs in general, I was expecting to see more of it around. Come to think of it we only saw it once. Granted we weren’t looking very hard but I think that’s a testament to some of the big changes Colombia is making. To go from being one of the leading producers in the entire world of cocaine to seeing it only once on an 11-day trip is a huge win for them. Good job Colombia, good job.
We absolutely loved our trip to Colombia and can’t wait to go back soon. This country, full of surprises, will forever be a favorite place for us.
Have you been to Colombia before? What did you think? Maybe you haven't been to Colombia but have more questions. I'd love to answer them below!
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