Closing Thoughts: Colombia

Colombia, Feature, Travelogue — By on January 19, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Having never been to Colombia, we had little idea what to expect. Frankly, I spent a few nights tossing and turning at home in Canada before getting on the plane, with stories dancing through my head of kidnappings, guerilla fighters, and drug lords forcing me into the muling business. What we found instead was a country that blew us away: landscapes that are varied, diverse, and always spectacular; people that are friendly, welcoming, vivacious, and who seem to always be up for chatting with friends; and cities more modern and cosmopolitan than we ever expected. While not totally safe (Colombia still controls + 80% of the world’s cocaine supply, has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world, and the gap between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else is drastic), the reality of traveling in Colombia is far different from what one may expect after listening to CNN or following the war on drugs.

One characteristic I found to be fairly universal across the country was that people didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Service was slow, and people were generally reticent to hang up the phone when chatting with friends or family to serve a customer. The buses – other than premium buses – are slow too, with most buses setting out from the station only to stop at the next street corner, and the corner after that and the corner after that, to pick up a person, a family, a kitchen table and a set of chairs.

Another universal is the decibel level. Colombia – especially Colombian buses – is loud: music on buses blasts at eardrum shattering levels, even in the depths of the night; Colombians aren’t shy to raise their voice, and the various salesman that get on the bus at one street corner and off a few blocks later shout their sales pitch (for miracle food cookbooks, biscuits, ice cream, hamburgers, fruit, corn-on-the-cob, etc.), with promises about their product’s attributes leaving their mouths at the speed of machine gun fire. On one bus we took – an epic 19-hour journey that actually consisted of several buses in succession – a group of three young Colombians got on without enough money for the fare. Rather than get off the bus (like only a sucker would do), these enterprising youths blasted rap beats from a portable stereo while one launched into an original Spanish rap (perhaps created just for the occasion?) for the bus passengers. He then proceeded to collect coins from the paying passengers until he and his friends had enough to make their journey. Amusingly – or not, depending on your perspective – they found themselves in the same situation at the next bus station, and repeated the routine. This time they had less success given it was 11:30 at night and few passengers appreciated his artistic expression whilst trying to sleep.

However, that which was most surprising about Colombia was the landscapes, cityscapes, and village-scapes. It is a mind-bogglingly beautiful country, too large to explore fully in the limited time we had. And not a single person tried to force me into a life of drug mulling, with Cartagena being the only city in which we were offered the white stuff (we said no!). Despite the fact that we only touched the surface, I expect we won’t soon forget it!

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