In 1993, the world’s most successful and notorious drug dealer was shot down. After years of close escapes, assassinations and bribery, Pablo Escobar’s reign over Colombia ended. In his home base of Medellin, people were no longer killed for talking to the wrong person in public, or susceptible to bombs being set off in various public places just so drug dealers could send a messag. By 2004, the last of the violence had subsided, but Colombia’s reputation had not.
When I began listing Colombia as one of the places I wanted to go to on my 3 month backpacking trip, my parents—usually not happy about my international trips anyway—got worried. They remembered watching reports on the evening news about the bombs, death, and violence that the cocaine cartels enacted. Since then, Colombia has not been able to shake off it’s violent reputation, and the on-going war with the FARC<a href="http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-11400950" target="_blank"> has not been helping</a>. I had talked to my fellow backpacking community however, and heard firsthand accounts of how friendly, open, and beautiful the people and places of Colombia were. I had to go and see for myself.
My first stop was Cali, a city in the south west corner of Colombia known as the capital of salsa. The city itself was not exciting in the light of day, so I stayed by the pool reading . That night, however, the city came alive. It’s safer to take a taxi to and from each place and I was advised not to take my phone or too much money, but inside I could not have felt more at home. Men and women sat around the dance floor waiting for a song to inspire them, sipping on waters so that the intricate movements of the dances could be executed with graceful, powerful precision. Every few songs, the music would die down and couples would return to their seats. Two dancers drenched in gold sequins and tassels would glide out hand in hand, and command the dance floor with an expertly choreographed routine. Everyone applauded, aspiring to feel the way the dancers made them feel even if they couldn’t execute the steps.
Three hours outside of Cali is a small town called San Cipriano. The town is only accessible by railroad track, but since there is no passenger train the people that lived there had to get creative. My friend and I walked across a shaky wooden bridge off the highway up to a open wooden shack filled with chickens, stray dogs, and five large men. When we asked how to get to San Cipriano, they pointed to a motorcycle, the front wheel of which was sitting on top of a wooden board. The wooden board had smaller, tinier wheels that fit onto the railroad track. “We have to wait for the train to pass,” they said. “Then we can go.”
A few minutes later a large freight train barreled past us, shaking the rotted wooden boards holding our tin roof up. Nervously, we piled onto the wooden board and the man started up the motorbike without saying a word. With sparks and starts we took off through untouched, tropical jungle. After zooming past rivers and barreling through dark caves (where the up-until-now very serious man turned off the headlights as a joke), we arrived at a small set of houses. The rest of the day would be spent eating the best meal I have ever had after watching the woman we convinced to cook for us fillet a fresh fish right in front of us. My travel partner and I tubed down a river, went cliff-jumping, and finally caught a ride back to the highway on the motorcycle-train-platform.
From Cali, incredibly cheap domestic flights make traveling to and from different places affordable and easy. I went to Solento, where I made genuine Colombian coffee, hiked through the world’s tallest palm trees, and rode horses to waterfalls. I went to Taganga, a small diving town close to a national park that is half jungle, half tropical beach. That night I stayed in a hammock on top on an elevated rock in the ocean, gazing at unpolluted stars while watching lightning dance far off in the distance. I visited Cartagena, TripAdvisor’s up-and-coming destination and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's inspiration, which is surrounded by ancient forts and filled in with brightly colored buildings.
I also went to Medellin, the home of Pablo Escobar. Yes, his brother is capitalizing on Escobar’s notoriety—you can visit famous residences and neighborhoods where the drug cartel’s sordid history took place. But Colombia is so more than that. If you have a taste for adventure, for a relaxing pace dictated by people who know how to hustle, for coral reefs, lush jungle and graffiti art, Colombia is the place to go.
The entire time, I was welcomed with open arms. One man welcomed me to Colombia every morning I went to my dive shop in Taganga. If I was lost for one second, people came up to me wanting to help. The food was fulfilling for my tastebuds and my soul, the landscapes unforgettable. One woman was so excited about a local election she poured liquor down any one's throat who was near shouting "Viva Colombia!". These restaurant owners, tour guides, and hostel employees haven’t just survived the drug cartel and senseless violence, they brought their strength with them to succeed in the modern day. They aren't interested in talking about the past—they want to talk about the different species of birds that live there, to share types of chocolate they grow with me, or just watch the sun set over the Caribbean with a beer.
While you of course have to do your research and use common sense when traveling in general, the payoff in Colombia is a place unspoiled by rampart tourism. Colombia is already not a cheap country, and I suspect it will soon be as untouchable as Europe for backpackers on a budget. I went, and am now telling everyone what an amazing place it is--and what it will be in the years to come as it forms it's own, new reputation on its own terms.